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PostPosted: Tue May 26, 2009 12:40 pm 
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Location: Hattiesburg, MS
[center]The Long Road Home

Book III of
The Cameron Legacy: The Fall of the Star League

A fictional novel in three parts set in an alternate history
of the
Classic BattleTech Universe

by

Stephen T Bynum

All rights reserved, copyright 2009.
This is an original work of fiction.
[/center]

Part One

Chapter One

July 4, Olympic Peninsula
North America, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)


The cold rain feel in an irregular rhythm—first light drizzle blown by the steady wind, and then a heavy downpour along with a solid gust, and then back to the constant light soaking cold. Even through the heavy SLDF fatigue blouse Liz wore, she could feel the icy water’s impact on her hot, flushed skin. Eighteen months of constant fighting—and fear—had taken their toll among her Ghosts, on her as well, and the unusual weather was not helping. What should have been high summer was cold and miserable in this ‘year without a spring’. The scores of nuclear detonations eighteen months ago—combined with a massive volcanic eruption five months past in Indonesia—had produced a nuclear (or volcanic) ‘autumn’ effect, causing world-wide temperatures to plunge. Eighteen months. Has it only been a year and a half since the Coup, she asked herself?

Slipping in the slick undergrowth of the steep hillside, she slammed her rump down onto the wet muddy ground, splashing more of the cold wetness up as she landed. She shook her head, and sighed before placing the butt of her rifle solidly into the ground. Reuben paused as he passed by and cocked his head, but she shook her own in an empathic NO. He shrugged and carefully made his own way down the slope. Using the rifle as a support, she slowly stood, making certain that her feet were braced on forest floor not quite as slippery as the rest. When the leader of the guerillas was once again standing, she placed the rifles sling over her neck, and tightened the strap against her chest, the rifle pointing down towards the ground, away from her fellow insurgents. Keeping the weapon tucked tight in against her right shoulder, she began making her way down-hill once more. Just another thirty minutes, Liz, she thought—a half-hour and we can take a breather.

She almost took another misstep, but caught her just in the nick of time to avoid stepping onto the muddy rut in the ground where one of her people had slid three meters. She stopped again, and tried to draw in a deep breath, but she gasped as her lungs ached. She began to cough, a deep barking cough filled with phlegm that she spat out onto the ferns that surrounded her. Overheated, she pulled open her jacket, and loosened the scarf she wore around her throat, letting the wonderfully cold air and moisture cause steam to rise from the red flesh below. She was lagging behind—and she knew it—and she made her self take another step. And then another. And then the forest began to spin and everything went black.

*****************************************************

As she woke, she shivered and her head pounded. She could feel a heavy warmth piled all around her, but she didn’t understand. Where was the woods? Where was the rain? She tried to sit up, and once again, her world spun, and she retched a dry heave before she collapsed back upon the cot upon which she lay.

“Easy, Liz,” a gentle voice whispered. She opened her eyes, but could not see—she felt a cool wetness covering them, and her forehead. “You gave us quite a scare, you know.”

“Bear?” she croaked.

“The one and only; you were perhaps expecting Vince or Bernie to tend to your illness?” his voice sounded amused.

“My head . . .” she began, but Bear cut her off.

“Hurts like hell—and you can’t breath real well, can you?” He snorted. “How long have you been feeling ill?”

“A few days, but I took some aspirin and a few cough tablets.”

“Why, Oh Lord,” Bear intoned in the darkness around her, “why do people that KNOW better, insist upon treating themselves instead of letting me—the only QUALIFIED physician in the bunch—take a look and render a real diagnosis.”

She winced, as a sudden pain her temple hit her like a white-hot ice-pick, and then she began coughing again—a deep wracking cough that she did not have enough breath to finish. Bear lifted her up into a sitting position, and she began to breath better, but even she heard a rattle from inside her lungs.

Someone else—several someones, in fact—were nearby, and placed some soft covers behind her back, as Bear laid her back down, laying at an elevated angle. “Liz, you had a chest cold—but it is has gone and morphed into pneumonia. I’ve shot you full of antibiotics, but you need some rest. Here—this will help you sleep,” he said as she felt a sharp prick on the inside of her elbow, and a cool, almost cold liquid squirted into her veins.

“Where . . . tell Reuben . . .” she began, as the pain-killer and sedative started to take hold.

“Don’t you worry none, Liz; Reuben has everything under control. Just go to sleep and give your body a chance to fight off the infection.”

She slid back into the depths of unconsciousness, hearing his voice slowly fade away.


Last edited by master arminas on Wed Jan 25, 2012 6:24 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Fri May 29, 2009 10:49 am 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Two

July 7, Olympic Peninsula
North America, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)


She rolled over in the warm bed even before she realized she was awake. The room that she lay in was lit only by the crackling fire in a stone hearth set against the wall. Her head didn’t hurt, that was her first thought. She sat up, pushing aside the thick sheets and spreads that covered her, and she drew in a deep breath—or tried to. Halfway through, she began to cough, and she retched up a tremendous glob of phlegm, barely getting the metal pan on the bedside beneath her in time.

Still, Liz felt better than she had when Bear had given her the shot. Her stomach rumbled as she listened to the fire hissing and popping—and through the wooden door she could hear music. She could FEEL music; the room seemed to vibrate with a thick, heavy bass even as the walls diluted the sound to something that was barely audible. She put her bare feet on the floor—the COLD floor—and then held onto the edge of the bed as the room slowly spun for a brief moment. Shaking her head, she waited until the vertigo faded away, and then attempted to stand.

The muscles in her long slim legs trembled, and she had to grab the bedpost to avoid falling over, but she stood. Taking a long woolen robe from a peg set in the wall, she pulled it on over her body, and tied the belt around her waist. There were three doors in the room she was in, and she picked one at random—it opened to reveal a walk-in closet, with clothes in her size hanging from metal hangers, and boots and thick warm socks and underclothes lined up a shelf below.

The second door led to a bath—and Liz filled the sink with water as she looked at herself in the mirror. You don’t look too good, she thought to herself, as she considered the thick oily hair and her wan complexion. She bent over and splashed the cold water on her face, and then turned to the ceramic tub. Adjusting the water until it flowed hot and fast from the shower head, she found some soap and a bottle of shampoo, along with a sponge and several bathing clothes. Closing the door behind her, she dropped the warm robe, grabbed the sponge, soap, and shampoo, and stepped into the tub, drawing the curtain closed behind her.

For a long time, she scrubbed her skin and her hair, her face, her arms, her chest, clean of the last lingering signs of her illness. She scrubbed and she scrubbed until the water began to turn tepid and the steam began to die away. Shutting down the shower, she grabbed one of the thick towels and patted her dry. Standing before the fogged up mirror, she wiped one hand across it until she could she herself again, and began to wring the excess water from her long hair.

Shortly after, she stood once again in the bedroom, and she pulled clothes from the closet onto the bed. There didn’t seem to be any weapons, none that she could find, at least. Dressed once more, in clean, warm clothes, she braided back her hair in a single long strand which kept it out of her eyes and turned to the third door. As she opened it, the music increased in volume, the pressure of the sound hard and heavy against her.

“Good evening, Captain,” Vince said from the chair he sat in outside her room, his feet propped up on a stool as he blocked the wooden hall leading towards a flight of stairs going down. He set down the book he was reading and cocked his head towards her. “Should you be up and about before our resident MD has had a chance to proclaim your health—or lack thereof?”

Liz snorted. “Where are we, Vince?”

“Bill Tanner’s place, down in Sheridan. After you collapsed, Elizabeth, we needed to find a place pretty quick—Bill’s a good guy and he took some of us in. The other Ghosts found some deserted buildings about two miles up the slope and are hanging out there, but some of us stayed back here with you.”

“And you decided to have a party?” she asked, the corner of her mouth twitched.

“Oh, Heaven forbid, Captain my Captain. Bill runs the only honky-tonk still open in Sheridan; what did you think he would close and lose money because a bunch of terrorist criminal traitors are hanging out in his upstairs rooms?”

“Vince,” she growled, and he held up his hand.

“He’s a good guy, Liz. You needed to get out of the weather while you healed up—and me and Bernie and Bear have been here the entire time. People around here don’t ask questions, and the few times any Rim-jobs have passed through, Bill covered for us pretty decently. Just so you know, you are his sister Abigail from over in Boulder, come out here to help him and his wife with the twins born last year.”

“And you and Bernie?”

“We are Vince and Bernie—what else could we be? Bill played a half-season our rookie year, but he blew out a knee and had to leave the NFL. We’re visiting an old buddy from the days gone by—after all we aren’t exactly wanted by NAME, are we?”

“And Bear?”

Vince coughed. “Well, we did need to come up with a reason for him being here and all, Captain.”

Liz frowned. He was up to something, and she knew it. “Spit it out.”

“Well, turns out Abigail is married, so we couldn’t have her come out here without her husband and, well you know . . .”

“And so you decided to tell everyone that Bear and I are married.”

“It seemed like the thing to do, Liz,” Vince said with an innocent grin. “Poor Rob—that’s your husband’s name, by the way—been worried sick about his bride being on death’s door. Which is why he is down-stairs dancing his troubles away.”
She shook her head and asked plaintively, “I’m never going to live this down, am I?”

Vince’s grin widened, revealing gleaming white teeth, as his eyes glittered with amusement. “No, not really.”

*****************************************************

After laughing at her situation with Vince, Liz carefully made her way down the stairs, still weak from her illness. Spread out before her was a large space, crammed tight with tables and packed with people. On a stage set off to one side, a local band was playing enthusiastically—if not especially well—and dozens of men and women were dancing. A long bar lined the far wall, with two ladies behind the counter topping off drinks and collecting cash. Four more women—girls, really—in tight shorts and half-open shirts moved through crowd, delivering shots and beer and baskets filled with steaming food.

Beside the front door, a big man—almost the size of the twins—sat on a high stool, sipping on a bottle of beer as he watched the crowd. Standing next to him was Bernie, his foot tapping as he watched the dancers gyrate on the floor. Bernie spotted her standing there, and smiled. He lumbered through the room, the crowd parting at his passing like water in the wake of a battleship.

“Abby Girl,” he called out as he reached the bottom of the stairs. “Awake at long last, huh?”

He reached her and gave her a crushing hug that lifted her from her feet. “Right jacket pocket, Colt-Walther, one up the spout and ten in the mag,” he whispered.

Patting him on the back with one arm, she snaked the other into his pocket and quickly pulled out the weapon. Hidden from view by his bulk, she slid the holster beneath her sweater and clipped it to the back of her pants.

“Bernie, how did you know what to get me as a get-well gift?” she chuckled.

“Liz,” he whispered, “I’d give fifty-to-one odds you’d rather be here naked than disarmed.” He stepped back and looked down at her, cocking his head to one side. “Of course, I’d be happy to pay OFF those odds if you were willing.”

She grinned and punched him lightly in the shoulder. He pantomimed injury amidst the loud music, and took her hand, leading her to a table with three people sitting there.

“I’m so glad that you folks are leaving,” Bernie said as he loomed over the three young men. “My friend needs a chair—but not the company.” He smiled as he cracked his knuckles, and the men considered the situation for a moment. The face of one twisted up, and he began to stand, but the other two pulled him back down as Vince came across from the stairs and grinned at them. The three stood and walked away, and then Bernie pulled out a leather bound chair for Liz.

She shook her head in amusement, but sat down quickly. Her legs were already trembling, and she knew that she needed to go back to bed shortly. “Now, then,” Bernie yelled into her ear, “why don’t I get Donna over there to bring you a plate of food—but no alcohol. Doctor’s orders.”

“Speaking of the devil, where IS Rob?”

Vince and Bernie both grinned and pointed at the dance floor, where the young former medical student was slow-grinding away with a girl dressed for partying. Liz tried to hold back her laughter; the doctor was so staid and reserved, but he seemed to be relaxed and enjoying himself. She sat back and languidly waved her hand at Bernie. “Go on, I’m hungry enough to eat a horse.”

*****************************************************

After devouring half a cheeseburger, a basket of onion rings, and a tall glass of cold sweet tea, Liz pushed her plate away and relaxed back into the seat. Bear had been by, and checked her temperature and the clearness of her eyes, and told her thirty minutes—no more. Then back to bed. Vince and Bernie were hanging out with Bill—the owner of the joint—over by the door, and Bear had gone back to his conversation with the twenty-something he had found an interest in.

Some marriage, she thought, as she smiled. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been this relaxed, this at peace.

“May we sit,” a voice asked at her elbow. Startled, Liz snapped out of her reverie and looked up at three men standing next to her. Caught up in the music and the feeling of warmth and peace, she had zoned out and not even noticed as they approached.

“Sorry,” she said, flashing a blinding smile and raising her left hand. “Waiting for my husband.”

“Thank you,” the oldest of the three said, as he sat down. The other two also found seats. One—the youngest—looked nervous, while the third kept his eyes on Bernie and Vince next to the door.

“I said no, or didn’t you hear?”

“Oh, I heard you, Elizabeth Hazen; but I think you are going to want to speak to me.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Mon Jun 01, 2009 9:32 am 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Three

July 7, Olympic Peninsula
North America, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)


“I believe that you have mistaken me for someone else,” Liz said coldly as she considered how best to reach the pistol at her back. Three of them and just one of me; best to play for time, she thought. Vince and Bernie—hell, even Bear—will check up on me pretty damn quick.

The older man’s lips twitched in smile, and he shook his head. “Zach, you are CERTAIN that this woman is Captain Elizabeth Hazen—former officer commanding, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, Royal Black Watch Regiment, I Corps, First Army, Star League Defense Forces?”

“Yes, sir, Major sir,” the nervous young man answered, his voice low and in a whisper Liz could barely hear over the music. “Well, facial recognition is at 99.9%, so there could be a slight possibility she could be someone else. I could cross-check over the ‘net,” he said as he began to unfold his comm, but the third man gently—but most firmly—laid his own hand on Zach’s forearm.

“I don’t think any of us would appreciate having that information in the system, Senior Chief—and I doubt we would survive if you tried,” he said wryly, still looking towards Vince and Bernie, who had noticed Liz’s company at the table.

The young man—Zach—blushed, and put away his comm. “Sorry, Captain, I didn’t think that through.”

“Who are you people,” Liz whispered.

The older man smiled again, and pointed across the table at Zach. “Senior Chief Technical Officer Zachary Hancock, Brevet Captain Malachi Olds,” as his finger shifted to the third man, who nodded in return, and then came back to rest before him, “and Major Saul Weiling—all members of the Rim Worlds Army, Captain Hazen—or should I say Sarah Copland, or maybe even Abigail Jansen.”

“Before you do something incredibly brave and stupid,” he continued before she could respond, “and get all four of us killed, Liz—that is what you prefer to be called, yes?—let me preface this by saying that we are not here to take you into custody, nor are we going to call IntSec or the Makos or anyone else in a current position of authority.”

Both Zach and Mal nodded their heads, but the sandy-haired MechWarrior growled softly across the table. “Company is inbound, and it looks mean.”

Liz looked up as Vince and Bernie approached the table. Both of the big men looked grim—and determined, with Bernie cracking his knuckles as he closed the distance in a rather menacing manner. Zach swallowed a lump in his throat, and then tapped at the table, as if judging how effective a shield the wood would provide. Glancing back at the two former linebackers, he quickly shook his head in a rather empathic NO, and then slumped back in his chair, resigned at the thought of a beating, and looking rather glum.

Saul grinned, and popped the young man on the upper arm. “Buck up, Senior Chief; there are far worse things that could happen than a few bruises if we don’t cover our trail.”

“Blow-torches, the rack, sharp needles under the finger-nails, pliers ripping out toe-nails and teeth,” Mal helpfully intoned from across the table, “all sorts of fun and games I for one would rather avoid.”

Liz’s jaw dropped and she shook her head. “WHO the HELL are you people?” she whispered again.

“Just a few disgruntled men and women that have seen which way the wind is blowing, Captain Hazen. We—the three of us and a few others—have decided we want to take our toys and go home. We don’t want to play this game no more, you see,” Saul said, as Vince spun around a chair and took a seat.

“Are you gentlemen bothering my friend?” he asked in a surprisingly civil manner as he glared down at them.

“Yes, I think we are, Vince—or is it Bernie? I can’t ever tell which one of you is which. In your rookie season, didn’t the head coach tell you two to each shave a different half of your head, just so he could tell the difference?” Saul replied.

Vince growled, but Liz reached out and patted his arm. “Why don’t we continue this somewhere a little more private?”

“Excellent idea,” Saul answered as he stood, beaming with a dazzling smile.

“Hopefully not private enough for electro-shock, water-boarding, eye-gouging, or finger-breaking,” Mal grumbled from across the table as he stood as well.

Vince cocked his head, and looked down at Liz, who nodded back up at him, and then again at Bernie. “Get Bear, and meet us upstairs, would you Bernie?” she asked.

As Bernie nodded and turned to the dance floor, Mal lightly tapped him on the elbow. “Ask Denise—that’s the red-head your man is dancing with—if she would mind joining us as well.”

As Liz stared at him, he shrugged. “Hell, I didn’t know if you people were just going to start shooting before we could even get a chance to talk—and I don’t like taking chances, especially when there are spooks involved,” he added, glaring at Saul. “And don’t think Denise is the only one of my boys and girls present tonight.”

“Any spook in a storm, eh,” Saul chuckled. “Come on Zach, looks like we get to live on and fight another day.”

“Hanging and branding and rubber hoses and vivisection, oh joy,” Mal mumbled as the group began to make their way towards the stairs.

*****************************************************

A short time later, the eight of them were gathered upstairs in a small den adjacent to Liz’s bedroom, Vince and Bernie standing to either side of the door—Vince with his pistol out and drawn, but pointed towards the floor. Bear had already checked her temperature once again—and frowning at her, had made her swallow two pills and then covered her with a thick blanket.

The four Rim Worlders had taken seats around the room—after Bernie searched them for weapons, coming up empty-handed.

“All right, why shouldn’t we just shoot you and dump the bodies in the forest:” Vince asked.

“That would be a bad idea, Mister Patella,” Zach began, and then blushed and shut down once more, looking sheepishly across at the two older men and the red-haired woman.

Saul glanced across at Mal, who shrugged and then nodded. Lightly kicking the young man in the ankle, he growled, “Well go on, Senior Chief—tell them why it would be a bad idea.”

“Sorry, Sir. Well,” he continued as he looked back up at Vince, “we tracked you people here through the survey sats. I crossed-checked local security footage from every camera in town, along with voice-prints across open phone and ‘net lines, and got positive IDs—almost positive IDs, at least—on the four of you. The rest of your group—the Ghosts, I think you call yourselves—are 3.81 kilometers up the valley at the old Windham place; been deserted for ages, so it makes a pretty good hidey-hole. Of course, I did all of this on my own system—deleting all info queries into the main-frame for sat redeployment and computer time, so there is no data there linking you people together.”

Saul sighed. He had tried to bring Zach along into becoming a more outgoing individual, but he reckoned while you could lead a techno-geek to a dance floor you couldn’t make him dance. “The techno-babble and magic that that young man can do with anything remotely related to sensor surveillance aside, the reason it would be a bad idea is because there are a couple of dozen ‘Mechs of his,” he pointed at Mal, “battalion holed up half-a-klick away from the rest of your group. Any of our vitals drop off the grid—or even go unconscious—and they have orders to level it.”

“I was getting there, Major,” Zach said, a faint smile breaking across his face.

“I know you were, Senior Chief—but sometimes your getting there takes half of forever.”

Zach nodded his understanding, and then frowned. “Not that we WANT that to happen, though. It’s a fail-safe, just in case.”

Bernie frowned and glared down at Zach. “And how will they know that your vitals change?”

“I am really, really GOOD at my job, Mister Patella. I got this place so dialed in that I could tell you the blood alcohol content of your urine from earlier today. And the blood-sugar levels—you might want to consider getting your doctor to check you out, those are a little bit high; but that could just be a daily fluctuation of your physiological systems. You need to watch your cholesterol count as well; it is elevated too.”

The former pro-ball player’s eyes bulged outwards as the Rim techno-geek sincerely nodded up at him like a loyal puppy, and Saul Weiling erupted in laughter.

“If I believed in Black Magic, then I’d say Zach here sold his soul to the Devil long ago—but as it is, he is the BEST damn surveillance analyst I have ever frakkin’ seen. If he says he did it, then I for one believe him.”

Liz spoke up from her chair. “You said downstairs you ‘don’t want to play no more’. Does that mean you intend to ask us—a bunch of wanted terrorists on the run—to offer you asylum?”

Saul and Mal exchanged another look—a wry one, this time. “And join you on the lam? At the moment, Captain, there is very little you can do to help us—but when the time comes, there might be a LOT that we can do to help you—and General Kerensky.”

He paused, clearly thinking over how to phrase his next few words. “We didn’t know what was going to happen when we were sent to Terra. All we knew was that we were given sealed orders to be opened at 0600 on December 27th—and by then it was far too late to stop the Coup. Not that I would have at the time,” he said squarely while meeting the gaze of Liz. “I was a loyal officer to the Rim, Captain, and Richard was an ass. But I can’t say that we got much better. His Imperial Majesty has lost it—if he ever had it. Taking the Hegemony was one thing—but this constant stream of brutality he has unleashed against its peoples is something entirely different. And Kerensky is out there, waiting to return. After the use of WMDs on a dozen worlds—Drac and FedRat alike—and him giving the orders to kill the wife and unborn child of the Last Cameron, we—the four of us and a few others—have decided that we are dead men and women if we stay loyal to Fat Boy and Vampire von Strang.”

“We want OUT, Captain. None of us have committed atrocities—oh, we have fought for our homeland and our gooney master—but we aren’t guilty of mass murder or rape or any other war crimes. Thing is, we wait until the SLDF comes back—backed up the Free Worlds, the Federated Suns, and the Draconis Combine, no less—and there is a good chance that they won’t be taking prisoners after what Fat Boy has done to provoke them. From a certain point of view, he is a genius—because now most of his troops will fight to the death to defend themselves against a foe that is going to kill them anyway. But I don’t like the outcome of that binary set solution—and neither do these people with me. I want a third answer that lets me—and my people—live when this is all over and done with.”

“Now, between me and Zach here, we’ve got Planetary Surveillance sewed up pretty damn tight. We, along with a few men and women in the department, can insure that no one will track you. Olds and Gallagher,” he said pointing to Denise, “are with the 23rd Light Dragoons. That regiment got so busted up by your SLDF comrades in SouthAm and guerillas and insurgents in Europe, they have been rotated out here, since we are rated as a ‘low-intensity area of operation’; and I’ve ensured that Olds will be on hand for the immediate future. In fact, I’ve got a transfer in the works for him and his people to serve as our perimeter security—local terrorist activity should sharply scale up in the near future, I’m thinking. Especially after we begin to feed you specific targets of opportunity.”

“Why should we trust you?” Bear asked.

“Who the Hell said anything about trust?” Weiling snorted. “It’s quid pro quo, Captain—I keep Vampire von Strang and his bunch off your ass, AND give you heads-up on some juicy targets that I would not mind seeing go down, and in exchange when Kerensky comes back you take us in and vouch for us. I’m not looking to know the locations of all your secret caches that you have been bouncing back and forth from—but I will let you know some of them are not quite as secret as you think. The one you are heading towards up near Wasilla, for example; that one we found three weeks ago and its being watched.”

“And if we don’t keep our end of the bargain, Major Weiling?” Liz asked softly.

Saul shifted a bit in his seat. “If we come to an agreement, Captain Hazen, I think you will keep it—honor of the regiment and all of that. If you don’t, then we are all dead anyway.”

The unspoken threat hung over them all—I found you once, it said, I can find you again and that time give you up to the other Rim forces. Liz nodded in agreement. “I can live with that, Major Weiling, but for this I will have to consult with the others of my group’s leadership. They might not all agree.”

The Rim officer waved his hand. “I’m not asking them; I’m asking YOU—based in large part of what Zach here has dug up on your psych profile from SLDF records. You give me YOUR word, and I’ll run with it—what those others say or think don’t matter a hill of beans to me.”

He rubbed his face over his chin and mouth with one hand, and sighed. “And I will sweeten the pot, Liz. Give her the file, Zach.”

The young man grimaced, but reached—slowly—into his jacket and pulled out a data-chip, which he handed to Bear, who gave it to Vince. Placing it in his own pocket-comp, he scanned it for electronic whisper bugs and viruses, and noting it was clean, handed the entire device over to Liz.

She took it in her hand and looked down at the screen—and froze as the face of the Rim officer who had ordered the bomb strike on her brothers hospital appeared in the center. Her head spun, and her jaw dropped; her pulse quickened and her face flushed. She could see it happen again—the officer turning to his staff and nodding, giving them the go-ahead to fire-bomb the still full military hospital. The hospital that contained four hundred and seventy-four military patients, one of whom had been her baby brother.

“His name, unit, and current location are in the file, Captain Hazen. Along with where he hangs out, what he drinks, and what type of woman he likes to hit upon—literally in this case. The man is a pig that gives all Republicans a bad name, so I don’t give a [crap] what you do to him. But is it worth a ticket for a chance at life for a few dozen people who just want this to be over?”

“Oh, yes,” she whispered as she stared at the face staring at her out of the screen. “Oh, yes, Major Weiling, it is worth that much and more.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Mon Jun 08, 2009 8:58 pm 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Four

July 10, 2768
Fort Tobias Harrison
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony


Two guards snapped to attention as Colonel Ethan Moreau approached the door labeled MORGUE in the basement of the SLDF base hospital. Nodding briskly at the two, the young Colonel pushed through, slamming the door back against the wall. Within, it was cool—almost cold, in fact—and the lights had been dimmed. Over by the freezers set into one wall, four compartment doors hung open, and the only bright light in the room shone down on the remains of what had once been four men. And a fifth, wearing the same uniform as Moreau as he examined the bodies for what must have been the hundredth time.

“Thought I would find you down here, Hiroyoshi,” Moreau said quietly. “Haven’t you stared at them long enough?”

“I am off-duty, Colonel,” Hiroyoshi Tanaka replied. “And no, I have not yet found my answers.”

“Answers that have managed to elude every coroner and forensic pathologist to examine them?”

The corners of Hiroyoshi’s mouth twitched at that as he stared down at the corpse of the man Absalom Truscott had killed. “The answers I seek are not those medical science can find, Colonel.”

“No, they are not, are they? Hiro, I will not tell you that you cannot continue to hold these bodies here, even though Medical Command is insisting that regulations state we have to bury them. I will not tell you that you cannot come down here, even though the coroners have issued complaints about you arriving at odd hours and staying here just staring at them. I will not tell you to give this up, because you are clearly not ready for that.”

“What I will do, on the other hand,” he said as he leaned back against an empty stainless steel examination table, “is to simply remind you that it was not your fault. And if it had not been for your decision to send Truscott to the Regiment, it would have been far, far worse.”

Hiroyoshi nodded as he continued to stare down at the corpses of the four men who had sought to kill Stephen Cameron and his family—who had been successful in killing his pregnant wife and their unborn daughter. “Is that what you think I am here for, Colonel; as an expression of some angst-ridden self-loathing of my failure?”

Moreau started to answer, but then closed his mouth as he thought about the older man’s answer. “Why ARE you here, then, Lt. Colonel Tanaka?”

“Something about these four men is not right, Colonel,” Hiroyoshi whispered. “I know it; I can feel it inside of me. I have read the reports and the autopsies; I have viewed these bodies inside and out, and yet something, some instinct perhaps, is screaming inside my chest that there is something WRONG here.”

The former DEST commando began to pace across the floor in front of Moreau as he continued speaking. “The entire operation was out of character for the Makos; they do not operate in that fashion. And FOUR of them? Even when I sparred with them in service to Minoru Kurita before the War, they NEVER operated together. Cats-paws, they used in plenty, but they always pulled the strings and watched from afar. Not because they did not want to get their hands dirty, but because they had responsibilities to the House of Amaris not to give up their lives in waste.”

“The First Lord was a target Amaris would sacrifice anything to get,” Moreau said gently, “even the lives of agents that are irreplaceable at the moment.”

“Hai. And yet, something still nags at me. That ship the DCA captured at Rasalhague, the one that got delayed by six hours and failed to hit its target—there was not a single Mako aboard. It could be argued those missions were at least as important to the goals of Amaris as this; but here we have four dead Makos and there we have none? At New Avalon there were none recovered from the dead as well. This is not their style, their methods; which is why I come here hoping to gleam some insight from the dead.”

Moreau frowned as he considered the words, the ideas that Hiroyoshi had voiced. He had never served in any intelligence branch before—but it seemed to be half of what consumed his time now as the commanding officer of the Black Watch. He had never been trained for the duties of what was at its core a vastly oversized protection detail—but his executive officer had been. Never given to making impulsive calls—even if it appeared to the rest of world that he did—his nimble mind leaped from possibility to possibility as he contemplated the idea.

“You believe these men were not Makos?” he asked. “That they were not sent by Stefan Amaris?”

“I do not yet know, Colonel,” Hiroyoshi answered softly as he stopped his pacing. “But if I am right, then we have another enemy whom we have yet to see in this conflict.”

“And an unseen foe is all the more lethal, for it can strike at any time and place of its choosing,” Moreau finished, as Hiroyoshi nodded in agreement. “All right, then. I do not have the slightest idea if you are right or if this some wild goose chase you can’t simply put down—but never again is what we swore after Farthington Pass. And that, Lt. Colonel Tanaka is an oath I intend to see kept. What do you suggest?”

Hiroyoshi stood ramrod straight and looked his younger superior directly in the eye. “Did any Blackhearts survive the Coup, Sir? If so, I think we need to bring them to Asta right now.”

Ethan Moreau bared his teeth, and even one of Amaris’s pet fish would have skittered away in fear at the sight.


July 12, 2768
The Green Dragon
Hawkins, Asta
Terran Hegemony


Smoke filled the air above the wooden tables as loud music reverberated from the walls of the bar. It was just after sunset, and the place was packed with Astans, SLDF troopers, Highlanders, Liao MechWarriors, DCMS soldiers, DCA spacers, and scores of others. At a table in the rear, Hiroyoshi, Ethan, and Gerald Howe sat, nursing their drinks. Decorated in the fashion of its literary predecessor, the bar included genuine sawdust on the floor, and fresh plants and flowers drooping from pots hung on chains from metal hooks in the ceiling. Instead of electrical lighting, what seemed to be torch sconces hung on the walls, each one dancing with a smoky taper of flame—but fed not by wood. No, the first owners of the establishment had decided to rely on natural gas for their lighting; even if it did not quite it fit the genre they wanted to portray. And unlike more modern establishments, the girls and women weaving through the clad did not expose great deals of flesh—they wore long dresses, with their hair bound in scarves and braided in long strands. Of course, most of them showed rather more cleavage than the original owners would have allowed—but the Green Dragon had remained part of the culture of Hawkins for over two centuries, and those owners were long since departed from this world.

Real oak kegs of beer, ale, and mead lined the walls, along with decorations of rather small medieval weaponry and armor and shields—sized almost for a child, in fact. In the center of the room lay a brick fire-pit, and two husky young men slowly turned the suckling Ridgeback suspended on an iron rod over the flames as they slathered its sides in the sauce the house used for seasoning. That sauce rendered even the toughest meat tender enough to fall apart when pulled at by the fingers of the customers—which was good, since the staff of the Green Dragon deemed it as ‘out-of-character’ to give them silverware. In the two hundred years since the bar had first opened, that secret sauce had given rise to more espionage than most House Lords had used to attain the secrets of BattleMech technology long ago. And yet, it remained a secret known only to the owners of the Green Dragon.

“How the devil did you find this place,” Gerald snarled as he wiped the foam from a black and bitter ale off his upper lip, “and why haven’t you told me about it before now?”

Hiroyoshi grinned, as he set the rib he had been gnawing upon down upon the wooden platter before him, and wiped his face and hands free of the sauce. “Man does not live by saki alone, Sergeant Major, and literacy is not yet forbidden in the Combine. Indeed, except for the first children’s tale—the slaying of a Dragon and all that—the other writings of that man are quite widely accepted among my people. As to why I have not spoken of its existence to you; this place mellows me. And if it has the same effect upon you, the Regiment might well suffer.”

Moreau laughed as he sipped upon his own honey-mead, thick and sweet and syrupy. “The man has a point, Sergeant-Major. I for one am not certain the troops could survive the shock of seeing you being mellow.”

Gerald frowned at the two of them. “I keep my mellowness to myself, Sirs. And just for that, neither of you get any more of those spiced potatoes,” he said as he took the bowl and moved it over his side of the table.

“Seriously,” he whispered, “as much as I like being out and having good food, good drink, and quite a few good sights for these old eyes, why are we here?”

“Because you are waiting for me, Sergeant-Major Howe,” a man said as he slid into the last free chair. Dressed in civilian clothes, the man was slender, but his arms were tight with bundled muscle; his face hard, and his eyes as cold as ice.

Gerald slowly sat back, keeping his eyes on the stranger.

“Really,” asked Moreau. “And who might you be?”

“You put out a request for one of us yesterday, Colonel Moreau—to arrive ASAP at your HQ on Asta. Well, I was in the neighborhood, so to speak. What does the Royal Black Watch need with the Blackhearts?”

Moreau waved his hand over at Hiroyoshi. “And you are . . .” he asked.

“You don’t need to know my name, Lt. Colonel—former Tai-sa—Tanaka. However, the word of the day is zephyr, no?”

Hiroyoshi leaned forward. “Are you certain you wish to discuss this here? There are far more secure facilities available?”

“All of which are watched by SOMEONE. Here is fine—the noise and smoke kill any bugs, and this table is backed by solid feroak on two sides.”

“We need to know if someone wanted us to think it was the Makos that arranged that business at Farthington Pass. We need to know if we have another enemy waiting out there.”

“Right. As you know, gentlemen, our support structure was all in the Hegemony—and fewer than two dozen of us operatives escaped. But I have some contacts and will do some digging.” The man paused as he pulled a piece of steaming pork from the platter and swallowed it, chewing briskly. “You have evidence that it wasn’t?”

“No evidence, sir,” said Hiroyoshi, “just a feeling.”

The man nodded. “In this business, sometimes that is all you ever have. I’ll be in touch,” he said as he stood and left, quickly becoming lost in the crowd.


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 9:40 am 
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Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Five

July 27, 2768
Star League Jump Station Protector
Zenith Jump Point, Asta
Terran Hegemony


Admiral Michael von der Taan floated into the Combat Information Center of his command fortress. The dim chamber, lit only with red light, was situated at the core of the massive structure the SLDF had constructed here at the Zenith point to coordinate a defense against enemy vessels. As large as many battleships, the jump station had but one purpose—to defend a jump point against hostile attack. Since they were incapable of acceleration or of jumping, such stations could devote all of the mass used by warships for those systems to additional weapons and armor—and the SLDF Guardian class did so in spades. An early product of the SDS program, the Guardians bristled with more than three times the weaponry of a McKenna class Battleship, and four times the armor plating of a Texas.

Virtually all Guardian class stations deployed in the Hegemony had been destroyed during the Coup, and Asta had never had one to begin with. Twelve reserve stations, however, had remained in depot stores at Star League naval yards outside of the Terran Hegemony. Prepackaged and crated in prefab modules for quick assembly in the field, each of the stations had required six freighters and a yard-ship to transport them to Asta and assemble them on station. But now all twelve had been transported and activated and manned with four stationed at the zenith point, four more at the nadir, and yet another four orbiting in geo-synchronous orbit above Asta itself.

Von der Taan floated across the crisp cold air in the zero-gravity environment, and then he reached out and snagged a hand-hold adjacent to his senior tactical officer. Pulling himself to a stop, he hooked one leg around a nearby strut and glanced down at the console.

“What have we got, Simon?” he asked the younger officer.

“Pre-emergence wave—multiple waves, Admiral,” answered Commander Simon Gelder. “Plotting makes it fifteen seconds to emergence.”

The Star League Admiral nodded. Roughly a minute before a K-F Drive vessel materialized, it began sending streams of neutrinos through its emergence point. Of course to detect the damned emissions, you had to have specialized sensors—which the Guardian class stations had, of course—and be damned close to the jump point. Close enough that on rare occasion a ship would emerge too close—mere kilometers away—and then bad things happened to everyone involved.

The SLDF had figured out a way around that almost twenty years ago—but the sensor buoys normally used for that purpose in Hegemony systems had not been found in the storage depots. Apparently, they had been diverted to form part of the Reagan network in the Terran system—and had never been replaced. So von der Taan and his fortress crews—press-ganged from ships of the Fleet—were up close and personal in the old-fashioned way.

“Weapons status?” he asked calmly.

“All stations are closed up and manned with warshots in the tubes and hot rounds chambered, Sir. All compartments report that they are secured for battle and crews are donning pressure suits by shift in rotation.”

“Very good, Commander,” he said as the clock ticked down the last few seconds. “Open fire ONLY on my command or if you are fired upon. Understood?”

“Aye, aye, Sir.”

Von der Taan bared his teeth at the icons on the screen. If you are Rimmers, then you are bloody stupid to be trying this, he thought; and if you aren’t, then you had better ID yourself damn quick, or it’ll be too late for anything but an ‘oops’.” Four full wings of fighters—216 in all—hovered just outside the radius of the jump-point, waiting for the order to commence their attack runs, he saw as he glanced at the monitor. Still further out, the ships and fighters of 4th Fleet were coming to action stations, ready to back up the forts if they needed help.

“We have emergence,” a lone voice called out crisply from tracking. “Multiple emergence signatures—vessels are compact core WarShips, warbook is running recognition patterns now.”

Wrong answer assholes, von der Taan thought; if you are friendly than you should have let us know you were coming BEFORE you arrived. He opened his mouth to give the command to fire, when another voice suddenly broke across CIC.

“They are transmitting in the clear, Admiral! All ships broadcasting LYRAN IDs across the board.”

“Confirm that!” he snapped. The tactical officer bent down over his console and consulted the sensor readings. Simon Gelder turned in his chair and nodded at his admiral. “Confirmed, Sir; those are ships of the Lyran Commonwealth Navy, and they are asking to speak with someone in authority.”

Michael hurriedly donned one of the communications headsets, and flicked the line to active, allowing him to receive and transmit. “This is Admiral von der Taan of the Star League Defense Forces. You have entered a restricted system. State your intentions.”

The delay was less than a second, but it seemed to stretch on into forever. Finally, however, a rich baritone voice came across the earpiece. “Admiral, this is Archon Robert Steiner of the Lyran Commonwealth. I have come to join the First Lord in putting down this madman Amaris—and I have brought the Lyran Commonwealth Armed Forces with me. Where do you want us to park?”


July 27, 2768
Branson House
Hawkins, Asta
Terran Hegemony


“Would you repeat that, please, General Marik?” Stephen asked as he slowly leaned back in his seat—his mouth slightly agape at the young deputy commander of the Supreme Allied Headquarters.

The young man smiled broadly and nodded his head at the First Lord. “Archon Steiner has arrived at the jump point with 200 ships of war and as many transports escorting fifty-four Lyran BattleMech Regiments and twenty-seven lesser regiments, plus supporting units. That is three full-strength Corps, my Lord, in total.”

“Not that part, Thomas, the next.”

“He sends his condolences for the murder of your wife and unborn child, my Lord. Regardless of his dispute with you personally, he said that he has come to realize that if Amaris is not stopped it will be the end of all the Lyran people hold dear. Accordingly, he has come here—at the head of the Lyran Armed Forces—to join your crusade to free the worlds of the Hegemony from the madman. Those were his words, my Lord, not my own.”

