AUTHOR'S NOTES: Someone actually reviewed this story recently, and reminded me that I have a terrible tendency to leave stories unfinished here on No excuse with this story, since I finished it a long time ago. So here's more of the Snowbird Saga; enjoy and R&R, please.

Sudeten Operations Area Headquarters

Sudeten, Tamar March, Federated Commonwealth

20 July 3050

"Twycross?" Sheila whispered. "Why there? I mean, aside from the fact that it has a big 'Mech factory."

"It's a hellhole. I've been there. Constant dust storms, huge hurricanes…what they call dust devils other planets call tornadoes." Max Canis-Vlata leaned back in his chair. "Anyhow, that's the rumor." He looked around the room. The two of them were early, and they were the only ones there. It was a windowless, ferrocrete chamber, in which ten chairs were gathered around a table and a circular holotank. "Sheila, why are we here? We're nobody."

"I don't know, Max. Maybe somebody doesn't think so. We do have more experience than most people against the Clans. We've fought 'em twice, on Persistence and Rasalhague. Most units have only fought the Clans once."

"Mainly because they didn't survive it," Max observed dryly.

"Just hope we're not window dressing."

The door opened, and Victor Steiner-Davion walked in, followed by Kai Allard-Liao, Morgan Hasek-Davion, and Christian Kell. Victor and Kai were the same age—nineteen—as Sheila and Max, whereas Christian was in his late twenties, and Morgan a contemporary of their fathers'. Both Sheila and Max jumped to attention, feeling very, very unimportant. Victor Steiner-Davion was heir to the throne of the Federated Commonwealth, and could one day be very possibly the most powerful man in the Inner Sphere. Kai Allard-Liao was also an heir, though to the tiny St. Ives Compact, and his father was the head of the FedCom's intelligence service. Morgan Hasek-Davion was the commanding officer of the entire Armed Forces of the Federated Commonwealth. Christian Kell was merely a major in the service of his uncle's regiment, the famous Kell Hounds, but his father was the legendary Patrick Kell, regarded as one of the ten best MechWarriors in history.

Victor came around the table and shook hands with Max, then hugged Sheila fiercely. "How the hell are you guys?" he gushed. "We heard the Sentinels got in it on Persistence, and I wondered if you two had made it!" He stepped back and looked at Sheila's Commonwealth Star with a grin. "Damn. You move pretty fast, classmate."

Sheila smiled back. "We heard you were in the crap on Trellwan, too. Glad to hear you made it out." Sheila and Max had both attended the Nagelring in the same class as Victor, the Class of 3050. Max did not know the young prince very well, but Sheila had struck up a friendship with him. Victor had kept himself aloof from most of his class, not wanting to get by on the strength of his name, nor wanting sycophants. Still, when pitted against Victor, many students had lost deliberately either in a vain attempt to curry favor or in fear, though Victor had won most of his scenarios by skill. Sheila, however, had beaten Victor soundly, and treated him like any other student. She too had been aloof, but not by choice—mercenary daughters were not popular at a high-class academy like House Steiner's Nagelring. The two had gotten to be friends because neither had too many to begin with. Sheila had to mask the fact that she once had nursed a terrible crush on the prince, though at six feet, she towered over Victor, who stood only five foot four.

Kai too walked over to shake hands warmly with both of them. Max knew Kai better; both had done a semester at the New Avalon Military Academy in Davionspace, though they knew each other only because they had fleeting contact in shared classes. Morgan and Christian were more professional in their greetings.

They took their seats. Max turned to Kai. "Have you been in action yet, Kai?"

"Not yet. Probably not for awhile, either. My 'Mech was held up in transit. If we go into action anytime soon, I'll guess I'll have to watch." He tried to make it a joke, but it came out flat. No MechWarrior liked to be dispossessed, even for a short time, and Kai, whose birthright seemed a burden on him, wanted to uphold the honor of his family.

"I told you not to worry about it," Victor said. "I'll get you a 'Mech. It won't be your daddy's Centurion, but at least you'll have a 'Mech."

"Take a Hatchetman," Max suggested. "I used one on Rasalhague, and it's pretty good. No long-range missiles like your Centurion, but that hatchet makes up for it at close range." Max sighed. "Though it's not as good as a Battlemaster."

Sheila felt sorry for Max. He had received his mother's assault 'Mech as a graduation present, then had it shot out from under him on Persistence. The depression of Max and Kai hung like a blanket over that side of the table, but then the general attitude was grim.

