3049: Disaster Strikes

Disclaimer: I do not own Battletech or any of the characters in the franchise.

Author's Note: This story is set in an Alternate Battletech Universe. A number of canon events didn't happen or happened differently since the Fourth Succession War.

I'd like to thank Tsureai for beta-reading.

Chapter 1: Storm Surge

Oberon Confederation, Ferris II, August 14th, 3049

"Enemy units detected. Eight BattleMechs hiding behind the ridge ahead."

Ralik caught himself leaning forward as he heard Tian's report and forced himself to sit straight inside the cockpit of his Timber Wolf. A 'MechWarrior of Clan Wolf did not behave like an unblooded, overeager sibko member!

He guided his BattleMech past a rocky outcrop, checking twice to ensure he was keeping pace with Lionel's Gargoyle A to his left. It would be embarrassing to fall out of formation now, right before they would make contact with the enemy.

Symbols lit up on the map display in front of him as the Active Probe in Tian's Ice Ferret identified the enemy BattleMechs, and Ralik fought the urge to slump in disappointment. STG-3R, STG-3R, WSP-1A, LCT-1V, COM-2D, WTH-1, VL-2T, and a BJ-1. Light and medium BattleMechs - this would not be a fight where he could earn glory.

"Stupid freebirths should have answered the batchall," Sepha said with a scoff, "That way they would have had a chance, at least - the Heart Eaters might have outbid us by only bidding their Elementals."

Ralik chuckled with the rest of the Star.

"Do not underestimate them," Star Commander Rylian cut in, but he did not sound as if he really meant it.

A moment later, the symbols changed - Rylian had assigned targets. Ralik's was, as expected - he was the newest member of the Star - a light BattleMech, the second STG-3R. He frowned, then frowned even more as he scolded himself for his reaction. He had a received an order and would do his utmost to execute it, as any warrior of Clan Wolf should.

They stayed in formation, forming a line, as they approached the ridge. The enemy BattleMechs did not move - perhaps they had not yet realised that their ambush had been foiled by Tian?

"Infantry, dug in on the ridge," Tian reported as they closed to about five hundred metres. "Company strength."

That meant about a hundred and twenty soldiers. Unarmoured. Ralik still had a little trouble translating the old terms into numbers - he had focused on learning the various BattleMechs the Inner Sphere might field, not infantry. Unarmoured infantry did not matter, anyway - unless they were facing Solahma.

"Engage!" the Star Commander ordered as they were three hundred metres away from the ridge.

Tian pushed her Ice Ferret into a sprint at once, racing up the ridge, easily outpacing the rest of the Star. Explosions appeared on her legs, and, for a moment, Ralik feared the pirates had laid mines - no, it was the infantry shooting SRMs at her.

But apart from blowing some armour on her Ice Ferret's legs away, the barrage did not stop or hinder Tian. She cleared the ridge and Ralik saw her weapons flash before she disappeared on the other side.

Now the enemy BattleMechs were moving - like rats faced with a terrier jumping into their midst. Ralik's target was falling back from Tian, and he adjusted his course as he went up the ridge's slope. The infantry was shooting at him as well, but he ignored them. He had his orders, and the honourless curs would be dealt with once the BattleMechs were defeated.

"Minimal armour damage," his computer reported, but Ralik did not really listen - he was focused on his enemy. He reached the top of the ridge and found his prey right in front of him. The light BattleMech turned to face him as Ralik lined up his shot. He was tempted to let the pirate take the first shot, but then he saw his prey stumble and almost fall. Scoffing at the display of ineptitude, he put the stravag disgrace out of their misery with a volley from his lasers that cored the light BattleMech and blew up its reactor.

Ralik turned to engage the next BattleMech, but the Star Commander's next order arrived before he could target the WSP-1A. "Ralik, engage the infantry."

Ralik opened his mouth to protest - engaging infantry while BattleMechs were still on the field? - but managed to restrain himself. His Timber Wolf was the only one in the Star with machine guns, so the order made sense, even if it galled.

And the infantry was still shooting at him and the others. His BattleMech was in no danger of succumbing to their attack anytime soon, but to let the enemy damage you if you could avoid it was not the Clan way.

He turned and started to sweep the slope with his machine guns. The bullets caught a missile team in the open, and the two men vanished in a fireball. He blinked even as he silenced a machine gun pit next - that had been… inferno missiles?

"Star Commander, they are using inferno ammunitions," he reported.


"Aff." As if he could be mistaken about this!

"Star, support Ralik as soon as your enemy is dealt with - let us teach those stravag scum a lesson."

Pulse lasers joined Ralik's machine guns. He used his own as well, though sparingly - his BattleMech's heat sinks had to be ready to deal with an inferno hit.

The pirates did not last long under the combined assault, though they took longer to break than Ralik would have expected. Perhaps they wished to die in battle? He would not have expected that from pirates.

Oberon Confederation, The Rock, Clan Wolf Flagship Dire Wolf, August 20th, 3049

Tech Martina shook her head as she stared at the wreckage in the hangar bay. "They dared to style their BattleMech like a wolf?" That would have enraged the warriors.

"They call it a 'Wolfhound', or so a bondsman claims," Aris replied, shrugging. "Light BattleMech, thirty-five tons."

"That was not in the files," Martina pointed out.

"Maybe it is a new model?" Aris shrugged again. "It does not look like it was cobbled together like the other 'salvage' we received."

"Where is the rest of the BattleMech?" Martina asked.

"Apparently, they left it on the planet." Aris scoffed. "They only took the head since they wanted the pilot. Supposedly, the BattleMech had an integrated ejection system that jettisoned the entire head instead of just the seat."

Martina looked at the broken cockpit plate, then stood on her tiptoes and peered inside. The cockpit was ripped up, and dried blood covered most of the seat. "Well, it did not save the pilot, quineg?" she said.

"Neg, it did not," Aris agreed. With a chuckle, he added: "I heard that the Khan was not happy about that. Especially after the losses the Kheshik took battling mercenaries."

Martina clenched her teeth. Warriors were seldom happy if things did not go exactly their way - and they usually blamed the lower castes, no matter whose fault it actually was. She hoped the med techs had not been censured for this. Tilting her head, she tried to decipher the partially-destroyed letters beneath the faceplate. "...lan Kell?"

Aris shrugged again. "Who cares who he was? We have to see what we can salvage from this. Before a warrior blames us for delaying the operation."

She nodded and pulled out a tool. "Let us get started."

'The Clan Invasion remained undetected in the Periphery far longer than one would have expected given the number of planets they took. Even the loss of an entire battalion of the 1st Kell Hounds on The Rock was, in the absence of any reports, attributed to a misjump rather than enemy action.'

- Excerpt from 'The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis' by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064

'If the Hounds hadn't been so arrogant to assume that nothing in the Periphery could pose a threat to them, they would have brought one of their Black Boxes with them when they went pirate hunting, and we'd have had an early warning. Sure, the signal would have taken some time to reach the Commonwealth's borders, but we would have been prepared a hell of a lot better. Would have saved a lot of people. Like my brother in the 17th Rangers.'

- Marty "Jumpjack" Braghan, 10th Skye Rangers.

Oberon Confederation, Ferris II, September 1st, 3049

"You know, this is a historic moment - The Return has actually started. After centuries, the glory of the Star league is being restored to the oppressed citizens left behind in the Inner Sphere," Sepha suddenly spoke up as their vehicle came to a stop in the centre of the capital of Ferris II.

Ralik glanced at her as he left the ground car. The 'MechWarrior was not a Crusader as far as he was aware, and she was not one to recite epics either - as far as he knew, she had been in at least one trial of grievance over her drunk performance of the Remembrance others had taken offence to. Which had been settled with fists.

Lionel rolled his eyes and sighed. "Sepha, everyone knows that you barely care about the operation. Do not tell me that you have suddenly been overcome with emotion and embraced the importance of our task." Lionel, on the other hand, was a Crusader.

"Also, if you care about these things, then the actual historic moment was three weeks ago, when Beta Galaxy took Blackstone," Tian pointed out.

Sepha seemed unconcerned about either comment. She chuckled. "I know, I know. I was merely struck by the discrepancy between our historic mission and our current surroundings." She waved her hand at what passed as the main street of the town. "Where are the paradises? The adoring masses showering us with praise and gratitude for their liberation from the tyranny of the corrupt house lords?"

"We are in the Periphery," Lionel retorted. "The Star League had to conquer these realms to civilise them, and it is apparent that they have slid back into barbarism since the Exodus. Given time, they will embrace the Clan way."

Sepha snorted - she was a cynic, Ralik knew - but did not contradict the other 'MechWarrior. Ralik himself did not share the sentiments Sepha claimed to have. Of course, the conquest of the planet had been a disappointment. The pirates had barely put up a fight - their infantry had lasted longer than their BattleMechs, and their skill and discipline had been abysmal. That they had fought dishonourably had been expected from the start - you could not expect anything else from criminals on whom even the corrupt house lords and their lackeys looked down.

But the town was in better shape than Ralik had expected, given what he had learned about the Periphery pirates from the reports of the Wolf Dragoons - before they had turned traitors. The population looked healthy, on par with the labourer castes of other clans, if not quite as well as the labourers of his own Clan, of course.

Although Sepha was correct in that the people he could see on the street certainly did not look very grateful for their liberation and absorption by Clan Wolf. They looked more wary and nervous. But they also knew their place already, giving way to their group as the Star Commander led them towards the bar nearby, and once the shock had worn off, they would make fine additions to the labourer caste. Or their children would.

The bar was not quite as packed as it had been the first time they had visited. Ralik looked around as Rylian picked a table in the corner and waved the waiter over. A number of people he had expected to see were absent.

"They are preparing for the upcoming Trials of Bloodright," Tian answered his question before he could voice it.

"Ah." Ralik nodded.

Sepha snorted. "Who would have thought that the Golden Keshik, the best of our Clan, chosen by the Khan himself, would lose two Bloodnamed warriors against mercenaries?"

Rylian narrowed his eyes at her. "Watch your words."

Sepha met the Star Commander's gaze for a moment, then nodded. Apparently, she was not keen on starting a fight today. Or not yet, Ralik amended his thoughts.

Rylian nodded. "They must have underestimated the enemy. Let that be a lesson to all of us."

"The Kell Hounds were supposed to be among the best battalions of the Inner Sphere," Ralik pointed out. It wasn't as if the Kheshik had only lost Bloodnamed warriors.

Lionel scoffed. "And yet, they could not stand against us even with the advantage of numbers. If they are the best the house lords can field against us, we will walk on hallowed Terra within a year."

