SNOWBIRD CHAINED

Chapter 7 of the Snowbird Saga

By Sentinel 28A

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Wow, this is the seventh story in this ongoing series. You'd think I'd get a life or something. I just like writing this too much. Unfortunately, it also means I haven't touched my Evangelion story (Evangelion Evolution) in three months and my Inu-Yasha story (The Hunters and the Hunted) in five. (Plug pluggity plug.) sigh I need a job where I can do this and get paid for it.

As always, thanks to all of you who have stuck around and kept me going with your great reviews. You know who you are.

Again, this story represents a deviation from Battletech canon. In the Wolf Clan Sourcebook, it states that Vantaa fell to the Wolves in fall 3050. Here, however, I have it where it remains unconquered in June 3051.

Hopefully the hack quotient of this story will be higher than the last story, which was pretty thin on 'Mech action. (Kat Wylder's Nibelung saga is leaving me in the dust on 'Mech fights, so I gotta catch up.) In contrast, there isn't going to be much humor in this story. In fact, the overall mood will be pretty grim. In the 'Mech battle in this chapter, I did actually game out the battle, so what you're reading (with one obvious exception) is how it occurred, even the lucky shots. As a result, this is a pretty long chapter.

And now for something completely different…

WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE: It is May 3051. The Clan War is in the fifth month of an uneasy lull. The Clans, following the death of ilKhan Leo Showers at Radstadt, have advanced no further, waiting on the election of a new leader. The Inner Sphere's leaders, at the invitation of Wolf's Dragoons' commander Jaime Wolf, have met to plan a unified front against the Clan threat, an event unprecedented since the fall of the Star League 300 years previously. There, Sheila Arla-Vlata helped train the "young royals," the heirs to the thrones of the Successor States, to better fight their Clan opponents, due to her experience in that regard. She also finally married her fiancee, Max Canis-Vlata.

The leader of the Federated Commonwealth, Hanse Davion, has not been idle during this lull. He has rushed as many units as possible to the front lines to shore up the defenses in anticipation of a renewal of the Clan offensive. Until those units get there, however, the defense of the Clan frontier will be up to the battered survivors of units who have already faced the Clans—units like the 10th Donegal Guards, the 12th Star Guards, and the Sentinels RCAT, all stationed on the pivotal border world of Vantaa.

Yet all is not quiet. Dismayed at the number of warriors being killed in senseless and unending Trials of Grievance, Khan Ulric Kerensky of Clan Wolf and saKhan Cavell Malthus of Clan Jade Falcon have agreed to give their warriors a common goal: the conquest of Vantaa in a gigantic Trial of Possession. It is no coincidence: Cavell Malthus, smarting at reverses suffered at the hands of Sentinels RCAT Commander Calla Bighorn-Vlata, has chosen Vantaa in an effort to destroy the Sentinels for good. His protégé and recently Bloodnamed commander of the 133rd Falcon Fusiliers, Star Colonel Senefa Malthus, also has reasons for wanting to go to Vantaa: having lost in a Circle of Equals to Sheila Arla-Vlata, she too desires revenge. Though the renewal of the Clan offensive is still some months away, war has returned to the Inner Sphere on what used to be a sleepy border world.

Nor do the Clans face a unified front, despite the efforts of Davion, Theodore Kurita, and Jaime Wolf. Romano Liao, always eager to get her own revenge on Hanse Davion, has secretly agreed to a pact with a minor Steiner nobleman, Duke of Furillo Samuel Bonner, to undermine the FC war effort. Bonner hopes to split House Steiner away from Davion by signing a separate peace with the Clans. Liao, in an effort to get revenge on her old enemy and present Snowbird, Marion Rhialla, has agreed to take Bonner's peace proposal to the Clans, and more, wherever they next appear…


Sentinels GHQ, Cold Harbour

Vantaa, Tamar March, Federated Commonwealth

15 June 3051

Calla Bighorn-Vlata pored over a paper map. A holotank glowed behind him, tended to by Sentinel techs, but he preferred the feel of real paper beneath his fingers. Calla felt it was a connection back to ancient times, when men and women only had paper to plan campaigns.

