Prologue

After the Fed Com civil war, there were many ex-Davion and ex-Steiner soldiers who left their respective armies for one reason or another. Many could not abide following the orders of superiors who had fought on the 'other side' during the war. Some were disillusioned by the vicious fighting and atrocities committed on both sides. Yet others left because they were tired of constant war and sought easy duty.

This led to a huge increase in the number of mercenaries seeking employment on Outreach and Galatea. Due to the Star League's recent détente with the Clans after the Great Refusal, there were not many opportunities for a mercenary to gain employment. The skirmishes on the Jade Falcon/Lyran Commonwealth border were decidedly low key as both militaries tried to rebuild their forces.

Even the Chaos March had calmed down following the end of the civil war. Most of the worlds had already been claimed by either the resurgent Capellan Confederation, the Federated Suns, or the Word of Blake.
This led to the two mercenary strongholds of Outreach and Galatea to becoming crowded with whole battalions of mercenaries who have nowhere to go.

It was on Outreach, in a rather insignificant bar, that our tale began…

Temptown, Harlech City,

Outreach, Chaos March,

02nd November, 3067

"Hear me! Hear me!" A scruffy looking man with long blond hair shouted in the Drunken Shadows Bar, trying to get attention.

He yelled, "There's rumors of star league lostech in the deep periphery, far from the states and the blasted clans, on a world 60 light years from the Marian Hegemony!"

"And I have been there! I saw incredible stuff on that world! There was, like, mountains of tech you have never imagined, things of wonder even the clans may not have," the man blustered.

The bar patrons, who had been politely listening to the man, shook their heads and turned away to carry on their own activities. They had heard many stories of lostech, and this one was nothing new to them. Most of these tales and rumors were just that, red herrings which only the most desperate mercs would attempt to follow.

The man tried to get their attention again. "Hey, look! I can prove it! I did get there, and I did not leave without a souvenir. Take a look at this!" With that, he brought out a device shaped like a baton and waved it around like a band master.

The bar patrons were getting irritated at the man's antics, and many of them were in no mood to indulge obvious drunken maniacs in their fantasies. One thin man, dressed in a torn uniform of the FWLM, moved up to the man to punch him into unconsciousness.

As he walked up, however, the man with the baton pointed it at the former Marik soldier, and shouted, "Hey! Someone has volunteered for a demonstration!" With that, he depressed a button on the baton.

The next thing the occupants of the bar knew, the Marik soldier was flat on his back, knocked out and smoke coming out of his clothes. There was not a single mark or wound on his body, however, on closer examination. All they could recall was a bright flash, a stream of blue energy streaking from the baton, and then the result. The effect was akin to a stun stick, but no stun stick ever works at ranged distances...

A compatriot of the downed man yelled, "You'll pay for this!" and charged at the scruffy man, only to be blasted into unconsciousness as well, before he had taken three steps from his seat.

Suddenly, the entire bar erupted into chaos, as the patrons finally realized the man could be speaking the truth. Everybody charged at the man, to try to get the baton. It would fetch a tidy price on the market.

Punches were thrown, blows were exchanged, as the bar occupants fought over the piece of "lostech". The blond man, who had the baton knocked out of his hands early on, slipped away from the throng of ex-soldiers fighting over the baton. Removing several data disks from his pocket, he proceeded to scatter them onto the floor. He took one last look at the ongoing brawl, grinned, and left the bar. He disappeared into the night, whistling. Mission accomplished.

Lieutenant Mitchell sighed, this was the umpteenth brawl in his sector, and he was tired of cleaning up after the mercenaries after their bar fight in the previous night. However, the "lightning gun" in the police's hands, as well as the various disks scattered on the floor collected by the police, gave him some hope that this case would be more interesting than the others.

The disks seemed to be spilled by the man who held the strange device. He was sure he did not have all the disks, however. There were too many people in the bar, and some of them left before his riot police arrived. It was entirely possible that some of the disks were picked up by those who left "early".

Fortunately for all involved, there were no fatal casualties, or there would have to be a murder investigation. Even the two mercs hit by the device were already up and talking about the events in the bar, none the worse for wear.

