BattleTech Fanon Wiki

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[]

Chapter 8: Fateful Choices[]

Synopsis: It’s getting too complicated to encapsulate the entire story but here’s a refresher: Lieutenant Gracie Aukland, friend since childhood of Warder CO Major John Linna, blew up at him in a very public setting and left the base that very night. Unknown to the Warders, a company of BattleMechs is planning a surprise raid on Warder HQ while the leader of the Triad Assassins is on the planet disguised as an emergency medical technician. Both the raiders and the assassin have one purpose: kill Major John Linna. John is not the only Linna under threat however.

Hayward AeroDrome
Planet Sampsa, FWL
24 June 3052

The sun was just starting to peak through the mountains to the east. Golden shafts of light pierced the clouds to play across the old aerodrome, revealing a broken and scarred landscape of barren dirt stretching away from the dusty airfield in all directions. The Hayward Aerodrome was the northern most outpost between the wastelands left by the orbital bombardment many centuries ago that had destroyed the northern half of the continent and the still fertile southern section. As one headed north from the grand trees and snow covered forests around Suomi City the land became more and more poisoned until it offered nothing except this obscure lift off the planet from a half forgotten drop-port. It was a bleak outpost that offered little in the way of optimism except for the possibility of a ride elsewhere.

Gracie Aukland figured it was a fitting place for her to find herself. Her thoughts were as bleak as the run down facility, her spirit as devastated as the tortured lands beyond.

Her preference would have been to be alone. But life didn’t seem very interested in her preferences these days. The morning found four others in the aerodrome’s single passenger terminal. The group had arrived together less than an hour after Gracie’s nightlong travels had finally deposited her at the end of civilization. No words had been exchanged between her and the foursome in the two hours they had shared the terminal’s waiting room but Gracie knew who they were. She recognized each by face.

They were Suomi Warders. Members of First Squad from the Warder Infantry’s First Platoon to be precise. The Snow Hunters. They were out of uniform, but ‘loaded for bear’ to use one of her father’s old sayings. Two of them, privates Bronski and Harper, were what Sergeant Cascade called her best “shooters and looters”. They pretended to doze in seats near the cracked windows behind her. Across from Gracie near the opposite windows – which was about as far away as he could find a seat – sat private Jenkins. On a plastic bench that afforded an unobstructed view down the entry hallway sat the most competent and dangerous member of the skilled Warder ground pounders. Sergeant “Sammi” Cascade herself. Though she appeared to be dozing, her slitted eyes were constantly sweeping the area and her senses fully alert. Gracie had no doubt that attempting to leave the terminal would bring a challenge. No one would be leaving the aerodrome until the Major gave his say-so. He hadn’t arrived yet, but Gracie knew he was due to appear at any moment now.

Which was almost enough to propel her towards the exit despite the formidable infantry presence surrounding her. She just wasn’t sure she could face him. But something; pride, honor, duty, love – she wasn’t sure what; kept her in her seat. She’d accepted his commission, she’d agreed to her role, she’d known the invisible duties that leadership carried: and she’d screwed the pooch all on her own without requiring anyone else’s assistance. There was nothing left to do but face the consequences. Sisu. To do what must be done no matter the cost- among other shades of meaning. Duty was perhaps all she had left. Pride and honor now seemed qualities far beyond her grasp.

The doors at the end of the short hall opened and the inevitable arrived. Major John Linna strode purposely towards the seating area with Captain Woods on his heels and Sergeant Harding trailing behind both men. Proving the lie of their pretend dozing, all four infantrymen were on their feet immediately and moved to form up near the front of the hall. The Major returned their salute, admonished them not to salute him again, then left the foursome in the Captain’s care and walked over where Gracie sat.

“Hey stranger,” he said softly. “Is that seat taken?” He pointed towards the empty seat next to hers.

Unwilling to trust her voice just yet, she simply waved toward the seat as an invitation to sit down. He settled himself and for a brief moment silence lay between them as each considered how to begin. Finally it was John that spoke.

“Well,” he noted, “I guess the next time we ask you to start a public fight with me I’ll be a bit more precise about the subject matter.” He’d meant it to be an ironic and mildly comic opening to break the ice. But even as he finished he realized he’d put far more bite into his tone than he had intended. Perhaps he hadn’t set aside his hurt as fully as he thought he had.

"I am so, so very sorry,” she sighed in despair. “I didn’t mean to go bongo on you like that. I…I don’t know what came over me Sir. It was insubordination; inexcusable and unforgivable. I’ll resign and slink away for real. Disappear out on the Periphery someplace. It’s better than I deserve”

“Oh no you won’t,” he replied sternly as he reached over and gently tilted her head to face him. “Long ago we made a pact together Gracie. To find the missing children from the Starcade. To punish those that were involved. To make any and all pirates think twice before they ever attacked anything again. And now it’s almost time. We’re on our way to get Holly. We’ve got real leads on the Starcade Killers. And the only reason I’ve made it this far, the only reason I almost have my sister back, is you Gracie.”

She tried to interject, to deny the credit he gave that she did not deserve, but he overrode her objections.

“No, I mean it Gracie. In those first months after the murders I was a mess. I was cracking under the strain and Lydia, though she tried, didn’t know how to keep me from coming apart. Then you threw me the lifeline I clung to. You promised a young messed up cadet that if he could pull it together and graduate then you would join him and help him build a fighting unit and find his sister. Help him punish the attackers. I needed someone to bring out the fighter inside me before the hopelessness made me quit, and that someone was one Senior Cadet Aukland.

“Then for a while after my divorce maybe I needed something else. To know there was a man lurking under the machine of an officer and businessman I had been pushing myself to be. And you were there for me again. Maybe it was a rebound thing. Maybe it was the wrong time for that kind of involvement between us. Then for whatever reason we cooled off and something between us changed. Or at least I thought it had. I didn’t think you still thought of me …romantically, I guess is the best word.

“Look Gracie. The past couple of months have been practically beyond reality. Fighting the Clans, assassination attempts, a hidden threat against the unit, practically doubling the Warders…it’s almost too much to believe. Plus I’ve been worried sick about Holly every since we found out that she apparently had the run of a DropShip but never tried to contact me. Plus losing Vilho like we did; well, you lived it too so you know it all as well as I do. Fate’s been jerking us around pretty hard recently. Hell, I got so crazy I tried to shoot prisoners in a Dragoon holding cell.”

A dry chuckle sounded from Gracie. “I remember. I’m the one that tried to hand over my pistol because the guard still had yours.”

“So we’ve both been running on raw emotions,” he agreed with a sly grin. “You know, in truth I don’t even know where I’m going with all of this. But it’s like this. I don’t know why I was attracted to Naoko but I was. I tried to hide behind chivalry and pretend I wasn’t interested but she had other ideas about the matter. Maybe she’s safe in a way- she’ll have to return home sooner or later so I’m off the hook for long term commitments. Or maybe we’re a pair of ancient warrior souls that have found each other once again. Who knows? But you’re still one of the most important people in my life Gracie. If I’ve left you feeling shut out, I sincerely apologize. You’re both very important to me. Where that leaves you and me I don’t know. But right now there’s a third lady that takes top precedence. We finally have solid info on where Holly is and I have to go now. Everything else is going to have to wait.”

John paused for a moment and gazed out the dirty window toward the growing sunrise.

He sighed heavily. “When I started this speech I was planning on telling you that after all we’ve been through I wouldn’t let you walk away now. That you couldn’t quit on me when we’re so close. But I just realized that’s wrong. You were right back at the hangar. You don’t owe me anything. You’ve already gifted me far more than I’ve ever repaid you. If it hurts too much to stay, then do what you have to do. With that being said I know it’s not fair of me to ask this, but I’m going to anyway. Help me with this one Gracie. Go with me to get Holly. I’m going to be wracked with anxiety the whole trip. I was counting on your strength to keep me on an even keel.”

Gracie wiped at the moisture in her eyes with the back of her hand. “Are you sure you still want me along? I’m the woman that hands you pistols in prison wards and takes a simple assignment to stage an argument and tries to wreck the unit’s moral.”

“Temporary insanity,” he grinned with a shrug. “It happens to the best of us. I was sure about your role when we first planned this op and I’m still sure. Mother Goose and the Duck- the Team Supreme. Together, we’re unbeatable. Plus we do have that pact to complete.”

She had to grin herself at that. Years back she’d caught some serious flak from her classmates about teaming up with a lower classman for the final ‘Mech trials. And he’d always hated the various versions of Duck-something or something-Duck call signs he’d gotten tagged with as a freshman. In fact, now that she thought about it, she had no idea why he had kept part of the name after graduating. He could have renamed himself anything he wanted. His grandmother had run the unit then before he took over. She’d have to ask him about that someday. And talk through a few other things as well.

“To the Death,” she agreed. That was another old piece of academy history shared between them. It was the length of time their senior ‘Mech instructor drilled into all cadets that a MechWarrior should stay with his wingman.

“Good,” he added in a tone that this time he was able to keep lighthearted, “I’d hate to waste your little act in the hangar. If our spy isn’t convinced the Warders are falling apart after that nothing will do it.”

She smiled despite herself. It must have been a convincing act indeed. Very much a ‘from the heart’ performance.

Early yesterday John’s brother had brought news that one of his informants had found Holly Linna. Knowing they had a spy and fearing they’d put Holly in danger if they simply sent a mission out to collect her, Osmo and John had concocted plans that would allow a few Warders to disappear for a while. There had never been any doubt in John’s mind that he and Gracie would go. The only question had been who else. Eventually Osmo had convinced the Major to keep the party small and take only a few of the highly trained First Company with him in case of unexpected trouble. Plus Sergeant Harding for his unusual (for the Warders) knowledge of the less savory side of society. Sven had been heavily disappointed when he was excluded, but understood the need to keep the training in high gear. Fairly soon it would be time to bring the entire unit into play and they needed to be ready. Only Sven, Lieutenant Fosters (who was required to cover the absence of four of his troopers) and Lieutenant Fujiwara (whose aid was needed to keep John’s absence secret) were initially briefed about the mission beyond those currently in the terminal. Plus Jeffery Linna of course. But he was hardly going to endanger his sister and brother by speaking of the trip to anyone.

“I know I already said this,” she noted tentatively, “but I’m so, so sorry I vented like that.”

“I know Gracie. And I can’t say I wasn’t hurt. But I think that maybe I’m starting to understand some things I didn’t see before. I guess we’ve got a lot to talk about on our long ride out to the Circinus Federation.”

“I suppose we do,” she admitted. “And I guess I still have some work to do on conflict resolutions that don’t involve blowing stuff up. Like my temper. How have the others taken my little tirade?”

He shrugged as concern crossed his face. “I don’t expect much long term effect with the general enlisted staff. They tend to view us officers as strange folks in our own world anyway so to them it’s an officer problem that we’ll take care of ourselves. The MechWarriors and our techs are a different matter; the team dynamics are more closely tied. But I think Sven’s got a handle on it and can keep most everyone focused on their training. Your tech Sparky’s a bit of a problem as he’s not sure what he should be doing or where he stands now. I gave Lawman permission to let him in on truth if it seems necessary. I’d hate to have Sparky quit while we’re away because he thinks you did. Keena and her brother are pretty rough around the edges right now but I think they’ll be OK.

“Laidie - Lieutenant “Baby Doll” I believe you called her- was mightily miffed. Her good looks are a sore subject with her apparently. I didn’t see any real option other than to let her in on the op too so she’d have enough confidence in the Warders to deal with the disquiet her VTOL folks might feel at joining a unit that seems to be severely messed up at the top command level. Odd woman in a way. Now she thinks the whole scene was funny. Of course she hasn’t been around long enough to have picked up on the undercurrents of the scene so she thinks you’re one heck of an actress.

“Naoko …well, it’s probably a good thing you’ll be gone for a while. After the shock wore off she switched from blaming herself to being somewhat angry with you I’m afraid. She knew beforehand that you were supposed to stage a scene but obviously didn’t expect the direction it took. But it hasn’t even been twenty-four hours yet. I’m sure she’ll simmer down long before we return.”

“So much extra trouble I created,” Gracie shook her head sadly. “I don’t know what I can say that would matter.”

He stood. “You can say ‘Let’s go get Holly then fix whatever needs fixing in the unit after we get back’.”

She nodded. “Consider it said. And after the fixing part then we find the bad guys and go do some of that blowing stuff up thing I’m so good at.”

He smiled. “That’s my Mother Goose. Oh, by the way. I stopped by your dad’s on the way out here. I figured that if we couldn’t trust him we couldn’t trust anyone. So I gave him a general outline of the plan. I didn’t want him to worry about anything he might hear on the news about you. He actually saluted me as he thanked me for telling him. Then he politely chewed me out for breaking mission security just to save an old man’s feelings for a few months. It’s too bad he never met my Grandmother. Her loose cannon approach to command would have been a wonderful clash with his strict ideas of military protocol.”

“Majors, Colonels or even Generals; my father was never one to shy away from telling officers the right way to run a military unit. Always with the proper respect as he dressed them down of course.”

“Of course. And speaking of running a military unit, I better go over final orders with Osmo before we go. See you on board Goose.”

Gracie watched John amble over to where the troopers were gathered around the intel Captain and marveled at the young Warder CO. On his way to a secret mission to rescue his missing sister he’d taken the time to stop off to reassure the father of a woman that had just added a huge pile of problems to his already substantial load. Now that she was finally admitting the truth to herself she could see that it was yet another reason in the long list of reasons why she loved him. And another reason why she vowed to herself she would never let her love mess up his life again.

She had her back to the entrance as she made a final check of her bags a few minutes later, thus she failed to notice the new arrival until he spoke to her.

“Hey Beautiful, how’s it going?”

Gracie turned to acknowledge John’s brother.

“G’day Jeff, you old liar you. I’m about as beautiful as a muddy pig, especially at this hour. And to be truthful, I’ve had better days. But it’s good to see you anyway. Come to see us off?”

“You don’t give yourself enough credit Gracie. There’s more to beauty than bouncy hair and a good set of curves. I, uh, heard about your grand exit bit. How’d my bro take it?”

“Better than me,” she told him. “I feel like I’m the one that got stepped on by a ‘Mech even though I did all the trash talking.”

“Well, a man can forgive a lot to his girl,” laughed Jeff.

“Not that it’s any of my concern,” she smiled humorlessly, “but I believe you’re thinking of a different MechWarrior.”

“Who? Naoko? Nice girl, great legs. Trust me, it’ll never last. Nope, he can be a bit dense sometimes and slow to recognize facts but you two were made for each other. I can tell these things. Mark my words.”

“This coming from a man that runs through at least six lady friends a year,” she snorted. “But I see that you’ve cleverly deflected me away from my original question. Now you can tell both of us what you’re doing here.”

Jeff’s initial confusion at her remark melted away when he noticed his brother John stepping up to them.

“Good morning Jeff,” said the Major to his brother. “Is that a going away present you have for us?”

Jeffrey glanced down at the large duffel at his feet.

“Not exactly. It’s more like my clothes and personals,” he admitted sheepishly.

John sighed heavily. “I thought we already went through this Jeff. We can’t both leave. Someone has to man the fort. So to speak.”

Jeff and his older brother locked gazes for a long moment. The younger Linna had prepared a hundred reasons why his absence wouldn’t be a problem. He had an excuse, explanation, or argument prepared for any reason John might bring up as to why he should stay on Sampsa. But looking into his brother’s eyes he knew they wouldn’t matter.

“John, this one is for real. It’s not a wild rumor chase; Holly’s really waiting for us at the other end of the trail. Please don’t ask me to stay here. I have to go as badly as you do.”

There it was then. If John could find it in his heart to ask Jeff to stay, then Jeffrey knew that he’d do it. But Jeff doubted his brother would ask that of him when they were finally so very, very close to finding their sister. The younger Linna knew his brother well.

“Alright, I surrender. You came down here and called my bluff- I can’t make myself tell you to stay even though we both know you should. I assume you created some sort of story to cover your absence.”

“Indeed I did. Ski retreat to the private family lodge. And a private vacation to my private tropic estate. Both staffs have been told to fake like I’m there to hide the fact I’m actually at the other place. Plus our new CEO is more than capable of running DEW for a few months and considering that we just stole the Chairperson spot out from under Lydia I don’t think she’ll miss us very much if we’re absent from the next few board meetings.”

