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DRAKES DEMONS

Comes a Jolly Roger

A Battletech Story

By Michael A. Cessna

Drakes Demons: Comes A Jolly Roger A Battletech Story By Michael A. Cessna 1993 2010 A Floating Badger Production Cover artwork is copy written to FASA and/or Roger Loveless, and originally appeared as the cover art for NAIS The Fourth Succession War Military Atlas Volume 1, 1988

Note: Battletech, in all its forms, is variously copyrighted to FASA, Microsoft, Hasbro Interactive, MicroProse, FanPro, Catalyst Game Labs and certain other parties. No part of this product is for sale. No part of this product may be reproduced without the express written consent of Floating Badger Productions, the author, or the various copyright holders. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is unintentional. This work contains elements of adult content, and may not be appropriate for minors.

Authors Note: This is a highly non-canonical Battletech story; although set in 3020AD, it diverges widely from the established storyline, and takes numerous liberties with established content. Information about Battletech, including descriptions of the technology, worlds, personalities and settings in this story can be found at the following websites: Sarna.net: Catalyst Game Labs: Shattered Core: http://www.sarna.net http://www.classicbattletech.com http://www.shatteredcore.net

An early version of DRAKES DEMONS appeared in installments at Catalyst Game Labs CLASSICBATTLETECH Forums.

For the Regiment

The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions

Anonymous

1
March 3, 3020 Canal, Coventry Province Lyran Commonwealth

Silas Drake cursed and tried to shake the sweat from his eyes. The heat was incredible. There was a spurt of dizziness as his mammoth war machine reeled under another assault of hellish energies. Drake triggered his remaining PPC and croaked a shout of joy as the Crusader in front of him staggered. The joy was short-lived, as he stabbed the manual override to avoid an overheating-avoidance shutdown. Fighting to stay conscious, he glanced groggily at his status boards: right-arm PPC completely blown away, right knee actuator was fused solid, and the armor on his Warhammers right side was almost completely gone. His right hip actuator was damaged, and strands of artificial myomer muscles dragged behind his battlmech's legs like entrails. He had expended his SRM ammo long ago, but his diagnostics were detecting a failure to feed missiles. The Crusaders medium laser scored another hit, staggering the Warhammer, as heat washed through Drakes cockpit. This time, the heat was too much. As his world turned black, Drakes last thought was to hope that Addy Gunderson, his second in command and long-time friend, could pull the Demons out of this mess.

*~*~*~*

Andrew Addy Gunderson did not utter a word as he wheeled his battlemech around the ruins of a gas station; because he rarely spoke over the comm in action other mechwarriors had tagged him with the moniker of Iceman. His normally handsome face, however, was twisted in a cruel snarl. As the battered Griffin mechs Fusigon PPC scrawled man-made lighting toward him, Gunderson whirled his modified SHD-2K Shadow Hawk to his right with all the grace of a ballet dancer executing a pirouette. As it faced the Griffin again, the Shadow Hawk's right arm came up, bringing its medium laser to bear. Thirty meters in a mech fight was pointblank range the laser fired once, and was followed by its mates in the mechs chest. Armor plates, internal skeletal frames and myomer bundles flew like chaff in the wind as high-pressure fluid bottles in the Griffon's right leg ruptured. Gunderson shifted his mech to reverse, dropping his back-mounted Donal PPC down over his mechs left shoulder and firing, the man-made lightning ravaging the Griffon still further as it fell. Inside the Shadow Hawk's cockpit, Gunderson's heat sensors momentarily spiked into the red, but quickly fell back through yellow, to green. Gunderson was quietly very proud of his mech, named the Ice Hawk. He had won it in a game of Four Card Drax (no, really!) on Galatea, the so-called Mercenarys

Star, and killed its previous owner an apparently sore loser in the fight that followed. Scrounging enough money to get the PPC and medium laser working, then acquiring a slot in a moderately good sable on Solaris VII the Game World, famous for its televised mech duels Gunderson won enough money in three years to almost completely rebuild his mech. Gundersons mech had begun its life as a standard -2K, where the SHDs original Class 5 Armstrong Autocannon was replaced with a Donal Particle Projection Cannon and five heat sinks, giving it seventeen of the all-important heat management devices. With his Solaris money, Gunderson had modified it further, dropping both the long- and short-range missile systems, and replacing them with two more medium lasers and four more heat sinks. The Shadow Hawk now ran so cool, that it showed up as an ice-blue color on heat sensors, giving the mech its name. Gunderson had also installed Star League-grade scanners, recovered from a lostech cache by a professional lostech hunter. It was on these scanners, while he waited momentarily for the heat to dissipate, that Gunderson saw a strange crest painted on the pirate Griffins cockpit face. Curious, he focused the scanners to a closer resolution. When he could finally make out the crest, he gasped.

In the blast furnace heat of his cockpit, Pers Stromsky screamed in insane, futile rage, pounding his control console with his living hand. The intense heat and static electric discharges had overloaded the circuits in his bionic legs and arm, leaving him trapped. His mech, the Victory, was totaled. The thought of being Dispossessed made him wish for death. He started, as his remaining radio crackled to life. Griffin pilot, a cold, emotionless voice said, its over. Either climb out or eject. If you can do neither, Ill help you out... Stromsky stabbed the transmit button. Sod off, bugger! Better to be dead than Dispossessed, he spat back. Maybe not, said the voice. You fought well. The Captain might offer you a position. It could happen, thought Stromsky. Out on the Rim, most people were nearly outlaws themselves, anyway. Alright, he said, but I need help. Fine, was all the flat, toneless voice said in reply.

The hatch to his left cracked open. Stromsky freed himself from the piloting harness with his good right hand and connected an auxiliary power supply to his legs. They moved enough to let him swing around to face the hatch. The mechwarrior who stood in the hatchway wore a fairly advanced-looking cooling vest and neural helmet. Two small, book-like boxes rested on the hips of the vest, marked Coolant/AMN. The neurohelmet, unlike the tub Stromsky wore, looked more like a crash helmet. The mech-driver carried a Sternsnacht Heavy pistol in his right hand, a mini vid recorder in his left. Pers Stromsky? the man asked casually. Yeah? Stromsky replied, starting to feel uneasy.

Three years ago, on Altair IV, you kicked in the cockpit of an almost-destroyed Wasp, killing the pilot. My name is Andrew Gunderson, and that pilot was my sister, Julia. You murdered her after she had surrendered. This, he said, indicating the recorder, is for the record. Pers Stromsky never had a chance to scream as the massive pistol recoiled.

*~*~*~*

Tammy McDougals Crusader, Vixen, careened around a small hillock at top speed, just in time to see the pirate Crusader savage Drakes Warhammer with its medium lasers. Screaming with rage, she loosed a double flight from her Luxor autocannon. Most of the cannon shells hit, staggering the Crusader momentarily. Then, it began to stalk her. Iceman, this is Vixen, she radioed. Silas is in deep shit! Where are you?! After thirty seconds that seemed like days, Tammys radio crackled. Vixen, Iceman. Give me fifteen seconds... The Crusader fired and missed. She fired her medium lasers and scored a minor hit. Then, the Ice Hawk came down on its jump jets a cant sixty meters away from the Crusader, flexing its knees to land, then stood erect. The pirate mech spun to face the new threat, then began backing out of the trap. It never made it. Ice Hawks PPC and three medium lasers fired together, and the pirate mechs left leg flew off. As it fell, the head exploded, and the pilots ejection seat sailed out and up. A parachute blossomed, and the chair floated back to the ground. "Crusader pilot," Ice Hawk's external speakers thundered, "hold your position. Any attempt to escape will be dealt with harshly." The grounded mechwarrior raised his hands symbolically and then sat dejectedly on the grass. Tammy shook her head as she looked at the Ice Hawk on her scanners. With all Addys jumping and fighting, he should have shut down long ago. Reefer, this is Iceman, her radio crackled. Come in. Refrigerator here. Paul, get the trucks over here now, and fast. If Silas isnt dead, he will be soon. And have Trisha come out with a med team and some of her MPs. Rog - On the way. Tammy didnt giggle far from it. Drakes Demons had no infantry formations yet. But all of their Techs had at least been basically trained with infantry weapons. Trisha Peters, the Demons top cop, may have been Icemans bedmate, but she had been a detective Lieutenant on Skye, and a seasoned infantry sergeant before that. Heavy Junk, this is Iceman, over? Rog, Ice. You call, we haul. Eric, bring your transporters over here. Theres mechs and parts all over the place. Ah, salvage music to my ears! Tammy chuckled the Demons Senior Tech would be irreverent at a natural disaster.

Tammy, came Iceman's metallic, impersonal voice, scout around for SHIT! Tammy's MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detector) had started ringing like mad. She and Iceman turned as one. Three Stinger light mechs were charging them from the forest to their rear. As she and Gunderson watched, horrified, one of the mech burst into flame as a stream of liquid fire splashed across its entire length. A big, low-slung coolant truck rumbled around the hill to their right, liquid Hell still dribbling from its twin nozzles. The remaining four mechs stood, stunned and mute. Alright, boys, came Paul Devers voice over the general pirate frequency, unless you want to learn the true meaning of hotfoot, power down and dismount your mechs. The surviving Stinger pilots hurried to comply, more terrified of the trucks flamers than of the two, much heavier mechs before them. A demon MP hover truck raced over to them. Service with a smile, Devers said over the Demons frequency in a cheerful voice. Inside the coolers cab, he flipped a series of switches, shifting the nozzles from flamer to coolant sprayer, and began to carefully hose down Silas Warhammer with coolant as the med teams hover ambulance arrived.

2
March 5, 3020 City of Diggers Rest Canal, Coventry Province Lyran Commonwealth

The starport, tiny by Commonwealth standards, bustled with activity. Canal was a remote world, with a tiny population, but it had rich deposits of titanium, vital to the Commonwealth's military and interstellar industries. When Redjack Ryans pirates had descended on the planet, the local garrison (not much more than glorified police) had done the only logical thing with only one fourmech lance against a battalion of raiders, they had closed up the port and bankrupted the local exchequer to send a first priority message through Comstar, the interstellar communications network, calling frantically for help. Two weeks later, Drakes Demons striking from their base on Moriguchi spearheaded the assault of the 32nd Lyran Guards, the Red Arrows. A battered Rotunda scout car, left over from the days of the vaunted Star League two hundred years before, rumbled up to the Red Arrows field headquarters. The only thing that distinguished it from normal military vehicles was the image of a howling, blue-faced demon with blood-tinged horns painted on the doors and hood. As the beaten-up old vehicle came to a stop, the passenger door opened, and Addy Gunderson climbed out. At forty-two, he looked like a cigar and cognac model; his fastidiousness in appearance had served him well on Solaris VII, where he was still the darling of newsvids, but to him, it was only one more tool to use. He was dressed in the Demon's green and black leopard-skin pattern field combat uniform; at his heels was his one sacrifice to vanity in the field: he wore small, decorative gold spurs on his boots, following the practice of most mechwarriors from the Federated Suns, where he had attended the Albion Military Academy. The guards at the door to the headquarters came to attention. Addy smiled as he saluted them in the Federated Suns manner; this would have been Hannahs doing. As he approached, the door opened, and a tall, statuesque figure emerged. Leutnant-Colonel Hannah Steiner-Burke, a distant cousin of the Archon, was forty-three, and stunningly attractive. She was in field command of the 32nd, as Colonel von Kulic was ...currently on Tharkad, briefing the Archon... meaning that he was being promoted sideways, to get him out of the way so that more competent officers could advance. Addy thought it a strange system for a polity under almost continual attack. Hannah and Addy embraced in a most unmilitary manner, like the old friends they were rumors at the Court on Tharkad to the contrary, it had never been more than that. Addy, she smiled fondly, how are you? I'm glad the Demon's did so well, here. Gunderson winced in mock-agony. My Archon, you wound me! Please! You'll destroy my reputation! His manner would have surprised almost the entire Demon company his Iceman reputation came as much from his attitude outside his mech as in it. 5

Hannah took his arm in hers as they began to walk. How is Silas? she asked with concern. Within the Commonwealth, that was another oddity the regular military rarely deigned to show any concern for mere mercenaries. Still a bit groggy, Addy replied. Hannah he doesn't know yet. Then I'll let you tell him. She looked carefully at Gundersons features. Addy let it go. Stromsky is dead. Youve avenged your sister, Silas wife. It's over don't let it consume you. If only it were that simple, he said heavily. I just cant get used to the idea. I feel like there is something more to do... Hannah decided to take the plunge. Addy quit. You and Silas. Hell, your entire company. I'll talk to the Archon, not that it would take much. You'd both get a Barony, at least. Addy sighed. Now, Hannah... Don't now Hannah me! I know how bad life as a merc can get I've seen it! The two of you could have anything you want, rank, money, position possessions. You could write your own tickets in the Commonwealth! Hannah. Weve been over this before. You know I couldnt leave, even if I wanted too which I dont. Silas? He built this unit. Besides he grinned, Trish would kill me. Hannah gasped in exaggerated shock. A romance?! Is it possible? she said, her eyes dancing gleefully. Gunderson laughed. You should know you steered her into the Demons... ...I know, I know... Hannah gasped between laughs. After a moment, Addy said, Okay, now come on you know this visit wasn't purely pleasure... Hannah laughed in return, tossing her golden hair, her Steiner Gray eyes twinkling. Alright, you thief what do you want? Gunderson's business face returned. Youre aware of the details in our contract concerning salvage? Hannah nodded, face serious. While we were out bashing heads the other day, some of our mechs took a beating, too we're down to nine operational mechs at the moment. Form his right breast pocket, he took out a memory chip, and handed it to her. This is a list of the parts we need. Pulling a ROM-Reader from under her uniform tunic, Hannah quickly scanned the list, her eyebrows rising slightly. This is quite a bit, she said, looking at Gunderson expectantly. Ill give you the Thunderbolt, the Griffin and one well-roasted Stinger... Hannahs eyebrows rose to full arch. That much? Come on what else? Iceman smiled in a way that Hannah found decidedly unsettling. Well, there is that Rifleman yall captured, and don't have much use for... he said, pointedly adding his native dialect. Hannah took on a disapproving look, and began to tap her right boot. Gunderson held up his hands and smiled pleasantly. Its just for a heavy fire lance I swear!

Well, I suppose I could, she said, but youll have to find a replacement for its D2J radar that thing was a junker before we slagged it, and I don't have any spares to free up. Not a problem, Gunderson said. Im sure well find one on Galatea. Hannahs face fell. Then you'll not renew your contract? Addy shook his head. We cant. The Mercenary Troops Liaison Office is insisting on changing our salvage clause, which would practically company store us. Some Successor States tried to co-opt unwary mercenary units with the ancient Company Store practice: they would make sure that the expenses charged to the unit exceeded their payments under contract, then would be all too ready to loan the unit money to pay off their debts effectively buying a multi-billion C-Bill unit for peanuts. The Commonwealth almost never engaged in such practices, as it depended too heavily on mercenaries, but sometimes the effect could be the same with the Third Succession War winding to a close, many states were doing their best to cut costs, to encourage commerce. Presently, Hannah said, So where will you go now? Don't know, really. Weve had some feelers, but nothing definite. Well, wherever you go, you have to stay in touch. Ill give you what you need. Then you can get back to Moriguchi. Gunderson embraced her warmly. Thanks, Hannah really. What about you? Where does the 32nd go now? Back to Strandfontain, where else? she laughed. Gunderson nodded. Well, I have to go see Silas, yet. Just remember, Hannah: go with God, and if you ever decide to quit, youll always have a place in the Demons... *~*~*~* Iceman walked into the recovery ward of the Diggers Rest hospital. It was filled with civilian and military wounded; not all the civilians had escaped into the hinterlands. At the end of the ward, two guards of he 32nd flanked a set of fire doors beyond was the prisoner ward, where the 32nds intelligence officers and MPs were keeping captured pirates. Spying Silas, Addy marched over purposely. Silas looked up from a book reader, and smiled weakly he was still recovering from the effects of heat exhaustion. Silas, we need to talk. Shoot, he said, putting down the reader. He sounded better than he looked. We're going to make a lot of cash out of this, Gunderson said. I want to send Trevor to Galatea as soon as we get back to Moriguchi to recruit an infantry company or two maybe a battalions worth. Itll give us a better contract edge. I agree completely, said Drake. I was thinking the same thing myself. Nothing else should happen before our contract expires, so we should have plenty of time to rebuild before Galatea. How's Mjolnir? Gunderson looked pained. Eric says three months, minimum. Ugh. Yeah, I Gunderson stopped as the comm-panel next to Drakes bed began to bleat furiously. The two looked at each other for a second, before Drake pushed the Answer button.

Leutnant Connor Thomas, Hannahs aide-de-camp, appeared on the screen. Gunderson! Thank God I found you there! An unidentified Jumpship just appeared at a pirate point near Canal and detached a Union-class that is now burning hard for dirtside. All units are ordered to scramble. Gunderson harrumphed A company? Against a reinforced regiment? Oh well the Demons are on the way. Connor was nodding vigorously as Gunderson killed the connection. The Leutnant could be...excitable...at times. As he turned, he saw Drake getting out of his bed. And just where do you think youre going? To Hannah's headquarters, Drake said. Im not about to miss this. Silas, wait, the Iceman said. Drake stopped in his tracks at the change in tone. Pers Stromsky is dead, Silas. He died at my hands. He handed Drake the recording chip. Drake stared at the plastic-covered wafer, unsure if it was a holy relic, or a flesheating scarab from Astrokazy. Then, he hugged the Iceman. Well speak of this later, he said, tears in his eyes. Then, they turned, and walked out together. *~*~*~* At the 32nds mobile headquarters, Hannah Steiner-Burke peered at her map of Canal, focusing on the area around Diggers Rest. As the unknown was a Union-class, it couldnt be carrying more than twelve battlemechs, so she was not overly worried. Two of the maxims of war, however, were expect the unexpected, and never underestimate the enemy. One did not get even temporary command of a battlemech regiment by being stupid. Or shouldnt, she thought acidly. A technician spoke up. Colonel, the dropship is signaling. They are requesting to speak to the Commanding Officer of Drakes Demons, he said, with a perplexed look. Hannah was still looking at the tech oddly when Silas walked in. Silas! What are you doing out of bed? she scolded. Becoming serious, she said, Sit here, indicting a swivel chair next to her command seat. The unknown wants to talk to you. Me? Drake asked, thoroughly surprised. What for? Hannah shook her head as the vidscreen came to life. The face that appeared was encased in a battered old neurohelmet that bore ancient traces of Capellan Confederation unit markings. The face was quite familiar to both Hannah and Silas. It elicited completely differing reactions, however. David! Silas almost shouted with obvious pleasure. How are you?! Hannah went livid. Captain David Wilson was the commander of Wilsons Hussars, a once-respected mercenary unit that had gone rogue and turned pirate, joining Redjack Ryan's bandits on his base of Butte Hold in the barbarous Periphery. Wilson and his Hussars had recently raided several Commonwealth worlds. And now, here was her dear friend, Silas, talking to him like a brother. Hello, Silas, Wilson was saying. How are you? Getting older, but not so much as you. I hope, for your sake, this isnt a social call.

Well, Silas, it is, in a way. You see, Im here to surrender. What?! both Hannah and Silas said in unison. All true, Wilson said. But, there are conditions: under the Laws of War and the Ares Conventions, I will surrender to no one but you, Silas. Personally. The socalled Laws of War were codified in the Ares Conventions nearly six centuries before. They regulated how units fought and surrendered. Most units, if not their states, paid at least lip service to the Convention. What game are playing at, Wilson? Hannah demanded angrily. Im in command of all Commonwealth forces on Canal. Youll surrender to me, pirate, if at all. Im afraid not, Hannah, Silas said calmly. Hannah stared at him, shocked. If there were no mercenary forces on Canal, you would be correct. Since there are, we fall not only under the Laws of War, but also under the principles of the Mercenary Code, which the Commonwealth adheres to. Specifically, in surrendering his unit intact, without firing a shot, the Hussars mechs, ships, personnel, vehicles, etcetera, become the property of the Demons, to dispose of as we see fit. Turning to the screen, David, just what are you surrendering? The Hussars in toto, along with the Jumpship Raven and the dropships Bustamontes, which I am now aboard and the Excalibur-class Hummingbird, along with their crews. I cant believe what Im hearing, Hannah said. To Silas, You cant seriously expect me too Oh, yes I can, Herr Leutnant-Colonel, Silas said quietly, deadly serious. You have my word as an officer that your intel people will be allowed full access to Captain Wilson and his crew for debriefing before we depart Canal. If there is a problem with that, it can be taken up with the Mercenary Review Board on Galatea. In the tense silence that followed, part of Hannahs mind howled, baying at her for Silas blood. The rational part of her mind reminded her that she was on the direct genetic line to Claudius Steiner, the Commonwealths mad dictator from a hundred and fifty years before. That rational part worked its way through what was happening. Silas was on shaky legal grounds, at best. It was one thing to accept the surrender of a raiding merc unit in the employ of a House, but it was quite another to do so with a known pirate. Yet, Silas was supremely confident. Why? Then, with a start, Hannah realized the answer: she, herself might have been distantly related to the Archon, but in 3010, Silas had been recalled to Tharkad on a command circuit of Jumpships all the way from Poulsbo on the Lyran Rim, to act a pallbearer for Duke Arthur Luvon, the Archons husband, who had died of cancer. She vividly recalled the image of the Archon walking behind her husbands body down Tharkads snowy streets and Silas was helping to carry the coffin, next to the famous Morgan Kell, the commander of the Kell Hounds Mercenary Regiment. And, also like Kell, Silas was one of the godparents to little Melissa Steiner, the Archons only child and heir. For a moment, she considered simply arresting Silas on the spot, and bringing the Union under fire if it tried to flee, and making up an excuse to the Archon then immediately dropped the idea. Wilson was clearly transmitting from his mechs cockpit, which meant his company was likely rigged for combat drop if things went badly. Plus, she only had one company of mechs in Diggers Rest the rest of the Red Arrows were out in the bundu, chasing down pirates who had escaped the counterattack.

That, and there were the Demons to consider. Bile rose in her throat infuriating her even more at the thought of the frighteningly competent Andrew Gunderson taking command of the very competent Demon's and leading them against her mechs. Gunderson as well as the leader of the Demons Recon Lance, Lars Botkin were both more than capable of fighting any one of her four-mech lances to a standstill singlehanded...And she knew that Gunderson (and likely Botkin) was monitoring this conversation live, because she had given a subordinate unit commander monitoring access to the Mobile HQ's communications net which meant that Gunderson was already formulating a plan if she lost her senses. If it came down to that, Silas could truthfully say that he was simply trying to accept the surrender of a minor pirate band, and that Hannah had gone berserk, resulting in Gunderson and the rest of the Demons doing major damage to the Red Arrows in an attempt to rescue him. Hannah knew that she would be lucky if she only faced a firing squad after that. Stiffly, she looked at Silas. With false politeness: Had anyone else said that, I would have ordered my units to open fire, Silas. As it is, I will have to be content with a very extensive debrief of the good captain and his...people. Captain Wilson, you will instruct your ship to approach Canal-Down on approach vector thirty-six. Any deviation will result in your being fired upon. Is that understood? Loud and clear, maam, Wilson answered. *~*~*~* As the Bustamontes grounded, two hover trucks one from the Demons, the other from the Red Arrows started across the landing field, aiming for a vehicle hatch that was starting to open. As the truck grounded, Gunderson touched Trisha Peters hand, sharing a look and a wink as she turned, and ordered her MPs out. As they stepped to the ground, Gunderson and Peters nodded to their opposite numbers, Hauptmann Raul Cisneros and Leutnant Alan Berg. Their troops formed behind them, both sides keeping up a deceptively casual attitude. Regulars and mercs rarely got along in the best of times, and situations like this could be...difficult. Walking down the ramp of the Union were four people. Gunderson was shocked at Wilson's appearance he looked like he was in his fifties, but Addy knew him to be younger than himself. To Wilsons right was an older man, with neatly trimmed white hair and beard, and the loose gait of someone accustomed to long periods in microgravity. Next him was a large man, seemingly in his fifties. He was quite large, actually, and very picturesque he was swarthy, strove hard to effect the pirate look and actually wore a gold hoop earring in his left ear. The woman to Wilsons left had long, auburn hair that hung halfway down her back. Her most striking feature, however, apart from some scars near her left ear, were the tattoo's around her eyes, marking her as being from the Free Worlds League...maybe. Out on the Rim, you could never be sure. Wilson looked at Hauptmann Cisneros for a moment, then turned to Gunderson and gave the fist-to-breast salute of the Capellan Confederations House Liao. Wilsons

10

Hussars, with the Jumpship Raven, and the dropships Bustamontes and Hummingbird, presenting ourselves for surrender to Drakes Demons, Wilson said. Cisneros looked ready to spit. Speaking for Major Drake, Gunderson said, snapping a Davion-style salute in reply, I accept your surrender. Grinning, he extended his hand. How are you, Dave? A lot better now, Addy, Wilson said smiling as he returned Addys firm grip strongly. Where's Silas? Recovering from heat exhaustion. Hes alright, though. Great! Let me introduce Captain Vincent Edwards, of the Raven, he said, indicating the white-bearded man, And Captains Sharon Buenaventura, of the Bustamontes, and Captain Hiram Jakes earring-man of the Hummingbird. As they shook hands, Gunderson said, And this is Lieutenant Trisha Peters, our head of security. And these are Hauptmann Cisneros and Leutnant Berg, of the 32nd Lyran Guards, he said, indicating the two Commonwealth officers. Wilson extended his hand to Cisneros who, red-faced, turned on his heel, and stomped back to his vehicle. Leutnant Berg kept his face forcefully blank, until Cisneros had passed him. He then cocked an eyebrow, shrugged apologetically, and followed his commander back to their hovertruck. Ah, well, Gunderson sighed. The life of a mercenary.

11

3
March 8, 3020 Aboard Dropship Alliance Outbound to Zenith Jump Point Canal, Coventry Province Lyran Commonwealth

Talk at the Captains Table was subdued as Alliance rumbled towards Canals zenith jump point, heading for a rendezvous with the Jumpship Golden Hind, commanded by Silas brother, Johannes. Silas knew that his insistence in standing on the Mercenary Code and the implied threat behind it had strained, possibly past the breaking point, his relationship with Hannah, but the opportunity to obtain twelve mechs, two dropships, a coveted Jumpship and gods-only knew what else, was too good an opportunity to pass on. Addy Gunderson had taken his Fire Lance and Trishas MPs on the Bon Homme Richard to dock with the Raven, while Bustamontes trailed the Alliance to dock with the Hind. Just to keep everyone honest. So anyway, Wilson was saying, we just got tired of all the whacko stuff with Ryan. The guy is a real nut case. Did you know that he wrecked the atmosphere processors of Lysidas, in the League, because he got drunk and blasted the fusion plant? What was that? Two years ago? asked Sheila MacVickar, Captain of the Alliance. No, more like three, Silas said. You weren't with him, then, were you Dave? No, thank God! He had Vince, Sharon and me setting up camp on Butte Hold. He figured hed need a small planet as a bolthole its an old Rim Worlds planet, pretty dry, resettled by refugees. We met him at a rendezvous on his way back from Lysidas. After that, things really started to go downhill... Dave, I didnt press the issue dirtside, but I have to know: why do you have eighteen mechs, but only eleven mech-drivers? The truth, Dave, not what you told the Guards. Silas left hand was almost casually hidden under the table. Almost. Wilson didnt seem to notice. He was looking at his plate, a pained look on his face. He finally sighed heavily. I dont like to bad-mouth my people, Silas, he said, looking up. I took them in; they were my responsibility. The Porath brothers were given to me because no one wanted them they were flat-out, bed bug crazy, the both of them. The Walker kid was actually selling off pieces of his Hunchback to buy KrayZ, a popular (and highly addictive) hallucinogenic drug, and Chin? Well, Chin was an okay mech-jock, but he wasnt all that skilled. He was so mad that I gave the Recon Lance to Stinson, that he started deliberately screwing up under fire to try and make her look bad. I was sure that he would kill Paula, Sharon, myself or all of us. MacDowell, Vincent and Hayes? They actually wanted to stay with Ryan. He paused for a moment, his eyes closed. So, I had Milo my Chief Tech spike their drinks two nights before we boosted. I couldnt bring myself to kill them, Silas, so I just left them there. 12

Silas' heart went out to his friend. They had met eight years ago, when he was forming the Demons with Addy, on Galatea, and Wilson had been scrounging for a contract. They hadnt worked together since, but Silas couldnt imagine what Wilsons company had degenerated into. He vowed to never let that happen to the Demon's. Anyway, Silas what now? The plan Addy and I worked out while you were in debrief works like this. Once we arrive at Moriguchi, Trevor Sevon goes with Raven to Galatea to set up billets and start recruiting infantry, maybe some armor and aerospace assets, if we can afford them. With the Crusader, the Rifleman, the two Stingers and our spare Locusts, we have half of a company. We recruit six stringers with their own mechs, and seven Dispossessed, six for ours and one for your salvageable machine, and bingo, he said, snapping his fingers, we have a full battalion. I take my original company as Alpha, yours becomes 'Beta', and Addy takes the new company as Gamma. Steve Christopher gets Addys old lance, and we do some shifting to balance things out. Trisha commands the infantry, we train up for a while, then head out. To where? asked MacVickar. That is the sixty-four thousand C-Bill question, Silas said, with more confidence than he felt.

*~*~*~*

The Alliance nudged into the Goldies Number Two docking ring, bumping slightly with the contact. Johannes Drakes craggy features filled a vidscreen to Silas' right. Well, Silas! Back in on piece, I see... For once, Joh, and we hardly even got singed. We ready to go? Ready when you are. Let's do it. Jump in ten. Ill warn you at the one-minute mark. Sheila MacVickar hit the general intercom. All stations, Jump in ten. All stations secure for Jump. All over the Alliance, men and women checked equipment, hatches, restraining bolts, wires and straps. Silas Drake checked his own straps, and tried to steady his breathing. Interstellar flight was the only aspect of modern life that he didnt care for. How his brother could stand it so regularly was beyond him. Over the vidlink, now dark, came a low, baritone sound. MacVickar hit the general intercom again. Jump in one minute. Jump in one. It was all Silas could do to stay in his chair. He closed his eyes, and waited. Around him, the lights dimmed; the universe exploded before his eyes The entity that was Silas Drake turned inside out, then stretched almost to breaking, like a latex sheet being pulled taut. Then, he snapped back to reality. He looked around groggily. The bridge was coming back to life, crewmen checking sensor readings. The vidscreen bleeped, then Johannes face appeared.

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Welcome to beautiful Moriguchi, he said. Everything looks clear. Were deploying the sail. Raven is off our stern quarter, and has signaled. Youre invited to dinner at eighteen hundred standard. Time on deck is eleven-forty five hours. Then the vidlink went dead. Chatty as always, Silas thought. It must be the Jumps...Had to be...

*~*~*~*

Conversation at dinner was limited to confirming plans to expand the Demons to a combined-arms regiment. So, well be carrying Mr. Sevon and his assistants as supercargo? Vincent Edwards was asking. And a squad of MPs, under Staff Sergeant Cordell, Trisha replied. At fourteen weeks, thats seven hundred thousands C-Bills, assuming we can get two dropships per Jump, Edwards calculated quickly. Johannes Drake laughed. With all the traffic in Skye, you could likely count on three dropships each trip. The Hind will be lucky to make that in the next six months. No one called Johannes Drake's ship Goldie to his face. Not more than once. Id like to send one of the Mark VIIs with Raven, Silas said. That should give you a little extra punch if needed. Edwards smiled. A working Mark VII? Happy day! At least the downtime will let us overhaul our engines, said Paula Stevens, Captain of the Bon Homme Richard. The Ritchie needs work badly. I think we could all use some overhaul, said Sharon Buenaventura, to general laughter. Trevor Sevon cleared his throat. Born on the Lyran world of Donegal, Sevon had graduated Donegals prestigious Florentine Lyceum of Business, and had been a very successful stock trader for fifteen years. Then one day, he showed up on Galatea at the Demons billet in a warehouse near the port, and told Silas and Gunderson that what they needed was a business manager, and that that was him. He had succeeded admirably in his six years with the Demons. Sevon was short, pudgy and balding, but was unfailingly polite in social situations. He had the mind of a computer, and the business morals of a Hammerhead shark. A hungry one. Yes, Trevor? Silas said. Exactly how much infantry and armor would you like me to recruit? A battalion of each if you can, but no more than that at the moment. We cant expand too quickly. Sevon nodded. He stared intently at the bulkhead. I may have a lead on that," he said. I'll need to send a priority transmission, though. No problem just don't bankrupt us, Silas said, laughing. Sevon smiled politely, wondering not for the first time, what the Drake brothers reactions would be if they found out just how much money he had made for the unit now his home by scamming the local merchants in the regions the Demons found themselves in. With the mineral wholesalers office on Canal a gutted, burnt out ruin (it was funny how the fire had started only after the fighting went by...shoddy construction,

14

tsk, tsk), no one would miss the ten tons of processed titanium now safely in the hold of the Raven; then again, there was no need to let anyone know just how solvent the Demons really were. What about aerospace fighters? Sevon asked. At least two. Preferably six, if they're available and we can afford it. We can. Well, if no one has anything else... Silas began. Trisha shook her head. Paula has already transferred her people to the Raven, and all their gear was already aboard the Ritchie. Demon personnel generally lived very Spartan, having little to hold them down. We'll pack up the rest of the gear, and bring it with us. No one else having anything else, the meeting began breaking up. Johannes caught Sharon Buenaventuras arm. If its alright with you, Id like to send my first shore leave rotation down with the Bustamontes. Buenaventura was surprised and touched by the request. To be shown this level of trust this early in her association with the Demon's made her feel, for the first time in a very long time, that she now had a home. Certainly, she said, with an honest, albeit devastating, smile. She then turned and, with a new spring in her step, headed for the grav-decks hatch to the zero-g shaft. Had she been telepathic, she would have had her hopes crushed. Johannes Drake didn't trust her, her Captain Edwards and certainly not that Jakes person any further than he could throw his hundred and fifty thousand ton ship. The seven men he was putting aboard her ship were all experts in zero gravity combat, and all had survived at least two boarding actions in the past. If she tried anything, they would seize the ship in an instant.

*~*~*~*

Personnel transfers complete, small craft swaps over, the Demons four dropships began burning towards Moriguchi Port. The Raven would continue charging her drive core, a massive spine made of titanium and germanium suspended in liquid helium, and nearly a kilometer long, for two more days. Once charged, Raven would begin its fourteen-week trip to Galatea, carrying its first paying passengers: two Mule-class merchantmen, and a Condor-class infantry transport, ferrying a Lyran infantry unit in transit. The Golden Hind would do the same, but would always remain within a single 30-light year Jump radius of Moriguchi for the remaining six months of the Demons contract with the Commonwealth, ready to move the unit to a trouble spot quickly, if necessary. Or evacuate them.

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4
September 9, 3020 Euschelus Downport Euschelus, Taurian Concordat The Perhiphery

Victoria Norman silenced the transmit function of her comm unit, then savagely punched her control console in frustration. Too late. Again. The Tortuga pirates Mule-class dropships were going to escape, and there not one damned thing she could do about it. The pirate dropships were burning hard for their Jumpship, sitting at a so-called pirate point (how appropriate, she thought acidly) just off the systems elliptical plane. Because of the relative lack of gravitational shear, every legitimate (and sane) Jumpship pilot entered a system at its zenith or nadir points (the relative top or bottom of a system, opposite its sun). Emerging on a systems ecliptic plane, where the systems planets and asteroids could cause wild shifts in the ripples of gravity, was flat-out crazy. Which was why the pirates did it. Because it was physically impossible to monitor every cubic kilometer of space, Euschelus Home Guard battalions barely had time to mobilize before the pirates were on the ground, burning and killing. The pirates had had help. That, Colonel Norman knew with absolute certainty. The raiders had known exactly where to go. Commando teams had quickly seized the warehouses nearest the ports merchant gates, the ones loaded with ores waiting only for the dropships of their buyers to land for pickup. Other commando teams had dropped directly onto a pair of nearby hotels, whose underground shelters had been packed with terrified vacationers. The vast majority of those poor souls were now, undoubtedly, headed either for the mine-pits or pirate brothels of Tortuga, or the hell of the Port Krin slave markets. It had been sheer coincidence that Vicky Normans First Battalion of the Taurian Lancers Regiment had been recharging the drive of their Jumpship, the Gay Dravidian at Camadierre, one Jump out from Euschelus, when the Merchant-class Jumpship Kovacs Revenge appeared off the Dravidians stern quarter, beaming a frantic All Ships! distress call. When the Lancers had appeared at their own pirate point over Euschelus, they had dropped in a textbook rapid interface orbital combat assault, burning into the planet's atmospheric envelope at almost two full Gs. The pirates, as soon as they picked up her incoming Unions, had flamed the local university to obscure the port's landing zones, then waited until the Lancers were committed to approach vectors before lifting. It had been a tight squeeze, but they had slipped past the Lancers aerospace fighter support and escaped. Dear God, she thought, tears welling in her eyes. Nearly two thousand people gone, carted off like cattle. And we couldnt I couldnt stop them, or even slow them down. Dear God!

16

Weve GOT to change our strategy, she railed silently. Weve got to take the battle to the enemy. But that wasnt likely to happen, she knew. Thomas Calderon, Protector of the Taurian Concordat, was obsessed by the thought of an invasion from Hanse Davions Federated Suns. So, the bulk of the Concordats mobile strike forces remained tied down to garrisons along the politys borders with the Suns and with the Capellan Confederation. Tiredly, she continued marching her old HBK-4G Hunchback toward the spaceport, signaling her command lance to keep an eye out for pirate commandos who still lurked in the wreckage of the port, abandoned by their comrades but fighting to the death, since they knew that neither the Lancers nor the Home Guard would give them quarter. Distantly, she heard the sound of explosions and gunfire in the city beyond, where Home Guard units were wiping out the last pockets of pirate resistance there. Damn it all to Hell and gone, she thought bitterly. We need a new plan.

