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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 16: Combined Arms[]

By: David Wainio


DropShip Baltic Serenade

Inbound to Yu-shan, FWL / Cincirnus Border Area

19 February 3053

MechWarrior Misty Florens nodded her head in a ‘mini’ bow from her seat when her table companions did so then slowly pushed her tea cup forward in what she hoped was the same distance the others had. She wasn’t familiar with the tea ceremony her two Draconis Combine friends were performing but she had been more than pleased to accept their invitation to participate.

That the two Combine MechWarriors were her friends was a rather unusual development. The original settlers of Coleson’s Orb - where Misty had last served and made her home - had moved to the Periphery to escape the social systems of the Combine. Yet after joining the Warders Misty had become instant friends with Naoko and hit it off with Basem early as well.

As Naoko poured the tea, she nodded to each in turn and named them by their call signs: Storm and Sirocco. Apparently this pre-battle ritual called for the use of "war names". Storm was Misty’s call sign. She’d originally been tagged with it for her impetuous and wild combat style. It had worked against other poorly trained pilots out in the Periphery until the Suomi Warders came through and in a series of training session war games showed her ex-unit a thing or two about teamwork and planning. The practice losses her company had suffered against the outnumbered Warders had shook her confidence a little bit.

Then the Nova Cats had showed up and killed off her entire militia company with disdainful ease in real combat with even fewer numbers than the Warders had used in the mock battles. Being one of only two survivors had not only shattered her confidence, it has burned the impetuousness and wildness right out of her. In a ritual Clan combat the Warders had bested a Nova Cat team and won the right to leave the Orb. Unsure why she still felt the need to pilot, Misty had left Coleson’s Orb wearing a new uniform in Warder blue.

Despite the fact it hadn’t been that terribly long ago, Misty had realized that she couldn’t recall the exact words of her conversation with then Major Linna about joining his mercenary outfit. Even now, she wasn’t sure she had fully worked out her motives. It was a jumble of pain and regret and sorrow and hope and revenge. Whatever the reasons, she was thankful to whatever powers might be beyond the Heavens that she had decided to ask and that the Warders had been willing to take her on. Here she had come to grips with her sorrow for lost friends and learned to trust and have friends once more. She’d also taken her piloting abilities to levels she hadn’t even suspected she had. Lt. Colonel Linna, Major Aukland and Captain Jorgenson where all skilled MechWarriors, but they were also very skilled teachers. Misty had learned a great deal and was excited by the idea that she had yet to reach her full potential.

Being surrounded by strangers and dealing silently with her internal struggles while she adjusted to an entirely new life, she had earned a new reputation among the Warders as being quiet and thoughtful. Lt. Parks sometimes called her "Mousey" rather than Misty. She didn’t mind. He didn’t mean any harm and it was just his way of trying to ‘draw her out’. Ranger figured that anyone not as loud and boisterous as he was must be down about something and that it was his civic duty to cheer them up. Even now he was across the ready room haranguing his friend Vilho to ‘pump him up’ for the upcoming mission. Vilho was quietly taking it all in, nodding when appropriate. Misty doubted that Vilho was really paying much attention to Frank Parks. They were total contrasts in style. But the easy, familiar camaraderie was obvious between the two pilots. They where two of the ‘first crew’ - the four MechWarriors Lt. Colonel Linna had hand chosen when he restarted a BattleMech lance within the Warders to use hunting for news of his sister. None of the original lance members ever treated the newer additions as anything other than accepted comrades. But Misty knew that she and the other four MechWarriors the Lt. Colonel had picked up recently still thought of the original core as somehow a breed apart. Well, maybe not newcomer Keena "Cowgirl" Washintgton. The ex-Solaris MechWarrior had quite a healthy ego despite the fact she had never even qualified for upper tier matches on the Game World and taken plenty of electronic lumps in the training sims from the first crew MechWarrios. She had no problem thinking of herself as being the core group’s equal.

Misty lifted her small cup with both hands in the same fashion as her table-mates and hesitated a moment to see if they would drain the cups or not. It seemed that a small sip was the proper protocol so that’s what she did as well. They replaced the cups on the saucers and then Naoko said something solemn sounding in Japanese, followed by Basem who also made a small statement in Japanese. As they turned to her expectantly she made a small face indicating they had forgotten to clue her in to what was expected.

"My apologies Storm, I didn’t fully explain the ceremony did I?" observed Naoko. "Some DCMS units prefer sake or other drinks to tea; or even sometimes food. But the symbolism of not finishing the repast is always the same. We leave our tea cups partially full in expectation of returning to them after our victory. It is a symbol to fate of our intention to return…or a good luck charm if you prefer. Tradition calls for a small prayer, promise, or other statement of personal sentiment to be said over the waiting cup."

"Then…uh…may we fight with the honor and vigor our comrades deserve from us," adlibbed Misty.

"Hai, a commendable desire," approved Basem.

"Hmmph," snorted Keena from where she was sitting alone near the hatchway. "That’s fine for ya’ll but I don’t need any lucky tea to trash some pirates. Just a green target lock and enough bandits to keep me from getting bored."

Vilho had drifted over towards the trio with the tea just as Keena was adding her comments to the ceremony’s close. "It was a beautiful ceremony fitting to place a warrior’s mind in a serene place before the rigors of battle. If I may? May our sword of vengeance be swift and terrible, but may our vengeance also be tempered with mercy." He placed his half full glass of water on the table.

Frank laughed good-naturedly as he stood and ambled over as well. "I’m more along Keena’s line of thinking but I’ll take any luck I can get. Here’s to minimal casualties and maximum salvage." He drained most of the rest of his juice then placed his partially full drinking vessel on the table as well.

"Awww, now ya’ll done and made me look like some kinda anti-social kip-head," drawled Keena in complaint. She splashed some water into her cup from a pitcher and took a quick sip then added it to those on the table. "Here’s to drinking something a lot stronger with ya’ll after the shooting’s done."

"Amen to that!" agreed Frank.

" ’Course I expect ya to buy me a pair of drinks for every kill I get more than you score," added Keena as she flashed her wide smile at Parks.

"Then I hope you brought a wad of Fin-Marks with you to pay for the half dozen or so drinks you’ll be buying me," he shot back.

"Attention MechWarriors and vehicle crews," broke in the ship’s intercom speakers, "repeat, attention MechWarriors and vehicle crews: report for final briefings. Attention all hands, repeat: attention all hands. Secure for planetfall in approximately four hours. All lose items and open containers should be properly secured. That is all."

"You heard the man, let’s beat feet and go hear what the Grand Poo-Bas have to say," Frank announced as he suited action to words and turned for the door.

As they stood to go Naoko leaned in close to Basem. "What is a ‘Poo-Ba’?" she asked.

He shrugged and smiled. " I do not know. Sometimes it seems I only understand about half of what Ranger says. It was only a few days ago that I finally puzzled out the meaning of ‘Rad-Tech’."

"Good, then you can explain ‘Rad-Tech’ to me and I’ll tell you what I have learned about ‘the ‘Noids’."

"Deal," he laughed.


Emerald Island

Planet Yu-shan, unclaimed space

19 February 3053

Captain Peter Wulf eyed the gate area of their airfield through the tank commander’s viewer and frowned. There were obvious signs of fighting including a still smoldering armored personnel carrier but no indication that anyone was around anymore. His sensors claimed there was an active BattleMech on the airfield, but at the moment it was out of view. Wulf had stopped his small force at the top of the hill line several thousand meters from the base so he could take a look before committing.

That he would commit and enter the airfield was a forgone conclusion. He was already going to be in serious trouble with their fearsome leader for letting the airfield come under attack while being away drinking at the village. It was probably worth his life if he were to run for the main headquarters and leave the airfield in enemy hands. Wulf feared the Grand Master far more than he feared whoever these raiders were.

One thing he was sure of was that he wasn’t dealing with some other pirate band that was trying to take advantage of the Yu-shan’s recent battles to snag some quick booty. Whoever these people were they were professionals. Not only had they got on the island undetected, they had left a fire team near the town to harass his approach that had destroyed two of his six vehicles. But that also meant the enemy had to be travelling light. Maybe even entirely on foot. He had two light hover tanks and a pair of heavy APCs to deal with them. That should be enough.

"Hey Wulf," called the gunner from the other side of the copula, "the main comm’s flashing."

The pirate captain glanced at the display his gunner was pointing at but otherwise ignored it.

"Do you want to tell Command that we lost the airfield?" snapped Wulf.

The gunner gulped and shook his head negative.

"I’ll call in after we secure the field. Until then ignore that line," ordered Wulf.

"Hey Wulf, you out there," came a voice over a different channel.

Peter grabbed at the hand mic. "Yeah, I’m just outside the field. Where the hell have you been Noodles? We picked up a call from Mike saying he was rushing to the gate then squat after that."

Noodles was one of the base comm techs. If he was on line then the raiders must be on the run.

Noodles came back on the comms. "We just retook the command bunker. Jorey is cleaning up most of the raiders in his Commando but we could use your support. They’ve fallen back and dig in around the hangars."

"Hot damn, we’re on our way," replied Wulf. It seemed that he had gotten a reprieve. If the remainder of the base guards all kept their story straight they might even manage to lie their way into a little bonus for fighting off the attack. Wulf gave the order to roll forward to his forces.

Inside the command bunker ‘Noodle’ Hansen craned his neck around to look hopefully at Sergeant Cascade of the Suomi Warders. "I did okay…right?"

She slipped her combat knife back into it’s sheath. "Good enough," she allowed. "Now get over there against the wall and sit. We’ll take it from here."

As the pirate relief force drove up to the airfield they could see the top half of what they presumed was ‘their’ Commando over some low buildings. It was firing down towards the ground at something they couldn’t see and stalking back and forth near the far side of the base. Wulf couldn’t seem to raise the MechWarrior on the comms but that wasn’t terribly unusual. Knowing Jorey the idiot MechWarrior was probably just ignoring him because he didn’t want the tankers to come ‘steal his kills’. Even if it was just infantrymen he was shooting at. The BattleMech did look up at their approach in acknowledgement of their presence however.

However the pilot inside the Commando was not another pirate, but Warder MechWarrior Jason Nelson. Jason’s shoulder still ached from where machinegun fire had snapped tree branch which hit him earlier in the day and his left leg had a shooting pain running up it from a faulty brain-scan match between his neurohelmet and the commandeered BattleMech. But neither condition caused his attention to waver from his scanner scope as he waited for the lead light tank to clear the buildings. He fired one more shot into the ground at imaginary enemies then tightened his grip on the controllers as he mentally steeled himself to enter real combat once again.

Wulf’s light tank roared around the building corner with a belch of fuel exhaust as he scanned along the hanger walls for signs of ground troop fire. Thus he didn’t notice when the humanoid Commando raised it’s arms into firing position with both missile systems pointed at the tank rather than the buildings. The light vehicle suddenly lurched sideways under a barrage of short range missile fire.

"Where the hell did that come from!" Wulf demanded.

He never got his answer as the Commando’s medium laser followed up behind the missile hits and pierced the lightly armored tank. The tremendous energy released by the vaporized metal cooked the air in the small crew cabin, killing all three within.

Jason sucked in a lung full of hot air as excess heat washed into his cabin. He kept a wary eye on the heat meter, unsure of how far to trust it. This ‘Mech was at least a hundred years old - maybe even two hundred or more - and the command consul was a mix-match of hobbled together instruments. An actual analog gauge complete with an actual needle pointer was marked ‘heat’ and bolted to the side of the main control board. The numbers on the gauge read in Kilometers Per Hour, not an encouraging sign about the gauge’s intended use. Jason assumed that the yellow and red paint dabbed on it towards the right side indicated caution and danger levels. By the way his heat had jumped just by firing an SRM 4 and 6 along with a single medium laser enforced what he already expected. He was dealing with single power, old style heat sinks.

The Warder ground troops that had been hidden along the column’s path jumped up and laid into the APCs with their heaviest weapons. As they did, Jason maneuvered to his left while the remaining light tank chewed away at his armor with twin machine guns and a 30 mm high speed class 2 autocannon. He would have loved to return fire but he didn’t want to push his heat and figured that the Commando’s armor would be enough to weather the light weapons of the tank for a short time.

He was lining up his next shot after suffering a second barrage from the tank when a warning claxon almost startled him into missing. It seemed that his arms must be carrying substandard armor as a breach had occurred. The damage hadn’t affected the missile system in the arm though. Holding his breath as he concentrated on the correct lead, Jason let loose with the 10 missiles then adjusted his aim for the direct fire laser. About half the missiles hit the vehicle but his laser missed. It seemed that the driver was planning on cutting behind him and making a run for it as the wheeled tank was turning in a wide arc. Machine gun tracers had been issuing from the turret the entire time.

Built as a scout ‘Mech, the Commando was relatively quick and nimble for 25 tons of moving metal. For a panicky instant Jason thought he had lost his footing on the ferrocrete and was going to topple over, but then the foot grabbed and his machine finished it’s turn. He heard the rattle of light hits against the outer cockpit and the floor reverberated with hits to the chest area but other than the fact he hadn’t suffered another breach he couldn’t tell how extensive his damage was. This ‘Mech lacked the special armor plates that were layered with optic mesh allowing them to report their relative damage taken during battle. He’d only know when his armor was too thin when enemy fire punched through it.