His area of responsibility on Vantaa only reinforced the feel of history. Vantaa had been settled by immigrants from Finland and from the Eastern Seaboard of North America. Unable to get along, they gravitated to the opposite ends of Vantaa's primary continent. While the western end had a definite Scandivanian feel, the eastern end reflected the rich Virginian heritage of those settlers. Towns were named for their counterparts on Terra: Winchester, Cold Harbour, Marye's Heights, Leesburg, Arlington, Shepherdstown, Sharpsburg; rivers included the James, the Anna, and the Chickahominy. Even the mountains and valleys recalled those low rolling ridges and rich farmlands of Virginia. The only real difference was that the woods were more dense, the swamps filled with alien species a tad more deadly than their Terran counterparts, and the winters much colder and reversed: while on Terra Virginia would be entering summer with hot and humid temperatures, on Vantaa, the region was heading into winter and temperatures were dropping. In fact, Calla expected a hard freeze that night.

For a man who loved history almost as much as his wife, Vantaa's nameplaces called forth images of great lines of battle, of blue and gray, of brother against brother in the ancient American Civil War. Over a thousand years before Calla's birth, greats such as Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, J.E.B Stuart, and Philip Sheridan had battled for towns bearing the same names that Calla now had under his fingers, at an incredibly high price. The only difference now was that women filled the ranks as much as men, there were hundreds engaged instead of tens of thousands, and they fought with BattleMechs and tanks rather than rifled muskets and bayonets. But the lessons of leadership remained the same, and Calla was sure that if his MechWarriors could share a fire and cornbread with the ghosts of the Union and the Confederacy, they would find much in common.

Calla had gotten intelligence that the Clans would strike at Vantaa over a month previously, and prepared as best he could. The Sentinels had suffered heavily at the hands of the Clans since the summer of 3050, and six months of rest since the end of the bloody Planting campaign were not enough. Had it not been for the agreement with the commander of the worse-off 719th Striker Regiment, Colonel Christina Malvin, to merge the two units under the Sentinel banner, Calla would be making preparations to abandon the planet. The addition of two understrength battalions of 'Mechs filled out the Sentinel ranks and even allowed for an extra lance to be added to each company, giving the Sentinels 16 'Mechs to the normal twelve and giving those companies a better chance against Clan Stars and Trinaries. Now, at least, Calla had three battalions under his command—Alpha, led by the old veteran Catherine Houndlikov; Beta, now led by the equally skilled Christina Malvin; and the Snowbirds, led by Calla's daughter Sheila, recently returned from Outreach and recently married as well. Sheila, not yet 20, was by far the youngest of his battalion commanders and younger than all of his company commanders as well, but none would deny that she too had skill. The Snowbirds had been one of the bright spots of an otherwise near-disastrous campaign on Planting.

At least here, Calla was not in command of the planet's defense. That fell to the affable Marshal Sarah Steiner, a distant relation to the Federated Commonwealth's ruling family and a decorated veteran of the Fourth Succession War and War of 3039. Besides the Sentinels, Steiner had at her command two battalions of the 10th Donegal Guards, as well as two battalions of the mercenary 12th Star Guards. Unfortunately, like the Sentinels, both units were rebuilding from being manhandled by the Jade Falcons in the opening waves of the invasion. Calla and Sarah had decided to divide Vantaa between them, with the Donegals holding the capital city of Rissala and the Sentinels the main industrial center of Cold Harbour, while the 12th Star Guards operated as an "operational manuever group," concentrating where it was needed most. And right now, Calla needed the old SLDF unit in his sector, because the Jade Falcons had lost none of their edge in the past half-year.