"You talk like you fought them personally," Sepha said with a chuckle. "Will you compete in the trial yourself?"

None of their Star had been nominated, Ralik knew. Lionel could take part in the Grand Bloodname Melee to earn a spot in the trial, but Ralik did not think the other 'MechWarrior would - Lionel preferred to pick his fights better.

And, Ralik thought, though he did not say it out loud, there would be more opportunities to earn a Bloodname once Operation Revival truly began. He certainly was hoping to earn the chance to compete for one himself.

Terra, North America, Hilton's Head Island, October 10th, 3049

"...and the report from the Station on Oberon VI is quite clear on the matter: The invaders not only have warships - including at least one battlecruiser - and multiple BattleMechs of unknown design, but also technology that surpasses what the SLDF fielded at its heyday. The theory that they are merely a group of pirates or Periphery forces who plundered an SLDF cache must, therefore, be dismissed. Judging by the BattleROMs Precentor Kelly managed to acquire, we're facing a power that is at least our technological equal, if not superior, and has the resources to conduct weapons research on a large scale. Together with the reports from the other stations in the conquered territory, our best estimate puts the invading forces at twenty to forty regiments of advanced BattleMechs, with armoured infantry and equally advanced aerospace fighters as support elements."

Myndo Waterly wanted to close her eyes as Anastasius droned on, but that would have been disrespectful. The Precentor Martial deserved better, even though he had a tendency to get lost in military minutiae instead of coming to a point.

Fortunately, Precentor Chi didn't manage to curb her impatience. Myndo glanced at the woman as she raised her hand and interrupted Anastasius. "Could you summarise your report for those among us who aren't soldiers? How strong are those 'Clans' compared to the Successor States?"

If Anastasius was annoyed by the interruption, he didn't show it - he had come a long way since his start in ComStar. He nodded with his usual polite smile. "Of course. Although I have to point out that we lack the intelligence to do more than guess - we do not know anything about their reserves, logistics and supply train. But the forces observed so far certainly make them at least the equal of the Capellan Confederation's military, possibly the Free World League's, even."

"There's quite a gap between those two," Precentor Tau pointed out. "One is barely above a Periphery Power, the other is one of the dominant powers of the Inner Sphere."

Anastasius nodded once more and repeated himself: "We do not have the necessary information to deliver a more precise estimate."

Precentor Tau nodded. "The reports also mentioned that they were led by a 'Khan Kerensky'."

"Indeed." The Precentor Martial smiled. "Based upon some of the unit insignia displayed, and the names used, we have concluded that they are most likely the descendants of Kerensky's forces who followed him into exile."

Myndo took note of who among the First Circuit looked surprised. That conclusion had been obvious to anyone who had read the actual reports. The alternative - that this was a false flag operation - seemed rather unconvincing.

"The Star League returned…" Precentor Chi said. "And the report stated that they reacted positively when presented with the Order's history and goals. If we allied with them, we might be able to fulfil Blessed Blake's vision!"

This time, Myndo rolled her eyes. "While the Clans spoke of restoring the Star League, I doubt that they are following Blake's will. They haven't announced their future intentions as blatantly as they announced their attacks, but they have displayed an obvious disdain, perhaps even hatred, of the Successor States. I do not think that they plan to resort to diplomacy to achieve their goals." She wouldn't let that foolish woman destroy all she had been working for since she succeeded Julian in the moment of the Order's greatest crisis.

Precentor Chi raised her chin. "If they truly have warships and advanced technology, then an alliance with them would change the balance of power in the Inner Sphere decidedly. None of the realms has significant war fleets nor are they fielding many advanced BattleMechs. If we add our edge in intelligence…"

Myndo glared at her. "You would risk all we have achieved in the last twenty years, our reputation as the moral conscience, neutral arbiter and cultural leader of the Inner Sphere, for such a fool's scheme?" Not to mention their economic influence, of course.

"We haven't built up anything but vague hopes!" Precentor Chi retorted. "When was the last time soft power and moral leadership amounted to anything in the Inner Sphere? This presents us with the chance to fulfil Blake's vision now! We won't have to blindly hope that the Great Houses will come to their senses, stop their wars, and then reform the Star League with us at the helm because we're the only power left everyone can trust to treat them fairly!" she exclaimed with a sneer.

"And when did war ever achieve anything but pointless destruction?" Myndo shot back. "Blake formed the Order to preserve, not destroy! To lead, not conquer! The Inner Sphere fought for over two hundred years, and yet remains divided and at war - as he had foreseen. That, more than anything, proves that Blake's will cannot be achieved through war!" She shook her head. "It wasn't martial force or stealth strikes that preserved the Order's control over the Inner Sphere's HPG network, but diplomacy."

Diplomacy which had consisted of a lot of offers, guarantees and veiled threats made at the time. The Helm Memory Core might have given the Successor States access to the complete knowledge of the Star League, but the Order had never lost that knowledge - and had had the resources of Terra and the entire Solar System to build upon it for over two hundred years.

Even so, Myndo was well aware that, ultimately, the fact that, even though they had the knowledge, not even the Federated Commonwealth could spare the money to build a network of their own without crippling their military research and production had been decisive. The K-1 "Black Boxes" might be very useful for military communications - arguably more useful than HPGs - but they could not replace HPGs for civilian needs.

Anastasius spoke up before Precentor Chi could answer. "I also believe that the Precentor Chi overestimates our own forces. We might have the only warship fleet in the Inner Sphere - but as the First and Second Succession Wars have demonstrated clearly, even warships cannot stand up to a dedicated attack by enough Aerospace fighters carrying anti-ship missiles. And our ground forces are fielding more advanced technology than the House forces, but we lack the experience they have and we do not have the numbers to match any of them."

"But with these Clans - with the SLDF returned! - we'd have the force needed!"

"We do not know this," Anastasius replied. "Only a fool would gamble everything they owned on such a throw of the dice."

Myndo smiled - Anastasius was always polite, so when he rebuked someone, it had a pronounced effect.

"Then we should remedy that as soon as possible so we can make an informed decision," Precentor Delta cut in.

"Our agents in the Periphery are already working on it," Precentor Rho reported.

"And we can send some of our stealth recon vessels there as well," Anastasius added.

"Can we risk that?" Precentor Omega asked. "If these 'Clans' are as advanced as the reports claim, the ships might be detected."

"They will approach any system cautiously and ready to jump out as soon as they are detected," Anastasius replied. "The risk should be minimal."

"But this will cost a lot of time," Precentor Gamma said. "Time we might not have to spare. Since according to the reports we received, the Clans seem to look at our Order's goals favourably, we should use this to approach them diplomatically and sound them out."

Myndo would have preferred to bury the notion that they could start a war at once, but any diplomatic mission would offer plenty of opportunities to gather intelligence as well. And such intelligence could serve to further demonstrate ComStar's importance to the Inner Sphere.

She nodded. "This is a good idea."

Blake's will would be done. The Order would rule the Inner Sphere and lead them into an utopian future. Provided members like Precentor Chi didn't ruin all their hard work with their short-sighted plots. To conquer the Inner Sphere with force of arms! As if the Fifth Succession War hadn't proved that you had to win the hearts of the population if you planned to conquer instead of merely hold a planet. Perhaps the idiot would have to suffer an accident. It wouldn't be the first time since the Mad Primus's assassination in 2902 that the Order, even the First Circuit, had to be culled of people so stupid, they threatened Blessed Blake's goals.

'In hindsight, it is obvious that the reactions of the people in the various occupied Periphery states were at least partially responsible for the Clans mistaken assumption that the Inner Sphere's population would receive them with open arms. The Clans assumed that if the Periphery's inhabitants, which had never liked the Star League, accepted their presence without much resistance, then the supposedly oppressed population in the Inner Sphere would be jubilant. They completely missed the fact that life in the Periphery, especially in bandit kingdoms, was so bad that the Clan occupation was a clear improvement for the vast majority of the population, which made them accept the Clans despite their origins. This would notably not be the case in the Inner Sphere, with disastrous results.'

- Excerpt from 'The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis' by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064

'The house lords talk a lot about how they have to wage war to protect us, but it weren't their troops who supported and saved so many of us who had been displaced and ruined in the last war. All those fancy 'Mechs, all the tanks we bought, even the soldiers recruited from our midst, were busy fighting somewhere else. It was ComStar's adepts and techs who helped us, treated our wounds and even sheltered us in their enclaves as they repaired our power plants. ComStar stepped up when no one else did, and we won't ever forget that.'

- Marian Dubois, sales clerk, Quentin, in an interview following the Fifth Succession War

Free Rasalhague Republic, New Caledonia, March 12th, 3050

Ralik was grinning as his Star advanced on the small village - the last obstacle on the road to Redfev, the planetary capital. "Another holding action, quiaff?" he asked as he piloted his Timber Wolf along the road.

"Aff," Tian answered. Her Ice Ferret was, as usual, ahead of them. "Three BattleMechs and four vehicles hiding between the buildings."

A moment later, Ralik's display updated, showing both the buildings and the positions and strength of the enemy. DRG-1N, CRB-20, TDR-5S, four Vedette medium tanks. "Mostly fast models," he said. "They must be planning to disengage."

Lionel scoffed. "They still have not learned that they cannot stall or outrun us. They should have stayed and fought instead of retreating. They gained nothing."

"They made us walk all over the continent," Sepha said, chuckling. "And they embarrassed the Flying Lions."

Ralik nodded inside his cockpit - the Binary Fighter had failed to keep the 2nd Drakøns' aerospace fighters from strafing the Command Nova during the first stage of the battle. To be shown up by freebirth traitors in inferior machines… Those pilots should not be allowed to breed.

"And the Drakøns still have half their Aerospace fighters," Rylian reminded them. "Expect them to make an appearance."

"You mean the Failing Lions will not keep them away from us?" Sepha asked. "If they bungle their mission a second time we should send the entire Binary to the labour caste."

"I would rather not see them in the labour caste," Ralik said, "our technicians are bad enough. If the Lions take over, then I doubt that they will finish servicing our BattleMechs before the operation is over." If the stravag labourers had been quicker with their repairs, they would have caught the Drakøns in a pincer movement before the freebirths had managed to slip away through the mountains. Ralik clenched his teeth - he should give the fools another beating to remind them that they were at war and everyone had to do their best.

Sepha chuckled. "Good point."

Lionel scoffed again. "We should have gone into the field without repairs."

Ralik nodded. They should have challenged the Star Colonel's decision - Athen Kederk must have been spooked by losing half of his Elementals to that bombing run.