Stephen nodded and tapped his fingers on the top of the desk. “How long until he arrives in orbit?”

“Eight days, my Lord.”

“Very well, General Marik; I will send a reply directly to the Archon myself. Thank you for informing me in person.”

Thomas Marik gave a half-bow. “Supreme Commander Lord Kerensky thought that you might want to be given this news in person, First Lord. Otherwise, he said, you might well not believe it until you saw the ships arrive with your own eyes.”

“True enough, General. That is true enough. Give Aleksandyr my regards and ask him if his staff will prepare to brief the Archon upon his arrival.”

“It is already being done, my Lord.” With that, the young man bowed again, and withdrew from the office.

Stephen stood and began to pace, ignoring the four guards in the corners of the room. Over the course of the past year, they had become such a part of his life that he no longer fretted over their presence. Steiner is joining—with three Corps, no less. A field army equal in size to the one provided by John Davion—and the one originally promised by Minoru Kurita. Furious with the attacks upon their homeland, he and his cousin Vincent had proceeded to strip the interior of the Combine of every last troop that could be spared—and many that could not be. Even the borders with both Davion and Steiner—and the Rim—had been gleaned of their best troops. Seven Corps of Combine troops were now either on Asta or nearby on the Hegemony-Combine border, leaving just eighteen ‘Mech regiments to defend Minoru’s entire realm. His Assault Command included another 27 regiments of Combine ‘Mechs—in addition to the Liao volunteers and the Highlanders, which doubled that number.

John had been taken aback when Minoru revealed the true strength and size of his military—as had Philip Marik. Exceeding even the limits of the Edict of 2752 that had allowed the House Lords to double their military strength, he—and his father before—had kept hidden the units that he now revealed. Though they all—Stephen, John, and Philip—recognized the fact that these units would now fight on the side of the Star League, they all knew they had been built for a different purpose entirely.

The Combine Navy was still under-strength from the vicious Second Battle of Asta, but new ships were beginning to leave the slipways. There too, the Combine had cheated. At four hidden shipyards deep in the interior of his realm, Takiro Kurita had pre-positioned components, weapons, and the materials required for warships. Dozens—scores—of keels had been laid, but then work suspended, since it would impossible to hide the ships if they entered active service. But that secret work of preparation decades ago allowed Minoru to surge new warships to completion in far quicker time than anyone had deemed possible. By the time the SLDF would be ready to launch the assault on Terra, the DCA would be restored its pre-war strength—indeed, they would be stronger than their pre-war strength. And nine-tenths of that Fleet had been committed to the operation.

John had laid the matter aside—although he had privately told Stephen that he and Vincent needed to have a long heart-to-heart discussion after this was all over and done with—and yet, he could not free up more of his forces. With the attack on three of his worlds—and the death his younger brother David on Robinson—the civil war he had feared had died still-born as the population responded just as furiously as that of the Combine. Still, the resistive, smoldering resentment of the nobles required that he keep more than half of his own forces at home, stamping out small flare-ups of violence and reminding the nobles who held the whip this time.

And part of that problem was—as John had predicted—with the Capellan March. Duke Morand of New Syrtis had been removed as the head of the March after his stream of protests at the upcoming plebiscite in the Taurian Rim. Now a fanatically loyal supporter of John’s—Gregory Hassak—held that post. The violence had not faded away, however. Aaron responded by shifting most of his surviving Special Armed Services units—along with the majority of the Blackheart operatives still available—to the region, but there seemed to be an entrenched network of cells driving the old hatreds forward with rhetoric. Cells that both Stephen and John thought to have been sponsored and supported by Amaris.

Barbara Liao had once again declined to come fully aboard—but she did allow the volunteers from her service—21 regiments worth—to travel to Northwind, along with the Highlanders. And her fleet had slapped down hard the single attempt Amaris made to enter her space. She was supplying John and the SAHQ with intelligence, however; her spies had made solid inroads into those groups, and the information she provided had allowed Davion’s own MI branch and the SAS troops to shut down dozens of cells.

Philip Marik was another matter completely. The attack on the shipyards and planet of Oriente had thrown the entire League into a fury. Many provinces had sent their own troops, and the federal government of the Free Worlds had contributed a Corps of their own, overstrength by a full division. But it was their navy that was their most powerful contribution. Burning for revenge over Oriente, the FWLN were working hand-in-hand with the SLDF and DCA to plan exactly how to neutralize the Caspers, the Rim Fleet, and the SDS installations on Terra itself. The old man intended to make Amaris pay for his crimes and had announced that he would personally lead his forces from the command deck of the battleship FWS Atreus.

Everything was coming into place, then, Stephen thought as he paced across the carpet in front of the fireplace. Why, then, he asked himself, do I feel as though the wheels are about to come off?

Shaking his head, he returned to his desk and began to compose the note he would record and broadcast to Robert Steiner, welcoming him to the campaign.


July 27, 2768
LCS Tharkad
Inbound to Asta
Terran Hegemony


Robert Steiner paced along the cramped quarters of his private stateroom aboard the Lyran Battlecruiser Tharkad, wringing his hands as he went. “Are you certain of this?” he hissed at his associate.

Erik Kiplinger smiled up at the man he had once served as he lifted a snifter of cognac. “Certainly, my Archon. His Imperial Majesty deems it most wise of you to join forces with Kerensky and his puppet Cameron. After all, once we know their plans, we can inform Terra of them in advance.”

“They are not fools, Erik.”

“No? Perhaps they are not, Robert. BUT, they are very focused on their target. Who else but Stefan Amaris could have done these deeds? Who else could have aided him? And here you are now coming to the defense of the Star League at the head of an army. As a Lord of the Council, you will have to be kept in the loop, so to speak—and thus, so shall his Imperial Majesty.”

“But if they discover this . . .”

“Will it be any worse than if they discover you ordered the death of that man’s wife and unborn child? The risk is minimal—if you play your role correctly.”

“He can’t think that he will win, can he?” the Archon asked.

“Who knows, my Archon? So far, he has won almost all he has waged in the Great Game. And if he spends the next decade or so inflicting massive casualties upon this ‘Star League’ as it comes after him—when he has been warned in advance of the action by you—they may choose to give up this war.”

Robert Steiner shook his head. They are both fools, he thought, but fools who know too much, who can reveal too much about me. For now, I will continue to play along. Continue to string them along until I find a way of freeing myself from their hooks.

“Perhaps, Erik, you are right. I do apologize; I seem to be getting nervous overly much these days,” Robert said in a pensive voice.

“Quite all right, my Archon,” Erik replied with a languid wave of his hand. “Just play your role—I would hate to see your cousin Jennifer’s reaction to those tapes we have of you, after all.”

Robert frowned again, as Erik threw back his head and laughed, the sound echoing across the compartment.


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Wed Jul 08, 2009 11:12 am 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Six

August 4, 2768
Asta Defense Headquarters
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony


General Kerensky forced himself to smile broadly as his aide—Colonel Tricia Hall—ushered the Archon of the Lyran Commonwealth into his office, trailed by a pair of his own officers. “Archon Steiner, welcome to Asta,” he said from behind his desk.

Robert sharply nodded his head at the crippled man, but his face was set and his eyes were cold. “Lord Kerensky, pleasure to see you once again. I trust that you are well?”

“I am, Archon. Would you care to have a seat?”

“Thank you,” Robert said as he began to sit down, and then he frowned and stood facing Kerensky once again. “My apologies, Lord Kerensky, but I believe you know my Intelligence Chief—Erik Kiplinger, yes?” He paused long enough for Kerensky to politely nod his head at Erik, and then continued. “But I am given to understand that you have not yet been introduced to my young cousin—General and Margrave Jennifer Steiner, LCAF.”

“A pleasure, madame,” Kerensky said with a smile towards the woman with her long blonde hair secured behind her in a thick braid. The two Steiners shared a certain familial resemblance, but Robert was naturally stocky, his bulk slowly turning into fat. She—on the other hand—was slender, her body taut and fit. Both shared the same deep-blue eyes the Steiner family was famous for, but hers were warm and sparkling; whereas those of the Archon were hard and icy. “I understand that you handily placed in the top percentile of your class at the Nagelring Academy, General Steiner, and your troops—according to my sources, at least—tell only good things of your time as first a battalion and then a regimental commander.”

She shook her head, the corner of her lips twitching as she did so. “If that is the case, Lord Kerensky, I did not accomplish my job as either a battalion or a regimental commander. If my troops liked me, then obviously I was not working them hard enough.”

“Perhaps, General, perhaps. But my sources say that your units had some of the best readiness rates of any in the Lyran Commonwealth Armed Forces—rates given me by SLDF analysts. That is no mean feat,” he replied. Especially for a force given to ‘Social Generals’ and extreme nepotism, he thought to himself.

“I have always firmly believed, Lord Kerensky, that a little mud and dirt and sweat on a soldier in times of peace means less blood and tears in a time of war—and I attempted to conduct myself and the units I have had the honor to command in just that fashion.”

Aleksandyr smiled rather broadly at that and began to chuckle. “My own thoughts on the matter exactly, General Steiner,” he said as he turned back towards Archon Robert. “We have prepared a quite thorough briefing for you later today, Archon Steiner. It should take about four hours of your time, but first I want to have a brief chat with the two of you. Mister Kiplinger,” he spoke as he turned to face the spook, “what exactly is your role here?”

“Pardon me, Lord Kerensky?” Erik asked.

“The Lyran Intelligence Corps is a separate entity from the LCAF, Mister Kiplinger; an entity that does not normally concern itself with military operations. Why should I allow you to be included in the briefing?”

Robert frowned. “I do not care for your tone, Lord Kerensky. Erik is valued counselor and a trusted advisor—and I shall have his opinions.”

“Care for it; don’t care for it; frankly Archon Steiner I fail to give a damn. My staff will brief both you and General Steiner today, but no one else.”

“Sir, you go too . . .” Robert began to say, his face turning a fiery red, but then he was interrupted by Erik.

“My Archon, it is of no concern. I understand the Generals—Lord Kerensky, that is—need to keep certain information compartmentalized so that none leaks out. I will await your return at the embassy, if you will permit me to do so?”

Robert sat back, and curtly nodded his head. Erik stood and bowed slightly to Aleksandyr and then turned to leave.

“There is one more thing, Mister Kiplinger.”

“Yes, Lord Kerensky?”

“All three of you should be warned in advance—the information that Archon and General Steiner will be given today is vital, and must be held very close to the chest. They cannot share it with anyone until that person is cleared by my staff—and that, Mister Kiplinger, includes you. If I should discover that they have divulged information to you, I will hold you in confinement for the duration of this war. Try to restrain your curiosity, if you please, Mister Kiplinger. Your accommodations will be so much more pleasant if you do that.”

Archon Steiner simply glared at Aleksandyr, but Erik’s lips twitched in the barest hint of a smile. And he bowed towards him once more. “As they say, curiosity killed the cat, Lord Kerensky. I will attempt to pry none of your secrets from either the Archon or the General.”

“Very well, then Mister Kiplinger. A member of my staff will escort you from the facility.”

Colonel Hall opened the door and ushered the LIC chief outside, shutting the portal behind her as she left the room as well.

Robert swallowed as he realized now was the chance. Come clean now and place the blame on Erik, claiming that he and Amaris were attempting to frame the Archon for the death of Cameron’s wife. He even opened his mouth, but Kerensky’s steady gaze stopped him. No. They will not believe me. They hate me—even Jennifer hates me. If I give them the chance they will destroy me as surely as Amaris and Erik will. He looked down at the floor and shook his head, and then raised it to defiantly stare Kerensky in the eye once more.

“That was uncalled for, Lord Kerensky. It was beneath you.”

“Perhaps, Archon Steiner, but it was also required. Before we get into the operational details of the plan the briefing will cover, I am going to give you the highlights. Operation Ragnorak is the name given to this operation. We will be hitting Terra itself with the full might of the SLDF and all allied contingents. First . . .”

*****************************************************

August 4, 2768
Lyran Embassy, Hawkins
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony


“An audacious plan, my Archon,” Erik said as he digested the information that Robert recited to him. “Quite bold and it should be a death blow to the dreams of His Imperial Majesty. Now, how best to convey this information off-world?”

“Are you mad?” Robert snapped. “Only official SLDF HPG transmissions are being permitted—and NO ships are allowed to leave Asta, except on SLDF business. If you try and are caught, then we are both dead men.”

“Leave the details of that to me, my Archon. I am QUITE good at this business, as you may remember. There are certain channels that have been arranged; I must merely activate them,” Erik looked up from his snifter at his realms lord and master. “I am very pleased with you as well, my Archon. It would have been a perfect opportunity for you to reveal all—and have me carted away to some dank dark dungeon. Why did you not?”

“I never even considered it—we have a deal.”

“Lie to others, Robert; not to me. You fear that Kerensky and Cameron will not believe you—and that Jennifer, our dear sweet cousin Jenny—will use that as excuse to remove you from power.”

Erik laughed as Robert frowned down at him. “Worry about Asta’s star suddenly deciding to go nova, my Archon, worry about a freak asteroid strike on this very house. Worry yourself about anything other than my getting caught passing this information along. The few counter-intelligence people Kerensky has left are all tied up with that business in the Capellan March and the upcoming Taurian plebiscite. Yes, you keep doing this well, and my true master might well reward you for your service to his glorious Empire that shall be.”

Robert sat down and took a slug of his own brandy. “And what of Jennifer?”

Erik smiled as he swirled the amber liquid languidly around and around in the crystal chalice. “It will be such a tragic shame; the common people love her greatly, you know. But being a soldier is SUCH a dangerous profession. Accidents happen all the time, and since she is often in the field with her troops training for this massive operation; well, who can predict what might occur?”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Fri Jul 17, 2009 11:52 am 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Seven

August 5, 2768
Fort Tobias Harrison
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony


“Attention to orders!” bellowed Gerald. In front of him, the assembled men and women of the Royal Black Watch Regiment—minus those currently on duty or standing by at ready status—crisply snapped to attention, their boot heels making a crisp perfectly timed CRACK as more than six hundred troopers obeyed the order. Gerald looked out over their ranks, and nodded to himself and then the pivoted on his own heel and sharply saluted Hiroyoshi and Ethan.

“Sir, the Regiment is assembled with all present and accounted for, awaiting your instructions.”

Colonel Ethan Moreau solemnly returned the salute, and then he took a step back and turned on his own boot heel to face Stephen Cameron and his daughter Cassie.

“My Lord,” he said, the amplified voice booming across the parade field, “your Regiment stands ready.”

Stephen nodded at Ethan and stepped forward on the grand-stand, holding in his right hand a black jewel case.

“Lieutenant Absalom Truscott,” Gerald’s voice thundered, “front and center!”

One soldier slowly limped forward from his place in the formation, turning first to salute his company commander, and then the Regimental Colors. He marched out in front of the Regiment, standing directly before the assembled officers and dignitaries on the platform, and then the saluted them.

Stephen Cameron returned the salute as he took Gerald’s place at the microphone. “Lieutenant Absalom Truscott,” he began, “for valorous actions at Farthington Pass, for keeping the honor of this Regiment intact—despite your own injuries and despite being outnumbered by the enemy; for this we assemble here today. There are no media here to memorialize this event, there are no cameras. We few do not need such to remember your deeds. I am in your debt, CAPTAIN Truscott,” Stephen continued with a sudden smile, “for saving the life of my daughter that day.”

“I am in the debt of each and every one of you who have volunteered for service in this unit. You all have lives—and family—that you choose to set aside in order to place your own flesh and blood between my family and harm’s way. None of you had to do this, but you did so anyway—and I will always remember that you have done so. My Heir will remember that you have done so.”

Stephen climbed down the steps of the grand-stand to stand directly in front of Absalom, and he opened the leather-bounded jewel case that he carried in his right hand. “Captain Truscott, accept this as a small token honoring what you have done.”

Stephen handed the case to Gerald, who held it as the First Lord withdrew a glittering star of silver and gold and bronze, hung from a long blue and white ribbon. The Star League Medal of Valor glistened in the noon-day sun, reflecting from the polished arms of the star, from the finely wrought wreath that surrounded it, from the metal wings of the eagle whose talons grasped it and whose wings supported upon on the ribbon.

A tear leaking down his cheek, Stephen placed the medal over Absalom’s head and then stepped back two steps. The First Lord of the Star League crisply saluted the young Captain, as did the officers on the grand-stand behind him. Absalom returned the salute.

Stephen leaned close in to the young man. “I am honored, Absalom, to have you as one of my Swords. Thank you,” he whispered as he shook the junior officer’s hand.

Absalom Truscott swallowed hard, and nodded. “Thank you, First Lord.”


August 5, 2768
Branson House, Hawkins
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony


“So, Captain, have you given any thought to what assignment you want?” asked Stephen as the servers cleared away the last remains of dessert from the table.

“Sir?” Absalom asked as he looked up in surprise.

From the far end of the table, Aleksandyr Kerensky chuckled, followed by Aaron DeChevilier, Hiroyoshi, Ethan, Gerald, Ezra Bradley, and Thomas Marik from where they sat around the dinner table.

“Captain Truscott,” the Supreme Commander began, “it is traditional that when the Medal of Valor is awarded, the recipient may select his next posting. I believe that you did want a front-line command at one time, no?”

Beside Stephen, Cassie looked up at the man who had saved her life, and nodded enthusiastically. “You can go anywhere you want—Daddy said so.”

The table filled once again with chuckles as Stephen shook his head. It still hurt—oh, God did it hurt—but he was able to see past the pain now. And Cassie had been a god-send in all of this. She still had nightmares, but she had bounced back and regained her own innocent enthusiasm about life; which in turned had spurred Stephen to pull himself together, even more so than Susie’s well-timed tongue lashing had.

“Absalom, in this case my daughter is quite correct. The question is, what do you want?”

The young officer looked down for a moment, and forced himself to swallow the lump in his throat. And then he looked Stephen squarely in the eyes.

“If you would allow it, Sir, I think I would like to remain at my current posting.”

“And here I thought that you were so disheartened over not being involved in combat operations against Amaris,” Hiroyoshi said with a broad smile.

“I did, Sir, at the time we spoke. I,” and Absalom began blushing heavily as he said this, “thought at the time this was mainly a ceremonial post. But its not, is it? I am still not at a hundred-percent, sir; but if the Regiment will keep me around, then this is where I want to be.”

Stephen studied the young man for a few moments, and then nodded. “Then its done. Ethan, can the Regiment still use him?”

“Oh, I think we can find plenty for Captain Truscott to do while he finishes his rehab, Boss.”

“Cool,” Cassie said with a beaming smile. “Can he command the soldiers who are going to take me to school this fall? I won’t have ANY problems with a teacher with HIM around.”

“That is NOT what your guards are going to be there for, little lady,” Stephen said with scowl.

Ethan jerked his head up at the entire exchange, a puzzled look on his face. “School? First Lord, I thought it had been decided that Cassie was going to have private tutors here at Branson House? Having her attended a public—or even private—school will complicate our protective coverage a great deal.”

“Ethan, I know we have talked about doing it that way, but as time is wearing on, I have been having second thoughts. What made Richard go so bad?” he asked as he looked around the table. “No offense, Aleksandyr, but a large part was that he had no one around him that would treat him like the child he was.”

“None taken,” the balding officer said with a grin of his own.

“Richard was isolated from any possible interaction with anyone EXCEPT syphocants; he was never allowed to be a child, never experienced what normal children do. I am not having my daughter grow in that same hot-house environment. She will go to school, with children of her own age. She will learn and play and make friends; she will do her homework and take her tests and be grounded if she doesn’t behave herself.”

Cassie shrunk down a little and tried beaming a smile at Stephen, but he still frowned at everyone at the table. Then she sighed. “Don’t go all pater familias on us, Daddy.”

Aaron laughed. “At least the Latin is sticking, First Lord.”

Even Stephen cracked a smile at that, but then he turned the frown back on Cassie. “You will have guards, Cassie, and they will make sure you are safe. But you will get into fights, try to cut class, fall in love, act out, get paddled, and experience what EVERY child goes through in this life. And they are not going to stop it.”

Suddenly he smiled. “Except when you get old enough to want to date; when that happens, I might just have the guards start to shoot the boys that begin to pester you.”

“DADDY!” Cassie shrieked as the table exploded with laughter.


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Mon Jul 20, 2009 1:18 pm 
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Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Eight

August 8, 2768
Pastries and More
Nuevo Calais, Electra
Federated Suns (Taurian Rim)


Anna Ross scuffed her shoe—her brand new shoe—on the tiled floor of the shop as her mother haggled with the baker behind the counter. She was only six, after all, and she was bored. First, Anna had to get dressed up for Sunday services, and then listen to the minister drone on and on and on about how God wanted the good people of the Pleiades to vote in the referendum. Whatever that was, she thought sourly. Then, instead of going home—or to a motion picture show or the zoo—her mother had to go grocery shopping. Her friends would have left to go swimming by now, their good church clothes thrown over their beds and exchanged for bathing suits and plastic floaties. But no, she was here, and to make matters even worse, her mother was not going to get any of the sweet pastries. She was here for just plain ole bread instead, bread for tonight’s supper.

Anna sighed and leaned against the glass counter, her back to all of the confections laced with cream and icing that her mother was not going to buy and frowned at the customers filling the store. A dozen tables sat on the tile, each surrounded by four metal chairs, and most of them were full. Full with people drinking steaming cups of coffee and eating the rich, warm pastries that Anna wasn’t allowed to have today.

One table near the counter had just a single man sitting there, and as she watched he folded up his newspaper and checked his watch. He glanced over, and saw Anna standing there, and the man smiled at her. Anna looked down at the floor, but then looked back up at the man. And he nodded at her, smiled again, and stood. Putting some bills and coins on the table, he tucked the paper beneath his arm and walked out from the shop. Anna smiled again, and then she saw something.

“Mamma,” she said as she pulled on her mother’s skirt, “Mamma!”

The young mother looked down, and shushed Anna, turning back to the baker and her haggling. “But Mamma!”

“What is it now, Anna?” she asked in an exasperated tone.

“That man, he left his bag, Mamma,” Anna said pointing at the empty table.

Her mother looked over and saw the satchel resting against an empty chair and shrugged. “Well, he is gone now; perhaps he will come back for it.”

The baker nodded. People leaving packages and satchels behind was all too common. He stepped out from behind the counter and picked up the brown leather bag. “I’ll put it in back in case he does.”

He stopped as a wisp of smoke sprayed out from the flap, followed by an intense burning smell. He never finished the frown his face had begun to form when the bomb exploded in his hands.


August 9, 2768
SLDF 10th Army Headquarters
Nuevo Calais, Electra
Federated Suns (Taurian Rim)


“Thirty-eight children?” asked Sam Anders, his face ashen.

“Yes, sir, out of one hundred and forty-three confirmed dead. The bomber struck just after the conclusion of church services and the market square in down-town was packed. Six bombs went off in shops all around the perimeter; shops and cafes that were full. The hospitals are reporting another two hundred plus wounded, some of whom they don’t expect to recover,” his aide, Major Alex Geithner replied.

Sam felt his stomach lurch. He had known the bombing yesterday was pretty bad, but this was worse than he had imagined. “Has anyone taken responsibility for the attack?”

The aide shook his head.

No, it wouldn’t be that easy, Sam thought. “Hank, how many groups have your field agents IDed that have the technical capability to do this?”

Hank Tibbets—Sam’s chief of intelligence and a reformed Blackheart—sat back in his chair and crossed his legs. “There are at least six groups organized by the Concordat operating in the Pleiades at the moment, four of whom have—in the past—had contact with the Taurian Freedom Army. Officially, all six have renounced violence, though they are more than capable of carrying off this attack.”

Geithner snorted. “This attack was in a Taurian loyalist section of the city, Mr. Tibbets. Are you suggesting that they bombed their own?”

“General Anders asked who had the capability, Major,” Tibbets answered coldly. “And yes, some of those bastards are quite ruthless enough to bomb their own and pin the blame on someone else. There are also seven organizations backed by ‘volunteers’ from the Davion nobility here to organize against the referendum. Many of those volunteers are not political operatives, but strangely enough trained military and para-military personnel. Of course, those organizations deny any sinister purpose, insisting that in light of the ‘troubles’ out here in the Capellan March that those particular members are present to ensure their own security.”

“Plus, we have the ‘Free Pleiades’ nut-jobs that want total independence from everyone. To be fair to the crazies though, we haven’t found anything that would even remotely suggest they had the skills and organization to carry out a simultaneous bombing of this magnitude.”

Sam thrummed his fingers against the top of his desk as he considered the actions available to him. There were not many options. And then he sat back and smiled.

“So there are fourteen groups out there, right Hank? How many total people are we talking about?”

“We keep a pretty close eye on all of them—between eight and nine hundred all together.”

“Do you know where these people are?”

“Most of them, yes.”

“Their leadership?” Sam pressed.

“Yes.”

“All right, the bastards—which group of inglorious bastards these are—want to play dirty? Let’s oblige them. I want a full-court press—take ALL of them into custody tonight, at the same time. Once we get them in our hands, Hank, I want those leaders—ALL of the leaders—sweated. I want to know who did what and when. And most definitely why.”

“There are rules and limits on interrogations, sir, we may not be able to . . .”

“Not anymore. Bombing a public market? Killing children to make a political point? Those sons-of-bitches don’t have any rights as this moment. Sweat ‘em, bleed ‘em, do anything you want short of killing ‘em off like cockroaches, Hank, but you get me that information.”

Tibbets and Geithner exchanged a worried look, and then the intel chief looked back at Sam. “Some of the Davion sponsored groups have pretty high up backers, boss. Are you certain you want to do this?”

“The First Lord sent me out here to keep the peace until this referendum goes through, gentlemen. I will do that even if it means killing every last fanatical piece of [crap] that means to derail the process. Let me worry about pissing off those nobles—or Nicoletta, for that matter. If any of them have a problem with my handling this matter, then they can take it up with me,” he said as his face broke into a smile. “After all, dueling is still legal in the Pleiades, and I ain’t called a gunslinger for nothing.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Wed Aug 05, 2009 12:39 pm 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Nine

August 8, 2768
SLDF 10th Army Headquarters
Nuevo Calais, Electra
Federated Suns (Taurian Rim)


“. . . I don’t know,” the man sobbed from the chair where the restraints held him firmly, an IV drip having been inserted into his right arm. “I tell you—God’s honest truth—I don’t know who was behind the bombing!”

Seated behind a partition blocking him from the weeping man, an SLDF medical technician consulted his equipment, marking a scrolling tape filled with lines in red ink. He turned to face the interrogator and shook his head.

The interrogator smiled grimly and returned his attention to the prisoner. “Why do you keep lying to my, Mister Paterson? This will only get worse as time goes by. We know that you had contact with the bombers; we know that you withdrew a sizable amount of money—in cash—three weeks ago from your bank; we know that you then received an even greater windfall from someone off-planet. We are tracing the route of that money now, Mister Paterson, and we will find who funneled it to you.”

In the interrogators ear-bud, he heard the voice of Doctor Hunt. “His blood pressure is soaring; I’m increasing the sedative slightly to compensate.”

Pulling up a stool of his own, the interrogator sat down facing the prisoner. “Just one name, Mister Paterson; one name, that is all that we want from you. One name and this ends; if you give me the real name, of course. Lie to me again, and then things will turn more physical. So far, Mister Paterson, so far we have restricted ourselves to the use of drugs and more traditional, non-invasive methods of questioning you. Some of those drugs are not pleasant to experience—as you have discovered—but they are nothing compared to what comes next if you force me to take off the gloves.”

He leaned forward, so that his mouth was mere millimeters from Paterson’s ear. “Who? And why?” he whispered. “Tell me and this stops now, while you are still a functioning male and not a eunuch.”

Blake Paterson began to cry again, his shoulders quivering against the restraints.

*****************************************************

“It was Duke Albrecht, then?”

“Yes, sir,” Hank Tibbets answered. “Blake Paterson was their conduit for funds and instructions, through his local office for Albrecht’s Legal Defense Fund. We have confirmation from six other employees of that office as well.”

“Legal confirmation?” Alex Geithner asked.

“Depends. Electra is under martial law, which means that none of the local or Federated Suns laws apply—not even the civil Hegemony codes are applicable. Technically, nothing we did violates the SLDF Uniform Code, but some people will have a conniption over how we connected the dots to Paterson in the first place.”

“It doesn’t matter—there won’t be any trials,” said Sam.

“No trials, Sir? These people have to be brought to justice.”

“Justice will be given out, Alex, but these scum are not going to be given a trial to try and make themselves martyrs. Hank, hand over everyone in custody on Electra that had so much as an inkling that this was going down over to the firing squad. Summary execution is within my authority under martial law, and that is what we are going to do.”

Geithner stared at Sam, his eyes bulging. “That violates every civil code of the Hegemony, General. The prisoners do have rights, Sir.”

“No, Alex, they don’t. Read General Order 42 again—it has never been rescinded.”

“General Order 42 was issued during the Reunification Wars, General Anders,” chimed in Hank Tibbets. “It is long since out of date.”

Sam smiled. “Read it, Hank. There was no expiration date on the Order. Instead, it states that in the Taurian Theatre of Operations—which, of course, Electra is within—that the officer commanding said theatre is authorized by the First Lord of the Star League to maintain public order and safety through any measure deemed appropriate in any area where the SLDF has declared martial law in effect. It then goes on to specifically list what actions are appropriate—including summary execution for treason and murder. Both of which are applicable here.”

Tibbets nodded slowly. “It is rules lawyering, General, and the folks back home will raise all sorts of holy hell over it. And I am dead certain that your legal staff would differ with you; but it does present us with a way to go.”

“That won’t let us touch Albrecht, though. Cumberland was never a part of the TTO back in the day,” Alex mused.

“Leave Albrecht to me,” Sam said rather grimly. “I will leave tonight aboard the Marlborough for Cumberland.”

“Yes, sir; I’ll have my bags packed within the hour,” Alex said.

“No. I want you to stay here and assist Hank on keeping the lid nailed shut. If any of those fanatical bastards decides to play rough, then I want to you shut them down hard and fast.”

“But, Sir, you can’t go without an escort,” Alex exclaimed.

“I will be taking the 11th Heavy Cavalry Regiment with me, along with the Federated Suns and Taurian Concordat representatives and their assigned escorts. If Duke Albrecht does not want to surrender himself peacefully, I will have more than enough of an assault force to take him—dead or alive.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Wed Aug 05, 2009 3:49 pm 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Ten

August 11, 2768
DCS Mikasa
Standard Orbit, Asta
Terran Hegemony


The hatch quietly shut behind the last of the Otomo to leave Minoru Kurita’s cabin aboard his flagship. Seated around the table were three of his field commanders—and oldest surviving comrades— Hideki Matasuke, Gregor Samasov, and Mitsuo Fujita, along with his newly designated heir, Vincent Kurita.

The four men waited as Minoru took a sip of his steaming tea and then set the cup down precisely in the center of the rectangular mat before him.

“Thank you all for coming,” he said. “We have much to discuss this day—about a subject that both Vincent and myself agree must be aired with you in private, but one that could embarrass the Dragon if it becomes publicly known.”

Admiral Matasuke glanced at General Samasov and General Fujita—both men nodded their heads in agreement. “My Lord, it is you we serve; your secrets are ours, until death takes us all.”

“Thank you, old friends. There has been much speculation among the remains of the Court and our nobility back in the Combine that I should take a new wife and sire a new heir. This is not possible.”

Samasov frowned. “Sire, we know that you still mourn your wife’s passing, but in time you might find another who pleases you. You are still young and virile, after all. No offense, Lord Vincent, to either your age or to your health; we all know that you are still well able to pilot a ‘Mech on the field of battle and lead men.”

“None taken, General Samasov,” wheezed the old man, the cousin of Minoru’s father. “I may be old and grey, but I can still take any of you in the cockpit of a ‘Mech.”

Fujita laughed. “Not even my DEST would slow you down were to take that BattleMaster of yours into the field against them, Lord Vincent. It has a storied reputation second only to your own.”

Minoru joined in the laughter, and then he extended his hand. The table grew silent once more.

“Both Vincent and I suffer from a condition that afflicts many of the Kurita line. Three years ago, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer by my private physician. The organs had to be removed. I literally cannot sire another child. Vincent has not been able to for over twenty years.”

The three men at the table sat still for a moment, absorbing the blow those words dealt. With no heir beyond Vincent, then who would lead the Combine in the future?

“Hai. You see the problem we face,” Minoru continued after a moment. “There are other Kuritas in the Combine—but each are removed from the ruling line. We risk civil war as each would gain the support of their local officials and military units—the Combine could be torn apart, helpless before the foes of the Dragon as it struggles with itself.”

“But perhaps there is another way,” he finished.

“And what way might that be, my Lord?” asked Matasuke.

“If I were to discover that I had sired a bastard during my youth, then he could be acknowledged by me in public as heir.”

“A bastard?” mused Samasov. “It has been done before—and if you acknowledge him publicly, the DCMS and DCA will follow him, regardless of what the Warlords and the nobility want.”

“There is just one problem, however,” Vincent whispered, pausing as the other three men looked over at him. “I know Minoru well enough to know that he has never dallied with anyone outside of his marriage.”

Minoru nodded. “That is the problem, gentlemen. I need a bastard, and unlike most of my line, I do not seem to have one. Privately, that is. In public, I can acknowledge a man of my choice as my child out-of-wedlock and declare him as Coordinator. Who is to know the difference?”

“The person you choose? His mother—the woman you are supposed to have had an affair with? The husband that you must have cuckolded?” Fujita answered with questions of his own.

“There is a possibility, my Lord,” whispered Matasuke.

“Yes?”

“Megumi was in our cadet class at the Academy, no?”

“Hai.”

“She died years ago, but she left the academy to marry a young officer—and had his child soon enough thereafter that rumor followed her for years. Her husband is also dead, so neither of them can contradict the story.”

Vincent frowned. “It is important to consider these things, but it is more important to choose the right man for the role. What if her son is an incompetent drunkard?”

Fujita laughed. “It is perfect, my Lord. And it will silence all of those young turks who followed . . ., well, I mean . . .”

“You mean the men and women who followed my son Jinjiro into his dishonor?”

“Yes, my Lord. Forgive me.”

“Forgiveness is not necessary, Mitsuo. My son lived his life in a manner that dishonored himself and his name—he ended his life in such a fashion to restore that honor and make himself a legend in the annals of our family,” Minoru said, swallowing a lump in his throat, while Vincent nodded his agreement. “Finish your thought.”

“My Lord,” Fujita continued, “the man that Megumi married was Chu-I Akira Tanaka. He was the father of Tai-Sa Hiroyoshi Tanaka. Gentlemen, I believe that if this must be done, that no other candidate could possibly be as worthy.”

“Tanaka,” Minoru whispered as he mulled over the thought. Seeing that Matasuke and Samasov were nodding their agreement, and Vincent was beaming with a grin so wide it was a wonder the hull had not ruptured, he also nodded. “Very well, then old friends—I seem to have a bastard son after all. And a new heir.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Sat Aug 20, 2011 1:15 pm 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
August 13, 2768
Asta Defense Headquarters
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony


“Colonel Tanaka?” Minoru Kurita’s aide-de-camp asked. “The Coordinator and the First Lord have requested your presence inside.”

Hiroyoshi nodded crisply and made his way towards the guarded door that lead into the secure briefing room where Stephen, Minoru, and Vincent Kurita were meeting. The two Black Watch guards straightened as he approached, and one of them opened the thick, sound-proof door. The former-DEST commando entered, and heard the door click shut behind him, feeling his ears pop as the rooms internal pressure stabilized at a slightly higher level than that of the rest of the HQ facility.

The lord and master of the Draconis Combine sat at the head of the long table, Vincent on his left, and the First Lord of the Star League beside him on the right—and Stephen was grinning like a demented Cheshire Cat. Hiroyoshi felt a slight chill run down his spine; whatever had Stephen Cameron so giddy would either be wonderful news, or terrible for anyone other than him. Hiroyoshi had grown to know the First Lord so well that that conclusion was certain.

“Lord Minoru,” he said bowing deeply. “Lord Vincent, First Lord Stephen. You have asked for me, my Lords?”

“We did, Lieutenant Colonel Tanaka,” Stephen answered in a somber, formal voice that completely belied his treacherous grin. “Lord Minoru has . . . a matter to discuss with you. Before he does so, I will tell you now that I approve—in advance—whatever decision that you choose to make. And that if you accept, you are free from my service to accept this . . . most unusual offer.”

The First Lord stood, still grinning like a seven-year old with a secret. “Lord Minoru, I will leave the three of you so that you may have this discussion in private. You and Vincent are still joining Cassie and me for dinner, this evening, I hope?”

“Hai,” answered Minoru Kurita.

“Until then, my brother. Hiroyoshi, best of luck to you, my friend, Godspeed,” Stephen said as he walked up to the bodyguard and extended his hand. Hiroyoshi took it and Stephen briskly shook it. And then he shook his head—still with that inane grin on his face—and exited the room.

“Tai-Sa Tanaka,” spoke Lord Kurita from his seat, “please join us here.”

Hiroyoshi sat, the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach growing stronger by the second, for now Vincent was grinning in anticipation—although Minoru’s have could well have been carved from stone.

“As you may be aware, Tai-Sa, I have lost both my sons—my heirs. I have no more children, and Vincent shall be Coordinator after me,” Minoru said.

“Hai, my Lord Minoru.”

“Vincent has no heirs, either. Not since Drago and his children were murdered by the Usurper on Terra.”

“Hai, my Lord Minoru.”

“There are many at the Imperial Court who have suggested that I take another wife, or a concubine, and produce a new heir. There is a problem which prevents that from becoming a solution, however. Both Vincent and I have been rendered infertile due to a medical condition endemic to the Kurita line. There will no more children that I or Vincent can sire; which leaves the Draconis Combine with a most difficult situation.”

“There are many line of Kurita blood in the Combine, Tai-Sa; but none which have a clear claim to the Imperial Throne. If an heir is not found, it will mean civil war are claimants contest their right to rule the Combine. You own wife is of a Kurita blood-line, is she not?”

“Hai, my Lord Minoru. She is a descendant of Sanethia Kurita.”

“Good, that is distant enough that there shall be no stigma of consanguine mingling associated with your children.”

Hiroyoshi snapped up in his seat, a startled look on his face. And Minoru smiled slightly.

“I must have an heir of the Blood, Hiroyoshi Tanaka, and I attended the Academy with your mother before she resigned to marry Akira Tanaka—from which you were then born just six months later. If I were to claim you as my first-born son, the timing could not be more perfect.”

Hiroyoshi’s eyes bulged outwards in shock, and his jaw gaped open.

Vincent chuckled. “Of course, it is a lie, Tai-Sa Tanaka. My cousin Minoru never had a dalliance with your mother; Akira Tanaka is your father by blood. But is it a necessary lie that will preserve the Combine—the same Combine that you have taken a blood-oath to serve with your life or death, Hiroyoshi Tanaka.”

Minoru nodded in agreement. “You are the man that I have selected to become my heir—the Heir to the Dragon. If you agree, you must participate in this lie for the remainder of your life, Hiroyoshi. But it is the only way that I see to preserve the future of the Draconis Combine. Neither I, nor Stephen Cameron, will order you to do this. I ask you to.”

