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Salvaging from Strife (Chapter Cover Art)

Salvaging from Strife
Chapter 7

Views from a Above[]

King's Palace, city of Nalakia
Free Batarian Realm

Nalak leaned against the balcony and surveyed his glorious domain. Below him, the city of Nalakia sprawled across a plateau, filled with prosperous citizens wanting for nothing and praising him. Sometimes, he had to marvel that a low-caste could rise so high, to become the undisputed ruler of an entire system, king of the Free Batarian Realm.

To think it all started with a story. As a minor bureaucrat, he had chanced upon a fanciful tale from a human slave about a lost colony on a paradise world. Out of intellectual curiosity, Nalak had conducted some research into human culture, and stumbled upon a revelation almost entirely by chance. The aliens had foolishly settled planets far from the mass relays centuries ago, then forgotten the very existence of the colonies. There were worlds were out there where one could live free of the Hegemony, where one could rise to greatness without the oppression of the higher castes.

He had found like-minded batarians and shared his vision with them. His followers had swelled in secrecy, taking in soldiers tired of constant war, low-castes and slaves dreaming of freedom, visionaries yearning to escape their restraints. They had clandestinely secured ships, weapons, equipment, preparing for the long exodus. Furtive communications and bribes secured a destination, a distant system long abandoned by the human high-castes.

When all was ready, the Free Batarians departed from the Batarian Hegemony before the high-castes could react and entered the Human Sphere. With contacts obscuring the route taken, Nalak had led his people on the long voyage two months through deep space. Finally, over seven hundred light-years from the nearest mass relay, they had arrived at their destination: an isolated planet whose inhabitants had descended into savagery, in desperate need of a guiding hand.

It was hard work, establishing a position among the natives. Uncooperative elements had to be pacified, the primitive industry adapted to support a more advanced culture, the locals reformed and uplifted as according to the ideals of the Free Batarians. But at long last, Nalak had succeeded, and been crowned king by popular acclaim in recognition of his leadership.

So far from the mass relay, nobody would threaten his utopia. The Free Batarian Navy remained vigilant of course, guarding the Free Batarian Realm from all dangers. Aside from one lone human ship a few months ago, nothing dared to violate their sanctuary. The intruder never left, and so the paradise remained safe from harm.

Now, under his rule, every batarian was finally a master, the aliens laboring enthusiastically to support their benevolent superiors. The population was booming, his people able to relax and enjoy life. In time, his eldest son Nalak the Younger would lead the Free Batarian Realm on to a bright future.

Everything was perfect.

Nalak's omni-Tool chirped. He frowned at it in dismay. Instructions had been given to his advisors that he was not to be disturbed. Still, he would see if his advisors deserved attention.

"My king, human ships trespassing in our realm!"

Purging the Dezgra[]

Point Commander Alenko felt no glory in purging dezgra vermin. It was the duty of Kerensky's children to protect the Star League, so there was honour in defending the helpless. But there had been no challenge for the Hell's Horses here, nothing to prove their skill.

Not in orbit, where the alien bandits had died, the poorly armed freighters of such little threat that Star Commander Johnston had bid only eight aerospace fighters to destroy the foe. Not on landing, when their batchall went unchallenged, the stravag scum displaying an utter lack of honour with threats to their human thralls. Not when they finally encountered the enemy, so pathetic Alenko never had a chance to fire his weapons in the first clash.

His point now advanced nigh uncontested into the heart of the city, only slowed down by the occasional alien in their path. All around them, marks of the dezgra dogs' tyranny were visible. Like the vile Amaris, the bandits had usurped the rightful rule of the colony and eradicated any resistance ruthlessly. There was little satisfaction in cutting down the four-eyed monsters, when he saw what the Hell's Horses had been too late to prevent.

There had only been one serious threat so far, when Alenko's point ran into one of the few enemy vehicles. Some of the braver bandits had rallied to it, and its heavy mass accelerator posed a serious threat to the Elemental battle armor. The fight was still underwhelming, the only upside being a chance to use his biotics. He had telekinetically lifted one of the aliens in front of the vehicle's turret right before it fired, but the rest of the engagement was over far too quickly for him to use any further abilities.

