Part IV of the Snowbird Saga

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Here I deviate a little from Battletech canon. According to the Wolf Clan Sourcebook, Clan Wolf took Planting from the 41st Avalon Hussars in July 3050. However, I have changed this to Clan Jade Falcon. Also, in Lethal Heritage Victor Steiner-Davion states that the Twycross operation was meant as the first of many counterattacks against the Clans. This got me to thinking: what happened to those other planned attacks, and why did the Inner Sphere sit idly by and wait for the Clans to come back? This tries to answer both questions…plus move Sheila and Company a little further up the chain of command.

Movie buffs might recognize an occasional line in here. What can I say? Gettysburg is one of my favorite movies.

WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE: It is November 3050. After the triple blows of the Inner Sphere victories on Wolcott and Twycross, and the death of the ilKhan to Tyra Miraborg's suicide run at Radstadt, the Clan invasion has halted. Always one to take advantage of an injured foe, Prince Hanse Davion has ordered the AFFC to go on the offensive wherever possible. The first target is Planting, the lead regiment, the battered but still proud Sentinels.

Sheila Arla-Vlata, now a part of her father Calla's headquarters staff and somewhat redeemed from her court-martial after Blackjack, is part of this offensive. She and Maximillian Canis-Vlata have secretly been engaged, but neither have found an appropriate time to tell their parents. She has no idea what awaits her on Planting…

"Time is everything. Five minutes makes the difference between victory and defeat."

--Admiral Horatio Nelson

Duranter River Hills

Planting, Jade Falcon Occupation Zone

13 November 3050

"Tigerstripe One from Sentinel One," Commander Calla Bighorn-Vlata radioed impatiently, for the second time. "What the hell is the holdup down there?"

"Sentinel One, Tigerstripe One," Major Marion Rhialla shot back. "I am going as fast as I can. It's not my fault I can get out and run faster than this 'Mech. With all due respect, clear the channel or come down here and relieve me."

Calla let the line click off, smiling sardonically. Of all the company commanders in the Sentinels, Marion Rhialla was probably one of the few that could get away with snapping back at her commander in such a fashion. He sighed and sat back in his Battlemaster's command seat, knowing Rhialla had been right to call him on it. He had given her the orders, and she was executing them as best she could. Marion Rhialla—known as Tigerstripe for the way she dyed her hair various colors—was not known for half measures, even if her command lance was abysmally slow. And, Calla told himself, he was not in that much of a hurry. The Jade Falcons already knew where the Sentinels were going.

It was the third day of the Planting campaign, and it was a beautiful autumn day. Planting was aptly named, for it was a fertile planet with generally temperate and Terralike seasons; locals claimed that one could plant two-by-fours in the ground and they would grow. It had also been lucky enough to escape most of the ravages of the Succession Wars, aside from the occasional Kurita or pirate raid. That had changed three months ago, when Clan Jade Falcon had arrived and forced the 41st Avalon Hussars offplanet, though not before the Falcons had taken heavy casualties doing it. The Armed Forces of the Federated Commonwealth had identified Planting as an excellent place for a counterattack, and Calla Bighorn-Vlata had been included in the planning for it. It had been agreed that one of the things that had gone right on Twycross was the use of overwhelming force, so significant forces had been assigned to the mission; besides the Sentinels, there was the 20th Arcturan Guards, the 50th Heavy Cavalry Battalion of the Eridani Light Horse, and the 2nd Kell Hounds Regiment. Calla, to his surprise, had been assigned the task of leading the entire operation, because of his experience; not only that, but the other commanders of the regiments assigned agreed. Since this included such famous 'Mech commanders as Ariana Winston of the Eridani and Morgan Kell of the Kell Hounds, Calla had been very honored. Of course, he reasoned, it could be that much easier to hang a nobody if the operation failed.