"This is not a trial," Rylian snapped. "This is a war. The less damage we suffer in this battle, the sooner we are ready for the next wave. Now stop complaining like labourers and focus!"

Ralik pressed his lips together. The reprimand stung. They were not fighting another Clan, but mere freebirth traitors. Inferior warriors in inferior machines. Despite the Lions' failure, the Heart Stompers had driven an entire regiment supported by tanks and infantry from the field! One Assault Trinary - and, he grudgingly added, the Command Nova - had chased the enemy over hundreds of kilometres and crushed them every time they had tried to make a stand.

And they would crush the fools trying to stop them as well! No freebirth could stand up to a trueborn warrior, no matter their numbers. Like their namesakes, the Wolves had harried their enemies as if they were prey, picking off stragglers and wounded. And there was only one outcome when a pack was on the hunt.

He sighed - this was the real beginning of The Return. This was not the Periphery, where the glory of the Star League had never been truly accepted. No, Ralik was walking on a planet that had been part of the Star League. He was liberating people who had been oppressed and exploited for centuries by corrupt traitors!

His Timber Wolf crested a small hill, and Ralik laid eyes on the village. He shook his head - the honourless curs had chosen to hide inside a farming village, choosing to destroy their labourers' livelihood for a marginal tactical advantage. This, more than anything else he had seen so far, showed that these traitors did not deserve to rule the Inner Sphere.

"Tian, do you spot any infantry?" Rylian asked.

"Neg, Star Commander."

That was odd - the enemy infantry had been present at every failed ambush or holding action so far. "Perhaps they have none left?" Ralik wondered. Unarmoured Infantry, even mechanised, had a hard time disengaging from BattleMechs or Elementals, and the Militia had suffered heavy casualties in every battle so far.

"Infantry are like roaches." Sepha snorted. "Every time you think you have killed the last of them, another appears underfoot."

"You have roaches in your quarters? You should beat the janitor!" Ralik replied.

"I am running a closer scan," Tian interrupted them. On his display, Ralik saw her BattleMech's symbol suddenly move faster - she was sprinting around the village. "Neg. No infantry," she reported, cool as her BattleMech's namesake despite the fact that Ralik could hear explosions in the background - Tian was under fire already.

Star Commander Rylian had heard the explosions as well. "Star, engage your targets. Move!" he ordered.

Ralik checked his display and smiled. He would be facing the heaviest BattleMech of the enemy line, the TDR-5S. It was still inferior in both weight and weapons, but it should pose a slight challenge, at least. His Timber Wolf sped up as Ralik raced down the road. He kept an eye on the surface - Tian had passed through and hadn't detected any mines, but when facing an enemy who used such cowardly tactics, it paid to double-check.

But no explosion stopped him as he closed with the village. His target was hiding behind a taller building - a grain storage, Ralik's computer labelled it. A warning appeared - potentially explosive? Ralik blinked. "They have explosive grain?"

"A risk of dust explosions," Tian explained while she circled around the enemy's position, dodging autocannon fire from all four tanks. Once again, the Drakøns did not respect zellbrigen.

Ralik shook his head. "Let us see if it is true," he said, targeting the building with his lasers.

It did not work - the building caught fire, but it did not blow up. But his assigned enemy moved out of cover to face him!

Ralik bared his teeth as he moved his Timber Wolf to the side, starting to circle the enemy BattleMech while staggering his fire. The enemy pilot was good - for a freebirth. But Ralik had twice the firepower and twice the skill. After thirty seconds of intense fire, the enemy BattleMech toppled over with its gyro shot out, crushing a farmhouse. A Vedette which had been taking potshots at Ralik was still firing at him. But before he could engage it, Tian blew it up with a PPC hit to the vehicle's thinly-armoured back.

"They did not try to disengage," she said.

Ralik nodded in agreement. They had stood and fought to the last.

"They were probably tired of running," Sepha said. "My opponent certainly fought as if they were half-asleep."

It did not matter - the path to the planetary capital was open now. And to the remains of the Drakøns.

"Aerial contacts!" Tian suddenly snapped as the Star was still forming up again.

"Fighters?" Rylian asked.

Ralik tensed. If the Drakøns sent in their Aerospace fighters now… Where were the Lions when you needed them?

"Aerospace fighters. And dropships," Tian reported. "Lifting off from the capital's spaceport."


"The stravags are fleeing!" Lionel hissed.

Ralik gritted his teeth. "Where are the Lions?"

"Tangled with the missing Drakøn fighters would be my guess," Sepha said. "Does anyone want to bet that the Lions manage to stop them?"

"Let them run," Rylian said. "We have won the planet. We'll face them again in the next wave."

And then they would not escape, Ralik thought.

Federated Commonwealth, Bone-Norman, March 14th, 3050

Leftenant Angela Wagner knew that an officer was supposed to always present an optimistic face in order to keep up the morale of her troops, but she didn't bother hiding her frown when she switched off the radio in her Belleron APC and stepped out.

"What's the word from command?" PFC Grönemann asked at once.

"What do you think, idiot?" The Sarge snarled at Grönemann before Angela could answer. "You know there wasn't more than a company of the Grave Walkers that made it out of Kelton."


Angela cleared her throat and glared at both men. Discipline had to be maintained, especially in a situation such as this one. When both looked sufficiently contrite, she nodded. "The enemy is advancing on the capital, and there are not enough forces left to stop them. Command, therefore, has ordered all surviving units to switch to insurgency tactics."

Grönemann gaped. "But… that's only supposed to happen at the snake border! Not out here!"

"There was always the risk that the Draconis Combine would launch an offensive through the Periphery," Angela replied in her best lecturing tone. Of course, that risk had been minimal - the logistics were beyond the DCMS's ability - but this wasn't the time to appear as anything less than prepared. "This is why we prepared for this."

"You didn't think we hid all those explosives and inferno launchers so you and your pals could use them for fireworks to celebrate the New Years?" The Sarge chuckled. "I was with the Lyran Guards on Vega when we ran into their 'All Citizen Resistance'. Bloody insurgents turned the entire world into such a hellhole, we were glad when the counter-attack arrived and we had an excuse to evacuate." He grinned and tapped the burn scar covering half his face with his index. "Let me tell you, being on the wrong side of an inferno missile isn't fun. And we'll teach that to those 'Falcons'. They'll be very sorry they decided to invade us!"

The men cheered. Angela forced herself to smile. She had been fifteen during the Fifth Succession War - just old enough to enter cadet school. She hadn't fought in the brutal insurrections on the Combine worlds. But she had studied the reports.

This would be a terrible campaign. A lot of people, many if not most of them civilians, would die. But they would win in the end and see the invaders flee Bone-Norman. If the snakes had managed to give the AFFC a bloody nose with armed civilians and press-ganged Yakuza prisoners forced at gunpoint to fight by DEST agents, then her and her platoon - what was left of it - and everyone else who had survived the battles so far could do the same, or better, against these 'Jade Falcons'.

They had been training and preparing for this for a decade, after all.

So she smiled. "We'll ditch the APCs and move to the closest underground cache. That would be…"

"Trentis Mountain Valley, ma'am," the Sarge replied.

She nodded. "Trentis Mountain Valley. Move, everyone!"

'Even for a scholar with the benefits of hindsight, the effectiveness of the Draconis Combine's 'All Citizen Resistance' strategy in the Fifth Succession War remains almost as much a surprise as it was for the AFFC invasion forces of the time. No one had expected to fight an insurrection of that scope, which meant that the assigned garrison forces were too small and too inexperienced to handle it. That the first response to the demands for more troops was to assign parts of the RCTs' infantry components to garrison duty only compounded the problem since those troops would not only be missed by the RCTs during the next wave of the invasion, but were not sufficiently trained and equipped to deal with a civilian insurrection either. While the popular myth that the people's insurrection wrecked the supply lines for the invasion is incorrect - that was done by DCMS raiding forces attacking the jumpships and dropships in transit - images and reports of AFFC soldiers fighting teenagers and children certainly were crucial for eroding the public support for the invasion in many areas of the Federated Commonwealth.

Not quite as surprising was the fact that the AFFC quickly adapted their own version of the tactic in response, although, at the time, no one expected to see the program used on more than a few near-border worlds overwhelmed by a surprise attack of the DMCS.'

- Excerpt from 'The Fifth Succession War: Changing the Paradigm' by Hank G. Johnson, New Avalon Military Journal, 3072

'When I hear the damned civilians talk about how we 'should just have shot all the snakes daring to even glare at us in '39', I want to smash their damned faces. Actually did, more than once - which is why I retired as a corporal, not as a sergeant. Those bloody idiots don't know how it feels when you track down a sniper and discover that it's a twelve-year-old girl who could have been your daughter and took a poison pill so she wouldn't get captured alive. The only thing worse than that is checking a body and discovering that they left a grenade under it.'

- Mike Keller, AFFC, retired.

Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), New Caledonia, Redfev, April 2nd, 3050

Redfev was a real Inner Sphere city - not a collection of hovels, like Ralik had seen on the Periphery worlds he had visited. The buildings were tall, and well-maintained - apart from the ones damaged by stray shots from the battle in the air above the city during 2nd Drakøns' flight, and the block taken out by a crashed Drakøn fighter - and the people Ralik saw as he wandered through the city with the others of his Star were healthy and wealthy.

Perhaps a little too wealthy, he thought with a frown when he spotted a ComStar Acolyte talking to a local shop clerk.

"Ralik! What is wrong with you?" Sepha wrapped her arm around his shoulder before he could react, then grinned at him when he shrugged her off. "You should not be frowning, but smiling - we conquered this city! Even the Star Colonel acknowledged our efforts!"

Ralik rolled his eyes at her. "I know," he said. He nodded towards the fat man in the white robes as they passed the shop. "I was frowning because of him."

"What? You do not like the people who preserved the last remains of the glorious Star League? Why, they are practically our brothers and sisters in arms, quiaff?" Sepha gasped as if she were performing a particularly drunk rendition of some of the Remembrance's more convoluted parts.

"Neg! Warriors? ComStar?" Ralik scoffed. "They are not warriors! Look at the fool - he would need help to merely reach a BattleMech's cockpit without falling off the ladder!" According to what Ralik had heard, ComStar was a bunch of labourers and merchants. They bowed their heads to the corrupt House Lords and toiled beneath them. No warrior would suffer such a fate.

"He is a merchant or scientist," Tian cut in. "They have a Star of BattleMechs at the local compound."