“It will have to do,” sighed John. “Put your bag with the rest of them.”

Throwing up his hands in defeat, John Linna returned to his final briefing with Osmo.

“The people that love him sure like to complicating his life,” sighed Gracie.

“What was that?” asked Jeff. “I missed what you said.”

“Nothing important. Come on Short Stuff. Grab your bag and follow me.”

“There is a movie on this flight right?” asked Jeff in mock seriousness as he hefted his bag and fell into step behind the MechWarrior. “Or at least a cute flight attendant or two?”

Sylvan Pines Inn
Outside Suomi City, Planet Sampsa
4 July 3052

With only his own thoughts for company, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Bendic of the Sampsa Defense Force lay in the oversized bed and watched the growing brightness around the edges of the heavy draperies. In more youthful days he had occasioned this bed and breakfast establishment with his mistress. But he’d cut off the affair when his daughter had contracted a rare meningitis infection that resisted all the drugs available on Sampsa and was going to eventually steal the young girl’s life. Dan had made two fateful decisions back then. One was to truly work at putting his marriage back into working order. The other was to accept the help of a man who offered to slip in medical drugs from the Magistracy of Canopus that were not legally approved for use on Sampsa but where his daughter’s only hope for life.

The treatments at the private clinic proved successful although his daughter’s depressed immune system remained susceptible to infections that only the experimental Canopian antibiotics could keep in check. His benefactors had never asked for much in return during the ensuing years. Mainly confirmation of items that were pulled directly from common news sources and the occasional bit of information that always seemed more mercantile than militarily related. As time had rolled forward so had his rank and position. Dan had become Air Boss for this sector’s military aircraft. Nothing left the ground without his approval barring natural emergency or an act of war.

Then after several recent months of total silence his secret benefactors had suddenly come calling. All they wanted him to do was call in to HQ that he was running late then disappear for half the day on a certain date. He was to avoid all contact. No cell, no radio, no computer links, no news feeds. He could hardly see the point. It would potentially keep any non-scheduled military flights from lifting that morning if the control staff kept to regs while he was out of touch. But protocols allowed for his junior officer to take over in the case of an actual emergency, so Dan could hardly see any danger in doing as he had been asked. He owed them his daughter’s life. How could he say no in good conscious? He’d told them from the start that he wouldn’t do anything to compromise Sampsa security and they had never asked him to do so.

He had made the call to the base this morning and would keep his word. Still, he found himself awake and wondering what his absence was supposed to accomplish. Surely half a day couldn’t hurt anything. Could it?

Helsinki Forest
Outside Suomi City, Sampsa
4 July 3052

Flight Officer Wes Parker stretched a bit in the captain’s seat as the heavy Redhawk helicopter churned it’s way across the countryside. His co-pilot, Sergeant Heffer, currently had the controls. This being a training flight in a secure area most of the rest of the craft’s six person crew were on the flight deck as well. The exception was Alan Hale. He kept his gunner’s seat down in the nose of the aircraft rather than crawl up to the main pilot cabin. Airman Hale was tied into the comm system however, thus his physical lack of presence didn’t keep him from following the conversation.

“How’s she holding up Lex?” asked F.O. Parker. “Any cobwebs gumming up the works?”

“All systems look green Skipper,” replied the flight-tech. “The Northern Belle doesn’t seem any worse for wear after her most recent strip down for shipping. In fact, with the new pumps we were finally able to buy the hydraulic pressure on the rear systems is finally back at the top of greenline for the first time in…well, forever I guess Sir.”

“She’s handling great,” added Max Heffer from behind the co-pilot stick. “It’s great to finally be able to just get out and log some flight hours without having to sweat the maintenance toll. Man I love flying.”

Wes smiled to himself at his co-pilot’s enthusiasm. He shared it himself. For that matter they all loved flying or they wouldn’t be hanging their butts up in the sky from a giant eggbeater like they did.

“Hey Skipper? Do you think that MechWarrior officer’s leaving is going to mean any problems for us?” Airman Wells wanted to know.

“Naw, I don’t think so,” drawled Wes. “Lieutenant Laidie says there’s nothing to worry about and that’s good enough for me. Besides, it sounds like the trouble making one left on her own so I guess that’s that.”

The Flight Officer glanced across the control displays. Their wingman, the Friendly Fire, was below and to their right aft where it was supposed to be. But Wes noticed that as his craft’s altitude was below the hard-deck for this flight that meant to maintain position the F.F. was even lower. Fire’s skipper had not bothered to call and complain. She’d just held position as ordered. Wes himself would have been on the radio by now. But Stacy wasn’t one to knock another pilot unless the need was dire. But if they dropped much lower her need might get a chance to grow dire.

“Hey Max, the F.F. seems to be running a bit close to those tree tops. Hope she doesn’t suck in a flight of birds.”

The tone was casual but Sergeant Heffer immediately double checked his own altitude at his commander’s prompt and realized what his skipper had noticed. Their wingman was being forced to either go low or break formation. Max added a bit more to the cyclic control, increasing rotor lift, and the big bird slowly and smoothly pulled herself to a higher altitude. One that was padded to allow Friendly Fire to comfortably hold position and remain above the safety level set for the flight.

“Sure is pretty with all that snow and such,” announced Airman Dohn from one of the rear seats. Ordinarily he and Wells would be at their side bubbles manning the mini-guns. But on this flight they weren’t carrying ammo so there wasn’t any reason to man the guns.

“Kinda weird it being July and all though,” added Gordy Wells.

Wes rolled his eyes upwards even though no one was in a position to read the expression.

“What’d ya do Wells? Sleep through the indoct-lecture? Winter and summer aren’t always going to be during the months they are at home. It’ll depend on what date it was when people first got to a given planet and the tilt of the axis. They’re in the tail end of winter here on Sampsa.”

“That would make the summer in December then. Just kinda weird Skip. That’s all,” noted Wells.

“Well I for one don’t care when summer starts or ends around here,” chimed in Heffer. “As long as we get to keep buzzing around alone out here as much as we want I’m happy.”

“Well, not exactly alone Sergeant,” added the gunner over the interior comm.

“Fellow Laidie’s Hawks don’t count,” amended the Sergeant thinking of Friendly Fire chugging along behind them.

“No, I meant the people in the forest,” countered Hale from the forward gunner’s position.

“What people?” asked F.O. Parker.

“Some sort of large vehicles Sir. Maybe ten or twelve. Picked them up on infrared a little while back when we buzzed over them. Didn’t get a real sensor return off of them. But I wasn’t running a combat sweep sir. Identification routines were off line.”

Parker made a ‘hmm’ sound without realizing it as he thought over the nose gunner’s off hand remark. The rest of the flight crew remained silent as they had learned that whenever the Skipper made that little ‘hmm’ sound he was thinking about something. As the safety of his ship and crew where his responsibility, Wes always took the pre-flight briefings very seriously even when they didn’t seem to contain anything of import other than the weather. In this case, pre-flight had designated a certain chunk of sky they were to remain within because it was a combination of Warder and government property that was uninhabited. He’d seen no bases or outposts on any of the maps. He was sure because he’d looked for them to make sure they didn’t accidentally buzz over and excite anyone that wasn’t expecting a pair of military VTOLs to be out skimming the treetops this fine morning.

Which begged the question; what were ten or twelve large vehicles doing sixty clicks from nowhere in the forest?

Wes Parker keyed the comm so he could talk to Stacy and her crew in the Friendly Fire.

“ ‘Fire, this is the ‘Belle. We’re going to make a slow circle then head for the Warder aerodrome. Match our altitude but stay about 300 meters to starboard.”

“Roger, ‘Belle,” came Stacy’s voice over the comm. “Match altitude and run 300 meters to starboard. We looking for something?”

Wes smiled to himself at her good guess. She was a sharp Skipper all right. “That’s a Roger F.F. Keep your sensors passive but stay sharp on the infrared. We’re trying to pick up a column of vehicles under those Elvenhome trees.”

The botany team that arrived with the first settlers had a sense of whimsy that was still evident in some of the names they had attached to the native flora. Towering far taller than any other trees on the planet, the Elvenhome were lords of the Sampsa forests. Their gargantuan trunks often rose forty or more meters before the first massive branches reached out. A dome of evergreen needles topped each one like a magical tree city. When they were grouped somewhat close together the branchwork would intertwine. In this area, most of the snow the two VTOL crews saw beneath their crafts was resting upon the Elvenhome branches many meters above the actual forest floor.

“Roger that ‘Belle. You could hide a ‘Mech battalion down there. Are the bogey’s hostile?”

“At the moment just ‘Unknown’.”

“We’ll keep our eyes peeled sir. Friendly Fire out.”

“Roger that. Northern Belle out.”

Wes made some calculations on the flight computer based on Hale’s trace. Then he took over the controls and led the Friendly Fire in a large sweeping turn he hoped looked ‘casual’ to anyone that might be watching them on sensors. The way they were hanging in empty sky and bleeding heat, sound, and ambient electronic signals of various types the two VTOLs would be easy to track even on passive arrays. It seemed fundamentally unthinkable that hostiles would be lurking under the tree canopy. The Hawks weren’t on the frontier anymore. This planet had a huge and modern space tracking system. You couldn’t just sneak a DropShip in and drop off a company of raiders here like you could on the Periphery. But the flight regs of Laidie’s Hawks required him to try to confirm the contact. As the Suomi Warders didn’t have any flight regs, he’d stick to the book he’d been flying by for over twelve years. As the Northern Belle lined up on it’s sweep run he prayed that if the unthinkable was happening and they were hostiles, that the raiders would be more interested in staying hidden than shooting down VTOLs. The two Redhawks were going to be the text book picture of sitting ducks as they strolled by at two thirds throttle and low altitude.

Eight tense and silent minutes later Airman Hale’s voice rang clear on the ship’s comm.

“There they are. Off to starboard in a column formation. Moving about…wait, they just stopped. I count ten or eleven. One might be a big contact or two close together.”

“What do you have ‘Fire,” called Wes with another little prayer. This one that their scrambled radios were as secure as they were supposed to be.

“Making eleven contacts confirmed. Thought there might have been twelve but the last one dropped away. There’s some general electronic activity but nothing that indicates military vehicles.”

“Stay on Course ‘Fire. If they are raiders we don’t want to spook them into firing on us.”

“Roger Sir,” replied Stacy. As both helicopters were currently unarmed except for the nose mounted medium laser she wasn’t looking to tangle with anyone at the moment either.

Wes looked to his copilot to invite his opinion.

“This continent is civilized enough that the electronic noise is probably just everyday radio, tri-D, cell communications and such. If those are some sort of logging trucks or something they wouldn’t give much signal off. On the other hand, combat machines running under passive sensors and radio silence wouldn’t give much off either. Especially if they have an ECM rig with them. And the snow above them would reduce the heat signature below what you’d expect to see from ‘Mechs. Heck, combustion powered vehicles would probably be invisible to IR. But unless we give them an active ping or get out and eyeball them on the ground it’s anyone’s guess what’s down there.”

Parker made his little ‘hmm’ sound again. They were already catching a little flack from some of the infantry Warders about being glorified bus drivers. Calling in a pending attack by a logging crew wouldn’t exactly help the Hawk’s combat reputation. Doing some quick math and assuming a decently fast pace, whatever was down there could hit the Warder base in anything between thirty and sixty minutes. What was that old story his mother used to tell him as a kid. Something about a cow that kept telling the rest of the barn yard that the sky was falling? Or maybe it was a duck. Either way it didn’t really matter at the moment.

Not knowing whether he should be praying that he was right and they were raiders or praying that he was wrong and they were just loggers, Wes keyed the long range comm system.

“Bifrost Control, this is Hawk Flight Test-Run calling. Repeat, Bifrost Control, this is Test-Run. Do you copy Bifrost?”

Sunset Private School
Outside Suomi City, Sampsa
4 July 3052

Sandi Linna-Touberg stood on her tiptoes to wash her hands in the lavatory sink. You’d think, she thought sourly to herself, that they’d put them a little lower in a bathroom used mainly by grade school kids. And she knew she was tall for her age. More than once she’d given classmates a lift so they could reach. Drying off her hands she picked up the large rubber brick marked “hall pass” in bright orange and took a final check to make sure her clothes were all properly in place once again. A care for her appearance was something she’d inadvertently picked up early from her mother. Her class was doing its history section right now. She liked history in general but her teacher always skipped over the wars and battles. Those were the best parts of history as far as Sandi was concerned. Not when the Planetary Constitution was signed or boring junk like that. But she could always look up the good stuff on the ‘net. She’d recently figured out how to get around the blocking program her mom had put on her computer that stopped access to sites that were military related.

It took a good amount of her might to pull open the door. The dumb thing was heavier than it should be for kids to use. Trying to remember what the teacher had been talking about as she had left, Sandi turned a hall corner to head towards her classroom but came to a jerky stop. There were two grownups standing in the doorway to her classroom. Each wore some sort of black mask over their face and carried what the girl knew to be real guns. Before the shock had fully registered with her one of them looked towards her and pointed.

“Hey, I think that’s her!”

Sandi didn’t waste any time looking over her shoulder to see if some other girl was the object of his attention. She’d been through a kidnapping safety course every year since she could remember and one of the first things she’d been taught was if she was out of reach then run for help. Screaming at the top of her lungs she spun and fled back towards the bathrooms. Unfortunately there weren’t any classrooms in the direction she was now heading and she couldn’t run at top speed and yell at the same time for very long. Spying a fire alarm near the next corner she slowed enough to yank it before taking the turn. She could hear the footsteps of her pursuers gaining on her.

A cold hand closed on her heart as she realized that the fire alarm bells hadn’t started ringing. There must be a lot of the bad guys and they must have cut the alarm. Unlike most nine-year-olds she owned a hand-cell. But the personal comm unit was on Miss Haineg’s desk. Her teacher didn’t want Sandi fiddling with it during class and always made Sandi leave it up front. There’d be no calling for help with it. She’d need to hide somewhere. Figuring it was probably empty at the moment but knowing there were other ways out, Sandi ducked into the cafeteria as fast as her legs would carry her. Panic and fear threatened to take over but she tried hard to stay calm. She knew she had to be smart and think her way free because she wouldn’t be able to outrun a bunch of grownups for very long. Then a new thought slipped into her head, one that served both to calm her and sharpen her evaluation of her options. Her dad was home right now. All she had to do was hide long enough and he’d save her.

Fort Ilmarninen (Warder Base)
Outside Suomi City, Sampsa
4 July 3052

Vilho Rajanen stepped off of the transit bus and shivered slightly as the cold morning air whipped around him. He was carrying an empty rucksack over one shoulder as he walked towards the gates. He ha thought about visiting the base to collect his personal gear before the rest of the unit got back but had never gotten around to it. Now Vilho had finally decided to make the trip back to his old home. The Suomi Warders base. The Major, Gracie, Sven and a couple of the others had sent him notes when they had returned but he’d sent only short replies. Vilho had attended the memorial ceremony but hadn’t gone to watch the disks be attached to the Command Post. Partly because he wasn’t sure he could handle it and partly because he wanted to slip away while the others were too busy to seek him out in the crowd. He hadn’t even warned anyone he was making this trip today.

Reconciling his sudden mid-battle freeze up with what he had always believed of himself had been difficult. The doctors had helped him to explore a great many issues that had been bottled up inside him. But Vilho had resisted their advice that the ex-MechWarrior needed to quit hiding from his friends. Maybe that was why he had finally decided to risk this visit. It would be the final step towards reconciling himself. Or maybe he just wanted his neurohelmet back so he could put it on the mantle. Or bury it in the backyard. Or something. He really didn’t know.

The past few months felt more like years to ex Lieutenant Rajanen. So much had happened that was good- like his new son, while so much was still so wrong. Sisu he scolded himself. His responsibilities were set; his choices clear. Do what must be done. Squaring his shoulders he marched briskly the rest of the way to the guard station.

Vilho was surprised when the guard produced a special VIP pass with Vilho’s name and picture on it. He was asked to wait while the guard made a quick call, then the ex-Warder was told that the base’s current Commander wanted to see him if he would be kind enough to ride with the private.

