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MechWarrior: Scorched Earth #2 "On the Brink of Despair"

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#1 Big Steve


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Posted 14 July 2012 - 10:18 AM

MechWarrior: Scorched Earth
"On The Brink of Despair"

"War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it." - William Tecumseh Sherman


Faribault, Minnesota, United States
North America, Earth
14 July 2039 Local
14 August 3059 Inner Sphere

Captain Archibald McKinley looked out at the scene with surprise. The 10 year AFFC veteran piloted his Enfield BattleMech, painted in the colors of the 5th FedCom RCT, through the wreckage of the relatively small city that had once held over 20,000 souls.


The Galax native was thankful, blessedly thankful, that his 'Mech cockpit was air-tight. He could only imagine the ordeal of the dozens of workers, American and Star League, picking through the body-filled wreckage of Faribault. The hot July sun only added to the misery, enhancing the stench of death that had settled over the wrecked city.

Just fifteen BattleMechs, McKinley pondered. All it had taken was fifteen 'Mechs, piloted by arrogant and insulted Clansmen, to accomplish slaughter of this magnitude. It was sobering to remember just how much power a lone BattleMech possessed and how swiftly it could bring death to human beings.

For centuries it had been the premier weapon of the armies of the Inner Sphere, replacing the tank as the ultimate embodiment of modern warfare. The Succession Wars had so ravaged the Inner Sphere that 'Mechs had become more rarified, their importance even greater, and their pilots made into modern knights of their realms. McKinley himself had become a MechWarrior with just such aspirations; to defend the Federated Suns and Commonwealth and to win recognition and, if he were lucky and brave enough, honors and land.

What BattleMechs had done to Faribault, to the innocent unarmed civilians living there, made it abundantly clear that the machines themselves were anything but embodiments of honor and chivalry.

The 5th RCT was clearing the town out to take up defensive positions to the south. Beyond them the Jade Falcons were resuming defensive positions as well. Just a few days ago they had been surging toward the Earth city of Minneapolis and the last major rail and road line connecting the United States' eastern and western halves. The exhausted ComGuards and American troops before them had been bending to the point of breaking, and it had looked very bad.

And then the tide had turned. American MechWarriors, trained by the Wolf Dragoons on Outreach, had bloodied the Falcons' beaks in the fighting. When the Falcons paused to gather strength and regain momentum, a company of these undertrained, wet-behind-the-ears rookies - at least as a Sakhara-trained officer like McKinley saw them - slipped behind the Falcon lines and went on the kind of rampage every House Davion MechWarrior longed to accomplish. The Falcons' logistics chain had been their target, and they had wrecked it thoroughly. In the process, they'd also put down the Falcon solahma Trinary that had performed the terrible slaughter surrounding McKinley and their commander had personally tromped up to the Falcons' command Trinary, challenged their leader to a duel, and then promptly called down a massive artillery barrage that had nearly killed him and wiped out the entire Falcon unit.

Just the thought of it was shocking to McKinley. Like many of his fellows he had presumed the Americans would be second-rate MechWarriors at best, given rushed training and used to add mass and weight to the actual sharp point of Star League forces. But they had performed admirably under the circumstances. Whether it was from youthful inexperience or a desperate desire to save their homes from the Clans, or just sheer damned talent, they had done far better than anyone had expected.

And McKinley knew that if he was to personally survive, he'd better damned hope that they kept it up.

Chapter 1

DropShip Antilles Star, in Sub-orbit
North America, Earth
16 July 2039 Local
16 August 3059 Inner Sphere

Josh Roland hated DropShips.

For almost thirty years of his long life in the Marine Corps Roland had known the rough rides of helos and transport aircraft. He'd felt ready to puke as his transports rocked around to avoid Cuban anti-aircraft fire and known the pants-******** sensation of a helo losing power during the hot LZ landing in Najaf. And altogether it'd given him a Marine's love for earth or water beneath his feet. You could swim in water, at least.

The experience of a DropShip was even worse. The G forces pulling at you as the ship made lift off added to the discomforts of flight. The moments of zero-G while in space was further infuriating; he'd grown up to be a Marine, god dammit, and never had the "I wanna be an astronaut" phase like most kids had his age.

At least it wasn't a real space flight this time. No, they were just skimming the top of the atmosphere a bit as the DropShip took the very short journey from Fort Carson to Camp Jurgens. What was left of the 2nd Battalion fit inside the Union-type DropShip (if a bit cramped), and they were on their way to being shoved into the intact 1st as combat loss replacements. And that royally honked Roland off.

Oh, there was a logic to it. The 2nd was an oversized company now. They'd been smacked around after that jackass General Tolen had ordered the battalion divided up into companies and individual platoons to support VIII Corps in what became a *********** of an offensive against the Hell's Horse Clan. VIII Corps had been ripped up with thousands of dead and wounded Americans, hundreds of lost tanks and APCs. Fifty BattleMechs reduced to 14, all severely damaged. It had been left to IX Corps and the Star Leaguers - the Davion Light Guards and ComGuards - to prevent VIII Corps' annihilation. And worse of all... that ****** Tolen was still in command of 4th Army (hopefully not for long).

Stewing in his irritation, Roland looked over to his surviving platoon mates. Cal Schulter and Keisha Barker had made it out with him. They were the most intact platoon of the entire battalion. That made the merger with the 1st worse for them, though; the 1st's losses hadn't been so bad, and Roland doubted they'd be kept in the same platoon or even company. The camaraderie they'd developed would go unused.

Lights went red around them, signifying the ship was coming in for a landing. Roland moved to his newly-repaired Thor OmniMech, scowling at the alien machine. It was 70 tons of death, and riding in it could make a man feel invincible... but all he had to do was think of Jack MacGruder's cockpit being blown apart by a railgun slug to know that it was all a lie. He got up into it, did all the usual start up procedures, and prepared to give his checkphrase when the computer asked. "There is no such thing as an ex-Marine," he informed the computer candidly.

"Checkphrase confirmed. Oohrah, Gunny."

WIth his neurohelmet secured to his head, Roland waited patiently for the DropShip to land.

Camp Jurgens, Minnesota, United States

The sight of the Union-class DropShip coming for a landing gathered something of a crowd, but those paying the most attention were the officers of the 1st BattleMech Battalion. Standing almost in a place of honor behind Major Scott Pierce, the 1st's commander, and Colonel Charles Sinclair - the overall commander of the existing US 'Mech forces under the US 1st 'Mech Regiment (such as it was) - was Captain Alexander Penton, commander of the 1st's Alpha Company. Alongside commendations from a career as an Army JAG lawyer that preceded his new command was a new one, a ribbon of navy blue and white that stood in for the Minnesota Medal of Valor, awarded by the Governor the prior day for Alpha Company's successful battle to destroy the Clan forces that had perpetrated the Faribault Massacre.

Standing to his side was his senior aide and second in his command platoon, Lt. Rachel Galvariz, who managed to make her MechWarrior BDU cooling suit look like it was custom fit to her curvy figure. Not so photogenic was Edwin Dane, the 1st Lieutenant in charge of Bravo Platoon, who had already caught the discerning and displeased eye of Major Pierce given how tussled and unkept his red hair looked and, perhaps even worse, Dane didn't seem the least bit concerned for it. Anthony Tsukara, the Japanese-American commander of Charlie Platoon, stood beside Dane. All three sported Distinguished Service Medals from the State of Minnesota to go with older commendations. Rachel's Silver Star was the most prominent award, the fruits of being the first American 'Mech pilot to shoot down a Clan aerospace pilot.

The DropShip opened its bays and BattleMechs began tromping out. A few showed tell-tale signs of incomplete repairs and everyone present knew what they were observing; the scant remnants of their sister battalion. Friends and buddies from Outreach had been sent to the "quieter" front at Denver... and most had died there, victims of a badly-conceived attack by a general who had made his negative views of the American MechWarrior corps publicly known. These were the lucky survivors, as battle-hardened as the 1st Battalion, and reinforcements for the same to bring the 1st back up to full strength

If they don't decide to take it out on us, Alex thought to himself.

They entered the west hanger and watched the 'Mechs find open spots, berths freed up by battle casualties in the recent fighting. The 1st might not have been completely broken like their unfortunate counterparts, but they'd suffered over 20% losses in pilots and machines in the battles with the Jaguars and Jade Falcons and sorely needed the dozen or so surviving 2nd Battalion pilots. Rachel's own Thor, now finding another like it parked beside her, still bore battle scars. Alex's Mad Cat down at the end looked better only because the ComStar and Dragoon techs had worked overtime to put a new engine in and make it look good as new, a far sight better than it'd looked after the Jaguars had gotten done with it.

By the time the 'Mechs were in place, Pierce and Sinclair were exchanging salutes with a dark-haired man in his late 20s. Major Patrick Barsdale returned the salutes, looking very sullen. The once proud commander of the 2nd Battalion spoke up to Pierce in particular. "Take care of my pilots, please. They're good people, and they survived the fire."

"They'll be welcome," Pierce promised. He acted diplomatic, but Alex thought he could sense tension in him. Barsdale was a careerist, and aided in his career by the fact that his uncle Simon was Secretary of Defense and his father a key defense lobbyist in Washington. Those kinds of connections didn't just give Barsdale a Major's oak leaf early; it could spell trouble for the careers of any other officers who crossed him too greatly.

"I'm ready to join your staff, Colonel," Barsdale said to Sinclair. "Though I hope you'll understand if I'm eager to get my battalion back in action."

"We still have a few weeks before the next Outreach cadre arrives, but your name's at the top of the list Major," Sinclair assured him, as aware as Alex and Pierce of Barsdale's potential for trouble.

"Thank you, sir." Barsdale looked beyond them and stepped up to Alex. Alex saluted him respectfully and let him reply. "Captain Penton. A... pleasure." His face adopted a sudden neutrality.

Sure it is, since you made it clear you didn't consider me fit for any command, Alex thought, but aloud he answered simply with, "Pleasure's all mine, sir."

"I was proud to hear what you did in Faribault, bringing justice to those killers," Barsdale continued. "You do a credit to the service, Captain. Uncle Simon's looking forward to personally pinning that Silver Star on you, if the President doesn't insist on it himself."

Alex tried not to gulp too audibly. The last thing he wanted to do was mix in with the Washington politicos. "I was just doing what had to be done, nothing special."

"So you say."

Barsdale looked over to Rachel. A look came to his eye that made Alex feel suddenly defensive and certainly brought some apprehension to Rachel, who kept her spine straight and tried not to look too intently at Barsdale. "Lieutenant Galvariz," Barsdale said, very much sounding like he wanted to throw in a flattering adjective that would've been unprofessional. "It's good to see you're continuing to adjust to Army life. And a Silver Star, I see. You'll have to tell me sometime about shooting down that fighter."

"If we ever have the time, I would be happy to," Rachel answered in a neutral tone.

"I'll help you make the time," Barsdale promised.

Rachel seemed a tad uncomfortable, and Alex noticed. Before it continued, the survivors of the 2nd walked up and attention was diverted to their arrival. Barsdale gave a last look to Rachel before heading to his people. He began introducing them as soon as he was with them. Alex recognized Gunny Roland easily, as he had been the oldest of the Outreach trainees, and remembered Cal Schulter as well. "It's my hope you'll get my people put into formations together," Barsdale said to Pierce. "They went through a lot together."

"We'll do our best," PIerce promised. He looked over them, and began discussing things with Sinclair quietly, in a hushed tone. Around them the various officers waited. When Sinclair gave a nod, Pierce looked back and straight to Alex. "Captain Penton, Alpha Company is down three pilots, and given his performance I need Lieutenant Tsukara in Delta Company to take over for Lieutenant Wheeler. You're taking in Lieutenant Roland and his platoon mates."

There was a look on Roland's face as he glanced from Pierce to Barsdale to Alex. Alex gave his own curious look and saw the confusion and, yes, bit of contempt in Roland's face. "Sir?", Roland asked.

"I promised the Major we'd keep your units as intact as possible, Lieutenant," Pierce said. "Alpha's the only company your people can get into without getting split up."

Alex tried to keep a neutral expression. Even with some combat under his belt... he'd long heard of "Gunny Roland" while on Outreach. The archetypical hardass, combat-hardened Marine. A Marine who'd just been assigned to the command of a, well, Alex imagined the description would be "********* pansy Army lawyer".

Roland almost choked as he barked his reply. "Affirmative, sir!" He looked to Penton and saluted, forcing Alex to return it. "Lieutenant Joshua Roland reporting as instructed, sir!"

Desperately avoiding an embarrassing "uhhh" to start with, Alex nodded. "Welcome to Alpha Company, Lieutenant. Get your people together, Lieutenant Galvariz will find your bunks and show you around." He glanced over at Rachel. Far from looking irritated that she'd been assigned to play guide, she almost looked... relieved.

The three 2nd Battalion survivors picked up their bags and began to follow Rachel. Alex noticed Barsdale's eyes briefly flit toward Rachel before he returned to helping Pierce divide up the other survivors. Given the expressions on their faces... almost none of them were happy.

Alex felt the beginnings of a headache coming on. This was not going to be a fun week.

#2 Big Steve


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Posted 15 July 2012 - 10:21 AM

Chapter 2

Camp Jurgens, Minnesota, United States

Camp Jurgens didn't have the permanency of Fort Carson. It was entirely made from prefabricated structure materials provided by ComStar, and it had that sort of transient feel that made Roland flashback to the camps he'd lived in while in campaigns.

He found the view of Lieutenant Galvariz far more appealing.

Oh, true, he was 20 years her senior, at least. If he'd ever had kids, well, some of the oldest potential ones would've been her age. But he was a redblooded straight man - having a fine bronze-skinned dark-haired woman with excellent curves walking in front of him, wearing the fairly tight cooling suit BDUs of American MechWarriors, was something he was taking notice of. He noted that Cal, ever the farmboy, was doing the same, even if he was trying not to.

"So you and Barsdale have a history, Galvariz?", Roland said aloud, just before Rachel could begin pointing out the net library in the rec area. Getting another glance of her from the front was a bonus perk to satisfying his curiosity. "You're a looker, sure, but Barsdale's interest was too much for it to be that."

There was something of an angry look in those deep brown eyes. "Honestly, Lieutenant, I barely got to know any of you on Outreach, so... let's just say it's not your business and leave it at that?"

"Ex-boyfriend, then," Roland said to the others, drawing a hiss.

"Only in his dreams, or your's," was the gruff reply. "Now, to get back to your ********* tour..."

Youch, and spicy too. Hispanic chicks always have that going for them. My estimation of Barsdale has to go up if he got that thing into the sack, Roland thought to himself, hiding a smirk as he allowed Rachel to continue the tour. He also ignored the more tense and irritated tone she was giving now.

Sinclair had been required to bow out early, needing to be at 3rd Army HQ for briefings and meetings, and Pierce had been left to finish doling out 2nd Battalion survivors to his command. A standalone survivor, Specialist Berlman, was being attached to Roland's platoon to fill it out, while Sergeant Perez shifted to Dane's Bravo Platoon along with permanently re-assigned Corporal April Harverson.

Alex was already dwelling on the change in his command's disposition when Pierce approached him after the meeting and the departure of everyone else. "Captain, I would like to speak to you privately," he said, in a tone that made it clear it was one of those unofficial orders all good officers knew to follow immediately. Alex followed his battalion CO into the office area and to Pierce's office. His assigned yeoman was not present and it was just the two of them as they entered the inner office. Medals were framed on the left wall, pictures of family on the right. Alex knew Pierce had a wife and daughters, though he didn't know where they were at the moment. He also noticed what had to be siblings and cousins and nieces and nephews on various pictures.

It was easy to see why Pierce had filled his office with them. Patriotism and nationalism might sweep someone up in a moment of passion, but once it subsided people needed more to endure the hell of war. Some found it in their comrades, close friends who become brothers (and sisters) in the heat of battle.

But given their circumstances, it was just as easy to find it in the need to defend one's family.

"Sir, is something wrong?", Alex asked, watching Pierce settle into his office chair.

"Captain Penton... I would like you to give me your views on two of your pilots." Pierce leaned forward. "How are Verdes and Shameel doing?"

Dani and Becca? Alex looked upward a bit, thinking. "They're... functional, I guess I'd say. I know they're a couple, though I've heard they're not... you know.."

Pierce shook his head. "I'm more worried about how close they are to breaking. They've been in the thick of the fighting for months."

"Lots of people have."

"Yes, and that's why 3rd Army has so many new divisions getting rotated in. The others are being shipped off to garrison the Gulf and the West Coast. The soldiers need time to heal their minds, find their footing again," Pierce pointed out. "But we can't do that with pilots even now. Otherwise I'd have sent them to the rear areas weeks ago."

"You're worried they're about to crack," Alex said.

"I am." Pierce nodded. "They're my people, Captain. I was responsible for the whole unit, and it got massacred. And with Mi... with Sergeant Lupo in the hospital and Hoffman gone, they're the only ones left. I know it's taken a terrible toll on them."

"I know. And I'm going to do my best to keep them going," Alex promised. And to keep them from getting themselves killed.

"Just be ready to make the call if you need to, Captain." Pierce's eyes turned hard. "If they are gone so far that they become a danger to themselves and your unit... pull them."

"You mean label them as psychiatric casualties?"


Alex rubbed at his forehead. He was familiar with the system from his time as a JAG lawyer and cases involving psychiatric cases. "That's a very hard system to get out of, sir. And as needed pilots the docs might just dope them up for a while, declare them healed, and send them back."

"I know. But they'll still be alive," Pierce pointed out. "Just... keep them that way, please."

"As I said sir, I'll do my best," Alex promised.

Across town, the Regina Medical Center was now serving as a major hospital unit for the US and Star League militaries. In one of the semi-private rooms, Danielle Verdes and Rebekah Shameel sat quietly and beheld their sleeping friend Micaela Lupo.

Micki's skin was pale, or as pale as the light bronze of her complexion could get. None of her usual vibrancy was visible as she slept soundly with not a sound in the room. IVs provided fluid to help her body recover further from the wounds she'd endured several days before.

Becca tried not to tear up at the sight of another dear comrade in this shape. Micki was all they had left now besides each other. Their other friend from the TBs, Sergeant Jack Hoffman, was gone. He had sacrificed himself to give the rest of the unit time to get Micki to safety after an Elemental exploded on her cockpit and wounded her with shrapnel. She had barely survived the trip to a MASH facility, but the prognosis for her recovery was at least positive.

The time on the clock indicated it was getting past noon. They were due back on base at 2PM to go on ready status. Even so, Becca wanted to defy the Army's timetable and remain here with her stricken friend.

"She wakes up from time to time," Dani whispered. "The nurses have talked to her. It's just... she's so tired from the blood loss."

"As long as she's okay," Becca whispered back. "Just... oh God, Dani. We're going to end up like her too. I know it."

"Shhhh..." Dani got up and brought Becca to her feet as well, pulling Becca close. Dani's six foot one frame meant Becca's eyes were only level to Dani's chin when standing, and her head fit comforrtably between Dani's head and neck as they embraced. The physical closeness they enjoyed hinted at intimacy that did not exist. War and love sometimes went together (and not always well), but for them the former had taken a far greater priority over the latter and a far greater share of their energy.

Not that Becca thought of their unconsummated relationship, though. For her, in her feelings of dread and terror at the uncertain future, all of the bad portents of the hospital reinforcing her possible fate, the feeling of Dani's breathing under her head, the touch of Dani's fingers to her neck and in her hair, was all the closeness she needed.

"We'll make it out of this," Dani insisted to her. "See, Micki's going to make it, and we will too."

Maybe, just maybe, Dani really believed it. Becca didn't... but she wanted to. Oh how she wanted to. She tried to stifle her sobs of fear, putting her arms around Dani's waist, while the only words she could manage were "Hold me".

Soon duty would call. They would have to go back and climb into those damned machines, those walking tanks, avatars of destruction that were still so fragile that a single move could end them. They would have to face death again. And there was nothing they could do to stop this. They were completely and utterly helpless against the demands of their state and nation, ordering them into battle where it pleased.

All they could do was enjoy the moment, in the company of their dear friend, and hope the clock slowed down so they could savor it.

As a company commander Alex was entitled to a small office of his own. While at first glance this might seem obsessive for a dozen MechWarriors, his company entailed nearly a hundred people when you factored in the mechanics and the armorers and the field cooks and support vehicle crews... The old "one to ten" head to tail ratio was a real pain in the ***, and without First Sergeant Perez's help Alex would've found this staff even harder to deal with.

Right now he was more concerned with trying to head off trouble with his new platoon. He'd brought Roland in to meet with his other lieutenants. He'd arrived with a Marine's punctuality, or rather the punctuality of a Marine gunnery sergeant, since he showed up on the dot fifteen minutes early. He fired off a picture perfect salute.

Trying not to sigh, Alex returned the salute and ordered him at ease. He gestured toward one of the open seats. "Lieutenant, I'm glad to have you with us."

"Pleasure's all mine, sir," Roland answered, in a tone that made it sound like it might not be a pleasure so much as a necessary chore.

Alex tried not to take offense. He knew he was the ******* Army pansyass lawyer and that he'd have to earn Roland's respect - beyond that demanded by military discipline anyway - on the field. No use getting offended when it'd just make Roland more contemptuous.

"Sure." Roland put his hands together in front of him. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"

Alex almost didn't will it for one of his eyebrows to arch inquistively. "Go ahead, Lieutenant."

"I saw combat when you were still a kid," Roland began. "You've got an impressive record, sir, but you're still new to the combat arms. It takes time to become a good combat officer. And you need more of it. But before you get all hot and bothered about that, don't worry about me. No disrespect to First Sergeant Perez intended, but I'm going to do my best to guide you like any good Gunny's supposed to do with a wet-behind-the-ears butterbar. I'm not going to bust your chops to put you down, just to keep you from getting any of us killed."

"Good of you to be frank, Lieutenant," Alex answered. He tried not to let irritation show in his voice, but he was getting damned tired of having people look down on him still, even after all the training on Outreach and the hell of just the past few days. "I don't want to get anyone killed myself, though I am going to follow orders and expect mine to be followed as well."

Roland actually seemed to grin at that. "Spoken like a good officer, Captain. I'd have thought less of you if you'd let that one slide."

There was quiet for a moment. They gave each other glances of mutual understanding. The door opening ended the moment, with Rachel entering and Dane right behind her. They noticed Roland was already present and said nothing; Dane took his seat beside Roland and Rachel eased into a chair along the side.

With everyone present, Alex began to explain what had been decided upon. "In anticipation of the resumption of Clan offensive action, Major Pierce has done some tinkering with our organization. Alpha Company's being designated for countering heavy enemy units. We're now going to have the most heavy 'Mechs in the entire battalion, and this means we get the biggest fights. And as we're going to need to be fully coordinated for combat operations, Lieutenant, I wanted to give you some face time with myself and the other combat officers. And tomorrow we're cleared for field maneuvers as part of an extended two day patrol route. I'd like for us to be familiar with one another before we run into any Clanners."

"We'll be pleased to get working with our fellow platoons, sir," Roland pledged. He looked to his new peers. "Unit cohesion is key to keeping us alive."

"Too bad your bosses didn't agree with that," Dane muttered.

Roland looked to Dane. Alex felt some hairs on the back of his neck stand on edge. Ed, don't...

"No problem with you, Roland, none at all." Dane had a look of... well, it looked like pain on his face, almost. "I had friends in the 2nd, Lieutenant. Guys and gals I met on Outreach. Not one of them showed up today. And that ****** me the **** off."

Roland's expression showed, if not softening, at least some shift to tense understanding. "You and me both, Lieutenant. You and me both."

The rest of the meeting went by without incident, much to Alex's relief. He dismissed them all and went to leave himself. He needed some sleep after today's headaches.

A headache had long settled into Rachel's forehead when she found Roland walking up to her in the rec area. It was getting late and it was mostly open; she'd only come to do some reading before heading to bed. "Lieutenant, if this is about the paperwork for your share of the company's support personnel..."

"It's not that kind of business, Galvariz." Roland sat down next to her. Technically he outranked her, but here in the officers' rec area he wasn't going to pull rank. It Just Wasn't Done, either for NCOs or the commissioned officers. "I remember you from way back at Fort Knox."

Rachel looked up at him. Knox was where the US had sent the first group of confirmed high-scoring neuro-aptitude subjects for 'Mech training, before the growing Clan presence in the Giuseppian countries (including Mexico) had prompted the arrangement to send them to Outreach. "I remember you too. The old Marine guy, everyone called you."

"Not that old yet," Roland answered. "You know, this whole thing's ridiculous."

"What is?"

"Sending..." Roland bit back his first wording. He had an old Marine's disdain for women in the combat services, but he'd spent years building up the habit of not saying anything potentially career-wrecking or otherwise offensive. And, hell, every so often someone like Captain Westen and Sergeant Barker made him reconsider. "Aw hell, Galvariz, you're a smart chick. You look like you should be on some staff, making the REMFs oogle while you write out reports and crap like that."

"Ah." A condescending look came on Rachel's face. "Which is code for 'women shouldn't be allowed to fight', I imagine."

"Now I didn't say..."

"I'm not an *****, Roland," she snapped. "I've been putting up with the bullshit of the military's boys club since I first made the mistake of agreeing to join ROTC for college money." She let out a bitter laugh. "It's funny too. I mean... we're getting conquered by a bunch of eugenicist military clans from the far future, and people like you are still getting wrapped up over girls getting cooties on your guns."


"Seriously!" Rachel let out a harsh laugh. "I've heard them all. I've heard about how we can't be trusted to fight because of our periods, or because we get hysterical... hah, I guess you're afraid we'll freeze up and refuse to charge because we break a nail or some thing like that." She raised a finger to cut Roland off before he could speak more. "Oh, and you know what, Mister Macho Hardass Marine? I'm actually a really sucky feminist, because deep down I think I'd gladly accept being barred from combat service. Unlike you 'roided up jarheads I actually don't want to get shot up or blown to bits or have my body vaporized by a PPC blast. I actually want to live. So please, do go on about how women shouldn't be in combat. I'll agree with you!"

Roland smacked a hand to the table. "Hey, I came in here to talk with you and give you some advice, not to have you get all whiny liberal on me!"

"Because, of course, I need advice from my betters," Rachel shot back. "And this is why I can't wait for this war to get over with. Then I can get out of this 'good ol' boys' club and back to a life where I can do something constructive!" She slammed close the hardcover book she'd been reading and stormed out of the rec area.

Roland watched her go and shook his head. He'd wanted a measure of her and gotten it, and he found it mostly wanting. She wasn't uniform material and was generally the kind of person you got in the service when you were more interested in smart people than military people. Rachel Galvariz in a combat unit was a mistake in his view, and even worse was the officer commission she held and her billet in the company. The last thing he needed was having some mushy college girl being responsible for his company commander's personal platoon.

An Army lawyer for a CO, a hotshot wannabe badass kid for his fellow platoon commander, and a mushy liberal college girl for his CO's aide. Roland was not feeling very confident at all about his new billet. Not at all.

#3 Big Steve


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Posted 16 July 2012 - 07:52 AM

Chapter 3

South of the Cannon River, Minnesota, United States
North America, Earth
17 July 2039
17 August 3059 IST

The sun was starting to go down with the clock inside Alex's cockpit having long reached 2000 hours. They'd been marching around the near-front areas all day, acting as a mobile backup should any Jaguar forces try raiding through the lines. So far, it seemed the Clans were content to conserve their strength. Which, understandably, worried him immensely.

They were moving along one of the side roads when Alex caught a glimpse of something up ahead. He checked his IR and found a light heat signature moving in their area. It didn't take much for him to realize it was a ground vehicle.

"We have a ground vehicle coming at us on the road south of here. This is a no-civvie zone, so I'm going to check it out. Alpha 2, with me. Platoon leaders, keep me appraised."

Affirmations were spoken and Alex put his machine into a jog. Rachel was right alongside him as they moved across farmland to get a visual.

Moving onto the road the vehicle was approaching on, Alex turned toward it and acquired a visual. It was a civilian minivan, unknown make, coming up from occupied territory. A load strapped to the roof confirmed the feeling in his gut; refugees fleeing Clan occupied territory.

Almost immediately it reacted to his looming presence. The tires squealed as the vehicle braked hard and began to turn, the driver clearly frantic to get away.

Unfortunately, given the load on the top and a van's inherent size issues, the maneuver turned out to be a dreadful mistake. The vehicle immediately tipped over. The driver was clearly attempting to turn to regain control, but he or she turned the wrong way and simply worsened the tip until the van completely rolled over.

Alex was on the radio immediately. "This is A Company 1BMB, I need medevac to grid square..." While he waited for the response, Rachel sprinted her Thor close to the wrecked van. She brought it down on a knee and it became still. "Alphas 3 and 4 on me, pilot dismounting!"

Responses were quick while Alex marched his Mad Cat up toward the wreck. Rachel was quick to get down her rope. She ran to the flipped vehicle and went for a side door. When it didn't respond she dropped to the ground and the broken window there. Alex looked back to see if Dani and Becca had responded to his call yet; he didn't dare dismount until they were present to give close cover.

Rachel had no sooner hit the ground and reached into the broken vehicle when she had realized her full predicament. It was the trouble all amateur rescuers found, the common bane of the Good Samaritan; what to do without causing more harm.

From the front seat a barely conscious woman was moaning "My baby" over and over. The driver, another woman, was out cold, if not dead. In the back seats were children, at least six in all, packed in tight and all crying or unconscious.

Or so it appeared at first. Rachel gripped at the nearest child, a little boy of no more than 4, who was unconscious in his car seat. She forced the buckle open. She cursed loudly as her arm scraped against the shattered glass but successfully removed the boy.

The next child - another boy - was older, probably six, just old enough to not have a car seat. Rachel had to try and wiggle her way into the window. Sharpened glass made her pull back as it left crimson lines along her right cheek.

There was a thump from the backseat. She looked back to see a girl, likely eight or nine, laying upon the ceiling of the van and twisting around. She had red-hued blond hair and a look that told Rachel she was probably the bossy type as a child. But bossy or not, the first thing she did was crawl to the back and try to open the rear door. When it didn't open the girl shifted her weight and pulled on the clasp for the back window, which had remained intact. Rachel clambered back to her feet and came around to see if there was anything she could do to open it from the outside, but that proved unnecessary. The window popped open and pushed almost all the way open, the curve at the top hitting the ground such that it remained partly up.

Rachel could see the girl more clearly now. She was a bit strong for a girl of her age, certainly very fit, and her eyes an almond gray when they glanced at her. "Thank you," was all she said before crawling back into the vehicle.

"Wait, come out, I'll get..." Rachel got back down and tried to go into the back window, but while not broken she was still too small to fit through it. She was able to watch as the girl pulled loose a younger girl, seemingly only five. She brought her to the back window and gave her to Rachel to pull out.

By this point Rachel heard tromping from behind her. She looked back to see Dani and Becca's 'Mechs taking up defensive positions. Alex's was now crouched down and he was already coming down the rope ladder dangling from the hatch. She turned back to the vehicle. After several more moments an even smaller girl, barely two, was handed to her. This one fidgeted in her grip, screaming so loud that Rachel's ears rang from it.

Alex got to the van and checked on the boy she'd pulled out first, then on the girls. "My God, I should have thought of it," he gasped.


"We're in Clan 'Mechs, Rachel. She had no way of knowing who we were." Alex shook his head. "I should've sent Perez and Sakata..."

"Worry about that later." Rachel sat back on the glass and waited for the girl inside to hand her the little boy she'd failed to pull out.

As Alex went to work on the driver side door, the sounds of approaching helicopters came from the distance. The medevac teams would be there soon.

Camp Jurgens, Minnesota, United States

At Camp Jurgens Alex had expected to hear from people about the refugee van, but nobody seemed to be paying it much mind. He was barely spoken to as he wrote up a brief report on the patrol and filed it with battalion HQ. For a moment Alex stared off into space, wondering if all of the passengers would make it, and also wondering just what drove them to risk going through the war zone. Liberating Faribault and the small towns south of Minneapolis had only fueled more rumors about the treatment of people in occupied territory ranging from the bizarre to the bloodcurdling. Some of it matched the Dragoons' classes on Clan morals and behavior, some didn't.

With his work done for the moment Alex snatched up a notepad he'd been scribbling in for the last few days. He thought about its contents as he walked along from office door to office door. Colonel Sinclair had approached him on the matter of integrating 'Mech forces with the armored cavalry. Alex had been assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment as a JAG attachè once and was familiar with the unit's combat history and style. The task of conceiving how to mix 'Mechs in with the IFVs and tanks of the armored cavalry had been an interesting intellectual exercise and he thought it time to show his thoughts to Sinclair.

Usually Sinclair's outer office was only manned by his clerk, but now Alex found two other uniformed clerks present. "Is Colonel Sinclair in?", he asked them.