With one last vault of their jump jets, the five Elementals bounced over a row of low buildings and within reach of their objective. The bandit ruler had turned an old fortress in the center of the city into his palace. Alenko's Star Commander had ordered him to capture the structure intact. Beneath the gaudy additions and modifications obscuring the former architecture, the possibility of valuable intelligence had stayed suggestions of an airstrike. Here was the last chance to earn glory in this battle, and the Point Commander was not about to pass on the opportunity.

Entrenched within the castle and behind barricades, the elite guard of the aliens responded to their arrival swiftly. A storm of high-speed projectiles slammed into kinetic barriers as the point touched down into the park surrounding the fortress, Alenko in the lead. With practiced ease, he flung out a mass effect shockwave that deflected the incoming barrage aside. Ten rockets, two from each elemental, shot forwards, seeking the now revealed emplacements.

Elemental Battle Armor x2 (Farseer Animation)

Elemental Battle Armor

Before the explosions erupted, Alenko was already jetting forward on his jump jets. Passing through the dissipating fireballs, he landed amidst the reeling aliens, arm-mounted laser and machine gun firing away with abandon. It did not take long for the vermin to break and flee, and he issued orders to his point in the brief respite. Rather than pursue the cowards, the elementals advanced deeper into the fortress, seeking the bandit's command center.

Here, finally, was the trial Alenko was seeking. A maze of corridors and rooms, demanding utmost attention to his surroundings. Foes who finally stood their ground and fought with skill, rather than the rabble in the city. Laser weaponry, whether brought by the bandits or robbed from the human defenders, that ignored his barriers and seared his armour, unlike the ballistic weapons so common among the alien scum. Here, at last, he would prove his biotics worthy.

He led his Point through the fortress, carving a path through the enemies before them. Grenades were reflected back towards the enemy. Barricades were torn apart with a wave of his hand. A dug-in foe was torn into the open with a surge of gravity, his bulky laser rendered useless. Whatever the alien scum threw in his way, he removed with his biotics, the element zero in his body obeying his will without question.

All too soon, the rush of battle faded. Alenko and his brethren stood in the ruins of the command centre, waiting for a counterattack that wasn't coming. Battle chatter from the rest of the Hell's Horses flowed through his communicator, filled with exuberant reports of routs and victories. He contributed his own triumph to the avalanche, and the Star Commander instructed him to hold position in return. Adrenaline draining from him, Alenko locked his armour into position and relaxed his tense muscles. With stimulant boosts shutting down, the exhaustion of biotic power made itself painfully felt.

"A glorious battle, quineg?" Borta quipped.

"Neg, these stravag bandits were not worthy of our time." Carmen complained. She strode around the wrecked equipment and pulled a decadently dressed four-eyed body up for a closer inspection. "Not a single warrior among them. A solahma or foal should have handled this instead of us."

"Aff, pathetic." Dumon agreed.

"Take heart," Alenko considered, "at least none of us will need to stay on this planet."

"Ha!" Carmen laughed, tossing the corpse back to the ground, "that is true indeed."

The Hell's Horses cluster had been on the last leg of their Deep Periphery sweep when they had discovered the batarian pirates. Scout dropships had traced reports of a missing jumpship to this isolated colony, where they found the wreckage of the unarmed vessel, a clear sign of the pirates' barbarism. Once their naval forces returned from hunting down the fleeing bandit vessels and anything worth taking as isorla was secured, the cluster would be returning to their enclaves in the Clan Territories. Along the way, the Star Colonel would inform ComStar about the planet's liberation, and one of the bureaucrats would probably arrive within six months to restore this world to the Star League. There would be no need to leave behind warriors for such a short garrison duty, a pleasing thought.