His targeting overlay was wavering - which told him that he was still carrying a good amount of heat trapped within his ‘Mech. But if he waited to cool down the light tank would easily outdistance him. It was a difficult deflection shot against a fast target and he only managed to put a few more missiles into the fleeing tank. His other shots fell wide of the mark. A startlingly seductive female voice announced that first level shut down was being initiated - the automated computer warning. It was probably a relatively easy procedure to avoid the shut down, but these controls had been so radically changed from the standard Commando set up he was familiar with that all he could do was pound his fist on the controls in frustration as the machine came to a sagging stop with it’s head wilted down.

Emergency power kept his radio and cockpit cooling systems on line. "Don’t worry Racker, we’ll finish him off," came a call from Flight Officer Parker as the two VTOLs rose from behind the hangars. Although both were armed with a five tube long range missile system, no ammo had been brought to increase their lift capacity by a ton for the infiltration. However, they still had teeth in the form of a medium laser. The pair crisscrossed behind the jinking tank, the nose gunners firing almost in tandem. The hurtling tank suffered two non-fatal hits before a laser shot burned away a forward drive wheel during a sharp cornering maneuver. The tank flipped over on it’s side in a shower of sparks. The last APC succumbed to massed ground fire at about the same time.

"That’s it boys and girls; the base is ours," sounded Sergeant Cascade’s voice over the comms. "Look up to the north east and you should be able to see the drive flares of our DropShips. The cavalry is about to arrive."

A general cheer went up across the comms that was quickly followed by squad leaders assigning teams to check the vehicles for survivors. Jason eyed the heat gauge in his dimmed cockpit. It was sitting at the top of yellow rather than in the red. Apparently it needed some re-calibration. As he seemed to be finished with the junky war machine he locked it into it’s current stance and pulled off the neurohelmet. The shooting pain in his leg stopped immediately upon his disconnection, a grateful relief. When they had been preparing for the enemy counter attack he’d thought about grabbing the UrbanMech marked ‘T.G. Lives’ above one knee rather than this ‘Mech but had figured he was more familiar with the Commando line. The next time he commandeered a BattleMech he vowed to scout out the controls first.

Still, it had done the job. Or rather the first part of the job he reminded himself. Luckily he would have his new tech machine to pilot for the next phase of the assault against the pirate stronghold.

Steven Ong’s eye’s snapped open at the first light rap on his door. He’d been sleeping more lightly than usual for the past few nights, unable to shake the feeling that something was not well.

"Yes?" he called from the bedchamber.

"A thousand apologies Great Sir," replied the muffled voice beyond the door, "but Master Zou requests your presence in his audience hall in all haste."

"Return and tell Master Zou that I will be there in but a few moments."

Ong looked at the clock and frowned. It was the early hours of the morning. Something very important had to be occurring if Zou was awake and summoning him. Steven had just slipped out of bed when he heard the distant rumble of a sonic boom. The only supersonic aircraft on the planet where two AeroSpace fighters here on the island and four that where at the city. He dressed quickly and slipped out into the hall. What any of them would be doing in the air at this time was a mystery to him.

He was a familiar sight to the guards at the entrance to Zou’s suite of rooms. The pirates all knew Steven simply as The Councilor; Zou’s most trusted advisor and the agent that went out to gather information for the Yu-shan and bring it back to Master Zou. What they did not know was that it was Ong who had engineered the take over of this pirate group and was it’s true master. A pirate gang was not the type of organization one could leave for months at a time to set up assassinations or spy rings. Thus Ong had installed his most trusted lieutenant to lead the pirates in his place.

Ong entered the large room that Zou used for receiving his few visitors. Two servants hovered uncertainly near one corner as their master looked over reports at a desk set against the wall. Zou looked up at Ong’s entrance and rose to his feet.

"Ah, Councilor. Walk with me," commanded the pirate ‘leader’.

The two stepped out onto the attached veranda. Ong noted that part of the sky was unusually clear but it looked like another heavy cloud of volcanic ash was approaching with the morning breeze. The dawn was just starting to become a sliver on the horizon but from where the building was nestled into a gorge neither man could see the coming light. A faint explosion sounded, causing both of them to look out into the darkness beyond the wall.

"What was that?" asked Ong.

"I can not say for sure Master," sighed Tan Zou. "But my guess would be the main bridge over the river. It is close enough that we would hear it’s death by aerial assault."

"Aerial assault? What is going on Tan?"

"We are under attack Master Ong. If you look low on the horizon just above the cliff edge to our left you can see the bright pin-pricks of DropShip drives. I do not know how they have defeated our radar. Even now that we can see them with our eyes the scanning system reports nothing but empty sky. They will land unopposed at our airfield on the south of the island. Earlier we received a few scattered reports of attacks but nothing that could be substantiated. Those in the command center were reluctant to wake me at first. Now I discover that commando forces of some sort have cut off all contact with the lower part of the island. It is my assumption from the lack of communication response that the hostage camps and airfield have been captured. Enemy fighter craft have flashed above this very base and those ships in the sky on the horizon will be carrying the invader’s heavy equipment. I do not have much information, but I am convinced that this is not a smash and grab raid by another pirate band."

"I see," breathed Ong quietly. "Do we know who is attacking us?"

"Not as of yet."

"Then we must find out. Issue a general alarm and prepare our forces here and at the resort for action. Attempt to contact all assets on the southern half of the island and send the scout ‘copter that we have here to take a look at the hostage camps. And contact the air commander at Barbary city and offer any bounty it takes for him to use their aircraft on our behalf."

"It shall be as you say," bowed Zou.

The deck plates vibrated under Lt. Colonel Linna’s feet as he threaded his way through the crowded main bay of the Baltic Serenade. The sphere shaped DropShip was plunging through the atmosphere, it’s huge main drives keeping gravity from smashing it into the planet by brute force alone. They’d be on the ground in less than thirty minutes. He made his way towards Keena and Gracie who where standing near the right foot of Gracie’s BattleMech "Grannie" in the rumbling bay. Keena’s leopard print bodysuit, snake skin boots and dual pearl handled pistols contrasted starkly with Gracie’s olive drab shorts, T Shirt, standard combat boots and the short barreled combat shotgun the Major had adopted as her ‘sidearm’. Yet they had come to work well as a team and the ex minor league Solaris pilot had become Major Gracie Aukland’s wing.

"Everything five-by-five?" he asked conversationally as he approached.

"You know it Sir," drawled Keena "Cowgirl" Washington. "It’s gonna be like amateur night at the Lower Rings. Fish in a barrel."

"Don’t get over confident," he warned. "We have a significant weight advantage but they’ll have speed on us and their backs against the wall. I don’t know if they’ll go down easy."

"Then they’ll go down hard," she shrugged. "Same to me either way L-C."

"No worries John," assured Gracie. "I won’t let Cowgirl here pull us into anything over our heads."

"Course not," smiled Keena. "That’s why she’s ‘Mother Goose’."

He nodded with a tight grin. "Well, if she kept me out of trouble all these years I figure she can handle you. Good hunting you two. See you dirtside."

"With bells on," promised Gracie. "Those Joeys are about to find out a whole world of hurt’s just dropped on their heads. Sisu John."

"Sisu Gracie."

Next he stopped by Frank Parks. Basem Dhafar had noticed John’s approach and drifted over to join the Parks from where Basem had been talking with his crew chief.

"Lieutenant Colonel Sir, it is a fine day for battle," greeted Basem.

"Any day’s a good day to mix it up a bit," agreed "Ranger" Parks. "Ol’ Bessy up there’s raring to chew up some pirates."

Frank had never bothered to give his Bushwacker BattleMech a name, but had recently taken to calling the captured Clan large pulse laser mounted upon his ride ‘Bessy’.

"You’ll get your chance," John replied. "No hot dogging to try to show up Cowgirl, right Frank?"

"No worries John," shrugged Parks. "You all right? You seem a bit…tighter…than usual before one of these dust ups."

John let a small smile slip onto his face at his friend’s concern. "Yeah, I guess this one’s just different a bit. More personal," John sighed to himself as he swept his eyes across the busy mechbay then returned his attention to Frank. "Drive fast and take chances Ranger."

Frank laughed. "That’s the Linna spirit I’m used to. Give ‘em hell Sir."

"You’ll have my best efforts Sir," added Basem.

"I know," agreed John to the second MechWarrior. "I always do Sirocco."

Sven Jorgenson, John’s other lance leader, was next in the line of BattleMechs. The Lt. Colonel found him silently contemplating the Lancelot that was ‘Lawman’’s ride into battle.

"You feel it too," John said softly as he stepped up to his friend.

"Yes. This battle’s different in several ways. It’s our biggest. It’s the first full offensive we’ve launched. It’s more than a matter of honor or contracts or the vague notion of protecting the rights of those who can’t protect themselves. This campaign will forge what the new Suomi Warders are going to be. What we stand for. Not to be over melodramatic, but this will be a series of battles between good and evil."

"I don’t think I’m quite ready to be fit for a halo," sighed John. "I’ve been thinking some pretty evil thoughts of late."

Sven rested his huge paw lightly on his CO’s shoulder. "That’s exactly what I’m talking about John. The internal battles. We’re the leaders of this outfit. We’re about to find out how far we’re willing to go to finish the bad guys and what the others are willing to do. There’s no oversight here except our own conscious."

"You sure know how to lighten a guy’s spirits just before a battle," John commented.

Sven smiled wryly. "Yeah, I think too much. You too. My lance is prepped and ready - barring Jason who’s already dirtside. We’ve had his reactor warmed up though. His machine will be ready if he is. Cascade’s latest report mentioned that he’d suffered minor injury in fighting on the planet already."

"I’ll check him over personally before I set him loose," promised John. "But he can’t be in that bad of shape. After lugging a rifle in the attack on the airbase he was just piloting a captured Commando."

"It’ll be interesting to hear about his exploits as a ground trooper under Sergeant Cascade’s command," noted Sven thoughtfully.

"True. But that’s for later. See you dirtside Lawman."

John exchanged a few words with Misty Florens, who then headed for her cockpit to leave John and Naoko alone. Or at least as alone as two people could be in the busy mechbay.

Naoko smiled softly as she reached out a hand to lightly grip one of his. "Take care John. No more injuries okay?"

John’s body sported an impressive collection of scars and marks from healed wounds. His list of battle injuries was the main reason his people had come to think of him as unkillable. No matter how dire the circumstance he’d always come out of it banged up but alive.

"You still got that bad feeling Naoko? It’s pretty common. We all get it now and then. It’s just nature’s way of reminding us that getting blown up is bad for our health."

"Your "noids"? Hai, somewhat. But it is not myself I fear for. It is..I don’t know. I fear our victory will be bittersweet."

"Seems like they all are Dear." He kissed her lightly on the forehead. "Take care of yourself."

"Hai, you do the same."

John’s own wingmate, Vilho Rajanen, and John’s chief tech Sergeant Harding were waiting for him where his ‘Mech was attached to a bay cradle.

"How’ya doing Vilho?" asked John.

"A little nervous," admitted Vilho. "But you can count on me one hundred percent Sir."

John had harbored some doubts when he had first heard that Sven had re-sighed the MechWarrior after Vilho’s freak out episode at Hamano. But those doubts had been laid to rest by Vilho’s actions during the Blitzkrieg battle and the subsequent training exercises before this op.

"Good, because you and I might end up doing some solo hunting to bring fire support to the others. Mount up Kissa and I’ll see you dirtside." Having only ten ‘Mechs in his force, he and Vilho formed a command ‘lance’ of two.

"Sisu Sir," snapped Vilho as he turned and headed for his Catapult.

"The squawk box Sir," offered Harding.

John took the comm unit and attached it to his belt and slipped on the headset. In the cockpit he would use the advanced communications gear of his BattleMech via his neurohelmet. The unit he had just accepted was in case he had to leave his ‘Mech for some reason.

"This is Lieutenant Colonel Linna here, checking in as MechCommander and reporting our BattleMechs ready in five minutes. All other Command leads: status update please."

"OpsCommand reporting all systems on line and all networks operational. Paramedic and hospital resources are primed and ready," reported Captain Woods from the Bifrost command trailer. "We intercepted a message from the pirates offering bounty money to the Barbary air forces to attack us. It seems they accepted but they are not airborn at this time. Sergeant Cascade reports that our L-Z is secure and she will be formed up with the hostages for your inspection upon touch down."

"This is DropShipCommand," followed Jeff Tapiovarra from orbit in the aerofighter carrier. "All DropShip Captains report all systems green for touchdown on schedule. AeroSpace assets are standing by for further deployment. Woods passed me the Barbary info already and we’re watching the scanners. However be advised that the volcanic clouds drifting in are going to hinder our ability to track from orbit. Visuals are already largely denied and thermals are growing sketchy."

"Roger DSC," replied John. That was a bad break. John had hoped that he would be able to keep on top of the pirate maneuverings from orbit. The heat and suspended mineral content of the clouds of volcanic ash where going to obscure the view from above. It looked like the information would be more limited than he had hoped.

"VTOL Command is ready to go, but except for the two that went in with the commando force it’ll take us some time to unlimber the rotors and get airborne," reported Captain Jennifer Ladie.

"ArmorCommand here Sir. All units will be ready to roll as soon as they open the bay doors," responed Ben Runeberg from within his tank as his turn to report came up.

"GroundCommand is locked and loaded," reported the Infantry leader Captain Fosters as Runeberg finished.

