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State of the Union (Chapter Cover)

Chapter 33[]

State of the Union - Book 2[]

Novi Beograd, Marik
Marik Commonwealth, Free Worlds League
4th May, 3066

When Alys thought about it, she was a mess.

She was more than halfway through the entire locker of sports drinks at the back of her cockpit, hadn’t showered in a week and had sweated rather more than was healthy. As she unlocked the cockpit hatch, she actually had to think carefully about when she’d last left her Perseus.

It had been more than a week.

Half a field base was laid out around her, with what was left of the other half being quickly stripped by support personnel. It wasn’t her field base, or rather it hadn’t been. The Eleventh Atrean Dragoons were down to about a battalion and Force Commander Barry ‘Hyper’ Knight wouldn’t be taking over from Colonel Panfili - his Black Knight was being dragged towards the Dragoons repair section that had been captured almost intact, head caved in by a fortunate shot from one of the Krusher’s Hunchbacks..

Breaking contact with Corinne and the Free Worlds Guards had taken a healthy dose of mis-direction and might yet cost Alys one of her dropships, but the best guess was that they had a thirty hour window of opportunity for her combat troops to rest and for her support elements to make use of the bonanza that crushing the Dragoon’s Third Battalion had netted them.

“How’s it going, Dooley?” she asked, crossing to where the battalion commander was waiting for her. Her only battalion commander, right now. The Krushers had taken their own losses and she was down to less than seventy ‘Mechs total, with Second Battalion broken up to keep the other two fighting.

The older woman stretched her arms above her head and arched her back, clearly working out the kinks left by hours in the relatively cramped cockpit of her Archer. “Could be better. You sure about taking first shift?”

Alys nodded. “I want to go through their headquarters van anyway. Better to do it now.”

“Not gonna argue.” Dooley’s battalion would have twelve hours downtime if circumstances allowed, a chance for them to sleep somewhere other than their command couches or do whatever else would help them recharge after the last week of being constantly on the move. It would also give the techs time to reload ammo bins and patch the worst of the armor damage.

First Battalion (and the Second Battalion of the similarly depleted Eagles) would rotate their companies through four hour shifts of guard duty, four hours of ready five and four of ready fifteen. That should be enough security to deal with any minor harassment and at least warn the sleeping, eating or - Alys looked at the field shower block longingly - washing mechwarriors in time for them to get back in their cockpits.

She would have worried about air raids, but fortunately the Dragoons’ Third Battalion had sited the base in a tangle of canyons that would be very difficult to conduct bombing raids down. The Free Worlds Guards pilots were among the best in the Inner Sphere, but part of that was knowing that sometimes a risk wasn’t worth taking.

The balance of forces on the ground was evening up. Destroying Knight’s Battalion meant that Corinne had only four left, the same number that Alys could command. The Guards still had an edge in experience and the quality of their equipment but that wasn’t necessarily overwhelming.

I don’t need to destroy them, Alys thought. Just stay alive until we have enough air cover for our dropships to stop playing hide and seek with their patrols and get us to a jump point. She had enough access to the planetary datanet that she could get messages through the HPG. Encoded so even Corinne’s people there couldn’t crack them in a useful timeframe. The Blakists couldn’t openly take a side, after all. And if Isis was right, there might even be those there that would favor the Silver Hawks.

“See you in the morning then,” Dooley declared. “God willing and the enemy don’t get sneaky.”

The enemy. Alys shook her head. Dammit. Corinne was her first cousin!

She tried to take her mind off that, digging into the command van. The Dragoons had tried to get their headquarters vehicles out, but they’d been caught off-guard and under the guns of ‘Mechs most of the lightly armored and largely unarmed support units had surrendered or been unable to avoid taking disabling damage.

In this case, the van had been kept from leaving by the very simple method of Jaime Kincaid flipping it over onto its side with hisThunderbolt’s battlefists. It had broken some of the more fragile components (particularly a number of Dragoon staff NCOs that would likely need to be exchanged or dropped off at a nearby hospital) but most of the electronics were hardened military-grade gear.

