THE RACE OF THE SNOWBIRDS

Chapter 11 of the Snowbird Saga

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Well, here we are, Chapter 11. (Bankruptcy!) I think I've got about three more of these (counting this one) before I make an end to the Snowbird Saga. Since Inu-Yasha just ended, I'm feeling the need to write fanfics of that again…

I kind of had to play with dates again. I'm really not sure how long it takes a JumpShip to recharge, so I don't know if the Snowbirds could move around as much as they do in this story arc. I think my readers will forgive me on this one, though—at least, I hope so. Also, I'm going on the dates in the Clan Wolf Sourcebook and moving some units around that might not be canon. There's no evidence, of course, that the 11th Wolf Guards or the 352nd Assault Cluster were moved anywhere but straight forward, but I would assume that even Clan Wolf grants its warriors some rest periods. And having read Chapters 26 and 29 of Blood Legacy several times, I find it interesting that Stackpole makes no mention of the 13th Wolf Guards (including Phelan Wolf) fighting on Tamar, but the Clan Wolf Sourcebook is pretty specific about it. (I also make a bit of a goat of Conal Ward in this chapter, but hey, the jerk deserves it.)

Anyhow, this story arc is just chock full of 'Mech action, so let's get the talky portion out of the way, shall we?

REVIEWER'S CORNER:

SulliMike: Yep. Things are starting to heat up quite a bit in the ol' Inner Sphere.

4477 Thire: I thought about using "Gory Gory" (or whatever it's called), but decided that gallows humor was not what was called for there.

RogueBaron: I made a mark on the Wobbies? When did I do that? I don't remember doing that. (I remember drawing risque pictures in response to someone else drawing them, heh heh.) Anyway, yeah, I agree. There was a U-boat skipper who said he could turn an atheist into a raging evangelist just by putting him under depth charge attack. As for Senefa…well, fighting Clan Wolf won't be too hard for an ex-Jade Falcon.

Mosin: I'm glad you liked the speech. I was worried it would come out sounding too rah-rah.

Wolfman: Thanks, and welcome to the show.

MUSIC CORNER: Theme from Lifeforce by Henry Mancini is a good "opening theme," as well as "Attack" from Patton.


Clan Wolf WarShip Dire Wolf

Assault Orbit, Tamar, Clan Wolf Occupied Zone

15 November 3051

Phelan Wolf leaned back in his chair, rubbed his eyes, and blinked a few times, trying to stay awake. In the sole bed of their shared compartment on the Dire Wolf, Ranna lay unmoving, in an exhausted sleep. They had come off operations only twelve hours before, when the 13th Wolf Guards had finally been pulled off the line, after having taken Tamar City. Other units of Alpha Galaxy were still fighting in the city, mostly against isolated pockets of resistance and the remnants of the Tamar War College cadet battalion, who continued to fight. Duke Selvin Kelswa, the ruler of Tamar, was dead in the wreckage of his Atlas, though it had taken a rare occurrence of gang tactics to bring the old duke down. Continued resistance was long since hopeless, and had been since the 26th Lyran Guards had evacuated Tamar a week before—but fighting continued. Phelan didn't envy the other Wolf warriors still onplanet. In the final hours before the 13th Wolf Guards had been pulled out for a rest, Phelan's Star had been attacked by 12 and 13-year old cadets in training 'Mechs, some with explosives strapped to them to act as suicide bombers. The tactics had horrified the Clan warriors; Phelan had actually seen the tough, normally unflappable Elemental Star Captain Evantha Fetladral in tears after the battle. He had been ready to sleep for a week, but he was back on the Dire Wolf no more than an hour before ilKhan Ulric Kerensky had come to him, asking for Phelan to prepare a report—not on Tamar, but on the raiding occurring deep behind the main line of resistance, in Clan Wolf occupied space. That had been five hours ago.

Phelan got up, poured himself his fourth mug of coffee, and went back to work at the tiny desk in the compartment. He smiled at the reports on the holodisplay in front of him. He flexed his hands, fought down a yawn, and prepared to go back to work, only to be interrupted by a soft knock on the compartment's door. Sighing, he got up to answer it, prepared to tear into someone. His protest died on his lips and he came to attention: at the door was no less than the ilKhan himself. Phelan was about six feet tall, but Ulric Kerensky, though only a few inches taller, looked more so because he was thin, though like most Clan warriors, he was also muscular. His white hair was trimmed short, as was his goatee. Ulric could be very intimidating when he wanted, but he was smiling now. "Good evening, Phelan. May I come in?"

"Of course, sir." Phelan said it quietly and motioned at Ranna. Ulric nodded, and ducked his head under the coaming as he came in. Ulric helped himself to a cup of coffee and sat down next to Phelan in a fragile-looking director's chair. He winced at the powerful brew. "Did you prepare this?"

"No, sir; it was Ranna."