This battle, disappointing as it was, was the highlight of the otherwise boring tour of duty. Intellectually, Alenko knew why such a laborious task was necessary. It was from the Periphery that the traitor Amaris had emerged and destroyed the Star League. Other threats hiding in the Deep Periphery, including these batarians with their alien technology, needed to be eliminated before they could endanger the Star League Reborn. The corrupt and greedy Great Houses would never be concerned about menaces lurking in the Deep Periphery, and it would be humiliating to let ComStar, the descendants of Star League bureaucrats, shoulder the burden alone. Only the Clans were worthy of bearing the legacy of their ancestors of the SLDF, to carry on their duties to the Star League as the Great Founder Kerensky had foreseen.

But out beyond the light of the Inner Sphere, all the other destinations they had passed were compliant and loyal. Deep inside himself, Alenko felt restless, much as the rest of the Hell's Horses on this voyage must be. There was little chance of earning any glory or fame out here. The battlefields beyond the relay were where the true action was, where champions and legends made their name battling the myriad enemies of the Star League. Even the Guardian Clans had their fill of victories merely defending Star League colonies, and there were more battlefields than a Ranger could ever hope to conquer in one lifetime.

"By the time we return, another series of Trials of Bloodright must be open," Erin spoke up. The newest member of the point, this ranging was her first campaign since her Blooding. "Will you take part, Point Commander Alenko?"

"Neg." a chorus of replies answered.

"But Point Commander Alenko, you are a ristar. Why do you not seek the honour of a Bloodname?"

"It would be unfair for a biotic to enter a Trial of Bloodright as an Elemental, quiaff?" Dumon explained.

"Aff, Dumon. But-"

"I wonder," Borta mused, "do you think the Khans have come to a decision about biotic bloodnames by now?"

"Neg," Alenko answered tersely. Too many still had doubts about those they perceived tainted, and others questioned the balance of the warrior caste, if biotics were permitted their own niche apart from other unmodified warriors.

"Do not be concerned for Alenko's sake, Erin," Carmen huffed, "our Cluster has been promised a deployment in the Citadel systems after this. Our Point will earn more than enough glory with Alenko as Point Commander."

A squad of Hell's Horses infantry cut short the discussion with a request for directions. Alenko unlocked his armor joints and trotted towards the fortress entrance to meet them. With the Inner Sphere safe at peace under the watchful guard of the Clans, the next month was likely to be quite boring indeed.

Descending into Trouble[]

Federated Commonwealth

"Star Commander Moreau, abort your descent immediately! This is an order!"

"Star Captain, please repeat. Your signal is breaking up." Jeff Moreau muted the comms to the Clan Wolf warship he had emerged from and leaned back in his flight seat. "Must be the local ECM." he announced to nobody.

Underneath his small shuttle, the lush green world appeared misleadingly peaceful to the naked eye. His suite of sensors could detect active scanners on the ground probing at him as he passed overhead at suborbital velocity. Not to mention the Federated Commonwealth dropships and aerospace fighters in orbit, some of which were altering course.

Switching his radio to wideband Federated Commonwealth aerospace frequencies, he called out, "This is Star Commander Jeff Moreau of Clan Wolf, piloting the shuttle Resolute Claw, landing at," he glanced at his flight computer and rattled off the set of coordinates on the ground, an isolated compound a hundred kilometers from the starport.

While waiting for a reply, Jeff carefully adjusted his heading slightly to skirt out of range of a fighter patrol in higher orbit. He had plotted the trajectory carefully before absconding with the shuttle, but some adjustments needed to be done on the fly.

Somebody finally spoke to him. "Resolute Claw, this is Starport Control," the aerospace traffic controller identified himself. "You do not have clearance to enter Federated Commonwealth airspace. Cease your approach or we will open fire."

"Starport Control," Jeff put on his friendliest voice. One of the Kell's Hounds told him it sounded like a charismatic slasher, which he chose to take as a compliment. "Aff. I will not enter Federated Commonwealth airspace." The temperature of the shuttle's outer hull began warming up as it descended deeper into the thin upper atmosphere.