"He's at Army HQ," someone said from the door. Alex turned and faced Major Barsdale, who had just come through from Sinclair's office.

"Colonel Sinclair is letting you use his personal office?", Alex asked pointedly.

"I'm his chief of staff now, I have reason to be here." Barsdale looked at Alex intently, in a way that made him uncomfortable. "So what can I do for you?"

"I'm here to give Colonel Sinclair some of my thoughts on..."

"The Colonel is out, Captain," Barsdale said. "And he'll be quite busy, so you should probably share your thoughts with Major Pierce. He is your battalion CO."

"Yes, he is, but this was a project that Colonel Sinclair personally put me on," Alex insisted.

"Still, that's what the chain of command is for, Captain. Send your findings to Pierce and he'll send them on to Sinclair." Barsdale stepped up and extended his hand. "Though since you came all this way, this time I'll personally deliver your notes to the Colonel when he returns."

"Thank you, Sir." Alex handed him the papers and left the office, feeling very perturbed indeed about Barsdale.

As soon as Penton was gone Barsdale handed the papers he'd brought to one of the clerks. "File it away in the low priority tray," he ordered. Just a couple days of fighting and the lawyer wants to file briefs, he thought sardonically. Oh, Sinclair probably did value the man's tactical advice given the stories of their working together back on Outreach, but Barsdale felt the Colonel and his staff had more important things to do now than humor the musings of a lawyer trying to be a combat commander. Probably some damn fool suggestions about command protocols written in legalese, Barsdale mused to himself.

With that done Barsdale returned to the Colonel's office and the small desk that Sinclair had approved for him to use. Space was at a premium here at Jurgens and Barsdale had no office of his own to use yet; it seemed proper that he work closely with his commander. He had already begun fixing up the staff of the 1st 'Mech Regiment to function as a proper HQ staff, there was yet more work to be done.

Including reminding upstart junior officers of how things were supposed to work, it seemed.

Rachel was waiting in the infirmary when she saw Alex walk up. "Any news?"

"The driver smashed her head. They sent her on to the hospital, but it doesn't look good." Rachel looked back in toward the beds, where the children were all laid out. "The kids did better. Broken arm for one of the bigger kids, but that's it. Their car seats did their work."

"That's good to know." Alex drew in a sigh. "I have Colonel Sinclair asking me to write out tactical concepts, and now Barsdale is playing Mr. 'Chain of Command' on letting me see Sinclair."

Rachel shook her head. "He would do that."

"So you two..."

"Not really up to talking about it," she said. "The only thing I'll say is that no, we weren't a couple, not outside of his fantasies anyway."

"Ah." Of course, that didn't do much to reduce the possibilities of why she was so uptight about Barsdale. "Keep me posted on the kids? I have to go check up with Battalion Supply."

"I'll let you know," Rachel promised.

It was chow time in the mess and Roland had gotten his meal together and sought out somewhere to sit. He scanned the room and found two of the Alpha Company ladies off at their own table. Having gotten Rachel Galvariz's measure and found it wanting, he decided he wanted to see what these ladies were like, so he walked up.

Before he could sit down, the one with longer hair - Dani Verdes, going by her green eyes - waved him off. "This table is reserved," she answered.

"Oh? Under whose authority?", Roland asked, taking a seat anyway.

Dani and Becca frowned at him. Becca shifted a bit closer to Dani and said nothing. Dani waited a moment and answered, "How about all the TBers who died while you were off being a golden boy on Outreach?"

"It's still a free country.... mostly." Roland plopped a hand on the table. "So I'll sit where I want. Unless you want to do something about it."

"Dani, maybe we should move," Becca murmured.

There was no mistaking the fire in those green eyes, though. "I can make him move," she snarled.

"Kid, I'd like to see you try."

Dani got up, clearly intending to do just that. But before she could make a move, Becca grabbed at her. "Dani, don't. He's an officer. You'll get in trouble."

"Not an officer by choice," Roland remarked. "I might have bars, but I'm a Gunny in spirit."

"I hate Sergeants," Dani grumbled.

At that, Roland started laughing. "Wait, are those Sergeant stripes I see on your BDUs?"

"Just means they can't boss me around anymore," Dani retorted.

I like this one, Roland decided. "You've got ***** for a TBer. Former civvie I take it?"

"I'm definitely not in this old boys club by choice."

"So I'm guessing they didn't send you two to Outreach because you were too rebellious. Didn't want to make the rest of us look bad to the Spheroids." Roland poked his fork at a baked potato, pondering whether to start eating it. "Heard what you TBers went through. I don't blame you for how you feel. You fight and survive against those crazy odds and here come some untried 'elites' who presume they're better because of their special training, when you know they ain't got **** on you."

"But you're different, of course," Dani said, her skepticism obvious.

"I've been in combat ops in Iraq, Venezuela, Cuba, and the Philippines," Roland answered. "Back when you were playing with Barbie dolls."

"I didn't play with dolls, I preferred savate at that age," Dani remarked non-chalantly.

Roland snorted with amusement. A real tomboy, this one. And given how the two were holding hands, the label "*****" slipped into his head, and he wasn't too surprised by it. He gripped the sides of the tray. "Well, if you two are that serious about it, I won't make you sit with an old Gunny..."

"Oh, go ahead and eat." Dani rolled her eyes. "Just remember that next time you come uninvited, I'm taking you to the gym to kick your middle-aged ***."

Roland raised an eyebrow at her. "That a challenge, girlie?"

"It's a promise, old man."

"Tomorrow then. The boxing ring. After lunch chow."

That fire returned to those green eyes, and Roland chuckled at seeing it. "You're on," was her reply.

The day was late and almost over, but before retiring Alex returned to the infirmary to check on the refugees they'd brought in earlier. Rachel was standing to one corner, her face lowered, and as he drew closer he saw her eyes had gone red. "Rachel?"

"They lost the driver," she said simply. "Half of those kids just lost their mother."

He could only nod quietly. "They'll probably be evacuated soon. At least... at least they made it." Unless we don't stop the Clans the next time they push...

"This is all just so crazy," Rachel complained. "I mean, just two years ago everything was peaceful. Now we're at war and half the country is occupied and we've got people dying just to get out of the combat zone."

"Pretty nuts, yeah. Even not counting the whole alternate dimension and big walking robots and all the other stuff over a thousand years past us."

"Well, there's nothing more to hear right now, so I'm heading for my bunk." With that, Rachel walked off.

Alex almost did, but upon looking around he noticed a pair of small brown eyes staring at him. One of the little girls, the five or six year old, was awake and looking at him with that tired calm that only a small child can pull off, her face wide and cherubic in appearance. Her light brown hair still had curls in it. "Thank you," she said. "Mommy and Auntie Tonia had to get us away from the mean animal men."

"Animal men?", Alex asked, though within a second he realized what she meant.

"The Smokey Jaggies," the girl clarified. "I'm Clarissa. What's your name?"


"Are you fighting the Smokey Jaggies?"

Alex nodded. "Yeah."

"How do you stop their robots then? Their robots smash everything. They smashed my school."

Alex gave a stiff nod to that. "I've got a robot of my own, Clarissa."

"Can I get a ride in it?"

Alex smiled a little at that mental image, but had to shake his head. "I'm afraid not. Grown-ups only, you see."

"Awww..." The little girl lowered her head. "Maybe we should get some nice animal men on our side to fight the bad ones."

"We do, actually. A few anyway," Alex said, thinking of the Wolf Dragoons and Phelan Kell's exiled Warden Wolves.

"That's good." She looked up at him, and her next words pierced Alex's very heart. "My mommy died, didn't she?"

"Was she driving the van?"


Alex felt his throat go dry. "Then... yes, I'm sorry. I'm sorry Clarrisa, but your mommy died."

"It's okay," the little girl said. "She's with Daddy now. The animal men can't get them anymore."

At that, Alex couldn't say a word. She didn't speak any more either, but rather curled up on the bed and started to go to sleep. It was getting late, and he figured he should take the hint from Clarissa.

But as he walked away, he heard her begin to weep, and at that he turned back and sat on the edge of tthe bed. She stirred a little, her weeping getting a little louder, and he responded by resting his hand on her arm. It took a little bit, but it seemed her crying began to subside, and after several minutes it finally came to an end. Clarissa had settled into gentle sleep.

I have to get some sleep myself, he thought. Hard to sleep when I think about how much Clarissa and what's left of her family is relying on me...

#4 Big Steve


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Posted 21 July 2012 - 06:51 AM

Chapter 4

Camp Jurgens
Hastings, Minnesota, United States of America
North America, Earth
18 July 2039
18 August 3059 IST

Rachel hadn't been able to get to sleep. Her dreams kept waking her up, nightmares of destruction and wrecked minivans and the bodies of every member of her family she'd ever known.

As dawn began to creep over the horizon, she found herself at the infirmary transport exit, watching military and civilian paramedics bringing the survivors of the van crash to a waiting convoy of ambulances. She had tried to volunteer to join the escort protecting them while they headed to the rear - the Clans had proven themselves untrustworthy in avoiding medical insignia - but was rebuffed in favor of remaining survivors of the 1st Training Battalion that had been rotated in as replacement pilots.

The worst cases went first; the last bed was therefore the best of the cases, the young girl that had helped Rachel. They were letting her walk out on her own power given her lack of injuries. She looked at her and nodded. "You came to see us."

"I wanted to see how you were doing."

"My aunt's dead. My mother's dying," the young girl answered. "My cousins and brother are scared."

"So are you," Rachel pointed out.

The girl shook her head. "I can't be scared. My brother and my cousins need me to be a grown up now that I'm the oldest... now that my Dad and Uncles are dead." She eyed Rachel closely and extended a hand. "I'm Zita. Zita Pinelli."

"Rachel Galvariz." Rachel accepted the girl's hand. "You should be careful, Zita. You're smart, and you mean well... but you're still..."

"A kid, yeah," Zita answered for her. "But I lost all my Barbies and my video games when the Smoke Jaguars destroyed my house and killed my Dad and older brother. So I have nothing to be a kid with." Seeing a paramedic looking at her, she added, "I've got to go now, Miss Galvariz. Good luck. Kill as many of them as you can."

Hearing such a cold-blooded request come from the voice of a girl no older than nine made Rachel's spine shiver, even if she understood why the statement was made. If anything, she was more horrified by the intensity in Zita's gray eyes and the way she looked. She was a child being forced to grow up by the crazy circumstances she'd been thrown into.

That's what we're fighting to stop, Rachel reminded herself, ignoring the following surge of terror as she thought about going into combat again. She decided to head back in for breakfast and to check any morning orders for Alex.

Roland had enjoyed morning chow and the start of the day's routine (save the paperwork), but he was mostly looking forward to testing Dani Verdes' mettle in the gym. He'd done his share of boxing in his years with the Corps and was pretty confident of his ability to take anyone on.

Upon stepping into the gym, he realized he might've been a bit off.

The gymnasium was full of US and ComGuard personnel, intermingling to some degree and staying apart otherwise, with every machine being taken up and used while others, waiting for their turn, watched the various boxing rings.

He saw Schuler was in one, and his opponent was none other than Roland's challenger. Dani's gray tank top and blue shorts didn't leave a lot to the imagination when it came to her physique (one that Roland was red-blooded male enough to like, despite his age), but she wasn't just boxing with Schuler. The two were also throwing kicks, mostly hitting open air, and moving around pulling off what Roland had long filed as "kung fu stuff" in his brain. He already knew Schuler was a pretty good at that stuff.

But Dani was better. Every one of Schuler's blows was blocked or avoided, and soon enough Dani's foot crashed into his jaw. His head shot up and he stumbled back, leaving him open to a kick to the belly. Schuler doubled over and fell to his knees. He spat out his plastic tooth guard and gave Dani a pleased look. "I yield," he gasped.

Dani smiled back at him and offered her hand. "It's been a long time since anyone made me work for it. Thanks." She looked over and her eyes met Roland's. "The practice will be useful."

"Same here. I find a defeat now and then keeps a practictioner from becoming arrogant and lazy," Schuler said while getting back up. "Well, I'm hitting the shower. Have fun with your next victim."

"Oh, I will," Dani purred, still looking at Roland. She only broke that to look over at Becca, who was smiling thinly.

Roland smirked and found himself looking forward to this fight. He put on his head guard and stepped up toward the ring. Schuler met him as he clambered up and winked. "Good luck."

"Better off wishing her that," Roland pointed out. He handed Schuler his gloves, which Schuler placed on his hands. Roland palmed his teethguard and walked up toward Dani, who was leaning over the ring talking to Becca. "So, ready kid?"'

Dani smirked and put her teethguard back in.

"You're all fancy with your kung fu kicks, but let's see you do straight up boxing." Roland put his teethguard in his mouth and assumed a defensive stance. Okay girl, let's see...

Dani's arm and gloved fist were a blur, going right through his relaxed guard and smacking him in the chin. Roland staggered back and barely brought his arms up in time to absorb a flurry of punches from Dani. She's fast was his thought as he endured the onslaught.

Dani enjoyed wiping the smirk off the old Marine *******'s face with her first punch. Guys always seemed to be surprised when girls threw good punches and Dani, for her part, always loved to make them think twice. She kept on the attack, feinting and jabbing to try and get around Roland's defense.

He wasn't making it easy, though. He gave no opening to exploit, his balance was kept straight... he was going turtle on her, and Dani was losing her patience with him. She attacked even more aggressively, trying to batter him into opening his defense for her to get another punch in.

And then he decked her.

With a speed no one expected, Roland's fist flew forward. Dani's arms were still in the middle of pulling back from punches and had no position to prevent the blow from catching her on the jaw (through her headgear). Already off-balance with her weight shifted for punching, Dani fell backward violently enough to lose her footing and hit the floor.

Roland stood over her. She'd gotten frustrated far too quickly and opened herself up. He had to admit she'd been giving it to him good regardless, and he doubted he'd win if she kept her cool. But for the moment he had regained the upper hand.

An angry glare was in Dani's eyes as she got back top her feet. She advanced again and Roland brought back up his defenses. Her pummeling was even harder this time and her frustration now joined with anger at her embarrassment. She's a fighter, but right now she's too mad to do it right.

Dani opened herself up again and Roland gave her another punch. She saw it coming this time and brought an arm up while moving backward, reducing the impact. She didn't fall this time and regained her footing in time to deflect another blow.

Suddenly her foot hooked under Roland's and made him trip. A chorus of shouts and boos came from the growing audience, as their battle attracted attention. Roland glared at her and almost removed his teethguard to complain, but Dani was too quick. Her fist came down and smashed into his nose as he tried to rise. She spat out her guard and screamed, "How about some real fighting, *******?!"

Roland answered by kicking her hard in the knee. She cried out and crumbled over, opening her up for a right hook from where he was sitting. She spun away and gave him time to get up. He spat out his own guard. "What the hell is wrong with you?!"

Dani struggled back to her feet, her knee clearly injured, but that didn't stop her from turning back toward him. Before she could lunge back at him Becca entered the ring and grabbed her. 'Dani, please! You're hurt! Stop this!"

"I'm going to pound his ******* dick face in!"

"No!" Becca twisted around her and put herself between them. She looked to Roland with pleading eyes. "She's just upset, please, walk away!"

"She needs to watch her ******* temper," Roland spat back. "We can't have her going crazy in combat, she'll get us killed!" He turned away and went for the ropes to leave.

"****** ******!", Dani swore, but Becca's eyes had turned to her. Seeing the pain and fear in them quieted her anger and she did not resist Becca bringing her toward the other side of the ring.

Roland jumped out and began removing his equipment. Irritation burned within him, not so much that she'd gotten such good shots in at him, but that she was so clearly unfit for further combat.

It's not that he didn't appreciate what Dani had gone through. She'd been in the thick of the fighting, facing an overwhelming foe that had gradually killed or maimed many of her comrades. Months of fighting and retreating and fighting more would take their toll on anyone. As far as Roland was concerned, she needed to be rotated out, not thrown back into the fire. But the brass are desperate for 'Mech pilots.

Schuler took his gloves from him. "She's got a wicked kick, Lieutenant. Be thankful she didn't land one on you."

Roland grunted. "The brass should send her and her friend to a quiet zone. I've seen that before. Someone sees too much combat, too many friends and buddies go down, it makes them mad. And they take it out on whatever gets in their way."

"Sounds about right," Schuler agreed. "Though we need every MechWarrior we can spare." He noticed the look come over Roland's face. "What?"

"'MechWarrior'." Roland said the term like it was a curse of some sort, or even an insult. "Inner Sphere talk. 'Mech jockies aren't as special as they think. The important thing is knowing your job and doing it right, whether you pilot a damn tin can or dig the latrines. There will be no MechWarriors in my beloved Corps, that's for damn sure."

"This isn't the Marine Corps, Lieutenant," Schuler pointed out.

"No, but we'll have 'em one day. And I'll be damned if Marines go around calling themselves 'MechWarriors'." Roland stepped toward the showers. "Time to go wash up."

Becca helped Dani limp into the shower area and put away her boxing equipment while Dani sat on the bench. Her knee was beginning to turn a deep purple and it felt like the cap was fractured. Every movement of her joint brought pain. "******* *******," Dani grumbled yet again, carefully inspecting her knee.

Even Becca's soft touch, a moment later, brought slight pain, though Dani tried to smile through it as if the touch was a healing one. "God, Dani... you're going to be out of action for this."

"To hell with that, I'm not letting you go out alone," Dani retorted.

"You won't be able to climb into your 'Mech until this heals," Becca pointed out. She rubbed alcohol on it. "Let's get you washed up and to the infirmary."

Dani grimaced and lowered her head. She couldn't believe how badly she had lost her temper just now. It was a stupid mistake, a stupid one, and now she was injured from it. "He's right, Becca."

Becca looked up at her. "What?"

"I'm going to get you killed." Dani's eyes blurred with tears. "I just get so angry and violent and I'm going to mess up and you're going to get killed..."

"No..." Becca shook her head. She put her hands up to Dani's cheeks to hold her in place. "I know you won't." She used her fingers to wipe away the tears and leaned her head forward. Their brown and green eyes made contact and closed as Becca's lips sought Dani's. A strong kiss followed, the strongest gesture of intimate affection they permitted themselves. Their bodies and hearts yearned for so much more that circumstance forbade, but they would not deny themselves this.

When the kiss ended, Dani put her hands on Becca's face. "I love you," was all she had to say.

"I love you too." Becca's hands moved over Dani's now, their fingers interlacing. "Now let's go get you washed up and over to the infirmary. That knee needs some attention."

Rachel was taking a late lunch by herself, using Alex's empty office as a place for quiet while she enjoyed what passed for standard 'Mech pilot rations from the mess.

There was paperwork, of course. There was always paperwork. Rachel was going through it at the standard pace while listening to a virtual lecture from one of her old professors on Japanese - a language she was nearly fluent in - and mumbling her vocabulary on her breath as she did.

Her professor's steady voice was not enough to block out the sound of the door opening. Rachel figured it was Alex and almost called out a greeting... but then she realized it was Barsdale. The small smile meant for Alex vanished. Knowing what would be expected, she stood and saluted.

Barsdale gave a nod of approval that Rachel found demeaning. "At ease, Lieutenant." Barsdale looked around the room. "I was looking for Captain Penton."

"I believe he is consulting with Lieutenant Dane and Sergeant Perez, sir," Rachel answered carefully. Just go away, please God just go away.

"Ah. Well, I just wanted to speak with him on minor issues," Barsdale said. He walked around the room and started focusing on the frames holding Alex's law degrees. "He seems pretty intent on communicating with Colonel Sinclair."

"The Colonel worked well with him and values his advice," Rachel pointed out.

"Maybe... maybe. The Captain's public notoriety certainly plays a role there too." Barsdale looked back to her. "You served in staff before. You know how it needs to work. Captain Penton should report to Major Pierce, not Colonel Sinclair, unless otherwise ordered."

"What makes you think that hasn't happened?", Rachel pointed out. She tried not to show her discomfort, nothing to let Barsdale know just what his proximity did to her.

"The Colonel would've told me," Barsdale answered.

Or he would have expected you to not be a stuck up *** about it, Rachel thought to herself while remaining almost motionless at her seat. "Well, I'll let him know you want to speak with him?" Just go away just go away just go away...

Barsdale wasn't taking the hint. He seemed to focus on her, and the attention made Rachel distinctly uncomfortable. "You still hold our service at SigInt against me, don't you?"

YES! Aloud, she answered, "I think you behaved inappropriately."

"I was trying to be helpful. You were a college student being pushed into military service. You were struggling."

"And you thought I'd be grateful enough to sleep with you," Rachel answered quietly.

The pleasant look on Barsdale's face faded. "Misunderstandings can do a lot of damage to someone's career, Lieutenant. A lot of damage."

"You got pushy, I was within my rights to complain." And your daddy and uncle got you out of trouble, of course, so I'm not sure what you have to ***** about.

"I was trying to be helpful," he insisted. "You weren't acclimating to Army life."

"So you took it upon yourself to micromanage everything I was told to do and try to control every hour of my day." Rachel drew in a breath and tried to not feel fear toward him. He couldn't hurt her, not here. "Working under you was a living hell."

There was a brief look of anger on his face, but Barsdale covered it up. "Army life is strict, regimented. And you had potential as an intelligence officer. I had to be like that. I thought I was a lot nicer when I took you to dinner."

"You mean when you tried to insist on my staying at your home and wouldn't give me a ride to my apart..."

As she spoke Barsdale's face began to turn red. But before he could cut in like he seemed ready to, the door opened and Alex entered. He spotted Barsdale immediately and saluted. "Major. What can I do for you?"

When the door had opened, Barsdale's face had begun to return to normal, but even his control hadn't let him present an unrattled front to Alex. "I was just coming by to see how you were doing, Captain, and to inform you that Colonel Sinclair's schedule is entirely too busy for him to see you."

Alex nodded and looked over to Rachel. She tried not to look too grateful. "I understand, Major. I'll consult with Major Pierce as needed then. Anything else?"

"No, that will be all." Barsdale gave one last glare back toward Rachel before walking around Alex and leaving the room.

Rachel couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief. Alex noticed it and asked, "What?"

"That man can destroy both of us, Alex," Rachel pointed out. "His dad adores him, his uncle likes him, and they can ruin us if he says we're doing something against him."

"I know his Uncle is SecDef, but seriously..."

"I've had to serve with him before. He likes to play up being 'self-made' and not relying on family connections, but he uses them if he feels like it. Especially if he feels he needs to get away with something or wants something badly enough. Trust me, I've had personal experience." Rachel's look was full of worry. "Just nod nicely and wait for his uncle and dad to get him promoted to a cushy staff job, where he'll be out of our hair."

Alex decided, at that point, to say nothing, since he already knew Rachel wouldn't want to discuss it. He went over to his chair and sat down, his finger smacking the spacebar on his keyboard. There would be e-mail from Pierce's office and the Corps quartermaster office and... yes, even in war, he had spam. And interview requests. And fan mail. It could be easy to forget he was a celebrity now, a war hero. I really don't feel like one...

But one e-mail near the top caught his attention, as it was a general mailing from Colonel Sinclair to the officers of the regiment. He opened it and read it. "Oh damn," he muttered.

"What?" Rachel looked over.

"Last minute briefing to be held tonight," Alex answered. "We're going back into action tomorrow."

Edited by Big Steve, 21 July 2012 - 06:59 AM.

#5 Big Steve


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Posted 24 July 2012 - 08:55 AM

Chapter 5

Earth MechWarrior Training Center
Earth Expeditionary Forces Command HQ, Outreach
Chaos March, Inner Sphere
18 July 2039
18 August 3059 IST

The Dragoons and Star League had established the bureaucracy overseeing their efforts on Scorched Earth on Outreach itself, in one of the training regions used by the Dragoons for exercises and, more recently, their own civil war. While most of the Dragoons were engaged on Earth, the planetary garrison had been reinforced with a contract to the Northwind Highlanders and a number of other smaller, reputable mercenary outfits. Officers from all of the Houses and from ComStar were present as well, overseeing the logistics elements of the SLDF's aid programs.

The trainees were divided into two groups. One consisted of top-rated aircraft pilots, including but not limited to military service pilots, who were being trained to use 31st Century aerospace fighters. The other were the high-scoring neuro-aptitude trainees who were being given intensive Dragoon training to give them a better shot at fighting the Clans. The two groups were living in common barracks regardless of their ranks, stuffed 100 to a room, with five cadres now in various stages of training and a sixth, from the Republic of China, burning in from the rift.

Currently the Commonwealth cadre was up for final training tests. The Dragoons were utilizing Clan-style Trials of Position to determine a pilot's 'Mech competency score, and pairs of Commonwealth pilots were being set into teams for simulated combat with Dragoon pilots.

These were hardly simpod combats, though. Dummy rounds were loaded into actual 'Mechs, energy weapons set to low power, and the training systems thus kept track of likely damage in a real combat environment. One such 'Mech now returned with its partner from the trials, showing slight scorching from lower power laser hits but triumphant. Its occupant's special status was shown by the crown insignia placed upon the breast of the modified Victor.

Jaime Wolf watched the 'Mech find its place in the hanger bay. The 'Mech accompanying it looked slightly better, and as an Enfield it had shown a little more maneuverability to avoid attacks. He waited patiently as the 'Mechs slipped into their bay support frames and shut down. The Enfield pilot dismounted first. It was a woman, Indian in appearance, on the thin side with her long dark hair pulled into buns, her dark brown eyes full of intelligence and wit. She wore the Dragoon version of the American full-body cooling suit marked with British insignia.

Her partner was a man in his early 40s, his light brown-hair kept short and combed, with a build that had been honed to strength by Wolf's rigorous training regimens. Light blue eyes looked from the woman to Wolf. He extended a hand to the aging Clan mercenary. "Colonel Wolf, an honor to have you meet me here after my test."

"I was interested to see how you were doing, Highness," Wolf answered.

James Prince of Wales, Regent of His Majesty's Government in Exile, gave a nod. "Please, Colonel, among the trainees I am simply MechWarrior Windsor."

"So you say." Jaime looked over to the woman. "And MechWarrior Scindia. Impressive maneuvering, if I may say so."

Divija Scindia nodded. When she spoke her mezzo-soprano voice was more English than Indian in accent and tone. "My thanks, Colonel."

"This is the best we can do to get you ready for the real thing. Short of giving you live munitions, that is." Wolf grinned. "I don't think your governments or the Inner Sphere officials who insisted on your training would be pleased if we adopted the full Clan trial and risked your lives."

James restrained himself from sighing at being reminded of part of the reason he was here. He had at least scored sufficiently for the neuro-aptitude tests to be trained on Outreach, but it was made fairly clear that the Inner Sphere's powers were interested in the mostly-deposed royalty and nobility of Earth, many of which hadn't even ruled their nations for a century or so. He didn't care to speculate on the why, leaving that for others, but in the future it would undoubtedly be of importance to Earth... their Earth.

From another structure two more BattleMechs came out, both Centurions with upgrades. The insignias they bore on them were similar to James' but smaller. He blinked at seeing them go out together. "Having my sons fight together is adding a new dimension to the test, is it not?"

Wolf's grin became very amused. "Oh yes. Their tendency to compete with one another will make the coming trial very interesting. Even, I might say, very entertaining." The old mercenary held a hand toward the control station. "I invite you to come and observe."

James almost said no, but his curiosity to how well his sons could work together caused him to nod. He followed Wolf, Divija trailing behind him.

From the cockpit of his Centurion, Edward Albert (George William) Windsor triple-checked his systems and took in a breath. In all his twenty odd years of life he'd never had cause to imagine himself in this situation. I am now piloting a thirty first-century war machine on an alien planet. He glanced over to his brother's 'Mech and keyed their private radio. "Are you ready, Henry?"

"More than you brother," was the cocksure reply from Henry Albert (George William) Windsor, his twin brother.

"Just remember not to fire at any of my targets, not unless you want us to get waylaid six to two," Edward reminded him.

"You, brother, are no fun."

Edward ignored his brother and tried to hide his nervousness. This would justify his place in the training regimen, and if he failed it would only make clear that his place had been given due to his birth and not his ability. He couldn't face his father or any of his people knowing he'd been given an honor he hadn't earned.

The Dragoons had set up a microcosm of various terrains to train in. Hilltops and rocky cliffs for mountainous terrain, flatland, a pond. Across from the pond was where their opponents awaited; autocannon-armed Enforcers and Hunchbacks and versatile Nightskys, with their hatchets and pulse laser armament removing ammo vulnerability.

A deep male voice from one of the Dragoon testing range officers came over the radio. "Cubs 1 and 2, confirm readiness."

"Cub 1 system checks complete," Edward confirmed, not entirely thrilled with the designation he was assigned.

After a couple seconds, Henry's voice crackled over the radio. "Cub 2 system checks complete." His irritation was clear, but Edward knew it wasn't just the designation but the fact that Henry was made "number 2".

"Well then, you know the drill. You'll fight one target of three, the others will only engage if you defeat a target first or if you open fire on them while still fighting the first target. Good luck, Cubs."

They barely had any time to react before the two Nightsky 'Mechs started lumbering toward them. Pulse laser fire lashed out at them, striking Henry's shoulder and barely missing the side of Edward. He moved his 'Mech away from Henry and toward the forest area for cover. With a motion of his joystick gold crosshairs turned crimson with missile lock on his opponent. With the Artemis systems guiding them, his flight of dummy missiles struck home. The testing systems accorded respectable damage, disabling one of the enemy 'Mech's pulse lasers.

Henry didn't do so badly either, letting loose with his autocannon and missiles. The former mostly missed, the range being such that just a few rounds from his ten shot autocannon registered as hitting. That they were cluster rounds only served to spread the damage widely and make it negiligible. His missiles hit with more effect, most of the salvo landing true and dispensing wide damage including an elbow actuator.

But there was no time for Edward to consider his brother's performance. The Nightsky pilot let loose with his biggest pulse laser, stitching emerald light over the Centurion's chest. The laser's power was such that it didn't even scorch the paint but the systems considered it a solid hit that melted away armor. Grimacing, Edward brought his own autocannon to bear as the 'Mech advanced on him. Cluster rounds erupted and sprayed the Nightsky; the systems determined likely damage accordingly and the other 'Mech began to heat up from a simulated engine hit.

The enemy 'Mech continued advancing, intent on bringing its hatchet to bear. They exchanged laser hits that caused no major simulated damage. As Edward triggered his missiles again the Nightsky's jump jets fired, propelling it forward in the air. The dummy missiles impacted against it with no registered simulated effect. The Nightsky had entered his minimum range.

He brought the autocannon to bear again and sandblasted the Nightsky. One cluster round gave the result of a simulated actuator hit, but it was the wrong arm to nullify the hatchet. Pulse lasers stitched across his arm and simulated a hit to his shoulder actuator, partially crippling his 'Mech's left arm. Edward pulled back more, but his Centurion was too slow to regain the range gap against the Nightsky. It started to bring its hatchet down and barely missed him, Edward straining to pull the Centurion to its right.

This opened him up to a kick from the Nightsky's left leg, which struck his 'Mech in the midsection. He had brought the machine off-balance to dodge the hatchet, and now Edward found himself unable to prevent the Centurion from falling over. The best Edward could do was ensure he landed it on the left arm, keeping his autocannon arm available. He pulled the arm up as the Nightsky's pilot twisted to his left, avoiding some of the cluster rounds and not taking any further damage of note. His front-mounted medium laser lashed out and scoured virtual armor from the Nightsky's chest, but to no avail. The pilot righted himself and pulled his hatchet arm up to strike Edward.

Dummy missiles suddenly impacted on the Nightsky's back, followed by submunitions rounds. The weak back armor of the Nightsky was deemed to fail by their simulation computers, with their systems simulating smoke belching from it as the 'Mech began to topple. Edward looked beyond to where Henry's Centurion was turned toward him, having taken down his target.

Behind him the other Nightsky recovered from a trip and brought its large pulse laser to bear. Edward triggered his missiles, which closed the gap and slammed into the 'Mech. One missile recorded a simulated hit on the pulse laser, wrecking it before it could fire.

Henry's rear laser stabbed a crimson beam into the Nightsky's head module. The computer simulated a direct cockpit hit and the Nightsky locked up, its pilot "killed".

Of course, the battle was not over yet. The moment Henry's missiles had struck Edward's adversary, the two Enforcers and Hunchbacks had begun marching toward them. Edward finished standing his 'Mech up and had to move immediately to avoid a laser strike on his "weakened" chest. "Thank you for the rescue, Henry. Now we just have to get out of this."

"You know what they say, brother. The best defense is a good offense!" With that Henry maneuvered his Centurion toward their approaching adversaries.

"Henry?! What in the devil are you...?!" Edward stopped himself. Of course Henry was going to charge toward them. He always liked taking the direct approach. "Fall back, we can get them into..."

Henry wasn't listening, of course, and he moved his Centurion with great skill to minimize how many hits the enemy lasers could land on him. A ruby light touched his Centurion's calf slightly and caused projected leg damage, but it did nothing to slow him down.