Mitchell had already sent the disks and the device to forensics for analysis, and initial findings were already very promising. From what one of the lab techs had gleaned from the device, it contained components and power sources never seen before in either the clans or the Inner Sphere. As the tech was a former Dragoon tech, he definitely knew what he was talking about, and Mitchell believed him.

As for the disks, all the techs could make out so far was that they contained encoded coordinates for a location in space, as well as requests for monetary compensation for the decoder to reveal the coordinates. The techs could not make out the coordinates, however, as it was encoded using a 1024-bit algorithm, which, the techs told him, was beyond even star-league era computers to decode.

Obviously the disks were sales pitches to potential buyers, the highest bidder getting the decoder, and thus, the coordinates to a lostech cache. The "lightning gun" was also obviously hard evidence to convince the buyers of the authenticity of the information.

Mitchell, with the initial lab reports of the device, managed to convince his captain to organize a sweep of Temptown for the blond man who started the whole business. The device was sent to Dragoon scientists for further analysis, and a report sent to Dragoon High Command. New technology, unknown and undiscovered, was definitely a serious matter.

The brawl in the bar was quickly pushed into the background, as the search for the mysterious man intensified. The mercs on the street managed to find out about the events in the bar, and some of the lab techs were a bit too loose-lipped and let slip the information about the coordinates. It was not long before everybody in Harlech was looking for the blond man in a bid to get to the lostech cache.

Some of them even had the disks, but they were useless without a decoder.

Transport company owner Forsen Mandela was one of these men. He had fallen on some hard times when his jumpships and dropships were "appropriated" during the civil war by the various factions. It had resulted in him owing the banks a great deal of money, and the Fed Com government was extremely tardy in reimbursing him for the use of his ships.

Jumpships were the lifeline of human civilization in the 31st century. Capable of traveling 30 light years in an instant, they allowed humanity to reach for the stars, instead of being trapped on their homeworld of earth. The ravages of the Succession Wars had drastically reduced the number of jumpships before an unspoken taboo against destroying anymore of their irreplaceable technology was formed. Some individuals, like Forsen were even able to amass large fleets for commerce, trading, and transport. Unfortunately, he had borrowed heavily from the banks to do so, and he regretted that decision ever since.

Forsen had been in the bar during the incident, and was one of those who had fought to get the device. He was punched out rather quickly, due to the physical difference between him, a man in his forties with a paunch, and the relatively fit mercs. He regained his senses rather quickly, and saw a data disk in front of him on waking. Without knowing what he was doing, he slipped two of them into his coveralls. Several other battered patrons also seemed to be doing the same thing.

He had dashed out of the bar on hearing sirens. A police interrogation was the last thing he needed. If the banks got just the slightest whiff of him getting into trouble with the police, he was sure they would have impounded his ships once and for all, no questions asked.

Forsen was more than a bit surprised, then, when he entered his hostel room after a fruitless afternoon spent on the street hunting for the blond man, he saw the very man sought by everybody on the planet sitting on the single shabby chair in the room, and pointing a slug pistol at him. He looked very tense, and seemed willing to pull the trigger.

"Hello, Mr. Mandela," the man spoke. "I think you must be very surprised to see me. My name is Landar. I am currently a bit upset at losing my disks in the brawl in the bar. I had meant to seek out bidders for the coordinates in the bar. The brawl was entirely unanticipated. Since I have lost all my disks that were meant for potential bidders, as well as the lostech device, I have been thinking of a way to recoup my losses. After much consideration, I have decided that you would be the best candidate for me to give the decoder to, provided you can meet my price."

Forsen wasn't the owner of a jumpship company for nothing. He had his own suspicions, and he wanted to be sure the man was on the level. He asked, "How do I know you are the man with the decoder? And how do you think I can help you? I am not exactly a rich man right now. Just look at this dive I'm staying in and you get the idea."