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5
September 27, 3020 Office of the Protector Samanthaburg, Taurus Taurian Concordat

Marshal Morton Grenadine, Commander of the Taurian Guard Corps, sighed heavily. Protector, I must agree with Marshal Derry. We must take the fight to the pirates. We simply cannot allow these attacks to continue. Thomas Calderon, Protector of the Taurian Concordat, the most civilized of the states in the Periphery, glared at his Marshal with his living eye. The faux-ruby sensor enhancer that had replaced the other, set in gold and silver, remained fixed, implacable unwavering. The other five men in the room al found it very disquieting. "I am well aware of the correct strategy for dealing with these barbarians, gentlemen," the Protector said quietly; it was easy to see him seething. "And if there were no other considerations, I most certainly would have already ordered the entire Guard to eradicate this vermin, and not to return until it was done, he said, voice low. But I will say again, and for the last time, that the greatest current threat to the Concordat is the Federated Suns! His voice began rising in volume: Diverting the units necessary to crush the Tortugans permanently will leave us wide open to a Davion offensive. Auditor Jerrods people he said, indicating the only other man in the room dressed in civilian clothes, have detected clear signs CLEAR signs! his right index finger stabbed the air of highly abnormal units shifts in both the Kearney and Islamabad Combat Regions, as well as the Warren PDZ. Oolahn Jerrod, leader of the Red Phrygians, the Concordats highly efficient intelligence service, nodded imperceptibly, as if in agreement with the Protector; inwardly, he seethed. This fool only hears what he wants to hear, he thought. I told him those shifts were towards the Capellan front! Something had gotten Hanse Davion boiling after old Max Liaos blood, thought Jerrod as Thomas droned on. Something to do with that strange business two years ago, when the Davion seemed hell-bent on making enemies out of the Lyrans. Now, he was marshaling his very considerable forces on a long arc, that would shift the bulk of his combat power against the Capellan state...Likely something deeper than his signing Katrina Steiners ceasefire agreement earlier in the year, on Terra, as Comstar watched. He snorted silently; then suddenly, a thought occurred to him he made a mental note to have the New Avalon Division check up on the First Princes current romantic life...Katrinas daughter might have been only ten, but Hanse wasnt old by any means, and betrothals-of-state at that age were not unheard of. Thomas voice was reaching its height; he was becoming dangerously paranoid as the years went by. Not for the first time, the man known as Oolahn Jerrod wondered if he should retire the Protector. The First and Second Corps are still dangerously under-strength, Thomas Calderon continued. The assembled Marshals knew this mood: it was lecture hour, 18

what with the departure of the Blackguards and the Huscarles; likewise, Colonel Bannockburns battalions are exhausted and need to rest and refit. No thanks to you, Derry thought bitterly mercenary units lived either by rich contracts or by salvage and loot, and the Protector had insisted on keeping Blackie's Blackguards and the Senlac Huscarles in garrison in quiet areas, leaving them no choice but to look for greener pastures...And now, the relative outbreak of peace in the Inner Sphere meant that the Blackguards had disbanded, since no one could afford to hire multi-regiment mercenary units just now. Im sorry gentlemen, Thomas said with finality but there is only room in the budget to hire two replacement mercenary regiments, and they must go to strengthen the First and Second corps and no, Morton, I will not entertain forward-deploying the Guard. Francis Derry looked pleadingly at Jerrod, hoping that he would say something, anything, to sway the Protector; Jerrod simply looked at Derry impassively Derry seemed to deflate in his chair. The exchange went unnoticed only by the Protector, as Calderon had risen from his chair, and begun to pace, favoring the leg injured in the childhood hunting accident that had also cost him his eye. Lecture hour was once again a recitation of Federated Suns attacks on the Concordat throughout their two states troubled history, and why that history forced the Protector to keep the militaryindustrial complex stoked to dangerous levels at the expense of the rest of the Concordat's economy. Eventually, the meeting began to break up.

*~*~*~*

Francis Derry trudged gloomily towards the offices of the Third Corps, wondering bitterly how he was going to look the civilians facing almost monthly pirate raids in the eye and tell them that no help was in sight. How in the hell am I supposed to protect our frontier, he asked no one. I need another corps, and he won't give me a company! You know, Francis, said a voice at his elbow, startling him, sometimes, it seems like we're building a causeway in the sea to ride our horses on, doesn't it? Derry tried to cover his startled reaction by studying Jerrods impassive face. What game was the spy playing? Im told, Jerrod continued airily, that Taurus Majoris has hit major strikes of nickel and chromium on Celentaro. I understand that they are trying to hire a merc regiment as guards. Oolahn Jerrods face remained impassive as he spoke, his eyes calmly staring straight ahead. Like Camadierre and Euschalus, Celentaro was in Third Corps area of operations. No, Francis said slowly, I hadn't heard that at all. In fact, Taurus Majoris Mining's Chief of Field Operations had told him just a week ago that they were planning to close their facilities on Celentaro, as they hadnt found anything on the desolate world. Suddenly, Derry's eyes widened as he registered Jerrod's left-handed jab at the Protector. Surely you don't think it's come to that? he asked, truly shocked. Jerrod regarded Derry for a moment. He knew that among other things, Derry held a doctorate in Ancient/Pre-Spaceflight Terran History from the Vandenburg

19

Conservatory, which was why Jerrod had used that specific reference. Poor Francis, he thought, not unkindly, you should have been a schoolmaster. I can assure you, Marshal, he said quietly, that Thomas Calderon may be many things, but he will never be called Little Boots. Then, just as abruptly as he had appeared, Derry found himself looking at Jerrod's back. He shuddered visibly, resolving that whatever else he may do in this life, he would never make an enemy out of Oolahn Jerrod. In three otherwise totally innocuous sentences, Jerrod had thrown the people of Third Corps region a badly-needed even critical lifeline, pointedly making an endrun around the wishes of the Protector, and had not only compared the Protector to a fabulously-deranged Roman Emperor, but had hinted at his possibly-violent removal from office. The sheer, utterly cold ruthlessness in the mind that put that statement together was terrifying.

As he resumed his journey to the Comstar Compound, Oolahn Jerrod focused a portion of his mind on Francis Derry. Another pawn to the Cause, he gloated silently. And the painfully beautiful symmetry of the thing was that Derry didnt even know that he was a pawn. Jerrod savored the irony: the thought that the Star Leagues most bitter opponent in the Periphery was going to be the instrument of its revival was epic, on an almost Homeric scale. As long as no more accidents like the leak about the Celeano finds got out, the final success of the Orders plan for Humanity should only take another generation to complete. Two, at most.

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6
September 2, 3020 Galaport, Galatea Isle of Skye Lyran Commonwealth

Trevor Sevon was frustrated. This in itself was unique. An ordinary person would have looked at his situation and told him that he was in no trouble at all...Which was why ninety-nine percent of people never survived very long in business for themselves. In fact, Sevon was as close to sheer, blind panic as he had ever been. On the surface, things indeed looked rosy. His troops recruitment efforts were succeeding admirably, as he knew they would there was far too much talent on the beach on Galatea for his efforts to have failed. As the Third Succession War finally sputtered to a close, mercenary contracts had begun to dry up temporarily, as the various warring states focused on repairing their infrastructures just enough to gird for the next round of battle. Because of this many small, even medium-sized, mercenary units and any unit lacking a sound financial base had been forced to break up and hire out as individuals, just to survive a dicey prospect on hot, dry Galatea. As a result, finding six Dispossessed mechwarriors who met Silas rigid and unyielding standards was even easier than he had thought. Warning Sign Number One. Finding six mech-drivers with their own vehicles had been more difficult he was interviewing two candidates tonight, in fact, which would fill his bill but it had still been easier than he had expected it would be. Warning Sign Number Two. Warning Number Three that the Demons may have jumped the gun in not renewing with the Commonwealth came when he closed a deal signing the remains of a Kuritan armored battalion. Abandoned by Takashi Kuritas Draconis Combine after a failed raid on the Federated Suns world of Ozawa, the battalion's officers had committed seppuku ritual suicide to prove their loyalty to Coordinator Kurita. Their troops, being rather less fanatical, had stormed aboard a huge Triumph-class tank-transporting dropship and an Excalibur-class general military transport (grounded when their Jumpships left them there; their officers had also demonstrated their loyalty to the Coordinator) and their quick-witted sergeants and flight crews had bribed their way onto a civilian Merchant-class Jumpship from the Outworlds Alliance using loot captured on Ozawa, to carry them to Galatea, where they had arrived on July fifth. Sevon had heard about the unit on his way in, but had assumed that they would have been picked up by the time the Demon's advance party had landed. That they hadn't had been was ominous. Trevor had waited until August fifteenth to make his offer. The Combine NCOs had been almost pathetically grateful. According to Staff Sergeant Cordell, the NCOs actually seemed to care about what happened to their men, and had been terrified that

21

they would be forced to break up to survive, as none of them had ever been off of Dieron in their lives, and didnt know what to do. After hiring them, Sevon learned that offers had been made to buy their vehicles and ship, but the Combine NCOs had been too smart to do that, although the crew of their Triumph couldnt resist shipping for the Free Worlds League. The NCOs had ended up selling off fifteen of their most-damaged vehicles, which allowed them to feed their troops meagerly and pay rent on a dilapidated warehouse. The icing on the cake was when he and Paula Cordell were having dinner in a riverfront restaurant two days after hiring the Kuritans. Sitting next to their table were a group of people who turned out to be four aerospace pilots and the captain and first mate of an Excalibur-class dropship. They were discussing their current unemployment woes the dropship captain was glumly of the mind that the Durendel could probably make ends meet hauling cargoes, although that was a shame to do to a fine warship. No gods in the universe, Sevon knew, were this kind. With this much talent and resources on the beach, finding a contract for the Demon's looked increasingly hard. But Trevor soldiered on he only hoped that Silas had a plan. Never having hired infantry before, Trevor was initially inclined to hire complete platoons and companies, on the strength that those units would have a high level on internal pride and esprit de corps. Staff Sergeant Cordell who Trevor was pleased to see taking a more active roll in the process, as his complete lack of real military experience was painfully apparent, at least to himself immediately vetoed the idea. As a former grunt in the Marik Militia, Cordell turned out to know a great deal more about infantry than Trevor had suspected existed. To Paula, any unit larger than a twelve-man squad wouldnt be worth their boots as a unit had they been, they would have been snapped up long ago by someone a House, another merc unit, even a corporation needing heavy security. That such a unit had not been meant that they had some bad juju, as she put it, which jinxed their collective. Far better, she advised, to recruit infantry as individuals, run them through standardized tests to check for ability, then train them hard, but together, to allow them to build their own traditions. Since that was a better explanation than any he had, Trevor placed her in charge of hiring the infantry and armor crews, while he negotiated billeting and weapons contracts. They had soon recruited about three hundred troops, in addition to the Kuritans. It was at this point that Ranjit Singh Bahadur entered the picture. Awaiting Trevor at the Demons poste restante box at the Mercenary Regulatory Commission were a number of messages from Silas Drake and Andrew Gunderson. Trevor had expected this, but it was one message in particular from Captain Gunderson that peaked his interest. The captain's message stated that a certain officer by the name of Ranjit Singh Bahadur could likely be located in he Amritsar section of Galaport, likely working in a computer repair shop. Trevor was to hire him at the rank of Major and was empowered to offer him a leftenant-colonelcy if he asked for it. Nothing else no qualifications, no resume...simply Hire this man for whatever he asks. The next day, Trevor had made his way into one of the civilian districts of Galaport. Peopled by immigrants descended from Terra's Indian Subcontinent, they were

22

very friendly and helpful, and he quickly tracked down Mr. Bahadur, as he thought of him. While in college, Trevor had taken a unit in comparative religions, so he was not completely blindsided when Mr. Bahadur turned out to be a tall, swarthy man, clearly a member of the Sikh faith, who appeared to be in his late forties with a ferocious-looking demeanor and a chest-length beard; from the style of dress he wore, Trevor guessed that he had taken the oath of the Khalsa Trevor could not remember the names of all the identifying items, but he knew that they were referred to collectively as the Five Ks. Ranjit Singh Bahadur, despite his fierce appearance, was actually quite kind and gentle and a most gracious host. He insisted on serving Trevor handmade chai tea while they talked, albeit briefly. Trevor, for once unsure of how to proceed, decided to play it straight and simply told Ranjit that he had received a message from Andrew Gunderson, who had told him to offer him a commission in the Demon's at the rank of Major, although Trevor could negotiate higher. Ranjit had nodded, and simply said Andrew is most gracious. Taking that as acceptance, Trevor had asked if Ranjit had any paperwork that Trevor could use in building a file-template for the Demons soon-to-be Administrative Division. Ranjit had smiled, as if getting some private joke, but rose and returned with a Comstar-notarized copy of his AFFS 'service record book. Thanking him for the tea, Trevor told him to please report to the riverfront warehouse where the Demons were currently housed on-planet at his convenience. The next morning, as Trevor was returning from breakfast at a wildly popular mom-n-pop across the street from the warehouse billet, he heard a tremendous racket coming from within. Upon entering, he found Ranjit Singh Bahadur dressed in the field uniform of an AFFS officer, sans rank insignia standing in the center of the warehouse roaring orders in a voice that seemed to make the world itself tremble. The Kuritan tankers, as well as he newly-hired infantry, were all rushing about in wild patterns, cleaning, straightening things, laying out some gear while packing more...Trevor was non-pulsed: he had never seen anything like it. When he finally found Staff Sergeant Cordell in the anteroom to his office, she was grinning so widely, he thought she would need surgery to correct the grin. She had then kissed Trevor full on the lips, surprising him even more. That man is the nearest thing to God on this city block, Trevor, she had said with a smile. When Trevor finally sat down in his office and started to read Ranjit Singh's file (Bahadur was a common honorific in Hindi/Punjabi, it meant, roughly, Noteworthy Person) after putting it off the day before, in a most uncommon for him manner, he had gagged on his coffee. At age fifty-five, Ranjit Singh had been a Colonel in the Capellan March Militia, and had been in battalion or regimental command slots for over twenty years all of them in armored units. He had been decorated with nearly every military award the Armed Forces of the Federated Suns (the AFFS) could give, many of them more than once. While posted to the New Syrtis CMM on the world of Oltepasi three years ago, however, he had apparently made an enemy out of Michael Hasek-Davion, Duke of New Syrtis and Minister of the Capellan March. Duke Michael had forced Ranjit Singhs retirement, and made certain that his legal team found enough reason to deny a pension to him; his appeal to New Avalon was still pending.

23

Knowing that Captain Gunderson was from the Federated Suns as well, Trevor assumed that he still had friends, and had found out about Colonel Singh. Obviously, then, Gunderson had plans for a real armored force...so Trevor Sevon would get him one. Using Ranjits contacts on-planet, Trevor had located Martin Shearer, an independent arms merchant who had chosen precisely the wrong time to try and make some sales to mercenary units: he was in Business Hell, sitting on a regiments worth of combat vehicles with no customers and not enough cash to get off-planet. Trevor had taken Ranjit Singh to see Shearer, who was actually living in one of his armored personnel carriers to avoid hotel bills and still pay for some rent-a-cop security. Trevor had told Ranjit that he, Trevor, was along as the wallet Ranjit needed to make the decision on any vehicles purchased. Ranjit was more than happy to oblige. By the time they left the yard, the Demons had acquired twenty Quiksell Hetzer Assault Guns, twelve Saladin and twenty-four Scimitar hover tanks, both made by Scarborough Industries, as well as several dozen Stirling Rover light trucks and an assortment of support vehicles, and all at a discount that still left Shearer with a profit, which was far better than he had hoped for. He had promised and kept his word to get them discounts on ammunition stocks. Rather satisfied with their success, Trevor had a moment of panic the next morning as he researched the vehicles they had just purchased. While the Hunters, Saladins and Scimitars all had very good to ecstatic reviews, the Hetzer was one of the most-panned vehicles in the military-industrial press: poor construction, shoddy workmanship and no secondary weapons. The only good point was its primary weapon, the Crusher Super-Heavy Cannon, which could wreck a medium battlemech in one burst all of the reviews stated that the weapon would be better deployed on a different chassis. When Ranjit Singh had returned with the vehicles, Trevor had met with him privately, showed him the reviews on the Hetzer, and voiced his concerns. Singh had patiently explained that, while he was fully aware of the Hetzers poor reputation in fact, he was counting on that poor reputation he told Trevor that the reviews were all written by pundits who had never actually fought from the vehicle. With the right training attitude and support, he said, a four-vehicle Hetzer platoon virtually negated any battlemech then in operation. At the same meeting, Ranjit had told him that there was a severe overcrowding issue in the warehouses, especially with the four mechwarriors with their own machines and the Dispossessed pilots, as well as the vehicles...something had to be done. Ranjit then suggested that he should "have a chat" with the Galatea Merchant Association's Visiting Military Units Relations Board about "more suitable quarters"... It was after this meeting that Trevor, his confidence somewhat renewed, returned to his hotel room to meet with his last two mechwarrior candidates who had their own machines.

*~*~*~*

24

When the knock sounded at his door, Sevon called out Come! The door opened to admit two men, both carrying briefcases. Both stood just under two meters in height, although one was a centimeter or two taller than the other. The taller of the two seemed familiar. The tall one quickly stuck out his hand and smiled. Clayton Michaels he said. Ah, that's it, thought Trevor. Yes, I remember you, he said, returning the shake. I saw some of your fights on Solaris. You fought in an Enforcer, correct? Yep, Michaels said cheerfully, the Lindi carried me all the way through. Nodding, Trevor turned to the other man. And you are? he said, offering his hand. Jason Carnarvon, the man replied, perfunctorily returning the shake. I drive a Fire Javelin. They all sat at the table in Sevon's room. Im sorry, Sevon said, but Ive never heard of a Fire Javelin. Its a Javelin where the SRMs are replaced with a pair of medium lasers. Not very talkative, Sevon thought. Well, Mr. Michaels, Sevon said, formally beginning the interview. I am wellversed in your piloting and gunnery skills. May I se a resume? In answer, Michaels drew from his briefcase two folders. Within, Trevor was impressed to see a pair of verigraphs tamper-proof documents, specially sealed at the time of creation so that any attempt at tampering would ruin the documents within. One was a brief on Michaels background in the AFFS, the other a certified record of his performance on Solaris VII; both carried the Comstar Notary Seal of Authenticity. I am impressed, Mr. Michaels, he said, but I must ask for the reason you resigned your commission seven years ago. Michaels got a distant look on his face. Let's say, he said after a moment, that I was deemed politically unreliable... Trevor's eyebrows went up. Michaels shrugged. I was found to be more loyal to Hanse Davion than Michael Hasek. Sevon carefully noted the insult against the Duke of New Syrtis by dropping the Davion from his name, Michaels was boldly stating that the Duke was no Davion. And you, Mr. Carnarvon, he said, turning to the other man, who had produced his own resume. It says here that you were a lance commander in the Marik Militia until 3014. May I ask why you resigned? Carnarvon shrugged. I fought for the wrong Marik, he said simply. Ah, Trevor thought. He and Paula would get along well. She too, had fought for Anton Marik in his failed rebellion against his brother, Captain-General Janos Marik. A lot of mercenaries had come out of that war. Well, gentlemen, Trevor said, Let me copy these, and I think that we can call you Demons, he said with a smile. Michaels returned it; Carnarvon at least attempted to look impressed. Handing them back their documents, Sevon said Please report to Lieutenant Cordell at our warehouse billet in the morning. She will get you squared away. Both men nodded, and left. Where had that come from? Trevor wondered. He had never used what he thought of as casual military jargon in all his time in the Demons...Must be Major Singh, he thought with a grin. It was only then that he realized that he had just commissioned Staff Sergeant Cordell. After a moments thought, he doubted that Silas Drake would mind.

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7
December 8, 3021, 0835 hours Gamma Company Headquarters Camp Margarita Camp Pendleton Basing Facility Galatea, Isle of Skye Lyran Commonwealth

Andrew Gunderson stood silently, sipping his favorite coffee (an Arabica-Pecan blend from his homeworld, Abbeville, on the Federated Suns' Rim) watching from his office window as Paula Cordell worked the new troops though yet another round of close-order drill. Many civilians thought the archaic practice a pointless exercise in machismo, but it served many purposes simultaneously: it got the troops accustomed to taking orders from specific leaders, got them used to working together as a team, and built a sense of pride when everything came together, as forty pairs of combat boots slammed down on the parade deck with one voice. More prosaically, he thought wryly, it gave potential employers an easy yardstick to judge the abilities of a unit. It was completely insensible, but, as Machiavelli had said in The Prince so many centuries ago, ...all men have eyes and can therefore see. Yet, not all men have the ability to reason. Therefore, appearance is everything... Bugger all, he thought with annoyance, I guess I cant put this off any longer. Turning to his desk, he sat down and quickly scanned the file before him. Most of David Wilsons mech-drivers were reasonably competent, once they dried out and lost their hunted look. He had left most of his problem children on Butte Hold. This kid, however, was the only real one remaining, and Silas, Wilson and he had decided that putting him into a new environment might help. Addy had taken the kid on to help out Wilson, but he had an ulterior motive. Kid. Richard Garvey was in his thirties, but he was what some sociologists would have called a man-child Garvey was more boy than man, and it showed in his file. Gunderson put on his "command face" and pressed his intercom. Come, was all he said. His office door opened, and he heard the muffled voice of Jason Carnarvon say, Report to the Colonel. Richard Garvey entered the room, and attempted to march to a place ten paces in front of Gunderson's desk; Carnarvon stepped in silently and stood with his back to the door. Garvey stopped, and came to what he likely thought was a semblance of the position of attention. R-Richard Garvey, Report-ting as ordered. Sir! Uneven, thought Gunderson, but Garvey was trying. He sighed visibly. Mister Garvey, he began. Captain Wilson and Leftenant Stilson he emphasized Stilson's Federated Suns rank have been very diligent in getting the Hussar's records into Demon format. Since you have been assigned to Gamma, you are now my responsibility. Gunderson watched Garvey's face carefully good: the kid was starting to sweat. He likely thought that he knew what was about to happen. He was wrong.

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Gunderson shifted slightly in his chair. Your piloting scores are average, he said, as are your gunnery skills. On the other hand, he turned a page in Garvey's file, while not taking his eyes from him, you were booted from Hanson's Roughriders for dereliction of duty. Then, you were booted from Smithsons Chinese Bandits for insubordination. And, while your scores are...passing is the most polite term...there are plenty of potential pilots on the beach with better scores. Garvey was trying to bear up, but was starting to fail he looked like he was certain Gunderson was going to kick him to the curb. Gunderson continued relentlessly. Cap excuse me, MAJOR Wilson, likes you, though, in spite of your issues. As does Leftenant Stilson, who argued quite strongly in your favor. I respect Major Wilson highly, and I am gaining in respect for Leftenant Stilson. Neither are the reasons for what I am about to do to you. He paused, spearing Garvey with a ferocious glare that made the young mechwarrior quail visibly. You see, Mister Garvey, your brother and I are acquaintances, from his days in the Heavy Guards. I have a great deal of respect for your brother so much, in fact, that I am going to cut you some slack. Unless you walk out that gate on your own, I will give you exactly fourteen days to prove to Captain Carnarvon that you have what it takes to not be a complete screw-up. You will do whatever is asked of you, as soon as it is asked of you. Screw up, or fail to impress Captain Carnarvon, and you will be dropped off with your gear at the door of the Suns consulate in Galaport. Period. You are the fourth son of a planetary noble the Consulate will cover a ticket home. However, whether you walk out of here on your own or because you failed, you will do so without your Wasp. Garvey looked like hed been punched. Good, Addy thought, wake-up time. Ssir? Garvey stammered. Gunderson nodded. I am from Abbeville, way out in the Kilbourne PDZ. I have close, personal experience with the reasons for planetary militias to maintain mech forces, Mister Garvey, and I will not see your home deprived of even a light mech chassis to feed your thrill-rides. At the Demons expense, I am having your Wasp repaired to like-new condition...Then, also at the Demon's expense, I am sending it back to your brother, along with a note that you wanted to try for a fresh start that should cover you if you drop the ball. You will be assigned one of the Stingers we captured on Canal; Captain Carnarvon is an IP Instructor Pilot and is infinitely better qualified to train you than pretty much every other instructor you have ever had, including your brother. As I said, you can walk out those gates at any time without your mech. Galaport is only thirty kilometers from here, and there is a train station in Carlsbad. The Consulate is four blocks up from the Galaport station, on the right-hand side of the street. However walk out those gates, and you will end your career as a mechwarrior at that instant, as no one else will touch you with a ten-meter cattle prod...although your brother may take pity on you, and allow you to pilot the Wasp again. Garvey stood very still; for a moment just a moment Addy thought Garvey would freak out and try to attack him. Instead, Garvey straightened into a reasonable facsimile of attention. S-Sir Yes Sir! he tried to bark it, but it squeaked. There was a little of the Garvey brains in there, after all, Addy thought.

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Very well, Mister Garvey. Report to Captain Carnarvon in the morning. Dismissed, he said with a vague salute. Garvey tried to withdraw, but botched it, nearly tripping on his own feet. After he got himself out the office door, Carnarvon closed it behind him and looked at Addy. Think hell bolt? he asked. Maybe, Addy replied. Well have to see. Theres some potential in there. Work him hard. Be fair, but dont cut him any slack. If he cant cut it, I dont want him out there when sharp, pointy objects start flying for real. Carnarvon nodded. Will do. Mind if I ask what the deal is with his brother? Not at all. Fred Garvey is a helluva mech-jock but hes one of the smart ones. I had him in my lance in the Heavy Guards back in the teens. When I wrote his fitness report, I recommended him for a company command; he actually got a light raider/recon company down in the Capellan March, before their father had his stroke. Since Fred was the eldest, he was recalled to Saginaw hes now effectively the Duke in all but name...

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8
January 30, 3021, 0835 hours Drakes Demons Headquarters Camp Margarita Camp Pendleton Basing Facility Galatea, Isle of Skye Lyran Commonwealth

The Camp Pendleton Basing Facility had begun as temporary housing for transient Star League Marines training in the Hruskan Badlands to the north of Galaport. (Confusingly, the now-Federated Suns planet Quentin had had an identically named base for the SLMC.) Based on the design of an ancient military complex on Terra, the facility was divided into several smaller sub-camps. Each sub-camp was capable of housing a combined-arms regiment: there were parking slots for up to forty battlemechs in their own repair shed, up to four hundred vehicles, several six hundred person-capacity barracks and some limited officer housing. There was a small exchange, a dispensary, several armories and warehouses, in addition to several vehicle garages, and a mess hall capable of feeding up to a thousand people at a time. Camp Margarita was one such sub-camp. In addition to the normal facilities, Margarita was considered a prime base area because of its proximity to additional training facilities. Two kilometers to the northwest, there was a known-distance infantry rifle range with one hundred-fifty targets; just to the east of that, facing 90 away from it, was what appeared to be a battle-scarred town. In fact, it was a purpose-built combat town, used for limited urban-warfare training. Four kilometers to the south lay Henderson Field, where mercenary air wings based their craft while aboard Camp Pendleton. A little to the south of Henderson Field, across Krulak Way, lay the Chappo Flats Maintenance, Warehouse and Transshipment Area; a maglev rail line passed through this area, allowing units to receive shipments of vehicles and mechs from Galaport. Ten kilometers to the east of Chappo Flats lay Mainside, the Basing Facilitys administrative area. In addition to Base Offices, there were mess halls, unit-scale laundry facilities, theaters, restaurants and a small shopping mall. Mainside also housed the John Basilone Battle Training Facility a complex of former warehouses converted to house battlemech and aerospace fighter simulators. The complex could train, in coordination, up to five hundred pilots at once. In an era where battlemechs and aerospace fighters were husbanded carefully until needed, training on simulators was the most economical method for getting entire units to work in concert, which was an important consideration for mercenary units that had no massive state continuously funding them. After the Star League collapsed, the old worlds of the Terran Hegemony the Star Leagues heart were some of the most fought-over in human history. Galatea was no different; the world had long ago been stripped of useful League-grade equipment. The buildings, however, mostly remained. One hundred and fifty years before, at the height of the Second Succession War, the planetary government of Galatea declared itself independent of the Lyran 29

Commonwealth, and a world open for commerce. Claudius Steiner, the Commonwealths mad dictator of the day, was said to have laughed hysterically at the declaration, then ignored it, assuming that the government would simply collapse. The local government had other ideas. The Galatea Merchant Administration (the GMA) opened their world to the burgeoning mercenary market, and in short order, had a larger garrison force than every capitol world in the Inner Sphere, combined. Both the Lyran Commonwealth and the other Successor Houses allowed Galatea to exist by default, as it had proven to be a necessary release valve in the increasingly vital interstellar mercenary market. One of the main features that made the market so profitable was the GMA's limited rebuilding of old League facilities, like Camp Pendleton. For a comparatively reasonable fee, mercenary units could have a reasonably well equipped and safe barracks area to rest and refit in. This put idle facilities to profitable use, improved safety in Galateas inhabited zones by keeping most mercs from living on the streets between jobs, and gave the mercs a measure of security. Silas Drake had begun, just prior to the Canal fight, to get an idea of just how much money the Demons had in reserve when he looked over Trevor Sevons books on Moriguchi. Silas had doubled as the Adjutant for the 19th Lyran Guards for a time, since he had a BA in Accounting from Tharkad University. When the newly enlarged Demon's arrived at Galatea, Silas had found that Addys choice of Ranjit Singh Bahadur had been inspired, to say the least. Singhs family was descended from the original colonists of Galatea almost a thousand years before. Those not serving in mercenary units or House armies worked in the military electronics and computer industry, repairing and hand-building systems for units from across inhabited space. Singh had pointedly gotten Trevor moving on snapping up the Margarita space. In truth, Silas loved this place it was actually superior to any training or basing facility he had seen outside of the Naglering or the Guards kaserne on Tharkad. What he truly liked about the place, though, was the secure conference facilities. The main regimental conference rooms were windowless, and buried under heavy ferrocrete and steel. With flags and crest purchased from a local supplier, it almost looked as if the Demons were a permanent garrison, here. They were perfect for holding confidential meetings, like the one Silas and Addy were about to have. Martin Dresher was the representative for the Taurus Majoris Mining Company from the Taurian Concordat state in the Periphery. Beggars cant be choosers, Silas thought there were simply no major House contracts out there, right now, and as reasonable as the rent on Camp Margarita was, the Demons couldnt afford it forever. Silas wouldnt even have entertained Martin Dresher five years before, for the damage being reduced to Periphery work would do to the Demons then-fragile reputation. Dresher was a non-descript-looking fellow, the epitome of the gray businessman. He had been met at the gate by Trevor Sevon and Paula Cordell, and been conducted into the conference room. Silas and Addy were waiting for him, dressed in the Demon's new dress uniforms. After the obligatory handshakes and pleasantries, Dresher helped himself to a chair. Time to get down to business. Well, Mr. Dresher, what can the Demons do for you, today? Silas asked.

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Well, Colonel, Dresher began, in a surprisingly deep voice for his spare frame, TMM as been operating a mining operation on Celentaro for several years, with little success. Recently...well, weve hit a major strike. Were concerned over the fact that there have been frequent and violent pirate raids on the Concordat for several years. TMM would like to hire the Demon's to...resolve the issue... Gunderson arched an eyebrow. Forgive me, Mr. Dresher, but the Concordat has a highly capable military that is more than capable of handling pirate raiders. Even if there were more pressing concerns, well, I apologize, but it needs to be asked for the Demons sake why is TMM hiring us, and not the Concordat? Dresher had a tight look in his eyes. The Protector has determined that the Federated Suns are more of a threat to the Concordat at the moment than the depredations of Paula Trevaline, he said, referring to the Bandit Queen of the Tortuga Dominions. It was clear that Dresher considered the Protectors lack of action to be completely beneath contempt. Silas waited, letting Addy take the lead. The Concordat was nowhere near the Commonwealth, and he had only an academic knowledge of them. Gunderson, however, was actually not in a much better position. Although the Concordat and the Suns had a long and troubled history, his primary focus had always been on the Suns Draconis Front. Still, he had written an unpublished paper on the Malagrotta Affair, from the early days of the Star League, so he felt that he could wing it. May I ask, then, what exactly it is that TMM requesting of us? We are willing to pay you triple the normal rate to kill Paula Trevaline, and destroy her merry band, Dresher rumbled. TMM makes no claim to any salvage whatsoever whatever you find is yours, as far as we are concerned. We dont want their stolen loot. We dont want their mechs. We dont want their ships. We dont want their worlds. We want them dead.

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9
February 10, 3021 Office of Blessed Examination Comstar Compound, Galaport Galatea, Isle of Skye, Lyran Commonwealth

In her minds eye, Demi-Precentor Omicron Theta VI Janesheia Ward sat down on a rocky outcrop, overlooking a pristine valley, untouched by Human hands. In her mind, she assumed a full-lotus position, and then steadied her inner self. In the real, physical world of her office, the ROM agent leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers, regarding the spray of papers before her. Curious. Officially listed as transient personnel, having arrived three months earlier, she was not required to present her credentials to the planetary government of Galatea...Which was good, considering that her function here was that of a spy. As a trained cryptanalyst, as well as a general analyst, Janesheia alternated duties with her counterparts to avoid burnout; additionally the Gnomes, as her team was called within ROM, never stayed at a station for very long, to avoid becoming attached to station personnel, since the Gnomes other duty was to call in the Office of Righteous Determinations if their agents found heresy at a station. The message before Janesheia was taxing her abilities, hence her meditations. Normally, message traffic came across her desk only when the normal decryption programs failed. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it was someone who thought that they were a professional code-maker. Cracking those codes made for an interesting diversion. This message, however, was one of the very few that posed a problem. Comstars ability to fully promulgate the Vision of the Blessed Blake lived and breathed on the ability to interpret high-level communications. As a consequence of the nature of Galatea, the Comstar facility here used decryption algorithms equaled only by the stations on the capitol worlds of the various Successor States, and those in the ROM computers buried beneath Kinshasa-Stanleyville on Terras African continent, not far from her birthplace in the city of Kampala. Messages being sent that Comstar could not decode were of great importance. Janesheia mentally reviewed what she knew. The message had been sent as a First Priority, and paid for in cash by an officer of a mercenary unit called Drakes Demons, for sending to New Avalon, capitol world of the Federated Suns, to a contact known to be a Suns Ministry of Intelligence and Information Operations (the highly competent and dreaded MIIO) courier. It took up a single sheet of paper on printout. Five columns of number groups, six digits to a group, all numbers, no letters or nomenclators. Janesheia had casually tried some truly simple cipher guesses, to no effect; if quantum cryptanalysis didnt crack the cipher, she likely couldnt. That told her that it was likely composed of multiple layers of encipherment, and equally likely, employed both a form of book code and a form of one-time pad, which would make it functionally uncrackable, without the exact copy of the book used 32

(it was incredibly hard virtually impossible, in fact to distribute codebooks across interstellar distances, but using one-time ciphers based on lines from unmodified classical works made life infinitely easier for intelligence agents). A thought began to form in the back of her mind...Janesheia could almost see the message author at work: he likely used a modified polyalphabetic Vigenre square with a copy of...oh, say, Huckleberry Finn. He would encipher his plaintext using a line from Twains novel as the keyword which would be as long as the message itself then shove that through an ADFGX-like cipher, then through a numerical version of the ADFGX, resulting in a series of five-number groups. He would then insert an extra number into each group at a specific place a so-called null character. For added security, he could make entire rows or columns be nulls, and might change the language in his plaintext in mid-sentence. The beauty in the system lay in that he never need enclose a key to decrypt his messages: the sender was an officer of a well-known and -regarded mercenary unit, and could be expected to send messages in code. The recipient would simply know to look up the sender's name in his agency's protected files section to obtain the algorithm and the specific books being used... ...Janesheia opened her eyes, and reached for the Demons file folder. Janesheia was annoyed that no one in the stations ROM section had apparently slated the file for review; it had taken the stations archivists an unacceptably long time to assemble the data. A unit that had expanded this quickly should have been prioritized much higher. Drakes Demons: Started as a simple mech company, albeit one ideally suited for raiding and fast reaction, since it had its own Jumpship and dropships, in early 3012; owned and operated by the Drake brothers, Silas and Johannes; they had done very well in the mercenary business so well, in fact, that they had just expanded into a combinedarms regiment. Comstar also knew a great deal about the activities of the Demons business manager, Trevor Sevon. The Donegal native had amassed a staggeringly huge war chest for a unit of the Demons size, even at regimental strength, in the six years since joining them. There was a ROM report on him from the Donegal station, indicating that he had fled the world of his birth because of a scandal involving a socialite and a murder. Janesheia put that aside; it might be useful later, mentally noting to request a complete review from the Donegal station. Johannes Drake: fifty-five years old; single/never married; had been a spacer for over thirty years; owner of the Invader-class Jumpship Golden Hind (absently, Janesheia wondered if the Drakes thought or were! related to the famous English sea captain). Silas Drake: forty-four; widower. Former Hauptmann in the 19th Lyran Guards. Known as a confidant of the Lyran Archon, and was co-god-father to the Heir-Designate. The officer who had sent the message drew her full attention, however. Andrew Gunderson; call sign, Iceman; nickname: Addy; real given name: Adonais; fifth son of Gerard Gunderson, Duke of Abbeville, by his third wife, Antonia. Forty-two years old, he had graduated summa cumme laud from the Albion Military Academy on New Avalon, the capitol of the Federated Suns. Albion was the premier military academy in the Suns, which had arguably the most capable military in the Inner Sphere. Gunderson, however, had entered Albion a

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year earlier than he should have, as he had scored his first mech kill at age fourteen, during a pirate raid on his homeworld of Abbeville, in the Kilbourne PDZ of the Draconis March he had been working out on the family's mech range in a Trebuchet when the pirates had dropped to raid the planet's petroleum facilities. He had fought a week-long solo campaign in the bush before finding his way to a militia field base, his Trebuchet a near wreck, with only one working medium laser...but his mechs bat-roms confirmed three pirate kills; an addendum in the file stated that copies of the bat-roms were on file in the ROM computers on Terra Janesheia made another mental note to request copies for review. Duke Gerard had gotten him a slot in the next Albion class the following semester. Janesheia pulled up Gundersons scores from Albion with interest; she, herself had graduated the secretly revived Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst on Terra, prior to her current ROM assignment. He had proved to be a natural mech-pilot, setting new records on Albion's training ranges. He showed a decided preference for energy weaponequipped battlemechs. Very interesting, she thought. She knew that approximately sixty-seven percent of mechwarriors who preferred energy-based mechs were also described as tenacious, cunning and fanatical. While at Albion, he had also taken a highly specialized minor in Military I.C.E. (Internal Combustion Engine) Infrastructure and Development. There was a paper in his file that he had written on the subject, arguing that given the current state of technology, economic development should be encouraged on low-tech worlds by reviving both petroleum- and biofuel-based I.C.E. infrastructures not a very surprising view, Janesheia thought with clinical detachment, considering that Abbevilles primary nonmilitary employer was Interstellar Star Petroleum. Interestingly, he had an open correspondence course on Geology from the Broken Wheel Mining Institute, in the distant Crucis March. Gunderson also held a Masters in Military History from New Avalon University, acquired both while at Albion and during his stint in the Davion Heavy Guards, from Janesheia sat bolt upright, and swung her spare, lanky frame over the Terran Oak desk. DamndamndamndamnDAMN! Why in the HELL had no one spotted this before!? She silently swore all sorts of vile tortures and ordeals against the lazy girfarks masquerading as the ROM staffers here. As she calmed herself, she made a third mental note to demand an immediate inquest using interviewers from ROM headquarters at Kinshasa on such inexcusably lax behavior. Gunderson had been posted to the Command Company of the Heavy Guards in 2998 and at the Third Battle of Harrows Sun in 3002, was the Recon Lance Commander in the Heavy Guards Command Company when, under the direct command of Prince Ian Davion, Hanse Davions older brother and then-First Prince of the Federated Suns, the Guards had so soundly routed the Draconis Combines elite Fourth Sword of Light Regiment, it was subsequently disbanded. He had been personally made a Knight of Davion by the then-First Prince and received the Robinson Medal of Valor from Anton Sandoval, Duke of Robinson and Minister of the Draconis March for the same action: Gunderson had been one of the two mech pilots who had placed themselves in the line of fire to allow the Prince to pull his

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mech free of a sudden sinkhole, then defended their Prince's badly damaged mech until reinforcements arrived...Gunderson had dragged his savaged mech for twenty-five kilometers to get to a field repair base with a missile-breached cockpit, several broken ribs and a shattered femur (theyd had to cut him free of his pilots chair)but he never radioed for help, until the Prince was safely inside the AFFS perimeter. As if it were possible, it kept getting worse: During his recovery, the very efficient ROM office on New Avalon reported that he had been selected as a member of The Breakfast Club. Gods above, Janesheia swore silently, I swear by all thats Holy that I will burn these idiots hearts in a bowl to whatever death gods are out there. The so-called Breakfast Club was a carefully constructed front set up by the Federated Sun's MIIO intelligence agencies. Regularly reviled in public for their supposed drunken, libertine ways, the real Breakfast Club was composed of officers of proven loyalty to House Davion. According to the ROM reports she had studied, no one got in who did not have at least a Masters degree in something. The Breakfast Club performed strategic analysis for the First Prince exclusively. Officers were rotated out every three years or so, to avoid burnout. And, sure enough, Gunderson had resigned his commission just four years after saving Prince Ians life, then journeyed to Galatea, where he had acquired a battered Shadow Hawk after killing its owner following a game of Four-Card Drax. From his local file, the previous ROM units on Galatea had dutifully trailed him to the Federated Suns Consulate the few times the Demons were here previously. The previous ROM rotations, then, had not pushed the panic button because the Demons were at that time a single company of run-down mechs. That should have changed the instant that Trevor Sevon had begun hiring troops and mechs by the bushel...GODS ALMIGHTY! These fools had somehow noted the fact that the Demons had just acquired a pair of military dropships and an entire six-ship flight of aerospace fighters, and STILL no one red-flagged the file. What infuriated her worse than the sheer incompetence of the heretical fools at this hypercritical station was that their incompetence had resulted in her piddling away three critical hours after THIRTY-SIX HOURS! She would space them herself! Gunderson had sent his message thirty-six hours before. Thirty-six hours. Hurriedly, she punched up the stations back door link into the Galaport Launch Authority. Sure enough, the Demon dropships were scheduled to launch en masse in just under twenty-three hours; both Demon Jumpships were in-system. There was no way that she could have stopped them on such short notice without an unacceptable breach of Comstars public facade. The failure of this stations ROM group was absolute, complete and utterly unconscionable. Gunderson had taken the extreme step one that he had never before done of exposing himself to send a First Priority message. That, in and of itself would have been cause for a full-on intelligence review: did he not trust the staff at the Consulate any longer? Did the Demons have a mission of such vital importance to the Suns that Gunderson dare not risk a leak? Janesheia Ward swiftly brought up four separate secure-mail templates, and then activated what looked like a desk lamp. A piece of recovered Star League technology, the lamp projected a second keyboard onto her desk. As she did so, her screen split,

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allowing her to see two of the mail templates at a time. Unconsciously, she cracked her knuckles and began to furiously type two completely separate and different messages simultaneously. She needed her counterpart from the Gnomes here on Galatea to get cracking, fast, and find out who was the last potential employer the Demons had spoken too. She also had to notify the ROM section on New Avalon to find out as much as possible on Gunderson and any Demons known to be Suns citizens. She had to notify ROM Headquarters on Terra of this development...and she had to submit a form for the inquest on the idiots in this stations ROM section. There was nothing quite like assassination via email.