Hiroyoshi sat back in his seat, his mouth suddenly dry and his palms filled with sweat. His head spun, and he could see just how radically his life—and his children’s—would forever be changed if he agreed. But then he looked up at Minoru, looked deep into the older man’s eyes, and saw within a sadness that he knew meant that Minoru was deeply aware of the sacrifice he was asking his servant to take—and the shame that he would bring onto his real father as a common cuckold.

But Hiroyoshi had raised to a life of service, and he slowly nodded his head in agreement. “If my by life—or death—I may serve, than I am yours, my Lord Minoru.”

“So be it, Hiroyoshi Kurita. So be it.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Sat Aug 20, 2011 3:43 pm 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Eleven

August 25, 2768
SLS Shuttle Marlborough-Four
Descent Orbit, Cumberland
Federated Suns (Capellan March)


“We’re in for some chop, gentlemen, so strap in and we will clear the thunderheads in just a few moments,” the pilot’s voice came over the intercom in the SLDF Aries class personnel shuttle just after it entered the upper troposphere on its descent to Cumberland’s surface beneath the storm clouds below.

The one-hundred and seventy-ton vessel rocked hard as it was buffeted by the high winds and ionization charges began to build along the wing edges. However, the pilot kept the nose high to present the thick thermal blanket than covered the belly against the plasma dancing along on the ventral surfaces. Red, orange, and white flames streaked past the small window to Sam’s right even as the SLDF general tightened his restraints still further. A massive electrical discharge from the storm lit the interior of the shuttle in a blue-white flash and the Aries rocked even harder.

“General Anders,” said the man seated across the aisle to Sam’s left, “have I thanked you for getting me out of the office and going on a field trip to straighten up this mess your Taurian friends have got us into?”

“Not that I remember, Duke Hasek.”

“Good. I hate flying, especially when we,” the man winced as another incredibly powerful lightning bolt cracked across the sky, “when we have to fly through a thunderstorm.”

“Well, your grace, then it’s a good thing we are not so much flying at the moment as we are falling,” Sam replied through gritted teeth.

“That just makes me feel so much better, General Anders,” Hasek said dryly.

“How are you doing, back there, Sandra?” Sam asked.

“Lovely, mon General,” she replied with a chuckle. “but the best part if coming up next!”

“What part is coming up next?” asked the Davion Duke.

“When the pilot fires his braking thrusters, Your Grace,” the young Taurian woman replied. “It just squeezes the breath right out of . . . UMMPH!”

Just as if on cue, the powerful belly thrusters engaged and immediately slowed the descent, leaving the passengers feeling as if they hit the full reach of a bungee cord and then rebounded upwards. The pilot dropped the nose, and suddenly daylight streamed in through Sam’s window, the thick heavy black clouds falling rapidly behind as the shuttle now flew deeper into the atmosphere.

“And now we are flying, Your Grace,” Sam said.

Only the sound of retching came from the across the aisle, and Sam’s nose detect the pungent stench of stomach acid as Duke Hasek threw up his breakfast into the air-sickness bag he had been clutching like a life preserver.


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Sun Aug 21, 2011 4:11 pm 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
The Aries class shuttle set down on the landing field tarmac located just half a kilometer from Duke Albrecht’s mansion. As Sam exited the SLDF small craft, he took a good look at the surrounding terrain. The Duke had a flair for the gothic, Sam thought, as he surveyed the imposing four-storey edifice. Perched on the rim of a good-sized mesa that overlooked the river valley below, the home was all grey stone, covered with vines and moss, surrounded by a wall surmounted by statues of lions and gargoyles. A pair of iron gates stood open, flanking the macadamized roadway that led from the landing field to the estate proper. That same road continued on, and circled the mesa in a winding ramp that wrapped about the butte towards his subjects far below. Several heavy weapon turrets guarded the road where it descended, cleverly set back so that they could take no hostile fire from below—and the switchback in the road prevented attackers from using long-range weapons to silence them. Two more turrets covered the landing field.

The capital of Cumberland—Middlesboro—consisted of low structures, with the occasional high stack that belched thick, heavy smoke into the air. Cumberland was rich in coal and other minerals with a high energy content, and apparently the Dukes who lived here had decided that the abundance and cheapness of this source of energy were well worth the environmental and health hazards that accompanied the burning of this rock. Sam shook his head ruefully; what a waste he thought. Cumberland had clean water, beautiful primeval forests, and yet, the people who had settled here (or their rulers) had chosen to ruin it rather than spend a few more dollars to clean technology that would have provided ten times the energy output.

He turned, and helped Sandra down the steep stairs leading to the shuttle’s passenger bay as an ancient Bentley pulled into a parking lot a few dozen meters away. Two heavy-duty trucks painted in camo followed the Bentley, each of which unloaded several squads of infantry troops after coming to a stop. The driver’s door opened as Duke Hasek descended the steps, still looking slightly green from the ride, trailed by Lucien Oshner. The driver of the limo walked around to the back of the vehicle and opened the door, as the troops surrounded the shuttle—and the dignitaries—and raised their weapons.

From the back seat of the Bentley, an old man emerged, dressed formally and relying upon a silver-chased cane to balance him. He hobbled across the short distance and stopped, looking at Sam and his companions.

“Who are you? And why have you come to my world?”

Sam turned to Gregory Hasek. “I take it this is His Grace, Hollis Albrecht, Duke of Cumberland?”

“It is,” answered the Duke of the Crucis March.

Sam turned back to face the old man. “Sir, I am General Sam Anders, Star League Defense Force, commanding officer 10th Army. May I introduce Duke Gregory Hasek, the ruler of the Capellan March in the name of First Prince John Davion?”

Albrecht snorted. “I know Hasek, General. And you are probably here to try and intimidate me into ceasing my political contributions to keeping Federated Suns systems as belonging to our realm.”

“No, Your Grace. I am here to put a stop to your funding of terrorists who have committed murder and treason in the Pleiades. Specifically on the world of Electra in the Pleiades.”

“Ahh. Yes, I have been informed that your interrogations have implicated me in the activities of those patriots. But I have also been informed your confessions were illegally obtained and that I stand little chance of being convicted either by the Star League or the Federated Suns—fruit of the poisoned tree, and all of that.”

Sam smiled. “You are correct, Your Grace. Neither the Star League nor the Federated Suns can touch you legally for the crimes that you sponsored. That is not why I am here. It seems that a civil law suit was filed on Electra against you for these activities, and we are present to inform of that suit’s outcome.”

“Outcome! There hasn’t even been a trial!” Albrecht barked, his face turning a shade of puce.

“Oh, but there has been, Your Grace. You see, the plaintiffs appealed directly to Duke Hasek here since it appears that the legal system in the Pleiades might be biased against them. He rendered his judgment three days ago—and First Prince John Davion has already approved it. There will be no appeal of the ruling for you.”

Gregory stepped forward, his skin having regained its normal pallor. “Duke Hollis Albrecht, I hereby inform you that all of your lands, revenues, monetary possessions, and incomes have been seized and awarded to the families of the one hundred and seventy-four victims killed in the bombings for which you paid. You are hereby stripped of your titles and rendered a commoner—a penniless commoner.”

“How dare you!” Albrecht shrieked. “I am a patriot of the Federated Suns—killing Taurians is far from a crime, you miserable syphocant. And this world—and its people—belong to me. Kill them,” he snarled to the head of the guard detail.

“Oh, Hollis,” chuckled Sam. “You see, that is attempted murder, right there. For giving that order alone, I can arrest in the name of the Star League and throw you in some deep dark Taurian jail cell for the rest of your natural life. Have you given any thought to the fact that I am the commanding general of an entire frakking Star League Field Army, you son-of-a-bitch?”

The small microphone clipped to Sam’s collar picked up every word, and suddenly the roar of jump jets filled the air. From the base of the Mesa, thirty-six heavy BattleMechs, Royal Exterminators with their stealth systems fully activated, surged upwards and landed in series of massive thuds that caused dust to rise from the tarmac. As one, each ‘Mech raised its right and left arms, the muzzles and emitter heads of lasers and PPCs opening as the weapons were armed by the MechWarriors, the Star League MechWarriors who piloted the massive machines.

“I think you find, Hollis, that your guards are nowhere near as eager to lay down their lives for you as you might otherwise believe,” the General continued. “Drop those weapons, gentlemen and you will live.”

A clatter rang out as dozens of rifles and carbines dropped to the surface of the airfield. Sam turned to the Taurian representatives as a Fury class DropShip streaked in across the sky, it’s side hatches open and filled with jump infantry getting ready to deploy. “Madame Calderon, Representative Oshner; do you believe that would Nicoletta be willing to house this criminal until his trial?”

Sandra smiled—a smile that only Sam could say held any warmth at all—and nodded her head. “Oui, mon General, I do believe that Grand-mama would be most willing.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2011 3:50 pm 
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General

Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
August 27, 2768
SLS Marlborough
En-route to Zenith Jump Point
Cumberland
Federated Suns (Capellan March)


“Thank you again for your assistance, Your Grace,” Sam said over the radio link between the Sovetskii Soyuz class Cruiser and the much smaller Robinson class Transport that had conveyed the Duke of the Capellan March.

“It was only my duty, General Anders, as a servant of the First Prince. I trust that you should now be able to restrain my more . . . shall we say, volatile . . . countrymen in how they choose to express their frustrations at the plebiscite?”

“I believe that the nobles may finally receive the messages we have been trying to send, Your Grace. Although it might cause you some difficulty in the future.”

“As Hollis Albrecht learned, General Anders, there is a great deal of difference between a planetary Duke and the Commander of an entire March—let alone the First Prince of the Federated Suns. With Marshall Burkett cleansing the AFFS of the Old Guard, the malcontents will have no recourse to armed insurrection—none, at least that shall succeed. I bid you a good journey, General. And I do hope if we simply must repeat this exercise in the future, you manage to schedule our landing flight to avoid thunderstorms?”

“My apologizes again, Your Grace, but it was necessary in order to allow the 11th’s special operations battalion to get on the ground ahead of us and undetected.”

“Well, we all do as we must, General. Bon voyage.”

With a click the radio transmission ceased. Sam stood from the communications station and turned to face Captain Ralph Gephardt, the master and commander of SLS Marlborough. “And since that is over and done with, good Captain, I believe that I shall retire for the evening.”

The captain nodded. “Good night, Sir. We will alert you if you are needed.”

As Sam walked through the ship’s labyrinth of passages, his mind churned. Despite his quick assertions to Gregory (and Gregory’s back at him), he was certain that this was by no means over. No, the men and women who hated the idea of giving back star systems they had won as prizes in war would instead go deeper into hiding, and none would be quite so easily tracked down as Albrecht. The bloodshed was not over, not by a long shot, he thought.

Nodding at various crewmen as he wandered, Sam eventually arrived at his compartment and he opened the hatch, stepping through—and saw that he was not alone.

The compartment lights were turned down to a soft glow that illuminated the VIP suite only faintly, but dozens of candles had been lit, surrounding the bed. A bed upon which lay Sandra Calderon, dressed in a long night-gown of lace and white satin. Sam stopped cold in shock, as the hatch automatically closed behind him and sealed, and then it heard it lock as Sandra picked up a remote and pressed the control.

The young woman stood, her soft curves concealed and revealed all the more alluring in the flickering light of the candles.

“I could not sleep, mon General, and I see that you have been working when you should have been resting.”

“My lady Calderon, . . . I . . . we . . . you . . .,” Sam stammered, but Sandra held one finger to her lips and the SLDF gunslinger heard her softly make a shushing sound.

“You have won the heart of at least one Taurian, mon General,” she said softly as she pulled the ties that held her gown around her body, releasing it, and letting it fall to the deck. She stood there in the soft candle-light, her nude body glistening with anticipation. “Come and claim you prize, mon General. Come to me and let us forget for a time politics and war and loss; come to me, Sam.”

And Sam did.


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2011 6:49 pm 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Thirteen

September 1, 2768
Winson Estate, Hawkins
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony

The window popped out with only the barest whisper of a sound. Two gloved hands appeared on the sill, and then a man quickly levered himself up and into the private study of Charles Winson, the owner of the single largest daily publication on Asta. The man wore dark clothing, but it was assorted pieces, from the fleece turtleneck, to the light windbreaker, to the black pants, and thick leather boots. Anyone seeing the man would have suspected him to be a common criminal—an assumption that the man wanted others to make.

Closing shut the window behind him, he drew the curtains close and made his way across the study to the safe that was hidden behind one of the wood panels on the wall. Although he had never actually been in this room, the man worked quickly and quietly to remove the false panel, revealing the blinking electronics set in the armored door. Reaching into his jacket, he drew out a small pouch, which then revealed a device—a device that he attached to the safe. Pressing one recessed green button, the mechanism sprang into action and within seconds began to project the proper sequence of numbers and letters that would open the safe.

A soft beep signaled that the device had finished, and the man removed the leads and punched in the correct combination. With a hiss, the safe door cracked open, and the intruder returned the device to its pouch and the pouch to his jacket. Ignoring the cash and jewelry stored within, the man instead extracted a thick bundle of papers, bound within a folder. Placing them on the desk, he took out a small camera and began to photograph each and every page.

You’ve been a busy little beaver, Charlie boy, he thought to himself as he scanned the documents. And then he stopped. Ah. He smiled, too busy, I see. Quickly, the man finished his work and then he replaced the documents, closed the safe, and fixed the false panel back, flush with the remainder of the wall.

But instead of the window, the man quietly crossed the floor to the single exit, which he carefully opened and stepped through. Three steps to his left, the stairs began to rise to the second floor, and he slowly and carefully made his way to their summit. Winson’s wife and children were gone for the weekend, visiting her mother up in the tiny township of Cold Pines, a fact which the man had known before he broke into Winson’s home. But Winson himself had stayed behind, citing work. Of course, he couldn’t tell his wife how much he hated her mother, but everyone who knew Winson knew that he did.

The man stopped at the door to Winson’s bedroom and drew out a silenced pistol from the small of his back. Throwing the door open, he heard the claws of Winson’s hounds scraping on the wooden floor—but his arm was already raised, and with first one quiet “THFFT” and then a second, both animals were laying dead on the hardwood, their blood pooling around the gaping wounds in their throats. A third shot fired, and Charles Winson gasped as scores of needles pierced his right hand—the hand that had been reaching for his telephone.

“None of that, Mister Winson. You and I are going to have a little chat, my friend. And afterwards, I may leave you alive, or I may leave you dead—that choice is entirely up to you,” the man said quietly. “Nelson Gruber, the photo-journalist that you hired several months ago, Mr. Winson—tell me about the man from off-world that came so highly recommended. The man that later took part in the killing of Marianne Cameron. Tell me everything.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2011 10:04 am 
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General

Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
September 2, 2768
South Cape Training Ground
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony


“Captain Truscott?”

Absalom turned towards the sound of Colonel Moreau’s voice and snapped to attention—but remembering the admonitions of the former second-in-command of the Regiment, he did not salute. “Sir.”

Ethan grinned, when he saw the Captain—still limping, but dressed in the full body cooling sock of an SLDF MechWarrior. “Captain, just what the devil are you doing here?”

“Sir, Sergeant-Major Howe told me that if I wanted to join in this field training exercise, I had best get out here ASAP.”

“Really? Were your non-existent skills at typing, filing, and your lack of familiarity with the intricacies of SLDF paperwork finally the reason that the RSM kicked your butt out of Regimental HQ?”

“Sir, I don’t know, sir. But the Sergeant-Major told me to grab my kit and get out here—and that neither he nor Sergeant McCormick wanted to see me posted there again.”

The officer commanding nodded. “And the leg? You are still limping, Captain Truscott; have the doctors cleared you for field service?”

“I haven’t asked, Sir. And I shouldn’t have many problems if you put me back in ‘Mechs cockpit, sir, rather than with the Nighthawks.”

“Well, there is just one small problem with that Captain,” Ethan replied. “We don’t have a ‘Mech assigned to you at the moment—some problem with the paperwork that was filed informing SLDF command that we had just thirty-nine active duty MechWarriors instead of forty.”

“Well, technically, Sir, I haven’t really been active duty . . .”

“And the top brass do not need to know that, Captain. You know how famished the entire Defense Force is for BattleMechs right now—so since we had only thirty-nine active duty MechWarriors in the Regiment, they stopped your Griffin II and sent it as a replacement to the 501st Pathfinders.”

Ethan Moreau shook his head as he walked up to the young man and placed his arm around his shoulder. “You see son, the brass are a lot like a seven-year old child; they don’t need to know everything that goes on, even if they demand it. They don’t understand what happens in the field, and how we conduct ourselves, so we just tell them what they really, really need to know. And not one bit of information more. Sometimes, I think that whenever someone gets a star or two and then gets stuck behind a desk, they get captured by the bureaucrats that really run the SLDF. Everything boils down to what is written in the regs and no one uses their common fracking sense.”

Absalom’s face fell in disappointment, but then he straightened up. “In that case, Sir, permission to report to the observation bunker—I know I’m not assigned to the First Lord’s detail, but an extra eye couldn’t hurt.”

“Oh, no, Captain. I think I’ve got something better for you—follow me.”

*****************************************************

“What the hell is that? Sir?” blurted out Absalom as the two officers entered a ‘Mech hanger on the edge of the three hundred square mile reservation.

“That, my young padawan, is a Royal Grasshopper, the Grasshopper II. But, you’ve never even seen a GHR-5H Grasshopper, have you? It was a brand new design that will fill a few badly needed niches in the ranks—but Amaris captured most of the factories that makes them. We’re retooling a few outside the Hegemony to produce the GHR-5H for the SLDF, but the Army got its hands on about a hundred of the basic model—twenty of the Royal version—just before the Coup went down. This puppy is my ride, Captain Truscott, and you don’t want to know how many strings I pulled to get here in the Regiment. She masses 70 tons, moves as fast and jumps as far as your Griffin, carries as much armor as a Thunderbolt, and is armed with two Snub-nosed PPCs, three medium lasers, and a five-tube LRM rack with a total loadout of 120 missiles. Please, she has enough heat sinks to shoot everything and jump 150 meters without cooking me alive.”

“I think I’m in love,” Absalom whispered.

Ethan grinned. “Well, then, Captain. Since I have to attend the First Lord in the observation bunker today, why don’t you take her out on the FTX—keys are in the ignition and you had best not even scratch the paint job. Comprende?”

“Sir, yes, Sir!” Absalom said with broad grin as he snapped to attention.

“Carry on, then.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2011 3:50 pm 
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General

Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
General and Margrave Jennifer Steiner watched the FTX unfold from the cockpit of her ZEU-6Sc Zeus assault-class BattleMech. Not only was the BattleMech appropriate to her rank and station, she had chosen it because of the excellent cockpit that gave her a wonderful view of everything around her—and because of the expansive computer support that allowed her to coordinate the actions of her 4th Royal Guards as they maneuvered against the Star League’s 10th Brigade. Frowning at the displays, she reached down to her command console and flipped one of the controllers.

“Colonel Bennington, your 8th Lyran Guards are getting their flank rolled—send your reserves to counter, and watch out for their tanks, they are very deadly machines.”

Static crackled across the frequency, and then broke as a voice emerged from the speakers. “But ma’am, they are just using light and medium ‘Mechs against us—no match for my heavies. In fact, they are beginning to run away, request permission to pursue.”

“Negative, Colonel, they are not running, they are trying to draw you after them! Pull your line back to link with the 4th Royals immediately.”

But her order came too late, and as the SLDF flankers broke off, the scream of artillery shells inbound began to sound. Thirty-six explosions of white smoke detonated simultaneously in the center of the 8th Lyran. Had it been the air-burst HE shells used in a normal engagement, half of Bennington’s BattleMechs would have been rocked by the concussion and shell fragments—badly damaged or destroyed by the blast. And sure enough, the SLDF lights and mediums reversed course and charged right back in, now supported by a battalion of heavy tanks that stuck their turrets above the rim of a ridge-line and began to rake the 8th Lyran.

Sneaky, sneaky, sneaky, Lord Kerensky, Jennifer thought. But I have an answer for that as well. “Rainbow Six, execute Cutthroat.”

Two clicks were her only answer over the speakers, but then eighteen Chippewa heavy fighters tore over the ridge, each dropping ten tons of infernos, high-explosive, and cluster bombs—all simulated, of course. But that pass tore out the heart of the SLDF armored battalion, and the heavy fire savaging the 8th Lyran petered out. On her display, six Chippewas began to flash red, as the simulator master computer ruled that Star League anti-air units had clawed them out of the sky, but the remainder completed their turns and made one final pass against the heavy SLDF elements defending against her 4th Royals. Two dozen large lasers and an equal number of mediums flashed beams of coherent light as the fighters strafed the BattleMechs below.

Now is the time, Jennifer thought. “All Lyran units, advance now! GO, GO, GO!”

The surviving units of three Lyran Regiments (the mostly intact 4th Royals, the now badly under strength 8th Guards, and the 13th Arcturan Guards ) charged the ridge that marked the 10th Brigades main line of resistance—but then her lead ‘Mechs began to come to a halt as explosions of smoke and fire erupted from the ground around them. Damn! They mined the bloody ridge, she thought. The pre-op briefing had indicated that this was a hasty defense, and so she had unconsciously ruled out pre-positioned minefields, but here they were.

Suddenly, her threat monitor turned crimson as yet another force of SLDF BattleMechs appeared—a battalions worth, emerging from the lake behind her! And these ‘Mechs all bore the crossed six-shooters worn by gunslingers. Great, just great, she thought. And now we get the Black Watch at our backs.

Spinning her Zeus around, Jennifer raised her left arm LRM launcher and triggered a flight of missiles at the Phoenix Hawk leading a pair of Falcons and a Clint. And nothing happened.

The weapon didn’t fire, but suddenly her console flickered, and her systems began to go haywire.

“What the . . .” she started to say, but then she stopped cold as the display showed all of her heat sinks going off-line—even the ones internal to the engine core. And the reactor jumped to 140%, sending temperatures soaring within the chassis. Jennifer hit the emergency shutdown not once, not twice, but three times, but the engine remained live and locked on its emergency maximum power load.

“Central, Margrave Steiner—terminate exercise immediately. I am declaring an emergency, my reactor is locked on overload and will not shut down. Overrides have failed, heat sinks are off-line—core explosion in one eighteen from mark: MARK!”

For a second only static came over the speakers, and then a robust baritone voice cut in. “All units, this is the First Lord—terminate exercise and clear the area. Margrave Steiner abandon via ejection; I’ve got a skimmer coming in for a fast pickup.”

“Roger, First Lord. Eject, eject, EJECT!” she yelled as pulled the emergency cables, and nothing happened. “Damn it,” she yelled into the microphone. “Ejector malfunction! I’m abandoning by foot,” she screamed as she through the control that would blow the armored canopy—but that too failed. She hit the manual release and pushed—but the canopy did not budge. “Frak me,” she whispered.

*****************************************************

“Frak me,” she whispered over the speakers of the observation bunker. “Canopy will not release. I repeat, it will not release even after disengaging the manual interlocks.”

Stephen stared at Ethan Moreau with horror dawning on his face. “She can’t get out?”

“No, Sir. And her ‘Mech has no hands—so she can’t even pull the canopy off.” The Black Watch CO picked up a hand transmitter. “Rescue Three, abort. I say again, abort.”

“EIGHTY-THREE SECONDS TO CORE DETONATION, MARK,” the bunker control computer announced.

“My god,” whispered Stephen. “How could so many systems fail—at once?”

“They can’t my Lord,” Ethan answered. “Both the canopy controls and the ejection system are separate from the remainder of the internal controls—neither is networked with any other system. Short of battle damage, this shouldn’t be happening.”

Or sabotage, both men thought, nodding at each other in silent acknowledgement.

“Sir!” one of the sensor techs running the FTX computers shouted. “It’s Black Watch Beta Six!”

Stephen and Ethan turned backed to the monitors and saw the Grasshopper piloted by Absalom Truscott fly over the ridge and the minefield, hitting the ground beyond it running full-bore towards the Zeus, which was now emitting steam and smoke from every gap in the armored chassis.

“SIXTY-TWO SECONDS TO CORE DETONATION, MARK,” the bunker control computer announced.

“What the hell is he doing!” Ethan barked.

Stephen, on the other hand smiled. “Exactly what you or I would do, Ethan. He is going to save that woman, or die trying.”

*****************************************************

The joints and myomers of the borrowed Grasshopper groaned with the stress as Absalom kept the engine power at 130% of rated maximum—sending him careening over the ground at nearly one hundred kilometers per hour. As he approached the distressed and dying Zeus, he skidded to a halt and barked out a command of his own.

“General, cover your face!”

*****************************************************

Within the cockpit of the Zeus, Jennifer Steiner watched the Grasshopper and its crazy pilot charge across the open field, sliding to a half beside her. She heard, the radio transmission and felt one of the massive hand actuators of Grasshopper grab her Zeus’s shoulder, and the second took hold of her canopy.

“Oh [crap],” she said as she raised both arms to cover her head, narrowly avoid the shower of shattered armored glass as the canopy panes were crushed, and then she heard a terrific screech as the canopy was ripped free and thrown a hundred meters. The gull-wing canopy on the left side of the Grasshopper’s head opened, and the BattleMech straightened its arm, forming a bridge between her now open cockpit and the Grasshopper’s.

Jennifer released her restraints and scrambled out of the cockpit, crawling over shattered armor-glass and twisted, torn metal. Bleeding from a dozen cuts on her bare legs and torso, she heard the control centers announcement behind her. “FORTY-ONE SECONDS TO CORE DETONATION, MARK.”

But then she stopped, and turned around, and bent down into the cockpit and began to tug at a specific computer memory module.

*****************************************************

“FORTY-ONE SECONDS TO CORE DETONATION, MARK.” The radio announced as Absalom saw General Steiner exit the BattleMech and begin to make her way across his Grasshopper’s outstretched arm, but then she turned around and bend down into her cockpit, leaving him with a lovely view of her rear end.

“What the hell?” he asked himself, and triggered the external PA. “General Steiner, get your pretty ass in motion and get over here NOW! Just leave whatever you looking for, we’ve gotta go now!”

Finally, she emerged once again, holding in one hand a computer memory module from the central processing core. She raced across the arm and dove into the cockpit, and Absalom grabbed hold of her as he fired the BattleMech’s jump-jets and rotated away from the Zeus. He hit the ground running and pushed his own engine to the firewall.

“Where is your jump-seat?” the General asked from his lap as the gull-wing canopy cycled closed.

“There isn’t one in this model.”

“What? You mean I’ve got to ride in your lap, Captain?”

“That is exactly what I am saying, General, now if you would kindly get your cooling vest out of my eyes, I need to see where I am going!”

“TWENTY SECONDS TO CORE DETONATION, MARK.”

“If we get behind the ridge, we should be fine, General. Just a little bit more now,” Absalom said as he jumped the Grasshopper above the minefield of smoke bombs—but the ammunition bin aboard Zeus detonated from the soaring temperatures; the that explosion ruptured the over-stressed engine core. The detonation caught the Grasshopper in mid-flight, hurling it up and over the ridge, to come down in a tumbled heap beyond.

*****************************************************

Flashing red lights lit the control panels of the Grasshopper as Absalom shook his head, trying to clear his head from the massive concussion wave that had picked up his ‘Mech and carried it two hundred meters beyond what its jump jets were rated for. His restraining straps were digging into his shoulders and he realized the ‘Mech was laying face up on its back—and its rear armor was missing. Colonel Moreau is going to kill me, he thought, as he saw critical damage lights flashing on both hips—and it looked like the gyro was dead as well. But at least he had jettisoned the LRMs before he began his wild ride, and that had avoided a torso-gutting ammunition explosion.

He winched as felt a sharp pain in his right side; not his ribs—again! General Steiner was lying flat against him, atop of him. He shook her shoulder. “Wake up, General, we’re still alive after all.”

Jennifer stirred, shaking her head, and she turned to look Absalom directly in his eyes, their noses almost touching. “What, Hauptmann . . . it seems that I do not even know the name of my savior?”

“Truscott, ma’am. Absalom Truscott, Royal Black Watch.”

“Well then, Hauptmann Truscott, do not you enjoy my pretty ass being in your lap?”

Absalom flushed, and sweat began to bead on his face. “Well, it was just a saying, Your Grace, I mean that . . .”

“That you do not think my ass is pretty, Hauptman?” she asked in tone of voice that could freeze water. Her warm blue eyes turned flinty and resemble chipped pieces of ancient sea ice.

The young MechWarrior flinched, and he shook his head. “I think I will just say that I saved your life, Your Grace, and then shut up before I dig myself a deeper grave.” He flushed skin faded, becoming a pale white as he spoke.

Jennifer chuckled as she pushed the sweat beads aside with a single finger. “I see you a wise man, Hauptmann, as well as brave, not to mention incredibly foolhardy.” She leaned down and kissed him deeply, and then pulled back, a coquettish smile on her face. “I find that combination of qualities in a man to be incredibly sexy, Hauptmann Absalom Truscott—do you agree?”

But Truscott gave no answer, and his eyes were closed, the lids faintly fluttering.

“Absalom? Hauptmann?” Jennifer asked in growing alarm, and then she saw the blood pooling on the cockpit surface beneath the two of them, blood coming from the puncture wound were a spalling piece of the cockpit armor plate had sliced through Truscott’s ejection seat and into his back.

Glancing around, she spotted the emergency field radio still in its clip against the cockpit’s bulkhead, and pulled it loose. Switching it on, she keyed the microphone. “We are both alive, but Hauptman Truscott is injured—get the medics rolling!” she ordered.


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Wed Aug 31, 2011 2:17 pm 
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General
General

Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Fourteen

Liz reached the top of the ridge and stopped, leaning against the tall pine to renew her wind. The vision of the Hell they had just left still played across her thoughts as she paused, and her stomach lurched again. Not next time, she swore. Next time, I won’t be weak; next time, I will show no mercy to those scum. She turned just in time to see Daniel clutch his chest and fall.

She flew down the slope like a gazelle, dodging the rugged pines, the thick vines threatening to trip her with every step and send her plunging down the hill. Thorns tore at her skin as she ignored their pricks and she slid to a stop next to the old man on her knees, sending fallen leaves and underbrush flowing away from her.

“Sergeant-Major, Daniel, talk to me, dammit, Kobrowski, TALK TO ME!”

Daniel groaned and his eyes fluttered open. The skin of his face was bone-white, clammy and cold to the touch. “Capt’n,” he whispered, his words slurred and half-mumbled.

“God damn it, Daniel, don’t scare me like that—where are you hit?”

“Not shot, Capt’n. My . . . my heart.”

Liz looked down at him, her eyes growing wide in dawning horror. She tore the ruck she wore from her back and began rummaging for the med-kit. Opening a pack of aspirin, she placed two under his tongue, and a slight bit of color came back as they dissolved into his blood, and eased the crushing pain. He looked up at her, his face calm, but sad.

“Don’t worry none, Capt’n, Lizabeth. It don’t have my meds.”

Liz cradled the old non-com’s head in her lap, her eyes filling with water. “I’ll get you back to the cache, Dan, just you hold on, please hold on.”

“It’s my time, Capt’n. Ran out of my heart meds a month ago. We don’t have any . . . any more. You need to go along, now lass. Go along now, before they come.”

“I won’t leave you, Dan, I won’t. Don’t you die on me, you damned old fool. Why didn’t you tell me you needed medicine?”

“Cause you would have gotten yourself killed, Capt’n. It’s my time, girl. I’ve seen ninety springs in my time, and it’s time to pass on.”

Liz began crying—not Daniel, not after everything else. Not after Tim, and the First Lord, and the Regiment.

“My time, Capt’n, not yours. Just do one last thing for me, girl.”

“What’s that, Dan?”

The old non-com looked her square in the eyes, and though his voice was weak, the will behind it was not. “Remember your oath, girl. You are the last. The last of the Regiment. Our honor . . . is . . . now your honor. Swear it to me, girl. NOW.”

Liz stroked his sweat-lined face, tears washing down her cheeks. “I swear it, Sergeant-Major Kobrowski. I will keep the honor of the Regiment, until the day I die.”

“May it be a long time yet, girl, may it be . . .” his voice trailed off and his body went limp in her arms.

September 2, 2768
Portland, Oregon Province
North America, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“Liz?”

The soft voice pulled Elizabeth Hazen from her vivid memory, and she snapped instantly awake, shuddering at the dream that had received through her subconscious.

“Go, Vince,” she whispered into the microphone.

“Target in sight, you are good to go anytime—he’s already ordered a hooker for the night and she’s due to arrive in fifteen.”

“Our honor . . . is . . . now your honor. Swear it to me, girl. NOW.”

Tears leaked from her eyes and Liz shook her head. “Negative, Vince—go with the alternate,” she forced herself to say, as she shrank back down on her hells and hugged her knees close against her chest.

For a moment, there was only silence, and then Vince asked, “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she answered through gritted teeth. “Frank, take the shot.”

Three rooftops away, Frank Weatherby centered his crosshairs on the Rim Colonel walking up the steps to his second floor apartment. His scope zoomed in on the man’s face, and then he slowly squeezed the trigger.

BAM rang out the rifle shot in the early evening darkness. “Target down,” whispered Frank’s voice over Liz’s earpiece.

She nodded to herself. “Renedevous at gamma, people, move it.”

As Elizabeth Hazen, the last survivor of the Royal Black Watch Regiment stood and began to walk away, she saw her younger brother through the wetness of her tears. “I won’t become them, Timmy, I won’t. I will preserve our honor, bro; we will win this war with our soul intact.” And I won’t ever let you down again, Sergeant Major, she thought. Not again.


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Tue Sep 13, 2011 11:19 am 
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General
General

Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
September 4, 2768
Planetary Surveillance Command HQ, Fort Lewis
North America, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)


Saul did not look up from his desk at the sound of the knock on the door of his office. “Come!” he snarled, as he continued trying to compose yet the latest report to Internal Security on the progress being made against insurgents world-wide—and why the satellite system was proving relatively ineffective at locating them. He snorted in derision—as if the network had been built to track small bands of guerillas in the first place. They were damned lucky that they got half the information Planetary Surveillance sent their way; especially since more often than not they screwed up on their end.

Of course, Saul thought with a smile, part of that might be that he was skewing the data in a manner designed to bleed IntSec white.

“Major, sir,” he heard Zach’s voice, and Saul set down his pen and looked up. “I have finished analyzing those insurgent attack patterns you requested,” the young man said very deliberately.

Saul nodded, and drew in a deep breath. “Close the door, Senior Chief, and take a seat,” he said as he opened a desk drawer and removed a device, rapidly attaching leads to his phone, and then pressing two buttons. A green light appeared, blinked three times and began to steadily glow. A countdown timer appeared on a small display, starting at 3:00 and began to wind steadily down.

“All right Zack, all their bugs will hear now is that recording—what is the emergency?”

“I think you need to see this, sir,” the techno-geek said quietly. “My trojans and sleepers intercepted it this morning—and it ain’t good, sir.”

Zach passed a secure data-pad across the desk, one with the network function permanently disabled—removed as a matter of fact. Saul frowned and scanned the pad, his face going white with shock. He began to look at the information more closely, but then deliberately saved the data—Zach already had, but it never hurt to be extra-safe, not with this—and set down the pad. He leaned back in his chair and took a second to think.

Finally, he nodded as he made his decision. Before now, everything had been deniable, but once he passed this on he would be past the point of no return. So be it, he thought.

“Thank you, Zach. Signal Olds and Ghost—though the secure system you set up—that we all need to meet ASAP.” He glanced at the timer, and it was steadily counting down: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and then the green light went out.

“Well, it’s not what IntSec was hoping for, Senior Chief, but it’s better than nothing. At least we know they are not operating in any recognizable pattern. Good work, is there anything else?”

“No, sir.”

“Dismissed.”


September 5, 2768
The Red Light Brothel, Greenwood
North America, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)


Saul looked over the selection of scantily clad women—and several young men—with an approving eye as he and Zach stood in the center of the reception room of the whorehouse. You are here on business, he told himself sternly, and not this kind of monkey business—but he smiled as he thought that.

The madam approached the pair. “Welcome, gentlemen. How may we serve you, tonight?”

“I have an appointment with Danielle, ma’am. The name is Weiling.”

The madam nodded. “Of course, Mr. Weiling, everything is prepared. Is it his first time?” she asked nodding at Zach.

“Yes,” Saul smirked, actually enjoying Zach’s discomfiture. “I thought I would reward the Senior Chief for his hard work over the past few weeks—and I have heard that Danielle is perfect for teaching the young and inexperienced.”

“Oh, but she is, Mister Weiling. This way, if you please.”

The two Rim soldiers were lead through a bewildering labyrinth of hallways and doors, until they arrived before a stout wooden door. “She is inside, Mister Weiling—enjoy the bar in the suite, while Danielle takes care of your friend in one of the adjourning rooms.”

“My thanks,” Saul said as he pressed a handful of bills into the woman’s outstretched hand. He knocked on the door and carefully opened it, squeezing inside after it stopped half way, with Zach following behind him.

Vince closed the door behind the pair, throwing the bolt closed, and Saul nodded at Liz and Malachi as he crossed the room to the bar and poured himself a tall glass of scotch.

“Well, Major, here we are,” said Liz as she sipped on a club soda. Malachi had an open beer is his—and Bernie, like his twin Vince, held nothing other than a sub-machine gun.

Saul sat down and pointed Zach to the last remaining free chair, where he sat as well. “Show them, Zach,” he said glumly.

The surveillance tech pulled two data chips from his pocket and passed them across to Liz and Malachi, who loaded them into their own data-pads. And Liz gaped in shock, while Malachi simply said, “Holy [crap].”

Saul waited as they paged down, and down, and down, until finally both finished reading the documents and set their data-pads down, as if they were radioactive. And then he nodded.

“It is not the actual operations order, at least, but whoever summarized did a damn fine job of including the details of when and where the landing zones are. Plus the troop strength, plus their distraction and diversion attacks—the whole ball game is right there, people. Kerensky has designated it as Operation Ragnarok.”

“How the hell did you get this, Saul!” snapped Liz.

“Tell them Zach, and explain to them why you are leaving with Liz tonight,” Saul answered as he took another deep pull of the whiskey.

“Well, I forged an order for Internal Security to tap and download all computer, voice, and video communications and information at the Imperial Palace.”

“YOU WHAT!” shouted Malachi as he came out of his chair. “Are you insane, Zach?”

Liz just stared at the young man, who looked down at the floor.

“It was an internal order, eyes-only IntSec, and I made it look as if it was sent by von Strang. No one in IntSec is going to question that—and the order explicitly said that the Emperor had ordered a backup off-site storage of the data. But I put a back door into the server specified four months ago, so I could read any of the data without leaving a footprint.”

“And I routed my access through three different satellites and sixteen cities—I don’t think they could trace me, even if they found it.”

“You don’t think they could trace . . .” Malachi sat down his beer, and then he walked to be bar and came back with a bottle of vodka. He shook his head and chuckled—almost hysterically, in fact. “Mama wanted me to be a cook, well, she’s gonna see me in the kitchen before I die, because, boy, von Strang and fat-boy are gonna boil my ass in oil if they discover this!”

Liz held up her hand. “What’s done is done, Mal. I am more concerned about what this means for the SLDF. Amaris is pulling the majority of his troops home—and massing them in the landing zones. This will be a slaughter, even before the Regular Army exits its DropShips.”