Landar countered, "But you still own a transport company, and think of the profits you can make if every out of work merc on the street decides to take a chance on your ships traveling to the world with the lostech cache. Well, provided you have the coordinates. As for the decoder, I assure you I have it with me. Good thing I left it back in my room before I went to the bar, or I would have ended up empty handed."

Forsen mulled over the man's words for a while, trying to spot the problems. He came up with several. "I have a few questions I want answered."

"Shoot."

"Why didn't you offer the coordinates to one of the Houses? They pay much better, and you could get a pretty good offer, even from the Liaos."

Landar snorted, "Once burned, twice shy. Next question."

"How did you get the "lightning gun"? I assume you were on the planet with the lostech. How did you get there, and why didn't anyone else know about it? The people who brought you off that rock must have some idea of what was in that place."

Landar did not answer immediately, and for a moment, Forsen was afraid he might have pushed too hard. But Landar did speak after a while. "Actually, I was a pirate with a band raiding the Rim Collection. After Able's Aces kicked Hopper Morrison's band into the dust, they started coming after the rest of the pirates in the area, which included yours truly. My band sought refuge on that rock for a few months."

He continued, after a short pause to gather his thoughts, "I came across the lostech devices when I was alone in my mech on a long patrol and left the cockpit for some fresh air. When I hit the ground, I stumbled on the remnants of what I believe to be a research station of some sort. There were plenty of stuff inside, but the place looked abandoned. I played around with some of the devices. Good thing I could read, cos there were instructions on some of the tables for using the gadgets, or else I could have killed myself playing with them. I grabbed a couple of the more interesting ones and made my way back to my mech and back to camp before anyone got suspicious. I also got enough from the station that it was not the only one in the area, or on the planet. I think it belonged to the Star League. But before I could investigate further, our leader got us off that planet to resume raiding."

"I got the coordinates for that world from the navigator, and ditched my mech on our next raid. I managed to make my way to Outreach, where I got a programmer to encrypt the coordinates and make copies of the disk. Don't worry, he is no longer a problem. I entered a bar to seek out potential buyers for my info, and you know what happened next."

"You said devices?" Forsen asked inquiringly.

Landar grinned slyly. "Hehe, you certainly are a sharp one. That's right, I said devices. The "lightning gun" may be interesting, but I have something else that will absolutely convince others of my claims. Take a look at this."

He took out from a pocket what seemed to be a round ball, and placed it on a nearby table for Forsen to inspect. It was round, with tiny prongs protruding from the surface. On picking it up, Forsen tried to look for any obvious switches, but failed to find any. He had absolutely no idea of what it was, or how it worked.

Smiling at Forsen's confusion, Landar smiled and proceeded to place the ball beside a soft drink can, holding his gun on Forsen the whole time. He touched the ball on certain points, then stepped away. Taking a laser pistol from his pocket and holding it on Forsen, he then tossed his slug pistol to Forsen, along with a silencer.

"Fit on the silencer, and shoot at the can. I trust you can hit the can at that distance? Don't try anything funny, remember I still have a weapon on you."

Forsen was a bit confused. What, shoot the can? Yes, he could do that, but why? Shrugging, he fitted the pistol with the silencer, took careful aim, and shot at the can.

There was a faint shimmer in the air, and suddenly the bullet was falling towards the ground about a foot from the can. Gasping, Forsen took aim and fired again, only to see the same result.

"What...what was that?"

"That, was what the notes at the research station called a defense shield. I know, it sounds like something out of a science-fiction holovid, but that is exactly what we have here. It works against energy weapons too. I dunno about mech class weapons though, but there may be larger versions on that world. Think about it, tech beyond what even the clans have!"

"Incredible, the houses will kill for this technology."

"That is why I won't give it to them. On the other hand, I do intend to make a tidy profit from my find, and this is one of the ways I could think off. I have another "lightning gun", which I will give you. You will contact the various mercs on planet and offer them a demonstration of the weapon. Then you will tell them you can offer them transport to the world with the lostech cache. Offer to transport them all, and if demand exceeds your capacity, rope in independent operators and other companies. However, I will have 15 percent of the total profit. You can raise your transport rates at your own discretion, but I will have that 15 percent, or else the deal is off. You will have the mercs pay up front, and once you have consolidated the money, you will come to me with my share, and I will give you the decoder in exchange. The mercs get to search for their precious lostech, you get your money, and I get to live out the rest of my days in relative wealth. Everybody ends up happy."

