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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[]

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Camelot BattleMech

Chapter 2: A Wager with the Clans[]

DropShip Baltic Serenade
Review Board Office (AKA Mess Hall 3A)
Outbound from Hamano
08 March 3052

Silence had momentarily settled while the three mercenaries took a brief moment to study the salvage tables displayed on the computers before them. As the three ranking officers of their small unit they comprised both the official Review Board and the unofficial brain trust of the Suomi Warders. Several days had passed since their battle against corporate raiders / pirates on a desert island of the world Hamano. The result was victory, but the entire affair had been waged under unusual circumstances and with a cost. The Warders had lost most of their heavy tank lance, one of their hovertanks, several infantrymen and one MechWarrior to psychological rather than physical damage. For their efforts they had earned a date with the ComStar Review Board for defying the planetary Military Governor and an under-the-table payment of questionable legality. This all stemmed from choosing to defend a city from attack rather than simply abandoning it to it’s fate.

Fairly soon their DropShip would link up with a waiting JumpShip and leave the star system. That meant a period of zero gee loomed ahead and they were eager to get the necessary meetings completed while the DropShip was still under thrust and providing gravity. Before the scheduled meetings however, they needed to complete their internal review process. By accord they had started with the routine stuff first and had cleared most of that away already. All three knew that more weighty issues lurked ahead.

Lieutenant First Class Gracie Aukland was the first to push herself away from studying the small screen. A tall woman of moderate build, at first glance many might dismiss her as somewhat plain and ordinary. A closer look would notice the posture and bearing of a well trained MechWarrior and that her eyes held more experience that one might expect of a young woman not yet turned thirty. In point of fact, she was the top gun of the Warders and was the lance leader of their BattleMech force. As even back in her academy days she had been more inclined to action than study the report really didn’t hold her attention much. The unit was well funded and could buy what it needed once they finally reached Outreach. As she saw it the only real salvage question was the Commando they had captured intact. As a rule the Warders did not employ light ‘Mechs and would ordinarily sell or trade it at first opportunity. But this particular ‘Mech had come courtesy of a young pilot that had run from his pirate companions on Hamano and surrendered to the Warders at first opportunity. There was some question in her mind weather the Commando was rightfully the Warders’ or the pilot’s.

Captain Osmo Woods noticed that the Lieutenant had apparently satisfied herself with the Chief Tech’s report. When the Captain had first joined the Warders some two years ago Aukland had been the executive officer. Having some eight years more of both age and military experience than her, that experience had told him to expect problems when he was hired as the new Exec. Not only had he bumped her from second in command, he wasn’t even a MechWarrior. Osmo was trained for intelligence and logistics. He was as also late of the Wolf’s Dragoons- a premier mercenary army of the Inner Sphere that was occasionally viewed as over-proud by other units – and he was an "off-worlder" in a unit that was comprised mostly of people from the same continent of the same planet. The denizens of the planet Sampsa (on which Suomi was both a continent and city) were mainly of Scandinavian, Australian / Kiwi, and ancient North American decent and provided a wide enough gene pool that his dark skin didn’t single him out. But the slight difference in how he pronounced many worlds and the lack of a warrior’s leuko knife hanging from his belt attested to his different cultural origin. To his surprise however, Aukland had been very pleased to hand over to him the daily details and long range planning required to run even a small military unit. She seemed very content to focus on training her BattleMech lance to be the best unit it could be. In fact, they made a complementary team. Gracie had a natural, empathic ability to easily interact with others on a personal level that countered his tendency toward focusing on hardware and information. Of course she had lately made a big mistake in the empathy area that could have cost her lance dearly – but dealing with the results was up to their CO, Major Linna. While Osmo had never been the type to shirk a problem, in this case he was glad that dealing with Lieutenant Rajanen wasn’t directly his concern.

Sensing that the other two were done with the data and were now simply waiting for him, Major John Linna rubbed at his eyes and leaned back in his chair. In truth, his mind hadn’t been thinking about salvage anyway. It had already skipped ahead to the other decisions and problems. John had the trim build of someone that works regularly at staying in shape and close cropped sandy brown hair over blues eyes with a face that he always had felt looked maybe five years older than his 27 years. When weighty matters rested upon his shoulders it was definitely true. During lighter moments the twinkle in his eye and his impish grin recast him as the young academy cadet he was before personal tragedy struck. Right now he definitely looked older than his years though Gracie. From an objective view they had come away from their last engagement both as winners and in pretty good shape. But she knew John always took it hard when their people got killed. In 31st century combat even the winners took losses. Then there were still the long range implications of the mess they had stepped into that she had willfully ignored so far but John had not.

"O.K. people," sighed John, "it’s about time we got down to the more weighty issues. We have several appointments due to come in that door pretty soon. As to the salvage report most of it is cut and dried. We only had a small amount of time to collect what we could before the DCMS tried to arrest us for protecting their planet so the assorted weapons and ‘Mech parts just go into stores. The Flashman we can decide later to keep or sell but unless anyone has a reason to get it up and running right away I’ll tell Sergeant Harding that it’s last on the priority list."

Captain Woods signaled that he had something to add. John nodded to give him the floor.

"I’d like to have Sergeant Harding go over that Flashman closely and pull the core and frame numbers. The Flashman is a moderately rare ‘Mech and most of them are in ComStar hands. Four of them together was unusual. That might be a mistake by our unknown corporate raiders we can follow up on once we hit a planet with the proper information access."

John shrugged. "Sounds good to me. Anything else on the Flashman?" He paused to see if either officer had anything to add, but as neither did he continued on. "Obviously, the main question is the Commando. There’s no way to trace it’s origin as the tech team says it’s been around for quite a while and has changed hands often based on the various replacement parts inside. It seems to have belonged collectively to the pirates who let Jason Nellson pilot it for them that first and last time. Now both Jason and the Commando are in our hands. The status of both is at question at the moment."

Aukland leaned forward and chimed in. "I know that might makes right and all, but I say we let the boy keep it. He earned the right to pilot it, never actually used it to hurt anyone, and it’s about the only thing he has to his name. Besides, we need it as much as a boomerang needs a return flight plan."

Woods rubbed at his chin absently as he gave his opinion. "Well, as a legal technicality it could be argued he stole it. And although he did defect at first opportunity, he did walk it out of their DropShip and onto Hamano at the direction of the raider forces. By commonly accepted law and custom it’s the Warders if we want to claim it. After all, even in it’s current condition it is worth at least a couple of million C-bills on the open market."

"True", admitted John, "but I’m inclined to agree with Gracie on this one. A couple million C-Bills doesn’t really mean that much to the Warders in the long run but represent Jason’s entire net worth."

Woods smiled to himself as he realized that even after two years he often forgot that money woes were one thing the Warders never had. With their CO being the wealthy CEO of an inter-planetary electronics and weapons conglomerate he could afford to give away a beat up Commando. Besides, they had the under-the-table contract payment of the local Hamano lord still sitting in locked boxes in the vehicle hold. They also had that Lord’s son aboard as a newly minted MechWarrior member of the Warders. When the Combine Warlord running roughshod over Hamano let up or was removed from office then Basem would take whatever experience he gained from the Warders back to his homeworld to serve it. From the minimal amount of contact Woods had had with Lt. Basem Dhafar, the Captain was sure that Basem would serve his home well some day.

"I’ll place it in the official log report to the ComStar Review Board then," replied the Captain. "It is our opinion that Jason Nellson retains full claim to that Commando. There is still the matter of his application to join the Warders. On one hand, he’s the only link we have to your sister. He grew up among spacers that plied the Periphery so presumably he knows a good deal about how the outer reaches operate that might prove useful when we go to find Holly. On the other hand, he’s totally unblooded as a MechWarrior and I have my reservations about anybody that abandons their unit like he did. Even if they were pirates."

That the Warders would go in search of their CO’s long lost sister was not in doubt. The question had always been ‘when’, not ‘if’. The entire operation would be totally volunteer of course. John would not ask anyone to directly risk their lives for his personal crusade. But it wasn’t likely that any active Warders would sit such a mission out. They’d all voted to defend a city against superior numbers even though the DC Military Governor had effectively cancelled their contract. Why would they choose not to help their CO get his sister back?

"What do you think?" John asked Gracie.

"He certainly is an enthusiastic eager beaver," smiled the Lieutenant. "He’s spent most of the last three days in our simulators or pestering the techs in the ‘Mech bay. Occasionally he takes time out to eat and sleep but that’s about it. I’ve studied his sim results. He’s a fair hand as a pilot but a substandard shot. Although his reactions are quick as a field mouse he shows little grasp of anything beyond basic tactics and for all his love of ‘Mechs doesn’t know a Jenner from an Atlas. He learns quick and practically absorbs any advice or instruction anyone is willing to toss him. Oddly enough, Lawman – usually our resident lone wolf – seems to have taken a liking to him and has been gently prodding Jason along toward better tactical choices. As a final curiosity, Jason excels at the spatial tests that usually come last in the training order. He has no trouble at all navigating the tunnel or space structure scenarios and adjusted for zero gee effortlessly. Comes from life as a spacer and cargo loader I guess. I’m not sure exactly how he’d fit in but I’d be inclined to accept him as a trainee-cadet type Warrior. If we decide to invent such a position that is."

John looked at the schedule file. Jason had a time slot later on. "Well, it looks like he’s made an appointment to pitch his case personally so I’ll hold off until I hear what he has to say. What’s your final analysis of the pirate-raider connection Osmo?"

The Captain took a moment to order his thoughts.

"From the physical evidence and debriefing Mr. Nellson it seems clear that the brains behind the raiding campaign were using the pirates as a cover and expendable strike force. First there’s the rigged ejection chairs. The pirates didn’t know about them and their only purpose could have been to keep any pirates from being captured alive. When our mystery leaders realized that the remaining pirate was returning they blew the last two cockpits by remote control. We assume that they do not know that Jason was already out of his ‘Mech but we have no way to be certain at this time.

"From what Jason knew it seems that the background went like this. Malkite was a small time pirate with a few ‘Mech buddies raiding along the bottom of the barrel. A contract agent currently known to us only as "Calvin" put Malkite together with a few other MechWarriors and some soft targets. When the rat trap DropShip Malkite was using suffered massive drive failure this Calvin suddenly came up with the DropShip we saw on Hamano. Jason Nellson came into the picture shortly after that to pilot one of two captured ‘Mechs from an earlier raid. There was little contact between the ship crew and the Pirates. Calvin just told them when to meet the DropShip and what their share was going to be. For the Hamano raid Malkite was told there would be more resistance than usual so a mercenary force had been hired to engage the Combine troops while the pirates took care of some scruffy mercs. That would be us of course. The added MechWarriors kept totally to themselves, only used ‘Tan One’ through ‘Tan Eight’ as names around the pirates and wore neither rank or name badges. They did wear a unit patch of a black lightning bolt within a black circle. All the "Tan" mercenaries got picked up and left with the DropShip. All of the pirates except Jason got dead."

"Any pattern to the targets?" asked John.

"Not in the early going except being lightly defended. The last five raids all targeted Combine electronics manufacturing facilities. Except for Jeddah, all the plants were destroyed. Months or years will be required to refit them"

"O.K., good job. We’ll just have to see what kind of investigation we can start once we make Outreach."

Gracie checked the schedule. The survivors of the Rough Riders were due soon. Before that was other business. She dreaded broaching the subject but it had to be done. Besides, she was mostly responsible.

"What about Vilho?" she asked quietly.

Linna frowned to himself and Woods suddenly got very interested in his computer screen. Lieutenant Junior Grade Vilho Rajanen had been Gracie’s wingman and the lance’s scout MechWarrior. Back before they all shipped for Hamano Vilho had secretly wed a girl from a pacifistic religion and had later started having reoccurring nightmares about dying in a cockpit hit. During their last action a freak laser hit had actually melted away the armored transparent material of his forward viewport. He was physically unharmed but something inside snapped. Screaming incoherently he had fired repeatedly on his attacker until well after it had been disabled. In fact, they had been worried that if he didn’t stop blasting it he was going to cause the reactor inside the enemy ‘Mech to go critical and explode. As his ‘Mech was only 10 meters away such a blast would have been fatal for him and not very good for the surrounding buildings either. Finally Gracie had managed to talk him into calming down. It turned out that she had known about both the marriage and the nightmares but had reported neither at her wingman’s request to give him time to "work things out".

Osmo hadn’t been privy to the discussion between his CO and the lance leader that had occurred after they lifted from the planet. In the Dragoons Aukland would have lost her lance position at minimum and maybe her commission. But she and the CO went way back – as in preteen family friends. She had also been an upper-classman when John started at the Carl Gustav Mannerheim Academy. Rumors even romantically linked them for a short time after John’s divorce. But the most telling link between them was that they had both lost their parents during the attack on the JumpShip Starcade. Unlike John, Gracie had not actually been on board the Starcade. Also, her sibling had been wounded rather than taken as John’s sister had. While the interaction between John and Gracie had been cooler than usual for the past few days it was obvious that she still held his trust.

"I suppose we can’t ignore him forever," agreed John. "Doctor Sengali examined Vilho yesterday. Physically Vihlo is fine. But emotionally….something is obviously wrong. The Doc’s the best trauma surgeon around but even he admits he’s not well trained for psych. Vilho is showing classic Traumatic Stress symptoms according to Sengali. He gets the shakes just getting into a sim pod and his scenario scores are terrible now. I’m afraid I just can’t see leaving him on the active roster. Basem can take his place for now. As soon as we get someplace with a real psychologist we’ll have Vilho diagnosed. If he can’t – or won’t – pilot a BattleMech again then I’ll offer him an early termination of his contract on a medical discharge. If he wants to do something else, then we’ll see what can be worked out."

John looked like he had just swallowed something very sour now that he finally officially pulled Vilho from active duty. It seemed to Woods that Gracie wanted to say something but was holding back. But it was clearly the right course of action and if the Lieutenant couldn’t bring herself to support the CO he certainly could.

"It’s the best decision, Major. The Vulcan belongs to the Warders and Lieutenant Dhafar has proven good with it in sims. Neither one of you should blame yourselves about this. Sometimes people just snap. I’ve seen it before and I’m afraid I’ll see it again. At least no one got killed and he’s basically alright. I’ll alert the support people and tell Basem and Vilho…"

"No" interrupted Gracie. "My lance, my mess, my job. I’ll tell them ."

Woods glanced at his CO to see what John had to say on the matter. The Major nodded his head to the XO in acceptance of Gracie’s wishes on the matter.

"Well then," continued Woods after the interruption, "as they’ll be here in a few minutes it’s time to discuss the Rough Rider lance."

The Rough Riders were the lance of Star Destroyer tanks that had had gallantly held until reinforcements arrived. The action had decimated the lance however. Only half of original twelve crewmen survived and only one tank – the ‘Tin Can’ - had "survived". But it was so damaged that it would be cheaper to replace it than repair it. The contract that the soldiers of the Suomi Warders signed allowed for a lance or platoon to be disbanded and the individual’s term of duty considered complete if it suffered 50% or greater losses in a campaign.

"I take it we’re still in agreement from our earlier discussion?" asked John.

Both of the others nodded agreement. All three had agreed that leaving Hamano marked the end of the "campaign" and thus the surviving Riders now qualified. They had also agreed about the request of the Rider’s lance leader – First Lieutenant Ben Runeberg.

"Then I adjourn this Review Board …. for all of twenty minutes," John told them. "We reconvene then for our appointments with the Rough Riders and Jason Nellson."

"At ease," John told the six tankers before him. "Take a seat everyone. To start, I want to once again express my sympathy for your lost lance mates. We’ll all miss them. Their bravery will not be forgotten by us or Warders to come. In fact, our engagement in Jeddah has been named the Rough Rider’s Battle in the Warders’ Log.

"Lieutenant Runeberg, I have read your request and the Review Board agrees with me in denying it. You did absolutely nothing in error and are not at fault for your lance’s losses. You may not Resign in Disgrace and break your contract early. Ben, you got hammered because we were forced to use your tanks for a role they weren’t designed for. All of you performed with distinction and your dossiers have been so noted. Now Captain Woods will go over the Survivor’s Clause with you."

As Woods prepared to speak John noticed that Runeberg’s eyes were squeezed shut. The three tankers seated close enough to reach him all had reassuring hands resting on his shoulders. John sensed that their unit might be broken but their cohesiveness as a team remained. But what of their fighting spirit? Had their losses ground out that elusive quality from the Lieutenant and his tankers?

"As you should be aware, any organic force grouping that suffers 50% or greater losses may elect to have their contracts Closed with Honor at the end of the campaign. As the Hamano contract has expired, we deem the campaign closed and the Rough Riders now qualify. Those that wish to leave will also be eligible for help from our Civilian Employment Placement Center.

"The Major has already spoken of your bravery. Your unit has already given more than it’s share to the Warders. We will support any individual decision made. You have our thanks and will be placed on light duty until we finally reach home. You can exercise your Survivor clause at any time during the trip home so there’s no need to rush your decision."

Lieutenant Runeberg opened his mouth to respond but no sound came out. Sergeant Kay stood to speak for her fellow survivors.

"We’re behind the L-T here one hundred percent Sirs," she told the officer panel. "Thanks for not letting him blame himself. We’ll talk it over Sirs, but I think we’ll be shopping for new tanks once we hit Outreach."

John smiled at the resiliency of the tanker Sergeant. "In that case it’s a good thing I have an excellent credit rating. Remember, the Warders’ always take care of their own. Either way- stay or leave- I’ll see that you’re covered. I know it’s hard to be proud when you lose friends but you all have every reason to be proud of yourselves. Everyone’s dismissed."

That had gone more or less as expected Woods thought to himself. The next meeting was another matter. Despite the small amount of time they’d worked together, Osmo could usually tell what John was going to decide even before the Major himself knew. But as to this Jason kid Osmo had no idea. Woods glanced at his watch. In ten more minutes they’d all know the outcome.

Down on the exercise deck Lieutenant First Class Sven Jorgenson was finishing the last few minutes of his timed run on the treadmill. Generations of Nordic ancestry had resulted in blond hair, blue eyes and fair features on a powerful frame that could easily be imagined as belonging to an ancient Viking warrior. Although Viking in visage, in temperament Sven "Lawman" Jorgenson was anything but a berserker.. His Zen-like calmness and easy, friendly humor were well known and respected by his fellow Warders. Sven had served with an experimental police-rescue unit that had been equipped with specialized light ‘Mechs until it was cancelled as too expensive. The concept of a civilian security / rescue force such as the ancient Coast Guard of North America had long been lost to most Inner Sphere governments as feudal type arrangements took hold. As a local unit with well known anti-pirate leanings, the Suomi Warders seemed like a good fit so he applied and beat out some stiff competition for a lance position. He had not regretted the decision during the following years despite the lack of command opportunities. Although they could afford to field more, their CO had chosen to only field one lance of BattleMechs. The Major had explained to Sven that if the Warders were to become too big they would come under pressure from House Marik to be used as part of the general Free Worlds League military the next time the Great Houses that ruled the Inner Sphere started fighting each other again.

In front of Sven the open exercise mat was occupied by Naoko Fujiwara. She was running through a serious of martial arts katas – sets of ritualized, almost dance like movements that blended various kicks and punches with blocks and evasive steps. While all MechWarriors had some self defense training, Sven had advanced training with the kick oriented Tai Kwon Do. Although he was far from a master, he had been around the martial arts long enough to recognize superb skill when he saw it. To his eye Fujiwara’s katas had elements of several classic martial arts combined together. Power kicks and lunging punches mixed with circular motions, foot sweeps, and what Sven was pretty darn sure were some Judo throws. He’d asked her which art it was and was informed that most of what she was doing was from a family martial art. The art was now a blend of tradition Karate and many combinations and sequences adopted from other styles over the years. Sven had left her alone after that as it seemed that she was either trying real hard not to think by concentrating solely on her forms or thinking really hard about something other than her forms. Whichever it was, her performance wasn’t hindered. Unnoticed by Naoko she had collected a small group of observers to her performance.

Naoko’s position in life was tenuous at the moment. She had been the sector commander of the Draconis Combine forces stationed at Jeddah as well as leader of the only lance of DCMS BattleMechs on the island. This was not as prestigious as it might sound as she was the equivalent of a Lieutenant in a poorly rated unit stuck as far from real trouble as the top commanders thought they could stuff it. While the Combine military was changing to be more friendly to women, she had been unlucky in her postings. Her orientation placement had been to a unit lead by an old-school commander. That lead to her being shipped out to Hamano were she had managed to earn the lance leader position on merit but found her unit to be understaffed and under-equipped. When the Suomi Warders had arrived on planet she had been forced to ask them for help fixing her BattleMech because her own techs couldn’t fabricate the necessary electronic chips.

Then a new Military Governor arrived; the out-going one died in a mysterious boat accident; and the new Governor had wanted to take her ‘Mech as his own as it was the biggest DCMS machine on the planet. Luckily her Kintaro was non-functional. Then in a three day whirlwind of activity the Military Governor (who was also a colonel and her commanding officer) accused her of dereliction of duty for failing to forcible put down some minor anti-government demonstrations, the Warders’ contract was broken by the Governor, and the very raiders that the Warders had been hired to fight arrived just as the mercenaries were preparing to leave. At the last possible moment the Warders’ Chief Tech appeared out of nowhere with a new chip that brought life back to her Kintaro. Rather than join her lance mates huddling at the water treatment plant as ordered she joined the Warders in repelling the attackers.