"Then let’s do it Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s showtime. Bifrost, Cascade reports the airfield totally secure and that the hostages are going to be on hand right?"

"That’s affirmative," came Wood’s reply. "I have no doubt when she says ‘formed up’ that she’ll have her people at attention to receive you on the tarmac."

"No doubt," agreed John. "A little change of plans everyone. Let’s not risk any injury or equipment loss with a rushed deployment. We’ll stage a level two disembarkment. We’ve got the extra time to be a bit more careful. I’m going to go out on foot to greet our rescued hostages and Cascade’s people."

A settling DropShip kicks up a good amount of debris. Cascade had drawn up her formation far from the landing pads the spherical DropShips would use. Thus John found himself riding out to Cascade’s people in a utility cart that happened to be loaded near the front of the vehicles bay rather than walking out to them. It wouldn’t do to make them stand there for five plus minutes while he hoofed it over to them. The infantry were drawn up at attention with two of them seated in camp chairs as their injuries precluded their standing. They had formed without closing ranks, thus each missing spot within the uniformly spaced troopers indicated a death as all the wounded were in line. Sergeant Cascade had not requested any emergency medical care thus John knew that none of the missing troopers were laid out in injury beds someplace.

To the trooper’s right was a group of ragged looking ex-hostages. Some looked bewildered, others elated as the Warder equipment poured off of the first two ships down. The winged aerodyne style DropShip carrying most of the infantry was just coming in for a landing. On the opposite of side of the Warder troopers was another ragged looking bunch but these people were formed up in ranks as well. They were obviously the military prisoners his Sergeant had reporting liberating. John jumped from the moving cart before it came to a complete stop and returned the salute his ground forces had been holding.

"At ease," he called. "I have to tell all of you that…well, that I’m speechless. All of you have acted far above the call of duty and have saved scores of lives both directly by liberating the camps but also those of your fellow Warders through the information you gathered about the enemy. You have set a shining example for the rest of us to live up to. I commend you all and offer you the thanks of the entire regiment."

"Thank you Sir," answered Sammi Cascade simply. "It’s good to have you here."

"We’re glad to be here. You’ve done an incredible job."

She nodded acceptance of the continued praise. But had no intention of listening to any more of it. She had just been doing her job. Nothing more, nothing less. "May I introduce you to the hostages Sir?"

"Indeed," agreed the Lt. Colonel.

John found himself choked up and struggling for words as he was introduced to the three remaining StarCade survivors. He’d never met them before their abduction. But the sight of the three of them, now young men rather than boys, erupted a fierce joy within him he hadn’t felt in a long time. A joy that quickly turned to a smoldering anger as he shook hands and exchanged greetings with the rest of the civilian hostages. It was barbaric beyond his comprehension to keep people as trophy slaves the way these people had been kept. Some of them were small children - a few no doubt born into captivity. John didn’t even let himself think about the ‘pleasure’ camp refugees. Dwelling on that would certainly push him over the fine line between professional military thinking and hateful revenge.

"And may I present Captain Marcus Temen of the Eradani Light Horse. The senior military prisoner, Sir," Sergeant Cascade was saying to him.

"Captain, it’s a pleasure," replied John as he offered his hand. "The Light Horse is a honorable and respected outfit."

"Under the circumstances Lieutenant Colonel," laughed Temen, "I believe it is safe to say that the pleasure is all mine Sir. I don’t know how it is I have not heard of your Warders before but from what I have seen you have put together a most impressive unit. Most impressive indeed."

"Until recently we’ve been doing primarily corporate work in our own backyard so to speak; no reason for you to have heard of us," shrugged John.

"Well by God I’ve heard of you now eh? And your fine Sergeant here tells me that you came all this way on your own?"

"By and large," admitted John. "But once the word leaked out at home that we were going after Starcade survivors many of the good people of Sampsa donated towards the cause."

"Yes, I understand that your sister was taken from the ship as well…was she here Lieutenant Colonel?"

John blinked in confusion for a moment, then remembered that he had announced that his sister had been found a few months ago long after the infiltration team had departed. Sergeant Cascade and the few people that had been on the rescue team that new the truth would never say anything until John gave the okay.

"I think ‘John’ will do fine, Captain Temen. And no she’s not here. In fact, she’s piloting that Jenner just coming down that ramp over there. Once we found her elsewhere she had the clues that lead us to this planet."

"Then call me by Marcus if you please, John. And I’m relieved to hear she was away. I had feared that she might have been…in the other camp..."

There was no mistaking the fire Marcus saw in the young Lieutenant Colonel’s eyes at the mention of that camp. The old Eradni officer knew from those eyes that there would be hell to pay here on Emerald Island. Marcus felt the same impulse to destroy the wicked. But the retired Captain knew he had to accept the reality of his age and condition.

"…but as I said, luckily she was not," continued Marcus. "I believe that the Yu-shan shall once again attempt to relieve you of this airfield within a few hours at the most. While several of us, including myself, are no longer fit for active duty - we have talked it over and I hereby place my command at your disposal. Those of us that can are eager to give these buggers a bit of long overdue payback. Those of us no longer fit for combat are willing to help in any manner that we can."

A chorus of agreement came from the military prisoners that had gathered around to listen to the exchange. John glanced around and read the faces. He knew what the answer was going to be but he felt he had to try.

"Are you all sure of this?" he asked. "I’d hate to have you finally regain your freedom only to put you in a body bag less than twenty four hours later. You’ve endured enough. There’s nothing you need to prove to us."

"If I die free and fighting these bastards then I die happy," declared Lt. Darnell from the group.

"Hai, honor demands that we spend our freedom in arms at our rescuer’s side rather than sitting in a DropShip," added Chu-i Rokku.

Others announced similar sentiments. John mentally shrugged to himself. A few more combatants probably wouldn’t affect the situation one way or the other - unless some of them were MechWarriors anyway - but he couldn’t deny them the right to finally face their ex captors on equal terms. He’d try to keep them out of the main fighting though. John did have the safety of his own people to think about and despite their obvious desire to fight these were untested troops to him.

"Anyone that plans to fight will have to respect the chain of command. Understand that we’ve been training for specific maneuvers for a long time so expect a periphery role rather than to be in the center of the line. Captain Temens, as you do not plan on engaging in the fighting, perhaps you could serve as the liaison between the hostages and my people. Anyone else not fit for combat can assist you as your staff. I brought several civilian specialists to help but most of the military staff will be too busy in the next several hours to assist them much."

"It would be an honor John," agreed the older officer.

"Thank you Captain. Now, if I could have infantry form up over there, and vehicle crewpersons to that side and MechWarriors or anyone I left out come see me."

Darnell and Rokku, both trained MechWarriors, joined John as he called in vehicles to take away the rescued hostages and the volunteers. Neither of the prisoner MechWarriors had been inside a cockpit within a year or two but both felt confident they were up to piloting a ‘Mech. Which didn’t really surprise John. Most MechWarriors feel up to piloting no matter how rusty or injured they are - such as Jason Nellson who was walking gingerly over to join his CO.

"Okay gentlemen. It seems that Sergeant Cascade has thoughtfully provided us with three captured ‘Mechs from the airfield. It seems fair that we use them. I’ll have a tech team get a neurohelmet reading on you and do a quick strip and rebuild on the computers. It might take around two hours but we should have more time than that before the pirates can organize and try to attack. And they might choose to simply hole up- giving us all the time we want."

"I’d pass on that Commando," announced Jason to the two ex-prisoners as he arrived. "It’s a serious piece of junk."

"We had already discussed this possibility, Lieutenant Colonel," Juan Darnell informed the Warder CO. "Rokku will take the Firestarter and I’ll pilot the UrbanMech,".

"Done deal then. Hustle over there with the vehicle crews. A Sergeant Harding will be waiting for you at the DropShip. He’ll get you set up. Oh, and my call sign is Duck."

Both ‘Warriors looked at him quizzically to see if he was jesting. It seemed that he was not.

"I was…am…Osprey," supplied Juan. "Hiero’s translates to ‘swooping crane’ so we took to calling whim Swooper around here."

"Swooper is fine, Duck-san," nodded Hiero Rokku. "I am used to answering it by now."

"Okay Osprey and Swooper, welcome aboard. Now go catch your ride and we’ll brief you later."

As they departed John turned to shake Jason’s hand. "I hear you took on a bit more than just helping hitch a space ride out to this planet. It’s good to see you in one piece Jason."

"It was a close thing more than once Sir," admitted Jason. "I owe my life to these troopers. More than once."

"As do I," nodded John solemnly. "If you’re up to strapping yourself into a BattleMech you can help repay them by making sure none of the pirate ‘Mechs get a chance to shoot at any of our infantry."

"I’m ready and able Sir. I’m not done with these pirates yet by a long shot."

"Good. Report to the Doctor for a quick check-up and then go hop in your ‘Mech. It’s warmed up and your lance is waiting for you."

Being around Cascade’s troopers for so long had rubbed off on Jason in ways he hadn’t realized. Without thinking about it he stood to attention and snapped a salute in the same fashion the ever proper First Platoon did. "Sisu Sir!". John couldn’t help but grin, having noticed the difference in presence and bearing the young man now had.

After talking with the two VTOL crews and sending them back to Captain Ladie only the troopers where left. John knew that they too would be itching to get some more licks in against the pirates. But he felt they had already shouldered their share of the burden. Four of their number had been killed, five including the VTOL gunner. They had shed enough blood for now. Plus he might need his specialist infantry for tricky mop op or anti-guerilla operations later. He’d left orders with GroundCommand to put the two squads from second and third platoons in the secondary defensive ring. First Platoon- all of which had been on the infiltration - would be a reserve force for now.

"Sergeant Sanchez, take the troopers from second and third and rejoin your platoons. Sergeant Cascade, your platoon is to stay with the ships. Both of you Sergeants take care of your wounded and re-equip, but otherwise just take it easy. Grab some chow and some rest. You’ve earned it."

"Sisu Sir," they responded in unison.

Tan Zou stood on his balcony as tufts of volcanic ash drifted down around him. The sun had made it’s appearance almost two hours ago now. The Barbary pilots had scrambled to his cause, but were circling warily off shore rather than attacking. While that was keeping the majority of the enemy air assets busy flying in a stand off position, his enemy had the air power to spare for recon flights over his main base as well as the rest of the island. Zou couldn’t be sure but he assumed that a DropShip was sitting in orbit directly overhead to act as a communications relay and track his movements. His great grandfather had once told him that the measure of a man lay not in how he creates victory but in how he handles defeat. Tan had scoffed at that thought back then. Now he believed he understood. Behind him he heard his leader, Master Ong, slide open the glass door and join him outdoors where they could speak without fear of being overheard.

"Have we discovered who our foes are yet Tan?" asked Steven Ong.

"In a fashion, Master. Just before it was shot down our scout ‘copter reported that the enemy wore a white shield with a blue lion. This has been confirmed by observers at the Resort who saw the same markings on a fighter that buzzed them at low altitude."

"Linna’s Suomi Warders are here?" breathed Ong in surprise. "That is almost inconceivable. And yet….it would be the way of Chairman Miller to attempt to use the Warders against me. With the right luck, I would get killed and John Linna would never know that it was Miller who organized and paid for the Starcade attack even though it was you and I that lead the operation. I can see of no other way that John Linna could come to be here. Only three others besides yourself know of my connection to this pirate band and two of them have no involvement with Linna at all. Not counting the three surviving Starcade captives of course. No my friend, whether he planted clues or directly made a deal, it is Miller that has brought the Lion to our den. What is your professional opinion Tan? Can we prevail?"

"It pains me to admit this Master, but I do not believe so. There is always a chance…but this John Linna has crafted well in the art of war. His spies have undoubtedly told him much while we know little. His warriors will be highly motivated against us, while half of ours are effectively conscripts absorbed from the pirate bands we recently defeated. His equipment is fresh and fully prepared. We have yet to rebuild our heavier units lost in the pirate battles. I cannot speak to the numbers, perhaps we have an advantage there. But he brought four DropShips that we know of so perhaps not. If we elect to fight defensively and keep our forces in our two strongholds then he can defeat us by lobbing long range fire into the Base and Resort until our people grow weary and surrender. That wold also allow him to concentrate his forces against half our strength. Yet if we attack the river will force us into two separate groups and their superior tech level will be telling against us."

"What do you suggest then?" demanded Ong.

"You must use one of the escape plans. I will lead our forces as befits my role as the leader that they think I am. We shall attack. Our pirates are better attuned to taking action than fighting defensively. If we can take back the airfield and destroy or drive off the DropShips then perhaps we can claim victory from all of this. We have one or two surprises still…prepared areas I hope his scouts did not find as we were not actively doing anything in those areas recently. As the bulk of our conventional forces are on the opposite side of the river at the Resort, I will have them attack from the north. I will lead the ‘Mech force down to where the river is fordable from our side. The Resort force will have no choice but to let the Warders choose the field of battle. Perhaps I can choose the field of engagement with my ‘Mech force. Linna will be forced to respond to our movements and perhaps I can use that to advantage."

"Then we shall proceed as you have said. I have some preparations to make on the assumption that the Warders take this location at some time in the near future. Then I shall disappear. Perhaps your pirates can do what my assassins and I could not and kill John Linna."

"It will be my goal," agreed Zou. "Farewell Master. I hope I am mistaken, but I do not believe we will meet again in this world."