"Uh, Resolute Claw," his conversation partner sounded confused, "you are still descending into Federated Commonwealth airspace."

"Neg," Jeff cheerfully corrected, "I am descending into airspace contested between the Federated Commonwealth and the Federated Commonwealth."

A second voice joined in. "This is Rear Admiral Laufer aboard the Irrepressible. Claw, this entire planet belongs to the Federated Commonwealth."

The Irrepressible was the closest Steiner-Davion warship, but Jeff wasn't concerned. Any missed shots from the Irrepressible would hit the planet, making it plain career suicide. The dropships and fighters were not close enough to engage yet either.

"Rear Admiral Laufer," he acknowledged, "General Stolz-Berger and Starport Control have claimed the planet for the Federated Commonwealth, not the Federated Commonwealth. Your forces have divided the planet into Federated Commonwealth and Federated Commonwealth airspace, with a neutral buffer zone in between. I am in the buffer zone, so I am not entering Federated Commonwealth airspace." Interference from the ionized air was increasing steadily, but he reckoned there was time for a full conversation.

For half a minute, the channel was silent. "This is General Stolz-Berger," a third voice announced, "I don't know what you're thinking, Clanner. Admiral Laufer and I are having a small disagreement right now, but we both agree this is a FedCom planet. Clan Wolf has not been granted permission to land. Abort your reentry, or we will shoot you down." Long-range targeting beams were sporadically penetrating the steadily growing plasma shell around him.

"You're welcome to try, General." Jeff challenged with a grin.

Whatever the general was about to say was drowned out by a familiar howl of frustration. "Star Commander Jeff Moreau, pay attention to your language!" The Star Captain, or more likely the technician in charge of communication, had finally found the right channel.

"Oops, sorry, Star Captain, must have picked up a few bad habits." Jeff replied. "In any case, my trajectory is through the disputed airspace. If I can get through your gauntlet, I will pick up the cargo Clan Wolf is here for, and we can depart."

"If you are shot down, Moreau, I refuse to avenge your death." The Star Captain threatened resignedly. "Warriors of the Federated Commonwealth, do not hold back your fury."

"Right," Admiral Laufer's voice was now severely distorted, "thank you, Star Captain. Resolute Claw, you have been warned."

"Well bargained and spoken." Jeff answered, although he suspected his transmitter was too weak to broadcast past the reentry plasma. The channel was now riddled with static, so he simply tuned it out and focused on his controls.

Initially, it seemed neither side of the civil war was interested in risking the tenuous ceasefire between them. Quite understandable, considering how the commanders were cautious about leaving themselves open to an attack from the Wolves or each other. Soon enough, though, his sensors picked up incoming signals through the ionized air. Jeff smiled in anticipation.

A hard burn and roll evaded the first flight of missiles, followed by a brief burst of speed to evade the second. The aerospace fighters screamed past faster than human eyes could follow, their lasers slashing shallow lines across his hull. Then they were falling out of range, moving too fast to circle around for a second intercept, even if they had been equipped with element zero like his own shuttle was.

A second FedCom wing closed in from behind and above. Jeff juked the shuttle around in evasive maneuvers even as it continued plummeting groundward through steadily thickening atmosphere. The opposing pilots couldn't launch their LRMs at this range and vector, but were capable of chasing him with laser pulses. As the distance steadily decreased, the missiles would be able to catch up through the atmospheric drag and pose a threat. If the fighters were equipped with Element Zero cannons, those would also be deadly to his lightly armored rear.

Still, Jeff watched his tactical map carefully. He just had to evade for a little longer. Right on cue, the steadily approaching pursuers broke off, clawing for altitude. They must have detected the surface installations tracking them, relaying targeting information to other hostile defenders. The installations were tracking him as well, but Jeff remained above the engagement envelope of the ground defenses for now.