The Governor made it clear she was to consider herself under arrest after the battle was over. Major Linna of the Warders suggested that something beyond both of them was going on behind the scenes in the Combine’s political arena and that she was likely to suffer the same fate as the late Governor before she ever saw a Review Board or Court Martial. He offered her a ride to Outreach and she had taken it. As a grievance was filed with ComStar about the Warders and herself she would have to face up to the situation sooner or later. But on Outreach she would have a chance to tell her side of the story without fear of disappearing. The people of the Warders had been very friendly to her and she was surprised at how closely knit the unit was as a whole. She had never experienced such a thing in her short career with the DCMS. It had been made clear by several Warders that she would be welcomed into their ranks, and the offer was tempting. A home among fellow warriors that appreciated her for her skills was all that she really wanted. But beyond what she might want also lay her duty and responsibility. The Combine was desperately pressed by invaders from the outer reaches of space called the Clans. With their advanced OmniMechs and skilled warriors they had carved a large slice from the Combine’s territories.

Sven shook his head in wonder as Naoko completed what he knew to be an exceptionally difficult jumping kick combination. As she paused before starting a new kata he reflected that she was a rather attractive young woman. She had Asian features that he assumed to be Japanese but truthfully he couldn’t have told base Chinese or Korean from any other Asian bloodline. She was a shade under average height – average from his standpoint anyway. He had no idea what the average height was on her homeworld. Her compact frame obviously held good strength for her size. Without a doubt he was stronger than her but he sure as heck wouldn’t want to let her land one of those spinning kicks on him. Placed right they could break bone and Naoko struck him as the type that knew how to places her kicks. The Warders’ unofficial unarmed combat champion was an infantry sergeant named "Sammi" Cascade. Cascade was a bit smaller than Naoko but was likely stronger in Sven’s opinion. The two of them would make for a stellar practice match.

The entrance of ex-pirate Jason Nellson took Sven’s attention away from the Combine officer. Sven had taken a liking to the talkative spacer turned MechWarrior and wanted to help the young man out if he could. Jason scanned the area, spotted Sven, and waved before starting toward the older Warrior. Sven had expected the youngster to either be jubilant or dejected. The troubled, thoughtful look Jason wore was neither. Jason’s application hearing had apparently taken an unexpected turn.

"Hi Lieutenant," called Jason as he got close to the treadmill. Just then the timer started beeping so Sven hit the exit key and stopped the machine so neither of them would need to talk over the tred sounds. It meant skipping the warm-down but one lost warm-down wasn’t going to hurt him any.

"Jason," nodded Sven. "I take it your interview didn’t go as planned?"

"Hardly. Everything you warned me about on my sim scores and such was brought up. And I answered all their questions honestly and quickly as I could like you suggested so they didn’t think I was trying to fudge anything. But in the end the Major didn’t say no and he didn’t say yes either."

That was somewhat curious to Sven. Major Linna was generally a straight shooter who told you what he had planned. He’d assumed that the Major and the Captain would want to keep the lad around for information purposes if nothing else. Sven had expected them to either sign Jason up or deny his application then hire him as a civilian contractor to keep him close for info or as a witness later on.

"Well," prompted Sven, "think about it for a moment and tell me what actual decisions got made."

Jason scrunched his nose in thought. "Um…they said that the Commando was being logged as officially mine. So I guess I have my very own BattleMech now. And the Major said that he would offer me a civilian job if I wanted it and that he really wanted my help later in both tracking down his sister and discovering who was behind hiring Malkite’s crew and the Black Bolt guys for raiding electronics factories."

"That sounds like a pair of positive developments. So what is it that has you so puzzled?"

"Well, when they asked me why I ditched Malkite’s losers like I did the only thing that popped into my mind was that blowing up people’s houses was wrong. It sounded stupid even as I said it but the Major seemed pleased with my answer and I started to think I was in. But Lieutenant Aukland asked me why I wanted to be a Warder. So I told her how all my life all I ever wanted to be was a MechWarrior. Then the Major politely thanked me for my time and said he’d think about it."

"Did Major Linna ask you why you wanted to be a MechWarrior?"

"Uh, yeah," replied Jason.

"And your answer," prompted Sven.

"Just sort of because, I guess," admitted Jason. "It just seems that MechWarriors are always in the middle of the action and making things change and all. Maybe I just want to be important?"

Sven smiled kindly. "Are you guessing or telling? Jason, I think I see what the Major was getting at. You’re a young man – not even nineteen yet. At your age most serious MechWarriors are at training academies or boot camps somewhere. Those that don’t know why they’re busting their tails to make the grade find that answer in a year or two or they wash out. You grew up in the space lanes, ran off in search of a more exciting life, and somehow managed to pick up enough training here and there to pilot a combat ‘Mech without crashing into hills or walls.

"A BattleMech is a big personal responsibility and anyone piloting one under Warders’ colors ultimately reflects upon both the Major and the entire unit. Anyone in a Warder ‘Mech must be someone he can trust if cut off from communicate with command. Take Lieutenant Dhafar. It might seem like he was only accepted because we needed a MechWarrior right then to help the Rough Riders. But Dhafar had trained with us closely for weeks and the Major had spent a good amount of time with Basem and his father. Chu-i Fujiwara has been unofficially offered a place with us because she’s already shown that she’s willing to do the right thing regardless of personal cost. The rest of us went through extensive interviews before our piloting skills were even looked at.

"I won’t lie to you Jason. Even with no real experience the fact you own a ‘Mech means you could leave us at Outreach and find a slot with any number of mercenary outfits who’s only concern would be that you showed up on time and did what you’re told. They wouldn’t care one bit why you wanted to be a MechWarrior. If you survived you’d learn about combat and become a competent pilot. But to people like the Major and myself why someone wants to be a MechWarrior is important.

"Now I’m the first to admit we aren’t exactly the Knights of the Inner Sphere around here. Some of us fight because it’s all we know or to avenge a wrong done by periphery raiders. Others probably can’t put why exactly into words. A sense of duty somehow drives them or such. But until you really know why you want to stomp around in a multi-ton war machine – weather you can articulate it well or not – I’m afraid I won’t be calling you ‘lance mate’."

Jason looked at Sven thoughtfully as the large MechWarrior stepped off the treadmill and collected his towel.

"Hey, don’t work it too hard Jason. You’ve got plenty of time to think about it all. Sometimes these sorts of answers just come to you when you least expect them. I’m going to hit the showers now before we go zero gee. As I’m sure you know very well, zero gee bathing is a real pain. You know where to find me if you want to talk later. After all, it’s a small ship. "

As Sven left he noticed that Naoko had stopped her kata and was watching him with a thoughtful expression that was almost a twins to Jason’s. He wondered how long she had been listening. Well, he did tend to over-talk things when he finally got warmed up to talking. Comes from including philosophy as a dual major at the academy he supposed.

DropShip Baltic Serenade / JumpShip Martha’s Pride
Various locations aboard ship
Transit between Hamano and Coleson’s Orb
09 - 14 March 3052

The JumpShip Martha’s Pride was an ancient Tramp class design that had plied the edges of the Periphery for at least two centuries. Maybe longer. So many parts had been replaced her crew joked that only the hull and drive mounts were original equipment. As neither bore construction yard markings it was assumed by the crew that sometime in the distant past their ship had served less than honest masters. For at least the past century however she had been a peaceful interstellar transport.

Tramp Class Jump Ship (CG)

Tramp Class JumpShip, Martha's Pride

In the hopes of landing future business contracts with John’s assorted companies, the captain of Martha’s Pride had agreed to detour and collect the Warders’ DropShip when word reached him of the unit’s need at a recharge station. The Pride must still finish it’s original run however and deliver the two DropShips she already carried before taking the Warders on the long trip to Outreach. Recharges and a minor systems breakdown resulted in a five day trip to the independent Periphery planet Coleson’s Orb where the Warders would wait planetside while the Pride finished her original itinerary then returned for them.

Mostly the trip was endured rather than enjoyed by the Warders. With three full DropShips attached, the Pride’s one grav-deck was available only on a rotation schedule. Jason, having grown up around zero gee environments, used the time to full advantage to carefully "corner" many of the Warders so that they were alone with him for a moment. The object of his campaign was simple: to discover what exactly a MechWarrior was.

Franklin Parks drifted near one of the sim pods. His nuerohelmet, painted a jaunty green with "Ranger" running across both sides in gold flake, bobbed next to him as he scratched his head. He regarded Jason curiously.

"Why am I a MechWarrior? That seems like a weird question. What else would anyone want to be? If you’d ever seen the devastation of our homeworld you’d know why. Two entire continents are still unsafe hundreds of years later. Nobody’s going to trash our home again as long as I have a working ‘Mech. In the meantime, chasing pirates helps other planets and keeps me sharp in case we’re ever needed to protect our home. Besides, there’s nothing like a warm toasty alpha strike on a cold morning."

Basem looked up from the food tube he was struggling with.

"This is most difficult to operate my friend," he said.

Jason reached over and took it from him. He broke the restraining plastic and extracted the feed straw with practiced ease and returned it to the new Junior Grade Lieutenant.

"Thank you my friend. To continue our discussion: My role in life is to administer and protect my people. Someday I will take the office of Emir from my father. But before that time comes I will help build a military to protect our world from the Clans or any others. That cannot happen of course until a new WarLord rules our region of space. That day will come eventually. In preparation I have studied many areas of warfare. I admit my friend that when I run our defense force it will not be from inside a BattleMech. But I have studied the ways of the MechWarrior because they are the basis around which modern militaries are built. If I am to master warfare, I must first master the BattleMech. Then I must master leadership, and finally politics – both of which will require that I master myself. Mastering the path of the MechWarrior will be part of mastering myself. So by learning at the academy and now here, I am on my first steps toward taking up my duties as fully as my people deserve."

Gracie Aukland smiled and shook her head to indicate a negative response.

"Sorry Kiddo, I’m on the Review Board remember? You’ll have to seek your answers elsewhere."

Naoko drifted through the weightless gym in an uncontrolled spiral. She had been trying to put together some unarmed combat moves useful in zero gee but had been failing miserably. It was obvious she would need to seek out a skilled zero gee combat instructor if she was going to develop anything useful.

"Two generations ago it would not have been possible," she continued as she spun around and kicked off from the ceiling, "but recent reforms allowed women more options in Combine society. I am samurai like my father and grandfather before me. The main difference being that I am the only daughter while they were only sons. There are other paths that lead to bushido, but I pursued being a MechWarrior as my lineage had. To do something just because your father did such is not perhaps the best of motives. Still, once I started to understand the obligations and the …well, the best English word I can think of is "true-ness", or maybe "pureness" … of being samurai and MechWarrior then I saw that I could not in good conscious turn away from the path I had started. I just wish I knew in which direction that path should now lead."

Sammi Cascade inspected the sliding bolt of the assault rifle. It was in perfectly clean condition – as she knew it would be – but she had to do something with her time. So she and her platoon were going over every single weapon on board. At the moment only herself and the talkative kid from the Commando were present in the store room.

"Hey Kid, push that screwdriver over this way O.K.?"

He complied. As she snagged it from the air he prompted her again plaintively. "Well Sergeant Cascade?"

She stopped fiddling with the rifle and looked up at him. How many like him had she coddled through boot camp or nursed through advanced training classes?

"I’m kinda busy right now Kid, but I’ll tell you what. You answer a question for me and I’ll answer yours. Deal?

"Deal," he agreed eagerly. "Do you want to ask your first? Or answer mine?"

"I’ll ask first. Mine is ‘Why ask me’? You’ve been skulking around the ship trying to catch people alone for your little Q&A session this entire trip. You must have hit up every officer – MechWarrior, Tanker, or other – on board by now. So what is it about little ol’ ground pounder Sergeant Cascade that’s so interesting?"

"Well Ma’am…" he started nervously.

Sammi immediately cut him off. "Hold it, none of that. Sir or Ma’am is for officers. I’m a regular working body in this here outfit. It’s Sergeant, not Ma’am."

"Yes Ma’ …I mean Sergeant. I’ve been reading up on Warder history and tactics – at least what I’m authorized to pull up from the main files. And like you said I’ve talked to a lot people on board. It seems like the BattleMech is the king of the battlefield. But you attack them from the ground and actually climbed up mine and popped open my cockpit when I thought I was being alert. No offence but it seems almost crazy. Lieutenant Jorgenson says that warriors are warriors – some just happen to use ‘Mechs, others aerospace fighters, and some just plain rocks. So I guess I was just curious why you climb ‘Mechs."

She laughed briefly before answering. "Yeah, Lawman is quite the philosopher-warrior. And I sure don’t climb ‘Mechs so I can rescue over talkative teenagers from pirates. First I’m going to give you a piece of free advice. If you’re going to be a professional soldier sometimes it doesn’t pay to think too much. But anyway, Lawman is right. You either have the fighting spirit in you or you don’t. How it gets there is a whole ‘nuther question. As to your ‘King’ of the battlefield, remember this my fledgling MechWarrior: BattleMechs may win a battlefield but it’s always the infantry that holds on to it. If you don’t believe me I invite you to read through the history of mechanized warfare. Nobody every really controlled a piece of real estate by tanks, air power or ‘Mechs. Joe and Jane Doe are always out there on foot keeping an eye on the local-yokels.

"As to your original question – I was born to fighting and running. My home was a far flung independent colony that paid tribute twice a year to a bunch of pirates. Sometimes they would take the pretty girls or boys. From the time I was eight I knew to run for the hidey-holes in the hills at the first sound of an approaching vehicle. When I was twelve the new pirate leader didn’t think our food tribute was high enough so he destroyed the colony. There wasn’t much left to do but become raiders ourselves. The survivors walked for three weeks until we found their makeshift airfield and started poaching at night.

"They finally got tired of losing people here and there so they did the reasonable thing. They loaded up on a DropShip and moved someplace else. It wasn’t like we could follow them. We’d have probably all died of starvation eventually but word of the colony’s destruction finally hit sympathetic ears and a rescue mission was mounted. The news services called it "Operation Kid Lift" as most of us were under nineteen. We got sent to various homes that had volunteered to take us orphans in and I landed with a nice old couple in the Free Worlds League. So I took up a profession that fit the skills I had developed. Attacking BattleMechs is just the ultimate expression of what it is to be a ground warrior. The biggest challenge so to speak."

"But what happened to the rest of your family?" Jason wanted to know.

Sammi looked back to the assault rifle.

"I only agreed to one question Kid. And you have your answer. Now leaving a working body alone so she can get some work done."

Jeffrey Ordinance Proving Grounds
Landing Pad Area
Coleson’s Orb
16 March 3052

John stretched his arms back in a big yawn as he surveyed the landing area. There really wasn’t much to see. The landing field consisted of several pre-fab buildings with the low round-topped buildings of the military base on one side of the field and a mix-match of various civilian buildings sprawling away from the other side. Two other DropShips sat on the field. Both belonged to the planetary government. The smaller one had been waiting at the nadir point to transfer cargo and passengers to the JumpShip and had followed the Baltic Serenade back planetside. The Martha’s Pride was going to make two more jumps and drop off her other two DropShips someplace farther spinward then return for the Wraders. In the meantime, they would be the guests of Coleson’s Orb.

Coming from the military side of the field John could see a wheeled, open topped ground car approaching. Within it he could see the driver and what he assumed was the promised liaison officer of the CORDF – the Coleson’s Orb Regular Defense Force. John assumed there was also some sort of ComStar military unit present as well. As far as John could tell from their limited intel on the planet the only reason this planet had a colony was to support a ComStar relay station. He couldn’t imagine that ComStar would leave a hyperpulse generator unguarded in unclaimed space.

The utility vehicle came to a stop a few meters from John and a sharply dressed young man stepped out of it and saluted him. He felt a little conspicuous as he returned the salute. Although the rank insignia was unfamiliar to him he knew a dress uniform when he saw one. John and his crew were wearing their military jumpsuits.

"Major Linna I presume?" asked the liaison officer.

"Indeed, …Mister Lanker," John read from the other man’s name strip. "It appears I must apologize. First for not knowing your rank insignia and second for not dressing properly for the occasion."

The CORDF officer smiled easily. "No need to Sir. Our ranks are a little wanky. They were made up by the People’s Social Commission some years ago to suit political tastes. Technically I’m a Group Administrator; more commonly just a GA. It’s the lowest officer grade of six, thus I’m probably a Lieutenant by your rankings. The dress uniform is because our CO has decreed you all VIP visitors – mainly because she wants something from you. We’ll get you settled in to your quarters and give you plenty of time to break out your fancy clothes before she receives you and your officers."

"Not that I’m complaining," remarked John, "but aren’t you being a bit uh, forward, with your CO’s plans?"

The big smile again. "Not at all Major. It’s not like it’s a secret or the General is after your gear or anything. It’s just that after about a decade of saving the CORDF finally scraped up enough C-bills to buy three lances of BattleMechs three years back and the General has been just dying to try them out. She was hoping your people would do her the favor of some joint exercises and maybe some war games if you can mount the MILS system on your BattleMechs."

John visibly relaxed his stance. They usually charged for this sort of thing but he saw no reason not to play some tag with the local forces if it kept everybody occupied and happy until the JumpShip returned.

"Well Group Administrator Lanker, I think we can join the fun. Unfortunately the flue has hit my company and has a number of people in bed but we can field four or five ‘Mechs and a few hovertanks for the General’s games. And as it happens, not only does our equipment support the Military Instructional Laser Scoring system standards – we even carry a set of the required equipment with us."

"Excellent," beamed the GA. "We had feared that only half of our ‘Mechs would be able to participate at a time. General Kleff will be most pleased."

"Then lead on GA. By the way, how did ‘General’ make it into the same rank system as ‘Group Administrator’."

"Actually her full rank is ‘Officer in Charge of General Military Administration’. But General is much easier to bandy about than OCGMA."

"And I thought the Free World’s ranking system was odd with it’s ‘Captain-General’," remarked Gracie as they started the short walk toward the waiting base.

The next afternoon found John once again standing on the tarmac of the landing field. This time it was his own DropShip and it’s open ‘Mech bay door that had his attention rather than the surrounding scenery. The tech crew was doing final calibrations on the MILS gear. Essentially, the MILS system fitted extremely low power lasers over the various weapon ports of a BattleMech. A number of receptors were also attached all about the ‘Mech or vehicle involved. The lasers would be pulse and frequency coded to be different "weapons" while the receptors registered "hits" and via an attached cellular pack transmitted to a computer that scored damage.

There were problems of course. A MechWarrior could cheat and ignore leg or weapon damage – although the computer would likely catch and log the behavior for later review. Multiple hit weapons such as missile flights usually scored most of their damage to only one or two locations rather than scatter across a ‘Mech as was more likely in real life. As the real weapons weren’t firing, no heat built up so heavily gunned BattleMechs could fire more often than they likely would in a real battle. Then there was knockdown – the low powered lasers couldn’t even warm the armor much less knock a ‘Mech off it’s gyros.

But in some ways the system was superior to even the best VR sim pods. No one jumped off of high bluffs while firing or tried a Death From Above jumping attack just to see what might happen when actually clanking around the landscape in a multi-ton war machine. Then there was the matter of individual BattleMech differences. Even in the best sims many ‘Mechs "felt" the same to pilot. In the field something like a Lancelot with its arms consisting solely of weapon barrels just plain moved differently than a chicken walker like a Catapult or a mech with "elbows" and "hands" such as a Kintaro -even though they were all within 10 tons of each other. Finally there was the matter of battlefield awareness. In real exercises pilots were more likely to have tunnel vision or divided concentration and fail to notice threats coming in from behind them. With the consequences of an accidental fall being negligible in a simulation, pilots tended to pay closer attention to their various sensors and displays in VR than was practical in real life.

Naoko spotted John outside the ramp door and walked over to him while GA Lanker admired the pre-production Camelot inside the ‘Mech bay. "You wanted to speak with me Major?" she asked.

"Indeed, although I thought we agreed that John would do."

She smiled and nodded.

"You wanted to speak with me Major John?" she repeated.

He laughed. "Yes I did, Chu-i . Fujiwara. As Frank and Basem are still both down with that flu bug I was hoping you’d be willing to fill in."

"I would be pleased to. As my Kintaro isn’t compatible with MILS gear I assume you’d like me to pilot one of yours?"

"The Vulcan or the Bushwacker. Take your pick. We’ve installed the ‘guest pilot’ software in both."

She considered for a moment then picked the Bushwacker. It was the same base tonnage as her Kintaro and she was curious to pilot the latest in Inner Sphere technology.

While she had been deciding Jason Nellson had quietly approached. John noticed him fidgeting nervously to one side.

"Something I can do for you Jason? You’ve been keeping a low profile the past few days."

"Um..Major, here." Jason handed John a Digital Assistant computer pad. The Major glanced at the small screen.