"Farewell Zou. Fight knowing that there is no shame upon your head. It was the treachery of Chairman Miller that has brought us to these desperate straits, not any actions of yours."

Tan Zou bowed deeply. "It is most kind of you to say that Master. I glory in the knowledge that the Triad will live on regardless of what happens here today and vow to send as many of the invaders as possible to the grave."

Lt. Colonel Linna strode purposefully through the DropShip’s now quiet mechbay towards his waiting Camelot. He hadn’t expected his first four hours on the planet to be spent on foot rather than in his BattleMech but he wasn’t complaining about the turn of events. While he had been able to do a great deal of coordination work setting up their support base here on the airfield, it was time to mount up. The pirates were finally on the move. He had given them two main possible courses of action: hunker down in their forts or come try to take his DropShips from him. They had elected to come after him. He would have made the same choice if the positions were reversed. A hit and run guerilla campaign with ‘Mechs and vehicles was out of the question on an island this size. It was too small for such an action to last long.

With the bridges down on the river that split the island the pirates were forced into two parts at the moment. The bulk of the pirates lived in a failed resort on the airfield side of the island. Why someone had built the three tall hotels and other amenities John had no idea. The planet was not charted correctly and was thus a ‘secret’ planet. Other support buildings had been added over the years. Most of the Yu-shan armor and infantry were there to the north and now on the march southward. Between the pirates and the airfield was now a defensive line of entrenchments and bunkers that had been hastily prepared by the forest fighting engineering crews Osmo had had hired as make-shift combat engineers. Used to rapidly cutting fire lines, they had done a great job. Most of the Warder’s conventional forces where along that line and a secondary set of positions that were the fall-back line. The final line was the airfield itself.

The Yu-shan pirate’s BattleMechs were mainly kept at the ancient Star League facility. The facility was walled and seemed to have been some sort of administrative or research center. Though it had been built into a fort in recent years, it was not a fortified Brian Castle. Piloting light, fast ‘Mechs, the Yu-shan MechWarriors were just starting to move south from their main fort. They would travel south until they could ford or jump the river then head east for the airfield. Unless John and his ‘Mechs cut them off first that was. So far he hadn’t been able to use his six fighters for much except a little recon as the aircraft from the city on the mainland were still circling off the coast. Unless they were bluffing, both he and his DropShip Commander expected that the air attack would come when the ground forces were engaged.

He had just closed the safety bar on the open faced lift when a voice calling his name took his attention away from the tactical situation. John was surprised to see Pastor Curtis hurrying his way.

"What it is Pastor? I’m pressed for time at the moment," John informed the other as he came huffing up.

"I know, the fighting is about to start. We haven’t spoken since that day with the misunderstanding about prisoners. I didn’t want you to go into battle angry or to think that I was implying that…"

There was supreme irony in the Pastor being worried about him going into combat angry. But John didn’t really have the time to rehash old arguments at the moment. The Lt. Colonel cut off the Pastor before he could could finish.

"Don’t worry Pastor. I’m not angry with you. I’m saving all my anger for the enemy and myself. But I’m afraid duty calls. Stay out of harm’s way Pastor, we’ll talk later." The Lt. Colonel pushed the button that started the little platform up the framework his ‘Mech was cradled within.

"That’s what I’m worried about," sighed Curtis to himself as John Linna rose out of earshot. Whatever personal demons or doubts might bother the Lt. Colonel about this engagement, John had not chosen to speak to the Pastor about them. Curtis wondered if the young leader spoke of them to anyone at all. He certainly hoped so. It was obviously out of his hands at this time so the clergyman looked about for someone that might be headed for the infantry line. Lt. Colonel Linna was going to do where he could do the most good, Curtis figured he should do the same thing himself.

Inside his command cabin John slipped into his seat and plugged in his cooling vest. He knew he shouldn’t have been so abrupt with Curtis. He hadn’t even waited to find out what was on the Pastor’s mind. But now was not the time for wavering concentration. Ignoring the sensation of frigid caterpillars crawling all over him as the gel like cooling fluid forced it’s way through the vest’s tubular vein network, John ran a quick systems check and then brought up the main commline for the BattleMechs.

"MechCommander reporting on line. Lances sound off," he snapped briskly.

Their traditional by-play involved each MechWarrior replying with some little remark about their status that was often inspired by their call signs. John had caught that little byplay going on via the headset he’d been wearing earlier. With double the number of pilots including the sub-contracted lance they had modified the tradition to just the lance leads reporting directly to him.

"The Lady Killers are all dressed up and ready to party," reported Major "Mother Goose" Aukland of her lance.

"Steel Posse’s all accounted for and ready to round up the bandits," came the deep bass voice of Captain "Lawman" Jorgenson.

"Holly’s Harridans standing by to kick some ass," called out John’s sister of her scout lance.

Lt. Rajanen’s voice came last. "Zeta lance standing by. Sir, as your wingman I have to say this one last time. I object to your plan to go it alone. At least take Swooper with you."

Zeta Lance had been formed by placing the two liberated pilots into captured pirate ‘Mechs and forming them on Vilho Rajanen. The three of them would aid the defense of the airfield. Vilho’s missile bearing Catapult was a fire support ‘Mech that could be of great help along the defensive line while Swooper’s Firestarter with it’s flamers and machine guns was a fearsome anti-infantry machine. The slow UrbanMech was too cumbersome to follow the Warder ‘Mech forces into the field but it’s solid punching cannon and decent armor for a light ‘Mech made an effective last line of defense at the airfield itself. Although they had trained as a 5 unit ‘lance’ in the past, John didn’t want to usurp Sven’s or Gracie’s commands by adding himself to their lances. Thus he had decided to go it alone.

The other lances were medium / heavy mixes under Mother Goose and Lawman supported by the scout lance of lights John’s sister "Long Blade" commanded against an almost equal number of generally light 'Mechs. That boded well for the Warder’s overall chances, but the lighter ‘Mechs were faster than most of the Warder ones. Thus if the pirates went head hunting for the enemy CO, John could find himself swarmed without a lance mate ‘attached to his wing’ to back him up. It would not be wise to admit it to the others, but John almost hoped that the pirates did come after him. He was in the mood to mix it up rather than stand in the back and play fire support.

"Your concern is noted," answered John. "And my thanks for worrying about me. But I’ll be fine Kissa. I’m going to hang back and take pot shots with my main gun while coordinating. And if the Yu-shan do come hunting me they’ll find that the Fire Wraith has a few extra tricks up her sleeve."

The boast about his ‘Mech was not idle. John’s machine was a one-of-a-kind custom model stuffed with the latest ECM gear, an advanced PPC, ferro-fibrous armor, enhanced range medium lasers that were not even in full production yet, and the rare and expensive triple strength myomer ‘muscles’ that made his machine faster and stronger as it heated up.

"Understood Sir," replied Vilho. The discussion had already happened during the quick planning sessions. No doubt Sven and Gracie both planned to keep a special eye on John.

"Let’s get moving then," ordered John. "Zeta lance to your positions. Everyone else make for Nav Alpha. Long Blade, take point with your lance. Get out ahead but remember we’ll be holding to about 55 kph so don’t range out too far."

"Roger," came the joyful reply of Holly Linna. She’d literally lived solely for the day she might face her one time captors from a BattleMech cockpit. All the awkward silences and people staring at her when they thought she wasn’t looking had been worth returning home to face. Her brother’s promise to gather everything he could get his hands on and then go out to lay waste to the pirates had been fullfilled. Today was a good day to kill she reflected gleefully as she thrilled to the sensation of power that came from goosing her Jenner up to near full speed.

Holly switched to her private lance channel. "There’s nothing on this side of the river- but spread out in Sweep Formation and keep your eyes open just in case. Crossing pattern by pairs to the river. Let’s go find us something to shoot at."

"Woo-hooo," called MechWarrior Leena Calahan as her Firefly shot forward. "I just luuvv to go hunting!"

"Affirmative Lance Leader," came the much more subdued reply of Inra Bhati. The Goddess approved of an aggressive warrior. But Inra was worried that her two lance mates might get overzealous and forget the lance’s role. Having the fastest of the BattleMechs aligned with the Warders, they were supposed to play a stopping role by cutting off any enemy units that might try to run by the two heavier lances to get behind them or even attack the aerodrome. Once they crossed the river their lance was to fall back. Inra knew that Leena and Holly had plenty of fighting spirit. So she prayed to the Goddess to grant them extra patience for this battle.

Sitting among their scattered gear, the resting troopers of First Platoon watched the BattleMechs storm off in search of their counterparts. Off to the far right the VTOLs were finishing final preparations for lifting in support of the defensive line to the north. Otherwise there wasn’t much going on around the aerodrome anymore.

"So that’s it, we have to sit it out?" asked Trooper Jensen of no one in particular.

Sergeant Cascade decided to answer his remark. She didn’t like just sitting around when there was work to be done either. But orders were orders. "The L.C. said to stay with the ships. So that’s what we do.

"Yes Sergeant," sighed Jensen as he dropped down onto his pack.

"Say Sarge," Bronski offered casually, "those VTOLs look like they’re about ready to lift."

Cascade knew that tone of voice. "And?" she prompted.

A sly grin creased Bronski’s weathered face. "I was just thinking that the L.C. didn’t specify which ships we were supposed to stay near. Probably being so busy and all ya know. It seems to me that those ships about to lift over yonder could use some capture teams on board. Doesn’t look like anyone was assigned to the task. I’m sure the Lieutenant Colonel wouldn’t mind a little extra firepower on each ship in case it touches down for a rescue or capture or something."

The entire platoon turned expectant eyes toward their sergeant. Cascade pondered for a moment. Bronski did have a good point. On the other hand she was pretty sure she knew what the L.C.’s intent had been when he sent them wandering off hours earlier. This seemed like a good time to test Captain Wood’s admonishment from Coleson’s Orb that the next time she was contemplating haring off on her own to tell him first in case he had something to add to the plan. She activated the mic in her forearm guard.

"Bifrost, this is Sergeant Cascade."

"Go ahead Sergeant," replied the Captain almost immediately.

"GroundCommand does not have my platoon in the deployment table and the C.O. basically left us to our own devices for the mean time. It seems to me that splitting my people up into fire teams and posting them to the VTOL ships would provide security for the S and R ops as well as trained capture teams to secure downed vehicles and ‘Mechs."

"Uh huh," drawled Woods. He too knew that John’s intent had been to let Cascade’s people skip the upcoming battle. On the other hand, he also knew that John hadn’t left specific orders for the platoon and that it had been decided that there were too few troopers on the line to spare anyone to ride the ‘copters other than the three medical crews. Having Cascade’s heavy hitters available to shore up holes or pursue any opening was tactically appeasing. Discretion was not always the better part of valor Woods decided.

"Man those VTOLs Sergeant. But I’m warning you now, if the two of us get called on the rug and chewed by the L-C for this and you get to stand in front of me Sammi."

"I promise to take point and loan you my armored vest if it comes to that Sir," she deadpanned. "Cascade out."

She smiled at her platoon members as she reached down for her helmet. "Gather your toys boys and girls, we’re going for a little ride."

"Sisu Sergeant!" rang out as First Platoon hastily grabbed their gear and rushed to place themselves in harm’s way once more.


Vicinity of Yu-shan Pirate Aerodrome

Emerald Island, Planet Yu-shan

19 February 3053

Captain Karl Fosters swept his macro-scope across the hills before him, seeking the first signs of the enemy. He was the Infantry Battalion’s CO, and the senior Captain of the armor and VTOL company commanders. That put him in over-all command of this battlefield.

"Uh, Sir? Are you sure that you should be up there?" came the shaky voice of the command company’s uniformed company clerk.

"Relax Mackie, the shooting won’t start for another five minutes or so," replied Fosters. But his mind wasn’t on calming his nervous clerk. It was on getting his own look at what the enemy was planning to throw at them and in what fashion. He was standing in a chest deep trench cut along a hilltop peering out across what was about to become contested real estate. His command post was behind him down the back side of the hill. Once the battle started he would be required to retreat to it. But at least he would still be where the fighting was going on. All too many times in the past three years when his people had become engaged he’d been with Woods in the Bifrost trailer. But not this battle.

"GroundCommand, this is DropShipCommand," came Tapiavarra’s voice from orbit where that Captain was overseeing Warder AeroSpace operations. "Looks like the enemy air assets are making their play on both my orbiting DropShip and the airfield. My fighters are going to be busy for a while Karl."

"Understood DSC," answered Karl into comm pickup. "Good luck to your pilots. We’ll handle things down here."

"Roger Ground. I’ll send Red Three on a last recon before he climbs for orbit and send the update to your field comps."

"Thanks DSC." Although a few strafing runs from the AeroSpace fighters would have been nice, they wouldn’t have likely affected the course of battle much. The fighters had pretty much used up the few bombs the unit had brought with them and the enemy was coming in numerous vehicles and on foot rather than in a handful of BattleMechs which would have stood out as preferred strafing targets.

Karl had the better part of seven platoons stationed in fire positions along the hills, along with ten VTOLs, sixteen tanks, and two BattleMechs as support. He was lacking mines or artillery, but Warder doctrine had been against the use of mines for many generations for the danger to civilians after a battle was over. They had never gotten around to buying any artillery as they not fought a set piece battle like this in at least thirty years. Maybe more. Luckily, the pirates were equipped for rapid raids and mobile warfare as well. They also lacked artillery and had never bothered to mine their own island. TheYu-shan did have two old model LRM vehicles capable of firing a volley of around 30 missiles per salvo. But to be in range to shoot at Karl’s forces those LRM carriers would have to be in range of his own LRM equipped vehicles. The Warder Captain had a nasty surprise ready for the pirates who would be looking to surprise him.