So far, it had gone well. Using typical Sentinel tactics, Calla had smuggled several members of the Sentinels' elite Light Infantry battalion onto the planet several weeks before the operation. At the appropriate time, the special force unit had destroyed the Gray Bay surveillance station, blinding the Jade Falcons in Planting's southern hemisphere. To further confuse the issue, the Sentinels had landed their pathfinders offshore; these had come ashore, easily driven off the small Clan garrison of the city of Gray Bay, and secured the dropzones. The Sentinels had made the landing, gotten organized, and moved northward, their objective to secure the Dunbarton subcontinent. Once done, it would allow the AFFC units a secure base to move on to the main continent. The 50th Heavy Cavalry and the 2nd Kell Hounds remained in orbit until the Sentinels took their objective. In the meantime, the 20th Arcturan had landed on the main continent as a diversion, on the narrow Tel Akbir Peninsula.

Calla took out his binoculars and scanned the ground below him. His 'Mech sat on the forward slope of the Gray Hills, which flowed down to the Duranter Valley and the river of the same name. On the other side of the river, the hills were not as high as the Gray Hills, and gently rolled north over the horizon, where there was a small town called Fairfields. Calla knew that a short distance beyond that horizon was Blackett Strait, which separated Dunbarton from the rest of Planting. To the west, the Duranter River meandered to the sea; to the east, it disappeared into the high purple mountains of the Dunbarton Alps. In the center, in direct line to Calla's position, was the village of Horatius, but more importantly, a wide and thick bridge, stressed to take the passage of the heaviest BattleMechs. It was the best crossing site on the river's entire length. It was also the best place to defend against such a crossing, and from the dust cloud on the far bank, Calla knew his opposite number in the Clans had deduced the same thing. If the Sentinels won here, there was no point in defending the subcontinent any further, for there were no real natural obstacles between Horatius and the coast. If the Sentinels lost, that would gain the Jade Falcons more time to reinforce their units and make Calla's second attempts nigh impossible.

A sudden explosion brought Calla back to the present. He zoomed in with his 'Mech's external sensors, but could only see dust and haze. Something was moving. His radio crackled to life. "Tigerstripe One from Gaul One. Enemy contact." There was a pause, and Calla waited impatiently. Gaul One was Leonard Shingo, Rhialla's scout lance commander. "Approximate enemy strength one trinary, possibly lights, over." Calla's heart leapt. Intel said that there were only two Clusters onplanet, a light and an assault unit. If we're engaging the light unit, that means the assault Cluster is up on the Tel Akbir fighting the 20th Arcturan. We can deal with light 'Mechs—they're not very well armored. This is going to work!

"Gaul One, Tigerstripe," Rhialla was saying. "Fall back through the village. I'm coming up to support. Give me some weight."

"Tigerstripe, enemy 'Mechs look like mediums and lights, though I've got something that looks like a Rifleman—" There was a sudden buzz of static, and Calla growled a curse at the radio, hating the fact that he was not down there, where he could do something. "Sorry, Tigerstripe. It's not a Rifleman; dork just shot at me with a fracking Gauss Rifle."

"I see the sonofabitch," Rhialla replied tightly. "Get out of there, Gaul; let's see how he likes one back at him."

Calla looked north of the bridge. There were a lot of 'Mechs moving there, and a trinary of Clan 'Mechs, even second-line ones, might be too much for Rhialla to handle. Calla switched on his own radio. "Guns, this is Command. Fire mission. Start your shots a hundred meters north of the bridge and work your way north. Don't worry; there's nothing friendly north of the bridge. Fire when ready."

"Roger, Command." Calla waited for a few moments, as the Sentinels' artillery battery, behind his hill, fed the data into their fire computers. They would have to shoot more or less blind, since there was no spotter, but all Calla wanted was to throw off the Falcons' attack. Rhialla would engage too closely to call in any sort of support there. "Shot out," reported the artillerist, and Calla flinched slightly at the thunderous booms behind him. The shells whistled like a maglev train as they flew towards their distant targets. Calla watched as they impacted in the Clan formation, raising a huge gout of dirt and smoke. A few of the shells burst above ground, and Calla smiled grimly. The airbursts would be lethal to any infantry supporting the 'Mechs, whether they were in battlesuits or not.