"Oh!" Sepha turned to Tian. "That does sound as if you have you been doing reconnaissance in the town. So… where are the best bars?"

Ralik was not the only one who rolled his eyes in response, but Tian did not even blink. "The 'Valhalla' seemed to be very popular with the locals."

"We should not allow anyone to station BattleMechs in our territory," Lionel said. "We took it, and it is ours. What if the Jaguars and Falcons demand the same rights next?"

Sepha scoffed. "Last I heard, they were busy fighting the Inner Sphere. Their reports read as if they had defeated the main host of their enemies already."

"These reports are not supposed to be accessible to us," Star Commander Rylian said, frowning. "How did you manage to acquire one?"

His glare did not seem to affect Sepha. "I have a friend in the Watch," she said.

Ralik frowned as well - though not because of the possible breach of security; it was not as if the Watch had provided much useful intelligence. No, the Watch was a dumping ground for those warriors who could not keep their place in the touman. A Solahma-unit by another name. That Sepha associated with such people… He changed the subject. "Did they decide on the date for your Trial of Bloodright, Star Commander?"

Rylian did not smile, but he stood straighter. The Star Commander had been nominated for the trial thanks to his actions on New Caledonia. If only Ralik had been a little luckier… But his chance would come as well. Perhaps even during the next wave. "Aff. It's on the 14th."

"Enough time to repair the BattleMechs for the next wave," Tian commented. "The 'Valhalla' is this way." She pointed towards a side alley ahead of them.

"Who did decide that we would go there?" Lionel asked with another frown.

"I did!" Sepah said, grinning at him. "Do you wish to challenge my decision?"

For a moment, Lionel looked as if he would. Probably because Sepha was all but daring him to with her wide grin. But then he shook his head. "Neg. It might be illuminating to see how the locals live."

"Yes," Tian agreed. After a pause, she added. "Have you heard anything about our targets in the next wave?"

"You are planning to study ahead, quiaff?" Sepha chuckled. "Unfortunately, I did not. Other than that the ilKhan is doing what he can to limit us to the Free Rasalhague Republic."

Ralik pressed his lips together. Everyone knew that the ilKhan favoured his own Clan, the Smoke Jaguars. Instead of fighting the two strongest powers in the Inner Sphere, earning glory, the Wolves were left with the dregs.

"Well, he did not think his plan through," Lionel said as they turned into the side alley. "Since we are only facing second-rate forces - by Inner Sphere standards, of course - we will have an easier time to reach Terra before any other Clan."

Ralik drew a deep breath. Terra. If they took the ancient seat of the Star League. The home of humanity… He would give anything to take part in that battle!

"There it is," Tian interrupted his thoughts.

Ralik looked up. There was an old shield mounted over the entrance. He smiled - that looked like a bar fitting for warriors of Clan Wolf. Then he saw the Clan transport parked at the corner. And the insignia on it. He sighed. "It seems that the Failing Lions are in there." Probably drowning their shame in alcohol.

"Great!" Sepha beamed. "We shall have not just drinks, but entertainment as well as we mock them!"

That did not sound too bad, actually. Indeed - none of the pilots had earned much glory in the last battle, and everyone knew it. Mocking them might prevent another failure in the next wave.

He was about to agree with Sepha when the bar ahead blew up, and he found himself on the ground.

He blinked and rolled on his stomach, drawing his pistol while he looked around for the enemy.

"We are under attack!" Lionel yelled.

"Bomb in the bar," Tian added. Ralik glanced over and saw that she was bleeding from a cut on her face. Glass shards, he realised - the ground was covered by them. He was bleeding himself from cuts on his hands, he noted.

Then his ringing ears heard the screaming. A figure stumbled out of the smoke cloud covering the bar's entrance, flailing in a desperate attempt to put out the flames covering the man - no, the woman.

Ralik did not hesitate. He jumped up and ran towards the burning woman, holstering his gun and pulling his jacket off before he reached her, then threw her to the ground and started to cover her with the jacket to smother the flames.

It did not work. And that smell… "Inferno gel!" he yelled.

He heard Lionel curse in return. And Sepha, who was headed towards a small form lying on the ground at the corner.

The bar was burning fiercely, and Ralik could feel the heat on his skin. He grabbed the still screaming woman and dragged her away, hissing when he burned himself in the process.

"They should have a medkit in the transport," Rylian said. "I have called command."

"I will get it," Lionel said.

"Watch out for attackers!" Sepha yelled. "They might be waiting for you!"

Ralik tried once more to smother the flames on the woman. He was breathing through his mouth, and even so, the stench of burned flesh filled his nose.

Then Lionel returned and blasted the woman with a fire extinguisher. The flames died - but so did the woman. One of the Flying Lions, though Ralik didn't know her name.

He closed his eyes and cursed.

"I did not see any attacker," he heard Tian report. "They might have fled already instead of pushing the attack." Of course, the cowards would have fled, like the Drakøns, Ralik thought.

Whimpering made him look up. Sepha was wrapping bandages lathered with anti-burn slaves on the child she had saved. She was still alive - she must have been outside the bar; he remembered seeing a girl coming towards them, right before the explosion.

"Those stravag dezgra cowards!" He clenched his teeth. Not only were they striking from hiding without honour, but they were even killing civilians to get at the Clan's warriors!

If - when - he caught them, they would pay for this!

Draconis Combine (Clan Smoke Jaguar Occupation Zone), Tarnby, April 10th, 3050

When he saw the burly gaijin ahead of him turn and enter the side alley, Okura Masato thanked the kami - this was an unexpected but very welcome opportunity. Masato didn't show his reaction on his face, of course - he kept his head down and his expression downtrodden, lest the invaders notice him walking through the commercial district. He was but another faceless employee on Tarnby, on his way home from work.

None was paying attention to him - he checked - when he reached the entrance to the side alley, and he ducked into it in a smooth motion. His prey was ahead of him, but not too far. He caught up easily, running silently through the debris-covered alley - an easy feat for anyone who had completed the ISF close quarters combat training course.

His knife - a sharp but simple tool, not an obvious weapon the gaijin invaders might notice during one of their clumsy checks - was in his hand three steps before he reached the man. Two steps later, his other hand covered the man's mouth, and his blade slid between ribs.

The invader didn't struggle for long. No warrior, that one. It didn't matter - an enemy was an enemy. Any death would serve to provoke a violent reaction from the occupiers, which, in turn, would fan the flames of resistance against the 'Smoke Jaguars' - people who had lost family to them would be all too willing to take up arms themselves. And he would be there to guide and lead them. And make their sacrifices count.

A hundred billion blades for the Dragon. Each would cut, bleeding the invaders until they were dead and gone.

Masato allowed himself to smile until he reached the exit of the side alley. Then he turned back into a faceless, tired worker. He didn't go home, though. This particular residence was too close to the alley; Masato couldn't serve the dragon if he were caught up and killed in the occupiers' blind retaliation.

But he had another residence, and a new identity, waiting for him in the next district.

Every Son of the Dragon was prepared for this mission, after all, no matter where they lived. They had saved the Combine once before, when the Federated Commonwealth had attacked ten years ago, and now they would do so again.

'In conclusion, ComStar's know-how and financial investments in joint-ventures in the Federated Commonwealth have contributed substantially to the realm's economic growth over the last twenty years, with increasing effects over time. From a purely economic point of view, continuing good relations with the Order are highly desirable. Cutting ties, on the other hand, would not only affect the economy but military spending as well since parts of the military's supplies come from the civilian market, which would shrink as a result. Nationalisation might only partially compensate, as such an act, unless carefully presented to the public, would negatively affect the confidence of our industry and investors as well as trade with other realms in the Inner Sphere and the Periphery, where ComStar's economic influence is substantially higher than in the Commonwealth.'

- Excerpt from a classified analysis of the LIC for Archon Melissa Steiner, Tharkad 3049

'By the time the second wave of the Clan invasion hit our worlds, every politician and every news agency was screaming bloody murder about our supposed failure to act and demanding immediate deployment of our reserves. Even if we had been willing to expose our borders to an invasion by the Combine or League, the troops the people were demanding wouldn't have arrived in time to stop the second or even third wave. Moving dozens of RCTs from one end of the Commonwealth to the other and have them arrive ready for action simply cannot be done that quickly. But no matter how often you explained that to these morons, they would not stop demanding the impossible!'

- Kommandant William Baker, AFFC General Staff, retired

Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), New Caledonia, Redfev Starport, April 28th, 3050

Rylian still walked a little stiffly, Ralik noticed, as he and the others of his Star met the Star commander at the Starport, but other than that he looked well enough for combat duty.

"Welcome back, Rylian," Sepha said. "You did well in the trial."

"Not well enough," Rylian replied, frowning.

Ralik understood the sentiment. It would hurt to lose a trial. How many more opportunities to earn a Bloodname would Rylian have? Bloodnamed warriors did not die often. And the Star Commander was getting old - he was already twenty-eight, past his prime. His age had not yet affected his skills, as far as Ralik could tell, but that was but a question of time. No, Ralik did not think Rylian would earn a Bloodname.

"The only one to beat you was Star Captain Vlad," Lionel said, "who won the Trial." He nodded. "And you lasted long against him." And unlike almost a dozen others, Rylian had survived the trial.

"Thank you. How is the situation on the planet?" the Star Commander asked as they walked towards the transporter waiting for them.

Sepha sighed. "We are doing all we can to raise the average intelligence of the labour caste on the planet, but so far, there is no sign of progress."

Ralik saw Rylian roll his eyes, though he was grinning. "Tian?"

Tian straightened before replying. "There were four more attacks by suspected insurgents since you left, Star Commander. An improvised explosive device was placed in the city's centre but was detected and defused before it could detonate. Two sniper attacks on technicians working on battlefield salvage. Both died from their wounds. One inferno missile strike against our barracks. Four Elementals were wounded; three are expected to recover. Our forces killed one sniper and the perpetrator of the missile attack."

"We have been running patrols every day," Lionel added, "to provide security for the Clan members on the planet."

"Any battles?" Rylian asked as they reached the transporter - the technicians had finally learned their lesson and finished the up-armouring on time.

"No," Ralik said. The insurgents were too cowardly to attack a BattleMech. They preferred undefended targets. Like technicians. Or their own people - if that bomb had gone off, the square would have been razed.

"But as I said - the attacks do not seem to be stopping any time soon," Sepha sighed heavily and shook her head slowly. "The locals seem to have a surplus of suicidal idiots."

"It has only been twenty-six days," Tian said, driving the transporter. "That is not long enough to base a trend upon."