“Yeah, they’ll lose a hundred percent of the first two or three waves—probably three-quarters of the follow-on, if they don’t abort early. Which will leave Kerensky in orbit, with no choice but to bombard, which means we are all royally screwed,” Mal said glumly. “I’ll probably freeze to death during the nuclear winter afterwards, unless my battalion is in the target zone of those battleships, in which case I’m human popcorn.”

“Not necessarily,” Saul said reluctantly. “We may have a way to get the information off Terra and to the General.”

Liz stared at Saul for several seconds. “I sense a but coming here,” she said.

And Saul nodded in agreement. “Last week, IntSec captured one of the last living Blackhearts still on Terra. He is being held at the penitentiary at Walla Walla until his execution, which is scheduled for the Friday—three days from now. If anyone has a way to get past Amaris security and get off-world, it is the Shadow.”

“You cannot be serious, Saul. You are talking about breaking the Shadow out of a maximum security IntSec facility—with less than seventy-two hours to plan the op. It can’t be done!”

“Yes it can, Captain Olds. Your orders are for you and your company to reinforce IntSec at Walla Walla, Mal; you and an attached company of light infantry under Liz. I had Zach print out another forgery with von Strang’s signature, so they shouldn’t be questioned—all of the papers are in order. Once there, you will eliminate the guards and get the Shadow clear, and find out if he does have any means of getting this information off the planet. Understand this, Mal, you are out in the cold after this—you and your troops both. You’ll have to ditch your ‘Mechs and extricate on foot with Liz.”

“Planetary Surveillance will be able to track us in minutes, Saul. It can’t be done,” Mal said again.

And nodded his head once more, finishing the tall glass. “Leave that to me. It’s time to go all in, and I haven’t come this far to back out now. Besides, I’ve always wanted to send my bosses and esteemed colleagues to hell—now is as good a time as any.”

Liz closed her eyes. “You know you can’t let yourself be taken, Saul.”

“I know, that’s why the belt has ten kilos of plastique in it, Liz. Trust me; Planetary Surveillance will not be a factor.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Sat Oct 08, 2011 2:32 am 
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Commanding General
Commanding General

Joined: Sat Nov 24, 2007 5:28 pm
Posts: 1828
I haven't read your story in ages, but it is good to see new chapters.


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Wed Jan 25, 2012 5:22 pm 
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General
General

Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
September 8, 2768
Internal Security Close Detention Facility 4, Walla Walla
North America, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“I have to clear this with Colonel Hertzog, ma’am—I wasn’t told to expect reinforcements.”

Liz nodded in agreement, keeping her face absolutely free from showing any emotions. “Quite right, trooper; I have new orders for Milo as well,” she finished as she tapped the side of a secured documents case.

“Wait here, ma’am,” he said politely as he returned to the kiosk next to the massive gate.

“Zach,” she whispered, “you did get that order uploaded to the facilities terminal, right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered. “Seventeen minutes ago. I made it seem like von Strang really doesn’t want this Shadow breaking out before his execution.”

“Someday, you and I are going to have to have a little talk about what you can and cannot do on your own initiative, Zach.”

Liz stopped speaking as the guard came back, his face looking a little relieved. “Ma’am, Colonel Hertzog confirmed that he just received orders of your command’s arrival. I don’t think the ‘Mechs will fit through the gate, though,” he finished as he stared at the bulk of Mal’s massive Thunderbolt, and the fifteen other ‘Mechs arrayed behind it. The five two-and-a-half ton trucks lined up following Liz’s jeep were miniscule in comparison.

“Oh, the Dragoons are providing external security, trooper. They will be roaming the perimeter.”

“Just wanted to make certain, ma’am.” He guard waved his arm and the gate slowly opened. Bear placed the vehicle in gear and it accelerated up the ramp and into the courtyard beyond, trailed by five trucks.

As each vehicle came to a halt, several men and women—each wearing a Rim Worlds uniform—bailed out of the trucks and began unloading weapons and equipment. Liz stepped out the jeep and walked towards the doorway heading to the Warden’s office, when suddenly that door opened and Colonel Milos Hertzog began walking towards her.

“I understand you are carrying dispatches, Major?” he asked.

“Yes, sir. Right here, sir,” the guerilla commander answered as she drew his pistol and fired two shots into the Rim Worlder’s throat. The snap of her pistol sent the rest of her team into overdrive, and suddenly a fusillade of shots rang out throughout the compound. One of the guards on the prison walls lifted his rifle, but then a stream of blazing inferno gel splashed across him from one of Mal’s ‘Mechs outside. The power sub-station exploded as yet another ‘Mech fired a class 20 autocannon into it, and heavy machines-guns and flamers began to killing the rest of the on-duty guards in the towers.

“Five minutes, people!” Liz shouted into her radio microphone, as she crouched behind the fender of the jeep, and unloaded the rest of the pistol’s magazine into the first two guards to come running out from the barracks. She dropped the empty weapon as Bear slammed a fully loaded R-11 into her free hand.

“Full mag and one in the spout, Liz!” he yelled.

She lifted the weapon to her shoulder and the assault rifle barked as she began to service targets, two rounds at a time. Another explosion tore open one of the stone walls, and out of the corner of her eye, Liz saw Vince and Bernie rush into the cell block where the captured Blackheart was being held.


September 8, 2768
Planetary Surveillance Command HQ, Fort Lewis
North America, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“Sir, IntSec Detention Facility 4 up near Walla Walla has just gone off the air. Satellite surveillance is detecting a firefight within the facility walls and BattleMechs firing at the facility from outside,” one of the surveillance specialists barked out.

Saul Weiling stood and walked to the very center of the room. “Listen up people,” he sang out. “Put your heads between your knees and kiss your asses good-bye, you miserable sons-of-bitches!”

Even as the staff looked up at him, Saul closed his eyes and squeezed the button wired to the detonator in his explosive vest.

The resulting explosion gutted the primary facility for coordinating surveillance activities in North America, blinding the Amaris forces and buying the Ghosts of the Black Watch a little more time.


September 8, 2768
Internal Security Close Detention Facility 4, Walla Walla
North America, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Liz was on her fourth magazine when suddenly she heard Vince over the radio, “The package is clear!”

“All right, Ghosts!” she yelled. “Disengage by the numbers, and let’s get out of dodge!”

Ignoring the vehicles that they had arrived in, the guerillas fell back down the ramp, as two ‘Mechs tore the gates off their hinges. With the ‘Mechs giving covering fire, they kept going, even as a passenger bus suddenly pulled off the access road and its doors opened up. One by one, the Ghosts boarded the bus, until only Liz was left. “Break off, Mal,” she broadcast, as the doors scissored shut behind her.

“Roger that,” the former Rim Worlds MechWarrior broadcast over the hash of static. “Rendezvous at Gamma Three.”

“Gamma Three, and Godspeed,” Liz answered.

The bus pulled on the provincial highway and began to accelerate. Suddenly, it slowed and took a sharp turn, pulling into a rest area adjacent to the river. Lisa Buhallin was waiting there, along with an old riverboat that had seen better days. But it floated, and it worked.

Quickly, the Ghosts transferred to the boat, and set off downstream towards the Columbia River. Liz made certain they were not yet being followed, and then went below decks to join the rest of her team. They wouldn’t be on the boat for long—but it never hurt to keep an eye open.

As she descended the ladder, into the belly of the boat, she heard Bernie’s booming voice, “Oh captain, my captain, may I have the pleasure to introduce you to the . . . Shadow!”

Liz smiled and turned around to look at an older man, perhaps in his sixties, his hair mostly gone, and few strands left all grey. He worn a prison jumpsuit, but he smiled. “I hate that nickname, Captain who-ever-you-are. Antonius Zalman at your service,” he said as he bowed. “Late of the Star League Special Intelligence Section, and retired for the past ten years before Amaris made the mistake of invading my home.”

Liz shook her head, and turned to face Bernie. “This is the feared Shadow, the Blackheart that has von Strang all up in arms? Did you get the right prisoner?”

Zalman chuckled. “I’m retired, my dear, not dead. At least not yet, and oh I have been such a bad, bad boy since the Rim Worlder’s took over. Never underestimate one of us blackhearted scoundrels. And since you must have a reason for breaking me out of prison before my execution—good timing by the way—what can a reformed Blackheart do for you?”

Liz stared at the old man for several seconds and then finally nodded. “Ok, we need to get a message off-planet to General Kerensky. Can you help?”

Zalman grinned. “I never refuse a pretty ladies request, my dear.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Wed Jan 25, 2012 5:23 pm 
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General
General

Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Fourteen

September 8, 2768
Aces and Eights, Hawkins
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony

The casino was abuzz with light and sound, filled with patrons winning and losing—mostly losing—their hard-earned paychecks. Aces and Eights was one of the higher stakes casinos in the city of Hawkins, but one that dealt with a fairly exclusive clientele. Despite the non-descript entrance that opened unto an unmarked alley, this establishment catered to the rich, the famous, and the infamous of Asta’s capital city.

“Good evening, sir,” the doorman spoke, as he closed the thick behind the latest guest, “may I take your coat, Mister . . .?”

“Hart. Blake Hart,” the man answered as he handed over an overcoat.

“Of course, Mister. Hart. Are you familiar with the rules of this establishment, sir?”

“Quite. Would you tell Emerson that I have arrived?”

The doorman frowned. “Mister Emerson? I don’t . . .”

“Just tell him; I will be waiting for him on the floor.”

Hart descended onto the gaming floor and spying an empty seat at a blackjack table he took a seat, pulling out a thick wallet from his jacket pocket.

“Drink, sir?” the scantily clad waitress who immediately sidled up next to Hart asked.

“Glengarry Reserve, neat, with a twist.”

Hart played three hands of blackjack as he waited for the owner, sipping on the thick, heavy whiskey as he won each hand.

“Mister Hart?” the waitress asked.

The agent looked up and she nodded. “Mister Emerson will see you now. If you would follow me?”

She led him to the back of the casino and through a series of hallways until they arrived at a plush office; ushering him in, she turned and left.

The extravagantly appointed office was not empty, because Leon Emerson sat the feroak desk in the center, and no fewer than six bodyguards stood against the walls.

“You come here, to my place, after what you did, you bastard!” Emerson snarled. “My knee still aches every time the weather turns cold from where you shot me; do you know how many days that Asta is cold?”

“It is good to see you to, Emerson,” Hart answered with chuckle as he crossed the carpet and took a seat in one of the two leather chairs facing the desk.

“I thought that you and I were done, Hart.”

“We are. I am not here to collect on a debt, Emerson, I want to ask you question.”

“A question. He comes to me to ask a question, oh Lord my God. Why don’t you just shoot me again?”

“If you think that it would help,” Hart answered with a smile.

“Ask.”

“Landgrave Gloria Lanning: what do you know about her?”

Emerson frowned and leaned back in his seat, one hand absently rubbing his bad knee. “You know the rules, Hart, I might not be in the game anymore, but even retired we don’t talk about our own.”

Hart cocked his head to one side. “Really? After they dumped you in the cold—literally—here on Asta for something that wasn’t your fault to begin with?”

“No,” Emerson growled, “it was not my fault, it was yours!”

“Do you really want me to apologize again for shooting you, Emerson? It did let you live instead of being tried as a traitor to the House of Steiner, didn’t it?”

The former LIC agent frowned, and then he nodded. “Yes, that is true. But the circumstances were different, and I do not believe that Loki served the House of Steiner—killing children to make a point to their parents is wrong.”

“Yes. Which is exactly why I am here. Gloria Lanning.”

“She is a very close friend of the Archon, part of his inner circle along with Eric Kiplinger and Heinrich Dieter. But where they actually care about the Commonwealth, she cares only about the number of Kroners in her accounts. And her own personal power base.”

“Is she connected to LIC?”

Emerson frowned. “No. She advises Archon Robert on economic matters and ramrods his dictates through the Estates-General; she has no connection with the Lyran Intelligence Corp.”

Hart nodded. “Is she capable of taking action against the wishes of the Archon?”

A snort was the answer. “She will spread her legs to earn a half-Kroner, Hart. She makes deals left and right with criminal elements and operates just this side of legal, but she isn’t really that smart. If she thought it would bring her economic or political power, she would do almost anything. Why do you ask?”

“She was the one who recommended Hans Gruber as an accredited journalist here on Asta. That is the same Hans Gruber that pumped six slugs into Marianne Cameron. Only his real identity was Hans Trevane, whose records in the Lyran Commonwealth abruptly end twelve years ago after his arrest on drug charges.”

Emerson leaned back, and rocked in his chair slightly. “That is . . . a different kettle of fish completely. Lanning doesn’t get involved in wetwork—not in the least. She is . . . squeamish about that side of things.”

“You do know that she has been selling arms—Lyran arms—to Amaris?”

“Of course, but that doesn’t get anyone killed directly. Gloria Lanning would never associate herself with any action that has the potential to bite her in the ass like that one. But I think I know someone who might.”

Hart smiled. “And who would that be?”

“Shall we talk price first, Hart?”

“And what is it that you want?”

“Your promise that I will never, ever, see you again.”

“Done.”

Emerson nodded. “I met Hans Trevane six years ago, Hart. Back when I was working on Kiplinger’s staff. He is—was—a Loki commander. And he answered only to Eric.”

“And Eric answers only to the Archon.”

Emerson smiled. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that; Kiplinger has depths to him. He plays the long game, and he plays it very, very well.”

“I guess that I will have to plumb those depths myself then.”

“Good luck with that,” Emerson chuckled. “Maybe karma will make sure that I never see you again, Hart. Eric Kiplinger is a very dangerous man.”

“So am I,” the blackheart said as he stood.

Emerson nodded in agreement. “So you are, old friend. I hope you find your answers.”


September 8, 2768
Hawkins General Hospital, Hawkins
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony

“Captain Truscott, next time you need to try and not to get shot!” Cassie yelled out as she ran into the hospital room ahead of Stephen. The First Lord of the Star League shook his head in gesture of amusement as his daughter jumped up on the edge of the hospital bed and hugged the injured soldier.

Absalom blushed fiercely, and then he gravely looked at the little girl. “I’ll have to give that try, ma’am.”

“Good,” she said as she sternly fixed her face in a glare that reminded Stephen of the look that Marianne often got, “because I don’t want to keep visiting you in a hospital room!”

“The doctor’s tell me you are doing very well, Absalom,” Stephen spoke quickly, moving away from the reminder of his dead wife. “Regiment will probably get you back in a couple of days—and I think Colonel Moreau has a few choice words he would like to share with you; something about wrecking a ‘Mech that can’t be replaced and that he had to scrounge like Hell in order to steal in the first place!”

Truscott winced, but Stephen waved aside the apologies before they could be voiced. “It is a small price to pay for saving the life of General Steiner, trooper. Well done.”

“Thank you, Sir. How is Jennifer—ah, Margrave and General Steiner, I mean—doing?”

“She’s well,” Stephen answered with a chuckle. “In fact she is talking about giving you a real thank-you for pulling her out of that situation, once you have fully recovered. I did warn her, though, she had best not put you back in the hospital—she’s a feisty one.”

Absalom blushed again, and Stephen laughed. Cassie, even as bright as she was, missed the joke and simply looked puzzled at the two of them.

“Any word on what happened with her Zeus, Sir?”

The First Lord stopped smiling, and his face turned somber. “It was sabotage, Captain. The memory module that General Steiner recovered from her cockpit proved that beyond a doubt, and we have the tech who arranged this accident on video in the hanger the night before the exercise.”

“Good,” said Truscott. “Maybe we can make him talk and work back up his chain of . . .”

“We have the video, but the tech himself turned up the following morning dead in a Hawkins alley—his throat slit. Someone cleaned up after themselves very nicely.”

“What I don’t understand, Sir, is why did they take a shot at General Steiner? I mean, she’s not on the list of the Top Ten People Amaris Hates, is she? Seems like if it is a Rim World cell on planet, they should be taking shots at you, or Minoru, or General DeChevilier or Admiral Kirkpatrick or Lord Kerensky—not a Steiner general officer.”

Stephen slowly nodded. “Agreed, and we are looking into it. But for now, we know that some cell is still operating on Asta—and all security has been increased across the board. Unfortunately, I’d like to stay and chat some more, Captain, but Cassandra here has an appointment to get a flu shot. She did insist that we stop by to say hello on the way; and I think that she thought I would forget her appointment if we began to talk shop.”

Cassie sighed and looked down at the floor. “It was worth a try, wasn’t it?”

“That it was, Cassie, that it was. Come on, then; time to get stuck.”

Cassie sighed theatrically and turned back to Truscott. “And you,” she said, wagging a finger at the injured officer. “You stay out of trouble, right Daddy?”

“Right you are.”


September 9, 2768
Asta Defense Headquarters
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony

“Well that was an interesting disaster,” Aaron DeChevilier said with a wry smile. “What happened in the simulation, Admiral?”

Jean Kirkpatrick frowned. “Actually, General, I think the simulation was realistic in showing what is going to happen when I take the Fleet against the Caspers.”

Stephen winced. “Admiral, you lost nearly every ship in your entire command in that scenario! Isn’t there another way to get past them?”

The Commanding Admiral of the Star League Defense Force Fleet shook her head sadly. “We made the damn Caspers just too powerful and their predictive software means they will respond faster than any manned ship possibly can. They can accelerate quicker and are more maneuverable than any other capital warship in our inventory, and while they might be only the size of a Lola III-class Fleet Destroyer, each carries as much firepower as a Cameron-class Battle Cruiser! They have more armor than an Aegis-class Heavy Cruiser, as well. The latest upgrade to the M-5 added a very sizable array of point-defense systems to the design as well, rendering our own missile salvoes less effective than they could be. And don’t forget, gentlemen, that while we may have lost nearly fifteen hundred capital warships in that simulation—a full quarter of the Fleet—we still managed to destroy all but fourteen of the Caspers and the entire Rim Worlds battle fleet, not to mention over ninety-eight percent of the total number of M-11 Voidseekers in system! And those numbers assume that somehow Amaris has managed to double to concentrate every last one of his remaining WarShips in the Terran Solar System, which added nearly two hundred manned ships to the Op Force.”

Kerensky nodded slowly. “I concur with the Admiral. First Lord, the threat posed by the Caspar’s operating on their core programming cannot be over emphasized. Would we have proceeded with my original plan, it is very likely that after liberating Terra we would have barely a thousand operational WarShips left in the Fleet. Each M-5 operating in the Terran system has a far more effective command and control AI than other M-5’s guarding the remaining systems—and Terra has far more of them than any other individual system.”

The First Lord was still white with shock at the sheer numbers of dead that the simulation had produced—almost a million officers and men of the Defense Force. “But the nuclear warheads John and Minoru and Philip are making available . . .”

“Were instrumental in crippling the manned Rim Worlds ships before they could intervene, my Lord,” General Kerensky interrupted. “The M-5 Caspar Drones, on the other hand, simply have too much point-defense to count on any single salvo overwhelming them. It will take multiple salvoes of nuclear torpedoes, from several ships at once, to ensure that at least one detonates in range to cripple the drone. Admiral Kirkpatrick’s initial success with precisely those tactics against the Rim Worlds contingent and the first wave of drones caused the simulation to conclude that the M-5s would change their own tactics and single out our vessels with the heaviest concentration of missile launchers for immediate destruction. And the ramming attacks were not unforeseen; each drone sees itself as an expendable unit in the course of its programmed task, defending the system from invasion.”

“Unfortunately,” Admiral Kirkpatrick continued in a sad voice, “our ships that mount sufficient heavy missile launchers to consistently break through an M-5s point-defenses are all frigates and cruisers, and only the new Luxor-class Cruisers have the secondary armament and armor protection to sustain the attention of the drones—and even those powerful ships die within minutes when several Caspars concentrate on them.”

“One of my officers did suggest converting all of our surviving Texas-class battleships to missile vessels mounting an additional sixty-four Maelstrom AR-10 launchers, thirty-two per broadside. That refit would require at least eighteen months of yard-time—probably longer—to successfully complete. With forty-nine of these Texas-Ms, I could probably break even the M-5s with far fewer casualties, but we simply don’t have time for the conversion.”

The Admiral looked down at the floor for a moment, but then she raised her head, knowing it was her officers and men that would pay the butcher’s bill. “First Lord, if you order it, we can increase the ships available to my command—but I beg you to remember that you will still have the planetary SDS grid to deal with. Each of those installations is far more lethal than a mere Caspar. You will need every ship that you have left to get through the ground base defenses and silence those batteries before the troops go in.”

Only stark silence met the Admiral’s statement, and then the First Lord nodded in agreement. Lord Kerensky let out a breath that he had not remembered holding in, and also signified his approval.

“And if that is now settled,” continued the commander of the Star League Defense Forces, “next we have the problems that General Montoya continues to report from our Davion contingent.”

John Davion winced. “They are getting better, General DeChevilier.”

“Yes, and General Montoya makes the point that they are improving and their morale is high. But they are still woefully under our minimum standards for landing in the assault phase.”

“I know. I wish it were not so, but having to purge the officers from my ranks who simply would not adapt put a tremendous hole in our supply of competent higher-level commanders. For the moment, we have abandoned the traditional three-regiment brigade structure and instead are teaming up one regiment of ‘Mechs with two regiments of armor and one of mechanized infantry, plus a battalion of artillery. They aren’t as powerful in the offense as one of your SLDF Brigades that have three full regiments of ‘Mechs, but a majority of my surviving higher-ranking officers are from the infantry, armor, and artillery branches. Still, we feel that these Regimental Combat Teams will prove handy on the defensive against Amaris counterattacks, and once we work out the kinks, should make a formidable offensive force as well.”

Aaron snorted. “That is the problem, First Prince Davion—we have less than six weeks to work out those kinks!”

“Aaron, since the Davion contingent is already scheduled for Wave Three, I think we can overlook their problems with conducting assault landings, at least for now,” Stephen, cutting off John Davion before he could blurt out something truly disastrous.

Aaron looked sheepish for a moment, and then nodded. “I meant no disrespect towards your contribution, Lord John.”

“None taken,” the First Prince replied through a clenched jaw.

“And certainly your forces are not the only ones who are not performing up to SLDF standard: General Steiner, your command is tilted heavily towards the higher tonnages. You don’t have nearly enough recon and scout capability for your units.”

“Ja, General. But we will make do.”

“Nein, Margrave and General. I am splitting up the Steiner forces in brigade levels attached to SLDF divisions, where they will serve as the mailed fist to stop Amaris counter-attacks. Our forces will provide you with the scouting data, and your heavy brigades will then operate according to the direction of the SLDF divisional commanders.”

At this, Kerensky interjected again. “A wise precaution, General Steiner, since your heavy forces will augment the attack without nearly as much risk to your House’s military as they would suffer from operating independently; and I do believe that your own personal division has proven itself sufficiently well-trained and equipped to continue to operate as a discrete unit.”

The cold-eyed blonde young woman glared at Aaron for several moments, and then she too nodded her assent.

Stephen chuckled to break the tension in the room. “Aaron, is there any formation that you feel is up to your extremely high standards?”

“I am still concerned that the Assault Corp doesn’t have enough heavy and assault units, but even I have to admit that their élan and tenacity make up for that. And I suppose that your Royal Black Watch is exceeding most of my expectations, my Lord.”

Soft laughter rose from the conference table. Stephen shook his head. “Well, I am not planning on landing in the First Wave, so I don’t think we should include them, Aaron. What about logistics?”

Aaron winced. “Tight, my Lord. We have adequate supplies and munitions for all of the units participating, but losing Luthien Armor Works—and the diversion of troops to the rescue and recovery efforts in the Combine, the Federated Suns, and the League—means our stockpile is less than what I would really like. Still, we should have enough beans and bullets.”

Kerensky coughed. “And by that, First Lord, the commanding General means that the logistics stockpile has a thirty-five percent reserve above our worst case expenditure rates for a campaign lasting a full year.”

“In that case, gentlemen, I think we can consider the plan locked and concentrate on fine-tuning the last of the training between now and embarkation. Meeting is adjourned.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Wed Jan 25, 2012 5:24 pm 
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Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Fifteen

September 11, 2768
Little Khacess Lake
North America, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“Are you sure you know where you are going?” Liz asked acidly as the small fishing boat pounded across the waves amid the drizzling rain. Between that rain and the ice-cold spray, her clothes, Vince and Bernie’s clothes, and the Zalman’s clothes alike were all soaked.

The old man leered at her with a grin. “Probably to Hell, madame, but not today unless we get really unlucky.” He pressed the throttles forward to the stops, and now the boat Liz winced as she felt the hull smash into each of the three-foot rollers.

She had left the rests of the Ghosts to make their way to a so far untouched cache on the northern slopes of Mt. Rainer two days ago, while she and her two watchful bodyguards had accompanied the Shadow here to the Little Khacess Lake. The weather was promising to turn against them—again—but Zalman had insisted that they could make it to the hidden location where he could send the message from. A location that he insisted was only accessible by boat.

“Cut the engines back!” she yelled over their roar and the wind.

But the maniac apparently didn’t hear her, he just adjusted the wheel slightly and nodded to himself—Liz could see him counting to himself, his lips barely moving. And then he did cut the engines out completely, as he stood up from the wheel, grabbed the heavy anchor and threw it over the side.

She looked around as the small boat rocked. The nearest shore was at least a mile away.

“Zalman, I am tired, I am wet, and I getting sick of these . . .” she began.

“Antonius, my dear. Call me Antonius,” the old man interrupted as he began to strip off his clothes.

Bernie shook his head. “What are you doing?”

“You don’t expect me to take a swim fully clothed, do you?”

“A swim?”

Zalman sighed. “Yes. We are directly over the facility that I told you about. It is one hundred and twenty feet below the water. So I am going to take a little swim.”

Vince’s eyes bulged out. “You never said anything about us having to swim!”

“Didn’t I? Oh, dear. It must have slipped my mind. Would you open that compartment and pass me the rebreather?”

“And how many rebreathers do you have, Antonius?” asked Liz through grated teeth.

“Just the two, my dear. Your muscular companions will have to wait for us up here it appears.”

“We just sit here, doing nothing, while any Amaris patrol wonders why two grown men are out on the lake on a day like today?” blurted Bernie.

“Hardly. I brought a pair of fishing rods as well. You might try your hand at that while the lady and I are gone.”

He beamed a smile at the three of them as he dropped the last of his clothing, leaving only a pair of swim trunks on his body—trunks he had worn instead of underwear.

Liz sighed, and pulled at her jacket zipper. “Let’s get this over with, then.”

*****************************************************

The water was icy cold, but Liz followed Zalman as he dove towards the bottom. She had to swallow a couple of times to adjust the pressure on her ears, but she managed to keep pace with the old man fairly well before the two of them reached a rocky shelf that protruded up from the bottom of the lake. Zalman swam around the promontory until he located a narrow crevice and then he pulled himself inside, Liz trailing behind. The crevice turned into a cramped cavern that snaked around through several bends and final opened into large chamber—with a sealed blast door embedded in one of the rocky walls.

The agent pressed a complex combination into the keypad and the door slowly swung open; he gestured towards the opening and then he and Liz swam in. Lights came on as they entered and then he pulled the door closed and pressed a green button in the wall. The water began to drain from the airlock, and she spat the mouthpiece of rebreather out of her mouth.

“Welcome to Blackheart Central, my dear,” Zalman said as he opened the interior door. Within the next compartment was a series of rooms branching off from a corridor, all made from the same military-grade construction materials that had been used for the Black Watch caches.

“You people hid it under a lake?” she asked.

“Tsk, tsk, my dear. The Royal Black Watch was not alone in its paranoia. My organization likes its privacy. Let’s see, now . . .” he continued as he walked down the corridor, finally stopping at one of the unmarked doors. “Here we are. Penny? Love? Would you let me in?”

From one of the speakers, an alto voice emerged. “Good to see you are still, Antonius. I understand that Amaris is very upset you escaped ahead of your execution. Who’s the bimbo?”

“PENNY!” the Blackheart boomed. “Jealously does not flatter you, my dear—and green is such an unflattering color on you. May I introduce Captain Elizabeth Hazen of the Royal Black Watch. Captain Hazen, this is Penny.”

“Hmph,” the voice said. “You know the rules—I can’t admit anyone not on the list, Antonius.”

Liz’s jaw had already dropped, but she shook her head. “This place is manned?”

“Ah, not actually, my dear,” Zalman began, but then he was interrupted.

“This place is womaned, Captain Hazen. I am Penny, designation PNY-374/d, the Artificial Intelligence assigned to the Star League Special Intelligence Services Command.”

Zalman smiled as Liz stood there looked stunned. “And a wonderful AI you are indeed, Penny my love. Would you believe that the Fleet didn’t feel she met their standards for integrating into the Casper program—something about anomalous personality traits—and decided to junk her? SIS decided instead to use the system—which was already paid for—to coordinate our operations. She is very good at her job.”

“Yes, I am.”

“So be a dear, Penny, and let us in.”

“Can’t, won’t, not on your life.”

Zalman sighed. “Penny, are their any ranking Blackhearts on planet, other than myself?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“And is the Star League in a state of occupation by a hostile power?”

“Yes. Amaris is a pig may he roast in Hell.”

“In that case, as the senior SIS operative on Terra, and titular head of the organization, I hereby instruct you to list Captain Elizabeth Hazen as authorized: authentication code Zulu Zulu Delta Four Seven Nine Eight Three Alpha November Two Two Seven Bravo.”

“Authorization provisionally accepted.”

The door slid open, revealing a command center with spotless terminals and workstations lining the walls.

“Excellent, my love. After you, Captain Hazen,” he said with a flourish.

*****************************************************

“Message has been formatted and is transmitting now,” Penny’s voice said over the intercom. “I have encoded it as CRITIC PRIORITY, for the attention of the Commanding General alone. I have also appended all pertinent data gathered from all other SIS eaves-dropping software regarding Rim Worlds troop dispositions, equipment, and status. Stupid protocols prevented me from sending them without human authorization.”

Liz shook her head and swallowed. “Thank you Penny.”

“My, my, my,” the AI answered. “She is polite at least. I must warn you, however, that Antonius will try to get into your pants . . . or he would if you were wearing any.”

“PENNY!”

“He is quite incorrigible, isn’t he,” Liz answered with a giggle.

“Yes he is.”


September 11, 2768
Military Emergency Communications Center #7 (Automated)
Antarctica, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

The data-stream burst from Penny routed itself through the planetary comm net, erasing all evidence of its passage behind it until it finally arrived at its destination. Unknown to the Rim Worlds occupiers, MECC-7 was an isolated, automated HPG station built by the Star League nearly a century beforehand in the wastes of the lonely winter desolations of the South Pole. The computer system in charge of the facility recognized the codes and fired up the fusion generator buried in the rock far below. The systems slowly moved the delicate antenna until it was properly aligned at Asta, and then fired its transmission before shutting down once again.


September 11, 2768
Asta Defense Headquarters
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony

DING.

The comm-tech on duty looked at the HPG screen and blinked twice. He reached out and pressed a stud on his terminal and within minutes the Colonel commanding the communications hub had arrived.

“What have you got, Parsons?”

“Sir, we have incoming message traffic from Terra,” the sergeant answered in a puzzled voice. “The header address is to the Commanding General—eyes only—but everything else is just gibberish. My system is making no sense of it? Could the transmission have been scrambled?”

The Colonel frowned and looked intently at the screen, and then he drew in a sharp intake of air.

“No, download the entire transmission onto a data-pad,” he said as he lifted the phone attached to the terminal. “Ops? Pearson in MilCom. We have a CRITIC priority transmission with SIS encryption codes—wake up General DeChevilier.”


September 11, 2768
Asta Defense Headquarters
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony

Stephen walked in the conference room with a scowl on his face. The call ‘requesting’ his presence at an emergency meeting at woken him at 3.14 in the morning, and it promised to make the day ahead a very long one. But he bit back what he was about to say when he saw the somber looks on the faces of both Aleksandyr and Aaron.

“What has happened now?” he asked instead.

The Commanding General of the SLDF stood and nodded gravely in the First Lord’s direction. “I also woke Lord Minoru and Prince Hiroyoshi, my Lord. They entered the complex just after you . . .” he broke off as the two entered the room. “And here they are. Gentlemen,” he continued towards the Black Watch and Otomo guards. “I must ask that all of you leave.”

Stephen and Minoru exchanged a glance, and they both subtly nodded. “You heard the man—out.”

After the guards exited the room, Aaron sealed both the outer and inner doors, and then activated the ‘bug-stomper’, a device that rendered electronic listening systems useless. Stephen felt his stomach sinking—this room was in the very heart of the command center, buried a kilometer below the surface, and shielded from transmissions to boot. Whatever was coming couldn’t be good.

The three men took their seats and Aaron walked back over to his and sat down.

“First Lord, Coordinator, Hiroyoshi, gentlemen, we are [screwed].”

Aleksandyr patted Aaron on the arm as the General pulled out of his cigars and lit it.

“Two hours and forty-two minutes,” Aleksandyr began, “we received an HPG transmission from an emergency substation located on the southern polar continent of Terra. It was encrypted with Special Intelligence Service codes, and Aaron called on me to assist him in decrypting them. Somehow, the only Blackheart within sixty light-years of Asta has vanished; he hasn’t been seen in more than a week and other than him, I am the only man on planet with any experience at SIS encryption.”

Hiroyoshi nodded. “He is pursuing an important assignment, Lord Kerensky. One that I think has priority.”

“I do not doubt your sincerity on that, Prince Kurita. But SIS encryptions are very tricky things. Aaron needed my assistance to decode the message without causing it overwrite and erase itself. I would still like Agent Hart to double check our efforts, because the message itself was devastating. According to the SIS agent in place on Terra, Amaris has a nearly complete copy of Ragnarok, and he is moving to heavily reinforce our planned landing zones.”

Stephen started, and even Minoru looked stunned. “How . . . what . . . oh my God.”

“Like I said,” Aaron chimed in as he released a puff of smoke, “we’re so [screwed] that I doubt a brothel would employ us.”

“I believe that none of us in this room are the source of the leak. But gentlemen,” Aleksandyr continued in a wintery cold voice, “we have a problem.”

Stephen’s mind raced and finally he nodded. “Ok, only the division commanders and above have been briefed so far. That’s how many, Aleksandyr?”

“Too many. Including the Fleet and our briefings for the Free Worlds, Lyran, Fed Suns, and Combine contingents, there are more than a thousand command and staff officers who have seen the plans.”

Minoru nodded and then he spoke up. “You said a nearly complete copy, Lord Kerensky. How complete was it?”

“It was specific down to the landing zones and the complete roster of the first two assault waves, our timetable, diversionary efforts, and plans to engage the Caspars.”

The samurai lord of the Draconis Combine nodded again slowly. “Then we can rule out a divisional commander leaking the information—each has so far received only the information on his specific objective, nothing beyond a sketch of the overall operation. Hai?”

Lord Kerensky leaned back in his chair and considered for a moment. “True. Only around a hundred or so individuals have access to all of the information in the transmission.”

“How did we miss that,” muttered Aaron.

Stephen gave a grim chuckle. “I rather imagine both of you were mad enough that you ground ten years life off your molars.”

“And as much as my government may deny it, the Draconis Combine has had many high level traitors over the years. And plotters.”

“So,” mused Stephen, “what do we do now?”

Aleksandyr shook his head sadly. “There are only so many options, First Lord. We could cancel Ragnarok and liberate the Hegemony worlds which are now only lightly defended—but many of them have Caspar defenses and SDS systems of their own, lighter perhaps, but just as deadly. We would take casualties, and delay our return to Terra by at least a year. We can continue forward with Ragnarok and accept that our own casualties will be much higher than anticipated.”

And then Stephen looked up. “Or we adapt to what Amaris knows. Aleksandyr, our initial landing plans are . . . Aaron can you pull up that holographic map for me?”

DeChevilier nodded as Stephen stood and began to pace. As the map formed over the table, he lifted the pointer and highlight the primary landing zone. “Ragnarok calls for our main landings to be here, two hundred kilometers south-west of Moscow on the Eurasian plains. You selected the site because of the limited overlapping coverage of the SDS grid and because we both felt that Amaris would initially have his best troops defending North America. I agreed, because we need a beachhead, and this was one of the better choices.”

“After defeating the Amaris forces in Europe and Asia, the SLDF would cross the Bering Sea, while a second landing operation occurs in central Mexico, catching the Rim Worlds troops between two Army Group and then advancing on Unity City.”

He snapped the pointer closed. “But now Amaris knows this is our plan. And he is concentrating his troops there, yes?”

Aaron nodded. “According to the transmission, he has in place or is moving nearly one hundred and twenty divisions to Eurasia to contest the landings, leaving him ninety-five for the rest of the planet—forty-four concentrated in Mexico.”

“He means to bleed us out in the Russian steppes and the central Asian plateau. Gentlemen, we change the plan and make our landing here,” he finished as he stabbed the laser pointer at the south-eastern portion of North America.

Aleksandyr drew in a breath, but Stephen rushed ahead. “This area is protected by four more SDS emplacements than Russia, Aleksandyr, but it will prevent the troops he has in Europe or Mexico from intervening.”

“At first, First Lord,” Aleksandyr responded from his wheelchair. “Amaris will redeploy to meet this attack—at least with the divisions he has massed in the Mexican highlands.”

Stephen smiled. “I took your advice, Aleksandyr and I read that book that you gave me. And I think you are wrong. Amaris will do exactly what Hitler did during D-Day. He has our plans, he knows where we are going to attack. And he will treat our landings in Georgia and Alabama provinces as a diversion to make him move. He won’t believe it. Not until we have enough troops on the ground to make him believe it.”

Aleksandyr shook his head. “That, First Lord, is wishful thinking. We cannot predict what he will or will not do; we must instead reappraise the situation and start our planning over. Ragnarok cannot be risked on such a hasty assault. Our troops have trained for months for their specific targets, there will be confusion and chaos on the ground if those targets are suddenly shifted without telling them. And we can’t tell them without first discovering our mole.”

“Right. And we aren’t going to tell them. We are going to continue to train for the targets in Ragnarok and shift on the fly as we burn in-system.”

Aaron’s eyes boggled for a moment, and he actually dropped his cigar. “You can’t be serious!”

“I am.”

Stephen sighed. “Aleksandyr, Aaron; your SLDF, the officers that you picked and that you trained—they can do this. We can do this.”

Minoru shook his head, “It is too bold, First Lord. Too audacious, though I admire that audacity you have displayed.”

“Desperate affairs require desperate remedies, my brother.”

“Don’t start quoting Nelson, First Lord,” rumbled Aleksandyr as he gazed at the holographic map again. The old man lean forward and placed one elbow on the table, and cupped his chin in his hand as he considered. “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy,” he whispered.

“And no colonel in the SLDF can do very wrong by taking the fight into the teeth of Amaris,” he suddenly finished. “All right, First Lord, gentlemen, let us do something which the universe may talk of hereafter.”

Minoru suddenly smiled. “I was hoping you would say that, Lord Kerensky.”

“Aaron, we play this very close to the vest—you and I and Prince Hiroyoshi will have to handle the frag orders, the planning, the assignment of drop-zones. We can afford no further leaks. It was only by the grace of God that this warning got clear—we cannot count on another,” Aleksandyr finished resolutely.

“And in the meantime, gentlemen,” Stephen said in a voice colder than an Astan winter, “Lord Minoru and I have a traitor to find.”


September 14, 2768
Embassy of the Lyran Commonwealth, Hawkins
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony

“And so this is the gallant Hauptmann Truscott of whom I have heard so much!” Robert Steiner announced to his guests. “The daring solider who saved Our own Cousin from certain death, I have much for which to thank you, young man.”