As usual, the Clans had arrived insystem and opened the campaign with what they called a batchall, which Sheila had told him was traditional for them. The idea was that both sides would agree to ground rules for the coming campaign, and if necessary "bid" forces to be used. Calla thought that any rules besides the Ares Conventions were like trying to regulate a bar room brawl, and when it came to bidding, he intended to use everything he had, including his small battalion of tanks and the ill-trained but eager Vantaa Militia. Somehow, he had not been surprised to find that he was once more facing Cavell Malthus of the Jade Falcons: they had already fought each other twice, on Persistence and Planting. Cavell had won on Persistence, forcing the Sentinels offworld, but Calla had blown up the Jade Falcons' objective before he left, an industrial zone that produced raw materials. That was apparently dishonorable activity for the Clans. Calla had won on Planting, mainly because Sheila had reversed a potential disaster at Pascia Grove and then defeated one of Malthus' Star Colonels in a hand-to-hand duel—but Cavell had given the AFFC forces a bloody nose, hurting the Sentinels and the 2nd Kell Hounds, and putting the 20th Arcturan Guards out of action for the better part of a year. So honors were now even, and Calla knew that Cavell's arrival on Vantaa was no accident. Despite that, Cavell was polite and even friendly to the point of wishing Calla luck.

Calla smiled wryly, wondering if Cavell still felt that way. The Jade Falcon commander had only committed the 7th Falcon Regulars Cluster, but the moment that the Clan OmniMechs had dropped into positions around the northernmost city on Vantaa, Sharpsburg, Calla had hit them with everything he had: all three battalions of 'Mechs, plus tanks. He raked the dropzones with artillery and strafing runs. He had nearly won, breaking through in a number of places, but the Clan superiority in firepower and mobility finally prevailed, forcing Calla to retreat behind the Chickahominy, but the 7th Regulars had gone no further either. The Jade Falcons had been bringing in DropShips since that battle on June 1—Calla had noted with irony the name of the place he had fought at—and had obviously reinforced; Calla had asked for and got the two Star Guard battalions to finish off his opponent. Apparently Clan Wolf was present as well, but their DropShips were still mated to their JumpShips, orbiting in a long hyperbola and doing nothing. Steiner had retained her Donegals to counter any moves by the Wolves, but eagerly agreed to Calla's plan.

Now, however, as Calla looked over the map once more, Cavell Malthus had wrested the initiative back. Instead of waiting for Calla to attack him, Cavell had unleashed a second Cluster—the 133rd Falcon Fusiliers. The unit had crossed the Chickahominy during the night of 4 June, wiped out a militia garrison at Winchester, and then sent two companies of the Star Guards flying from Piedmont. The Star Guards had quickly recovered, reinforced, and attacked what looked to be two isolated Trinaries of the Fusiliers, only to find it was an ambush. Now the Star Guards were reeling out of the Massanutten Valley, which led like a corridor directly into the Sentinels' rear. Instead of having the Jade Falcons pinned against Vantaa's northern ocean, outnumbered three to one, Calla faced the unenviable position of having a Falcon Cluster directly to his front and one threatening to come in behind him. The terrain north of Cold Harbour was crisscrossed with dense woods and rivers, but it would do no good if the Fusiliers got loose behind him. The Star Guards still had an untouched battalion that was force marching up from Rissala, but it would arrive too late unless someone slowed the Fusiliers down. So Calla had ordered the Snowbirds out of the line on the Chickahominy and into the Massanutten Valley.

It worried him. As a father, he rebelled against the idea of using his own daughter as one more playing piece. As a commander, he knew he had no choice. Worse, it almost felt like a setup: Calla knew that the commander of the 133rd was Star Colonel Senefa, now known as Senefa Malthus. It was undoubtedly the same woman Sheila had beaten into the mud of Planting. Calla wondered if Senefa's new name meant that she had been adopted or something by Cavell, though Sheila—using information provided by Jaime Wolf—had told him that it probably meant she had won a Bloodname, whatever the hell that was. Either way, Senefa had singlehandedly ruined any chance of a quick victory on Vantaa, but wrecking the Star Guards in the Valley almost seemed like an open invitation. Knowing the Clans, it probably was.