"GroundCommand to all units," he suddenly called into his mic. "Prepare for contact. Enemy sighted on hills Twelve and Ten. Hold fire until I give the command. Spotter units keep sharp for your priority contacts and call it in on the VTOL channel."

A chorus of affirmatives came back from section leaders as Karl reluctantly made his way down to the command bunker that had been cut into the hill. He would have a number of monitors with camera feeds as well as the tactical computer plot to keep him up to date on the fight. But it was never the same as being on the main line and feeling the ebb and flow of a battle directly. The price of surviving and rising in rank he sighed to himself.

In the bunker he could see red icons being updated as section leaders keyed in their observations on their arm computers. The blue icon representing the VTOLs where already starting to shift based on what was being sighted by the infantrymen. One of the Mechs, the Catapult, was shifting position as well. This would be the best representation of the conflict he would see. Once they were engaged, the first hand information being fed into the computer system would drop off to nill. A specialist in the bunker would update based off voice reports, what they could pick up from the vid feeds, and the sensor information that the specialized Bifrost control center would feed back from the various friendly vehicles involved. The fog of war was never fully lifted, but for a small well equipped unit like the Suomi Warders it was thinned a great deal.

Karl could hear the rumbling drives of the missiles passing overhead followed by the thumping crash of their impact and explosion some 400 meters away from him as the mock command post complete with a tall but completely fake communications antennae array disappeared in a spray of dirt, wood, and scrap metal. The pirates had taken the bait.

"All LRM units in range, open fire," Captain Fosters ordered as dirt rained down around his post.

Each of the Warder helicopters carried a five tube long range missile system. The VTOLs had been hovering close to the ground behind the hill line and now they rose a bit and nosed up, firing from just behind the ridges at the coordinates that had been supplied by the spotters. The four Manticore tanks had a missile system as well and fired indirectly from behind the protection of the hills. The Catapult held it’s fire for the moment as Vilho was out of range but strode up onto a hill in case it would be needed for a finishing blow.

None was needed. The barrage of missiles streaking up from multiple points caused one of the pirate LRM carrier crews to bail from the vehicle and run for cover while the second one attempted to maneuver their carrier out of harm’s way. As the missiles began to come down the first crew was proven to have made the wiser choice. Both of the slow moving and lightly armored vehicles suffered multiple hits and exploded in violent fireballs as their missile loads detonated.

Karl nodded to himself as the two enemy LRM icons disappeared from his battle plot. His ofrced had never even been exposed to return fire. But things wouldn’t stay that way.

"Armor move to your fire positions. All units, remember your primary fire zones and fire at will," Fosters ordered. Now they would find out how committed these pirates were to making a fight of things.

Vilho Rajanen had the center of his visual display zoomed in on a cleft in the hills some 600 meters away as his ‘Mech the ‘Siamese Cat’ stood half exposed above a crest. So far the pirates had been content to trade some long range fire with the Warder defense after trying to sneak their two LRM carriers into a firing position against what had appeared to be an important command center. Since then some sort of light tank chassis fitted with an open turreted large laser had been popping up into a cleft to fire at the defenders across from it. Whoever was in command of the pirate vehicle had a large case of target fixation going. The laser-tank had come up twice now in the same place to shoot at an infantry bunker and failed to notice the lurking Catapult.

A light rattle, like the sound of someone throwing gravel against a metal door, reverberated through Vilho’s cockpit proving that someone out there had noticed his ‘Mech. But the 65 ton fire support machine shrugged off the attack with ease. Although he probably had a few divots in the armor, so far he had not taken enough damage to change any of his protection level indicators from green. Still, it wouldn’t do to stand around and present himself as a target for too much longer. A lucky shot could damage weapon tubes or slip in an armor chink to damage something important.

There…motion. He fired one pod of 15 missiles before there was a lock. The missiles were headed directly towards where he expected the vehicle to be in several more seconds. His Artemis IV targeting equipment gained a positive lock just as the missiles were closing. Instantaneously guidance information was sent to the missiles, although there was little time to maneuver. Still, a solid portion of them raked the mobile gun. But not enough to destroy the assault gun chassis outright as it started to back away. However now Vilho had a solid lock and he tipped his torso back and let fly with his second launcher pod. He’d lose the extra guidance of the Aremis system if his target made it back down the ridge in time, but the missile flight would use it’s basic image recognition and infrared scanning equipment to arc down on top of the fleeing enemy now that it had been designated and locked. Not all of them would hit, but between the two strikes Vilho figured that particular pirate would be finished for this battle.

His heat gauge surged upwards, but started retreating quickly. With the advanced "double" heat sinks that had been retrofitted to the Catapult he could fire off both missile pods all day without any concern. Still, he took a few steps back down the hillside while the ‘Mech cooled to minimum heat. He’d come back up someplace else along the line and see if he could find the vehicle that had been plinking him with a light auto-cannon fire earlier.

Unseen by Vilho, the troopers in a fire pit that had been twenty meters down the front of the hill from him had ducked instinctively at the roar of the missiles launched behind them but popped up soon enough to see the pirate tank get hit and retreat. A quick cheer went up while two of them fired off a few shots from their laser rifles at the retreating vehicle.

"Hey! You two…stop that firing," bellowed Sergeant Tovstoy at the men.

"But Sergeant," protested one of the young soldiers that had left Coleson’s Orb to join the Warders. "Shouldn’t we be doing something?"

"Da! Be keeping your heads down. The range is too great right now; all you do is call attention to your position. Wait my eager Cossack. When they are done testing our positions the enemy will come. Then you will have plenty to shoot at."

"Yes Comrade Sergeant," came the chastened reply but Tovstoy was already moving along down the trench towards another fire pit where one his men had radioed about giant insects buzzing them. He arrived to find three of his infantrymen crouching in their position with their helmets off to hear better.

"There, did you hear that Comrade Sergeant!" one of them excitedly yelled as Tovstoy slipped into their dug out.

He most certainly had heard the buzzing-zinging sound. It was an all too familiar sound to the experienced non-comm and it sure as Lenin’s ghost wasn’t a giant bug flying by. He rapped the nearest soldier to him upside the head wishing he had three arms so he could smack the other two as well.

"Idiots. Keep your helmets on. That whizzing sound is spent rifle bullets fired from extreme range. You're under direct fire." Tovstoy hunkered and waited with them. A few more rounds zinged in as the time drug on. It didn’t seem to be directed sniper fire, not without an actual target sticking it’s head up. Most likely a couple of pirates with heavy caliber rifles were shooting at this particular firing dugout hoping to get lucky. He passed the information on to a heavy machine gun team of First Company that was dug in nearby and made his way towards the next fire pit. His boys were basically green and thus had been mixed in among an experienced Warder platoon and placed near several of the firing positions that had been cut for the tanks. Tovstoy new that his troopers had the fighting spirit of the Cossack so if he could just keep them settled down until the enemy closed and engaged then his platoon would do Lt. Colonel Linna pround.

"Here they come!" shouted an excited voice over his platoon channel and Tovstoy looked out over the trench to see what might be going on. Far east of their position a small pack of fast hover vehicles were sprinting toward the defensive line.

"Hold your fire and stay down," the Sergeant ordered yet again to his platoon. "They’re out of range and our armor will deal with them."

In his command bunker Captain Foster saw the enemy rush as seven icons on his battle plot. "ArmorCommand, send Mosquito Lance after them. Shift your other forces for a passing shot if you can take one but be ready in case they try to roll down our flank from behind. Captain Laidie, cease fire support and join the Mosquitos in engaging the break-through units."

Ben Runeberg and Jenny Laidie replied from their respective vehicles, then started issuing orders of their own. Karl had redirected some of his forces to deal with the threat of the fast hover tanks rushing through the line but would now continue to manage the overall engagement and trust to his fellow Captains to deal with the break though. The attackers would penetrate the line solely by virtue of their speed, although what they hoped to accomplish separated from the rest of the pirates none of the Warder officers could guess at. Most likely the pirates would either try to disrupt the rear operations or maybe make a run at the aerodrome itself. A distraction to draw off forces from the line was the only explanation that made sense. Ben and Jenny planned to make the distraction short lived and costly for the pirates.

Karl Foster’s opposing number of the Yu-shan was cursing in a mix of four languages as he peered over a hill crest with his family heirloom but still serviceable ground lens binoculars. The Yu-shan ground commander tried once more to raise the leader of the hover tank group on the comms but they seemed to be ignoring him. "Two Hand" McGilly slammed the handset into the bulky field radio in disgust. This was a hell of a way to end what had once been a promising military career with the Illyrian Palatinate. Herding a pirate mob into destruction in Circinus space.

Two Hand harbored no doubts that he was finished with the Yu-shan after this. He was in charge of all ground troops including the camp and airbase guard forces. Whoever these bastards were they had managed to infiltrate the island and successfully storm the camps and the aerodrome. Then they had cut trenches and scooped out defensive points along a hill line in less than four hours. Who the hell where these guys? Yet if by some miracle he beat them back and retook the airfield and camps he was still finished with Master Zou. Zou did not take failures lightly and would not be forgiving of having lost the locations in the first place. Not that McGilly held out much hope for a victory anyway. His force was largely a mix of refugees from two other defeated pirate bands - including a few disgruntled and dispossessed MechWarriors - and low life scum dredged up from the bottom of a low society. He had a few passable officers and non-comms in the form of people kicked out of their home militaries for a variety of reasons. Plus a small core of hell-bent-for-leather aggressive and fearless fighters. But as a whole they didn’t fight together as a unit worth a crap.

Probably didn’t matter much anyway. Their role was probably to die in droves and keep the attackers busy while Zou’s ‘Mech force walked down to where it was possible to wade the river and attack from the west. Some misplaced spark of professional pride kept Two Hand from giving up and letting this charade turn into a complete rout. After all, there was a slim chance his plan would work. Slimmer now that those stupid arse hover tankers had gone charging in rather than waiting like they were supposed to do. But he would prefer to end his fighting career with a victory rather than a loss so he would stick it out to the bitter end.

"Kraken, this is Two Hands," McGilly called on a different channel. "You in position yet?"

"Almost, maybe another five minutes," came the reply.

"Hurry your sorry hide then ‘cause Apona just crashed their line with her hover tanks. Attack as soon as you’re in position. I’ll throw what I have left at them to try to tie down their line from shifting after you attack."

"That’s a rodge," barked Kraken’s voice. "We’ll send these bozos packing all the way back to their DropShips!"

"You know it," agreed McGilly while secretly thinking to himself that it was more likely that Magestrix Emma Centrella would magically appear to kiss his hairy butt. Still, you had to admire Kraken’s enthusiasm even while questioning the man’s grip on reality. And speaking of grips on reality, what in the Nine Hells did Apona think she was doing?

Domi Apona gripped the control yoke cackling with glee as she gunned the 30 ton hover vehicle up the incline while tracers and lasers flew by all around her. This was almost as much fun as piloting a ‘Mech. Almost. Her copilot had bailed when she had first announced her intentions but the gunner was still in the copula hammering away at anything that caught his fancy with the quad mount of heavy machine guns. A single medium laser jutted forward just to the left of her position in the armored fighting vehicle and she had retained command of that weapon. Some sort of automated armored box was spraying pulsed laser fire at her so she jinked the tail out sideways a bit to line up her shot and let loose, scoring a jagged scar across the offending device. She sniffed as it survived to fire off another burst. Someone else would have to finish it off.

Her sensors were worth a Circinus I.O.U. chit - basically worthless. Whatever waited on the other side of the hill remained hidden from her although she was picking up two of those large ugly VTOLs that had been dribbling LRMs over the hill tops off to one side. She could have sworn she saw someone duck just before she blazed over a deep trench. The thought of some trooper wetting his pants in fright made her smile even wider. Then the 30 tonner crested the hill in the lead of the pack, going airborne with it’s momentum. For a few seconds there would be nothing she could do to affect the hover AFV’s direction of travel.

Those were her last seconds.

Apona’s hover tank was coming down on a direct heading for one of the Warder Rommel main battle tanks and it’s Condor Mk II escort. Both Warder tanks had excellent sensor equipment to track the advance up the opposite side of the hill and time to adjust their aim as their target traveled along a predictable ballistic arc straight towards them. The Rommel’s massive class 20 cannon practically shore away the left side of Apona’s ride while the Condor’s smaller high speed autocannon slammed numerous more shells into it. Lasers and short range missiles from the two Warder units pummeled the hurtling wreckage into flaming scrap metal. The other pirate hover tanks raced by faster than the defending pair could turn to track them but additional support had been vectored in.

A wild crisscrossing ground level dogfight ensued as the four blindingly fast Lightning hover tanks of the Warders chased the Yu-shan tanks hither and yon while the VTOLs swept in low to add their fire. As most of the combatants mounted forward firing weapons the engagement involved a large amount of driving at an enemy then suddenly veering off combined with sweeping "power slides" where both the rotor-borne and air cushion floaters fished out their rears to line up passing shots. With Apona killed the pirates had no cohesion and ended up racing off in different directions in pairs. Two of them managed to blunder into range of Chu-i Rokku’s Firestarter, the result being one flaming 20 ton pirate vehicle permanently embedded into a rock outcropping. One by one the pirate vehicles were slowly getting destroyed.