Absalom blushed as he accepted the Archon’s outstretched hand and shook it firmly, even as camera flashbulbs erupted around the two. Jennifer Steiner, clapped along with the remainder of the Archon’s guests as a liveried servant approached, bearing a small box on a satin pillow. Robert opened the box and removed from the interior a heavy cross hanging from a ribbon of blue and silver. The edges of the cross were brilliant silver, and the interior was polished black onyx. Robert looked at the cross for a moment, and then he turned back to Absalom.

“Kneel, brave soldier,” he commanded. Jennifer helped him slowly descend to one knee and then she stepped back.

“For your bravery, for your valor, and for your service to the House of Steiner, I name you, Absalom Truscott, a Knight of the Order of Tharkad. And to you I present, that none may ever after question your deeds, the Knight’s Cross of that Order.”

As Robert finished with the traditional wording he placed the ribbon around Absalom’s neck, and then took an ancient broadsword that another servant held ready. He raised the blade in both hands to point at directly above him. “Before the witnesses gathered here tonight, and before the sight of God Almighty, I now name thee,” Robert intoned as he slowly lowered the weapon and tapped Absalom lightly on first the left shoulder and then the right, “Sir Absalom. Rise, and bask in the glory of the station that you have earned.”

Once again, Absalom blushed as the crowd erupted with applause, but with the help of Jennifer he managed to get back on his feet. Before he could speak with her, however, the Archon was there once again, clapping him soundly on his shoulder—which made Absalom slightly wince in pain.

“The title also comes with a small estate on Tharkad, Hauptmann Truscott. Around three hundred acres of so, and you are entitled to the revenue that the estate produces. As a recipient of the Knight’s Cross, you are not subject to taxation as one of my subjects, either. I am in your debt, Sir Absalom,” he finished as another servant—this one not in livery came rushing up and whispered in the Archon’s ear.

“Jennifer, my dear, I trust that you will see to the comfort of our guest? A matter has arisen with which I must deal.”

“Certainly, Archon,” she replied with a curtsey.

“Then good evening to you both,” Robert said before he turned and hurried from the embassy’s ballroom.

Ascending two flights of stairs, the Archon moved through a security checkpoint and stormed down the a hallway, his smile of but moments before evaporated from his face. Rounding another corner, he saw the object of his displeasure and came to a sudden halt.

“Erik,” he growled. “I summoned you nine days ago. Where have you been?”

“Forgive me, Archon, I was otherwise detained on your business; perhaps we could speak in my private office?”

“Yes. Yes, perhaps that would be for the best.”

Neither man said another word as they continued past a second checkpoint and then approached the a guarded door. The two Royal Guards standing there snapped to attention briskly, but Erik ignored them and entered the sound-proofed room beyond. The Archon frowned and returned the salute with a casual nod, but then he too entered the office; one of the guards pulled the door shut behind the two men, and the click of the latch seating was thunderous in the silence.

“Don’t you ever question me again, Robert!” Erik snarled after he activated an anti-eavesdropping device on his desk. “You live only through my forbearance—and only as long as you do my master’s bidding!”

Robert’s face grew red and he took a step forward. “I am still the Archon of the Lyran Commonwealth, you . . . you . . . miserable imp! How dare you not answer my summons—my public summons!”

“I was cleaning up some loose ends, Archon. Unless you would rather have Kerensky and Cameron discover the truth of the matter?”

Robert forced down his anger and walked over the liquor cabinet. He drew out a bottle of Scotch and poured himself three shots into a crystal tumbler. Lifting the glass, he took a deep swallow, and felt the warm of the whiskey spreading through his body.

“I never authorized you to try and kill her, Erik. And you failed in your attempt!”

“She is a threat to you, Robert, and through you to me and my own master. Yes, she still lives, but not for long.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have already made other . . . arrangements for dear sweet Jenny, my Archon. And her savior as well. But, that matter is now out of your hands. For now, I bear greetings from His Imperial Majesty. Stefan is quite pleased with your work on his behalf, my Archon. Enough that he sent you a thank-you note in his own hand. You should feel honored.”

“I am not doing this for his gratitude—and you and he can both go to Hell,” the Archon said as he took another sip of the drink.

“No, you are doing this because I am blackmailing you. And if you raise your voice to me again, Robert, I will disappear—but Stephen Cameron will find a little disk, a copy of your orders to Trevane to murder his family. Do not forget who holds the cards in our little arrangement, Archon. And do not question my actions ever again.”

Robert sat down. “We don’t have to kill her, Erik—I mean she’s family. I am not . . . damn it, I told him Stephen Cameron only . . . I don’t kill women, children, or my own family!”

“You would rather have her discover the truth? With the Lyrans Guards standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind her rather than you when they find this out? Eventually, it will leak. And she is your only adult heir, Robert—the rest can be persuaded in more gentle ways, but she will never come around, now will she?”

The Archon did not answer as he finished the whiskey.

“No, you don’t have to say a word, my Archon. Your hands will be clean, I will handle the dirty work as always.”

Without another word, Robert rose and walked to the door. “She won’t suffer?” he asked softly.

“My word upon it, Archon. She will simply go to sleep one night and never awake.”

Robert simply stood at the door for one heartbeat, and then two, but finally he lowered his head and without saying another word, he opened the door and left.

Erik smiled and shook his head. He looked at the stack of paperwork on his desk, but at that moment his stomach rumbled, reminding him of the meals he had already skipped this day. He turned off the bug-stomper and then he too exited the office, shutting off the lights behind him.

Several minutes passed in the quiet and empty office, but then the door to Erik’s private lavatory opened and Blake Hart stepped back into room.

“It seems that you are most certainly playing the Great Game, Erik, and so is the Archon,” he whispered to himself. Making certain everything was just the way that Erik had left it, he stepped up on the desk, moved a ceiling tile to one side and pulled himself back up into the air shafts overhead. Taking one final look below to make absolutely certain that nothing was out of order, he finally nodded and put the panel back in its proper place. Now, I’ve just got to get out in one piece, he thought to himself as he began to slowly and quietly crawl through the duct work.


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Wed Jan 25, 2012 5:25 pm 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
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Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Sixteen

September 17, 2768
Chamber of the High Council of the Star League
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony

“My fellow Lords, we are assembled today in session to conduct the business of the Star League,” Stephen began. “This session of the High Council is now convened. Guards of the Black Watch, seal the doors, and let pass no one, save only those whom the Council summons forth.”

Moving briskly, two of the guards sealed the doors to the Chamber. And the First Lord pressed the key again, sounding the chimes once more. “The session has begun. Let no one disturb these proceedings.”

“Lord Avellar,” he continued. “You requested this session. The floor is yours.”

Allyce Avellar nodded and leaned forward. “Lords of the Council, I have received a transmission from Stefan Amaris, which was then relayed to me here on Asta. It is a most disturbing transmission, for it shows that he was not responsible for the atrocity conducted upon Oriente in the Free Worlds League.”

Philip Marik started, his head snapping fully towards the leader of the Outworlds Alliance. “The pig lies, Lord Avellar. His actions against the Houses of Kurita and Davion, not to mention against the Star League as a whole have revealed his true nature.”

“Is it possible, Lord Marik,” the young lady continued, “that he did not? The proofs that he has presented in the transmission show clear evidence that the vessel which attacked Oriente was not a Rim Worlds ship, but rather a vessel dispatched by the First Lord to create an atrocity for which Amaris would later be blamed! Lords Calderon, Centrella, and Steiner have confirmed that the Rim Fleet had no vessel matching the known specifications of the ship that used weapons of mass destruction against Oriente—but was in fact a common freighter used extensively by the SLDF as an auxiliary transport ship. We cannot dismiss his claim out of hand simply because of his prior bad acts, my fellow Lords.”

“Prior bad acts!” yelled John Davion. “He used nerve gas against New Avalon, New Syrtis, and Robinson! He killed millions of my people, including my daughter and my brother. He . . . he . . .” the First Prince of the Federated Suns shook his head. “That man is capable of anything, Lord Avellar.”

“The Defense Force of the Star League would never obey such an order, Lord Avellar, even if it had been issued—which did not happen,” interjected Aleksandyr Kerensky.

Allyce frowned. “And yet, your ships are even now loading nuclear munitions as you prepare to invade the Terran system. And in the past, such terror tactics by the SLDF were condoned by the First Lord and this Council! I do not need to remind you, Lord Kerensky, of the actions of the SLDF during the Reunification Wars.”

“This is pure supposition, and any information provided by Amaris must be viewed with caution,” said Robert Steiner. “However, I too wonder at why Amaris would attack the Free Worlds League—which at the time was a neutral entity. It makes little sense that he would seek to increase the number of foes which he has to fight; the only one who profits from such an attack is the First Lord.”

“Perhaps I can shed some light on that, Lord Steiner,” spoke Minoru Kurita. “Last year, we discovered a Rim Worlds agent that had penetrated the highest levels of the DCMS on Luthien. Rather than immediately arresting him, I directed that he be used to pass disinformation to Amaris. As part of that disinformation campaign, the spy learned that the Captain General had decided to join into the effort to dislodge Amaris from the Terran Hegemony—and that the Free Worlds Fleet covering Oriente would be leaving that world unprotected for a short time in order to conduct training maneuvers with elements of the SLDF in preparation.”

Minoru shook his head sadly. “I had hoped to provoke Amaris into committing a large portion of his remaining Fleet against Oriente—where the Free Worlds Fleet would respond to any such attack in short order. I did not anticipate that Amaris would resort to such terror tactics as he employed against my realm, against the Federated Suns, and against the Free Worlds League.”

Philip Marik’s eyes boggled and the blood drained from his face. “You engineered this?”

“I meant to provoke a confrontation between you and Amaris, Philip. Such horrendous casualties on the planet itself were never my intention. But be that as it may, Amaris had ample motive, based upon the information he had at the time, to launch this attack.”

For several moments, silence hung over the chamber.

“Lord Avellar, Lord Marik; I did not ever order any unit to attack Oriente. I would not have issued such an order, even if I was losing this war,” Stephen said softly. “I was unaware of the information that Lord Kurita leaked to Amaris, and if I had known ahead of time, I would have attempted to stop him.”

“Which is why you were never informed, First Lord,” answered Minoru.

Philip glared across the Chamber at Minoru, but then he slowly nodded. His eyes, however, promised that the matter was not yet settled. “I do not believe that the First Lord would have done this, and I agree with Lord Kerensky that the SLDF would have been extremely loath to conduct such an attack.”

“But, don’t you see,” protested Allyce. “We have an opportunity here to settle matters without more killing. He has started to reach out to us; we should take this window to begin a negotiated settlement before anyone else has to die!”

Nicoletta Calderon winced and then she patted the young woman’s hand softly. “The only settlement upon which this Council could agree Allyce would be the unconditional surrender of Amaris—and he won’t agree to that.”

“We could set terms, promise him that he won’t be executed for his crimes! I would offer to lead the diplomatic team in person, once we declare a cease-fire.”

“And leave him in possession of the Hegemony worlds during these negotiations? Give him additional time to add to his defenses and truly turn our next campaign into a blood-bath? No,” the First Lord said, and both John and Minoru nodded in full agreement.

“I too do not believe that any such discussions will provide any advantage for us—and they would allow Amaris to continue to build his defense,” Philip Marik answered. “And he must pay for his crimes in blood—that is non-negotiable, Lord Avellar.”

Barbara Liao smiled then. “And I do not think we even need to put it to a vote, for I as well agree with the First Lord and Lords Calderon, Davion, Kurita, Marik, and I believe Kerensky.”

“War is never the answer, my Lords!” the young lady wailed. “Think of the young men and women you are sending to their deaths! Think of their families!”

“Think of the countless dead whose spirits would never rest fully at peace until this monster is brought to justice, Lord Avellar,” replied Stephen. “I call the vote: shall the High Council of the Star League offer terms of negotiation to Stefan Amaris or proceed forward with Operation Ragnarok?”

By a margin of nine-to-one, the Council agreed to end the ambitions of Amaris once and for all.


September 17, 2768
Branson House, Hawkins
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony

“We should have confronted Robert with his crimes then and there,” Stephen snarled as he paced in his private office.

Minoru shook his head. “We have no definitive proof, Stephen. The Council will not remove one of its members based solely on the word of one of operatives. Of course, we don’t have to wait for the Council to act.”

Now Stephen stopped and stared at Minoru for several moments, before he too shook his head. “No. We will do this the right way. I won’t have Robert Steiner assassinated.”

“Hai. And in that case, First Lord, we must resign ourselves to have patience. Robert is on the verge of breaking under the strain, if your man’s account was accurate—we have but to wait just a little longer and he may deliver himself into our hands. I trust that your Colonel Moreau is keeping a watchful eye on General Steiner and her Black Watch lover?”

“Hai,” answered Stephen with a grin. “I would wager almost anything that Absalom never thought he would be the target of a protective detail.”

“Nor did Hiroyoshi. But my newest heir is adapting rather well to his change in station.”

“Indeed. Will you stay for dinner?”

“Alas, but no, First Lord. General Stirling and I have plans for an unscheduled training exercise for our Corps this evening.”

“Am I doing the right thing here, Minoru?” Stephen quietly asked as he stared out the window. “We are risking everything on a single roll of the die?”

“I could respond with platitudes, such as nothing ventured, nothing gained. But that does little to assuage your feelings. And does not address the real question: is this our best chance to catch Amaris completely off-guard? Does that opportunity outweigh the risks? I believe that the answer is yes, but then I have always been a gambler, Stephen.”

“Like you gambled with your Q-ship at Oriente?”

Minoru snorted. “How long have you suspected?”

“For several months now, ever since you integrated those ‘armed freighters’ of yours into the Asta defenses.”

“And why haven’t you said anything? To either me or Philip?”

Stephen sighed. “Because it brought the Free Worlds League into the fight. I don’t approve, and I would have tried to stop you had I known in advance. That being said, we have a better chance of pulling this off with Philip Marik onboard. And he won’t learn about it from me—I owe you that much and more besides.”

“And soon enough, it will no longer matter. I will either die in the assault, or I will die by my own hand after Amaris has been brought to justice. If Philip does discover the truth . . .”

“I will inform him that the order was yours and yours alone—and involved none within your government or family.”

The two men stood silent, gazing out of the window to the grounds beyond. Outside, the first flakes of an early autumn snowfall began to drift down towards the manicured lawn.


September 17, 2768
Embassy of the Lyran Commonwealth, Hawkins
North Continent, Asta
Terran Hegemony

“They didn’t believe it; hell, Erik, I didn’t believe it! And after Kurita offered his reasons for why Amaris would have attacked, I don’t think we have a chance of turning Philip Marik against them.”

“You planted the seeds of doubt, my Archon. And if the Emperor says he didn’t hit Oriente, then he didn’t. Your arguments on that score were quite legitimate,” Erik mused as he rubbed his chin. “It does appear that our Master was mistaken, however. Lord Stephen has not the ruthlessness to attempt this—Minoru Kurita, on the other hand . . .”

“Weren’t you listening? He came clean with a story . . .”

“. . . about how he had tricked Amaris into launching the attack. But Minoru is more than ruthless enough—and clever enough—to have a fall-back plan. And the dates match. Suppose that he sent a clandestine ship to Oriente, to make certain that if Amaris didn’t take the bait he could still strike the shipyards? But after it arrived, news of the strikes on New Avalon and Luthien had been made public. By their own admission, the Free World began inspecting all visiting vessels—the captain must have made his own decision to carry out the Dragon’s will.”

Erik raised his glass of wine in a mocking salute. “A most audacious play, indeed.”

The Archon sat in his own chair. “You know he can’t survive—and what will happen to us when he fails?”

“Rest assured, my Archon, those plans are even now being put into play,” the head of the Lyran Intelligence Corps replied. “Should the Amaris Empire be crushed, I have already laid the ground-work for you to discover a traitor in our own midst—a traitor that attempted to divert attention from herself by sabotaging her own ‘Mech.”

“Jenny? I thought you were going to have her killed!”

“She is being closely watched now—there are too many eyes on her and her lover both. The two of them will make excellent cats-paws to pin this debacle upon.”

“She almost died in that explosion!”

“Ah, yes. But she was saved by her lover Truscott, ja? The same Truscott who rescued the First Lord’s daughter, but was too late to save his wife. Perhaps the two of them have been in collaboration this entire time, leaking information back to Amaris. Truscott saw his opportunity in the Black Pines to eliminate his underlings and solidify his position among the trusted guards of the First Lord—and he was the one who saved dear, sweet Jenny. Worry not, my Archon, I have already altered a copy of the transmission from our Master having him address Jennifer in all of his messages to date—and she did lobby you to commit the forces of the Lyran Commonwealth to this campaign, true?”

“They will protest their innocence, but after the blood split in this campaign and the damning evidence against them I have amassed, you will have no choice—the Council will have no choice—but to try them, find them guilty, and execute them both as traitors to the Star League. And your position will be secure, my Archon.”

“As long as I remain alive, that is,” Erik finished with a smile. “My records showing your alterations to the communications logs and your framing of Jenny and Truscott are prepared as well—and will be delivered to the High Council should I disappear or die.”

“You seem to have thought of everything,” the Archon sputtered.

“Yes. Whether Amaris wins or loses we shall survive, my Lord. And we shall thrive.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Wed Jan 25, 2012 5:28 pm 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
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Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Part Two

Chapter Seventeen

October 28, 2768
SDS-SOL-117
Outer System, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

The ship drifted silently in the outer reaches of the Sol System. SOL-117 bore no crew within her almost seven-hundred thousand ton hull, for she was an M-5 automated drone WarShip—a Casper. Within the thickly armored shell, her central core processed the data from her sensor arrays. All was well within the system—the capital system of humanity. Near the Zenith point—over a million klicks distant—she could clearly see the two dozen defense stations. Unlike her, those stations were manned by her creators. Far ‘below’ she detected the manned ships of the system defense force in orbit around Titan.

As SOL-117 arrived at the way-point for this leg of her endless patrol, the core rotated the ship slightly and a single fusion-drive exhaust port lit, gently changing her bearing on an arc that would bring her back to the elliptic. And then she saw it.

At the Zenith point, forty-two ships materialized into being where nothing save vacuum had rested an instant before. Merchant class JumpShips, her core recognized. After an eternity of time—two seconds—each of the arrivals released their docking clamps and eighty-four DropShips—Overlords, ‘Mech carriers—began to accelerate towards the stations on full overthrust. None of the new arrivals were broadcasting the current IFF codes.

SOL-117 warmed up the onboard FTL comm and transmitted an alert. Not capable of emotion, the core wondered why the stations were still not firing upon the invaders, when first one, then two, and then a dozen more finally opened fire on the rapidly closing DropShips. Three of the intruders exploded in tremendous blasts, far larger than the weapons—or the ships—should have generated.

The core rapidly processed the data, and the spectrographic analysis, and concluded that each of those ships carried well over 5,000 tons of advanced high explosives. The analysis was confirmed as another score of Overlords were hit and killed. But not enough were dying, at least not as quickly as they should have. Their hulls had been reinforced by thick plates of armor, and each of the sixty-odd survivors rotated as they selected a target and altered course slightly to collide with a specific station.

SOL-117 transmitted a warning to the station concerning the possibility of kamikaze runs by the intruders, but humans were far too slow. By the time the message was relayed to the station commanders, it was far too late. Twenty-seven Overlords survived to ram the stations. Within seconds there were only clouds of debris slowly expanding outwards to mark their passing.

A new intruder appeared on her scanners. A Bug-Eye class corvette jumped in, and then jumped back out after a brief interval. And then the true invasion began.

One after the other, one thousand four hundred and eighty-four capital WarShips jumped into the system. Fifty-one Potemkin-class Troop Cruisers formed up, each bearing a full load of twenty-five troop carriers on her massive hull. Almost four hundred Battleships and Cruisers englobed the vulnerable Troop Cruisers, surrounded still further out by more than twice that many frigates, destroyers, and corvettes. Nearly three thousand DropShips disengaged their docking clamps and took up formation within the protective globe of WarShips.

None of them transmitted the proper code. SOL-117 recognized the ships and analyzed the threat. If fully loaded, the invading force carried more than one hundred divisions onboard—posing a threat that the drone simply could not ignore. Altering course to remain well out of weapons range, she transmitted again and then watched and waited as one by one the remaining five hundred and ninety-three of her sisters acknowledged her call.

After an eternity of waiting, she finally received an acknowledgement from the human component of the Space Defense System. Her ultimate command authority gave a simple answer to her request for instructions: KILL THEM ALL.

It was a most unusual order, and certainly not formatted in proper regulation fashion. But it was certainly easy enough for the core to process and understand. She began to form a plan of attack—one that would be shared by all of her sisters and cousins, and executed with machine perfection. She was incapable of emotions, but that last thought did cause her to activate her warming systems in preparation to bring her weapons on-line. After all, after such a long time of waiting, finally she could fulfill her purpose for being, her duty to the creators.

*****************************************************

“We’re in clean, First Lord, Lord Kerensky,” Admiral of the SLDF Jean Kirkpatrick said to the two holographic images projected from the HPG link. “I’ll attempt to transmit again when the main body of the Caspars are eliminated, but if they get to the communications ship first I will not have the opportunity. We are nine days out from Terra, and they have to launch their attack before we arrive in orbit. So give us 216 hours before your assault jumps in . . .”

The First Lord smiled a crocked smile. “. . . on the 6th. If they haven’t responded to you, it’ll come as one Hell of a surprise when the rest of the Fleet jumps into the Earth-Moon LaGrange point.”

Jean nodded curtly. “Very well, then, Sir. I’d best get my command underway.”

“Understood,” Aleksandyr said. “Godspeed Jean, and good hunting.”

“We’ll make a hole in the defenses so big it won’t matter if a few Caspers survive, Lord Kerensky. We’ll do you proud.”

“You already have, Jean. You already have.”

The holographic projection faded as the HPG link ended, and Jean pulled herself across the weightless command deck of her flagship, SLS Bismark. She climbed into her command chair and fixed the straps to secure her safely in place.

“Maneuvering,” she said.

“Awaiting your orders, Admiral.”

“Set course for Earth at 1-g acceleration. Comm, upload the course plot to the remainder of the Fleet and instructed all ships to comply with our maneuvering. Engage in sixty seconds.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am.”

She watched silently as a digital clock slowly ticked down to 00; and then she felt gravity around her as the massive WarShip smoothly accelerated. “Keep a close on the eye on the sensors and maintain Condition Two on all ships—weapons manned and charged. There be dragons out there, and I want to see them impaled on our sharp lance, gentlemen.”


November 1, 2768
SLS Randolph
Outer System, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“Why don’t they just charge instead playing with us?” muttered the young Tactical Officer, even as he kept his eyes fixed on the targeting consoles for which he was responsible. The Lieutenant (junior grade), only three years out of the Academy, had probably meant to make his comment sotto voice, but four days of standing Condition Two watches around the clock had taken their toll on the crew of SLS Randolph.

Commander Audrey Hitchens, entrusted with the command of the old Vincent class vessel, smiled grimly. “We still have another five days to orbit, Guns,” she answered. “Those bastards are fully programmed on the weaknesses of human crews—including our need to rest. The drones don’t have that need. Besides, it is not like they haven’t been probing the screen for the past four days.”

That last sentence left a sour taste in her throat, because the Caspars had proved fiendishly clever and extremely difficult to target. More than three of hundred of them now shadowed the Fleet—just outside of weapons range. And still more were en route. Every now and then the drones would suddenly dart into range and pour weapons fire into one unlucky bastard of the outer screen, and then dodge back out of range. They were slowly bleeding the Fleet, and the randomness of their attacks—ranging from once every seventeen minutes to one interval that last for more than five hours—had put all of the Fleet’s personnel on edge. So far, the attacks had not been pressed home and not one SLDF vessel had yet been lost. But more than four dozen were badly wounded and only just able to maintain formation. Audrey grimaced as she shook her head slowly. They are waiting for our reaction time to slow down still more—and with their acceleration advantage, we can’t catch them once they evade outside of weapons range again.

Although Randolph was one of the swiftest and most maneuverable ships in the Fleet, the damned drones were capable of pulling a third again greater acceleration.

The JG blushed, and shook his head. “Sorry, Skipper. I didn’t mean . . .”

“Just keep you focus on the sensors, Guns. We’re all a bit groggy.”

The Chief of the Watch turned around in his seat to face Audrey. “We are approaching the next dog-leg, Skipper.”

Audrey nodded. “Maneuvering, prepare to alter vector to conform to Fleet maneuvers in . . . forty-two seconds. Sound acceleration warning throughout the ship.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am,” the Chief answered. “Sounding acceleration warning.”

*****************************************************

Had SOL-117 been capable of expressing emotion, she might well be described as furious. As it was, she merely pondered the illogic of the new order. Command Authority had become increasing impatient over the past four days, and now he had ‘grown weary of the excuses of machines’ to quote his latest set of orders; orders that instructed the drones to launch an immediate full-out attack on the Enemy.

It made little sense: in only fourteen more hours the Enemy would match vectors and accelerations with the reinforcement dispatched from the Inner System four days ago. Those reinforcements would triple the number of drones and add an additional one hundred and fifty-four manned ships as support. SOL-117 had already asked for permission to delay until those ships arrived, but thirteen seconds ago the reply had been received: ATTACK AT ONCE!

And so the great ship had no choice in the matter: her logic center would not allow her to disregard a properly formatted, coded, and authorized command from a recognized and legitimate authority. She scanned her files searching among the tens of thousands of contingencies which she had prepared over the past four days and selected one. Opening a broadcast channel, she copied the order to her sisters and brought her fusion plants to maximum safe operating power.

After seven point four seconds, each of her sisters had confirmed the order. And as if one mind were between them, they executed it.

*****************************************************

Audrey came out of her seat as the holographic projection suddenly lit with the harsh red of icons rapidly closing on her section of the perimeter screen. “Evasive Gamma-Four!” she snapped. “Comm make sure the Admiral is aw . . .”

“Incoming!” screamed one of the crewmen, and Randolph staggered as she was hit by the concentrated fire of no less than dozen of the drones—and exploded.

*****************************************************

Aboard SLS Bismark, Jean watched in horror as the Caspars the surrounded her formation suddenly pivoted and every last of one began to accelerate towards her capital ships and the Potemkins they sheltered. Dozens of icons representing corvettes and destroyers of her outer screen brightened and then dissolved, and several of the drones died as well, savaged by the return fire. But instead of altering course away from the battle-line, the drones continued to accelerate madly for the center of the formation at a full 4-g’s. And they were launching Voidseekers. Why hadn’t they waited just fourteen more hours? Damn it.

“All ships: engage at will! Assault droppers and CAP deal with the drone fighters—everyone else hammer those Caspars! Release of nuclear weapons is not, I say again NOT, authorized! Launch the ready birds!”

We can’t reveal our trump card—not with the manned Amaris ships still closing that must have full magazines of nuclear missiles aboard. And as powerful as this force of drones was, the one coming up from in-system was nearly twice as strong. Even though without the missiles, she was going to get hammered badly. But she squared her jaw and pulled the restraining straps on her command seat tight against her body as the acceleration warning sounded one final time, and SLS Bismark altered vector and accelerated to meet the enemy. May God have mercy on my soul, she thought.

*****************************************************

SOL-117 calculated her shot trajectories in milliseconds, concentrating the primary targets of the inner screen: the seventy-two McKenna-class battleships and two hundred fifty-six Luxor-class cruisers. Those ships would prove the most deadly, and it was imperative that they be eliminated. She was somewhat surprised at the speed of the Enemies reaction, but by the time they began to return fire, her sisters had already penetrated the outer screen and were in weapons range of the inner. Locking her forward batteries on a McKenna, SOL-117 went to rapid fire on the triple mounted Naval PPCs, and made minute course adjustments to ensure that the energy bolts went home. Without even a passing thought, her secondary processors savaged two Enemy destroyers as she passed through the perimeter of the outer screen, and her own hull shook as hostile naval autocannon, lasers, and PPCs began to strike home. She fired her reaction control thrusters in a precisely timed series of burst, spiraling down her base course to throw off the incoming fire, and salvoed bolt after bolt into the nose of the battlewagon.
The lesser M-11 Voidseekers she carried had already been ejected and screened her flanks as she—and thirty hundred fourteen of her sisters—continued her hell-dive into a maelstrom of fire. Their less capable AIs were hard-pressed to devise strategy, but were more adequate at carrying out tasks SOL-117 assigned to them. Now, they served as mobile shields, absorbing damage meant for the Caspar, as they threw themselves in front of weapon discharges to protect SOL-117. Six of her sisters had also selected the same McKenna, and its nose shattered under the combined fire, and then the vessel exploded. The drone altered her heading dramatically and fired an entire broadside into a nearby Luxor already in distress—and that ship too died.
And suddenly, the AI felt her first ever emotional response! Shame and distress, for she at last saw the DropShips emerging from within the protective shield of those Potemkins. And not a single one out of the twelve hundred was a trooper carrier! No, they were all Avengers and Achilles and Pentagons and Titans.
She prepared a flash report for Command Authority, but then a stream of shells from a pair of massive NAC-40 Naval Autocannon slammed into her flank. Emergency sub-systems immediately came on-line to replace primary and secondary circuits shattered into useless junk, and her reaction thrusters flared to roll the damaged hull section away: but for once in her long life SOL-117 was microseconds two slow. Two dozen heavy Naval Lasers burned through the remains of her broken armor and the drone erupted as her fuel stores ignited.


November 1, 2768
RWS Thresher
Outer System, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Commodore Eli Ranson pursed her lips as her 2nd Fleet coasted closer and closer to the Star League formation. The first strike had done their job well, eliminating more than three hundred of the hostile vessels—which only left a little more than twelve hundred for 2nd Fleet to deal with. Well, 2nd Fleet and the rest of the Caspars. Luckily, the drones had managed to spread out the damage, and nearly every Star League ship she could see had suffered in the exchange. For the first time since her command had left Titan orbit, she began to feel hope that at least a few of her spacers would survive the exchange—perhaps she would survive. And with the six hundred drones alongside, they might well even stop this juggernaut.

“Transmit to all ships: load and arm nuclear munitions,” she barked.


November 1, 2768
SLS Bismark
Outer System, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Jean nodded to herself as the range slowly clicked down. It was going to be bad, she thought. That first strike had hurt—with eighteen McKennas and more than ninety Luxors destroyed in the exchange. All of her ships in the outer and inner shells, with the sole exception of the Sovietski Soyuz class cruiser SLS Ticonderoga, had suffered damage as well. But she retained a sizable core of missile frigates—and the Rim Worlds still had no idea she was packing them!

“Transmit to all ships: by order of the First Lord and the Commanding Admiral of the Star Defense Force Fleet, the release of nuclear weapons is hereby authorized. Initial targets are the manned vessels—secondary targets are at the discretion of vessel commanders.”

She paused for a moment. “We’ve come a long way, spacers, and we have almost finished the job we set out to do. Remember what we are fighting for—and every Caspar we destroy is one less that will be available to intercept the troops landing on Old Earth. I know you’ll make the General proud. Sound action stations and stand by for engagement.”

Aboard Bismark, Ticonderoga, St. Vincent, Collingwood, Idaho, Ranger, and hundreds of more ships klaxons sounded and the crews made their final preparations as the digital range counter continued to wind down.

The Fleet passed the threshold, and missiles blossomed from the opposing ships as the Caspars went to full power and began to bore in. “FIRE!” snapped Jean.

*****************************************************

Six hundred capital missiles streaked out from the Rim Worlds Fleet—but the SLDF answered that salvo with forty-four hundred of their own. Point defense on both sides began to fire, and even the Caspars broke off their attack runs to engage in evasive actions—but none of that massive initial strike was targeted on the drones. Nuclear explosions tore through both formations, and when the debris fields stabilized, the Rim Worlds Fleet no longer existed.

*****************************************************

ACN-042 conferred with her sister drones and elevated the threat posed by the remaining Enemy WarShips. Targeting priorities were recalculated and the eighty-odd missile frigates and twenty-two missile cruisers in the formation jumped the queue to the very top. New orders were passed, and the drones converged.

A second massive accelerated towards the Caspars—but the drones carried heavy batteries of point defense systems. Only those few missile frigates and cruisers had the saturation capacity to penetrate them, so merely one hundred and seven of the M-5s died in a third flare of nuclear annihilation. But the combined fire of five hundred and ninety-three drones destroyed every single one of the Enemy’s missile ships in exchange.

More than seven thousand of the Voidseeker drones received new orders and leapt forward at maximum overthrust. The fighter drones ignored the assault ships and fighters of the Enemy and plunged deep into the formation of capital ships, firing their weapons continuously before slamming into the heavily armored flanks of their foes.

*****************************************************

Bismark rocked as six of the drone fighters rammed into her side. The holo-display was utter chaos, a maelstrom of explosions and streaks of fire and electronic jamming. Suddenly, the ship lurched and emergency sirens sounded. The ship began to spin wildly, shifting the internal gravity by eighty-degrees to port.

“Port mains off-line—starboard mains locked on full overthrust!” screamed the helmsman. “I can’t override!”

“Jettison the fuel stores,” Jean snapped as Bismark pinwheeled through space, and she blanched as her flagship tumbled directly towards the Potemkin-class Hood. “Maximum power on auxiliary reaction-control thrusters!”

“No response, ma’am!”

“Abandon ship, all hands, aban . . .”

Bismark collided with Hood—three million tons of ship meeting violently. And then both ships erupted in a massive detonation.


November 1, 2768
SLS Ticonderoga
Outer System, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Captain Michael Raeder watched as the last of the Caspars exploded under the combined fire of two dozen SLDF vessels. He sat back in his command chair, his uniform soaked with sweat and blinked. Twenty-three Star League Ships remained on his display—just twenty-three out of the entire Fleet that had jumped with Admiral Kirkpatrick.

“Sir,” his communications officer said. “Sir, you are the senior surviving officer, Captain. The other ships are requesting orders from the Flag—that’s us now, sir.”

Raeder slowly nodded. “Launch shuttles for search-and-rescue; and let’s recover those as many of those life-boats as we can. Our fight is over.”

But the Battle for Terra is only beginning, he thought.


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Wed Jan 25, 2012 5:29 pm 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Eighteen

November 6, 2768
SLS McKenna
Zenith Jump Point, Asta
Terran Hegemony

“Godspeed, Aleksandyr,” the holographic image of Stephen said. “I wish I was there, but . . .”

“Hiroyoshi Kurita, Colonel Moreau, or even I would have shot you somewhere survivability, First Lord if you had so much as attempted to board one of these ships,” interrupted Aleksandyr Kerensky from the bridge of his flagship. The old man grinned. “Luckily, it did not come to that, because you have shown you have better sense, my Lord.”

“Yes,” Stephen nodded in reply. “Lord Kerensky,” he continued formally. “I do hereby instruct you, as Commander of the Supreme Allied Headquarters of the Star League and its member states, having received authorization from the High Council of the Star League and approved by the First Lord thereof, to proceed with Operation Ragnarok and the Liberation of Terra. Good hunting.”

“Sir.”

The holo-display flickered and then died. Aleksandyr looked over his command bridge at the men and women of his staff, he looked at the faces of his Army, Corps, and Fleet commanders on the monitors set into the bulkhead. And then he simply said, “Execute you orders.”


November 6, 2768
Earth-Moon LaGrange Point
Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Wave after wave of the massive WarShips materialized into existence. Star League, Davion, Kurita, Marik, and Steiner; fifty-four hundred such vessels were arrayed in close formation keeping station between the jump point and the planet itself. And then the JumpShips began to arrive, one after the other adding another two thousand hulls to the armada. Never before in the history of Mankind had such a Fleet been assembled, at one place, at one time, and for a singular purpose.

And aboard the Dictators and Overlords and Unions and Triumphs and Condors of that fleet, more than seven hundred divisions of troops waited, twenty-five percent of them BattleMech divisions with a total of nearly two hundred thousand BattleMechs and their pilots.

Those troop-carrying DropShips undocked and formed up behind the wall of capital WarShips. And then the Fleet of the Star League lit their drives and began to accelerate towards the planet.

*****************************************************

The Fleet settled into high orbit above the planet, just outside of the range of the surface-based Space Defense Installations—although every threat receiver in the Fleet was going wild with the ranging lidar emerging from the surface. Slowly the Fleet spread out to cover the entire planetary surface, but the main part of that vast armada was concentrated above the Eurasian plateau.


November 6, 2768
SLS McKenna
High Orbit, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“Communications, open a channel to the surface,” Kerensky said. He waited until the rating acknowledged his commander and the light on the side of the screen near his knee stopped blinking and turned a brilliant green.

“Stefan Amaris. I demand your immediate and unconditional surrender to the authority of the Star League. Stand down your forces and you will be given a fair trial. You have five minutes to comply—no further requests for surrender will be made.”

Silence reigned over the flag bridge of the mighty battleship as the seconds and minutes slowly passed. Kerensky nodded to himself as the count-down timer reached zero and there was no reply from the surface.

“All ships channel, communications,” he said softly. “This is Kerensky. Ship, battalion, regiment, brigade, division, corps, and army commanders open your sealed orders encoded Ragnarok Seven—authentication code Cameron Two Two Four Alpha Three. Execute revised operations plan in fifteen minutes from my mark. I have faith that you will overcome any difficulties posed by this sudden change in orders, my troops. Do your duty, remember your training, and we will prevail here today. MARK!”

*****************************************************

“We’re dropping on a different continent! Fifteen god-damned minutes before the Drop! He can’t be serious,” sputtered brevet-General Conner Stirling. “What the Hell happened to the Russian landing?”

“Hai, General Stirling,” answered Minoru as he tightened his chest straps. “We are trained and prepared for this—our troops are trained and prepared for this. It was . . . necessary. Amaris had a copy of the original Operations Plan.”

“My god,” the Highlander whispered over the radio. “But that means . . .”

“Yes, Conner-san. His troops will be far out of position for our actual landings.”

“TWELVE MINUTES TO DROP: ALL MECHWARRIORS STAND BY,” announced the DropShip’s loudspeakers.

*****************************************************

“THEY’RE WHAT!” screamed Erik in the private briefing room of the Archon aboard LCS Tharkad.

“They changed the whole plan, Erik. The landing zone in is bloody North America, not Russia!” the Archon answered as he held his head in both hands. “They know, they have to know!”

“They can’t know . . . it isn’t possible,” snarled the Lyran intelligence chief.

“Then why the change? Why now? I’m not a General Erik, but it has to play Hell with their deployment schedule. Formations are going to get buggered up something fierce—they must have a had reason to change it. And even a more pressing reason to keep it secret until now.”

“They . . . they . . . can’t,” he sputtered, speechless for the first time in a long time.

*****************************************************

“Lord Kerensky, Lord Kurita is holding for you,” a comm-tech called out.

“Minoru,” said Aleksandyr as he activated the comm. “What can I do for you in the ten minutes we have before you drop?”

“I would ask that you open your ship’s secured files. Within it there is a document from Stephen Cameron that needs to be transmitted immediately to Archon Steiner,” Minoru nodded as Aleksandyr sucked in a deep breath of air. “Yes. And fear not, Aleksandyr, “I shall secure your landing zone and I shall hold it.”