"What’s this?" he asked curiously.

"My new application Major Linna. I’d still like to join the Warders Sir, but after talking to some people I realized that I still have a lot to learn. I’m a good hand with any size loading ‘Mech and I know cargo and even basic repair pretty good so I thought maybe you could use me in logistics or the tech force or something. Since you said the Commando was mine to keep I thought maybe I’d apply to a ‘Mech academy someplace and if I got accepted I could sell the Commando. That should cover costs for four years with plenty left over." Jason finally paused to take in a breath. "Being a MechWarrior means different things to different people, and I need to learn what being a MechWarrior really means to me".

John glanced into the ‘Mech bay. He could see Lawman casually leaning against a diagnostic unit chatting with a tech. He could also see that Sven was watching them while trying to pretend he wasn’t watching them.

"Well Jason, I’ll have to study this carefully and collect the opinions of my Section Leads before rendering a final decision. In the meantime I might as well see how you handle yourself as part of a lance. For today you’re Cadet Trainee Nellson and you better have that Vulcan lined up out here on the tarmac within 15 minutes or you’ve just earned your first demerits."

For an instant John though that Jason was going to jump up and down in excitement. Instead he managed to spew out a "Yes Sir" coupled with a crummy salute and practically skipped back to the DropShip as he tried to go as fast as possible without actually looking like he was running. John acknowledged Lawman’s little smile and nod with a small wave.

Naoko smiled to herself. She still clearly recalled the first time she had been assigned to a ‘Mech for real practice maneuvers. She hoped she had hidden it better but she had no doubt she had been just as excited.

"I didn’t know you had a cadet program," she noted as GA Lanker finally left the bay and started towards them.

"Neither did I until just now," admitted John. He waited until the Group Administrator got within earshot. John noted that the liaison officer was carrying a cooling vest. "GA Lanker, I think we’ll be ready to go in about fifteen. Are your forces short a cooling vest?"

"No Major, we have extras back in our ‘Mech Bay. Actually, I was talking with your Chief Tech and he mentioned that your ‘Mech had a jump seat. I was rather hoping that you might let me tag along for the ride."

John shrugged. He couldn’t think of any particular reason why not. Still…

"Any specific reason you want to ride backwards in a cramped BattleMech?"

"Because our indigenous MechWarriors have been giving the rest of us serious grief for the past three years and after talking to your techs and seeing your gear I figure you’re going to whomp all over them. I want to make sure no part of the humbling gets lost in the retelling."

John snorted in amusement. "Well, I suppose I can’t turn down a ride to someone pulling for our side. You might want to find a pair of shorts, even without the weapons on line it still gets warm in the cockpit."

"Will do Sir," saluted Lanker happily as he scooted away.

"Well, I’ve made two people’s day today," he told Naoko as he started toward the open bay. "Let’s see if we can ruin some other peoples. Namely the twelve ‘Mechs of the CORDF."

"We do have the reputation of the Inner Sphere to uphold," she agreed.

As they walked off toward their respective ‘Mechs he stopped to watch her for a moment. She seemed to be opening up a bit. He wondered if she had decided how she wanted to handle her DCMS career. He realized that he was staring at her rear end. Pulling his gaze away he turned to head for his Camelot. He ignored Gracie’s finger-wagging "no-no" sign and wide smile from across the bay.

"Whhoo hooooo!" GA Lanker was shouting behind him as John jumped his Camelot to the top of the ridge on the jets and the liaison officer opened up with the weapons. Lanker hadn’t hit very much since John had let take over the fire controls. As the Coleson’s Orb officer was facing backwards he had to target from a video feed to a display mounted just to his left. John counted himself lucky that there weren’t any ‘Mech controls accessible from the jump seat or he was sure Lanker would have been begging him for ‘just one jump’. As if jump jetting a 55 ton BattleMech was something one picked up in an afternoon.

Below them the hapless Second Lance of the CORDF had blundered into yet another ambush. "Goose" Aukland joined with Lawman to close off the valley exit while Naoko and Jason – designated simply Red 3 and Red 4 today as the Warders were Red Army for the exercises – appeared and formed the third point of a triangle crossfire down into the valley. First Lance realized they had chased Red Army’s hovertanks too far away to assist and Third Lance was still struggling up the steep wooded hill they had tried to use as a short cut. Lanker whooped again as he realized that the MILS computer had scored a kill to the Camelot for a back hit with the "PPC".

In short order all of Second Lance was "killed" and John paused to study the terrain map on his tactical engagement monitor.

"Goose and Lawman, move to this point." John touched the screen then continued. His sophisticated C3 computer system tagged that spot as Way Point Alpha and sent it to the other ‘Mechs of his lance. "Reds 3 and 4, follow the line I just drew and move over to Way Point Bravo – which I just designated. Mosquitos, break off and zip around back to the original staging area at Zulu. I think we’ll be able to heard Blue Third back that way once they finally get off that hill."

A round of confirmations came back on the comm line as he jetted down to the valley floor, took a few steps through the milling BattleMechs of Blue Army Second Lance and jump jetted up the far slope and out of sight. It was a hot dog maneuver and the chatter he picked up on their comm line (which he was monitoring without their knowledge) indicated that they thought so too. He hadn’t originally been planning to try to embarrass the CORDF MechWarriors but at the reception party last night their General had made remarks that indicated she wouldn’t mind seeing her folks cut down a peg or two. She felt they were too confident for untested troops.

"This is amazing," called Lanker from behind John. "All of your ‘Mechs have all of this computer gear aboard?"

"No, this ‘Mech is one of a few prototypes for a command ‘Mech idea. It has an advanced C3 computer and extra displays up here so I can share data with up to four units directly and when transmitting to our command vehicle more than twelve. A master relay unit is required per every five vehicles. If we had a sky-bird above us we could even pull a direct satellite feed to track Blue Army. As it is though I can use the map display I just pulled up on the screen to your right to chart the sensor data from all of my team. By projecting their location and radar contacts you can get a good picture of the battlefield.

"Something that the MILS system can’t duplicate is the advanced targeting ability of a C3 system. The extra computers in the slave units and the bigger master unit in mine combines all the sensor data and calculates then displays lead factors. At short range there’s not much effect but hit ratios go way up at long range if a friendly unit is running around close to the enemy. If the MILS system could simulate it I could have jumped down into their formation while my lance chewed them up from long range.

"Of course, we’d get shot to pieces at close range by the Blue Lance before they died but you can’t have everything."

"So you can control the other ‘Mechs from here?" Lanker wanted to know.

"No way," replied John. "There are rumors of old Star League slave systems but we never even tried to develop one. It would be too dangerous. If an enemy broke your encryption they could just turn off all your ‘Mechs – or worse."

As Naoko raced the Bushwacker to her new way point she could now understand what Basem had been so excited about during the combat in Jeddah. Even without the satellite feed they had on Hamano, with the relief map displayed under real-time data from the rest of Red Army it made visualizing an engagement very easy. Almost too easy in fact. For the first thirty minutes she found herself spending too much time looking at the multi-color display and not enough time watching where she was walking.

After a few hours of running around in it she was warming up to the Bushwacker. It had a lower center of gravity than her Kintaro plus the reversed knees of a "chicken walker" thus it moved very differently. Now that she was used to the hopping gate she was scoring more hits while on the move. With the cockpit being thrust forward rather than sitting up high she found she felt a little vulnerable. She knew that statistics claimed that the forward cockpit designs didn’t suffer abnormally high pilot hits. But it still felt a little weird.

She had noticed right away that the borrowed Bushwacker carried more hitting power that her Kintaro despite the fact they were the same tonnage. This ‘Mech carried a pair each of medium lasers and medium pulse lasers for closer action as well as an extended range large laser and the new LB 10X autocannon. The latter two could strike at long range or be used to bolster the medium laser weapons. Naoko assumed the design ran hot if you fired everything but on the MILS system she could blaze away without heat worries.

In the heavily modified Vulcan Jason had found himself in awe. First at the equipment and then at the display of team work and tactics he had watched for the past few hours. He had never realized the full complexities of a multi-‘Mech engagement and was observing first hand how better teamwork could overcome superior numbers. Although they kept losing, even the Blue Army’s movements were far better coordinated than what little he had experienced "practicing" with Malkite’s loser pirate crew. No wonder Malkite’s ‘Mechs had got cut to ribbons by the smaller number of Warder ‘Mechs. In retrospect the pirates probably weren’t even supposed to win. With some time to think about it, he figured that the pirates were probably just supposed to keep the Warder ‘Mechs busy while the secret mercenary group wearing the black lightning bolt insignia attacked the compound. But the Warder tanks held too long and Malkite’s crew lost too quickly so the ‘Black Bolts’ (as the pirates had come to call them) had been driven off without ever firing a shot at the industrial complex. Luckily he had decided to defect with the Commando rather than just eject. However was behind the Black Bolts had rigged the pirate ‘Mechs to kill the pilots upon ejection. Even now the thinking about it gave him shiveres. In fact, when no one was looking he had checked under the seat of the Vulcan. It wasn’t that he mistrusted the Warders – but after the Commando experience he doubted he would pilot a BattleMech for a long time without first looking under the seat.

As he hit a flat stretch Jason took a quick look at the running score totals. He was the only Warder that had been "killed" today. More than once he was afraid to admit. But even though the Warders were trashing the Blue Army repeatedly there had been no taunts or cheering from Red Army. Except for the liaison guy riding with the Major that is. Sometimes his hollering made it hard to catch the Major’s orders. Jason had wanted desperately to whoop with excitement as well when he had scored his first "kill". Unable to contain himself much longer he had finally realized that he could just turn off his mic and yell all he wanted. So he did. After triple checking that it really was off, off, off. Twenty minutes later he had belatedly wondered if there was some sort of cockpit recorder in the ‘Mech. But it was too late by then. He just prayed there wasn’t and concentrated on following orders and keeping the Vulcan on it’s feet.

As the planned sessions wore down he realized that there was no doubt about two things. The first was that he belonged in a BattleMech cockpit. The second was that he had to do some serious work on his marksmanship. If he was reading the display right he’s actually managed to shoot Red Three a number of times and the score on the Major once as well.

"Get ready Red Four," Jason heard over he comm from Red Three. "Here they come and we’re the bait."

As Blue Third’s four BattleMechs struggled over the steep ridge line that marked the flat top of hill, Naoko and Jason ran forward with weapons blazing. Staying around 180 meters from the Blue group they ran past with torsos twisted full left and raked their "enemy" with simulated attacks then ran off the edge of the steep ravine and plunged into the wooded cover below. While the maneuver looked relatively simple twisting their torsos back frontside and not stumbling down the steep elevation change was actually a bit tricky. Both of them smacked a few small trees before getting their descent under full control but the large machines easily crashed through the foliage. The MILS computer scored some armor hits against both the Red and Blue ‘Mechs.

Blue Third Lance had learned to be cautious about chasing Red units very far. They walked over to where the two Red ‘Mechs had gone off the edge to see if they could get off some parting shots but elected not to follow the fleeing Reds back down the area they just tried so hard to walk up.

"Uh Sir, I think I have a contact," one of them commed the lance leader.

"You think or you know?" growled the irritated reply as the leader watched the two blips of the fleeing Reds moving farther away from his milling lance. As he was already looking at his displays he noticed immediately when a priority message appeared across his Objective Status readout.

"Your Mech has been destroyed by a center rear torso hit. Do not participate in scenario until further notice."

The leader sighed. At least the ‘you got killed’ messages were polite. Wavering on his radar display he could see two or three blips behind them. They had walked up under ECM and blasted his lance from behind while three of them were looking down the grade like tourists.

"No, I’m sure now Sir," replied pilot on sentry duty facing toward the firing Reds. As the MILS lasers didn’t operate at a visible light spectrum the sentry hadn’t realized that "weapon" blasts were streaming by his ‘Mech to score on the back armor of his lance mates.

"So am I," spat the lead ‘Mech in disgust. "If you take your snotty nose out of your radar scope and look the frick out your front canopy you’ll see your contacts shooting at us."

"People’s Committee!" swore the other pilot in surprise. "Order’s Sir ?"

"Don’t ask me," replied the lead in resignation. "I’m dead. You’re on your own. And I suggest you don’t let the Commissar ever hear you taking the Committee’s name in vain like that or you’ll have bigger problems than facing my debriefing when this is over."

"Yes Lance Leader," came the deflated reply.

The next few minutes went poorly for Blue Third. The lance’s second took over and ran them down the hill’s ridge and successfully used it to block fire from the three Reds now on their right. She had hoped to run through the initial staging area and use the walls of the obstacle piloting grounds to avoid a crossfire from the two original Reds that had reached the bottom of the ravine to their left and now circled in toward them. It was actually a good plan – except she had forgotten about the three hovertanks of Red Army. They came slashing in using a turning arc that forced the Blue ‘Mechs to turn to face them or take back shots. Thus they only made it two thirds of the way towards the obstacles before the five ‘Mechs of Red Army joined the three hovertanks that were harassing them. She picked the closest target.

"Everybody rush and shoot at that Bushwacker to our right. I want at least one kill out of this mess before we all get flamed."

First Lance of the Blue Army had finally moved into a good firing position on the Red Army BattleMechs when General Kleff’s voice sounded over the general comm frequency for the first time since the exercises began.

"All Forces, cancel scenario and return to base at flank speed. Repeat, all forces cancel operations and return to base."

"But we were just going to…"started to complain Blue First’s leader before the General cut him off.

"You were just going to obey orders. This is a Priority Orange order. Return to base now! Red units please return to your DropShip."

Without another word of complaint all of the CORDF BattleMechs turned toward their base and set off at their highest speed. Inside the Camelot John made sure his mic was set to internal communications only before asking GA Lanker the question foremost on his mind just then.

"What does Priority Orange signify?"

"Invasion," the liaison officer replied in a horse whisper. "The Clans have come."

John felt a moment of cold panic as deep as that he had felt when his daughter had been born three weeks early and rushed out of the delivery room for emergency care. The Clan juggernaut had finally stepped into his quest for his sister and there was precious little he could do to stop them. He had seven ‘Mechs, five healthy MechWarriors, three crewed hovertanks, two and a half infantry platoons and one small DropShip to oppose them with. Plus the marginally trained twelve mechs and sixteen armored vehicles of the CORDF. In a straight out fight it wouldn’t be near enough.

Boxing his fear behind walls of resolve he keyed his comm back to the lance’s tactical frequency.

"Attention Red lances. This world is soon going to under Clan attack. Form on me and follow back to the DropShip where we’ll review our options. Bifrost One, find out as much as you can while we’re on our way. Keep the channel clear of chatter in case of priority transmissions."

The answer was as simple as it was elusive. Somehow he had to arrange something other than a straight out fight.

Jeffrey Ordinance Proving Grounds
Landing Pad Area
Coleson’s Orb
17 March 3052

The long armored trailer that was the mobile command center called Bifrost had been pulled outside of the DropShip so that it would be more easily accessible. Major Linna waited impatiently within for the CORDF communications tech on the other end of the line to put General Kleff on. Finally the tech signaled that the General was on line.

"Major Linna? Sorry to have kept you waiting but I’m sure you understand that there has been much to do," came the General’s tightly controlled voice.

"Indeed General. I won’t take too much of your time Ma’am. What are your intentions with my force?"

"To the point, I like that. Frankly- we’re wanked. I have already spoken with Nova Cat Star Captain Laura Gallagher. She says she has a Supernova Trinary under her command which I believe is 15 OmniMechs and 75 of those armored guys plus her personal command star of 5 more Omnis. Weights unknown. The process was that I told them what I wanted to use to defend with and then they somehow bid amongst themselves for what they attack with.

"So I decided to save the city from getting destroyed in a firefight and agreed to meet them on the proving field. I bid my twelve ‘Mechs and my best twelve tanks. My understanding is that they aren’t too fond of mercenaries so I left you out of the bidding Major. Do what you can to save yourselves. I hope I helped by making it very clear that your unit just happened to be visiting here and was not under my authority. These Clanners are odd birds sometimes. Maybe they’ll just let you lift without any trouble. So that’s it. No hard feelings Major. I truly hope you folks make it home all right."

"I understand General," replied John as his mind whirled. "If I may ask, what about ComStar?"

"Those religious freaks?" she laughed bitterly. "They informed me that they were not in jeopardy and they were not under the authority of the government here so their eight BattleMechs will be staying in the barn."

"It looks like that’s it then. Good luck General. If I may add some advice, try to move the fight into the hills. That will hamper your hovertanks but will cut down on the range advantage of the Clan Omnis."

"Sound advice, we’ll consider it in our plans. One last thing Major. I’d like to ask a favor."

"You have it General. What do you want?"

"Some of my people have family in the Inner Sphere. I’d like to send you a pouch of communications to deliver if you make it off planet. After the way I chewed out ComStar I don’t think they’ll be handing out many freebies and us soldier types don’t get paid enough on this dirtball to pay the rates for a decent final message."

"Of course General Kleff. I’ll see that they are delivered personally."

"Thanks Major. Zero Hour is oh-nine-hundred local tomorrow. Kleff out."

"Linna Out," he replied tightly as he nodded to his comm tech to close the line.

Lanker was still trailing the Warders’ CO.

"It’s not looking very good when our CO has already decided we’re going to lose is it?"

"No," admitted John. "It’s not very good at all."

"Any chance of a popular guerilla resistance forming here?" asked Captain Woods of the liaison officer.

"I wouldn’t count on it. The current People’s Government isn’t very popular with the people outside our one main city here. As long as the Clans don’t cut off access to replacement parts for their generators and farming equipment the average Ivan out working the land isn’t likely to care too much who holds the landing field. There are no other military outposts. I don’t know if the General will send any of our infantry into the hills to resist or not."

"Thanks," John told the GA. "Now we have to have a planning session and I’m afraid you can’t take part."

"No problem Sir," said Lanker. "I’ll head on over and see if there’s anything I can do to make myself useful. Don’t know what I can do though. The only reason I’m a military officer is because I’m one of the few people on the planet that can program the payroll computer and I don’t suppose there’ll be much need for that much longer. See you later Sirs."

The next morning dawned clear and mild over the proving grounds. The Warders had considered running for the mountains during the night but couldn’t be sure about Clan satellite activity. Additionally, they realized that if they did try to mount a guerrilla war they wouldn’t be leaving the planet. No relief would be coming to retake Coleman’s Orb and even if they later managed to seize a DropShip the best they could do would be to go hide in the asteroid belt until supplies ran out. So they waited.

At 08:00 am local time GA Lanker was back with the pouch of personal messages as well as a hand written note marked Military Dispatch – Clan Nova Cat to Suomi Warders. John unfolded it so he could read it while his officers crowded around.

"All it says is that Star Captain Laura Gallagher will contact me after this morning’s battle. That and a comm frequency." He told everyone else.

So they waited. As the proving grounds only had a few cameras on it and the communications/weather satellite of Coleman’s Orb couldn’t zoom in close enough there would be no tri-dee or flat-vid feed for the Warders to watch. First Platoon had been dispatched in the early morning darkness to set up observation posts on the highest areas deemed to be outside the combat zone to vid-disc as much of the action as they could and try to estimate Clan losses. Bifrost had all of it’s sensory arrays set up and would record everything sent on just about every frequency. The general PA system of the DropShip plus the external speakers of the Bifrost trailer had all been set to broadcast the general tactical frequency of the CORDF. The low level encryption was easy for John’s people to break and they figured if they could break it, then the Clanners could. Captain Woods was of the opinion that it didn’t matter anyway because the Clanners wouldn’t bother to listen to the CORDF comm chatter. He and the tech crews spent the morning making sure that each Warder unit had the latest software update regarding known Clan OmniMech configurations. John had been surprised at the wealth of Clan data Woods had produced until the Captain explained that he still had a few WolfNet attached connections and that the Dragoons often let extra Clan updates ‘leak’ to certain people in case the info proved useful against the Clans.

As the General herself started issuing formation orders right at 09:00 from a battletank John’s first thought was that the show had started. He reminded himself that the audio drama they were about to listen to was real. Just about everybody stopped what they were doing to listen. Even some civilians had drifted onto the tarmac close enough to listen to the battle reports. At least they weren’t making a bar-b-que party out of it John thought to himself. He became aware that Gracie had stepped in close behind him.

"I don’t care what happens today. I’ll die fighting before I end up one of their bond-slaves or whatever they call them," she told him quietly.

"I’m sure you won’t go down alone if it comes to that," he whispered back.

His job was to make sure that it didn’t. It looked like his job wouldn’t start until the Star Captain called following the battle.

As best he could follow her orders it seemed that the General had heeded his advice as she immediately pulled back the ‘Mechs to the hills while she deployed her heavy and medium tanks to a depression they could fire from while hull-down. The lance of Beagle hovertanks was sent out to scout the enemy advance. It was the scouts that had the first battle reports.

"Command, we have visual contact at grid R 20. Looks like 10 ‘Mechs. Each one is carrying battle armor figures hanging from it. They are on a bearing about 175."

"Copy Ferret Lead. Stay out of weapon range, repeat stay out of weapon range. Can you estimate Elementals per Omni?"