Calla then returned his attention to the radio, but now there were only fragments of talk, overlaid with a thick buzzing. Clans are jamming us. Rhialla can fight on her own, but I can't see what's happening. He put that aside for a moment. "Thorn One, Command One. How do you read?"

Alexander van Thorn's voice came through Calla's earphones loud and clear. "Five-square, Command. I'm not getting through to Tigerstripe. I think we're being jammed over there. I'm committing my reserve, over."

Calla thought about that one. Rhialla's company, except for her mammoth Command Lance, was a light unit, designed for skirmishing. Calla had placed Gina Carabinera's Beta/3 company behind Rhialla, since it was a little heavier and specialized in urban fighting. "Good idea, Thorn. I'll send someone down for a look-see and get back to you. I'd rather you not spare anyone from your side of the line just yet, over." Calla did not need the map display on his instrument panel to remember Ceta Battalion's setup. Rhialla had her 4th Company at the bridge, and now Carabinera was coming up to support. To Rhialla's right, in the foothills, was Elfa Brownoak's light 2nd Company, watching the flank, though Calla did not expect an assault there. On the left flank was van Thorn's heavy 1st Company and Shiloh Stott's light 3rd Company, drawn up in a small forest called Pascia Grove. The Duranter could be forded there, so if there was a threat to the flank, Calla suspected it would appear at the grove. "Is your sector quiet, Thorn One?"

"All quiet here, Command. I got a sitrep from Gloster One; she's says there's some Toads prowling around, but that's it, over." Gloster One was Brownoak.

"Roger. Hang loose and keep an eye on that river. Out." Calla switched frequencies and looked out to his right side. "Command Two, this is One. I need you to go down to Tigerstripe's position and make sure she's holding. Stay out of trouble and be careful. Take a look around and get back here ASAP. Understood?"

"Roger that. On my way." The gray 'Mech moved out from behind the hill and accelerated. Calla was not sure who he hated more: the Clans for starting the war, or himself for sending his daughter into the cauldron.

Sheila Arla-Vlata stepped down on the foot pedals and ran the Shruiken up to full speed. She was over the hill quickly and moving down the highway towards Horatius. She had been listening to the battle over the radio, and knew why she was being sent. Normally, Calla would have sent Archibald Harrier, who could get in and out of trouble quickly, because he piloted a Wasp LAM. But Harrier's LAM was down for maintenance, its balky actuators having given out again, and what was a routine job on a normal 'Mech was an all-day evolution for a LAM. So she was doing what amounted to courier duty.

Sheila didn't mind. Though she was by no means eager to get killed, at least she was doing something besides sitting in her 'Mech watching the radio. Despite her showing on Twycross, which had gotten her the personal thanks of Victor Steiner-Davion, she was still stuck without a command. It wrankled her to no end, because she knew she could fight a lance. Instead, she was being wasted as an aide-de-camp to her father, when he really didn't need one. She was not sure if she actually enjoyed fighting, but she knew she hated sitting on the sidelines. The only way she would get a command now was if someone got killed, and she didn't want that.