Calla's finger drifted over Sharpsburg, where he knew Cavell Malthus' headquarters was. "Damn you, Cavell, you bastard," he said quietly. "You want a fight with me, you got one. Don't drag our daughters into this."


Massanutten Ridge

18 km north of New Market, Vantaa, Tamar March, Federated Commonwealth

15 June 3051

Sheila Arla-Vlata remembered that, as a child growing up on Grunwald, she had gone on what the locals called a volksmarch, a ten kilometer walk, through one of Grunwald's remaining pristine forests. It had been rainy, but beautiful: the air had smelled of pine, and the trees were so thick and tall, it had been if Sheila and her parents had been alone. She had gotten a medal at the end of it, as was tradition with volksmarches; that was part of the fun. She had proudly worn the medal all the way home.

Her present situation reminded her of that nature walk, as it was rainy and the outside air, filtered into her cockpit, smelled of pine. Of course, the difference was that instead of being a four foot child looking up at the trees, she was now riding atop a thirty foot BattleMech, though the forest was still taller than she was. She still hoped to win a medal, though she hoped it wouldn't be posthoumous.

Of course, no one had been hunting her during the volksmarch, either.

Sheila checked off her lance as they advanced through the forest, following a dirt road that had been turned to a river of mud by the rain and 'Mechs. The forest might smell good, but her current situation didn't. It stunk of a setup. The Jade Falcons—whom Sheila knew to be the 133rd Falcon Fusiliers, commanded by Senefa Malthus—had struck again early that morning, surging out of the woods and savaging a company of the 12th Star Guards. After downing a lance, the Clans had uncharacteristically fallen back into the woods before the Star Guards could deploy, avoiding a general battle. True, the Snowbirds had been pounding up the roads to reinforce the Star Guards, but unless she had changed over the past six months, Sheila was sure that Senefa was not afraid of being outnumbered. Which meant that she planned on sucking the Snowbirds into an ambush. Unfortunately, Sheila's orders were to run the Fusiliers to ground or throw them out of the Massanutten Valley, and she couldn't do that sitting there waiting for the next attack.

She did have one advantage, however. A few of the Snowbirds' 'Mechs had been upgraded during the lull, including Frederick Matria's heavily modified Chameleon. Besides now sporting double heat sinks and heavier armor and armament than the venerable training 'Mech, Matria's machine also had a Beagle Active Probe. If the Jade Falcons were waiting, the Probe would detect them in time to avoid an ambush; if the Falcons were jamming, it would detect that as well. Sheila's Alpha Company moved in a skirmish triangle, with Tessya Blackthorn's Recon Lance, including Matria, at the apex, supported by Sheila's Command Lance on the left and Max's Heavy Lance on the right. Beta Company was out to Sheila's left, moving ahead slightly faster, with a Star Guard company on the Snowbirds' right flank. If any company was hit, the other two would turn in support; if Sheila's was struck, the two flank companies would curve in to surround the Clans. Sheila wished she had another company in support coming up behind the Fusiliers, but that required knowing where the Fusiliers were. Marion Rhialla was temporarily commanding Beta Company, as Elfa Brownoak's balky LAMs were once more down for maintenance; Sheila sorely missed having the highly mobile LAMs available. As it was, the companies had to pause on occasion to keep from being strung out, especially with the assault 'Mechs, which were finding the terrain slow going indeed.

"Talisman Lead to Snowbird Actual." Tessya's voice snapped Sheila out of her reverie.

"Go, Talisman," Sheila radioed back.

"Visual contact with enemy, grid square 34-56." Sheila quickly glanced at a secondary monitor on her instrument panel, calling up those coordinates. That was ahead of the Snowbirds, slightly southeast. "Enemy strength one Star, mixed lights and mediums. They are moving southwest, on top of Massanutten Ridge. I don't think they've seen us."