“We’ve cracked the passwords, ma’am,” one of her intel section reported. “and they didn’t manage to do a purge of the databanks.”

Probably too busy trying to figure out who had sufficient working limbs and where the controls to do that were, with the van on its side, Alys thought but didn’t say. “Good work. I’d offer you a cookie, but I don’t know if we have any left.”

“I’m sure the Dragoons have some in their supplies,” the young man grinned. “permission to loot their kitchens?”

“Granted.” As if any order she could give would be as pointless as trying to keep active young men and women from scavenging any high calorie snacks they could find that weren’t military rations.

The van had been righted, so all Alys had to do was sit down and the active console gave her access to ‘Hyper’ Knight’s records. Recent records were already being dug into by the spooks for anything operationally useful, but she was more interested in a few months ago.

The Eleventh Atrean Dragoons had been raiding into the Coalition, but Corinne was denying it up and down, calling the attack on Marik unprovoked. The Dragoons’ own records proving otherwise would be a blow to Corinne’s credibility and make Isis’ job much easier.

The official orders didn’t mention any raids, but that would probably have been adjusted already to cover-up for them. However, it would take more than that to disguise the absence of a company of troops. Pay records for seeing combat, maintenance records for fixing battle damage, medical records for wounded mechwarriors - for that matter, just a specific absence of the ‘Mechs from hangar records for the requisite time. All of that could be the key to revealing the deception.

Alys remembered her mother telling her how once a deniable operation had been blown simply because someone hadn’t remembered to cover up the records of repainting a ‘Mech’s armor for a second time in a week, revealing that the paint (and the armor beneath) had been damaged by weapons fire and thus that the ‘Mech must have seen action between the two dates.

Methodically, the young Colonel worked through technical reports, the pay database, everything she could think of. She could at least narrow it down to relatively specific periods of time or she’d have needed to pull staff aside to help with the search.

And yet when a comm pinged her to remind her that it was almost time for her to get her Perseus up and action for her four hours on guard, she’d found nothing.

Barry Knight’s record keeping was meticulous, every irregularity and failure to meet proper military standards logged with the precision she’d expected given his reputation as a micro-manager. Everything down to reprimands for minor uniform errors - something Mechwarriors were traditionally lax even on formal occasions unless protocol was specifically going to be stringent for some reason (a royal presence, for example) - was detailed and covered not only his own battalion but the other two.

Alys went through notes he’d taken in frequent meetings with the much laxer Colonel Panfili as the two officers tried to find a middle-ground in their management style. She couldn’t account for all of the hundred-plus mechwarriors in the regiment for every single day of the timespan she was looking at, but she couldn’t find any gaps that would cover an entire company - any company, much less the specific ones that were noted for the compositions seen in the raids.

Either the Dragoons had handpicked mechwarriors from across their ranks to carry out the raids or…

Alys sat back in the chair, stretched and then vacated it, heading back to her ‘Mech. Or. That was the word.

There was a third possibility and it didn’t sit well with her.

Because if the Eleventh Atrean Dragoons hadn’t carried out the raids, then someone else had. Someone with access to a range of FWLM ‘Mechs and sufficiently detailed records to fake up a force that could pass for the Dragoons.

With the FWLN divided into multiple factions, there were any number of candidates who might have the capability, but the list of those who might find it advantageous was shorter.

Have I been played for a fool?, Alys thought

Alys hated the idea. It would be simpler to take the raids at face value. Even if they were faked, it wasn’t impossible that Corinne or someone in her command structure had used other forces to fake being the Atrean Dragoons, planning to discredit accusations and undermine the Silver Hawks Coalition.

And yet…

“Smoke and mirrors,” the young Marik muttered as she pulled her neurohelmet down on her head. She’d got a patrol to carry out, but once she was back on ready fifteen she’d see if the spooks could dig up anything to prove her initial beliefs… or to discredit them.

Either way, I have to know. If I got my troops killed because I was fooled, then the least I can do is find out and get the rest out alive.

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