Shrugging his acceptance, Vilho let himself be herded into a small utility car and whisked across the base. The private driving proved to be the silent type which was fine with Vilho. Idly the visitor wondered who the current Commander might be. For day to day matters the base was run by Administrator Teemo Rosola, a retired Major. Whoever the ranking active Warder officer on base happened to be was usually designated the Base Commander. Often that was the infantry officer in charge of base security as that unit never left on missions. But with everyone back home there was no telling who might be in charge at the moment. Most likely Captain Woods or the Major himself thought Vilho.

Thus Vilho was mildly surprised when he was greeted by Sven Jorgenson. And wearing the small diamond shaped silver pin on his collar that designated a Lance Leader no less.

After the pair exchanged warm greetings Vilho nodded to the diamond.

“So they tapped you for the new lance I see. There’s been some changes around here I guess.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” sighed Sven. “Come on, let’s get in out of the cold.”

Vilho followed his old friend towards the nearby building with growing concern. He couldn’t recall Lawman ever looking drawn and tired like he did now. Stressed out a bit might be the best way to describe it. The Lawman was never stressed in Vilho’s experience.

“Have you been watching the news?” asked Sven.

“Not really,” admitted the other as they passed into warmer climes.

A spark of genuine mirth lit Sven’s face. “Then you really don’t know about the changes. Most of the gang’s scattered away on personal time right now. Except for me obviously. I’m Base Commander at the moment. It’s really good to see you again Vilho. I’m sure the others will be disappointed they weren’t here. That bag you’re carrying says you’re here for your stuff.”

“And say my good byes I guess.”

“Well, I’ve got your gear stowed down in the lockers. Come on, I’ll tag along and you can tell me all about your bouncing baby son. You must have been really frazzled. You sent us the birth time and weight, but forgot to tell us his name.”

“Sorry, I uh…well, anyway it’s Jonathan Grace Rajanen.”

Sven stopped and turned to look at Vilho in surprise. “You named him after John and Gracie and forgot to tell us?”

“I know. It was stupid. Even thought I know better I was afraid they might be ashamed to know my son bore their names.”

“Ashamed?” scoffed Sven. “They’ll be honored. You should know that.”

“I know, I know. Or at least I do now anyway. I’m thinking much more rationally these days. For a while after it happened I was living in a fog world.”

Sven knew that the other man was referring not to Jonathan’s birth but the engagement on Hamano where Vilho had panicked in the cockpit and taken himself out of the fight.

“Well I’m glad the fog has lifted. Hey, let’s…”

Sven was cut off by the insistent ringing of his personal communicator. Vilho nodded his understanding as Sven activated the small cellular radio.

“This is Lieutenant Jorgenson. …Yes….what? Are you sure?……No, don’t hit General Alarm just yet. Let me think for a second.”

Vilho looked on in surprise but held his questions as he watched Sven stare off into space and calculate whatever it was he was calculating. Then the large MechWarrior seemed to stand taller and switch from deflated to energized. He spoke rapidly and firmly into the hand-cell.

“Set up the secure group line on alpha channel. Get Captain Woods, Administrator Rosola, and who ever the ranking base security person on duty is on that line. Notify Civil Defense on the emergency channel that we have a potential threat situation on the base and to close traffic out to us. We’ll advise with more details as soon as we can. Activate the emergency protocols and get the local Air Defense Officer on the line ASAP. Oh, and add Lieutenant Laidie to the alpha line group. Buzz me in five minutes with an update, or earlier if you get everyone on alpha before then."

As Sven shut down his hand-cell Vilho tapped on his sleeve to get his attention.

“Lawman? What’s happening?”

“It looks like the first time I get left with the keys we’re going to be attacked,” replied Sven in amazement at the situation. “Unless somebody changed a two hundred year old law there can’t be any logging vehicles north of us and all of our tanks are about 300 kilometers away in joint training exercises with the Third Armored Cavalry. Unless somebody in the Sampsa Defense Force is playing a really bad joke on us by running around the national forest- we’ve spotted an inbound raiding force out in the trees.”

Vilho took the information in calmly as he noted a trend towards people being someplace else rather then on base at the moment in what Sven had told him so far.

“So what does that leave you with to drive them off?”

“The walls and turrets. The ‘Mech traps. Most of the three security platoons. Two VTOLs that aren’t carrying any ammo in the air and eight more parked some fifteen minutes away. Three armored cars. And six MechWarriors if we can round them all up in time.”

It was, of course, impossible for anyone to have landed an undetected raid on Suomi and then launch an attack against the Warders at the exact time most of their leadership was gone and their forces spread thin. But in a flash of insight Vilho Rajanen realized that it not just possible; it was fate. He would not face a lifetime of wondering what he should have done with his life. Destiny would demand his answer now. Just before he had left for this visit his wife had told him that she had fallen in love with the Vilho that was a warrior, and she loved the Vilho that was not a warrior just as much. That she would love either man but he would have to choose which man to be because being neither would never bring him peace. Somehow she had known that his return to Fort Ilmarinen would force him to choose a path and accept thereafter the consequences that might follow.

“Seven MechWarriors, Lawman.”

Sven’s eye’s narrowed as he considered the other’s offer.

“I know you have good reason to be concerned,” added Vilho. “But I can do this Lawman. I’m stable now. I’ve worked out the issues that were affecting my piloting. Look, just use me as bait. Have me stand by a corner as a target to draw fire. Whatever you want if you can’t trust me watching someone’s back. I’m a Suomi Warder and a MechWarrior. For a while I forgot that. I didn’t realize that I could still be those and a good husband and father. But I know what I am now- I’m all of those. If we’re under attack I can’t just go hide in a bunker knowing I can pilot a ‘Mech and make a difference.”

Lawman nodded. “The Hermes II, our backup scout ‘Mech, hasn’t been memory-scrubbed yet and still has your anagrams loaded. Let’s grab your gear Kissa, we don’t have a lot of time left.”

Despite the pending danger Vilho felt a smile drift across his face. It had been a long time since anyone had called him by his call sign of Kissa. It meant cat; the crafty hunter. It had been even longer since he had felt like Kissa.

Bifrost Command Trailer
Lancing Military Reserve, Sampsa
4 July 3052

Captain Osmo Woods watched the data flowing across several screens within the Bifrost command trailer as his Combat Information and Communications team attended to several tasks at once from seats lining most of one wall. The ability to stay calm and analytical in dangerous and surprising situations was vital to his job. Still, his frustration had boiled to a point that he wished he had something handy to snap, mangle or break. His anger wasn’t really directed at the foe that had obviously done the impossible and smuggled a strike force onto Sampsa. What had Osmo steaming was that most of his immediate attempts to mitigate the situation had been met with resistance or failure. What he wanted most at this particular moment was some cooperation from the Suomi Air Defense Command. But the district’s air base was refusing to put anything in the air to check out the Warder’s alleged raider sighting without the say-so of the Air Boss – who was currently unavailable for reasons SADC didn’t seem inclined to share with mercenary Captains.

The local ground commanders where willing to assist with or without orders, but except for a reserve unit of scout vehicles doing it’s three week active stint just outside Suomi city there weren’t any ground forces close enough to be of any aid. Ironically, the armor force that was usually stationed to defend Suomi City was currently parked around Bifrost with the Warder armor units for the joint games.

So far the only good thing going for Osmo was that from Bifrost he could organize Warder forces from several hundred kilometers away as easily as he could from right on the base. As it happened however he didn’t have much available to organize.

“Sir, I think you better look at this,” one of the comm-techs called out.

Osmo drifted nearer so he could look over her shoulder. On the screen before her were contact numbers for Warder family members. A good number of the families sported green tags indicated that they had been contacted and verified as unthreatened. Each would be warned to stay away from the base until further notification. Right at the top of the list however was a flashing yellow icon. Next to it was the name Linna, John. Followed by the information Daughter: Sandi.

“Tell me,” he breathed.

“I’m not sure what to make of it Captain. At first there was no answer so I made a few other contact calls then called the school back. That time I got someone who said she was a temp helping in the office. She failed to respond with the ‘all-safe’ code phrase- in fact I doubt she even knew about it. But before I could get anyone else on the line the connection went dead.”

“From their end?”

“Looks like from every end,” reported a different astech. “I checked it out and discovered that the entire local comm network has gone down.”

“It’s just being reported on the local news broadcasts Sir,” added a different CIC staffer from two seats down. “A virus has crashed the entire system. Land lines and cell nodes are out. There’s been some local power blackouts too. The power grid seems to be affected by something as well.”

Osmo frowned to himself. There were far too many coincidences occurring all at the same moment. The military satellites were off line with software problems that had been cropping up sporadically since a new program was installed three months ago. Now the local communications network was down and the power network was under attack. The Warder base was about as isolated as possible now. And Woods certainly didn’t like that Sandi’s school was not answering the parental hotline.

Time was ticking. He didn’t have the luxury to sit around wondering what might be happening.

“Get a call through to Lieutenant Fujiwara. Then after that I’ll need alpha channel directed to the secure booth.”

The enemy had done much to hamper the Warders, but Osmo still had a few tricks up his sleeve. One was that although the Warders tied into the local comm circuits they did not rely on them. They owned their own comm-sats. Warder communications would be unaffected. He wished they had a spy-eye in orbit over the base as well but there wasn’t any use wishing for what he didn’t have. However it was high time he made use of what he did have.

Various Locations
In and Around Suomi City, Sampsa
4 July 3052

Naoko Fujiwara leaned over and held the stretch. She’d only been in the luxury condo a few days and already she was going stir crazy. It was one of John’s homes. She was supposed to be serving as a media decoy, making it obvious someone was in the dwelling and at Osmo’s direction in later weeks was to go out and be at various spots around the city to draw attention to her activities. This was all part of a plan to hide John’s absence from Sampsa as long as possible – but in truth she didn’t understand how her running around shopping would help. Naoko didn’t really understand the entire free press idea at all actually. In the Combine the local authorities would just tell the press corps not to mention the missing officer until given clearance to do so and that would be the end of that. It was certainly a more orderly approach than staged arguments and people skulking off in the middle of the night. She supposed she could chalk it up to more of the alternative tactical thinking she was here to garner from the Warders. But Lieutenant Aukland’s tirade had seemed far more genuine that it was supposed to be. Naoko sensed problems on that front.

The ring of her Warder issue hand-cell cut off her line of thought as she got up and answered it.

“Lieutenant Fujiwara here.”

“Lieutenant, this is Captain Woods. This is a priority Bell situation, authorization Gamma, Gamma, Delta.”

A shiver ran down her spine at the Captain’s abrupt announcement. The call codes told her the unit was now on combat alert status and he was assuming command and over-riding any previous orders she might have. The ‘Delta’ close was a check to see if she was under observation or otherwise under duress or in a dangerous situation.

“Hai, Understood Captain. I am Tango. What are my orders?”

“We believe the base will be under attack within fifteen minutes or so. The local comm and power nets are all messed up. Local security and response crews are busy running around everywhere so we’re on our own for this.”

“I don’t think I can make it back to the base from here in under fifteen minutes Sir.”

“Actually I don’t want you to try. There might be a problem at John’s daughter’s school. We’re not sure but local authorities are too busy to go check it out. John keeps that place you’re in because it’s only about ten minutes away from Sandi’s school, making you the closest person we have to go check. I want you to go out there and see what’s up. We’ll download a map and child pick-up authorization to you. Get her and take her to the closest Public Safety station and wait this out. If anyone’s planning on trying to grab her they might check John’s homes too- that’s why you shouldn’t return to the condo. Do you understand your orders?”

Naoko knew he asked not because he thought she might be stupid but that protocol simply required he do so.

“Hai. Yes, I understand. What if it is a hostage situation?”

“Then use your best judgement. Call CIC if you can. But it’s likely you’ll be the only response available for a while. While you’re on active duty with us you have legal authority to use lethal force in defense of any Sampsa citizen. Whatever it takes, John’s daughter is going to be safe and sound when he returns.”

Whatever it takes. Naoko shared the Captain’s resolve about the matter. The Warder’s had a Finnish word they used that affirmed maximum effort regardless of personal cost.

“Sisu, Captain. I will secure Sandi Linna. I’m connecting a noteputer for the download now.”

“Affirmative Lieutenant, we’ll start download in twenty seconds. Hopefully you won’t need it – but good luck Naoko.”

“And to you too Sir,” she responded before attaching the cell device to a mini computer. She watched the displays to make sure the data downloaded correctly then severed the connection.

Breathing in slowly and deeply she placed her mind into the void state she used to keep unwanted distractions at bay. Whatever was about to occur at the base was of no concern to her for the immediate future. All that mattered was planning her own mission. Moving quickly about the condo she collected what items were available and might be of use. From John’s room she took a web belt, a pair of binoculars, his Warder dress great-coat and the matching hat. She assumed Sandi would recognize the uniform pieces as a quick form of assurance. From Sandi’s room Naoko took a sweater, hat and gloves for the girl in case they had to leave without collecting whatever cold weather clothing Sandi would had arrived in. From the garage stall she grabbed a small tool set and two flashlights. Of her own limited gear she added her 9mm automatic pistol with it’s two spare clips of ammo and the shorter of her two swords. The den provided a soft sided laptop computer case with a shoulder strap that she used to store most of what she was taking with her. The car left for her use had a mini-first aid kit if she needed one.

It wasn’t much to launch a rescue raid with – but hopefully she’d be serving as chauffeur rather than commando.

In the core of the city a dark sedan rolled slowly through the blinking traffic lights as the snarled traffic bumped and ground through the financial district. In the rear Lydia Tuborg stared pensively out the tinted side window. A fleeting feeling that something was wrong was nagging at her. But she couldn’t place her finger on what it was.

Bently, she announced suddenly, “I’m going to skip the bank meeting. Let’s go pick up Sandi. If the school’s lost power they’ve probably shut down for the day anyway.”

“Yes Ma’am,” agreed the driver heartily. Trained not just as a chauffeur but also as a security professional, Bently had been worried about their inability to contact the school by cell. Bumping up over the corner of a curb he turned down a side street and made his way toward the edge of the city.

Within the Warder’s main hangar Sven glanced out the window of the ops office he was within. He had been checking the latest data feeds from Captain Woods on a secure terminal. Despite half of their numbers being far away with the Captain- and four of them off planet with the Major- the remaining infantry of the Snow Hunters platoon had managed to intercept the invading ‘Mech force. Their orders were only to hide and report of course. Any attempt to attack twelve ‘Mechs with only about fourteen infantryman – even the highly trained First Platoon – would be suicide. That they had correctly guessed the likely approach vector and positioned themselves for intercept spoke well of the combined arms training the group had long practiced with the Warder ‘Mechs. The Snow Hunters had learned how BattleMechs moved and fought. And learned how to use that knowledge to their advantage. From their reports Osmo’s team had calculated that there was probably about ten minutes before the raiders would be in position.

The Warder ‘Mechs were warmed, armed and ready. But his fellow Warder MechWarriors Sven wasn’t so sure about. They stood clustered near the office waiting for him, unable to see through the reflective glass to know he was studying them. MechWarrior Keena Washington looked pensive and agitated. Sven would have expected a calmer demeanor from Cowgirl as an ex-Solaris Gladiator who had seen her fair share of mercenary firefights. Next to the dark skinned warrior stood Brevet 2nd Lieutenant Misty Florens. Storm had less combat experience but was far past being a rookie. Yet Sven felt he saw the same stiff determination of a newbie going into their first battle in her posture and face. Her confidence was shaken and she was trying not to show it. The other members of that lance were currently out of reach. Unluckily Gracie and Naoko were also the two lead elements of the lance. That left the Lady Killers at half strength and leaderless.

The usually boisterous Ranger, Lieutenant Frank Parks, was solemn and quiet. Sven couldn’t remember seeing Frank that way before so he took it to be a bad sign. Young Jason Nelson worried Sven the most though. There was no denying it- Racker looked scared. Like he was a different warrior than had climbed into a BattleMech to face the Nova Cats. Vilho seemed almost serene in his calmness. Kissa has always been somewhat edgy before a fight before. Lieutenant Jorgenson sincerely hoped this new calmness was the serenity of a warrior that had found himself again rather than the serenity of someone that had embraced death and was on his way to meet it. At least Lieutenant Dhafar looked ready. Basem radiated controlled eagerness to go out and engage the enemy. Sirocco had not let recent events dull his combat edge.