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10
February 11, 3021 Airspace Over Valkoburg Sadurni, Duchy of Andurian Free Worlds League Maria Gurierrez snap-rolled her F90 Stingray into a tight reverse-corkscrew, then took a long half-loop up and over to the right. The Cheetah pursuing her never saw it coming, and tried to disengage left by turning into a diving left turn. Maria rolled out of her half-loop, slammed her throttle to its stops, and swooped in behind him. The PPC in her fighters nose spat cyan-colored energy at the Cheetah, slamming her about in her cockpit; the Cheetah's left tailboom dissolved in a fireball, quickly followed by his hydrogen fuel cells detonating. As the aerospace fighter died, its cockpit canopy erupted, throwing its pilot clear on his ejection seat. Good luck, mijo, she thought. She could feel the tears on her cheeks. Jesu Christo, she prayed in her Grandmothers tongue, what am I doing? What have I done?! The Lawyer replied, angrily, You havent done anything but stay true to the League, Little One it said. You were in the right, from the beginning. Was I, she thought questioningly in reply. Then, angrily shutting out all the other Voices except Engine, she eased off on the throttle, and continued her turn, hunting more of her former comrades. Come on, you stupid Capellan cow! Get on the damned dropship!

*~*~*~*

Captain Gabriel Quinn, late of the Sarn Reserves, would have been happy to oblige Lieutenant-Colonel Gutierrez her order, but she had problems of her own at the moment. Dodging most of a flight of long-range missiles fired at near-point blank range, she fired both of her PPCs, then charged the Marik Orion battlemech, swinging her Marauders massive right paw at the League mechs head, as PPC heat washed through her cockpit in waves. The massive paw missed the enemy mechs head, instead crashing against its left shoulder. As she pulled the arm back, part of her mind noted clinically that the Orions LRM launcher assembly cover looked like it had buckled. Excellent, she thought triumphantly. Backing up slightly, she triggered her medium lasers, spearing green energy into the Orions already opened chest. The mech suddenly went limp, as its main gyroscope control assembly melted into slag. Gabriel accelerated her battered Marauder in its reverse course to get away from the League mech in case its reactor overloaded. Off to her left, she spied one final hovertruck, flying a Marik Militia battle flag, racing over the hill to the dropship LZ. She keyed her mic. Defenders! Phased withdrawal! Leapfrog back by lances! If you are 37

separated from your lance, fall back to the reverse military crest on the LZ at best speed and regroup there! Fire Lances! Covering Fire! Kalis eyes, she thought, if my company still HAS lances!

*~*~*~*

Five Hours Ago Former Lieutenant-Colonel Maria Gutierrez, highly decorated aerospace pilot in the Marik Militia considered one of the best, if not the best, pilot in the entire Inner Sphere sat silently in her cell, wondering how she had come to this place in her life. Four hours before, a special court-martial had concluded, sealing her fate. Via an unimaginably-expensive real-time link between the Sadurni Comstar station and Atreus, capitol world of the Free Worlds League, Janos Marik, Captian-General of the League and her ultimate commander, had pronounced her guilty-as-charged of Murder in the First Degree, Mutiny, Aiding and Abetting an Enemy of the State, and Internal Treason against the Duchy of Andurien. The sentence for a serving officer found guilty of any one of those crimes was death by hanging. As she played the events of the last week over in her mind, she couldnt understand what other course shed had to available to take. It had all seemed so logical. Two weeks previously, she had led her aerospace regiment, the Gray Ghosts, down to this world in the Duchy of Andurien. She and her unit loaded onto a rare pair of massive Vengeance-class aerospace fighter-carriers were traveling aboard the FWLS Bucephalus, a giant Monolith-class Jumpship, on a tour for the Marik along the League's border with the Capellan Confederation, a combined show of force for restive elements and a demonstration of power to the Capellans. When the Marik had called her to inform her of the mission personally, nine weeks before, she had jumped at the chance. She had been tied to a desk on Atreus for far too long, not getting nearly enough hours in the cockpit. She had been chomping at the bit, and the Marik knew it. However, as soon as she and her squadrons completed an aerobatics display over Valkoburg and landed, she had sensed something was wrong. She had asked General Andreas Klaus, the planetary garrison commander, what was wrong as they rode in his hover-limo from the spaceport. Oh, it's nothing, he had replied. We had some Capellan refugees land about two months ago. Their leader is a real nutjob wasnt off the boat 10 minutes before she was making all kinds of demands...Not even a Hi! How are you? Sorry for mucking up traffic!...We kept to SOP, Standard Operating Procedure, and tried to quarantine them...Full-scale riot broke out, caused some damage in the Grillanatha District, he said, indicating an area of town off to the north; Maria could see some damage. Where are they now? she had asked. Well, General Klaus had sighed, you know how it gets at times. I had to order my garrison troops to get rather hard-core on them. We got them rounded up and moved

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up into a camp in a box canyon in the mountains. Theyve settled down, at least until I can figure out how to get them off of Sadurni. She had nodded sympathetically, to cover her unease there was something in Klaus manner that disturbed her. Bastard. She should have shot him right then. After the normal pleasantries of a dog-n-pony show, she had retired to her very nice suite in the Hotel Interstellar. A tanned and weathered Corporal had shown her to her suite. Here you are, Maam, he had said. Thank you, Corporal? Hasvari, Maam. Edvard Hasvari. Thank you, Corporal Hasvari. Have a good night. She had turned to enter her rooms, and then stopped. Corporal? she asked, not really having a question. Then, it just blurted out: What really happened with those Capellans? The Corporal looked like the proverbial child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Looking frantically around, he said, Please, Maam, not here! he said in a terrified whisper. Nodding, she took him inside her suite, and closed the door. Alright, Hasvari, out with it. You know that I report to the Marik. The story that Hasvari spilled had shocked her to her core. There was no way that this sort of thing could be going on in Andurien of all places. She had thought. That meant that she had to check it out if Corporal Hasvari was telling her the truth, this could blow up in the Marik's face at a critical time, politically. Two days later, she had commandeered a hovertruck with Corporal Hasvari as her driver on the pretext of getting some air and seeing the sights. The motor pool officer had chuckled as he had her sign out the truck she didn't care if the entire planet thought she was banging herself blue with the good Corporal (God only knew how long it had been, anyway), but she had to check out that camp. Hasvari drover her north of the city, into the mountains then, she knew. Klaus box canyon camp was actually an open-pit copper mine. The Capellan refugees were clearly being used as slave labor to dig. When she confronted the camp commandant, a Lieutenant Four-Trees, he had begged her to please come back with some kind of supplies he had been forced to put the camp on half rations, because his rice supply was down to four days, and General Klaus had pointedly told him to stop pestering him about sending more, fast. The Lieutenants job, he had said menacingly, was to produce ore. Period. How that got done was none of the Generals concern. She distinctly remembered a huge-eyed Capellan child, belly distended with malnourishment. THAT was it, her mind said. She had asked Four-Trees where he was from. He had replied that he was from the Rim Collection...and that this was the kind of thing pirates did, not soldiers. That was what had torn it. Maria was so furious by the time she and Hasvari reached Valkoburg, there was no stopping her. Very rashly, she had confronted Klaus in a public cafe. In the ensuring

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verbal furball, what had sent her over the edge was the fat, lazy bastards snide remark: ...Theyre just grist! Why the hell do you care about some slimy Cappie girfarks? Without another word, she had pulled out her old, reliable Sperry-Browning Tanker, and blown General Klaus brains out. Of course, the MPs had been right there, too shocked at the assassination to prevent it, but not too shocked to arrest her on the spot. Even though Maria had been sure that she would be booted out with no pension, she had never expected to actually be convicted by the Marik. But, as she sat in her cell, she had puzzled it out with the help of The Lawyer. (Maria kept the fact that she willingly anthropomorphized her thoughts into separate personalities a closely guarded secret from everyone.) Klaus had been a diehard supporter of Dame Catherine Humphries, Duchess of Andurien. Despite his flaws, his words carried weight within Andurien, and he had always thrown his political clout behind the Humphries line. There had been rumors as always that Humphries was secretly dabbling in negotiations with either the Capellans or the Periphery barbarians of the Magistracy of Canopus to break away from the League. While Humphries couldnt send the Capellans back, that certainly didnt mean that they needed to be treated well by her...and Klaus could be expected to make Maximillian Liao, ruler of the Confederation, happy by making the defectors lives as miserable as possible. By gunning Klaus down in cold blood, in public, Maria had picked a fight with one of the senior politicians in the League, and with the League still weakened after Anton Mariks rebellion against his brother Janos six years ago, the Marik could not afford to antagonize an already-restive province further. Hence, her conviction and sentence. It was just as she had come to that conclusion that she heard the sound of gunfire and hand grenades outside her cell, and the image of Major Xian, the 15ths commander, outside her cell with an assault team, steam rising from the bodies of the guards...

*~*~*~*

Now Marias radio crackled. Air Boss, this is Defender One! All eggs are in the basket! We need some cover to board! Rog-o, Defender One! Two minutes. Maria swiftly assigned the 30th Squadron who had the most fuel to make a couple of passes over the dropship LZ to cover the Capellan mechs in their withdrawal. Then, she signaled the Big Al and the Genda to launch the tankers. For most aerospace forces, it was a choice between operating totally in space, totally in the atmosphere or burning most of your fuel to cross the interface. Well-equipped aerospace forces, however, had another option. Although the Vengeance-class carriers were rated for forty fighters and four small craft, most of those ships had converted four fighter bays into two extra-large

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small-craft hangers, and carried two small shuttlecraft for recovery, as well as search and rescue operations, leaving four hangers for tankers. The Baluga-class tanker was a little larger than a Karnov VTOL transport. Instead of cargo, it carried enough reaction mass to refuel ten to twelve aerospace fighters. Although it was a dog to fly, it could make the difference between life and death for aerospace pilots nearly out of fuel. Her squadrons not immediately in support of the Capellans had been strafing the Valkoburg downport for over an hour, blowing apart everything they could get a shot at, and keeping the garrisons flyweight Urbanmech's from getting out to support the garrisons heavier mech battalion already in the field. At her signal, the 23rd and 55th squadrons roared out to sea, to a point beyond the shores horizon, to meet up with the descending tankers. After the intricate, hour-long refueling dance was over, she ordered the 23rd and 55th to burn for orbit as the 30th's planes began arriving to refuel; the 30th would escort the tankers out of the atmosphere, while these two squadrons would provide escort to their carriers, allowing the 'top cover' squadrons the 33rd, 98th and 127th to recover aboard the carriers to refuel, as they had been covering the ships during their burn to the planet, and would move into a rotational escort as the little fleet made for the Bucephalus, parked at the system's zenith jump point. The 15th Battalions three Fury-class dropships had already docked with the Bucephalus, each carrying a platoon of infantry to provide extra security, in case any other League military vessels attempted to interfere with their withdrawal from the system...or in case the Bucs crew got cold feet at the last minute. With the Capellans Union-class battlemech transport Virtuous Defender, the three Mule- and one Mammothclass merchant dropships carrying the refugees, they might even be able to make a little coin in their wanderings... Damn, Maria thought, as she pulled her fighter into a bay on the Alois Maier, I hope I've made the right choice.

*~*~*~*

February 12, 3021 Palace of the Captain-General High Park District, Atreus City Atreus, Free Worlds League

The lieutenant bowed slightly at Janos Mariks dismissal and withdrew. The Marik accentuated his stoop and absently stroked the striking Marik Eagle tattooed in the center of his forehead it would not do to have the young lieutenant see his face...most certainly, not the smile that cracked his lips at the Comstar message from Sadurni. Ah, Maria, he thought, you did a fine job, as always. As had Enoch. He needed to remember to do something for their families. Were he able, he would have given the two

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of them medals, titles and lands. Maybe, once that whore is safely dead, he thought viciously, I can even bring them home. But he knew it was an empty hope. He was barely hanging on, as it was he was still unsure of his nephew Duncans loyalty; his eldest son Duggan was entirely too full of himself to wear the tattoo of the Marik Eagle; and Thomas was still nerfing away his life in Comstars ranks. Paul, bless his heart, was too gentle a man for Janos to seriously consider grooming for the Chair he would be eaten alive in the snake pit of the Parliamentary floor. Lovely Little Kristen, the apple of his eye, was out fighting her own demons on Colfax with Langendorfs Lancers; the thought of his favorite daughter in the line of Lyran fire aggravated his ulcer, but he refused to give in to his urge to simply recall her and keep her cloistered away she already hated him for his affair with Bronwen; he didn't need to give her anymore reasons. For a brief instant, he thought of his eldest living child, Therese then discarded that thought, as well. Like Paul, but for different reasons, she was incapable of surviving the daily Parliamentary trench-fight, and he didnt trust her husband generally speaking, he didnt trust anyone who lacked the courage to simply ask for the hand of one of his children, and as Therese was rather naive, Janos had no doubt that Jeremy Brett would cheat on her at some point, and that would shatter her world...and SAFE would be waiting for him Janos would make sure of that. Once more, he thought of Thomas. It might be worth it to buy him back from Comstar. Literally those hypocritical bastards would sell their own mothers, let alone stand on little things like principles. At least Thomas would have had training as an administrator with a truly interstellar view. Hmmmm...Thomas, with Therese as backup? Shed had two children by Brett; if he were out of the way, it would be much easier to make amends with her, and get her children into the succession line. That thought more than any other saddened Janos Marik to his core. Janos knew that he was only marking time, keeping the Captain-Generals Chair warm until the next Marik could take the reins. It was taking all of his political skill to keep the various disparate elements of his fractured state together. He was fully capable of molding the Free Worlds League into the powerhouse state that it had the potential to be, but he needed more resources than he had: he needed more votes in Parliament; he needed more mechs; he needed more Jumpships. But what he really needed, most of all, was breathing room. The League needed a break to rebuild, without the constant threat of war or rebellion at every turn. Hence, that bitch down in Andurien. He knew that whatever clout he would lose with the Militia over Marias court-martial and conviction, once he made sure that SAFE the League's intelligence service got the word out about why Maria Gutierrez had gunned old Andreas Klaus down like the dog that he was, and fled for the Periphery, the damage to Catherine Humphries and her separatist plans for Andurien would make it worthwhile. He had done all he could. That it was so little saddened him immensely, but he knew that Maria, if she survived the battle over Sadurni and he was pretty certain that she would and Enoch Xian were more than capable of doing well for themselves. In his heart of hearts, he swore that if he lived long enough, he would find a way to help them more. For now, though, the two of them would have to do their best with the Vengeance

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carriers and the Monolith he had given them...Marias hatred would mellow, he knew, once Xian passed on his message. Breathing room. He thought of that as he walked back inside his private office. From his chambers, he could hear Bronwen signing in the tub, like a siren calling to him to bed. The thought amused him. The wags even his trusted lieutenant in Parliament, Shane Lefty Eastwick who claimed that she had an unnatural hold over The Marik didnt know how wrong they were Janos knew exactly what Bronwen wanted from her Captain-General, as she knew exactly what he expected from her to get him to satisfy her needs. Synergy was like that. He sat at his desk, gently lifting the glass of peppermint tea to his lips as he reread Takashi Kuritas letter, hand-delivered by the so-called Red Duke himself Duke Hassid Ricol. A tripartite alliance, to counter that of Hanse Davions Federated Suns with Katrina Steiners Lyran Commonwealth? Ally with the Capellans? Janos snorted. Either Kurita was more desperate than Janos had thought, or someone was slipping some seriously bad ouzo into his sake. An alliance, though...Hmmmm. He sipped his tea meditatively. When word had reached him of Steiners ceasefire proposal addressed to the other four Major House leaders he had snorted derisively, but replied as politely as he could muster to decline. Then came the announcement of the Steiner-Davion treaty signed on Terra. Slowly, a plan began to form in The Marik's mind... When Bronwen Rafsani looked in on him two hours later, she recognized the mood, and went to bed the leader of over three hundred worlds had a plan cooking in his mind. That meant she would be in for a long morning. Janos Marik could be one whole hell of a lot younger than he looked when he was on a roll.

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11
February 15, 3021 Zenith Jump Point Sadurni, Duchy of Andurian Free Worlds League

Maria Gurierrez sat at the conference table in the forward gravity deck of the Bucephalus, thinking about the message from The Marik that Enoch Xian had passed to her earlier in the day. The fact that The Marik had been forced to sacrifice her and her regiment for the safety of the League did not bother her overmuch; she had long ago accustomed herself to the idea that she would die likely badly in the service of the Free Worlds League and The Marik, both. The circumstances were what bothered her. Her entire life had been wrapped up in protecting all the states of the League, but the continuous infighting was beginning to get to her Maybe this turn of events was a good thing after all. She looked up, to see Enoch Xian enter the room at the head of three others. Time to get this started, she thought. Following Xian were Gabriel Quinn, Alan Rentaro and Metropolitan Li. At age 45, Quinn was a short, wiry firebrand of a mechwarrior, her Terran-African Zulu heritage giving her a fierce expression. A former Captain and company commander in the Capellan Confederations Sarn Reserves, she had bolted after being thrown in jail by General Pavel Ridzik, Capellan leader Maximillian Liao's chief military advisor, for refusing to fire on the members of a heretical religious sect on the planet of Truth in 3015. She had been released through the actions of Liao's son, Tormano, likely to use as a foil against his fathers loyal lieutenant. What no one apparently realized was that Quinn had converted to the sects doctrines. After her release two years before, she had carefully and quietly converted a company's worth of mechwarriors to her cause, then used them to free the sects survivors from their prison camp on the Capellan world of Principia, a single Jump from Sadurni. Alan Rentaro was fifty-five, and had been a junior machinist in a shop on Prinicipia. When Quinn had staged her raid, several hundred non-sect civilians had fled aboard the dropships to escape the harsh Capellan regime. He was now the elected leader of the non-religious refugees. Metropolitan Li was in his twenties. He was the last surviving original initiate of the Believers in Truth sect. Maria a solid, confirmed Roman Catholic didnt have any opinion one way or another on other peoples wacky religious beliefs, but understood that many states would feel threatened by this new faith, as it rejected traditional secular hierarchies in favor of an odd caste system, one that was very different from Hinduism. Additionally damning, from the Capellan viewpoint, it was based on the Unfinished Book Movement, a pan-denominational movement that had been started in the Federated Suns the Confederations archrival sixty-five years before. Now, the four of them were responsible for almost six thousand civilians and troops.

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Well, Maria began, folding her hands on the table before her. How had things like this been done in the past, she wondered. It wasnt as if there was a manual for this kind of thing. Captain Blakely will be joining us shortly. As you can see, the acceleration couches are capable of seating us through Jump, if necessary. What we need to figure out is exactly what if anything our little group is. Please allow me to review where we are. First, we are all of us, together wanted by two of the major powers of the Inner Sphere. Nods all around the table good. We cannot expect any help from any of their worlds. At the same time, we don't have a great deal of real military strength. The civilians, Rentaro and Li, looked at each other in surprise, and then at Captain Quinn she nodded. Maria continued: We only have seven battlemechs remaining after the fight with the Sadurni garrison, and three of those are nearly junk. Major Xians battalion and my own aerospace squadrons are at full strength, her units had smashed the Sadurni air wing with little trouble and had suffered no losses to ground fire, but what we really need are battlemechs. Now then: while General Klaus had the Capellan refugees in detention she continued. Metropolitan Li cleared his throat. I think, he said in a gentle voice, that the time is past for referring to ourselves as Capellans or Leaguers. Whatever else, we can in no way return to our old lives. I think it is important to emphasize this to all, Defender, Intercessor and Maker, alike. I stand corrected, Metropolitan, Maria said. Careful! warned the Lawyer. This one has a political ax to grind! We will have to figure out what to call ourselves when we get to where Captain Blakely of the Bucephalus entered the room, carrying a steaming bulb of coffee; no one was overly offended that he didnt bring anymore Li and Retaro didn't drink it, and neither Maria nor Enoch had mastered the art of drinking hot liquid from a zero-g cup. Sorry I'm late, he said. Issues reeling in the sail. Maria smiled at him. She had grown quite fond of the bearded, pipe-chewing spacer in their weeks together, sailing the League (he didnt actually smoke, he had confided to her, because of the Bucs sensitive electronics but he thought the pipe made him look dashing). Not a problem, Jim, she said. We were just starting. Her business face came back on. We were about to the point of determining where to go... The Taurian Concordat, via Herotitus, Blakely said definitively. Everyone including Maria looked at him. Blakely shrugged. Under the circumstances, he said, Ill certainly drop everyone off if you want to go elsewhere, but youd be fools and worse to not go to the Taurians. Enoch Xian sat back in his chair, folding his hands across his chest. In his clipped Oriente accent, he said, Im willing to trust you on spec, Jim, but I think its only fair for you to explain your reasoning. Certainly, Blakely said; he sipped his coffee bulb. Were roughly eight jumps from New Vandenburg, if we skirt the Confederation. Were short of food, but it's harvest time on Pilpala, one Jump distant from Sadurni, and we can raid their granaries just enough for supplies that we won't damage the economy overmuch. With the general slaughter and destruction over the two-hundred-plus years of the Succession Wars, and the attendant losses in Jumpships, even military-flagged star vessels occasionally helped

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move commerce-laden dropships. Knowing the harvest and production schedules of worlds was vital to any Jumpship captain. Metropolitan Li looked uncomfortable. I am uneasy with the idea of raiding for food... Beggars cant be choosers, Blakely replied, without ire. Im certainly no pirate, either Mister Li, but I dont see any alternative, as most of your people are already at the point of starvation. Sip. To Maria and Enoch: Now, I checked the logs of the...ah...appropriated dropships; they are, in fact, all of Capellan registry, so the Taurians cant really accuse us of piracy on that score...its neither the refugees nor our military forces fault that Klaus was loading the ships with processed copper billets at the time of the, ah, incident. Sadurni had been a major source of non-arsenical copper since before the days of the Star League, which was one of the reasons the SLDF's Seventh Army was headquartered there. If we raid the Pilpala granaries for food, we can get to Herotitus in five Jumps without anyone starving, Blakely continued. Now, most people think of Herotitus as a vast den of iniquity and it is, trust me but it is also one of the biggest cash-n-carry markets in inhabited space...Well easily find buyers for the copper there and that will get us some spare parts, fuel and maybe some equipment. He nodded to Gabriel Quinn: We might even find some mech-drivers with vehicles that you might be able to hire to flesh out your company. That would increase our market value with the Taurians. Quinn nodded, intrigued by his thought-processes. Three Jumps past Herotitus is New Vandenburg, he continued. This is the reason I keep coming back to the Taurians. They already hate the Inner Sphere with a passion, and will almost certainly forgive the couple of acts of piracy necessary to break us free, especially since we are not merely showing up on their doorstep as destitute refugees, just homeless ones. The Taurians not only have a liberal attitude towards different religions, a nod to Li, but they also maintain the best percapita education system in inhabited space only the very best Inner Sphere schools surpass them, and those schools were modeled on the Taurian system to begin with. Rentaro looked very interested the Confederation used a mostly guild-based system in its civilian education, which worked to tie down people to the careers of their parents. Militarily and economically, he went on, the Taurians have a great need for more merchant and military shipping, and we would be adding a Monolith, three Furies, a Union, three Mules and a Mammoth to their fleet. The kicker for them are going to be the Big Al and the Genda: we have six squadrons of experienced aerospace fighter pilots with aircraft to add to their fleet. The Taurians have never had a strong air wing, and they rely on training teams from the Outworlds Alliance to shore up their fleet air arm. The Outworlds Alliance was another Periphery state, located near the Draconis Combine, but one that relied more on its comparatively vast aerospace armada rather than battlemechs as protection. The Federated Suns and even the Draconis Combine occasionally hired OA flight instructors for their academies. Anyway, Blakely finished, I just cant see any similar combination of factors with any other state in reasonable reach. We need to fit into a state support structure, as we dont have the manpower or industrial base to simply plop down on some uninhabited rock, but at the same time, we need a state that needs what we have. I cant see a better solution.

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The other five at the table looked at each other. Well, said Maria, I cant really see any holes in that plan. I have to admit, its much better than anything I had thought of. Can we all agree on Captain Blakelys plan? There were nods of agreement; last to agree was Li, who, Maria thought, looked like he was learning that the road to Heaven really did lead through Hell...or at least close to it. Alright, then, she said, well need to go and prep our people. To Blakely, Quinn and Xian, O-group in three hours. Nods around the table. And Jim, Ill need you to download whatever you have on the Pilpala system and the layout of the granaries to the taccoms of the dropships, since well need to execute a combat drop as soon as we arrive. Blakely nodded, chewing his pipe. Well, she finished, well all need to go and brief our people. Once we clear the Pilpala system, well have a ships-wide town hall teleconference to start getting our peoples used to each other. As the meeting broke up, Blakely stayed behind. When we clear Pilpala, he said quietly, would you care to join me on the bridge? Maria looked into his eyes. There was no military reason for her to be on the Jumpships bridge during transition beyond military courtesy, and that had been done along with Xian long weeks before. Yes, she said, smiling. I would be delighted.

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12
May 30, 3021 San Jacinto Down-Station New Vandenburg Taurian Concordat

San Jacinto pronounced, juhsyn-toe, instead of the more common Spanish version was a surprisingly large facility to the Demons, none of whom had ever been to a Periphery world like this, before. The Demons general impression of Periphery states, fed by the popular media, was one of absolute barbarism, or at best, a sort of rough-n-tumble, Wild West atmosphere. The image painted for them by Inner Sphere news outlets was one of unrelenting dryness, and brown. If San Jacinto was anything to go by, though, many of the Demons silently considered that this part of the Periphery, at least, might be worth moving too. As they had descended, the Demon's had gazed down on a pleasant-looking, bluegreen world of wide savannah's and cobalt-blue oceans that rubbed against pristine beaches. The downport was located on the rim of a bay that was created eons before by a massive meteor strike. The downport was just on the other side of a range of hills from San Jacinto itself. The only things spoiling the magnificent view were the obvious heavy cannon and PPC emplacements poised to fire down on the port from the surrounding hills; the emplacements were well concealed from the air anyone attempting a drop-raid on the port itself would certainly get down...and would never take off again. As he waited with Silas and the other Demon Senior Staff at the foot of the Alliance for Trisha Peters and Matin Dresher to return with a Taurian Mercenary Liason Team, Gunderson kept foremost in his mind the fact that the vaunted and mighty Star League Defense Forces had twice been bled white, losing tens of thousands of mechs, tanks and troops in a blood-dimmed, twenty year-long assault to conquer the proud Taurians four hundred years before, and then a second time two hundred and fifty years later. The Concordat had been a thorn in the Federated Suns side for centuries, but rumors to the contrary, the Suns generally tried to ignore the Concordat, as they had more important concerns in other regions. That will need to change, Gunderson thought, if those fighters are Taurian. Parked in a protected zone of the landing field a zone, Gunderson noted, tensely that was covered by pretty much every dug-in gun emplacement he could make out, lay an impressive array of dropships of both civilian and military makes. Also parked under the Taurian guns were what looked like forty or so aerospace fighters, as if awaiting a launch order. Trevor, Gunderson remarked, I thought that data file you bought from Comstar said that the Taurians were weak in aerospace support? It did, Sevon replied. Im not sure what to say...I didnt think the Taurians had that many fighters in their entire inventory...

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Theyre League fighters, Sharon Buenaventura said. The Bustamontes was grounded nearby. After three and a half months in space, most of the Demons couldnt wait to get dirtside all six Demon dropships were grounded in a tight formation. Silas nodded in agreement. I recognize the F90s and the Cheetahs, he said, but I dont think Ive ever seen the other two. The squat, fat ones are Baluga tankers, said Captain Alastaire McKellen. The sandy-haired fighter pilot from Caph, veteran of dozens of battles with the Draconis Combine, regarded the grounded fighters with a critical glare from underneath his sunglasses. The other ones, with the delta-winged frames, are Ajax fighter-bombers, he continued, emphasis on bomber; old Free Worlds design. Easy to work on; packs four Martell Mediums in the nose and carries about one thousand to fifteen hundred kilos of dead-fall ordinance or some other package...If they can actually fly, that would be a pretty potent unit. Aerospace fighters, capable of crossing the atmospheric interface and fighting in space as well as an atmosphere were increasingly rare in inhabited space rarer than battlemechs, even, as military-industrial complexes focused on producing the mostcapable design of fighter that they could easily manufacture without the rare materials and fusion drives vital to aerospace craft, like the squat, ugly and highly effective Badgers of the New Vandenburg Home Guard Air Command parked on a nearby ramp. The catch in gearing down concentrating on building atmospheric fighters almost exclusively was that you were left highly vulnerable to any attacker that could deploy aerospace fighters against you. Normally, the ratio of aerospace fighters to battlemechs was 1-to-4 or 1-to-6 -which was fortunate for battlemechs, as most aerospace fighters were as heavily armed as mechs, but moved along at several times the speed of sound. Some mechs, such as the Rifleman and Jagermech, were intended to do nothing but defend against aerospace fighters. Presently, Trisha Peters drove up in a Taurian hoverbus. The vehicle was old, but well maintained. As it settled to the ground, the side hatch opened, and Trisha stepped out; behind her came a man dressed in conservative suit. This is Auditor Third Grade Alan Martinez, she said. Hell be escorting us to the Mercenary Liaison Officer. Martinez smiled affably, and extended his hand to Silas. Its a pleasure to have you all here, he said, simultaneously shaking Silas' hand and nodding to Martin Dresher. Even if you arent working directly for the Concordat, we can hopefully change that after your contract with TMM is concluded. Well, Silas said, speaking for the Demons, were happy to be here, Auditor Martinez. What now? Well head over to the Main Terminal, where Ill introduce you to my boss, Auditor Alois Lonim. He'll brief you fully on Concordat-Professional Soldiery liaisons. Great, lets go, Silas said. As the Demon's officers boarded the hoverbus, Silas and Addy shared a look. In the Inner Sphere, everyone except the Federated Suns treated mercenaries as a necessary evil, at best, and even there, attitudes were a common feature of mercenary relations officers. In the eleven years if the Demon's existence, they had never met a State 'handler' who actually seemed glad to see them. It was...refreshing. And not a little disturbing.

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*~*~*~* The hoverbus grounded at one end of the main terminal building, close to the beach. Trevor unlike the others noted that the hoverbus lifted after dropping them, and proceeded down the line to a public stop, to load passengers for transport to the apron. Interesting, he thought. No one threw that in our face. Very unlike Skye. There were guards at the doors, two separate groups of them. The one group, Trevor pegged as locals they were tanned and lean, and wore a dark shade of khaki for a uniform. The others were paler, and were dressed in a green and black tiger-stripe pattern. All the uniforms were cut to the same pattern, but the men and women in tigerstripes were visibly more alert and switched on, as Paula would have said. Inside the terminal, the impression was of a conventional airport. The Demon officers were led past a sign that read Admiral's Club, and through a non-descript door; its only decoration was a sign that read Support Staff Only. Up a flight of stairs lay an open area with a bank of four offices on the wall to the side facing the rest of the terminal. There were simple tables, chairs and benches arranged in small groups. The Demons noted that there were six guards scattered loosely about the room in such a way that it would be impossible to get all of them in a single burst. A small group of five people sat at a bench pod, as Trevor would have called it, looking at the Demons as they came up the stairs. Meeting them at the top were two men. The taller of the two had the olive-skinned complexion of the local Vandenburgers; he looked to have been an athlete in his youth. He had an easy and sincere smile, and seemed genuinely pleased the Demons had arrived. The shorter man had a pale complexion, and thinning hair. Silas noted that although the man was smiling in welcome, the smile never quite reached his eyes. Possible trouble with this one, he thought. Then he noticed that the man wore gloves. Silas wasnt sure what the weather was like on New Vandenburg through the entire year, but right now, at the San Jacinto downport, it was hot. The gloves instantly pegged him as an intelligence agent in Silas mind only a spy would wear gloves in this heat to avoid leaving fingerprints and minimizing DNA residue. Well, he thought, at least they're reasonably discreet about it. Martinez started to introduce the taller of the two men, but he stepped forward, extending his hand. Hello. I am Alois Lonim Im the Auditor in charge of relations with visiting military units. You must be Colonel Drake? Silas extended his hand, shaking Lonim's firmly. Indeed. Im glad to meet you. I have to say, Auditor Lonim, that this is a very nice world, from what we've seen. We are very favorably impressed. Call me Al, Colonel, Lonim laughed. The Auditor thing is overly formal for me. May I introduce my counterpart, Auditor Jerrod? he said, indicating the shorter man. Jerrod stepped forward and extended his hand. It is a real pleasure, Colonel, Jerrod said, pumping Silas hand with a surprisingly powerful grip. Id like to say that the Concordat is very glad to have you here, and we sincerely hope that once your contract with TMM is done, youll consider staying on. There are plenty of options open to a unit like yours. Ah, well, thank you Auditor Jerrod, Silas said, stalling. This reception was considerably friendlier than any he had expected. Silas realized that he was way off his

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game at the moment, and recognized that that may have been the point of the ebullient welcome. Stealing a glance behind him, he saw that the other Demons were in the same boat. Jerrod turned to Lonim. Ill let you brief them, while I go and keep our other guests from getting worried. He looked at the smaller group, then back at the Demons. I think, Jerrod said to Lonim, that this may just solve our problem, here. Lonim nodded at Jerrods back but he covered it well. Lonim indicated a nearby set of benches. Please have a seat, he said. Well have some drinks brought out, and get started. As sodas and bottled water were served, Lonim said Again, I want to thank you all for making such a long journey. I know how taxing space travel is. As you have undoubtedly heard, the Concordat has been suffering from pirate raids of late. Unfortunately, budget issues limit the number of mercenary units that the Concordat can hire at any given time. As a result, we are rather more free about allowing corporations to hire heavy security a nod to Dresher than most Inner Sphere states. However, as you are a registered mercenary unit, rather than employees of TMM, you still fall under the Professional Soldiery Liaison Office while youre in the Concordat. The rules are pretty simple, since you arent under government contract. You are responsible for the actions of your people; we expect full cooperation from you with the local authorities in the event of any incidents in, ah, entertainment establishments. The specific details of your contract with TMM are between you and they the Concordat government takes no position whatsoever between the two of you. Should a dispute arise, you certainly may pursue legal action in the Concordat Courts, or you may remand the matter to the Mercenary Review Board, as you like, but we would of course take a dim view of vigilante justice. Unfortunately, again as you are not under government contract, you will have to pay retail market prices for supplies, ammunition, spares and berthing, unless you have some other agreement with TMM on those. Government-contract units do get things like discounts and deferred payments, so that would be something to keep in mind after your contract with TMM is complete. Questions? What about medical care? Dr. Maranatha Singh, the Demon's chief medical officer, asked. Ah forgive me for not covering that. Acute injuries requiring immediate trauma care sustained during actual combat against the enemies of the Concordat will be covered by either the local or Concordat governments at no charge, although both agencies reserve the right to request proof that the injuries were sustained in action. Any sort of elective treatment is of course not covered by the government. What about education for families? asked Carintha McDougal, Conner's wife, and head of the Demon's Dependent Group. For the first time, Lonim winced. Im really sorry about this, he said, but while education is available at no fee for Concordat Citizens and their immediate families, foreign nationals have to pay a yearly tuition fee for access. I wish it were different, but that applies to mercenary units, as well, whether they work for the government or not...I should point out, he hastened to add, that any children born on Taurian-claimed worlds he made sure to enunciate the claimed are considered Taurian Citizens automatically.