Two of the pirate tanks actually survived to reach the airfield only to find an UrbanMech backed by two more armored units and a hail of small arms fire from all sorts of directions. They turned to find a number of armed helicopters and three of those damnable fast Lightnings closing on them. Factoring into account the ranging shots fired by the obviously armed DropShips the pirate tank crews chose what appeared to be the most logical course of action. When a Warder Captain named Woods came on their comm line ordering them to shut down or be destroyed they grounded their skirts and powered down. Two Hand had gone on and on about how the invaders would hang any pirates they captured so everyone might as well fight to the end but the pirate hover crews figured they'd only been Yu-shan for about nine months now. Whatever beef these mercenaries had with Master Zou couldn’t be anything they had been involved with so they’d try their luck as prisoners.

In synchronized orbit overhead drifted the Leopard class aerospace carrier DropShip Suomi Phoenix. On the bridge Major Jeffery Tapiovarra was watching two separate plots on different screens. One showed the crazily maneuvering battle between the break through pirate hover vehicles and their Warder chasers. The other showed eight enemy blips off the coast of Emerald Island. Two had started to climb and were nearing low orbit. Presumable the two true AeroSpace fighters that had been sighted by the commando team at the city during their insertion weeks ago. The other six were conventional 20 ton fighter jets and it looked to Jeff’s eye that they had decided to attack.

"Red Five, this is DropShipCommand. You and Six ride your afterburners for orbit towards the Phoenix. We have two bandits inbound. Red Lead, take the rest of the wing out to engage the bandits southeast of you. They’ve refused to respond to our calls and have moved inside the no-fly zone on a threatening vector. All craft are green to engage."

Jeff paused to listen to the acknowledgements then switched to a different comm channel.

"Bifrost this is DSC. The nearby aircraft appear to be moving with hostile intent. I have cleared our fighters to engage and must maneuver the Phoenix for combat. The comm-sat is up but we won’t be able to scan the island for a little while."

"Understood Phoenix," came Captain Woods calm tones. "I will advice the other task leaders that air support is engaged. Good hunting Jeff."

"Thanks Osmo, we’ll clean this up as quick as we can," replied Tapiovarra. Jeff then turned his attention to his bridge crew. "Helm, rotate to a bearing 35 degrees portside of the northern pole and accelerate to one half gee at current orbital altitude. We’ll swing a slow loop to let Red Five catch up."

Jeff stared intently at the main plot as the numbers in the lower corner started to change to confirm what his senses told him. His DropShip was underway and changing course. It had been a long time since he had commanded a ship in actual combat. He prayed he hadn’t lost the knack of combing the two dimensional display with the number strings by each object to create a three-dee picture in his mind of the engagement. At the moment he was turning tail to the enemy blips climbing up after him to fly a lazy circle that would allow his support fighters to climb to equal altitude about the same time the enemy reached this area of orbit. In theory, he would be headed towards the enemy as the fighter flight arrived so that they made a "Y" vector with the enemy who would then be forced to commit to attacking one threat or split to cover both. Several minutes before that happened the fighters down low would clash over the ocean. Jeff knew he couldn’t affect that battle. The dogfight on the deck was all in Red One’s hands now.

Streaking away from the aerodrome Torr Fenris delighted in the roar of the Lucifer aerospace fighter. While he could think of a number of other craft he would rather be piloting into combat than the lumbering 65 ton ‘Luci’, Torr hadn’t figured he’d have any more chances with a hot pickle in his hands. The ‘up-or-out’ promotional system of the overstaffed Suomi aerospace defense forces had slipped him into early retirement. Thus as long as it flew and had guns, he was happy. The Luci would do.

"Red flight this is Red One," he radioed. "The Bandits are probably trying for a run on the DropShips. We out armor and out gun them by a factor of three but they’ve got speed and maneuverability on us. These old Lucis don’t take too kindly to drastic direction changes down in the thick like this. We’ll pull a Christmas bow, angels five with the knot at 10 klicks from the airfield. I’ll go starboard."

"I’m on your six," came the reply of his wingmate and lifemate Tairia Fenris.

"Roger One, Reds Three and Four rolling to port," replied Maurie Goldberg.

Had the four Lucifers headed directly towards the incoming enemy they’d get one close pass then be forced to bleed speed in high G turns that would let the faster attackers have a run on the airfield. Torr had instead split his group into pairs that would fly arcs in the shape of a standard one ribbon bow so that the pairs would be headed generally towards toward the same point - the ‘knot’ - but on a higher than and to either side of the enemy. It let the pirate fighters get closer to the aerodrome but gave the Warder ships a longer engagement envelope to fire within. With any luck the lead enemy pair would be their flight leader. Destroy the flight leader and perhaps the rest of them might roll out to dog fight in self preservation rather than continue an attack run that would leave them open to fire from the rear. If they stopped for a dogfight that would end the threat against the DropShips, the protection of which was Torr’s primary goal.

The pirate aircraft displayed more discipline than Torr had counted on when they pitched off course just a bit in different directions and fired long range air to air missiles in a pattern that targeted all four of his flight. A ploy to try to break his formation, but it wasn’t going to work.

"Everyone stay on course. Four and Five, target that pair closest to your side. We’ll take the lead element. Fire LRMs at will, employ standard counter measures but stay on vector. Those crates only carry four birds each. We can eat their missiles without problem with the armor a Luci carries."

Torr locked his targeting system on the lead pirate while his wife locked on the second of the pair. His own lock threat warning was beeping away at him but he ignored it. The Lucifer was built to withstand BattleMech and DropShip fire. A pair of small air missiles was little threat. He saw a small cloud of missiles flashing away from below him. Torr grinned in his helmet. His wife always seemed to get a positive missile lock faster than him. His bracket went red and he touched the fire stud and felt the large fighter shudder and lose a touch of airspeed as the twenty dual purpose long range missiles spat from his underbelly. Each of Red Flights Lucis has just spat 20 LRMs. Eighty missiles flying into their formation ought to put the fear of God into those bandits figured Torr.

The bandit missiles had been fired first. Torr had lost visual sight of them but knew it was about time for their arrival so he added a few quick but minor jukes to his flight path as his active jammers sought to confuse the incoming attack. Either by luck or electronics, one of the pair missed. The second bucked his Luci to the left a bit and knocked off a bit of armor from the bottom of his fuselage. A bit of rudder, a tad of directional thrust and a light touch on the stick brought him back to his desired heading.

As the Warder missiles closed in, two of the bandits broke formation and dove for the water. Radical last second maneuvering freed one of them but the other took almost half the missiles. It dipped, then started a slow climb trailing smoke. The lead pair elected to stay on course until the last instant then broke to the side hoping to change course quicker than the LRMs could react. Such a move required split second timing and superb flying skills to pull off. While the bandit leader proved to have those skills, his wing did not. The second craft reacted too late and made itself an easy target as it turned down and presented a wide target area just as the LRMs arrived. Pummeled all along it’s upper fuselage, one of the missiles found the bubble canopy of the cockpit and made the rest of the hits a moot point. The jet spiraled pilotlessly toward the water.

"Woo-hoo, splash me a bandit," called out Tiaria excitedly.

"Nice shooting Two," agreed Torr. "Three, take on the trailing pair. I’m on their lead."

Goldberg took Red Four with him in a slashing dive coming in on the flank of the two trailing bandits. As he closed they started jinking from side to side but didn’t break off their heading. He and his wing fired off a few long range shots with their large lasers but missed.

"Let’s tighten that shooting," Goldberg called to Red Four, "that missile dodger is going to be around on our tails soon."

Even though the enemy fighters were carrying bombs that slowed them a bit, the Lucifers still weren’t going to get the range closed enough for their small lasers. Goldberg resisted the urge to fire as his intended target slipped left. Then at the same interval it slipped right again - back under his waiting sights. Twin beams lanced out and dug angry furrows along the right wing and tail section of the bandit. The fuel in the wing ignited and blew the half of the lifting surface away spinning the craft over into a dive it would never recover from. A moment later he saw his wingmate score a hit along the engine port of the second fighter. It started to trail a little smoke but didn’t seem slowed.

"Switching to missiles," called out Red Four as Goldberg was waiting for his lasers to recycle. That was going to put a lot of heat into Four’s airframe but it wasn’t Goldberg’s call. "Firing," announced his wing.

The swarm of missiles had a shorter distance to travel this time. A barrel roll let a few streak past but the majority slammed into the light jet sending bits and pieces of it flying off into the air. The ejection seat blasted clear just before the craft turned into a fireball. Red Four slowed and dropped behind Three as it’s pilot Hrothgar had to lay off the thrusters a bit while his heat sinks labored to cleanse his craft of it’s dangerous heat build up.

"Damn, I’m taking hits," Hrothgar called from Red Four as autocannon fire climbed along one wing.

"Scissors move, break to your port Four," called Goldberg.

In the classic scissors move a fighter pair would head out on different angles than come back together and cross, repeating the criss-crossing if necessary to drive the enemy off the wingmate’s tail. But it took time to line up and complete. Goldberg hoped that his friend’s armor would hold up to the chewing fire of the bandit’s cannon long enough.

Meanwhile Torr was nose up and just sighting on the climbing bandit flight leader when the enemy ship dropped from sight. Spitting a curse he chopped his throttle and nosed over. The cheeky bastard had cut thrust and induced a stall. It went against all the textbook lessons on flying in combat about conserving your speed energy. However it caught both Torr and Tairia off guard and caused them to overshoot. They split and broke to opposite sides as the bandit regained control with full flaps and afterburner screaming at maximum. He was forced to accept the heading he had recovered in however, which put him flying towards the river rather than the airfield. The Lucifers were carrying more speed as they had started their turns so all three craft ended up circling back in towards each other at roughly the same time.

Staying down low to the ground, the bandit flight leader fixed course directly at what he had deduced was the Warder flight leader. Torr noticed the correction and divined the bandit’s intent.

"Let’s do it then," he muttered to himself as he closed on the pirate craft. Torr held off the LRMs, preferring to use his dual large lasers and follow up with the quartet of small lasers. Missiles could occasionally be dodged. But not well aimed lasers.

The two fighters screamed towards each other, the heavier Lucifer lashing out first with it’s large lasers. Autocannon tracer rounds and the flash of small lasers filled the short distance between the two as they raced together. Both craft bucked under hits, Torr reacting in surprise and slamming his stick hard to port as the bandit dumb fired his last pair of missile at point blank range. His Lucifer lost too much airspeed and dropped dangerously low to the ground, clipping the trees before the underpowered WAS 195 drive engine nudged the ship back to real flying speed. He started a slow, turning climb as he looked over his shoulder for his foe.

"He’s climbed to angel two, almost dead behind you One," supplied Tairia. "I can circle for a LRM shot on him."

Torr glanced at his sensor scope as he got his nose pointed back at the airfield. "Negative Two. There’s a smoker limping in towards the DropShip. I’ve got the Bandit King here. Go protect those DropShips."

Tairia pulled up and banked to the side for a better view. Torr was right. The bandit that had been injured in the first missile exchange was limping in towards the base unimpeded while the last remaining bandit was mixing it up in a tight furball with the other two Warder aerofighters. She didn’t like it but Torr was right as usual. As the only ship in position to intercept she’s have to leave her husband’s wing position for the moment.

"Roger," she replied. The Bandit lead was crossing below and off to her left now. She longed to nose over and finish him off but the enemy farther away to her right took precedence. A squeeze on the throttle handle dumped extra fuel into the afterburners and Tairia rocketed away from her husband’s duel with the enemy flight leader.

Torr brought his Luci around expecting to find his foe turning inside his own turn radius. Instead the bandit had put more distance between them and seemed to be looping back toward the aerodrome. Holding the banked turn until he had cut off the angle Torr switched his gun selection to missiles. The red light on his boards said that wasn’t going to happen. He must have taken an unlucky hit in that head on pass to the launcher system. It might be a false red - the Lucifer’s electronics were notoriously finicky - but he wouldn’t chance it. It seemed that the bandit had suffered notable damage as well. It was travelling slower than Torr knew it’s top speed to be.

He was coming in from about a forty five degree angle behind his target as the bandit closed on the largest DropShip - the practically unarmed civilian class one. Ground fire was lacing up at the bandit now as Torr closed in and fired, scoring a hit with one of his large lasers. Despite the hit and the shooting from both the grounded DropShips and support troops the bandit pressed closer. Friendly fire was now whizzing past Torr as he zoomed closer and pulled in almost behind the bandit. Torr was surprised that he was carrying more speed and was closing so rapidly on what should be the faster warbird. He could also tell that both craft were on a collision course with the grounded Mule civilian DropShip. His heat was pushing the warning bar from the large lasers and riding his afterburner for so long but he saw no real choice. He lashed out with all four small lasers, drilling holes in the light fighter but failing to break it apart or change it’s course.

Torr heard his wife yelling to pull out, but he could see that while the bandit was starting to slowly roll over it was going to slam into the DropShip directly ahead of them. He knew that the hostages had been loaded onto a DropShip for the duration of the counter attack in case they needed to be lifted from danger. The Mule transport. With only seconds to react he took the only course of action he could to ensure saving the grounded Mule. Rather than break off he held his afterburners on and aimed for the bandit fighter. Just before the collision he nosed up and extended his flaps. The heavily armored Lucifer slammed the much lighter fighter towards the ground in a shower of metal chunks that fell short of the DropShip. Torr fought the stick with both hands as his Luci slued back and forth. Several warning claxons were blaring in the cockpit and half his avionics had shorted out but he still had full power and the stick was responding even if the nose wanted to dive down.