There were three lead techs standing nearby in cooling vests with neurohelmets in hand as well. Naoko’s and Gracie’s BattleMechs where pilotless and would need to be moved. Sparky, Gracie’s tech, looked horrid. Sven was tempted to send him away and get someone else to pilot Granny. His own crew chief was there as well. Linda would pilot his Lancelot. Sven’s neural imprint had been loaded into the Camelot the day the Major had left. Lawman would pilot John’s BattleMech to lead the unit. Because of security programs to reduce the threat of hijacking, the techs couldn’t engage the weapon systems of the ‘Mechs they would pilot but they shouldn’t need to. He hoped. But sooner or later the MechWarriors would be using theirs. He needed them focused on the present rather than the past.

Sven almost never let his personal emotions affect his professional decisions. But in truth he was somewhat disappointed in his fellow MechWarriors. Although he had to admit to himself that the past week plus had been easier on him as he knew the truth. Still, he had expected more from them than this. He made a decision about how to turn the situation around and headed for the door. It was time to put Captain Woods plan into action but first it was his job to make sure his command was ready for the task.

“With the exception of Sirocco you folks are about the sorriest looking bunch of MechWarriors I have had the displeasure of seeing,” he announced. Eyes widen in surprise within the group. No one there could remember the large Lieutenant ever barking a harsh word like that before. He had their undivided attention as he went on.

“All of you should know better than to let outside events affect your combat readiness. And all of you should have greater respect for Major Linna and Lieutenant Aukland than to mope around like this. I wish I had more time to address the issue of how you’re all letting the Major down. But the professional warriors of the Snow Hunters are out there in the trees armed only with pop guns and raw courage while facing down twelve enemy BattleMechs. They don’t have the time required for me to properly dress down your sorry butts. So I’m going to cut to the chase and tell you something you really don’t have the right to know because I’m sure as Hades not trusting my back to any of you except Basem the way you are right now. So pay attention. Major Linna, Lieutenant Aukland, Lieutenant Fujiwara, and several other Warders are all involved with a secret mission right now. Some of them aren’t even on the planet. There was no ‘blow-up’. It was all staged so they could disappear for a while and misdirect media attention. So put all of your attention on the here and now MechWarriors because I don’t want to have to explain to the Major how we got our tails whipped at the door to our own base because we were too busy feeling sorry for ourselves to deal with a couple of punk raiders!”

Sven paused to let his words sink in. As he had hoped, the knowledge that the Warder command team wasn’t at odds with itself worked wonders on the moral of those standing before him. A new energy suddenly infused itself into the group. Where before some of them were wondering why they were even bothering to turn out, now everyone was fiercely determined to prove their worth to their fellow Warders. Except for Basem obviously. He was still as ready as he had been, although he seemed to be slightly amused as if he was congratulating himself on something.

“So we’re got a full company coming at us huh?” opined Ranger as he slipped into his normal cockiness. “Seven on twelve. Not very good odds – for the Bad Guys that is. Any word on weight classes?”

“Mostly 40 to 50 tonners,” answered Sven. “But they’re all fairly fast ‘Mechs and include one odd, reflective one the ground pounders haven’t seen before. And they’ve got two of those new Raven ‘Mechs the Caps build. Definitely a hit and fade group. I’d say we can expect newer tech on them as they seem to be our ‘tan’ friends from Hamano back for a rematch.”

“With all due respect Sir,” spoke up Sparky, “it’s more like ten on twelve. You can count on us all the way Lieutenant.”

Sven smiled at the three techs. “I really appreciate the offer. But it would take almost two hours to enter the over-rides and wait for the built-in time delay before we could unlock the weapons on your ‘Mechs. And the plan doesn’t include using our crew chiefs as targeting decoys.”

Sparky coughed into his hand then looked up sheepishly at the MechWarrior. “Well, actually Sir, I sorta put in a secret bypass quite a while ago just incase I ever needed the guns in a hurry while I was ferrying Granny around.”

Linda nodded as Sven looked to her. “Me too. Installed the bypass when we installed the security measures on your Lancelot three months ago.”

Everyone looked towards Naoko’s crew chief. “Sergeant Harding told me he put in an emergency bypass but never told me how to activate it before he left for his sister’s on Terra. Or wherever he really went. I’m afraid I cannot activate her weaponry with my clearance level. So it’s nine- on twelve but I’m ready and willing to pull decoy duty.”

Harding was actually on his way to the Circinus Federation but Sven saw no reason to expose more of the truth than he already had.

“If it comes down to it, then I’ll clear you two to activate and engage,” nodded Sven. “But I’ve got one more secret to share with all of you that should make the point moot. Remember, this is top secret and need-to-know. No one else needs to know what you’re about to see.”

The other crew-persons and astechs had long since been cleared to bunkers leaving only the pilots and three crew chiefs in the hangar. Woods had already sent a security team to take the spy astech into custody – but he’d called in sick today anyway so didn’t pose a risk at the moment. Sven punched a code he had just been given by Captain Woods into a special controller and a faint rumble accompanied by a mild vibration they could all feel in their feet followed. A crack started to form along the edges of the painted ‘runway’ that that ran down the middle of the cavernous hanger. One end was dropping lower and lower, creating a wide ramp that lead down.

“They built this hangar on this spot for a reason,” explained Sven. “Long ago there was a heavy industrial facility here. The underground area had the machinery stripped out and became a hiding place for rebel vehicles during the Andurien occupation. As time went on it was updated for BattleMechs. Our operational plan is very simple. We hide all the ‘Mechs down there while everyone else on base hides in the personnel bunkers. We let the bad guys wander around the empty base, then Captain Woods arranges to scare them out so we can follow them to whatever ground base they used to launch their operation. Then we make sure they remain as guests of the Sampsa penal system.”

“Or permanent residents of the Suomi mortuary system,” grinned Ranger.

Sven nodded to indicate that was another possibility as well. “But first things first. Everyone mount up and get down in the bunker ASAP.”

“Sisu Sir!” rang through the hangar as pilots scrambled for BattleMechs.

Hauptmann Goering Schmidt edged his 65 ton Exterminator closer to the edge of the woods. So far everything had unfolded exactly like the plan had called for. They had been smuggled in on a DropShip that then took advantage of a virus planted months ago in the military satellite system to stray off course and drop them off. From there they had prepped at an abandoned facility then crept up on the Warder base by walking on the repair railway that had been laid next to an underwater pipeline. Once on land again they had simply cruised along under the tall trees of the woods. And now they were in position. His two extended sensor Ravens currently reported no ‘Mech or vehicle activity what-so-ever in the area.

Which bothered the Hauptmann. The final updates from their spy indicated that Aukland had argued with Linna and left. The Major, their intended target, was alternately reported as being holed up in the General’s House on base and as being out on the town with his new lady-friend the Combine MechWarrior. The entire Warder armored force was reportedly off on a training mission which could explain the lack of movement. But still, he would have expected at least some minimal activity about the place. Other than the two helos that had flown over then wandered away it seemed that none of the Warders were home.

He was tempted to turn back. Not particularly heroic he knew but he was on a hostile world with only twelve ‘Mechs and a ride home that would be blown from the sky if discovered. Their margin for error was close to non-existent. Still, even if Major Linna wasn’t at the base their employer had indicated that the simple act of attacking would help other plans the Chairman had laid. When all was said and done, they hadn’t come all this way just to turn tail just because things seemed to be going too well.

Schmidt clicked on his transmitter at the lowest power setting. “This is Striker One to all Units. Engage as planned. I repeat, engage as planned.”

A series of warbled tones came as replies and his Blitzkrieg Company sprang into action. The two Ravens veered off towards the quiet airfield just north of the base while the rest of his force zigged along the pre-mapped safe path through the ‘Mech traps. The two Spider pilots betrayed their nervousness at actually engaging the base when their first volley of fire lanced red energy just about everyplace but the defensive turrets on the wall. Schmidt expected them to come to life and start spitting autocannon shells at his company but all three remained quiet for the few moments that passed between the Spider’s clean misses and the rest of his force opening up and destroying the gun emplacements. They then turned their firepower on the weakened wall section that was designed to be blown out in case the defenders needed to make a back door.

It went down in a tangle of ferrocrete chunks, jagged metal support bars, and dust. He led his troops through the opening ready to fire on anything that presented itself but was faced only with non-threatening buildings.

Georing keyed his radio again. “Striker lance, follow me. Take up defensive positions on a left arc. Troll Lance, take up guard on the right. We’ll hold up here for a moment.”

“Striker One, this is Leopard Three. Should we go engage the side turrets as planned?”

The Hauptman considered for a moment. The turrets weren’t a threat as they couldn’t rotate to point within the walls. The original plan called for blasting them just on the sake of general principals. Never leave a working weapon at your back no matter how sure you are that it can’t hurt you.

“Negative Leopard Three. Take Leopard Four and move to the main hangar and report. Leopard One, what do you have so far?” The two Spider pilots moved to comply as the Raven pilot to the north studied his scanners.

Leopards One and Two were the Ravens. Their job was to destroy anything they found at the airfield and then spread out to report any potential threat that might try to come down on the Blitzkrieg Company.

“This is Leopard One. There’s nothing out here except some construction vehicles Sir. No VTOLs, no nothing. Sensors show negative contact. Leopard Two is about to start scanning with the Beagle probe to see if anything is hiding.”

“Good work Leopard One. Notify me immediately of any contacts.”

On the outer edge of the defensive arc Corporal Mitchell tuned in the private frequency his buddy Gunther would be monitoring. Mitchell’s Centurion fidgeted slightly as Gary’s light tapping of his feet within the cockpit was translated into mild movements of his ‘Mech’s legs.

“I don’t like this at all Gunther, old buddy.”

“Vhat’s not to like? They all be sleeping or something, nien?”

“I don’t think so Gunther. This smells like something different to me.”

Gunther just snorted. You couldn’t smell anything outside from within a BattleMech cockpit.

Then the Spiders finally reported in on the common channel.

“Striker One, this is Leopard Three. The hangar is empty. Repeat, the hangar is empty. No sign of any enemy forces anywhere Sir.”

Goering swore under his breath. Now what? He supposed they could shoot up some buildings just to see if anyone materialized. The Hauptmann decided he had better go take a firsthand look. His more experienced eye might notice something the two new mercenaries wouldn’t recognize.

“Let’s go Strikers. V formation on me. Trolls, watch the back door.”

A few moments later Goering was standing on the wide painted stripe of the central walking path within the huge hangar. The Exterminator’s head swung from side to side as the Hauptmann examined the interior. There weren’t any piles of munitions or over turned equipment that suggested a hasty departure. It looked like the base had been abandoned, although all the repair equipment had been left behind. He’d seen a few parked vehicles that were likely personal cars of base personnel on the way to the hanger. So the pull out was temporary. Which meant that they must have known he was coming. But did they withdraw because they decided they couldn’t hold the fort? Flee in panic because their beloved Major couldn’t be located? Or was this all an elaborate trap?

Suddenly, Willie Boers called in from one of the Ravens at the airfield.

“Striker One, this is Leopard One. We’ve got reactor traces on the edge of our sensor range Sir.”

“What types of contacts?” demanded the Hauptmann.

“The range is too great to tell Sir. At least twelve so far and they seem to be taking formation. Leopard Two thinks he saw some more contacts as well but they backed just out of range.”

A trap Schmidt decided. The question now was how wide were the jaws? Wide enough for him to withdraw?

“Leopards One and Two, commence active jamming and pull back to the forest. All units, pull back to Echo One. Repeat, all units pull back to Echo One.”

Corporal Mitchell was the second pilot out the ‘back door’ when the first hidden gun emplacement was activated. He reacted quickly as the large laser fired a glancing blow across Troll One’s retreating legs and pumped autocannon fire from his LB 10-X into it followed by a pair of medium lasers. The heat rose in his cockpit but he put his 50 ton machine into a run anyway. He sure as hell didn’t remember any pop-up turrets in the briefing or the simulations. Apparently the mission planners didn’t know as much about the Warders as they thought they knew. Important things like the Warders wouldn’t be home. He stopped at the woods’ edge and turned to provide support fire for the rest of his lance as they withdrew.

Troll lance took care of the pop-ups while suffering only minor armor damage before Striker lance and the two Spiders of Leopard lance crossed the clearing for the trees. The two Ravens had already arrived and were standing sentry duty with their advanced sensors. They were detecting active radar from what was probably combustion powered combat vehicles within the base while the blips on the outer edge of their sensor range were now starting to close in. The previously quiet airwaves had suddenly become heavy with coded traffic.

Unnoticed and laying less than seven meters away from the Raven of Leopard Two was Corporal Hansen of the Warder’s First Platoon. He and private Jones were hunkered under a large shrub that they had used to hide their two person snow-tracker within. Hansen and Jones exchanged glances, each realizing that if the BattleMech used an active probe it would likely detect the small machine behind them. Although it was made mainly of plastics and carbon fiber materials, there was enough metal within it to set off a Beagle probe. In fact, following the raiders back to their base without being detected was going to be an almost impossible task.

But when you wanted the impossible done, you called on the Snow Hunters.

“Stay with the ‘tracker. I’ll need you for relay,” whispered the Corporal. Before Private Jones could ask him to clarify the Corporeal was up and scrambling towards the stationary Raven.

Trained for anti-‘Mech assault, Hansen was wearing his climbing harness and carrying some of his swarming equipment. He made sure the winch gear was unlocked and pulled slack cable from the hip mounted housing on his right side as he clipped the cable end into a magnetic grapple. Twisting the grip to activate the battery, he arced the device up towards the relatively flat underside of the SRM-6 launcher that spouted from the ‘Mech’s right torso. It made contact and locked on. Hansen then engaged the power-pully and quickly winched himself up underneath the Raven. There was a relatively flat space under the rear of a Raven and by using his other two magnetic grapples he quickly made himself a crude sling. It was a horrible place to try to attack a ‘Mech from- but Hansen was looking for a ride rather than a fight.

Jones watched slack-jawed as the corporal secured his position under the BattleMech. The chicken-legged machine choose that moment to turn and trot off after it’s fellows. In a few moments it was out of sight amid the trees.

“Radio Check,” came a quiet voice in Jones’ combat helmet.

“Reading you loud and clear,” he replied.

“Acknowledged. I’ll report in every five. Hansen out.”

The private now understood his instructions from Hanson. The comm packs they wore for the helmets had a limited transmission range. But the open seated snow-tracker had a much more powerful transmitter. Jones’ job was now to stay back out of sensor range but within comm range and bounce back the corporal’s reports to CIC. As the comm range was better than Beagle probe range there shouldn’t be any troubles. Normal ‘Mech sensors, even if the raiders decided to run active, wouldn’t pick up a single snow-tracker following them.

Back in Bifrost Captain Woods did a classic double take as he asked the commo specialist to repeat what she had just reported. So she repeated to him what he had thought he had just heard. One of the troopers had actually attached himself to a raider ‘Mech and was planning to call back their position at regular intervals. Man alive, those First Platooners where some crazy SOBs he thought to himself. Crazy, but effective. With the trooper’s global positioning device and his radio, the raiders weren’t going to disappear on the Warders.

“All right, get me Lieutenant Laidie on the line then. Looks like her Hawks won’t be playing hide and sneak after all. And Carrie- tell that scout unit they can ease off. The raiders have retreated. Then relay to Lawman that he can reform at the base now. Has there been any word from Lieutenant Fujiwara yet?”

To the north of the Warder airfield a very relieved Lieutenant Packard signaled to her company of Swiftwinds that it was time to turn about and head back to the barn. The small, fast scout vehicles were unarmed and would have been quickly destroyed had they ever wandered into range of the attacking BattleMechs. Yet they had driven off the invaders without needing any armaments. The Swiftwind mounted sensor equipment that operated at the same frequencies and power levels of BattleMech sensors. Additionally, they had been engineered to provide a signature when running ‘hot and active’ that looked like a BattleMech rather than a scout car at long range. The design team had reasoned that sometimes you needed a fast, sneaky mouse hiding in the weeds and other times you might want a loud, blustering elephant crashing through the underbrush.