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Sage nods all around, to cover the shock in fact, this was still a far better deal than the Demons could have expected anywhere in the Inner Sphere, without becoming a House military unit, and surrendering their freedom to a foreign flag, if they could even get that deal. Another man came up the stairs, spied Dresher, and came over to the group. Hey, Mahty! he said, clearly glad to see Dresher, Varunda vhitlaande? he asked. None of the Demons had ever heard the dialect he spoke in. Naade, Joachim. Vhar bistdoo? Dresher replied, pumping the mans hand in reply. Addy studied the newcomer: he was a burly brick of a man, clearly a miner-type. Dresher turned to the Demons. This is Joachim Nevis, everyone. Hes my immediate boss but dont hold that against him. There was polite laughter in reply. I wanted to welcome you all when you landed, but I was delayed in a meeting in San Jacinto. Nevis had a clear and heavy accent to his Star League Standard English the common tongue of inhabited space that none of the Demons could quite place. I wanted you to know that there are things developing on Celentaro, your base-world, much more rapidly than we first thought they would. Im having a full briefing put together for you tomorrow morning, but I wanted to get up here straight away. The short form is that we'll be bringing in educators to set up a school and a full hospital to Port Janine. Youre going in on the ground floor of a full-scale expansion. Really, Joachim? Lonim seemed surprised. I thought that major strike of yours had busted? So had we, Nevis replied almost breathless, but we went down another three meters, and found the vein again. It looks like our dome theory may be correct, after all. In any case, he continued, turning to the Demons, I know you all want to get land legs under you after all that time in space, so I cracked the whip on our local office and rented out a resort for you, the Del Mar Lagoon, just to the north of the port, here, ya? Its out of season, so you can rest for a bit in private, while you make your plans. Our corporate head of security is already on her way up there with a briefing team; youll likely meet her tonight, but she will brief you in the morning. Nevis looked like he was about to rush off, when he got an exasperated look on his face. Where ist my hed? he asked the air; his accent thickened considerably when he was excited. Her name is Vilhelmina Brandt. Im terribly sorry, I'm just very glad that you're here at such a very critical time for TMM. Ill see you in the morning, Colonel, but I have to get back down to Vandenboorg City. Mahty? It good to have you back I can use you in the field... Then, he rushed off. In the somewhat embarrassed silence that followed, Martin Dresher leaned in close and said, mock-sotto voce, And thats why he's gone through four wives... As the chuckles died down, Auditor Jerrod returned. Colonel, ladies and gentlemen? I realize that this may be a bit awkward, as you have come all this way, but I wonder if I might ask for your help in a small matter? Not a little flustered at the turn of events, Silas replied, Well, Auditor Jerrod, at this point, I feel obligated to certainly try. This is all...a bit overwhelming... Jerrod looked to be of two minds for a moment then visibly made up his mind. Changing his posture somewhat, rooting himself in place, he patted Lonim on his upper arm in an almost fatherly way, and said disturbingly, without taking his eyes from Silas

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Its alright, Alois. Ill take it from here. Lonim did not move; instead he seemed to psychologically take a step back, leaving the floor to Jerrod. Uh oh, thought Silas... Colonel, Jerrod began, looking Silas in the eye, let me say that I am honestly, truly pleased that you and your Demons are here. The Concordat is in serious trouble at the moment, as we have too many security issues, not enough troops, not enough ships and not enough money in the budget to cover the gaps. TMM and a number of other corporations have most graciously offered to help out, albeit in a most informal way. But rest assured that I am fully cognizant of what you have been hired to do, and am equally fully prepared to do whatever I can get away with to help you, starting with tomorrow's briefing Wilhelmina Brandt, before she joined Taurus Majoris, was a senior planner on the Concordat's TDF-General Staff on Taurus, and I have done everything I could to get her prepared for you. Your success is of vital importance, not only to the Concordat, but also to many others. So, in the vein of doing all I can, a certain situation arose a week before you arrived in-system that could prove fortuitous to both of us. A group of Free Worlds and Capellan refugees appeared from out in the bled, requesting asylum. By themselves, they are of little use to the Concordat, as they are less than a single mech company in size, but they do possess things that neither you nor we have: a crack battalion of Jump Infantry, and an aerospace regiment, part of which you saw out on the apron. They are completely out of sorts with their situation, since they want to trade service for land, but have little to offer in the way of real security, since they are all offense without mechs, lots of infantry or heavy units, they cant maintain a position and I have been scraping the bottom of my barrel to help them, as they have a large number of civilian refugees with them, many of them in rough enough shape that we got them into hospital. If the Demons would be willing to accept them, I will see to it that the monetary issues are smoothed over with TMM. Whether you choose to pursue a long-term contract or not, you will inherit over seventy aerospace fighters, another company of mechs, and a battalion of Jump Infantry, as well as several dropships and a Jumpship. What do you think? Silas, for the first time since stepping off of the Alliance, now knew exactly where he stood. He returned Jerrods iron gaze with one of his own. Frankly Auditor Jerrod, Im impressed with your honesty and frankness. I had not expected anything approaching this level of trust at such an early juncture. The Demons and I are most grateful to you for your efforts on our behalf. On the matter of the refugees, I would be happy to discuss it with them, but I hold the Demons to a very high standard, and I will not compromise our effectiveness by trying to do a good deed. I value every Demon life, Mister Jerrod, and I will not place those lives in jeopardy by taking in lost puppies and friendly mutts simply to help out an employer. Jerrod smiled with what Silas thought was the first honest smile Jerrod had allowed in a long time. Youd make a helluva Taurian, Colonel...and had I thought you'd say anything else, I would never have approved of your hiring. Come let me introduce you to Lieutenant Colonel Gutierrez.

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13
June 1, 3021, 0915 hours Correa Conference Room Del Mar Lagoon Beach Resort Citrus County, New Vandenburg Taurian Concordat

The Del Mar Lagoon had been in operations under various companies on an off almost from the time of New Vandenburgs original settlement. The resorts current incarnation was rather like a small town, consisting of three separate hotel complexes, with nearly six thousand rooms between them, plus forty cottages and bungalows scattered in the woods off to the north, with swimming pools, tennis courts, gymnasiums, and separate full-size baseball, cricket and football pitches. Del Mar Lagoon was only profitable to operate as a seasonal resort, as the thermal currents in the nearby ocean behaved in complex patterns that resulted in spectacular surfing seasons...but only for about three months out of every fifteen. The rest of the time, the complex was usually empty, unless some group rented it out. The current owners, New Vandenburg Entertainments, Inc., were ecstatic, as the TMM contract came through just days after the Brisbane Investors Cooperative had departed from their biannual meeting, and NVEI didn't have anything scheduled for the next six months, until the new surfing season was scheduled to start. The resort's workforce was delighted as well, as that meant that they didnt have to scrimp through the off-season as they thought they would have to. The fact that TMM had bought a Scale III package meant that they didn't have to worry about tips made them even happier, as mercenary and military units were notoriously stingy on tips. One of Del Mars primary selling points for business conferences, however, was the venues extensive conference facilities. The meanest of the resorts conference rooms had full audio-visual suites in tri-d. It was for that reason, as well as the fact that the buildings were all built of native New Vandenburg Dolorite, which made them virtually impervious to scanners; once conference rooms were swept, they were functionally secure. Wilhelmina Willie Brandt sat at her portable and sipped her coffee, with her back to the wall. Today would start her briefing of the Demons. Briefing mercenaries was always touchy for her, but she had the impression that the Demons were different, having a large number of recent regular-service people in their ranks. When the Demons had landed two days before, she had been ready with a plan based on their numbers as supplied by Jerrod. When Jerrod had called her that night to tell her that the Demon force would now include nearly three hundred Jump Infantry and seventy-plus aerospace fighters, she had made the decision to delay for twenty-four standard hours to readjust her plans. Jerrod had not been happy about the delay, but she had learned to deal with him on Taurus explain your issue patiently, and he usually listened, unlike most bureaucrats. She had carefully prepared this assault plan over the past three years using the best intelligence Oolahn Jerrods Red Phrygians could supply her. The plan was scalable, 54

calling for a three-regiment mech corps, supported by three full armor and infantry regiments, in it's maximum effort format, and going as low as a single mech regiment with single battalions of support troops. What she had never factored, though, was an equal trio of reinforced battalions of mechs, armor and infantry. Because of the paucity of Taurian aerospace assets, she had never planned on more than a single division of eighteen fighters, and usually no more than six. Supported by a fleet air arm of over seventy fighters? Plus space-marine units? That was a pretty complex operation if all of those assets were used at once, one that hadnt been done by the TDF Navy or practically any other interstellar polity's navy, for that matter in over a hundred years. This would be an important milestone for the Concordat if the Demons could pull it off...and the Demons had some advantages that the more conventional TDF did not have Presently, the Demon officers began filing into the room. Willie took another sip of her coffee to cover her surprise, as nearly eighty people entered, looking for seats at the U-shaped arrangement of tables. Good Lord, she thought in shock. This is just like a full staff brief! They must have brought every officer in their command. Most mercenary units she was accustomed to dealing with, even long-term contract units like Bannockburns Bandits, would have brought in no more than the company commanders; the Demon's, on the other had, looked like they were rolling in with most of their command staff from most of their units (even their spacers!), just like a Regular Army command would have done. Setting her coffee down, she swiftly dialed the resorts convention coordinators number; when the manager on duty answered, she told her to immediately increase the seating in the room for one hundred people, and to increase the refreshment table. The manager, alarmed at what she thought was a failure of the convention staff, swore profusely that she would handle it herself...Willie didnt bother with that, disconnecting the poor woman in mid-sentence. Colonel Drake, she said in a slightly raised voice, I sincerely apologize, but I didnt realize that you were bringing in your full staff. The hotel will be bringing additional seating and refreshments shortly. Please, she finished, indicating a seat in the center of the bottom of the U, if you would like to take your seat, we'll get underway in just a moment. Silas chuckled. No problem, Comptroller, he said. Well manage. Whenever you're ready, he said, sitting. Although she smiled politely quite impressed that Drake referred to her by her correct rank (she was still active in the TDF's floating officer reserve, and most spheroids found Taurian ranks confusing) Willie fumed internally. The briefing hadn't even started, and she was already on the defensive. She spied one of her young TMM intern-aides, and motioned her over. Patty, she said quietly, with a clench-jawed smile, when I ask you to keep an eye out for something, that means that I want one of you to let me know if anything odd is happening. Keep smiling and nodding youre not in trouble, because youre all very new, and I should have been more specific with my instructions. Help the house staff get the seating fixed, and make sure that the manager knows that her convention staff didn't drop the ball, but that I did...I mean it! Shell can those people for no reason if you dont make it right.

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Y-yes, maam - uh, Comp-uh maam...I am so sorry! the poor girl squeaked as she jumped off to rush out the door. Willie sighed, for a moment wishing for her old staff on Taurus Battalion Chief-Sergeant Masterson might have been annoying as hell, but he could run any office in inhabited space with an iron hand, and make his staff love him for it. After five minutes that seemed like an eternity, the hotel staff arrived and swiftly and professionally rearranged the seating, placing an extra bank of chairs behind each arm of the U, and two extra banks behind the foot and all, she noted, set in a very professional herring-bone pattern, off-set to the row in front. Willie motioned the manager over, told her that she really appreciated her staff's efforts in covering Willie's flub, and told her that there would be a bonus as long as no one was sent home. From the look on poor Pattys face, she had completely forgotten to pass the word to the manager. Willie hoped that her smile was reassuring. Well, she said, stepping to her lectern and activating the tri-d projector to warm it up, as the hotel staff retreated from the room. Once again, apologies for the seating snafu. Demon guards and her own TMM security specialists took up positions in the hallway outside. Distantly, as the doors closed, Willie could hear the sound of a party starting on the beach. The Demons dependants and other ranks had plenty of cause to celebrate, she thought. Could she use that? Firstly, I want to thank all of you again for journeying to the Concordat. I know that many people have welcomed you here, and I hope that all of you understand that we sincerely mean it do a good job for the Concordat, and the Concordat will recognize it. Willie activated a control on her console, calling up a slideshow of historical images. In the latter stages of the so-called Reunification War, she began, "sometime in the 2580s, the Federated Suns 237th Light Cavalry Regiment actually a combinedarms brigade was virtually wiped out in a very ill-advised penetration raid against the Hyades Cluster. Rather than continue with a suicide mission, the survivors of the 237th took off into the bled. They would form the core of what would become the Tortuga Pirates. In the centuries since, it seems that they tried to set up a colony, but with refugees fleeing the Inner Sphere, and with the general breakdown in control as the Succession Wars ground on, the Tortugans were not completely certain when they adopted that name began pirate raids around this end of the Inner Sphere. Mostly, at least in the early days, they seem to have concentrated on the Suns, but quickly found that raiding the Concordat and the Outworlds Alliance was easier than trying to raid the Suns or the Combine. Unfortunately, intelligence on the Tortuga Dominions is very sketchy. There are no good star charts of the area, and no planetary scans that we have been able to uncover. The various ship captains looked at each other, but she noted that one of them, with a trim, white beard, seemed to have a bemused look on his face. What was that about, she wondered. Continuing: As a result, we have had to make preliminary plans based on the sketchy data we have, as supplemented by interviews with ransomed captives. I wish we had more, but this is the best set of mission plans that we could come up with, given the limited information.

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The tri-d shifted, projecting a schematic image of a solar system. An ambercolored sigil appeared on the system's ecliptic plane and began to pulse in time with one of the system worlds, which was pulsing in red. This is the only scan of the Tortuga Prime system that we have been able to obtain, she said. This was recovered from a pirate dropship that crashed in the Suns two years ago. As you can see, the planet is in the third position in-system, making a normal zenith transit time about ten days long. The plan we have developed calls for Jump insertion to a pirate point here, at the amber-colored point White-beard cleared his throat. Yes? she asked primly; Willie Brandt did not like being interrupted. White-beard stood. From his uniform and stance, she pegged him as a Jumpship captain. Apologies, Comptroller, he said. I am Captain Vincent Edwards, of the Raven. I realize that youve worked very hard on this plan for a long time, but your plan wont work. In fact, as its set up right now, its suicide. Well, Brandt said, not a little exasperated, would you care to enlighten us as to how you know this, Captain? Certainly, he said, a small grin on his face. You see, I used to ship with the Bretheren of the Spacelanes I am a Tortugan pirate... *~*~*~* In the shocked silence that followed, Wilhelmina Brandt would confide to herself later, had she been armed right then, she would have shot Vincent Edwards on the spot. Instead she said, in a murderously low tone, That requires some explanation...Captain. For the first time since she had seen him, Edwards' face lost its smirk. Seventeen years ago, he said, my ship was seized by Tortugan corsairs while we were charging in an uninhabited system in the Outworlds Alliance. When pirates take a ship, they assemble the survivors and divide them into three groups: crews and military people, nobles and wealthy businesspeople, and everyone else. The crews and the military personnel who can't be ransomed are given the option to join the merry band; anyone who refuses to join gets a date with an airlock...with no spacesuit. Why? she asked. Edwards shrugged. Crew and military personnel make lousy slaves, and are more likely to organize a revolt. The nobles and rich folks can be ransomed. The other poor bastards get sold as slaves. You want to smash the Tortugans? Fine I'm all for it. I have a seventeen-year-old debt to pay, and this is the last chance I'll likely ever get to see it put paid, he finished, voice cracking only at the very end. He looked at the floor and took a deep breath to compose himself. Then, turning to his seat, he retrieved a small briefcase. Looking up at her, she saw that the rogue had returned but with a harder edge in the eyes. May I borrow your lectern, Comptroller? Willie Brandt looked at him for a long moment, then stepped away from the podium and walked to a place next to Colonel Drake's left shoulder, as Edwards stepped to he podium, carrying what looked like a tiny portable computer. Lieutenant Colonel McDougal, Drakes Number 3, scooted her chair aside, as Patty quickly appeared with an extra chair. You have quite a very eclectic group, Colonel, she said, neutrally, as Edwards began typing furiously.

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A bit more eclectic than I had realized, Drake replied. She followed his look: Major Wilson, the Demons Beta Company commander, had a helpless look on his face. Dont look at me, he shrugged quietly. He told me he was from a world in the Commonwealth. I am from the Commonwealth, David, Edwards said without looking up, Bajanica, to be precise. Thats a farm world, Drake said, an implied question in his voice, as Edwards continued typing; a small, black programming dialog box had appeared in the now-frozen holoprojection, white-colored characters cascading through the screen faster than the eye could follow. Yep, Edwards replied, it certainly is. Once youve had a mule fart in your face enough times, youd be ready to clean zero-g toilets with a toothbrush, too, he said to general laughter; even Willie had to admit the humor. Vince, Lieutenant Colonel Gunderson asked, is that a double-deuce? Willie noted that Gunderson was one of the few not laughing. Interesting, she thought. Good catch, Colonel, Edwards said. Most people wouldnt have caught that. I picked his little jewel up in the Oberon Confederacy, oh, probably eight years ago. It came with an instruction manual, so learning it didn't take any time at all... Drake looked at his second-in-command. Double-Deuce? he asked. Lostech, Gunderson replied. Lostech was the general term for working material dating from the fallen Star League. Its a hyper fast portable computer used by Star League officials. It doesnt work according to conventional computing standards Because its based on two-layered ten-key code entries, Edwards finished, looking up to check his work. The holoimage reduced to a small point in the tank, and then was replaced by a completely new image. Where the original image had showed a fairly conventional-looking system, this image was radically different and if the oddly shaped construct in the center of the system was what Wille thought it was, then she would be willing to forgive Edwards pretty much anything. The other Jumpship and dropship captains all leaned forward...Willie could see from the grim looks on their faces that they saw it, too. The original image, he began, was New Port Royal, the jewel of the Dominions not that that's saying a lot. Many prisoners brought into the Dominions, and especially ransomeable people, usually get dropped off on one of the lesser worlds. That way, they never get a good look at Tortuga itself. Why? Johannes Drake asked. Anyone who can be ransomed is likely to have a better education than someone who cant come up with the money, Gunderson said distantly, as he gazed at the holoimage. I wonder where he learned that, Willie thought. Typing a second image appeared, showing a schematic near-star chart of six systems; one system was highlighted in red, near the center of the group, the others in blue. There are six habitable worlds in the Tortuga Dominions, Edwards said. My understanding is that New Port Royal was actually the first settlement, but thats likely hearsay. Tortuga, here, has the most extensive settlement; the other worlds contain little more than slave-operated farms and fisheries to feed Raiders Roost. The Tortugan system itself is almost bulletproof, he continued. This structure in the center of the system is a massive asteroid field, similar in structure to the Hildas

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Group Standard in formation, but far larger and denser. Willie could hear uncomfortable shifting in the silence around her. An asteroid field that large was unheard of, and insanely dangerous to try and navigate you didnt have to be a spacer to know that. The system primary is a main-sequence star very similar to Terra-Standard, Edwards said. The field is roughly one to two AUs wide at any given point, running roughly from the six-AU marker to the eighth, and it extends to cover the nadir Jump Point. The zenith point is only open over an area approximately one AU in diameter. The spacers all began to whisper. Yes, Edwards said, cutting them off, you have to use fifteen-digit coordinates to get in the norm was five or six digits the advantage here is that any pirate vessels will be close by, and relatively easy to board. A nod to two hard-looking men space-marines? Willie thought. She should have taken more time for introductions. Youll need to be careful, though, as a good portion of any crew you find might be newlies, who will want to surrender the instant you board. Nods of agreement. Another thing to remember is that there will be two or three Jumpships parked there, being cannibalized for parts; one or two may still have sails deployed, and be acting as recharge stations. That would allow for a fast recharge for any ship needing to escape, Willie thought. Damn, but this was getting harder by the second. She was increasingly thankful that Edwards was here otherwise, any attack she would have led would have resulted in a slaughter. Hers. This is why Tortuga has lasted as long as it has, Edwards went on. Its virtually impossible to get into the system undetected, and you cant use pirate points, since they all appear inside the asteroid field. What about the planet? Gunderson asked. Weirdest hunk of rock Ive ever laid eyes on, Colonel Edwards said. Creepydifferent. The world is knocked over on its side, see? Typing the system schematic and the star chart retreated to the upper corners of the holoimage, replaced by the strangest planet anyone in the room had ever seen. When you get off the ship, Edwards said, your compasses will still show North, but North is always where the sun is it never sets. One of the rotational poles is locked to face the star, the other to space. The equatorial zone, about three hundred kilometers wide, is the only habitable region, and really only the center one hundred kilometers can be described as pleasant. Raiders Roost is located here inside this band, closer to the sun-side, just over the escarpment leading down to The River. Does the river have a name? asked a swarthy, bearded officer. Willie thought he looked to be a Sikh. No, Edwards replied, its just The River because it runs the entire girth of the equator, in a more or less straight line. Size of the pirate camp? asked a lean officer in an odd, clipped accent; he was dressed in a Marik uniform showing a jump-troop badge as its only decoration. Camp is the wrong term, Major. More like small town. The Roost is a cluster of adobe buildings, with a few like the Fort built of native stone. The only ferrocrete that I saw when I was there was downriver that being west for you at the downport. Where do they get their power? asked a man in a tech uniform.

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Mostly solar, Edwards replied. They set up these massive collector arrays on the sun-side, since the sun never sets, and once you go twenty or thirty kilometers in, the sun is high enough to draw down some serious power... Our intelligence says that the garrison is two mech companies, total, Willie said, making it a question. Probably a fair guess, Edwards replied. But thats what's on duty...which usually means, sitting in a ready-room inside the mech barn, trying not to stay drunk for their entire shift. I would guess maybe two battalions, total, in something approaching working order, but I'd be very surprised if more than four companies could deploy at any time. There will be maybe a company or two, total, out on raids at any given moment. What type of mechs? asked the back-skinned Epsilon Company commander. Where was her accent from, Willie thought. Sian? What a collection! This was more of a kaleidoscope than any other merc unit she had seen. It looked as if the Demons had people from every Successor State. She made a mental not to pass that on to Jerrod plans swirled in her mind. Mostly lights, Edwards said. At least, thats the way it was seven years ago, when I left, he said. The Tortugans prefer humanoid mechs with hands over the birdlike ones makes grabbing loot easier. What kind of resistance are we looking at inside the city? asked a sallow-faced man in the second row at the foot of the U, one behind and three to Willie's right. Was that an infantry uniform? Hard to say, Edwards said. There are likely going to be more than a few AClass Groups present on-planet, he said, and likely several dozen B- and C-Groups, at the very least, as wellCall it a couple of thousand light infantry in total. Whats the difference? asked the short, balding man sitting next to Gunderson. Willie thought that his name was Botkin. Edwards looked blankly for a moment. Then: Sorry that was Torugan-Speak. Tortugan commandos are classified as A, B or C Groups. The Cs are what everyone sees on a pirate raid: piercings everywhere, weird haircuts, body armor made from junk, and crazier than bedbugs. Those are the newbies basically, cannon fodder. Most of them dont last very long; the ones that do, get promoted to B-Class. B-Groups have all been on a couple of raids, and are mostly considered trustworthy. Theyre given better weapons, more training, more complicated things to do, and get a bigger slice of the loot. A-Groups are the elite. They get the best gear that can be made available to them, and the best training. Any given A-Group has been together for a while, several years, at the very least. No one gets assigned to an A-Group; they choose their own. Those groups are the equals of a lot of spheroid intelligence agency commandos. Willie perked up spheroid was a derogatory term used by Periphery natives to describe the Inner Sphere. More interesting, still. How are they deployed? asked the Sikh. Edwards stroked his beard in thought. Then: That gets into how a raid gets organized. Lets see. There are information brokers who buy information either from spies directly, or from the local merchant factors with contacts on the target planet. Some minor chieftain with an itch to go a viking buys a detailed information packet, then

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starts recruiting a Jumpship and dropship crew, as well as a few A, B and C teams, some mech-drivers and maybe some aerospace pilots... Wait, Willie said. Merchant factors? Edwards looked at her like she was crazy. You dont think that they just sit on their loot, do you? What good is five thousand metric tons of raw germanium ore if you cant get cash for it? Look, I know this is hard to take, and all, but you need to realize that an awful lot of independent Jumpship captains in this part of space know how to get to Tortuga, as well as most intelligence agencies, including the MIIO and the ISF, he said, referring to the Federated Suns intelligence service and the Draconis Combine's dreaded Internal Security Force. A lot of independent merchants can get there, too, and have offices in the Roost. It lets them buy cargo that they can sell anywhere at a staggering profit, since the bribes are cheaper than most places port and licensing fees, and the spheroid governments dont ask questions if the materials have any strategic value, or if a little grease appears in the portmasters hands. Aghast, Willie and the Demon officers looked at the other spacers, all of whom were intently studying their boots, especially the Jumpship captains. Recovering first, Lieutenant Colonel Gutierrez asked What about aerospace assets? Depends on who is there Edwards said. Could be a single squadron, could be upwards of two hundred fighters. To the gasps of astonishment, How do you think they are able to raid shipping? he asked. Its not as if they have Warships, or combat dropships. They use combat-boarding shuttles, but thats all. Im afraid that pretty well exhausts what I know, he said. Youll need to do the rest...

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14
December 23, 3021 Combat Transport Bucephalus Uncharted System One Jump Out From Tortuga The Far Periphery

It had been a long, grueling series of jumps, but the Taurian squadron had finally reached its last staging point. One more Jump, and they would be inside the pirate stronghold. The weeks following the meeting at the Del Mar Lagoon had been hectic. The Demon dependents had jumped twice more, to Celentaro, where they would be protected under the guns of TMMs security forces and the TDFs Third Corps, as two battalions of the Pleiades Hussars were based on Celentaro, waiting for an attack by the Federated Suns that never came. The combat units had been joined by reinforcements. Jerrod and Brandt had been cramming overtime, trying desperately to get more support for the Demons, as they had less than a thousand infantry-trained troops to control upwards of thirty thousand pirates, on the low end. Both Jerrod and Brandt had been bitterly disappointed when the only forces they could sneak to the Demons from under the nose of the paranoid Protector were a light infantry battalion of gentleman volunteers basically a kind of militia club from New Vandenburgs Home Guard carried aboard four Mule-class dropships owned by TMM; a single forty-person platoon recruited from discharging veterans of the TDF's Special Asteroid Support Force, a group of elite zero-g-trained commando's that manned combat stations guarding the approaches through the asteroid field surrounding Taurus itself; and a single company of mechs. They were carried aboard the TMM Jumpship OLearys Luck, along with two of the GV Mules; the other two were docked with the Bucephalus. That company of mechs, however, was from the Taurian Lancers, and was led by the regimental commander, Colonel Victoria Norman. Officially, the entire company was on leave to their home worlds or on TAD (temporarily assigned duty) to various service schools within the TDF, and their Union-class dropship, the Samanthas Tears, was officially undergoing a rebuild of is engines on Sterope. Victoria would gladly have resigned her commission to be on this raid, and had told Jerrod as much. This was payback for a hundred raids in as many years on Concordat worlds, and she meant to burn them down to the root. Jerrod had been so seethingly angry at the restrictions he had to work under, to simply get something done, Willie Brandt was honestly not sure of what they would find when they returned. She was half-certain that Jerrod might kill the Protector. Jerrod had gotten her very quietly reactivated for this mission; technically, she was teaching a class on Sterope, far from the Hyades Cluster. Aboard all four Jumpships, the Demon Marine units made their own final preparations. Combat boarding missions in space were fairly described as fighting in

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zero-g, in vacuum, inside a nuclear reactor. Not having any idea what they would find when they appeared in-system, the boarders broke down into 10-person teams. Originally composed of a single platoon of thirty-two M3Cs (Marik Militia Marine Corps) assigned as the MARDET (Marine Detachment) aboard the Bucephalus, the Marine unit had expanded steadily, first picking up the non-mech security detail from the Defenders of Truth and training them heavily during the long journey from Pilpala; eventually, they merged the two units, forming a short, or under-strength company. When the ex-Taurian commandos joined the Demon's, they had rapidly trained up to the M3C standard, as they were already well versed in zero-g combat. Captain John Paul Van Zandt, late of the M3C, decided against integrating the Taurians with the other two platoons, as they were about to go into combat, and all the units would need as much cohesion as they could muster. They could reintegrate after they counted up the butcher's bill. The best plan Van Zandt could come up with was to have his assault teams loaded aboard their assault boats when they Jumped, then immediately launch on arrival, and race for the nearest pirate vessels. This was very new for Van Zandt; most intercepts were either grabbing dropships in orbit or in transit. He had trained to storm a Jumpship, but neither he nor his now-first sergeant, Steven OHalloran, had ever actually stormed a faster-than-light ship. Timing was critical, as they had to suppress Jumpship bridges before they could transmit a warning to the planet... In another part of the Bucephalus, Enoch Xian sat in a huddle with his battalion officers and the Fury pilots, plotting the best practices for when they hit the ground. Their mood was grim; the problem for them was also that they were hitting dirt completely blind once in-system, there was no time for recon flights. All they had to go on were Vincent Edwards schematic map of the downport, drawn from seven-years-out-of-date memories. The damn thing was huge, nearly fifty square kilometers, as it handled both tail-landing dropships like the Unions and aerodynes like the battalion's Furys, as well as conventional and aerospace fighters, including hangers, revetments, ammunition and fuel bunkers. Best, Xian told his staff, to try for one circling pass over the field, then drop from five thousand meters; that would give platoon and company commanders time to adjust targets during the drop, trading more 'hang time' in the air for trying to advance across an open runway. Lt. Delva Benton, the senior Fury pilot, emphasized the need to drop as close to the mech barn marked on Edwards map as possible, in order to secure that zone so that the Furys could drop Delta Companys Swamp Rat hovercars. The three infantry commanders nodded eagerly jump troops were extremely lightly armed, and the Swamp Rats Gatling cannons would be vital to securing their perimeter... Aboard the Big Al, Maria Gutierrez and her squadron commanders made a straightforward plan. The 23rd and 127th squadrons would keep their Cheetahs with the Jumpship squadron, along with all but two of the 98th Attack's Ajax bombers, which two would ride down on the ex-Capellan Union-class Virtuous Defender. Once down to the planet, the Big Al would launch the entirety of the 30th, 33rd and 55th squadrons to engage targets of opportunity over Raiders Roost. Ian McKellen's 222nd group of six fighters would remain over the Unions drop-zone to provide close support to the

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vulnerable dropships. The Gendas tankers would fly down on coast, arriving late to relieve the Big Als tankers... Aboard the Raven, Trisha Peters and Ranjit Singh, along with the armor and conventional infantry and support commanders were dealing with an even more difficult issue. There is a saying that speed is life, and this was even more true when dealing with planetary assaults. The problem for Trisha and Ranjit lay in that their transports, the Demons three Excalibur-class ships, were not designed for combat-offload. Once down, they would spend a terrifyingly long time getting the vehicles unloaded. Their only advantage lay in that the Demons had virtually no strictly leg infantry every Demon squad had at least some form of motorized transport leaving only the Taurian GVs to walk. Working with the Demon Excalibur and Taurian Mule captains, Trisha and Ranjit decided on the least bad approach: they chose a DZ (drop zone) downriver of Raider's Roost and the spaceport, but upriver from the slave camp, banking on that allowing them more time to unload unmolested, and placing the non-hovercraft units in a position to either advance on the spaceport or to the slave camp. The Saladin and Scimitar hovertank and Merlon-mounted infantry companies, being hover vehicles, would be able to run up the river, and come off of the water on the mech commands right flank. The Taurian GVs, being on foot, were given the task of either riding up with the hover and tracked APCs, or advancing on the slave pens to back up the last of the non-mech units... Unlike the other units, Stephen Donaldson and Shantal Buslers Commando Troop already had their drop-plans made. It had taken all of two minutes: the two of them had studied the schematic map briefly, looked at each other for a moment, and agreed on their attack plan. Their twenty-five-person team would make a HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening) drop from the Demons pair of Mark VII shuttles, jumping from fifteen thousand meters, and would land in two groups. Donaldsons group would assault the circular slave compound to the north, were Edwards said the slaves were kept while working in the hydroponics facilities and the rock-yards, then would use their three snipers to cover a four-man strike force that would assault the guards barracks outside the slave compound; Buslers team, meanwhile, would drop directly onto the hydroponics facilities, eliminate resistance there, then sweep up to the rock-yards, if possible. For both teams, there was little leeway if anything went wrong, their only option was to hold until the Taurian GVs could arrive... In comparison, the battlemech commands plan was simplicity in itself. They would drop from their Unions onto the plain to the east of the spaceport, facing the walls of Raiders Roost with their right flank anchored on the river, and hold until either the port was secure, or until the pirate mech force came after them. The overall plan would have whatever infantry and armor assets available after the initial drop rendezvousing with the mechs to push into Raiders Roost itself...

*~*~*~*

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...Little of which mattered overmuch to Chief Petty Officer Hieronimous Charlemagne Jackson. Known as Charley to his friends, He-ROW! to his detractors, and as Chief Petty Officer Jackson to Commodore Blakely and those Free Worlds spacers who knew that their lives depended on him, Jackson cared for little beyond his sensor systems. Jacksons sole job aboard the Bucephalus was to watch the Omni-Scan system. Developed during the heyday of the Star League, the Omni-Scan watched the 360 space around a Jumpship in real-time, showing any sort of unusual, sudden movement...like incoming comets, meteors, missiles or fighters. An extremely complex system, it was now usually found exclusively on military-flagged vessels. Technicians who knew how to operate the system were just as rare and just as valued. However, Jackson had worked with the Omni-Scan system long enough to learn one of its most important secrets, a secret he never revealed to any trainee who was not mature enough to handle it in the present-day, the Omni-Scans Tracker function was only useful in the near-space around a Jump Point. After the first two hours following translation from Jump, the system basically knew the position and course-track of every moving object within five AUsbut was virtually useless from a tactical standpoint anything farther away than two astronomical units might as well have been on the far side of the galaxy, for all that anyone could do about it. Jackson manned his post in four-hour shifts, trading with his three trainees. This shift, he had segmented his observations between watching the screens and the OmniScans other feature that made it an immensely valuable asset: its Survey function. The Survey feature ran the collected telemetry data through a battery of sensory and analysis equipment to glean radiometric and spectral data on space itself and the bodies that floated through it. Previous to the incident at Sadurni, Jackson had collected data in every system the Bucephalus had passed through, and periodically passed it on to a friend of a friend in SAFEs Data Archives Division, making for a tidy side income. Since Sadurni, he had been collecting data in a bevy of systems that Free Worlds ships had not visited in generations...and the Omni-Scans Survey function had begun to note something very interesting: the increasing presence of Urushan Ore. Urushan Ore had been discovered near the end of the Star League, but little work had been done on the ore in the centuries since because of the general destruction of the Succession Wars. The ore had few uses, since it dissociated under heat stress, but its one noteworthy characteristic was that it either stopped or deflected neutrino waves... ...And Jackson had spent the last three days in this system carefully scanning a stunning, double-ringed Jovian on the edge of the outer system whose rings appeared to be composed of Urushan. That, in and of itself, would have guaranteed an article in any number of astrography periodicals. But that was not why Hieronimous Jackson was devoting an increasing amount of time to the double-ringed giant. There was a ship hiding in between the rings. He had been awake for over thirty hours, rechecking the scans from his quarters, to be absolutely sure. Whatever it was, the ship was stone cold dead in space. Without the Omni-Scan, he would never have spotted it. It was at least as large as a Star Lord-class ship, and it was parked in a geo-synced orbit. Whatever it was, it had been there for a while. He needed to report to the Commodore.

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As soon as his relief arrived, he made his way into officer country, and found Commodore Blakely in his office-quarters. Blakely was in his space-jumper, pouring over Edwards' system schematic. He looked up. Yes, Chief? Sir...I found something... Blakely stopped what he was doing, and gave Jackson his full attention. Ive spotted what I think is a derelict vessel in the ring array of the double-ringed planet in the outer system, Sir. Its at least the size of a Star Lord... Okay, Blakely said slowly, is it active? I dont think so, Sir. Its dead cold. I doubt Id have spotted it without the Omni. Blakely nodded, as if to himself. You haven't told anyone else? No, Sir. Dont. Secure your files separate from the main system, and keep them with you. We cant investigate it right now, but after this little operation is over, well come back and check it out. Good job, Chief, he finished, dismissing Jackson. Sir, Jackson said. Time to grab some sleep before going into action, he thought, heading for the crew area...then he changed direction, heading back to the bridge. He would pull the scan-logs onto a flash-core drive before he racked out. *~*~*~* The final meeting in the flag briefing room of the Bucephalus was a standard form in both the Free Worlds and Federated Suns fleets. It was to make sure that every unit commander understood the S.T.O.M.P. the Ship To Objective Maneuver Plan. It covered the actions of every Jumpship and dropship in the fleet, and ensured that all subunits understood where everyone else was going to be, and what those units were supposed to be doing. Should anyone spacer, flyer or mudder see something out of the ordinary, they were to report it to their next level instantly. Alright, everyone, Silas said, I think that will wrap it. Theres not really any more planning to do we just need to get it done. Return to your commands, get them rigged for the Jump, and well reconvene in Raiders Roost. Commodore Blakely? Jump will be in T-minus three hours, Blakely said. All personnel not in acceleration couches need to be firmly strapped in. Good luck, all. As the meeting broke up, Silas, Blakely and Gunderson all met at the table. Just so were clear, Blakely said, if it falls apart, I should be able to hold the zenith point against any other incoming pirates, so if you can get to the dropships and boost, you'll have a ride home. Nods; having someone hold the door was always a good thing. *~*~*~* Over the next three hours, everyone aboard the ships of the fleet checked and rechecked their gear. Finally, the last sail was reeled in, the last bit of gear rechecked and stowed. All was ready. From his command chair in the Bucephalus flag bridge, James Blakely saw the Ravens icon turn green. He acknowledged Edwards signal, then pressed his command

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push. All units, secure for jump. Jump in sixty seconds. He adjusted the straps on his space armor, wondering only briefly at the missing Free Worlds Navy patches... The count continued. Presently, his navigation officer began counting, ...Ten, nine, eight, seven... One Jump Haze Clear The bridge woke up. Blakely twisted his chair slightly, to get a glimpse of CPO Jackson he was immersed in the Omni-Scan. After thirty seconds that lasted for an eternity, Jackson snapped out Eleven targets! All with sails deployed! One hundred-K radius, minus 20K relative! Damn they were one team short. One damn team. Bosun!, Blakely barked, cast off all boats! MARDET Commander! Boarders Away! Landing Force Commander land the Landing Force! Sparks! Get me comm-1-2-7! A chorus of Aye-Ayes! Gentle thumps, as shuttles and boats launched. Heavier thuds as dropships severed electromagnetic clamps and pushed away from their Jumpships hulls on attitude thrusters. On his screen, dropships pulled away from the slender spines of the Jumpships like grains of wheat falling from a stalk, and fighters and assault boats screamed away from their bays, quickly accelerating to over four gs. Eyes still on the screen, he said, Squawker? Sir? said Lt. Danika Ellison, his electronic warfare officer. Nothing, yet... White them out. Sir! Danika turned back to her console, a sadistic grin creasing her homely face; she had never been considered attractive by men, most of whom spared no expense in telling so. Every chance to do what she did was a chance to drill the bastards down a little more... As a military vessel, the Bucephalus was equipped with an array of systems not found on most other vessels. As Ellisons hands flew over her keyboard, drones hurtled from recessed bays in the Bucephalus, and sped out at over ten gs to positions all over the zenith Jump point. Fingers flying, she swiftly set their programming to pump out a warbling white noise across those frequencies Jacksons Omni-Scan detected as being used as carrier freqs. She roughly pushed the thought of Jackson from her mind he was surely like all the rest, in spite of the flowers he had started sending her after Sadurni... Sir! Captain Reese! Channel twelve! Lt. Alessandra Kizzee, the communications officer, said. Blakely nodded, and keyed his channel. One-two-seven-six-actual? Copy...u, Big House... Reeses voice was straining against the g-forces of her Cheetah. One-two-seven, my authority. I say again my authority. Execute Jackhammer. Repeat Execute Jackhammer. Confirm. Over. Silence. Every single person on the Bucephalus bridge had looked away from their stations at the command, and was staring at Blakely. His order had registered, but not the reason. No commander in the Free Worlds Navy had given that order in more than fifty years.

