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State of the Union (Chapter Cover)

Chapter 18[]

State of the Union - Book 3[]

Crescent Harbor, New Exford
Donegal Province, Federated Commonwealth
November 14th, 3067

The Old Camber Bridge was a monument to the wealth and power of the Star League. A vast, two-towered suspension bridge across the strait that divided the continents of Alnwick and Berwick, according to a tourist pamphlet that had been used for part of the local briefing, it had been built by Star League engineers at no expense whatsoever to the people of New Exford.

Daniel Holstein didn’t believe money came from nowhere, and suspected someone’s tax money must have paid for it, and if New Exford’s taxes hadn’t paid for the bridge then they’d paid for someone else’s. But it had apparently been free to use.

There was a much more practical, lower bridge, connecting both sides of the strait with arches constructed in the relatively placid water downstream of the vast towers that had supported the Old Camber Bridge. It was needed because the suspension bridge had been nuked three times during the First Succession War by a DCMS deep raid. The first two nukes had failed to take out the towers, thus they survived to be a monument… but not a functional bridge, because the third nuke had severed the roadway between them.

The newer, more modest bridge had toll booths, with signs saying that income was being directed towards repairing Old Camber Bridge now that the radiation around the towers was low enough for that to be safe. It occurred to Daniel, as the recovery vehicle he was riding on went past one of the signs, that the completion date of 3055 might be just a little optimistic.

No one was paying the toll today. Grim faced guards were directing the long lines of support vehicles northwards across the bridge. Daniel’s heavy truck was one of the very few going south and it was his third round trip today.

“We’ll have to make it the last trip.” the driver - a thick-accented woman from Summer in the Isle of Skye, who identified herself as O’Kea though it sounded like och-eiya when she said it - warned. She tapped the radio. “Kell’s Wolves are getting bent over, good and proper. Sounds like the Hounds aren’t doin’ much better.”

“Depends what the orders are.” Daniel answered, though there were sounds of agreement from the rest of the crew behind them. “I’d rather not cross the bridge if it’s under fire though.”

“You’re trying too hard to sound tough, lad.” The driver tapped another cigarette out of the pack on her dashboard and lit it from the one between her lips. Then she leant over and spat the butt out of the window, jamming the replacement into its place. O’Kea had been smoking solidly since they set out on their first mission of the day - and every day before. Allegedly the only reason she didn’t smoke in her sleep was that she’d once set her bedding on fire.

Rather than arguing, he took the radio handset from where it hung on the dashboard. “Junkyard, Junkyard, this is recovery one-oh-four. We’re just north of the bridge, where do you need us?”

“Recovery one-oh-four.” The voice on the other end was tired. “Head for the junction of the main highway. Reports have a Kell Hounds Verfolger down there and keep an eye out for any dismounted ‘Mechwarriors trying to hike north. We’re missing a lot of names right now.”

“Got it.” It wasn’t proper military protocol, but the Kell Hounds weren’t exactly the AFFC and Daniel was technically a civilian volunteer-******-reservist anyway.

One of the techs pulled out a local map. “Okay, I see the highway, damn… that’s well inside where the frontlines are supposed to be. How’d somethin get disabled there.”

“Supposed to be.” O’Kea muttered around her cigarette. “Not exactly a proper perimeter right now. Get someone up on the MG.”

The tech handed the map to Daniel and scrambled backwards, opening the hatch in the roof. The smell of fire and petrochemicals already wafting through the open driver’s window strengthened.

“It could have been damaged earlier and fallen over trying to get back.” Daniel suggested, but he didn’t sound convincing even to himself. The frontlines were more a suggestion than a solid defensive position.

Finding the junction wasn’t hard, there was another ‘Mech there standing motionless over the fallen Verfolger. Both wore the red and black colours of the Kell Hounds, the Archer’s pristine while the Verfolger’s could only be seen where battle damage hadn’t stripped away both paint and armor.

The radio cracked. “Recovery one-oh-four?” a vaguely familiar voice enquired. “Do you read me?”

“Loud and clear.” Daniel replied as O’Kea turned the truck around, backing it towards the Verfolger.

A tall, greying head of hair emerged from the Verfolger’s cockpit. “I trust you have medics with you.” the voice continued. “Colonel Bradley needs more treatment than I can deliver.”