Sheila considered that. Light and medium OmniMechs usually meant a recon Star. It didn't make sense for them to be out alone, so either they were looking for the Snowbirds themselves, or they were leading an advance. Sheila traced the map with a gloved finger. If the Falcons kept following their route, they would end up behind where the Star Guards were advancing north up the Valley. Flank march, Sheila thought. Senefa fakes us out by thinking she's pulled back to the woods, when she's actually moving to get behind us. That would put the main body of her force about…here. "Talisman, maintain contact, but stay out of sight if you can—no jumping."

"Roger."

Sheila switched frequencies and quickly issued orders. Now Marion would pick up the pace, pivoting southeast, while Sheila's company moved due east. One or the other would make contact and start the battle. The Star Guard company fell back slightly: if they were already detected, it might make the Falcons get overly aggressive; if not, then the recon Star might be drawn further into an ambush itself. Sheila herself moved her 'Mech slowly, not even half of her cruising speed, trying not to knock any trees over. As it was, Max's Battlemaster and Charles Badaxe's Atlas were literally cutting a swath through the woods. A startled flock of birds fluttered into the air, but there was nothing she could do about that, other than hope the Clanners weren't looking in her direction.

Half a kilometer ahead of Sheila, Tessya Blackthorn took a quick drink of water from a straw that led back to a small tank behind her seat, then shifted around to try to relieve an itch on her bottom. She was experienced enough that neither action caused her Wasp to hesitate or slip; the small 'Mech, half the size of Sheila's heavy Shruiken and less than a third of its weight, had no trouble negotiating the woods. She had lost sight of two of her lancemates, Tinyak Fernplanter's Unicorn and Philip Scott's new Aquarius, but still had sight of Matria's Chameleon. Their camouflage blended well with the forest, though it was difficult at best to hide something that topped out at over fifteen feet and weighed between twenty and fifty tons. Movement out of the corner of her eye caused her to bring her 'Mech to a halt and slightly crouch. "Talisman Four from Lead. Hold up." She had spotted the Clan recon Star, and Matria was getting too close. Beagle Probe emissions could be detected; it beeped like sonar in her earphones, and she didn't want to lose surprise. Now that she was closer, she could make out the Clan types: a Koshi in the lead, backed up by two Ullers, a Fenris, and a Dragonfly. They were looking in the wrong direction to see her, but Tessya still felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. The loose, almost sloppy formation of the Clan 'Mechs was no big deal, as the woods tended to make a hash out of any formation. Then Tessya realized what it was: the Falcons were moving on top of the ridge, silhouetted against the skyline. For a green unit, that was an easy mistake to make, but no veteran worth their salt did something like that: they moved beneath the skyline so as not to make an easy target. "Talisman Lead to lance. Fall back slowly on my position."

"Three to Lead. Say again?" Tinyak asked.

"Something's not right here, Three. Fall back."

"Talisman, Snowbird Actual," Sheila radioed. "Sitrep."

Tessya was about to answer when all hell broke loose. The first warning they had of the ambush was when autocannon fire chattered out of the woods and ripped into the left side of Matria's Chameleon. Somehow the 'Mech stayed on its feet and he hit his jumpjets to get free. Tessya instantly fired back at the base of the autocannon tracers, but when she saw the Masakari step out of the forest, her single medium laser and two SRMs were like throwing a pie at a freight train.

"Snowbirds from Talisman Lead!" Tessya screamed, slapping the switches for a wideband transmission. "Enemy contact! Enemy contact! It's a trap!"


Everyone heard the report. "Talisman!" Sheila shouted. "Get the hell out of there!" When there was no answer, she stepped down on the foot pedals and ran the Shuiken up to full speed, the trees now nothing but a minor obstacle as she crashed through them. As she did so, her fingers moved radio frequencies. "Tigerstripe from Snowbird! Talisman's run into trouble—move southeast!"