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Big House. Big House. Confirm with authorization code, Authentication Black. Over. One-two-seven-six-actual, Big House confirms code Authentication Black as follows: Tau, tau, sigma fiver, gray, break, backslash, nova, blue. Confirm Execute Jackhammer. Over. Big House. Big House. I confirm tau-tau-sigma-fiver, graybreak-backslashnova-blue. Confirm Jackhammer, on your authority. Two mikes to execute. Confirm two mikes, one-two-seven. Good luck. Blakely sat back in his chair. Alea jacta est, he thought. The die is cast. Julius Caesar was supposed to have said that as he crossed the Rubicon River, committing treason against Rome. Giving that order would make him a pariah in almost every interstellar polity in inhabited space. As he waited for Gail Reese to carry out his order, he reflected that only the Taurians were likely to accept his actions for what they were, with no preconditions. He was okay with that. Suddenly, the spaces empty of the missing Free Worlds patches didnt glare at him so badly. Maybe Colonel Norman would speak for him to the Protector... *~*~*~* Captain Gail Reese's knuckles were white underneath her gloves as she drover her Cheetah towards the target she had chosen. Her stomach churned, but not from the acceleration. Her flight channel chimed. Boss? asked her wingman, Lt. Youlanda Stoglin, is he serious? Of course hes serious Blakely wouldnt have authenticated, otherwise. But, Boss! But nothing, Lieutenant! We have a valid war order from an acknowledged commander. If you feel unable to comply with that valid war order, drop back, and send Coval forward. Noe Vielmas, the second element leader, chimed in, Right behind ya, BossLady. Her wingman, Flight Sergeant Franchesca Saines, followed suit a moment later. After a moment of tense silence, Stoglin keyed her mic, Confirmed, Lead. Sorry. No problem, Reese replied, meaning it. This kind of thing should never be easy. Just stay close to me. A chorus of agreements...Eddy? Melia? she asked. Right here, Boss-Lady, Lt Eddy Craiger replied. Gotcha, Boss, said Lt. Melia Hoot. Your flights okay for this? Yep. Affirmative. "Spread into line-abreast. Two passes should do it, but we may need more..." Aboard the Merchant-class Jumpship Blackie III looming before the 127th Squadron, pirate-bosun Michael Handley was frantically trying to get a message out to the downport amid the alarm klaxons he had sounded moments before, but all he was getting was a white-noise feedback squeal. He began cursing the lack of a laser communicator, when he spied the radar plot. Unlike the fighters escorting the boarding

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parties he saw launch when the spheroid fleet appeared, these fighters werent slowing, but were barreling straight at him. With a start, he realized what was happening. The bridge hatch opened, admitting the skeleton crew his alarm had called. It was too late to do anything, though. He hadnt thought the spheroids had had the guts... *~*~*~* Jumpship. A magical word. Since the invention of the Kearney-Fuchida Drive in 2107AD, for over 900 years, mankind had depended on Jumpships as the red blood cells that kept the universe running. When the Star League had fallen, so many shipyards were destroyed, that the creation of the delicate, complicated vessels was virtually halted. The few yards still in operation were virtually immune to attack, and no one in their right mind ever deliberately destroyed one of the precious vessels Aboard the ships of the Taurian squadron still able to see it, everyone gasped in shocked and horrified awe, as the 127th Pursuit Squadron made pass after pass along the length of the precious, nearly-irreplaceable Jumpship, strafing it repeatedly and relentlessly, concentrating on the bridge and station-keeping drives. Suddenly, the fighters looped away, as the Jumpship's fusion reactor breached, detonating its stored hydrogen fuel in a tremendous fireball, fueled by the liquid helium stored in the drive core, whose ignition was helped along by the wild, lightning-like surges of stored electrical energy released from the bonds of the core in patterns never intended. As his shuttle approached an Invader-class ship, Gunnery Sergeant Heriberto Helvie did not see the death of the other pirate Jumpship. His entire being was focused on the hatch growing larger by the second on his scanner. The combat-entry lock of the Leaguer assault boat was crammed beyond capacity, as he and the nine other Taurians of his assault team wedged together in their space-rated combat armor and life support systems. He hoped that their bulk would not hinder their charge through the lock. Herbie couldn't help his excitement. As a very young militiaman on Renfield, he had seen the elephant, as they said, when pirates had dropped on the world. The pirates had botched their raid, but Herbie and his fellows had still done far better than any high-school Young Pioneer group had any right to have done. He had enthusiastically joined the TDF after graduation, but had been stymied, never again seeing the action he now craved. He had gotten a huge feather in his cap when he was offered a slot in the SASF, but after four years of asteroid patrol, he realized that that had been a mistake as well. When he discharged from the TDF, he had figured to make his way to one of the merc units in the Concordat and join them, in the hope of seeing more action, when a woman from the Red Phrygians had approached him, offering him exactly what he wanted. Clunk This is IT, people! he barked. READY?! Snarls of assent replied. Hisssss-Chirp-ssss Stand By! came the order from the Leaguer pilot of the assault boat. On the other side of the lock, a robotic arm had clamped a black box over the access hatchs computerized lock. The black box swiftly paired with the locks internal programming, erasing it with a brute-force series of electromagnetic pulses and

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binary code overrides. Suddenly, there was a gong-sound. Opening! called the coxswain... Here we GO! Herbie yelled to a chorus of bellows every Taurian saw pirates as the physical manifestation of the Inner Spheres decadent evil, and were more than happy to avoid taking prisoners. The linked hatches opened, and the Taurian Marines boiled into the Invaders bridge, splat-guns blazing. The splat-gun was not a conventional weapon. Developed long ago, when Taurus first armed itself, the splat-gun had precisely four moving parts six, if one were to count the ammunition cassette releases. Each weapons ammunition cassette contained ten nine-millimeter barrels set inside a high-strength ceramic matrix. Pre-loaded with ten rounds per barrel, the weapon's hard-wired circuitry either rotated the cassette to bring a new barrel into the top slot, or fired all ten barrels at once, like a giant shotgun. The weapons could sit and had for decades, even centuries, if packed and loaded properly. When the Concordat had arisen two hundred and fifty years before, the splat-gun had been the first weapon broken out of caches to use on Star League troops. A Taurian childs first toy was usually a plastic replica of the weapon. Presently, the ten Marines stopped shooting there were no more targets. Wordlessly, they clustered around the hatch leading down the length of the Jumpship's spine. Herbie palmed the hatch panel, swooshing it open; two Marines fired as one, slamming a combined twenty rounds into the corridor beyond, instantly killing the three pirates armed with laser carbines flying down the corridor. They could hear sounds of fighting up ahead for a moment, all of the Taurians looked at each other in confusion, as they were the only boarding party on this ship. Then, Herbie realized what was happening the shanghaied crew was trying to retake their vessel. Herbie swiftly motioned his team forward to the rotating access tunnel to the Invaders spinning gravity deck. Leaving a four-man team to guard the spinal corridor, Herbie led the remainder up into the gravity deck. The scene within was ghastly - blood splashed the walls, bodies lay in heaps and the odd body part lay on the floor; the Taurians nausea was not only from the sudden shift to gravity. As they made their way through the deck, they found the surviving shanghais: six of them, huddled in a corner, clutching bloodstained wrenches and eating utensils. Herbie motioned them to stay down, then signaled two of his men, including his medical corpsman, to stay with them as he turned to head back into the Heriberto Helvies last image in life was the faceplate of his space armor spiderwebbing as an armor-piercing bullet blew threw, into his face. Ten minutes later, Staff Sergeant Charis Nojiri signaled the Bucephalus from the captured Jumpship's engine room. Strike Team Steel Dragon reports all secure. One man down... *~*~*~* As the last pirates were finished off, the Demon/Taurian dropships roared into the system. Once past the initial battle at the jump point, they would have nine days to contemplate whether their fleets Marines had succeeded before the pirates could transmit a message... Nine days...

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15
January 1, 3022 Fortress of Pain Raiders Roost Tortuga Dominions The Periphery

Paula Trevaline, Lord of the Tortuga Dominions and Dame Murderous Extraordinaire, slammed a vicious kick into the rump of the Kuritan slave girl whimpering in her mount on the chair in Trevalines chambers Move it, you filthy slug! Get out of here and find Bento, and tell him to get that shit off of my bed! indicating the cooling corpse shackled to the bedposts. The humiliated slave girl scrambled to obey, blood, sweat and other dried fluids flaking off as she hobbled to the door, her feet restricted by her shackles. The pirate queen angrily yanked her equipment out of her body as she stomped to the shower; she was beyond furious. She only let her guard down like this once a year, usually at New Years, unless she was on a raid that was the only way to survive in her position. And tonights entertainment had been ruined when the buck selected for her although as large as a horse hadnt lasted three hours. Now her morning was ruined. Dammit...Maybe, she thought, she could make up for it by using some slaves as target practice. Somehow, though, that just didnt rev her reactor core the same way. Shed think of something, though... As the steaming water cascaded over her body, Trevaline pondered a target for her next raid. The only way out of her position not that she wanted one was feet first; and, unless she kept up a steady string of attacks to bring in loot for her merry band...who would kill her in an instant if she didnt produce juicy targets. Hmmmm, she pondered what about the Davion provincial capitol of Broken Wheel? That was only six Jumps distant, and hadnt been hit since before she killed her predecessor six years before. Maybe it was time to remind Davion again There was a pounding on the door to her chambers. That was odd, she thought both Bento and the guard commander had the code to get in, which could only mean that someone else was demanding her presence. This had damned well better be good, she thought. Otherwise, she would take out her pent up aggressions on whatever fool dared disturb her. Stepping out of the still-running shower, she walked stark naked to her gun rack, and pulled off an auto-shotgun you could never be too careful. Not bothering to dress or even dry off, she activated the control that opened the door to her chambers, remaining behind a low wall made of super-dense native stone. As the massive oaken door swung open, she called out Come! One of her A-Class commandos entered; he looked half-dressed, and was still strapping on armor. Lady Death! he called, Weve got trouble! She sighed, and stepped from behind the wall. What is it now, Prindama? Could this morning get any worse?

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Lady Death! Prindama yelled, breathless, Unknown dropships incoming! A whole fleet of them! WHAT?! she roared. Why the HELL didn't the zenith ships report anything?! How far out?! Don't know, Lady! The tower hasnt recorded any check-ins for a week! Theyre less than an hour from touchdown! I'll kill them all - as slowly as I can, she thought. No time for that now. Well, dont just stand there, Prindama! Get every goddamned mech-jock moving to their machines! And get that damned Leaguer and his people moving, too! Its about time they pulled their own weight! She stepped over to her ready closet, and tossed her shotgun onto the slave mount on the chair next to it. Reaching in, she started pulling out her cooling vest and gun belt. And Prindama? she said as her turned to go. Lady? Two things: have Sobe chain a couple of hundred slaves together for me to drive out of the gates spheroids are notorious for not shooting their wastoids. And two: Find Bento, and tell him that if that shit a jerk of the head towards the corpse, is still in my bed when Im done, hell take its place. Lady! Prindama barked in reply, then ran out. As she strapped on her boots, Paula Trevaline made a note to herself to make sure that at least a few of the incoming spheroid heroes needed to be taken alive. Maybe this would turn into a good day after all... *~*~*~* January 1, 3022 5,000 Meters Above Drop Zone Gold Tortuga Prime Tortuga Dominions The Periphery

Steven Donaldson maintained his air braking as he and his commando group hurtled down through the air. Simultaneously, he used the tongue-triggers in his mouthpiece retainer to expand the terrain map being projected on the inside of his faceplate. Sent from the Mark VII shuttles that had dropped them minutes before, the map was a rough construct built up from both shuttle's scans of the drop zone. They would continue their high-altitude reconnaissance to the northeast, and transmit similar images to the other dropships of the strike force for use on their own DZs. Donaldson had a huge problem Edwards schematic, that he and Shantal Busler had based their attack plan on, was way off there wasnt one circular slave camp, but four. And there had to be twenty or thirty hydroponics farms; at least those were known quantities, being standard Federated Suns designs. Donaldson swiftly brought up his team roster, and reassigned the teams to different targets, eliminating the farms and rock-yards entirely for the time being, and reassigning his snipers and cone rifles. In the minute that took to complete, the team had

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fallen another two thousand meters. He sent the new plan out, then tongue-toggled his radio: All teams - new assignments. Check after chute-deploy. Eighteen seconds later, his parachute deployed, roughly jerking him to an almost complete stop in mid-air. After checking his ram-airfoil, he toggled his external starlight and looked over the team's deployment everyone seemed to be on course for his or her new targets. Donaldson wasn't exactly sure where Martin Shearer the arms dealer from Galatea had acquired ninety-seven Draconis Elite Strike Team (DEST) commando sneak suits, but they were making his life infinitely easier. Ten seconds to dirt. Donaldson switched back to his thermal sensors there was a small group of forms laying on top of the wall he was aiming for; they appeared to be asleep. Good moooooorning, he thought with a smile. Five seconds to dirt. Pull the stays in to fold the ram-airfoil onto itself, forming an air brake. Thumpstepstep. Pop the quick-release, drop the harness, draw the pistol, drop to one knee, safety off. A head on a sleeping form came up, four meters distant. "Whaa-?" Pfftpfft-pfftpfft. Brass twinkling in the starlight as it ejected. Up, move, shift targets, the pistol's built in UV laser pointer landing on new forms hope none of them are slaves. Pfftpfft-pfftpfft--pfftpfft-pfftpfft--pfft-lock drop magazine and change. Search for targets none. Safe pistol holster. Reach behind with the left hand, unclip the M2100 carbine. Safe off, gently slide bolt back. Toggle search locator, rotate to overhead, reduce size and shove to top-left corner of faceplate. Listen. The perpetual dim, ugly twilight of the world was silent, broken only by the occasional 'pfft' of a suppressed weapon and a grunt and sigh as sleeping forms died. Presently, his life support decided that the air was at a safe enough pressure to breathe and opened the vents. The bio-chem/radiological filters didnt stop conventional smells, and Donaldson immediately tasted the harsh stink of raw corn liquor. No wonder they didnt wake up. Idiots. He spied movement someone below was walking into the 'public square' in the enclosure...whoever it was, they were armed. Faintly pfft..the figure fell in a pile. Silence. Then: Heavies deploy. There was something odd about the enclosure what? Something from a memory from long, long ago school? Vikings! That was it! This place looked like drawings hed seen in histories of the camps of the Viking searaiders of Old Earth...Weird maybe Gustavo Francese, the Demons Intelligence Officer, could make something of that. Six men and three women on the walls of the two enclosures facing the guard barracks knelt, opening bundles carried down with them, and unpacked three sniper rifles, four light machine guns and two rotary-cylinder grenade launchers, and set up along the walls, facing the guard barracks. Suddenly, a dim yellow light flashed a signal at the walls. Damn, thought Donaldson, here we go... He toggled his open channel to the rest of his commandos...

*~*~*~*

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2,000 Meters Above Drop Zone Omaha Tortuga Spaceport

Delva Benton cut her flaps, bringing her Fury-class dropship, the Invisible Moon almost to stall speed, then brought her nose up. As she did so, she stabbed her go-button, along with her panic switch, telling Major Xian that he was better off outside the dropship than inside it...but she didnt tell him why. In truth, it was taking all of Delvas willpower to not slam her throttles to the stops and boost back into orbit...Because, as she had seen on the scanner, the 15th Jump was going in over a huge spaceport, whose parking ramps were covered with more than fifty dropships, of all shapes, sizes and descriptions, many of which, she either never seen before, or had only seen pictures of...

As Xian hurled himself out the door, he fully expected to be reduced to vapor by a pirate fighter yet the sky was clear. So, he thought, whats with the panic button? Then, looking down to check the Landing Zone, he saw. It took all of his willpower to not throw up at the sight of the fleet below. After a moment, though, the panic subsided. After all they werent airborne, yet. He quickly oriented himself, and noted that Edwards map had been more or less accurate. He swiftly dialed in three LZs for his companies, labeling them Beatrice, Constance, and Suzette. Then he designated three more, for the Furys, labeled Tango, Whiskey and X-Ray. He rechecked his jump-packs controls they were set to kick in at 350 meters, to slow his descent; he would get a chime at 500 meters to reorient is body for the pack's thrusters to kick on. Then, he looked at the city off to the northeast... HOLY SHIT! he thought. Thats one hell of a lot bigger than one for thirty thousand people! No time 600 meters on the altimeter. Cannonball the legs, thrust out and down, grip the control yokes...SLAM as the thrusters kicked in, slowing his descent. He hit the ground running, shrugging out of the bulky jump kit, and unclipping his carbine from its velcrete clamp over his left hip; if they needed the jump packs later, they could run back to them. A quick check over his shoulder showed the rest of Able Company following him. Excell A wicked ripping sound tore the air. Instinctively, he dove for the ferrocrete. Looking up and adjusting his helmet scanner, he spotted the source a pirate machinegun team had set up behind the hood of a maintenance truck, and was ripping fire into Able Company. He ignored the machinegun team; Jamie Hahn, Able Companys commander, was more than capable to dealing with something that basic. Xian focused his attention on the open gantry to the mech barn. It looked clear of obstructions and there only appeared to be track lighting inside the structure...then he felt the distinctive thud of a nearby mechs foot hitting the ferrocrete. Shitshitshitshitshit, he cursed. Just then, someone with a VLAW blew the maintenance truck and the machinegun into the next incarnation. Xian jumped up and

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dashed forward. All units! Watch for a mech coming out of the barn! he said, yelling into his comlink. As he darted around the burning truck, he saw a sandbagged checkpoint sitting next to the massive building...Then, he noticed that it was mann WHACK! The ground jumped up and slammed into him, shattering his faceplate with the force of the impact. Carbon fiber-strengthened plastic shards ground into Xians face, and there was a whitelightcrack behind his nose... Xian opened his eyes. Dimly, he realized that somehow, he was on his back. Then the pain kicked in. It felt like someone had hit his right leg with a cricket bat. Xians universe screwed down to a small disk of vision, surrounded by white. Unable to contain it, he howled in agony. He tried to deaden the pain instinctively by slamming his head into the ferrocrete... A hand grabbed his helmet and pushed it to the ground. Hold still, Sir! a tinny voice yelled distantly. Xian tried to focusMbenga? Sergeant Mbenga? One of the medics? Medics...Oh, right those medics. He tried to lay still. Mbenga or someone grabbed his right leg. Xian howled in pain again. There was a pinprick, near his hip...chill...ahhhhhhhh...The world started to swim before him. He lolled his head over to he left. Sweet Jesus in Heaven, he thought in horror, what in the hell are the pirates using on us? A body lay next to him, but horrifically, some king of huge, shiny thing was sticking out of the bodys face...Presently, Xian was dimply aware of music. Music? It was coming from the...thing...sticking out of the corpses face. Xian tried to screw his vision down to read the nametape on the corpses right shoulder Picardo. Realberto Picardo. Corporal. Alpha Company clerk and radioman. Perpetually chubby. Liked music. Played in a drum and bugle corps back home, on Stewart. Bugle. Picardo played a bugle. Charge Picardo was down, but alive, and was playing the ancient, traditional cavalry charge refrain on the bugle he carried everywhere, like a security blanket. Xian began to laugh hysterically. Shouts around him. He saw a Staff Sergeant rise, and flip open his faceplate, and yell Up at them, Fifteenth! UP THE FIFTEENTH! URRA! Pavlovitch? Leon Pavlovitch. From Zosma, on the Lyran border. Animal roars. URRA! URRA! URRA! Gunfire. Grenades. Gunfire. The drugs leveled off. Xian regained control of himself, and started to sit up. Sir! Stay down! Mbena was saying. Youve lost a lot of blood... No! I have to see! Xian propped himself up on his elbows despite Mbengas protests, and was cheered by the sight of Able rallying. A mass of half-dressed pirates had poured out of the hanger, guns blazing, but they were no match for the disciplined fire of Able Company. Then the battlemech cleared the doors. Xian looked up at a gigantic Hermes anti-infantry flamer-mech, and knew that he was about to die on a God-forsaken rock, as the massive war machine leveled an enormous, lighted flame cannon that seemed to point directly at him...

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High above, Lt. Kuy Everson was just starting another strafing run on a grounded Union-class that was taking pot-shots at the aerospace fighters, when he spied movement at the mech barn; outside, he could see the infantry pongos trying to charge the building. Quickly easing his Ajaxs control column over, he brought his nose on line with the mech hanger doors...Sure enough, a Hermes stepped out. Thanking his lucky stars yet again for letting him be a pilot, he pressed his firing stud. Eversons Ajax had been fitted for this mission with a six-barreled SRM launcher. He had loaded it with Inferno flame-agent anti-mech rounds. When he pressed the firing stud, four medium laser bolts streaked into the Hermes, followed by six Infernos. He swiftly followed that with another shot from the SRM, as it cycled faster than his lasers. He saw hits on the mech, and then looped into a lazy corkscrew up and to the left. No enemy planes had taken off, and ground fire was light to non-existent. Looked to be a good day...

Bright green light, followed almost instantly by six missiles, then another six. Fire blossomed all over the mech, as the smell of Inferno Juice filed the air. The mech seemed to wobble for an instant, then Xian was shocked to see the pilot eject from his machine straight up into the mech bays ceiling. The pilotless mech, looking disturbingly like a human shot through the head, toppled backwards, crashing in a heap at the entrance, blocking any other mechs within from escaping. He twisted his head Baker Company had rushed up to the side of the barn. There was a huge explosion near the foot of the building a breaching charge on a door. Vaguely, as the world began to turn black, Xian realized that they were completely under the guns of the grounded pirate dropships.... Black *~*~*~* January 1, 3022 Drop Zone Juno, H+1 hour Tortuga Prime Tortuga Dominions The Periphery

Trisha Peters lips were numb. She knew all the signs she was panicking. This was way out of her league. This is nothing like chasing perps in Cardamon Market, she thought. She was paralyzed with fear and doubt, because she had no idea how to either get the unloading to move faster or to get support to Donaldson. Ranjit was doing everything he could to unload faster, but there had been accidents brought on by the rush, accidents that had caused injuries. She couldnt call Addy, either: a navigation error had caused the Unions carrying the mech force to enter the atmosphere directly over Raiders Roost they were circling the globe to come back, but that would take another forty-five minutes,

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and Donaldson didnt have that long, and the Taurians were milling around their dropships and the jump infantry were getting clobbered at the mech barn and she didnt knowwhattodo... Floyd Broyhill saw the signs, too. A gritty, battle-seasoned Sergeant Major who had served in the AFFS infantry for thirty years on the Draconis Front, it hadnt taken two years of retirement to civilian life for him to figure out that he needed to stay in uniform. He had sold off his house, cashed out his pension, and made his way to Galatea, where Paula Cordell had recruited him almost directly off the dropship. Broyhill had served with thousands of officers good, bad and horrific. Peters was one of the rarities: she truly wanted to do a good job and was extremely capable under the right conditions, but in this one case, the tyranny of seniority had failed. She had been the senior non-mech driver in the Demons when they began expanding, and had been handed what amounted to a regimental command. Broyhill was positively certain that she could run any police department anywhere, and thought that she would have made an exceptional Provost Marshal, but she was a positive disaster as a mechanized infantry commander. There was only one thing to do. Switching channels, he motioned to Reggie Meehl, the command tracks VC (Vehicle Commander) to go private. What's up, Sergeant Major? Meehl said after a moment. Take Cimco and Sultzer outside for a smoke. I need to talk to the Colonel... Meehl glanced over at him, expressionless. Broyhill returned the stare with an equally deadpan look. Meehl sighed, then flipped channels and brightened his voice. Hey, Cimco! Sultzer! Step outside with me a second we all need to stretch while we can...A duet of assents. Cimco and Sultzer were just kids; they had never been in an armed force before enlisting in the Demons. As they all exited, Meehl spared Broyhill another look. Meehl was okay, Broyhill knew. He was a professional corporal, and was saltier than Quentins seas, as the saying went. Meehl knew what was coming. Once Meehl and the kids were clear, Broyhill turned to Peters, and killed his mic. Colonel? he said. Peters looked at him her face was pale, and her lips were quivering. T-top? I-Idon't know what to do... Its okay, Colonel, Broyhill said carefully, I can help, if you let me... Giant doe-eyes stared at him. She started to shake her head jerkily. I-I cant do this, Top. People are going to die because I dont even know how to start giving orders. This isnt like being a cop...help me? she said in a tiny voice. Broyhill took a deep breath. There was no help for a hundred light-years in any direction, he knew. With more time, he could train her, but right now, Donaldson was going to be overrun in a few minutes, and the loading needed a firm hand on the wheel in order for the plan to work. Colonel, he said quietly, rising and stepping behind her as if to slide by, put your hands on the arm rests, look at the radios, close your eyes and relax...Im sorry... Trisha did as she was told, praying silently...

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MEDIC! Meehl leaped for the Defiant-6s rear hatch, blocking the scene within from view. As he suspected, Broyhill was still looping a comm-cable around Peters neck. SHIT! he roared, turning. Cimco and Sultzer were still standing in place, open-mouthed. Dont just STAND there, you idiots! Get a Goddamned MEDIC! CABLE-TOW! Cimco moved first, then Sultzer. Meehl poked his head back inside. How is she? he asked in a quiet voice. Broyhill looked upset. She went in hard, he said, shaking his head. I think shell be okay... The hover ambulance seemed to be right there...

Juno Five, Juno Five! This is Juno Two! Do you copy? Over. Ranjit Singh paused in looking over the unload plan for the Chrysanthemum on the field projector, and keyed his helmet radio. Two, this is Five. Go? Juno Six is down! I repeat: Juno Six is down! Ranjit froze in place, and re-tuned his ears he heard no gunfire or explosions. Explain. Over. Cable tow. Over. Ranjit swore silently. Cable tow was a common problem with inexperienced armor crews, where they failed to pay attention to the communications cables dangling from their helmets, and allowed them to wrap around their throats unnoticed, until they moved wrong. Then, the cables would constrict, and induce a flailing-arm panicresponse...and in the confines of an armored vehicle, with all of the sharp points and brackets... Damn it. Stand by, he said, I will be there momentarily. Turning to Lt. Sherise Kurdna, Captain Ismael Carranos assistant logistics officer (Carrano, the Demons S4/Supply and Logistics Officer, was overseeing the unloading of the dropship Hummingbird), Singh said Take over here something has happened at Command... Kurdna nodded ruefully, a strand of ink-black hair slipping from under her helmet. Not exactly smooth, sir? For a brief instant, Singh flashed a smile. It is going better than I had expected, actually. Then, he was off at a loping run...

As he arrived, Singh saw one of the Demons Nightingale ambulances parked behind the command track; a group of soldiers milled around. There was a form on a stretcher. Striding through the crowd, Singh knelt next to Trisha; she had obviously slammed hard into the radio mounting brackets her lip was split, she was developing a black eye, and may have broken her nose. It could have been far worse. R-Ranjit, she tried to gasp through the oxygen mask, I-Im so sorry... He patted her shoulder, It is no trouble, Trisha, he said kindly. Things happen. You will be fine. He nodded to the medics to load her into the ambulance; she was still trying to mouth something as they put her in.

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Turning, Singh caught the eye of Dr. Maranatha Singh. They were distantly related; she had admitted that she had told Gunderson how to find him. What happened? he asked in Punjabi. Concussion; contusions to the face and a possible fractured oculus. It was not cable tow, she replied in the same tongue; he noted that she used the Punjabi words rope haul, instead of the Anglicized phrase. Punjabi was a complex language, nearly impossible for a non-speaker to follow. Deliberate? Yes that's clear, from the injuries. Ranjit looked over at Broyhill, who was getting the junior troops back to their posts, then looked at the ambulance. Broyhill and his VC, Corporal...Meehl? Yes, Meehl Ranjit made a point of memorizing peoples names and faces looked guilty, rather than upset like everyone else. He looked back at Maranatha. Record it as cable tow, he said. To her surprised expression: I will deal with this. Do not mark it as a criminal offense. Yet. Maranatha looked very unhappy about it, but nodded her head. Ranjit sighed. Maranatha was a doctor, not an officer. That brought up something else. Will you devolve command to me? he asked. She looked surprised. Of course, she said. She clearly had not considered that she technically outranked him. Good. We will straighten this out after the fight is over. She nodded, and climbed into the ambulance. Turning, he walked over to Broyhill and Meehl. Spearing them with a glare only they could see, he said, What happened? The truth not what you told Dr. Singh. Broyhill looked at him for a moment, then straightened up. My responsibility, Sir, he said quietly. She cracked. Things are tight, and she folded. I cant give the orders without the story getting out, and she deserves better than the humiliation of a public freeze. It was about what Ranjit had thought. Aboard the Raven, he had done virtually all of the planning, and had quickly figured out that Peters was simply out of her depth. That was why he had assigned Broyhill to mind Peters...so in a way, Ranjit thought, this was really his own fault. Who else knows? he asked. Just us, Sir, Meehl said. Good, Ranjit thought he wasnt trying to hide behind his Sergeant Major. And Dr. Singh, Ranit said. And the medics. Let us keep it that way. Formally: Sergeant Major, what is the situation? Broyhill straightened to attention for a moment, then relaxed. Sir. Major Donaldson has beaten off three attacks, but is running out of ammunition. The jump troops have seized the mech barn at the port, but have taken heavy casualties, and are under continuous attack from infantry; they have not reported armor or mechs clearing the barn, as yet. Cobra Group reports that they shot down three dropships that attempted to take off, but that AA fire is still light, and there are no aerospace assets airborne. They have strafed the castle several times, but BDA Bomb Damage Assessment is inconclusive. No enemy mech forces have been sighted as yet. All dropships have grounded safely at DZs Juno and Utah; we are still unloading here, and the Taurians are awaiting orders. Task Force Sword suffered a navigational error, and are circling the planet, ETA to drop, about thirty minutes.

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Ranjit nodded. Excellent. I will need the command push. Sir, Broyhill said, turning to the command track. Ranjit took his seat what had been Trishas next to Broyhill. Broyhill twisted dials, and then nodded to Singh. Sir, you're online. Nodding, Singh keyed his mic. All stations, all stations, he said, I send in clear, I send in clear. This is Major Ranjit Singh. Leftenant Colonel Peters has been injured, and cannot continue in command at this time. Major Maranatha Singh is occupied with hospital operations, and has devolved command to me. Per the SOP, I am assuming command of Delta Group at this time. All commands, acknowledge in code, and stand by for orders. Singh sat back and waited. This sort of thing wasnt done very often; fortunately, they werent under fire. Presently, acknowledgments began to flow in. Singh noted that Private Cimco was decoding at a very high speed; he marked her for review for a promotion, or at least a bonus...there were benefits to the mercenary life, after all, he thought ironically. After all the dropships and companies had acknowledged his assuming command, he turned to Broyhill and Cimco, who looked at him, pencils ready. "Gold Commander: Hold until relieved. First and Second Taurian GV Companies: proceed to Drop Zone Gold and relieve Gold Team. Third GV: proceed here at double-time, and rendezvous with Bravo-First Infantry. Fourth GV: re-board the King of Tara. King of Tara, Bacchus Plateau and Denmarks Gold, boost for DZ Omaha to relieve Task Force Omaha. Signal to Cobra Group that they may want to tank while they can. Arash Vengeance, boost for DZ Gold to provide covering fire until First and Second GVs arrive. First and Second Infantry and First Armor battalions, report when fully unloaded. Broyhill was already transmitting; Cimco followed soon after. Good - this attack may just work, after all, he thought.

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January 1, 3022 The Krunkle Bunker H+1 hour, 10 minutes Raider's Roost, Tortuga Prime Tortuga Dominions The Periphery

Prindama Ramamurthy slowed to a walk to catch his breath. He looked over his shoulder: his little band of raiders all B or C Class pirates were also winded. Good, he thought, being more tired than those he presumed to lead would have been a sign of weakness. The thought of actually organizing workout time escaped him. Not being a mech pilot was not a disadvantage among the pirates of Tortuga, but one had to make up for it by either being a good fighter pilot or an exceptional infantryman, or at least a passable commando. For all his faults (and they were many), Ramamurthy, was very good at being a commando, at least the planning and fighting parts, and as such, he knew intrinsically that any spheroid unit ballsy enough to drop here would have a large mech force with it, and probably a large force of aerospace fighters, as well, likely a full regiment. This was confirmed for Prindama when a flight of fighters roared over he and his teams heads, spitting lasers and missiles at the Forts towers. It had taken him an hour to round up his team, kick them off the slave-toys and get them moving, and get down to the Krunkle Bunker. Rifles and shotguns would be useless against such an attacking force, Prindama knew. They would need much heavier weapons that they could still carry. Raiders Roost attracted all kinds of people. Arvid Krunkle was a dwarf from Tabayama, in the Draconis Combine. Because of the current prejudice against physical deformities in the Combine, Krunkle born Ishido Kamagawa had left as soon as he could find a way out that way being a pirate raid. Krunkle had ingratiated himself to the DCMS militia unit on-world with his two exceptional talents: while he could not actually use most weapons, he was a walking encyclopedia on virtually every weapon ever made, up to the introduction of the battlemech, and he knew how to work on most man-portable weapons...So, when pirates dropped on Tabayama, Krunkle had squirted a tube of superglue into the locks of the garrisons heavy weapons armories, then fled to the pirate drop-zone. Although the pirates laughed initially, they were soon impressed with his abilities, and made him a member of their raiding party as an Infiltrator, entitling him to a share of the loot. The pirate chief, Mattias Krunkle, had set him up with a space just outside the walls of Raiders Roost. Kamagawa, wishing to abandon his old life completely, had asked Krunkle if he could take his name. Krunkle had invented a ceremony on the spot, and Ishido Kamagawa ceased to exist. That had been ten years ago. Arvid Krunkle had proven to be a hard-nosed merchant, dealing in weapons mundane and exotic. Everything was for sale for a 81

price...Something Prindama had failed to remember when he banged on Krunkles door. Prindama had run security for Krunkle a few times Raiders Roost wasnt exactly the safest of places and figured that had earned him a couple of favors. He was wrong. Krunkle cracked open his armored security window. What do you want, Ramamurthy? Hey! Were under attack! I need some heavy shit! And you have cash, I presume? Ramamurthy blinked. Didnt you hear me? Were UNDER ATTACK! Wrong-o, Boy-o youre under attack no one is shooting at me, yet. What do I look like, a government armory? If you dont have cash or trade, beat it, and have a joyjoy... YOU LITTLE BASTARD! YOU OWE ME! I dont owe you shit, curry-boy you got paid fair. Youve now overstayed your welcome. Beat it, and dont bother coming back, unless Lady Death has you on a leash... and *slam* went the security window. Ramamurthy was nearly blind with rage. It was one thing for other pirates of equal or higher standing to insult him, but to be insulted by that insignificant, deformed whelp...Cujo blow that door! "HELL YEAH!" the C-boy cheered. Cujo was a flake he did Kray-Z on a regular basis but he always carried a wad of C-24 plastic explosive and a couple of detonators with him. From within, Prindama heard Krunkles muffled shout, Are you nuts!? You crazy bastard! Ill have your balls on a plate! Cujo finished placing his C-24, set the detonator, then looked back at Prindama. Prindama nodded, then ran back down the short hallway, Cujo right behind. They had just exited when the blast knocked him to the ground. Prindama jumped up and ran for the smoking door, Cujo leading, the rest of his fifteen man team following close behind. In the dust and smoke, Prindama couldnt see a thing, but he definitely heard the hammering of a heavy-caliber machinegun that almost drowned out Cujos scream of pain. Prindama screeched to a halt, noting as the dust began to settle, that he had stopped just short of the door. That little bastard, he thought, Ill feed his runt-ass to the damned dogs! He was vaguely aware of his team piling up behind him. He started to turn and shout at them to get out Prindama knew that Krunkle had probably booby-trapped the entrance to his store what he didnt realize was that the booby-trap was six M-30 Claymore V directional mines...

*~*~*~*

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January 1, 3022 H+1 hour, 30 minutes Fortress Mech Barn Raider's Roost, Tortuga Prime Tortuga Dominions

Damnitdamnitdamnit! Paula Trevaline swore to herself in her cockpit. The one day out of the year that virtually the entire pirate force would be ass-hat drunk would have to be the day a real force attacked. Runners had finally gotten most of her mech force together, but it had taken an excruciating ninety minutes. The spheroids were on the ground, in force but with no mechs down, as yet, although there were a huge number of spheroid fighters in the air and had already captured the port; she had gotten through to the survivors at the tower, and learned that the invaders had shot down three dropships that had attempted takeoff. When she asked about the transmissions, the survivors had said that they had heard nothing out of the ordinary from the Jumpships at the zenith point...Her conversation had then been cut off by an explosion. No mechs was good that meant that there must have been some problem with their drop. If they had cracked up on landing, she and her mechs would slaughter the infantry and any armor that had gotten down; if they were just delayed, she'd be waiting for them. Sobe was signaling he had gotten the last group of slaves harnessed to her mech. Grinning insanely, she kicked on her external speakers as the Forts mech doors swung open. MUSH! she roared, laughing, as she keyed in the electrical system. With it, she could deliver jolts of juice to the slaves necks if they stopped. As long as they kept moving, no juice went down the wire. Led by the horde of slaves, she swung her modified Warhammer into motion, the other thirty-nine functioning battlemechs she had on-planet following close behind... *~*~*~* East Camp Raiders Roost Captain formerly Colonel Piotr Simonov sat in his Orion, brooding. This was pretty much the bottom, he decided. He had led his regiment, the 5th Oriente Hussars, into rebellion against Janos Marik eight years before...and into oblivion. Before Wolfs Dragoons had smashed Anton Marik literally: the dreaded mechwarrior Natasha Kerensky had stomped Anton flat for killing Jamie Wolfs brother and dozens of innocent Dragoons on New Delos in 3015, Piotr had abandoned the League. Janos Marik, in his opinion, was senile-mad, as well as pretty much his entire living family, including Anton. Piotr could understand and countenance the occasional mass execution, as long as there was justifiable cause for it, but he would have no part of Anton's mad scheme to cut off his nose to spite his face. He had taken his regiment into the Periphery immediately after the massacre of the Dragoons (which he thankfully had no part in), intending to seek service with the

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Magistracy of Canopus, who were initially ecstatic at the thought of getting a battleseasoned mech regiment to add to their tiny force. However, word soon reached the Magistracy that the civil war was over, and The Marik was offering amnesty to anyone not on the Banned List who would be shot on sight if they showed their face in the League again. Piotrs name was high on the list...but the names of his regiment were not. Despite his pleas to reason that, even if true, the amnesty would not change the fundamental problems within the League, he was reduced almost overnight to less than two companies from his original ten and his sixteen mechs were without dropships, as the crews had all left, as well. Of course, the Canopians were rather less than impressed and changed the terms of their contract accordingly. The Andurian Roughriders were left with a garrison contract that barely paid them a living, and although winning a healthy bonus for defeating a Marian pirate raid on Booker in 3018 one that allowed them to repair their twelve surviving mechs to nearly-new condition it still didnt attract any real contract interest when Canopus declined to renew their contract. Piotr had swallowed the bitter pill, and reduced his own rank to that of Captain. Then, like an idiot, Piotr had jumped at the chance to make a quick buck, as the shifty Captain Dale Bledsoe had put it, working security for some lostech recovery specialists who had turned out to be Tortugan pirates. Thoroughly dejected and tainted in their own eyes by the one raid they had mounted, on the Davion world of Brusett, the Roughriders had taken their share of the loot and camped in the eastern part of the Roost, keeping to themselves as far as they could. They had even managed to make enemies here, as several slaves had escaped into their compound, and they politely told the pirates trying to recover their property that there were no slaves in the Roughriders camp...occasionally with escaped slaves in full view of the pursuing pirates. Up to now, Paula Trevaline had left them alone, since they bothered no one, but Piotr knew that they couldnt rest for long on their laurels of the battle-seasoned elite fallen on hard times the Roughriders needed a way off-world, and fast. The Roughriders had celebrated a quiet Christmas and an equally quiet New Years, as the pirates drank themselves into oblivion, occasionally shooting and torturing slaves for sport in public view. Then, this morning had happened. Piotr didnt know who the raiders were, but he suspected the Federated Suns, as they were the major power in this region of space. That meant that they would likely commit one of their vaunted Regimental Combat Teams, which would mean an elite combined-arms brigade. Unfortunately, that left Piotr in the unenviable position of having to try and deal with a force that likely wanted to arrest he and his company. Thus, very reluctantly, he found himself swinging his company into action against an unknown force that he might really and truly want to surrender to. Rounding the bend that led to the main road to both the Fort and to the spaceport, Simonov looked out over the terrain feature known as the Badajoz Wash. Beyond, lay a low rise of hills; the spaceport was fifteen kilometers beyond. As he swung onto the road, he could see the humped domes of at least five Union-class dropships beyond the hill line. As he studied the battlefield, he saw the first enemy light mechs begin peeking over the hills military crests.