"Copy Command. We’re just outside LRM range and not picking up anything that looks like a radar lock. Looks like five per ‘Mech, Command."

That made fifty armored Elementals, each carrying a two shot SRM pod and probably a small laser. Inside their powered armor the huge, genetically bred warriors could jump upwards of 90 meters, pull armor plating from a ‘Mech, and survive even a medium laser hit and keep fighting. John had no idea how the Clans valued their Elementals against tanks for bidding purposes but he immediately saw the implications. The CORDF tanks were Vedettes and Demolishers. The Vedette had a long range, small caliber cannon while the Demolisher carried twin AC/20s – large caliber, short range weapons that could shred most ‘Mechs in a few bursts.

But the Demolishers were not going to get those shots. The hard to hit Elementals would swarm the tanks, absorbing hits from the smaller cannons and avoiding the larger until they jumped aboard and started pulling at access hatches. As a bonus to the Clan cause, firing at the Elementals would chew through the limited ammo supply of each tank.

"Lenin’s Ghost, look at that one move !" called a voice John assumed to be from the hovertanks.

"Evasive, evasive," the hover Lead was calling suddenly. That was followed almost immediately by a new panicky voice.

"I’m hit, I’m hit. Fan skirts are damaged and I’m losing speed. Rear armor almost gone."

"Eject, eject," General Kleff was yelling at them.

"Too late General. Laser fire. They’re gone. Baker 3 is gone too. It’s just us and 2 left."

"Run parallel to the enemy force at the edge of sensor range. Tell me if they split up." Ordered the General.

"Yes General," came the quiet reply.

Sitting on a bench next to Bifrost Jason looked to Sven. "What happened?"

"Clan extended range large lasers out range LRMs and some of their Omni’s are pretty fast. Baker lance just plain got too close," explained Lawman.

The Clan OmniMechs closed to just outside weapon range and disgorged their Elemental brethren. Immediately the armored troopers started jump jetting in small arcs toward the tanks. Then one of the stars of OmniMechs broke off the right and started towards the hill area that the CORDF BattleMechs were stationed within.

"We are so dead," came an anonymous voice over the comm line.

"Stow that talk soldier," snapped Kleff’s voice. "Vedette gunners, concentrate on the first Omni that steps into range. Demolishers, stick to one cannon only to save ammo. Wait for medium range on the Elementals and wait until just before they land. Machine guns, fire at earliest opportunity and keep firing. Slayer Lance, take your heavies and engage the Clan star someplace where it’s a short range shooting match. Explorer and Defender Lances, stand by to move for a crossfire on my mark."

As the booming echo of autocannons sounded across the hills the Elementals closed. It became hard to follow the exact course of the action as many voices started to over ride each other on the same comm line. From snatches of warnings and bits of the general’s orders the silent audience around the DropShip could tell that the Elementals had boarded the tanks and were setting about pulling the hatches. Somewhere during that frantic time orders were given to use machine guns against their own tanks to get at the Elementals and an order to give up their position and rush the OmniMechs. This was to allow for a few shots with their big guns before the Elementals broke into the heavy tanks. The Vedettes seemed to be gone by that point. General Kleff was in the middle of issuing orders to her BattleMechs when she was apparently bodily ripped from the command cupola of her tank.

The Light and Medium Lances never got orders to attack. As the last of the tanks were dying the ‘Mechs decided to attack on their own and swept down the hill. The MechWarrios of the Nova Cats tried to issue zellbrigen, the challenge of single combat, but the CORDF ‘Mechs rushed in firing at whichever target caught the pilot’s attention first. From their calls they were soon taking heavy hits from the Clan Omnis while a swarm of Elementals picked away at them with smaller weapons. One by one they went silent until what must have been the last pilot could be heard to say "my blood I give for thee, my sweet family". Except for Sammi up on a hill with a high power spotting scope none of the Warders would see the final charge of that MechWarrior as he attempted to ram into the largest Omni. A massive alpha strike at close range gutted that last BattleMech and killed the pilot but the Nova Cats were suitably impressed with the bravery of the attempt to make comment on the open channel.

The Heavy CORDF lance failed to use the hills to much advantage and simply charged their foes. They knew they were all that remained by then and seemed determined to take some Clanners with them. Again ignoring the Clan challenges for single combat they closed and fired and died. The Slayer lance did take down two Omnis and damage two others before being reduced to scrap.

Then, as silence settled on the comm line, the battle was over. Only two Beagle hovertanks had survived because they had fled the field rather than take up station as they had been ordered to. An invisible weight seemed to settle down upon those about the DropShip. They were now marooned on an enemy held planet.

"Captain? Can any of our scouts report on the survivors?" asked John quietly.

Osmo ducked back into the Bifrost, then a few moments later appeared in the doorway. "The Clan forces have withdrawn toward their DropShip. Apparently they feel that none of the survivors merit being taken prisoner as they pose no threat."

"Get a hold of whoever is in charge at the base and tell them it’s safe to send medical personnel," ordered John. "And tell First Platoon to return here to the Serenade.

"Now we wait.," John finished, more to himself than any of those around him.

Captain Woods left Bifrost and approached the Major where John stood next to Gracie and Naoko. "Sir," he saluted, "we can probably be expected the Star Captain to call shortly. I have a quick briefing ready for you."

John was moderately surprised, although he realized that he shouldn’t be. Intel briefing was Woods’ job after all.

"Is this ‘ears only’ or can we do it here?" John asked.

"Nothing secret Sir," shrugged Osmo. "We only have a little bit of information about their CO, Star Captain Lauren Gallagher, in our files. During the invasion we believe she has only performed garrison command, making this her first know planetary assault. For a Clan officer she seems to be conservative in her bidding and fighting style - which is probably why she’s been behind their lines so far. On the other hand, she must be a capable warrior as she has earned her Blood Name and her forces just took apart the CORDF without much difficulty. Using the Elementals to swarm the tanks was a bold tactic."

"Any suggestions on dealing with her?" The Major wanted to know.

"Trying to anger her into a mistake probably wouldn’t work," noted Osmo. "Her garrison history indicates that she’s been rational and methodical on the worlds she’s overseen. Her file says she has a sense of humor. But it doesn’t explain how that conclusion was drawn so I don’t know if that bit of info is correct –or even helpful. The wildcard is the fact she’s a Nova Cat. The Nova Cats are steeped in mysticism and believe in portents and visions. She may or may not be acting upon one of those currently. She might also have what one could call ‘superstitious phobias’."

"So what you’re telling me," John observed wryly, "is that our enemy commander is a methodical and careful planner that might be hearing voices that tell her to do things."

Captain Woods looked somewhat sheepish. "Well, I suppose you could put it that way," he admitted.

John patted him on the shoulder. "It’s all right Osmo. I’m surprised you had any information about her at all. If nothing else I know not to try a belligerent act or to piss her off on purpose. That’ll be some help."

"Yeah," agreed Gracie. "Now we know it’s best not to let me talk to the Nova Fart Captain."

Osmo rolled his eyes. He ignored Gracie and kept his attention on the Major. "How do you want to handle the communication?"

John thought for a moment. "Go ahead and put the Star Captain on the loud speakers. Get me a headset with a push to talk box. We all have a steak in this, everyone might as well hear it firsthand."

He started to follow the Captain back towards Bifrost, then John stopped and looked back at Gracie.

"And Lieutenant Aukland? No cat-calls while I’m on line O.K.? The last thing I want is 60 some odd angry Elementals barging in here looking for the MechWarrior that called their CO names."

"Yes Sir," she replied. "But I do have some really good ones ready to go."

He smiled tightly and nodded. "Well, let’s save them for just before we jump out of the system."

She saluted. "It will be a hardship, but Sisu, Sir," she replied solemnly.

It was some thirty minutes later before the designated comm frequency buzzed to life.

"This is Star Captain Lauren Gallagher of the Nova Cats Nova Trinary ‘Hunting Paw’ comming Major Linna of the Suomi Warders. Are you receiving Major?"

"This is Major Linna. I am receiving you loud and clear," he replied.

"We have seized this planet and it is now ours."

"Indeed it is," he answered noncommittally.

"Thus everything upon it is also now ours."

"I’m afraid we have a little difference of opinion there Star Captain. We were just visiting here and are not of this planet," he replied in a carefully casual voice.

There was a hint of humor in her voice as she replied.

"I had thought we might differ on this point. Some of my MechWarriors feel they have not found sufficient challenge this morning and others did not get to participate. Is it my understanding that you would fight to uphold your opinion Major?"

"I am always ready to defend my opinions, Star Captain. Am I to understand that you would like to pit some of your MechWarriors against mine to decide the issue?"

"Indeed. I have reviewed a synopsis of your games with the local forces and found it quite interesting. You fight as a Star quite effectively. My Warriors would like to bid to fight your Star. If you win you may leave the planet at your leisure. "

"My entire unit, our DropShip and the JumpShip that’s returning for us?"

Again the hint of amusement was in her voice.

"How suspicious you are Major. The Nova Cats do not deal in tricks. Honor combat between your Star and the force we field. If you win we will bother you no more. If you lose we will take your equipment for study and perhaps honor those deemed worthy with Bonding. The rest of your unit will become the newest farmers of Coleman’s Orb. This is agreeable, Quiaff?"

As the Nova Cats could easily destroy the Warders if they chose, this seemed like the best offer John was going to get.

"Aff," John answered in what he hoped was the proper Can manner. "This is agreeable."

"Bargained well and done then," said the Star Captain. "Send a brief history of your Star’s MechWarriors and your choice for the battle ground. To face again a ‘Star of Warders’. It’s too bad you don’t understand the irony Major."

"I suppose it is," admitted a perplexed John.

"Perhaps I will explain it to you some day. By the way, I compliment you on your manners Major. They are very good for an Inner Sphere freebirth. Star Captain Laura Gallagher signing off.."

"Thank you," he murmured, still perplexed . "This is Major Linna signing off."

"Is that thing off?" Gracie asked while nodded at the comm-box in John’s hand.

He held it up so that she could see that his thumb was well clear of the transmit button.

"Then I can say that she sure is a politely insulting and cheerfully psycho Clanner bi…,"

John’s scowl at her was enough to make Gracie stretch out and change the last word to "biddy".

"Can the snappy patter for now OK? Right now we need….uh…I take it I’ve missed something Captain?"

John had looked from Gracie to Osmo while talking and had read the concern in the Captain’s face.

" The ‘star’ you just committed to using against the Nova Cats included Chu-I Fujiwara and Cadet Nellson."

The Major was momentarily stunned by the magnitude of his mistake. He had fished for the combat offer from the Clan Officer with his mind’s eye picturing the "old" lance of Goose, Lawman, Ranger, Kissa and himself. Even when the Star Captain mentioned the ‘Star’ of the ‘games’ he had still been thinking of the pre-Hamano group. But Vilho couldn’t even brave a sim pod much less a real BattleMech right now and Lieutenant Parks was so sick he couldn’t even get out of bed for breakfast this morning. Goose and Lawman were in top form and ready. But Chu-i Fujiwara wasn’t technically under his command and as for ‘Cadet’ Nellson….honor combat against the Clans was not your average draw for one’s first real combat assignment. Looking around for a moment while his mind clicked through options he saw Sven and Jason approaching the small group of himself, Naoko, Gracie and Osmo.

As Sven and Jason drew near it was Naoko that broke the silence first.

"Major Linna, I would be honored to be allowed to battle the Nova Cats with your unit. The Clans have done great damage to the Draconis Combine. I would like the chance to damage them back in return."

Jason’s mouth was terribly dry. He swallowed twice but his voice still cracked a bit as he addressed the group.

"I’ll take my place too Sirs."

John couldn’t help but smile at his bravery. His brains might be another matter.

"I appreciate that Cadet Nellson, but I don’t really think that this is the time and place for your first taste of combat."

"If you would hear me out Sir," persisted Jason. "I know I’m no match for a Clan warrior. Not even close. But they’ll know that too if they look over the scores from our CORDF exercises. If they plan to bid amongst themselves for who faces us they might just ignore me totally. So then it’s four on five. I don’t have to win – all I have to do is damage one of them as much as possible before I go down. That I can manage to do by running in close and keep shooting until the Vulcan overheats or the Clanner busts it up."

Captain Woods looked thoughtfully at the young pilot. "The Cadet does have a valid point," he admitted.

Lawman rested one of his big hands on Jason’s shoulder. "Jason, you don’t always walk away from a downed ‘Mech. A head shot, a power plant explosion; ugly things happen."

Jason nodded his understanding. He turned to indicate the other Warders that milled about but kept a respectful distance from the officer group while they held their discussion. "I know, but wouldn’t any of them take the same risk or worse to save the rest."

John couldn’t help but agree with the kid on that point. But did John dare take the risk that the Nova Cats would ignore Jason rather than send some Clanner veteran to finish him off quickly to seize the Warder ‘Mechs. Both the Camelot and Bushwackers were probably new to the Clans. The Star Captain did say her warriors wanted sport – that would tend to support Jason’s take on things. This was going to be another one of those decisions that wouldn’t yield to a logical or easy answer.

"Captain? Any idea what their response would be if we modified the ‘star’ they’re expecting."

"Not really," admitted Captain Woods. "They’d probably just adjust their force in response. But there’s a small chance they might see it as some form of your breaking the agreement. I don’t know what their response would be then."

John just nodded noncommittally. He hadn’t really the Captain to provide a definitive answer. Although in truth, his choices might be limited anyway. "Captain Woods, would you have someone find Doctor Sengali and get him on a comm link with me?"

A few moment later John was talking into the headset again. The Doctor had been in the infirmary when the Major’s call came in.

"Yes Major, what can I do for you?" asked the Doctor.

"I need to know the status of our Lieutenants."

Giving the circumstances, Doctor Sengali did not need to ask which officers were being referred to. "As a matter of fact all three of them are here with me now seeking clearance to return to duty."

"What’s the word then?" John wanted to know. "Are any of them ready to pilot?"

"John," started the Doctor, "we’ve known each other since I worked for your Grandmother and you were only ten. So you know my feelings about activating sick pilots or juicing up warriors for combat. But I also understand the urgency of our situation here. Lieutenants Parks and Dhafar I can give stimulants to pep them up and I can knock down their fevers for a few hours. But I can’t do much about the inner ear pressure. So I can get them in the cockpit of a BattleMech for you but they might have balance difficulties. In fact, they likely will have balance difficulties when the heat starts rising. They’ll also dehydrate and tire faster in their current state. For Lieutenant Rajanen I can maybe concoct a drug mix to make him either more aggressive or much more relaxed – but either approach would be temporary and would have drawbacks."

"Thanks for straight words Doc." Despite their long friendship John had never been able to comfortably call the older man by his first name. "Hold the line a moment."

John clicked through his options quickly. Vilho: good warrior, currently undependable under stress, willing to fight anyway despite being almost paralyzed by the thought of more combat. Parks: very good warrior, willing, sometimes a bit rash, sickness may cause piloting and endurance problems. Dhafar: well trained but inexperienced warrior, stays calm under stress, follows direction well but same sickness problems. Fujiwara: some actual combat experience, motivated against the clans, works well as team, in very good form during yesterday’s exercises. Nellson; young, healthy, brave and very inexperienced. But willing to accept the dangerous role of ‘damage sponge’ to assist his better skilled lance mates. Or leave one or two slots – or whatever the Clans called one ‘Mech of a ‘Star’ - empty.

Well, Naoko Fujiwara was a solid choice to employ. The real question was weather to field a fifth ‘Mech as the Clanners expected or not. Sometimes a commander has to make a decision based on a gut feel. The problem was that he didn’t have a gut feeling about Jason one way or another. When in doubt, trust your fellow officers. That was the last official order his Grandmother had given him before she retired and handed the unit over to him.

John locked eyes with Lawman. "Sven – you’ve spent the most time with Cadet Jason. Is he ready to do this?"

Sven knew it wasn’t a piloting question. The least able Mechwarrior in that Clan DropShip was going to be a better pilot than Jason was. This was a question about character. Sven Jorgenson had liked what he’d seen so far. "Yes Sir. He is."

"Doctor? Do you have a speaker-comm on that line? Good, put it on please," John said into his headset’s mic. "Can everyone hear me? Good. I appreciate the willingness of all three of you to volunteer for duty. However, I must ask you to stand down. The Nova Cats are expected us to field the same force from the exercise against the CORDF forces and I’m unwilling to risk their response to changing the roster. Doctor Sengali, please continue with whatever treatment you feel best for their long term recovery. Sven, Basem, Vilho – thank you very much for your offer."

John paused and listened to the generally disheartened reply from his MechWarriors that they would stand down as ordered.

"Carry on then. Major Linna, signing off." John signaled to Osmo to have the line closed.

"Captain Woods, would you please transmit names, ranks, and general experience information to the Nova Cats please? Leave out the reserve ranks with the Suomi Defense Force. Just our Warder ranks for Gracie, Sven and me. Naoko list as a Chu-i of the DCMS – as technically I believe she still is until she herself or a court martial says otherwise. And Cadet Nellson of the Warders of course. List this as his first combat assignment."

Osmo nodded and went inside the Bifrost command vehicle. No one really said anything as the circle of MechWarriors just looked at each other, wondering what the others were thinking. Finally John gave his head a little shake and broke the spell. "Everyone might as well try to relax a bit until we hear back from the Cats. I’ll probably call a strategy session in an hour or two so keep your personal comms handy."

Sven glanced again at Jason and couldn’t help but wonder if he had just helped set the young man’s feet on the path to becoming a MechWarrior or into an early grave.

On the bridge of the grounded Nova Cat DropShip, Star Captain Lauren Gallagher idly swiveled back and forth in the floor mounted deck chair as she contemplated the mercenary unit and it’s Major. They were unusual in several ways from the Spheriod mercenaries that had been encounter so far. That made her curious. She had no knowledge of the ancient Inner Sphere saying about curiosity and the cat – but would have found the proverb amusing were she aware of it. What she was aware of was MechWarrior Helen standing nearby and fidgeting while waiting for Lauren’s attention.

Well, back to current matters thought Lauren. She focused her attention on her ceregn.

"You have reviewed the initial reports of the engagement Quiaff?"

"Aff Star Commander. Five Elementals were killed, two seriously wounded, and one MechWarrior seriously wounded. Three OmniMechs were damaged beyond immediate repair but two can be put back into service within a week. He have enough replacement Omni’s to cover for the lost ones, minus the injured the pilot."

Lauren quickly scanned the kill totals. "I see that Star Commander Ned was particularly daring and effective in that little FireMoth he likes to run about in."

"Star Commander Ned is too concerned with personal glory and power. He seeks your position and is a danger to you Star Captain, remember the saKhan’s prophesy."

"How could I ever forget when you find some reason to remind me every other week?" smiled Lauren. It was indeed true that in the six years since the two sibkin had first passed their trails of position that Helen felt compelled to remind her friend of the words of fate. "As to my position, if he is more worthy than I he should have it. That is the way of the Clans, Quiaff?"

"Aff" Helen reluctantly agreed. She couldn’t help herself though. She had to say it. "The saKhan said that you will either perish by fire or serve the fire."

The Star Commander nodded her head in agreement. "Yes, I remember my friend. But Star Commander Ned only pilots a FireMoth, he is not actually a fire of any sort that I am aware of. And it will be several years I think until the Star Commander will be worthy to walk in my boots."

MechWarrior Helen merely bobbed her head ‘yes’. The Star Commander always shrugged off any mention of her unusual prophesy. The main entry hatch slid open and the three MechWarrior Star Commanders of her Nova Trinary entered, tailed by the Elemental officers that lead the power armor troopers assigned to each OmniMech star.

"Ah. My fellow Nova Cats," said Lauen as she rose from her seat. "You are ready for batchall, quaiff?"

"Neg," replied Star Commander Hector. "I do not see why we extend them the privilege of honor combat. We have already won this world."

"They claim to not be of this world. A Trial of Possession to decide the matter between warriors. This is the way of the Clans, Quiaff?" she asked.

"Aff," replied Hector. "But they are Spheroid Mercenaries, not Clan."

"Did you read the briefing MechWarrior Helen sent you? These particular Spheriods field two BattleMech designs we have not encountered. One obviously new and perhaps derived from captured Clan equipment and the other apparently a Star League design not in our databases. I want them for study."

Hector was not deterred. "Then we go take them. They could not deny us victory."

Lauren’s voice took on a slight edge. Her patience with the always argumentative Star Commander had been wearing thin on this trip. "If I have learned anything overseeing freebirth worlds the last two years it is that they will always take whatever victory they can. If we were to attack them they would take the only victory possible – they would destroy the machines to deny them to us. In losing a Trial their ‘Mechs will be damaged but most of the main components will likely remain intact."

"I remain unconvinced," replied Hector sullenly.

Star Commander Ned took that moment to intervene.

"Then I suggest that you don’t bid, Star Commander Hector. As for myself, I am always ready for a little more target practice. I will bid."

"And I," added Star Commander Helzing. "We did not partake of the morning’s battle and are eager for some sport."

"I warn you all not to take these Warders too lightly. They repeatedly handled the local ‘Mechs at greater than two to one odds. They also appear to be knowledgeable of Star tactics and have two unknown BettleMech configurations."