Daniel cursed mentally. No one had told him that the Mechwarrior was still in the ‘Mech. “Anyone with medical training, go check the cockpit.” he ordered as O’Kea pulled over. “The rest of you get the ‘Mech secured to the winch while I give it a once over.”

O’Kea said something under her breath and yanked the handbrake before opening her door. She left the engine running as she climbed down, pulling a medical kit out from under her seat.

The Verfolger had taken a beating, Daniel concluded. The left leg was a stump - severed just below the knee, what was left of the foot and lower leg several meters away. That was what had apparently felled it in the end, although the right leg was a locked up mess so it must have been limping just to get this far. The right arm was just gone, he had no idea what had happened to that. Ford and the rest of the team started checking the hardpoints that were intended to let the ‘Mech be picked up and moved inside a dropship’s mechbay. If they were still firmly attached then they’d be ideal for securing the winch.

Leaving O’Kea and the other two medically-trained technicians at the cockpit, the grey-haired man he’d seen before scrambled down the chest. He had a long, thick beard and a cybernetic arm, Daniel saw, but it was a long moment before he recognized the rest of the face. “Colonel Kell.”

“Dan.” Morgan Kell climbed carefully down to join him. “Good to see you. Well, not the best circumstances.”

“Do we have hostiles in the area, sir?”

“I wish I could say for sure.” The old veteran clenched his flesh-and-blood hand into a fist. “Scott’s in and out of consciousness. His seat came loose when he tried to get his ‘Mech off the floor - probably the same damage that took out his radios. And of course, falling slammed him pretty hard. From what he said, I think a couple of Ice Ferrets had him at their mercy when one of our air patrols saw them and came in for a strafing run. Wherever they went, they haven’t come back yet - but that was an hour ago as best I can tell.”

“It sounds like the perimeter is porous. Respectfully.”, Daniel said.

Morgan rubbed his face. “As soon as you have the ‘Mech loaded, get it across the bridge. Our dropships are going to have to hop the strait and pick up every ‘Mech that can reach them. We can at least hold the bridge long enough for the rest of our forces to load safely.”

Daniel looked up at the sky. It was bright, almost offensively blue except where contrails marked the dueling aircraft of both sides. Clear skies with nothing to hide dropship movements. “We’ll lose dropships doing that.”

“I know, but we can’t get everyone across the bridge. If Ward’s forces are racing to get to the landing zones on this side of the strait, it’ll buy time to get everyone else across.”

How did things fall apart this quickly?, Daniel thought

The younger man didn’t ask it out loud but Morgan must have seen it. “It’s going to take a while to piece together, and I’m not looking forward to reading the after action reports, but first we have to get the troops out. I’ll get back in my ‘Mech and help them get Scott out of there, but after that I’ll need to join the rear-guard.”

Daniel stared at the Colonel as the old man turned and walked back to the Archer. Then he headed back to the truck and pulled out the cutting gear.

“What are you doing?” asked Ford as the technician dragged cables around the fallen ‘Mech’s torso.

“I’ll take off what’s left of the right leg. It’s not in great shape and it’ll mean a few less tons to carry.”

Looking closer at the limb, Daniel was impressed that Colonel Bradley had managed to walk this far with the ‘Mech. The knee looked close to snapping. What could have left a regimental commander walking a damaged ‘Mech back towards the bridge unescorted didn’t bear thinking about. How much was even left of the Second Kell Hounds? Junkyard was the headquarters for the third battalion, so at least that much had survived.

Banishing the speculation as unproductive, he started cutting away the remaining myomers around the knee actuator. They weren’t in any shape to do anything anyway.

He was distantly aware of the Archer stepping closer and extending one arm to take hold of cables lifted out of the cockpit by O’Kea. As he brushed the myomers aside and started working on severing the actuator’s fittings (much easier than the actuator itself, much less the Endo Steel structural members), the Archer very carefully lifted its hand, bringing the Mechwarrior - bandaged and braced along three of his limbs, along with around his chest - up and out of the ‘Mech in an elaborate cradle.

It seemed to Daniel that the ‘Mechwarrior was almost as badly off as his ‘Mech. At least no one was suggesting amputating one of Bradley’s legs.

By the time he’d finished the first fitting, O’Kea and her were laying Bradley out on a stretcher. The cabin of the recovery vehicle had a small living compartment, little more than two bunks and a tiny washroom, but it was the best available choice for the wounded officer.