There was a brief pause, then Rhialla replied, "Love to, Snowbird, but they just hit us too." To her left, Sheila saw a fireball climb into the air. "Engaging two heavy Stars over here. Just lost Nutter." Her voice was calm.

A quick vision of Terry Nutter's newborn child flickered through Sheila's mind. Oh God, no, Sheila thought for a moment, but then shut those thoughts away. She had to get the Star Guards, then. "Roger that. Break, break. Pulsar Six, this is Snowbird—" She winced as high-pitched static whistled through her ears; the Clans were jamming her. "Shit! Max, can you hear me?"

Max's voice came through loud and clear. "Five square, Snowbird. We're moving up."

"Move your ass, Snowbirds!" Tessya's voice shrilled. "We're engaged with fucking assault 'Mechs up here!"

Sheila almost told her to calm down, but decided it was not a time to be calm. The forest thinned ahead, mainly because two minutes of combat had already blown down half of it. She could see Matria, his armor blackened and one arm missing, limping backwards. Her proximity sensor beeped and Sheila spotted a Loki advancing from the woods, its weapon arms raised at the Chameleon. Planting one foot down, Sheila skidded the Shruiken to a halt, turned, aimed, and fired both her PPCs. Her snap shot connected, one bolt going to the torso and the other to the squat head. Somehow, the Clan warrior stayed upright, but his shots went wild and it staggered back. "Talisman Four, you okay?" she radioed Matria.

"I'm okay," Matria replied, puffing with exertion. "Lost the right arm and my large laser, but I've still got my smalls and the mediums."

"Fall back to the rally point." By the look of his armor, Matria couldn't take much more pounding, and he would have to get in close to bring his weapons to bear, which would be suicidal in his condition. Sheila turned her attention back to the wounded Loki as the rest of her lance arrived on the scene. The Clanner stopped to fight, but now drew the attention of Kaatha's Griffin, which unloaded a flight of LRMs, and Felisanna's Wolfhound, firing its large laser. The Loki's PPCs flayed armor from the Griffin's chest and right leg, but Kaatha ignored the damage.

Sheila abruptly felt as if her 'Mech had been kicked as a Gauss ball skimmed through the woods, its supersonic passage tearing saplings out of the ground, and slammed into her left leg. Lost half the armor there, she thought as she looked at the damage display. Who fired that—ahh, there you are! An Uller burst through a small grove of trees. Sheila dodged the two ruby medium laser beams and fired the PPCs again, ignoring the rising heat. Both bolts punched through the thinly armored light 'Mech, and a jet of blue flame roared from the now-exposed engine as the 'Mech staggered.

"That'll teach you to fuck with heavy 'Mechs, you little bastard!" Sheila crowed, but then suddenly realized the Uller had friends. A Masakari stomped into range, its armor also savaged from Badaxe's Atlas but its quad PPCs still very much operational. Sheila forgot about the crippled Uller and turned her attention to this new threat. Using an old trick, she lunged her Shruiken forward, then snapped the control sticks over, causing her 'Mech to suddenly switch direction, the equivalent of a football running back throwing a head fake at a defending linebacker. Warning klaxons of a weapons lock abruptly ceased, though one of the trio of deadly blue lightning bolts still chopped into the flat chestplates of her 'Mech. Yikes! I can't tangle with this guy, Sheila thought, suddenly feeling sympathy for the Uller pilot. One more hit like that and I'm in real trouble. She dodged left and right, her own hasty laser shots missing as she tried to shake the Masakari, which had locked on again.

Without warning, a laser shot struck the Masakari and pitched forward into the muddy earth, its PPC barrels twisting into modern sculpture as they dug into the ground. It remained there, unmoving, its rear end stuck up comically into the air. Sheila's eyes widened: it had been a MechWarrior's dream shot, a lucky hit in the cockpit that killed the MechWarrior. They widened even more when she saw who had fired: Tessya Blackthorn's Wasp bounded on jumpjets out of the forest. "Sweet shot, Tess!"