Dammit, she thought, Dad's holding me back. He knows I can do the job, but he doesn't want me to get hurt. Fine, I can understand that, but I'm a MechWarrior! It's what I do! If he didn't want me to get into combat, why the heck did he allow me to go to the Nagelring? For that matter, why did he encourage me to become a MechWarrior? For the hundredth time in the last month, Sheila considered Victor's offer. He had told her in the euphoria following Twycross that, if she ever needed a place, he would make room for her in the 10th Lyran Guards. It would mean "going regular," quitting the Sentinels and taking an oath to House Steiner-Davion, instead of just signing a contract. It was a big step to take, and Sheila knew what held her back. All she had to do was look at the chain hanging down over her coolant vest. Attached was a tiny ring with a diamond atop it. It had been all Max could afford on his salary, though the Twycross jeweler had given him a good deal on it. Now that they were engaged—secretly—she could not bear to go anywhere without him. Max seemed happy with the Sentinels; like Sheila, it was all he had ever really known. She was not sure he would follow her if she went to the 10th Lyran, and so she stayed where she was. Max was in his mother's lance, which he did not like that much, but it was a combat assignment.

Sheila shook herself out of her reverie. I may be just the gofer, but the Clans will shoot at me all the same. She was coming up to the rear of Carabinera's company, which was moving at a slow trot. It was a mixed company of mediums and lights; in the lead was Carabinera's command lance, made up of entirely Centurions. It was the best lance in the regiment, since Carabinera only accepted the best. Sheila raised her 'Mech's weapons arm in salute as she passed Carabinera, but the faster Centurion suddenly swerved in front of her, forcing Sheila to slow down.

"Command Two, Centurion One. Where are you going?" Carabinera fairly snarled at Sheila, and Sheila was sure she knew why. Gina Carabinera had a very narrow-minded view of honor, and Sheila, having been court-martialed, had violated Sentinel honor.

"Centurion, Command One has sent me up to check on Tigerstripe. We're being jammed, and he wants a visual sitrep."

The Centurion stepped out of the way. "On your way, then, Two. I thought you were trying to be a hero again."

Bitch, Sheila thought as she stepped past the older woman's 'Mech. If I live to be forty and I'm that crotchety, I hope someone shoots me. It was common knowledge that Carabinera believed anyone who wasn't part of her beloved company was a moron, with the possible exception of her battalion and regimental commanders. Everybody's got the rag on today.

Sheila made it through Horatius fairly quickly. Except for Sentinel infantry holing up in the larger buildings and a few curious locals, the town was deserted. As she approached the far end, she saw 'Mechs ahead, all giving off a comfortable blue sign on her monitors, indicating they were friendly. Here the buildings of the town had taken a beating; most had holes in them, and a few had collapsed entirely. Smoke rose from the ruins, and Sheila saw fires burning.

The bridge was wide and flat, a gentle curve of a four-lane highway and a parallel maglev line, its supports as thick as an assault 'Mech and solid concrete. The road was pitted and scarred from hits, and Sheila could see at least three 'Mechs down. One was a Locust with most of its chassis missing, while the other two were Clan Omnis. Two other 'Mechs with Sentinel colors were limping towards the rear. The other Sentinel 'Mechs were drawn up in a rough line behind what had been wide riverfront warehouses and hotels. The Clans were evidently pulling back, since she saw no Clan 'Mechs, and the Sentinels, while staying under cover, seemed relaxed. "Tigerstripe One, Command Two," she radioed. "Where are you?"

"Just ahead, to your left," Rhialla radioed back. To Sheila's relief, the jamming seemed to have faded completely.

Finding Rhialla's 'Mech was not particularly difficult. Her command lance nearly outweighed the rest of her company by themselves. She had one of the brand-new Perenniums, monster assault 'Mechs that had just marched off of the production line; four of them had been given to the Sentinels as a financial pat on the back from the Federated Commonwealth for their service against the Clans. Sheila shuddered at the Perennium's appearance: the cockpit jutted out from two thick chest plastrons, giving the 'Mech a birdlike, hunched-over appearance. Two PPC barrels jutted out over the shoulders, while the arms consisted of Gauss Rifles. The combination would be lethal in the hands of a good pilot, and Marion Rhialla was one of the best, having cut her teeth in 'Mechs before the Fourth Succession War. The building Rhialla was behind was largely intact, and Sheila felt much safer in the Perennium's shadow. "Morning, Tigerstripe."