Except for those mercs who find nothing. But then, who cares. As long as I can make my money, they can go to hell, Forsen thought.

Landar was saying, "I picked you because you are a smart businessman, and a relatively honest one. So, do we have a deal?"

Extending his hand towards Landar, Forsen smiled. "Yes, we do."

Frank Meronac stared at the tall man sitting in front of him. "Uh, so do I pass muster?" He asked nervously.

Captain Vansen sighed. "It's not that you aren't good enough. The recommendations you got from the OMTC rank mighty high on my list."

Vansen leaned forward and clasped his hands. "However, I have just enough mechs for my mechwarriors right now, so there's no way you are gonna take one of the spots in front of them."

Frank was disappointed, and he knew it was bad form to let it show on his face, but he couldn't help it.

The mercenary captain continued. "How about this then? I know you're a qualified doctor. As it happens, we're leaving Outreach soon for a trip to the Periphery. You must have heard the rumors."

Frank raised an eyebrow. "Rumors? At this point, I doubt they are rumors anymore. So let me fill in the rest. It's a long trip, it's going to be a bit dangerous, and you think you might need trained medical personnel to help. Since I'm here, you think I'm your best chance at some medical support."

"Right." Vansen smiled. "I'm even willing to promise you a berth for next mech assignment that appears. So how about it?"

Frank bit his lips. He was not exactly desperate, not with his present job at the Outreach University Hospital, but he really needed a battlefield assignment soon with a merc unit, because that was the fastest and surest way to fame and riches.

He needed those things in order to have any chance of gaining his fiancée's hand from her father. Fame, riches, and maybe a title. Only Gods knew how he was going to get them.

Not for the first time, Frank cursed the feudal system that had gripped the entire Inner Sphere for ages since humanity's foray out into the stars. He was loyal to the government, of course, but still…

Graduating from the NAIS at a young age of 22, he had been one of the brightest medical students and researchers to graduate from the NAIS. He had been assigned to a combat unit, the 2nd Davion Guards, as a battlefield surgeon upon graduation, despite his grades, due to the desperate need for doctors during the bloody Fed-Com civil war. During one particularly pitched battle on Sirdar, he had even been forced into a mech cockpit to serve as a decoy to distract enemy forces, solely based on his history of having piloted agromechs during his youth. The battered Dart was shot out from under him, but he managed to survive that battle and the civil war with his mind, body and sanity relatively intact.

After the war, he severed his bond with the government, using the money earned from his five bloody years of service as reimbursement. Having had a taste of piloting a real battlemech, he was not exactly eager to have another shot, but circumstances had forced him into trying to become a real mechwarrior.

For years he had been good friends with Clarice Ferguson, the daughter of the Duke of Lackland, his homeworld. They had gone to school together since they were twelve, and they had been close ever since he had helped her fend off several bullies at school at the cost of being beaten up himself.

Frank, despite his poor background, was able to study at secondary level only because of a scholarship from Duke Ferguson. After college, they had gone to the NAIS together. He had blazed through the course and graduated two tears earlier, while she had been stuck at the NAIS as a researcher with Doctor Banzai during the entire war.

Frank had been more than grateful when he had realized the war was over, and he had hoped to take their relationship further, and she had been apparently willing to do the same. But then her father got in the way.

The Duke had high hopes for his bright daughter, had hoped that she would marry into a noble family, and enhance his bloodline. He had been shocked to find that a commoner of lowly background had won her heart, even if it was somebody who he had once regarded highly. In the end, he told Frank that he could take Clarice's hand in marriage only when he had achieved both fame and fortune, as well as a title. Well, after he had Frank held at gunpoint and dragged away on his face.

As being a soldier was absolutely the fastest way to attain glory in the Inner Sphere, Frank had tried to enlist in the AFFS, but the Duke had specifically warned him from taking such a route. Having no other choice, Frank was forced to go to Outreach, and learn basic battlemech skills, as well as look for a job which might offer some hope for future success.