Just outside the effective full-salvo range of the Hunchbacks' 20-shot heavy autocannons, Henry let loose with a full strike on one of them. Edward fired a moment later, picking the same target, with half their missiles and cluster rounds registering his on the Hunchback. It too suddenly slumped over and stopped; the computers had simulated a lucky hit on the 'Mech's ammo bin, which in real life would have left nothing but a gutted ruin of a 'Mech.

Twin steams of dummy autocannon tracers struck against Henry's Centurion. His armor failed in several spots under the barrage by the Enforcers. Edward tracked one and fired his forward laser, tracing red light over its shoulder and chest. His missiles and autocannons were only seconds away from firing status...

A second barrage converged on Henry, but this time he was ready. He twisted and turned his machine, avoiding the worst of the autocannon fire, while his own missiles and autocannon lashed out once more. The Enforcer he targeted had no time to step into the missiles' minimum range, leading to registered hits that hobbled the machine's left hip and blew away armor protecting its autocannon ammunition. Edward quickly shifted targets from the Hunchback and to the Enforcer to get maximum effect, letting loose with every weapon he had to spare.

Despite his best effort at aiming none of his rounds struck the Enforcer's ammunition. Some of his missiles missed, others struck armor or non-vital areas, and his clusters couldn't land any major hits as well. An eye nervously on his heat meter, Edward triggered his medium laser, just to watch the ruby beam play over armored chest and not where the simulation was recording damage to the magazine's armor.

Henry twisted and fired, lancing the Enforcer with his medium laser. On the simulated heat scans his 'Mech showed as white hot, but his shot was true. The Enforcer slumped over, victim of a simulated ammo detonation. Its partner sprayed autocannon fire toward Henry again, just for him to turn and avoid it.

Which is what the Hunchback pilot had been waiting for.

Edward turned his attentions back toward the Hunchback in time to see that the pilot had been working with his friends, using their fire to maneuver Henry into his sights. His autocannon opened up, spitting tracer rounds that their computers translated as a deadly burst of high caliber fire. They ripped into the hip and side of Henry's Centurion. Henry's leg seized up and forbade him from moving, simulating catastrophic leg damage.

The Enforcer was bringing its autocannon back up on Henry. Edward had a better aim on it than the Hunchback and triggered his missiles again, then autocannon. Missiles struck all over the other machine. The cluster rounds were more focused, going off all over the torso. Simulated damage indicated he'd gotten engine and gyro hits on it, and the Enforcer was in serious trouble.

But it didn't matter. The Enforcer's autocannon went off. The computers tracked the simulated burst right into Henry's chest, indicating the result as an ammo explosion. Henry's Centurion limped over and went still.

The Hunchback turned toward Edward and fired its lasers. Edward felt his 'Mech begin to unbalance, the simulation ordering his gyro to reflect a hit to his hip actuator that was damaging but, thankfully, not crippling. He moved his Centurion around and looked to regain some range from the Hunchback. He checked his ammunition levels, noting how many salvos and bursts he had left from each weapon. Enough if I can make this work...

The Enforcer was starting to recover from the battering Edward had given it. Outnumbered two to one and facing the heavy gun on the Hunchback, Edward decided to put it down. His laser shot went wide and missed and, given his maneuvering, his missiles couldn't get a lock, but as he twisted again to avoid the blue light of the Hunchback's small laser, Edward got a good lock with his autocannon. Dummy rounds erupted with golden flame from the end of his Centurion's arm. The simulated cluster rounds found their mark, peppering the wounded Enforcer. It slumped over with its gyro considered gone.

The Hunchback's lasers lashed out at Edward. His systems locked up his left arm, rendering it useless from a simulated shoulder actuator hit. He turned back toward the Hunchback in time to see its powerful autocannon open up. The burst hit him square in the torso. His 'Mech lurched with gyro damage warnings lighting up.

Edward turned his Centurion away and began to run it as fast as his damaged hip and gyro would let it. He fired wildly with the rear-mounted laser to keep the Hunchback pilot honest and was answered by twin spears of ruby light that turned his rear armor icons red. He turned back in time to avoid a burst of autocannon fire from the Hunchback that would have probably finished him. The Dragoon pilot within was unyielding, not giving him an inch of room, and he clearly had the advantage.

Knowing it would be his final shot with them, Edward triggered his missiles. The Hunchback took the full salvo before it could get within the minimum range. One of its medium lasers took a hit that locked it out of action. Edward reached over and triggered the ammunition jettison for the missiles, removing what he had left.

The wisdom of this was displayed when the Hunchback fired. Even with the range being long, the burst of shells slammed into Edward's 'Mech. The gyro strained to simulate the impact of such a strike, one that quite possibly would have blown its way completely through him if they were fighting with live munitions. His now-empty missile magazine had taken the simulated hit instead of anything vital.

He only has what, two bursts left? That was the thing with those heavy autocannons, after all; they ran out of ammunition quickly. But it mattered little; with his gyro and hip actuator "damaged" he didn't have the mobility to evade a skilled 'Mech pilot. And his chance of surviving one more direct hit, let alone two, were bad. He had to act quickly.

The Dragoon pilot saw his attack coming, it seemed, as he dodged to avoid the medium laser that lashed out from Edward's chest. He brought his autocannon up and fired it, just to see most of the cluster rounds miss thanks to the Hunchback pilot's skill. With no appreciable damage done Edward tried to dodge to the left to avoid the autocannon shot he knew was coming, bringing his 'Mech's right arm up in an instinctive defensive gesture.

But the Dragoon pilot was too good to miss. The autocannon belched fire again and dummy rounds slammed into Edward's arm. His autocannon flashed damage; most of his right arm was now "mutilated" from the direct hit. Only have to survive one more burst... He reached over to jettison his autocannon ammo as well.

And that's when the idea hit him.

He ignored the crippling of the Centurion's right arm by the next laser hit from the Hunchback. Edward turned his 'Mech around as far as he dared and lined up his torso until he thought the angle was right. The Hunchback began to twist slightly, undoubtedly looking to avoid getting hit by his rear laser, but Edward had other ideas. He hit his jettison control again. A port in his back opened up and his magazine popped open with enough speed to cover the distance to the Hunchback. On his holotank Edward held his crosshairs over the magazine, knowing this had to be the best damn shot he'd ever made.

He was rewarded when his rear mounted laser lit the magazine up with red light. At its power levels it did nothing, and the magazine kept going until it hit the ground.

But in the world of the simulator, the laser detonated the ammunition, and right in front of the Hunchback. The enemy 'Mech's systems recognized the simulated outcome and threw the machine back against the ground.

Edward twisted around and almost fell from his gyro mimicking damage, but he held himself steady enough to get his crosshairs over the Hunchback as the pilot within began to stand. He breathed a prayer and squeezed the trigger on his last weapon.

A red light played over the cockpit of the Hunchback. The machine shut down on its pilot, believing itself decapitated.

Edward inhaled. And inhaled again. He hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath until he had felt his lungs protesting it. He looked out at the "fallen" 'Mech and tried to regain his breath, not thinking of the feat he'd just pulled off.

A laughing voice came over the radio. "Well, I see the careful cub prevails," a familiar voice said.

Edward placed the voice and widened his eyes. "Colonel Wolf?"

"The old jettisoned ammo trick. I like it. Well done young man. All machines return to base for scoring."

All of the defeated 'Mechs suddenly stood up straight again. The simulation shut down and released the grip it had kept on Edward's gyro and hip, permitting him to move freely. He looked over to Henry's Centurion as it came back to life and keyed their private frequency. "If you'd listened to me we'd have both made it."

It was with the clear sound of hurt pride that he got the response, "Sod off little brother."

Edward could only shake his head. "We're twins, remember?"

"I'm still bigger than you, little brother, and I can still kick your arse in the gym."

At that, Edward could only roll his eyes and continue walking his 'Mech back to base.

An hour later the two brothers were sitting near their father, Colonel Wolf, and Captain Aloisson, who was serving as the trainer for the Commonwealth unit. Seated by each other and near their father one could easily see the family resemblences in their faces and similar heights. Edward and Henry had inherited their mother's brilliant blond hair however, and they showed marked physical differences with Henry's muscles thicker compared to Edward's toned form. This was just one way the twins showed their marked difference of character, and it only fueled the potential toward competition they showed.

For the moment Henry's face was the one beaming as their kill totals were racked up. He had brought down both three 'Mechs directly, even if he was forced to share damage credit with Edward on all of them; another was a joint kill. Edward only had two.

Aloisson nevertheless brought up the scores, and they didn't favor Henry so much. Forced to share damage credit on all of his kills while Edward's two kills had been damaged entirely by him, their scores ended up so close that when his 'Mech's defeat was factored in it was Edward, not Henry, who came out ahead. A frustrated look came over his face, but he knew better than to protest. In the Dragoons, that got your arse knocked to the ground, since none of them gave a damn about their trainees' social ranks. "So, 225 and 220 for scores, Trainees Edward and Henry Windsor, not counting a fifty point bonus to Edward for superior thinking. The ammunition trick was a good one."

"A lucky shot," Henry grumbled. "I was taking fire from multiple targets and more shots in total than Edward. Shouldn't that be factored in?"

A cruel grin came over the Dragoon's face. "If you desire, but I don't think you'll want that. That just means you exposed yourself as a target more." Aloisson leveled a gaze at Henry. "You are a naturally-gifted MechWarrior, Prince Henry. I will even say you are better at 'Mech piloting than your brother. Given experience and time you may be one of the best there is. But that does not make you an excellent MechWarrior because you do not think. You do nothing but attack whatever crosses your eye. Your brother, by contrast, thought tactically. He tried to focus fire on the Hunchbacks as the greatest threat if they gained the range. When you did not, he then focused fire with you, increasing the chances of putting the target down. He used his own jettisoned ammunition as a weapon. All you did was blunder about shooting."

Aloisson looked to Edward next. "And you. Do not think your victory today makes you special. Special is the near five hundred point score that Kai Allard once racked up. You were made Cub 1 for a reason, to assert command if it needed to be taken. You did not. You showed no resolve. And that is something you must do on the battlefield, Prince Edward. Do not just make clever plans; enforce them. Assert yourself and meld others into contributing to it. If you had tried to actually work with your brother instead of letting him do as he pleased, both of you stood a good chance of prevailing."

"Henry heeds no voice but his own," Edward responded quietly. "If I did not command him it is because I..."

"You are a MechWarrior!", Aloisson thundered. "Not just a MechWarrior, but a Prince, born to be a leader! On the battlefield others will look to you for direction, even if they pretend otherwise. You must be ready to command them. You must be ready to assert your will upon them. Do not simply shrug your shoulders at those who are defiant, because it's going to get you both killed!"

"Born to lead. Ha." Henry guffawed. "Clearly you Inner Sphere blokes don't know much about how monarchy works in our world. The only thing we're born to do is pose in dress uniform and give paparazzi an income."

"I know that if your people did not want you there as a potential leader in time of crisis, they would have removed your ***** from your throne long ago," Aloisson shot back. "And that ends our debriefing. Your scores will be considered into your final posting and equipment issue. Dismissed!"

The two brothers stood up and walked out, Henry almost elbowing Edward out of the way in the process. Edward watched his brother go and sighed before following.

From his seat, Prince James looked over at Aloisson. "They have driven many a tutor and nanny mad."

"Fire and steel," Aloisson remarked. "They complement each other in ways neither will appreciate until made to... or until it is too late."

Henry found himself heading to the gym, where he found a punching bag to take his frustrations out on.

Aloisson's words had stung. What had also stung was his father's look, and the feeling in Henry's gut that he had yet again let him down. Edward had been his usual smug-without-being-smug self throughout the entire thing, of course.

Henry was reconsidering the entire situation again and again. If Edward had actually spoken up, would he have followed? He hoped he would have.

For all that Henry was annoyed by his brother's smartarsed smugness... he knew his brother was the smarter one. He kept his cool and he thought everything out. If he'd told Henry to do something in a situation like that, Henry would have done it.

At least, he hoped he would have.

After pounding the hell out of a punching bag for half an hour or so, Henry headed to the showers. Chow time would come soon, and then free time. There would be pubs to go to without a single damn paparazzi to hound him - one of the few perks of fleeing home, unfortunately - and some very nice young ladies who liked his accent. The thought of what else they would like made him smirk as he got to his locker.

Edward had showered already and returned to their barracks house. He and Henry shared a two tiered bunk near the one their father shared with Divija. It was not an end-wall one like their dad's, though; the bunk beside him held a couple of the other Commonwealth trainees of noble rank.

Only one was present. Diane Howard was a couple years younger than him, her twentieth birthday just six weeks past. She was pure tomboy, an athlete by inclination and a hellion on the basketball court as a result, and her unladylike demeanor had helped her take to the 'Mech piloting well. Even here she preferred the MechWarrior's garb of a tank top and thigh-length shorts over anything else, both flattering to the gentle curves of her figure and her athletic tone. Her blue eyes were brilliant and her dark hair cut to her neckline. She didn't look anything at all like the holder of a hallowed English title, but thanks to VdO agents d'provocateur she was now the Duchess of Norfolk and last survivor of the Howards.

She saw Edward looking at her and smiled thinly. She tolerated him. Edward often felt like asking her out, or at least as close to a date as one could get in these barracks and the mercenary-dominated town around their training center, but his nerve often failed. She was so much more like Henry, after all. Fiery, aggressive, and willing to be the first to throw a punch. "So, you survived your testing huh? Against all three enemies?"

"Henry opened up on mine. It went crazy," he answered.

At that Diane laughed. "Of course he did, the *****."

"How did you do?"

"One hundred and three. I got the first ****** and nearly the second, but my machine was so wasted that I couldn't finish her." Diane shrugged. "They say the ones who take down two get instant command positions anyway, so it's not like I bloody care. I'm not a commander and don't want to be."

Some of Aloisson's words came back to Edward at that point. He had been the only 'Mech left standing. He had a bad feeling they were going to give him a lance of his own to command, and that left him distinctly uncomfortable. He looked away for a moment. Ask her to a drink you *****, he scolded himself.

"Something bothering you?", Diane asked, leaning over from her bunk. The slight smile on her face made it quite clear she knew the view she was offering.

Trying very desperately not to look at her the wrong way, regardless of the view offered, Edward leveled his eyes on her's and screwed up his courage. "Perhaps a drink?", he forced out, almost blurting it to avoid second-guessing himself. "There are some pubs in town."

"Pubs overflowing with oversexed, overpaid mercenaries looking to make a quick buck on our homeworld burning," Diane replied testily. She then gave a wide smile. "Sounds like fun. I'll go get my coat, you get the notification written up."

Edward nodded, not too stiffly. Perhaps a night out would do some good after all.

#6 Big Steve


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Posted 25 July 2012 - 08:07 AM

Chapter 6

Camp Jurgens
Hastings, Minnesota, United States of America
North America, Earth
19 July 2039
19 August 3059 IST

Roland barely had a moment to settle into Alex's office before Alex finally vented the fury he had built up within. "You *****," he growled.

"Pardon the Captain?", Roland asked blandly.

Alex thumped a few sheets of stapled paper onto his desk. "The docs have finished examining Sergeant Verdes' knee. She's out for a week, minimum. Would be even longer if we didn't have ComStar medtechs helping to heal her broken kneecap." Alex thumped a hand on the table. "What in the hell possessed you to do that?!"

Feeling his bile rising up at getting roughhoused by the staff weenie, Roland frowned and retorted, "She was the one who lost her temper and started attacking me directly! I was defending myself!"

"You mean after you baited her, just like you've been baiting every other member of this company since you were assigned here!", Alex roared. "Dammit, Lieutenant, you are not a senior NCO trying to keep grunts in line anymore. If you have a problem with another member of the unit, you take it up with me, you don't go smashing their kneecaps in!"

For all his years of discipline, Roland still found himself ready to roll his eyes. "Again, sir, I was defending myself. Sergeant Verdes is, honestly, a risk to this entire unit and should be grounded. Frankly, I think I did her a favor. She needs downtime."

There was a knock on the door before Alex could retort. He looked up as Rachel entered, a stack of papers in her arm. "You need an enlisted secretary," she grumbled to him, walking past Roland like he wasn't there and placing the papers on the desk. "Requisition forms. Authorizations. And you need to sign off on the paperwork for Dani being taken off duty."

Roland coughed to hide the "harumph" sound coming from his throat. Both Alex and Rachel looked to him briefly before changing the center of their attention tothe papers. "I thought I had enough paperwork back in JAG," Alex mumbled as he began examining the papers.

"Sir?", Roland asked.

Alex looked up at him. "I'm filing a report on you, Lieutenant," he said.

"Do what you feel you have to. Permission to be dismissed?"


Roland made a stern salute and left the room. Alex drew in a sigh as Rachel returned to her own small desk. "That guy is insufferable," he lamented. "And now I'm down one of my best pilots."

"I doubt you can do much to punish him," Rachel said. "Barsdale will cover for him."

"Whatever, it's still going in the reports." Alex flipped through the paper. "Oh come on, this stuff should be battalion level. And personnel reviews? I've only had the company for three weeks for Christ's sake!"

In the mess hall Roland, Barker, and Schulter were sitting together, waiting for Berlman to join them after getting his chow. "This is crazy," Roland was grumbling. "This entire unit is FUBAR."

"You're judging them a bit too quickly, ain't you Lieu?" Barker put her hands together on the table. "Only been here a few days. Haven't even seen 'em fight."

"That's what I'm afraid to see," Roland guffawed. "We had a nice, solid company back in the 2nd. No violent pissed off dykes or whiny college students, not a damned lawyer either. Sure, Lieutenant Park was a bit like Dane... but throw all the others in and this company is lucky it walked out of its last fight alive."

Schulter shook his head and finished chewing on some spinach. "I think you might be a bit harsh on them."

"It's war, Cal. You gotta be harsh."

All heads looked up to see Berlman sit. Elijah, Eli to his friends, looked a little withdrawn. His lankyness reminded Roland of Jack MacGruder, but unlike Jack Eli was more insular and less likely to talk. Other than that he didn't know much about the kid. "Some good chow, huh?"

There was little recognition in those deep brown eyes as Eli glanced toward them and then looked back to the notepad he was holding. He brought up his pencil and started drawing. "Yeah, sure," he mumbled.

Roland smirked and looked over to Barker. "He's your's, Sarge."

Barker looked from Roland back to Eli. "You must've scored pretty good to get that Maelstrom."

"Uh... yeah." Eli's eyes never left his pad. "One hundred and ninety."

Barker whistled. "Not bad. But if you got two 'Mechs..."

"None, actually," he answered. "My partner hit my first guy on accident. Everything went crazy. I just kind of opened up on everything and did a lot of damage to the other targets." After saying that he returned his attention to the pad.

"What are you doing?", Schulter asked. "Can I see?"

"In a moment."

With that dismissive comment everyone went back to eating. Roland looked at Eli Berlman a few times and shook his head. He hadn't seen the kid in action and hoped he had the chops for being his fire team buddy; that Maelstrom would work better in tandem with Roland's Thor than either Schulter or Barker.

Suddenly Eli held his notepad over to Schulter. Schulter blinked for a moment and then took it. Roland leaned over and saw a pencil sketch of what looked to be a young woman with short, tomboyish hair and a close resemblence. "Sister?"

"Cousin." Eli took the notepad back. "She was with Charlie Company's Bravo Platoon."

Roland nodded stiffly. Charlie-Bravo had gotten wiped out by the Horses. No survivors. "My condolences, kid."

"She was almost like a sister. My mom and her dad remained close," Eli explained. "God... I still can't believe..." He was getting teary-eyed and suddenly went very stiff, remaining quiet as he began to eat.

Poor kid. Feeling his anger at Tolen stewing in his heart, Roland went back to his own chow.

Rachel slipped into the infirmary without inquiring with the nurses, who were all busy attending to the minor injuries of a couple mechanics and soldiers who weren't so critical that they needed evac to full hospitals. One of the side rooms full of beds was where Dani was laying, her knee bound up with a ComStar medical brace that was supposed to help heal it faster. "Where's Becca?", she asked.

"Off," Dani murmured. "Getting some sleep since we're going to sortie tonight." Her eyes showed redness. "Can't you talk to them? I can wear the brace in the cockpit..."

Rachel shook her head. "I'm sorry, Dani, but the doctor was pretty adamant. The damage to your knee is too much."

Dani breathed in a sigh and turned her head away a little. Rachel sat down opposite from her and tried to reassure her with a hand to her shoulder. "Just get better. It'll be fine."

"My family's not evacuated yet," Dani murmured. "Becca has to go out without me to watch her. I... I can't lose her too. I can't. I...I ca-ca-can't..." The murmuring became outright sobbing. "Oh God... she's going... going to get killed... and it's all... my fault!"

"Shhh..." Rachel moved over to her bed. The rational part of her brain was thinking of the odds that Dani was sadly right, but this time she refused to let it trump her compassion. She gave a careful embrace to her weeping comrade. "Just get better. Alex and I will keep Becca alive for you, okay? We won't let anything happen to her."

"I ... I can't..." Dani continued to weep in fear for her beloved, accepting Rachel's embrace as she did so. "Need my Becca... need her... can't live with-without her..."

"I won't let anything happen to her. I promise." And I am a ********* liar when I say that. Despite herself Rachel grinned a little. She'd given Alex a hard time on promising to keep her safe... and here she was making a similarly-impossible promise. But she knew she had to. She had to reassure Dani if she wanted to keep her platoon-mate from falling apart.

They were all in this together, after all.

It was 0200 on the 20th when the pilots of the 1st BattleMech battalion came together, all 47 of them. The company commanders were seated in the front flanking Majors Pierce and Barsdale, with Colonel Sinclair only now entering. "Gentlemen and ladies, we don't have much time, so listen up." Sinclair extended a pointing stick and tapped it against a projector showing a local map. "In the hour before dawn, the 5th FedCom RCT is going to hit the Falcons at Owatonna. They're looking to exploit the Falcons' slim supply situation and to throw them further back from Minneapolis, letting us threaten the Jaguar flank and to give us more breathing room." He tapped the map with the pointer again, this time indicating an area northeast of Owatonna. "The 1st 'Mech Battalion and armored elements of the 15th and 19th Divisions will be moved up to near Kenyon as a flank guard. You'll be there to exploit any success or, if we're lucky, to hit the Jaguars near Rochester in the event of a Falcon disintegration."

"So we're basically the fallback guys," Captain Hendricks of Bravo Company asked. "We cover the FedComs' *****."

"Just about," Pierce remarked. And the infantry we're being attached to are mostly the new draftees. This will be their first fight and they'll need us to stiffen them if we get hit."

Discontented murmurs rose from some of the pilots. From his seat Alex remained quiet, thinking on the subject. So many young people who would only have a rifle and pistol, maybe at most a machine gun, against Clan BattleMechs and armored Elementals. They would only be of use by protecting the mortars and other big guns that could hurt those Clan forces. And if they had to run, it'd be the 'Mechs and tanks covering their retreat.

Sinclair continued the briefing. He was wearing his cooling suit; he'd be out there with them, likely with Pierce in Delta Company. One the dispositions of each company were laid out, he dismissed them to get to their machines. The various pilots began to file out. As Alex went to join them, he was held back by Sinclair calling out, "Captain Penton, a word."

Everyone else filed out. Sinclair stood beside the table and waited for the door to close before speaking. "How is that project coming along?"

"I've written some notes on integrating 'Mechs with armored cavalry formations," Alex replied. "I left a copy in your office a few days ago. Major Barsdale took them."

A look came over Sinclair's face. "I didn't know that. I haven't seen them." He sighed. "I've been busy lately, ever since I was informed of this operation. Guess I haven't found them in my pile yet."

"I'll continue working on it when we get back." If I get back...

"On that matter... I've heard you're down a pilot."

"Accident in the gym," Alex answered.

"Of course." Sinclair's tone showed he knew it was more than that. "I have no pilots to assign you, so you're a pilot down. Will this be a problem?"

"Galvariz and I will watch Shameel's back."

"If I had a pilot to assign you I would, but the only one I could give would be Major Barsdale." A discontented look came over Sinclair's face. "And that would lead to an unacceptable command complication."

You're telling me... Rachel wouldn't take well to having him in the unit. Alex gavem a nod. "We'll make it work, sir."

"See that you do."

Alex entered the hanger to find everyone else already entering their machines. He walked to the end of the row with his platoon and looked up at his restored Mad Cat. It had gotten wrecked in their very first battle with the Smoke Jaguars, forcing him to eject, but the ComStar and American mechanics had managed to restore it with salvaged parts. He had taken a machine with a mixed range profile; Clan energy weapons for long range and a heavy Clan 20-shot autocannon for anything that got too close, with enough ammunition to take out two or three Assault 'Mechs if his shots were good.

Alex glanced over at Rachel's Thor as he climbed up. He watched the 'Mech start to stand fully, showing she had turned it on. Alex thought of her a lot lately. She was indispensible to him as his aide... worse was the growing attraction he felt for her. Not just for her beauty, but for her mind, and that little spark of passion she kept so tightly wound up. He hoped to get her to open up, then maybe...

No Alex. Bad Alex. You can be fantasize about her later, like after you win the war.

With a final grunt of effort Alex pulled himself into his Mad Cat's cockpit. He stepped over the rigged-in rations container - the Clan designers of the 'Mech didn't believe in amenities for pilots for some reason - and hit the lever to turn on the fusion plant that powered the machine. He went through all the usual start up procedures.

By the time he was done the unit was filing out of the 'Mech hanger. He followed Rachel out and took up a position in charge of his slightly-understrength company. He looked to the missing spot in his platoon where Dani's Mad Cat should be standing. *** **** you he thought, looking over to Roland's Thor. Dumbass jarheads...

Taking up an echelon formation company by company, the 'Mechs set off into the Minnesota night.

With sunlight just peeking over the horizon and the distant lights of energy weapon fire showing to the southwest, the only thing Rachel cared about was cursing the damn Clans for the way they designed their 'Mech cockpits, necessitating the cramped quarters for the jury-rigged toilet that the Dragoons had added to her Thor.

I'm about to fight for my life again and all I can think about is how annoying it is to take a **** in these things, Rachel thought with a smirk.

She wiggled her way out of it and began the process of fitting her cooling suit back on, ending by zipping it back up over the army-green sleeveless shirt she wore underneath. Once the medical sensors and coolant outlets were reattached she put the neurohelmet back on and reaffixed her command couch harness. Shutters on the inside of her cockpit kept the low cockpit lights from being seen externally; they were under orders to keep all light sources down. Only the occasional red ember of a burning cigarette could be seen from the tankers and infantry around them, and they were usually visible for only a couple seconds before some NCO or other person forced the offender to put the cigarette out.

It's been half a century of knowing what tobacco does and people still smoke. Sometimes I wonder about the human race. Rachel decided to calm her nerves by running weapons checks. The autocannon she'd lost at Faribault had turned out to be irreplaceable, so the technicians had modified her Thor. The left arm now mounted another Clan extended range PPC like the one on her right, complete with heat sink, while the small laser in the left torso had been replaced with a small Streak SRM two-salvo model of Inner Sphere make. She could fire everything with negligible heat buildup, and that was determined by her movement.

Dawn was slowly beginning to creep over the horizon. But all eyes were to the southwest and the FedCom attack, including Rachel's, with their comm systems picking up the orders from the battalion commanders of the RCT, giving them a picture of what was happening.

Suddenly there was shouting over the radio. "Artillery fire heavy!" and other such reports came in, joined by stronger explosions in the distance. Rachel felt her pace begin to quicken a little. What had happened?

Jade Falcon Omicron Galaxy Headquarters
Owatonna, Minnesota, United States
Earth, North America

Colonel Rodrigo Alacanza found Galaxy Commander Ida von Jankmon a curious sight. The professional Spanish Army officer - now assigned to the ENU's Army - had been briefed on the specific phenotypes of the Clans' warrior caste. The massive, seven and eight feet tall behemoth Elemental warriors were an impressive sight, but he found the thin, short, fragile-looking aerospace pilots of the Clans to be freakish. Even creepy.

There was a cold look on the Galaxy Commander's face as they watched, via holotank, the artillery barrage of the Earth 8th Army begin to devastate the advancing Spheroids. "This is dezgra behavior," she growled, in a way surprising for such a small figure.

"It is nevertheless required for victory," Alacanza pointed out, his accent strong. English had declined somewhat as a universal language, but only somewhat. Since the Clans spoke no language other than English, the Chairman's prior insistances on switching the military to French had proven irritating, and officers like Alacanza had risen in rank precisely from their ability to converse with the English-speaking Clans. "Already the Americans have used their artillery against you to great effect. Without it we would already be on the Hudson Bay. Now we give them and their allies a taste of their own medicine."

Von Jankmon's eyes narrowed. "You speak with some wisdom, freebirth. But this is not the Clan way. There is no honor in this."

"Is there any honor higher than victory, Galaxy Commander?", Alacanza asked pointedly. When he got no reply he went over and double-checked the information on the bombardment. The FedCom was already pulling back, using their own artillery and American as some cover, but they had taken a hit, and with the II Panzergrenadier Korps of the Earth National Army assisting Omicron Galaxy Alacanza hoped to see the Spheroids utterly smashed.

Outside Kenyon
Minnesota, United States
Earth, North America

Colonel Sinclair thought it a waste that he'd been assigned the 100-ton Daishi, but upon reconsideration he realized it was probably the best fit given the armor. The configuration was for long-range fighting; Clan PPCs and five-shot autocannons on each arm and two twenty-salvo long range missile launchers on the 'Mech's torso, making him look almost like a really beefed up Vulture. With the Artemis IV firing systems and four and a half tons of missile racks he would be quite capable of contributing to long range fire without having to turn away from the necessities of tactical command. And, ultimately, he was far safer in this 'Mech than he'd be in any kind of mobile headquarters.

Not that it'd be that safe, of course.

"Colonel Sinclair, we've got General White screaming for assistance," an officer from 3rd Army HQ told him over the wireless set. "They're being engaged by ENU artillery. Aerospace assets are all taken up engaging enemy air power. The FedComs have to retreat and need someone to cover their flank."

"I read you, HQ. We'll move in." Sinclair switched over to the regimental frequency. "Okay, we're up. Looks like the Seppies have given our allies a rough time, and they have to fall back. We're giving them flank support. Engage where needed but do not, I repeat, do not break off from our friendlies' flank." Sinclair took a step in his massive war machine. "All forces form up on me."

#7 Big Steve


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Posted 26 July 2012 - 08:02 AM

Chapter 7

Outside Owatonna
Minnesota, United States
Earth, North America
20 July 2039
20 August 3059 IST

The artillery barrage was still coming down around the FedCom forces when Alex sighted them. Alpha Company was in the lead, serving as the vital connection between the rest of the American troops and the retreating FedCom forces. He stepped carefully to avoid an upgraded Abrams that was moving alongside him, its gun already tracking a distant shape.

That shape turned out to be a Leopard tank. The German tank and American tank fired at the same time, but the Abrams tank was apparently the one with full upgrades with the German gun unable to break its 31st Century armor plating while it came to a stop and began smoldering, victim of a direct hit from the advanced tank rifle the Abrams was mounting.

A stream of green laser fire struck the Abrams a moment later. The armor held, but only barely. Alex tracked the attack to a Clan Grizzly BattleMech.

He immediately noticed the lack of Clan insignia. Instead there was the globe-on-shield with crossed swords of the Earth National Union. The machine was painted in accordance with the grassy plains, though with its height Alex thought the camo wasted. So the Seppies have pilots now too... Alex swung his crosshairs over onto the machine.

As he did his 'Mech rocked hard from the impact of the Grizzly's Gauss Rifle. The impact threw off his aim, causing his laser shots to go wide. He raised the other arm and fired off his PPC. The Seppie pilot tried to twist and couldn't, the plasma bolt scouring his chest.

Twin PPC bolts converged on the Grizzly, courtesy of Rachel's Thor. The enemy machine's hip seized up from a direct hit, the other grazing it.

At this point the entirety of the 1st Battalion began to engage alongside the US forces. The Giuseppians were marching alongside Jade Falcons and acting much as the US was; flank guards. The 5th FedCom forces were trying to fall back under fire and not doing well. Alex had seen US troops behave the same; they were in danger of being routed. And if they were routed, the Falcons would be on his flank. "Major, permission to extend and give backup to the FedComs? They look like they're breaking."

"Negative, we need every man to face down the enemy ahead," Pierce answered. "The FedComs are getting some air support momentarily."

Alex felt his 'Mech wobble. The Grizzly's buddy, a Crossbow configured with all laser armament, had just melted off a chunk of the Mad Cat's torso armor. He ignored it and kept on the Grizzly, now struggling under combined energy fire from Becca and Rachel. He lashed out with his PPC and laser. The emerald beam of the latter pierced the Gauss Rifle on the right arm and caused it to explode, obliterating the arm.