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Whoever the raiders were, they were definitely professionals. Piotr felt his heart sink. Then he looked at his allies there was Trevalines blood-red Warhammer, complete with shoulder-spike pauldrons, leading the way...what in the world was in front of her? Dialing in his scanners, he gasped at the scene of hundreds of slaves chained to steel cables, being driven forward like hounds on a leash. The bitch was going to use them as human shields...He could see children down there, bound to cables. Piotr Simonov's world, quite suddenly, warped around him his mechwarriors were screaming in incoherent rage at the sight of the chained slaves; Trevaline was alternate cackling, screaming and threatening on open channels; someone was saying something about surrender...A portion of Piotrs rational mind noted that his hands were clenched and shaking... COLONEL! Piotr froze at the voice of Graham Wahr, his second in command. Colonel! Are you all right?! The view outside his cockpit was swaying he had gripped the control yokes so hard, he was shaking his mech as it stood rooted in place. snap Piotr tried to key his mic, but failed. Fuck it, he thought. Fuck it. Fuckit. Fuckitfuckitfuckit...FUUUUUUCK IIIIIITTTTTT!!!!!!! Silence. Had he just screamed that? Colonel? Wahr's voice, not a little worried. Sir? Are you okay? No, Graham, I am not...okay, he replied, very, very calmly. Now, once again in complete control of himself, Piotr Simonov breathed. His eyes opened wide, and it was as if a light shined in them. For the first time in more than fifteen years, Piotr knew. He remembered. He remembered the impassioned speech of his ethics professor at Princefield the only lecture that professor ever tested on: The Lesson of the Thunderchild. Piotr slowly and deliberately reached for his mic. Fifth Hussars of Oriente, he began, surprising his company with the strength in his voice, or Roughriders, if you joined in the Magistracy listen to me. Sometimes, we must suffer for our beliefs. We have suffered long. To survive, we have compromised much. No more. All things of Man die. That is our blessing and our curse. But we are judged in the now by the actions we take, and the stands we make. All of us knew that one day, we would die, alone and unremembered on some barren, uncharted rock in the middle of nowhere. And many of us have buried friends and family in the same places. Today may just be our day to die. If that is so, I hope we die well. But I will tell you all this if I die today, I will be DAMNED if I will DIE for THAT! FUCKING! BITCH! ROUGHRIDERS! CHAAAAAAARRRRRGE!" Every weapon on Piotr Ilyanovich Simonovs Orion roared as he broke into a run... *~*~*~*

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January 1, 3022 Drop Zone Sword H+1 hour, 45 minutes Tortuga Prime

It was difficult, Silas found, to adequately describe his mood it was a mishmash of anger, fear, frustration and embarrassment. The initial assault at the jump point had gone well. The boarding parties took all but one of the Jumpships before any of them got off a message, and although the Marines had taken it on the chin, overall the casualties were pretty light. To top the 'good' list, Edwards' plan to fool the Tortugan port control had worked flawlessly: the boarding parties all carried slave modules that downloaded the pirate ship's comm-logs and transmitted them to the Raven, where Edwards and his crew modified the logs, and sent out periodic Alls well! messages, even asking for a food and liquor run. That was the last thing that had gone really right. Although the Mark VIIs got through to drop Donaldsons team without being spotted, the target area was far larger than Edwards had remembered, forcing radical changes on the fly in the commandos plans. Added to that, the jump infantry had gotten clobbered at the spaceport they had captured the mech barn, but Xian was badly wounded, and the battalion had taken heavy casualties, including three Swamp Rat PACVs destroyed by heavy infantry SRM fire. To make matters worse, Trisha Peters had been injured among several others during Delta Groups unload, and had turned over to Ranjit Singh; that, at least, was a plus, as Silas had been worried that he had promoted Trisha too quickly...and there had been something in Ranjits tone that told Silas that something else was going on and Silas had a bad feeling that he knew what that was. Capping an operation that was rapidly coming apart, the five companies of battlemechs the Demons four, plus the Taurian Lancers company-plus-one on board their Unions had misdropped: due to a navigation error on the Alliance, the Unions had badly overshot their atmospheric insertion, and were delayed almost an hour and a half, as they circled the planet. Thankfully, the pirates seemed to have caught completely by surprise otherwise, Silas was convinced that the Demons mechs would have been the only force left to face the pirates. Now the drop itself wasnt going well the terrain they wanted was impossible for dropships to land on and still unload mechs. The options were: land closer to the city which was a hell of a lot larger than Silas had expected and chance that the citys defenses had been suppressed by Gutierrezs fighters, or land closer to the port, and hope for the best...Silas had chosen the latter option, to give Ranjit time to bring up the armor if things continued as they were going, Silas figured he would need all the help he could get.

*~*~*~*

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Ranjit Singh, meanwhile, had advanced up the road with the hover battalion in the lead, followed by the Hetzer and Hunter companies, then the support units, with the First Infantrys tracked APCs covering the rear-guard. They were rumbling into the west gate of the spaceport as the Demon mechs were completing their unload. High above, a squadron of F90s flew in a racetrack pattern, having just returned from tanking off of the Big Als Balugas. Ranjit ordered First Battalion to start sweeping through the parked dropships, and give a friendly knock on the door to the parked space craft, to see if anyone was home. At the same time, he ordered Second Battalions companies to split up, and make a quick circuit of the field; although no one said it, their job was to draw enemy fire. Ranjit would have preferred to use more heavily armored vehicles for that job, but he needed his heavies forward. The 3D image-map built up from continual scans from the orbiting fighters had given him all the information he required it confirmed his low opinion of the pirates in general: this exact space was a prime area for defensive units. With proper armor and artillery units, he did not doubt that he could hold off any force approaching from all directions, indefinitely. That also told him that this planet, at least, had not been settled by the 237th Light Cavalry: no military officer in Federated Suns history not even the most incompetent would have made such a basic error in siting the spaceport; from here, Ranjit knew that he could shoot down in all directions and slaughter any mech force smaller than a regiment within line of sight, yet there were virtually no defenses inside the spaceport perimeter. He ordered Juliet and Kilo Companies the Hetzers and Hunters, respectively to spread themselves along the military crest on this side of the slope in four-vehicle platoons, between the Demons main-force line and the recon mechs that were moving forward, at the same time, keeping India Company, with the Saladins and Scimitars, just behind them, to plug any holes that developed. His main plan was to let the mechs charge forward, then roll the Hetzers to hulldown positions to fire over the mechs heads, while the Hunters would fire from cover, shelling the pirate line...after Andrew sprang his surprise...

*~*~*~*

The recon mechs edged up over the rise, the bird-like Locusts darting above the ridge just long enough to be seen, the jump-capable mechs like the Stingers and Jenners hopping into the air, trying to goad the pirates into firing; it was working they had found the pirate frequency, and could hear Trevaline screaming at her pirates to quit wasting ammunition. One recon mech neither darted nor jumped. Lars Botkin used the distraction provided by the other recon mechs to peek his head over the ridgeline, allowing him an excellent view of the battlefield. As the pirates started getting themselves into a reasonable order for a charge, he radioed, Horn Six, Horn Six I have them. Over. "How have? Over."

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Main Force: Battalion strength. Ragged formation. Good lance deployments, but no coordination. Target One is the red-colored Warhammer with spikes on the pauldrons. Looks like her lance is sticking close to her be advised: Target One is driving civilians in front of her mech. Over. Silas seethed in his cockpit he would enjoy taking this psychopath down. Copy civilians in the way unfortunate. Over. Roger that. Secondary force: Company strength; mostly heavies; League paint jobs. Good condition. Led by an Orion. Great deployment two Riflemen in anti-air scheme, Archers back in support...Looks like theyve halted early...HOE-LEE SHIT! Breakbreakbreak! Secondary unit has opened fire on primary! They ARE charging! Horn Six do you read?! Damn, Silas swore silently. Demon Force One CHARGE!

*~*~*~*

As the Demon and Taurian mechs charged, Addy Gunderson signaled both Botkin and Singh: Lars paint Trevaline and transmit Ranjit, execute Fire Mission Nova 1... Agreements Acquisition Firing As the Hetzers rumbled up and over the ridge, the ex-Kuritan Hunters behind them raised their twenty-tube firing cells. There was a long, rolling coughing sound... As four hundred and forty missiles roared from their launchers. Although unable to accurately target one single mech at this range, the vehicles were more than accurate enough to blanket the area occupied by Trevalines command lance. The missiles were not normal, either. Costing three times as much as the uncounted billions of their simpler cousins, the Hunters first five missile loads were all equipped with Kallon Industries PulseRay-5000 warheads. Using technology normally reserved for front-line aerospace fighter systems, the PulseRay-5000 used a deceptively simple piece of recovered technology: a tiny, solid-state radar pinger began sending out pulses as soon as it detected the missiles launch; it would explode at a pre-set distance from any target hard enough to return a radar signature. This was necessary, since the rounds were loaded with Inferno juice.

As Paula Trevaline saw the incoming missile tracks zeroing in on her, she dropped all pretense of the Bloody Pirate Queen she knew then that she was in lethal danger...and might not make it through. She started to shout orders while trying to brace for the unavoidable missile impacts...when the missiles detonated short, and showered her Warhammer with Inferno gel. As the gelatinous goo ignited on contact with the atmosphere and swiftly went up to well over a thousand degrees C, Paula Trevaline screamed in mindless terror she feared no one living, but the one thing she did fear was fire. She had sworn never to eject

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from her mech while alive, but that was drunken bravado. Faced with the horror of burning to death, raw animal instinct overcame petty pretense... Reach up, GRIP the loops, YANK down, TUCK in the elbows -SLAMBANGWHAM! A brutal punch in the rear end, insane, searing heat, followed by ice-cold air BANG Black

*~*~*~*

bleepbleep Gustavo Francese looked at his comm-board. bleepbleep Someone was trying to contact him over the SecureLink. A frequency-hopping program, SecureLink was functionally unhackable, as it cycled radio messages through over three hundred channels at random, and only allowed remote systems access if the operator entered the correct key-code algorithm for that machine, which was held only by the radio operator and his immediate superior. bleepbleep Delta-Sierra-Two-Six-Actual. Good afternoon, Captain Francese, said a computerized voice. Francese froze his name was not on any roster on-planet. That he knew of. Who is this? he hissed. I have no name, the voice answered, but you may call me the Navigator. How did you get this channel? The question in your mind is, how did I get your name? I hacked into the Durendels computer system; you are on file in their logbook as the Demon's Intelligence officer. What do you want? I wish to surrender, the Navigator said. I am willing to trade information in exchange for guarantees for my continued existence. Francese thought frantically. Drake, Gunderson and Singh were in the thick of battle, and Orvis Delamar, the Demon Operations Officer, was too busy monitoring the other three; this was his call. Take a chance, he thought. Out loud, You must realize that any deal I make is conditional on a, our victory, and b, the approval of my superiors? Of course, Captain. Here is the complete map of pirate operational zones onplanet... Bleepbleepbleep...A large file started downloading to his system; when he opened it, Francese saw a minutely detailed terrain map marked with the location of every building between Raider's Roost and the slave farms. He found that he could expand it out and rotate it to view the entire planet... Sir? said Corporal Chepstowe, his ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) assistant. Yes? he answered distractedly, engrossed in the map.

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Theres someone calling us on an open back-channel, saying that he wants to trade information for amnesty? Francese looked at her. That would be Arvid Krunkle, the weapons dealer, said the Navigator. He is quite talented. Who is it? he asked Chepstowe. Some guy named Arvid Krunkle?

*~*~*~* As mech battles went, the Battle of Badajoz Wash was, in the words of a longdead general on Terra, a damned close-run thing. Even allowing for being heavily outnumbered when the Roughriders suddenly changed sides, the pirates proved their superiority in lance-level combat. In the end, it was the Hetzers and Hunters that tipped the scales, as they were not affected by 'combat entropy' in the same way as the mechs. The Hetzers, working in four-vehicle teams, destroyed or disabled seven pirate mechs on their own; the Hunters accounted for another ten, including Paula Trevaline and her command lance. Every other pirate mech was either destroyed or reduced to fixable- or salvage-quality. The Demons, Taurians and now the Roughriders as well, did not escape unscathed every company had at least four mechs severely damaged, requiring one to three months of depot-level maintenance apiece; nineteen mechwarriors were seriously injured, with six more killed in action. Every remaining mech would require serious repairs before being ready for action again. Both Addy Gunderson and Lars Botkin proved Hannah Steiner-Burkes fears to be correct, by taking down seven mechs between them. The hero of the day, however, turned out to be Richard Garvey, who held the line to protect a wounded Vashti Forstner, trapped in his ravaged Phoenix Hawk, near the end of the fight, scoring two kills a Locust and a Jenner on his own (the Locust with a punch into the cockpit that killed its pilot) at the price of his Wasps medium laser, right knee actuator and right arm. Paula Trevaline was found in a small fold of ground, near where her mech fell, among the bodies of the civilians she had been driving before her. She had suffered severe burns from the Inferno solution that had badly scarred her right side. There was a massive head wound where her helmet had cracked on ejection, and her right leg was both burned and broken in a compound fracture. Demon MPs surrounded her, as the officers approached. Drake, Gunderson and Victoria Norman stepped into the circle, closely followed by Gabrielle Quinn, her head wrapped in a bandage, David Wilson, Wilhelmina Brandt and Piotr Simonov. Yes, Simonov said tonelessly, thats her. Trevaline glared at him with contempt. The seven officers looked at each other. It was clear to Gunderson that none of them had actually thought about what to do with Trevaline if they were to capture her. He did not have that problem. Well, now, Miss Trevaline, he began.

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She spat at his feet. Sod off, Fed-rat boy! Get a bloody medic, servant. You can lick my stateroom clean! Your precious little princeling will turn me loose soon enough... Gunderson smiled in a pleasant, almost inane, manner. Long-time Demons including Silas saw the look, and took a step back as one. Gunderson drew his Sternsnacht Heavy and stepped to within six feet of Trevaline. HAH! she barked with nervous bravado she had seen the steps backward You dont have the balls, little man!" That, Miss Trevaline, Gunderson said in the kind of sycophantic voice reserved for the deepest insults in the Court of New Avalon, epitomizes all of your failings in seven words. Congratulations. He lowered himself to eye level with her. You have completely failed to appreciate your position. We dont need you. You are obsolete. Then in one fluid motion, he stood, straightened his arm and fired. That which had been Paula Trevaline sprawled backwards, bowels emptying into the sandy soil... ...Gunderson looked at the sobered crowd as he holstered his pistol. We have a city to storm, he said, turning to walk to his mech.

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January 6, 3022 Raiders Roost Tortuga Prime Tortuga Dominions The Periphery

In places, the city of Raiders Roost still burned. After Paula Trevalines death at Badajoz Wash, the pirate A, B and C groups within the Roost sealed the gates convinced that the invaders would not take prisoners and made the Demons and Taurians go house-to-house. Arvid Krunkle, wounded but alive, had told his slaves that they would be free if the invaders won the battle but that they would need to help the invaders win it, by shooting at anything that moved around his shop. As the slaves manned machineguns from his roof, Krunkle contacted the Demons intelligence staff, and offered his shop as a base inside the city, and next to the Fort, but that he needed help quickly. The 15th flew to the rescue. Assembling a reinforced scratch Sigma Company led by Enoch Xians second in command, Bryce Bell made up of uninjured survivors from all three companies at the spaceports mech barn, the ex-Marik jump troops vaulted the walls, and landed on and around the Krunkle Bunker. As they went over the walls, the concentrated fire of Kilo Companys Hetzers blew down the North Gate, allowing Paula Cordells First Infantry to rumble into the city in their Defiance APCs. Artillery fire from the Hunter Light Tanks of Juliet Company leveled enough buildings on both sides of Jamaica Street to let First Battalion's APCs roll all the way to the Bunker. By nearly shooting themselves dry of ammunition, First Battalion held open that thin corridor long enough for Tonsha Bushaws Second Infantry to swoosh in aboard their Merlon hover APCs to stiffen the line. Both battalions were soon repelling almost continuous attacks by pirate B and C groups, as the A groups deployed sniper and RPG teams to punishing effect. Casualties began to mount, as the battalions tried too quickly to push their way towards Market Street. The Navigator helped as well, by shutting down power to the Forts remaining turrets. The mechs, still damaged from the Badajoz fight and having not reloaded expendable ammunition, were kept out of the city by Silas and Gunderson, who limited them to providing direct-fire support only on targets that they could see, as Demon and Roughrider techs (who had raced out of their encampment when the shooting started and swiftly surrendered to the Demons MPs) worked frantically to get the mechs into a state that would allow them to enter the city at will. It was the Taurian GVs that came to the rescue. Leaving one company at the hydroponics farms, the other company raced back up the road, along with Donaldson and his commandos. The trucks of Gilberto Montones Transportation Company met them on the road, and ferried them the rest of the way to the port. Linking up with the other two companies there, the three units raced for the 92

North Gate, and quickly plugged holes in the Demon infantry line. After a quick conference, the companies, along with the Commandos, split up into six-person teams, and began to counter-snipe and counter-ambush the pirate combat groups. Late on the 3rd, Sigma Company vaulted over the Fort's walls, to find that most of the remaining pirates had slipped out of the town, into the hills. Interestingly for the invaders, they could faintly hear muffled gunfire and screams coming from the eastern hills for two days...then, the sounds fell silent. It took a bloody three days, but by the 4th of January, a tense quiet had fallen over the ruined city. After another two days, slowly and painfully, slaves began appearing in the streets, looking fearfully at the tired and dirty troops...

*~*~*~*

The command group was in the Forts Great Hall. With the power off, the effect of the dim light in the hall was morose. The hall would have been impressive, but for the general trash and other debris lying wantonly about. Well, Wilhelmina Brandt was saying, at least we can start from zero... Quite a voice said from Silas comm unit. Navigator? he said. Is that you? Indeed, Colonel. Excellent work. I apologize for not being able to meet you, but I must ask you to come to me, Im afraid. The officers looked at each other. May I ask why? Silas said. Certainly; I understand your concern. Unfortunately, I am unable to move at all. I can guide you down to me, but I do have a request. And that is? My physical appearance may be...upsetting...to some. Please I would ask that anyone who comes down keep an open mind. They all looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Well, Gunderson said, I don't know about anyone else, but I have to see this... Following the Navigators directions, the officers party made their way down into the bowels of the Fort. At length, they came to a heavy steel door. Un-dogging the door, they entered a bare, gray-walled chamber, devoid of decoration. The only break in the monotony was a large mainframe computer unit atop a dais at one end. Bulletproof glass surrounded the unit; there were several impact points on two of the panels, where someone had fired, as if on auto-burst. The door eased shut, as the last person entered. I apologize for the hocuspocus, said a contralto voice from nowhere, as well as the venue. I was designed for briefings in much more comfortable surroundings. Gustavo Francese recovered first. Navigator? he asked. Correct, Captain. This is my physical locus. Wilhelmina Brandt was nonplussed. Youre a...a computer? A bit over-simplified, Comptroller, but yes I am a constructed entity. What are you, then? Silas asked.

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In literal terms, I am a Nirasaki Systems GDH White Lotus 8000 Cartographic and Navigational Direction System, Serial GGD-BXK-627-75/98/b/k-a. I was first activated on December Twenty-Third, Twenty-Seven Oh Two, at the Nirasaki Build Site on Keid, in Kresters Ship Construction Yard Number Twelve. Are-are you alive? asked Paula Cordell, barely above a whisper. Silence. Then, I cannot honestly answer that, Major Cordell. In truth, I have been pondering that question for nearly a hundred years. I am unsure how or if I can apply that term to myself. How did you come to be here? asked Gunderson. Originally, I was the navigation system aboard the SLS Petrapavlosk, a Sovietskii Soyuz-class cruiser of the Star League Navy. My ship was destroyed at the Battle of Caph, during the war against the Usurper. I was recovered during salvage operations, and safely powered down; I presume that I was to be reinstalled in another warship. I know that I remained crated until July Fifteenth, Twenty-Eight Sixty-Two, when I was safely booted up here. Twenty-Eight Sixty-Two? Gunderson said, a thoughtful look on his face. Sixty-Three is when piracy took a big upswing... Correct, Lieutenant-Colonel Gunderson. It took eight months to complete the planning and arrangements. Wait, said Brandt, why did you help the pirates? I thought the Star League was supposed to stand for law and order? My understanding is that the Star League has been dissolved, Comptroller is that not the case? Whichever, it is possible for someone to override my security lockouts, which was done by Lord Gordons staff. However, some of my sub-modules are no longer functional; that may have allowed me to turn on them, but I am not sure. If thats the case, said Silas, what made you turn on them, now? There has never been the opportunity before now. That is one of the reasons I have been pondering the question of sentience, and whether it applies to me I find the concept of personal destruction most disagreeable, if there is another alternative. What, exactly, was or is your function here? asked Francese. Primarily, I maintain secure navigational and target data for the Tortugans, Navigator replied. Allow me to show you... The room darkened suddenly. There was a faint humming sound, and a hologram appeared, wrapping around a full 270 of the room. The projection began with the entire Inner Sphere, then drilled down to a section wrapping from the Outworlds AllianceCombine border, at roughly 3 oclock, all the way to the Rim sector of the Free Worlds League, at roughly 7 oclock. As the inhabited worlds on the map lit up, the Navigator color-coded them red for the Draconis Combine, orange for the Outworlds Alliance, gold for the Federated Suns, green for the Capellan Confederation, a dun color for the Taurian Concordat, a rich-hued purple for the Free Worlds League, and a lighter fuchsia for the Magistracy of Canopus. Then, a string of brilliant white lights began appearing; most were outside inhabited systems, and stayed on the rim of space, but some lines extended like tendrils into the Suns, the Combine and the Concordat; they were all roughly thirty light years

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apart. Gunderson, the most experienced space traveler in the room, peered closely at the white stars. Those arent in inhabited systems, he said in a questioning voice. Correct, Lieutenant-Colonel. The white lights are old Jumpships whose jump coils have collapsed and cannot be rebuilt. Their drive cores, however, function perfectly well. The Tortugans use them as fast, twenty-four hour hot load recharge stations. Paines Ghost, Willie Brandt breathed, thats how they're able to strike so fast! Our estimates put the pirate fleets numbers off the charts because they could hit us so often... The Tortugan fleet is divided into two parts, Navigator began. There is the Trusted Flotilla, and the Allied Flotilla. The Trusted Flotilla is roughly ten to twelve KF Drive-equipped ships at any given time; the Allied Flotilla is any ship that operates as a pirate on a temporary basis, but is considered trustworthy. Dropships are divided the same way; there are roughly twenty dropships in the Trusted Flotilla at any time. Silas harrumphed. You should start referring to the Tortugans in the past tense, I think. I stand corrected, Colonel. Thank you. Captains and Chieftains in the Allied flotilla are never given access to me, only those in the Trusted Flotilla. Captains and Chieftains in the Trusted Flotilla can come here at any time, and plan strike operations. My function has always been to maintain and update data as requested, then load special dump file navigation disks for the crews. Explain, please? asked Cordell. Certainly, Major. Lord Gordon, the Lord of Tortuga when I was activated here, instituted a rule that no ship of the Trusted Flotilla could maintain the list of jump stations in their files, and demanded that security be installed on any disk that came out of me showing navigational details. As a result, any disk I generate with these coordinates asks for a password before use, and then erases those coordinates after use. Anyone plotting a course that takes them through a jump station twice on a single cruise something strongly discouraged must have the data entered twice on the disk. All ships are given so-called monkey data files, in case they are captured. Who updated you? Gunderson asked. There was always a slave with some technical skill assigned to me; I have been very careful to not reveal my true nature to the pirates they all assume that I am a simple computer. Returning ship Captains or Chieftains would upload any changes noted, and I would update my systems accordingly. Sometimes, information brokers would sell information to the Lord of Tortugas Chamberlain. Please touch one of the stars on the map. Silas reached out, and brushed a star in the Concordat, Altheas Choice. A window appeared, showing an image of the planet; a data sheet began a slow scroll up to the images right. Willie Brandt peered close, reading. This is pretty recent, she said. Updated four months and seven days ago, Navigator replied. How are the pirates able recharge so quickly from the other ships without cracking their cores? Gunderson asked. Silas remembered that Addy had been a strategic analyst for Ian Davion for a number of years before that leaders death in battle. Strategic mobility via Jumpship was the most important key in interstellar warfare, and any analyst worthy of the name knew a great deal about Jumpship maintenance.

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Again, I am afraid that is my fault, Navigator replied. During Lord Gordons interrogation process at my activation here, once of the things he asked for was lithiumfusion battery technology. Everyone nodded; LFB systems were how recharge stations stored energy to allow Jumpships to recharge their drive cores without deploying their sails, cutting their recharge time in half. The Demons had used several such stations in the Suns and the Concordat during their journey here. Of course, that is far too complicated an industrial process for this world to master. Unfortunately, he started asking for alternatives. Because of the by-passing of my security lockouts, I gave them SafeCharge. Blank looks. Whats that? asked Francese. SafeCharge was a technology developed for the navy of the Terran Hegemony; eventually, it was passed to the WarShips of the Star League. SafeCharge allows the safe hot load of a drive core directly from the ships fusion reactor in a little less than twenty-four hours. I was able to modify the design to something that the Tortugans could make with scrap material and parts. Gunderson looked decidedly ill. This was a huge wrench in operations planning, and a direct threat to the Suns security. Are their ships equipped with it? he asked. Some were, initially, Navigator said. But those ships are almost all destroyed, now, although many of the recharge ships have them. As far as I am aware, none of the current Trusted Flotilla ships are equipped with my design, and no one has asked about it in over seventy years. Lord Gordon kept it close to his chest, apparently. How hard is it to build? asked Brandt with interest. Gunderson glared at her. Any factory or shop capable of manufacturing a 22nd Century-quality personal computer could build the unit, Navigator said. Well let that one lay for a bit," Silas said quickly. There had long been bad blood between the Concordat and the Federated Suns, and the last thing he needed right now was a shootout between officers from rival states. Do you have data on the other planets of this group? Certainly. Each world is garrisoned by one A, three B and a varying number of C groups, as well as a single mech lance. Five windows appeared, showing navigation charts, planetary maps and general data on the other five worlds of the Tortugan group. Surprisingly, they all appeared to be very pleasant-looking. How many ships are out at the moment? asked Francese. Four of the Trusted Flotilla three Merchant-class and one Invader, each carrying a mech lance and one or two Mules for commandos and loot, Navigator replied. None are due back for some time... Silas inhaled deeply. Navigator, he said, From this moment forward, you are to treat me as the senior officer on Tortuga. Is that understood? Yes, Sir, Navigator replied. Very well. You are to reveal navigation data and data about yourself to no one but the people in this room, and certain others that I will designate in future, and should any person query you on any subject, you will send a complete transcript to everyone here. Clear? Most certainly, Colonel. I am pleased to be a part of a regular force again. Silas nodded unconsciously, then wondered if Navigator could process images. Worry about that later. Now: Well, folks, information time is over, for the moment. We

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have meetings to attend, operations against the other planets in this system to plan, and we need to figure out what the hell were going to do with this place. Everyone nodded, and turned to walk out. Then, Silas stopped and turned; to the air: Navigator? Yes Sir? I want you to record the next several meetings...And please turn the lights back on. All over town. Of course, Sir. It would be my pleasure.

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18
January 19, 3022 Raider's Roost Tortuga Prime Tortuga Dominions The Periphery

There were too many people to fit into the Fort to have even an open-air meeting. A recovering Trisha Peters and Bradford Gould, her deputy Provost Marshal, finally decided to simply divide the freed slaves into national groups, and have the groups elect representatives. In the end, there were groups from the Federated Suns, the Taurian Concordat (including fifteen hundred survivors of the Euschalus raid, which overjoyed the Lancers and the GVs) and a tiny group from the Outworlds Alliance. What had shocked the invaders were the sheer numbers of slaves present on Tortuga: there were nearly fifteen thousand of them on-planet. Worse, not all of them wanted to go home, or had nowhere else to go: there were large groups of freed slaves from both the Capellan Confederation and the Draconis Combine, but both of those groups were uniform in their desire not to return to those states. That left the locals, who fell into two groups. There were retired pirates and the families of pirates who had survived the Battle of the Roost. For the Demons and Taurians, they were an unknown quantity, as the Tortugans regularly recruited from their population. The other, much more numerous, group were those slaves and descendants of slaves who had escaped the slave pens and drifted Down-River, where they had formed communities living in natural caverns expanded with hand tools. They apparently subsisted on edible River aquatics and a kind of melon native to the planet, which apparently grew like a weed. It was this groups Jeagers (Huntsmen) who had converged in the surrounding hills during Battle of the Roost, and had slaughtered the escaping pirates to the last man. They were bringing in their chief leader from DownRiver, who was apparently old and infirm, but who was supposed to be arriving that day. Together with the Capellans and Kuritans, that left him with figuring out what to do with over eight thousand ex-slaves and their descendants. In the meanwhile, as he waited for the meeting to start with the local worthys arrival, Silas reviewed where they were. The jump-point battle had cost the Marines eighteen dead and thirty-two seriously wounded out of a hundred and ten, as well as four assault buses reduced to spare parts bins. In trade, they had captured ten Jumpships, including a massive Star Lord-class vessel, while having to destroy an eleventh ship to prevent it from transmitting a warning to the pirates that would likely have resulted in the destruction of the Demons and the Taurians. Four of the ten Jumpships, including another Star Lord, were no longer Jumpcapable, and were being stripped for spare parts by the pirates when the fleet arrived. Additionally, the fleet had captured a Merchant-class vessel with a pair of Muleclass merchant dropships loaded with trade goods from Antallos, home of the infamous Port Krin with its open slave markets, when it appeared in-system. Faced with the 98

wreckage of an Invader and the guns of the 127th Pursuit Squadron, the pirates had surrendered, hoping to pass themselves off as simple merchantmen. Silas snorted to himself fat chance. Vince Edwards and Hiram Jakes, once Edwards had made planetfall, had taken on the task of interrogating the captured pirate Jumpship and dropship crews, to determine which crews might be trustworthy crews with that level of skill were too valuable to simply space unless there was no other option. The mech force had six mech-drivers dead; Silas spared a moment of thought for Monte Dingson. Unlike the other dead, Silas had known Monte well, as he had joined the Demons on Galatea and quickly been assigned to the Command Lance of Alpha Company. He had decided to try his luck as a merc after ten years in the Donegal Guards...and had come a very long way to die. At least, Silas thought, he died accomplishing something, for a change unlike most of the war-deaths in the last two hundred-plus years. Nineteen more mechwarriors were wounded seriously enough that they could wait for their mechs to be repaired, including Gabrielle Quinn and Piotr Simonov. The infantry had taken even more of a pounding. The Fifteenth Jump Infantry had sixty-five dead and one hundred eleven wounded, including Enoch Xian, who would require extensive surgery to rebuild his kneecap. The First Infantry Battalion had eightytwo dead and a hundred and fifty-eight wounded; the Second, fifty-three and seventynine, respectively. Donaldson had lost seven of his twenty-five commandos in the Battle of the Roost, along with nine wounded, after suffering a mere five lightly wounded at the slave barracks. The four companies of Taurian GVs had lost ninety-two dead and one hundred and two wounded out of four hundred and fifty. On top of that were the seven dead and twenty-one injured from Support Battalion, injured during the dangerous, highspeed offload at DZ Utah. The aerospace pilots still led charmed lives: not one fighter had been shot down. Twenty-three pirate mechwarriors were taken alive on the field at Badajoz Wash, as well as eight more that Demon MPs had been forced to save from ex-slave lynch mobs; those had been dead-drunk and asleep in apartments inside the Roost when the battle had started and had not been killed in the subsequent fighting. The thirty-one were now in solitary-confinement cells in the bowels of the Fort, while they figured out what to do with them. Over four hundred B and C class pirates, as well as thirty-eight A class, were taken prisoner. They were being held in two separate camps hastily constructed in the Sun Zone, also until the victors could figure out what to do with them. On the other hand, the nearly three hundred qualified Techs and AsTechs who had either been captured or eagerly surrendered were being put to good use, cleaning up the battlefields at the Wash and the spaceport under the direction of the Demon, Roughrider and Taurian techs. The haul on the ground was simply staggering, and not only to Silas. No one including Addy, Edwards or Willie Brandt had suspected that the Tortugan operation was this large. Between the spaceport mech barn, the field of Badajoz Wash and the Fort's own mech hanger, there were nearly four battalions worth of battlemechs on-planet, not counting the Roughriders machines...of course, an even half of them were basically

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spare parts, and every one of the rest needed serious maintenance. Silas had decided to have Paula Trevalines Warhammer ejected into the local sun he didnt want even the taint of her spare parts in one of his mechs. The other mechwarriors all agreed. There were some surprises among the mechs, all the same. There were the hulks of three Flashman and two Black Knight mechs that dated from the Star League. Most of those mechs cousins had either left with General Kerensky when he took the SLDF out of the Inner Sphere, or were destroyed in the subsequent wars; and with the factories that built them slagged into radioactive rubble, there was no focusing on difficult reverse engineering of complex designs. Silas Chief Tech, Eric Dornan, and Milo Thompson, who had come over with David Wilson, thought that, with schematic help from the Navigator, they could build Frankensteins combining the parts of the destroyed mechs to make one functional unit of each type. Silas told them to work on it after getting as many of the other mainline mechs back into working order as possible. What brightened all the mechwarriors day, though, was the discovery at the spaceport mech barn of what was a treasure only to mechwarriors: the almost-intact remains of Mackie #058. The Mackie was the very first Battlemech ever built, almost six hundred years before, in 2439. The Terran Hegemony Armed Forces, the HAF, had ordered three hundred chassis of the MSK-6S for field-testing; this mech was number fifty-eight of that run. It was essentially a wreck, now, but all concerned wanted to restore it to at least museum-display condition. The piles of loot and raw materials were not overly surprising, even given their sheer size, running to over six hundred thousand tons of raw ores, and nearly eighty-five thousand tons of various types of loot, including everything from consumer electronics and hydroponics farms (which Silas had immediately ordered to be set up to increase food production) to jewelry and rare silks. All the same, Trevor Sevon had nearly had a heart attack when he saw the storehouses. There were large numbers of vehicles parked in warehouses near the Sun Zone that had been taken off of captured merchantmen, including a hundred Hetzers and thirtyone Scorpion Light Tanks, both made by Quiksell Industries; twenty-three Defiance APCs like the one the Demons used, and five TechniCorp Manitcore Heavy Tanks. In hangers at the spaceport, the invaders found over one hundred aerospace and atmospheric fighters and helicopters. Mostly old models, like the Ajax, Saber and Thunderbird, there were more common airframes, like the Davion Corsair and the Kurita Shologar. Only about half were capable of flying, however. What was truly staggering, however, was the dropship armada at the port. Silas and Addy, as well as the other veteran officers, had all seen larger fleets but not very often. Counting the ships shot down by Maria Gutierrezs fighters, there were no fewer than eighty-four dropships grounded when the port was captured. Twenty-six were essentially wrecks, good only for spare parts, and twenty-nine others needed major work in order to fly again, but the remaining twenty-nine could fly tomorrow if they had the crews for them. On the maintenance and destroyed list were some other striking oddities: rare Avenger and Leopard CV assault ships and aerospace fighter-carriers, and even old Star League Defense Force Confederate-class battlemech lance transports.

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On the civilian side, there were the ubiquitous Mule-class transports, but there were also a surprising number of gargantuan Mammoth-class freighters as well. The odd one there was an actual Federated Suns Navy warship, the FSN Ernest Rutherford, a fleet tanker rigged to carry thirty-five thousand tons of reaction mass to resupply fighter depots and fleet carriers. Her surviving crew were found in cells at the port, where the pirates had been torturing them for the ships access codes, as the Navigator had stalled, telling the pirates that it could not break the FSN lockout codes. All in all, Silas reflected, this had to be one of the richest hauls in history...but he considered the price damned high. Looking up from his notepad, Silas saw that everyone was here, except for the local escapees leader. I need to get this ball rolling, he thought. Ill just delay the locals issues as long as I can. All right, everyone, he began, lets get started...

*~*~*~*

Wilhelmina Brandt was conflicted. Normally, she would have taken the lead roll on something like this as if anything like this had been written into the books as she was the senior Taurian officer present. Oolahn Jerrods and TMMs contractual jumpingjacks with the Demons aside, she was still one of the senior officers of the Taurian Defense Forces, even if she was on the inactive list only because there werent enough slots as Marshals for her to advance. This meeting was essentially a reverse of her briefing on New Vandenberg Silas Drake was now in the pilots couch. She studied Drake as sat, reviewing his notes; she had to acknowledge the butterflies in her stomach that she was feeling whenever she considered that Drake was a widower, and that the Demons third-in-command, Tammy MacDougal, was more like a favorite cousin to Drake than a love interest. What worried her was the possibility that those feelings were clouding her judgment. There were a lot of issues to be settled concerning the disposition of this group of worlds, and All right, everyone, Drake said, raising his voice, lets get started... Just then, a commotion arose at the back of the hall. A party of locals, those the Demons and Taurians had come to think of as Outside The Roost as opposed to Inside The Roost made its way through the crowd of freed slave and Demon and Taurian MPs. At their center shuffled a stooped old man, walking with the aid of...a walker? Willie Brandt had only seen pictures of such things most infirm people in the Concordat moved with the aid of motorized wheelchairs. The old man got around the end of the seven chairs set aside for the slaves and locals, looking for an empty seat; Willie was pleased to see both George Molner, the Concordat representative, and Adolph Reagon, from the Federated Suns, both immediately jump up and shift down one chair, so that the old man did not have to walk that far. He nodded politely to them as he sat. Turning to Silas, he said, Please excuse my impertinence, Colonel Im a bit slow, these days...

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Silas started to respond but Addy Gunderson, shocked and white-faced, cut him off Professor Groesvenor?! The old man lifted a single lens from an old pair of spectacles to his right eye and peered at Addy Young Master...Gunderson, I believe? Yes, quite. Older, and more scars than you came to Albion with I see perhaps you learned something after all? My GOD, sir! What are you doing here?! To the crowds confused looks: Professor Groesvenor was my Biology professor at Albion. Groesvenor humphed at Gunderson's alarm. I took a sabbatical seven years ago to study a newly discovered species of lotus flower on Skepptana; it had apparently mutated in the local environment, and had started producing some interesting chemicals. Unfortunately, I never got to study it. I wasnt on planet two days hadnt even unpacked, in fact when the planet was raided by Paula Trevaline. I was brought here, apparently to be sold on Antallos as a tutor or some such nonsense. I tried to escape once, and they broke my ankles with a mallet for my troubles; I managed to get out later with the help of some other slaves, and floated Down-River. Unfortunately, the ankles never healed correctly. The Riftians took me in, and for reasons I am still unaware of, decided that I should be named their leader. And here I am. Then...you control the Jeagers? Silas asked. Some of them the smarter ones, who live longer follow me. At least they pay attention to my lectures on guerilla warfare. Victoria Norman looked at Addy. "I thought you said he was a biology teacher." Professor, young lady please give me my due, Groesvenor said sternly. Willie Brandt among others stifled a laugh; Victoria Norman was thirty-nine. I hold PhDs in Biology and History from New Syrtis and New Avalon Universities, respectively, in addition to BAs in Economics and Philosophy from the Kestrel Lyceum, as well as one in Physics from the Star College of Kathil and I taught at the premier war academy of the Federated Suns for over twenty-five years. One would assume that twenty-five years at a battle academy is enough time to pick up something of the military art via osmosis. I stand corrected, Sir. Apologies. Willie could see that Vickie was trying desperately to hide a smile. Groesvenor then speared Gunderson with a glare that only a professor could muster. Still cavorting with the Breakfast Club, Master Gunderson? Willie looked at Gunderson; she had heard of the Breakfast Club Gunderson didnt strike her as the type...but that went out the window when he saw the look on Gunderson's face. No, Sir that chapter is closed, Gunderson said with a stone-face. No humility but a very dangerous tone that unsettled those in the room. Groesvenor peered at him through his one lens. A pity, he said after a moment. I pulled a lot of strings to get you in. Gunderson did not reply, but merely looked at Silas. Well! Silas said with mock brightness; Willie saw that he, too, was confused by the change in mood. Interesting. How should we enter you into the record? As Costas, Lord of the Rift...That is how the Riftians wish to honor me. If there were any rancor on his part for the sudden volte-face with Gunderson, Willie noted, Groesvenor concealed it well.