"I am not impressed," sneered Star Commander Ned. "They send a cub warrior against us. The local ‘military’ barely warrants being called such and any Spheroid BattleMech will be inferior to our Omnis."

"That may be, be I still warn all of you not to let ego affect your ability to recognize the cut-down during your bidding," continued Lauren, unruffled. "As I will preside over the batchall MechWarrior Helen will bid for my command Star."

The Star Captain produced four clear glass beads the size of her thumb knuckle. Each had the engraved symbol of one of the Novas or her Star trapped within. She slipped them one by one into a round canister and then made a show of rattling the balls around inside the container before attaching it to a small base. A motor within the base whirred to life and rotated the canister’s bottom so that one by one the balls fell out of a circling hole in the canister’s end and rolled out onto an attached track.

Lauren glanced down and saw that the yellow cat’s eye of her star had wound up in the second position.

"Fate had chosen the order," she intoned. "Star Commander Hector – you have the opening bid."

While the first bid was often considered a poor one to be forced to make, Hector was pleased with the result. He didn’t intend to win the bid and fight the stravag freebirths. He just wanted to make sure that none could claim he had refused to bid in this matter.

"I bid my entire Nova," he stated firmly.

Ned snorted and Helzing smiled slightly.

MechWarrior Helen now bid for the command star. "I have no Elementals, so I bid them away as well as one Omni."

That would be a four on five fight. Unless one of the remaining two Star Commanders wished to fine tune the bidding by bringing in total gross weight they would be required to drop to three ‘Mechs. Star Commander Lauren personally figured three medium Omnis to be at the cut-down – the point at which a bid was low enough to give the opponent a clear advantage.

Star Commander Ned was next and he had a surprising bid ready. "I will use three Omnis and one Star of Elementals."

It was a rarely used bidding tactic. Within some Clans five Elementals were considered as a single Omnimech during batchall but valued less then the lightest weight Omni for bidding purposes. Thus three Omnis and a Star of Elementals was a lower bid than four Omnis.

Helzing looked to his Elemental commander, who nodded assent. They would not be denied combat on this world again.

"Three Omnis, four Elementals," Helzing countered.

Star Captain Lauren was becoming angry now. This last bid could prevail – but with only the slightest luck the Inner Sphere force could win in her opinion. But such was the way of the Clans, she reminded herself.

"Star Commander Hector?" she prompted.

"Bargained well and done. Star Captain Lauren Gallagher. I withdraw."

Helen could only go to three ‘Mechs to beat the last bid. She knew that her Captain would be unhappy with such a bid.

"Bargained well and done. I withdraw as well Star Captain," replied Helen.

"I match his bid with a 190 ton cap," shot out Star Commander Ned as soon as Helen finished talking.

"180 tons," snapped back Helzing.

"170," Ned automatically replied.

"155 tons," countered the other.

"HOLD!" shouted Lauren Gallagher forcefully. Bidding was indeed the Clan way but so were over hyped egos and dangerous competitiveness. Nova Cat tradition had placed a few stop-guards an adept officer could use to reign in such a situation.

"I invoke Final Cut," she announced. "Lauren will hand you a piece of paper and you will write down your final bid. The lowest bid will win without further challenge. Let me remind you that the enemy star masses approximately 270 tons."

Unless one of the two Star Commanders wanted to challenge her to personal combat her decision would stand. As each grudgingly accepted a slip of paper while glaring defiantly at the other, neither seemed inclined to challenge their Captain this day. Helzing turned in the winning bid by pledging to use three Omni weighing no more than a total of 135 tons. Plus the four Elementals of course. Star Commander Ned had bid 140. They were both likely fools, Lauren told herself.

"Although I do not think this has been well bid, the old ways demand I pronounce this batchall closed – so bargained well and done Star Commander Helzing. You have my permission to choose from any Omni we have. Configure wisely if you plan on winning this challenge."

"I will win, Star Captain Lauren Gallagher," promised Helzing. "Their own strategy will defeat them."

"Quiaff?’ asked the Star Captain with true interest. "How will this occur Star Commander?"

"Aff, Star Captain. I studied the captured games results carefully. The mercenary Spheroids will split their star into two or three groups, one of which will attempt to hide with the Star League ECM. They will attempt to draw us into the same type of crossfire they used successfully against the planetary garrison. We will not fall for such Wolf-like tricks for Nova Cats are the greater hunters. When we attack the smaller groupings we will have parity. They will undoubtedly concentrate fire on one Omni hoping to take it down and thus provoke melee. We will then be free to concentrate our greater firepower and destroy each group separately. The Elementals will hunt down damaged stragglers or engage the cub pilot – whichever presents itself."

"I hope for your sake that your analysis of their plans is correct Star Commander," she told him. "All are dismissed now. We will have the Tellings-Fire tonight. I will issue the challenge time for tomorrow at 09:00. They have already indicated that they will use these proving ground boundaries for the field of honor."

As the Elementals and MechWarriors filed out she watched Helzing with calculating eyes. This would make a good Tellings story if he pulls it off. His plan was daring and well conceived. Helzing’s main problem was that he had no backup plan. If these Warder freebirths did something unexpected Helzing could find himself in great difficulty. The Nova Cat did not commit to the killing leap until her prey could not react to change it’s fate. She wondered if perhaps Star Commander Helzing had leapt too soon. She also wondered if there would soon be two more MechWarriors and a few Elementals in the infirmary following whatever procedure Helzing planned to use to choose which of his Nova would fight with him tomorrow.

While the third shift guards simply assumed that Captain Woods was the first one up the next morning, the truth was he had never slept. First he had been in the planning sessions with the MechWarriors as they devised and finalized a plan. The Major had not been thrilled with his role but when Lieutenant Jorgenson had quietly reminded their CO about Johm’s own philosophy of team work the Major had been forced to admit that the plan was sound and commit to do his part.

Then Woods had quietly dispatched third platoon to the lower foothills of the mountains to the West to place a communications relay that would collect incoming signals from a variety of sources. It would then send that data via microwave to a receiving dish mounted on one of the landing field light towers. It wasn’t as good as a satellite but it would do. In the early morning hours the detail returned. It was then that he learned three extra people had went along.

"Look Sir, do you want to hear what we saw or do you want to continue to berate me for supposedly acting without orders?" Sammi Cascade finally asked in exasperation.

That brought him up short. In the two years he’d known her he couldn’t recall the sergeant ever cutting off an officer in the middle of a sentence before. He also immediately noted her use of the word ‘supposed’.

"O.K. Sergeant, start from the top and detail your op then give me your observations," he agreed.

"Yes Sir. Bronski, Harper and I got to wondering what the Nova Cats might be doing around their DropShip so I asked Lieutenant Fosters if it was alright if we went along with Third and take a little hike around their ship."

"And I take it the Lieutenant agreed or you wouldn’t be offering this information," interjected Woods.

"Yes Sir. He just said don’t get caught and don’t get too close," she expanded.

"I hesitate to ask, but how close did you get Sergeant?"

"I’d estimate no closer than 100 meters Sir."

Woods suppressed a heavy sigh. "Out of curiosity would that be to their DropShip or to the closest Nova Cat?"

"The DropShip Sir," she replied crisply.

"Well, you’re here so you did accomplish at least one of the Lieutenant’s two directives. And your exit and return?"

"We hiked to a predetermined position and then, …a hovertank from Mosquito lance picked us up and we rode the shell back."

Osmo looked around in surprise but as far as he could see in the predawn darkness all three remaining Lightnings were parked where he had seen them last. How on Terra had they managed to sneak away a hovertank and get it back without him noticing? Then the answer struck him. When he was inside Bifrost obviously. It’d take an LRM hit to get your attention when you were locked up inside the armored command trailor. A good number of people had been involved in this "ad hock" scouting mission.

"I see. And your observations?"

"Mainly they seemed to be having some sort of celebration ritual. A number of them told battle stories – both recent and historical. Then some guy in a mask read from something they called ‘The Remembrance’. He’d pause at the end of a line every once and a while and they’d all say something that sounded like ‘seyla’. Then they danced around a big bonfire. I didn’t understand what it was about but it kind of reminded me of ceremonies I’ve seen at the Amindin or Cher-Apche Tribal Nations back homeside on Sampsa."

The possibility of some ancient tribal group’s beliefs having somehow been the basis for the mystic beliefs of the Nova Cats was very interesting. He shelved that idea away for further thought.

"Anyway," she continued, "we did see three ‘Mechs parked near the fire. Part of one of the ceremonies involved three guys I assumed to be the pilots and four of those huge Elementals. We got the general impression that they were the opposing team."

"Did you recognize the OmniMechs?"

"Nope, I’m not up to speed on Clan ‘Mech I.D.s," she admitted.

"Do you think you could recognize them if I showed you file pictures?"

"Wouldn’t have to," she grinned as she held up a special recon-spec digital camera. "I took pictures."

Woods smiled widely as he took the camera from her for downloading. "Sergeant Sammi, you are one bad girl."

"That’s what my Lieutenant keeps telling me Sir."

"Good work you three. Now go get some sleep. And the next time you want to try some hare-brained scheme like this…ask me first. I might have specific information or equipment that would be useful."

"Sisu Sir," all three replied with perfect salutes. They turned as one and disappeared into the DropShip.

He must be slowing down or something he told himself as Osmo returned to the confines of Bifrost yet again. In such a small, tight unit he should have expected a stunt like this. It was understandable though. Everyone wanted to help with the upcoming showdown in some way. This was the infantry and tanker groups way of being involved. It was also something he should have thought of himself. With his tactical and logistics duties taking so much time, obviously his touch with intelligence operations was slipping. He’d have to work on that. And here was a perfect chance for some intelligence analysis.

He was able to identify the three Clan ‘Mechs as they were all models that had seen regular service during the invasion years. Osmo was both elated that the Clanners had played right into their plan and somewhat insulted at the low threat that the Clan commander placed on the Suomi Warders. Well, the winning bidder Clan officer he reminded himself. It was best not to assume that the Star Captain had underestimated them even though obviously someone over there had.

The Vulture was the biggest of the three Clan Omnis at 60 tons. The pictures were not quite good enough to determine the exact weapons load but the two 20 tube LRMs that comprised each shoulder of the vaguely birdlike ‘Mech were definitely still in place. He didn’t see any secondary missile systems so he assumed it was in the most commonly observed weapons configuration. The Vulture could spell big trouble for any of their ‘Mechs – even 80 ton Granny the Awesome. It would have to be handled with care.

Next was a 40 ton Dragonfly. That the Nova Cats had one seemed slightly unusual because his WolfNet files claimed that only the Ghost Bears commonly fielded this model. It was obviously there though so either it was captured from the other Clan, somebody over there just happened to like Dragonflys, or his information was wrong. This one looked to have one SRM 6 and a host of medium lasers. It would be fairly nasty at medium range and in close but carried about the same armor load as their lightest 40 ton Warder ‘Mech – the modified Vulcan. The Dragonfly would be faster than anything the Warders were fielding however.

Last was a 35 ton Puma. On this OmniMech he could clearly identify the weapons load. It was carrying one Clan PPC, likely an extended range model, on each arm pylon. His Clan files indicated that the Puma often carried one of their sophisticated Clan targeting computers. That made this one their group’s sniper. All Pumas also had flamer attached in their center torso but flamers rarely saw much use against other ‘Mechs. There would presumably also be the four Elementals that Sammi had spotted as well. The Warders’ original plan had not counted on Elementals but unless they had to treat each armored trooper as an individual ‘Mech for challenge purposes no changes should be required. Besides, there was ample time for a final briefing with this new information.

Yes, the Clanners were in for a rude shock tomorrow. Today actually Osmo corrected himself as he glanced at his chronometer. Hopefully they were going to get what they least expected.

DropShip Baltic Serenade
‘Mech Bay
Coleson’s Orb
18 March 3052

Lieutenant Aukland sauntered up to the foot of her BattleMech and affectionately patted the large war machine. To her eye the round shouldered, thick legged ‘Mech had always looked plain and utilitarian. But that suited her just fine. Like Gracie herself, old Granny might not be anything special to look at but she packed what was needed to get the job done. The Lieutenant watched her chief tech lower himself to the deck down a lift line from up where he had been looking inside one of the three ER PPC barrels.

"Problem Sparks?" she asked the tech.

"No Ma’am, Mother Goose. I was just listening to what she had to tell me. She’s good-to-go Ma’am."

Sparks, his real last name incidentally, had always been a little weird. But Granny had never let Gracie down while under Sparks’ careful care. If the tech occasionally talked to Granny – so what? Gracie did the same thing from the cockpit all the time.

"Glad to hear it. And my mods?" she asked.

A dark frown formed on the lean man’s face. "I did it but I don’t like it. I pulled the rockets on the ejection system and disconnected the seat’s eject-bolts. Hit the eject key and all that’ll happen is that you’ll pop out your viewport and jettison the emergency hatch above you. You’ll have to actually crawl out to exit."

"That won’t be happening Sparks. If Granny finally goes down under me the only way I’m leaving that cockpit is when they pry out my dead body. Ah, Lieutenant Foster with my new sidearm I presume."

Foster strode up and handed over the automatic combat shotgun he was carrying.

"Sidearm she calls it," he snorted. "This should be just what the lady ordered. The shells are hand loaded, hardened steal sabot rounds. They’re hot loads so keep that thing in tight to your shoulder if you actually fire it."

"And it’ll take down an Elemental?" she inquired.

"Hah. Nothing you could carry inside the cockpit with you can toast a Toad simple as that. But what you have there is used to blast open hardened bars through doors or punch in reinforced security lock plates. It’s basically one giant sized bullet instead of pellets. It won’t go through a breast plate but hit the vision panel and you’ve scored a kill. Anywhere in the head should have a decent chance of stunning one long enough to follow up with a face shot. Just above or below the knee, elbow, or shoulder plates might give as well. The red button on the bottom of the grip activates a target laser. Out to 20 meters or so whatever the dot is on the shot is on. But isn’t the whole point to zap them with that one instead of that pea shooter?"

The infantry officer pointed up to the medium pulse laser mounted high and center in Granny’s torso.

"That’s the plan," she agreed. Then she waggled the shotgun. "This one is for uninvited visitors."

He smiled. "If that’s your remedy for uninvited guests, remind me never to crash one of your parties." He offered his hand. "Good luck Gracie. We know we can count on you folks to come through for us."

"Thanks Karl. Tell your boys and girls they made it a little easier for us with their picture taking walk-about. And by the way," she hefted the shotgun, "since you bring such great house warming presents you have a standing invite to all my future parties."

"I’ll be there," he promised as she walked over to the lift platform. "Oh yeah, take this. In case there’s a few extra unwanted guests," he called after her.

She caught the bandoleer of extra shells he tossed to her and nodded as the lift started rising. As they said on the horse ranch of her youth – it was time to saddle up. Giving her tech a thumbs up as she reached the cockpit hatch she grinned. Today just felt like a lucky day to her. Looking across the ship’s ‘Mech bay she could see John making the rounds and talking briefly with the other MechWarriors. Usually they just formed up outside without chatting. Whatever, she shrugged without giving it another thought. She was already visualizing a solid target box and another destroyed enemy.

Major Linna approached his newest MechWarrior as Jason was looking down and fiddling with the catches on his cooling vest. Clad only in the vest, boots, and shorts the Cadet looked much thinner than John recalled. Jason was startled when he looked up to find the Major standing a mere meter away regarding him but the youngster recovered quickly and threw John a creditable salute.

"Ready to go hit some Clanners?" the Major asked.

"Yes Sir," replied Jason. Despite his nervousness he couldn’t help but grin slightly at the thought of piloting a BattleMech in a real mission. "Or get hit by them anyway," he added ruefully.

"I know we’ve already covered all of this but us commander types can’t help repeating ourselves," John told him. "On the trip here we messed with that Vulcan a bit so you can fire the lasers as much as you want without overheating. It carries more armor than the standard model so it can take a decent pounding. Try to keep the Elementals around 150 meters away and just keep blasting. If they get within 30 meters use the jets to jump away, get some distance, then go back to plinking at them. If you face off against an Omni close to 150 meters as fast as possible, 90 if you can manage it, and keeping pulling the triggers until one of you can’t shoot anymore. Punch out if looks like you might lose the powerplant. Despite the fact we’re going to challenge them one on one we still have a team plan to stick with."

"I understand Sir," nodded Jason.

"You’ll do fine," smiled John. He noticed the hand painted lettering on the other’s neurohelmet for the first time. "Racker?"

Jason looked a bit sheepish. "It’s what spacers call the crewmate that works loading equipment. Since I first learned to pilot by running LoadMechs it seemed to fit."

John laughed and clapped the cadet on the shoulder. "Well, a guy called ‘Duck’ doesn’t have any room to talk."

Next in line was Naoko. She was wearing the same black, armless leotard-like outfit under her cooling vest John had seen her in during the CORDF exercises. Naoko was looking thoughtfully at the squat Bushwacker she would pilot.

"Is there a problem Chu-i?" he asked her.

"No Major. I was just thinking about my Kintaro is all. But this ‘Mech has better damage potential at range and much better electronics. It is also the one they expect. I got a good feel for it during yesterday’s exorcises. All will be well."

"Good. And again, our thanks for volunteering for this. Your help is much appreciated."

"No Major," she assured him slightly embarrassed. "Fighting a Clan unit with you and the Warders is my honor. It is I that thank you."

Hesitantly he reached out and patted her lightly on the shoulder. "After we go win this we can all thank each other. Good hunting Naoko."

"Hai, same to you," she responded with a short bow as he moved on to Lawman. Watching the Major’s retreating back she wondered if there was any significance to the shirt he wore under his cooling vest. Viewed from behind, the bright blue and white garment appeared to have a huge number on the back like a sports jersey might. Unless in a cold environment most male MechWarriors wore nothing under the necessary cooling vest when piloting a ‘Mech. Another mystery about a mysterious man she mused. Despite the sauna incident Lieutenant Aukland had sprung on her a few days ago, Naoko had yet to convince Gracie to reveal the story behind the Major’s call sign of Duck. Then Gracie had turned around and managed to convince Naoko to assume a somewhat trite comm name for this battle. Lance leader Aukland was a formidable woman.

"Hey Duck-man," greeted Sven as the Major approached. "Looks like we’re ready to roll."

"It does," agreed John as he glanced up to where Gracie was already sealing her cockpit hatch behind her. "I still don’t like this very much."

It was Sven who reached out to pat the Major this time. "We know you don’t. But we think Captain Woods is correct. The Clan warriors will be gunning for you as the top prize. That means they’ll be in a hurry to defeat any one of us that gets in their way and perhaps get sloppy. You’re not using us to protect yourself, we’re using you as bait to distract them."

"I know," sighed John. "And even though avoiding getting tied down in a fight is generally what my role is supposed to be in the Camelot it still doesn’t feel right this time."

Sven shrugged in commiseration with John’s feelings. "Sisu Sir," he replied simply.

John nodded. "Sisu," he agreed. One does what must be done. He turned and walked over to the feet of his own BattleMech. As usual, John paused for a moment just to gaze at the marvel of human technology that was a BattleMech. Or in this case his BattleMech. A giant’s battle armor, ready to be "worn" from a cockpit mounted low in the ‘head’. His sensed rather than saw the Chief Tech amble over to him. The Sergeant served as both the unit’s Chief Tech and the Major’s personal crew chief for the Camelot.

"Camelot One’s green to go," announced Sergeant Harding.

"She always is," nodded John. "Guess it’s time to mount up."

"And remember," Harding intoned solemnly, "when I send a pilot out in a working ‘Mech…"

"You expect it returned back to you that way," finished John. It was the same thing the Sergeant always said. In fact, in John’s experiences every crew chief said something roughly similar when sending a machine out to battle.

"Good luck and good hunting," finished the Chief Tech.

"Thanks Chief. Let’s do it." John hopped on the lift platform and Harding touched the control that sent it slowly up the framework of the ‘Mech niche. As John surveyed the bustle below he saw that Gracie was already heading out the door and Jason had cleared his niche. The other two had started moving as well.

After John strapped in and connected the various sensors and cooling cables required he powered up his BattleMech. The techs had already brought it to stand-by mode through the minimal access codes programmed into the machine. John gave the pass code that fully activated the Camelot for use and then switched on the voice circuit he had disabled yesterday when he had been carting a passenger around. After his daughter’s digitized voice gave him a full systems check he carefully eased from his niche and slowly walked across the bay floor and down the short ramp. The morning sun was still low over the mountains to his right as he stepped onto the tarmac. The other four BattleMechs waited off to his left, but it was the small crowd to his right that immediately caught his attention.

Along the edge of the landing field along the city side were scattered several groups of civilians. A few waved at the moving ‘Mechs but most just stared at the Warder units and DropShip from their small huddles. John was tempted to use one of his ‘Mech’s cameras and zoom in and read their expressions – but then faltered. He probably didn’t want to know. Did they know that the Warders were about to fight a battle for the right to leave all of them behind to the mercy of the Nova Cats? He forced such thoughts from his mind. If he could find a way to help them after leaving he would – but right now he could only do what he could do.