"What the hell—I got him? I was just trying to distract him!" Blackthorn landed next to Sheila. "Wow. I'll tell my kids about this!" Autocannon tracers shot past them. "If I live long enough, anyway."

"Fall back to the rally point, Tess. We've got to regroup." Sheila had heard nothing from Rhialla and the right flank was noticeably quiet, which meant that Rhialla's company was probably still engaged and the Star Guards were too far out of position to help. There could be a whole Cluster in the woods, and the Snowbirds were starting to become unraveled in the melee. She thumbed the radio switch; it was clear of jamming now. "Snowbirds from Actual. Break off and head for the rally point. Watch your spacing and don't let them split you up. Break. Snowbird Command, hold your position until Recon is clear. Sitrep."

"Snowbird Two here." Kaatha sounded almost bored. "One Loki down. Three and Four are with me; we're fine. Am engaging another Loki." Sheila noticed something. Unlike the 7th Falcon Regulars at Sharpsburg, these Clanners were not picking one-on-one battles, but mixing it up with multiple targets, Inner Sphere style. Still, they were not engaging more than two at a time, as she watched the Loki Kaatha was occupied with ignore Marcus Drax's Phoenix Hawk, despite the fact that it was leaping behind him to chip at the Clanner's rear armor with medium lasers.

Her sensors called for her attention again, and Sheila, without conscious thought, stepped her Shruiken back quickly as a PPC bolt dug a divot from the ground where she had been. A Thor moved into sight, and Sheila turned to engage. "Tess, get out of here; this guy's a little too much for you to handle."

"No argument here. See you at the rally." The Wasp let fly a desultory flight of SRMs at the Thor, which was far out of range, then skipped away on ion flames. Sheila dodged another PPC shot, watched the Thor do the same to her, then took cover behind a copse of intact trees. A quick half-second look at the secondary monitor saw the other three 'Mechs of her Command Lance moving forward. "Snowbird Command, bug out. We don't know what else is here."

"Roger. That other Loki has pulled out; we'll do the same," Kaatha told her. Both of them ignored Felisanna's disappointed "awww" as the medium 'Mechs retreated.

"Snowbird, Canis Lead. I'll come up to support you." That was Max.

"Negative, Canis; you don't have jumpjets." Sheila exchanged another round of crisscrossing PPC bolts with the Thor. Max's Battlemaster was at a disadvantage in poor terrain; it could get cut off all too easy. "I'm just about done here." She noticed the Thor circling to close in; its right arm hung down and swayed drunkenly with the 'Mech's movements, a telltale sign of a wrecked shoulder joint. The PPC was still dangerous, as Clan versions hit harder than their Inner Sphere counterparts, but Sheila had the advantage now; all of her weapons were operational, the only weak part of her armor was her left side, and the Thor was closing in from the right. Sheila turned, raising her twin PPCs in the Shruiken's right arm, but this time readied her array of medium lasers as well. If she got in some good shots this time, and the Thor was unable to reply, there might be time to finish off her opponent before she had to leave. Quick movements to her left attracted her eyes, and Sheila saw a squad of Elementals leaping like their toad nicknames through the woods, but they were well out of range. Both her and the Thor were close now, close enough to read the tactical symbology on each other's chests.

Then the crippled right arm suddenly snapped up and a torrent of heavy autocannon shells vomited from the wide mouth of the weapons pod. Sheila screamed and twisted backwards.

It saved her life. Instead of the autocannon shells tearing off her head and most of the Shruiken's upper torso, they ripped into the 'Mech's belly. That was bad enough: the Ultra AC/20 was by far the deadliest weapon in the Clan arsenal, and it shredded the armor away in great rents. Alarms assaulted Sheila's ears, announcing the loss of all center torso armor, and the computer helpfully let her know that her gyro had suffered damage—as if the control sticks being wrenched out of her hands wasn't warning enough. Sheila kept upright only by stomping the left foot pedal and planting the Shruiken's left foot. Her return fire somehow connected and kept the Thor back.

