Chapter 10 of the Snowbird Saga
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Well, I was going to wait a little longer before starting up a new chapter, but I got bored, watched Gods and Generals (where I got the idea for the opening quote and story arc title), and decided to quit wasting my time playing Madden and get back to writing. Plus my "real" book is now finished (though only God knows when and if it'll be published), and finals are still a week off, so I have a little time before the deluge. Though I don't know when or how often I'm going to be able to update over the next few weeks—after finals is convention season, and I'm hitting two in May.
This story arc is likely to be long, possibly the longest so far, but this and the next one will set up the Snowbirds' final mission. I'll also be putting up a new battalion roster in a few chapters as well. Things are about to get very interesting—in the Chinese sense of the word—for the Snowbirds.
Thanks to Kat and Rouge kind of setting a fire under me on DeviantArt, and for everyone who reviewed the last chapter of Snowbird's Revenge.
BTW, the "leader guy" having a Christmas dinner of beans and broth is a reference to Dick Winters, the leader of the now-legendary Easy Company of the 101st Airborne, the "Band of Brothers." I just finished a biography of him and I can safely say that his example of leadership will still be studied in the 31st Century.
Then he broke the barriers of war and through the swollen river swiftly took his standards. And Caesar crossed the flood and reached the opposite bank. From Hesperia's forbidden fields he took his stand and said: "Here I abandon peace and desecrated law. Fortune, it is you I follow. Farewell to treaties. From now on…war is our judge."
--Marcus Lucanus, Pharsalia
Sudeten, Tamar March, Federated Commonwealth
25 September 3051
Max Canis-Vlata abruptly woke from a sound sleep. Unsure of exactly why he was now awake, he squinted at the clock. It read 4 AM. With the schedule clear, they could sleep in tomorrow; in fact, he had planned on it. He noticed he was alone, and that the light was on over the small table in the room. In the reflection of the mirror on the wall, he saw his wife Sheila sitting at the desk. She was in her robe, her hair not caught in its usual ponytail, but left to fall free to her shoulder blades. He always thought it made her look exotic, and for the thousandth time wondered how he could have been so lucky to get a girl like her. With that in mind, he simply stared at her for a long time.
Outside, Sudeten was undergoing its first winter storm—not a bad one, just enough to make things messy, cold, wet, and miserable. Inside, the room was warm. Sheila had her legs crossed under the chair, giving Max plenty of opportunity to regard their smooth musculature, while the shadows in the robe's front enticed him. However, the erotic thoughts Max was beginning to form abruptly ceased at the look on Sheila's face. It was one of intense concentration, and anger.
Max had come to realize that, in marrying Sheila Allegra Arla-Vlata, he had actually married two people: Sheila, his loving, playful, sweet wife, and Lieutenant Commander Arla-Vlata, the hard-edged, dynamic, even on occasion ruthless leader of the Snowbirds Special Missions Combined Arms Team. The two were often hard to reconcile. He loved them both deeply, but there were times the Commander bothered him. Involuntarily, his eyes fell to the artificial arm. It no longer bothered him when the cold steel touched him at night, and he understood Sheila's reasoning not to have it painted or covered in artificial skin: it served as a reminder that no one was untouchable. It also gave instant recognition that here was a woman who had seen the elephant, who had fought in combat and deserved respect. Still, he also wondered if it was a small reflection of Sheila's loss of innocence.
Max was always amazed at how innocent and even naïve MechWarriors could be. He knew it was because mentally, MechWarriors could put distance between themselves and their targets, and pretend that the enemy 'Mech was not piloted by a living, breathing human being. They could dodge it for a long time, even after watching a 'Mech explode under their guns and knowing, deep inside, that they had just killed another person. They could reassure themselves that maybe, in the confusion or the huge fireball, that the other warrior had managed to eject. Sooner or later, however, every MechWarrior found themselves face to face with the fact that they were, in the end, killers. For some, it didn't bother them at all and they even grew to relish the killing. For others, it broke them entirely and they never took the field again. Most dealt with it in their own way and moved on, but were never the same again; their own parents might not recognize them any longer.
"Take a picture, it'll last longer." Max blinked, coming out of his thoughts. Sheila glanced at him, then went back to jotting notes down with a pencil.
Max got out of bed and looked over her shoulder. "What's up?" He kissed her neck.
"Not now." She shrugged him off. "I'm busy."
"Busy." Max folded his arms.
"I see." Max took two steps back, then struck like a cobra. His fingers found Sheila's ribs, ran up and down them, then went after her armpits. Sheila bit her lip, struggled, then burst into laughter. She tried to get away, but now Max had her in a half-nelson and was nibbling at her earlobes, which was just as ticklish. "S-Stop…stop it!" she giggled. "Dammit, I'm trying to—I'm trying to work here!"
"Let go, you horny—leave me—I'll bust my arm like Senefa did!" She was laughing too hard to break out of the hold, but finally Max decided he'd made his point and let loose. Sheila rearranged her robe. "You nymphomaniac!"