"Morning, Command Two. What can I do for you?" Rhialla's voice was jaunty and cheerful, which it always was in a fight. Rhialla was a confirmed adrenalin junkie.

"We were jammed back at the CP. Just need a sitrep."

"Sitrep? We're doing fine. I've got a 'Mech down, but the pilot's okay, and two crippled, but we got four of the bastards, including that jammer."

"Four?" Sheila asked.

"The other two are in the river." Sheila could hear the grin in Rhialla's voice. "They're arrogant bastards, these Jade Falcons. Came right at us; didn't try to swerve or anything. They were calling us out, challenging us. I told them to eff off and we opened fire. Put a couple of 'em down and they pulled back."

"Sounds like a probe to me," Sheila said, then slapped the side of her helmet, realizing she had just corrected a veteran who had more years in her 'Mech than Sheila had in life.

Rhialla did not seem to take offense. "Yeah, I know, Two. They'll be back, but we'll be waiting. Tell the Old Man that we got some identification on these bastards. They're the 2nd Falcon Jaegers; that's what I got in front of me."

"Okay, I'll pass it on. Do you need anything?"

"Not with Carabinera coming up. The arty was a nice touch, though. Kept the little Toad bastards off of us, which is good. I hate those damn things."

Sheila found herself grinning. Rhialla's enthusiasm was infectious. "Yes, ma'am. I'll be heading back now."

"You do that. Tell Carabinera on your way back that she's an old, crosseyed, dumb bitchtard that can't hit the broadside of an Atlas' ass with a bass fiddle. Word for word, Two, that's an order."

"Yes, ma'am." Sheila turned her Shruiken around and began heading back into town. She passed Carabinera again, paused, and passed on Rhialla's message, cheeks burning the whole time. To her surprise, Carabinera only laughed. "Tigerstripe's older than me!" she exclaimed. "And she's got to hide behind an assault 'Mech. Won't pilot a real machine like a real MechWarrior—she's got to drive that Liao reject that looks like someone kicked it in the bunghole!" Her company heard, and laughed on the open channel. Sheila smiled as she headed off again, wondering what people could find so funny in the middle of a battle.

She reached her father's position a few minutes later, stealing a glance at her rear monitor. There were no explosions or smoke along the river yet, so she figured neither side had reopened the battle yet. "Command One, Two reporting in with sitrep."

"Go, Two," Calla ordered.

Sheila recounted Rhialla's report. Calla laughed. "Good. We'll see what they throw at us next, chew that up, then take the bridge. Did you see any Clanners yourself?"

"Not live ones. The other side of the river had too much smoke and too many ruins to see much."

"Very well—whoa, here we go again."

Sheila turned her 'Mech around. She could see the Falcon 'Mechs coming across the bridge now, some riding silvery spears of jumpjets. From her position, it looked like a horde of insects attacking across a stream. Then laser beams began to crisscross each other, finding targets, punctuated by the bright blue of a PPC bolt, smoke from missiles, and the almost invisible pencil line of an autocannon or Gauss round. The hits came as distant thunderclaps, until drowned out by the Sentinels' artillery. Sheila saw missiles arcing up from the opposite bank of the river, and knew the Clans were calling in artillery strikes as well. She scanned the sky, but it was clear, patches of blue covered by wispy cirrus. If there was an air battle going on, the aerojocks were being quiet about it. She returned her attention to the battle. The green Falcon 'Mechs were doggedly advancing and falling back to firing positions, trying to gain a foothold on the south bank, but Sheila could tell they were having a tough time of it.

"Hah!" Calla crowed. "Best fucking ground for kilometers, and the stupid ass is hitting me with one trinary! Lovely!"

Sheila didn't reply. The Falcons had enough, and were falling back again. She could hear Rhialla and Carabinera checking for casualties, but they were light, and there was cheering in the Sentinel ranks. "We're winning," Sheila whispered to herself.