Today the SwiftWinds had played the elephant and the enemy had believed the ploy. The twelve harmless scout cars of the Sampsa Reserve Militia turned for home.

Luckily for Naoko there had been no real difficulty with road traffic. She had started from a suburban hub outside the more heavily traveled inner ring of the city and was travelling away from the core. Ahead she could see the fenced entrance and small guard shack of the private school. There didn’t seem to be anything amiss- but there wasn’t much of anything to look at either. The main building of the school sat out of direct sight behind a small knoll. This left only the hedge-lined driveway that started just past the guard post to eyeball. With one hand in her lap, hidden under Sandi’s sweater to conceal the pistol she gripped tightly, Naoko rolled slowly up to the open window of the booth.

Her grip eased as the building proved empty. Affixed to the window was a hand written sign on a piece of school letterhead directing visitors to proceed up to the main entrance. Naoko stopped the car for a moment and considered the invitation. It appeared genuine enough. But in her culture it would not be seemly to leave a security post – even one that mainly served a greeting purpose – unoccupied, especially at a school that catered to the upper end of the society. Granted, the Sampsans were different in many ways. But something just didn’t feel right. Electing to risk losing a few moments just to verify that the post was deserted she slipped out of the car and leaned in the window to look around the booth.

At first she didn’t see anything unusual. Then she realized that there was a clipboard with a printout of names lying on the floor near one corner. It hardly seemed logical that someone would drop such an item on the floor and leave it. She was about to depart when the opposite window caught her attention. There seemed to be some smearing on it. Letting herself into the station she examined the window closer. It looked like someone had tried to dry-wipe a liquid off the inside, smearing some of it around. Looking out the window she noticed that there was a steep embankment behind the shed and a place where the snow was disturbed. Going behind the building she found that something had been shoved down the short slope into the brush below, leaving a trail of disturbed snow behind. Carefully she picked her way down.

From the bottom of the hill she immediately noticed the body. It was an older man in an off-the-shelf guard outfit from a uniform store. Knowing what she’d find, she checked anyway. He was dead. It looked like a single shot to the forehead. Her first reaction was to pull away, to put some distance between her and the dead man. She was a warrior by trade, but seldom had she ever confronted or touched a cadaver. Drawing strength from her determination to safeguard Sandi and perform her duty she steeled herself to examine him closer. It didn’t look like he had been armed. He didn’t have a comm of any sort with him anymore. He was cold to the touch but that told her little. A body would likely cool quickly outside on the snow.

Turning away from the body she pulled out her hand-cell. She’d been careful not to closely examine the poor man’s face. She didn’t want to risk it haunting her dreams. Naoko punched in the contact number that Captain Woods had given her. Immediately the line came to life and the answering comm-tech passed her through to the Captain.

“I’m below the front gates where I’ve found the guard dead Sir,” she reported. “I can’t tell how long it’s been. He was shot so there’s no doubt someone has moved against the school. All’s quiet right now.”

“Understood Lieutenant,” responded Osmo grimly. “Here’s the situation. The local comm net is down and the emergency response crews are all spread out. We’ll keep trying to get through to the police force from here but we can’t count on getting through. I can’t get any help to you for ten minutes – maybe longer. Can you block off the gate?”

“Negative Captain. The iron gate is too light to stop a vehicle and the roadway is too wide for me to block with the car I have. I could put some shots into anyone leaving but I doubt I could stop a determined driver with my sidearm.”

“Understood. Hide yourself near the gate and keep on the line. Keep the exit under surveillance until I can get you some help.”

“Sir,” hesitated Naoko, “I’d like to volunteer to scout closer. The drive is lined with hedges so I can get to the building unobserved from anyone stationed out front. If they’re gone already then at least I might be able to help any wounded before it’s too late. If they’re still there then maybe I can stall them somehow.”

Osmo weighed her offer. At the gate all she could do was comm him if someone left. If she could get inside…

“If they spot you it may set them off,” he observed.

“They have already killed an innocent old man for no reason,” she observed coldly. “I do not think they need anything to ‘set them off’.”

“You have a point. Permission granted. But don’t push your luck too hard OK? We’ll get someone there as fast as we can. Good luck Naoko. Call us as soon as you can.”

“Understood Captain. Fujiwara out.”

Clamoring back up to the guard shack she paused to collect both her gear and her thoughts. Warring emotions vied for a piece of her thoughts. Great anger at those who would threaten innocent children. Fear for John’s daughter and the others. Dread at what she might find. Terror at possibly becoming the cause of more innocent deaths. It even flashed through her mind to wonder if this was something like John had felt on the Starcade as he faced a similar situation alone. But she didn’t pursue the thought as she breathed out slowly and shed her anxieties. She sheathed her mind in the calm, combat ready state she called the Void. There was no room in the Void for distracting emotions. Naoko told herself she was no longer a woman alone on the roadside with a problem. She was a samurai with a mission. She was a living weapon of bone and blood, spirit and steel. She would become the wind and be the shadow. Samurai did not flinch from their duty or shy from their mission. And in telling herself this it became true, for she was indeed a samurai in spirit and a warrior by training.

Mind alert, reflexes primed and senses keyed Lieutenant Fujiwara ghosted along the outer side of the thick hedgerow towards the large three-story building that lay just over the rise.

Many kilometers away walked a different warrior with different problems on her mind. Her flight helmet banged into her leg with each step she took but Lieutenant Jennifer Laidie hardly noticed as she bound her golden hair in a scrunchy with a practiced hand while surveying the organized chaos that swirled around her. The target of her quick march lay just before her. The Loadmaster non-com was busy yelling various orders into the activity but stopped for a moment as he caught sight of the air company’s Skipper pulling up next to him.

“What’s the sit-rep Sergeant?” she asked immediately.

“Ma’am. The birds are almost warmed enough for lift. A few more minutes at most. There’s not enough time for full missile loads so we’re putting two salvos on each craft and as much chain-gun ammo as the gunners can cram in while the astechs are loading the LRMs. Every bird has enough crew to lift but only two have a full crew right at the moment. Not counting the Northern Belle or Friendly Fire. They were already airborne. Neither has any ammo on board though.”

“And Lady Hawk?”

“Your reactor is still a few minutes away from being able to hold a containment bottle. Your lance wasn’t on top of the reaction list so we haven’t got any missiles loaded yet. But Mills and Gallagher have a good amount of MG ammo laid in. You’re still down two of your aircrew though.”

Jennifer repressed a sigh of disappointment. The Sergeant was following procedures she had made herself so she could hardly complain. Her personal Redhawk rotary-wing VTOL had been at the end of the fast reaction list this week. Those at the top were armed first and their crews tried to stay near the ready-room.

“I won’t be needing missiles anyway. Have a crew pull my bird off to one side so I can lift as soon as the reactor’s warm. And get someone out to scare up the rest of my flight crew. I don’t care if they’re on the jacks with their pants around their ankles – if they’re on the airfield then I want them onboard Lady Hawk and I mean as of two minutes ago.“

“Yes Ma’am,” saluted the Sergeant as he turned smartly to do her bidding.

At that moment Flight Officer O’Grady came pounding up to Jennifer’s side.

“Marcus,” she started without preamble as she started toward her VTOL, “You’ve got field command of the Hawks. Captain Wood’s is on TacChan Three-Fiver. You’ve got a few extra minutes so up the LRM load to five salvos – more if the Captain tells you we have the time. His CIC people will give you vector coordinates en route.”

“But where are you going?” called the XO to her as she jogged away.

“SAR mission.”

Marcus scratched at his chin. “A search and rescue? I thought our guys had avoided contact. Hey Lacey, did you hear anything about a downed pilot?”

His copilot could only shake her head in the negative. She knew as little as he did.

Naoko had slipped in almost next to the main building. She paused for a bit behind the shrubbery then carefully pushed into it far enough to peek through the leaves and see the front entryway. Standing sentry at the top of the broad steps was a dark clad man toting a carbine on a sling. She noted the telltale thin arm of a mic boom running along his jaw to stop at the side of his mouth. They were wired with assault communications gear but this one wasn’t wearing body armor that she could see. No vehicles were in the wide circular drive before the school but she knew that there was a small garage building somewhere roughly across from her. Their car or cars were probably secured inside- and probably guarded. She moved on to the end of the hedge then waited until the guard was looking away from her side of the drive. Then she hastily crept to the corner of the building.

The snow had been cleared away from around the school a good meter or so. She had no idea why, but it allowed her to tread lightly across the cold concrete walk that surrounded the building without making any accidental squeaking sounds in the snow with her boots. A row of windows ran just beyond her reach all the way down the building’s side. Snatching up a snow shovel that had been left leaning against the outer wall she moved about halfway down then carefully braced the shovel against the wall and used it to stand on so she could see inside. It looked like a mess hall of some sort but with smaller tables. Kid sized tables she realized. This must be where they ate their midday meal.

As she studied the empty room she considered entering. As the kidnappers were still here the most likely reason was that they didn’t have what they had come for. Which might mean Sandi had somehow escaped capture, or that Sandi wasn’t the target but the target remained free or uncooperative, or that the target was actually someone they expected to come after Sandi (or the actual target). She could only guess at this point.

Then a voice from her academy says drifted through her consciousness. “Don’t guess MechWarrior,” it had always demanded. “Know.”

She pulled the screwdriver from the toolkit she carried and held the slotted end against the glass just above the catch. Then she pushed the sweater up against the glass to muffle the sound and rapped the end of the handle with her palm. On the second attempt she punched it through the glass. As she had expected, the material was a safety grade that spider-webbed at impact rather than shattering. Luckily it wasn’t a bullet resistant variety or she wouldn’t have been getting in through any windows. Naoko was able to knock the catch open with the screwdriver and open the window. Moments later she had pulled herself inside and crouched still with her pistol drawn. She waited for a count of sixty without hearing anything. There were a couple different doors available and she picked one that would lead towards the opposite side of the building for her simple map had marked Sandi’s classroom as being on that side, first floor.

The door led to the kitchen area. She was about to leave to try another when she noticed the pool of blood by a food preparation island. Moving carefully around it Naoko discovered another body- this one apparently a cook of some sort. There was no need to steel herself to touch the body this time. The Void did not allow squeamishness to interfere. This one was indeed dead- but still seemed slightly warm. As she was being careful not to leave any tracks in the pool of blood, Naoko noticed the half footprint along one edge. A child’s shoe. One of the students had been here during or after. Rage rattled at the Void’s edge but she knew she couldn’t succumb to its tempting embrace. Now was not the proper time to be Fire. Now she must be Water. Forceful and quick but ready to flow undeterred around any obstacles in her path.

Her next choice gave her a hallway. It proved deserted so she slipped cautiously along it to a “T” intersection. A quick glance both directions showed that this one seemed to run most of the length of the building. There were classrooms across from her; by reading the numbers of the three nearest she was able to determine that Sandi’s classroom lay somewhere down the hall to her right. Darting quietly across the hall she peeked in the small window set in the door across from her. The class was empty. Moving farther down towards her goal she checked the next one and found it empty as well. At first she thought it curious but then she realized why the rooms were likely deserted. The kidnappers couldn’t have brought enough people to guard each room. They must have controlled the halls and herded everyone to larger rooms where they could be more easily guarded.

She flitted down the doors quickly until she was at Sandi’s. A quick peek showed this one empty as well- although as with the others she couldn’t see the entire room within. She hunched down with her back to the wall to consider her next move then realized that the door was opening.

Instinct and training took over as she launched herself into action. The man coming out was dressed much like the guard she had seen at the front- but at that moment all that really registered in her brain was that this was indeed an enemy and the attacks she had already started did not need to be aborted. Her left hand knifed up and out, catching the comm headset and dashing it from his head just before her the base of her right palm slammed into his Adam’s apple. He gagged as he fell back in shocked surprise but Naoko wasn’t through pummeling him yet. In the same motion that launched her first attacks she pressed him back then landed a rapid mix of blows with hands, elbows and knees. She didn’t even know what combinations she used. About six strikes and three seconds later she was spinning away from him and drawing her pistol to confront anyone else that might be in the room. Luckily the guard was alone. After shutting the door she drug him across the floor to the back of the room. He was unconscious and having trouble breathing. Not caring if he lived or died she stripped his weapons and slipped on the headset to listen to their communications. At the moment the channel was silent.

He’d dropped something when she’d first hit him. Returning to the front of the room Naoko found a neon orange hand-cell unit on the floor. Curious, she picked it up then realized where she had seen one like it before. Although his was simple black, John had the same model. He carried it along with his Warder issued one when he was on Sampsa. A glance at the back revealed the name Sandi printed in neat small letters with a permanent pen.

Naoko slipped the phone into a pocket of the great coat she was wearing and gave the submachine gun a quick examination as she considered her options. The weapon had a built in suppressor but appeared to be of relatively cheap manufacture. Making sure she understood the safety catch, she cleared the bolt and checked the feed then slipped the bolt home and chambered a round. The weapon had only single-fire and auto settings. She elected to leave it on auto. She really hadn’t decided what to do next when a male voice came on line via the head-set.

“This is Five. I think I just saw movement at the north stairwell. I’m moving on it.”

“Roger Five. Three, go check your hall.”

A short paused followed, then an excited new voice hopped on the line.

“Contact, contact. She’s on the ground floor again. Headed towards the front.”

“Chase her Three, I’ll cut through the cafeteria in case she goes that way again,” announced a woman’s voice.

“Hey, I think she’s headed back for her class room.”

Naoko’s head snapped up at that. She rushed to the door as someone new to her came on the line.

“Now we’ve got the kid. She’ll be paying for her double-cross big time real soon.”

“Cut the chatter Two,” commanded a stern voice. “Eight- grab her in the class but remember: we need her alive for the ransom call.”

Cracking the door open a bit Naoko could hear shoes slapping lightly against the tile. She pulled the door open just as Sandi came up to it. The little girl started to twirl away, then saw the Warder coat and hat and instantly recognized her father’s cold weather dress kit. She flung herself into Naoko’s arms with a cry of something in Finnish that Naoko didn’t understand.

Sandi’s sudden euphoria was short lived however as she realized that whoever she’d just wrapped her arms around wasn’t her dad. She struggled in a panic to pull away but the adult grabbed her. Sandi started kicking at the other’s shins and tried to flail her arms free- then the stranger’s words finally got through her panic.

“Easy, easy. It’s Naoko – Lieutenant Fujiwara.”

Sandi stopped her struggles and looked up. Relief flooded through her as she saw that it was indeed the pretty MechWarrior lady from her father’s unit. “Is my Dad here?” pleaded Sandi.

Naoko had pushed the door shut with her hip as she knew they had little time. “Eight” had never answered because he was unconscious on the ground. His lack of response would not go unnoticed.

“No Sandi. He can’t be here right now but he sent me to help. More friends are on the way but we’ll have to get out on our own. Can you be brave for me for a little longer?”

Sensing the other’s urgency, Sandi swallowed her other questions and nodded. Scanning the room quickly once more Naoko grabbed the girl around the waist and lifted her up onto the low shelf unit that ran along the wall.

“Stay there a moment.”

Then the MechWarrior rushed across the room and snatched up one of the wooden chairs and flung it through the window. Although the window was of light safety glass, the chair still knocked a sizable hole in it. She pushed one of the small desks against the wall under the broken window then hurried back to where Sandi stood on the shelf unit and hopped up to join her. From the top of the shelves Naoko was just barely able to reach the large acoustical ceiling tile above and push it up. As she had suspected there was room between the false ceiling and floor of the next level.

“Comms may be compromised. Everyone punch in the security code for tac two and then sound off,” announced the voice in the head set. She pulled it off and examined it, finding a small set of six buttons marked with letters on the transmitter section. Knowing she couldn’t hope to guess the required code she flipped the now useless set back towards the body. Then she hefted herself up into the ceiling area. A planked service walkway ran half a body length from the panel she’d popped up. Getting a knee anchored around a support post she reached down with one arm and pulled Sandi up with her. Just as Naoko maneuvered the panel back into place the two of them could hear the door slam open. Naoko put her fingers to her lips in the dimness to indicate silence but it was a useless gesture. Sandi was well aware of the need to stay quiet.

The voice that Naoko knew as “Three” swore to himself then reported into his comm-link. “Three to Lead. Looks like she’s exited through a broken window.”