Max sat on the bed. "I am not. Women are nymphomaniacs. Men have satyriasis."
"Oh. Well, that's what I get for marrying an intellectual."
Max pointed at the maps and printouts littering the table. "And that's what I get for marrying my commanding officer. What's so important that you're up at 4 AM being Bitch S. Patton?"
"Okay, okay…sorry." Sheila leaned back in the chair. "I couldn't sleep."
"Something bugging you?"
"Yeah." Sheila picked up a map of the Inner Sphere and showed it to him. She had filled in the planets that the Clans were known to have taken. "According to the brief we got the other day, we can expect the Clans to renew the offensive at any time. The AFFC now has something like forty regiments on the line. The Rasalhagians have about a third of that. We don't know what Kurita has, but we can assume they have just as many as the AFFC does."
"Makes sense that the Wolves might break through in the center."
"That's true, but that's not really what I'm getting at." She handed him the map, then adopted the pose of Rodin's famous Thinker statue. "Now, my genius of a lovah, what would George S. Patton, Dwight D. Eisenhower, or hell, Alexsandr Kerensky think if they saw that map?"
Max stared at the map for a moment, then turned it on its side, so that the Clan breakthrough came from the "east," rather than coreward, galactic "north," facing towards the center of the Milky Way. "The Ardennes."
Max nodded with her. Though it had taken place just over a thousand years ago, the events of World War II, what some referred to as the "Hitler War," was still extensively studied as the basis for mechanized warfare. At the Nagelring and the New Avalon Military Academy, the Germans' doomed Ardennes offensive of December 1944 was held up as an object lesson of never underestimating an enemy, even when that enemy appeared to be all but beaten. It was also used as a lesson on how to defend a breach with minimal personnel. "I see your point. We've massed all our regiments at the front of the Clans' line, but little at the shoulders."
"Right. But the first rule of defending a breach that they taught us at the 'Ring was that you hold at the shoulders, wait for your enemy to exhaust himself, then attack and cut him off. Instead of having a deep penetration, you end up encircling the enemy—you turn potential disaster into opportunity." Sheila spread her hands. "So why aren't we doing that?"
"Sheila, you do realize that the AFFC High Command is made up of guys like Morgan Hasek-Davion and Hanse Davion who know a thing or two about strategy, right?"
Sheila gave him a dirty look, then sighed. "Yeah, you're right. It just doesn't seem right, that's all. We should be attacking the Clans, not sitting around waiting for them to hit us. It's too much like leaning into a punch to the face."
"We tried attacking, hon. You do remember Planting."
"And Twycross, sure." Sheila abruptly stood up and began to pace. "I know it's dumb to get all worked up by this. It's not like we can win the war all by our lonesome. I just hate sitting here."
"We just got back from Vantaa not that long ago."
"I know, I know..." Sheila sat on the bed next to Max, who hugged her. Operation Sun Dragon had provided a sort of closure for her. It had wrapped up loose ends. There was no longer Athena Henderson to haunt Sheila's dreams, and the Snowbirds as a whole felt they had made up at least partially for being kicked off the planet. And with Duke Bonner dead, there was less of a chance of a fire in the rear as well. It had cemented Senefa Malthus as a member of the Snowbirds. Except for one loose end, Sheila and Max could face the future squarely, with no thought to what lay behind.
That loose end had red hair and stood a little over three feet tall. Louisa Keynes had become inseparable from Sheila and Max on the way home, and they had the experience of parents who have their lovemaking abruptly interrupted by a little voice saying she had a bad dream, which left nothing to do but get dressed discreetly and allow the little girl to sleep nestled between them. There were times that both of them had regretted the spur of the moment decision to suddenly become parents, though Louisa had proven in a short week to be a model child, and quite independent—she dressed herself, she went to bed on time, and she was respectful to her elders. She was still a six-year old kid: she talked to her stuffed bunny rabbit (restored to full health by an eerily doting Marion Rhialla and a sewing kit), she loved to jump on the bed and play horsey games with Max, and she had gotten into a spirited game of tag with Maysa Bari on the zero-G deck of the Minerva, where Louisa had twisted and turned and tumbled and giggled to her heart's content. That was good for her, but she rarely cried over her dead parents and twin sister, which Sheila and Max wondered at, and when she smiled or laughed, it never seemed to make it to her eyes. She was also developing what they considered an unhealthy interest in BattleMechs. Most six year olds were content with Thomas the Tank and Boo Boo Kitty, but Louisa had been found one morning leafing through technical readouts in rapt fascination.