It was time for the initial status check. It wasn’t necessary of course; through the advanced C3 he could check their system’s displays for himself. But it was a good luck ritual. He keyed the ‘Mech’s shared comm-line. "Snow Stalkers, status check please."

"Mother Goose, ready to stuff and cook some Nova Cats."

"This is the Lawman, ready to bust some perps."

"Racker here Sir. Going to stack them up then knock them over."

John smiled to himself. He wondered how long Jason had agonized over his status check "debut".

"Katana reporting," came Naoko’s voice last. "poised and ready to strike Major."

"Katana?" asked John in surprise. To his knowledge the DCMS didn’t habitually use call signs. Then he laughed. "I suspect that one Lieutenant Aukland had a hand in this. Welcome to the Stalkers, Kat. I’m the Duck and I show green across all boards. Let’s go meet the Nova Cats. Waypoints are set, Racker you have point. Diamond formation centered on me."

As his warriors called in their Wilcos, John brooded on Naoko’s call sign name. On the surface it was an obvious reference. A katana was the longer sword carried by a samurai. But he would wait to see if Gracie also shortened the name to ‘Kat’. Gracie’s ex-wing mate Vilho was "Kissa". ‘Cat’ in Finnish. Coincidence or significance?

In the Clan DropShip Gallant, Star Captain Lauren Gallagher intently studied the radar display before her. More powerful than the system a ‘Mech could carry, the DropShip’s ground radar was using a tall mast that had been extended from the top of the ship to survey the battlefield. The proving grounds were a flat plain for several thousand kilometers before her. Sparsely forested hills rose at that point, being steep to the west where they eventually lead into the mountain range and much lower and rounded to the east. The hill line was the mid point of the grounds with her forces centered in their half while the Warder BattleMechs waited in the hills in the central sector of their half.

"What do you think Star Captain?" asked MechWarrior Helen of her friend and commanding officer.

"We shall see when the clock counts to zero," replied Lauren. "But so far it seems a curious placement. As you can see for yourself, the freebirth ‘Mechs are in a wide semi-circle, each on top of a hill where they can be clearly located by radar. They do not appear to be arranged to form into groups. The known ECM unit – the presumed Star League BattleMech their commander pilots – is not using the system. Perhaps they mean to wait for the combat to start then duck down into the valleys below them."

Both warriors watched as the engagement clock ticked down to 0:00. The Clan OmniMechs had just started to move forward when the open comm line flared to life.

"This is Lance Leader Aukland. I pilot the Awesome currently on hill 37 and I challenge the Star Leader of the Nova Cats to single combat."

Even before Star Commander Helzing could answer a new freebirth voice filled the line.

"This is Lieutenant Jorgenson in the Bushwacker on hill 39 and I challenge the second ranked MechWarrior of the Nova Cats."

Immediately a different female voice was on the line. "I am Chu-i Fujiwara in the Bushwacker on hill 20 and I issue challenge to the third ranked MechWarrior."

Finally came a fourth, young sounding male voice. "I am Cadet Nellson in the Vulcan on hill 29 and I issue challenge to the Elemental unit for combat between them and my BattleMech."

There was a moment of general confusion among the Nova Cats until Star Commander Helzing finally commed onto the line. "Where is your leader? Is he not willing to fight us?"

It was the strong female voice they had first heard that responded. "If you mean our commanding officer, know that I am the lance leader and no one may engage our CO until they have proven themselves by defeating me first. To date, no one has Clanner."

"Then I shall destroy you before your commander’s eyes so that he may see his own fate. I, Star Commander Helzing, accept your challenge."

Under Clan rules of engagement there were not many courses of action available to Helzing. It was permissible to bring in reinforcements equal to the last bid without losing much honor – but the last bid was simply for more gross weight. It wasn’t practical at this point to run back and grab a bigger Omni. Reverting to his opening bid could be done at the risk of being dezgra but as his opening bid three Omni’s plus the Elementals again it was simply a matter of more gross weight. He could declare melee and turn it into a free-for-all. But to do so without the freebirth opponents causing melee first would bring a great loss of honor. A Clan MechWarrior was expected to best a single Spheroid freebirth mercenary. Thus each Nova Cat accepted their given challenge.

"Fight well and with honor, Nova Cats," Star Captain Lauren added after her warriors had issued their acceptances.

Lauren watched the novice freebirth’s ‘Mech charge forward to engage the Elementals on the plain while the other Warders waited on their respective hills for the advancing Clan OmniMechs. They would undoubtedly choose to stay within the hills to nullify the range advantage of the Omnis. She wondered if the enemy had elected to use individual challenges as an attempt to follow Clan rules for honor combat or for some other tactical reason. It was also curious that their Major had not issued challenge. Most Clan officers would have been the first to challenge – but those of sufficiently high rank might well refuse to issue challenge to an opponent that had not proven worthy yet. The Nova Cat Clan did not dismiss instincts out of hand as many other Clans did. Lauren was starting to get a bad feeling about this contest.

MechWarrior Helen noticed her friend’s changing mode. "What are you thinking now?" she quietly asked the Star Captain.

"I am thinking that Star Commander Helzing may end up wishing he had taken his two freebirth Star Mates instead of his truebirths so that he would have someone to blame for this upcoming fiasco."

In the 40 Ton Vulcan Jason was concentrating on keeping the BattleMech on its feet as he raced it flat out over the rolling hills. His threat display was only showing the three Clan OmniMechs until he came down the last slope before the plains. Then four new red dots appeared on his screen next to one of the Omnis. The OmniMechs continued forward into the hills while the four dots representing the Elementals moved toward him. The sweat that soaked his hair and neck had nothing to do with cockpit heat. Heat levels hadn’t moved up perceptively during his run. He was nervous, excited and scared. But fear was something all spacers had to defeat early if they were going to live their lives in the black darkness between the stars. Without even realizing it, Jason had started treating the engagement as a decompression final test. Keep your breathing steady. Access your location and the situation. Determine your potential actions. Choose the best action you can identify. Then act, do not hesitate. Delaying brings death as surely as choosing incorrectly. Slowing to a more manageable cruising speed he angled to their right, twisted the torso slightly to better aim, and fired at the first Elemental to bounce into the magnified target box.

The lead Elemental laughed out loud in scorn as their target ‘Mech slowed and fired a laser burst some eight meters over their heads. "Follow me and prepare to fire SRMs on my order," he barked into his comm.

Jason frowned slightly to himself and flicked off the magnification. Checking the range he realized they were still some 260 meters away. He’d never hit the troopers with his medium lasers at that range. Jason also decided that the magnification circle the HUD could project jumped around too much while moving to keep centered on such small targets. Taking a moment while he had the chance he switched his weapons so that the large laser fired from one trigger button, the small one from a different one, and the three medium lasers would cycle and fire in order from a third. The target box would flash yellow whenever the combined sensors thought something was directly under his guns. It wasn’t terrible accurate but until he got in closer he’s just fire off the large laser every time the box went gold. Once at a better range he’d just keep shooting lasers until he hit something.

Adjusting their course as the Vulcan angled in toward them, the Elementals paused and fired the first salvo of their paired short range missiles. Half of the eight missiles fired impacted on the approaching BattleMech. Jason felt slight shudders through his seat as he lost some armor here and there but the small explosions weren’t near enough to impede the 40 ton ‘Mech. Now approaching a range of 170 meters he squeezed the firing stud of his large laser just as the target box went gold. There was a silvery flash as vaporized armor and metal reflected in the morning sunlight. Although smashed to the ground, incredibly the Elemental was soon on his feet again. Jason noticed however that the one he had just hit no longer bounced around on suit jets like the others did. Another light shower of missiles nibbled at more armor but he hadn’t taken enough cumulative damage anywhere to trigger even the one quarter level his systems were designed to report.

Despite the surge of elation from scoring a hit, the quiet steady voice buried someplace in the back of Jason’s head kept repeating over and over to stay calm, scan his options, pick something, and act. He was hyperventilating a little but otherwise felt under control. While scanning his options he realized that he was going to move in closer that he was supposed to and adjusted his course. Now he had to twist the torso almost fully to one side to fire on his targets as none of his weapons were arm mounted. Moving on a steady course while looking and shooting to the far left proved more difficult in real life than in the sim pods but he kept a steady stream of laser fire going at which ever target happened to be closest. A medium laser scored another hit for him but there was no visible effect on the Elemental.

The Elementals were in a worsening situation and they knew it. The cub pilot of their target ‘Mech had not made any of the mistakes that had finished the careers of many other Inner Sphere pilots. Many MechWarriors held the small relative size of the power armor suits in disdain and rushed in close to try to stomp and blast them. Then the Elementals could swarm onto the enemy where it could no longer reach them and blast away at will. But this warrior did not. This warrior had also raced down to meet them in the open flat where there was no cover for the slower Elementals. Luckily they were hard to hit and the Vulcan was proving a poor marksman. However by circling out of range of their small lasers he could shoot at them all day until eventually he scored enough hits to kill them. Their two shot missile racks were now empty. When it was clear that the BattleMech was intently shooting at one of his Star Mates, the lead Elemental stopped bouncing around to track the ‘Mech’s arc for a moment. Indeed, it was as he had hoped. This might be their main chance.

"His spiral is tightening," commed the lead. "Take up standard foxtrot positions and prepare for boarding attack." If they could get just one Elemental on the ‘Mech the pilot would likely become preoccupied and thus allow the others to close and attack.

Jason frowned in concentration as he chased an Elemental with repeated medium laser blasts to no avail. He was aware of some comm chatter on the open line but as no one had said his name he had paid no attention. His situational awareness was focused down to himself and the armored troopers. He hadn’t realized that occasionally he adjusted his aim by turning in a bit more rather than let his target slide away and wait for a new one. The collision proximity alarm that scanned down around the legs startled him by sounding. He realized that he had just managed to run a circle that brought him right past the heavily damaged Elemental who had then somehow managed to get onto his leg. The power armor had enough mass to activate the motion detector.

Immediately he fired his jump jets. The Major had said if he got too close to jump away, get some distance, and then start at them again. The one on his leg was definitely too close. He concentrated on his landing, hoping that the impact might shake the armored trooper lose. Then he started off at a run away from the others. As he ran he fiddled with the view from the camera mounted for looking under or behind him until he managed to locate the stubborn Elemental. The trooper was doggedly clinging to his leg with an arm that ended in a big pincher clamp and firing the laser mounted on the other arm at the side of his knee. On cue the warning outline over that leg went yellow. The big question was what to do about it.

He checked his threat display and saw that the other Elementals were way out of their weapon range and would be a while closing on him. The most obvious course of action was to grab the guy so with an adeptness born of many hours grabbing cargo pods off of moving conveyers he kneeled slightly and wrapped an armored fist around the Elemental before the Clanner realized his danger. As Jason lifted the figure up it took a shot at his cockpit with the small laser but missed high. Jason thought about squeezing the Elemental but somehow couldn’t bring himself to squish the trooper right in his hand. Instead he raised the hand high then dashed the armored suit to the ground. Looking down at the battered body he started to gag and almost heaved. That wasn’t a smoking ‘Mech with an ejection seat sailing cleaning away. It was the shattered remains of a person he had just killed laying meters below at his feet.

Tearing his gaze away he spun the Vulcan to one side and started it in motion once again. When he finally got to thinking about it a few days later he figured it was his space training that had kept him from retching. Depending on the circumstances up-chucking in zero gee could range form embarrassing to fatal.

The Elemental lead watched the fate of his fellow dispassionately. He’d never liked Troy that much anyway. The really unfortunate part was that the Spheroid pilot had sped away rather than panic and try to shed Troy immediately. They had not gotten any good shots off. Their only chance was to reach someplace with cover and he doubted they would make it even with the Vulcan’s erratic shooting. There was too much ground to cover. Still, better death than dishonor. He would never surrender to a cubling Spheroid mercenary. He gave orders for best speed and an evasive hoping pattern toward the hill line.

As they retreated Jason closed the gap, braved a little long range small laser fire, and carefully fired his lasers. One by one the remaining Elementals fell to multiple hits until finally just the lead was left. He tried charging the Vulcan but it jumped away farther than the suit jets could carry, ran off some distance while suffering a light back armor hit from him, then turned to start sniping at him again. He stopped jumping and simply walked at the ‘Mech, firing his small laser as fast as it would cycle despite the fact he was out of effective range. A medium laser hit staggered him and fused his left leg to the twisted remains of the armor suit but powerful painkillers were dumped into his body so he could fight on. Limping forward, still firing, he finally got what he wanted. A laser blast that pierced the center torso and vaporized his flesh, erasing the dishonor of loss with death.

Drenched in sweat and feeling exhausted, Jason blinked his eyes and checked the threat display for a third time. It was clear. He had done it. He had won his first battle. Dimly he became aware of the voices on the main comm-line. He had lost all track of the bigger battle and wasn’t even sure how long he had been fighting the Elementals. Weary as he felt from the post adrenaline burn he turned the Vulcan toward the nearest enemy blip his scanners registered and started moving.

Sitting high in Granny’s cockpit Gracie was amazed to realize that her opposite had literally meant his words. Rather than closing on her position the Star Commander was making for the hill Major Linna stood upon. The Clanner really did aim to drop her from right in front of her CO. She had a few moments so she checked on the lance with Bifrost on a secure channel. Racker was running around on the flats, Lawman was moving to meet his opponent over a ridge line and Kat had been forced down a steep hill where Bifrost couldn’t get a radar return but the Bushwacker was still transmitting mostly green system indicators. Checking her opponent’s progress she decided it was time to concentrate on her own battle. She locked a communications laser on the Major and asked him to stay where he was. He replied that he would.

It had been disappointing when she had first realized that the Star Commander was not in their biggest OmniMech, the Vulture. Instead, Star Commander Helzing was piloting the Puma. The squat ‘Mech was adroitly charging along at 70 to 90 kph as it climbed up hills and sped down the opposite sides. She knew it was carrying two presumably extended range particle projector cannons thus she expected the Clanner to engage her in a long range shoot out. She was game. The topographical map showed that he would pop up for one long range shot, then if he really planned to go flaunt himself by the Major he would likely stick to two canyon lines that would put him slightly in her rear right quarter as she was currently faced. At that point he would have curved around and still be at long range. But first the prelude – a quick bit of sniping and counter-sniping. She lined up her crosshairs where she expected him to emerge and waited.

Star Commander Helzing cleared the engagement hilltop with his torso already slightly skewed so he could line up a quick shot with both ER PPCs before dropping down below line of sight. He smiled to himself as the spotted the slowly strolling Awesome almost 600 meters away and fired off both weapons. Two jagged, blue-white bolts of aggravated high energy protons went probing for the Inner Sphere ‘Mech. One missed left, but the other caught his target in the left front, blasting and melting almost a ton of armor from the mercenary machine. Apparently undaunted, the enemy ‘Mech spat three bolts of the same right back at him. Helzing swore in surprise and struggled to keep his ‘Mech upright as two of the high energy blasts rocked him just before he dropped out of the line of fire. One had caught him dead center above the gyros while the other had smashed into the left arm. Both compartments had held against the lesser powered Inner Sphere PPC but a quick check of the tell-tales showed that there was barely any armor on the arm and another such hit would definitely rip into the internals of his center torso. Grimly he cursed the freebirth’s luck as he maneuvered through the two open canyons that would lead to the hill his sensor suite indicated still held their Major.

Judging by the amount of armor she had just lost Gracie figured that the Clan PPC packed more of a punch than hers. Another hit there might penetrate so she used the few moments available to her while the Star Commander closed on Major Linna’s position to shift around and protect that side somewhat. Then she waited once again. An armchair MechJock might call what she was planning cheating but she didn’t see it that way. After all, the Clanners didn’t mind using better weapons, configurable OmniMechs, special targeting computers, and who knew what else against them. The point was to win and if the enemy made it easier then tough on them.

As the Clan Puma rushed up the hill the Warder Camelot of Major Linna was feeding targeting data through the C3 system to Gracie’s Awesome. Even though she couldn’t physically see the Puma her heads up display was projecting a golden circle that indicated a lead factor based on both their velocities and vectors as if there wasn’t a hill between her and the Clanner. It was almost as if she would be firing from John’s position only 80 meters away rather than from 570 or so. She waited until the Puma fully cleared the hill line and let lose with all three ER PPCs in a combined blast. Heat surged through the ‘Mech once again but she wasn’t concerned as more than enough time had elapsed to purge the heat from her earlier salvo.

Helzig came over the hill first looking at the closer ‘Mech to make sure it wasn’t lining up to shoot him in the back before turning his attention to his far off target. Seeing a blaze of energy crashing down on him he flinched away just as his Puma was savaged by three direct hits. The damaged arm was hit again and totally shattered. All that remained was a few internal spars and sparking wires protruding from the shoulder mount-joint. The other two hits smashed across the center and right torso causing internal damage along the centerline and shredding most of the armor from the right side. Riding out the wildly swaying Omni, Helzing got his feet back firmly under him and lined up his remaining weapon. As his advanced targeting computer indicated the best solution he was likely to achieve he pulled the trigger. Then he gave thought to his own damage. At first he thought he had lucked out with the center hit and avoided any critical damage until he realized that his heat level was climbing higher than it should from one ER PPC shot. His engine shielding was damaged and leaking extra heat into the Omni’s core. With growing agitation he then noticed that he had only scored a leg hit on his enemy for all his pains.

Gracie watched as the Clan Omni rocked with her hits then began a tight circle designed to shield it’s left side from her. As the left arm was missing the enemy pilot would have no choice but to torso twist and open up more to bring his right arm mounted weapon to bear on her. But it didn’t really matter. Unless something very quirky happened this battle was just about over. As the GA that had rode with John had not mentioned the C3 system in his report– planning to only bring it up after a few days of letting the CORDF MechWarriors eat crow – that very same captured report had failed to inform the Nova Cats of the C3. While General Klef had been aware she had seen no reason to mention it to the Nova Cats. Thus the Star Commander was unaware of his danger and still vainly circling at "long" range to make himself a more difficult target when three more hits crashed into his battered ‘Mech. Clan PPCs may hit harder than Inner Sphere models but they don’t recharge any faster. She was ready before he was.

One bolt of man-made lightning blasted away most of the right leg armor. The second entered and collapsed the left torso despite the attempt to shield it. But the third blast had made the other damage moot when it caught the low slung cockpit and blasted through with enough energy to melt Helzing and his control consoles into unrecognizable slag. Suddenly inert, the Omni crashed to the ground as the fail-safe systems within shut down the damaged power plant of the pilotless machine.

That was a clean kill she thought to herself with satisfaction as Gracie glanced at her damage indicators. Two sections had suffered armor damage but otherwise Granny was still in prime shape to stomp some more Nova Cat. She was tempted to make a disparaging remark over the open comm but decided against it. She didn’t want to give the other two Clan MechWarriors anything that might amp up their performance.

The newly christened "Katana" had waited to judge the likely approach vector of her opponent then used the map projection to pick an engagement area. She had been dismayed when she realized that the 60 ton Vulture was coming after her. But she had concentrated on settling into the mental void from which a samurai acts without influence of emotion. As she was already positioned in the area with the steepest inclines she would use that to her advantage. A steep hill with a rocky ridge suggested itself as a good first contact location. Naoko settled her Bushwacker so that it’s legs faced almost 90 degrees from the torso allowing her to fire then move quickly below the ridge line without fully turning to expose her back.

Using the dirt roadways shown on his electronic map of the proving grounds, Clan Mechwarrior James made the best possible time toward his foe but slowed as he neared the area she currently occupied. Although he couldn’t visually see the lucre Spheroid warrior his sensors had her unit located and tagged. His on-board identification library had little information on the Spheroid BattleMech. He knew it supposedly carried an autocannon and lasers, but was disinclined to trust the silly war-game data from the play weapons these Warders and the CORDF had used yesterday. James planned to destroy the other ‘Mech quickly so he could then claim combat against this Major that felt himself above trueborn. A read of his displays told him the enemy waited on a hilltop that should be in line of sight from the rise before him. Range would be approximately 500 meters. This was fine by him as he’d be able to employ his large pulse lasers as well as his dual missile racks. This would likely be a quick combat he decided.

The thin torso Clan Mad Dog (which the IC had dubbed the Vulture) walked up over the rounded rise straight at the Bushwacker’s position. Each arm ended not in hands but in weapon barrels that spat pulsed laser energy. One burst scorched the sparse grass around the rocks but the other burned deep furrows in the armor of Naoko’s ‘Mech. A green laser blast from the Bushwacker went high but the Mad Cat caught a high velocity round from the Inner Sphere LB-X autocannon in the right arm. Around a half-ton of armor splayed off the OmniMech’s appendage. Within the Omni James’ lips curved into a feral smile as his missile lock pulse toned and he fired both of the boxy missile launchers that comprised his ‘Mech’s shoulders. His smile quickly faded as his foe dropped below the ridge just as he fired. His 40 missiles uselessly blasted rock and dirt along the hill as he cursed himself. He had fallen prey to an old trick and wasted one of his six missile salvos. It was a mistake he would not repeat. He pushed his speed up to flank level to pursue his prey who seemed to be moving in an arc that would soon place her on the far side of the hill she had fired from.