There was a pause as Three listened to orders the two hiding females couldn’t hear. They could hear the man below walk across to the window.

“If she’s out there she’s damn fast for a little girl. I don’t see her. No sign of Eight. Roger, I’ll check the room out.”

Naoko carefully stood up and helped Sandi do the same. Pointing down the walkway Naoko indicated to the girl to start heading that way. The pair quietly stole away along the service path with Naoko hunched over to avoid hitting her head on the flooring above her.

Sandi paused at an intersection. “The cafeteria is that way,” she whispered while pointing.

Noako nodded. That was where she’d come in and was the opposite side of the building from where the kidnappers would be looking for Sandi. The next few minutes passed in relative silence as the two of them carefully picked their way through the gloom. The walkway they were following made a sudden right turn then ended at a square metal flume of some sort that continued up through the next floor.

Sandi turned to her rescuer in the darkness. “I think we’re over the kitchen.”

“I think you’re right. We can probably get down onto one of the counters from here if we’re careful.”

“OK,” sighed Sandi with a shiver. She locked solemn eyes with Naoko. “Don’t be afraid OK? Miss Kelly’s in the kitchen. She’s dead.”

Naoko blinked at the bluntness of the statement but could see the turmoil in the little one’s face. She wondered if Sandi had actually seen it or heard it when it happened. The girl was remarkably composed- but also seemed on the verge of finally breaking down into sobs. Naoko didn’t blame her one bit. She wanted to reach out and comfort Sandi, to tell the scared girl that everything would be all right. But to offer that compassion would require Naoko to free the tight leash over her own emotions. The samurai was fierce in battle. Nurturing didn’t fit well with controlled fierceness.

She reached out and lightly squeezed the girl’s shoulder. “I know Sandi. I’ve already seen her. I’m sure she would have wanted for us to get away, so when we go down we’ll need to move fast and be quiet. We’re really going out the window this time. Can you do that?”

Sandi nodded her head yes as she drew in a deep shuddering breath. She whispered something to herself that Naoko had a hard time catching but it sounded something like “She just wanted to help me”.

Naoko knelt and risked using her flashlight to see the back of the fiberboard tile. She tried to get her fingers under the edge but from above the task proved difficult. It wasn’t exactly a dignified use for her wazari but she unsheathed the short blade and used the tip to spear the cork-like material and lift the panel up so she could grip it. Having Sandi hold the sword for a moment she maneuvered herself so she could lean down with the submachine gun and look around. The kitchen held no enemies and it looked like they could use the burner surface next to the oven to easily reach the floor.

Hundreds of meters away a dark colored limo was rolling up to an abandoned gateway.

“That looks like one of John’s cars,” noted Lydia from the rear.

“Indeed it is,” agreed Bently. He had all the plate numbers memorized. “Ma’am, I must advise you that I don’t like this situation at all. There’s no good reason for Mr. Linna’s vehicle to be parked down here. Plus the comms are still out.”

“Maybe it broke down and he walked up.”

“And took the guard with him?” he countered politely. As Naoko had earlier removed the fake note, neither newcomer had read the message inviting guests up the drive.

Lydia hadn’t taken control of numerous companies because she was a stupid or timid woman. If John and the guard went up to the school on foot it was because they expected trouble.

“Bently, when I bought this rather expensive machine I was told that it was impervious to small arms fire. Is that true or was it an overstated sales pitch?”

The security man didn’t like where this conversation was going. “It’s close to the truth Ma’am,” he admitted. “Enough incoming fire will break down the armor eventually, but it can take a good pounding by anything short of shoulder fired missiles.”

Lydia considered his answer for a moment. She didn’t consider herself a particularly brave woman when it came to confronting physical danger; but that was her daughter up there potentially in trouble while her ex-husband played out another solo-commando fantasy. A cooler, more rational head could well be required for negotiations.

“Keep it slow and stay alert Bently,” she commanded. “We’re going up to the school.”

Pulling his laser pistol from a shoulder holster, Kal Bently laid it beside him for easy reach and slipped the big car into gear.

Meanwhile Naoko was trying to keep one eye on the door and the other on helping Sandi climb down. Although physically gifted for her age, Sandi still had some trouble swinging down and landed hard on the cooking top. Her foot kicked one of the burners loose and it clattered to the floor as she jumped the rest of the way down. A moment later the door flew open as a masked woman brandishing a pistol burst in.

The would-be kidnapper had been warned that someone might be with the girl. It had been obvious that a nine-year-old couldn’t have beaten one of their comrades to death. But being warned and truly be preparing for the possibility proved two different things as the masked woman found herself startled by the long coated figure across the kitchen. The lapse in professionalism cost her dearly as Naoko reacted first and pulled Sandi behind her with one hand while using the other to spray seven millimeter rounds at the open door. Jerking about under several hits, the kidnapper went down.

Naoko wasted no time. Even before her target had come to a complete stop the Combine warrior was rushing forward and pulling Sandi behind her. Leaving Sandi in the kitchen for a moment Naoko crouched and burst out into the eating area but found it empty. Not knowing how many rounds might be left, Naoko ejected the clip and slapped in one of the two fresh ones she’d salvaged and motioned for Sandi to head for the windows. The built in ‘silencer’ had quieted the weapon, but it still produced a good amount of clatter and noise. From the hall Naoko could hear a shout. While Sandi raced for the windows Naoko ran for the door to the hall. As Naoko glanced out a figure popped around a corner but retreated just before she let loose with a quick burst down the hall. She ducked back as he returned fire, then risked leaning out again to fire back.

She got off a few more rounds then the gun jammed. Jerking back she tried to pull the bolt back to clear the jam but an ejecting round had “stove piped” and locked the bolt in place. There was a slim garbage can near her so she pulled it over and propped the gun on it. The muzzle edged just past the doorway, visible from the other end of the hall she hoped. Naoko doubted they’d risk a charge down the hall. More likely they’d try to get around to the other side and come in the other doors. Rushing back to where Sandi waited the MechWarrior popped open a window and dropped the girl down to the ground. She paused on the window ledge for a moment to pull it shut behind them then hopped down.

Their time was short and growing shorter. Dropping to one knee Naoko shrugged off the computer case that carried the gear she had collected. “Get up on my back.”

Although startled, Sandi immediately complied. Gripping her pistol in one hand and her sheathed sword in the other, Naoko took off along the building side as fast as she could manage carrying her young charge on her back. If the attackers still wanted Sandi alive then they had a chance of escape. If not, then they were probably both dead. But there was no fear in Naoko’s heart now. There was only determination. She would win Sandi free from the murderous kidnappers if it required her dying breath.

They reached the front corner of the building without anyone shooting at them. Pausing for a quick breath and fast scan of the situation Naoko blinked in surprise to see a luxury vehicle rolling slowly around the top of the parking loop. Naoko couldn’t see through the tinted windows to tell who might be within but Sandi didn’t have to. “That’s my Mother’s car!” the girl exclaimed.

Despite the lock the Void held on her emotions, Naoko felt a surge of hope that pumped fresh energy into her.

“Hold on tight,” ordered Naoko as she burst into the open and pumped her legs for all she was worth. The driver proved alert as the limo suddenly lurched forward and angled to both close the gap and provide cover for the approaching pair. A voice called out from the front doorway area followed quickly with the cracking of small arms. Just before she reached the hood of the limo fire slashed across her left calf but she paid the pain as little heed as she had paid her fear or anger earlier. She was the wind again now- fleet and untouchable. They rounded the front of the car and collapsed behind its shelter as a submachine gun joined the pistol. Over twenty rounds splattered against the far side of the armored limo to little effect. The rear door was flung open and Naoko pushed the girl in and clamored in after her.

“Go, go, go,” Lydia was hollering as she pulled the door shut. They were jostled around in the back as Bently had to jerk backwards in reverse to gain enough room to clear the hedge then slammed it forward again to head away from the growing hail of bullets battering at the car.

As the three occupants of the rear untangled themselves Lydia found blood on her hand. She grabbed at Sandi in alarm. “Where are you hurt?”

“I’m fine Mother. It must be her blood,” answered Sandi as she hugged her mother tightly.

Lydia looked over at Naoko in surprise. “I thought you were John,” she blurted.

“He’s not here. The base is under attack. I happened to be close so they sent me to check on things. I found the school under siege.” explained Naoko.

Lydia just stared blankly at the woman for a moment. The shock of having her daughter flung into her arms from amid a rain of bullets hadn’t fully washed through her brain yet. She turned her attention back to checking Sandi to make sure the girl really was safe and unharmed.

“Here,” called the driver to get Naoko’s attention. “First aid kit. Name’s Bently. You hit bad?”

Naoko took the offered kit and checked her leg. “I don’t think so. Hole through my calf but it didn’t hit bone. Hurts though.”

As she started to wrap a bandage tight around it she heard the driver suddenly swear.

“Chase car,” he offered before anyone could ask. “This bucket is plenty tough but it’s not so fast. They’ll be on us pretty quick.”

By reflex Lydia and Sandi both looked out the rear window. Naoko however was looking for her hand-cell. Then it was her turn to utter a quick curse. She’d thought it had been clipped to her belt but it must have been in the bag she had discarded to make running easier.

“Mister Bently, is the comm-net up yet?” asked Naoko.

“I’ll find out,” he answered as he reached for a handset with one hand.

“No, you drive. I’ll call,” countermanded Lydia. Her wits were returning to her and she saw little reason to have Bently distracted from driving. Grabbing the car-phone she punched in the three digit emergency number and was greatly relieved when it rang through rather than produce static.

“No I can’t hold,” she snapped into the device suddenly. “There are kidnappers at the Sunrise Talisman School plus more chasing us with guns! I am Lydia Tuborg and you will respond immediately or I’ll have your job!”

She paused a brief moment to listen to the emergency operator. “Yes I’m sure,” she snorted in indignation. Just then several stray shots managed to find the rear windscreen, leaving web-like cracks where they hit.

Although the name patch over his left breast read “Ty Wilson”, the man posing as an Emergency Medical Technician was more used to injuring people then assisting them. Steven Ong had been ready to infiltrate the Warder base once the expected ‘Mech battle had begun but none had been forthcoming. There was simply no mistaking the sounds battle when hundreds of tons of heavily armed war machines started arguing with each other. Thus Ong was quite sure that he was not hearing a battle. So instead the assassin leader had found himself playing his role and responding to various emergency calls – mostly minor vehicle collisions. At the moment he was finishing securing a splint around an old lady’s leg. She’d wandered off the curb and been bumped by a delivery van.

“Hey Ty,” called the security officer standing next to the response unit. “Shake a leg pal. We’ve got us a live one headed our way!”

Steven grabbed his medical case and jogged over to the Emergency Services Team. As a spare EMT he’d been assigned to a police cruiser. The logic was that the officers could deal with traffic control and citizen safety while he dealt with minor injuries. Anything big and he was supposed to call in a life-flight VTOL.

“What’s up? Another fender bender?”

“Get in, get in,” urged the second officer excitedly. “It’s unconfirmed but supposedly there’s a limo being chased by gun toting kidnapers from a private school roaring towards town. We’re supposed to go head them off and report it in.”

Making a face that indicated he didn’t believe the call was genuine, “Ty” jumped in the rear seat. But in reality Ong was almost positive the call was real. The unspecified extra activity of the Chairman’s that Steven had been expected even though Miller hadn’t shared any details must have been a snatch attempt against the Linna child. And it seemed that the quality of kidnappers the Chairman employed was equal to the quality of his MechWarriors. Unequal to the task.

Far away in the Bifrost control van one of the CIC specialists turned about to interrupt Captain Woods.

"Sir, the civie comm net is back up. Also, we’ve been monitoring the civil bands and the filters on the police frequency have picked up a call to investigate a car chase and possible kidnapping at Sandi Linna’s school.”

Osmo’s head snapped around to read the indicated monitors. “Someone must have called it in from a hand-cell. But we should have heard from Lieutenant Fujiwara if a car has escaped. Try her cell and make sure you enable the buzz over-ride. We don’t want it ringing at the wrong time. And pull up the contact number for Sandi’s unit. We’ll try that one too.”

In the inn and secluded from the dangers surrounding many others, the Lt. Colonel gazed out the back window of the small suite while deep in thought. It seemed to him that he’d been hearing a highly unusual amount of sirens racing around. Power had been down for a while as well. He’d been told to stay out of touch but he was starting to get a very sick feeling deep in his heart. Retreating from his grand view of the trees he went to the dresser and rummaged through his briefcase.

He had brought a small portable receiver capable of pulling in most of the emergency service channels as well as the mass market broadcast stations and civilian use channels. It took a few minutes of listening but the picture began to emerge. A picture that hinted to him he had just assisted his secondary employers do something very, very wrong.

A knock at his door caused him to slap off the radio as his head whipped up guiltily.

“Who is it?” he called loudly.

“Room service Sir. Complimentary breakfast,” replied a cheerful voice.

Dan closed his eyes as he rubbed at his temple with one hand. For his daughter. He’d only gotten involved at all to save his daughter. Reaching into the case again he pulled out the small two-shot derringer style weapon he kept within. When he had first decided to take their offer he had known that he wouldn’t be able to face a court-martial should he ever be found out. The pistol was his insurance policy.

"Just a minute,” he called out.

When he had checked in last night Dan had specifically informed the front desk that he was not to be disturbed. He seriously doubted that it was his breakfast waiting for him on the other side of that door. His life as an informer was finally over.

Had the stakes not been so high the car chase would have seemed almost comical. Both vehicles were wheeled and on the cleared but icy roads neither could safely carry much speed. Bently motored resolutely toward the city assuming that those chasing him would break off rather than follow into a heavily populated area. He was beginning to think that they would make it. One last big sweeping curve along a ridge then it was almost straight downhill into a suburban district.

Those in the chase car had come to the same conclusion. Although their orders were not to endanger the child, they saw little choice in the matter. One of them popped up into the frigid wind though a sunroof and sighted a shoulder-fired launcher on the fleeing limo. It was a short ranged shot into the broadside of a relatively slow moving target. What was called a “piece of cake” where the hired mercenary had grown up.

Bently saw the flash of the launch but there was very little he could do. Shouting a warning to get on the floor, he accelerated then hit the breaks in a desperate maneuver to make the missile overshoot. But on the slick roadway he failed to slow the limo very much. The SRM arced down and struck just at the bottom of the car’s frame towards the front part of the driver’s door. A titanic boom followed by a rush of heat engulfed those in the rear as their world went into a spin then dropped away entirely as the limo launched off the embankment. Then another crash came – a bone jarring one of smashed armor and twisting metal – and darkness engulfed all three.

The driver of the pursuit car swore mightily when their target vehicle spun off the ridge. She spent too much time looking at the other car’s fate however and not enough worrying about her own. Almost too late she realized they were about to smack into the snow piled up along the sides of the road. Turning and breaking, her own vehicle fishtailed out and smashed the rear end into the snow bank before spinning half way around in the opposite direction. Their car came to a stop still on the road with all three occupants shaken up but basically unhurt.

Amid the curses of her fellows she managed to get the car started again on the third try and maneuver it about until it was facing the right direction once again. Then she gingerly rolled down to the spot where the limo had left the road. Locating the spot was easy – there was a big hole in the half-meter pile of snow that lined the roadway. They clamored out and looked down at the still car in the ravine.

“Think they’re still alive?”

“How should I know,” snapped the driver irritably.

“So which one of us goes down there to find out?”

Down in the car Sandi blinked her eyes groggily. There was a noise calling her. A familiar noise. She realized it was her cell unit. It seemed to be in her daddy’s jacket pocket. Trying not to wake him up, for it looked like both him and her mom were still sleeping, she slipped it from the coat and hit the answer key.


“Sandi? Is that you Sandi? This is Captain Woods.”

“Captain Woods?” she asked in confusion. What would he be doing calling her early in the morning. Actually, she couldn’t remember him ever having called her.

“Yes, its Captain Woods. Are you in danger? Is Lieutenant Fujiwara with you?” he asked urgently.

The dull pain in the back of her head remained but his questions brought her back to her senses otherwise. She wasn’t at home; she was in a wrecked car. Her mother and the Lieutenant lady were tangled together and seemed to be unconscious. There wasn’t any sign of Bently at all. Pushing herself up she moved so she could look up the hill as she started talking into the cell.