The problem was that now every decision Sheila and Max had to make also had to take into account Louisa. Sheila found herself discarding mental plans for 'Mech offensives as being too risky, and Max—who did the family finances because of Sheila's complete ineptitude at balancing a checkbook—now had to take into account a six-year old's voracious appetite and sweet tooth. He had mused to Sheila the day before that Louisa was capable of obliterating pocky candy at a rate of three boxes every 24 hours. The only reason Louisa was not with them now was because she was staying the weekend with Sheila's parents. (Which in itself was a minor problem. When Louisa had been dropped off at her newfound grandparents, the look on Calla and Arla's face was one that promised Sheila gleeful revenge for all the time their only daughter had made her parents' life hellish.) There was also the fact that the AFFC wanted as many civilians off Sudeten as possible, especially the families of 'Mech units: most war orphans like Louisa were being sent off to special centers far back towards the central parts of the Lyran half of the Federated Commonwealth, out of what was hoped was the attack vector of the Clans. Not even Sheila or Calla was going to be able to make the argument that Louisa was a special case; the other children of the Sentinels had been left behind on Grunwald, the Sentinels' homeworld. While Sheila and Max understood the reasoning behind that, they had managed to establish a rapport with the little girl and wanted that to continue. Both of them had seen far too many hollow-eyed orphans in centers and camps across the Inner Sphere. Most were lucky enough to be adopted out, but some would spend their entire lives in camps—or penal battalions, where far too many ended up.
Max looked at the map again, mainly to get his mind of his daughter of two weeks. "You know," he said into the silence, "I think you're onto something with this Battle of the Bulge idea, Sheila." He traced a finger down to Terra. "If the Clans are going for Terra, this is going to end up like a funnel. Senefa says that the first ones to take Terra win the prize and become the ilClan—whatever the hell that is—so they're not going to be paying much attention to their flanks as everybody runs for the finish line. I remember Patton saying something about having the balls to let the Germans go all the way to Paris during the Bulge. Maybe we should have the balls to let them go all the way to Terra." Max smirked. "Certainly give those assholes at ComStar something to think about. I don't like how the third-largest army in the Inner Sphere is sitting on its behind."
Sheila nodded. It was peculiar. The ComGuards had the numbers and their equipment was the best in the Inner Sphere, outside of the Clans themselves. It was true that many of their warriors were green, but it was better than nothing. Ten or twenty ComGuard regiments at any one place on the front lines could spell the difference between victory and defeat. Yet ComStar was remaining neutral. The general consensus among the Sentinels and other units was that ComStar was either practicing suicidal pacifism or, worse, was working with the Clans. Since ComStar had a near monopoly on interstellar communications, the thought of them turning against the rest of the Inner Sphere was enough to chill the blood. "True enough," she said. Her fingers marched over the map as well. "Question is, are we Bastogne?"
"Heh. I hope not. Of course, we've got plenty of supplies here. Did you ever read that one book where the leader guy's Christmas dinner is a couple of beans and hot broth? At least we'll eat good."
Sheila started to laugh, then suddenly she seized the map from Max and looked at it intensely. "My God…" she breathed, "that's it. That's it."
"What's it?" Max asked.
"That's it!" Sheila shot to her feet and grabbed at her notes like a drowning man going for a life preserver. "How the hell did I not see that? Of course! It's clear as a damn bell now!"
Max looked at his wife. "Sheila," he said in all seriousness, "have you lost your mind?"
She stopped scribbling and looked over her shoulder at him with a grin. "Probably." She went over to him and drew him to his feet. "Supplies, Max."
"Uh huh." He was not following her.
"Supplies. The Clans use supplies just like we do…and from what Senefa tells me, they tend to be a bit prolifigate with them. After all, their supply lines are secure, and the Clan homeworlds are untouched. They can keep churning out war stuff with no threat from us, because we don't know where they are." That had been the first question the AFFC had asked Senefa: where are the Clan homeworlds? The problem was, Senefa didn't know. Warriors were not given that information for precisely in case they were captured. The Clan homeworlds were a carefully guarded secret not even Jaime Wolf knew. "But we do know where the Clans are caching their supplies!"
Sheila half-sobered. "Well, okay. We don't. But I bet MIIO does. They knew when Vantaa was getting a scheduled run. I bet if they don't know, they can find out." Sheila's finger stabbed at the map, now lying forgotten on the floor. "We can raid them, Max!"
"The Snowbirds! This is right up our alley. We can wreck their supply chain. That's one of the reasons why the Germans couldn't break through in the Ardennes! They ran out of gas!" She put a finger on his lips. "I know what you're going to say—'Mechs don't run on gas. But they need ammo, and the Clans don't seem to think much of shooting it off everywhere. And MechWarriors and Elementals have to eat. We can really do some damage, Max. We can make them look over their shoulders! We can attack!"
"Sheila, calm down." He kissed her nose. "Okay, I agree with you. We can at least run it past your dad and Morgan…if they don't mind being bothered on a Sunday, anyway." He glanced at the chronometer. "Speaking of your dad, when are we supposed to pick up Louisa?"
"Oh, around dinnertime."
"Plenty of time then." He reached down and unknotted the bow of her robe. "I'm sorry, Commander, but all this talk of attack and penetrations has seriously turned me on." He slid the robe off her shoulders. It was warm in the room; Sheila had not worn her pajamas that night. Or anything else. Sheila smiled, reached down, and slid off his boxers.
"You're a satyr, Max."