"It is not just this planet. It is happening on every planet, to every Clan. The idiots do not accept their defeat," Sepha said, frowning. "Many of the attackers caught are not even warriors, but labourers. Imagine that."

Lionel scoffed. "They would stop that nonsense if we would execute a dozen of them every time someone attacks the Clan."

"That is against the Martial Code," Tian said - rather sharply for the usually very calm warrior, Ralik noticed.

"Neg. Others do it already," Lionel replied.

Sepha snorted, then pulled at her jacket. "Did I miss a Trial of Possession that made us Smoke Jaguars or Jade Falcons?"

"We are not taking hostages nor are we punishing people for the crimes of others," Rylian stated. "We are not dezgra."

"How are the Bears handling insurgents?" Ralik asked.

"Probably by adopting them," Sepha joked. "You know how they are."

That sent everyone laughing. Until they saw the smoke rising from the town.

Ralik clenched his teeth. Another attack by those cowards! At least their Cluster would leave the planet soon and prepare for the Next Wave. Warriors were wasted here.

Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Ghost Bear Occupation Zone), Thule, Fresdon Desert, April 29th, 3050

Jan Ringdahl pressed himself to the ground as another explosion shook the small hovel in which he was hiding. He heard screaming from outside - it sounded like Helga. She had been helping Olaf with the SRM launcher.

He knew he should help them. Race outside, drag them into cover. Treat their wounds. But he couldn't. He couldn't stand up. Couldn't leave the hut. Couldn't expose himself. He sobbed.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. The invaders weren't supposed to find them in the desert. This was their home. They knew the desert. And they had done everything as they had been trained. No fusion-powered vehicles. No tracks. No lights after dark.

How had the bastards found them? Someone must have betrayed them. But who? Something blew a hole in the wall above his head, and he whimpered. He didn't want to die. Not like this.

This wasn't supposed to happen. They were supposed to be heroes. Striking at the invaders when they were asleep in their stolen homes before vanishing into the desert like ghosts. Avenging angels. He sobbed again, then coughed when he inhaled sand and dust. His rifle was somewhere in the room - not that he cared any more. It wouldn't help against the 'Mechs. Or the monsters in battle armour.

Another explosion, closer - he felt as if the ground tried to shake him off and had trouble breathing. No. No.

The screaming outside had stopped. Or Jan had gone deaf. He didn't know. Didn't care. He just wanted out. But if he stood up, he would die. Like Sven.

All he could was cowering behind the remains of the wall, and pray. And curse. And cry.

Suddenly, he wasn't cowering any more. He was flying through the air. Then he crashed onto the ground. And he couldn't breathe any more. He tried to but choked. On blood.

And then he didn't do anything any more.

'Preliminary analysis of Clan weapon technology revealed a noticeable gap between the effectiveness of weapons used by their frontline units and the weapons used by the Com Guards. Coupled with the greater individual skill and experience of the Clan Warriors, it is evident that the Com Guards would need significant numerical superiority to achieve victory in an engagement with Clan troops. However, as far as I can tell at this point, the Clan space forces are no match for our defences. They do not have anything similar to our Caspar IV drones and if they should, which seems likely according to my information, ultimately attempt to attack Terra itself, we can expect to repel their attack with our autonomous defence systems.

Nevertheless, I urge the First Circuit to increase our weapon research programs with a focus on conventional weapons and to intensify our exchange and recruiting programs with friendly nations and mercenary units to reduce both the technology as well as the skill and experience gap as quickly as possible if the Com Guards are expected to intervene in the invasion itself.'

- Excerpt from the classified report of Precentor Martial Anastasius Focht, Terra 3050

'If you'd believe the holodramas, then every member of the AFFC panicked when they met the Clans due to their advanced weapons and OmniMechs. Shows that you can't believe the entertainment media. We had already faced advanced weapon systems with our 'Mechs in the Fifth Succession War. Sure, the Clanners had even better kit, but we could've dealt with that. What made them so damn dangerous was the fact that they were the best 'MechWarriors I ever fought against and they knew perfectly how to exploit their advantages. Fighting them was a nightmare. They kept outflanking us whenever we tried to hold the line or counter-attacked, which rendered our combined arms pretty much useless, and any attempt at a war of manoeuvre was doomed from the start - trust me, we tried it with the 17th Rangers often, too often. The only time we made them bleed was when we made our last stand with our backs to the wall, and they had to come at us the hard way.'

- Sergeant Bethy 'Hellfire' McGonagall

Free Rasalhague Republic, Verthandi, Regis, May 15th, 3050

"Six enemy BattleMechs advancing towards us from the city's centre," Tian's calm voice reported.

Ralik glanced at his display while he turned a corner in his Timber Wolf, taking extra care not to brush the damaged right arm against the building - he had lost the limb's armour to a particularly ill-timed artillery barrage. The freebirths defending the planet - the remains of the 2nd Drakøns and a battalion of mercenaries from the same unit that had bloodied the Golden Keshik in the Periphery - had made heavy use of combined arms tactics in the early phases of the battle, but the Cluster's Binary Artillery had silenced the enemy artillery in short order, and the Roaming Lions had savaged the armour and infantry. The battle would be decided by BattleMechs, as it should be.

"They are not trying to hide any more, thinking they can ambush us. I guess even freebirth curs can learn, after half a dozen failures," Sepha commented as Ralik saw the symbols of the enemy BattleMechs weave through the maze of roads and buildings in front of the Star. Six machines, five heavy and one medium. Not much of a force against an Assault Star, but all of the Star's OmniMechs were damaged to some degree already.

"They are not using their jump jets any more, either," Lionel remarked. "They are trying to close the range without exposing themselves."

Not that it mattered much in the city - most of the fighting happened in close quarters anyway. It would not help them, Ralik thought. The curs were caught in the city - the Heart Eaters had taken the starport and, for a change, the Flying Lions had kept the freebirth from escaping in their dropships. Scum who did not respond to the Batchall was not granted Hegira.

"Five hundred metres," Tian reported. The computer updated the enemy BattleMechs' types - QKD-4G, CRD-3R, WHM-6R, RFL-3N, GHR-5A and one GRF-1N - though Ralik knew he could not trust the results blindly. The early stages of the battle had taught them that their enemies had upgraded their inferior machines with selected Star League technology.

"Enemy unit identified as Kell Hounds," Tian informed them.

"Assume all of them are using advanced heat sinks," Rylian told them.

"Let us hope that that is all they have improved," Sepha replied.

It was a faint hope, Ralik knew - the Kell Hounds had, according to the Watch, close ties to the Lyran ruling family, and therefore received preferential treatment, including new technology, even though they were mercenaries.

It did not matter. They were facing a full Star. They would lose.

Only three hundred metres now separated them - but several tall buildings including one factory blocked the line of sight. Ralik clenched his teeth, resisting the urge to charge at them. He hated waiting for the enemy to make contact. He was a wolf - a hunter, not some ambush predator!

A beep alerted him that Rylian had assigned targets. Ralik would be facing the WHM-6R - provided he would not be attacked by another enemy first.

"They are jumping," Tian reported.

Ralik raised his weapons but managed to refrain from firing at the GRF-1N that rose into the sky, followed by the GHR-5A. They weren't his to fight.

Rylian, though, did, raking the GHR-5A with his autocannons and SRMs. But despite previous damage, as the computer showed now, the enemy BattleMech shrugged the attack off and landed right in front of the Star Commander, firing all his weapons - even the LRMs, which went off to land on some poor civilian's house behind them. What a pointless waste!

Rylian would handle that fool. Ralik turned to meet his own target, blocking a road with his Timber Wolf. The enemy WHM-6R stepped out of a side road at the same time, already firing. Ralik angled his OmniMech to shield its bare right arm, absorbing the enemy fire with his left side. His Timber Wolf shook under the barrage, but Ralik easily compensated and kept it stable as he returned fire.

The mercenary advanced and Ralik backed up, keeping his distance, small as it was, from the enemy. His unit had quickly learned that getting too close to an Inner Sphere 'MechWarrior invited a melee attack - Lionel's Gargoyle A had almost lost its leg to a kick he had received earlier in the battle.

But the WHM-6R did not advance towards him - Ralik's eyes widened when the enemy turned and went through the building to their side, emerging directly behind Rylian!

Fortunately, the Star Commander had already shifted his 'Mech, protecting its more vulnerable rear as his OmniMech shook under the fire from the two heavy BattleMechs.

Ralik pushed his Timber Wolf forward to deal with the WHM-6R before the honourless cur overwhelmed Rylian through sheer weight of fire. But he hadn't yet reached the corner when he heard Tian yell a warning.

He looked up and saw the GRF-1N descending on the Star Commander's Gargoyle. Before Ralik or anyone else could react, the BattleMech's legs smashed into the Gargoyle's head and torso and both BattleMechs crashed to the ground.

A moment later, the GHR-5A took a step forward, crushing the Star Commander's cockpit under its foot.

Ralik gasped. Rylian was dead. Killed by three enemies ganging up on him, dragging him to the ground and stepping on him.

Snarling, he swung his Timber Wolf around and fired all his lasers at the WHM-6R, followed by his missiles. The enemy staggered back under the impact, ripping up the facade of the building behind them. Ralik followed up, firing another volley, despite the rising heat in his BattleMech. The WHM-6R's legs - a notorious weak spot of the design - buckled under the fire, and the enemy BattleMech crashed onto the ground.

Ralik's next salvo hit the ammunition bay in the torso, and the explosion ripped the BattleMech apart. He turned to engage the other two curs just as a laser barrage from the GHR-5A hit the Timber Wolf's damaged right arm, shearing it off.

It did not matter. Ralik grinned and returned fire, breaching the enemy's armour in several spots. But the GRF-1N was jumping again - and at Ralik. This time, though, it was intercepted in the air by PPC fire. The BattleMech almost disintegrated under the impacts, crashing into the building next to Ralik, which collapsed.

But those had been more PPCs than any one OmniMech carried in Ralik's Star…

"Dezgra do not deserve zellbrigen, quineg?" he heard Sepha on the channel.

Ralik hesitated only a moment then nodded. "Neg, they do not."

The GHR-5A did not last long once Lionel, Sepha and Ralik focused their fire on it. None of Rylian's killers survived.

Free Rasalhague Republic, Rasalhague Nadir Jump Point, June 2nd, 3050

Korpral Lasse Smith, 2nd Drakøns, pushed himself off the deck and floated over to the small table near his bunk. A few months ago, the room would have been crowded, even with all walls and both the ceiling and floor being available for seating in microgravity. Now, though… Lasse and his wingman had the room, which once housed their whole wing, to themselves.