On his understrength platoon's flank, Bravo Platoon was tangling with a column of ENU tanks trying to get on the FedComs' flank, Dane's Loki in the lead as usual. The Marine and his platoon were on the other flank connecting Alpha Company to the rest of the battalion, tangling with Seppie 'Mechs and tanks in mixed formation. There weren't many infantry carriers to be seen; this was a limited counterattack, not a full enemy counter-offensive.

The additionial complication was the enemy artillery fire. Charlie Company suddenly took a full barrage, not sufficient to take out their 'Mechs but damaging all the same and more damaging to the forces accompanying them.

This is not going well Alex thought to himself. The Grizzly was succumbing just in time, as the Crossbow pilot was trying to amputate the leg on Alex's Mad Cat. He lost chunks of armor from both legs, thankfully without an actuator hit; Alex answered by swinging his weapons around and letting loose with everything except the autocannon. The smaller laser missed but the PPC and large laser both impacted on the Crossbow's chest, leaving a hole that billowed smoke; he'd hit the 'Mech's engine.

Beside it, a Vulture-like 'Mech came up and let loose with LRMs. After a moment Alex realized it was for the most part a Vulture, but there were slight differences in the silhouette. [i}A variant[/i]?

Rachel took the brunt of the attack, over half the forty-missile salvo slamming into her Thor. Alex called into the radio, "Focus on the Vulture" and brought his crosshairs over to it. As soon as his lights confirmed they were ready he triggered his energy weapons again.

Luck was with him this time; his PPC slammed through the armor plate on the Vulture's torso and hit the missile magazine, causing the entire section of the 'Mech to explode violently. Twin streams of emerald pulses played over the'Mech's ravaged torso, Becca's own Vulture pumping pulse fire into it. Smoke began to belch from the 'Mech's exposed torso and it became wobbly. It also slowed down enough for Alex to get off a last shot with his smaller laser straight on the other 'Mech's cockpit. He barely missed it, but the shot panicked the pilot, who ejected.

Two 'Mechs down... Alex looked at his scanners and the growing number of red 'Mech contacts on his screen. And a horde of them to go...

Sinclair was more intent on the tactical displays on his holotank than actual fighting, seeing the ENU forces pressing on his battalion and attached assets. The FedComs were not recovering from the artillery savaging they'd received and left him worried that they would get his forces cut off as well. "I want everyone giving ground as needed." He was answered by a host of confirmations from the company commanders.

His systems confirmed a solid shot on an approaching enemy platoon of 'Mechs. Barsdale's Loki moved to cover him, his twin shotgun-autocannons on his arms pointing forward to engage as soon as the range was sufficient. Before that point Sinclair brought his crosshairs over and triggered his long range weapons. The Artemis fire systems worked like a charm. Only six missiles were evaded by the ENU pilot of a Marauder, which began smoking through holes in its armor from an engine hit. A PPC beam fired in retaliation simply grazed his 'Mech's shoulder.

Sinclair tensed his trigger fingers on his autocannons. Two bursts ripped into the Marauder's wounded torso, blowing out armor and internal structure along the side of the cockpit. Smoke and flame billowed out in copious quantities; the 'Mech began to wobble from gyro damage. With an eye on his heat monitors (with so much ammunition his 'Mech's risk of explosion was higher than most) Sinclair gave his heat sinks a few seconds to dump the excess heat before he triggered one of his PPCs. The shot was dead-on against the slowed Marauder, azure lightning ripping into its body and sending it down for good.

With his heat dangerously high Sinclair had to leave his weapons quiet for several seconds, which he spent double-checking the tactical situation. Charlie Company was reeling the most, causing Pierce to allocate part of Bravo to aid it. But this thinned their line even more.

"All units, refuse flank," Sinclair announced into the radio, his orders to be heeded not just by the 'Mechs but the mechanized units too. They responded to his call, the units furthest out beginning to fall back and inward, shortening their line and drawing the enemy forward.

Roland felt his 'Mech shift from the remnant recoil force of his Gauss Rifle. The shot was not a good one and he cursed as it went wide of the ENU 'Mech he'd targeted. The machine appeared on his system as a "Pouncer", a ENU-built model armed with pulse lasers and a PPC on the right shoulder. The PPC flashed to life, the energy it unleashed crackling over his 'Mech's right hip and shearing off his armor to the literal "bone".

Snarling, Roland re-aligned his crosshairs and pulled back on his PPC trigger. The bolt sizzled across the shortening distance and enveloped the enemy 'Mech's head, a perfect headshot that vaporized the enemy pilot and brought his machine down. Roland had no time to think about picking another target, not with a German-made upgrade tank peppering him with rounds. He twisted his torso slightly and brought his chest lasers to bear. Twin spears of ruby light cut into the glacis plate of the tank, but it kept coming. Fire from Schulter's Wraith put it down.

Before congratulations could be spoken, Schulter's 'Mech was rocked by a dozen missile hits, from jury-rigged SRM launchers on some of the other Earth tanks. Oily smoke billowed from one of the wounds. None of his weapons seemed to have been impacted however, and his pulse lasers drilled into one of the tanks' SRM launchers, causing it to blow apart.

Schulter turned slightly and fired his PPC into one of the other ENU 'Mechs. The bolt played over armor and structure already weakened by Berlman's Maelstrom and went through; the 'Mech was rocked in a fiery explosion and toppled over from the force of it. Schulter's pulse lasers lashed out again and found the 'Mech's gyro, putting it down for good.

"Fall back farmboy!," Barker shouted. Her Goshawk made a short jump with its jumpjets and directed pulse laser fire at a 'Mech coming to Schulter's flank. The 'Mech staggered from the loss of armor and titanium bone. But the pilot was made of stern stuff and held the 'Mech upright. The missile launcher on its torso lit up, sending twelve short-range missiles toward Schulter. Almost all impacted, blasting into one of his 'Mech arms and into the hip and leg of his Wraith. Schulter had good piloting skill, but he couldn't keep his damaged 'Mech up. "Gyro damage," he grumbled as he nearly stumbled over, trying to bring his PPC to bear on his attackers.

Roland lined up his Gauss Rifle again, and this time his aim went unspoiled. He fired off a round that went iinto the chest of the enemy 'Mech. Its armor failed at the impact spot and a fireball erupted that engulfed the humanoid machine's right side, destroying its missile launchers. A pulse laser shot the pilot had lined up missed wide as the force of the explosion nearly knocked him over. Roland triggered his PPC and watched it cut into the enemy 'Mech's leg at the knee, which sparked with damage.

There were other enemies, though, and they were happy to aid their comrade. Barker nearly lost her 'Mech's left arm to a PPC blast, Berlman took an LRM barrage that nearly knocked him over, and Roland found his 'Mech threatening to topple after a PPC blast and laser shot took out entire chunks of armor and material from his left side.

Schulter was doing his best to evade fire, but with his damaged gyro he couldn't keep up with the volume of shots. Laser fire carved into his knee and an SRM barrage blasted his torso so badly that smoke began pouring out of the wounds profusely, his 'Mech turning white hot on Roland's heat scanners. "You're too far in, Schulter! Eject!"

"No, I can..." Schulter was cut off as a laser blast struck at his head, barely missing the cockpit but slicing into his electronic array. His PPC arm came up and struck the offending 'Mech, boring a hole straight through it by hitting a weakened armor point. But the 'Mech still came for him, using a torso-mounted laser to bore another hole into the torso of Schulter's 'Mech.

"God dammit, farmboy, eject," Roland grumbled under his teeth, busy fending off an enemy Ryoken that had come up to support the normal 'Mechs.

The Wraith's head suddenly erupted in bursts of gas and flame, the cockpit coming open. Or at least it seemed too, but when Roland saw streaks of red erupt from the cockpit as Schulter was thrown free he swallowed hard, knowing something had gone horribly wrong.

"Oh my God," Barker said, horrified, into the radio. "The cockpit didn't blow clean!"

"HQ, this is Charlie Platoon A Company, we have an ejection, repeat ejection, pilot needs immediate medical response! Check the transponder for Alpha-Charlie 3!" Roland cursed the sweat on his hands as he re-directed his crosshairs to another of the humanoid ENU 'Mechs. With an eye on his dwindling ammunition stores, he let loose with his PPC and lasers instead. The barrage of energy fire got the better of the enemy 'Mech, the lasers in particular successfully penetrating the armor and damaging the engine within. "Barker! Berlman! Form up on me, we're too spread out!"

They responded by moving closer to him, drawing in their attached armor. This increased their ability to resist fire... but it also pulled them away from the rest of Alpha Company, creating a gap in the line.

A gap the enemy would be quick to see.

Alacanza was watching with delight in the Falcon HQ as the American line thinned. "I want a battalion through that gap, now," he insisted into his radio. It was like a gift from on high; he had a golden opportunity to get into the rear of the American force. "And extend our flank to cut them off to the north! We need to encircle them!"

Von Jankmon looked at him with narrowed eyes. "Our orders are only to harrass their retreat."

"We are also to exploit opportunities," Alacanza reminded her. "To shatter the American brigade, and not just that but their last frontline 'Mech battalion, is a great opportunity."

One of the ENU humanoid 'Mechs collapsed before Alex, a hole in the torso where the PPC had gored his engine plant. Alex twisted his torso slightly to line up the shot and triggered his twenty-shot autocannon toward another of the machines, bristling as it was with SRMs. The armor on the machine crumbled beneath the onslaught of his cannon, the final rounds of the burst breaking into the 'Mech's SRM magazine and setting it off. Only the Clan cellular ammunition storage method saved the pilot, directing the explosive force outward. The 'Mech toppled over in the other direction, its pilot unable to keep it standing against the violence of the explosion and the sudden shift in his 'Mech's center of gravity. This opened up the interior of the machine to even the weakest of Alex's lasers. The sapphire cutting beam was more scalpel than spear, but it was enough to slice into the ENU 'Mech's engine. After a moment for the heat to go down, Alex folowed up with a second shot from his mid-size laser, which finished the enemy 'Mech off.

Concentrating on one target had its down side though, as it essentially opened him up to attack from other 'Mechs. In particular, a 75-ton machine his systems identified under the designation "Siegfried", which had an autocannon like his mounted on its right torso. Alex barely moved in time to avoid a full burst from it, half of the rounds still battering at the side of his Mad Cat's torso. He brought the PPC arm up and triggered it, a point blank hit to the other 'Mech's autocannon. Grinning at having taken out the enemy's big gun, he swung the other arm off and triggered his large laser. The emerald beam speared the 'Mech straight in the head, destroying it completely. The machine ttumbled over.

His accuracy was getting better, but it wasn't enough. LRMs from Becca's Vulture and sustained energy weapon fire from himself and Rachel weren't enough to help their conventionals overcome the quantity of enemy forces, many of them upgraded. They were being forced back and away from the rest of the unit, toward the flank of the faltering 5th FedCom. Bravo was holding the best of all, spurred on by Dane and Sakata showing excellent aim, and from some trepidation of the ENU to get too close to the Falcons.

The FedComs had rallied enough to avoid routing - Thank God - and were fighting an organized retreat. The pressure was finally letting off with the Falcons no longer as interested in pressing the attack. It looked like they would survive this...

And that's when he saw Charlie Platoon open a hole for the ENU.

"Roland! Get back in position!", he called out. He could see them bunching up, and by doing so encouraging the surviving tanks and armored vehicles with them to do the same, opening Alex's outer flank and creating a hole in their firepower.

"My people are too spread out! We need more support!"

"Dammit Roland! You've opened...."

Just as he heard Pierce's voice come over the radio to demand an explanation, the enemy surged into the gap. Clan-made hovertanks and light 'Mechs were going in first, to be followed by the faster mediums and heavies of tanks and 'Mechs.

Had the enemy wanted to, those light machines could've swung and hit Alex from behind. That's what he was afraid they were doing. But he saw soon that they had something more nasty in mind as they headed straight for Sinclair's rear. He had been refusing his flank, contracting his line... and now the enemy would be right on his back.

Sinclair was immediately aware when the enemy had gotten through Alpha Company's line, but there wasn't much he could do about it for the moment. His entire unit was hotly engaged against the ENU forces pressing against his front, bent back as it was. He could see his opposite on the ENU side was already moving to outflank him on the left too, opening up his brigade of 'Mechs and armored vehicles to annihilation.

"I'm calling for fire support," Pierce said, but both men knew it might not work. The artillery was overstretched from all the frantic FedCom pleas for help. The enemy had enough air power aloft to make air support tricky. "Sir..."

"We're not going to have a choice," Sinclair said, his tone grim. "Start having our people turn around. Phased withdrawal. Nobody should have their back exposed without someone covering it, but we can't let the enemy trap us."

The commands were issued and given. Even as that happened Sinclair turned his own machine around and faced the first groups of light vehicles racing toward him and Major Barsdale. His LRMs still had sufficient ammo for several volleys, and they were the best weapon with their Artemis systems for engaging the faster light 'Mechs rushing toward him. He waited until target lock was acquired and let loose with a volley at one of the rushing light 'Mechs.

Due to the angle and its speed his volley wasn't as successful as he'd hoped, the missiles failing to curve enough to strike the 'Mech. Only ten made any impacts. The light 'Mech turned and brought up its right arm and the PPC mounted above the hand. Sinclair moved his Daishi enough to evade the shot. His autocannons came to life and ripped into the light 'Mech. Armor and structure were ripped away where the powerful 100mm rounds tore into the machine. It suddenly stumbled, its own speed and the sudden gyro damage too much for it. When the pilot tried to stand, a LOSAT fired from one of the armored vehicles blasted it in the head, crushing the cockpit and killing the pilot.

By then Sinclair had changed targets, to one of the medium 'Mechs. His heat fell enough that he felt safe triggering his PPCs, staggering the shots to improve a chance of a hit and to avoid too rapid a head buildup. His first PPC missed, but the second bored into the medium 'Mech, setting off an explosion in the right torso as its autocannon ammunition cooked off. He saw his tanks were engaging the target and moved his focus to yet another 'Mech, another light one, which was blowing apart one of his tanks with its PPC. His heat was too high to risk another shot, so he glanced over to the tactical display. The enemy penetration was lengthening...

Alex was also watching the growing enemy thrust with trepidation, but he had little more time to consider it given how busy he was avoiding fire. His 'Mech was pockmarked with damage and his small laser was out of commission. Rachel and Becca had taken numerous hits as well; they were lucky their machines were still mostly intact.

Bravo Platoon was better off. None of their units were done either, but with the FedCom unit on their flank and the Falcon attack running out of steam they had not been under as much fire. "Bravo Lead, get your unit and assets over here," Alex said into the radio. "We've got to stop the enemy before they encircle everyone."

"Roger that."

"Charlie Lead, turn and hook up with us," Alex ordered. "Bring your attached units too. Hell, see if you can get your flank to join us."

Several seconds later Roland's voice broke through. "Sir, we've got orders to move north and cover Bravo Company..."

"Then do your best to do so, Roland, but we've got to stop this enemy attack!" Alex turned his 'Mech to the east. One of the enemy lights, designated Megatron on his screen - Nice, a fellow geek is handing out the designations - had already taken a hit from Rachel's PPC, leaving a molten gash in its hip. Alex triggered his own PPC and watched the blue bolt go right through it, severing the light 'Mech's leg off at the hip. It toppled over and tried to twist.

Alex broke his 'Mech into a run and headed foward, his platoon mates and the remaining tanks and fighting vehicles following him. He left the crippled Megatron to them; his aim turned to another of the 55 ton "Hessian"s and he triggered his surviving lasers. The beams sliced into the medium's arm armor; the emerald beam of his large laser cut into the pulse laser mounted over the wrist and destroyed some of its mechanisms. The Hessian turned toward him and took a full salvo of LRMs from Becca's Vulture. It began to topple backward, smoke erupting from its wounded chest.

LRMs soared from behind it, courtesy of a Hessian configured as an LRM carrier. They crashed into Becca's Vulture..... and one detonated on her cockpit. The Vulture began to totter, as if decapitated.

But it didn't. The right arm's pulse lasers retorted and stitched emerald and ruby light over the Hessian's missile launchers, disabling them. Becca's voice was shaky on the radio. "I'm... I'm fine... No injuries."

Alex gave a quick confirmation response. He fired his PPC into the Hessian, battering it's chest armor but not getting a penetration. He didn't need to, though, as Rachel fired a PPC that was dead on target. The bolt slammed through and damaged the vehicle's engine, causing its heat to begin spiking. At the extent of their range, her Streak SRMs nevertheless acquired a target lock. Six of them raced across the distance and impacted all over the enemy machine. Safety protocols in the engine kept it from going critical, causing it to die instead and sending the 'Mech lifeless to the dirt.

"I think Shameel is injured," Alex said. "Rachel, cover her. I'm going to draw their fire." He kept moving ahead, focusing his autocannon on another of the Hessians as it took hits from the upgraded guns of a couple Abrams tanks. Penton gritted his teeth while struggling to keep his gold crosshairs on the holographic image of the enemy target on his holotank. After a second he pressed down on his thumb trigger. His autocannon roared, and he was rewarded for his effort with the full burst busting through the Hessian's armor and tearing into its engine. He swapped targets and faced down a Siegfried, which triggered its pulse lasers. Twin streams of emerald needles bit into his 'Mech's torso armor just below the cockpit, melting away much of his armor. Alex's indicators lit up with warnings of engine damage.

Alex pulled up his Mad Cat/'s right arm and fired the PPC. The spear of energy slammed into the Siegfried's autocannon, melting the barrel partially. He saw his autocannon had finished cooling down and triggered it again. His shot was true; the furious burst of rounds ripped into the Siegfried's chest and blew off massive amounts of armor, exposing its structure in several spots.

One of the other machine's pulse lasers lit up again, and again struck into Alex's damaged torso. The light on his autocannon readiness indicator went totally red; the pulse laser had hit the loading components and damaged them, jamming his weapon. Deprived of his main close-range punch and with his heat too high to risk another heavy energy shot, Alex tried to land a hit with the medium laser on his left arm. The enemy 'Mech twisted at the right moment and his shot hit nothing but air.

To his side, a Hessian brought Its left arm came up and red darts erupted from it, the energy drilling into the shoulder actuator of Alex's right arm. The actuator melted partially, immobilizing his PPC arm. Alex turned toward it as tank guns suddenly focused on the Siegfried, striking it repeatedly with HEAT rounds that gored its torso and disabled the gyro on the fourth hit.

The Hessian was still up though, smoke billowing from its damaged engine, and its other arm came up to fire its laser mounted there. Alex pulled his torso to the right and lined up his immobile right torso as well as he could to get a shot with his PPC. He triggered it and watched the azure bolt smash its way through weakened armor and into the Hessian's chest cavity, playing over the engine and a piece of the gyro. The 'Mech began to wobble as its pilot lost control.

Alex's Mech rocked hard and brought his attention to yet another Hessian, which directed its attention and its SRMs to him. He turned in time for its autocannon to spray him with cluster submunitions. His engine indicator flashed to a higher warning level from damage and his gyro suddenly acted sluggishly.

Before the [i}Hessian[/i] could bring its arm pulse lasers to bear, it suddenly toppled over onto its front. A large cavity was showing in its back, billowing with smoke, courtesy of the the Gauss Rifle and PPC armament of Roland's Thor. Berlman's Maelstrom behind him was killing a Megatron with its pulse lasers, cutting deep into the light 'Mech's torso as it tried to turn away. Barker's Goshawk was limping behind them, and all around them formations of American vehicles, some damaged, were putting rounds into the sides and rear of their ENU foes.

"Contact made as ordered, Sir," Roland said.

"And not a moment too soon, Lieutenant," Alex answered. "Let's give them a taste of their own medicine."

Sinclair had seen the maneuver on his tactical screens and realized what Penton had been trying; now it was time to exploit the success. He and half of the unit began focusing fire on the part of the enemy that had busted through while Alpha Company and its attached forces, dwindled as they were, poured fire into the enemy rear. The Earth Nationals' attempt to encircle him now stood cut off itself, and it paid a price as it took fire from two sides.

The enemy commander tried to press harder on Sinclair's front, but the artillery was finally answering his fire support calls. Heavy fire support missions began to savage the ENU flank and take off the pressure from Charlie Company and its attached armored battalion. Sinclair was free to focus on the companies of 'Mechs and tanks that Penton's maneuver had cut off. He contributed to it as much as he could, using long-range fire to take out enemy 'Mechs and letting his units focus more on the vehicles.

At this point the battle began to peter off. The enemy turned and tried to flee through Alpha Company, allowing Bravo and Delta to pour the fire on.

Nevertheless, the danger to Captain Penton was great, and Sinclair began moving his and Pierce's command platoon forward to try and aid them directly.

There was something of a smirk on Galaxy Commander von Jankmon's face as she hovered near the display, while Alacanza watched his boldest troops get cut apart. "It would appear you were too ambitious, quiaff?"

"Si," he grumbled, forgetting to use English for the moment. "Yes. Yes, Galaxy Commander. If your troops could..."

"There will be plenty of opportunities for glory when we resume our march, Colonel. I will not risk my warriors to rescue your's in a battle that has reached its natural end. Let them fight their own way out, or die trying." The Jade Falcon turned away contemptuously, incredulous that this freebirth would think she would risk the lives of Falcon warriors to rescue primitive freebirths who fought like bandits. She left Alacanza to watch as his unit tried desperately to get free.

The severe damage to his engine had forced Alex to let Roland do most of the fighting. Barker's equally-wrecked 'Mech moved toward his so they could provide each other fire support; with his 'Mech overheating from lost heat sinks Alex's energy weapons could only be fired occasionally, and he tried to make them count more by using them on the Earth Nationals' armor.

Alex finished off a Leopard tank and felt his 'Mech shift hard. It took every bit of effort he had to keep his 'Mech upright as a PPC blast from a Hessian sheared his 'Mech's right arm off completely, depriving him of his PPC. He brought the left arm up and fired his recharged medium laser, but the red beam struck solid armor and did nothing. The Seppie pilot retorted with his own pulse lasers, scoring what little armor Alex had left on his torso. His damaged gyro and engine were wide open to a crippling hit.

Despite his high heat Alex took the risk and fired off his large laser, tracking the emerald beam across the damaged chest armor of the Hessian, but still to no effect. Alarm klaxons blared as his heat reached critical levels. Despite heat shielding the cockpit was swiftly becoming a sauna, sweat dripping into Alex's eyes, his cooling suit struggling to keep his body from overheating. Had he not jettisoned what little autocannon ammo he'd had left, it would certainly have exploded by this point.

Before the Hessian could strike, it suddenly faltered. When it toppled over smoke from a destroyed engine billowed out of its wrecked rear armor, also revealing Alex's savior in the form of a Loki. The marker on it was long destroyed, but he knew only two Loki pilots in the entire battalion.

The who was confirmed a moment later when the last Hessian in the general vicinity turned to face the interloper, who promptly twisted his torso and pummeled the medium 'Mech with two ten-shot cluster autocannons. Submunitions sandblasted the unfortunate Giuseppian 'Mech, wrecking armor and a number of them penetrating it enough to do internal damage. The 'Mech wobbled for only a moment before two red beams from the Loki's medium lasers cut into its weakened torso armor and found its gyro yet again, causing the Hessian to topple. Alex blinked through the sweat in his eyes and keyed his radio. "Major?"

"Captain," Barsdale answered. He maneuvered to avoid a Clan Peregrine - an oddball machine in a formation mostly of the new ENU 'Mechs - and deftly brought up his 'Mech's right arm. A ruby beam lashed out and impaled the Peregrine's cockpit, killing the pilot. "I see why the mechanics hate you so much. I'll lead you and the rest of your people out, Alpha Lead."

"Thank you, sir." Alex looked around and drew in a breath. The enemy contacts in the area were by now almost all gone... but an ungodly number of the burning and destroyed tanks and 'Mechs around him bore white stars, not crossed swords over globes. This entire attack by the FedCom had become a fiasco. And it's only weakened us for when the Clans and Seppies make their eventual push on the Twin Cities, Alex thought sullenly, moving his battered 'Mech north toward the quiet areas.

He'd survived another day. And looking at the depressing number of missing friendly contacts on his command display, that made him one of the lucky ones...

#8 Big Steve


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Posted 27 July 2012 - 07:53 PM

Chapter 8

Camp Jurgens
Hastings, Minnesota, United States of America
North America, Earth
20 July 2039
20 August 3059 IST

Alex had been required to take a Humvee home due to the severe damage to his Mad Cat, which would be following on a carrier truck. He sat writing next to Corporal Swanton, who had been forced to eject, while in front of him Captain Markenson brooded over losing his Atlas, the only one in American hands.

It was depressing. For the third time in a row he was returning to Camp Jurgens without the 'Mech he'd left in. It looked like he couldn't catch a damn break. And he'd probably be getting another bucket of waste grease from the mechanic details...

But it could have been worse. The distant sound of rotors made Alex look up to a chopper heading into Minneapolis. It bore the critically wounded. The ones that the MASH stations had barely saved and which wouldn't live the night without the best care.

He already knew Cal Schulter was one of them.

Alex felt a pang of regret. Aside from some cross-testing and hellos at Outreach, he'd barely gotten to know Schulter. Now he might never. Had he paid more attention to the rest of the company and not just his immediate fight, Cal might've made it...

No, I can't do that, Alex thought. I'm not going to second guess myself. Not over something I didn't have full power over. The fact was that any of them could end up sliced to bits like Cal or vaporized in their cockpit. There wasn't much he could do to stop them.

He could lose Ed. He could lose Dani and Becca. He could lose Rachel.

He forced the unbidden thoughts of Rachel out of his head. Nothing was going to come in that direction, he was sure.

Due to the need to follow roads Alex's unit had beaten him back to Camp Jurgens, but not by much. He saw Rachel and Becca maneuvering their 'Mechs into their places, near his vacant bay and Dani's pristine Mad Cat. The arms were Prime config standards, a medium laser under a large, but instead of missile launchers the Mad Cat's shoulders were carrying two big particle cannons. It was Dani's preferred configuration, and she had the kill count to prove it. Frankly it might take us all months to even hope to catch up to Dani and Becca... if we do at all.

He got out of the Humvee and walked toward the Thor. Rachel had lots of damage, but her gyro was still functioning at least. It was a case of lucky, or unlucky, shots; the enemy's weapons did more damage to her armor and structure than any actual piece of equipment.

Becca hadn't been so lucky. One off the parting enemy shots had hit her right chest LRM launcher, leaving a gash that had wrecked the weapon. Her arms were both badly damaged, though their weapons were intact. And not least...her cockpit was exposed, cracked and slightly wrecked by that near-miss of an enemy missile.

God, if that missile had been slightly lower.... we'd be putting Dani on suicide watch.

Alex looked back to Rachel coming down the rope ladder. She hit the ground and turned toward Alex. "That was a ***********," she muttered.

"Agreed," Alex answered. He extended a hand to her. "But we made it out."

"Not all of us," Rachel pointed out. "Cal... even if he survives. God, Alex, you remember the holos back on Outreach of what happens when the cockpit doesn't clear. It's like shooting someone through a wall of razors."

Alex nodded sternly. "Hopefully he'll get the best..."

Rachel had been looking toward the ripped up Vulture. Her jaw dropped in surprise and horror. "Becca!"

Alex turned and looked. A pool of blood had already gathered at the bottom of her rope ladder. She was stepping in it now, one hand on her 'Mech to steady herself from slipping and her right hand clutching the side of her torso. A jagged piece of shrapnel was sticking out of the wound, which had blood-soaked bandages around it.

Becca's face was completely white, but she had some energy. "Tried to do first aid by myself. Bandages... didn't hold..."

Rachel was closer, and slightly faster, in grabbing Becca as she tilted over. Alex started shouting, "Medic! Injured pilot here! Dammit we need a medic!"

Becca's weight was strong against Rachel's, and with the two so close in body weight it took a lot of effort for Rachel to help Becca sit to the side of the 'Mech. "We have to elevate the wound," she insisted, keeping Becca seated.

"This is it," Becca rasped weakly. "I'm going to die."

"It's not that deep," Rachel insisted, noting the size of the shrapnel piece visible and the small entry point. "If you'd just stopped for medical treatment..."

"I'd have bled out there," she insisted. "Better to do it myself."

A team of ComGuard medics came up with medical equipment and a stretcher. The lead medic, a woman of slight build and dark hair, shooed them away in an accent that sounded Australian. "Move it mates, we need room."

Alex and Rachel obeyed. They stood and watched as the medics used pads to try and staunch the blood. As soon as they were moderately successful,, they put Becca on the stretcher and carted her away.

"We'll go check up on her soon," Alex promised.

Dani had spent the day so wound up with worry that she hadn't touched her breakfast and lunch meals, drawing complaints and admonitions from the medical personnel. The day stretched into forever as she begged for updates that never came. Her mind ran through all the horrible things that might have happened to Becca, regardless of Galvariz's promises.

The door flew open and ComGuard medics rushed in, bringing a stretcher with them. Dani leaned up in her bed to get a better look.

Becca looked toward her at the same moment.

"Becca?!" Dani slipped off the bed, grimacing as her knee surged with pain. But panic soon overcame that. "Oh my God..."

One of the nurses stepped up to keep her from getting to the stretcher as it went by. He put hands on her shoulders. "You should be back in bed, Sergeant..."

"What happened to her?!" Dani struggled against him, but with her knee bad she couldn't get the balance to throw him off. "Let me go!"

"It's not a severe wound, she just lost some blood. She'll be okay as soon as they get the wound closed up."

"Not severe?! She's as white as a sheet!" Dani had to shift her weight to keep her knee from buckling.

"You have to get off your knee, Sergeant!" The nurse held her steady. "We'll let you see her as soon as the doctors are done."

Tears had begun to stream down Dani's cheeks at this point. She wanted to force the nurse out of her way, and she knew she could since he was fairly small and short compared to her six feet of height. But her knee would not accept the weight she needed for leverage. Feelings of frustration, defeat, and terror overwhelmed her and caused Dani to stop fighting. The nurse, for his part, gently guided her back to her bed and began checking her knee brace. "Looks like it held," he said. "Don't worry about your friend. She's in good hands."

Dani looked away from him and toward the operating room. Her heart threatened to quit as she breathed silent prayers that her Becca would come out alive.

After returning Roland found himself staring at the vacant bay where Schulter's Wraith had been berthed. Barker came up to stand beside him. "Can't get anyone to tell me how the farmboy's doin'," she muttered. "Not a damn whisper."

Roland frowned. "He's a tough guy, he'll make it."

"He got ripped to pieces, Lieutenant." The horror in Barker's voice was clear.

Roland could say nothing. His mouth was dry. He'd lost another pilot. If only he'd given them better support...

If only that jackass lawyer hadn't been trying to impress everyone! Penton had stretched the company out trying to look good to the Colonel. He hadn't bothered to pay attention to Roland's situation, he'd just left him to twist in the wind. Cal Schulter had paid the price for that.

He glanced at the clock. All the officers were to join the debriefing, and that included him. He stopped leaning on the leg of the 'Mech opposite Schulter's vacant bay and looked to Barker. "Time to go see what the high and mighty officers think of today's ***********."

"Good luck with 'em, Gunny," Barker replied. She smirked at him. "Remember that you're not allowed to hit your Captain."

Roland smirked at that. "Yeah."

Colonel Sinclair had given Alex and the other company commanders only so much time to put together preliminary AARs before they and their platoon COs met for the debrief. A further debrief would likely happen in a few days, when new details came from the final AARs, but it was important to get fresh thoughts on the recent battle committed to record. Or so someone in the Army believed, anyway.

Sinclair was somber as he stood before the assembled. All four company commanders, as well as Majors Pierce and Barsdale, were present. But of the twelve platoon COs, two were missing, casualties from Charlie and Delta Companies. Another, Alex's old light platoon-leader Anthony Tsukara, was also banged up from an ejection, but he had actually come out better off.

"We got out with our skins intact," Sinclair said. "But that was from luck and quick thinking. We let the enemy get in our rear. We can't repeat that performance if we hope to save Minneapolis."

Alex felt a sudden increase in attention directed at him. Pierce spoke up next, asking, "Captain Penton, I'd like you to explain what happened."

Alex stood and looked to his superiors. "We were spread out. Enemy formations limited the ability of our units to support each other with fire, and Lieutenant Roland felt it necessary to tighten his formation to protect his force."

There was some grumbling around him. Alex ignored that as he waited for one of his superiors to respond.

"So you failed to properly coordinate your unit in the action," Barsdale spoke up.

"I was maintaining contact with FedCom forces to keep the enemy from splitting us from them," Penton answered. "We were hit by an enemy force over twice our size and including BattleMechs. We're lucky the ENU designs being fielded are only up to Clan second-line machine quality."

"Your company is the one that lost cohesion, Captain," Barsdale answered hotly. "You nearly got our brigade encircled."