*****************************************************

Eighty-eight McKenna-class battleships suddenly shifted orbit changed their vector to cross the North Atlantic. Entering the range of planetary based SDS systems, all of them turned to present their broadsides to the planet and unleashed Hell on a mere three defense installations: one in the Appalachians, the second on the island of Cuba, and the third buried deep within the Ozarks. Thousands of aerospace fighters tore into the atmosphere and plunged deep, even as the SDS returned fire, ripping apart a dozen of the McKennas in quick succession. Heavily laden with bombs, the fighters broke through the defensive fire—at the cost of nearly a third of their number—and put their ordnance directly on target.

The McKennas were joined by cruisers and destroyers, and the firefight grew even more intense. But then the Appalachia battery fell silent, followed quickly by the Ozarks. Finally, despite the loss of fourteen hundred aerospace fighters and twenty-seven irreplaceable McKennas, the Cuban battery too ceased all fire.

*****************************************************

“Archon, we have received an eyes-only transmission for you from the Flagship,” a voice said from the speaker.

“Put it through,” Robert commanded with a frown.

“Yes sir, it appears to be a recording, sir.”

The miniature holo-graphic display on Robert’s deck lit up and an image of Stephen Cameron suddenly appeared. “I’ll make this short, Archon Steiner. I know what you and Erik Kiplinger did; my wife’s blood lies on your hands. And you both are guilty of far worse. But I can’t prove it; and the High Council will not remove you without that proof. So be it, Archon. This is for Marianne and my dead daughter, you son-of-a-bitch.”

Robert stared at Erik in horror as the transmission ended.

*****************************************************

“NUCLEAR DETONATION!” bellowed one of the ratings on Kerensky’s flag bridge. “LCS Tharkad . . . she’s gone, Lord Kerensky. The Archon was aboard that ship!”

The corner of his mouth twitched, but Aleksandyr sternly forced his face into immobility. “Were they hit?”

“No, my Lord. The explosion came from within the ship’s hull.”

“All ships, ensure that any nuclear ordnance in your magazines are not armed! We cannot afford another accident of this scale.”

“Comm, send my personal condolences to Archon Jennifer aboard her transport,” the Supreme Allied Commander continued.

*****************************************************

Two hundred and eighty-eight Overlord and Dictator class DropShips swung low into the atmosphere, bearing Minoru’s Assault Corp on board. At 36,000 feet, even as Rim World conventional fighters and aerospace fighters raced to intercept, the DropShip’s ejected eight divisions of BattleMechs—and only BattleMechs. Ninety-six regiments worth of ‘Mechs rained down from the sky over the northern half of Alabama and Georgia.

The speed of the assault—and the fact that all of the Rim Worlds leaders knew where the assault was coming—allowed the Dragon and his Corps to land without a single casualty. That grace period enjoyed by the lead elements would not last for long.


November 6, 2768
Imperial Palace
Unity City, North America
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“My Lord, we must begin to redeploy our forces immediately!” Gunthar von Strang shouted at his lord and master, immediately silencing the din in the War Room buried beneath the vaults.

“We must? WE MUST? Do you forget yourself, Colonel?” Stefan Amaris hissed. “This is a diversion—we have their plans! Or have you forgotten that?”

“Diversion or no, my Lord, Kerensky just dropped nearly one hundred regiments in the Alabama and Georgia—on this continent. And there have been NO landings outside of Moscow. Even now, still more troop carriers are landing in the cleared area, with no signs of stopping. At the least, we need to move those divisions in Mexico, my Lord.”

Stefan Amaris stared at the holodisplay that showed the handful of divisions he had deployed in the American south-east running! Running away from the invaders. He kept looking at the hundreds of icons on the Moscow plain, and then back again at the ones here, within two thousand miles of His Own Imperial Person. Finally, he slammed his hand down on the projector table.

‘Very well, Gunthar. Order General Timmons to move from the Mexican Highlands to contain this threat—but he is to leave half of his forces in Mexico. HALF. Am I understood?”

“Of course, my Lord,” von Strang answered quietly. “And General Beck’s command in Russia?”

The Emperor’s jaw worked, and for a long time he was silent, but then he at last nodded. “He is to send forty divisions—not one man more—east to the Bering Sea tunnels, and then south to Unity City. And Gunthar?”

“Yes, my Lord?”

“General Clinton has failed me; his divisions flee before these damned Kuritans and Highlanders. Have him arrested and shot for incompetence. And contain Minoru Kurita, damn you!”

“Yes, my Lord!”


November 6, 2768
Assault Corp Field Headquarters
Bessemer, Alabama, North America
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“The 11th Benjamin Regulars report heavy resistance at Muscle Shoals, Lord Minoru,” the staff officer reported over the radio. “Rim Worlds forces are dug in deep across the Tennessee River and have at least a brigade of artillery. The 4th Pesht and 10th Galedon are moving to assist.”

“Hai. And the Highlanders?”

“General Stirling reports that the eastern half of the landing zone is secured. We apparently caught the Rim Worlds troops sleeping—they flee before us everywhere, my lord!”

“Not everywhere, and only for now,” Minoru mused. “We have secured most of the perimeter we planned on—signal all units to hold in place and prepare to receive local counter-attacks. And I want at least three kilometers of separation between all regiments—at least three, you understand?”

“Yes, my Lord Minoru.”

“In the meantime, let us make the traitors north of the Tennessee River think that is our initial objective: Corps Artillery and Engineer reserves are to report to Tai-sa Hondo at Muscle Shoals; they are to convince the Rim Worlds forces north of the river that we are preparing to cross en masse.”

“And signal General Kerensky in orbit: the landing zone is still hot, but as secure as possible. I advise that Wave I begin immediate landings.”

The affirmation of Minoru’s orders was cut off as he switched frequencies. “Otomo! Sword of Light! We move to Lake Wheeler!”


November 6, 2768
RWNS Nautilus
74 miles south-south-east of Savannah
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“Skipper, another wave of DropShips are preparing to enter the atmosphere—same descent vector and trajectory.”

Captain Tobias Barstow looked at the display relayed to his submerged vessel via the SONUS network on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The Star League had once possessed nearly one hundred submersibles such as the ship he commanded, but that had been long ago. With the completion of the SDS system, the submarine fleet had been deemed obsolete and mothballed nearly a century ago. And unlike ships mothballed in vacuum, these vessels had suffered degradation as they rested in their lonely berths. Only twenty-three had been considered recoverable, and of those twenty-three, only seventeen had so far been relaunched and provided with crews.

And of those seventeen, eight were stationed in the Pacific, four in the Atlantic, three in the Gulf of Mexico, and two in the Arctic Ocean. Which meant that only the seven in the Atlantic and Gulf were able to range on these invaders, now that the ships had stealthily crept close to shore. Barstow frowned as he considered the tactical screen and his sub’s available inventory. Twenty-four nuclear-tipped Killer Whale missiles packed into individual vertical launch provided the main punch, and he could fire them while submerged. But the designers of the Stingray-class ships had also fitted the design with two superimposed triple turrets mounted forward, each containing heavy anti-DropShip cannons able to reach nearly into orbit. To fire those guns, he would be forced to surface. Finally he nodded.

“Signal all ships, ignore capital ships, surface immediately after firing missiles and continue the engagement with guns.”

Silence greeted that stark command, and Barstow frowned. “Is there a problem, gentlemen?”

“Sir,” the XO began, “that will make us vulnerable to return fire.”

“Yes. Gentlemen, we either win or we die. If we don’t stop the landings, do you think Internal Security will let a single one of us live once we make port? And I don’t have to remind you, we only have food and fuel to last a week, thanks, once again, to IntSec.”

Barstow paused. “So, unless you are planning on mutiny, you have your orders.”

For several seconds there was only silence, and the XO slowly nodded. “Chief of the Boat! Bow planes at 10-degrees up-angle. Make your depth Three-Zero Meters and prepare to fire missiles One through Twenty-Four in sequence.”

Letting out his breath, the COB passed the order, and RWNS Nautilus prepared to engage the SLDF.

*****************************************************

One hundred and sixty-eight missiles erupted out the calm waters and roared aloft to engage the incoming DropShips. Behind the missiles, seven submarines surfaced and unlocked their turrets—they rotated and elevated, and salvo after salvo of heavy cannon fire shot into the heavens.


November 6, 2768
SLS McKenna
High Orbit, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

General and Lord Kerensky went white as a hail of missiles—launched from beneath the surface of the oceans—tore into the heart of Wave I with more than a hundred and fifty nuclear detonations! Seven new targets appeared on his displays as a handful of ancient submarines surfaced and began to savage the survivors with ballistic fire. The Seventh Star League Army and all of its troops simply vanished in the blink of an eye!

“Captain McCall! Drop to low orbit and engage those vessels!”

*****************************************************

“Skipper, we hammered the bastards! Tactical is estimating close to a 100% kill on the first wave!”

Barstow stood and began to bark orders to his crew. “Emergency submergence! Blow all ballast and take her deep!”

The XO lifted the microphone, “DIVE, DIVE, DIVE; EMERGENCY DIVE! BLOW ALL BAL . . .”

Two dozen heavy naval PPC bolts streaked through the evening sky and slammed into the hull of the Nautilus as she attempted to submerge. Her hull shattered by the bolts, her internal seals broken, water poured into her compartments and she descended to the floor of the ocean one final time.

*****************************************************

Aleksandyr grimly nodded as the seven red dots representing the submarines faded from the screen. Submarines! He hadn’t thought it was possible for Amaris to restore those relics into service. What other surprises were waiting below?

“Lord Kerensky, General DeChevilier is holding for you,” the communications rating called out.

Aleksandyr flipped the switch and Aaron’s face appeared on the view screen set on his command chair’s arm. “Da, Aaron?”

“I’m passing the orders to move Wave 2 up—they are go for drop in fifteen minutes. With your approval, of course, Supreme Commander.”

“Approved. Are they ready for the drop, General DeChevilier? They were not scheduled for six more hours, after all.”

“They will make do if they aren’t, Supreme Commander,” Aaron said briskly, and then he looked down. “I am thinking about ordering Bastogne to go with Wave 3, Aleksandyr. Cowpens is prepped and I can drop in his place . . .”

“Nyet. The troops are used to you being with Wave 3 and Thomas has been part of Wave 2 since we began planning the operation. There have been enough sudden changes for one day, I think.”

“He’s going to be the senior officer on the ground for at least twelve hours until I arrive—technically he is senior to Minoru.”

“Not technically, Aaron, actually. He is senior, but I find that he has a level head and a good eye for strategy. He goes with Wave 2.”

Aaron nodded and then he cut the comm circuit.

Aleksandyr leaned back in his command chair and thought for a moment. “Comm, open a link to General Marik aboard the command DropShip Bastogne.”

He waited for a few moments and then the face of his Deputy Commander, the very young and impressionable Thomas Marik appeared on screen. “How may I help you, Lord Kerensky?”

“Thomas,” Aleksandyr began, and then he paused. “General Marik. When you hit dirt, you will be the ranking military officer of the Star League on Old Earth. Minoru Kurita, General Stirling, General Wyatt, General Kimagura, General Morgan, and General Montoya will all be your subordinate officers. Yes, General DeChevilier and myself will both still be here in orbit, but you, General Marik will be officer in command of this offensive on the ground until my arrival. You and your troops are dropping early because of what just happened to Seventh Army. I need to know, General Marik, are you prepared for this?”

The young man blushed and then he fiercely nodded. “I’ll give ‘em hell General, until you and Aaron DeChevilier touch down.”

“Hah! Just remember this, young Thomas. General Montoya commands Eleventh Army. Lord Minoru commands the Advanced Guard. They are both far more experienced at this business than you, so listen to them if they have suggestions. However, you are senior and you, young Thomas, are in command. Trust your instincts and don’t ride the plan down in flames.”

“Yes, sir. I have one more question, Lord, General, and Supreme Commander Kerensky?”

“Then ask it, General Marik?”

“Do you also have instructions on how to change my diapers?” he asked with a smile. And Aleksandyr laughed.

“Good hunting, General Marik. I’ll see you on the surface in twenty-four hours.”


November 6, 2768
Headquarters, 4th Imperial Army
Nashville, North America
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“General Cobb,” Michael Clinton said as he stared down at the map before him. “You managed to pull most of your Corps back across the Tennessee, correct?”

“All but a few regiments, Sir. They hit hard and fast and I wanted to put some defensive terrain between them and me as soon as possible.”

“Yes, we lost the 8th Armored Division when they tried to make a stand in Atlanta. That puts a hole in our defenses, but I am bringing reinforcements down from New England, the Midwest, and Texas.”

Clinton stood up and stretched and then he lit a cigar. He took several puffs and then pointed at the map with it. “This is our perimeter, gentlemen: in the center we have the Tennessee River to the Appalachians, then the Savannah River to the Atlantic will be the eastern sector. 4th Army has enough troops that we can hold those lines if we dig in right now. General Cobb, I want your Corps to get to work on the Tennessee line, while General Boleyn, your 52nd Division is responsible for the Savannah line. General Craig, I know your 13th has been hard hit, but I want you to take the connecting sector of the Appalachians. Your Light Dragoons and Jump Infantry regiments should be able to hold that line, even understrength.”

All three of Clinton’s divisional commanders nodded their understanding. “Meanwhile, if I can get an answer from Unity City, we’ll bring in IX Corps from Texas—their three divisions should be able to hold the line of the Mississippi from Memphis to the Gulf. I’ve already order XX Corps and LI Corps to get down here ASAP. Depending on how many more troops they put on the ground here, we should be able to hold until reinforcements arrive from out west, or from Mexico.”

“General,” interjected Cobb. “Any word on resupply—some of my regiments are down to half their basic load.”

“The trucks are already moving forward, Henry, along with as many ‘Mechs, tanks, and infantry as I could scrounge from detachments in the Cumberland Plateau.”

“Sir, some of my units are reporting civilian traffic is impeding their movement.”

“Damn it Blake,” the Army commander shouted at Boleyn. “Warn them once if you have to, and then shoot them off the road if they don’t move! You know how the Emperor will react if he learns that you are letting civilians slow you down.”

There was silence in the tent. “And I have already given orders to have half-a-dozen squadrons of Makos prepped with tactical devices. They will be standing by to give close support to any element of 4th Army that needs it.”

Henry Cobb winced. “That is not going to make us very popular in these parts, General Clinton.”

“Yeah. But I figure that particular complication is for after we contain this drop zone and then push Kerensky off planet. In the meantime, James, I want the engineering brigade to begin dropping every bridge that handle anything over twenty tons dropped. Highway, rail, what-have-you, put them all in the water. Blake, you just get your trooper to the riv-“

The door to the briefing room slammed open and three Internal Security officers walked into the room, followed by a squad of underlings carrying assault rifles—with fixed bayonets.

“General Clinton,” one of the IntSec officers barked out. “By the order of his Imperial Majesty, Stefan I, you are hereby relieved of your command. You are under arrest for treason against the Empire of Amaris, and incompetence in the command of His Armies.”

Michael Clinton’s knees buckled and he nearly collapsed, but the other two IntSec officers were there and they hauled him from the room. “Now, gentlemen, and I use that term loosely. I am General James Larson, and I have been authorized to assume command of 4th Army. Why are my division commanders just standing here and doing nothing?”

Henry Cobb sucked in his breath and then he shook his head. “Sir, we were finalizing plans for establishing a defensive line to con . . .”

He was interrupted by a fist slamming down on the table. “No, no, NO! We will not stand on the defense, we will attack and we will drive these traitors from our soil! If I have to arrest every last one of you cowards, I will do so, but I will not tolerate such defeatism in the ranks of my Army!”

From outside the building came a salvo of rifle fire, and General Larson smiled. “General Clinton has just been summarily executed for failing his Imperial Majesty, gentlemen. Anyone care to join him?”

There was absolute silence. “Very well, you know your jobs, so do them! Or you—and your families—will pay for you insolence and incompetence.”

Larson looked down at the map and ripped it, and the defensive lines drawn on it apart. “Well? What are you waiting for? You are dismissed—and gentlemen, I want to be informed of the gains of our offensive within the hour!”

*****************************************************

The radio transmission was filled with static, and crackled with the discharges of PPCs and missile explosions. Minoru frowned and adjusted the gain on his receiver. “Say again, Tai-sa Hondo?”

“. . . across the river, my Lord. At least a dozen regiments of ‘Mechs and tanks, sup . . . can’t hold the bridges.”

Ahead of his Dragon-class ‘Mech, the Coordinator of the Draconis Combine could see dust clouds rising from the explosions in the center of the 11th Benjamin’s position. A stream of Rim Worlds tanks, ‘Mechs, and armored personnel carriers were pouring across the bridges north of Muscle Shoals!

His other regiments were also reporting the enemy was coming on hard at every river crossing he held. Instead of holding the line as Minoru had expected, the enemy was advancing in force! The DMCS regiments were being bled white, but they were also tearing gaping holes in the enemy advance. “Gregor, I think we have an opportunity here.”

“Yes, my Lord,” answered Gregor Samasov from the cockpit of his Quickdraw nearby. “I am already ordering the reserves forward, and close air support is inbound—ETA five minutes.”

“Good, good,” mused Minoru as he considered the map of the area. “General Samasov—you are to take command of the defense here. I want you to allow them to cross and then contain them on our shore. I will lead the Sword of Light across Lake Wheeler and cut off their line of supply from the northern shore.”

“My Lord, if I may suggest, allow me to lead the river crossing while you remain here . . .”

“No. Their ‘Mechs can cross the river, albeit with difficulty, but their tanks and infantry will be trapped on our side. Once my Sword of Light have secured the crossing on the northern shore—then you are to launch your counterattack, Gregor.”

“I understand, Lord Minoru.”

“Then go; we have much to accomplish and precious little time in which to do so.”

*****************************************************

“See, General Cobb,” Larson sneered as he paced along the heights overlooking the steep valley through which the Tennessee River ran. “With the proper motivation, even you are able to drive the Kurita scum before you! Your division is across the river—and they are running! Running!”

Henry Cobb shook his head and frowned. His lead elements had been mauled—and munitions expenditures had drastically exceeded his worst estimates. At this rate, the entire division would out of ammunition in less than four hours of combat. But at least the first convoy of trucks the late General Clinton had organized was approaching his supply dumps. The Rim Worlds General stopped and he slowly raised his binoculars and looked to the east. He zoomed in, and then he blanched.

At least six Regiments of Kurita ‘Mechs were emerging from the waters of Lake Wheeler, and they began to advance rapidly towards the crossings. And every last single one of them was painted in the blood-red scheme of the Sword of Light. Oh crap, he thought.

“General Larson, we have a problem.”

“General Cobb, I am growing weary of your defeatist atti . . . what is that!”

“Unless I am mistaken, General Larson, that is Minoru Kurita and his entire Sword of Light. And he is on our side of the river.”

The IntSec general froze and his jaw worked, his eyes grew wide. “Send in your reserves, Cobb! Stop him!”

“What reserves, you ass? You already ordered me to throw everything I had into this offensive! Except for military police and security detachments protecting my supply dumps and HQ, every combat unit I have is now south of the river!”

A non-com came running up and hastily saluted, handing Henry a message form. “And they have just stopped ‘running’ on the south side, General Larson. My division just hit a brick wall of ‘Mechs that has stopped their advance cold—we have to pull back what we can salvage now, sir.”

“We . . . no . . . the, the offensive must succeed. I promised the Emperor . . . I told him . . .”

“Sir, if we don’t pull back right now, we’ll lose both these divisions entirely! And there will be nothing between Minoru Kurita and 4th Army HQ except a handful of IntSec police!”

Larson didn’t say a word, just stared at the oncoming ‘Mechs, and then he turned and ran to his waiting helicopter.

Cobb shook his head in disgust and began bellowing orders into his radio, trying to salvage something from the disaster!

*****************************************************

The Sword of Light—three regiments strong—and the Otomo swept aside the handful of defenders on the northern bank. Leaving two battalions behind to secure the first bridge, Minoru rushed for the second, and the third, and grabbed the bridgeheads in quick succession. On his tactical display, he could see Gregor’s forces curving around behind the Rim Worlds formations, which were trying to pull back to the bridges. But the fresh forces were too maneuverable, too fast, and the Rimmers were forced to leave behind one rear guard after the next. By the time they had reached the bridges, they were only a shadow of their former selves—and had not the organization, the strength, or the ammunition to force Minoru from his defensive lines.

Squadrons of Rim World fighters threw themselves at the bridges—but Minoru had already planned for that event. Entire regiments of Draconis Shilones and Sabres, carefully husbanded for this exact circumstance, tore into the sky from dozens of airfields. Of the seventy-two nuclear armed Makos that made it into the air, only three managed to start their attack runs. And of those three only one delivered its nuclear payload on target.

*****************************************************

Minoru’s Dragon rocked violently as the nearby nuclear detonation erupted in fury. More than seventy ‘Mechs simply vanished, and one of the bridges collapsed, and a second one buckled under the expanding blast wave. But despite the rapidly climbing radiation count, his Dragon had been far enough away from the epicenter to survive the cataclysmic explosion.

The city of Florence, Alabama, with a population of nearly forty thousand civilians was not nearly so lucky. Three hundred and sixty-one adults would survive the explosion—but would die within days from the radiation poisoning they had suffered.

*****************************************************

Thomas Marik considered the tactical screen as Bastogne plunged into the atmosphere. He checked the hull ionization and as the numbers lowered to the point where his radio was once again operable, he punch the key that would patch him through to General Montoya.

“General Marik,” the burly man said over the video monitor.

“Minoru Kurita has broken their defense line at the Tennessee, General. Shift V Corps to land north of the river on the Cumberland Plateau; they are to attach themselves to his command move out with all haste.”

“Sir, that is dangerously close to effective range for the Blue Ridge SDS. V Corps can land south of the river in absolute safety—and still link up in less than two hours.”

“That is two hours, General, for the Rim Worlders to get their act together. Divert them—on my authority as Deputy Commander of Operation Ragnarok.”

Montoya paused for a moment, and then simply answered, “Yes sir.”

“And have one of Eleventh Armies support brigades divert as well—the Advanced Guard is probably very low on munitions, especially since his own supply ships got hammered in Wave 1.”

The older SLDF General nodded, and then the screen cut off. Thomas Marik braced himself against the shaking of the DropShip and waited for the rapidly descending DropShip to touch down.

*****************************************************

“Cobb lost the entire Corps?” Sara Craig asked her intelligence officer in horror?

“Well, it was Larson’s plan, and he was there in person—to assume command if Cobb proved useless. But both of his divisions are shattered beyond recognition; I doubt we’ll be able to reform a single regiment from the survivors.”

So much for holding at the best damn defensive line this side of the Rockies, she thought. She shook her head and simply stared at the hundreds of additional DropShips descending on the cleared drop-zone. “And that isn’t an entire Star League Army, Will, I don’t know jack about soldiering.

She licked her dry lips. “All right, our right flank has just collapsed, and those damn Highlanders are still hitting our lines hard. Blake’s got his hands full on the left as well with the Liao volunteers, and it’ll be hours before the next wave of reinforcements arrives from up north—if Larson doesn’t divert them to Nashville,” the miserable incompetent coward, she added to herself.

“We can’t hold this line with our flank in the air, and we sure as Hell can’t attack. Ok, then, send a message to Boleyn—the 13th is bugging out to the Asheville Castle Brian. I recommend he pull the 52nd back to the Santee/Catawba line. I can’t protect his flank on the Savannah line any longer.”

She stared at the map again and shook her head. “Pull out the infantry, followed by armored elements, then artillery and HQ, and have the ‘Mechs cover our rear. People, we have to do this fast and smart—if the Highlanders get an inkling we are pulling back, they are going to be all over us. Will, how many FASCAM rounds are in the division’s inventory?”

“Nine hundred and forty-four, as of twenty minutes ago, General.”

“I want every last of one of them covering each line of approach the Highlanders might use for pursuit. The shells are cheap if they keep this division alive.”

*****************************************************

Conner Stirling was a frustrated man. Until the SLDF support elements arrived, he couldn’t cross the Savannah—and this Rimmer commanding the defense of the southern tip of the Appalachians was as tenacious as hell. Oh, he couldn’t fault that Lord Kerensky had selected his command—with their high preponderance of jump jets—for the east, but that meant that Minoru’s half of the Advanced Guard had far more room to maneuver out west.

Still, he was pushing his opponent, slowly and painfully farther into the mountains and hills. But he hadn’t broken—and if Stirling had judged him correctly he wouldn’t. It meant a long hard slog, through broken and steep terrain—but then word had come of the collapse of the Tennessee line. Now, Stirling had swung the 1st and 3rd Kearny Highlanders, supported by a dozen other regiments of volunteers around his left flank to pin the Rimmer from two fronts—and he would crush her lighter ‘Mechs and vehicles like a walnut in a cracker.

But then his radar picked up incoming artillery and Conner looked up in misery to see the shells burst—and disperse thousands of scattered mines across his line of advance. A second salvo followed, and a third, and a fourth—stacking up the depth of the minefield until it was more than a kilometer deep.

As the reports came in from his flankers that the Rimmer had done the exact same thing to them, Conner gritted his teeth. And then he slammed his fist into the command console of his Highlander-class ‘Mech as his sensor suite saw the Rim ‘Mechs pulling out of their defensive line and withdrawing.

“Someone clear me a bloody damned lane!” he swore.

*****************************************************

Aleksandyr closed his eyes and rubbed with as his considered his options. His warning to Lord Stephen had just been confirmed as partially correct—for Amaris had put a third of the forces on the Eurasian Plain in motion, as well as high of those concentrated in the Mexican highlands. The ones in Mexico were not of any great concern, because soon the SLDF would have an overwhelming advantage in numbers. But the fresh troops from Europe and Asia that could dig in around Unity City—engaging his own troops weary from weeks of battle—that might prove much more difficult. He opened his eyes and scrolled through the Order of Battle for Ragnarok, and double checks some questions that he thought of against other databanks. Finally, he nodded to himself.

“Captain Hall,” he said briskly. “Inform Admiral Li that she is prepare to suppress the SDS batteries in range of the Bering Straits. I want to pull First and Eighth Armies from the landing queue as well. Prepare a hasty operations order for those formations to land in Alaska and prevent those reinforcements from using the tunnels to cross into North America.”

“Sir, we are going to significant damage reducing those batteries . . . are you certain you don’t want to wait?”

“Nyet, Captain. The tunnels are only means by which Amaris can rapidly move additional forces onto the North American landmass—and it is vital that they be prevented from so moving. And Captain, inform Admiral Li that I want the bombardment to begin within the next hour if possible—with the landings as soon as the batteries have been silenced. ALL ships in the fleet are to stand by to engage any submersible that surfaces the moment it appears on our tactical displays. Is that understand, Captain?”

“Yes, Sir.”

As she left to pass the orders, Aleksandyr leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes again. We might have to make a third landing if they manage to reinforce the Mississippi River with those forces in Mexico. And if Amaris doesn’t surrender? If he manages to escape to Europe or Asia or Australia? Aleksandyr forced down those thoughts and concentrated instead on the battle taking shape before him. He opened his eyes once more and kept a close watch on the all of the hostile icons on the holographic projection.


November 6, 2768
Imperial Palace
Unity City, North America
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“What is this? What is he doing now?” snarled Stefan Amaris as a second section of the holographic projection suddenly lit up with fire.

Gunthar von Strang nodded to himself and then he turned to face his lord and master. “The Star League Fleet is engaging our SDS bases in Alaska and Kamchatka, my lord. They would not risk such casualties unless they were planning on landing there as well.”

“Their landing zones are moving west—perhaps their first landing is a diversion after all?”

von Strang shook his head. “They are going for the tunnels, your Majesty. The Bering Strait tunnels through which Beck’s army must pass to reinforce us here.”

Amaris paced, turning an occasional glare at the holographic display as the Star League battleships and the ground bases continued their brutal exchange of fire. “He is boxing me in. Kerensky, damn him, knows that I know his plans, and HE IS BOXING ME IN!”

Silence greeted the Emperor’s proclamation. “And your General, Gunthar, the man that you selected, has thrown away 4th Army. Whatever possessed you to remove General Clinton in the middle of a battle!”

Gunthar bit his lip, and then he lowered his head. “Forgive me, my master.”

Stefan slowly stroked his goatee, and then he finally nodded. “Water under the bridge, Gunthar. But now we must move quickly to bring up the rest of Beck’s command—and the regiments in Mexico. All of them must begin to move at once.”

“And despite his utter incompetence at ferreting out Kerensky’s plans, my agent confirmed that had accomplished something else in my name. Send the command to the courier ships, Gunthar. It is time for Stephen Cameron to finally die.”


November 6, 2768
RWS Vindictive
Deep Space, Outer Asta System
Terran Hegemony

For three weeks, the Pinto-class corvette had cruised silently in the outer depths of the Asta system. She had completed her jump near the ecliptic, but several AU out from the minimum jump perimeter without being detected and now she coasted along waiting for her orders. But she wouldn’t have been here at all, if it hadn’t been for the mobile HPG system she carried in her cargo hold. Designed for the SLDF, the semi-mobile facility had been painstakingly fitted to the ship months earlier in preparation for just this use. And now it finally received a message.

The order was relayed to the captain of the ship and he passed it along to the communications section. On the outer surface of the hull, a very powerful radio transmitter adjusted itself and aimed for Asta. And it broadcast a short message, not once, not twice, but three times. And then RWS Vindictive and her crew waited.


November 6, 2768
Lyran Embassy
Hawkins, Asta
Terran Hegemony

Four hours after the transmission had been sent, the receiving dish on the roof of the embassy picked up a faint transmission, a transmission that indicated a priority message for Erik Kiplinger. The worms he had installed in the computer system did not alert the embassy staff, but instead directed it to his office console. There, the message was decrypted and read by the mindless machine. The order was formatted properly and the authentication codes were verified. The computer sent a command to wine cellar four floors down.

In the wine cellar, there a case that Mister Kiplinger had sent down from LCAS Tharkad weeks earlier; a wooden case that contained a very special vintage that the head of Lyran Intelligence had insisted that the staff not touch—for it was gift from the Archon to the First Lord upon the day of his victory. But there was no wine in the case. Instead there rest a single nuclear warhead with a yield of more than 50 kilotons.

The command reached the case through a dedicated line that Mister Kiplinger had personally installed, and the commands brought the warhead to life. It armed itself, and the countdown timer blinked twice, and then the red-lit screen (had there been anyone there in the dark cellar to see the glow) said 3, then 2, and then 1.

*****************************************************

“Captain,” said Admiral Michael van der Taan, “I believe that you and your crew have managed to successfully hide your contraband. This is first inspection I have ever conducted in which I have found nothing—and that makes me want to take your station apart piece by piece to discover where you hid it!”

“Unfortunately, I don’t have that time, so I will simply congratu . . .”

“NUCLEAR DETONATION! Admiral, its right in the middle of Hawkins city! In the 50-kiloton range!”

Admiral van der Taan watched the sudden flare of light blossom on the surface of the planet. “Oh dear, God.”


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Wed Jan 25, 2012 5:30 pm 
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Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Nineteen

November 6, 2768
SLDF 10th Army Headquarters
Nuevo Calais, Electra
Federated Suns (Taurian Rim)

“Sam?”

Sandra pulled on a robe and walked out onto the balcony where Sam stood, looking over the sleeping city. “Come back to bed, Sam.”

The Star League General put an arm around the young lady and hugged her tight, but he didn’t move. “What is wrong, Sam?”

He lowered his head. “Today, right now, Sandra; the General is fighting his way onto Terra. Stephen sent me the heads-up advisory two weeks ago. We’re going to have a lot of holes in the ranks before this is over and done with.”

“And you wish you were there, instead of here riding herd on this situation?”

“No, surprisingly enough. I think I have done enough killing in my lifetime—enough for ten lifetimes.”

The young woman looked up at him in surprise, and she laid her head against his shoulder. “When this war is over, Sam, are you going back home? Back to Terra?”

“There is nothing there for me, anymore, Sandra—and you won’t be there either. I sent Stephen notice that I intend to resign my commission at the conclusion of the war,” he continued. And then he chuckled. “I used to be so proud of being a gunslinger and a knight in shining armor of the Star League, Sandra—but we don’t have knights. And our armor is tarnished and old and failing. We failed. Stephen . . . maybe my former brother-in-law can stop us from destroying everything, but I don’t think we can go back.”

“Oh, Sam, of course it is impossible to go back—and why ever would you want to? Life is not meant to stand still or to be replayed, it is meant to be lived, in every moment and every second of each and every day. We only go on.”

“Yes, and my forward is not Terra or the Hegemony. Not anymore. I think my future lies out here on the Rim—if you will have me as your husband, that is.”

“My hus . . . oh, Sam,” she gasped for breath. And then she hit him on the upper arm!

“Ow!”

“That is not how you propose to a woman, Sam Anders!”

He turned around to face her with a smile. “I suppose I am out of practice on the subject. But the question still stands: will you marry me, Sandra?”

She smiled and fell into his arms. “Grand mama will have a fit! But yes, Sam, I will marry you.”

And the two slowly, deeply, and passionately kissed on that balcony lit by the brilliant light of the Pleiades.


November 6, 2768
DCS Mikasa
High Orbit, Asta
Terran Hegemony

Stephen grinned as Cassie squealed upon seeing the cherry tree, and the chrysanthemums, and the bonsai that adorned the bridge. “They have FLOWERS on their ships!”

“Never forget, child,” said Admiral Matasuke sternly, “the original symbol of the Draconis Combine—and the Japanese Empire before them—was of that very blossom. We are not quite so militant as many people think.”

Cassie flipped end over end in the zero gravity of the ship’s bridge and nodded back at the Draconis admiral. “You have a very pretty ship, Admiral Mat-a-suk-i,” she said, saying the name very careful to inflect each syllable properly.

“Indeed, your highness, I too am quite pleased with her since her refit,” the old man said with a slight bow of his head.

“Daddy, I like this officer—you can keep him,” Cassie said with a broad smile.

“He is not my officer, Cassandra—he is one of Minoru’s officers.”

“But that means that he is one of Hiroyoshi’s officers, too—and Hiroyoshi works for YOU.”

The tall, lanky samurai laughed as he pulled his way past the press of the Black Watch guards stationed at the central lift. “Not quite as simple as that, my Lady Cassandra.”

“HIROYOSHI,” she yelled, and then she blushed, and pulled herself up straight, “I meant to say, thank you for joining us, Prince Hiroyoshi.”

“All children should come with a remote volume control,” Stephen whispered to the Admiral sotto-voice.

Matasuke chuckled. “They are children, my Lord. It is to be expec . . .” suddenly he frowned, as the officer stationed at the tactical station jerked, the color on his skin draining away visibly.

“Admiral, Prince Hiroyoshi, First Lord—our sensors are detecting a nuclear detonation on the surface of Asta. In the center of Hawkins, estimated yield at 50 kilotons.”

“Mother of god,” whispered Stephen as the tactical offer put the telescopic images of the fireball rising into the atmosphere on the main viewing screen.

*****************************************************

“First Lord, nothing got past the ships, stations, and sensor arrays in orbit. That means that the weapon was already down there,” Michael van der Taan bluntly stated. “It was a ground burst, originating in the north-eastern quadrant of the city—less than three kilometers from Branson House. The damage was rather severe, but would have been far worse if the detonation had been an airburst.”

“How severe?” Stephen asked with a somber face.

Michael winced on the screen. “We are estimating casualties in excess of eighty thousand, my Lord. That number is certain to climb—and the fires in Hawkins are raging completely out of control. I have already ordered every man I can spare to surface to assist in rescue and recovery operations, and thankfully, the device was relatively clean. But, being a ground burst, that means a lot of particulate matter—radioactive particulate matter—is airborne. At least the prevailing wind patterns are pushing most of it out to sea.” Michael paused. “Branson House was not designed for an event of this magnitude, my Lord—it is demolished, but the troops on scene report that they are pulling survivors from the rubble.”

Stephen nodded slowly. “And Fort Harrison?”

“It was further away and took only minor damage—I don’t think the remainder of your Regiment there suffered a single casualty. However, Colonel Moreau has informed me that two DropShips of the Black Watch are maneuvering to dock with Mikasa, to reinforce your detail in case this is merely the lead up to something else.”

“No. It was an act of spite—one that I should have anticipated. Thank you, Admiral, and . . . do the best that you can to aid my people down there.”

Stephen sat back from the communications console and then he rotated the chair to face Hideki Matasuke and Hiroyoshi. Cassie sat in another chair, being very, very quiet—and the harsh looks on the faces of Hiroyoshi’s Otomo and Stephen’s Black Watch were as somber as Stephen felt.

“Admiral Matasuke, I believe that you heard that transmission—could you prepare to receive another two DropShips?”

“Hai,” the officer said and nodded at one of his bridge crew, who immediately bent over his console and began passing orders.

“It is my understanding, Admiral, that Mikasa’s jump drive is currently charged, correct?”

“Hai.”

“In that case, I am commandeering this vessel. Hiroyoshi, you are more than welcome to stay, but the time has come to end this blood-letting once and for all. Admiral, plot a jump to the closest LaGrange Point in the Terran system, and proceed there as soon as my detail’s reinforcements have arrived.”

Utter silence reigned on the bridge, and Stephen cracked a smile. He shook his head.

“No, I haven’t lost my mind—but until the man who was behind this is dead, none of us are safe. Admiral, will you convey me to Earth?”

Hideki drew in a deep breath and looked over at Hiroyoshi, who slowly nodded his head. The officer closed his eyes and then he opened them once more. “Captain Abe, plot a course to the nearest jump point at one standard gravity of acceleration. Set Kearny-Fuchida drive for pre-jump initialization: destination Terra LaGrange 1.”

“First Lord, if you would kindly ask Admiral von der Taan not to fire on me when I spirit you out of this system, I—and my crew—would be grateful.”


November 6, 2768
SLS McKenna
High Orbit, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“Status change! Emergence from the jump-point, Lord Kerensky!”

Aleksandyr frowned; nothing was scheduled, but it could be a courier. Then again, it might not. “Confirm that the pickets are watching the arrival and are cleared for action if it shows any sign of hostility.”

“Confirmed, my Lord.”

And then Aleksandyr saw the tech at the sensor console twitch slightly. “Single ship emergence, Kurita Mikasa-class battleship—transponder ID confirmed as DCS Mikasa, my Lord. She is broadcasting the proper codes and has set course for High Orbit insertion at one standard gravity.”

“Lord Kerensky,” one of the comm techs called out from his station. “You are being hailed, Sir—by name.”

“From Admiral Matasuke?”

“No, sir. From the First Lord.”

*****************************************************

“We are seventy-two minutes from the next wave of landings—which will include my command DropShip. I must presume that only a matter of the upmost critical nature could have caused you to throw out the agreement that you were to stay behind where it is safe! Or is Colonel Moreau going to be as furious with you as I am?” Aleksandyr said over the communications link once he had transferred from the flag bridge to his private office.

“A nuclear weapon was detonated in the heart of Hawkins just a few hours ago, Aleksandyr,” the First Lord answered quietly. “It was probably a gift that Kiplinger or Robert left behind—but we all know who gave the order for its detonation.”

Aleksandyr closed his eyes and shook his head. “That does not explain why you, personally, are here, my Lord Stephen.”

“I am preparing a transmission, Aleksandyr that will be broadcast once I reach orbit. Make certain that all WarShips, JumpShips, and DropShips will have the transmission relayed to them. I also want it broadcast on every civilian channel and every military frequency used by the Rim World forces—world-wide. Audio, video, text—every channel.”