No one else from the Drakøns had made it off Verthandi. Lasse and Eila had only made it out because they had been on patrol at the jump point. And they would have stayed and fought if they hadn't been ordered out.

Lasse clenched his teeth and twisted the strap that tied him to the ceiling in his hands. He would have preferred to stay. Failing to protect his country was bad enough. But being one of only two survivors of an entire regiment?

He knew what people thought and said about him. Even the JumpShip crew, who had heard the orders from Överste Clark, gave them a wide berth.

"It wasn't our fault," he muttered.


Lasse flinched. And now he had woken up Eila. "Nothing."


He hesitated. He knew how stubborn his wingman was. Which was a good thing in combat - she stuck to him like glue - but now… Then he sighed. "It's not our fault. The bloody mercenaries were useless." For a famous unit like the Kell Hounds, they certainly hadn't lived up to their reputation.

Eila sat up - or down, in this case, seeing she was sitting on what he considered the ceiling. "What did you expect? All the good mercenaries get the contracts in the Commonwealth, where they get the advanced tech as payment. We get the dregs."

He nodded. "Useless."

"We didn't do much better, though. Not in space, and certainly not on the ground."

He sighed again. "It's not our fault. We don't have the technology to match the Combine or the Commonwealth, and certainly not these Clans. We lost every planet they attacked. And we don't have the reserves to take them back."

Certainly not with what mercenaries were left. And Lasse didn't think any more would be hiring on with the Republic. The cowards wanted safe contracts, not a real war. And certainly not a war for survival.

After a moment, he asked: "I've heard they're looking for volunteers for special missions..."

She didn't hesitate. "We're in."

He nodded. When he had first heard about them, he had been torn about it. They made sense for a small realm like the Republic. If a country's survival was at stake, you had to use extreme measures. But he hadn't been sure that he'd be able to do what was needed.

But now? He knew.

Hell, he was looking forward to it.

'When analysed objectively, it is obvious that the various insurgencies on the planets in the Clan Occupation zones were not quite as effective as the popular media claimed at the time. With a few exceptions, the damage done to the occupation forces was minimal, both in casualties suffered by them and equipment destroyed. And even the majority of those could have been avoided by the Clans if they had focused their forces on securing a few key areas and resources on every planet, and left the rest of them to the insurgents. However, such a strategy would have been anathema to them. What they had taken, they held. Anything else was unacceptable.

It was this psychological effect, actually, that, in my opinion, was the most important achievement of the insurgencies. The Clan Warriors were forced to realise that winning a battle didn't mean they had won a planet. They had to face the fact that even after devastating defeats, the Inner Sphere would not break and surrender. That the population in the occupation zone would, instead, fight on.

And, even worse, they were not just facing soldiers who had scattered in the wilderness after their units were broken, not just agents who had trained for this, but civilians who decided to take up arms and fight for their homes. People the Clan Warriors dismissed as beneath their notice would keep fighting, no matter the cost. This challenged the very core of their caste system.'

- Excerpt from 'The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis' by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064

'I never understood why the Rasalhague people hated us mercenaries so much - before the Clans, I mean. People smarter than I claim they hated that they needed us, that our very presence was a constant reminder of how weak they are. I don't buy that. We came to help them. Sure, we were paid for it, and sure, some of the bigger units used the contracts to bloody their rookies against pirates, but we were there, protecting their planets. And when the Clans invaded, we stayed and fought, as we were paid to - side by side with the KungsArmé. Or so we would have if the idiots had worked with us as they should have. We wouldn't have won, of course - the Clans shattered line units from the DCMS and the FedCom in the early waves - but we might have done more than we did. And we might have saved a few more people, too.'

- Leftenant Marcel 'Mackie' Dubois, formerly of the Skinner's Scimitars

Free Rasalhague Republic, Verthandi, Regis, May 30th, 3050

"Can you imagine how much this must irk the Falcons, Bears and Jaguars? They struggle in their corridors, barely keeping up with the timetable, while we race ahead towards Terra!" Sepha lifted her mug and downed it in one gulp, then slammed it down on the table with so much force, it broke.

Ralik grinned as the other Warrior blinked and stared at the handle, which had remained, in her hand as if she could not understand what had happened. It had not been her first beer of the evening.

She quickly scowled, though, and brushed the remains off the table. "I should have known that the local mugs were as bad as the local troops!" she loudly declared, her voice easily filling the BattleMech hangar the Clan had erected in Regisport. Ralik even saw some of the technicians who were working on the OmniMechs of their Cluster glance their way, but a glare sent them back to work. The Khan had announced that the Clan would start the third wave early, so everyone had to work hard to ensure they would be victorious.

"You were the one who took it," Lionel pointed out. "It is your own fault, quiaff?"

"I also took the keg you all have been emptying!" Sepha retorted with another scowl as she sat down at the table they had commandeered in the hangar's corner.

"I did not hear anything about the other Clans struggling," Brell remarked. "By all accounts, they are advancing on schedule even though they are facing harder resistance than our own forces."

Ralik looked at their new Star Commander. Brell was an excellent Warrior - he had earned his rank in his Blooding and, since this was his first posting, he was eager to earn more glory, as a good commander should be - but he was not yet familiar with the Star. "Sepha has a friend in the Watch," Ralik explained.

"Aff," Sepha said. "And he has let me read the latest report - the Falcons and Jaguars are downplaying their losses against the freebirths. And the Bears lost an entire dropship to sabotage." She grinned widely. "None of them is in a state to step up the pace - we will outrace them!"

"The Khan's plan seems to be a bit of a gamble, though," Tian cut in.

Ralik was surprised - the other Warrior rarely voiced such criticism. He saw Brell narrow his eyes. "Do you think that the touman should not be advancing so boldly?" the Star Commander asked.

Tian set her jaw - she hadn't missed how Brell had questioned her courage, of course. "I question the wisdom of sending our supplies ahead into the enemy territory with minimal protection so we can speed up our operations."

"They will be going through uninhabited systems," Brell replied. "I would have thought you would be aware of using stealth as protection. You are usually acting as the Star's van, quiaff?"

"Aff. But I'm a Warrior, not a merchant." Tian met the commander's eyes. Ralik could almost feel the tension growing.

Sepha chuckled. "As long as they do not rely on the Failing Lions for protection, they should be fine."

Brell looked puzzled. "The Failing Lions?"

"You have not yet heard the tale of their failures?" Sepha grinned widely as she leaned forward. "Let me regale you with a tale most amusing - unless you were with the Command Nova."

Ralik shook his head at Sepha's theatrics, but he appreciated her defusing the tension. Having Tian start a Trial of Grievance over the implied insult to her courage would have been a very bad way to start the next wave.

Free Rasalhague Republic, D-1204 System, unnamed asteroid, June 5th, 3050

"Installing supply depots behind the enemy lines! It would be far quicker and less wasteful to simply shoot us instead!"

Harten rolled his eyes; Junis was always complaining. If she were not so good at her job, she would have been sent to a less prestigious posting long ago - or sent home to instruct children or something. "We are in an uninhabited system without any value. No one will find us here." D-1204 had been surveyed extensively during the days of the Star League, and no resources that would make settling and developing it had been found, after all. "You know what the Khan said - thanks to our work, the touman will be able to outpace our rivals." Clan Wolf would be the first to reach Terra and become the il-Clan. And Harten would be among those who achieved this. The Merchants of Clan Wolf would be honoured for their contribution to the cause.

He heard Junis snort over the radio. He knew she was not fully behind Operation Revival, but the Clan was committed now, and everyone had to do their part. "Do you know what I think?" she asked.


"I think we were sent out here to build a supply depot on a piece of rock without atmosphere because the Warriors failed to pacify the occupied worlds where we should have been building this depot." Junis scoffed.

"This system is just one jump from the targets of the next wave," Harten retorted. "We can move supplies much faster from here."

She ignored him. "Did you hear how they let half the enemy infantry escape again despite explicit orders to destroy them? No wonder we cannot step a foot outside the bases without getting shot at!"

He rolled his eyes inside his suit. Junis would be complaining for quite a while, he knew it well. But, at least, she would be working as hard as she was complaining. Which meant they would - probably - make their deadline.

Unless Junis started complaining where some of the few warriors serving as their escorts could overhear her. That wouldn't end well.

'Operation Revival, as the Clans called their invasion, was one of the biggest logistical challenges in the history of mankind's militaries. From their homeworlds, they had to travel over a thousand light-years to reach the Inner Sphere. Even with an ideal route, it would take over thirty jumps. The number of JumpShips required to carry the invading force and keep it supplied is staggering. Nevertheless, the operation was not quite as foolhardy as some claim. The Clans didn't attempt to resupply their forces from their homeworlds, but spent months before the invasion shipping supplies to extensive depots in the Periphery, significantly reducing their supply lines and creating staging areas for their forces. Clan Wolf went as far as moving a factory station to the Periphery to support their invasion. That even the stockpiles of the Clans who prepared for a costly, lengthy campaign proved to be inadequate was not solely or even primarily due to their overconfidence and arrogance, but the result of faulty intelligence.

The last reports the Clans had received from their spies in the Inner Sphere dated back to the Third Succession War when limited raids and skirmishes rather than large-scale operations were the norm. If the Clans had invaded in the 3020s, before the Federated Commonwealth, followed by the other realms, used the Helm Library Core to greatly increase JumpShip production to both improve the logistics and strategic mobility of their forces, the Clans' estimations would have likely been on the mark. That didn't help them, of course, when their supplies started to run out and their only sources for more were either a thousand light-years away, occupied planets with a hostile population, or an overworked factory station which soon started to run out of resources.

- Excerpt from the term paper 'Logistics of the Clan Invasion' by Cadet Mark Hammond, NAIS, New Avalon, 3069

'We've all heard a variant or three of the saying that amateurs study tactics and professionals study logistics. It's not wrong, but the problem during the invasion was that the Clans were damn good tacticians and that their OmniMechs were far easier to maintain than anything we had since they could swap out almost all parts between all their 'Mechs. It goes without saying that logistics are much easier to handle when you don't have to stock and ship hundreds of different parts for each different model in every unit, but can use a single stockpile for most of your needs. Makes it easier to train your techs as well. That, far more than the ability to swap weapons for different missions, was the real advantage of the OmniMechs.'