"Major." Sinclair held up a hand from his chair. "Captain Penton's performance will be assessed like everyone else's. The key issue is that we need to work for more cohesion with our new 2nd Battalion replacements. Lack of communication was the main reason for the way the battle went. We're lucky Captain Penton took the gamble on hitting the base of their penetration."

Barsdale didn't react to being interrupted and undercut by his superior. And, Alex saw, he didn't have to. He'd already planted the seed. The other captains and lieutenants were grumbling their agreement with Barsdale's "It's all his fault!" argument, that old contempt for Alex as the "staff weenie" showing.

Roland, for his part, remained silent, as if he had no dog in the fight. But when he looked toward Alex there was almost a sense of... shame. Like he had expected Alex to throw the blame on him instead of accepting responsibility for his maneuver. They're both right in that our unit needs better cohesion.

The meeting went on a bit longer. Field maneuvers would be held to improve unit cohesion, combat losses would be made good at the beginning of the month from the next training battalion graduates. Alex found himself jotting down notes as it went on, trying not to let the hostility in the room get to him.

Finally, when Sinclair called for everyone to be dismissed, Alex gladly left, Roland and Dane behind him.

With Pierce gone and most of the others, Sinclair got his paperwork together and prepared to leave. He looked over to where Barsdale was finishing with gathering the paperwork and walked over. "Major, Captain Penton delivered some notes to me the other day, but I've yet to see them on my desk. Do you happen to know where they are?"

Barsdale looked up and blinked. "Oh yes, his briefs."

"Briefs?" Sinclair looked at Barsdale with a crooked eyebrow.

"Briefs. Legal stuff. Whatever lawyers write," Barsdale remarked non-chalantly. "I put them in your low priority tray and reminded the Captain of the chain of command."

Barsdale continued to concentrate on the papers, but focused when Sinclair's hand slammed on the table. "I assigned Captain Penton to assemble notes on integrating 'Mechs into armored cavalry formations," Sinclair said in a low voice. "I wanted those notes to present to General Tanner."

Barsdale actually chuckled at that. "Sir, with all due respect, Captain Penton is a lawyer, not a cavalry officer. He has no background or training to make any kind of valuable contribution to tactical studies."

"I've found he's got a good idea for tactics, actually," Sinclair retorted. "And I want those notes on my desk tomorrow."

Barsdale stared at Sinclair. "You can't be serious. He's just a glory-seeking lawyer playing war hero."

"He's a competent commander with a talent for creative tactics. Odds are he'll have his own battalion soon."

"What?" Barsdale shook his head. "After these AARs go out, he'll be lucky to keep Alpha Company! He's not fit to command a company let alone a battalion!"

Sinclair glared at Barsdale harshly, who's expression solidifed into emotionless stone. He knew he'd overreached and decided not to say any more. "I'll allow General Tanner to be the judge of that. In the meantime, let's get these papers packed."

When Becca woke up she found Dani sitting beside her, their hands clasped together. Green eyes red from tears looked at her, and a worried frown became a relieved smile. "You're okay," Dani said.

"I just feel so tired..."

"It's the blood loss." Dani pulled her seat up closer to the bed and put a hand on Becca's face. "Oh Becca, I was so worried about you..."

"I got out," Becca said. "I didn't think I'd make it back... and I didn't want to get sent to the field hospitals. You remember what happened to Shannon and Jake."

Dani frowned and nodded. Both of their friends had gone into triage tents with wounds clearly survivable. Neither walked out again, and only one survived the neglect. "I understand. A lot of people listen to those crankcases who insist we're threats to American democracy." She leaned over and pressed her lips to Becca's in a light kiss. "I'm just relieved to see you made it out."

"So am I," Becca admitted. "How's the knee?"

Dani made a frustrated grunt. "Still have to be off it for another week. I'm gonna go crazy in here, Becca. I need stimulation!"

"I could try to bring you some books when I get out," Becca offered. "Just don't press yourself too much, we need you... I need you... to actually be able to walk."

"I know." Dani put her arms on the bed and laid her head on them. "I hear Captain Penton's going to end up in the battalion doghouse."

"Roland shifted his position and the Seppies broke through," Becca explained.

"Oh, of course, him," Dani grumbled.

"He had a good reason, Dani," Becca continued. "He was taking lots of fire. Cal Schulter had to eject."

Dani lowered her eyes. "I heard his cockpit didn't blow."

"It didn't."

"Then... oh God... I wonder what's left of him..."

US Army Field Hospital

Regina Medical Center at Hastings was brimming with wounded men and women when Roland and Barker entered, fresh off the visitor shuttle. They looked around at all the casualties and felt revulsion and dismay.

Visitors were not very welcome given the congestion of military and civilian medical personnel trying to treat the wounded and dying, so they were given very little assistance in finding their way to ICU. There a nurse asked, "What can I do for you... Lieutenant?" She was clearly a civilian, rather more plump than a military nurse would be permitted, but she'd gotten her rank insignia reading down.

"Cal Schulter, 1st 'Mech Battalion," Roland answered.

The older woman's face turned sour. "Follow me, and you'll need these..."

Barker and Roland were given face masks and yellow hospital gowns and allowed in. The nurse led them to a corner room with a closed door. The door markings made their gowns and masks mandatory for admittance. The nurse opened the door for them. "He's comatose, and mercifully so. The blood loss and trauma nearly killed him, and he's not a sure survivor yet, not by a longshot."

Roland nodded and the two entered. They looked to the bed and even Roland had to gasp in horror.

Schulter was covered in bandages. Oxygen tubes in his nostrils helped him to breathe, as you'd expect, but his nose was about the only intact part of him. Canopy glass had sliced off part of his chin, his cheeks were covered in bandages that did not hide the extensive damage they'd taken, and one of his eyes was also covered completely.

But that alone wasn't the horror. The horror was that his head was the most intact appendage of his body.

His left arm was missing just above the elbow, a bloodied bandaged stump ending there. Another stump terminated about halfway down from his right elbow to where his right hand used to be. Both legs were gone above the knee; his right leg was the most intact, his thigh still there, while the left leg was nothing more than a stump of groin.

Tears flooded Barker's face. She let out a sniffle. "Oh my God... Oh farmboy... poor farmboy."

"*******," was all Roland could manage to say. He forced himself to stare at his crippled pilot. He wasn't new to missing limbs. He remembered IEDs in all the Third World hellholes he'd marched as a Marine. He remembered Sergeant Heinrici's lost arms outside Davao and Lance Corporal Fitzhugh losing a hand in Caracas.

But he couldn't remember a case quite this bad.

If he'd acted faster, maybe Cal wouldn't be in this bed.

A horrible thought came to him. If he'd been more willing to ask Penton for help, to make it clear the battering he was taking....

"Jesus God Almighty, how can someone live like this?" Barker was choking back tears. "Sweet Jesus..."

Roland had no answer for her.

Camp Jurgens

The nurses had kept Dani from crawling into Becca's bed to sleep beside her, but one of the nicer ones - a big African-American guy who called himelf Jamarcus - had moved a bed to fit right alongside, allowing Dani to cuddle up behind Becca as her girlfriend fell asleep. This has the amusing side effect of causing Dani to get stuck, as her right leg was now under Becca's hips and an arm was under her neck, meaning that if Dani moved it would force Becca to change position, waking her up as well.

Not ready to sleep yet herself, Dani spent the time using her free hand to touch Becca's neck and head, running her fingers through Becca's dark hair, whispering sweet nothings into her ear as she slept. It was as intimate as she could get here, and even sleeping Becca made little mumbles and cooing noises that sounded like sleeping approval.

Tears were forming in Dani's eyes as she laid her head down. Fear still tormented her, fear of what might happen to Becca, to her, the next time they got into a battle. The thought of dying was bad enough, but Dani was more worried about this sweet, cute girl she'd gotten to know so well...

Worst of all was the torment that Lieutenant Roland's words were true. She could get them all killed if she didn't get her temper under control. She wasn't used to being this angry, and thinking of where it had come from was vexing her.

There was noise from the door. Dani looked up in time to see Roland come to a stop at the front of the bed. "How's the knee?", he asked.

Dani kept a level expression as she looked at the older man. "Healing," she answered. "You've got a lot of power in that kick."

Roland smirked for a second before straighting the smile off his face. "Thanks. You've got some power too. You're one of them 'butch dykes' I take it?"

It was Dani's turn to smirk. "I prefer to think of myself as sporty," she answered. "I heard about Cal's ejection. It's bad?"

Roland swallowed and nodded, feeling a weight in his chest. "Bad. Kid's a quadriplegic now."

Dani nodded. "Yeah, those cockpits can be nasty if they don't blow." She swallowed as well, thinking of her Training Battalion friends who had died or been maimed due to similar failures, especially in the faulty-as-hell TB-1Xs. "Had a few of my battalion mates go out that way at Kansas City and St. Louis." Silence reigned for several uncomfortable seconds. "I'm sorry. Cal's a great guy, he didn't deserve this."

"Few do." Roland drew in a sigh. "Ah, what the hell... I don't regret defending myself when you got nasty, but I should've put some thought into it instead of busting your kneecap in. I'm sorry for that."

The apology hung in the air for a moment. Roland had a hint of resignation to his voice. He wasn't used to apologizing, not over something he had felt so justified for. But he soon gave his thoughts voice, speaking more to himself than Dani. "If you had been out there, fighting in your platoon, Captain Penton wouldn't have been so pressed, and he might have pulled off some trick before Cal got shot up."

"He's a tricky one," Dani agreed.

"Dammit, then, why doesn't he actually give orders? He left us out there to dangle," Roland growled.

"Actually... he was trying to trust you." Dani slid her arm out from under Becca so she could sit up. A protesting noise came from Becca, but she was too deep in sleep to be roused. Dani began moving her arm to get the circulation going again. "Alex... Captain Penton... he tends to give general orders and let people figure it out. Hell, he even does that with Ed. And you like to point out so often you're a combat vet, so I guess he figured you'd know what you were doing without him giving orders all the time."

Roland listened to her say that and drew in a breath. "Well, that didn't work so well."

"Maybe you should talk to him about it. If we want to come out of this thing alive, I mean." Dani let out a little yawn. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm getting some cuddle time with my cute Becca."

"Oh, yeah, I guess." Roland turned and began to walk away.

On his third step he heard Dani call out to him. Roland turned and looked at her. She gave him a very thin smile and said, "I'm sorry for going all violent crazy chick on you. Want to give it another try when I'm out of here? I promise I won't hurt you." The smile turned wicked. "Much."

The reply she got was a nod and quite a bit of laughter.

Rank had its privileges. As a Major and regimental Chief of Staff Barsdale had private quarters, though space issues left him obligated to make them his personal office as well. Night had fallen hours ago and they had a meeting at the Xcel Center with General Tanner in the morning, so he was hard at work making sure all the paperwork that made the Army function was arranged as it should be.

Barsdale was also still feeling profound irritation. Sinclair was a combat branch man like him; why couldn't the old colonel see what Penton was? That he was just a JAG lawyer who thought a couple lucky engagements qualified him as a tactical genius? Nothing he wrote could be of much worth on the real issues of tactics and formation use. But Sinclair actually valued his judgement?

Oh, Barsdale was sure Penton was a pretty good attorney. He had commendations in his service jacket for professionalism in his cases and representation of enlisted men and women with creativity and energy that bordered on zealous. No doubt he was destined for the upper echelons of Army JAG where he would do great credit to the Army in that field. But that wasn't the same as combat command. It never would be. And Penton's record was not up to snuff.

Where people saw creativity, Barsdale saw a tendency to insubordination and ignoring orders. Where people saw skill he saw luck. Indeed, what had the lawyer done? His first engagement did see disproportionate casualties inflicted on the enemy... but also needless damage and losses because his unit abandoned their strategic position for a pointless pursuit. He'd risked the entire 1st Battalion to try to extricate one, just one, wounded 'Mech pilot, causing further loss to the battalion as a result. He'd engaged the Falcons at Faribault in defiance of orders to avoid direct battle, and gotten his command shot up in the process and left them vulnerable to enemy pursuit. It was only by luck, and the loss of a priceless Clan Assault OmniMech, that he'd avoided getting wiped out by the Falcons' command unit. And now he'd caused unnecessary losses and damage because all he could think about was holding a thin and untenable line to their allies.

I'm probably being unfair, Barsdale thought to himself as he glossed over another supply report. He got pushed into that billet and he's trying to make it work. And having that whiny liberal college girl as his aide can't help. She's probably toying with him just like she toyed with me. Remembering that problem, how close he'd come to getting blacklisted in the Army, and even worse, having to go to his father and uncle for help... well, that was all sour.

Another supply report required his attention, and Barsdale carefully read it. But his mind was elsewhere. Whether he was a well-meaning support officer pushed into a combat posting he had no experience for or a glory-hunting lawyer who had let the fame of his growing reputation go to his head.... Alex Penton was not fit for his command. And if Barsdale had his way, he'd be off the battlefield soon enough.

#9 Big Steve


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Posted 03 August 2012 - 06:53 AM

Chapter 9

3rd Army Headquarters
St. Paul, Minnesota, United States
North America, Earth
21 July 2039 Local
21 August 3059 Inner Sphere

After all the driving and waiting Alex was wound up as the lead officers of the 1st Battalion were brought into the Xcel Energy Center, home of 3rd Army Command. I wish my stomach would stop feeling twisted he thought even as he quintuple-checked to reassure himself that his notes were firmly held under his arm. Sinclair was just ahead of him with Pierce and Barsdale and the other Captains alongside him when they filed into the arena. Holographic and 2D plasma screens were spread around, the technology of two different eras being applied in a dizzying blend of media styles. Robed ComGuard officers and AFFC personnel intermingled with the BDU-clad Army personnel running 3rd Army.

This was the first time Alex had actually met General Mary Tanner. She had some height to her, being at least five feet eight, but her figure was whipcord slender. Her dark brown hair, gray only showing at her temples, was tucked properly under her cover, and she proudly displayed her Armored Cavalry branch insignia. Alex felt goosebumps as he thought of the notes he had. She'd be the one vetting his ideas for integrating BattleMechs into the Armored Cavalry. He was starting to regret getting the nod from Sinclair on writing these things...

Everyone saluted and was saluted to in turn. Tanner had set aside one of the luxury suites as a conference room. Now the captains and staff officers of the 1st BattleMech Regiment, such as it was, took their seats with the General, her staff, and the head officers of the brigade they'd fought alongside taking their own seats. Tanner, naturally, sat at the head of the table. "First off, I don't want any blame game bullshit," she said roughly, glaring at all of them. "Your unit got hit hard yesterday, and if you ask me the fact that so many of you are here to ***** about who's fault it was is proof you did damned well."

There were quiet nods.

"The FedComs aren't happy with the hits they took," Tanner continued. "The 5th FedCom is not fit for further offensive action, though they'll be keeping their place in the line. We've got confirmation that the Seppies have moved up an entire army formation to aid the Clans. We expect a major attack to come sometime in the next month, as soon as a week from now."

Alex swallowed. The Clans were enough to handle, with their technology and their almost-inhuman piloting skills. The Seppies would add mass to their attack. The battle was going to be even more desperate. Can we win this?

"What about reinforcement for 3rd Army?" The question was from one of the armored battalion commanders. "We've taken a lot of hits lately."

"With all the losses 4th Army took and the probing attacks down along the lower Miss, the Pentagon's not confident about getting us anything more than a fresh Corps. And even I'm not sure what the hell is going on with Arizona, command down there is being hush hush." Tanner thumped a pen on the table. "So, we need to assume they're attacking soon, maybe even before we get our next batch of 'Mech jockies. I'm open for ideas."

The next hour was spent laying out proposals for everything from mining patterns to launching a spoiling attack. Tanner smirked at that and pointed out, "We just tried something like that and got our ***** handed to us" before letting the discussion continue. For his part, Alex remained quiet, allowing Pierce and Sinclair to make the most tactical suggestions.

"Captain Penton, what do you think?"

Tanner's query cut right into Alex with its sharp tone. The other officers looked at him with a mixture of surprise, disgust, and irritation, save Pierce and Sinclair and maybe one or two others. Alex took in a breath and turned to face Tanner and her dark eyes. "We've taken too many losses to mechanized and armored assets to mount a workable spoiling attack," he said. "We'd just get chewed up by Seppie artillery. I think our best bet is to fortify the lines along the valley leading up to Minneapolis. Set things up so that their attacks can't gain momentum, and have mobile assets kept to shore up early failures in the defenses. We force them to expend a lot of energy wearing down each line and abandon those lines before the enemy hits them hard enough to do us real damage."

"A breakwater defense," one of Tanner's staff said. "You're just stating our current plan."

Yeah, it's not exactly a brilliant, unorthodox strategy, Alex pondered to himself. But he wasn't looking for one; he was looking for something that would work. "We have to attack sometime though," he pointed out. "And if the Clans and Seppies get drawn far north enough they'll have to relax their flank units. Having mechanized forces waiting to race into their rear would be a great way to take the pressure off if they actually get across the Minnesota River."

"Again, a fairly obvious strategy," another officer said.

Tanner smirked. "Well, you need means to get creative," she remarked. "An accurate assessment, Captain."

Alex nodded. "Thank you, sir." Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Barsdale shift a little. Had they not been in the company of a three star general Alex bet there'd be eyes rolling in most of the heads here. Stating the obvious isn't going to get me past the staff weenie label.

The discussion continued for a while longer. When it was over Tanner's people shooed most of the officers out, save for Sinclair and Alex. Sinclair gave a meaningful look to Alex. "Here you go, Captain."

Alex cleared his throat to try and suppress his nervousness. "Mm, General, I have the notes Colonel Sinclair asked me to put together for you."

"Well, don't keep me waiting," Tanner snapped, looking fairly impatient. Alex wondered if she truly was or if this was her maintaining her image for their benefit. She took the notes from Alex and began reading over them. "Sixteen 'Mech squadrons?"

"Um, yes," Alex answered. "This would give each squadron the firepower to exploit holes in the enemy lines and an independent recon support element."

"Recon support?"

"A platoon, er, a troop of two recon 'Mechs accompanied by two hunter-killer light 'Mechs," Alex explained. "Honestly I believe that recon would be better performed by armored vehicle, but there are going to be occasions where a recon 'Mech can get more information than a Humvee."

"True." Tanner flipped through more of them. She asked questions about the formation mixture with tanks and IFVs, the proposed squadron makeups, and Alex’s suggestions for weapon loadouts and their focus on energy weapons. "I’ve got some Armored Cavalry officers who will look these over, with my thoughts attached," Tanner remarked. "Until then, take care of yourself, Captain." She smirked. "And try not to make enemies with the Secretary of Defense and his family while you’re at it."

Alex nodded stiffly, not taking his eyes off Tanner. "Yes sir, I’ll do that."

"Good, now get out of here and get your *** back to work, McCoy."

He answered with a salute, as did Sinclair, and both men walked out. "McCoy?", he asked Sinclair.

The older man only shook his head and smiled.

Camp Jurgens

The officers had a small lounge on site that they could eat and drink at, if they chose. Because so many of their fellow pilots were enlisted, ‘Mech officers tended to eat in general mess instead (that and because it was more convenient).

As a result the officer lounge was fairly empty, which was perfectly fine for Rachel, ensuring she had private reading time as she picked at her lunch. The rest of the day looked surprisingly uneventful as well. There would be no field maneuvers or positions because their machines were still being fixed, the company paperwork for the day was already prepared for Alex when he got back, and there were no further briefings scheduled that would mandate her time. For the first time since she left Outreach, Rachel actually faced the prospect of a day to herself.

A day I’ll spend reading Professor Mauritz’s notes on the advanced metallurgical principles of the Inner Sphere, she thought to herself ruefully, going over Mauritz’s description of ferro-fibrous materials at the moment. Metallurgy was one of her lesser interests, but she hadn’t received the latest language lectures from Dr. Chin yet, so she had to make do.

At least it let her get her mind off things. Like dying. Or Alex. Or Alex dying. And the less said about her old stalker, the better. She was doubly grateful that all the higher officers had been sent off to 3rd Army HQ to meet Miss Blood and Guts Tanner.

She heard her name called enthusastically and heard someone plop down in the chair opposite her. She looked up from her tablet to see Ed Dane sitting there, a lopsided grin on his face and a lunch tray in front of him. "You telling me that book is better company than good ol’ me?"

Rachel smirked. "Well, it’s more intelligent fare." She couldn’t help but giggle at his mimicking a blow to the heart. "At least you came out of the fight intact. Mostly. Your Loki looked a bit banged up."

"Should’ve seen the Seppies," he answered, grinning. "And I’ve got Oohrah Girl and Ninja ***** helping out in the asskicking department.

"I don’t think calling Sakata ‘Ninja *****’ is appropriate," Rachel pointed out.

"Why not? She’s a bit bitchy, but *** **** she kicks ***. And have you seen her in the gym? I think she could put down anyone with those moves. Even Dani." Dane’s grin turned lecherous. "Which would be awesome if it was in mud."

"Ed!" Rachel laughed and shook her head. There was something refreshing about Dane’s boisterous attitude, at least. "I wonder how it’s going in the city."

"Barsdale’s probably kissing Tanner’s *** and trying to make Alex look bad. Pierce is being grumpy, but I repeat myself. And Alex is acting like he’s not the dude who turned the tables on the Seppies."

Rachel frowned at the mention of Patrick Barsdale, and Dane noticed it. "The worst thing about that is that Alex feels almost as guilty as they’re claiming he is."

"Eh, couldn’t be helped. There were too many of the *******. The jarhead got too much heat, tried to adjust, and boom! The enemy breaks through." Dane smirked. "And we made the Seppies regret it."

Barely, Rachel thought to herself. "The jarhead is one of Barsdale’s, though. So you know he’s going to back his side."

"Eh... Roland can be a cool guy. We’ll have to see on that." Dane took a couple bites of lunch after that, and Rachel was resuming her reading when he spoke up again. "So, you and Alex."

"There is no me and Alex," Rachel insisted.

"Not yet. Only a matter of time."

Rachel felt her cheeks burn a little as she thought of it. Alex was... okay, he was pretty much what she wanted. Handsome, a little witty but not clownish, intelligent, a streak of boldness... No, no no no, he’s my commander, it’d never work.

"Red cheeks means I’m right, oh yeah," Dane crowed.

"Shut up before I slip an order into Alex’s pile to have your machine configured for fire support," Rachel growled.

Unfortunately, that only encouraged him, and she was answered with fake meowing and hissing until Dane, chuckling, headed to another table and left her in peace.

Major Pierce had returned to his office intent on catching up on paperwork in time for the five o’clock vidcall he had been waiting for all week. He still had some left when the appointed hour came, so he put it away carefully to get it out of the range of his monitor’s webcam. His computer began trilling to inform him of the incoming call, the phone number one long embedded in his memory.

When he answered, Pierce was looking into the bright brown eyes of his wife Sherry. Their daughters Hope and Faith were near the bottom of the screen, clearly in front of their mother and placed between her and the computer desk in the living room. The sun was at a higher angle in the sky, not surprising given they were near Ft. Lewis outside Olympia and Tacoma. "Daddy!", the two little girls squealed in unison.

"My little angels," Pierce answered. It hurt to see how much they’d grown since he had last been with them, but at least he got weekly calls. It was the main reason he’d felt so grateful when he’d been passed over for a slot with an Outreach training cadre, where he’d only get monthly video messages at best. "You’ve been behaving I hope?"

"Faith keeps trying to steal my dolls," Hope complained.

"Do not!", the younger Pierce girl protested.

"Do so!"

"Do not!"

"Girls, girls..." Pierce laughed. They stopped arguing, though both continued to glare at each other. "Remember, you need to keep from driving your mother insane. I’ll be very upset if you make Mommy go crazy."

"Yes Daddy." Little Faith gave him a forlorn look with her cute little brown eyes and asked a question she never tired of asking, and which always drove a knife into his heart. "Daddy, when are you coming home?"

Pierce drew in a sigh. "When the war is over, Faith."

"And when will that be?"

"When the bad guys leave our country and stop trying to blow up our homes," Pierce explained. It was about the only way he could think to explain fighting off a brutal invasion by near-aliens.

"Daddy, can’t you just come home to visit?", Hope asked.

"No, not right now." Pierce couldn’t stand to see his girls looking so sad, so he quickly changed the subject. "So, Hope, are you ready to start school?"

He inquired as to what the children were doing, and they showed him pictures they had drawn. Hope was showing real promise with a colored pencil, while Faith had a three year old’s mixture of bizarre artistic taste and wild imagination. He encouraged them as best as he could.

With only five minutes left in the call Sherry shooed them away and sent them to go play. They went through the ritual of expressing Sherry’s fears and Pierce’s reassurances. She missed him and he missed her. They discussed the likelihood of giving the girls a baby brother or sister the next time they met, with some giggling and knowing smiles. And then, like that, his allotted time was over. They blew kisses at each other on the screen just before the military’s communications servers cut the call at the thirty minute exact mark.

Pierce drew in a sigh and returned to his paperwork. Or, rather, tried to, but within minutes he had a knock on the door. He called for the unexpected visitor to come in and was greeted with two; Captains Hendricks and Markenson. They gave him proper salutes and he returned them, ordering them to be at ease. "Gentlemen, what is the nature of this visit?"

Markenson almost spoke, and was clearly the most agitated - unsurprising since his ‘Mech was gone and he was grounded - but he relinquished that part to Hendricks. The sandy-haired former artillery officer took a moment to gather his thoughts before he spoke. "Major, sir, we’ve been discussing a... personnel issue."

"A personnel issue? Of what sort, Captain?"

"Allow me," Markenson said. "The lawyer’s a menace. He nearly got us killed. Hendricks and I don’t trust him to watch our backs and think someone else should get Alpha Company."

Pierce looked at them for a moment. "Gentlemen... this is not a democracy, and while I don’t think Penton’s the second coming of Robert E. Lee like some civilian bloggers are saying I don’t think the Kenyon engagement to be suitable grounds for his removal. It was a bad day all around. We all got hit hard."

"He’s reckless and unable," Hendricks insisted. "Every combat arms officer in the entire 3rd Army knows it. It’s bad for morale, knowing he’s still got the chance to mess things up and get us killed, especially when we can’t afford to lose."

Pierce didn’t move, didn’t even blink. "Again, this unit is not a democracy, gentlemen. Captain Penton’s performance is already under review by 3rd Army just like the rest of us. I will await Army HQ’s findings before even beginning to contemplate command changes. You are both dismissed." He gave them a stern stare that made his view of further argument clear.

The two men gave departure salutes and stomped off. Pierce watched them go with a frown. Markenson could be a bit of a hothead, but Hendricks knew better than this. Someone had put them up to this. And for his qualms about Penton, Pierce was not going to accept someone interfering with his unit.

For Yumiko Sakata, the summons to the open rec room was an unexpected annoyance that being caught in the American military meant she had to accept. She had just finished putting her long dark hair back into the conservative bun she favored when she got the word from Lt. Dane to meet, and had immediately gotten back into her MechWarrior BDUs to attend that meeting.

When she found Dane he wasn't alone. Sergeant Perez was beside him and to the other side was the other new member of Bravo Platoon, Corporal April Harverson. The muscled brunette was wearing Marine insignia on her BDUs much like Lt. Roland's, and her brown eyes were nearly as hard as Yumiko's own. She looked to Yumiko and then back to Dane.
"Alright, Lieutenant, we're all here."

"Good, good." Dane motioned to a seat for Yumiko, who took it. "Alright, we did awesome. No doubting that. But I want to do better. I was thinking on these field maneuvers the Colonel wants to start..."

"Simulations would not help," Yumiko murmured. "To be better we must fight more, we must understand how each of us behaves in battle. Simulation is fake battle."

"It's still practice," Perez remarked. "Gives us a feel for our habits. Unfortunately, we don't have sim-pods like at Ft. Knox, and I doubt the Star League will be giving us any in a combat zone."

"We'll work with that," Dane said.

Harverson smirked. "Really, given your rep, sir, I figured you more for just charging ahead and trying to kill as many of the Clanners and Seppies as we can get to."

"Hey hey, I'm a complex guy," Dane retorted. "I'm not the raving gung-ho lunatic most people make me out to be."

"Coming from the guy who opened up on Clan OmniFighters from within the 'Mech bay?", Perez asked with a skeptical look, though he was clearly amused.

"Now now, Sarge... that was a special case." A smirk crossed his face. "Yeah, I admit I act all 'badass MechWarrior' too much, and Alex is on my *** to be a better platoon leader, so that's why I want us to have these discussions a lot. Get to work together better."

"Our odds of remaining together are slim, you know," Yumiko said. "Every battle we lose people. I doubt anyone here will come out of this war without having been shot up or wounded in some way. And every time one of us goes down, you will have to replace the lost pilot and re-integrate them."

"I'll deal with that when it comes," Dane answered. "But for now, let's talk about how we can make our platoon work better against the Clanners and Seppies."

The two Captains stepped into the empty officer lounge. Hendricks shook his head. "I told you it wouldn’t work. Pierce doesn’t like the civvie hero worship of Penton but all you’ve done is make him irritated at us."

"Had to be said," Markenson grumbled. He looked to another figure who had walked up as they entered. "And you, having you along might have helped."

"Now now, Captain, this had to be within the Company," Barsdale answered, crossing his arms. "Think you could get Samsonov to sign off on a protest too?"

"Nah, he actually likes Penton a little," Hendricks said, shaking his head. "That was a waste of time anyway, Pierce was never going to let someone dictate personnel decisions to him."

"Of course not, and he's right for it," Barsdale answered. "But this means you've followed the chain of command. You issued your protest to your CO and you got ignored. Now you are clear to be involved if protests go higher."

"Is that going to happen?", Markenson asked.

Barsdale gave a slight nod. "I'll make sure of it."

#10 Big Steve


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Posted 15 August 2012 - 07:03 AM

Chapter 10

DropShip Jaguar’s Bane
Outbound from Outreach
Chaos March, Inner Sphere
27 August 3059 Local
27 July 2039 Earth

The Overlord-class of DropShips didn't have much in the ways of external viewing ports, minimizing the risks of exposure to vacuum, but one along the ship's belly allowed Edward to look out at the dwindling sphere of Outreach, obscured only partly by the DropShip's engine flare.

He had seen a similar sight months before, on their way into Outreach after leaving Winnipeg and the Canadian BattleMech Training Center there. But now they were on their way back, to join the Americans at Minneapolis for the inevitable resumption of the Clan push. Edward, his brother, and his father would all be in the thick of the fighting.

For a moment he stopped looking at the Dragoons' world and toward his own reflection on the port. The rank insignia of a Lieutenant, a commander of a platoon, was present. He was leading B Lance, A Company, Royal BattleMech Regiment, while his father was commanding B Company and Henry had B Lance in C Company.

This meant he would be responsible not just for himself but for three other pilots. It was a daunting prospect.

Especially since Diane was one of them.

As if sensing he was thinking about her, the tomboyish Duchess smacked him on the back. She was wearing the stripes of a sergeant, a "lance sergeant" as the Inner Sphere called it. "So, Lieutenant, thinking up clever ways to win the war and get us back home?" Her face betrayed her mischief as she added, "Or are you thinking up clever ways to get into my knickers?"

He let out a small laugh at that. "Somehow I don't think clever plans would be necessary if it's what you really wanted." He reached a hand up for the port. He thought it would be cold, but it wasn't. "It reminds me of all those digital videos from the Moon missions."

"Amazing, yeah," she agreed. "But it won't be so pretty on the way home. The Dragoons even have fighter-carriers following us..."

"They think the Clans might engage our ships while burning in, yes," Edward remarked. "That would be something. Months of intensive training, all for nothing."

"Might we not talk about the horrific ways we could die on the way back to Earth?" Diane's frown betrayed her irritation. "Bad enough that we have plenty of ways to die when we get there."

At that Edward drew in a breath. "Yes, you're right. Happy thoughts." He finally turned to face her. A recent memory made him smirk. "Like you smashing that bottle on the head of that merc last week."

Diane smiled widely. "Well, you have a pretty impressive right hook to have put him down afterward. It was totally worth spending the night in the brig."

"Yeah." Edward drew in a small sigh. That had totally ruined some of the ideas he had been entertaining for how their night would end. Not that it would likely have happened that way, it had taken up enough nerve just to offer to visit the pub with her. "So, meal time?"

"Just about." As they walked away from the viewport, she looked to him and frowned. "So, how come we didn't get rolled into one of the cool regiments, like the Queen's Lancers? The Canadians are getting to be in the Mounted Regiment after all."

"All traditions have to start somewhere, I suppose..." Edward drew in a breath. "So, time to see who Captain Packard and find out who else was put into my lance." He saw Diane stop and turn, a look of consternation on her face. "Something I said?"

"I think the Captain might be a closet Republican, Edward," Diane murmured. "That's the only way to explain how he could be such an *** to you."