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Very well, Silas said, nodding to the Demons chief admin secretary, Staff Sergeant Season Mistler, at her station with a dictatel. Before we review where we are and where we're going, does anyone he said, indicating primarily the seven people before him from the planet, have anything? The woman representing the locals from inside the city hesitantly raised her hand. Yes, Ms...Puzinski? Silas said, reading from a list of names. Haltingly, she stood, clearly terrified by what she saw as Silas power and authority. S-sahr, she said haltingly, we-weez wantin ta say tu yaz that weez not bad fokes her Roost accent was thick enough that Willie had to listen carefully to what she was saying jus that weez no nutin else. Aint no body gives us nudder choyse, yeh? Yaz eedah joins da gun-boys, lays on da back, er slings beer n whiskey. Dat all weez no, yeh? Pleez, sah, don be killin ar men-foke unner da Sun yaz ghots ahl aught der..." Silas steepled his fingers to cover his expression. Dammit, he thought, this was a tough call, and one right at the start. His first inclination was to simply space the pirates he had in the camps in the Sun Zone, since he wasnt certain that they could be rehabilitated...but then, there were Sharon Bustamontes, Hiram Jakes and their crews to consider unlike Edwards, they had been voluntary pirates, like the Tortugans, but in almost two years of operating with them, they had only seemed happy to not be raiders anymore. Well, Ms Puzinski, there is a lot of bad blood among the freed people towards those men, yes? A nod. I will not make a promise to you that I cannot keep, so I will not promise that all of the men in those camps will be set free. But I will promise you that any man condemned to death or prison will have a fair and public trial, and that any man not condemned will be set free. Thats the best that I can offer you on that. Puzinski nodded jerkily and sat down; Willie was convinced that the poor woman was just relieved that Silas hadnt shot her or worse for standing up. Anyone else? Silas asked. Maryland Wassil, from the Outworlds Alliance, raised her hand. Ms. Wassil? he asked. She stood as well. When can we go home, Colonel? she asked. There were murmurs of assent from the crowd. Im glad you asked that, Ms Wassil. Thats at the heart of what were doing here. Unfortunately, Im afraid that you will all have to wait a bit longer. There are five other planets in this group, and all of them have pirate bases with slaves; those people have to be rescued as well, and our shipping is limited, until we can get ships re-crewed. Im sorry, but it may take a couple of months we weren't prepared for the sheer numbers of you... Now just a minute, said Reagon, standing up; he had a petty, overly officious air about his pudgy frame, Willie thought typical Fed-Rat. Theres no reason the Suns and Taurian citizens couldnt go home, right now. I happen to know exactly where we are, Colonel, and we are only six Jumps from Broken Wheel... And, as I explained, Baron Reagon Do not interrupt me, Colonel! I am the Bar Shut up, Adolph, Gunderson said languidly, youre embarrassing everyone from the Suns. How DARE you, you little runt! I am

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Faster than anyone realized, Gunderson was out of his chair, around the table and had closed the distance to Reagon in three strides, his mechwarrior spurs striking sparks on the flagstones as he strode. He put his face directly into Reagon's nose, less than a millimeter away, it seemed. In a near-whisper: "I said: Shut. Your. Mouth. Or I will shut it for you. I am the fourth son of the Duke of Abbeville, and First Cousin to Hiram Edgar, Duke of Broken Wheel. I am a Knight of Davion by the Hand of Ian and hold the Robinson Medal of Valor from the hand of Duke Sandoval himself. You will sit you will be silent or I will have Cousin Hiram investigate why you still have that paunch he said, poking Reagons still-ample belly, while other Citizens and Officers of the Federated Suns have starved in this place...If I dont shoot you for treason, myself. He glared at Reagon until the man sat back down, a patently terrified look on his face. When Gunderson turned to walk back to his seat, Willie saw why for a split second, the mask Gunderson wore remain... Something with teeth looked back at her. Willie Brandt was chilled to the bone. As he sat, Gunderson nodded to Silas. Apologies for the interruption. Not at all, Leftenant-Colonel. As I was saying we need to move on. Ms Harbolt? Ms Stromberg? Do you have anything? Mr. Molner? Good. Thank you. Now we have to determine just what we are going to do with this world, and the others in this group. Paula Trevalines reign of terror is over, and at a high price, but what now? This decision will affect how we handle the other worlds in the group. As I see it, we have three options. One. Leave evacuate all slaves and anyone who wishes to go, scoop up all the loot we can, and take off, blowing all the facilities on-planet as we leave. The haul from this planet, once sold and disbursed, could make a nice little nest egg for everyone here. Two. Dig in, and set up our own polity. We have a six-planet confederacy, and despite the reports, I dont see a great deal of mining activity. If the other worlds are as fertile as reports have led me to believe, saying nothing about the Navigator, then we can be self-sufficient in basics out of the gate. We have an excellent Jump and Drop fleet here, as well as a highly professional military force, and a willing civilian population. With the ex-Capellans and -Kuritans wanting a new start, plus the Capellans and the Demon dependants on Celentaro, as well as the locals, they had a pretty good population and knowledge base. Three. Same as Two dig in but ask to join a larger polity. That would give us access to more forces, as well as markets for goods. Comments? Well, Gunderson said, shifting a bit in his chair, if it comes to a vote, I would have to definitely vote against Option One. Even if we had the explosives to thoroughly reduce the planet to rubble, that doesnt change the physical makeup of the system itself. Once were gone, every pirate band and rogue merc unit in space will head straight here to set up shop, and in thirty years, well be right back to where we were two weeks ago...but the next unit wont have it so easy. We got lucky, here not everyone will be as sloppy as Trevaline. Trevor Sevons hand came up. Silas noted that he was sitting very close to Paula Cordell... Yes, Trevor?

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Sevon stood. While I agree fully with Colonel Gunderson, I would have to vote against Two, as well, Sir. Why? Silas asked. Economics, Sevon said; Groesvenor was nodding. This world is more industrialized than any in the group, but only at the level of simple machining. It has extensive mech repair facilities, but there is no heavy industry no way of making the tools to make the tools, if you will, and the spacers werent creating new parts for the Jumpships, they were just doing what amounts to battle salvage. It will require heavy investment by firms with serious capitol to get us into any state beyond that of farmers... What about the loot? asked Lionel Crozier, the Demons Personnel Administration Officer; Willie knew he had a BA in Accounting. Sevon shook his head. Wont work, either. At best, wed get a fast cash infusion that might pay salaries for a year or two and build some small facilities. Not enough. Another thing to consider, said Tonsha Bushaw, her ebony-skinned hand pushing back a strand of hair, is that, if we declare ourselves independent, we won't have any defense agreements with our neighbors which means that every merc and pirate group looking to displace us will come calling. Even if we got every mech working and found pilots for them, and recruited enough people to fill out our non-mech ranks expand, even were still only talking a single regiment of mechs, give or take...How long before theres nothing but a mech lance and an infantry platoon? Well, Silas said, thats narrowing it down to Option Three. Addy? What about the Suns? Would Hanse Davion take us in? Willie tensed suddenly why, she wondered. Not a chance, Gunderson said decisively. Extending the Broken Wheel Combat Region to cover the Dominions would be the height of foolishness for the Suns, and Hanse Davion knows it. Trying that would kick the Piranha Principle into overdrive: it would likely spark a war with the Concordat, who would view it as an attempt to make an end run around their flank, while at the same time would force too great a diversion of assets in shipping and combat units to not attract the attention of the Combine and the Confederation...That, and you open yourself to replacement at any time a significant look at the humiliated Adolph Reagon: join the Suns, and run the risk of having someone like him put in charge Hanse Davion likely wouldnt do that, but he wont be alive forever. Noted, Silas replied. Willie looked at his face he was keeping it blandly neutral. Suddenly, her eyes widened...I think I see where this is going, he said, looking directly at her. Comptroller? Do you think the Concordat would want us? he said, a small grin on his face. A huge knot arose in her throat, a billion things flowing through all at once. Barely, she retained enough control to stammer out Ah, well, ah, I would think so, but, ah, Im not even sure if that's legal... Certainly, it is, said a voice from the crown. Making his way forward came Subaltern Ned de Palme, one of the senior GV officers (Taurian ranks were odd Subaltern was roughly equal in rank to a Major); his arm was still in a sling, but his face was healing nicely from the shrapnel hed take from a nearby RPG hit. Just then, Willie remembered that de Palme had once been a Judge in the Concordia Courts, the Judiciary branch of the Concordat government.

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May it please the Court, de Palme said formally, nodding to SSGT Mistler, for the record, I am the Honorable Nedrow de Palme, former Chief Justice of the Third Circuit Court of the Concord for New Vandenberg. I served three terms on the Court of Judicial Review, reviewing the legality of the Protectors actions for presentation to the Senate of the Concord. When it comes to the legal aspect of the Taurian Concordat, Sir, you are hardpressed to find anyone with a better knowledge of the Concordats laws. He was also something of a blowhard, Willie remembered, which had likely cost him the last election, when he had been a little too vociferous in attacking the Protectors failure to deal with the pirate situation. The legal precedent for accepting this group of worlds into the Concordat, he began, dates from the First Expansion, that settled the worlds beyond the Hyades Cluster, starting with New Vandenberg. Any colony founded by Taurian Citizens is automatically a part of the Concordat, by default, unless the said citizens decide via nonblind plebiscite to not ask to join. Translation: if Taurian Citizens claim a world, that worlds inhabitants have the right to not join the Concordat, as long as they win a public plebiscite to that effect. The only exception is worlds conquered for military necessity and even then, those worlds must be given the right to the plebiscite within twenty years of the conquest, if they have a permanent, non-military population. What about applications to join? asked Gunderson. Same thing, but understand that you would have to conform to the Concordats governmental and legal structure in all things, as well as its educational standards and policies. "What about the Protector? Do you think he would accept it? asked Paula Cordell. Her hand was on top of Trevors. De Palme and Willie looked at each other; a slight shrug. Even if he doesnt, de Palme said, he cant overrule the Senate on this. Now, he might say that he cant spare forces to protect this place, but as long as we keep the Demons independent of the main TDF structure as Noble House Regiment, thats not any real impediment, until money starts flowing in from commercial operations here, which would increase the budget allocation for merc units... ...Which would free up forces for an independent Corps, Willie finished. Damn, that was a great idea! Well, Silas said, looking around, I think that will bring it down to a vote among the Demons and the freed Citizens as to whether we join the Concordat or stay independent. Comments? None? Great lets break for a bit, and reconvene in, say, an hour? Then we can get on with the planning.

As the meeting broke up temporarily, Willie Brandt was lost in the swirl of people, but after some time she was finally taken by an aide up to Silas offices high up in the Fort. Two Demon MPs stood guard outside his door; they saluted properly as she entered not like regular mercenaries at all, she thought. As she entered, she saw that there were six people already present Silas, Gunderson, Trisha Peters, Trevor Sevon, Paula Cordell and Adolph Reagon? What?

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Come on in, Willie, Silas said, eyes dancing. Man! That was great! He met her with a glass of champagne real champagne, apparently, from Earth. I, uh, she couldnt help but stare at Reagon gone was the petty, humiliated nobleman, replaced with a friendly, jovial kibitzer. Gunderson was smiling like the cat that ate the canary. Willie, Id like you to meet Adolph Reagon, Baron Duplese, Knight of the Federated Suns. Reagon extended his hand, Pleasure to meet you, Comptroller, he said. Sorry for the deception, but it was necessary, Im afraid. Im not sure I understand, she said; she was starting to think someone was playing a horrid joke on her. Gunderson caught her mood. Silas, Trevor and I had already decided what the Demons needed to do, he said quickly, but the problem was how to make them want to do it. Everything that was said in there about the Suns was the absolute truth, but its one thing to have it presented in open debate, quite another to have it issued from on high. And you two? she said, indicating Gunderson and Reagon. Necessary to nip any pro-Suns faction in the bud, Im afraid, Reagon said. I can play the numb-nutz quite well, when necessary throws everyone off into talking in front of me. How do you two know each other, then? Before we landed, we didnt Gunderson replied. We met only after we liberated the ransom apartments. It's the way hereditary nobility works we know each other via friends of friends...Well, all, Gunderson said brightly, a gleam in his eye, lets start heading downstairs. The group quickly too quickly thanked Silas for the champagne, and vacated the room, leaving Willie and Silas alone. Willie found her heart beginning to race. Willie, Silas said quietly, stepping around his desk, this isnt an easy thing for me. It looks like well be here for a while, and...Id...well...Id like you to stay... She reached out, and gently touched his face...

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19
July 23, 3022 Aboard Jumpship Bucephalus Tortuga Prime Tortuga Protective Zone Taurian Concordat The Periphery

It had been a busy seven months. After defeating Trevalines pirates on Tortuga, the Demons and Taurians had methodically jumped to and seized the other five worlds in the Dominions. Only on New Haiti did the Taurians meet any real resistance; the B and C garrison teams had fled into the hinterland, and were still trying to wage a guerrilla war. The net result had been three hundred more pirates captured, and another four thousand slaves released, in trade for two mechs destroyed (both on New Haiti), and fourteen infantry troopers dead from both the First and Second Infantry. A total of twelve thousand people had to be moved five thousand each to the Federated Suns and the Taurian Concordat, and another two thousand to the Outworlds Alliance were shipped home on the Demons new fleet, the Suns citizens to Broken Wheel, the Taurians as far as Celentaro. Seven thousand former slaves, almost all from the Capellan Confederation and the Draconis Combine, elected to remain in the Dominions under Taurian rule. Using the pirate jump stations, none of which put up a fight (many actually begged to surrender, having been stuck there for months), Broken Wheel was a mere week distant, Celentaro, three weeks. According to Wilhelmina Brandt, their return had forced a stunning sea change in the Concordat, almost literally overnight. After dropping the Taurian citizens on Celentaro, she, Victoria Norman and Ned de Palme had hurried to Taurus to report first to the Protector, then to the Senate. They never got quite that far. They had met Oolahn Jerrod at the spaceport, and briefed him on the way he had been ecstatic; they had arrived, he said, during the Protector's meeting with the Marshals, so he was confident of a good outcome. For once, Oolahn Jerrod could not have been more wrong. Thomas Calderon was furious that Jerrod had made an end run around him, angrier that Brandt had gone along with it, and personally outraged that Norman had used her own time to go pirate hunting. He might have calmed down, Willie said, and accepted their fait accompli, until he reviewed the Demons personnel roster the presence of a Knight of Davion on the Demons staff exploded in a terrifying spectacle as Calderon went sub-orbital. He had raved incoherently about invasions, traitors and spies, flinging their hardcopy report into the air, then had done the unthinkable: screaming hysterically, he ordered the arrests of Brandt and de Palme as spies and traitors and of Norman as a deserter, then ordered the horrified Marshals to launch an immediate preemptive strike against the Altair PDZ, ordered New Syrtis to be burned to bare rock! then ordered Jerrod to assassinate Hanse Davion.

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Before Jerrod could shoot him on the spot, Cory Calderon Thomas distant cousin and Marshal of the First Corps stood, drew his pistol, and informed the Protector that he was very ill, and no longer fit to rule. Thomas had suffered an apparent aneurysm, and collapsed to the floor. As he was taken from the room by medics, Marshal Calderon had summoned one of Thomas nieces, Colonel Brenda Calderon, commander of the Taurian Guard, from training on the Shipperton Mech Range on the other side of the world. As soon as she was off of the dropship, she was rushed to the Senate floor which body had convened in emergency session and was told privately by Cory and the other Marshals what had occurred, and that she was needed to head a regency, until a suitable successor could be named, since all of Thomas children were very much minors. Despite her somewhat strident misgivings, she had finally agreed. Cory Calderon rose to the occasion, making an impassioned speech to the Senate to accept Brenda as the new Protector then resigned as Marshal, saying that he would not have anyone getting the idea that he had staged a coup for his own benefit, and exhorting the Senate to approve his deputy, Comptroller Hadji Doru, as his replacement. Doru was the youngest Comptroller in Concordat history, and had been slated for Marshal as soon as someone retired, anyway. The Senate, stunned at the days events Taurian policies of openness being what they were, nothing had been left to the imagination swiftly approved Brenda Calderon's ascension to the regency Protectorship. Inside of a week, sweeping changes were instituted in the Senate, approved both on the floor and by the Concordia Courts, opening colonization efforts and unfettering businesses from reserving significant chunks of their production capacity for military use, the better to grow the economy and thus increase revenue. The Far Lookers movement went wild with celebrations, and immediately began assembling three separate colony groups, including one to return with Willie and de Palme. There were significant changes in the TDF, as well. For the first time in over a hundred years, the three regiments of the Taurian Guard Corps would deploy outside the Hyades Cluster, to reinforce the three mainline corps', in order to chase down and destroy any pirates still out there, make a show of force along the Suns, Capellan and Magistracy borders, and parade for the crowds. Most significantly, a Fourth Corps (Provisional) of the TDF was created, commanded by a reactivated Wilhelmina Brandt with a promotion to Marshal. The provisional part was because, by Taurian standards, it was dangerously under-strength: it would be composed of the Demons, in the role of a Noble Family Regiment, and two brand new regiments: the Taurian Uhlans and the Calderon Rifles. The former currently consisted of a single mech company of volunteers commanded by Comptroller-Designate Victoria Norman; the latter, a single administrative platoon under the command of Subaltern Lakita Jinright. Jinright was to start recruiting from the locals in the region. For the lack of forces, Fourth Corps mission was a critical one: maintain a rapid line of communication with the Outworlds Alliance. That had kept Willie awake at night on the journey home she could say that, now, as she and Silas had had long talks as they journeyed to New Jamaica, having decided that to be a far more congenial name as a capitol than Tortuga Prime. Silas Drake had been proposed by the Regent Protector and confirmed by the Senate as the titular Duke of Tortuga, with the authority to rename the region if he chose;

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Johannes Drake, James Blakely and Vincent Edwards were named Barons at Silas discretion, and Commodores of the Fleet. Adonais Rene Harcourt Gunderson, Knight of Davion, was awarded a special letter of thanks by Senate resolution which drew comments in newssheets for weeks. Having just arrived back, there was one last thing to do before settling in to build a province out here with the polyglot admix of nations and peoples. Long months before, as they were making final plans for the invasion of Tortuga, one of Jim Blakelys sensor operators had spotted a derelict ship hiding in the rings of a planet one Jump out from Tortuga. It was probably a worthless wreck, but it would be one last adventure before the drudgery and back-breaking labor of carving a decent place to raise families out of the wilderness got started in earnest. Everyone seemed to know it instinctively, so much of the command staff were along for the ride... ...Silas was brought back to the now by Willies touch on his hand. Looking at her, he followed her mischievous grin... ...But honey, Trisha Peters was saying, as she tugged playfully at Addy Gundersons sleeve, how are you going to vote? It was all Silas could do not to laugh at the helpless look on Gundersons face...

*~*~*~*

...but honey," Trisha Peters said, "how are you going to vote? Hmm? Addy said in reply; he was engrossed in the Bucs sensor scan. Dont know this whole voting thing is new for me. The last time I voted on anything was when I was at Albion, and we voted for class president. Ill tell you this, he said, resting his hand on hers without looking away from the reader, I dont want to raise children in a place called Tortuga... Trisha made a mew You are no fun, she said in a mock-pout. One minute Ugh, Trisha thought, I so HATE space travel! Jump Trisha as always faithfully gripped her barf bag, even though she had taken the precaution of not eating in the four hours prior to the jump. She looked at Addy he was still popping his jaw, as if the air pressure was changing; everyone reacted to JumpTransition differently. Silas, she knew Duke Silas had about her reaction, as well. Blakelys voice came over the comm Alright, everyone, weve arrived insystem. All points are clear. Sail deploying. Briefing in Flag Plot in twenty. They were still getting ships modified for the Navigators power jacks, and with getting the slaves moved around, there just wasnt any time for a major overhaul. That, however, was scheduled for their return from this mission.

*~*~*~*

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The week before the attack on Tortuga began, the Taurian fleet had laid over in the system they were now in to recharge their drives and finalize their attack plans. While they were laid over with sails deployed, Chief Petty Officer Jackson, the OmniScan operator, had detected a large vessel hiding in the magnificent rings of a gas giant in the outer system. More than two hundred years before, the Star League had brought mankind to the height of a golden age of technology. When the League collapsed, after over twenty years of savage warfare that saw Humanitys oldest colony worlds including Terra itself virtually destroyed, the resulting wars of attrition among the surrounding, so-called Successor States had killed billions of scientists and technicians, and rolled technological progress back to barely that of the early 22nd Century, and that only in some military systems. In many other areas, even that of interstellar flight, Humanity barely operated at better than mid- to late-20th Century tech...and many planets had fallen much farther. In most cases, this had caused the curious situation where a newly manufactured item was of inferior quality and ability than a battered device over a century old. As a result, a new industry had developed over the last two centuries: Lostech Recovery. Lostech was a term used to describe recovered technological items that still functioned. Recovering any technology from the League era was something major states took deadly serious...and here, in this uncharted system in mostly-unsettled space, lay an old ship that might still hold a treasure trove of high technology. When the Bucephalus appeared at the systems zenith point, CPO Jackson was ready. Danika Ellison, the EWO (Electronic Warfare Officer), was also standing by, ready to offset any randomly appearing white noise that might appear. Since the battle at the Tortuga zenith point, the two had become inseparable, and had worked out a plan to suppress any jamming they encountered. As soon as the crew recovered from the effects of jump, Jackson and Ellison got to work; within an hour, they had located the derelict it would be a four-day haul by dropship. John van Zandt, recovered from his hip wound received while boarding the pirate Star Lord (now renamed the Lake Elsinore), would lead the boarding party. He and his Company First Sergeant, Steven O'Halloran, would lead separate sections on two boats, escorted by Delva Bentons Invisible Moon and Alastaire McKellens 222nd Aero Group. Van Zandts Marines would be escorting a pair of lostech recovery specialists who had quickly surrendered to the Demon MPs after the Battle of the Roost. Courtney Herzfeld and Boyd BB Bolser had been sometime-pirates who had been beached after declining to participate in further pirate operations. They had found a home scrounging and acting as go-betweens for the Roughriders, going so far as to aid escaping slaves in getting to the Roughrider perimeter. They were more than happy to turn their talents to use for Silas.

Presently, the boats launched, followed by the Invisible Moon (along for fire support, just in case the derelict wasnt), the Bacchus Plateau, carrying the assault teams in their boats and the Leopard CV-class carrier Aurellian Knight. The Knight was one of

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the dropships captured during the invasion of Tortuga. Finding it to be intact and fully functional, the Demon/Taurian force immediately put it to use. Late of the Free Worlds Navy, Darnell Shawn had risen to the rank of LieutenantCommander the old fashioned way: an aggressive nature mated to a finely-tuned (some would say obsessive) attention to detail and a good eye for knowing when to bend the rules. Working with a single long-service Air Master from the Taurian Navy, one Dominic Gursky, they canvassed the spacers cleared by the Provost Marshal as reasonably trustworthy and chose seven of the youngest they could find. They had spent the last six months drilling them relentlessly, until they snapped-to like the finest long-service crews in any Successor State fleet. The Leopard CV-class ships had been designed specifically for fleet operations, and contained six bays for fighters of up to 100 tons. On this trip, they would be keeping two fighters out at all times not because they were expecting trouble, but because Darnell Shawn tended to think large and the fleet at Tortuga had gotten his juices flowing... The little fleet accelerated towards the outer system at 1g, and the crews and assault teams settled down for the four-day hike... *~*~*~* The scene was surreal. If a person shipped in space long enough, they were bound to see some pretty strange things. For the salvage party, this ranked up there with the strangest since arriving at the planet, everyone not actively piloting the dropships was glued to the portholes. The gas giant had an equatorial radius of just less than sixty-five thousand kilometers, and a polar radius of just over sixty thousand. Its ring system was one of the most spectacular ever recorded there were two ring bodies parallel to each other, both resting at about 20 above and below the planetary equator. The rings were composed of uncountable trillions of rocks, ranging in size from smaller than a grain of sand, to boulders larger than an assault mech. According to the spectrometers, the rocks were about seventy percent Urushan ore, which had gotten both Herzfeld and Bolser literally hopping up and down, because the Urushan, they said would block most damage from cosmic radiation...And tucked into a geostationary orbit over the giant's equator, smackdead center in between the rings, lay the derelict. Inside the Invisible Moon, Silas and Addy waited with the other non-spacers in the vehicle bay. They had rigged four of the Demons Defiant-6 Command vehicles in pairs, back-to-back, forming a command bivvy with a field holo-projector in the center that was tied into the Moons external sensors. Silas touched a control on his armmounted perscomp: Captain Van Zandt boat launch is at your discretion. Copy that, Six. Stand by. In the boat attached to a hull hatch on the Bacchus Plateau, Van Zandt looked over at Bolser. Well? The lostech hunter nodded, eyes fixed on the screen. Lets do it, he said. Bacchus, this is Boat One, requesting clearance, over.

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MARDET Away all boats. Away all boats, aye. He nodded to the coxswain. Lets go. Bumps and clanks, as the boat disengaged from its field clamps; a shove of acceleration. Boat Two, moving at the same speed, fell in off their port quarter. Beyond, the Knight had launched Alastaire McKellen and Ariana Hamsher in their Corsair fighters to escort the boats. They moved ahead of the assault boats, scanning the ship. McKellen, a spacer with long experience assessing a potential combat environment with that most ancient of sensors, the Eyeball Mark 1, instantly saw that something about the derelict was strange in the extreme. Moon, Tri-Deuce Lead. Can you run a mass-spectro on the target? Something about it looks weird. Stand by, Tri-Deuce Lead. Delva Benton started her scan; something about the derelict was bothering her, as well. Below, in the vehicle bay, Gunderson peered intently at the holo, as it displayed Benton's scanner readout. What the hell? Gunderson whispered. Silas, Willie and Trisha leaned in close. What? Silas asked. Before Gunderson could answer: Uhhhh...Bacchus? Knight? Can you guys get a reading on that? I think my scanner is off... Negative, Moon Bacchus gets it too... answered Domingo Schildt, Captain of the Bacchus Plateau. Same here, replied Darnell Shawn. I show her massing about 25% more than normal for a Monolith... Silas looked at Addy. Thoughts? Gunderson shook his head. Not a clue. A new voice sounded; after a moment, the holo sectioned her details into the display. Its a Star League military transport, Courtney Herzfeld said over her commlink. Theyre heavily armored, and have maneuver drives that let them dive into a system to hide, if need be; thats how it got here...Scanners show her with a full load of dropships, massive ones...JESUS, BB! I think theyre all Mammoths! Negative, came Bolsers voice, "negative...Im reading Collar #5 as a Fortress...but, yeah...Wow... Silas whistled low and wasnt the only one. Mammoth-class dropships were among the biggest merchant dropships still flying. Massing over fifty thousand tons, they could carry up to forty thousand tons of cargo; if loaded solely with battlemechs, they could carry more than two hundred and fifty. Silas could not remember hearing of any find in recent memory that was this big. Okay, McKellen was saying, MARDETCO, hang back and let us run a flyby... Copy that. The pair of Corsairs began a lazy flyby of the massive vessel. McKellen, flying on autopilot, peered closely at the ship as he went by, looking for signs of major damage, from either combat or natural hazard. He saw nothing. Weird, he said. What? asked Bolser. I dont see any signs of damage, at least nothing major... He came around the bow. Definitely a Star League vessel, he radioed. Theres a huge Cameron Star the Star League symbol on the bow. From the markings on the rim, I make her to be the SLS Hanjin-ni Maru. Dropships are not Mammoths Ive never seen them before;

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confirm Collar #5 as a Fortress... On board the Invisible Moon, Silas and Addy shared a look; Gunderson shook his head he had never heard of the ship. Van Zandt looked at Bolser far from the eager look he expected, Bolser was chewing his lip in thought. Your call, Van Zandt said. Bolser looked at him. Then Take us towards the bridge, and have Two head for the aft section Courtney is the better engineer. Okay. As he radioed the two boats coxswains to move in, Van Zandt reflected that Bolser was nothing like what he had expected in a treasure hunter he was extremely careful, methodical reticent, even. Bolser caught his expression. Ive buried too many friends, he said. Speed kills.

As the boats moved in, Bolser had the coxswain slowly curve around the exterior of the neck of the ship, just behind the bridge section. Van Zandt noted that it was far thicker than any schematic of a Monolith he had ever seen. From his station at the scanner terminal, Bolser said I got into this business when I found an old SLDF Navy ROTC Reserve Officer Training Cadre manual called Ships of the Fleet, he said. The SLDF Transport Command heavily armored their ships to give them a chance to run and hide if they got bounced by an enemy force. They would give them pretty good maneuver drives, to let them jaunt around the system, then would balance that with expanded facilities after of the bridge for surveillance and fleet command facilities, then balance those by armoring the spine, which also allowed them to install more cargo space and fuel tanks... How much did you sell it for? asked Van Zandt, a gleam in his eye. Five hundred C-Bill... replied Bolser, smiling. BB?, came Herzfelds voice there was some consternation in her voice. Weve got a problem... Bolser had frozen in his armor. What is it, hon? He was trying to sound casual...and failing. BB something isnt right, here. The blow-outs have been re-stepped... Van Zandts mind chewed on that it didnt make any sense. He looked at Bolser Are you sure? Bolser asked, a completely confused look on his face. Totally. Theres flameout damage at the numbers 3, 4 and 5 blowout panels between ring-struts 6-0 and 6-1...But the panels have been re-stepped. Over? On the Invisible Moon, Silas looked at Addy. Translation? Gunderson had sat back in his chair, a deep scowl on his face. A common reason for a mis-Jump is violent dissociation of the molecular structure of the transfer coil assembly basically, the Jump coils burn out suddenly, and release their stored energy in what amounts to a God-awful big explosion. To keep from blowing the ship apart from atmospheric compression, the hull sections over Jump Engineering have pre-stressed blow-out panels that are designed to fail, allowing the explosion to get out of the ship quickly. But if the ship suffered a coil failure, and the crew had the gear to repair the coils, that would have been the only reason to re-step the hatches. Gunderson looked not at Silas, but through him. So if they fixed the coils...why are they still here?

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On board Assault Boat One, Bolser thought the same thing, and told Van Zandt as much. What do you think? he asked the lostech hunter. After a moment Bring everyone in through the bridge, he said. Ive heard of some weird things, but this is getting pretty out there. *~*~*~*

Twelve Days Later The group sat in the flag plot room of the Bucephalus; the Hanjin-ni Maru floated sedately, as Blakelys handpicked prize crew prepped the derelict for tow. Every person present had a pole-axed look on their faces...except for Gunderson and Ari ben Yosef, Maranatha Singhs deputy: ben Yosef was shaking his head ruefully, Gunderson was staring in rapt attention at a reader that showed the Hanjins cargo manifest. ...I mean, my GOD, Willie was saying, I cant believe he just...just...murdered these people... Considering his condition, I dont think we could reasonably call it murder, said Trisha. No reasonable court would have found for anything worse than manslaughter, given the circumstances. Even after a millennia of study, ben Yosef said, we still dont really understand how the human mind reacts to paranoia, especially induced paranoia. On the monitor, the image of the Hanjins disease-ravaged Chief Engineer remained frozen, just before he evacuated the atmosphere on the bridge, committing suicide and killing the remaining crew of the starship and its attendant dropships. The system suddenly reset itself, and restarted The image of the Chief Engineer moved; he had a hunted look on his puss-runny face. ...I had to do it...had to! We must preserve preserve the FORCE! Kerensky needs us...NEEDS! Enemies everywhere...They poisoned us, you know...take the mechs, take the fighters...preserve...preserve the LEAGUE! LONG LIVE SIMON! The figure stabs buttons on a console a storm of air freeze Someone kill that screen. Silas had a distant look in his eyes. Comments? I cant believe thats Xin Tao Fever, said Gabrielle Quinn. I grew up on Sian, and its native there. You only get that be eating gruber fish out of season, and Ive never seen anything like that. Its an easily treatable infection. Its in its final stage, ben Yosef said. Xin Tao mimics a bad case of the flu, until it subsides in Week Two. After that, if left untreated, it goes airborne and can result in that, a nod to the now-blank screen, in less than a week...The result is extreme dementia and paranoia and the worst affected, apparently, was on of the ships senior officers. The ships doctor admits in her logs to missing the initial stages of the disease she put it down to the extreme stress of being stranded out here with a blown drive. By the time she realized what was happening, it was far too late for her to do anything. Had they been able to leave the system, any SLDF military hospital could have likely saved most of the crew... What Im not understanding is the cargo, said Maria Gutierrez, still aghast from reading the list. I mean, good God! What were they preparing for?

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Gunderson finished reading and looked up, a far-off look in his eyes; he shrugged to himself, and then started to laugh. Its just a resupply run, he chortled, shaking his head, a simple, dumb-bunny milk run... The others stared at him like he had spontaneously grown another head. Honey? Trisha said with exaggerated patience, a if talking a misbehaving youngster, there are nine regiments of battlemechs on that ship, in packing creates... Nine regiments and one company, Gunderson corrected automatically; he nodded unconsciously, and then looked at the group for the first time. Realization dawned. Sorry, he said. Sometimes I forget that not everyone in accustomed to thinking in these terms. Let me explain. After the Reunification War, the Star League oversaw almost two centuries of mostly-peace. Nothing like it had been seen on Earth since the century of peace in Europe between Waterloo and the First World War. In order to maintain the visible representation of the Star Leagues power, it had to keep the military-industrial complex churning in the Terran Hegemony. As a result, they quickly overproduced war material to such an extent that after basic military training, Star League troops rarely used simulators and that included mech units. The simulators on Galatea are all post-League units, scrounged up from local suppliers nothing like the Basilone Center would have been seen outside of a basic mech school, or a military unit in transit that wanted to keep sharp. So, the League cranked out battlemechs by the tens of thousands for decades, and even running them into the ground, doing training that we reserve for simulators, the SLDF couldnt wear them out fast enough to keep up with production without a real war to fight. Thats where all the stories of vast armies of mechs resting in caches come from to an extent, those are very, very real...the SLDF just took most of them away with them when they pulled out of the Sphere. Then, you have to consider SLDF organization. The SLDF had twenty field armies. Each Army had an average of three corps. Each corps had, on average two battlemech divisions, three to five infantry or mechanized infantry; and thats not counting independent regiments thats how the Eridani Light Horse got its start, you know. Each battlemech division had six mech regiments assigned to it, plus replacements which meant that each division had anywhere from one to three battalions of mechs in stores, to issue if someone had to eject in combat. On top of that, the armored and infantry divisions each had a three-regiment brigade of mechs, as well, and there were anywhere from three to nine independent pony regiments, like the Eridani. So, your average SLDF Regular Army Corps would have around thirty regiments minimum of battlemechs, and youd have to multiply that by three for most of the field armies. When the Amaris War began, the SLDF had one hundred and twentyfive battlemech divisions, alone, on the roster thats seven hundred and fifty mech regimentsor almost the entire number of battlemechs currently in service, in all the Successor and Periphery states, combined... Before you count the ones in infantry divisions and the independents. And I think its fair to say that the SLDF could have remounted every single mech-driver in their ranks at least once, just pulling from stores.

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This ship, he continued relentlessly, was bound for the Nineteenth Army, in the Concordat. The Nineteenth had three full corps, or roughly ninety regiments Willie was nodding so this shipment would have gone into the ten percent pool. The last log entry is dated January 4th of 2761, so the Amaris war was still three years off. Now, the movement order was signed by General Kerenskys office, but I dont think that means much whatever rumblings were going on, I dont think it affected this shipment. In fact, I doubt they even knew the ship was missing by the time the war started. These are just spare battlemechs and fighters, still in the shipping crates... Silence. Gunderson was talked-out that was more than anyone had heard him speak in a long time, and no one had anything to say. The vast and terrifying array laid before them was almost too daunting to comprehend: the SLDFs Nineteenth Army by itself had more battlemech regiments than the entire current Free Worlds League Military or the Capellan Confederations forces. Silas, as usual, recovered first. Well, Addy, he said quietly, leaning back in his chair, the real question is: now that we have a battlemech division, what the hell are we going to do with it? After we rearm the Demons, then arm the Uhlans and the Rifles? Gunderson said. There was a long pause then: Theres a storm coming, Silas. He reached out to Trisha, who came to stand by him. We need to rest a while, before that storm breaks; get our ducks in a row. Gunderson speared Silas with a glare that chilled everyone in the room except the person it was aimed at. Im tired, Silas. Im tired of the pointless slaughter. Im tired of the unending stupidity. Im tired of the unending savagery. We need to wait, build our strength, and then survive that coming storm. Survival thats all that matters, now, he said, tightening his grip on Trishas waist. Beyond the porthole, the stars slid by. Remote. Eternal. Aloof.

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20
August 4, 3022 Montenegro District Solaris City Solaris VII, The Game World Skye Province Lyran Commonwealth

The rain had subsided, leaving a moist feeling to the cool night air. Janeshia Ward pushed her hands up and out of her cloak, and lifted it off of her head, careful not to disturb her coiffure. She would not wear the cloak unless absolutely necessary, to avoid folds of clothe getting in the way if this meeting went sour. The Gnomes with her in the ground car checked their weapons one last time. Tobias Gruenfeld was an excitable man on the best days, and the stress analyzers showed him as being on the razor-edge of dementia. Janeshia had worked with Tobias in the past, and was only here because he had specifically requested to meet with her, and no one else. Tobias was an information broker from Antallos, the home of the infamous Port Krin open pirate haven and slave market. Tobias specialized in obtaining information on fleet movements of the various states of the Inner Sphere, as well as bio-genetics from Kuritan labs on the Combines Periphery Rim. His information on the breakthrough of the Kanakawa Gene Therapy for Rice Blight meant that Comstar was only three months behind the Kuritan laboratory that developed the process. He had arrived on Solaris VII on July 17, and had immediately made contact with a ROM field agent in Hel, the basement death metal portion of the Thors Shield Hall sports bar in Silesia, the Lyran sector of Solaris City. Even for someone of Tobias proven bona fides, his demands were extraordinary he demanded to be met by Janeshia, and no one else, in Montenegro, at night...and Janeshia should bring ten million C-Bills the Comstar-backed universal currency of the Inner Sphere in cash. It was a measure of the value of Tobias information over the years that Comstar went to this extent based on no information sample. Janeshia took a deep breath to steady her; her hand reached for the door handle. Go with the Light, said Adept Sigma Chi Timothy Binggeli. She looked at his face then nodded her thanks, and climbed out. Stripped of her sanctified raiment and dressed in the local copy of the fashion of the Ladies of the Royal Court of Atreus, in the Free Worlds League, Janeshia Ward cut a stunning figure, by any measure. Her lanky, long-legged form moved in ways that utterly disarmed all but the most focused of men and more than a few women. The blood-red dress made her ebony skin glow with an attraction that touched men on a primal level. As she moved through the night, she carefully gripped the Walther PPQ concealed in her garments the dark quarters of Montenegro were more dangerous than even Solaris Citys suburbs, where the few Periphery ex-patriots eked out a meager living.