"Everybody here?" Morgan Hasek-Davion said. He was a big man, well-built with a mane of red hair. He consulted his notes, made a few marks, and looked up again. "Good. Lance Commander Arla-Vlata, Lance Commander Canis-Vlata, you're probably wondering what you're doing here. We've come up with the idea of a Junior Officers' Strategy Group to find some ways of dealing with the Clans. The sad fact is, the tactics we've been using for years aren't even slowing them down. So we've got to come up with new ones. The problem is, a lot of us old farts—" the joke brought a gale of laughter "—tend to be set in our ways. Hence, the need for new blood.

"The two of you may not feel like much, being around all these titles and ranks and stuff. Don't worry about it." He took off his uniform jacket and tossed it nonchalantly on a chair next to him. "We're not wearing any rank in this room. I'm not General Hasek-Davion, I'm Morgan. We don't have time for 'Your Grace,' 'Your Highness,' and all that. And there's the plain fact that the two of you have more experience than anyone else in this room. With the exception of Victor, you're the only ones who have actually fought the Clans, and you're the only ones, without exception, who have fought them twice. So don't be shy. The purpose of the JSOG is to come up with new ideas and tactics. No matter how off the wall or screwed-up they might seem. Clear?"

"Yes, sir," Sheila and Max answered at the same time.

"I said, don't call me sir. Call me Morgan." He grinned at them. "I've met your parents. They don't smooch ass, so don't you start." He checked his notes again. "We've got two things on the agenda today. The first is offensive moves against the Clans, as in, where do we counterattack? The second is, countermeasures, so that when we do counterattack, we win." He punched a key on the holotank. A map of the Inner Sphere's coreward sector, where the Clans had struck, rezzed into life. The younger MechWarriors remembered their cartographical lessons at the Nagelring and at NAMA; there, a coreward map would consist of mostly yellow for the Federated Commonwealth, red for House Kurita's Draconis Combine, and in the middle the purple of the Free Rasalhague Republic. There were also realms on the Inner Sphere's Periphery, usually marked in gray, consisting of various independent republics, freeholds, and pirate havens.

The Periphery realms were gone. Moving into the larger realms was a multicolored wedge that had turned the roughly circular Inner Sphere into a fat crescent. Morgan pulled out a collapsible pointer and touched various points of the holomap. "Green for the Jade Falcons, brown for the Wolves, light blue for the Ghost Bears, and gray for the Smoke Jaguars. That's the four Clans we've identified. We don't know if there's more of them.

"So far, we've lost most of Trellshire, on the line Newtown Square-Blackjack-Twycross-Mozrije. Most of our losses have come from the Jade Falcons, though the Wolves have taken a hell of a bite out of us, too. Not as much as they've done to Rasalhague, though. They took Rasalhague, as you know. They didn't get the FRR's President or most of the Riksdat, but we think they may have captured or killed General Mansdotter, the Kungsarme commander. If that's true, I don't know how long the FRR's going to be able to hold. The Combine's taken a hit, too, mostly from the Bears and the Jaguars." Morgan leaned across the table, laying the pointer flat. "The Jags haven't had everything their own way, though. Apparently a lot of the Combine worlds overrun now have significant resistance movements. We've learned one of them on Turtle Bay managed to smuggle Hohiro Kurita offworld, after he was captured."

Sheila saw Victor blanch. He had come within a hairsbreadth of being captured himself, and it was unsettling to know that the Combine had nearly lost their heir. "Bully for them," Sheila said.

"Kind of. After Hohiro escaped, the Jaguars lost it. They razed most of Turtle Bay's cities to the ground, using orbital bombardment. Nuclear weapons."

"Holy shit," Max breathed. Nuclear weapons had not been used in the Inner Sphere since the First Succession War. They had been more or less banned by the Ares Conventions, and no nation had dared to use them since the horrors of the early Succession War period. The Clans, apparently, had no such qualms. "How are we going to stop that? If they're just going to nuke us if we win, what's the point?"

"We have to try," Morgan replied. "Let's toss out possibilities for a counterattack. Nothing huge; we're not planning Normandy here. Let's settle for Sicily."

"Well," Kai began, "there are several possibilities on a wide front like this. I'd say Blackjack. It's close to the front, we've got units pretty close already, and there's an active resistance on the world."

"Or so we've heard," Victor replied. "That was two weeks ago. The Jade Falcons might have already run them down."