“We need help Captain! Something exploded and we fell off the road. Everyone else is hurt and…oh no….”

“What!” exclaimed Osmo as the girl’s voice trailed off. “What is it? What’s going on?”

But Sandi no longer had the phone to her ear. She could see three of the bad people standing at a gap in the snow up the incline from her. They were all looking down at her mother’s car. Sandi scrunched down to make it harder to see her and tried shaking the soldier lady but all she did was groan. Risking another peek up the hill it looked like one of them was about to try to climb down. The Captain’s voice sounded like a small electronic insect coming from the hand-cell she had dropped on the seat as she continued to ignore him. He was way too far away to help. Then she saw it. Lying lose by a corner was the Lieutenant’s pistol. Sandi lunged for it then returned to the window holding it carefully in both hands. She’d never shot a real one before but she’d played with enough toy ones at the arcade when her mother wasn’t looking to have a general idea how they worked.

Pointing it in the direction of the man that had started climbing down she squeezed the trigger; then made a face as she found she had to pull on it really hard. She’d always imagined that they would be easy to shoot. The double action self load pistol required a strong pull on the first round unless the weapon was manually primed first. But with the index fingers of both hands yanking hard Sandi managed to discharge the gun. Sandi had heard it said you should keep your eyes open when shooting but she couldn’t help it – she flinched them closed anyway. For good measure she fired three more times, finding the trigger much easier to operate now that the gun had warmed up or whatever.

Peyter was three steps down the embankment when the pistol opened up. He didn’t see where the rounds hit but he knew he sure as hell wasn’t going to climb down the steep drop with his back to whoever was shooting at him. He scrambled back up while the other two dove for cover to the sides.

“Guess someone’s still alive,” commented Devon as Peyter dropped down beside him.

“Very funny. That thing is still armored. I don’t feel like sitting here all day shooting at it and waiting for the local security types to finally wander by.”

“Only one thing to do then,” smiled the other. “Blow it up and to fudge with the bonus money. There’s two missiles left. I’ll go get them and drag them over here. Keep them pinned in the wreck.”

Down in the limo the loud rapport of the semi-auto echoing in the small space woke Naoko with a start. Looking around she found Lydia moaning with her eye’s starting to flutter and then was surprised to find Sandi firing wildly out the broken rear window. The occasional sound of return fire came from somewhere above.

“Here, I’ll take that,” prompted Noako as she crawled over to the girl. Sandi was happy to hand it over.

“Is my Mom all right?”

“I think so, try to wake her up,” replied Naoko. “We need to get out of here as quick as possible.” Before they decide to blow us up, she added to herself. She glanced up the ravine and could make out two people crouching behind the snow bank. Just keeping us pinned down, Naoko thought to herself. Then she glanced around as she thought she heard Osmo’s voice somewhere.

“Captain Woods?” she asked in puzzlement as she realized that Sandi’s hand-unit was active.

“Thank God you’re still there. What’s your situation?”

“Not good. We’re pinned in a wrecked car at the bottom of a ravine. I think they’re planning to put another missile in us as soon as they’re ready. The tree cover is heavy if we can make the first four meters but right now Mrs. Tuborg is unconscious and the driver seems to have been blown from the car. I’ve got a pistol and about two clips.”

There was a brief pause then Osmo was back on the line.

“Don’t make a run for it. Stay with the car Naoko. Help’s about to drop in on you in thirty ticks.”

Naoko glanced out at the quiet, snow-shrouded trees. Help?

Topside Peytor and Devon had just finished arming the pair of one-shot launchers. In a moment, they’d pop up together and put an end to both the both the snatch target and the mother they were supposed to be intimidating with this kidnapping. Devon supposed that shooting her with a missile launcher could be counted as intimidating.

Hey, do you hear something?” shouted Megan from the other side of the hole in the snow.

With his ears ringing from firing his pistol Peyter didn’t hear anything unusual. But Devon frowned, he thought he heard something too now that she mentioned it. Sort of a whup-whup-whup sound.

“Oh crud,” he spat as he realized what he was hearing. Then his eyes confirmed what his ears had been trying to warn him. Charging over the rise at tree top level was the ugliest military chopper Devon had seen in his life.

“What the…” started Peyter in surprise at the new arrival but Devon was already in action. Rising in a fluid motion he snapped off his missile at the closing green monster. It tracked true and exploded low on the left side of the airborne beast but the VTOL didn’t seem to be phased in the least.

Inside Lieutenant Laidie kept a steady hand on the controls as she steadied the craft and gave the order to open fire.

The 30 ton armored helicopter slowly pivoted back and forth to allow the side gunners an optimal field of fire. High speed mini-guns spat a torrent of machinegun fire into the area, chewing up snow bank and gunman alike. The nose mounted medium laser easily compensated for the slight rocking and sighted the car parked on the road. Ruby laser fire knifed through the vehicle setting the interior materials ablaze. Not that the would-be kidnappers where going to be trying to escape. The shattered bodies of all three lay on the cold roadway, leaking away crimson life into the slushy snow along the gutters.

“Another vehicle approaching Ma’am,” reported the co-pilot. “Looks like a local police type.”

“I’m going to set her down just at the top of the curve there,” Jennifer told her co-pilot. “Keep her ready to lift. I’m taking the side gunners out to take a look. The Captain says that patrol car is the real deal but keep the nose laser on her. If they turn out to be bogus cheese ‘em without waiting for my order.”

“Can-do Ma’am.”

Unbuckling her restraints, Jennifer hopped from her seat and made her way out the rear of the flight deck.

Soon thereafter the threesome from the destroyed limo were up on the road. The med-tech was checking over Sandi on one of the VTOL ramps while down by the cruiser Lieutenant Laidie was arguing with the police officers. Actually, it would be closer to the truth to say she was telling them what was going to occur. She would be lifting with the girl, the mother, and her fellow Warder as soon as the EMT finished checking everyone and that was that. If the cops had a problem with it they could talk to her about it at her base. Much, much later. But under no circumstances was she going to hang around here for thirty minutes waiting for a detective to come take her statement. Naoko was leaning against the outer hull of the Red Hawk content to let Laidie deal with it. Technically Ladie was senior to her anyway. Jennifer commanded an entire air company for the Warders while Naoko was second officer of a ‘Mech lance.

The void was long gone now. Naoko wasn’t even sure exactly when she had lapsed from the mental state. When she got knocked out seemed like a reasonable guess. Now she found herself with a slight case of the shakes as the adrenaline drained away and the memory of the two deaths from the school staff pressed in on her. They’d lost the quick thinking security-driver too. His body had been found in the snow where he had been thrown clear after his door was blasted off. Sandi’s face had turned to ash when the little girl had learned of Bently’s death. The driver must have been much more than just a servant to her. He must have been a close friend. Naoko realized that she had used up a good portion of her good karma today. Or perhaps the evil ones that would attempt to harm children had been caught up by theirs.

“Get John On This Line Now!”

Naoko looked up with a start as each clearly punctuated word jumped at her from just to her left. She found Lydia Tuborg brandishing a cell unit at her with fire in her eyes. The Combine officer found she was too weary to return the socialite’s anger.

I can’t, Mrs. Tuborg. He’s unavailable. I’m sure he’ll contact you as soon as he can.”

Naoko found herself taking an involuntary half step back as the taller woman pressed in closely waving the cell.

“Don’t give me any of that crap,” snapped the other. “I don’t give a Red Lyon about your silly play regulations in your silly play army. My daughter was just almost killed and it’s John’s fault and I will speak to him about the matter immediately. Now you get your Captain Osmo in that Bifrost toy of yours on the line and tell him to get my husband linked in now!”

The MechWarrior found that she had enough energy left to be angry after all. Enough to get very, very angry actually. Jabbing out with one hand she caught the front collar of the other’s outfit and pulled her face down until they were nose to nose.

“Listen very carefully, because I am only going to tell this to you one time,” Naoko growled softly. “You may not speak to your ex-husband right now. He’s not currently on the planet. If he were, you wouldn’t need to call him because he’d damn sure be standing here in person. And before you start throwing blame around know this. I overheard one of the kidnappers say that taking Sandi would teach ‘her’ not to doublecross them. The ‘her’ did not refer to your daughter. I suggest you examine your own activities for the root of this attack before blaming others.”

Naoko saw by Lydia’s surge of surprise and widening eyes that she was on the mark. Lydia was involved in something that the socialite herself could imagine provoking the attempt. The Combine officer reminder herself to pass on this tidbit to Captain Woods.

"Furthermore,” continued Naoko, “I wish I could call John. Then Sandi would have a parent to talk to that was more concerned with her welfare than trying to start an argument over a comm-link.” The MechWarrior used her grip to turn Lydia’s head sideways where they could both see the young girl sitting glumly, wrapped in a blanket on the ramp of the VTOL. One of the crewmen was trying to comfort her but she seemed to be paying little attention to him. Naoko let go of the collar.

Lydia straightened, and then with two blinks regained her composure. She turned to Naoko with a pleasant smile and nodded.

“Yes, you’re right of course,” she said calmly. “The important thing right now is Sandi. She’s been terrified by the ordeal and the loss of Bently will be a huge blow to her. Thank you for saving her Lieutenant. Thanks for saving both of us actually.”

Leaving the MechWarrior more stunned than if she had physically struck the Combine officer, Lydia regally walked over to sit next to Sandi and wrap the youngster in a much welcomed hug.

“Strange lady that one,” said a voice unfamiliar to Naoko. “She makes for great tabloid quotes thought. Here, here’s a blanket for you.”

Naoko glanced wearily at the new arrival. It was the emergency medical technician. ‘Ty Wilson’ according to his name patch.

“No thank you Mr. Wilson. I am not cold.”

“Probably don’t feel like it,” he agreed. “But adrenaline and emotion can play strange tricks with a body. Besides, all us firemen are trained to wrap people in blankets. Almost drown? Into a blanket. Pulled from a fire? Into a blanket. It’s an ancient tradition. Now how about you play along with me and take the blanket then take a seat someplace so I can examine at that leg. Unless I’ve missed my guess you seem to be leaking red stuff. In EMT training they teach us that leaking red stuff is bad and should be stopped.”

Naoko felt herself warming to the fellow’s easy smile and understated banter. He must be a good EMT she decided. This Ty had a way of calming you down and relaxing a person. She smiled her agreement to let herself be treated and the two of them headed for the other ramp so she could sit down and let him attend to her leg wound.

In ten more minutes they were airborne in the Lady Hawk. Lydia and her daughter where strapped into seats in the main compartment while Naoko had taken the extra seat available in the flight deck cabin and was on the comms with Captain Woods.

Down on the road the false EMT ‘Ty Wilson’ watched the big bird roaring away over the horizon.

Steven had pulled his two equipment bags over near the dead bodies and covered them with lightweight sheets. The two cop types were inclined to stay as far away from the mangled corpses as possible, which suited the Triad Assassin leader just fine. It would be easier for him to leave the planet if he didn’t have to kill them and switch identities again.

It seemed that the Chairman had heavily misplayed this hand. John Linna seemed not to be Sampsa at all. The Chairman had activated his hidden resources on this planet to sneak two strike forces onto the surface and neither had succeeded. Although perhaps he hadn’t bothered about making sure John Linna was on the planet because the Chairman had been counting on abducting the child. The Blitzkrieg Company had merely been a roll of the dice. Expendable forces that might get lucky and score an important kill. Thinking of which, it was time to remove them from the game as per the Chairman’s instructions. Making sure the police officers weren’t watching him he took a small communicator from his medical gear and sent a quick, coded burst message.

There was another possibility besides simple overconfidence on the part of his employer. There was the possibility that the Chairman had been out played. John Linna had taken steps to hide his absence. Obviously he therefore presumed that someone was watching his activities and was planning his actions accordingly. Which begged the question of exactly how much had John Lina learned about Chairman Miller’s activities and how much was the Warder CO just guessing. Steven knew that many professionals eschewed the idea of instincts and instead prided themselves on acting only from logic and knowledge. But the man known as the Electrical Contractor in certain circles was a strong believer in instincts and ‘gut feelings’. His were telling him that this entire affair was about to rip wide open and that it was time for him to travel back home regardless of any new requests the Chairman might make of him. The Chairman had just poked a stick in the hornet’s nest and these hornets packed BattleMechs and the ability to drop them wherever they wanted to. Steven Ong didn’t want to be anywhere near whatever location the angered Warders might come calling.

Suomi Air District Military DropPort
Planet Sampsa, FWL
24 June 3052

The gate guard was surprised when the Lt Colonel pulled up and climbed out of his car. Nodding curtly in response to the Corporal’s salute the officer asked for the handset from the security post’s kiosk. Nervously, the non-com slid the comm-unit over to the grim faced Colonel.

“Yes, this is Lt. Colonel Bendic. Please get the Officer-of-the-Watch for me…. Yes Captain. I imagine you have been trying to get in touch with me. …I’m at the base entrance right now. I need you to do two things for me Captain. The first is to notify the next officer down the duty list that they are Air Boss as of this moment and authorized to commence any activities required. The second thing is to send a security detail to the front gate. Their orders are to place me under arrest. The charge is treason.”

So badly startled he couldn’t even talk, the Corporal accepted the small pistol that the Colonel offered to him. Fumbling with it, the guard finally managed to fold it open and extract the two expended shells. Bendic didn’t say a single word while they waited together of the security detail. Which was just as well. Corporal Selway had no idea what to say anyway.

Under a Raven
Forest on Planet Sampsa, FWL
24 June 3052

Corporal Hansen squirmed about in an attempt to shake out cramped limbs. He was having a hard time ignoring the burning fire in most of his muscles as he dangled beneath the Raven while it splashed down the river behind it’s brethren. Luckily the water had never been more than ankle deep on the bird-like BattleMech. Hansen had been making his reports for far longer than he had expected to by now. These guys had walked a very long way just to run into the base, take a quick look around, and run out again. But his job wasn’t to understand why these idiots had done what they had done. It was to make sure that where ever these fools went to roost was reported so the rest of the Warders could come down on their heads like a ten ton poleax.

Hansen could see that they were approaching the ocean and he wasn’t liking that idea very much. Not that he was enjoying his ride or looking to prolong it – but a dunk into the water would definitely be the end of his little tag-alone session. He sighed heavily to himself as the lead ‘Mech lined itself up next to a giant pipe that ran from a land bound pumping station out to sea. Yep, it was wading out into the gentle swells. And the others were following. This was the end of the line.

He actually had five attachment points to the BattleMech by now but he worked loose of all but the main grapple attached at his waist. Soon he was swinging around wildly as the Raven’s gait rocked the tail section back and forth. Luckily there was no one else behind the Raven to see his feet dangling from under main body. The Corporal really didn’t want to get wet way out here in the middle of nowhere but he didn’t see that he had much of a choice. Right now they were moving too fast for a safe dismount and if he tried when the ‘Mech slowed to line up with the pipe he might get caught on the ground when the electronic warfare ‘Mech made it’s final sweep. This ‘Mech was definitely the rear guard. It had stopped several times to check their back-trail.

As expected, the Raven stopped and turned back to scan behind them just before it stepped into the water. Hansen started his descent as it started to shuffle around again. Still, the machine had made it out to ankle depth before the Warder infantryman could reach the surface. Taking a deep breath before unlocking the brake-grip, Hansen cut himself free. When he first hit the water he didn’t feel much of anything as his snowsuit was well insulated and offered good water protection. But it was designed to allow one to wade quickly through a narrow stream. Taking an ocean dip quickly overwhelmed its waterproof attributes. Gasping as the frigid water stung his face and worked down his collar, Hansen choked and swallowed salty water but kept struggling towards the surface. A few more agonizing moments and his feet found solid purchase and he started walking up the rocky shore bed. By the time he was clear of the water he was shivering uncontrollably.

He’d only been in the water a few minutes – no more than three or four – but without the specialized snow gear he wouldn’t have lasted even that long. Truth be told, even now if he was to avoid freezing to death he was going to have to act fast. His numb hands felt like useless paddles but luckily his gloves had a plastic hook built in to the cuff. The hook mated to a loop on his survival pack, allowing the pack to be opened even when one’s hands didn’t want to cooperate. Like this situation for instance.