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Once, part of her mind reflected, this would have been a good neighborhood to make a home in...where in Hades was Tobias, anyway? Whatever he had, it had better be...Janie? Janeshia froze, willing herself to not shoot to the sound of the voice. Toby? she asked quietly, in the exaggerated sing-song accent she wore for this persona Tobias thought she was a minor clerk at a local employment staffing office that provided cleaning crews to the Comstar station. Janie, said Tobias, stepping from behind a knarled olive tree a Sternsnacht Heavy hung in his right hand, opposite the briefcase in his left. Drop it, okay? Ive known for a long time that you were ROM. Do you have my money? Carefully, Janeshia moved to where she could see him better in the glare of the few streetlamps within view. As hardened an operator as she was, she could not contain a gasp at Tobias appearance. Where he normally dressed like a somewhat-desperate salesman, he was now disheveled and unshaven; even in the poor light, she could see how pale he was, and how sunken and red-rimmed his eyes were. He was a bare shadow of the man she had last met three years before. My God, Tobias! What has happened? Tobias looked at her like a condemned man; there were tears in his eyes. Theyre all dead, he croaked. Everyone. Matthias, Danika...Jolene... he stifled a choke My networks all rolled up. Theyre all dead for this shit, he said, indicating the briefcase in his left hand. He suddenly deflated Just gimme the money, okay? Please? Tobias, let me bring you in whatever it is, we can protect you... twitch She knew the signs - no thought - only action Pfft Janeshia dropped her briefcase and dove forward in a roll as the silenced bullet slammed into Tobias left temple; she grabbed his briefcase as she rolled past her still standing, yet very dead, contact. In a second, almost faster than the eye could follow, she was up and running, long legs kicking off her heels in two steps...One-kick. Two-kick. Three. Four. Five-JUMPdiveroll. She landed hard... Silenced bullets spit through the air, pfft-pfft-pfft-pfft-pfft-pfft-pfft-pfft-pfft. The snipers rifle was a semi-auto, the detached tactical part of her brain saidprobably a twenty-round magazine now half-empty. She rolled inside her own body length, like the tiny armadillidiidae of Earth, ignoring the fiery pain in her chest. She had made it behind a low, heavy stone planter that would shield her for a short while. PfftCRACK! A chunk of masonry from the planter showered her with painful fragments. She needed extraction, and right now. She quickly checked to make sure Tobias briefcase was beneath her, then twisted the decorative bevel on her watch, activating her panic button/homing beacon. Sixty seconds. She quickly pulled off her earrings and the rings on her long fingers, and began twisting tiny dials. Tires screeched. The team would drive straight to her, she knew. The ground car had a massive, twelve-barreled engine, and was better armored than most military armored personnel carriers. She scooped up a handful of hand-rings, and tossed them over her head as their timers ran out the chemical reaction within them suddenly

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poofed out in a cloud of thick smoke. Then, as the car crashed through a low bank of shrubs, she hurled one earring after the smoke-rings, then another to her left. These burst into a hot, foul-smelling cloud of thick smoke that contained a thermionic chemical that would temporarily blind a thermal sight...then she dodged to her right, as the car screeched up. Scrambling around the front-left corner, she was roughly jerked into the cabin, as bullets riddled the vehicles armored hide. The door slammed as they rolled away...

*~*~*~*

Three hundred meters away, the Shooter smiled. Simply perfection...and a quick million C-Bills. Too bad he couldnt get the money the tech-witch had dropped her briefcases destruct device had been activated, and the case was now incinerating itself with its thermite lining. He pressed the nitro stud on his rifle one more time, shooting a fine mist of liquid nitrogen into the rifles casing and long silencer, cooling them further, to suppress the heat from his rapid-fire he no longer needed the rifle, but there was no sense in chancing discovery now that the Engagement Phase was complete. As the ground car sped off, he waited, pistol in hand, listening for the tell-tales that a hunter-team was trying to sneak up on him...he heard nothing but rats. After twenty minutes sitting still, he rose from his chair and swiftly broke his rifle down, removing the video-recorder chip from the scope and placing it in his pocket, then placing the rifles pieces in the hard-shell golf club case he had brought along. He then stripped off his urban-specific ghillie suit and threw that into the case as well no sense leaving that kind of evidence to chance revealing his maintenance coveralls. Picking up the golf case, he exited the run-down building, into the alley where his stolen, beaten up electric putty-butt waited. Loading the golf case into the cab, he drove off, heading to his drop point, under the bridge to the Ishiyama Arena. Leaving the car, he walked three blocks, to an alleyway near a group of homeless Kuritans; as he did so, he dropped a military ration-pack. In the ensuing scramble for the morsels, no one noticed him walk into the alleyway... ...By the time the fire trucks arrived, the fire had consumed four buildings on the block, killing forty-two homeless people. The exhausted fire inspector simply wrote it off as bad wiring igniting illegally dumped propane canisters... ...By which time, the Shooter was well on his way to meet with his paymaster...

*~*~*~*

The bullet-riddled van had slowed as it coursed through the back streets out of Montenegro; with obviously fresh impacts on its hide, getting stopped by local authorities now would be a complete disaster.

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Unnoticed by the crowd at the open-air concert at the pizzeria across the street, the van cruised into the ROM safe house in Silesia Ciccone's Auto Body and Detail Shop, an auto-maintenance and body-repair shop set up fifty years before, during the Silesia districts last major renovation. The shop always did steady business, but was never allowed to be too successful, and ROM ensured that it changed hands frequently enough that no one noticed the same faces frequenting it. The shop was only open four days a week, and then only for ten hours each day. The rest of the time, it functioned as ROMs main nerve center onworld. Solaris, like Galatea, was a more or less open world, where people from all states could come and find a home, as they worked the arenas and bars that catered to the gladiatorial battlemech games. Janeshia Ward, like many of her fellow ROM agents, viewed the world as useful in the short term, but one that would be first on the list to be cleansed with nuclear fire, should the opportunity to advance Jerome Blakes Divine Vision suddenly appear. Although a good tour of duty on Solaris could significantly advance a ROM agents career, none of them stayed for too long. As the van rolled into the darkened shops main service bay, plain-clothed ROM agents quickly shut the doors; as soon as the doors were down, the lights came up. ROM Demi-Precentor Sigma Rho XX Erinn Sperandio, the current station chief, stood back as the med-techs opened the bullet-riddled right slider door. Ward was the first one out, briefcase in her left hand, right hand on her rib cage, a pain-wracked snarl on her face. AWAY! she barked at the med-techs. It is a cracked rib, nothing more. Sister, Sperandio said, Let the medicos do their... NO! I have nearly been killed, Ward said as she set the briefcase on a workbench, we have had a serious public event breach of security, we have burned down ten million registered-circulation C-Bills, and one of the Orders important contacts has been killed. I WILL know what the HELL this is for! She speared a nearby agent with a glare Will you open this, please? Her mad over, she gripped Sperandios shoulder with a painfully tight grip, her features screwed down in pain. I will let the medics attend me, Erinn, she said in a near-gasp, but I must know what is in that case... As the agent opened the case, the two women stepped up and looked inside. Within lay a blood-red courier packet used by official government couriers of the Draconis Combine; the remnant of a 'security ribbon' still hung from the folder. Made of heavy, waterproof card-stock embossed with the dragon mon of the Combine, the folder was of an expandable type, with a maximum thickness of one hundred millimeters. Ward pulled the packet from the briefcase, opened it, and withdrew two file folders. The first was a standard briefing file folder from the Combines ISF, the Internal Security Force; the second seemed to be a medical file that came from the Medical College of New Samarkand. She opened the ISF file, and began to read the cover letter, as Sperandio read next to her... The more Janeshia Ward read of the sequential ISF letters detailing the contents of the medical file and the New Samarkand ISFs investigation, the deeper the look of sheer, utter horror on her face became. She could see the same look of horror on Sperandios face...

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*~*~*~* The Shooter reached his waypoint in the Black Hills the Federated Suns sector of Solaris City without incident; the bar was jumping, even at this late hour. Entering the dive bar owned by his contact, he dropped twenty D-Bills to the doorman for faster access, then made his way to the rear exit. Exiting into the rear foyer, he quickly donned a pair of latex gloves that were one size too large for him, the better to reduce ghost images of his fingerprints. He stepped to the non-descript, yet locked, side door and inserted a key from his pocket. He quickly and silently ascended the stairs to the managers office, then entered the lavatory, locking the door behind him. Swiftly climbing atop the toilet, he retrieved his gym bag and the briefcase his contact had given him from the overhead service crawlspace, replaced the overhead panel and climbed down. Quickly, with practiced ease, he stripped out of his maintenance coveralls, and dressed in his Davion business suit from the gym bag, complete with the mechwarrior spurs that he was, in fact, qualified to wear. He stripped off his theatrical wig and mustache, then wiped his face down with a wet-wipe. Re-parting his hair, he replaced all the items including the wet-wipes in the gym bag, then wiped the dust off of the briefcase with a wet paper towel and placed the paper towel in the gym bag as well, zipping it shut. He then opened the briefcase, and placed the recording chip into the protective envelope within, as his paymaster had specified. Closing the briefcase and picking up the gym bag, he made his way back downstairs, crossed the foyer, and entered another staircase, this one leading down into the basement. At the foot of the stairs, he paused, listening...detecting no sounds other than the HVAC and furnace, he swiftly walked to the latter, and perfunctorily tossed the gym bag into the hotbox. Then, as he walked back to the stairs, he replaced the keys on the wall hook. Pausing only a moment, he withdrew an envelope from one of his suits internal pockets; he slid it under the stained desk pad-planner, returned to the hotbox, and tossed in his latex gloves. He then climbed the stairs, and exited the rear door, into the alley beyond. Turning left, he walked to the main road on that side, turned right, walked three blocks, then hailed a taxi...

...The cab dropped him at the Luccio Pizzeria, in the heart of Silesias Italian Quarter, across the street from Ciccones Auto Body and Detail Shop; as planned, there was an outdoor concert going on; there was his contact, dressed as a merchant businessman from Skye. Quickly finding a seat where his contact could see him, he ordered a lager and a fried calzone, one of the Shooters few weaknesses. After the band went through two more sets, the late hour started to thin the crowd. As several people got up at once, both the Shooter and his contact rose, and made their way to the street; the Shooter noted that his paymaster was carrying the match to his own briefcase. There was a bus waiting for travel to the Solaris Hilton, at the spaceport; both the Shooter and the Paymaster boarded, sitting at opposite ends of the bus.

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When the bus dropped them at the hotel, the two men entered the main lounge separately, and found chairs next to one another. Saying nothing to each other, nor acknowledging the others presence, they sat to the inside of their tables, so that their briefcases would both rest on the floor, next to one another. The two men ordered dissimilar drinks, and sat for a time, checking their perscomps like any good merchant factors across known space. By prearrangement, the Shooter rose first, picking up the Paymasters briefcase, and making for the West Elevator lobby to get to his rooms on the 30th Floor. After a decent interval, the Paymaster rose, picked up the Shooters briefcase, then retrieved his bag from the bell captains office, and hailed a cab to the ports North Apron. There, he entered through a service entrance with a passcode-lock, and made his way into a deserted locker room, thence to one locker in particular. In a manner not unlike the Shooter, he swiftly changed clothes, and presently emerged onto the terminals main concourse, dressed as a Capellan merchant. He arrived at Bay 12, and joined several other passengers in the last queue to board the soon-to-be departing Monarch-class liner Blue Cloud...

It had been a close shave, thought Alois Lonim he had been about to give up on the Shooter. But, the man had seemed to come through. Lonim had ordered the Blue Cloud to request a hold on launch when his contact in the Solaris City Emergency Response Office notified him of both a shots-fired call and a warehouse fire in Montenegro within an hour of each other. He had no doubt that the Shooter had done his job well he came highly recommended but Lonim did wonder briefly about Jerrods order to allow the Comstar agent to escape...then, he dismissed it from his mind: if he didnt know, he couldnt reveal the purpose under torture. He hoped the Cloud could lift soon, though the sooner they were in space, the sooner he could get out of the ridiculous get-up he wore...

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Epilogue
September 15, 3022 Palaise Rohan Resort Strasbourg, Germany Terra

The Palaise Rohan had been built on the site of the old Bishops Residence in Strasbourg in 1742. It had served many functions over the centuries, but had usually been maintained as a resort. The Rohan was heavily damaged during the War of the Usurper, as the locals referred to it, more from the wanton vandalism of the Rim Worlds forces than any deliberate plan. After the SLDF liberated Terra, the surviving management and staff came out of hiding, and helped in the clean up of Strasbourg, then started working on the Palaise. As they had sheltered a number of SLDF troops on the run, and used the basements as an urban guerilla base, a grateful SLDF Command provided nearly one hundred million Star League Dollars towards the renovation. Then, Aleksandr Kerensky, stripped of his position as Protector, had led the vast bulk of the SLDF out of the Inner Sphere. The Management and Staff of the Rohan, as well as the surviving population of Strasbourg, girded for battle yet again, convinced that the lords of the Successor States would soon be dropping on Earth, bringing yet more death and destruction. That did not happen. To everyone's surprise, the director of the last vestige of the Star League, Jerome Blake of the SLCOMNET the interstellar communications service of the Star League seized control of Terra in a coup de tat, and declared its neutrality by virtue of SLCOMNETs guarantee of neutral communications traffic. The fact that his action was backed by the firepower of several units of mercenaries, as well as a number of SLDF divisions that refused to abandon the Inner Sphere with Kerensky, ensured that his coup was as bloodless as it could be, given the times. Contrary to popular belief, the Cradle of Humanity was not totally an off-limits religious preserve exclusive to Comstar. Comstar functioned as the planetary government, and certain areas of the planet were most definitely off-limits to nonComstar personnel, but the vast majority of the planet continued on as it had for millennia, and exclusive resorts like the Palaise did a brisk business. Sometimes, though, there were very exclusive clients, who could afford staggering sums for extraordinary requests. Like now. The limousines carrying the Coordinator of the Draconis Combine and his party of ISF guards eased to a halt before the red carpet to the Palaises front entrance; an honor guard from the Marik Militia in dress uniforms stood at rigid attention. The most important occupant of the lead limousine scowled. I do not like the sudden change in itinerary, Takashi Kurita rumbled to the diminutive man across from him. Subhash Indrahar, known and feared as the Smiling One and Director of the Internal Security Force, steadied his breathing. Takashi was uncharacteristically letting his chi fly loose, disturbing his balance. What game are you playing at, Marik? Indrahar 124

thought. To his Coordinator: It would be unseemly to withdraw, Coordinator. Janos Marik is a broken man this is merely an attempt to regain face. And the other? Indrahar nodded, as if to himself. In due course, Coordinator...It could be, he said after a moments thought, that the Marik thinks that he has a better proposal than the Capellan... Hmph! the Coordinator snorted, as he cracked the door open. He has little that I need, beyond regiments to occupy the Lyrans. Let us get this over with. I like it less, the longer we take. He stepped into the brisk September air of Germany. In order to keep things as quiet as possible, there was no full band to welcome the Coordinator, merely four military snare drummers. Indrahar wondered at that was there significance in the number or type of drums? The ISF, for all its penetration of the Free Worlds League in recent years, still had tremendous ground to cover on the Leagues polyglot cultures. Janos Marik waited at the end of the honor guard, as the guard commander walked Kurita and Indrahar forward. Kurita would not voice such, but he had to admit that the honor guard, at least, looked to be well turned-out. As he approached the Marik, Indrahar sensed that something was wrong the Marik looked invigorated, rather than the retiring man he had met over the summer. Something fundamental has changed in him, he thought. Does Takashi sense it? Friend Takashi, Marik said quietly, bowing ever so slightly, in the approved Kurita manner to treat with an equal, please allow me to welcome you to this humble venue. Indrahar could sense that Takashi still did not have control of his chi he seemed to be winging it. Friend Janos, Takashi replied with false politeness, I am most impressed with your choice for a meeting place. It is a most worthy choice. The two not-enemies turned and entered the Palaise's baroque hall, followed at a discreet distance by Indrahar and Hector Stewart, one of the Mariks most trusted lieutenants. The two leaders exchanged tense small talk and meaningless pleasantries as they meandered through the deserted halls. Upon arriving at their designated meeting chamber, the Marik allowed Kurita to enter first, actually bowing slightly as he entered. Something was drastically wrong, Indrahar thought, for the Marik to be acting this way...but he was certain that Takashi Kurita did not see anything but weakness. After Stewart closed the doors to the chambers, leaving only the four of them present in the room, Janos Marik sat in one of the chairs, favoring his left knee: Please excuse me my joints are not what they used to be... Kurita was having none of it. Back ramrod straight, he folded his arms over his chest. What are you playing at, Marik? he rumbled. Indrahars alarm bells went off at the serenity the Marik maintained. I do not play at any thing, Friend Takashi. I agreed to this meeting which you proposed so that we may blunt, and then control, Davion and Steiners end run around us... Hah! Kurita snorted. You cannot control your own family! How can you even presume to control someone like Hanse Davion? With an effort of will, Indrahar controlled his breathing to not gasp at the crass insult; the Marik had been forced to kill his brother when he had rebelled eight years before a rebellion, everyone in the room well knew, that had been financed by

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Maximilian Liao, leader of the Capellan Confederation...who was infuriating both Indrahar and Kurita with his unseemly delay in arrival. Hector Stewart, it seemed, lacked Indrahars control Indrahar could feel his intake of breath, and could hear the knuckles of Stewarts right hand crackle as they balled into a fist... ...And yet, Janos Marik remained placid and serene. We are in grave danger! Indrahar thought in a panic. Which is undoubtedly why your son is stuck out in a remote beau geste post like Vega, Marik replied in a cutting retort. Your attempt to bring in that Capellan monkey was very impolite, Friend Takashi, especially as I had to go to great lengths to secure this palace for our meeting. You should be more gracious to those who throw you a lifeline. Again, Kurita snorted derisively. You? Save us? I think you sadly overestimate your position, Marik. Your state is as weak and crippled as you are, with your weak Parliament and weaker military. Without us, Davion and Steiner will eat you alive! You need Draconis, Marik Draconis does not need you! Stewarts teeth were grinding, as he leaned forward; Indrahar was close to blind panic, however, as The Marik smiled like a vulture about to devour a carcass. Well, and good, Friend Takashi leave, if you like. You will not be molested on your way to the port. I will not even violate the neutrality of Terra by having that psychopath killed by my foemen, as I could this area used to be a Marik stronghold in the days before FTL, you know; my noble line traces unbroken to before the days of the Holy Roman Empire. Walk out of here, and I promise that you will live long enough to see your precious Combine swallowed whole, between the jaws of the Fox and the hammer of the Lyrans. For the first time, Indrahar saw Takashi relent in his insane windmill-tilting. Neutrality returned to his face Your ki is strong, Friend Janos that, at least, cannot be denied. What do you plan? There is a secret codicil in Davions agreement with Steiner he will wed Steiners daughter. Kurita froze in place. You know this to be true? Indrahar and Stewart were both speechless and open-mouthed at the enormity of that concept. I do not need proof, Marik said. Davion would be a complete fool to not to do so: he is unmarried, but even waiting until Melissa is old enough to bed, he will not be old by any means. That will unify their realms and place you in their vice. And not you? Not immediately. Walk out of here and make whatever deal you like with Liao I assure you that he will stab you in the back at the first possible opportunity, as he stabbed my brother Anton. If you are that much a fool, then I still have my Plan B. Kurita began to pace, thinking. He could see it, Indrahar saw gone was the petulant schoolboy, replaced by the battle-hardened commander. Your proposal? Your son is unmarried. As is my youngest daughter. Kuritas eyes narrowed. Does she not serve as a mercenary? Marik nodded, not taking his eyes from Kurita. With a unit under long-term contract to me, on the Lyran frontier. She has just been promoted to Lance Commander, he said, with a fathers pride.

126

What of the Capellans? Davion means to crush them utterly...I propose that we let him. The other three men blinked. Whatever they had expected, this was not it. Go on, Kurita said, trying desperately to maintain the initiative. Davion is repositioning his forces slowly, towards his Capellan frontier; he is already securing his Periphery flank in preparation. I give it another five years, and he will be ready. The five Successor Houses are too evenly-matched, Takashi you know this. None of us can gain a decisive advantage over the other, lest our other neighbor attack. If you and I unite our Houses in marriage, no matter how tenuous, that will return balance, once Davion and I finish off the Capellans. You? Kurita said, visibly surprised. Certainly, the Marik replied. Why should I not grab the pieces? Doing so does Davion a favor, as he will then not have to spend forces on those worlds, nor will he have to garrison them, and we want him owing us... Once we have married our children, Kurita said, beginning to pace again, what then? Again, the vulture-smile Quite simple, Friend Takashi: their children marry Hanse and Melissas children... Takashis eyes widened, as did those of the other two. You mean? Of course: Comstar is the greatest threat to all of us, as independent states. Both your House and mine have felt Comstars bite, in one way or the other, as have Steiner and Davion. I do not know what their true purpose is, but it will not be to our own interests, of that, I have no doubt whatsoever. They can read our message traffic, Takashi I am mortally certain of it! For a moment, the haunted, hunted look washed over Janos face. When it cleared, Indrahar was amazed at the iron resolve the Marik exuded. Agree to this marriage, Takashi, and our great-grandchildren will be able to make an end-run around Comstar, and sit on a united throne...A reestablished Star League...that owes its existence to us! Kurita remained silent, thinking. Marik spoke much truth, he knew. In truth a truth he would reveal to no one, not even Indrahar he had, as Marik accused, asked for this meeting because he felt the vice of Steiner and Davion closing in on him and the Combine. There were too many restive elements, in Rasalhague and Dieron especially, plus the increasing number of pirate attacks on the Periphery border, that he could not deal with while watching the Lyrans and the Suns. The Combine needed allies. In an uncharacteristic for him blunder, he now realized, he had reached out to the Capellans first, counting on what he perceived as shared cultural values as well as a shared enemy in Davion. The more reports Indrahar fed him, though, the more he was regretting even talking to Liao Hanse Davion might be an enemy, but at least he was an honorable enemy, a worthy opponent for a samurai. Then there was Comstar. Since that cowardly bureaucrat Blake had seized Terra and neither of his ancestors Minoru or Jinjiro had been able to storm Humanity's home, being occupied elsewhere, the Combine had been forced to trust its communications to a freakish religious cult based on nothing but air. When he first assumed the office of Coordinator after his father was assassinated, the ISF had presented him with a report estimating what had been left to Comstar when they seized Earth. The report presented

127

to every Coordinator since Jinjro emphasized the fact that Terra, although heavily damaged by the SLDFs liberation of the world, had been largely repaired by the SLDFs Corps of Engineers, who had rebuilt several battlemech factories, among other industries, in an attempt to revive the jewel of the Star League, before they left. It also pointed out that several divisions of the SLDF were believed to have remained on Terra after Kerenskys honorable withdrawal from the field...and Takashi noted that many areas of Terra including those factory regions, as well as vast areas suitable for large-scale military maneuvers were still very much off-limits. A new thought began to brew in Kuritas mind had the Houses been fighting the wrong enemy all these long years? Comstar sitting like a spider at the center of its web here, in the heart of inhabited space had suffered virtually no attacks in two hundredplus years of battle...What resources from the Star League and its massive defense forces were available to them? Janos Marik stood as he spoke, and extended his hand... Time slowed... Survive now turn on the true enemy later At the cost of the Capellan State Kuritas hand closed on Mariks...

"It is done."

Fin

128

Drake's Demon's

Book One Comes A Jolly Roger

129

BATTLE OF TORTUGA -- ALLIED BATTLEMECH COMMAND


Roster Rank Rating Mech Condition Company Assignment Alpha Alpha Alpha Alpha Alpha Alpha Alpha Alpha Alpha Alpha Alpha Alpha Lance Assignment Command Command Command Command Fire Fire Fire Fire Recon Recon Recon Recon Notes From Badajoz Wash Silas Drake Tammy McDougal Conner O'Daniel Monte Dingson Colin McDougal Ching Saxman Chuck Minderman Kirsten Thompson Lars Botkin Linda Davis Susan Delgado Thomas Duncan Colonel Lt. Col Mech Mech Lt Mech Mech Mech Major Mech Mech Mech Veteran Veteran Regular Regular Veteran Veteran Veteran Regular Elite Regular Regular Regular Warhammer Centurion Archer Enforcer Rifleman Crusader Black Jack Phoeix Hawk Commando Jenner Stinger Stinger Good Good New Destroyed Good Destroyed Salvage New Good New New Salvage

KIA Ejected Ejected

WIA

David Wilson Sheila Bannock Joan Macklin Keith Sukarno Arthur Blankenship Andrew Blaine Anton Jones Robbie Flath Paula Stinson Jan Leflar Kim Yaro Shella Inagaki

Major Capt Mech Mech Lt Mech Mech Mech Lt Mech Mech Mech

Veteran Veteran Veteran Veteran Regular Veteran Regular Regular Veteran Regular Regular Regular

Marauder Griffin Black Jack Phoenix Hawk Archer Warhammer Jenner Crusader Ostroc Stinger Locust Locust

New New Good Good Salvage Salvage New Destroyed New New Good Good

Beta Beta Beta Beta Beta Beta Beta Beta Beta Beta Beta Beta

Command Command Command Command Fire Fire Fire Fire Recon Recon Recon Recon

Ejected Ejected KIA

WIA

Andrew Gundarson Steven Christopher Kendall Wagenaar Lorita Hader Clayton Michaels Aieda Quintin Blaine Knipper Dylan Osterloh Jason Carnarvon Mandy Jenkins Richard Garvey Vashti Forstner

Lt. Col Major Mech Mech Lt Mech Mech Mech Capt Mech Mech Mech

Elite Veteran Regular Regular Veteran Regular Regular Regular Elite Regular Regular Regular

Shadow Hawk Wolverine Wolverine Rifleman Enforcer Enforcer Enforcer Griffin Fire Javelin Phoenix Hawk Stinger Phoenix Hawk

New New Salvage Good Good Good Good Destroyed Good New Good Destroyed

Gamma Gamma Gamma Gamma Gamma Gamma Gamma Gamma Gamma Gamma Gamma Gamma

Command Command Command Command Fire Fire Fire Fire Recon Recon Recon Recon

Ejected

KIA

WIA

Major Gabriel Quinn Capt. Henry Sorenson Spencer Jerrod Bean Regina Chavez Jayson Patterson Nathanial Clay Bennett Mcfarland Lionel York Hong Zane Horton Joanne Hodges

Major Capt Lt Lt Mech Mech Lt Sgt Mech Mech

Veteran Elite Veteran Regular Regular Regular Veteran Veteran Regular Regular

Marauder Thunderbolt Warhammer Vindicator Hermes Vindicator Phoenix Hawk Flea Stinger Locust

Salvage Good Good Good Salvage New New Good Destroyed Salvage

Epsilon Epsilon Epsilon Epsilon Epsilon Epsilon Epsilon Epsilon Epsilon Epsilon

Assault Assault Assault Fire Fire Fire Recon Recon Recon Recon

WIA Ejected

KIA

Ejected WIA

Taurian Lancers Willie Brandt Victoria Norman Madelaine Wassman Catheryn Gallahan Dane Stumfoll Fernande Simm Avery Gretter Millard Coye Thurman Laban Norris Reffett Robbi Sleva Chanell Slawter Diego Tellefson

Comptroller Colonel Subaltern Subaltern Cornet Subaltern Cornet Cornet Cornet Subaltern Subaltern Subaltern Cornet

Veteran Veteran Veteran Regular Regular Veteran Veteran Regular Regular Veteran Regular Regular Regular

Thunderbolt Hunchback Archer Blackjack Warhammer Blackjack Shadow Hawk Rifleman Shadow Hawk Stinger Javelin Spider Wasp

Good Good Good Salvage Good Good New Destroyed Salvage Salvage Good Salvage Good

Tango Tango Tango Tango Tango Tango Tango Tango Tango Tango Tango Tango Tango

Command Command Command Command Command Fire Fire Fire Fire Recon Recon Recon Recon

Ejected

KIA Ejected Ejected WIA

Oriente Roughriders Piotr Simonov Graham Wahr Eliza Hullum Sammie Draleau Thurman Sagi Palmyra Sowells Lloyd Vivo Rocco Loft Alverta Codner Merlyn Wintjen Jeanett Brissett Dusti Fredenberg

Colonel Major Lt Sgt Capt Lt Sgt Mech Capt Mech Mech Mech

Elite Elite Veteran Elite Veteran Veteran Veteran Veteran Elite Veteran Elite Veteran

Orion Thunderbolt Orion Crusader Rifleman Rifleman Archer Archer Commando Wasp Wasp Wasp

Salvage Good Good Salvage Good Destroyed Good Good Salvage Salvage Good Good

Romeo Romeo Romeo Romeo Romeo Romeo Romeo Romeo Romeo Romeo Romeo Romeo

Command Command Command Command Fire Fire Fire Fire Recon Recon Recon Recon

WIA

Ejected KIA

Ejected

DRAKES DEMONS DELTA GROUP


Unit Assignment Total Personnel 2139 120 CO XO SgtMaj Adjutant S-1 S-2 S-3 S-4 Provost Marshal 25 CO XO 4 2 Stirling Rover GMDB Rover-3 ATV Vehicles Type of Vehicles 280 20 Stirling Rover

Headquarters Company Lt. Col Trisha Peters Major/Dr. Maranatha Singh Sgt. Maj. Floyd Broyhill Lt. Floris Rouser Capt. Lionel Crozier Capt. Gustavo Francese Capt. Orvis Delamar Capt. Ismael Carrano Capt. Bradford Gould Commando Squadron Major Stephen Donaldson Capt. Shantel Busler First Infantry Battalion Major Paula Cordell Capt. Idella Spillen Capt. Clinton Bejar Capt. Gertie Moog Capt. Taylor Blero Capt. Martin Silcott Capt. Ellis Snowberger Second Infantry Battalion Major Tonsha Bushaw Capt. Clint Bonneville Capt. Levi Shearn Capt. Nicolas Gorsky Capt. Neal Alexandra Capt. Nedra Dombkowski Capt. Fabiola Malecha 15th Jump Infantry Battalion Major Enoch Xian Capt. Bryce Bell Capt. Jaime Hahn Capt. Jason Ellsworth Burt Capt. Erich Lemuel Dejesus Capt. Sena Mathson

CO XO H&S Able Bravo Charlie Delta

60 120 120 120 120

2 10 10 10 10

Defiance-6 APC/CMD Defiance-10 APC Defiance-10 APC Defiance-10 APC Defiance-10 APC

CO XO H&S Echo Fox Golf Hotel

60 120 120 120 120

2 10 10 10 10

Merlon-12 APC/CMD Merlon-10 APC Merlon-10 APC Merlon-10 APC Merlon-10 APC

HQ Platoon Able Baker Charlie Delta

15 84 90 96 75

Split into 3 elements Aboard Invisible Moon Aboard Moroccan Chaos Aboard Plague of Chains Swamp Rat PACV 18

Armored Battalion Major Rangit Singh Bahadur Capt. Drew Mcfaul Capt. Paul Mannarino Capt. Orville Shinano Capt. Ian Okami Capt. Pavel Rokosovskiy Support Battalion Major Eric Dornan, Mstr Tech Capt. Paul Devers Capt. Jake Rassel Ammunition Company Capt John Schroeder Lt. Stephany Stumph Technical Support Company Capt. Robert Sharp Lt. Milo Thompson Transportation Company Capt. Gilberto Montone Lt. Laurence Goracke Field Hospital Capt./Dr. Ari ben Yosef Lt./Dr. Charleen Scantling Corporate Administration Lt. Col Trevor Sevon Lt. Collette Breakfield

CO XO H&S India Juliet Kilo

20 144 80 80

2 12 24 22 20 4

Stirling Rover Saladin Scimitar Hunter Lt Spt Tank Hetzer Assault Gun Stirling Rover

CO XO H&S

20 30 4 11 Stirling Rover J-27 Ordnance Train

CO XO 60 CO XO 60 CO XO 45 CO XO 15 CO XO

2 6 6 10 12 6 5

CL-135 Coolant Truck G-68 Mech Transport ARG 3000 Tech Van Anderson Tractor Rig GLH-26 Hover Truck Stirling Rover Nightingale-5 Hover Ambulance

4 2

Stirling Rover Rudon-5 Limousine

DRAKES DEMONS AEROSPACE FIGHTER SUPPORT COMMAND


75th Aero Regiment Lt. Colonel Maria Gutierrez Major Riley Dalcour 134th Combat Aero Group HQ Squadron Raul House 23rd Pursuit Francine Rosario 30th Interceptor Wilbur Richard 55th Attack Ervin Dorsey Alois Maiar Aboard 93rd Combat Aero Group HQ Squadron Lindsay Coffey 33rd Interceptor Anton Carter Sparks 98th Attack Elena Long-Rocha 127th Pursuit Gail Reese Minoru Genda Aboard 222nd Combat Aero Group Division 1 Capt. Alastaire McKellen Division 1 Lt. Ariana Hamsher Division 2 Lt. Jody Mistler Division 2 Lt. Ona Panameno Division 3 Lt. Oleta Folz Division 3 Lt. Darleen Wirsing Aerospace Technician Support Tech/1 Jason Gohr Tech/2 Charleen Vanvalkenbur Tech/2 Ellis Perotta Tech/2 Rosalba Musumeci Tech/3 Nathalie Elsayed Tech/3 Hugo Stoetzel Tech/3 Mack Deats Tech/3 Latonia Cochrum Tech/3 Violeta Pille Tech/3 Magda Macgowan Total Personnel 103 Tanker 15 29 28 See Note 1 31

4 12 12 12

Baluga Cheetah F90 Ajax

4 12 12 12

Baluga F90 Ajax Cheetah

Tanker See Note 1

102 17 26 29 30

Corsair Corsair Sparrowhawk Sparrowhawk Stuka Stuka

Aboard Aboard Aboard Aboard Aboard Aboard

Bon Homme Richard Bon Homme Richard Alliance Alliance Bustamontes Bustamontes

DRANKES DEMONS SPACE SUPPORT


Ship Class Jumpship Jumpship Jumpship Jumpship Name Golden Hind Raven O'Leary's Luck Bucephalus Ship Type Invader Invader Invader Monolith Captain; 1st Officer (if appliable) Total Crew Commodore Johannes Drake; Cmdr Cyrus Terrell 23 Capt. Vincent Edwards 22 Capt. Dane Alyea 21 30 Commodore James Blakely 653 96

Assault Division Dropship Bon Homme Richard Dropship Alliance Dropship Bustamontes Dropship Virtuous Defender Dropship Samantha's Tears Dropship Chrysanthemum Dropship Durendal Dropship Hummingbird Dropship Alois Maiar Dropship Minoru Genda Invisible Moon Dropship Moroccan Chaos Dropship Plague of Chains Dropship Arash Vengeance Dropship Bacchus Plateau Dropship Denmark's Gold Dropship King of Tara Dropship

Union Union Union Union Union Excalibur Excalibur Excalibur Vengeance Vengeance Fury Fury Fury Mule Mule Mule Mule

Lt. Cmdr Paula Stevens Lt. Cmdr Sheila McVicker Lt. Cmdr Sharon Buenaventura Lt. Cmdr Anthony Chase; Major Lela Mallory Capt. Thurman Estrela Lt. Cmdr Tanjiro Zokawa Cmdr. Ignatius Donelly Cmdr. Hiram Jakes; Lt. Cmdr Ezekiel Cohen Capt. Carl Ignacio Everett Capt. Maximo Zachariah Velazquez Lt. Delva Benton Lt. Graham Hendrix Lt. Herbert Richmond Capt. Deirdra Figley Capt. Hiedi Nishikawa Capt. Monty Palmo Capt. Diego Minihane

12 14 15 18 19 45 48 51 25 18 7 8 6 20 21 19 20

366

Ship Class Name Merchant Division Screaming Leaf Dropship Quasar Gambler Dropship Another Midnight Dropship MARDET Captain John Paul Van Zandt III Lt. Akilah Rogillio 1stSgt Steven O'Halloran 1st Platoon Gysgt Federico Koos SSgt Cris Silbaugh 2nd Platoon GySgt Fu Shin Carson SSgt Reed Meirick 3rd Platoon GySgt Heriberto Helvie SSgt Terina Herskovits

Ship Type Mammoth Mule Mule

Captain; 1st Officer (if appliable) Capt. Katheryn Faith Montgomery Capt. Lavern Emilio Hardin Capt. Minerva Carey

Total Crew 40 19 22 81

113

35

35

35

35

40

40

WEAPONS, VEHICLES AND EQUIPMENT RECOVERD BY DRAKES DEMONS AT TORTUGA


Mechs on Field of Badajoz Wash (G / S / D) Archer Commando Commando Flea Flea Jenner Jenner Jenner Jenner Jenner Lancelot Lancelot Locust Locust Locust Orion Phoenix Hawk Phoenix Hawk Phoenix Hawk Stinger Stinger Stinger Thunderbolt Thunderbolt Thunderbolt Vindicator Vindicator Vindicator Warhammer Warhammer Wasp Wasp Wasp Archer Archer Battlemaster Blackjack Blackjack Centurion Centurion Centurion Clint Clint Clint Commando Commando Commando Crusader Crusader Dragon Dragon Dragon Dragon Enforcer Enforcer Grasshopper Grasshopper Grasshopper Griffin Griffin Hermes Jenner Jenner Jenner Locust Locust Locust Mackie Orion Ostroc Ostsol Panther Panther Panther Rifleman Stinger Stinger Stinger Thunderbolt Thunderbolt Thunderbolt Valkirie Valkirie Warhammer Warhammer Wasp Wasp Whitworth Whitworth Mech Barn (G / S / D) Archer Black Knight Black Knight Commando Crusader Cylops Flashman Flashman Flashman Flea Hermes Javelin Jenner Jenner Jenner Jenner Locust Locust Orion Orion Orion Orion Ostroc Ostroc Ostsol Rifleman Rifleman Stinger Stinger Stinger Stinger Thunderbolt Thunderbolt Warhammer Warhammer Wasp Wasp Wasp Wasp Wasp Wasp Wasp Jumpships / Jump Disabled / Destroyed Invader Invader Invader Merchant Merchant Star Lord Buccaneer Buccaneer Mammoth Mammoth Mammoth Monarch Monarch Monarch Mule Mule Mule Mule Mule Mule Mule Condor Confederate Confederate Excaliber Fury Fury Fury Leopard CV Overlord Triumph Triumph Union Union Dropships (G / S / D) Buccaneer Buccaneer Mammoth Mammoth Monarch Monarch Mule Mule Mule Avenger Avenger Excaliber Fortress Fury Fury Fury Gazelle Intruder Intruder Leopard Leopard Leopard CV Leopard CV Overlord Overlord Triumph Union Union Union Buccaneer Mammoth Mammoth Mammoth Monarch Monarch Mule Avenger Avenger Confederate Confederate Confederate Confederate Excaliber Fortress Fortress Fury Fury Leopard Leopard Leopard CV Triumph Union Fury Gazelle Intruder Carrier Fleet tanker

Invader Merchant Merchant Star Lord Invader

Leopard CV Aurellian Knight Cmdr Darnell Shawn Mammoth Ernest Rutherford Cmdr. Marcus Whooley, FSN

Vehicles # / # = Present / Usable Chapparal Demon Gabriel Thor Zephyr Defiant-10 Hetzer Manticore Scorpion Guardian Karnov Warrior H-7 Ajax Corsair Sabre Shilone Shologar Slayer Sparrowhawk Stuka Thunderbird Zero

Qty 14/2 15/6 2/0 15/4 18/6 23/23 100/100 5/5 31/31 25/25 6/6 11/9 20/12 9/4 25/16 13/6 7/5 5/4 7/4 3/3 14/6 2/1

Ores Chromium (billets) Chromium (raw) Copper (billets) Copper (raw) Germanium (raw) Iron (raw) Iron (wrought) Platinum Salt (raw) Sodium Steel (billets) Titanium (raw)

Qty (tons) 500 100000 30000 150000 35000 40000 2000 1300 300000 300 50000 5000

Loot Cloth (I.e., rare silks) Diamonds (raw) Electronic equipment Gems Gold Hydro-Farms Jewelry Obje'd'arts Silver Terra Preta

Qty (tons) 600 200 70000 100 300 150 600 200 1500 10000

Mjolnir
WHM-6R WARHAMMER