Edward stared at her. "What are you talking about?"

She lowered her head. "I... well... I already heard who we got for our lance. It's not good."

"Who?" A few possibilities came to Edward's mind, not many of them good.

Diane winced. "Devlin and O'Brien."

Edward drew in a stunned breath. "Which O'Brien? Son or father?"

"Son. Sorry."

All Edward could do was sigh and rub his forehead. Diane as his sergeant was one thing, but having those two? He wondered what he had done to offend Packard.

Henry had been happy to be assigned a Clan 'Mech, a Thresher, and given a lance command; he'd been less happy to discover his commander was Captain Jane Mulgrey, a nasty ***** of a woman who made her disdain for Henry and his family entirely too prominent.

Of course, it wouldn't matter for too long. The Dragoons had left them no room to underestimate the Clans. It was fully expected that over half of the unit would wind up hospitalized or dead after a few battles. Their exercises against the Clan "bondsmen" in the Wolf Dragoons had made clear just what nasty opponents the Clans would be, moving their machines like they were parts of their body and showing sobering accuracy with weapons fire.

"An impressive machine, yes?" The voice came from beside him. A well-figured young woman was stepping away from a Clan-made Shadow Hawk, wearing the same British MechWarrior BDUs that Henry had, if tailored better for her curves (and they were very good ones). Her light brown hair was drawn back into a respectful bun, while intelligent, piercing blue eyes looked over to him with a hint of interest, one he fully returned.

But despite the insignia the young lady was not, like Henry, British; the moderate Russian accent gave her away. Tatyana Romanova had grown up among the Russian expatriate community in London, inheritor of the long-dead Archduke Kyril's claim to the dead Russian throne, and had joined the later exodus of opponents of the ENU from occupied Britain to Canada. Her scores were decent enough that she'd been given a newly-arrived Inner Sphere Avatar OmniMech to pilot, but it was well known (and grumbled about) that Star League officials had shown a direct interest in her selection to the first Commonwealth cadre on Outreach, just as they were known for showing undue "interests" in other deposed nobility and royalty of Earth. Henry had found that irritating; it only made the republicans more ornery and, frankly, he figured there was a reason alll of these deposed families had remained deposed, and the Inner Sphere's interest in them was... suspect.

At this rate they're going to be grooming the bloody Prince of Lichtenstein as a Jacobite pretender, were his thoughts on that.

Still... Romanov or not, Tatyana was pretty hot.

"Not as impressive looking as you, Sergeant Romanova," Henry assured her.

"Hitting on me again, Your Royal Highness?" Tatyana smirked. "You always did try to be the playboy twin."

"My brother and I may be identical twins, but I'm very certain I got all of my father's charm."

"So it would seem." Tatyana looked up at his Thresher. "Such amazing war machines. Even the smaller ones are death incarnate if put on a battlefield with infantry and tanks."

"Or so the Inner Sphere and Clans like to play up, even as they warn us about the dangers of those inferno missiles and other anti-'Mech weaponry infantry can use." Henry let out a laugh. "The House armies still use infantry and tanks after all. They haven't given those up in favor of hordes of BattleMechs."

"It's a bit easier, Prince Henry, for a poor world to outfit infantry than it is for them to build BattleMechs." Tatyana crossed her arms. "It is a problem we're going to have long after this conflict with Giuseppe is over."

"Presuming the Clans don't enslave us all."

"Yes." She smirked. "Presuming the Clans don't enslave us all. I like the cynicism there, Prince. It's almost Russian."

"Why, thank you, dear Duchess," Henry answered.

DropShip Minobu Tetsuhara

The Tetsuhara was on its second voyage of the summer to Scorched Earth, carrying with it most of the trained Canadians destined to be admitted into the Royal Canadian Mounted Rifles. The RCMR, as it was called, was a reborn unit, founded by members of Canada's famous Mounted Police to fight for Britain in the Second Boer War. They carried the battle honors granted the RCMP and the regiments it had spawned in the Canadian Army.

The weight of tradition and history was on the shoulders of Captain Luisa Fraser as she stared up at her machine. Her score had merited a Clan OmniMech from the stores of salvaged machines, a 65-ton Cauldron-Born, which now sat beside Major Alec Keller's Penetrator BattleMech - the source of many a lewd joke at the stiff Major's expense in the minds of Luisa and her pilots.

The Vancouver native was not so much attractive as she was solid, with a narrow face and small nose framed by a strong jaw that was larger than some men she had met. Her US-designed, Dragoon-produced MechWarrior BDUs were too loose on her five foot eleven one hundred and seventy pound frame to show the cords of muscle that made up her limbs and gave muscle definition to the rest of her body. Light brown hair was kept at regulation length for the Mounties - which she could truly claim membership in - and her gray eyes were those of a markswoman who had been consistantly at the top of the Vancouver RCMP.

The world had changed a lot for Luisa. No longer was she chasing criminals through mountains of paperwork and testimony, or joining raids on drughouses or arms smugglers. Now she was fully in the military, joining dozens of her fellow Mounties in enlisting in the Armed Forces to resist the Guiseppians and their new off-world allies. The US was taking the brunt of that war now, but how long before her homeland, her beloved Cascadia, had BattleMechs and tanks rumbling around?

The pilot of the Inner Sphere Gallowglas beyond Major Keller's Penetrator approached her. Lieutenant Lance Reynolds was from Halifax, a fellow Mountie, his former stockyness turned to solid muscle by intensive Wolf Dragoon training. Blond hair regularly cut and carefully combed betrayed his personal discipline, which she found admirable; it was why he was her second in her personal troop. His face was wide though with the cheeks a bit sunken in, and his nose a fairly major feature that was almost more noticable than his sharp blue eyes. "Well, if it isn't everyone's favorite Aryan," Luisa teased him, her voice about as deep as a woman's could get without sounding masculine.

"Coming from the most butch woman in the Mounted Police, that's not so irritating," Lance responded sarcastically, giving a salute out of habit. "Or Mounted Rifles I should say. Even if we're not carrying rifles anymore."

"At least they didn't go with that moronic suggestion of calling us the Canadian Mounted Regiment," Luisa pointed out. "Nervous?"

"A little." Lance sighed. "My girlfriend and our kids are in Winnipeg. If the Yanks and League collapse where they are.... how long before the Seppies and Clanners make it there? They'll carve Canada in two like the US."

"Won't happen. Say what you will about the Americans" - and with her experiences Luisa could say a lot - "but they get mad as hell when their homes get threatened. They'll hold."

"With us helping, eh?"

"Yeah." Luisa looked back up at her killing machine. "With us helping."

Not all of the members of the RCMR had been Mounties before becoming MechWarriors; in fact, Capt. Fraser was one of just six in the current battalion. The others had come from all walks of life in their native Canada. Two came from Newfoundland, another two from Nova Scotia, and Lieutenant Markson of C Troop in C Squadron had grown up in Yellowknife.

John and Amanda Collins were, by trick of fate, the only two people to hail from Alberta. They were from an oil-working family; their father, mother, and step-mother had all-worked in one time or another in that field, enduring the economic hard times from the energy price crashes in 2015 and 2031. Their impoverished circumstances and rural upbringing had led to them being a far cry from the stereotype of the socially-liberal, easy-going Canadian, as a number of more ignorant Americans had discovered on Outreach.

They were fraternal twins, born before their sister Lisa, and even though they were geneticallly different they still looked the part, with light brown hair pulled into pony-tails and thin, wiry figures. John had their mother's green eyes while Amanda had their father's brown, but even their facial structures were similar enough despite their opposite gender.

They had also proven themselves fairly good MechWarriors, if not 'Mech commanders. Having scored decently high, they had been given Inner Sphere OmniMechs, a pair of Blackjacks. Amanda was assigned to Captain Fraser's command troop, John to B Troop as its sergeant.

Silence continued to reign, their attention on the letters delivered before their departure. Their sister confirmed that their nephew Lawrence was doing alright in school, and reassured them that her boyfriend was not hitting her like the last one. For Amanda especially the letters were a stark reminder of what she could've ended up as; at the age of thirteen she had seen her fifteen year old sister get pregnant, and there were many times the two had to play chaperone or babysitter to their little nephew.

Seeing the look on her face, John spoke up. "You know, sis, I always figured that Lawrence was why you didn't date in school. Not even when we went to college."

Amanda looked up at him with a frown.

"I mean, it's clearly a good decision," he continued. "Lisa's gone from bad boyfriend to bad boyfriend, had trouble holding down jobs, has never had an education.... you'd go through the same thing if you got knocked up."

"But not you," Amanda murmured. John gave her a quizzical look. "You could sleep with whom you wanted, it wouldn't matter. It's always the baby-momma who gets stuck with the kid, the fuss, the loss of opportunities..."

"I wasn't going around in school either, Amanda," John reminded her.

"Would've if they'd have let you," she answered. She tried to cover the bitterness up, but it was hard. A guy sleeps around and he gets seen as manly. A girl sleeps around and she's a **** or a *****. And they always got stuck with the kids.

Growing up, Amanda had looked up to her big sister. She'd emulated her, idealized her, and - yes - envied her. Her sister seemed primed to get out of their crappy little town and make a life for herself far from the oil sands. But it hadn't happened. She'd gotten pregnant, and all the sudden she didn't even have time to attend school properly.

Never, Amanda thought to herself. That won't happen to me. I won't let it.

"At least with Lawrence around Dad's not pestering us to give him a grandkid," John mused. "I don't know if I want a child... especially not now."

"Not the best world to bring one into," Amanda agreed. She put away her tablet and laid back on the cot. "I don't think anything will be the same, brother. We're just a drop in the ocean compared to these people. Clans, Inner Sphere, doesn't matter. They'll try to swamp us with numbers."

"Eh, don't think that way sis." John shook his head. "People want to live the way we've always lived. Doesn't matter how few or many."

"Go tell that to the First Nations, John," Amanda retorted.

"I..." John stood silent for a moment. "Alright, you've got me there."

"Guess it doesn't matter, we still have to fight." Amanda turned in the cot and let out a yawn. Early Dragoon reveille was not something she was going to miss.

#11 Big Steve


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Posted 18 August 2012 - 08:51 PM

Chapter 11

Camp Jurgens
Hastings, Minnesota, United States of America
North America, Earth
3 August 2039
4 September 3059 IST

Many of the officers and personnel of the camp were gathered and ready when the helicopters appeared over the horizon. They were summoned to attention, ignoring the roar of the USAF fighters that were escorting the craft and waiting patiently for the choppers to land.

When two landed, dark-suited men stepped out, but the real guests of honor came from the right helicopter, their identities made clear by the insignia on the blue helicopter: the Seal of the President.

Everyone present recognized President Jason Andrews and Secretary of Defense Simon Barsdale. The two men were examples of contrast; Andrews' chocolate brown skin, curly graying hair, wrinkled face, and thin frame compared to Barsdale's light skin, straight dark hair combed to the side, and a younger and stouter frame. Both men were clad in business suits that were far more subdued than the sharp military uniforms worn by the attending personnel, even more so compared to the elaborate uniforms of General White and the AFFC officers with him and Precentor Durbin's immaculately-robed entourage.

The third figure to emerge from the helicopter was, unsurprisingly, General Tanner, also clad in dress uniform. Andrews proved capable of a brisk pace in approaching them. When the President was close enough Sinclair snapped a salute, prompting everyone else to do the same. Andrews stepped up to him and gave him a nod, then offered him a hand. "Colonel, a pleasure."

"An unexpected pleasure for all of us, Mister President," Sinclair stated. "My staff and officers..."

Standing opposite of Major Barsdale on Sinclair's other side, Alex had to force himself to nod and offer his hand as the President gave him a handshake, followed by the Secretary of Defense. The other Captains were next, and beyond them Rachel and a few others were present. The elder Barsdale clearly recognized her, though he was properly cordial toward her.

With this done the President and Colonel Sinclair took the lead in heading into the facility. The living areas were briefly inspected. In the infirmary, wounded personnel were offered their choice of sweet candy (which like most things were subject to ever-stricter rationing) by the President, holopics and photos being taken by the military journalist present.

Their final, and most important destination, was the 'Mech hanger. The US 'Mechs had been pained up, complete with restored unit patches, with any remnant damage glossed over. Andrews stared up at the machines with a wonder that showed through his controlled politician's demeanor. "This reminds me more than anything of the change that has come over our world."

"Agreed." Sinclair stepped up beside him, or at least beside the President's Secret Service protector.

"You and your people have kept our hopes alive," Andrews continued, speaking loud enough for everyone to hear. "When you came back from Outreach our country's hopes rode on your shoulders, and you have carried that well. You've done far better than anyone thought you would. Your nation thanks you... I thank you." Andrews took a list out of his jacket. "Please step forward when called."

The first couple of names called out were pilots from the 2nd Battalion, given Bronze Stars for their performances in keeping their units intact in the failed offensive that had wrecked VIII Corps. Roland was one of those called up, and there was a twinkle in his eye as the President found that there were already several medals dangling off his dress blues, including two Bronze Stars and a Silver Star.

Next came Major Pierce, then Captain Markenson. As Markenson stepped down, Alex noticed a bit of a twitch from the Secretary of Defense as the next name was called.

"Lieutenant Rachel Galvariz, please?"

Alex looked over to Rachel and gave her a bit of a wink to try and buoy her courage. She was very stiff and formal as she stepped up to the President. "For your success in becoming the first American BattleMech pilot to shoot down a Clan aerospace fighter, accomplished on the 2nd of July 2039, it is my great pleasure to present you, Lieutenant Galvariz, with the Silver Star." He pinned the medal to Rachel and accepted her salute in response. "Through your actions you have become an inspiration for young people across America. Thank you."

"Thank you sir," Rachel said, almost croaking the words. She saluted him again and stepped away respectfully before returning to her place in the crowd.

A sudden sick feeling came to Alex's gut, and it was confirmed a moment later when the President called his name. He almost didn't move, but feeling eyes focusing on him he stepped forward. His throat was dry as he approached the President, the duly-elected leader of his country, the enforcer of the laws he had studied and promised to protect and obey...

"Captain Penton, your performance since your return to Outreach has won you the respect of the American people and our allies across this world and others," Andrews declared. He opened a medal case and pulled out a gold-colored star-shaped medal; yet another Silver Star. "Your smashing victory at Welch Township proved that we can beat the Clans in a fair fight, but nothing can compare to your raid on the 10th behind enemy lines. Your command ended the entire Clan offensive and bought us time to move in reinforcements and improve our defenses. For these actions it is my pleasure to award you the Silver Star." Alex stood still and allowed the President to pin the medal on his uniform.

Unfortunately, as the extra case in the hands of Secretary of Defense Barsdale indicated, it wasn't over. "Additionally, after you accomplished all those actions, you added to the day's victory by calling down an artillery barrage on your position, resulting in the destruction of fifteen enemy BattleMechs and the elimination of the Jade Falcon military commander. For this accomplishment, performed at extreme risk to your life, it is my further pleasure to award you the Distinguished Service Cross." The President took out the bronze cross with blue, red, and white ribbon, the eagle and wreath prominent in the middle and the inscription on the scroll below reading "FOR VALOR". "The American people thank you for the risks you have taken and the courage you have shown in the defense of our homeland."

"My only concern, Mister President, is to do my duty," Alex answered simply.

"So you do." Andrews offered his hand, and Alex took it for a good handshake. "Good luck out there."

The President had departed with General Tanner for his tour of the Twin Cities, leaving Secretary Barsdale to have some private time with his nephew. They were in Patrick's quarters, a small bottle of Scotch on the table. "The benefits of being in the Cabinet," Simon assured his nephew, offering him a glass. "I'm sorry the President wasn't here to pin a medal on you, Patrick. *** **** that General Tolen..."

Barsdale gave a stiff nod. "Yes. And I'm worried about what the effect will be of his remarks toward Captain Penton."

"You made your opinion quite clear in your letters to me and your father," Simon pointed out, pouring his own glass. "But you have to realize that in this war, a man like Penton is worth an entire division. America needs heroes."

"But the Army doesn't need gloryhounds," Patrick countered. "Two of his peers in the battalion have already petitioned Major Pierce for his removal from company command."

Simon Barsdale looked at his nephew carefully while taking a sip of the Scotch. "My boy.... I know you've gone out of your way to avoid needing my influence or your father's. I hope you're not allowing the presence of that young lady to cloud your judgement."

"No, my judgement is clear, sir," Patrick insisted. "Just two weeks ago he put our entire brigade in danger by failing to keep his line intact. He was more worried about looking good to the FedComs. At best, he's well-intentioned but completely over his head. At worst, he's seeing stars and wants to win glory."

"He seemed pretty humble to me." Simon carefully considered his glass. "And honestly, Patrick, I can't help but feel that you're gunning for him because you're afraid he'll get the nod for the 3rd Battalion and not you."

Patrick opened his mouth to speak but couldn't for several moments. In that time Simon took another drink and continued. "You are the light of your father's eye, Patrick, and God knows I love my little brother a lot. But there are more important things at stake than your ego. It got you into trouble over that Hispanic girl and it's going to get you into trouble here. Just because we have influence doesn't mean we can protect you if you pit yourself against the most popular combat officer in the United States."

"Uncle, if you'll just consider getting him re-assigned," Patrick urged. "The BattleMech Training Command could use Outreach-trained personnel..."

He was interrupted by Simon smacking his hand to the table. "Dammit, Patrick, this isn't about your career. I am not going to help you wage a one man..."

At that moment Patrick produced a paper, with a number of signatures on it, the most prominent being Captains Hendricks and Markenson. Simon didn't need his glasses to read what it was; a statement denouncing Captain Penton's combat command ability and his decisions, most importantly the near disaster of the 20th. "Just what the hell are you doing?", Simon asked.

"It's not just me, Uncle," Patrick said. "The man has turned half his battalion against him, including two company commanders and several platoon officers. Major Pierce isn't too hot on him either, but he's deferring to Colonel Sinclair, and frankly I think Sinclair has an emotional investment in Penton for how well they worked together in exercises on Outreach. It's the only way to explain why he's so resolute in supporting Penton in everything."

"So you're actually going to do this, Patrick?" Simon put the cap back on the Scotch, a way of showing how the conversation had changed. "You're going to try and start a media frenzy? Have you considered how much of the media will see it as jealous officers trying to tear down a war hero?"

"And how much of the media is still so reflexively anti-war that they can't resist tearing down military heroes? CNN might ignore it, but MSNBC? The Huff Post? Hell, if they find anything liberal enough in his background, even Fox might be willing to tear into him." Patrick shook his head. "Uncle, I don't like it, but it has to be done. Penton's a menace, and he's going to underrmine our defensive efforts. Especially if Sinclair gives him a whole damn battalion to destroy. We have to get him out of the way."

Simon put a hand on his chin. "God, you're going way too far with this Patrick. Honestly, if I didn't know better I'd think you were trying to maneuver that Lieutenant back into your direct comm..."

"What?!" It was Patrick's turn to thump the table. "I don't want anything to do with her! That manipulative ***** almost ruined my career!"

Simon smirked at his nephew's outburst. I doth think you protest too much, Pat, he contemplated, but didn't say out loud. Truth be told he didn't much like Lt. Galvariz either, having seen enough co-eds like her who reflexively bought liberal propaganda wholesale and who flaunted their sexuality and acted surprised when men got interested. But he knew his nephew enough to know he'd gotten too close to the flame and gotten burnt for it. "Alright, alright..." Simon sighed, trying to think of how to deal with this situation. Patrick was right was that there were plenty of types who would tear Penton down just to embarrass the military, the Administration, or just for the media attention. "To get the military on board, you need more than his peers. You need Penton's subordinates. You need the platoon commanders."

"Well, there's no way Dane goes against him, that maverick likes the freedom Penton grants him too much," Patrick mused. "But Roland...."

"Ah, Lieutenant Roland? Yes. Someone of his background and experience telling us that Penton's unfit for his command would do it, even without Dane" Simon answered. "But it needs to be done quietly if it can be, Patrick. If this goes public it could get messy, it could get political, and the President is genuinely enthused about Penton enough that he could force the issue in his favor. Get Roland behind you and get Penton to agree to a transfer. It's how it has to be done."

"Thank you, Uncle."

"Don't thank me, dammit," Simon hissed. "I don't want you doing this. I'd be telling you to knock it off if I didn't think you might be right and if I thought you'd listen. If you're going to get it done, get it done clean and get it done fast, because the absolute last ***-****** thing we need is for you to undermine your unit's morale when the enemy is already starting their next push."

"I'll get it done immediately," Patrick promised.

Simon almost said something further, but for the sake of family he held his tongue. God knew he loved his nephew as a son, but John had spoiled the boy too much...

Roland had decided to celebrate his Bronze Star in grand fashion; boxing practice. And after teaching a couple bluebloods from the FedCom and a ComGuard the finer points of Corps boxing practice, he was winding down at the punching bag to work on his technique for the next time he took on Dani (and he knew there'd be a next time).

"You were on the Marine boxing team for a while, right?"

Roland heard Barsdale's voice and suppressed the urge to groan. He stopped punching and reached for a towel. "Yeah, on and off through the 10s and 20s. Whenever I wasn't getting shot at."

"I was on the team at West Point in my second year, had to let it go to concentrate on academics," Barsdale admitted. He walked up beside Roland and looked around at the mostly empty gym. "Can I have a moment of your time, Lieutenant?"

"After I shower, sir," Roland answered gruffly, getting a nod in reply.

Roland's shower was extra long this time, but despite his best efforts he still found Barsdale waiting for him outside. Seeing that the Major was serious, Roland followed him back to his office. "I'm sorry about Corporal Schulter," Barsdale said. "Another good kid who's life's been destroyed."


"I know losing MacGruder was bad as well."

"Sir, I got used to losing fine young people when I was still just a plain old Sergeant. By the time you make Gunny it's something you just accept," Roland answered, lying a bit in doing so. He still had dreams about all the young Marines he lost across the globe....

Barsdale nodded. "And now we could lose more of them."

"Is this going somewhere, Major? Because with all due respect, it sounds like you're building up to a pitch of some kind with a bullshit officer speech, and this Marine is too old for that crap."

There was a moment of silence. "Sorry, sometimes I forget about jarhead impatience." Barsdale went to his seat. "The next cadre from Outreach is already burning in, and we'll be up to three battalions. I'm in line for one of them. I'd like to know if you're interested in getting into my unit. I could swing for you to get a company command..."

Roland thought about that for a moment. Captains weren't always in supply for the cadres, and a few of the first cadre's captains had been promoted due to scores in tactical command on Outreach - Captain Westin had been one of them - to fill in the ranks. He certainly had the combat experience, though.

But he also knew Barsdale was up to something. He could see it in him. "You're sure that they have an open company spot," he asked carefully.

"I know how to guarantee there's one," Barsdale answered bluntly. He put his hands together. "Penton almost got you killed. He almost got our unit annihilated. If you sign off on a protest against his command, I can get him removed from the combat unit."

For a moment Roland stared at Barsdale. Some of it was from pure bewilderment, but he supposed that made sense; Uncle Simon had just shown up, hadn't he? "So that's what it is? I get Penton shitcanned, you give me a company," Roland asked quietly.

"Just about."

"And it ensures you get 3rd Battalion," Roland concluded. He felt a sudden turn in his stomach, and it was pure disgust. "You're doing this to get him out of the way so you can have a battalion again."

"I'm doing this, Lieutenant, to get an incapable officer off the field before he costs us lives, maybe even the battle and with it the war," Barsdale answered. "Now, I'm going to arrange a meeting with him tonight. Can you be there?"

Roland bit into his lip. "Yeah, I can be. Permission to be dismissed?" When he got the nod, he stomped out, not sure of what else to do.

Oh, he thought Penton should've started at platoon command and worked up from there, sure. The man needed to learn how to command. And getting a chance to protect Barker and Eli better was something he wanted to see. But this... this felt wrong. This felt slimy. This felt like politics.

And Roland hated politics.

As always, there was paperwork. Alex had been used to it as a JAG lawyer and still hated it. He hated it more now. At least that paperwork was legal briefs, involving analysis of the law and of cases, things that stimulated this mind. This was... drudgery. Requistion forms. Reports. Personnel reviews.

There were times he wanted to be back at JAG.

Thankfully he had Rachel to help with it, letting him know what was important to read and what he could just sign off on. Having her smile at his bad jokes made the experience all the better, even if he tried not to dwell on the fact that he was getting to like her far too much.

The sun was already low in the sky when the paperwork was finished, but before they could do much more there was a knock at the door. Rachel went over and opened it as Alex stood. Dane entered, with a familiar agitated look to him, and behind him was Lieutenant Sonya Samari of Charlie Company. The solid Brooklyn woman was wearing her hair in a pony-tail today, bright blue eyes focused and intent, not to mention rather agitated as well. "Lieutenant, what can I do for you?", Alex asked.

"They're trying to shitcan you, Alex," Dane growled.

With a touch of bewilderment Alex looked to him. "What?"

"Captain Markenson blames you for the battering we took," Sonya explained. "He's working with Hendricks and going around getting the other platoon commanders to sign some statement saying you've got to be removed or the battalion will be demoralized."

Rachel's face darkened. "It's Barsdale, Alex, it has to be him."

Alex drew in a sigh and leaned against his desk. "Well, the Army's not a democracy, every single one of you could demand my removal and Pierce could say no."

"Yeah, but you know how things work, Captain. They release this to some journo, or slip it past the censors to get it on a blog, and you've got the country hearing about how its 'Mech unit is falling apart because nobody likes you." Samari shook her head. "I had Perkins ask me to sign it. ******* Mormon ***** - oh Lord, please forgive me" - she crossed herself out of habit - "actually thought I'd rat on you too. I told her to shove it. But there were a lot of names on that list."

"That ******* ******* Markenson, I oughta go whup his ******* ***." Dane crossed his arms. "I say we go to the Colonel. He'll put a stop to this bullshit."

"It won't end the threat," Alex sighed. "If they make a fight of this, with Barsdale backing them? Even if I win, the unit's morale gets torn to shreds and we'll fold like cheap paper when the Clans and Seppies start north again. This has to be handled quietly, just between us."

"Alex, you know how most of them feel about you." Rachel was shaking her head and looking like she was getting sick. "They never liked you. You've got no choice but to go with Samari and see Major Pierce."

"And what will that solve, Rachel? Hendricks and Markenson will still despise me. All of those officers who signed this statement will still think I nearly got them wiped out. The only way to solve this is to address them directly, let them air their grievance and respond to it."

"This isn't going to be a ******* courtroom, Alex," Dane retorted. "The deck's stacked against you, man! Go fight them!"

"Dammit, Ed, I'm not ripping the unit apart, then I really wouldn't deserve my command," Alex responded hotly. He reached over for his phone. "I'm calling Hendricks. Let's do this now."

Roland was seated by himself for dinner chow when Barker walked up. She was doing better now, slowly coming to terms with Cal's mutilation. They'd been fairly close, even if they were so diametrically opposed in politics and upbringing. Cal being turned into a quadriplegic was not a happy ending for that. "You look deep in thought, Lieu. And that's saying something for you."

"Yeah." Roland drew in a breath. "You ever look at Cal and think it was Penton's fault?"

Barker froze for the moment. Then she let out a sad sigh and said, "Well... at first. But ****, dog, it's war. This **** happens. The Captain left us out on a string but he damn sure fixed the problem, and nearly got killed doing it."

"Yeah." Roland took a bite of cheap processed mashed potatoes covered in cheap processed brown gravy. "Penton needs seasoning, but he's got some potential."

"One of the Sarges in Charlie Company says that Penton won't be around much longer. They gonna get him shitcanned."

Roland nodded slowly. "Yeah, heard something about that. Whole battalion thinks he got us ****** over at Kenyon. Even if it ended up being a good thing. We gave the Seppies a good pounding when Penton turned the tables on them."

"Half of Charlie Company's ready to say good riddance, they lost four pilots from that fight y'know."

"Yeah." Roland thought back to what Barsdale had said. It was clear the unit was swinging against his commander. As much as he liked to think Marines were above this bullshit, he'd seen enough service politics even in the Corps to know better. He didn't like it, though.

And Barsdale wanted him to be there to stick the knife in.

Barker was not saying anything more, but she was clearly in thought. Roland had no chance to give voice to his thoughts, though, as from behind her he saw Hendricks come up. "Penton's asked us to meet with him, Roland. I think he knows we're trying to get him removed. You up to come and see this through?"

"I'll come," Roland said simply. He noticed the look on Barker's face. "It'll be alright, Sergeant. The right thing will be done." He got up and followed Hendricks out.

Alex was accompanied by Rachel, Samari, and Dane when they reached the conference room. Usually it was for Colonel Sinclair and the local Inner Sphere commanders to meet and discuss things with the Major-level officers, but right now it was vacant with everyone in Minneapolis for briefing the President and meeting with 3rd Army HQ. Inside Hendricks and Markenson were waiting, as were several officers from the other companies. One, Lieutenant Esther Perkins by name, gave a dirty look to Samari when she saw Samari was present, and Markenson was clearly displeased to see her as well. Unsurprisingly, Major Barsdale was seated at the head of the table.

Sitting beside him was Lieutenant Roland.

Dane and Rachel would have incinerated Roland on the spot if their glares could project heat. Alex looked at him and tried not to give any sign of his thoughts. Roland was 2nd Battalion. It wasn't shocking Barsdale would bring him into this. And while they seemed to have been improving things lately, he was sure Roland blamed him for Corporal Schulter's maiming. Even if he hadn't...

We need to get this done, one way or another. I won't let this cloud hang over our unit any longer.

"Lieutenant Samari let me know that you had all lost faith in my capabilities as a commander," he said simply.

"You assume we had it, because I damned well didn't," Markenson snarled. "You're a ******* joke, a lawyer who sucked up to Sinclair and got made his golden boy, then you got lucky and let it go to your head. You got my pilots hurt out there, 'war hero', and I'll be damned if I take my people back out into action knowing we have to rely on the likes of you to keep us alive. My whole company feels the same way."

"Speak for yourself, Captain," Samari hissed. "I fought with Captain Penton in the raid into Faribault. He's no worse than you are. If I had my way I'd be in Alpha Company."

Markenson's nostrils flared, but a look from Hendricks and Barsdale kept him from reacting. Hendricks breathed in a sigh. "Listen, Penton, you're not a bad guy. You're doing your best, but it's honestly not enough. The unit's lost faith in you. There's only one way this can end."

"You want me gone," Alex remarked, looking from Hendricks to Barsdale. "I guess that's why he's here?"

"They asked me to help out in picking new possible assignments for you," Barsdale answered. It wasn't necessarily a lie.... but Alex was sure it wasn't the whole truth. "Training Command could use Outreach-trained pilots, you know. Fort Knox is a great posting..."

"I was there already before Outreach," Alex reminded him.

"Alternatively, since I know the Colonel values your input..." Barsdale was clearly ready to choke over that. "You can take my post. You'll get a promotion in the process, and you'll be there to help him deal with tactical issues."

"But I won't be out on the battlefield, where I can actually make a difference," Alex pointed out. "You know damn well how much gets determined by who's on the spot."

"Stop dicking around with him," Markenson grumbled. "You're a ******* albatross, lawyer, you need to go back to writing briefs and leave us to fight the war."

"I'll let Major Pierce and Colonel Sinclair make that decision," Alex retorted.

"Why drag it out, Captain?" Barsdale shook his head. "Look who's here. Two out of three of the other company commanders...."

"Maybe someone should call Yefim, then," Rachel said, referring to Captain Samsonov. "See what he has to say."

"....six platoon commanders," Barsdale continued, ignoring her interruption pointedly. "Even if you resist, even if you stay.... you're trashing the unit's morale, Captain. They simply don't trust you, and we don't have the luxury to let you regain that trust. If you go out there with us, the other companies will be so busy looking over their shoulders at what you're doing they'll miss what the enemy's doing. We could lose the battle. We could lose the war."

"Then maybe you shouldn't be encouraging them!", Rachel shouted in response. "You're not doing this as a favor, you're doing this because you're jealous of Alex!"

Some eyes turned toward her. "Rather informal with him, aren't you?", Barsdale asked. He looked to Alex. Alex was trying to remain neutral, but he knew this was a bad logjam. There was little luxury for transfers to sort things out, not with every 'Mech needed here at Minneapolis. I'm just one man, if they've all lost faith in me maybe it's better.... no! No, I'm not going to think like that.

Barsdale could see his words were having an effect, though. He recovered from his brief exchange with Rachel and directed his words at Alex again. "What about your subordinates? You're directly responsible for their lives, so let's see what they think."

"I think you're an *******, Major," Dane barked.

There was no response from Barsdale as he looked to Roland. "Lieutenant Roland, as a decorated combat veteran of thirty years.... do you have any trust in Captain Penton's combat command abilities? Tell us what you think?"

All eyes turned to Roland.