Which brought him to this interview.

Frank supposed that this offer from Vansen was about as good as he could get. He finally nodded. "You got yourself a doctor."

A scruffy man in a brown jacket skulked furtively in an alley, looking out from his dark shaded spot into the street warily before walking out to cross the road. Almost immediately, a hand reached from around the corner to grab the back of his jacket. The man was spun around hard, and then thrown against the wall.

Major Ian Dorlacen smiled evilly as he grabbed the front of the fixer's shirt, holding up the smaller man against the wall. "Hi there, Gary. Nice of you to walk away after that little fracas last night. You did agree to tell me where the demo location was, didn't you? So why are you hiding now?"

The fixer trembled in Ian's grasp. "The other mercs want you out of the action. They paid me some money not to tell you the location. Unless you have a better offer for me… Like say… a hundred C-bills."

Ian pressed the man harder against the wall. "You trying to diss me? Okay, so I'll pay you that much. I want the meeting place for the demonstration, now!" He shouted the last words right into the fixer's ears, making the man flinch.

The fixer gulped. "Over at Joe's place. At five o'clock in the afternoon. Can you pay me now?"

Ian let down the man slowly. He dusted down the man's jacket collars gently. "Here's fifty C-bills," Ian took the sum of money from a pocket, "I won't pay you the rest yet. Look for me at seven in my apartment for the balance. And if you're lying again…" Ian allowed just the slightest hint of the grip of his laser pistol to peek out from under his own jacket.

"Uh, okay! No problem!" The fixer inched away along the wall, before breaking into a run away from the mercenary leader.

Ian watched the man run away. He had a appointment at the Stinging Duck, owned by Joe Piscol. Provided the fixer hadn't lie to him, that is.

His mercenary battalion was a moderately successful unit, but the recent dearth of contracts in the stabilizing Chaos March, due to the conclusion of the Fed Com Civil War and the Word of Blake's movements in the March, had forced him to look for other avenues to keep the money rolling in.

Ian figured he had enough money reserves to justify this trip to the Periphery. He had been intrigued as much as the next merc by the offer of possible technology beyond what even the clans had, and he wasn't going to let it go so easily.

And if the rumor turned out to be true, which the demonstration at the Duck should confirm, he might even let Kate Winslet on the secret.

For a price, of course. Nothing came free on Outreach.

I had better check on my Awesome, since there's still some time to go before five. Ian started to walk towards the repair bays.

He walked into the cavernous repair bay, and looked at the stupendous array of war machinery being worked on by his technicians. Of course, the centerpiece of his unit was the twelve battlemechs they had.

A battlemech was the epitome of armored warfare in the 31st century, a mobile walking fortress capable of destroying a city on its own. Standing about 10 meters tall, they were powered by fusion engines, and propelled by remarkable muscle like myomer strands, which react to electrical impulses much like real human muscle. Protected by advanced armor composites, they were virtually impervious to anything save another mech, or a well armed combat tank.

Their weaponry could consist of lasers, particle cannons, autocannons, or missiles both short and long ranged. Ian was more than a bit envious of the new technology being debuted on the market, things like quick firing rotary autocannons, medium ranged missiles, advanced streak launchers, heavy gauss rifles, and even the new targeting computer developed by the Federated Suns. He simply didn't have the funds to purchase these cutting edge weapons.

Needless to say, mechs were the kings of the battlefield, and a staple of human warfare ever since their appearance several  centuries ago. To many people, they were also the symbol of everything that was wrong with humanity.

Ian did not care about these. He was a mercenary, and his only thoughts were of getting enough money to ensure a comfortable retirement fund, as well as ensuring that his troopers stayed alive.

Which was also why he decided that a trip to the Periphery in search of hidden treasure might actually be worth something.