“Holstein!” Ford called. “We’re all hooked up! Are you done with the leg?”

Daniel picked up the cutter and started jogging around the ‘Mech’s leg. “Take up the slack!” he called back. It would probably lift the ‘Mech a little, making it easier for him to get at the other side of the fitting - he’d intentionally started with the one that was higher and more exposed.

Now he started cutting away at the lower side of fitting, applying the cutting torch to one edge until the winch made the characteristic sound that indicated there was no more slack and it was now up against actual resistance. He backed up and watched as the ‘Mech moved, dragging slightly and then the upper body started to lift.

As Ford halted to make sure the lines were still secured correctly, Daniel moved in and started cutting again. He was about half the way through before he heard the other tech order the winch to begin again. Stepping back, he stared at the fitting. Was it beginning to deform? The young engineer took a couple more steps back, just in case it snapped.

“Attention!” Morgan Kell shouted, his voice booming out from the loudspeakers of his ‘Mech. “Those Ice Ferrets are back! Leave the leg, Dan, I’ll get it for you!”

Daniel stared for a moment up at the Archer and then started running for the back of the recovery vehicle. There was no visible sign of the laser beam from the weapon mounted on the heavy ‘Mech’s arm but what was left of the Verfolger’s knee practically exploded. Much less tidy than his cutting had been, but faster.

The winch began to howl as Ford jammed it to full power. There was no longer time to worry about sparing the equipment and it would be faster to drag the ‘Mech onto the truck than to cut it away now.

Sixty-five tons of ‘mech - less the missing limbs - raced Daniel back to the recovery vehicle, which was actually dragged back a little towards the Verfolger before O’Kea put it into gear.

Yanking open the tool cabinet built into the chassis, Daniel jammed the cutter in, barely checking it fit into the clips before he jammed it shut. The heavy truck shook as the crippled ‘Mech finally fully settled onto its bed.

Daniel jumped up on the side and caught a cable that Ford had thrown him. They needed to secure the Verfolger against lateral movement. The engine changed tone and he realized that O’Kea wasn’t waiting for them to finish, they were rolling already. He prayed that she stayed straight until they were done, otherwise he or Ford would be swept off the side and be lucky not to be crushed when the ‘Mech followed them.

One block, another… He was on the third, tightening the cable around the left arm - the only limb left! - when he heard Morgan Kell’s LRMs fire. Dozens of missiles streamed out of the heavy ‘Mech and descended onto something not yet in view.

“Hold tight!” O’Kea roared and turned onto the highway, the recovery vehicle grinding up the slight embankment and onto the road surface. The Verfolger shifted and for a moment Daniel thought that it was going to slip away - but fortunately the cables  - myomer bundles thicker around than his forearms - held. Barely. He clambered down the side of the truck, looking for the next point.

Ford must have done the same for the end of the cable swung over the Verfolger’s hips. “Get it tight!” the corporal shouted.

“Okay!” Daniel fumbled the end, found it and got it hooked in. Activating the battery pack caused the myomers to compact and tighten, tying down the lower end of the ‘Mech. “Get the legs too?”

“I think it’s on your side!”

Fumbling, Daniel managed to find the cable and he started dragging it out from under the leg. Then he paused, climbed up onto the limb and fed it up and then around and below the leg again. A full loop around the limb had a better chance of holding it than one loop across both stumps.

Behind them, an Ice Ferret - a blocky, ugly design much favored by Clan Wolf - came into view, weapons firing at Kell’s Archer.

Ice Ferret (Fennir) OmniMech (CCG)

Ice Ferret Medium OmniMech

Nothing seemed to strike home as Kell sidestepped and back-pedaled, firing his LRMs again right around their minimum range, by Daniel’s guess. The salvo smashed into the smaller ‘Mech with crushing force and it fell sideways off the road, rolling down the embankment.

A second Omnimech, same chassis but mounting what looked like laser mounts rather than the missile pods of the first ‘Mech, followed the first. It too was firing on Kell, but there were none of the telltale signs of armor being blasted away.

Ford reached over and caught the end of the cable, starting to secure the other leg. “We lost to these clowns?! They can’t hit him when he’s right in front of them!”

They really can’t, Daniel thought, remembering the tales his father told him - of battles against Yorinaga Kurita; of how Colonel Allard, then a mere leftenant, had shown Clovis sensor data of both Kurita’s Warhammer on Styx and Kell’s Archer during training on Arc-Royal… or rather the complete absence of sensor data when the video records showed both ‘Mechs had been plainly present.