The plasma cocoon faded away as his velocity dropped. The computer helpfully displayed the detected threats on his HUD. Under normal circumstances, the overlapping array of ECM, ECCM and active scanners would spell his imminent demise, but the divided nature of the opposing forces changed that. Between where their forces were positioned on the planet, there was a narrow band of contested space where neither side could safely shoot him down due to interference from the other.

The ceasefire was brittle, announced shortly after the arrival of Clan Wolf in the system, and likely to end the moment Clan Wolf's warship and escorts left. The two Federated Commonwealth forces were drawn from different regions of the Inner Sphere, with no trust or camaraderie between them. Whatever the commanding officers might prefer, the soldiers on the ground were unlikely to cooperate simply to eliminate him. There was too much blood spilt between them already, and too little trust. Given the chance, a dishonorable, opportunistic junior officer on the enemy's side would simply seize such an opportunity to attack whoever was engaging him in the buffer. Star Commander Jeff Moreau just had to thread that gap. And since he was good enough to possess a Bloodname, it was hardly a challenge.

Since the locals weren't being helpful, he switched back to Clan Wolf frequencies. "Shuttle Resolute Claw to Den Alpha. Your ride is coming in hot, ETA two minutes. Get onboard fast." His shuttle was now flying nap-of-the-earth, rapidly nearing the destination.

"This is Den Alpha. Our hosts have cleared you for landing. We are ready to embark."

Clearing one last hill, he finally saw the facility ahead. The ComStar insignia was emblazoned proudly on the walls of the HPG compound, Star League and ComStar flags waving proudly on flagpoles. The ComGuard defense tracked him as he approached but held their fire. With one last hard burn, he dropped onto the shuttle landing pad and opened the cargo bay. Two white-colored BattleMechs flanked his cockpit, and he gave them a cheery wave. On the monitor, he could see his passengers hurrying over. The young cadets of the sibko quickly marched up the open ramp, escorted by their instructors. When the last one had cleared the entrance, Jeff sealed the shuttle and began preparing for takeoff.

One of the instructors entered the cockpit. "Unity, Jeff," Natalya swore, "I should have expected something like this happening when I saw your name. The Star Captain was frothing like a rabid wolf when he contacted us."

"I got tired of waiting, Natalya." Jeff replied. "They were negotiating for days. You must be impatient as well, after being stuck on the planet for so long."

"I suppose I am eager to return back to Clan society after this fiasco of a joint training exercise." The instructor frowned. "But your insubordination is unacceptable. Your commanders will not tolerate such blatant disobedience."

"Hey, I showed initiative, just like our instructors taught us. If anybody has a problem with me, they can try a Trial of Grievance. Anyway, how was the field trip?"

Natalya sighed exasperatedly. "The ComStar civilians were friendly enough, and the ComGuards did their duty to accommodate us, even if the sibko was confined to their enclave. A pity the war came here so soon after our arrival. The sibko could have learnt much from General Stolz-Berger." A curious gleam entered her eye. "Is there any new announcement from the Khans?"

"Neg, only rumours. Our touman is preparing for widespread deployment, but our objective is still unclear." Peacekeeping in the Star League or a new operation against the aliens were the most likely options for fulfilling Kerensky's vision. Either was suitable for Jeff. He thought about recent intelligence updates from the Clan Watch. "The Smoke Jaguar Khan is pushing for a Trial of Refusal against Tukkayid, and the Jade Falcons are gathering troops along their border to the Commonwealth."

"That is not interesting." Natalya dismissed. "Those two Clans are too predictable. What about the Citadel? The ComStar workers were talking about a Spectre violating the Treaty."

"Oh, that mess." A camera mounted in the passenger cabin allowed Joker to monitor his passengers. Seeing them all strapped into their seats, he opened up the engine throttle. "We received a HPG message with an update from the Clan relay. You can read it when we dock."

Natalya looked at his instruments in alarm. "Star Commander Jeff Moreau, you have permission to depart, quiaff?"

"Neg!" Jeff cheerfully denied as the roar of the engines increased. "That will take too long." The shuttle shot upwards.

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