Naoko ran her ‘Mech along the "v" where two hills met and up around the sloping mound before the Clan ‘Mech could get a second shot off. Despite her attempt to stay in the void she was feeling good about dodging the twin LRM 20 launches with that classic maneuver. The arm damage she had taken troubled her though. Only a few scraps of armor remained. Another hit would have a good chance of disabling the potent LB-10X cannon mounted there. She turned her attention from the armor display to the map screen. In a battle of positioning she had no advantage – both ‘Mechs were chick-walkers of the same top speed. What she needed to do was get in close and do as much damage as possible with her shorter ranged medium lasers. That would greatly reduce the threat of the Clanner’s long range missiles as well. The trick would be how.

She picked her next spot. It would be risky but might result in an uncontested shot or two – if she survived the next exchange intact. Running away from the Omni along the edge of a very steep drop off she waited until she was about allow a shot against her rear armor. She then slowed and spun 180 degrees so that she was headed back the way she had just come and was now quickly closing on the enemy ‘Mech. This time the range was closer to 260 meters as the two adversaries came into firing range again. It was at the very edge of medium laser range but Naoko fired them anyway along with her large laser and the cannon. For his part, the Clan pilot decided to save his missiles in case she stepped off the ridge line to avoid them. He did have a quad of pulse lasers, two medium and two large, to fire at her however.

Naoko connected with everything she fired except one medium laser. Armor was melted or blasted from the center torso and left leg of the Clan Omni but it retained it’s feet with grace and then danced two streams of pulse energy across her Bushwacker’s shoulders. Armor steamed and hissed angrily as it was burned away. Neither set of hits came close to actually holing the opposing ‘Mech although both pilots momentarily juggled their controls to adjust for the lost armor weight and stay upright. In the OmniMech James was cursing his poor shooting and considering using the missiles after all when Naoko miss-stepped and lurched over the steep embankment. He rushed to the edge himself but then ventured forward very slowly to actually look over in case the Spheroid warrior waited in ambush below. All he saw was her back just as she used yet another fold in the terrain to mask herself from his fire along the edge of the flat prairie.

Still cursing he almost charged straight down the steep hillside after her but then reconsidered. The chance of a fall was high and by now it had been too long for the quick kill that would have enabled him to go engage their Major. Better to take the long way around and catch her somewhere along the edge of the flat plains. As he picked his way around and down the steep, lose embankment James could see their Elementals being chased around by a Spheroid ‘Mech out in the fields. James had not thought much of his Star Commander’s plan to use such a small number of the armored troopers against even an Inner Sphere BattleMech. Then the fool had ordered the Elementals to dismount so that the OmniMechs could make best speed toward the Warder BattleMechs. That had left the Elementals in the open where even a green cubling could cut them down. A very wasteful use of personnel. Perhaps he would find a way to challenge the Star Commander for leadership of their Nova when this was done.

Although the freebirth had tucked her ‘Mech into an arroyo where three hills came together, her emissions served well enough for his sensors to plot her location. The Spheroid warrior was probably hoping he would charge in there and allow more of her lesser quality Inner Sphere weapons to be brought to bear against his Mad Dog. But he was too cunning a hunter to do such a thing. Setting his course in a wide arc he brought the range between them down to an optimal distance between minimum LRM range and the effective ranges of his pulse lasers. Soon he would be opposite the gully’s mouth where he could poor all of his firepower down upon her in one grand pounce.

Naoko realized that the Clanner was going to keep his distance rather than close with her. Thus she was effectively trapped. The slow going up the slopes would leave her terribly exposed. Her original plan had been to pass this gully and head up the easier grade farther on but the leg damage from her sliding fall down the escarpment had slowed her too much. Her options were limited but a quick study of the extra data feeds from her fellow Warders’ C3 computers told her that she had already accomplished the main part of their plan. She had kept the Vulture busy long enough that the other Clan units had been individually engaged and were being dealt with. Now the only thing left for her to accomplish was to damage the Vulture as much as possible so that one of her teammates could finish it off.

Even as she said a quick prayer to her ancestors and started her ‘Mech forward, part of her brain was realizing that for the first time in her experiences as a MechWarrior she really felt like she was part of a true team. Wryly she hoped that this would not double as the last time she felt that way. As the last spur of hill blocking the enemy from sight slid past she chided herself for letting her mind wander and losing concentration within the void. Then she grinned. To hell with it, she decided. The time for strategy and the void was past in this battle. She dropped her inner walls and let all of the anger and frustration of her early postings and expulsion from the DCMS well up within her and burst out for the first time. Urging the ‘Mech into the best run it could muster she charged her foe with a screaming Kia yell that reverberated through her cockpit and her spirit.

Despite having seen her initial movements and deducing her plan, the Clan warrior was still momentarily surprised as she burst into view as a fierce, soulful scream crashed over the shared comm line. The Inner Sphere ‘Mech fired first and hit him with both it’s large laser and the LB 10-X autocannon. Her efforts took armor from an arm and leg and bought her the return fire of four pulse lasers. With great satisfaction James watched the red energy darts shred the cannon wielding arm into metal streamers and slash much of the armor from the Bushwacker’s torso and legs. Although swaying from the loss of it’s arm, the Inner Sphere ‘Mech pressed on relentlessly and responded with two green laser blasts and a pair of red streaking pulse lasers. One of each hit, melting more armor from the Vulture’s right torso. James noted that she had actually managed to struggle just inside the usual minimum aiming range for LRMs. However she had done so too late. He had a strong lock tone already and as she was moving directly toward him the missiles would not be required to make radical vector changes in the short flight to the enemy ‘Mech. Although his heat levels were starting to get high he fired both LRM 20s and sent forty missiles at her to put a finish to this fight.

Naoko saw the flash of multiple ignitions from the Vulture’s shoulders and knew she had not closed quickly enough. Trained reflexes took over and she canted her nose down, squatted to provide a smaller target while gaining greater stability, and shielded her cockpit with the one good arm as best she could. A rain of deadly hail crashed down upon her a moment later. With the sound vibrations passing through her ‘Mech as well as the concussive force of the explosions a deafening rolling thunder assailed her as the ‘Mech rocked and bucked under multiple hits. Fiercely buffeted, the great machine was literally pushed to the ground by the attack.

Though badly battered, both the Bushwacker and it’s MechWarrior yet lived. Her head swimming from the pounding that had included a cockpit armor hit, Naoko practically willed the BattleMech back up onto it’s wobbly legs. Wiping blood from her eyes and nose with her uninjured arm, she read her status displays with surprise. Something still actually worked. One medium laser still glowed green and ready to fire. That was about the extent of the good news however. Both ‘Mech arms were now gone, the cockpit was nearly breached, the torso was holed in many places and sporting internal damage that included engine and gyro hits, there was maybe a grand total of two tons of armor left scattered about the ‘Mech including the untouched rear armor; the list went on. As the long suffering tech character of a popular holovid about fictional MechWarrior Ace McFace was fond of saying – the machine was more Wreck than ‘Mech. Wavering on the shaky gyro she fired the one laser and scored an arm hit that took most of the remaining armor.

James found himself impressed by his opponent’s bravery and tenacity- especially for a freebirth. Punching out after suffering the damage she had endured would have been an honorable end to this battle. Perhaps this Spheroid might make a decent bondsman. With his heat dangerously high and not wanting to further risk injuring his potential prize he sprayed the two medium pulse lasers at her damaged legs. One leg sheared just under the knee while the other was melted through mid "thigh" so that it trailed metal spars and myomer fiber bundles. Naoko’s BattleMech crashed down heavily, slamming her around the cockpit once again. The restraint harness held but the lock bolt that kept her neurohelmet attached to the chair’s docking collar snapped and allowed the heavy helm to whip her head to one side. She felt a jab of pain in her neck and thought she heard John call her name before her world went black.

In the Vulture James was checking his status and letting the machine vent his excessive heat when the shaky young voice he recognized as the Warder "cadet" challenged him to single combat. It was difficult for him not to laugh in contempt, thus he didn’t even try. Once he was done with his chortle he addressed the impudent freebirth trash-gene.

"I am no puny Elemental caught in the weeds little cub. Go mew elsewhere. I have business to attend to with your masters."

"I have your business right here," growled back Jason as he got a long range look at the smoking remains of Naoko’s ‘Mech. "You can’t outrun me so fight or die."

"Hah! I think it is you that will be dying today. So be it then – I accept your challenge and shall destroy you."

The 40 ton Vulcan had actually gotten in fairly close while James had been letting his OmniMech cool. But not close enough. Centering his firing crosses on the advancing Vulcan he fired both LRM 20s once again.

Once he had identified which target was his, Sven had immediately started his Bushwacker into motion. He had drawn the Dragonfly and it was moving with impressive speed toward his general position. Lawman knew he’d have to execute this combat carefully as although his was the heavier ‘Mech his enemy’s was much more maneuverable. In fact, judging by it’s current speed it was about a third again faster than his. The Dragonfly also carried jump jets. Sven had none. Back during the briefings Captain Woods had expressed surprise that the Nova Cats even had one as this Omni was believed by the Inner Sphere militaries to be in use only with the Ghost Bears. Sven Jorgenson hadn’t a clue why it was in Cat colors nor did he care. His only concern was stopping it cold. As he had earlier devised for the other two Omnis, he had a plan to deal with this one as well.

Although the hills were generally more sloped on this side of the proving grounds there was a lightly wooded hill with a steep crevasse running down one side. That is where he took his ‘Mech. Parking himself along the ridge amid the sparse trees he patiently waited for his foe.

Nova Cat MechWarrior Melaine had always prided herself on her ability to take on larger foes with smaller, agile ‘Mechs. She had been quite pleased when this particular Omni had been captured and assigned for her use. She counted herself lucky that she had not been forced to use an unfamiliar ‘Mech for this combat. This new Spheroid BattleMech she hunted was an interesting challenge. Their captured war-games report showed that it was not particularly fast but it was well armed for a long range fight and had a low profile that would make it harder to hit during a running strafe attack. Locked in individual combat as they were it would be honorable to attack from behind if she could maneuver for such a shot. She would see if such could be arranged.

Melaine crept up to the top of a hill until just her canopy cleared the top for a visual confirmation of what her sensors claimed. She saw that the mercenary warrior had chosen a cunning place to face her. The steep wooded slope behind him would slow her down and make jumping potentially dangerous. He could also scoot down his side of the slope to shield his back if she tried to jump over him. He was obviously aware of her presence as his laser arm was pointed at her although he had thus far chosen not to fire at this extreme range. Rushing headfirst into battle was the hallmark of many Clan warriors but it was not her way. She certainly was not going to charge over the hill and right at him. Backing down the hill a bit she studied the map for a moment then decided to attack from over the open side of the hill slightly above him. To get there required crossing an open area at long pulse laser range on the run. It would be a good test of both their gunnery skills.

Loping along at just over 120 kph Melaine’s Viper (as the Clans called her ‘Mech) had skewed it’s torso enough to fire the pair of medium pulse lasers in her arm. As she sighted her target through the trees she saw that he had shifted a bit for a better angle on her. Pressing the trigger she put one red burst high and left but the second tore away at the freebirth’s left arm.

Sven calmly watched his two separate targeting crosses as he began to swing his aim in the same directional movement as his target’s run. His aim had started ahead of the Clan ‘Mech. He was giving himself an extra moment to keep his lead indicators within the targeting reticule his HUD painted over the moving enemy. The incoming blaze of pulsed laser fire he ignored except to note that the weapons were housed in the Omni’s right arm. As the red triangle swept along and converged with the first target cross and he fired the ER large laser. A heavy green beam lashed out and slashed a half ton of armor from the pulse laser bearing arm. His LB-10X required slightly more lead. His HUD washed the red triangle over the second target cross and the autocannon spoke. A solid hit dead center rocked the Omni before it ran on behind cover. A quick glance at his damage bars told him he’d lost a bit more than half the armor on his cannon bearing arm. He watched his threat display closely. With a thumb he hit the reload switch, choosing to stay with the high explosive, dual purpose rounds rather than load one of the special cluster shells. He generally carried 20 of the first and 10 of the latter. The "shotgun specials" as he called them were for finishing work and this battle hadn’t reached that stage yet.

The Dragonfly pilot had slowed for a hard turn and was now accelerating up his hill from the other side. Sven elected to charge up the hill as well. He was much closer to the top but the faster Omni on the clear side got there slightly before him. She ignited her jets planning to jump over him and fire on his rear but as she started up he kept his forward momentum going and slipped over the hilltop to the other side before she got twisted around and landed. Neither had an opportunity to fire and neither could currently see the other even though they had just passed within eight vertical meters. Sven was almost tempted to call out "toro" but doubted the Clanner had ever seen a classic TexMex bullfight. The Bushwacker came to a stop once again with it’s legs facing 90 degrees from the body.

Melaine saw from on her sensors that the Spheroid had stopped again. She gave him some time to get himself pointed at her over the hill top. This also allowed her heat sinks to bleed off the heat from her jump and for her to make some mental calculations. If she goosed the thrust just right she’d be able to come down on the hill crest and target him if he ran below her again or stay on the juice and drop behind him should he choose to stand his ground. Her heat scale was bottomed again so she lit the jets and soared skyward. As soon as she saw the Bushwacker from the air she realized she’d just made a mistake but there was little she could do now. Hoping he’d make a piloting error she chose to land beyond him farther down the slope.

As he had expected, the Dragonfly had jumped again. Waiting until she committed to go over him rather than drop short, he then used the foot controls to turn sharply and back up while using the hand ones to swing his torso around. As his legs were already facing diagonal to her path he only required half the time to get his ‘Mech’s weapons pointed at her than if his legs had been centered with the torso. She started shooting just before touching down but Sven waited until the Omni had lit and the body started to recoil back upwards from absorbing the downward shock before firing. With her concentration split between firing and landing her shooting was a bit wild. The crimson energy started a grass fire to Lawman’s right before finally sweeping over his right leg.

Again Sven waited for the best shot – although at under 100 meters all of his targeting crosses were right on top of each other to form a single aiming point. Armor sprayed off the Dragonfly’s right leg as it suffered both laser and cannon hits. In both ‘Mechs the pilots lined up their remaining green weapons – SRMs in both cases – and fired at the same time while waiting for the other weapons to cycle.

The Bushwacker edged slightly left and squatted somewhat as it fired. Melaine swore silently as her flight of four short range missiles all passed harmlessly over her adversary’s head. Lawman had one of his missile flights mis-arm and fly off in odd directions. However, unlike the Clan ‘Mech he carried two SRM systems and his second flight was on target. Unlike the Inner Sphere ‘Mech, she carried an anti-missile system and it managed to shoot down all six of Sven’s missiles despite the short range. They both circled now, with Melaine slightly widening the distance between them in case she decided to run for cover and reposition for a new attack.

This time there were no misses between the two skilled combatants. Pulse lasers burned streaks in Lawman’s right and center torso but he still had plenty of armor in both locations. As he could actually see the myomer and skeletal structure of the Omni’s leg Sven had reloaded with the special LB-X rounds this time. His large laser melted a good portion of armor from her left arm. Then he triggered the autocannon. The LB-10X round held ten kinetic penetrating slugs housed in a Teflon based mixture that burned off during firing. The effect was that of a giant shotgun shell except the finned slugs would fly true out to normal cannon ranges. His blast peppered the Dragonfly in several locations but the telling damage occurred to the right leg where the last shred of armor and the foot actuator were destroyed. Missiles went airborne again with two striking Lawman to chip away some more armor while three of his survived the anti-missile gear of Melaine to strike the Omni. Her torso hit was of little note to her but the other two struck the already damaged right arm and blasted away the last of the armor before damaging the upper arm actuators. Although multiple strikes had pushed at her right side the Clan warrior deftly kept her machine upright and moving.

With astonishment Melaine realized that she was losing this engagement. A solid hit to her right leg or arm would destroy either. Her anti-missile system was almost out of ammo and her center armor below half strength. Her opponent showed multiple armor scars from her pulse lasers but did not seem to be greatly disadvantaged. According to her infrared sensors his BattleMech did not appear to be retaining much heat either. Unthinkable as it was, the stravag must have double heat sinks similar to her own. Melaine’s advantages seemed to be few. Except for the most important one. She was a truebirth Clan MechWarrior. That was all the advantage she would need.

Her next maneuver would be one not recommended by Clan training instructors. She did not know it, but backwards jump jetting was frowned upon by Inner Sphere instructors as well. Her circling path was bringing her up around the tree side of the hill again. Melaine would feint as if she planned to jump down over the trees to disengage then instead thrust backwards to land where her foe’s movement should place her in his rear arc. The trees neared and she prepared to jump.

Just then the freebirth Spheroid ceased his movement. She hesitated for a moment as she tried to determine if there was enough angle for her to finally place herself behind the green and black enemy. Reluctantly she decided that there was not. She was still moving and had to jump or turn sharply back towards him before she stumbled down the ravine. It smelled of retreat but she decided to go ahead and jump down the hill and over the trees where he couldn’t follow then look for a better place to re-engage. Just as she pressed down on the thrust controls her anti-missile system started firing and her Omni pitched wildly to one side as her damaged leg was shattered by incoming fire. The defensive system only managed to knock down two missiles, allowing another seven to combine with the laser and cannon fire that rocked her ‘Mech. Before she could shut down them down the jets of the right leg tore it free while those in the other leg pitched her to the left in rotation about the lift provided by the torso mounted jets. With stunning force the Viper slammed through the trees in a wild cartwheel and into the ground.

Sven waited for his weapons to recycle before moving close enough to the ridge line to spot the Clan ‘Mech. He knew he had destroyed the leg but it would still be possible for her to fire on him from a prone position. Lawman immediately saw that he need not fear a return attack. The Dragonfly lay facedown amid a growing fire started by the flame of it’s jets. While the OmniMech would not likely be much further damaged by the fire, the same could not be said for the warrior within. Sven hesitated then keyed his comm on the secure channel.

"Duck, this is Lawman."

"This is Duck. Go Lawman."

"Do we want them dead?"

"What?" asked a perplexed Major Linna. Then he checked Sven’s C3 feed and saw what the Lieutenant saw. He knew then what Sven was asking. "No Lawman, that’s not required. Go ahead and pull her out."

"Roger Duck. Lawman’s on the rescue. Out," replied a relieved Sven. Roasting alive in your cockpit was a common dread among MechWarriors. He was glad John hadn’t asked him to let her burn. He wasn’t sure he could have done it.

Melaine woke coughing and dripping sweat. Blinking groggily she realized that her cockpit was full of smoke. As the shrill warning klaxons wailed around her panic gripped her heart. Outside her view port all she could see was fire. Disoriented she started moving controls in an effort to thrash out of the inferno. A cool deep voice sounded over her comm.

"Ease off there MechWarrior. You’re going to buck out of my grip. We’ll be clear of the fire in just a moment."

She recognized the voice as her challenger’s. Melaine also realized that she was indeed moving in steady lurches as the other ‘Mech drug hers out of the fire. She had seen earlier that the Bushwacker had a large claw-like hand on one arm. The Spheroid warrior must have used it to grab her. She stopped pushing at the movement controls. "Why do you help me?" she demanded.

"Would it be honorable to leave you to burn?" he asked.

Although she could think of cases where it would be, this was not one of them. "Neg, it would not. I am defeated. Am I to be isorla ?"

"In truth I don’t know what ‘isorla’ is," responded Sven. "But if it’s any help – you’re not the only Nova Cat to lose today."

She cringed at his uncouth use of contractions. Her hands automatically went through the shut down procedures as she was pulled clear of the fire. As the Omni began powering down she closed her eyes.

"Neg. It is not any help."

Vulcan Medium Mech (Marching at Night - Farseer Animation version)

Vulcan Medium BattleMech

Jason urged the Vulcan into a run in a vain attempt to avoid the incoming missile barrage. Perhaps his movement contributed to a few less hits – but it also left him unbalanced as the LRMs crashed into him. In a frightening storm of sound and fury he crashed down onto his side. The wind was knocked out of him but he had braced for the impact and was unharmed. His damage wireframes told largely the same story for the Vulcan. A good deal of armor had been blasted off but overall it was in relatively decent shape.

"You have satisfied your challenge Cub. Stay down so I may go finish this combat," ordered James to the Warder pilot.

"Not in this lifetime Clanner," resolved Jason as he brought the Vulcan bask to it’s feet. He fired a shot from his large laser that went horribly to the left then resumed his advance. "And don’t call me ‘cub’," Jason added. Probably a stupid thing to worry about when being pummeled by a larger ‘Mech but it annoyed him for some reason.

"Very well freebirth," replied James as he watched the reload graphic cycle back to ready. The last salvos had spread a bit too much. This pair would hopefully concentrate better and disable the annoying little BattleMech approaching him.

Jason gulped as launch flares and exhaust trails announced another LRM batch headed his way. This time he remembered what Lawman had taught him in the simulators and he slowed and brought up his arms to help shield his more vulnerable canopy area. Considerably more missiles actually struck him this time and Jason’s wireframe went red for his center and right arm and ran yellow for both legs and the left torso. Lurching drunkenly, the BattleMech managed to keep it’s feet this time and surged forward once again, finally entering a range where Jason had some hope of scoring hits with his medium lasers. He lined up his aiming cross on the target reticule and hit the alpha-strike button. Five beams of green fire reached out greedily for the Omni.