- Warrant-Officer Cyril Hagelmeier, AFFC, retired

Federated Commonwealth, Ridderkerk, Eastern Ridge, July 3rd, 3050

Finally worthy opponents! Ralik grinned as his Star advanced towards the ridge held by the 1st Lyran Regulars. Explosions shook the earth to his left - two hundred metres distance, his computer informed him, most likely an artillery barrage. Ralik agreed with the assessment - so far, the freebirths' aerospace elements had been neutralised. It looked like the new commander of the Cluster's Binary Fighter had turned the unit around and would do everything to restore their reputation. And now his Star would break through the enemy lines and savage their rear area.

"Alpha Assault Star, increase speed and follow me before they can adjust their fire! We will enter that ravine; it will shelter us from more artillery fire until we reach the enemy position."

Ralik pressed his lips together as he heard Brell's order. It made sense - the Lyran RCT had far more artillery than the Drakøns and other units in the Republic had had, and the Lion's Roar had not yet managed to silence them all - but the Lyran Regulars were supposed to be a line unit of the strongest power of the Inner Sphere power; they were unlikely to overlook the danger the ravine presented.

"Neg Star Commander!" Tian said. "I picked up a possible contact there. Taking a closer look."

Ralik held his breath, but Brell did not censure Tian for her comment. "Scout while we approach!" he ordered her curtly - as if she were not already doing exactly that.

Brell led the rest of the Star towards their left, apparently counting on the fact that the freebirths were unlikely to fire on the same coordinates. He turned out to be right - the next barrage hit the area behind them.

"Dug in infantry in the ravine," Tian reported. "Two… three platoons."

"Clear the way for us, 'MechWarrior," Brell ordered.

"Aff." Tian did not hesitate. Ralik had not expected her to - the narrow ravine would make for a difficult battle against prepared infantry, but her Ice Ferret's missiles had been swapped for a pair of machine guns.

Halfway to the ravine, the artillery fire, which had been following them, once catching Lionel's 'Mech in a blast that shredded the armour on his left side, suddenly started to become less accurate - Tian must have eliminated the spotters.

"The ravine has been cleared," she reported as they caught up to her at the end of the gorge.

"Your 'Mech suffered damage, 'MechWarrior," Brell stated the obvious - the freebirth infantry had died well.

"It remains operational," Tian replied, a little stiffly. She must not have forgotten the Star Commander's past remarks, Ralik realised.

"The freebirths will start shelling our position soon," Sepha remarked. It was not quite an admonishment, but it could be taken as such.

"Alpha Assault Star, follow me - we will take the ridge!" Brell put his Mad Dog into a sprint at once.

They had not received confirmation that Bravo and Charlie Assault Stars were in position, but the Star Commander had given an order, and assaulting the enemy was what the Cluster did. Ralik and the others fell in behind Brell, forming a loose wedge.

Artillery fire started to cover the ground between them and the enemy, but they pushed through with little damage taken - though Ralik's Timber Wolf again lost the armour on its arm.

"Enemy 'Mechs moving on top of the ridge," Tian reported. Ralik glanced at his display as he weaved through a rougher spot on the ground. Two ZEU-6T, TDR-5SS, GRF-1N, SHD-2H, two COM-2D, HCT-3F - what? Ralik glanced at the symbol, then remembered the model - an abomination carrying a hatchet. As if the freebirths were not barbaric enough already!

"Tian, take the GRF-1N. Sepha, engage the ZEU-6T on the left. Lionel, TDR-5SS. Ralik, SHD-2H. I shall face the lead ZEU-6T."

Ralik clenched his teeth. It was the Star Commander's prerogative to assign targets, if the situation allowed it, but… An SHD-2H? Well, Ralik would dispatch it quickly and engage another BattleMech.

The enemy did not advance, preferring to hold the high ground. I would not help them. As soon as his target was in range, Ralik fired his Timber Wolf's large lasers, followed a few seconds later by the LRMs. He kept firing as he sprinted up the slope, and the freebirths started to shoot back - but not at him. They were focusing on the Star Commander! Again! And judging by the sheer volume of fire, they had to be running double heat sinks.

"Star Commander, they do not respect zellbrigen," Ralik said. He could not tell Brell to fall back and let others draw fire until the enemy lances were engaged.

"We do!" Brell snapped.

Ralik clenched his teeth and kept advancing. Some enemies were shifting their fire to him - trying to hit his damaged arm, he noticed. Snarling, he pushed on. The SHD-2H had shifted its fire as well, but too late to make a difference - Ralik's weapons had shredded and melted the enemy's armour in multiple places. His Timber Wolf staggered as the two COM-2D focused on him, and one of his lasers was struck, but he easily compensated and kept running, making most of their salvos miss. Ralik's, though, didn't, and one of his missiles torched off the SHD-1S's ammunition. The enemy BattleMech was thrown to the ground from the force of the explosion, and Ralik turned to engage the closest COM-2D. Another full barrage spiked his heat but destroyed the light BattleMech outright as its engine lost containment.

The other COM-2D proved to be a coward and fled down the slope. Ralik glanced at his display - there might be worthier foes still standing around… He cursed.

Brell's Mad Dog was staggering under the fire of his chosen enemy, missing one arm and most of its armour. Sepha was about to finish off her enemy, but Lionel's was still standing - but he was facing both the TDR-5SS and the HCT-3F. Ralik moved his crosshairs over the ZEU-6T which was advancing towards Brell but hesitated. Zellbrigen. But the enemy had focused on Brell...

Then Brell's Mad Dog lost a leg and fell, triggering an ammunition explosion. Despite the CASE, the OmniMech vanished in a ball of plasma. Brell did not manage to eject.

Cursing the enemy, and, even more, his own hesitation, Ralik fired all weapons he had at the ZEU-6T. The Lyran turned to face him, returning fire, but Brell had died well - the BattleMech's armour was breached in several places, and Ralik's fire soon started to tell.

But others were not faring as well, he realised after a glance at his display. The COM-2D that had retreated had returned and attacked Lionel as well. Three versus one, those cowards! Ralik fired everything he had, ignoring how the heat spiked again - he had to finish the ZEU-6T quickly!

Sepha beat him to it, though, disabling her opponent with a headshot and turning to support Lionel by dispatching the COM-2D with two salvos.

It was too late to save Lionel, though - he managed to down the TDR-5SS with his next barrage, but then the HCT-3F's hatchet smashed into the Gargoyle's back. The OmniMech dropped like a drunk pilot as its gyro was destroyed, but Ralik saw Lionel ejecting.

He finished the ZEU-6T at the same time Sepha finished the HCT-3F.

"No enemies left in range," Tian reported as her Ice Ferret rejoined them. Her fight had taken her away from the rest of the Star. She had won, of course, but had taken further damage - her OmniMech was limping, and the arm she used to pick up Lionel was all but shredded.

Two OmniMechs lost, including the Star Commanders, against two enemy lances! Ralik ground his teeth - the rest of the Trinary, and, even worse, the Failing Lions, would mock them for this!

"Artillery fire incoming!" Tian's warning interrupted his thoughts.

He pushed the Timber Wolf forward - they could not stay here! Explosions bracketed him and he had to struggle to keep his balance as the already damaged arm was torn away by a close impact.

Despite its limp, Tian's Ice Ferret pulled ahead, racing towards the enemy's rear - as they had been ordered to before the battle. Ralik and Sepha followed her, all of them quickly outdistancing the enemy fire even before it ended.

Then an explosion ripped off the Ice Ferret's damaged leg, sending the BattleMech crashing to the ground, which triggered another explosion that blew through its torso.

"Mines on the road. BattleMech immobilised. Requesting pick-up for two, one wounded," Tian reported calmly as Sepha cursed up a storm.

Free Rasalhague Republic, Rasalhague System, July 15th, 3050

"The enemy is approaching. You know your orders. Pick your targets and make them rue the day they dared to attack our home!"

Korpral Lasse Smith, late of the 2nd Drakøns, now part of the 1st Special Aerospace Regiment, nodded, snarling as he heard Överste Ahl's announcement. He and Eila had been waiting for this. Finally, they could avenge their comrades!

He nudged his stick a little, testing the Shilone's response - the fighter still felt a little sluggish after the hasty alterations done to it in the last few weeks. But it worked, and that was all that counted.

His display lit up with enemy contacts - three dozen DropShips. Twice that number of enemy fighters screening them. They were approaching slowly, seemingly without a care.

They would learn better. Today. No matter the cost.

The 1st Drakøns and the other fighters assigned to cover Lasse's unit accelerated to meet the oncoming enemies. He saw the symbols on the radar starting to move around seemingly erratically. Then they began to vanish from his display.

"Special Regiment - Go!"

Lasse pushed the stick forward, accelerating as fast as his Shilone managed. Eila stuck to his wing, as usual, as they entered the furball that had developed between them and the enemy dropships. He saw one enemy fighter trailing smoke, and had to resist the urge to roll and swoop in, killing it. He had a more important mission.

"Vengeance-One, targeting Overlord Beta," he announced as soon as he got a fix on the giant dropship leading the enemy's invading force. "Secondary target: Overlord Alpha."

"Vengeance-Two, copy," Eila answered.

"Vengeance-Three, copy."

"Vengeance-Four, copy."

Lasse focused on the approaching Overlord, adjusting his course to gain the best angle. He trusted Eila to watch his back.

An enemy heavy fighter made a pass at them, but one of the 1st Drakøns shot it down before it could do significant damage. Another came at them head-on, and Vengeance-Three vanished in a fireball.

Then they were in range of the dropships' guns. Lasers, shells and particle bolts flew at them. Lasse's Shilone suffered several hits, but none of them crippling - he was still on course. But Vengeance-Four was caught in a crossfire and sent tumbling into space with its right wing sheared off.

Lasse didn't care. There was the Overlord. He lined his ship up and flipped the cover off the trigger as the combat computer made the last adjustments. More fire hit his fighters, wrecking weapons - he didn't care. All he needed, all he wanted was to hit his enemy. And that meant getting as close as he could - he could not afford to miss his shot.

Another hit almost made him lose control of his craft, but he managed it.

Then he was so close, he couldn't miss. He pulled the trigger and then rolled away, followed by Eila.

A moment later, nuclear fire consumed the dropship.

Lasse yelled in triumph. "Take that! Take that!" he shouted. "We did it! Overlord-Beta down! We did it, Eila!"

Eila didn't answer. He turned his head and saw her killer coming at him a moment before the PPCs converged on his cockpit.