No one had ever adequately explained it.

“Targeting computers just… don’t believe they exist.” was the best Clovis Holstein had been able to come up with, even now. Not that he had looked too hard, and certainly Morgan Kell had rarely taken the field in the almost forty years since those long ago battles.

But here it was again, the mercenary a veritable phantom upon the battlefield.

The second Ice Ferret’s anti-missile system threw small-caliber shells into the path of another salvo of LRMs. It wasn’t enough to stop all of the Archer’s massive firepower, but it depleted the salvo a little and what struck home wasn’t quite enough to fell the Clan Mechwarrior.

The Archer stepped in closer, blasting trails through the frontal plating of the Ice Ferret with its lasers and then Morgan closed one battlefist around the smaller ‘Mech’s slender arm and tore it directly off.

“Yeah! Show him!” Ford shouted. Then the myomers tightened and the legs of the Verfolger were secure. All they needed to do now was get inside and…

For a moment, Daniel thought that the lights in the sky were dropship engines - the expected flight of ‘Mech transports that Morgan had told him of, rushing in to collect the battered survivors of this battle.

But they were coming from the south… and they were converging… “Get down!” he shrieked and dived underneath the Verfolger’s hip, praying that the ‘mech was pinned enough not to shift the comparatively few centimeters needed to squash someone in those confines.

The world seemed to end in fire and a rolling thunder.

With his ears ringing and despite his own warning, Daniel peered out around the leg. About an acre of land around the road had been stripped clear of vegetation by fire and steel. Morgan Kell’s Archer was near the center, paint flensed away, but it was still moving, the mechwarrior turning to rush out of the area.

Up in the sky more missiles were flying towards them.

Artillery - my god, there must be a dozen or more launchers out there! “Ford, are you okay?”

There was no reply. Daniel saw more movement, the first Ice Ferret up on its feet again. It broke into a run and for a moment he thought that it too was trying to escape the bombardment. But a moment before the second volley of missiles landed, he saw the smaller ‘Mech tackle the Archer and pin it in place.

Daniel curled into a ball and prayed for salvation.

When the explosions were done, he looked up and saw both ‘Mechs fallen flat. It was impossible to tell their condition. He also saw Ford, sprawled and bloody on the road behind the recovery vehicle. The technician wasn’t moving as they left him behind. Somehow, Daniel knew that even if they went back, it would be too late.

More missiles hammered down, and then more. Hitting the same targets, not following them. There was the characteristic silvery blast as a reactor’s shielding ruptured. He crawled out from under the ‘Mech and scrambled along the side of the vehicle, finding the ladder that let him haul himself up onto the roof where the hatch for the MG was. The hatch was closed, but he yanked it open one handed and slithered inside, head first.

“Where’s Ford!” shouted O’Kea, around yet another cigarette.

The two techs he’d landed in the laps of lifted Daniel up and shoved him into the front seats. “Dead.” he reported flatly and grabbed the handset for the radio.

“Junkyard, Junkyard. This is recovery one-oh-four, I have operational immediate for whoever is in charge.”

“One-oh-four, hold one.”

It felt like much more than a minute before another voice, this one a woman’s, spoke. “This is Major Murdoch-Wilson, this had better be important.”

“Major, this is Dan Holstein.” His grip tightened around the handset. “The Wolves just obliterated Colonel Kell with artillery.”

“You… say what?” woman said almost suttered

“They have some sort of artillery battery, missile launchers - I counted close to twenty missiles per salvo. They just hit the junction he was defending with five salvos. Even if he punched out, what chance would he have?”

Murdoch-Wilson still sounded shell-shocked. “One-oh-four, can you return and verify?”

“Not a chance!” O’Kea grabbed the handset from Daniel. “Major, we have one MG between us; and your Leftenant-Colonel Bradley in our back seat, so bandaged he might as well be a mummy. We are not trying to take on friggin’ Clan ‘Mechs in a recovery vehicle.”

“I…” The woman’s voice steadied. “Acknowledged, one-oh-four. Get yourselves across the bridge as fast as you can.”

The line went dead, as dead the chances of stopping Clan Wolf on New Exford.

“I already said I was going.” Daniel muttered. “I don’t need abuse too.” But he was grinning.

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