The small laser was out of maxium range. Jason hadn’t even thought about it when he fired but the minimal energy from the one laser wasn’t going to affect his heat levels much. Once again the large laser missed but two of the medium class ones scored hits. More armor melted from the shoulders of the Vulture, nearly opening both. The Clan Mechwarrior started a circle to the left as he brought his pulse lasers to bear on the smaller Vulcan that continued to make straight for him. A sudden change in vector by his target caused his first large pulse blast to miss but the other three tore at the other ‘Mech’s legs and left front. All three areas were scoured of any remaining armor and suffered some internal damage. But no critical components were hit except for the Beagle active probe the Vulcan mounted. The specialized sensor equipment was of no use to Jason in this fight anyway.

The heat inside the Mad Dog was nearly intolerable. James was forced to let the enemy ‘Mech get even closer as he dealt with over-riding the automatic shutdown his computer wished to impose on him. His OmniMech was barely moving now and his targeting systems danced wildly as the HUD flickered from the excess heat and stress on the electrical systems.

Jason was somewhat surprised he had actually made it to close firing range on the looming enemy ‘Mech. With it’s shoulders up almost higher than the head and the way the arms hung down it did indeed resemble the carrion bird for which the Inner Sphere had named it. Had he thought to engage his infrared scanners he would have known how hot the Clanner was running and known he had some extra time to target his lasers. Instead, Jason rushed his aim a bit and missed with all but the large laser and one medium. By happenstance rather than skill both weapons struck the right arm, boiling away the armor and burning away the control housing for the medium pulse laser. As the heat sinks lowered the internal temperature the Vulture started to pick up speed again as it continued to move in an arc with it’s torso facing in on him. Jason fired again, this time scoring laser hits all across the Vulture’s front, melting away more armor and leaving sections of the torso open and exposed to any further fire.

Snarling at the damage he had allowed this stravag whelp to inflict James lined up his three remaining pulse lasers and fired. Red darts ate through the left torso and emerged from the back. Others savaged the left leg and laid open the center torso. The weight of the left arm pulled the shoulder joint away from the structurally skewered center and that entire side ripped away. All of the Vulcan’s engine shielding was lost on that side, prompting the emergency instruction chips buried deep in the BattleMech’s core to cut off the fussion mass before the power plant spewed radiation or outright exploded. Suddenly powerless, the valiant 40 ton ‘Mech fell and stirred no longer.

The smell of burnt circuitry could be detected despite his cockpit filters as Clan warrior James spared a moment to let his OmniMech cool and survey his damage. It would not take much to put him out of commission now. The two smaller Spheroid BattleMechs had fought as tenaciously as Jade Falcons. They were indeed a different sort than the lucre CORDF warriors. Well, it should be over by now anyway. He commed his Star Commander – and received only static as a reply.

He tried the overall command frequency. "Nova Cat Control, request combat update."

It was the Star Captain’s voice that answered. "You are all that remains MechWarrior James. Three Warder BattleMechs remain active on the field of battle."

"That cannot be," argued a James so stunned he almost used a contraction in his reply.

"You doubt my word, Quiaff?" came her voice at a dangerous pitch.

He caught hold of his emotions. "Neg, Star Captain. You would have no reason for such a jest. Was it some foul trickery?"

"Neg. Only the foul overconfidence of your Star Commander. Do you wish to surrender the field MechWarrior?"

James momentarily considered. His unit commander was offering him an honorable end to this combat rather than force him to further risk his life. If Star Commander Helzig still survived, his days of leadership were obviously at a close. James could likely claim the transfer you had been denied as well. There would be room for advancement either way. James looked down at the two still BattleMechs near him. Neg. He must kill this Major Linna that taught his warriors to fight like the Clans. The man was too dangerous to be allowed to return and spread this training to a larger force.

"Neg Star Captain Lauren Gallagher. I will continue until either I or our foes are destroyed."

"Then I salute your bravery MechWarrior James. You bring your Nova the only honor it has seen today. Fight well."

"I shall, Star Commander."

He turned his Mad Dog to head back for the hills and his three remaining adversaries.

Sven, Gracie and John had regrouped and swung forward around to the East side of the hilly terrain. John was terribly concerned about the minimal life sign readings he was getting from Naoko. Jason’s vitals had looked good but as his Vulcan had shut down the C3 feed had faded as well. Presumably Cadet Nellson was still sitting in a darkened cockpit..

They were now close enough that the single remaining Clan ‘Mech was detectable at the edge of their sensor range. Naoko’s Bushwacker still had power and had put itself in standby mode. It’s C3 was only sending partial data now and it was not tracking the remaining Vulture.

"So is it over now?" asked Lawman on their secure line.

"I’m not sure…" started John when Jason’s voice interrupted over the open frequency.

"This is Cadet Nellson reporting. I’m on battery power and can’t seem to change comm frequencies. I have no reception so if anyone can hear me I’m alright and getting out to go check on the Chu-i. The Nova Cat warrior that defeated me is now headed back towards the hills. I think he’s still looking for a fight. I’ll await pickup at the Bushwacker. Racker out."

"The cub speaks true. I shall destroy you," snarled MechWarrior James into the line.

The three Warders were not overly impressed.

"You have fought well. Now let us call this battle finished," suggested John. He was careful to avoid the contraction "let’s".

"We shall end it only with your blood," came the reply

"Let’s just kill him now," spat Gracie over the secure line as the Vulture appeared below them.

"Easy Lieutenant," answered Major Linna. "We don’t want to give them any excuses to go back on the deal. We do it their way."

"Yes Sir," she responded without enthusiasm.

"In that case it looks like you’ve inherited the next ranking Warder MechWarrior and that’s me," called Lawman over the open line. He started his battered Bushwacker forward.

"Neg," called James at the same time Gracie barked "no".

"I order you to stand down Lawman," continued Gracie. "This little joey is all mine."

"Neg," repeated James as he marched right up to the waiting Warder ‘Mechs. He pointed an arm at the untouched Camelot. "It is this freebirth scum that I will destroy."

"I don’t think so," scoffed John as he stood his ground. "You have the challenges of two of my warriors to deal with first. It’s your own rules of conduct. Besides, I don’t wish to deny them the kill." This time he purposely choose to use the contractions as this Clanner’s arrogance was starting to grate on him.

Had the Clan warrior said anything defiant or challenging, John probably would have realized his danger and started moving to defend himself. If the Nova Cat had engaged his targeting radar John might have reacted just from instinct as his threat sensors would have sounded. But instead of firing off a final jibe or comment, James aimed purely by sight and fired. The medium pulse laser caught the Camelot high in the chest but the large one struck squarely in the center of the domed face-plate that was the "face" of the Camelot. If a giant had indeed been wearing the BattleMech as a suit of armor the shot would have just burned a hole right between the eyes. The 55 ton ‘Mech sagged forward onto it’s knees.

Both Sven and Gracie called John’s name in shocked surprise as each fired everything they had at the treacherous Nova Cat. The Vulture was pin cushioned and cut apart as multiple PPCs, lasers, SRMs and LBX submunitions tore into it. The last remaining LRM salvo exploded and added to the destruction. For a brief moment the Omni seemed to dance wildly as it was held up by the sheer force of the incoming attacks; then it crashed to the ground a smoking hulk. The Camelot remained balanced in a kneeling position as Gracie moved forward to see if the Clan pilot had survived the combined assault. Captain Woods was calling frantically for a report but both she and Sven ignored him for the moment. Lieutenant Aukland couldn’t see to tell if the Clanner still lived but his cockpit seemed to be intact which was too close to alive for her tastes. She lined up an ER PPC to fix that little problem.

"Belay that Goose," croaked a voice on the Warder comm.

Gracie paused in joy. "John? Is that you?"

"Yeah, it’s me. I’m still here – barely. Don’t waste him Gracie. I don’t want to give their Star Captain any excuses to finish what that guy just tried."

Reluctantly she eased off her triggers. Instead she vented her anger with a kick to the torso remains which rocked the part with the cockpit violently.

"Major, are you OK? You don’t sound very good," asked Sven.

"Picked up some small burns and my head’s ringing like a bell. Luckily my cockpit’s in the chin rather then higher up. Wiped out my entire sensor suite though. I’m feeling pretty nauseous. I’m going ex-V."

"Sven, you cover us. Captain Woods? Send some ground support just in case. I’m going down too," snapped Gracie. Unconsciously she had imitated the command tone John used when he wasn’t in the mood for arguments.

Ex-V was Warder slang for extra-vehicular. John unbuckled his restraints and slipped out of the nuerohelmet. The Camelot was locked in a parking mode and was not in danger of falling from it’s current kneeling position. Looking up through the molten hole in the ceiling of his cockpit he suddenly felt much more empathetic with Vilho’s fears. Using the arcing console to brace himself upright he keyed open his main hatch and pushed it out. He was very happy at that point that the Camelot was equipped with a line-lift rather than a rope ladder of some sort. He doubted he could have navigated a ladder right now. Stepping his legs through the lightweight harness he carefully crawled out the hatch and used the attached remote to winch himself down to the ground on the attached steel cable.

Once on the ground he detached the cable clip but didn’t bother with the harness as he leaned unsteadily against his ‘Mech’s knee plates. He didn’t even notice Gracie rushing toward him until she slammed into him and hugged him so fiercely his ribs complained.

"Easy, easy," he wheezed. "I’m happy to see you too but I think I’m about to heave."

She released him and backed up a step. For a moment John thought he was indeed going to puke but the feeling eased.

"Nothing personal," he added.

"Oh John, I was so…." Words failed her and she trailed off.

He smiled weakly. "I know Gracie. I know. How about we two old friends just sit here quietly for a while until this hill stops spinning?"

She gave him a hand to steady himself as he squatted down onto the hillside. The Lieutenant looked over at the ruined Vulture again as she shifted the shotgun from it’s sling and into her hands. If that bastard had purposely done Fujiwara like this too then he wasn’t leaving this dirtball alive. Looking back to John she saw that other things needed to be attended to first. Starting with checking his wounds. There were two light burns on his legs and some small spots on his arms. Molten metal had dripped down and hardened on his cooling vest. Carefully she undid the fasteners and peeled his jersey forward as he winced.

"Looks like you’ve got another burn to join those other scars," she told him. "Doesn’t look too deep though. The vest took most of the damage. Let’s get that harness off you so I can get up to your med kit. We better put some anti-bact on the burns and cuts you’ve collected."

A full ten minutes hadn’t passed before the three Lightning hovertanks came zooming up to the Warder ‘Mechs. Captain Woods, Doctor Sengali and Sergeant Harding had co-opted the gunner positions and rushed over to where John sat next to Gracie. Seeing the Major apparently OK, Harding immediately turned his attention to the BattleMech while the Doctor started looking over John. The tanks zoomed off again toward the two downed Warder ‘Mechs as the commander positions held medical and tech personnel to help Jason and Naoko.

"The skimmers will be here in a few more minutes with ground troops Sir," Captain Woods reported. "Cadet Nellson called from Fujiwara’s radio. She’s conscious again but has suffered a neck injury. We’ll have medical personnel there shortly. The Nova Cats have put together recovery teams and have dispatched them. I tried to speak with their Star Captain but was told that she was coming out here to see you personally."

Gracie Aukland’s head snapped up. She reached out and gripped the combat shotgun. She was still nursing some potent anger and was ready to share it with any Nova Cat that crossed her path. John noticed her action and reached over to lightly pat her with one hand. She read his look and eased off, leaning the shotgun back against the Camelot’s leg.

"I don’t think she means any trouble Lieutenant," Woods told her. He’d seen her reaction as well. "They’ve already given us clearance to leave as we wish. Called it ‘higeara’ or something like that."

Sergeant Harding left off his fascinated study of the holed faceplate. From the ground he couldn’t tell much anyway. "So that means we’re going home then Captain?."

"Looks like we are," agreed Woods.

The doctor paused in his examination of John’s chest burn. "You have won the right for us to go home John. What it is that troubles you?"

A wry smile found John’s face. "Sorry Doc. Didn’t mean to rain on your parade. I was just thinking that we’re lifting from this rock but a good many people are stuck here with some Cats that might be a bit upset about having their tails pulled."

"John," sighed Gracie in exasperation. "You can’t save the whole farging Sphere."

"No," he agreed. "Just a small handful here and there when we can."

"Well speaking for this handful, I’m ready to hop ship and burn out of here." To change the subject she pointed over at another hill. "Hey, here come the skimmers."

Soon the hill with the four ‘Mechs was swarming with activity as Sergeant Cascade and First Platoon took up guard positions. Harding had gone up to John’s cockpit to determine if it was operable or if he’d need to take it back with a ‘Mech Lifter. The three hovertanks were in picket positions along the plain to warn their fellows if any Nova Cat OmniMechs decided to venture from their DropShip area. Lieutenant Fosters was on a portable radio unit keeping tabs with the ground elements while his Master Sergeant Phil Hernandez conferred with Sergeant Cascade about the best ways to deal with Elementals if it became an issue. No one had bothered to look within the hulk of the Clan Omni to check on it’s pilot.

"I have to tell you John, you really scared the hell out of us in Bifrost," Woods was telling him. "One moment you’re standing there pretty as a picture then all we have is a C3 feed telling us your cockpit was breached and a flat line on your vitals."

"When the sensor array blew a lot of stuff shorted out in the cabin. The vitals feed must have been one of them," replied John.

"Well the next time someone points a pulse laser at your head," chided Gracie, "try living up to your call sign. Duck.."

His response was cut off by a terse warning from Karl Fosters that two Nova Cat ground cars were nearing their position. Side conversations ceased as they all waited. Gracie was torn between climbing back into Granny and staying on the ground close to John. She elected to stay with John. Sven was backing them up from the Bushwacker. The two wheeled cars pulled up and five armored Elementals along with two uniformed women stepped out of them.

Star Captain Lauren Gallagher was a striking woman with sharply defined features including piercing green eyes and flaming red hair. John knew that as she was the product of an artificial breeding program with a last name won by combat rather than inherited from family. Thus there couldn’t be a connection between her features and name. Still, if Gallagher was a Nova Cat name the genetic legacy of whatever person the first Gallagher was could still be dominant among Clan warriors of that blood line. The air became taunt with tension as the Elementals and Warder troopers pointed weapons at each other, cutting into John’s musings on her appearance. The Clan commander marched up to her Warder counterpart while the second female warrior stayed by the ground vehicle.

She stopped only a meter or so from him and looked him over curiously. He noted that they seemed to be exactly the same height as they locked eyes. "You must be Major Linna. You appear to be reasonably uninjured."

"No thanks to your MechWarrior. I was under the impression that one is supposed to issue and accept challenge before opening fire in these matters."

"That is our way. Unless Melee has been invoked. I judge that it had not in this matter. I do not know what prompted MechWarrior James to fire upon you. He had salvaged much of his honor with his victories and willingness to continue against superior numbers. Then he threw it all away to fire upon you. I would be much interested in hearing his reasons." She glanced meaningfully at the downed OmniMech.

John caught her meaning. "Go ahead and take him. We don’t want him."

She signaled the Elementals. Two of them wrenched off the canopy with their clawed hands then ripped free the harness. Not gently but with care not to bash him around they extracted the unconscious MechWarrior and carried him over to one of the cars.

"I believe we can agree to have our forces salvage our respective equipment without incident between them?" she asked.

John nodded. "Is there anything else?"

She smiled slightly as she looked over his Camelot. "An interesting BattleMech. It is repairable?"

John looked up to Harding who supplied an answer through the gaping hole in the Camelot’s faceplate.

"Yes Sir," he told John. "Maybe six hours. We have a second sensor set to swap out with. To fully repair it so you can have cabin pressure for water or space ops would require replacing the entire head though. That would be a couple of days."

John looked back at the Clan officer. "Is the operational state of my BattleMech of importance to you?"

"Indeed it is. I was hoping I could entice you to meet me in single combat."

His mouth almost flopped open. He hoped his face hadn’t shown his surprise.

"No offence Star Captain, but I don’t really see why I would want to do that. If I lose maybe I’m dead and if I win I may have just killed the person I made an agreement with about leaving the planet. And as an aside, I don’t really think I have anything to prove about my honor."

"None taken Major," she assured him. "Perhaps I feel there is something to prove about Nova Cat honor. And something to discover as well perhaps. But I suppose I can understand your perspective. Still, I would welcome seeing you and your ‘Mech in action. Perhaps there is something to stake as a prize? One of our OmniMechs perhaps?"

"I think not. I would not risk my people’s freedom for even an entire DropShip of your OmniMechs."

"It is only you and your single BattleMech that would be forfeit upon your loss. Your Warders would remain free to leave whenever they wish."

John actually laughed. This entire conversion was becoming surreal. "You place a higher value on me than I do Star Captain. I’m flattered, but your OmniMechs are still just machines. Given time we will be building our own."

She nodded thoughtfully. "I was under the impression that you Inner Sphere mercenaries valued possessions over all else. Why else would one debase themselves to fight for money? But if it is your fellow freebirths you value then perhaps this will interest you instead. Free passage to leave for anyone on this planet. One man and his machine wagered against tens of thousands. The people of this planet mean nothing to us. How much value do they hold for you Major?"

Gracie grabbed as John’s arm. "John, no," she hissed. He waved her quiet.

"It would have to be a set time period. Say two years. And unmolested JumpShip access to the system and DropShip access to the planet."

"One year. All those that choose to leave must be gone by then. Once we have Terra it won’t matter anyway. I will use a ‘Mech of 50 ton displacement or less. You will use your BattleMech once repaired. Just the two of us in honor combat until one ‘Mech is disabled or unable to continue through pilot loss. You may choose a combat site anyplace on this planet. I wish to do this today if possible. Later if your ‘Mech or yourself requires more recovery time."

His mind flashed through the salient observations. What did Terra have to do with anything? What were his odds against a well piloted OmniMech of nearly the same mass? How does one weigh personal family obligations against freeing a planet’s population from bondage? Exactly how much danger did this population actually face? Why the rush for today? Could he face the people he saw from his cockpit this morning knowing he had a chance to help them and failed to try? Could he face himself?

He looked hard at the Nova Cat officer. Her mouth was creased with a faint feral grin. She knew she had found the hook that would lure him into giving her what she wanted. John realized that it was what she wanted that would be the deciding factor in their fight. He hadn’t a clue what it was, but he sensed that she had a strange fascination with him and the Camelot. She wanted him alive and the Camelot damaged as little as possible. He and it were her trophy, her honor prize. He just wanted to put her down as hard as possible, hopefully without killing her, to allow those that wished to flee occupation the chance to do so. The Star Captain would restrain herself. He would not. His own lips took on a feral hint as well.

"What is it you people say? Bargained well and done? I will meet you in honor combat Star Captain. Then we shall see who is the hunter and who is the prey."

Lauren Gallagher smiled fully. It was a beautiful smile, but one devoid of human warmth.

"It is agreed then. I shall savor this hunt I think. The best prey is always that which is dangerous. Comm me with the particulars when you are ready Major."

An exchange of nods between the two leaders ended the conference. Lauren swept grandly back to her ground car while her people loaded up and then they were driving away. A shell shocked silence followed their departure as the Warders around him found themselves unsure what to say. Gracie reached the edge of the silent rage that dwelt within her at the shear stupidity of accepting the challenge on behalf of these backwards locals and was close to doing something she had never done. Cuss John up one side and down the other in public.

But as quickly as it welled, the anger burst and drifted away. He was just being who he was. The man they had chosen to follow because they trusted his instincts about what was worth fighting for. Hell, they’d just fought pirates to protect the city of Jeddah just for the principal of the matter. What made this any different except she hadn’t clicked with the locals. And for all their posturing and trappings of honor what were these Clans except well armed, well trained bandits come to plunder the Inner Sphere?

In for a finmark, in for a C-bill as the saying back home went.

"Well don’t just stand around people," she shouted, breaking the spell. "You all heard the Major. He’s got some Nova Cat butt to kick and it’s our job to make sure he has the tools and information to do it. Let’s not just stand around picking our butts."

The frozen tableau swirled back to activity as Woods got on the comm lines for a status update, Fosters started planning with Harding on protection of the salvage crews and grunts all fell in around their two sergeants to wait for orders.

"Thanks Gracie," John told her quietly. "For a second I thought you were going to go the other way."

"For a second I was," she admitted. "But then I realized you couldn’t say no and still be the man we all know and love."

He looked away, embarrassed. She grinned to herself and gave his shoulder a quick squeeze then trotted back to her BattleMech. As he watched her retreating back he was touched once again by the depth of their friendship and understanding. Lately it seemed like he had been forced into making decisions he was unsure about. Time will tell his Grandmother had liked to say. But this time he had no such doubts. Win or lose later, this had been the right decision. His people had shown the Nova Cats the danger of underestimating them. Now he would teach these Clanners to respect the Suomi Warders.

Chapter Index[]