"I got it…I got it," Torr was repeating into the comms as much to himself as to his wing-mates. Tairia tore her eyes away from the direction of his injured fighter long enough to finish firing a spread of LRMs at her target. She winged over as it exploded and dove towards her husband’s direction of travel.

"Torr, punch out! Punch Out!," she called frantically as she watched his ship dip one wing then the other as it rode it’s thrust and struggled to claw into the air. "Your left wing is shredded!"

The thought of bailing had crossed Torr’s mind. But these Lucifer’s had been retrofitted years back with an airframe stiffening that conflicted with the original ejection pod design. Chairs that fired on their own rockets had been installed later allowing an atmospheric ejection but he knew they had a nasty habit of catching the edge of the canopy and bashing the pilot’s head out. Added to the ejection seat issues was the fact he was too low for a proper ‘chute deployment. He decided to ride it out. Besides, he really did have the Luci just about back under control.

"Don’t worry Two, I’ve got it under contr…"

He never finished the sentence. A damaged part of the rear section gave way where the main thrust was vectored. Almost a quarter of the engine’s power was directed 90 degrees down, pushing the tail up and over in the blink of an eye. The battered Lucifer cartwheeled into the ground and exploded in a dramatic fireball as pieces of burning airframe were sent careening across the tarmac.

A heart broken wail of "nooooo" seemed to echo across the comm channels as tears blinded Tairia to the sight of her husband’s sudden funeral pyre.

Up in orbit a cold hand was gripping Tapiovarra’s guts as he listened to the comms and watched Torr’s IFF beacon wink out. He had been the one to sign on Torr and the others to come pilot for himself and the Warders. Another old friend and good man had been lost to some lousy bastard that wanted to be a bad ass pirate.

"Sir, the two bogeys are now four minutes from our engagement envelope," announced the gunnery officer from Jeff Tapiovarra’s left.

Jeff glanced at the tactical display. The two remaining enemy fighters had decided to make a run on his DropShip rather than tangle with the approaching pair of Warder fighters. Well that was just Jim-Dandy-Fine with Jeffery.

"Helm, come about nose on with our bogeys and accelerate to 1.5 G. I want a throat shot on the lead one, Gunnery stand by to fire on my mark. Helm, keep us in the slot."

The delta winged Leopard CV had both nose and wing mounted weaponry. There was a cone directly ahead of the ship where all those weapon could be concentrated on a single target. Jeff was going to run directly at the much smaller fighter craft and use his superior firepower to blow one of them into small bits. Then if his support fighters couldn’t run the other one down, he’d be more than happy to go blast to scrap the second one as well. It wouldn’t bring Torr back, but Torr wouldn’t be going into the eternal twilight without some more company.

Down close to the surface Captain Jennifer Laidie was heeling her VTOL around to point back towards the battle line where the Yu-shan ground units were assaulting the dug in Warder forces. Comm traffic was thick on several frequencies now, but she was listening primarily to the channel her company of helicopters was on and the main command channel that Bifrost coordinated from.

Her flight had gotten scattered in chasing the break through hovercraft. Captain Woods’ warning that enemy fighter craft were inbound had worried her as her VTOLs were not terribly effective air-to-air fighters. However the Warder aerospace fighters had been vectored in to keep the enemy fighters off of her and the airfield. An update from one of the comm-techs in the Bifrost trailer informed her that the Lt. Colonel’s ‘Mech forces had just made contact with the Yu-shan BattleMechs across the river. Meanwhile the east end of the defensive line was reporting movement while the center and west end were under general attack. GroundCommand was asking for fire support.

Jenny lined up on the east end of the battleline while reviewing the small tactical screen between her and the co-pilot. One of her ships had suffered moderate damage already. She selected a VTOL with a medic team aboard and two others with capture teams from the same air-lance to send towards the BattleMechs while sending the damaged one out of harm’s way until the airfield was reported secure from aircraft threat. The rest she sent to bolster the main line with their LRM fire. She’d go check out the reports of movement along the east flank herself as she was closest. Out the side window she caught a glimpse of the Catapult hunkered down behind a hill as two small loaders stuffed a fresh supply of missiles aboard. She could use some missiles herself as she was down to the last five salvos. Her Red Hawk was not designed for a quick missile reload however. She’d have to make do with what she had until the fighting slacked off.

"Bifrost, this is Hawk One. Can you patch me in to the section leader on the east end?" called Jenny.

"Roger that Hawk One," came the calm toned reply. "Use channel Red Seven-Oh-Niner. Sergeant Trayne is on the line."

"Thanks Bifrost." Jenny nodded to her flight engineer who was poised to cut in the new frequency. "Trayne, this is Captain Laidie. I’m coming up on your position in about three minutes from the southwest. What do you have Sergeant?"

"There’s no visual I D yet Captain, but we can hear motors in the trees across from our bunker positions at the edge of the foliage at the base of hill Sixteen. I don’t have much on the way of heavy weapons here. The top of the hill has a fallback point. You can probably see it."

"Roger that Sergeant. I see it."

"Can you come around and sweep across the opposite hillside to the north of that and try to get an eyeball on whatever they’re trying to push through those trees?"

"Can do Sergeant. I’m turning off to come around."

"Thanks Captain, I….bloody hell. Hansen get that VLAW trained on that APC. Dorey, get that SAW laying down some cover fire over…."

The line went quiet as the Sergeant cut off his microphone. The last part had been yelled, obviously instructions meant for his troops rather than for the VTOL pilot. She had heard the sounds of firing starting over the comms before he had cut out. So much for the recon dash.

Jenny keyed the internal comms. "Everyone standby for combat. We’re going into a hot zone." Then she slammed the throttles to maximum and chopped her turn off and headed straight for Sergeant Trayne’s bunker positions.

Trayne’s voice suddenly jumped back on the comm. "We’re pulling back into the trees Captain. They’ve got a heavy tank and a bunch of tracked APCs. We can’t stop them."

"Understood Sergeant. We’ll lay down some cover fire for you and report the situation to GroundCommand and Bifrost. Laidie Out." She had her flight engineer make the required comm calls as she popped up and gained some altitude to see if they could get an LRM lock on anything before zooming in close. "Zeke, you have all fire control from the nose. I’ll be busy flying. All gunners, fire at will."

"I’ve got a trace Skipper. Birds away," reported Zeke the nose gunner as she felt the VTOL shudder with the release of five long range missiles. Without waiting to see the results she dove down through the smoke of their exhaust trails and skirted just over the tree tops into the enemy advance. While her Red Hawk was as close to a flying tank as one could get it still had vulnerable points like the rotors. Flying unaided into the teeth of an assault was not wise but she didn’t see any other option. She hoped that she might surprise and confuse the pirates long enough for the Sergeant and his people to pull back to the secondary position.

"Multiple contacts, more of them to port than starboard," reported her co-pilot. "I can eyeball two APCs just breaking out into the clearing between the two hills about one o’clock."

"Rog that. Here we go," breathed Jenny as the sound of small arms fire pinging off the armor started up. The mix of excitement and fear buzzed at the base of her brain but she forced herself to keep her mind on her flying and her emotions in storage. Small icons lit up informing her that all three of the craft’s mini-guns were firing but she knew that already from the sound reverberating along the hull and the tracers leaping away from her craft. She saw their single medium laser lance out and burn across one of the APCs. "Keep on that one," she told the gunners as she rotated to keep her starboard and nose weapons in their shared firing arcs.

"Sweet Mary! It’s thick enough to walk on," her co-pilot said in shocked wonder as an uncountable number of tracer rounds filled the sky out the front windshield. A good number were finding the underbelly and sides of the huge helicopter.

"Anyone shooting at us isn’t shooting at the ground force," she observed through gritted teeth,

Zeke called out that he had gotten another APC just as the "Lady Hawk" shook violently from a big hit. Jenny fought with the controls to stop the spin that had been imparted on them as she called out for a damage report and if anyone had seen what had hit them.

"Armor’s averaging about 50% along the port side Skipper," replied the flight engineer. "Port gunner reports that a heavy vehicle hit us with a barrage of missiles. It probably can’t track it’s main gun on us but the collective fire from small arms and heavy MGs is mounting. We can’t take much more of this pounding."

Her copilot wouldn’t say anything out loud, but Jenny saw him glance at her with a look that said his opinion was clearly that it was time to go. She knew he was right too. They’d gained the Sergeant as much time as they could but if they stuck around much longer the Lady Hawk was going down. "What’s our best vector out of here?" she snapped.

"Bearing one-eighty-five," supplied the copilot. "No contacts are on that line."

"Then we’re outa here." She adjusted the pitch of the big blades to climb for altitude while pitching the nose down for forward speed. Just as got on the new heading a piercing bang followed by tinkling armored glass filled the flightdeck. The main view port on the copilot side was a spiderweb of fractures while the side window had actually been blown in. Her copilot was slumped forward but before she could do anything a gunner called out that missiles were inbound. She pitched as hard right as she dared and ejected an active counter measures pod. It might have helped some but her craft was still rocked by numerous hits along the flank and rear. An ominous clanking sound started coming from above and behind the cockpit where the main rotor drive linkage was.

"We took some internal damage," reported the engineer. "Power plant is still 100 percent but it sounds like we’ve got a problem with the main rotors. Heat’s building quick along the tail rotor drive. Probably lost the bearings at the main coupling. Hydraulic pressure is fading at about 5 cc’s per second. This bird’s only got a few minutes left of controlled flight Skipper!"

A back corner of her mind noted that none of the warning claxons were going off. Some of the electronics must have been lost as well. Struggling with a stick that wanted to rip her arms from their sockets she limped the big VTOL towards the fallback bunkers on hill Sixteen. Putting down in the middle of the clearing among the pirates wasn’t an appealing idea no matter how damaged her ship was.

"Mayday, Mayday," she called into the command frequency as she fought to keep the helicopter on the proper heading. "This is Hawk One and we’re going down. Repeat Hawk One is going down around Hill Sixteen. Enemy forces have pressed back the front line. Support required. We have injured on board. Medical aid is required. Mayday, this is Hawk One going down near Hill Sixteen."

The ship had a bad stutter vibrating through it now. She had no doubt that a main rotor was going to sheer off soon. Her ‘copter was also starting to try to spin on it’s axis as the rear rotor that provided counter torque thrust was loosing RPMs. The drive shaft was still spinning but it was doing so against frozen bearings that were scraping against the shaft. Except for the altimeter she didn’t seem to have a working flight instrument. Which brought a stray memory running through her head of something a flight instructor once told her. You don’t need functional instruments to crash. Seemed he was right about that much anyway.

"All hands secure for crash landing. Strap yourself to something back there," she commanded. There was a small team of troopers on board to act as a capture squad for enemy crews or pilots that bailed their vehicle. It seemed they had picked an unlucky ride today.

Laidie was trying to clear the hill top and set down on the far side for some protection from the advancing pirates. The VTOL was rattling and banging so bad she could no longer tell if she was still under fire or not. Her own armor indicators had gone dark and her flight engineer was busy trying to help the copilot or at least secure what Jenny now assumed was a body rather than a friend. Fifteen meters from the top a resounding bang announced that the tail rotor drive shaft had finally failed. As the VTOL started to pitch around she yanked back on the rotor release freeing the main lift rotors from the drive gears. Given several hundred meters of altitude it was possible to "auto-gyrate" a powerless helicopter to a moderately soft landing by picking up speed with a nose down fall then engaging the rotors so they started rotating by the force of the wind rushing by and acted as a spinning parachute of sorts.

Unfortunately, Jenny only had about thirty meters of clearance above ground level.

The flight engineer managed to call out that he had initiated the power plant’s auto-shut down routine before they slammed into the hillside. The breath was crushed out of Jenny in the crash. Her consciousness blinked out as the sight of the ground rushing towards her sparked white then blanked to darkness.

Vilho had powered up and pulled away from the missile loaders when Sergeant Trayne had called his pull back order. He topped Hill Fifteen just in time to see the smoking VTOL plunge out of sight following the mayday call. There wasn’t a huge fireball which was a good sign. It looked like it went down hard though.

"Bifrost, this is Kissa. Get me some telemetry and I can drop some suppression fire at the base of Sixteen."

In less then ten seconds data was popping up on his information feed giving him range and bearing figures based on firing from a point a dozen meters ahead of his current position. Steeling himself for the heat spike he punched in the data parameters for the indirect fire changing the targeting reticule on his HUD to a triangle shape that he matched within a slightly larger triangle painted by his HUD up in the sky then let lose with a barrage of missiles when he moved to the correct firing position. They streaked over the next hill ridge in a high arc that would bring them down in the trees and brush that ran about a quarter of the way up the opposite slope.

Running at full speed after firing both launch racks stretched the old style cooling system of the Catapult but he was still operating within safety norms. He cut left and came across the lower part of Hill Sixteen rather than charging for the top which would have cost him speed in the climb. This brought him to where he could see a large tracked vehicle he didn’t recognize lumbering through some brush, it’s turreted cannon flashing with fire directed at the downed VTOL. Vilho locked his targeting system on it while firing a pair of medium lasers at an armored personnel carrier that was along his line of sight. The beams cored it and whatever damage he had caused was enough to convince the crew to bail. He had just gotten a lock tone from the Artemis fire control system of the LRM launchers when the heavy tank pivoted and fired a small swarm of missiles at him.