Another hit and I'm toast! Sheila thought with fright. She looked at the Thor, which was trying to get at her left side now. You tricky son of a bitch. Well, I'll give you credit for faking me out, but I'm not going to hang around. Jumping with a damaged gyro was risky, but there was no way she would outrun the Thor without being hit once more. Two jumps and I'll be by Max. If this SOB wants to tangle with a Battlemaster, he can sure try. Resisting the urge to give her opponent the finger, Sheila kicked the jump pedals.

The silence was deafening.

Sheila struck the pedals again. The Shruiken's computer noticed the problem, and reported in a female sounding voice, "Jumpjet failure. Jumpjets inoperative."

"What the hell? That's impossible!" Sheila hit the pedals a third time, but still nothing happened. She had never heard of a complete jumpjet failure without damage to the exhaust ports; there was no damage there. The Thor began to close, so she threw a barrage of her 'Mech's namesake stars, splashing Inferno fluid over the Clan machine. The terrible autocannon and a flight of SRMs missed. Sheila began backwalking the Shruiken. "Max!" she yelled over the open channel. "My jumpjets are out! I don't know what happened, but I'm in deep shit! I'm engaged with a Thor and there's Elementals—" She broke off the transmission as the Thor suddenly crouched and sprinted forward.

Sheila's mouth fell open. Clanfolk never engaged in physical attacks; Wolf had told her they considered the practice dishonorable and barbaric. Yet here was one Clan warrior who was charging straight at her. Panicking, Sheila fired everything she had, even as the heat overwhelmed her heat sinks and the computer warned of a shutdown. The Thor took heavy damage but did not stop. All Sheila could do was tense and wait for the impact.

When it came, it felt like someone had hit the side of her helmet with a sledgehammer. The Shruiken doubled up and then actually flew backwards, leveling a line of trees and careening down a small hill. Sheila was thrown forward in her seat from the impact, then flung backwards with the landing. Stars exploded in front of her eyes and she felt like her body had been turned to jelly. Through ringing ears, she heard the computer—still somehow operational—telling her that the gyro was now completely gone and the engine damaged as well. Woozily, she reached upwards for the ejection handles and pulled, although ejecting from a prone 'Mech was a good way to get killed. Nothing happened, and Sheila detachedly remembered that the Shruiken's ejection system was designed in the same way as the Wolfhound's and the Hatchetman's: the 'Mech had to be upright as the entire head detached to become an escape capsule. With her gyro gone, there was no chance of ejecting: she would have to crawl out. Luckily, this was a fairly easy proposition as the canopy had shattered. She hit the release button on the seat harness and tried to key the radio to let Max know, but the radio was gone as well, the antennae crushed beneath the Shruiken's head. Sheila shakily stood up on the seat, hearing the booming thumps of a 'Mech approaching; her hopes that it was her husband's Battlemaster were dashed when she saw the offset cockpit and missile drum of the Thor top the hill.

Move, Sheila, move! she shouted at herself, but everything seemed to be taking so long; her limbs felt immersed in mud. Somehow she was out of the cockpit and draped over the wolflike nose of her 'Mech, but as she reached for the shoulder to roll off her downed machine, something landed right behind her and a wave of heat washed over her legs. She twisted around and looked squarely into the viewport of an Elemental. Sheila didn't wear a gun in the cockpit, and there was no time to get to it even if she had. She began to raise her hands in surrender, but the Elemental picked her up with its claw and threw her off the Shruiken. Sheila had a brief vision of the world spinning around her, brown mud, and then the feeling of rain on her face as she lay on the ground, staring up at a leaden sky. As the blackness crowded her vision, she could distantly hear a feminine voice shouting over the Thor's loudspeakers to leave her alone. With one last, blinding flash of clarity before unconsciousness mercifully took her, Sheila recognized the voice.

I kin death for thee, Snowbird.