'The Free Rasalhague Republic was created after the Fifth Succession War, when the Draconis Combine realised that the insurgencies originally started by the IFS to slow down the AFFC's offensive continued even after these worlds had been retaken by the DCMS and that they would now be facing the exact same problem they had created - and that the longer those insurrections went on, the more the AFFC would be tempted to invade again. Instead of spending troops and resources on a costly counter-insurgency campaign while trying to rebuild their forces facing the AFFC, Theodore Kurita decided to create a buffer state, shortening the Combine's borders and costing the Federated Commonwealth worlds of their own as the Rasalhague people on both sides of the border were swept up in a wave of nationalism.

However, the new Republic never had any illusions about the fact that if either the Draconis Combine or the Federated Commonwealth would invade them or try to pass through the Republic's space, the other would intervene and turn the entire Republic into a war zone. It was also clear that if they wanted to avoid that fate, they had to put up a credible deterrent. However, the Republic lacked the industrial capacity and the finances to enough regiments to achieve that aim. Further, turning every planet into a potential quagmire of insurrections and guerrilla warfare was deemed insufficient given the lack of strategic depth of the realm.

Faced with this dilemma, the Republic came up with what was later coined the 'Taurian Strategy', even though at no point - contrary to rumours - Taurian advisors were actually hired, and built up a nuclear arsenal, announcing their intention to use it as soon as the Republic's existence was seriously threatened.

Accordingly, the 'special weapons' were used when Clan Wolf attacked the Republic's capital. However, they were not as effective as the Republic leadership had hoped for, as the invaders quickly adapted to the attacks - and retaliated.'

- Excerpt from 'The Free Rasalhague Republic: A Brief History' by Dr Jane Farmer, Tharkad, 3099

'What did those bloody fools expect when they used nukes? Didn't they study history? Of course, the Clans would adapt to the attacks quickly - everyone would. And obviously, they would retaliate. And because of those damned idiots, everyone suddenly had to fear WMDs again! If the idiots responsible for this hadn't been killed on Rasalhague, I'd have shot them myself!'

- Kommandant Marius Manstein, AFFC, retired

Federated Commonwealth (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Ridderkerk, July 20th, 3050

Ralik carefully manoeuvred his Timber Wolf back into its berth in the hangar, then shut the OmniMech down and got out on the catwalk connecting the Timber Wolf's cockpit. "How did it perform?" the technician waiting there asked.

"Adequately," Ralik answered - the test ride had not revealed any trouble. "When will the left machine gun be replaced?"

"Ah…" the woman cringed a little and Ralik clenched his teeth.

"When will my BattleMech be fully combat ready again? You were ordered to completely repair it, quiaff?"

"Aff," the technician answered. "But we did not receive enough spare pods. Every 'MechWarrior wants machine guns, and since your Timber Wolf has one already…"

"...you decided to disobey your order and leave me with a BattleMech that is not fully ready for combat?" Ralik snarled.

"It was not my decision, 'MechWarrior!" she blurted out. "The Star Colonel ordered the available machine gun pods distributed evenly among all Stars."

Ralik pressed his lips together. If that had been the Star Colonel's decision… It made sense, in a way - they were still dealing with insurgents, and well-equipped ones - some of the stravag scum had managed to damage his BattleMech in an ambush. He had massacred them, of course, but once again, his BattleMech's right arm had been damaged, and he had lost a machine gun.

But as much as he wanted, he could not blame the technician for obeying the Star Colonel. He nodded curtly and went to join the others of his Star on the ground.

But when he reached the area they had appropriated for themselves, he only found Sepha there. Star Commander Sepha - she had been promoted after the battle to replace Brell. "Where is Tian?" he asked.

"Still testing her Kit Fox." Sepha shrugged. "She has not piloted that model before, and so she needs more time to get used to it."

Ralik nodded. He was certain that Tian would have mastered the OmniMech in time for their next battle. He had some doubts about the model, though. "She should have been assigned a Hellbringer if there was no Ice Ferret available," he said as he took a seat on the battered couch they had taken from the barracks of the 1st Lyran Regulars. The Kit Fox had half the armour of an Ice Ferret and was slower as well.

Sepha shrugged. "There was no Hellbringer available. Not after Rasalhague."

Ralik clenched his teeth. Almost two complete Clusters lost when the honourless scum had used nuclear missiles against their dropships! Almost a hundred warriors dead without having been able to fight back! "Death was too good for those criminals," he muttered.

"We can only hope that the rest of the stravag scum has learned their lesson," Sepha said, "and will not attempt this again."

Ralik nodded. The Clan's flagship, the Dire Wolf, had struck at Rasalhague in retaliation, wiping out the defenders with orbital bombardments. That had allowed the Cloan to take the planet, but it had not brought back the warriors lost. "And it happened in front of the ilKhan, too," he said. The greatest loss in the operation so far, among all participating Clans - and the Smoke Jaguars had been watching!

Sepha snorted. "He has no reason to gloat - his own Clan suffered similar casualties in their attempt to outdo us."

"But they conquered more worlds, quiaff?" Ralik had no friend in the Watch, but he had read the reports.

"Aff. But they will not be able to keep that up in the next wave. Their supply situation is worse than ours."

"And we took Rasalhague," Ralik said, nodding. The first capital of the Inner Sphere, taken by his Clan!

"What is left of it, in any case," Sepha said. "I guess our warship crew were a little too happy to finally be able to use their guns on real targets and overdid it," she added with a smirk.

Ralik snorted. He doubted that - but that was Sepha; not even the promotion to Star Commander had changed her attitude. He ignored the brief spark of jealousy he still felt; he had destroyed more enemy BattleMechs than Sepha, yet she had been promoted. But he would not challenge her for her position - not even if it were still allowed.

"How is Lionel doing?" he asked.

"He will be returning tomorrow," she replied. "But I do not think he will have an OmniMech available yet."

And since they had not received a replacement 'MechWarrior either, that would mean their Assault Star was at half-strength. Not that they needed more to deal with the insurgents on the planet, but if they had to fight a real battle…

"Losses have been heavier than expected," Sepha said. "At least the other Clans are in the same state as we are - and they were not attacked with nuclear weapons."

Ralik grunted in agreement. It was a small consolation, but he would take what he could. And he hoped there would be no more nuclear strikes. It was the worst way to die as a 'MechWarror - apart from dying as a washed-out, useless old relic whose genes would not be passed on, of course. Which brought up another thing. He grabbed a can with some Inner Sphere beer - surprisingly good; better than most beer the Clan labourers brewed - and leaned forward. "Will you fight in one of the Trials of Bloodright?"

Sepha frowned. "You have not heard yet, quineg?"


"Trials of Bloodright have been suspended for the duration of the Operation."

"What?" Ralik was on his feet, the can dropping to the ground. "What?" This could not be true!

Sepha nodded. "Apparently, the Clan cannot afford to lose more warriors to trials while we are still fighting the Inner Sphere."

"But…" Ralik shook his head. His legacy! His chance at immortality! How could the Khan deny him, anyone, that chance? "We should challenge this!"

She put her hand on his shoulder. "I do not like it either, but the Khan has a point. Each trial costs us about ten warriors. And with the number of Bloodnamed warriors we lost to those cowards…"

Ralik hissed. They would lose another two Cluster's worth of warriors. They could not afford that.

But even as he nodded and sat down again, grabbing another can, he wondered if they were not losing something even more important.

Free Rasalhague Republic, D-1204 System, July 25th, 3050

"Precentor, I believe I have a contact at the nadir jump point."

"Can you identify it?" Precentor Angela Stahl asked as she stood and walked over to the sensor station on the bridge. If a Clan warship had jumped in, the CSV Knowledge Is Power might be in trouble - the modified Vincent-class corvette had sacrificed a lot of firepower for enhanced sensors and a stealth system, and they didn't know how their stealth systems would fare when facing the Clan ships.

"Based on the sensor data, it looks like a Scout-class or the Clan equivalent."

Angela rubbed her chin. Neither the jumpship nor the single dropship it could carry would be a threat to her ship - unless they used nukes. "Ready the fighters but don't launch them. Keep observing the contact."

"Receiving K-1 transmissions," Signals reported.

So the Scout had a Black Box. That indicated an Inner Sphere ship - the Clans would have acquired the technology by now; it was fairly common among the Inner Sphere Militaries after all, but Angela hadn't heard that they had put it to use yet. "Can you identify the code?"

"It's not certain, but it looks like the current DCMS naval code, Precentor."

Which ComStar hadn't yet cracked. She nodded. "It seems we're not the only ones who found the Clan supply depot in this system."

"They have launched a dropship - Leopard Class. Leopard-CV," Sensors reported.

As she had expected - this was a strike by the DCMS against enemy supply depots. Angela returned to her seat. "Keep observing and plot a course to the nearest pirate jump point. I want to be ready to leave the system in case Clan warships appear in response to the attack."

With a little bit of luck, she might be able to observe not just the combine dropship in action, but the Clans as well. With their diplomatic mission returned and the ComStar enclaves on the verge of evacuating, the Order needed all the intel it could get.

That was why the Knowledge Is Power and her sister ships had been moved from their usual haunts to the Clan Occupation Zones - gathering intel on the Clans was far more important than spying on the Successor States.

The Order knew that Terra was the ultimate goal of the Clan invasion, after all. And every bit of information would help improve the defences protecting Humanity's Cradle. Especially information about their warships, since the battle would be decided in space. The Precentor Martial was trying his best since his return, but the ground forces simply weren't ready for war.

Angela almost envied her comrades in the home fleet - they would fight the first real naval battle in centuries. But she had her own battle to fight - without her information, her comrades might very well lose despite being supported by the most powerful automated defence system the Inner Sphere had ever seen.

'The Third Wave of Operation Revival wasn't quite the turning point, as some scholars claim, but the losses the four involved Clans suffered were serious enough to force them to delay the next wave, granting the Inner Sphere desperately needed time to redeploy their forces to meet the Fourth Wave. It wasn't the use of nuclear weapons that stopped the Clans either, but the fact that they were consuming their supplies at a much faster rate than originally planned, and that they would end up overextended and vulnerable long before they reached Terra if they continued according to their schedule.

As a result, a race started between the Clans' merchant caste hurrying to resupply their toumans and the logistic branches of the DCMS and the AFFC moving their best units from the borders to the invasion corridor.'

- Excerpt from 'The Clan Invasion: Their Finest Hour' by Hank G. Johnson, New Avalon Military Journal, 3075

'When I heard that we were ordered to pack up and move to Lyran space, I wondered what our leaders had been smoking. Exposing our border to the snakes just because the Steiners were too inept to deal with some jumped-up Periphery power? Of course, after we actually met the Clans, I knew better.'

- Corporal James Urquhart, 17th Avalon Hussars RCT, retired