After a week, Forsen Mandela was a happy man. There was so much demand for places on the transports to the cache world, dubbed Einstein after the famous scientist, that he could raise the rates by 20 percent with no decrease in the demand. He was even forced to contract with other jumpship owners to accommodate everyone. Even mercs on Galatea had caught wind of the news and arranged for jumpships of their own. Of course, since only Forsen had the coordinates, or soon would anyway, he will have a cut of their earnings.

The recent poor hiring market also was an important factor in the decision of many mercs to take the risk of traveling far from the Inner Sphere in search of lost riches. Forsen had arranged for help from the Dragoons to keep the various intelligence agencies of the houses from interfering, in exchange for a detailed report on any findings on Einstein, as well as transporting a small contingent of Dragoons for free.

The result was over 8 regiments of mercenaries with their mechs, fighters, tanks, and assorted units on 10 jumpships traveling to the deep periphery in search of, as one merc put it, the "Holy Grail".

Landar had proved true to his word, giving Forsen the decoder disk. Of course, Forsen pointed out that he could have been given the wrong coordinates and the wrong decoder disk. With this, Landar insisted that his information was accurate and since he lost all of his coordinate disks in the bar, he had no choice but to give accurate information.

With Forsen still in doubt, he finally agreed to have 70 percent of his share placed in a bank in Harlech, which would only be released to him upon Forsen's return to Outreach, and a successful find of lostech. The contract was verigraphed and each man kept a copy of the contract. A verigraph was a DNA activated document which could not be forged, which made Forsen feel a lot more secure.

The man known to Forsen and to much of the merc community as Landar waited patiently at his table. Dressed immaculately in a stylish suit, with his long hair tied back in a ponytail, he was completely unrecognizable from the scruffy, unkempt pirate he had portrayed in Temptown. Of course, disguise was only one of his many unique talents. Persuasion was another, as well as an ability to move in the open without anyone noticing him.

He smiled as he saw a tall, dark skinned man come up to his table.

"How was your mission? It must have been difficult to sneak into their archive center, much less edit their data without leaving any evidence." Landar took a sip from his double latte coffee.

His friend pulled up a chair to sit down. "Surprisingly, for all of the Jade Falcon Watch's vaunted vigilance, I was able to get the data into their systems with considerable ease. They should be getting the timed message in a few days. At least a Galaxy will be heading for the Periphery in a short while, I imagine." A waiter walked up, and his friend placed an order for an iced cappuccino.

"They will swallow the bait?" Landar asked.

His friend smiled. "They will. Who could resist the temptation of new technology, especially if it could give you an advantage over your rivals? The Falcons, hidebound as they are, are one of the strongest clans, and the nearest clan to the "cache" world. They will be there, and they, along with the mercenaries, will learn the true threat from beyond the stars."

Landar scoffed. "Don't be so melodramatic. I only hope that not too many lives will be lost. They will need all of their strength for the storm to come. I wish we could have done this sooner. We have hidden for far too long."

"We had no choice. The situation was not conducive in the past. Only now, with relative peace settling over the entire Inner Sphere and the clans are we able to implement our plan. I have a question for you, though. Were we right in not bringing in the former Wolverines?"

Landar sighed, taking another sip of his coffee. "We could not bring in the Wolverines. The mere news of them will probably result in the clans going on another crusade to wipe them out, which is the last thing we need with the enemy so near at hand. They will be informed, however, but in due time."

His friend nodded his head. "There's one more thing. It seems that one clansman had actually managed to find out about the cache world, all on his own, without our interference."

Landar leaned back in his seat. "Interesting. Who is he?"

"A Goliath Scorpion, but originally from the Nova Cats. He has very strong potential, old friend. I suspect that 3 centuries of enforced breeding for clairvoyance is finally manifesting itself for the Nova Cats." His friend shook his head in regret. "Pity that it is so limited by conditions…"

Landar smiled. "Do not be too sure. Things might change. In any case, this new clansman might have an important role to play. And don't forget that as we manipulate events, all of creation plays its own game as well. Coincidence that he found it at the same time as we maneuver events to point humanity to that world? I don't think so."

His friend shrugged his broad shoulders. "Well, I guess that is all we can do for the moment. How about a quick match in the mech simulators?"