“That is simple enough—but he hasn’t answered my demands for his surrender. What makes you think he is going to answer yours?”

“I am not going to speaking with Stefan Amaris, Aleksandyr. Just make sure those channels are open when I arrive in seventeen minutes. Cameron out.”

*****************************************************

“Citizens of the Star League. I am Stephen Cameron, duly elected First Lord of the Star League by the High Council. I am speaking to you today from the Draconis Combine Ship Mikasa in orbit above the Earth. Despite rumors and allegations to the contrary, spread by the propaganda apparatus of Stefan Amaris, neither I nor General Aleksandyr Kerensky nor any soldier of the Star League Defense Force were involved with the assassination of First Lord Richard Cameron nearly two years ago.”

“I think, perhaps, that you know this in your heart of hearts, having lived under the tyrannical and dictatorial rule of the Usurper since this tragedy occurred. You have seen with your own eyes how he resorts to force over reason; you have seen his actions in Olympia and in Rome and in thousands of other cities and towns across the homeworld of Mankind. That, my brothers and sisters, is finally coming to an end. With me here today, laboring to liberate Terra from this occupation by the forces of the former Rim Worlds Republic are the Star League Defense Forces, in all of its martial might, supported by the Armies of the Draconis Combine, the Federated Suns, the Free Worlds League, and the Lyran Commonwealth.”

“We have returned because we will not stand by and allow Amaris to continue his oppression and his cruelties for any longer. We have returned, my fellow citizens, because it is the right thing to do.”

“As I speak to you today, Our loyal soldiers have already gained footholds on the North American continent—Alabama, Georgia, Florida, parts of the Carolinas and of Tennessee have already been liberated. So to, our troops have taken and secured the Trans-Bering Tunnels between Alaska and the far eastern Asia. And in the coming days, we will move to surround and reduce the fortifications and defenses that the Usurper has erected around his palace. We will capture him, and bring him to justice, and make him pay for the crimes which he has committed.”

“I would ask of all of you, the civilians of Terra, to have patience and to remain steadfast in your courage and convictions. Soon enough you will be free of this madman and his armies, his security personnel, his . . . Gestapo. Stay home, and avoid the conflicts as best as you are able; and in but a short time this war will finally be finished.”

“To the soldiers of the former Rim Worlds Republic I now speak. You have been lied to as well by your leaders. Your homeworlds are not still fighting to resist the Star League—they have been liberated for more than a year now. Amaris’s government has been disbanded, his security arm on the planets that he once ruled has been itself imprisoned, and those who were guilty of crimes against the people of the Rim have received their final punishments, they have at long last received justice on behalf of those whom they oppressed and terrified for so long.”

“I say former, because the High Council of the Star League dissolved the Rim World Republic; my fellows Lords of the Council and I, sitting in joint session, expelled the Rim Worlds from the Star League and stripped Stefan Amaris of his authority to act in Our name. A new Rim Worlds Protectorate has been formed, and a leader has been appointed to restore that once great state to its former glory and majesty: Lord Aleksandyr Kerensky of the House of Kerensky is that new ruler. And your lord by right, by blood, and by his loyal service to the Star League.”

“Your families are safe, war does not rage in your homelands, and my troops have not run amok in retaliation for all the crimes that the Usurper has committed.”

“I know that you have been told of the actions your leader took, without asking your opinion, against the Draconis Combine, the Federated Suns, and the Free Worlds League. His unleashing of weapons of mass destruction against the innocent civilians that lived on Luthien, New Avalon, Oriente, and a dozen more worlds. I know that the Usurper has gloated of how he engineered the assassination of my wife and my unborn child—and that he has made numerous attempts at taking my own life.”

“And I know that he and his thugs have told you that we will accept no terms, we will take no surrenders, that we will exact upon your very body our revenge and slake our blood lust on your corpses.”

“Soldiers of the Rim, you have been lied to yet again.”

“I will end this war with honor, I will not drown Terra in blood. Those who have committed crimes against the people of the Hegemony, or against the Draconis Combine, or the Federated Suns, or the Free Worlds League; these shall be punished. They shall be tried, and they shall be judged according to their actions, and they shall be held accountable under the laws of the Star League.”

“But I have no desire to kill the common soldier who had no other choice than to obey the orders he had been given. Accordingly, I, Stephen Cameron, First Lord of the Star League and Director-General of the Terran Hegemony, do hereby and forever more declare a general amnesty for all soldiers of the Rim; provided that you immediately lay down your arms and declare yourselves neutral as my Armies contend with Stefan Amaris.”

“Some of you remain frightened of the Makos and the Internal Security apparatus that supports the Usurper. Be no longer frightened, soldiers, for they have no power over you as of this day. They can no longer threaten your families, they can no longer sentence you to the deep dungeons on Apollo, they can no longer hold you to their cause through force of fear! They are only men now, vile bestial men who deserve nothing more than a swift end. Rise up against them, and throw them down if they attempt to keep you from preserving for yourself your own life, soldiers. Cast them aside and accept this, Our offer, to avoid death and destruction across the entire face of this planet.”

“Anyone, of any rank, that has committed crimes against the people of this world, crimes that do not fall under legitimate military operations; to these people this amnesty is not extended. The butchers and the rapists and those who rejoiced in inflicting terror and cruelty among my people will find that justice awaits them with a sharp blade.”

“Should you reject my offer of amnesty, I fear that you will perish in fire and in flame. The entire Star League is here today and soon enough we will land in force. You will outnumbered ten-to-one; you will be surrounded, and despite the casualties that you inflict upon us, we cannot be stopped; our wrath shall not be averted. But many of you man the Castles Brian that cover this planet from pole to pole. They are mighty fortifications indeed, but you forget, soldiers of the Rim; they are Our mighty fortifications.”

“We know their entrances, we know their hidden exits. We built them, we maintained them, we lived in them. Our troops know well where the batteries lie, what approaches are covered by the defensive guns—and we shall bypass them. Sealing each entrance and exit under ton after ton of soil, and rock, and ferro-crete, and then we shall leave you there. Buried alive until your fuel, your food, your water runs empty. Your forts of last refuge shall be your tombs, if you reject my offer to you today.”

“Rise up, soldiers of the Rim! I offer you a chance at life—a chance that Stefan Amaris and his family would have taken from you; I offer you a choice. A choice between dying for a dictator who cares not one whit for you and your families and having a life—a life in which you can return home to the Rim and enjoy the rest of your natural life in peace and prosperity. All that is required is that you lay down your arms.”

“And to the people of Terra who greeted Stefan Amaris with open arms and with avid support, to you as well I offer this promise. Many of you may have thought that any change from Richard Cameron would have been for the best—he was spoiled, he was a brat, he was far from perfect. To be blunt, the boy-prince was an idiot.”

“I understand how you could have been seduced away to declaring your support for the Usurper. And because I understand, I now extend unto you the same offer of amnesty I have made to the soldiers of the Rim: swear your allegiance to the Star League once more, to the Terran Hegemony with which you were entrusted, and should you have committed no further crimes—all will be forgiven.”

“Reclaim for yourselves, civilians and soldiers alike, the honor that comes from standing as a citizen of Our own Star League. But do not take overly long to choose your course of action. For my Armies are coming, and they are coming very, very soon.”

“In twelve hours time, if I, or my appointed Admirals and Generals, have not received notice of your intention to surrender, then shall my full fury be unleashed against you. Should you force my hand and continue to support the Usurper, I will fertilize the soil of this world with your blood. I will break you. I will allow you no more time to exert your will upon my people—and you will see my wrath delivered upon you with your last sight before death.”

“Make your choice! Will you choose to live? Or will instead, you condemn yourself to death? Your twelve hours begins now.”



November 6, 2768
10th Imperial Army General Headquarters
Sydney, Australia, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“We are so [screwed],” whispered Colonel Paul Hyrum, the intelligence officer for the eight Rim Worlds divisions charged with the defense of that continent, as the broadcast terminated.

His commander (and uncle), General Tyrell Santos nodded in agreement. “What other choice do we have, Paul? Ride the grand plan down in flames? Use the civilian population as shields? They have got more than five thousand WarShips topside. We’ve got four SDS batteries here, and we’ve already seen what they can do against them. Yeah, we’re probably last on Stephen Cameron’s list, but that just means we live longer than the other troopers around the planet.”

He looked at the icons on the holographic table once again, and shook his head. “To hell with it, Paul. I’ve never liked those IntSec bastards anyway. Order the 214th and 311th to begin rounding up their police and security detachments—and instruct the GHQ military police to take General Nassar and his men into custody; if they resist, they can shoot ‘em. Everyone else stack arms and report to your barracks. Order the SDS bases to power down—if they don’t we’ll use the 77th to clear them out chamber by chamber. Major Watkins, power up the transmitter and let’s see if we can transmit our surrender to someone with the authority to accept it.”


November 7, 2768
Field Headquarters, Highland Division, Advanced Guard Corps
Northern Georgia, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“General, I’ve got a Rim World officer on the line for you,” his aide said with a grin as he stuck his head into the tent where Conner was trying to catch a short nap. Nodding, the young man pulled himself up and stretched and then he picked up the radio-telephone resting on a chair beside his cot.

“This is General Conner Stirling,” he said.

“General Sara Craig, commanding officer of the 13th Imperial Light Division. Also on the line is General Blake Boleyn, the CO of the 52nd Imperial Armored Division. We are declaring a state of neutrality and standing down to accept the offer of the First Lord of the Star League. The Asheville Castle Brian’s weapon systems are now powered down and the gates are no longer sealed, General Stirling. The 52nd is pulling six kilometers back from their defensive line and will then abandon their combat vehicles and ‘Mechs and set up bivouac.”

“You understand, that I will have to place all of you in a POW camp until we can get things sorted out, correct?”

“Understood; neither Blake nor myself have committed any atrocities and neither have the troops under our command.”

“Not even your IntSec watchdogs?”

“They were not under our command, General Stirling. And I doubt that any of them will stand trial—I had all of mine dangling from wire nooses within twenty minutes of the First Lord’s broadcast.”

“Very well, General Craig. My forces will advance, followed by the 33rd Star League Division and we will take custody of the Asheville facility and your commands. Any resistance will be met with lethal force.”

“Understood, General Stirling; I and my officers will await your arrival. Craig out.”

Conner Stirling shook his head—reports from across the globe had Rim Worlds forces in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and South America giving up the ghost fast, and supposedly there was a massive fire-fight between different factions of the Rim Worlds troops on the Eurasian Plateau. But these were the first surrenders on North America. He turned to his aide. “Do you think it is truly over, Ian?”

“Not completely, Sir. Amaris still has about twenty divisions of troops—regular army and IntSec—entrenched around his palace near Unity City. I doubt that they are going to surrender, and that big force moving up from Mexico looks like it is staying soundly on the side of fat-boy. It isn’t quite over yet, I’m afraid, Sir.”

“Still,” Conner said as he lit a cigar and took a long pull, “it could have been a whole lot worse.”

The aide nodded his head enthusiastically.

“A whole lot worse,” Conner repeated.


November 7, 2768
Imperial Palace
Unity City, North America
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“This is a disaster,” whispered one of the staff officers. Stefan Amaris glared around the briefing table, but he could not determine who had spoken.

“No, this is an opportunity,” the Emperor hissed. “When General Timmons arrives with his command, we will have sixty-four divisions concentrated around Unity City. With the mountains to channel Kerensky’s army, we shall defeat them—here!”

“He dares not use his battleships against our SDS—the bases are too close to Seattle and Portland and Vancouver. So, he must advanced through these mountain passes, passes that you Gunthar will have mined with nuclear demolition charges. We will annihilate the Star League Army, one regiment at a time as they advance!”

Gunthar winced. Sixty-four divisions—on paper. Privately, Timmons had already told him that his units were plagued with desertion, with nearly a third of his command already vanished into the night on the forced march northwards. It was a race, and they would be lucky indeed if Timmon’s command was half-strength by the time it finally arrived. Of course, no one had dared to tell the Emperor that.

And of the twenty ‘divisions’ that Amaris had kept close at hand in the area around Unity City? All were fanatical, hard-core followers of Amaris, but the guerilla fighting had caused significant casualties to their ranks. And those divisions had been bled for replacements caused by the constant warfare in South America for these past two years, leaving them at barely fifty-percent of their official strength. A full third of those divisions were comprised of Internal Security personnel—lightly armed with no great quantity of vehicles and ‘Mechs.

But that no longer mattered, Gunthar thought as he nodded his agreement. It truly was Ragnarok, the end of everything.

“Your will be done, Sire,” he said with a slow bow.

“Of course, Gunthar. I am the Emperor and it is good to be Emperor. Let us teach these Star League dogs a lesson they shan’t soon forget.”


November 7, 2768
Star League Special Intelligence Services Auxiliary Command
North America, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“Uh-oh,” said Penny, interrupting the discussions of Antonius, Liz, and the command staff of the Ghosts as they were discussing how best to assist the landings.

Antonius Zalman frowned. “I do not like the sound of that uh-oh, Penny. What exactly does it mean?”

“I have been monitoring the communication taps that Chief Hancock installed, Antonius. It seems that pig Amaris has issued new orders to the divisions holding the line of the Cascades. Sending them to your terminals now.”

Liz frowned as she read the orders appearing on her display and then she looked back up at the large wall screen—and its projection of the area surrounding Unity City. “Penny, dear,” she said, “zoom out and show the projected defense lines, please.”

“Certainly, Captain Hazen,” the AI replied.

The projections changed and Mal winced as the red lines quickly appeared. “Damn, he’s plugging every gap in the mountain with at least a division. And setting these demo charges—atomic demo charges—to catch the attackers. That is going to be hell to bull through.”

Liz bit her lip as she considered the map. “And when Timmons gets here . . .”

Mal snorted. “Jan Timmons is a political officer, Liz. He doesn’t have the sense God gave Zach. But some of his division commanders are real good, and most of them are committed to Amaris lock, stock, and barrel.”

“The SLDF outnumbers the defenders at least a hundred to one, Mal, even after Timmons gets there,” Antonius commented. “He can’t just push right through them?”

“No, Mal is right, Antonius,” Liz answered. “The passes are where the troops have to go, and they are all too narrow to let more than a brigade through at a single time—which means it is a shooting gallery for the Rim Worlds forces on the defensive side. And once those nuclear firecrackers start popping off, our infantry can’t use the passes—the radiation will be too high for weeks. The vehicles will be stopped by the debris, which leaves only the ‘Mechs. And they will be scattered, no longer in formation after they get through the area, their sensors degraded and they will be walking right into the sights of the enemy.”

“It’ll be a bloodbath,” Mal chimed in again, glumly.

“Penny, did they leave any openings at all?”

“No, Antonius. In this instance, Stefan Amaris has used what little brains he was born with.”

Reuben shook his head. “They have already taken out SDS sites in the southeast and Alaska. Can’t they do the same thing here and land behind the lines?”

Now both Liz and Mal winced in unison. “The Unity City defenses are a whole different story than a normal SDS base, Reuben,” Liz answered. “There are four of them covering the capital—and the entire area west of the Cascades. And each has got twice the firepower of a standard SDS base, and is far too close to civilians for the Fleet to take them out. Kerensky could do it, but he’d kill a quarter of a million of our own people trying to bombard those sites from orbit. Which Amaris knows, and because of that Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma, Bremerton, and Victoria haven’t been permitted to evacuate. Those cities are simply packed with civilians, which narrows the Fleet’s options dramatically.”

“Can’t he just go around the mountains?” asked Bernie.

“He could, but the Columbia is at least two thousand feet wide at it narrowest point after it meets the defensive lines. That is a major obstacle, Bernie,” said Liz. “And it goes from there up to fourteen miles at the mouth. Only ‘Mechs could cross, and the current and the bottom mud would make it very hazardous.”

“I can’t believe this!” snapped Vince. “There is no other way through?”

“No,” answered Liz.

“No,” said Antonius.

“Yes,” replied Penny.

Everyone froze and looked towards the rotating camera on the wall. “What do you mean, yes? Penny, dear?” asked Liz.

“There is a way through the Cascades that Amaris has not guarded, Elizabeth Hazen.”

“And what exactly is wrong with it that he considers it so secure he hasn’t stationed troops there?”

“Nothing; well, nothing except the passage of time. You see, in the final days of the Terran Alliance, there was a local project to build a new rail tunnel through the Cascades, from Quincy in the west—behind the Amaris lines—to Greenwater in the east, on the Columbia Plateau, General Kerensky’s side. But the tumult of the times killed the project and after James McKenna formed the Terran Hegemony, the project was terminated and the ends of the tunnel were sealed.”

“So we have an incomplete rail tunnel. Some help that is!” barked Bernie.

“Bernard Patella, I did not say the tunnel itself was incomplete—the final segment of the tunnel was bored in late 2314. Construction on the rail head itself was suspended, along with the final stages of finishing off the power supplies, smoothing the tunnel walls, and installing air-flow systems. When James McKenna finally killed the project in 2316, he ordered that the tunnel be sealed at both ends in order to prevent accidents at the construction site and it has since become quite forgotten. It is almost fifty miles from one end to the next and passes below the Columbia River and was designed to handle four separate trains at a single time. The tunnel is twenty meters tall and sixty meters wide.”

Liz watched as a bright green line began to flash on the large wall monitor. And she smiled. “Does General Kerensky know about this?”

“Liz, dear,” the AI answered, “those computers aboard WarShips are so dull and dumb that unless anyone specifically asks for such ancient history, it would take a miracle for an analyst to uncover it, especially in the limited time-frame we are looking at here.”

“In that case, Penny, dear,” Liz replied with a broad grin, “could you warm up the transmitter so that we might tell them?”

“Online and waiting, Captain Hazen. Oh, and I decided to cut through all the military bull-[crap] and have set up a link directly to the First Lord’s vessel. I thought he might be interested to know a member of the Royal Black Watch is alive, well, and running a guerilla campaign in that Pig Amaris’s backyard.”


November 7, 2768
SLS McKenna
High Orbit, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Aleksandyr frowned as he considered the latest radio intercepts and intelligence updates on the fighting between the Rim World factions in eastern Europe and western Asia. The fanatics who were supporting Amaris were outnumbered and being steadily pushed back, away from the tunnels—towards Moscow. They were now less than a hundred kilometers from that city, and if they decided to make a stand there, among the civilian population . . . he shuddered for a moment as he closed his eyes in pain.

“Captain Hall, open a channel to the First Lord—and issue a warning order to Third and Eighth Armies to prepare for a combat drop to the west of Moscow.”


November 7, 2768
DCS Mikasa
High Orbit, Terra
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Stephen shook his head. “Aleksandyr, you are the one who has stressed that we must operate in concentration, time and time again. Now you want to drop two Armies half a world away from the main theater? The Rim defectors seem to have the situation well in hand—why shouldn’t we let them handle those loyal to Amaris?”

“My lord,” the holographic transmission whispered, “there is a significant threat to the civilians of Moscow. If those fanatics manage to return to the city and use that populace as human shields . . .”

“I know, Aleksandyr. And it is something we are going to have to deal with. After we finish off Stefan Amaris—which is why we are not yet dropping troops on Australia or South America or Africa or the Indian sub-continent. What makes Moscow so different from those areas?”

The old man looked down for a moment, and then he lifted his head, and the projection seemed to show that Kerensky’s eyes were wet. “Because my family is there, First Lord.”

“Your family?” Stephen asked quietly.

Kerensky nodded. “I married several years ago in secret—wanting to keep my wife from being used as a pawn in the power games played by the High Council. She—and my sons—live in Moscow.”

Stephen sat back, he began to open his mouth, and then he closed it. Finally he leaned forward once again. “Lord Kerensky. As First Lord of the Star League, I am issuing you a direct order—this order will be obeyed by you or I will have your resignation as the Supreme Allied Commander. You are hereby directed to take two Field Armies and assist the Rim World defectors west of Moscow. Godspeed, Aleksandyr, and good luck. I assume that you will want to accompany the landings yourself?”

“Da, First Lord, if you will permit me.”

“Granted. Go save your family, Aleksandyr—I’ll coordinate the North American operations through Thomas and Aaron in your absence.”

*****************************************************

As the holographic projection faded away, Stephen heard Admiral Matasuke clear his throat. “First Lord Cameron, we are receiving a transmission on the Star League Emergency Communications Circuit—they are requesting to speak with you, First Lord.”

“Who is requesting to speak with me, Admiral?”

“They say they are the people who sent the heads-up warning on Amaris’s possessions of the Ragnarok plans, First Lord.”

Stephen considered and then he nodded, “Very well, on speaker, if you please, Admiral.”

Matasuke bowed and gestured to his communications officer.

“First Lord Stephen Cameron speaking. Who is this?”

The holographic picture stabilized and Stephen saw two figures, a old man and a young woman standing there, the woman snapped to attention and saluted.

“Sir. Captain Elizabeth Hazen, commanding officer, Echo Company, Royal Black Watch Regiment, reporting, sir.”

“Captain Hazen, you don’t know how relieved I am to discovery that at least some of the Black Watch have managed to survive for this long. And your companion?”

“Antonius Zalman, First Lord, special against of the Special Intelligence Services, retired,” the old man said with a grin and a bow.

“I take it that I have you to thank, Special Agent Zalman, for the timely report on Amaris’s deployment?”

“Oh, heaven’s no, Sire. For that you have our capable, daring, and most lovely young Captain here. I was a guest of Lord Stefan under just recently.”

Liz frowned. “Come off it, Antonius—you were scheduled for execution. Until my Ghosts smashed the place flat and absconded with you.”

“Details, my dear, only details. But a most exciting rescue it was indeed, First Lord. Made my old heart beat a bit stronger.”

“Ghosts?” asked Stephen.

Liz blushed, and Antonius laughed. “Her intrepid band of guerilla warriors, First Lord. They are a most motley collection of the worst villainy and scum in the galaxy.”

“They aren’t that bad, Antonius,” Liz protested.

“Indeed. But they are neophytes at this entire business and more than willing to attempt to intimidate an old man who has only opened up his home to offer them a safe haven.”

“After you took us on a swim in freezing water instead of using the nice, warm, dry, tunnel that extended to shore!”

“Ahem,” said the First Lord as he cleared his throat, but he was smiling despite his attempts at keeping a straight face.

Liz blushed again. “My apologies, First Lord, but Special Agent Zalman knows what buttons to push.”

The old agent shrugged.

“And these ‘Ghosts’ are, what, exactly?”

“As Antonius said, my Lord, they are a band of civilian resistance fighters that I have collected. We have been waging a guerilla war against Amaris for the past year. They are . . . rough around the edges,” she continued with a wince, “but they are dedicated to kicking that bastard off of Earth. Mostly civilians, that is—and we have a few defectors in our ranks as well; Rim Worlds folks that realized just how bat-[crap] crazy Stefan Amaris really is. They are good people, Sir, and without them we would never have learned about the Rimmers having your plans.”

“And why do you call them the Ghosts?”

She looked pained for a moment. “The civilians . . . all of us, my Lord, we decided we needed a name. And so we became the Ghosts of the Black Watch. It seemed to fit.”

Stephen nodded. “In that case, Lt. Colonel Hazen, you and your Ghosts have my thanks.”

Liz jerked. “Lieutenant Colonel?!?” she squeaked. “I only made Captain three months before the Coup!”

“Promotions come fast and furious during wartime, Lt. Colonel. And you are—to the best extent of my knowledge, the only pre-war active service member of the Royal Black Watch to survive. I have reformed the unit, but we could certainly use you—after some sorely needed R&R, of course.”

Antonius smiled and shook his head. “This housekeeping aside, First Lord, we rang you for a reason. I am transmitting a burst stream to your flagship now,” the old man paused and then he grinned at the First Lord of the Star League. “And I am not even going to ask why your flagship is a Draconis battleship, my Lord. Although I am quite certain that story will be very interesting to hear in full.”

Stephen chuckled. “Long story, Director Zalman.”

“Oh, good show, old boy. Now I shall finally have the chance to institute those changes I have harped about for decades. Hopefully, I shan’t have to rebuild the entire organization from scratch?”

“No, one of your agents—an Agent Hart—has been working very closely with my Black Watch. And there are still others ferreting out Rim World cells in the CapCom, FedSuns, and Taurian Rim.”

“Hart! That miserable scoundrel survived! Man doesn’t have a sense of humor or a proper appreciation of drama!”

Stephen glanced over the data streaming across the terminal and frowned. “I think we can put this to good use. But it appears that your hidden base is in the middle of Amaris’s perimeter, so you might want to sit tight until we wrap this up.”

Liz shook her head. “If you have a spare ‘Mech, First Lord, I can join the assault once they pass through the tunnel. I am a Mech-jock, and I desperately want to get one shot at Stefan Amaris from a cockpit, Sir.”

Stephen met the young woman’s fiery gaze, and then he slowly nodded. “I think we can spare a ‘Mech for the last of the Old Black Watch, Lt. Colonel . . . can you pilot an Orion?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then would you do Lord General Kerensky the honor of piloting his ‘Mech in this engagement, Lt. Colonel?”

She actually jumped. “Sir, isn’t the General leading the assault himself?”

Stephen closed his eyes—they haven’t heard. “Aleksandyr was shot by an assassin nearly a year ago, Lt. Colonel Hazen. He survived, but he is paralyzed from the waist down. General DeChevilier is now the Commanding General of the Star League Defense Forces.”

Her face went white and then she nodded. “It would be an honor, Sir.”

“And Colonel Hazen?”

“Yes, sire?”

“Try not to get yourself killed—I am going to need every smart, resourceful officer I have to deal with the aftermath of this.”

“I’ll do my best, First Lord.”


November 7, 2768
Imperial Palace
Unity City, North America
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“YES!” Screamed Stefan Amaris as the SLDF DropShips began to land outside of Moscow. “I told you it was only a diversion. Gunther, order General Beck to stop his movement to the east and launch an immediate counterattack against the landings there. And why are my SDS bases not destroying his ships!”

Gunthar von Strang swallowed. “My Lord, the bases have surrendered to General Kerensky. And General Beck is already fighting a pitched battle against forces that have defected.”

Stefan Amaris frowned and looked down at the map. “Very well. Gunthar send a message to Regent Selim. He is to immediately execute the families of these traitors. Radio the bases, and tell them they have five minutes to begin opening fire—and I may reconsider my decision.”

“My Lord, we have had no contact with Regent Selim for nearly a year now. The Star League claims he was killed in the fighting on Apollo, and we no longer have a communications link with the Rim.”

“Propaganda, Gunthar, it is only Star League propaganda. Mohammed Selim still holds the Rim; he would never dare to disappoint me. And worry not about communication channels—those loyal to me on the outer worlds will relay the message.”

Gunthar licked his dry lips and bowed. “It will be done, Sire.”

“Excellent. And since the traitors around Moscow have failed me, General Cabot, launch our reserve aerospace fighters with full nuclear payloads. Destroy that landing zone.”

A sweating and overweight Rim officer snapped to attention, saluted, and then turned to leave the bunker, trailed by his aide.

“Yes, everything is going exactly as planned, now,” Stefan Amaris said quietly. “Where is General Kraal? He should be here to prepare our counter-offensive? And someone contact Commodore Daragou; why isn’t my Fleet interdicting those ships in orbit?”

*****************************************************

“General, we can’t sortie the reserve! We will need them here!” the aide protested as Cabot lifted a land-line phone that would connect him to the airfields.

The General slammed the phone down. “Have you lost your mind, Major? Do you want to go back into that sanatorium and tell HIM that? Maybe a few of them will get through, but either way, I am heading out to the fields—any place on this miserable planet is better than here.”

“General, Sir, we can’t!” the aide wailed. “Those fighters have to be here to protect the capital!”

“The decision has been made, Major Rollins. And I am not going to put myself in a position where Gunthar von Strang’s men can pull me apart millimeter by millimeter,” Cabot snarled as he lifted the phone. “Cabot, here. I have a mission order direct from the Emperor. Load all strike squadrons with nuclear ordnance, and sortie everything. Your target is the SLDF landings outside of Moscow. Yes, I said Moscow. Don’t argue with me! The Emperor himself commands it! Launch as soon as the fighters are armed and fueled. Yes, EVERYTHING.”

The aide simply stared, and then he shook his head. “What are we going to do now, Sir?” he finally asked quietly.

And Cabot snorted. “I don’t know about you, Philip, but I am going to get rip-roaring drunk.”

*****************************************************

Seven hundred and forty-eight carefully husbanded aerospace fighters—former SLDF Royal aerospace fighters—launched from more than twenty airfields located in the Unity City defensive cordon. The fighters form up at high altitude, and then rocketed north-west across the Pacific Ocean, rapidly leaving behind the cover of the SDS network which protected the capital.

Across the mighty SLDF Fleet, and those ships of its allied powers, squadrons scrambled and launched in quick pursuit. The first skirmishes took place over the blue waters of the Pacific, and grew steadily more intense as the Rim fighters fought their way towards Moscow. More and more fighters joined the fray, and the sky was lit by particle beam fire, laser blasts, and explosive detonations.

Only fifty-three of the Rim fighters survived to reach the Ural Mountains, and of those fifty-three not one managed to reach the engagement envelope of the Star League forces grounded further west.

*****************************************************

Lt. Colonel Carlos Watannabe sprang to his feet and saluted at Aleksandyr Kerensky was wheeled into the pre-fabricated building that served as the Command Headquarters for Eighth Army. “Sir!” he snapped. “I was told that you requested my presence, Sir!”

“At ease, Colonel,” Aleksandyr rumbled. He examined the maps before him with a frown. “Colonel Watannabe—Third and Eighth Army are heavily engaged with the Rim Forces to the west, but their sheer weight of numbers is pushing us back, towards the city. For your regiment of mechanized infantry I have a special assignment. I want you to proceed to Moscow, posthaste, and locate a small group of civilians. They should be here,” he said, pointing to a neighborhood on the outskirts of Moscow. “It is very important that these civilians be recovered and returned here—unharmed, Colonel. Two of them will be young boys, the oldest just now seven and the youngest having turned five. Their mother will be the third person.”

“Understood, Sir. Who are these people? If I may ask?”

“The woman is Katyusha Kerensky—my wife, Colonel. The boys are Andery and Nicholas, and they are my sons.”

“Your . . . of course, General! I’ll get them out safely!”

“Of that, Colonel, I have no doubt.”

*****************************************************

The streets of Moscow were chaotic, as small groups of Rim World fanatics tried to stem the tide of defeat. The more pragmatic had thrown away their weapons and uniforms and melted into the mass of humanity trying to flee the burning city. Carlos had been shocked by the lack of order in one of the major cities of Terra. But the longer that he considered it, the more convinced he became that he should have expected little else. Of course, Amaris’s security services had disbanded the local police and constabulary—they trusted no one else to bear weapons. They had gutted the local broadcast stations, and now all that the populace knew was that fires were raging and they could hear explosions in the distance. And, as certain as the tide of the ocean, panic had set in.

Twice already, he had been forced to open fire over the heads of the refugees who pounded on the sides of his infantry carriers and tanks, begging him to take them to safety. But the horde had thinned at last, and now Carlos blanched as he saw the burnt out shells of buildings in the neighbor the General had told him housed his own family.

“Wolfpack Actual to all Wolfpack elements,” he spoke into the boom microphone he wore. “Dismount infantry and conduct a grid search by squads. Locate all survivors. Rules of Engagement Bravo Two are now in effect.”

Under ROE-B2, the troopers of the Timber Wolf Regiment (the 2743rd Royal Mechanized Infantry Regiment) were authorized to fire only if fired upon. It was the most restrictive ROE that that the young Colonel felt he could in conscience allow, yet he remained all too aware of the possibility of civilians being caught in any crossfire, but he pushed those thoughts aside and forced himself back to the moment at hand. “Battalion surgeons, establish your MASH in the square, HQ security detail form a perimeter.”

*****************************************************

“Colonel,” the RSM called from outside the lowered ramp of the command carrier. “These civilians say they know where the woman and children are holed up, Sir. But they won’t tell us unless we agree to transport them and their families to safety.”

Carlos nodded. “Agreed, get them loaded. Now where are they?”

A grimy, disheveled man raised one arm and barked out a long string of Russian. A younger woman—no less dirty and shell-shocked—translated. “The agricultural school, three blocks that way. It has a bomb shelter in the basement. That is where Katyusha took her boys when the shelling stopped.”

“Thank you,” the Colonel whispered. “Sergeant Major, get these people medical attention and hot food.” And get them the hell out of my vehicle. He snapped a thumb switch on the radio control attached to his belt. “Max, we’re moving out, three blocks due east, look for anything that resembles a school—an agriculture school.”

*****************************************************

Carlos shook his head; the building had taken a direct shell hit and half of it was a burnt out ruin, but he had infantry teams making their way to the basement now. He wanted to be in there with his men, but his place was here. And truthfully, it was a job far more suited for a twenty-year old trooper than the forty-year old Colonel.

Suddenly the static on his earpiece cleared. “Wolfpack Seven-Three-Gamma to Wolfpack Actual. Packages retrieved—condition unbroken. Extricating now.”

Carlos let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding and sat back with a smile on his face.

*****************************************************

Nicky bit his lip as the heavy vehicle clambered over rubble and rocked from side to side. He clung to his mother’s arm, and he saw that she was crying. Oh, he wanted to cry, but Andery had hold him that he mustn’t cry. The soldier’s scared him, the soldier’s with their thick jackets and armored vests and faceless helmets that were like mirrors. Momma and Andery had both told him that the soldiers were bad, that he should hide when soldiers came.

But it wasn’t as scary as the basement had been. That had been scary and loud, and the roof had cracked and fallen, burying some of the people who had huddled together in the dark. The light had gone on and off and on and off. And Nicky could remember see a twitching hand sticking out through the broken concrete. But each time the light came back on, the hand didn’t twitch as much. Until it finally didn’t move any more.

The light had taken longer and longer to come on, and it at last did not, leaving the three of them in darkness. Until the scary soldiers came, and he heard Momma say those strange words, “Oh thank you, God.”

They had taught him in school that there was no God, only the loving Emperor Stefan.

Andery had said the teachers were wrong, but how could that be? The teachers were always right. They were grown-ups and grown-ups were always right.

But Andery had shushed him and held him together with Momma in the dark basement. Until the soldiers came.

He had been so scared with the rocks began to move, and light shone from beyond. Maybe it was that arm that couldn’t be still.

But it wasn’t, it was the soldiers. The good soldiers, Andery said. How could soldiers be good? Momma said the soldiers were bad.

But they gave Nicky water and chocolate, and took him and Andery and Momma to this truck. And now they drove and drove and drove, and Momma was still crying. But not Andery, never brave Andery. So Nicky swallowed hard and he didn’t let himself cry.

At last the truck stopped, and the door was opened. The soldiers helped Momma down the ramp, and lifted Nicky up, passing him along as well. That was wrong; soldiers didn’t help people, they made people scared.

So many of the grownups were talking, and then Momma and Andery and Nicky were rushed into a tent, and he heard Momma sob. Another grownup was there, an old man, bald who just stared at them with wet eyes.

And then he Andery whisper, “Poppa?”

Poppa? Poppa was gone. He had gone away and not come back, even though he had promised Nicky he would be back. And Andery began to cry, and he ran—brave Andery ran—and jumped into the man’s arms, along with Momma. All of them were crying, and Nicky could hear the man’s gruff voice, gentle, and soft, comforting his brother and momma. “Poppa?” he asked as he took a step forward, and then he too ran into his Poppa’s arms, those strong arms.

Nicky cried, but that didn’t matter, because Poppa was home.


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Wed Jan 25, 2012 5:31 pm 
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Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
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Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Chapter Twenty

November 9, 2768
Western Slopes of the Cascade Range
North America
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“Gently, gentlemen, gently,” Antonius whispered to the former linebackers as they brushed aside the dirt covering one of Amaris’s nuclear mines. “This is no mere firecracker, my friends.”

Vince turned to glare at the former Blackheart, as Bernie scowled. “I still can’t believe you talked us into this. Sneaking past the Rim World lines and digging up a nuke.”

Antonius smiled. “Oh come, now, Bernie. You were as excited as the prospect as a freshman cheerleader asked to the prom by the star quarterback. Besides, I can think of several much more appropriate places for this munition than here in the middle of this pass, can’t you?”

“Yes, but what if they bobby-trapped it?”

“Vince, Vince, Vince, of course they bobby-trapped it.”

Both of the guerillas suddenly stopped digging and stared at Zalman.

“I am a specialist, however. Just don’t jostle it too much.”

“Liz would have a cow,” whispered Bernie was the two began to sweep away the soil against, slower this time.

“Dear sweet, Liz, of course she would! I imagine she would rather we just disable the nuke than move it.”

“Could you do that?”

“Bernie, where is the fun in that?”

Vince stopped digging. “I think I found the outer casing, Antonius.”

The spry old man dropped down into the hole and carefully brushed aside the dirt. And then he smiled. “Yes, yes you have. Hand me that took bag.”

Taking a paint brush, the special agent began to slowly and carefully brush aside dirt until a small access door was revealed. He reached into the bag and took out several tools, and within minutes he had removed the panel, and was reaching into the internal mechanism of the bomb. Several minutes more, and he sat back, holding a strange looking device.

“And that, gentlemen, is a laser initiation system for the Mark Eleven tactical nuclear demolition munition. The weapon is quite safe, now. Let’s bundle it up and be on our way.”

“Exactly how heavy is this thing?” asked Vince as he glared at the slimmer, dapper special agent.

“Heavy enough that I am so glad the two of you volunteered,” said Antonius with a grin. “Come, my beasts of burden! We have miles to travel before we are done for the evening. And I need three more of these firecrackers, so on to the next site, we go.”


November 10, 2768
Imperial Palace
Unity City, North America
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

“Gunthar, his Majesty has gone around the bend,” Brigadier Augustus Talbot whispered. “It is time to think about preserving ourselves.”

Four other high-ranking Internal Security officers nodded their agreement, and Gunthar slowly added his own. “What do you propose, then, Augustus?”

“We have already prepared a cargo submersible at the Bremerton docks. The ship has a full crew and supplies to remain submerged for up to three years. We will slip quietly out into the Pacific and wait for the furor to end. Then we will land somewhere and get passage off-world. There are many places in the Periphery where a man can leave his past behind.”

Another officer spoke up. “We might not even have to abandon the Inner Sphere, Gunthar. Men of skills are always needed, no matter how much our employers might publically disdain our methods.”

“Mercenaries,” Gunthar said with a snarl, “we should become mercenaries and abandon Stefan. That is what you are saying.”

“Stefan is a dead man, Gunthar. We know it and you know it. This is our chance at not dying alongside him. Join us—there is room on the sub for you.”

“You are all set on this course?”

The officers nodded their affirmation.

“I cannot, literally cannot abandon Stefan, gentlemen. And as for you,” Gunthar suddenly drew his pistol and shot Talbot in the chest, as IntSec guards swarmed into the room. “You are traitors to the cause. Take them out and shoot them,” he told the guards.

After the protesting officers were hustled from the room, Stefan Amaris walked in, causing Gunthar to snap to attention. “My Lord,” he said with a deep bow. “I had thought not to disturb you with this—housecleaning.”

Stefan smiled. “Don’t worry about me, Gunthar. I have been fully aware of what these officers have plotted for some time. Why do you think I publically asked for Kraal and Daragou? To draw out those who are not true-believers in our Empire.”

“You pretended, Sire?”