Morgan Hasek-Davion held up a hand. "People, let's just get some ideas going. We can pick them apart later."

Victor spoke up. "I'd go with Twycross. There's a 'Mech factory there, and we need that back. The bad weather will give us a better chance against their range advantage. It's close to the front, and there's an active resistance there, too. Besides that, the Clan garrison is not likely to be enjoying their stay. It might lead to a drop in morale that we can exploit." There were a few nods around the table.

"Blackjack and Twycross then," Morgan said. "Anyone else?"

"Planting," Sheila said. She reached over and took Morgan's pointer. "Can I borrow this? Thanks. Planting's an agriculturally rich planet, lots of water—a good supply base. And if we take it, we'll be like a machinegun in a shopping cart."

"A what?" At least four of them asked the question.

"Able to point anywhere," Sheila explained. "It's like the central position in a Napoleonic sense. From there we can hit just about anywhere in Trellshire or the FRR."

"It's also a good distance behind the lines," Christian Kell said. "How do we keep it supplied?"

"Lots of ways. We can use uninhabited systems for supply caches and recharge points. We can use secondary operations to better secure lines of supply. For the time being, the force could live off the land. By being behind the lines, the Clans have to pull frontline units back to deal with us. That weakens their front line, and then we hit them there…it could have a snowball effect."

"I don't know about the living off the land," Victor said. "This isn't Napoleonic times. We can't live off the land anymore."

"I say we can," Sheila replied.

"You willing to risk your life on that?"

"I'm here, aren't I?"

Morgan got to his feet. "Sheila, you've made your point. Planting would be a good choice—for a future operation. You're planning for a big operation with plenty of follow-ups. Right now, we can't do it. We're still rushing units to just stabilize the front. Maybe I should have clarified this better. What we're going for is more a spoiling attack than anything else. Get them reacting to us for a change, disrupt the pace of the offensive. Plus we've got to build up some morale on the home front. We've still got reputable publications saying that we're under alien invasion here—real 'War of the Worlds' stuff."

"I see," Sheila said. She handed the pointer back to Morgan. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It's a good plan, and we'll definitely keep it in mind. Any other suggestions?" There were none. "All right. Blackjack and Twycross then."

"What about a simutaneous attack?" Christian suggested. "Hit both at the same time."

"Not a bad idea, but the Prince wants to try and keep a two to one advantage in numbers if we can. This one on one stuff is eating us up."

Victor leaned forward. "How about this, then—one of the attacks is a feint, basically a raid. The second is the real thing. The Clans won't know which is which, and by the time they get solid information, we can consolidate."

"I like that," Sheila said. "They also won't know if this is the beginning of a counteroffensive. I don't think the Clans have very good intelligence. They always ask who's defending the world. Now it could be that they just are trying to see if we're lying, but I think they actually don't know. If they really are from beyond the known Periphery, they won't have the same kind of intelligence nets that the Houses do."

"I think Sheila's right," Max spoke up, for the first time. "When we were on Rasalhague, we intercepted some of the Wolves' transmissions. They seemed geniunely surprised that the Sentinels were onplanet. They also seemed kind of miffed—like it was a private war between them and the Kungsarme, and we were interfering."

Victor snapped his fingers. "Yeah, we ran into something like that on Trellwan, too. They don't use pack tactics like we do. They pick individual targets. If they outnumber a force, the rest of them hang back until a target is available. Even when we gang up on a target, they don't. That's cost them a couple of 'Mechs. That's a huge advantage for us if we can exploit it. The trouble is, by the time we close in on them, they've already ripped us up at long range."

"The Wolves didn't do that on Rasalhague," Sheila said to Max. "They tried to gang-bang Mimi Stykkis." Her cheeks colored when she realized what she had said, but the others merely nodded, understanding the MechWarrior euphemism for pack tactics. Sheila realized she actually had forgotten the weight of brass in the room, and merely saw Hasek-Davion, Kell, and the others as fellow MechWarriors. It was almost as if they were talking over a beer in a bar.

"They might be adapting to us, too," Morgan said. "The Wolves seem to be a bit less traditional than the other Clans. God knows they certainly seem to be more willing to chance things. Rasalhague was a planet I wouldn't have wanted to try on." He leaned back in his chair. "This is good stuff. Let's get down to brass tacks. How do we win?" He looked over at Christian. "Chris, give the cafeteria a call. We're going to be here awhile."