There weren’t any bonus points for style when one was trying to ensure survival. Hansen just spewed everything from the pack out onto the frozen concrete of the abandoned pumping station. Then he pushed at the contents with a foot until he had what he wanted and had pushed it a good meter or so from the rest of the stuff. The grenade sized canister had several different ways to activate it but Hansen stuck to the easiest. The brute force method. He slammed his combat boot down on the side a few times until he heard the crack followed by a growing hissing sound. Then a bright light sprang from the devise as the special flare lit up. Although the intense chemical reaction creating a dazzling white light, the light was not what Hansen was after. The corporal was waiting for the growing heat given off by the survival flare. It would burn for almost ten minutes, giving him a pocket of summer hot temperature to thaw his hands and start drying his gear. There where two more, which would give him about a half hour of life saving warmth. By then his unit should have caught up with him for retrieval but even if they didn’t, his snow suit would be mostly dry by then. As some feeling had already started to come back into his hands, Hansen started the process of stripping off his gear so he could then strip off his clothes.

Various Warder Locations
Planet Sampsa, FWL
24 June 3052

In Bifrost Woods had allowed himself a cup of java as he studied the map being projected before him. Hansen’s last report was that the raider force was walking into the water at the old Grass Valley pump station. Long, long ago the huge pipes had carried crude oil from fields around Suomi – among other places – to refineries near the major cities. Those cities had been turned to radioactive ash centuries ago and the pumps shut down. But they still ran all the way to the poisoned continents. Osmo had called up info files on them and discovered that a metal rail bed had been laid alongside the pipes for a special aquatic maintenance vehicle. Using the metal shelf as a walkway had been an ingenious approach and retreat with only one main drawback. They had to come up out of the water somewhere.

It was great when you had your own scouting aircraft and transport DropShips to slip across the planet with. The Warders didn’t, but having the clout and money to hire a weather survey plane to watch for the enemy ‘Mechs and get three civilian captains to drop what they were doing and put their ships at your disposal was a close second. One was already on its way to collect the Warder BattleMechs. The others would be arriving soon to collect the forces he had with him. The VTOLs would have to fly whatever distance was involved on their own accord but slow as they might be by VTOL standards the Redhawks were far faster than any ‘Mech forcing it’s way across a seabed.

If he was a betting man, Osmo would have put money on the raiders coming up at the Oroville pump station. It was the next in line and about a two and a half hour walk for the ‘Mechs. It was also the last non-radioactive stop. Unless they planned to cruise about with the fishes for almost two days trying for the next pump station very far away, Oroville would be it. As it turned out, Oroville was at the very edge of Warder property. It was also nestled near a mountain range that a canny DropShip pilot could use to mask it’s presence from air control’s ground based RADAR. With the satellite off line, the ground towers where air control’s only eyes.

“Captain, the SADC is calling you. It seems they’ve solved their little air boss problem and are asking how they can help.”

Osmo snorted to himself. Now they come calling after the situation has been contained. Not that the Captain was a petty man, but he really didn’t see that they needed any help from the planet’s AeroSpace force at this point. Except maybe to corral any wayward DropShips that tried to sneak in for a pick-up. As it looked like raiders were going to pop up on Warder territory again, it seemed reasonable that they handle it in-house. Besides, Osmo wanted first crack at any prisoners before Sampsa Security spirited them away.

“Alright, thanks. Patch them through to comm twelve. Let’s see if the fly-boys are willing to cooperate now that they’ve already missed the first dance.”

Sven Jorgenson stood near a rack of diagnostic equipment and watched the controlled chaos of the hangar bay. It had been thirty minutes since the raider force had elected to withdraw. Now a small army of techs and astechs was rushing industriously about the structure loading ammo bins, double checking ‘Mech systems, and generally doing all the things they had done once already when the enemy was first reported inbound. This time the techs were also checking transport clamps and tie-down points as in less then eight minutes the Warder BattleMechs were scheduled to load onto a waiting DropShip. The short planetary hop would be complicated by the use of a civilian spec DropShip but it had been the first craft available and would have to serve.

Jorgenson happened to notice MechWarrior Dhafar passing nearby. Basem was studying a noteputer, committing the frequency changes and other mission errata to memory. The huge Warder First Lieutenant called the other pilot over to him.

“Sir?” inquired Basem with a practiced salute as he joined Sven. Sirocco’s Combine based training always showed through in his natural inclination towards stricter adherence to military protocol.

“I wanted to ask you something. Back before the raiders arrived, before we had mounted up, you didn’t seem surprised at all when I told the others about the Major and his mission. Did you already know?”

Basem glanced around to make sure that no one could overhear before answering. The subject was still secret to most of the unit. “I had no direct information about the matter. But in truth I had never really believed that Lieutenant Aukland would simply storm off like that. Nor that Major Lina would simply let her go, or that he would cloister himself and not address the unit’s morale situation personally. The Warders are his responsibility, his life- a part of his soul. Just as my people are a part of my Father’s and my souls. The Major could no more abandon us in the middle of this secret campaign we have found ourselves engaged in then he could knowingly harm his daughter. If he was not around then it was for an important reason. And finally, you yourself counseled us that everything would work out. You would have not said so unless you knew it to be true.”

Sven tended to somewhat overlook the aristocrat from Hamano as Basem was a quiet and reserved man. Young Jason, boisterous and ever full of questions, occupied a good chunk of Sven’s training consciousness while Frank made himself hard to ignore for very long. But Basem was always quietly listening, always watching, always learning. Jorgenson sensed that the other man would make a fine leader for his people.

“Thanks for your confidence Basem. I’ll work hard to make sure I continue to deserve it.”

If I may ask a question of my own?”

“Certainly,” Lawman nodded.

“Back before we hid the ‘Mechs you deliberately vented some anger at us. I believe the local term is ‘chewed us up’. I have found you to be a man that does not let his anger control him – or even to surface. Why did you decide to chew us up before providing the information about Lieutenant Aukland’s true situation? You could have chosen to just tell us at the very beginning. With our time running short, I assume you had a reason for your approach.”

“It’s ‘chew out’ not ‘chew up’ by the way. But the answer is that the conflict between the command staff could have been real. On another day at another time in another place there might be a problem that is hurting morale and draining hope. If they ever face that situation I wanted them to remember the lesson that a MechWarrior must be focused and ready 100% when they’re about to take the cockpit or they shouldn’t be climbing in. I suppose I garnered a bit of bad karma by using a negative aspect of human nature for my benefit; but they’ll remember the shame and anger of that moment far longer than the good feelings of knowing the problems were largely in their imagination.”

Basem smiled. “You are a gifted leader Lieutenant Jorgenson. I would not worry about your karma if I where you. The benefit was ours. If the lesson causes one of us to stay 100% focused someday when we might have been less committed it could well be the difference between victory and failure; between life and death. Not all of life’s lessons are sweet. As you so aptly observed, often we recall the bitter ones the longest.”

With that the Emir’s son took his leave to return to his Grand Dragon. Sven was thinking that it was about time he return to John’s Camelot when his hand-cell rang. Answering, he found Captain Woods on the other end once again.

“We’ve started loading up here at my end. How are things progressing over there MechCommander?”

The title threw Sven off for a moment. Then he shook himself and answered.

“We should be loading in about five minutes. The DropShip you hired is just settling down at the aerodrome next to the base. Lieutenant Fujiwara is due to be dropped off here any minute now. Her ‘Mech is prepped and ready to go.”

“Are you sure about Vilho?” Woods wanted to know.

“I’m sure. And even if I’m wrong, this will be a good, controlled encounter to test him out in. But I’m sure.”

“It’s your call Lawman. Armor, Air, and Ground Commanders are due to conference call with us in twenty-two minutes. CIC will call you and patch you in. Talk to you then. Bifrost out.”

“In twenty-two then Captain. Lawman out.”

MechCommander. The sound of the word had actually sent a shiver down Sven’s spine. Only a few months ago he had been wondering when he would ever get a chance as a Lance Leader and now here he was as acting MechCommander. The BattleMechs of the Suomi Warders would be solely his responsibility. Laidie was AirCommander, shepherding her near company of VTOLs. Lieutenant Ben Runeberg was the ArmorCommander while Lieutenant Fosters would be in charge of coordinating all infantry assets as the GroundCommander. As XO and ranking officer, Captain Woods was the overall ForceCommander but each separate element of the Warders would have to be prepared to act independently and filter strategic orders into tactical ones.

Most of the Warder combat assets were about to be committed against the twelve raider BattleMechs. Eight BattleMechs of their own, ten VTOLs, a reinforced company of sixteen combat vehicles, the CIC support unit, and several platoons of infantry. The ground troops would be kept from direct action against the enemy if at all possible but would be needed for the capture of any enemy pilots that left their ‘Mechs and tried to evade capture on foot. In total, the Suomi Warders now fielded a combined arms battalion and Sven was taking them into battle as MechCommander and acting overall second-in-command.

Well, John had wanted Sven to intensify the training. Nothing like a little live fire exercise with an enemy unit to keep training ‘realistic’ he mused.

Around fifteen minutes later First Lieutenant Jorgenson was sitting in the dimly lit cockpit of John’s Camelot as the other Warder BattleMechs marched smartly toward him and the waiting DropShip. His secondary monitors indicated which ‘Mech was which and who was at the controls but Sven wasn’t watching them. He knew each machine and it’s pilot by sight as they marched by and reported in.

The airfighter-with-legs profile of the unit’s sole operational Bushwacker was leading the procession. Inside the sleek hunter Ranger kept reaching over and lightly caressing the weapon status display. The modified machine now mounted what Parks always referred to as ‘my baby’ – the ClanTech large pulse laser that Sergeant Harding and some of First Platoon had ‘liberated’ on Coleson’s Orb. With the Clan pulser mounted in one arm, an extended range large laser in the other, and the five tube long range missile launcher mounted high behind the cockpit the medium weight ‘Mech had a strong long range punch. Packed under and around the nose were yet more weapons: two medium pulse lasers, a standard medium laser, and a machine gun left in place largely because Ranger liked the rolling burr it made when he fired it. Even with it’s double heat sinks the BattleMech was easily over heated but Parks was found of noting that if you can’t stand the heat then you better get out of the cockpit. Although the ‘Mech wore the same green and white jagged tiger-stripe paint of the others, Ranger’s had a shark’s mouth of red filled with huge white teeth painted low and wrapping around the sides of the nose. Lawman had just smiled and shook his head when he first saw the decoration.

Walking proudly upright behind the low slung Bushwacker was the thick-bodied form of Sirocco’s Grand Dragon. The BattleMech was now sporting Warder paint and insignias. Basem had felt the need to personalize his mount as well, although he had simply placed a tastefully sized Dhafar family crest on each of the machine’s big rounded shoulders. The time on Outreach had not been spent idly by the Warder techs. Sirocco’s Grand Dragon had been tinkered with as well. It now sported Warder spec comm and computer gear including a C3 tie-in. They had discovered why Combine had been willing to use it as payment and why the last owners had been willing to part with the Draconis Built ‘Mech for such a low price a week after the refit had begun. The loading mechanism of the chest mounted LRM-10 was hopelessly faulty but even worse was the electrical work leading to the cockpit assembly. Feedback from the arm mounted extended range PPC would occasionally blow out control panels. This one had come off the assembly line impaired and correcting the problem would effectively require replacing the “head” section and relaying a large amount of wiring within the body. Grand Dragon heads being rather scarce outside the DC, they had decided to work with weapons the Warders had in stores. Twin LRM-5s replaced the balky single 10 tube system while an ER Large Laser took the particle projector cannon’s place. Sirocco had lost a bit of concentration in his firepower but the removal of the rear facing lasers and weight savings from the large laser allowed a pair of medium pulse lasers and a standard medium to be added. All had forward arcs.

Kissa followed in the unit’s Hermes II. Although an updated BattleMech, the 40 ton machine was essentially a general purpose scout unit. The standard flamer had been pulled to allow the C3 equipment but otherwise it was a stock design. Mounting an Imperator Ultra-5 autocannon and a single Medium Pulse Laser it was a bit under armed compared to the other Warder ‘Mechs - such as the Flashman that followed Kissa.

Storm’s Flashman shared the nearly factory stock layout of Kissa’s smaller ride but carried considerably more firepower. Like the Hermes II, the Flashman had sacrificed it’s unwanted flamer for a C3 unit. Unlike the Hermes II, the larger 75 ton ‘Mech bristled with weapons. In some circles her machine would be referred to as a “laser-boat”. Misty Florens was riding with three large lasers and five medium ones. Near or far, she could start cutting into an opponent with the lasers while relaying on her thick armor and anti-missile system to ward off counter-fire.

Racker’s heavily modified ex-Solaris Vulcan was following the Flashman and raised an arm in a jaunty wave towards Lawman as it headed into the DropShip. The Vulcan was now crammed full of electronic gear, up-armored, and stuffed full of lasers. Let it close enough and it packed a serious punch for a 40 ton ‘Mech. With his ECM, jump jets, and the help of his Lance-mates Racker was starting to become adept at doing just that- getting in close and opening up.

Cowgirl came cruising by next in her Orion, somehow managing to convey a bit of a strut with the 75-ton monster. It had seen a number of battlefield refits where whatever weapon happened to be available as salvage was forced into the framework. Given proper tools, correct replacement equipment, and the assistance of several astechs the MechWarrior’s brother had worked the machine back into factory new condition. The advanced Artemis IV fire control system originally mated to the LRM-20 was functional once again and a second had been mated to the four barreled short-range missile system. The NARC missile beacon system was long gone, but the Orion now mounted an extra medium laser and a pulse laser to increase it’s close ranged punch. The LB 10-X autocannon remained as the primary weapon. As with the other Warder ‘Mechs, a C3 slave unit had been worked into the electronics.

Last came Katana, piloting her Kintaro once again at the behest of the Suomi Warders. To better take advantage of the longer range shooting a C3 set up could offer one of the SRM systems had been stripped and replaced with a second LRM-5. As the Kintaro series didn’t mount the CASE safety system that kept ammunition explosions from tearing a ‘Mech apart from the inside she’d elected to discard the second SRM-6 with it’s required ammo to slightly reduce the chance of a lucky breach exploding her ‘Mech. The Warder techs had added two more medium lasers – one a pulse type – to make up for the loss of short-range firepower the removal of the SRM-6 pair caused. Originally Naoko had balked at the extensive remodelling work Chief Harding was suggesting. She’d argued that she would never be able to repay the costs of such extensive work. But John had worn down her defenses, pointing out that he owed her his life and that the Warders had enough tech capacity to handle the changes without costing anyone else downtime. Her resistance hadn’t lasted long – she’d never been fond of short-range missile systems anyway. The more precise and economical laser weaponry was more to her preferences. They just seemed more “sword-like” to her somehow.

Sven followed them in and shut down as crewmen set about attaching the Camelot to the decking for it’s short ride. Soon the DropShip would be airborne. Sven would be on the comms talking attack strategies with the other element leaders long before the lumbering civilian ship was in position. Then he would have to form his command with the tanks and shake out into battle formation.

Despite the extra responsibility that had fallen on his shoulders Sven found that he was calm and confident. He wondered what the outnumbered raiders would do. Would they try to fight? Try to scatter? Just give up on the spot?

Somewhat later Sven had helped shape their plan and was simply waiting out the tail end of their ride. He looked at the time display on a monitor. It was almost time he gave the order to untie the dozing metal giants and took his command of BattleMechs out to the pump station to find out what the raiders intended to do. Their secretive enemy had just tried to sucker punch the Warders in their very home and then shed innocent blood at a children’s school while trying to take the Major’s daughter. The mercs involved in the school killings were beyond Lawman’s grasp at the moment but the pilots that had killed fellow Warders back on Hamano and then had dared come looking for more here in Suomi were not.

The pronounced thud he felt even through his BattleMech told him they had set down. Rather unnecessarily the ship’s Captain commed him to announce that the ship had landed.

Then open up the hatch and extend the ramp Captain,” responded Sven calmly. “As soon as we’re done untying we’ll disembark.”

There was an old saying around the Free Worlds League about payback. That she was a big mean dog. And Lawman had just opened the kennel gates and was about to let loose the hounds of war.

Chapter Index[]