He didn't seem to care. He simply sat there, as if in deep thought. His head raised and he made direct eye contact with Alex. Alex kept looking at him, wondering what the crusty old Marine would do, if he would join this little revolt and make it the epic morale *********** it was shaping up to be.

Roland turned his eyes from Alex to Barsdale. "What I think, Major, is that Lieutenant Dane is right." Roland smirked in amusement. "You're an *******."

For a moment it looked like Barsdale was going to gag. The room was oppressive with stunned silence.

Roland put an end to that.

"What I think, Major, is that Captain Penton was a lawyer staff weenie," Roland continued. "What I think is that he should have been eased into command with a platoon command first, but you know, I'm not going to ***** because he wasn't. Command's a hard course and combat's a ***** of a teacher who'll kill you sooner than let you learn. Captain Penton's managed to survive what the *****-teacher of the Dear School has been teaching, and more than that he's brought a lot of his people out alive, which is more than I can say of any of you whiny ******* here!" Despite the exclaimation and raised voice, Roland's tone was still on the calm side, not at all what you'd expect a gung-ho, oohrah Marine Gunnery Sergeant to employ if you didn't know him better. "I think this is ******* pathetic, and for all the bullshit military politics I've seen in my years this takes the ******* cake. This is ******* whiny jealousy out of hand and turning into a ***********, while our country is under direct threat of being wiped off the face of the ******* world. In short, what I think, Major, is that you and Markenson and Hendricks and Perkins and everyone else here should knock off this horseshit and get back to our duty, which is showing the Clanners and Seppies the ******* door."

Roland stood. He looked over to Alex. "Sir, I'll be seeing you tomorrow to continue our discussions. Looking forward to joining you on the field again. You're doing a good job getting the hang of command. The next time you find out any whiny ******* like these are going behind your back, take it up with your superior and let the Army sort their ***** out. Doing otherwise just encourages them." With that said, he left without another word.

There was silence for a bit. Markenson was still clearly wound up, and Barsdale was running a hand through his hair like he was trying to think of what to do, but Alex was tired of this too. "Listen, if you want to ask for transfer to one of the other battalions when the next cadre comes, that's your business," he said aloud. "But I'm not asking to leave the unit. I believe I can do the most good here. If you disagree, do whatever you want to."

At that, Alex turned and walked out, with Dane, Rachel, and Samari following.

It had all gone wrong. Barsdale hadn't been sure of Roland's stance, but he had hoped the man's instincts as a vet would see what he saw. He's just a trumped up NCO, that's the problem...

"So that's it, huh?" Markenson frowned. "We gotta release the statement."

"No." Hendricks smacked a hand on the table. "Maybe we need to consider things a bit more. Roland's right, we've got more important things to worry about."

"Speak for yourself, Hendricks, you didn't get your company mauled up from that lawyer's incompetence," Markenson growled.

"And you think this will solve anything?!", Hendricks shot back. "God dammit, any day the Clans and ENU might resume their attack. We can't afford this ****. Penton's not going to fold, and I'm starting to think he's right for it. I'm not sure about him, but I know that if I let it bug me we're just helping the enemy. I'm done with this." He got up and walked out.

Markenson looked to Barsdale. "Well, Major, what next? Know any journos we can hand this note to?"

"He's right, it's over," Barsdale answered. He took the statement and ripped it apart, watching some of the others already leaving. "I'm not going to destroy the battalion's morale over this."

"You ******* dickless...." Markenson pounded his fist on the table, a lot harder than Hendricks' strike had been. "I'll ******* do it then!"

"You're only going to get yourself shitcanned if you do, Markenson," Barsdale warned. "it's over, it didn't work, live with it."

"That ******* sonovabitch gets my people killed and that's all we have to show for it?!" He jumped up out of his seat. "I'll go to Pierce myself then. It's Penton or me."

At that Barsdale chuckled. "I wonder what he'll pick." But Markenson didn't hear him, so angry that he just stormed out.

For his part, Barsdale left the conference room after locking it up and began walking to the officer area. He'd made his pitch and it had failed. His uncle's advice was solid; drop it. He'd been tempted to leak the statement, but that was the temptation of ego. Barsdale wasn't going to wreck the unit to get rid of Penton, that'd do far more damage than anything Penton might do.

Though now he had something else, potentially, and he wanted to investigate it. He found himself at Penton's office shortly thereafter. Before he could knock, he heard footsteps and turned to face them. Rachel was standing there, a folder under on arm. Her expression turned stiff. "Major, what can I do for you?"

"You never called me Patrick," he answered.


"Even when I took you to dinner, it was 'Major'," Barsdale continued. "You never addressed me by my first name, but you're talking to Captain Penton like he's a friend from school?"

"Well, I am his aide," Rachel reminded him. "And he's rather informal when we're in private. It was a slip of the tongue, actually, since it's only when we're in private."

"I see." Barsdale crossed his arms, his mind going through the possibilities. A new, strong sense of jealousy rose sharply within him. "So, are you sleeping with him?"

Rachel's jaw dropped open. She looked at him like he was mad, and incoherently stammered for a few seconds afterward until she managed as hoarse whisper of "What?"

"Are you sleeping with Captain Penton?", Barsdale asked pointedly.

For a moment, Barsdale thought he saw her arm tense, and he instinctively prepared himself to get punched or slapped. But it didn't happen.

"Excuse me, Major?"

The voice came from behind; Barsdale has been so intent on Rachel's reaction he hadn't heard the door open. He looked his shoulder to see Penton standing there, actually looking over him by about four inches, arms crossed and a displeased look on his phase. "Captain," Barsdale answered simply.

"It's not enough that you jeopardized the cohesion of the battalion to try and get me shitcanned, now you're harrassing my aide and dredging up false charges of inappropriate fraternization?" Penton frowned. "Major, I've tried to be civil, I've tried to show respect, but I'm honestly tired of this."

"You do seem rather informal with her," Barsdale managed to say.

"We served on Outreach together. She's my aide, and we spend long hours going through paperwork. Yes, we are on a first name basis. No, we are not 'sleeping together'. Our relationship is strictly professional. Now, I understand if you had trouble maintaining such professionalism with her when she was under your command..."

A light went off in Barsdale's head. His face reddened and he glared up at Penton. That smug *******, what has she told him?! "Captain, as a lawyer I'm sure you're familiar with the standards of slander," Barsdale warned him.

"I am. I'm also very familiar with the UCMJ and what it says about appropriate behavior with subordinates of the opposite sex," Penton answered gruffly. "As I imagine you are now, having crossed that line before."

"So that's it, huh? That's how it's going to be?", Barsdale hissed. "You don't **** with me on something like this, Captain. I'm willing to accept you surviving in your command, but you don't insult me to my face and have me walk away like nothing happened."

"Is that a threat, Major?"

"No, Captain. It's a promise." At that he stormed away, trying to keep his temper from exploding.

That smug, sanctimonious *******.... Barsdale wasn't going to let that slide. Penton would slip up one day, and when he did.... he'd pay in spades.

After Barsdale was gone Alex and Rachel returned to the officer. Rachel set the folder on the desk and began rubbing her forehead. "Oh god oh god.... Alex, you shouldn't have said those things."

Alex slipped back into his chair. "What?"

"****, Alex! You should've shooed him away, not pissed him off! Oh God..." Rachel slumped into her seat. "His family is vicious when they're slighted. You've made yourself enemies for life."

"Well, you know what they say about judging people by their enemies..."

"Dammit Alex!" Rachel leaned against the desk. "Oh God, you don't realize... Alex, do you know what happened after I accused him of sexual harrassment?"

"Investigation officially chalked it up to misunderstanding," Alex answered. "So the explanation was. Unofficially the investigating JAG officers believed he was guilty of violations of the military code, but some politicians in Washington made a few phone calls indicating willingness to support certain military initiatives in Congress if only their good friend's son's indiscretion was handled in-house, so it was."

Rachel stared at him for a moment. "...how?"

Alex smirked. "Rachel, you filed charges against the nephew of the Secretary of Defense and the son of a former US Congressman who had served on the House Armed Services Committee. Almost every lawyer in JAG knew about the case one way or another."

"Did they tell you what happened to me after that?"

"I'm afraid not."

"Of course not," Rachel grumbled. She rubbed her forehead. "I got kicked out of my section in SigInt. I got sent to ******* Wainwright, Alex."

Alex blanched. He'd thankfully avoided assignment to Alaska.

"And word got around. You know what it's like to be a sexual harrassment victim, you get plenty of ******** who assume that it was just me being ****** and seductive and leading someone on! And the weather, oh God the weather..." Rachel took in a breath to calm herself. "I was actually thankful to pass the neuro-aptitude tests. It meant getting out of Alaska." She groaned. "And now you've pissed them off. It might not be soon, but eventually it's going to come back to bite you, Alex."

"Let it," Alex grumbled. "He had it coming. And we have a war to win first."

It was late when the vehicle carrying Colonel Sincliar returned to Jurgens. He was intending to go finish up a couple things in his office and head to his quarters, but found himself met at the door by Major PIerce. "Major?"

"I have a problem, Colonel, and it's with your Chief of Staff," Pierce said succinctly. "He's meddling with my unit."

Sinclair stopped just inside the door and looked to Pierce with bewilderment. "What's going on?"

"He's been instigating my officers to turn on Captain Penton to pressure him into transferring out of his combat command," Pierce answered. "One of the lieutenants present for their meeting tonight warned me, just before I had Captain Markenson barging in demanding I re-assign Penton or re-assign him."

Sinclair drew in a sigh.

"For the record, whenever we send 'Mech units to Wainwright for arctic training, I'm putting Markenson's name at the top of the list," Pierce added.

"I would too." Sinclair continued walking along. "Well, you needn't worry about Barsdale much longer. The next cadre will be here in three days. They only have one battalion commander, so Barsdale's getting 3rd Battalion."

"I thought Penton was at the top of the list?", Pierce asked.

Sinclair shook his head. "After reviewing the AARs on Kenyon, HQ's decided that Captain Penton's command performance is insufficient to merit a battalion. He's remaining with you."

Pierce gave a nod in reply. "I'm actually a little pleased by that. I think he needs more time as well."

"There wasn't much argument," Sinclair agreed. "I think he's got the most potential of our current company commanders."

"I'll agree, even if I'm leery about all this war hero stuff. There's no way he should have gotten the DSC that fast, even though he deserved it."

"The country wants war heroes, and he's given them one. Now, Major, I'd like to put things up and get some much deserved shuteye." Sinclair's expression stiffened. "We might have a couple weeks at the very most according to intel. Then we're going to have two Clan Galaxies and an entire ENU Army coming for us."

"We'll be ready for them," Pierce promised, though he wasn't entirely sure of that himself.

#12 Big Steve


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Posted 25 August 2012 - 04:36 PM

Chapter 12

DropShip Minobu Tetsuhara
21 Hours from Earth
Earth Solar System, Contested Territory
5 August 2039 Local
6 September 3059 Inner Sphere

The command center of the Tetsuhara was the private domain of Hironobu Hamigata, an orphan from the Draconis Combine who had grown up in the Dragoons. Getting command of the Tetsuhara was, to him, the pinnacle of his career.

The thin Japanese-African man was now standing beside Divija and James, who were looking at the holotank image of their homeworld. "How wondrous," James began, a hushed tone to his voice, "to think of universes in the plural. It makes one wonder how many are out there."

"I am more concerned with the immediate concerns of saving your world from the Clans," Hamigata murmured. "Mysteries of that sort can be handled later."

"So you say, Captain, we do have more immediate concerns," James conceded. "But it does no harm to ponder the... possibilities."

"If you wish," Hamigata remarked. "Do you feel regret, Your Highness?"


Hamigata gestured toward the globe before them. His hand indicated the islands of Great Britain, James' home, and made it immediately clear what he meant. "Your father is, I hear, a prisoner of a radical who has sided with the enemy. Your people call out for the return of their rightful ruler and the restoration of their traditional way of governance. Yet we are not sending forces to free your homeworld but to aid the United States, a people who rebelled from your's and who then left your family to be overthrown."

James shook his head. "Aside from some humor, my people do not regret the existance of the American States, and I actually feel it is quite right to be coming to their aid first. If America disappears below the Giuseppian tide as my islands have, then all hope will be lost. But if America survives, then it will be only a matter of time before Britain is free also."

"And what of you, Lady Scindia?" Hamigata looked to Divija. "Most of your people are siding with our enemies. You have faced discrimination and suspicion. Yet you fight for the people who mistrust you?"

"I fight for those I believe in," Divija replied. "I do not believe in that treacherous fool Tyagri, much less his merciless master."

James allowed a smile to cross his face. Unconsciously his hand reached over and took her's, a gesture of affection for the younger woman that the small smile on her face showed was apppreciated. "Captain... may I ask what brought on this line of questioning?"

Hamigata nodded slightly. "I wish to understand your people better, Your Highness. I want to know whom I am fighting for."

"What you are fighting for, my dear Captain, is the belief that all have the right to their systems of governance and national identity, free from compulsion to a single uncompromising authority that does not treat them as free persons but as dependents."

"You speak like a Marik," Hamigata remarked.

"Of all the Houses the Mariks are the closest to what my people know as democracy, but even they fall short of our standards."

"And all this talk, coming from the heir to a throne."

At that, James grinned wider. "Ah, my dear Captain... what other purpose does the Crown serve but to be the final defender of British liberty?"

Hamigata smirked at that. 'If you say so, Your Highness. If you say so."

Camp Jurgens
Hastings, Minnesota, United States of America
North America, Earth

News had already spread through the Camp that the new cadre from Outreach was coming in when the official notice was served, surprising only those commanders who believed they'd kept the secret successfully.

The imminent arrival of their reinforcements had prompted Sinclair and Pierce to their current meeting in Pierce's office, away from the prying eyes and ears of Barsdale and the office personnel he had placed himelf in charge of. "I'm not entirely sure about this," Pierce admitted, looking at the unit organization sheet before him. "I wouldn't be unhappy to lose Markenson, and Hendricks' behavior was questionable as well... but a complete reorganization like this?"

"It comes from the top," Sinclair answered. The sheets before him laid out 3rd Army's plans for the disposition of the BattleMech Regiment. 1st Battalion would see its Bravo and Charlie Companies switched out to 2nd and 3rd Battalions respectively, to be replaced with the heaviest elements of the incoming cadres. "And it gives the newcomers from Outreach veteran components for stiffening," Sinclair pointed out.

"At the cost of diluting 1st Battalion's effectiveness," Pierce answered.

"It also works with how General Tanner wants the battalions to operate. 3rd Battalion for defensive assignments, 2nd Battalion for counter-attacks, and 1st Battalion as a firepower-heavy reaction force to plug holes in the line or exploit successful counterattacks." Sinclair tapped the table with his fingers. "I'd be happier with a more even disposition as well... but we're looking at a very nasty battle, and having specialized units for dealing with the potential threats is what HQ wants."

"And what about the Commonwealth 'Mech units?"

"The Canadian 'Mech battalion is assigned to the Mounties' regiment, so they'll be operating with Canada's I Corps. The British unit is going to be assigned as a ready reserve answerable directly to 3rd Army HQ."

"I would have thought they'd be assigned to join the British Exile division."

Sinclair shook his head. "Not at the moment. Maybe after the third cadre comes in at the end of the month."

"Assuming we're not up to our necks in Clanners, you mean..." Pierce looked over the table. He was going to have to speak with Captain Penton and the two incoming company commanders as soon as he could arrange it.

There was a frustrated look on Becca's face as she held up her uniform shirt, baring her belly and allowing the doctor to look over her wound. It had healed fully now, leaving scar tissue as expected. "Looks like the sutures have been properly absorbed," Dr. Trevelayn announced.

"Good." Becca lowered the shirt, just to feel Dani's arms wrap around her. Dani's hands settled on her belly and caused the shirt to lift slightly again. "See, I'm fine."

"Yes." Dani gave her a peck of a kiss on the back of her head. "And it won't happen again."

Trevelayn, long used to the egregious displays of affection between the two, gave a smile and looked to Dani's leg. "Your knee is mostly healed, though I would prefer it if you gave it another week of rest before heavy activity."

"Yes Doc," Dani said. "Mind sending that note to the Seppies and Clanners too? 'Please don't attack for another week, Sergeant Verdes has to recover.'"

That brought an amused smirk from the doc before he walked off to check up on other patients.

Dani let Becca slide off of the bed and followed her. They clasped hands as they walked to the exit of the infirmary.

As they opened the door and emerged into the interior corridor, a voice called out to them. "Good to see I'm not the only one who's been wasting time in a bed." In the moment it took for their minds to process the owner of the voice, Dani and Becca each had an arm hooked around their necks, while between them the smiling face of Micki Lupo looked toward each of them in turn. "How have you been?"

"Micki!" Dani grabbed her friend and hugged her.

"Ack, Dani! Docs told me to take it easy," Micki protested, feeling the vice of Dani's arms squeezing her. When the hug ended she accepted a less-constrictive one from Becca. "Though as a 'Mech pilot I'm considered fit for duty."

"Oh, of course," Dani grumbled. "God forbid you have time to recover from getting bled almost to death, nope, have to go risk your life again ASAP!"

Micki smirked at that. "Well, yeah, you know how it is. Supposedly I'm getting my spot with Dane back."

"Guess they're moving Harverson over to join her fellow jarhead."

"Did they salvage your 'Mech?", Becca asked.

"Yep, but apparently it's going to the replacement pool. I'm getting one of the salvaged Clan machines." Micki grinned widely. "I finally get my own cool Clan ride."

"Yes, no more jealousy toward Becca and I," Dani laughed. She couldn't help but smile; it was great to have Micki back.

Camp Jurgens
6 August 2039 Local
7 September 3059 Inner Sphere

Alex and his officers had been called into the briefing room for the meeting with the other battalion officers... that is, the new ones. Captains Hendricks and Markenson, with their pilots, were gone, heading to Camps Hall and Hoffman to join the 2nd and 3rd Battalions.

Their replacements were a more interesting lot. Captain Elisa Richardson of Bravo Company was a dark-haired, dusky-complexioned woman of decent build, her complexion coming more from African background but her face and hair looking more like a Southwestern Native American. Her aide, Lt. Matthew Stone, was a Caucasian with blond hair and a serious, devoted demeanor. Charlie Company's commander was also a woman, this one a short, sturdy-looking brunette - Captain Charity Murphy - and her aide, bulky Lt. Simon Kagonovich. Their platoon lieutenants were an equally diverse bunch.

"1st Battalion is the linchpin to our defense plan," Pierce explained to the assembled. "Your units are being provided machines of medium and heavy tonnage. Our goal is simple; respond to calls for help and hit the enemy hard." He indicated the table showing the unit makeups. "Alpha Company will be set up for heavier hitting, given their preponderence of heavies, but every company will have at least one whole platoon of heavy BattleMechs, and only Delta Company is set up with a platoon entirely made of mediums. We're combining speed with firepower to deal with whatever problems come up, and knowing the Clans and Seppies we'll have plenty."

"Rapid reaction force, then," Samsonov said from his seat.

"Generally. We plug our holes and exploit enemy ones. That's about it." Pierce looked over to Samsonov. "Captain Samsonov is going to be my second, and if he's out of action you ask for Captain Penton." He looked to Alex. "I'm sure you heard a lot about Captain Penton in particular while on Outreach. Don't let it get to your heads. Any questions?"

There were, and they were answered, but Alex had his own questions. The setup of the unit was one that he honestly questioned, given the dispersion of their veterans. He understood the logic but was unsure of the scope of it. 1st Battalion was now going to have new pilots to work into combat duty. And the Clans and ENU could renew their offensive any day...

Harverson was looking over her Grendel when Roland walked up to her. She gave him a salute and he returned it. "Good to have you in the outfit, Lance Corporal," Roland said to her. "We Marines do well when we stick together."

"Likewise, sir," Harverson answered. "We're the only Marines left from the first cadre, have to look out for each other."

"Good to know you see it that way, Harverson." Roland nodded. "Say, when I was in 2/2 in Iraq, I remember having a rifleman in my squad, a John Harverson. Relation?"

"My uncle, sir," April answered. "Both of my uncles, my aunt Dalia, and my dad were all in the Corps. Family tradition."

"Good to hear that." Roland gave a small smile. "So, 'MechWarrior' Harverson.... why did you just wince when I called you that?"

Said wince was fading, replacing by a dissatisfied look. "Because that title is dumb, sir. We're Marines and 'Mech pilots. MechWarriors are for pretentious idiots and Inner Sphere nobles."

"Spoken like a true Marine," Roland said proudly.

Camp Pitt

James had been unable to hide his amusement upon finding out that the British camp, already put together by American and ComGuard contingents from Inner Sphere prefab kits, was named for Pitt the Elder, the politician of the 1760s who was seen as friendly to the future United States and who some historians believed could have prevented the entire American Revolution. The camp was put on the section of land between Ehlers Path and CR42 east of US 52, not even a smile from the Mississippi south of the St. Paul area. It consisted of four 'Mech hangers, each fitting up to 16 'Mechs, attached to living quarters that acted as "arms" linking the four hangers to the central square structure, where Camp Pitt's command facilities were located. It was, according to Demi-Precentor Maxine Goellner, a standard design, already used for Camp Jurgens and the other two Camps now spread out south of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Only Camp Hodgkins, located at the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant near New Brighton, was larger, built to accomodate the Training Battalion replacements as they continued training and waited to be plugged into their units.

The Jaguar's Bane had already disappeared in the sky when he had finished securing his things. As a company commander James was supposed to have his own quarters, but he had given Divija room as well, leading to much wagging of tongues from his good-natured pilots. She was to be his aide, thankfully, and aside from his sons Divija was the only pilot James felt comfortable piloting alongside.

Aside from the ComGuard compliment over half of the base's personnel was drawn from Canada, with another quarter from the British expatriates who had fled the rise of MacPherson and his government and the balance made up of Americans and people from the rest of the Commonwealth. Much of it was, sadly, either supporting the ENU or had been occupied in some way by it, but there were holdouts beyond the Australians and New Zealanders; the brave Nepalese, to this day resisting Indian attacks to restore the deposed pro-ENU government, the Omani, and defiant little Belize resisting Mexican occupation being the most notable.

Divija was putting her things away while James looked out a window, viewing the wide open spaces of the American Midwest. "Right into the firing line," he murmured.

"I know." Divija looked up. She was in her BDUs, as was he, her hair pulled back into a pony tail. "So, we are due at 3rd Army HQ tonight. Have you heard the stories about this 'General Tanner'?"

James chuckled. "If someone claimed she slapped a man suffering from combat fatigue, I wouldn't be surprised. But that kind of image can be useful." James looked over to Divija as she walked up. "Whatever happens, I'm thankful to have met you."

"You made me feel like a comrade, not a potential spy," Divija answered. "The feeling, Your Highness, is mutual."

There was a momentary silence between them. "I should check up on my sons," James said. "They'll be expected to go with us tonight, and I want them understanding what is expected of them."

"Of course. I'll finish getting unpacked while you're gone."

After he walked out, Divija looked back to her things. She had already seen stares from some of the base personnel. She knew they didn't trust her. They wouldn't until she proved herself.

But it didn't matter, because James did trust her, and that would be good enough for her.

Jade Falcon Omicron Galaxy Headquarters
Owatonna, Jade Falcon Occupation Zone
North America, Earth
7 August 2039 Local
8 September 3059 Inner Sphere

The Jaguar and Falcon commanders were scowling at each other, neither paying much attention to General Ramòn Vizcaino, Colonel Alacanza's superior as commander of the Earth Union 8th Army. The stocky Spaniard, who would have not looked out of place in Franco's Army a century before, was quietly waiting for the two Clan leaders to look over the dispositions. Forbes Weaver, commander of the Jaguars' Nu Galaxy, was looking like she'd rather kill either Vizcaino or von Jankmon, while the creepy thin Falcon pilot officer made no pretense of her feelings toward Weaver.

Jade Falcon Omicron Galaxy had been rebuilt and reinforced, their battered Clusters pulled out and placed on the flanks under the newly-formed Psi Galaxy, a disparate command responsible for protecting the wide open spaces to the west of Owatonna where the held territories jutted up against the Minnesota River and other regions where the Clans and ENU had not yet secured control. Omicron had a stronger mix of Clusters now, with more emphasis on Elementals due to the Falcons' absorbing the nasty lessons the Jaguars had picked up in the fight for Kansas City and the aborted attack into New Orleans.

Nu Galaxy of the Jaguars had likewise been reformed, the weeks of rest since the final failed attack against Cannon Falls being used to rehabilitate warriors wounded during the invasion so far and to bring in new warriors from Huntress. The Jaguars were beginning to feel the pinch more than any other Clan on New Terra, and they had been forced to relegate much of their OZ to Earth Union control due to a lack of troops (Nu Galaxy being focused on Minneapolis and Psi Galaxy's forces being sucked into the siege of New Orleans and watching the Mississippi front).

Together these Clan forces were more than a match for the US 3rd Army and the attached Canadian I Corps, but the presence of divisions of ComStar's 5th Army and the 5th FedCom RCT, not to mention the reported arrival of Marik forces, meant that Minneapolis might still be out of reach... which was where the 8th Army came in.

Vizcaino's 8th Army had five Corps assigned to it, though one was a reserve unit for watching the flanks. The cream of the force was the elite Panzergrenadier Korps of the Earth Army, centered on German volunteers from the Bundeswehr but filled out by the best soldiers from the rest of the Earth Army, regardless of nationality. The other three Corps were European - predominately French and Spanish - and Indian, while the reserve Corps consisted of newly-arrived Eastern European brigades from Romania, Ukraine, Poland, and Democratic Russia.

The job of 8th Army was to give mass to the attack, mass that could tie down American troops and threaten other avenues of attack (and Vizcaino planned to do just that). His presence at this final meeting, with the offensive ready to be launched at any time, would give him a chance to argue such.

"So no further bidding," Weaver said. "I am not sure I approve, but victory is necessary now."

"Agreed," von Jankmon answered. Given the embarrassment the prior month had seen, and the Falcons' inability to lever the tenacious Americans out of Phoenix... Khan Pryde was demanding a victory, and Ida intended to give that to her Khan. "All forces will make for the cities."

"If I might make a suggestion..." Vizcaino waited for them to look his way before he tapped the holomap to highlight the Mississippi. "The Americans have rotated their damaged units to this flank to reinforce it, but if I commit XII Indian Corps and its' new battalions of 'Mechs into attacking it, I believe I can bridge the river at La Crosse. From there it is not far to Fort McCoy, and beyond that to key roads and rails leading into Minneapolis. The enemy will have to strike at us, and I can either crush their IV Corps and make it harder for them to reinforce the Twin Cities or, even if my forces fail, it will tie down crucial reserves to make your attack easier."

"A good suggestion, General," Weaver said. "Had I a Cluster to spare I would grant it to you, but you must make this attack on your own."

Or, more accurately, you want the glory of conquering the Twin Cities and don't wish to diminish your strength, even if my flank attack could get us the same benefit logistically. Diplomatically, the Spanish officer smiled and nodded. "I understand perfectly, Galaxy Commander. Let us discuss the finer details of the plan..."

After another few hours of discussion, they had set the attack date to the 10th. Vizcaino and Alacanza departed, heading to the armored carrier that would take Vizcaino back to 8th Army HQ in the small town of Dodge Center. "They despise us," Alacanza murmured to him.

"And we them," Vizcaino agreed. "Blast the Chairman for this... had we stood with the Americans and other resisting states we could have avoided this bloodshed, and our fate to be a proxy battlefield for the Clans and blasted Inner Sphere."

"General, I hope you are careful with your words around others," Alacanza said. "If the VdO..."

"Von Krager's spies are of no concern to me," Vizcaino said dismissively. "I believe in the political and economic unification of Humanity, but I am still a free man, a free Spaniard. That German autocrat can..." Vizcaino stopped himself before he said something truly inappropriate. "Anyway, duty is duty. We must take the Twin Cities and hope that such a crushing defeat will bring the Americans to the peace table." He looked at Alacanza darkly. "Maybe... maybe if they submit, we might still have a chance to remove these invaders from our world. Take care, Colonel. Do your duty well."

"And you your's, General," Alacanza answered.

#13 Big Steve


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Posted 25 September 2012 - 07:22 AM

Chapter 13

Defensive Position, 13th US Division
2 Miles South of Faribault, Minnesota, United States of America
North America, Earth
10 August 2039 Local
11 September 3059 Inner Sphere

Private Jethro Daniels was not the ideal soldier. Before being drafted in the week leading up to the invasion, he had been a partially-employed poor guy in Mississippi, living in his parents' home and living off their social security checks as best as he could. His elder siblings were all either gone from their sleepy little county or, in two notorious cases, incarcerated for theft and drug convictions.

In summation, Daniels was not exactly the desired iconic small town American, and at the moment he only cared about surviving this stupid war and seeing if being a veteran would get him better job opportunities.

His buddy, Private Leonard Allenworth, was from the same county, though a bit snobbish due to his family's wealth. Despite this they got along real well, and had been overjoyed to end up in the same squad. Right now Allenworth was rolling up a custom cigarette, made possible by the cousin in North Carolina who smuggled him tobacco when possible. He handed the other one to Jethro. "So, another day stuck in this trench," he muttered.

"Another day," Jethro agreed with a grumble. Scuttlebutt was that the attack was imminent, but for increasing numbers of soldiers in 13th Division the prophesied attack was becoming less a certainty and more an article of faith in Army HQ... faith most soldiers never had in abundance. "Figure the Seppies gonna be making a move soon enough, though."

"Ha, yellow Euro ******* don't have the guts, they've been using the Clans to fight us," Allenworth retorted. "I bet you a week's worth of smokes that they don't attack today."

"You're on," Jethro answered. He didn't smoke much, so it'd be little loss, plus he enjoyed the chance to mess around with his friend.

Had he lived, he would have been very ungrateful to have won his bet, because just ten minutes later both men died as bunker-penetrating munitions blew apart their post.

At 0630 local the Earth Union bombardment began, supported by the full force of Omicron Galaxy's aerospace Stars. The bombardment began toward the rear, hitting the FedCom BattleMechs and allied armor in its reserve positions and frontline supply depots. It crept back from there until it was coming down on the frontine forces. The fire was murderously effective against the US 13th Division and the adjacent regiments of the 5th FedCom RCT, wrecking vehicles and killing infantry in their protective fortifications with heavier munitions. The command posts were targets in particular, with several companies and battalions finding themselves without effective command. The 2nd Brigade of 13th Division had its entire HQ leveled by a rocket bombardment that beheaded the unit from the getgo of the attack.

Just as the bombardment moved further into the rear, the suirvivors would lift their heads...and see the tanks and infantry carriers and BattleMechs of the 8th Army and Omicron Galaxy advancing with deadly purpose.

The Battle for the Twin Cities had begun.

Camp Jurgens

The alert klaxons jostled the men and women of the 1st Battalion out of their beds with ruthless efficiency. Among their number, Dani and Becca were the quickest to get out of their cots and to start pulling on their 'Mech piloting suits, a swiftness born of having the most experience in these alerts of any of those present. "All 'Mech pilots report to the hanger. This is not a drill. All 'Mech pilots report to the hanger."

"This is it," Becca said. She was answered by a nod from Dani.

The entire base was buzzing with activity as personnel rushed to stations. Non-essential personnel remained in rooms as drilling had long instructed them, keeping them from adding to the flurry of moving people. For their part Dani and Becca met up with Micki, who gave them a wink of encouragement, and Dane before they came upon Alex and Rachel. The four stood side by side as they jogged into the 'Mech bays.

The technicians were getting their tools out of the way and making final checks on the war machines as pilots gathered together in the center. Major Pierce was on hand, in his BDUs, and with few words to give. "The Clans and Seppies are on the attack. 13th Division and the FedCom 5th are taking a hammering and by all indications falling apart. We'll be moving up to spearhead a counter-attack on the eastern flank. No time for questions, everyone out."

The unit dispersed to their 'Mechs. Getting back into the cockpit in which she had nearly bled to death was actually a relief for Becca; the tension and fear in the bay had been thick enough to almost be capable of cutting with a knife.

It was a relief that soon vanished, of course, as the deadly reality of impending combat made her heart shudder and her hands clench on the joysticks of her 'Mech controls.

Camp Pitt

The pilots of the Royal BattleMech Regiment were not being mobilized under the same conditions as their American allies. They filed into the briefing room first, Major Eckling standing beside the satellite map of the region. On the map projected displays showed the dark red of Clan forces and light red of Seppian units mingled up and plunging into the ruptured blue lines of their allies. "Word from the south is severe," Eckling informed the assembled. "The US and FedCom forces on the southern perimeter have disintegrated under an intensive artillery bombardment followed by all-out assault. The Yanks are going to try to stabilize new defensive lines to the north around Apple Valley and Lakeview.

"They're forfeitin' everything they regained last month?", a voice called out.