Vilho mashed down on his own fire button, sending his own missiles flying out at what was close to minimum range. He then started to twist to present his undamaged side as he wondered why there had been no warning tone for the enemy targeting lock. The best radar frequencies for short or long range missile use where well known. While the Siamese Cat’s heat sinks and lasers might be old tech, it’s electronics were state of the art. He should have gotten a warning of the tracking bands. Then he was too busy riding out multiple missile hits to worry about warning buzzers. What seemed like an awfully high number of missiles had been fired at him but most had slammed into the hill behind him. A few had scored hits and rattled his BattleMech.

He backpedaled up the hill, letting the heat sinks flush out built up heat and opening the distance a bit. The tank kept churning towards him which he found mildly surprising. The brief impression he’d gotten as the enemy missiles flashed in was that they were the longer bodied long range types like his. He would expect the vehicle to want to keep the range open. Vilho had not planned on closing as his Catapult had a pair of boxy missile launchers rather than arms suitable for punching. But a maxim of combat was to do what your enemy does not want you to do. He couldn’t punch, but he could kick. Plus he had a quarter of medium lasers. Changing tactics he charged across the hill firing one of the LRM 15 launchers just as he was shifting momentum from backwards to forwards. The light cannon of the tank barked a string of shells his way but it was a clean miss as more of his missiles flaked armor from the pirate tank.

As he closed to one side he saw that pirate troops were charging the helicopter on foot as a small band of defenders came down from shallow fox holes above the VTOL. Vilho knew that the reserve troops here were a mix of the rescued military hostages that wanted a place on the line and Warder home troopers that usually served as the base garrison. It was going to be an ugly close quarters melee but there was nothing he could do about it from atop his 65 ton steed. His missiles would cause casualties on both sides and ‘Mech grade lasers really couldn’t be targeted at individuals. They were something one fired at entire clumps of men. Besides, his personal combat dance partner was churning along on treads towards him. Silently wishing his comrades good fortune, Vilho turned his full attention to the tank before him.

He was close enough now to determine that it had three separate launchers grafted onto the main body. The undercarriage looked like it was an old Von Luckner 75 ton heavy tank but the turret and weapon mounts looked to be rough, hand crafted additions. As the standard Von Luckner carried a massive Class 20 autocannon Vilho was glad for the home-grown mutations. It appeared to mount a small Class 5 cannon, maybe something in the 60 to 75 mm range. Those missile pods didn’t look like anything he’d ever seen before though. As they were fixed to fire forward he cut hard to one side trying to make it out of their firing arc. Whether through luck, skill, or bad shooting on the pirate’s part Vilho managed to avoid all three salvos of missiles. The back of him mind noted that they didn’t seem to track after him in flight, making them some sort of heavy dumbfire missile.

Having come inside his own missile engagement envelope Vikho switched his active weapon group to lasers and linked them all to fire together. He would pay for it in heat, but other than some slowing as the myomer muscles that propelled the great machine slacked from the temperature rise he shouldn’t be in much trouble as he was too close for the LRM systems anyway. Centering the targeting reticule on the middle of the turret he let lose on the run. All four lasers hit, two burning into the turret while two melted armor from the upper deck plates.

Vilho concentrated on keeping his breathing even and steady in the now sauna like cockpit. The odd sensation caused by the cooling vest of cold worms slithering over him was welcome inside his oven of a control cabin. A glance at his damage indicators warned him that it was entirely possible that the next hits he took might find internal structure. His armor was worn down under 20% in a number of places. Despite losing a bit of speed he was now almost on top of the enemy unit. The turret seemed to be out of commission - either frozen in place or perhaps the crew was incapacitated. Now the heavy tank was trying to back away but Vilho realized that something must have gone wrong with the transmission as it was rotating in place away from him as one set of treads churned up soil while those on the opposite side remained stubbornly locked.

He was almost standing next to it when the green icon told him the lasers had recycled. Two hatches had popped open as he was switching to paired laser fire to manage his internal heat levels. As the Catapult had a forward jutting cockpit with many large transpara-armor sheets Vilho was able to look down and easily see a crewmen from the tank frantically trying to pull a badly burned comrade from their doomed machine. As the fearful face looked up at the looming BattleMech Vilho could actually read the panic and fear on the young fellow’s face. Vilho’s finger touched lightly upon a fire stud as the cross hairs lay over the hatch area. A twitch more pressure and two more pirates would leave this universe forever.

Vilho eased his hand off the targeting joystick. He wanted these Yu-shan out of business as much as anyone else in his unit. But he had discovered that his heart no longer seemed capable of carrying hatred after his bout with his own fears. Whatever he had found in himself that had allowed him to face his own mortality and climb back into a BattleMech cockpit had adjusted how he viewed the mortality of others. Those two guys were finished fighting- one of them probably past surviving anyway. There was no honor, nor any practical purpose, that Vilho could find in melting the pair of them. He turned his nose to point uphill where an infantry melee raged around the downed VTOL leaving a quivering pirate tanker alive with a burned comrade clutched protectively in his arms.

Jennifer Laidie woke as she started coughing. Kyle her flight engineer was shaking her shoulder and calling her name. Wiping at a wetness on her forehead her hand came away with a trickle of blood from a shallow cut. Before she found her voice a massive rolling thunder of explosions sounded nearby actually shaking the ground her wrecked craft lay on.

"Not my best landing," she wheezed. "How’s Mark….."

Her sentence trailed off as she saw that her copilot was obviously dead in his seat.

"Damn," she spat. He’d been her copilot for over three years. She knew she was still dazed somewhat but she also knew they couldn’t stay in the Lady Hawk. Jenny struggled out of her seat harness. "Go aft and get everyone whose not moving, moving. We gotta get out of this hunk ASAP."

"On it Skipper," nodded Kyle as he turned and disappeared out the cabin hatchway.

Jenny had a bad feeling about what she was going to find but she knew she had to look. There was an access hatch just behind the pilot seats for the nose gunner who sat below and forward of the pilots in his own small capsule area. She managed to pry it open but there wasn’t an open area beyond the hatch anymore. They had come in hard nose first. "Oh Zeke, you too," she sighed heavily. The downed VTOL rocked as several autocannon hits raked across the armor. For the first time she became aware of the rattle and whine of small arms fire from seemingly everywhere outside her ship. How she had not noticed it at first she hadn’t a clue. She pulled her pistol from it’s holster and crawled aft through the cabin exit to see what kind of mess lay in the rear of her ship.

The ship was listing to one side but was otherwise intact and upright. Captain Laidie discovered that both of her side gunners were still alive although one had a broken arm. The four person capture team of troopers from First Platoon had not only escaped unscathed, they had already exited the craft and were laying down fire against the advancing enemy from either end. Gallagher, her port side gunner, was holding a hand-comm unit the First Platoon team leader had given him.

"Hey Skip, the grunts say we’re about to be over-run. They could use some help."

His voice was pitched a little higher than usual, but otherwise amazingly casual sounding to her. The gunners had laser carbines as back up weapons. She and her Kyle their pistols. It was better than nothing. "Let’s get out there and help them then. You and Kyle take the tail. Mills and I will head for the nose." Suiting action to words, she checked the safety on her pistol and led the way out the side door.

It was much louder outside. She’d only made it a few steps to her right when a number of figures ran around the nose as the Warder troopers up there fell back while firing. Jenny brought her pistol up and fired it at a living target for the first time in her life, squeezing off two shots before a small explosion of some sort behind her knocked her off her feet. With ears ringing and blurred vision from eyes tearing against an acrid smoke she struggled to her feet. She could tell the Warder ground troopers from the pirates by the bulky body armor the troopers wore. Seeing someone pointing a rifle at a downed armored figure she fired again, making her target spin with the hit. Then someone literally bumped into her from behind back to back and she spun just in time to reflexively grab at the barrel of a submachine gun that was coming around towards her head. The pirate on the other end of the gun was a brute of a man who locked a leg behind hers and toppled the two of them, crushing most of the breath out of her as he came down on top of her.

Jenny had lost her pistol in the fall and used both hands to try to wrench the sub-M away but her opponent had greater strength. Despite her pushing and yanking, the barrel moved directly over her face as the pirate straddled her on his knees. She looked up into his face, locking eyes with the man. It struck her that she was truly peering into evil, pitiless eyes. Heaving with all her might she tried to buck him off but he easily adjusted to her attempt and kept her pinned. An ugly grin started to form on his lips as his weapon hovered a finger’s width over the bridge of her nose and she closed her eyes. Spent, exhausted, nauseous; she actually relaxed in that last instant before he would pull the trigger. She thought a silent apology at her crew for getting them all killed.

The booming report of a gun firing close to her face stunned her as wet chunks blew out around her head.

Jenny sucked in another breath as the weight on her chest fell off to one side. She wiped at the gore that had splattered her, the ringing in her ears practically drowning out all other sounds. A hand grabbed her flight suit by the shoulder and pulled her up. That resounding crash sounded again right above her. She finally managed to wipe the blood and brain tissue from her eyes enough to see. A man in one of the standard Warder infantry outfits was crouching over her.

"You injured Ma’am?" asked a thick accent she had a little trouble understanding.

"I…uh….no….I don’t think so," she stammered as her brain tried to anchor itself back into the action around her.

"Close one, I thought he’a got ya afore I brained him with me shoots-gun," grinned the unshaved face. "You’re clear a’now Ma’am. Gotta score me some more pah-rates."

The infantryman headed off towards the rear of the nearby VTOL where it looked like extra Warder troopers had appeared from somewhere and where engaged in actual hand to hand combat with the pirates. Bodies swirled in combat around her as she simply knelt there on hands and knees gasping for air and trying to pull herself together. She felt like she was going to puke. Assuming no one shot her or stabbed her before she had the chance.

Thudding vibrations started to shake the ground. She looked up to see the pitted and burned form of a BattleMech striding towards the fight. Jenny had seen many BattleMechs many times before. But being on her knees, cradling the pistol that the trooper must have returned to her without her really noticing in the middle of a confusing firefight made the looming ‘Mech a fear inspiring sight as it plodded forward. Luckily it was on her side. Despite the fact that rational thought indicated that the lurking Catapult couldn’t fire into the close press of bodies without killing fighters from both sides, the sheer intimidation of the scarred war machine hovering over them was enough to bring the struggle to a close as the remaining pirates fled or surrendered.

"Skip? Hey Skipper? Captain Laidie…are you okay Ma’am," asked a voice from behind her.

She turned to find Kyle standing behind her. He was holding a quick-heal bandage to a bloody wound on his leg. Behind him she could see both Gallagher and Mills coming closer. Through some miracle it seemed that she hadn’t lost any more of her crew.

"I’m a little banged up and shaky," she admitted as she climbed to her feet. "You okay?"

"Someone stabbed me in the leg but one of the troopers gave me his field kit and said it didn’t look too bad. I can stand on it anyway." He turned and glanced back at the wreckage behind them. "I don’t think ol’ Lady Hawk will see the sky again though."

With the gunner’s help she climbed back to her feet. The fear and confusion were gone now, replaced with a cold numbness and the knowledge that she still had a job to do.

"No, she’s pretty much done for," agreed Jenny. Her gaze swept over the human wreckage around them. "But it’s just a machine Kyle. Just a machine. Come on, let’s see if we can find a field comm and get back in touch with Bifrost or GroundCommand. I still have a VTOL company to run even if I lost my own ship."

To the west along the defense line Two Guns McGill clutched a bag of grenades as the Firestarter BattleMech rumbled closer to his hiding spot. For a brief moment he had thought that his forces might actually push the Warders back when they started to roll up the end flank. Then the Warders had brought forward several armored units on his people. Shortly after that this damnable Firestarter that had once been part of the pirate defenses had come over the lines and pressed a solo atatck. Whoever was piloting it seemed to take almost inhuman glee in running down groups of fighters and burning or machine gunning them to death. Two Guns had lost his radio a while back and had no idea whatever had happened to the eastern attack group or the hovertanks that had broken through earlier. He doubted the news would have been good.

Who knew what Zou and his BattleMechs were up to now? Presumably the invaders had brought their own ‘Mechs to counter Zou’s. Only two merc ‘Mechs had been on this line. But it was two too many for Two Hand’s light force. It was basically over on this side of the river. His troops were scattered and uncoordinated. Heavy casualties would lead to mass surrender if it hadn’t started happening already. There really was only one thing left to take care of. Make sure that he went down like the living legend he knew himself to be.

That Firestarter was close enough now. He dropped a primed grenade into the sack then stood and charged, counting to himself and throwing it at the count of five. The bag fell short of the ‘Mech’s foot and probably wouldn’t have dented the armor anyway. The blasts were close enough to knock him to his knees as he struggled out his pair of machine pistols and raised them to fire in the general area of the BattleMech’s cockpit. His last sight would be the underside of a huge metal foot coming down towards him. The few pirates left in the vicinity would later note that he looked up at that foot and kept firing in defiance all the way to the end.

The battles to the north and above the air field were over with the invading mercenaries the victors. To the west BattleMechs were clashing to settle the issue of who would ultimately control the island. Yu-shan or Warder.

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