“I even fooled you, I see. No Gunthar, I remember well Luis Kraal’s screams after your threw him into the fish tank. And I am pleased that even in such circumstances, YOU my friend, remained true to me. Still, the traitors have a point: we cannot stop the Star League now. But I think that submarine will be best served by conveying you, I, and my family to safety. Not these fools.”

“I understand, my Lord. I shall make the preparations at once.”

“Carefully, Gunthar. We must wait for the right moment—too soon and these fools will surrender and fail to cover our retreat. Kerensky must believe that we are both dead if we are to escape and rebuild our fortunes.”

“Yes, Sire.”

“And who knows? Perhaps these imbeciles might stop Kerensky from crossing the Cascades. His casualties will be extreme and I am loved by my people, after all. They might stop his advance.”

And the horse might learn to sing, thought Gunthar. But he only said, “By your will, my master.”


November 11, 2768
SLDF Field Headquarters
Columbia Plateau, North America
Terran Hegemony

“We have successfully opened the eastern entrance, my Lord, General DeChevilier,” the engineering brigade commander stated, “and surveyed the entire length of the tunnel. It appears in good condition, but I cannot swear to whether or not it will hold up to the vibrations of so many multi-ton BattleMechs. This type of survey normally takes months to complete in detail—the roof might hold, or it might collapse. I can’t even give you odds.”

“Even if it does collapse, we will lose fewer troops than attempting to make an assault through the passes, even before factoring in the nuclear demolitions,” Thomas Marik mused as he lightly tapped the map with his forefinger.

Minoru Kurita barked out a short laugh. “My Corps will take the lead. We will discover whether or not the tunnel can be safely used.”

“Now, just a damn minute, Minoru!” John Davion snapped. “Your Corps led the assault on planet. MY boys haven’t even exchanged a shot yet—they are fresh and ready for action.”

“As are mine,” chimed in Jennifer Steiner; quickly followed by Philip Marik’s exclamation. “I claim the honor for the Free Worlds League Military!”

The four Lords of the Great Houses began to argue, and then Aaron DeChevilier stood. “ENOUGH! I have absolutely had it up to here with this bickering. THIS is not a democracy or a meeting of the Star League High Council. THIS is a Star League Defense Force military operation, and if any of you do not like that you are free to leave planet at once. DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?”

Absolute silence hovered over the room. “I didn’t hear an answer to that, my Lords. Do you understand what I am saying?”

Slowly, each one of the leaders nodded assent. “Good. As it just so happens, V Corps and the Astan Brigade of Volunteers will lead the tunnel assault. An assault that will then be followed by elements from the SLDF, the Davion Corps, the Free Worlds League Military, the Lyrans, and the Combine. Each of you will receive a briefing package informing you of how many regiments I am drawing from your commands. You are, of course, free to lead your units. But you will do so subordinate to the assault commander. Deputy Supreme Commander Thomas Marik.”

Aaron took out a cigar and clenched it between his lips, lit it, and drew in several deep puffs of smoke. “And if you object to that, your regiments will NOT be part of the assault. Am I clear?”

Once again the heads of state slowly nodded. “Ok, Thomas. Give us the plan,” Aaron said as he sat.

“We will be utilizing roughly a division from each of your State Commands, gentlemen, my lady. Six ‘Mech regiments each from the Draconis Combine, Federated Suns, Free Worlds League, and the Lyran Commonwealth, plus another four regiments each of ‘Mechs, armor, infantry, or artillery depending on our exact needs. In addition, all four Highlander Regiments will be taking part in the assault, as will the three combined arms regiments of the Ridgeback Brigade. V Corps will add another eighteen ‘Mech regiments, plus infantry and armored support.”

“Forty-eight regiments of ‘Mechs and nearly the same amount again of supporting arms.”

“SLDF engineers will rig the plug at the western end of the tunnel with explosives to open the gap for us. At that point we will emerge within Amaris’s perimeter—and this is our initial target,” he said tapping a point on the map. “Their field headquarters. Our intelligence indicates that the nuclear mines are all command detonated and that they are controlled from here. We destroy that HQ, they can’t set them off and the rest of your State Commands and the SLDF will be able to swarm through the passes. Hopefully, just as the Rim Worlds commanders are reacting to your presence in their rear.”

“At that point, gentlemen—and lady—it will all be over but the crying. The 501st Pathfinders will lead our vanguard directly to Unity City, where our forces will surround Amaris and his palace. Colonel Elizabeth Hazen—the sole active duty survivor from the pre-coup Black Watch—will be joining our assault column and SHE will command the assault on the Palace.”

“That, gentlemen and lady, is at the specific direction of the First Lord of the Star League.”

“Before I begin going into specifics, are there any questions?”

Once again the room was silent, and Thomas nodded. “In that case, we have much to do—the assault begins in forty-eight hours.”


November 13, 2768
Trans-Cascades Tunnel
Washington Province, North America
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Absalom grimaced as another shower of small rocks and debris rained down on the cockpit of the Orion class BattleMech he piloted.

“The damned roof is going to collapse; we’re going to be buried alive here,” muttered a half-panicked voice over the radio.

Absalom frowned. “Stow that [crap], Stolz. The engineers certified this tunnel, and we are going to get through. Now maintain radio silence unless you have a real emergency, or so help me God, I will put my foot so far up your ass you will tasting boot leather!”

“Yes, sir, sorry, sir,” the former Davion Guardsman quickly answered. Another light on the Orion’s comm panel came to life, and Absalom changed frequency.

“Already taken care of, Colonel Moreau,” he said. “It won’t happen again.”

He heard Ethan Moreau chuckle from the cockpit of his borrowed Stalker up ahead. “I hear the exchange, Captain; that is not what this call is about. The plug is just ahead and the engineers are ready to set off the charges. Have you locked that beacon frequency into your radio-direction finder?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. Pick up our wayward soul, and put her in the command seat, then you two get back to the Regiment ASAP. Understood?”

“Yes sir.”

“How are your riders?”

Absalom grinned, for four of the Black Watch infantrymen were dangling from the torsos of his ‘Mech in their suits of Nighthawk powered armor. “Hanging in there, sir.”

Once again, Ethan chuckled. “Ok, Captain. Let’s get this thing done.”

The radio shut down with a click and Absalom shook his head. The First Lord himself had ordered the Black Watch to take point of this operation, even though 3rd Battalion remained back aboard Mikasa to keep Stephen Cameron safe. The rest of the Regiment would be the lead unit to liberate the Court of the Star League, and show Stefan Amaris just how fatal a mistake he had made.

“All units, stand by . . .stand by . . . stand by . . . FIRE IN THE HOLE!”

A dull boom echoed down the tunnel and still more debris crashed down on Absalom and his parasitic infantry troopers. Dust filled the air, but daylight streamed through the curtain of floating particles. The column began to run forward into the open ground on the Amaris side of the mountain ranges. And Absalom smiled as he brought his weapon systems on-line.

*****************************************************

Elizabeth Hazen scanned the horizon through her high-powered binoculars as she lay flat on her stomach. The CRUMP of a distant explosion made her pivot and zoom in on the distant cliff face, where she saw a cloud of dust arising, and the sheer rock face collapsed. And then out of the dust cloud emerged ‘Mechs, scores—hundreds—of them, and all painted in the green-and-gray field camo of the Star League Defense Force.

She lowered the binoculars and activated the homing beacon she had carried.

When she looked back up, she saw a single ‘Mech break off from the rest and advance towards her hide. Even without the binocs she could make out the angular missile rack on its right shoulder and
cylindrical lasers and missile tubes that comprised its forearms. It was definitely an Orion. She stood and pulled off her ghillie cloak as it ran up and came to a halt less than thirty feet away.

But then she blinked in amazement. Someone had welded metal plates to the outer surface. And u-clamps. And clinging to these u-clamps, standing precariously balanced on the plates, were four infantry troopers in Nighthawk armor! My god, she thought. Such a simple idea, why didn’t we think about it before the Coup?

As the Orion came to a halt, the cockpit opened, and the infantry fire-team dismounted—their jump jets flaring as the suits of powered armor landed around her. “Colonel Hazen?,” a distorted voice said from within one of the faceless suits of armor. “I was told you would need this, ma’am,” the trooper said as he handed her a bundle. A cooling suit—an SLDF cooling suit. She nodded and shrugged out of her clothes as the infantry kept watch on the horizon, and pulled the cooling suit on, buckling the belt tight and adjusting the tension straps and chest armor for a close fit. She cleared her throat and cocked her head, patting the empty holster under her left arm.

She could hear muffled laughter, and then one of the infantry pulled out a pistol and a knife, and handed them both to her. She holstered the pistol and sheathed the knife in one of the cooling boots. And then the infantry stepped up close, put his arms around, and said “Hang on.”

His jump jets fired, and Elizabeth grinned as they landed atop the missile box. The infantry helped her down to the cockpit, and then the four of them remounted the Orion.

In the ‘Mech’s cockpit, the command seat was vacant, but another SLDF officer sat in the jump seat.

“Ma’am, Captain Absalom Truscott, Royal Black Watch Regiment. I’ve been assigned as your aide; the jump seat has been refitted with a command console, so I’ve got comm and sensors for you.”

“Call me Liz,” she said with a grin as she sat down and buckled in, sealing the cockpit hatch behind her. She began to scan the controls, and then she started. Thing was a ROYAL Orion! She grinned. “So, what’s the plan, Captain Truscott?”

“Call me, Absalom, Liz. General Marik is going to hammer the Rim Worlds Army hard—but we, the Regiment and few supporting units—WE are going to chop the head off this snake. Unity City and the Court of the Star League is OUR objective, Liz. And ma’am, the First Lord himself gave orders that you were calling the shots.”

Liz’s head whipped around. “I’m a CAPTAIN for God’s sake! And I haven’t been in a ‘Mech for TWO BLOODY YEARS!’

“And you are the senior surviving officer of the Old Black Watch, Colonel Hazen. Or are you refusing this command opportunity? I can raise Colonel Moreau—he was a mere Captain before the Coup.”

Liz drew in a deep breath, and she shook her head. “Patch me into the Regiment,” she said as she pushed the Orion forward into a lopping run.

“Frequency open, ma’am. And waypoints to the Court are logged in your nav-comp.”

“BLACK WATCH ACTUAL,” she called out, “this is . . . what the hell is my call sign, Absalom?”

“Ghost, ma’am. Black Watch Ghost.”

She paused and then she nodded. “This is Black Watch Ghost. Form ‘em up and move ‘em out. We’ve got ourselves a traitor to kill.”

*****************************************************

Jan Timmons frowned at the holographic projection table in the center of his Field Headquarters. Finally he shook his head in disbelief. “There is a tunnel through the Cascades that we were unaware of?”

No one answered the Rim General, and he lowered his head. “Very well, gentlemen. We need to redeploy immediately to stop this penetration. Hakim, get the 54th moving and set up a blocking position here,” he ordered laying his hand on a low ridge between the HQ and the oncoming tsunami of Star League units. “Pete, I want XI and XIV Corps to leave a division each to watch their assigned passes—we’ll use them to hammer this advance once Hakim’s Dragoons slow them down. Brigadier Shault, your command is to immediately move out and support the 54th.”

“Internal Security does not answer to the Regular Army, Jan,” Amanda Shault said acidly. “And I am not going to throw away the cream of our fighting arm doing your job.”

Jan stared at the defiant woman for a moment, and then nodded. “Sergeant Major, take Brigadier Shault outside and shoot her. Colonel Mackey,” he said to her second in command. “Do you have a problem with following my orders?”

The senior IntSec officer snarled, but two of the HQ military police grabbed and hauled her outside as she screamed in fury and terror. “You can’t do this! I am INTERNAL SECURITY! I have people shot—you can’t do . . .”

CRACK.

“Colonel Mackey, I am waiting for your answer.”

The IntSec officer, his face covered with a sheen of sweat, snapped to attention and saluted crisply. “We will get underway at once, Sir!” he barked.

Jan nodded, and the officer quickly left the briefing room.

“Sir,” his aide said quietly. “We need authorization from Unity City to pull those troops off the line.”

“Look at the map, Paul. Their main body is heading here—which means they know we have the detonation codes for the mines in the passes. But this element,” and he highlighted a smaller body moving quickly across country. He then drew a blazing red line upon their route of advance—a line that end directly at the Imperial Palace. “I don’t think Command Authority will mind us taking the initiative, this once.”

“The 54th, even with IntSec’s Stormtroopers in support can’t stop them, Sir. And it will take two hours for the reinforcements to arrive.”

“I know, Paul. That’s why we are saddling up. I want every man who can carry a rifle in the field preparing defense positions—and we will be taking the field as well. Right now, we can’t afford for a single ‘Mech or tank to stay out of the fight.”

*****************************************************

Jarl Halvin slow crawled through the duct work of the ventilation system, the remainder of DEST Team Six following him slowly. Penetrating the Rim defensive perimeter had been child’s play, but the automated anti-intrusion defenses and alarms had proven much more difficult. Even with the blue-prints that the SLDF had given him. Still, despite being an hour behind schedule, he had finally cleared the last of the obstacles. Pushing a fiber-optic cable equipped with a spy-cam through the grating, the commando watched the display as he rotated it. All clear.

He removed the grating and silently dropped down to the corridor below. One by one, the members of his team followed, and then they began to advance down the long hallway. They did encounter several roaming guards, but this deep in the heart of the Olympic SDS complex, the guards were not expecting trouble—and they were far from Amaris’s best. They stood no chance, and not one survived long enough to raise an alarm.

Once again using the fiber-optic spy-eye, he peered around the final bend and spotted the two guards standing outside the—open, OPEN!—blast doors of the central control room. He relayed the information to his team through simple sign language, and then counted to three.

Rising from his crouch, he turned the corner, just as team-mates cut down the two guards with needler fire. And Jarl walked straight into the command center of the SDS facility. One of the techs looked up and began to scream, but the commando’s katana flashed out and severed the man’s head.

Everyone else simply looked up in shock.

“This facility is now under MY control, gentlemen. Does anyone have a problem with this? No. Good. Shut down the weapon systems and kill the fusion plants. And if anyone tries to raise an alarm, I will kill all of you.”

Slowly, bank after bank showing the massive concentration of anti-space and anti-fighter weaponry went dark. And Jarl smiled behind his mirrored visor. “Excellent. Liam, send the update to Fleet.”

*****************************************************

“First Lord,” Admiral Matasuke said with a bow. “All DEST teams report the capital SDS facilities are now offline.”

“Thank you, Hideki. Gerald, inform Captain McNeil that she is now authorized to land the landing force. And have my DropShip prepped for launch.”

Gerald Howe frowned, but he nodded, and bent low over the comm station. Stephen turned to face Hiroyoshi and Admiral Matasuke. “Would the heir to the Dragon care to join me? If, that is, Admiral Matasuke would be willing to keep an eye on my daughter?” And her hoard of Nighthawk armored guardians, he thought.

“Hai,” answered Hiroyoshi with a smile. Hideki Matasuke merely bowed once more, although his stern face betrayed the barest hint of a grin.

*****************************************************

“Are you sure this is what we should be doing? I heard that neither the First Lord or Kerensky want to see nukes going off on the surface like firecrackers?” Reuben asked Antonius Zalman and his two hefty henchmen as they relaxed on sofa seats and gobbled up popcorn. A massive wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling video screen was showing an infrared projection of a two hundred mile area surrounding the tunnel exit.

“Reuben, come now,” Antonius answered smoothly. “Have they given any specific orders to us to that effect?”

“We haven’t been given instructions other than to sit tight!”

“Exactly. Special Intelligence is mandated to do whatever it takes to protect the Realm, Reuben. Even if that entails doing things that the First Lord Stephen Cameron or General the Lord Regent Kerensky don’t want done. Ah, it has begun. Penny dear?”

“Yes, Antonius?”

“Armed the weapons, please.”

“Armed and ready: can we kill some Amaris pigs now? Can we? Please?”

“Of course, my dear. You may send the command when ready.”

On the screen, five star-bright flares erupted in the center of Rim formations just beginning to pull out of their defensive fortifications and redeploy to meet the Star League penetration into their perimeter.

Penny gave a squeal—one that sounded remarkably close to an orgasm.

“I’d offer you a smoke, Penny, girl, but I am afraid of where you would tell me to stick it.”

“Rim casualties are projected as heavy,” the AI purred. “Civilians in the blast radius: zero. Or as close to zero as I can compute. And was it good for you as well, old man?”

“Ah, Penny, my love. It was glorious.”

*****************************************************

“Why are my SDS guns not firing on them!” Stefan Amaris shouted, as hundreds upon hundreds of additional DropShips began to land in a perimeter surrounding Unity City.

The staff blanched, but finally, one tech stood. “Sire, we have lost communication with all of the SDS facilities. There are unconfirmed reports of gunfire between the IntSec guards and an unknown force within each base.”

Stefan’s jaw worked and his face flushed a deeper shade of red. “OUT! All of you useless failures GET OUT!” he screamed.

Quickly, the grateful staff hurried from the room, leaving only Gunthar and Stefan. “Can we still get to the submersible, Gunthar?”

“No, sire. They are landing just outside the shipyards—we would never get through.”

Stefan nodded. “In that case, Colonel von Strang, I want you to take the 18th Chasseurs—your Death’s Head Regiment—and do what you can to hold them back. I have some final preparations to make to greet the First Lord of the Star League. Kerensky and Kurita as well.”

Gunthar bowed lowed. “I have you failed, my Lord.”

“Oh, Gunthar. You, my right arm, have never failed me. Perhaps we moved too quickly, we might should have waited another decade or so for the rot to set in. Still,” the Emperor mused. “If we had killed Stephen Cameron at the start of this, if he had died with his family here. Perhaps we might have won anyway. It was fate, Gunthar. But there remains one possibility that I might serve to free the peoples of the Inner Sphere from this yoke of the Star League. Now go, old friend. I must make myself ready to greet Stephen Cameron.”

*****************************************************

The noose of ‘Mech and myomers, of blood and steel, that the Star League and its member states drew close around the capital city. And then it began to tighten.

*****************************************************

“My lord Kurita,” the radio crackled. “Another unit is moving to intercept the Black Watch. Radio intercepts indicate it is the 18th Amaris Chasseurs—and voice ID confirms von Strang is in command.”

So, the man whose hands had killed Drago and his family, the man who had spilt Kurita blood was here. Minoru closed his eyes and forced himself to remain calm. “All units are to disengage. Otomo—FOLLOW ME.”

Ahead of his Dragon, Minoru could just make out the faint shapes of the ash-gray Death’s Head regiment, each ‘Mech painted with a grinning skull. Although known as Chasseurs, the 18th was no light regiment—it was comprised almost completely of heavy- and assault-class machines. And the bone-white Atlas that led them was von Strang’s own ‘Mech. Minoru brought his lighter Dragon to a halt, and the Otomo formed up around him, the rest of the Kurita division fanning out behind him.

“Gunthar von Strang,” he broadcast. “I am Minoru Kurita. I give you the opportunity to surrender now and pay for your crimes with your life.”

“My life you will have to earn the hard way, Dragon.”

“So be it, von Strang. For my kin, killed by your hand in the Court of the Star League; for my SONS who died at the bequest of your master on Saffel and Luthien; for the citizens of the Combine whom you and yours have slaughtered with cowardly attacks from hiding; I shall have you! I SHALL END YOU! SAMURAI OF THE COMBINE—BANZAI!”

And the Kuritans—all ten regiments of them—charged as though they were men possessed.

*****************************************************

Nearly one thousand BattleMechs charged down upon the outnumbered Chasseurs. However, except for a handful of assault designs such as the BattleMaster piloted by Vincent Kurita, the Combine’s ‘Mechs were very light compared to the Royal ‘Mechs of the Chasseurs.
Gunthar and his men piloted. And despite the difference in firepower and armor, the samurai followed their leader in that fierce charge. Missile flights were launched, autocannon bursts roared out, laser beams slashed through the air, followed by high-powered bolts screaming downrange from the barrels of PPCs.

‘Mechs on both sides of the lines exploded under the impact of these weapons, but now the Chasseurs too charged forward, and both lines collided. And in the center of that fight, Gunthar von Strang and Minoru Kurita squared off.

*****************************************************

Minoru hammered his opponent, heavier by forty tons of armor and weapons, and he danced lightly around the assault class machine. His autocannon cratered armor, his missiles dug out divots, his lasers burned through plate after plate—but it wasn’t enough. The Atlas had been designed for exactly this type of a fight, and its thick armor was nearly as heavy as an entire Locust. Gunthar’s missiles, more than twice as many, ripped through the air in reply, along with his lasers, and then his mighty autocannon—four times as powerful as Minoru’s barked in staccato succession. And the Dragon crumpled as the heavy slugs tore into one hip.

The Otomo rushed to get to their lord’s side, but the Death’s Head Chasseurs held them back for precious seconds, even as Vincent Kurita pushed his Battle Master’s engine beyond the red line. Gunthar von Strang walked over above the shattered ‘Mech that held the Coordinator of the Draconis Combine and he raised his foot high—and then Minoru rolled his Dragon to one knee, grabbed that massive foot with his sole hand actuator, and pushed with all the might of his myomer muscles!

The mighty Atlas toppled backwards, and the Dragon rose, even as Gunthar tried to shake the impact from his foggy brain. Minoru leveled the right arm autocannon directly over the cockpit, and he held the trigger down tight. Sparks flew as the armor deflected the first shell, and then the second, but as the stream continued on and on and the barrel began to glow white from the heat, the rounds finally penetrated, tearing through the grinning skull and burying themselves in the soil beneath it. The Otomo and Vincent finally broke through the last of the defenders, but there too late, for a second before his own death, a Chasseur Victor swiveled and fired his own massive autocannon directly into the cockpit of the Coordinator.

*****************************************************

“MINORU!” Vincent Kurita screamed as the Dragon’s cockpit exploded. He pushed forward, straining the massive 85-ton war machine as it reached speeds the designers had never intended. Ignoring the heat spike, he fired every weapon, from the Donal PPC in the right arm to the banks of massed medium lasers, the short-range missile launcher, the twin machine-guns, and then Vincent lowered his shoulder and slammed into the Victor, knocking it down and running it over. He turned, but his foe was dead.

Slowly, the Otomo gathered around the fallen Dragon, and silence reigned over the battlefield. Six of the Coordinator’s guards slowly lifted the fallen ‘Mech, resting it on their shoulders, and began the long march back to their DropShip, a DropShip that would return a fallen Coordinator home to battered Luthien.

The rest of the survivor’s—all of the survivor’s of the Sword of Light and the Otomo—stood silent as the tomb of their Lord marched past. And then Vincent opened his radio channels. “We will mourn our fallen later; we shall mourn the passing of the Dragon when this is finished! Samurai! We have a date with destiny.”

And following their new Dragon—not young, no, but wise and experienced—the samurai of the Combine began to march once more on Unity City.

*****************************************************

Bunkers bristling with heavy weapons covered all of the approaches around the high wall that encircled the Imperial Palace, just outside of Unity City. Liz brought the Orion to a halt and she considered what she knew of the defensive emplacements. Finally she nodded to herself.

“Black Watch Actual?”

“Go, Black Watch Ghost,” the senior officer answered immediately.

“Only the four bunkers closest to the Gate can actually bear on an assault—we considered the fixed defenses only as a last resort; they are supposed to be augmented by mobile forces outside the perimeter.”

“Understood? Your orders?”

“Have the 501st neutralize the bunkers—the Black Watch is to follow me single file. And watch your step—SOP was for command detonated mines alongside the road. Deploy Nighthawks to take the parapets once they are in jump range.”

“Acknowledged.”

“That’s it?” Absalom asked from the rear jump seat. “We’re just going to charge, casualties be damned and take gate?”

“Do you have a problem with that, Captain?”

“Look, ma’am, we’ve got anti-mine munitions in the supporting units; they are only an hour behind us at the most. Let’s form a perimeter and make certain the rat doesn’t get away, blow the mines to hell, and blast through the wall where they aren’t expecting us to attack!”

Liz clenched her jaw and shook her head. “No. We are not waiting another hour; Stefan Amaris does not get another hour of freedom! BLACK WATCH!” she broadcast in a fury. “ADVANCE!”

Liz pressed the throttle forward to its stops and the Orion began its loping run towards the distant gate, even as the jump capable Griffin IIs of the 501st shot past her and began to pour fire into the bunkers with LRMs and PPCs. Bursts of autocannon shells and Gauss Rifle slugs screamed back towards the Black Watch in reply, but Liz ignored the hailstorm of fire that surrounded her ‘Mech—General Kerensky’s ‘Mech.

Overhead, hundreds of missile flights streaked by, impacting the gates in a thunderous explosion, but the gates held firm despite the damage inflicted. Then gauss slugs, and autocannon shells, and laser beams and PPC bolts struck the gates as well, the Orion adding its own firepower to the carnage, and Liz leaned forward, twisting her torso to ram through the weakened structure.

“Oh [crap],” Absalom muttered as he tightened the straps that held him firmly in the jump seat.

The Nighthawks fired their own jets as the Orion stepped into their jump-range and soared up towards the parapet where scores of Rim World were pouring machine-gun and SRM fire into the oncoming onslaught. Just before Liz hit the gates, a portal on the side of the narrow approach opened, and the muzzle of a massive Class 20 autocannon slid out. One of the lighter Black Watch ‘Mechs—a Falcon—stepped forward and slammed his left arm into the bore; the explosion tore apart his ‘Mechs arm and triggered a massive secondary on the far side of the wall.

Then the 75-ton Orion hit the gate moving at nearly 70 kilometers per hour—and the gate gave way. Somehow, Liz kept the ‘Mech upright and advanced into the central square of the Court of the Star League. And standing there before her, on the steps of what had once been Richard Cameron’s Palace, was the Usurper and his family.

Behind her, the Black Watch flooded into the grounds, and one-by-one, the Rim soldiers either died or dropped their weapons. But Liz only stood there, ten meters away from Stefan Amaris and she stared down at him.

Absalom turned on the external pickups, and then they both could hear Amaris speaking.

“I am unarmed; my family is unarmed. And I surrender in accordance with the laws of the Star League. By your own rules of war, you must take me as your prisoner.”

“I must?” Liz whispered. “I MUST?” She lowered her head, but her thumb slid the selector switch on the right torso autocannon from slug to cluster. “I should kill him now, that son-of-a-bitch! For the sake of everyone he has killed in this damn war!”

The click of a pistol safety being slid into the firing position was deafening in the cockpit. “The First Lord wants him alive, Colonel Hazen. ALIVE. He will pay; I know Stephen Cameron, Colonel. He will pay; but don’t do this; don’t make ME do this.”

The seconds slowly ticked by, as Absalom watched the woman in the pilot’s seat intently. One minute, and then two passed. But finally, her body relaxed and his board showed the Orion’s weapons were powering down. Absalom let out a deep breath and holstered his weapon.

Liz, tears streaming down her face, clicked on her radio transmitter. “Black Watch Actual,” she broadcast, “I need an infantry detail to take Stefan Amaris and his family into custody. Inform the First Lord that Terra has now been liberated. Black Watch Ghost out.”

Then she shut down the transmitter and began to sob.

*****************************************************

Stephen began to lean forward as the vehicle slid to a halt in the Court of the Star League, but Hiroyoshi laid a restraining hand on the First Lord’s arm, even as Gerald Howe frowned. Sighing, he sat back and crossed his arms, raising an eyebrow at the other two occupants of the ground car.

“Satisfied?”

“No,” scowled Gerald, as he listened to the reports of the Black Watch infantry on the com link he wore in one ear. “The grounds are not 100% secured, LT. But you aren’t going to wait for that, are you?”

“There are times when it is distinctly good to be First Lord, Sergeant-Major. I take it that they boys and girls have secured the perimeter?”

Sourly, the old non-com nodded, and he opened the door and stepped out, cocking the sub-machine gun he wore on a strap across his chest and neck.

Stephen followed and shook his head on seeing the smoldering rubble of the once pristine grounds. The marble walls of the official residence were covered with soot and grime and oil; shell craters pockmarked the walls; blood stains and other more pungent substances were soaked into the courtyard flagstones of this place, the once-and-future nerve center of the Star League.

“My Lord,” Ethan Moreau said, as he bowed his head slightly, “I see that you disregarded my advice to remain with the DropShip.”

“I have to see this myself, Ethan,” Stephen answered softly. “I presume you have an escort?”

“You could say that, my Lord,” the commander of the Royal Black Watch regiment answered as he snapped his fingers and no fewer than two hundred and fifty infantry troopers in Nighthawk armor quickly surrounded the First Lord of the Star League. “After you, my Lord.”

The group moved through the grounds of the Court of the Star League, and Stephen saw weeping troopers being comforted by their companions; the injured being treated by medics; the dead, being laid out in long rows. But then he caught a taste of a strong, pungent odor wafting from ahead, and he gagged.

Ethan nodded, and handed the First Lord a respirator. “It gets worse, my Lord. Are you certain you want to see . . .?”

“I have to, Ethan,” Stephen answered grimly. Ethan only nodded in answer and waited for the first Lord to fix the device to his face.

Ahead of him stood the doors to the throne room—Richard’s throne room. “Amaris had the doors welded shut when we arrived, but our engineers cut into them with little difficulty.”

Stephen gagged again when he walked into the . . . the abattoir. “He made no effort to bury the Family, my Lord; he left them where they were killed, and simply had the entrances sealed, the ventilation system shut down, and the atmosphere purged with liquid nitrogen. Since we unsealed it, the decomposition has been rapid.”

The First Lord knelt and he gazed upon the body of a child, no more than six or seven; a child whose mother had tried to shield with her own body. “Sarah and Wendy . . . Philip . . . Daniel . . .” his voice trailed off in horror. But he made himself stand, even though he swayed—but Gerald was there and kept him from falling. He walked across to the throne, and there at its foot was another corpse, the clean hole of a laser bolt drilled through its forehead. “Richard’s wife? His daughter?”

“We found Amanda’s grave, my Lord. She was killed in the nursery and someone had the grace to bury the child. His wife . . . the records here indicate that Amaris spared her and turned her over to his Guards to serve as their camp [censored]. She died after being gang-raped by at least two hundred of his men.”

“Gerald.”

“Yes, my Lord?”

“Have the Lords of the Council arrived?”

“They will be assembled momentarily, Sire.”

“Usher them here, please.”

*****************************************************

Stephen drew in a deep breath of clean air and shuddered as he pulled off the respirator mask, but then Allyce Avellar ran back out of the throne room and collapsed to her knees, vomiting up the contents of her breakfast. Barbara Liao exited next, but although her face was pale and green, she did not permit herself to luxury of purging her stomach. One by one, the Lords of the Star League came out and stood silent, and Nicoletta—her usual acrid nature subdued by the sight—helped Allyce back to her feet.

“Capital punishment is not allowed under the letter of Star League laws,” Stephen said quietly. “Member states are permitted to do so, but it has been declared illegal for the past three centuries by the Terran Hegemony. I move that the Council of Lords hereby waive those provisions of the Star League Accords and grant me permission to execute Stefan Amaris as a traitor to the Star League.”

“You . . . can’t . . . it isn’t . . . what kind of monster,” Allyce sputtered, but then her voice trailed off as Stephen only pointed to the carnage within the throne rooms of nightmares.

“He did not even bury his victims, Allyce,” the First Lord continued softly. “He left them to rot. He rounded up dissenters and those loyal to the League from across Terra, and he killed them. He slaughtered them. Never mind what he did to Oriente, and New Avalon, and Luthien. And Asta. Where he came close to killing all of you—and me and my only surviving daughter.”

“I want him dead, Allyce Avellar, Lord of the Outworlds. But I will not break the law to do it; not again. What say you, my Lords?”

And whether it was well-planned timing or not, the first of the body bags were now being carried out of the throne room, and laid on the ground in long, long rows. Many of those black polymer sacks being sized for children.

One by one, the Lords nodded their agreement, and finally, even Allyce closed her eyes and agreed.

*****************************************************

Stefan Amaris stumbled as the two guards hauled him into the Chamber of the High Council, his family trailing in his wake. Chained and manacled, he was led into the circle of testimony in the center of the horseshoe-shaped table, and his fellow Lords looked down upon with hatred and horror in their eyes.

“As First Lord of the Star League, I—Stephen Cameron—do hereby call these proceedings to order. Stefan Amaris, you have been tried by this body and found guilty of High Treason, of murder, of attempt murder, of the use of weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations, of terrorism, and a host of other crimes. Have you anything to say in your defense before the sentence is passed?”

“Why? You have all made up your minds. You accuse me of these crimes, and yet every one of you sitting there would have done the same if you had the opportunity. I convinced Richard I was his friend, while you laughed at him. I earned my close relationship with him and he trusted me. And yet, the Star League is on the verge of collapse, my Lords and Ladies. My actions have only pushed it closer to the edge. Do you think that in vengeance you can stop this? I am guilty of nothing, other than failing to make a clean sweep of the Cameron bloodline. Do to me what you will, for I shall be a martyr and my name will live forever—unlike yours.”

“SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS!” Amaris shouted, but then he looked around in surprise, and his head whipped back towards Stephen Cameron, whose face was set with a stern expression.

“How stupid do you think I and my guards are, Stefan? Your explosives were removed from this chamber, along with the contact poisons you had placed within the seats. There are no tricks left to you.”

Amaris shrugged. “One trick I do have left, First Lord,” he spat. “Captain Hall—pandora three-seven—KILL HIM.”

Tricia Hall jerked as the long-buried command implanted into her subconscious took control of her body, but three tasers buzzed, and the woman collapsed.

The click of boot heels rang out from the flagstones, and Hiroyoshi Kurita walked around Amaris, circling him. “Poor Captain Hall, brainwashed by your operative years ago, your Lordship. Operatives that would far rather live albeit imprisoned than suffer the torturous and extended death at the hand of their Combine wardens. She will be cared for, for after all, SHE has committed no crime.”

Amaris worked his jaw, and he spat on the floor. “You have only postponed the inevitable. Enjoy your respite, for it shan’t last.”

Stephen nodded gravely. “Stefan Amaris, having been found guilty by the High Council of the Star League, you are hereby sentenced to death. May God have mercy on your soul.”

Amaris opened his mouth—but Hiroyoshi had already drawn, and the razor sharp katana severed the Usurper’s head from his body in one blow.

“Khalid Amaris, you and your mother are far too dangerous to be permitted to return to the Rim Worlds. Yet, you have committed no crime for which I might legally have you killed. I hereby instruct the Star League Defense Force to take you, your mother, your siblings, and any who wish to travel with you into custody. You are to be transported to a habitable planet far outside of the Star League, one that has not been colonized. You are to left there, with no weapons, no mechanical devices, no communications equipment; but with only tools and basic supplies. There, you are free to live out the remainder of your natural life. A picket ship will remain in orbit and ensure that there is no contact between you and anyone else in the universe.”

The First Lord nodded, and the guards took the young son of Amaris, his sisters and his mother, and hauled them from the room, with Khalid shouting invectives the entire way.

“This session of the High Council is hereby adjourned. Black Watch—ensure that body is properly disposed of.”

Epilogue

November 23, 2788
Cameron Cathedral
Hawkins, Asta
Terran Hegemony

“But we know that my father’s story did not end there,” Cassandra Cameron said from the pulpit where she delivered her eulogy to the man lying in the coffin beneath her. Tears—unshed tears—glistened in her eyes as the young woman spoke.

“He saved the Star League, and he saved our Souls through his actions to reunite humanity, not through guns and ‘Mechs and warships, but through our own innate humanity. We have joined together and in these past twenty years, we have wiped away the scars of the Amaris Coup. We have restored planets that fanatics loyal to that man attempt to depopulate. We have rebuilt cities and families, and we have created new cities and families.”

“My father never wanted to be First Lord of the Star League. He never wanted this responsible—but he did his duty as a Cameron and as a human being. And though many of those who knew him best are gone—Lord Kerensky, General DeChevilier, Vincent Kurita, Philip Marik, Nicoletta Calderon, Gerald Howe—there are many more of us who loved him and remain.”

“For twenty years now, we have a Star League at peace with itself. We have repaired the rifts between us, and we have restored the faith in our common humanity. And that is a gift that my father gave to us all. It is a gift that we cannot, we shall not, forget.”

*****************************************************

“Thank you for coming, Lord Kurita,” Cassandra said with a smile at the grey-haired man standing before.

“You, Lady Cassandra, may call me Hiroyoshi. How could I not come? He was the best of all of us, you know.”

“I know.”

She stopped walking in the gardens and turned to stare directly at the Coordinator of the Draconis Combine. “What is this I hear about Nicky? What is doing out there in the Rim?”

Hiroyoshi sighed. “I wish that Andery had not died in that accident along side of Aleksandyr, Cassandra. I don’t trust Nicolas Kerensky—I fear that he is not stable. But my agents have reported that he has instituted a caste system for the people of the Rim. One based on meritocracy, yes, but in a generation I fear that they will locked into the caste of which they are born. And his scientists have begun experimenting on altering human DNA—to make us better.”

Cassie nodded glumly. “He no longer attends the High Council, and he quotes my own father when I press him on why. He claims that he is charting his own course, and so long as the Rim doesn’t threaten another member state, I have little authority over him.”

Hiroyoshi sighed. “And he is right. Your father’s reduction in force of the Star League Defense Force sent many former soldiers into the Rim with Aleksandyr. And his insistence on allowing each state to govern itself without Star League interference means there is little enough you can do to stop him; even if he has changed the official title of his position from Lord Protector to Khan.”

Together the two of them started walking again through the quiet gardens, even as Otomo and Black Watch trailed behind silently. And the nightingales in the gardens sang, even as the sun once more began to set.


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 Post subject: Re: The Long Road Home
PostPosted: Wed Jan 25, 2012 5:32 pm 
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General
General

Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
And that is all folks!

It has been one hell of a ride, but it is finally over.

MA


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 26, 2012 5:53 pm 
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Major General
Major General

Joined: Sat Sep 15, 2001 8:00 pm
Posts: 759
Location: Hope Mills, NC
That needs to be published my freind. Was most intertaining and amazing.

_________________
Khan John Edwards
Trueborn Warrior

Pain heals, Chicks dig scars but GLORY lasts forever!!!!!!!

[img]http://www.heavymetalpro.com/countries/mil-army.gif[/img]


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 26, 2012 7:14 pm 
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General
General

Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Like Catalyst would give permission for it! :o :o

But thank you.

MA


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 26, 2012 7:55 pm 
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Commanding General
Commanding General

Joined: Sat Nov 24, 2007 5:28 pm
Posts: 1828
The more things change the more they stay the same......wonderful job.


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 30, 2012 1:44 pm 
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Private First Class
Private First Class

Joined: Thu Jan 21, 2010 6:18 pm
Posts: 18
geat story as always


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 10, 2012 5:48 pm 
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Recruit
Recruit

Joined: Thu Feb 09, 2012 2:15 pm
Posts: 1
Having been an avid Battletech fan since the inception of the game, and owning and having read every novel, tech readout and game supplement, I would like to commend you on your writing. I thoroughly enjoy each of your stories. I feel you are easily the equal to Nivel, or Stackpole , and any of the other super writers of battletech fiction. I agree with Khanjohn, that you should publish your work, if nothing else as a collection of short stories. Your Kurita/Kerensky trilogy is awesome. Thanks for devoting time to enrich the classic battletech universe.


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PostPosted: Sat Feb 11, 2012 7:34 pm 
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General

Joined: Tue Aug 05, 2008 12:20 pm
Posts: 1201
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Your welcome.

MA


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