"Necessity. The enemy schwerpunkt was narrower and more powerful than anticipated." Eckling pointed to the map again. "After conversing with General Tanner, I've learned that we're being held as a reserve for the eastern flank along the river, should ComStar's defenses facing the Jaguars fail."

"So we'll be facing the Jaguars first," Edward said. He'd faced a few of the bondsmen Jaguars taken at Luthien by the Dragoons. They were ferocious combatants in battle.

"Yes, Lieutenant. Remember our briefings on Jaguar SOP, and keep in mind they might have ENU units operating in tandem with them. Your own support from infantry and armor is being drawn from a mix of Lord Strathcona's Horse and our expatriate 1st Brigade...."

Canadian Mounted Rifles Bivouac

Luisa and Lance sat quietly as the commanding officers of the regiment and attached brigade laid out the situation. The American and FedCom front was failing. Enemy attacks along the Mississippi were also expected.

The only question left was where they'd be assigned.

An officer from one of the other squadrons asked that before Luisa could. Her commander, Major Ted Bandy, gave a slight nod. "For the moment the Yanks are asking us to keep the unit in reserve with the rest of II Corps. The ComGuards and the Yanks have the up front strength to face the initial attack; they don't want us going in until they know where we'll best be used."

Understandable. But that meant more accursed waiting...

Northfield, Minnesota

The 1st Battalion was waiting anxiously for the first enemy units to approach, stationed with attached armor and infantry assets to the town of Northfield along what would be the enemy's eastern flank.

Seeing the ruined buildings of Northfield made Alex feel guilty. The fires that had ravaged parts of the town were from his raid the prior month, and he had done nothing to help put them out. He had been militarily justified in what he did... but to think of the people harmed by his actions...

War is hell.

Military ambulances and other vehicles steamed past, their drivers trying to get them out of the way of the enemy advance rushing in. Alex found the fact that they were being kept stationary to be extremely troubling; it meant there was no cohesive defensive line ahead of them to help hold. They would be the line themselves.

The first sign of the enemy attack was not approaching tanks or 'Mechs. It was a pair of modernized Eurofighters that raced overhead, barely avoiding laser shots from the 'Mechs. One suddenly exploded courtesy of a SAM from their escorting units, but the other climbed and moved away.

Almost a minute later the reason for this pass wa made clear; contrails appeared in the sky to the south, lines of smoke and exhaust that soon changed as one would expect descending artillery rockets to. "Take cover!", Alex shouted into his radio.

The rockets began going off all around them. Anyone left in the open would be certainly killed, or at least severely injured; Alex's Mad Cat rocked from the nearest hits.

By the end of the barrage, Northfield was burning once more.

But there was no time to contemplate that. Personnel checks were asked for and given. Alex felt a pang of sorrow when Charlie Company found one pilot not replying; he had taken a rocket impact straight to the cockpit. I didn't even know the guy's name, Alex realized.

As another barrage of rockets came down, Alex's scanners lit up with contacts. A lot of contacts. From the south there was a rising cloud of dust, kicked up by the stomping of... sixty, seventy 'Mechs? Around them German Leopards and French Leclerqs rumbled along, some showing signs of upgrades to their weapons and some not.

"Engage at range," Pierce ordered over the radio.

Alex brought his targeting crosshairs over to one of the heaviest 'Mechs he was facing, a Clan-built Warhammer. When his crosshairs turned gold over the Warhammer's chest, he pulled the trigger for his Gauss Rifle. His 'Mech shuddered slightly as the weapon's magnetic coils shot out a heavy penetrator at supersonic speed.

The Clan 'Mech stepped differently and twisted, and his shot hit nothing but air.

Dammit Alex grumbled to himself, but he had only a minute to consider irritation at the missed shot. Long range missiles, particle blasts, and other coilgun shots began to erupt from both sides, and the battle was on. Alex kept targeting the Warhammer, blazing away with his energy weapons as they cycled through and stopping only for heat, but the Clan pilot was a good one and made half his shots miss, at least until he nearly walked into a PPC fired from Dani, a blast that took the Warhammer in the head and killed the pilot. By that point Alex was already having to maneuver to minimize hits coming from another of the Clan 'Mechs, a Thresher modified with an LRM launcher, and a couple smaller machines firing on him.

Through it all the Clan and ENU forces kept the heat on. Alex's nervous glances toward his tacmap showed that Bravo Company, on his right, was refusing their flank to keep an enemy hook out of their rear, but they couldn't bend back forever.

"****!" The cry over the radio drew Alex's attention for a moment. Dane's Loki was showing several points of armor failure, and now the 'Mech's left arm was locked in place, the actuator partially melted from a laser.

This isn't working! Alex got on the radio. "Major, let me swing to the right, I'll hit the people on Bravo's flank...."

"Negative on that, Captain. New orders; fall back immediately."

Alex chewed on his lip for a second. Falling back against this force was about all they could do... but to just abandon this position?! "Major, I can..."

"No time for tricks, Captain! Fall back now! That's a direct order!"

Around him, Alex could see the surviving IFVs and tanks begin pulling back into the smoldering town, following their own orders to escape north. He drew in a breath. "Alpha Company, fighting retreat! Cover your teammate!"

Micki was keeping a careful eye on her heat monitors as she triggered her lasers one by one, keeping up steady fire on the enemy vehicles as they tried to overrun Bravo Platoon's position. My first fight back, and I'm outnumbered and outgunned. It's Kansas all over again!

Perez's new Ostsol was working to cover Dane's battered 'Mech, leaving her and Sakata to cover for a reduced company of tanks as they tried to get out of Northfield. Micki backed her Blackhawk alongside Sakata's Nightsky. She pulled her crosshairs over a Seppie tank and, with her heat having lowered again, triggered two of her left arm lasers. The upgraded armor on the other tank let it survive the hit, but not very well. Micki triggered a third laser on that arm and watched the ruby beam slice cleanly through the other tank, a direct hit on the damaged armor that killed the crew inside and turned the tank into a smoldering ruin.

Her systems shrieked warning in time for her to turn toward a Clan-made Commando. Its arm was raised and four short range missiles erupted from it. Micki tried to shift her 'Mech to the side, but the Blackhawk's frame wasn't meant for that kind of maneuver. The missiles impacted all over her, blasting away armor but doing nothing more.

Before either could fire, pulse laser fire raked over the Commando's chest. Sakata's shots were straight and true, the pulses biting away armor and piercing the protection for the Commando's right missile magazine. An explosion erupted from the heart of the light 'Mech.

But it still had one missile magazine, and in desperation the Clan pilot turned and loosened the missiles on Sakata. Ten short range missiles was a lot of firepower compartively, even if it was spread out, and all but two acquired and struck the Nightsky. The Japanese woman's 'Mech faltered slightly, an upraised arm taking missile strikes that might have hit the head.

This also gave Micki a clear shot into the Commando's exposed torso, and she took it. Three of her left arm lasers fired at a press of her middle finger trigger. Ruby light sliced into the exposed area of the Commando and found its gyro. Without the gyro to provide balance the enemy light 'Mech toppled over.

The engagement had barely taken ten seconds in all, and it was being replicated dozens of times as the Clan and ENU forces bore down on them, even as they retreated.

The pressure from the enemy was relentless. Even as they got out of Northfield the ENU and Clan forces kept on them. Alex was monitoring the situation as best as he could between taking shots with his weapons and avoiding shots in reply. Movement was the key; a stationary 'Mech was a target, but the very act of movement also pulled at his attention and forced him to multi-task extensively.

Rachel was keeping up on his right, Dani and Becca behind him and to the left. Becca's Vulture was firing missiles as quickly as she could get good locks, a rate of fire that meant her magazines would be empty soon enough. He glanced at his own coilgun magazine to see he was down to seven. As he considered that his crosshairs focused on one of the Falcon Rifleman 'Mechs. He pulled the trigger and felt another hypersonic penetrator erupt from his 'Mech's shoulder. The round smashed into the Rifleman's chest and penetrated into its core. And down to six... He followed up with a PPC blast that missed the hole in the Clanner's armor and scoured armor from the left leg instead.

"Your turn," Rachel's voice stated. A PPC blast slammed into the Rifleman from his right.

Alex turned his Mad Cat around and began a full speed run. He counted until fifteen before he swung the 'Mech back around, began backing up again, and called out, "Go on Alpha 2."

Rachel's Thor turned away from the burning carcass of the Rifleman and a Clan Thresher, which Alex focused his crosshairs on. With so little ammo left he went with his energy weapons. The lasers in the left arm missed, but after he re-aligned his crosshairs enough he pulled the trigger on the PPC. The bolt of azure energy smashed into the head of the Thresher, turning its cockpit into a smoking hole.

Seeing a Clan tank with missiles lining up for a shot on Rachel's back, Alex pulled his crosshairs over. He had no time for his lasers and PPC to recharge, so he fired another precious penetrator round from the gauss weapon. The hypersonic round smashed straight into the tank and left it dead in its tracks.

Five shots left.

As it turned out, he wouldn't need any more. "Fire mission incoming, keep your distance," a voice commanded. Moments later the bombardment began.

ComStar and American artillery and air power came down on the enemy force like a thunderous rampage from on high. Explosions flipped over tanks and knocked over BattleMechs, leaving them prone and vulnerable to following blasts. Enemies in the open - infantry, tank crew survivors, any of them - were blown to pieces. In a matter of just ten seconds firing their fire support had turned Northfield into a massive funeral pyre for their foes. The survivors stopped advancing, leaving the battered 1st 'Mech Battalion and the other troops to slip back to the north.

Alex took a moment to look at the active unit icons. Six 'Mechs down. Their pilots either dead or ejected; he hadn't noticed any in the thick of the fight. About one out of eight of their number was out of action.

As he gave his last look at the burnt wreckage that used to be Northfield, Minnesota, Alex allowed himself a chilling thought; at this rate, he'd be dead or a casualty in just eight more battles...

3rd Army Headquarters
St. Paul, Minnesota, United States
North America, Earth

The Allied commanders of the Northern Front were somber as they watched the lines of red piercing their defensive lines. The 5th FedCom and 13th US Infantry were hors d'combat now, their shattered remnants fleeing for their lives against the Clan and Guiseppian advance. Slight checks had been dealt to the enemy on the flanks, but along I-35 the enemy advance was smashing through every ad hoc defense line they could construct.

And now Tanner's furrowed brow was intent upon the new red lines erupting from by the river, converging on Cannon Falls. "The Jaguars are on the march again too," she grumbled. "And they're cooperating."

"It's not unheard of for the Clans to be highly cooperative, if their Khans agree," Precentor Durbin remarked.

"Do you think your people can hold? VII Corps is locked down holding the river proper to the east."

"They will do their unmost, but only the Blessed Blake knows..."

Farmington, Minnesota

The Dakota County Fairgrounds had been converted to a field base for the allied 'Mech forces, with repair vehicles lined up and ready to replace armor and reload weapons. Alex stood in line patiently with his 'Mech and let the effects of the fighting stew in his head.

All reports were that the enemy was hitting hard on two fronts of attack, again advancing up I-35 with the Jaguars launching several strikes toward the Cannon River. And here we are, fighting again over the same territory. He grunted in frustration. If only we'd counter-attacked earlier than that botched Kenyon offensive...

"Doesn't look good, Captain," he heard Dane speak over the radio. "Techs say my arm can't be fixed here, they need to send it to a proper repair base."

"And it'd probably take a day just to get you there given the traffic," Alex replied. "You're just going to have to do the best you can with that messed up arm."

"Yes sir."

Alex saw one of Bravo's mediums step away from one of the repair vehicles. The Enfield had seen better days, one of its arms outright missing, butt its armor was patched up and its autocannon magazine reloaded, so it was combat capable. He moved his Mad Cat over to the repair truck and brought it to a stop. He hit a switch to power down the engine, keeping the machine from sudden movement that might effect the repair work. With this done Alex pulled off the neurohelmet and ran his forearm over his forehead to get some of the sweat off. For a moment he felt an irresistable urge to get a shower, but knew it wouldn't be happening. As soon as he was repaired orders were to form up his company to be sent back out.

Eight battles and we're all dead, he thought again. Sure, his unit hadn't taken losses, but he didn't delude himself that it would stick.

Before long he got a thumbs up from one of the repair crew. Alex put his neurohelmet back on and repowered his 'Mech. Here we go again he thought, marching it out to link up with the rest of Alpha Company. When they finished forming up, Alex looked around and saw they were fully repaired. "Major Pierce, Alpha Company is ready," he said into the command channel.

"Form up and march out, Captain. They need us at Cannon Falls now, and we don't have time to wait."

"Yes sir," Alex answered. He looked over to see that only Bravo Company was done repairing. They're sending us in piecemeal. Oh God, this is going to be bad.

#14 Big Steve


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Posted 05 October 2012 - 05:47 PM

Chapter 14

Cannon Falls
Minnesota, United States
North America, Earth
10 August 2039 Local
11 September 3059 Inner Sphere

Finding their way to Cannon Falls was easy. The smoke from the burning town was visible across the horizon through much of the area.

Looking at it was another story. Alex crested the heights above the river and looked down to see the flashes of energy weapon fire and impacting artillery from both north and south cover the town. It had already been the scene of fierce fighting the prior month, when the Jaguars had butted their heads against it twice; now it was seeing a major attack. And he didn't need a tactical display to see what was going on. The ComGuards' 467th Division was focused on holding the town, but the Jaguars were already up on the river and threatening to push them back into the Lake. No wonder they're throwing us in like this, Alex pondered.

The local counter-attack had already begun, in fact, with tanks and combat vehicles from VII Corps' component divisions and brigades maintaining indirect fire on the Jaguar 'Mechs, tanks, and battle armor infantry trying to consolidate their position on the riverbank, though the trees prevented direct engagement. "We could cross the river," he mused into the battalion command channel. "But we'd be going into the teeth of their forces while crossing those treelines."

"I'll follow your lead, Captain," he heard Richardson answer.

"Then come up on my left. We're going to move to the east and cross, then hit them from behind and the side." Alex began moving his 'Mech in that direction. Orders were to engage as necessary to hold the river line and the roads and bridges to Cannon Falls; he intended to fulfill that by getting the Jags between two fires and pinching them off.

Alex's twelve machines and Richardson's ten - she had lost two at Northfield, one pilot KIA and one recovered (thank God!) - moved laterally for several minutes, avoiding the gathered US forces and getting looks from soldiers as they weaved through the defensive positions. This close to the front, even with ECM going off there was no way the Clan forces could have avoided seeing him.... they had to know he was maneuvering into their rear, even if the trees obscured direct line of sight.

"They have to know we're here," Roland said on the channel.

"Roland, you take the south flank. You get any indication we're getting flanked you call out."


"Alright everyone, let's get this done."

With their armor repaired their 'Mechs were capable of walking underwater, permitting them to cross the river at will. The bigger challenge was maneuvering through the forested banks of the river, as there was no gap prepared already. Alex grumbled with irritation at having to swat trees out of his way with the blunt sides of his 'Mech's weapon-mounted arms. There are advantages to having machines with hands...

They crossed the trees and the river, then had more trees to push through, though just a thin line of them thankfully. Open territory greeted them, Highway 19 running east-to-west in front of them, with fields and trees intermingling. There were homes - hopefully abandoned - all around them, a couple showing damage from the fighting a month before around Cannon Falls. Terrain's a bit constrained... which is good if we get into a firefight with Clan weaponry. Alex brought his 'Mech's crosshairs up on the distant form of a Jaguar BattleMech, a Clan version of the Warhammer, facing away from him as part of the slim enemy force striking toward the river. His long-range weapons were in engagement range, though not optimum range. Sweat was already dripping down his face as Alex pulled on his trigger. His 'Mech shuttered and a supersonic round screamed through the air. It impacted into the back of the enemy 'Mech, smashing through weak armor and barely missing the engine and gyro.

He pulled the trigger on the PPC next, but the bolt of plasma missed; the ruby beam from his large laser carved a gash of molten armor in the Warhammer's shoulder at the base of the missile launcher.

His shots caused everyone else to open up as well, though their hit rate was little better than his. It did force the Jaguars to turn some of their units to meet them, while their attack prompted the ComGuards holding the defensive line to counter-attack.

Alex shifted the Mad Cat in one direction and barely avoided a round from a Grizzly's Gauss Rifle. He returned his attention to the Warhammer in time to catch a couple of PPC blasts to his 'Mech's hip and torso. With his energy weapons having recycled he triggered them again just as the Warhammer began to step to the side. His PPC hit home this time, sloughing armor off the Warhammer's flank, while the laser made a partial hit on its hip.

Rachel's PPCs flashed to life and struck at the Warhammer, one missing and the other blasting into its chest. The armor held for the Clan pilot, but that was only temporary; Dani's PPCs fired a scant moment later, and her aim was true with both bolts converging on the chest. Fresh armor was blasted away in molten shards from one of her weapons while the other struck the damaged armor from Rachel's shot. It penetrated through and thick smoke began to billow from the wounded Clan heavy, indicating an engine hit.

The distance closed as more shots were exchanged. WIth missile and howitzer fire coming over the river, the Jaguars were in a bad spot and the pressure on them to pull out of their exposed position was just going to grow.

But just as Alex thought his maneuver had turned the tables, Roland's voice began to call out on the radio. "Enemy forces coming from the South. At least two battalions."

Oh no... Alex looked at his tac display and saw the red icons growing in number along Clark Valley Trail to the south, his systems identifying one Earth Union 'Mech or tank after another...

April was in the "back" of the Charlie Platoon formation, but that was when they were pointing to the west. With enemies coming from the south suddenly she was on the flank, and in direct firing line.

Ordinarily she wouldn't mind this, but her Grendel was not set up for fighting head on but providing fire support with long range missiles. She began reversing her 'Mech toward the river and waited for the others to adjust formation.

"Left echelon, everyone, hit 'em hard," she heard Roland order over the radio. Nobody would be covering her after all, not unless one of the other platoon pilots did so.

Not one to complain, April gritted her teeth and moved her crosshairs over an ENU 'Mech, one of their large Siegfrieds. The holo-target glowed gold and then red to indicate target lock. She pulled the trigger for both missile launcher pods fixed to her OmniMech. Thirty lethal projectiles raced across the sky and began slamming into the 'Mech. The pilot was no Clanner, though trained by one, and the maneuvering of the Siegfried was so slow that only two missiles didn't impact somewhere. Taking so many hits unbalanced the heavy BattleMech and it suddenly toppled onto its face from the pilot over-compensating for the backward force.

While her missiles reloaded April had nothing else to shoot that had effective range, not for the moment. She started tracking one of the Seppie lights - she refused to call it "Megatron" like some pasty geek, dammit! - as it raced in toward them, bringing its arm-mounted Clan PPC to bear. Before she could shoot a PPC bolt crashed into its chest and partially stopped its forward movement.

Eli's Penetrator moved forward another step. An emerald beam lashed out from it, spearing the Seppie light 'Mech in the damaged chest. It was an excellent shot, a gyro hit given the jerky movements the light 'Mech made as its pilot began to slow it down. April moved her reticle over it and fired her pulse laser. The stream of red light that erupted from her 'Mech's right arm went wide of the target.

There was no time to curse; the Siegfried was back on its feet, and it was mad. The pilot's ER PPCs flashed to life, sending twin bolts of azure fury toward April. She tried to twist her machine further to evade, but the enemy pilot's aim was spot on. One ripped right into the shoulder of her 'Mech's left arm, crippling that limb, and the other found her right hip, scouring armor in molten chunks and leaving the actuator exposed.

Whatever his or her piloting skills, the enemy Seppie 'Mech jock was a great marksman/woman. Emerald light lashed out from an emplacement on the Siegfried's chest and speared her vulnerable hip completely. The heat from the light melted the actuator and stuck it in place, immobilizing her 'Mech.

Her missile launchers flashed green right afterward. With her target lock on the Siegfried still good, she triggered her missiles again. Thirty of them raced across the distance and began plowing into the enemy heavy 'Mech. Multiple missile impacts blew off its left arm; two penetrated the armor on its chest and caused thick smoke to begin billowing from the wound.

But April never saw any of this. All she saw was the second large laser on the Siegfried fire, and she had no time to say or think anything before the emerald beam lanced through her cockpit.

Roland saw his indicator for Charlie 3 go out. "****! What happened to Harverson?"

Eli was the one who responded. "Cockpit hit, sir. No ejection. She's gone."

Some very uncouth words flashed through Roland's mind. For all of his thoughts on women being put into combat, he liked Harverson, and she'd clearly earned her place in the Corps.

Roland swiveled his torso enough to get a bead on the badly wounded enemy 'Mech that had just killed his fellow Marine. Not one given to pronouncements, Roland's anger led him to mumble, "Die, you Euro *************," before he pulled the trigger on his Gauss Rifle. It wasn't like being a Marine with a rifle, but Roland prided himself on his aim, and this time it was true. The supersonic round crossed the distance swiftly and slammed right throught the head module of the Seppie heavy 'Mech. The headless machine tumbled to the ground.

"Alpha 1, this is Charlie 1. I'm down a pilot and we're getting pressed." Roland turned to see one of Bravo Company's machines go down, a streak of flame and smoke showing the pilot had at least ejected. His own machine rocked from a Gauss Rifle shot from another Seppie heavy coming into range. He turned and retorted with his PPC, putting a bolt of plasma into the machine's right leg. "We must have an entire 'Mech battalion plus tanks coming down on us from the south. We need to get back across the river."

The enemy heavy, another model of the Seppie Siegfried, was mounting twin Gauss Rifles and nothing else. It fired the second one. Roland cursed as his 'Mech shook violently to the right, its right arm taking the full hit and being blown clean off. In one shot half of his long-range firepower was gone. He blinked to get the sweat out of his eyes while focusing his crosshairs on the 'Mech's head. He glowered and pulled the trigger. Another hypersonic round erupted from his Thor's raised left arm. The shot was dead on target, and another headless 'Mech fell to the ground.

But there were still more, as missiles began to come down on Roland and Barker right beside him. He cursed, observing the enemy mediums configured as missile-load 'Mechs, and called into the radio again. "Alpha 1! What are your orders?!"

"Alpha 1, what are your orders?!" Roland's voice got obscured as several short-range missiles pummeled Alex's 'Mech. A Hessian Delta had gotten the range on him and Rachel while they'd been dealing with longer-ranged 'Mechs.

"I've got him," Rachel said over the radio. Her 'Mech twisted to track the humanoid machine, and the SRM launchers on her torso erupted, returning the favor to the Seppie pilot. Alex turned his attention to another Hessian, this one mounting all energy weapons, and triggered his PPC and laser. As the weapons lashed out and his 'Mech's heat signature spiked to match, he glanced at the tacmap and knew Roland was right. The enemy was bearing down on them, hard, and he was already down three machines. "All units, pull back!"

Again came the routine of covering your buddy's back as you fell back, even as they endured more pummeling. No more 'Mechs were being lost, but everyone was taking hits, and their fire was inaccurate as they sought to keep the Seppie 'Mechs honest instead of actively trying to hit them. Alex allowed himself one lone grin of triumph when the short-range Hessian walked right into his crosshairs, allowing him to blow the pilot away with a point-blank PPC shot. It was surprisingly how callous he could be about killing another human being at the moment.

The river crossing was the problem. Their 'Mechs had armor damage now; any compartment compromised with a penetration would flood. Critical equipment could be lost, leg actuators would seize up. Even a river ten to fifteen feet in depth would obscure the legs of a BattleMech and even part of the torso of the shortest mediums. The only river crossing remaining was in the city...

In the city, through a battered Jaguar force.

"Everyone, we're heading east. Blast through the Jaggies and link up with the ComGuards!", Alex shouted. He turned his 'Mech east and put a PPC bolt into a Clan Crossbow. The secondline Omni had already been roughed up by Dani; its weak chest armor failed and the PPC blasted away into its reactor, killing the machine's power supply and sending it down. Seeing that the enemy had Elementals and knowing the threat they posted, he triggered the radio frequency to his artillery support. "Alpha Actual to Rainman, I need anti-Elemental ordnance laid out, grid square...." He read the grid square coordinates from his tac display.

After several seconds he got a reply. "Sorry, Alpha Actual, but it's going to be several minutes before I can get you that. Support board is full."

Dammit! "Roger that." He switched back to his command frequency. "No arty support for us. Target the Elementals as best as you can and blast through!"

That was easier said than done, of course. Elementals were more agile than 'Mechs after all, and much smaller. But they couldn't let them get on their 'Mechs; the Elementals were armed specifically for crawling over 'Mechs and breaking into the cockpit to kill the pilot inside, and a full speed sprint through the enemy lines would not prevent this from happening.

Nevertheless that's what they were reduced to. It was hard keeping a BattleMech at sprint speed; it taxed the actuators and myomer muscles and required a lot of concentration and power. And forget accurate fire; it was pray and spray, with heat levels even worse from the excess speed. Alex squeezed off the occasional shot with his laser, not landing a single hit, and led Alpha Company right into the Jaguar formation.

The Jaguars, thankfully, were preoccupied. Even their Elementals were trying to engage the ComStar armor, infantry, and 'Mechs trying to help his unit. "American 1st Battalion, this is Adept Fukusawa. Keep coming through, we'll support you!" Alex squeezed off shots at passing targets and kept an eye on his unit. The rest of Alpha Company was coming along fine with Dane and Roland behind him. Bravo Company was mixed in too, trying to sprint through...

The ENU forces kept pursuing, but here was where the plan really came through. The Jaguar and ENU troops had not drilled together at all, and even with IFF transponders the ENU forces shooting at Alex's unit started to hit the Jaguars on accident. This provoked the Clanners to turn and fire blindly, no doubt believing American conventional forces were attacking as well. In the confusion Alex's unit was able to continue breaking through until they merged in with a ComStar formation. Everyone came around to face the enemy, picking their targets and firing for effect. The Jaguar unit, mixed in chaotically with the Seppies, began to pull out, their bad formation requiring them to reform. The Seppies made a half-hearted attempt to take their place in the line, but with more artillery firing coming in and the combined firepower of Alex's companies and the ComGuards taking down their 'Mechs and tanks with every volley, their commander called the attack off and they fell back to the east.

Alex looked to a ComGuard Executioner BattleMech beside him and moved his 'Mech's arm in as close to a salute as he could manage. "Captain Penton, 1st 'Mech Battalion Alpha Company. Thanks for the help. Tell us where you need us."

"Demi-Precentor MacIntosh here, Captain. There's a Level II unit to your south that could use fire support, if you don't mind."

"Roger that, moving to assist." Alex took a look at his unit. No one had a Toad on them, as he'd feared would happen. With only one loss in his unit and two in Richardson's, they'd come out alright, even with the damage spread between them. Battle's not over yet, Alex. Better keep your eyes straight, he pondered as he waited for the companies to form up, ready to march them south.

3rd Army Headquarters
St. Paul, Minnesota, United States
North America, Earth

Tanner was looking with frustration at the display. The enemy had stopped their advance along a line just past Northfield, but it clearly wasn't from her defensive formations; with the two frontline divisions ripped up her units were scrambling to reform their lines. No, it was far more likely the enemy, having taken some damage as well, was husbanding their resources by ceasing the attack to bring up supplies and repair units.

At least, that was the truth for the central part of the front. In the east at least one enemy Corps and the Smoke Jaguars had struck to the Cannon River, which was not a formidable obstacle in any way, its defensive use more in the treelines on both banks than any other element to the shallow, thin river. Cannon Falls was under attack from two sides now....

"I guess that lawyer isn't the staff weenie everyone thinks," Tanner heard her Chief of Staff, Major General Andrew Thompson, remark with humor. "Good thinking there, dashing through the enemy and causing the Clanners and Seppies to run into each other."

Tanner smirked. She was beginning to like Captain Penton. "He's creative, I'll give him that." She crossed her arms. "Our defenses in the Lakeview area will be the focus of our efforts for the time being. Make sure the Brits are ready to bring their 'Mech jockeys in."

"And Cannon Falls?"

Tanner crossed her arms. "I'm leaving that up to Durbin. If ComStar can't hold it, we'll have to pull VII Corps back too."

"If we lose the river line, we'll be forced back to Hastings, maybe even further..."

"I know." Tanner had a fierce look on her face. "But we might not have a choice."

Cannon Falls

The rest of 1st Battalion had moved up to join Alex and Richardson's companies in Cannon Falls, where they had gotten swiftly sucked up into the desperate defensive efforts of the ComGuards to hold back the Jaguars. 'Mechs were spending hours in the firing line until they were either destroyed, crippled, or "combat-killed" - mobile but with no functioning weaponry due to damage or being out of ammo - requiring a visit to the repair base set up in the fields north of the Cannon Country Club at US 52.

With his Mad Cat among the latter - no Gauss Rifle ammo, lasers and PPC all out of action from arm damage - Alex was forced to stand and wait at the command post of the repair base. His 'Mech would be re-armored as a matter of course, but it remained to be seen if the mechanics could get his weapons going again or if his 'Mech would be shuffled to the rear, leaving him to command from a replacement from the pool (Made up of what 'Mechs could be salvaged from the enemy or had been delivered as surplus from the Inner Sphere).

A ComStar Adept III - that is, a member of ComStar who had held their rank for six years - was in charge of the depot. Functionally Alex and Adept Addison were of similar rank, though the thin and more seniority-based ComStar ranking system muddied the waters. He had more years as an Adept than Alex did as a Captain, but Alex had been an officer for four years now. In this case, at least, the issue was eliminated by the immediate salute Addison gave at Alex's arrival in the command post. Alex returned it and glanced at the real-time map showing current positions. The Jaguars had yet to break into the town proper, but they were consolidating their forces on the southern edge and had advanced as far as the Cannon Mall. ENU forces, identified as a pair of Indian divisions and one Bangladeshi trained up to good standards, stood along the eastern end. Fighting was heavy at the softball fields, with infantry from the ComGuards and the US 30th Division taking up positions at the Sewage Treatment Plant and the Cannon Falls Cemetary. The latter was already desecrated, the result of an intensive 'Mech battle during the battle in July when the Jaguars made their first failed push, but it gave Alex the shivers to think of all those poor peoople who's eternal rest had been shattered, their tombstones destroyed by being stepped on or hit by stray blasts.

The enemy was trying to be clever now. They'd launched a major attack, with BattleMechs and tanks, up County Blvd. 25 between the major Jaguar and ENU positions. A Binary of Clan 'Mechs and Elementals was on one flank, an armored and 'Mech battalion on another, and in front of them Samsonov had rallied the rest of 1st Battalion with about the same number of 'Mechs from the battered 467th ComGuards as well as some of their remaining tanks. It was a mobile defense, the kind of fight Alex wanted to be in, but Alpha Company was in need of repair and had been pulled out.

For all the training and mental preparation and prior experience, nothing in Alex's experience so far had prepared him for this. Fight, withdraw, repair, fight again, withdraw again... at least the last time the second fight was when he raced into the enemy rear and smashed up the Falcons' supply depots. This time it was just more desperate attempts to hold against what seemed to be an unlimited supply of enemy machines, not to mention fighting the Clanners and the sheer skill they had as 'Mech pilots.

"How long until we go back out?", he asked Addison.

"Our Techs can only go so fast, even with caffeine and stims," the ComGuard answered. "And I'll be frank; your machines are pretty shot up. You should probably get them rotated to the rear."

"No," Alex grumbled. "This is where the fight is. We'll stay..."

The door opened and another figure entered, a man with dark-gray hair in the white robes of a ComGuard officer. Alex recognized his rank insignia as that of a Demi-Precentor, making him realize he was seeing one of the Level III commanders of the 467th. "Sir?"

"Captain." The Demi-Precentor's accent was clearly Scottish. "Demi-Precentor MacIntosh, pleasure to meet you face to face. You'll be needin' to return to your machine shortly."

"Sir? It's still third in line for repairs..."

"You're headin' back to the rear, Captain. Orders from on high. Your unit's to be given full repairs and machine replacements to get you back to full combat efficiency as soon as possible."

"But the town..."

MacIntosh shook his head. "We can't hold 'em much longer. We'll be slipping out tonight."

Alex looked back to the map and drew in a deep breath. No, not again... "So we're abandoning Cannon Falls."


"But that means Hastings... Camp Jurgens... will be next."

"That it does. But we don't have a choice. We've got the enemy not far behind us now and pressing us on our front. If we don't pull out, we risk encirclement."

The military logic was sound, but it made Alex nervous. Camp Jurgens was the closest thing he had to a home right now. The support personnel he'd gotten to know over the last month would still be there. And Cal Schulter was still in the hospital in Hastings. God alone knew what would happen to him, in his fragile state, if they had to evacuate.

Dammit, we have to hold somewhere, he thought dejectedly, but for the moment he had little choice. He gave a salute to MacIntosh and headed back out to his battle-scarred, defenseless OmniMech to begin leading his unit back to the north and relative safety.

Edited by Big Steve, 06 October 2012 - 04:11 AM.

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