"She takes after her grandmother in more than one way. Natasha's coffee could kill a horse." He glanced over at her, still dead to the world. "I am sorry to disturb you, but I would like to see that report." Phelan wondered why it was that important to Ulric: as ilKhan of the Clans, Ulric had a war to run that involved all six invading Clans, and a relatively small raid seemed beneath him. Phelan didn't expect an explanation, but he got one as Ulric leaned back. "I just got out of a three-hour screaming match with Natasha Kerensky, Garth Radick, and Conal Ward. The latter two are quite upset."

Phelan nodded. Natasha and Garth were the Khans of Clan Wolf, the titular rulers of the Clan, while Conal Ward was commander of Delta Galaxy and quite influential in Clan politics. Seeing that Ulric wanted his opinion, he said, "That is not to be surprised at, sir. After all, the Snowbirds did embarrass Conal."

"Mm. Not that embarrassing Conal Ward is particularly difficult, quiaff?" Phelan tactfully didn't answer that. Ulric and Conal had been rivals for nearly thirty years; while Ulric merely disliked Conal, the latter loathed Ulric. Recently, Conal had attempted to get a Khanship of his own by promoting Ulric as ilKhan, where he would be relatively powerless to influence Clan Wolf politics. Ulric had deftly outmanuevered Conal by elevating Natasha Kerensky to the position, despite the fact that she had been away from the Clans for nearly fifty years, terrorizing the Inner Sphere as the legendary Black Widow. Whereas Ulric and Natasha were members of the Warden faction, which opposed the invasion of the Inner Sphere, both Garth Radick and Conal were members of the majority Crusader faction, which not only had succeeded in getting the Clans to invade, but also intended to destroy the Successor Houses and replace them with a new Star League—one along Clan lines. "Is your report finished?" Ulric asked.

"Not quite, sir, but it is mostly finished."

"Let me hear what you have."

"Yes sir." Phelan took a drink of coffee and began. "On 31 October, a battalion-sized Inner Sphere unit struck Mozrije, one of our supply bases. It was only defended by second-line units—infantry, a few tanks, and a dezgra Trinary of 'Mechs." A dezgra unit was made up of warriors who had been disgraced, who were too old, or freeborn warriors who had failed to get into one of the Wolves' garrison Clusters. "Needless to say, this unit did not last long. It was destroyed, then the supply base was completely destroyed." Phelan paused. "The Inner Sphere unit was identified as the Snowbirds Special Missions Combined Arms Team of the Sentinels Regimental Combined Arms Team, mercenaries under contract to the Federated Commonwealth."

"I am not familiar with the Snowbirds," Ulric told him. "Are they a new unit?"

"Yes and no, ilKhan. They were formed, we believe, about this time last year and consisted of two 'Mech companies. It seems they have been expanded to a full combined arms battalion with three 'Mech companies, a company of tanks, and possibly a squadron of Aerofighters, along with platoon-sized infantry support." Phelan couldn't resist a wry smile. "You know of their commander, sir—Sheila Arla-Vlata."

Recognition dawned in Ulric's eyes. "Ah, of course. Cavell Malthus' bane. The woman who beat Senefa Malthus in a Trial of Possession on Planting last December, then somehow convinced Senefa to defect in May of this year."

"The same, sir."

"You knew her, quiaff?"

Phelan's smile faded just a little. "Aff, ilKhan; we were at the Nagelring together." Phelan didn't mention that Sheila had been one of the ones that had voted against him in the review board that had gotten him expelled from the military academy. A year ago, Phelan might have reacted much more strongly, but Phelan Wolf had learned much that Phelan Kell hadn't had the maturity to. Still, Phelan couldn't help but be somehow proud of what Sheila had accomplished in her own short career. The loss of the Trial of Possession had merely been a minor affair, but Senefa Malthus' defection to the Inner Sphere had rocked the Clans and badly embarrassed the Jade Falcons. The Crusaders had attempted to spin it, saying that Senefa simply had bad genes and had been seduced by the decadent Inner Sphere. The Wardens had laughed at them, Ulric leading the charge: Senefa had not been seduced, but instead infuriated at the Jade Falcons' heavyhanded tactics. She was a traitor, yes, but if anything it showed that the Crusaders' supposed absolute moral authority over the Inner Sphere was hollow. Cavell Malthus had been stripped of his Khanship, though he retained command of the Falcons' premier Galaxy, and replaced by Vandervahn Chistu, an ardent Crusader with none of Cavell's charm or savvy. Anything that made the Jade Falcons look like fools was meat and drink to the Wolves. "Senefa gives Sheila a great deal of intelligence on the Clans, but I am surprised that the Snowbirds would strike at us, not the Jade Falcons." He motioned with the coffee cup at Phelan. "Continue."

"Aff. After the Snowbirds were done on Mozrije, they appeared on Kirchbach six days ago. Here they ran into heavier opposition—our Choyer Garrison Cluster, recuperating from operations on Cusset. The Snowbirds observed batchall and challenged Star Colonel Jewel to a Trial of Possession. She accepted and lost five of her warriors before the battle became a melee. Apparently, MechWarrior Rika of the 7th BattleMech Star, who was not involved in the combat, made a comment about Senefa being a quote 'freebirth traitor.' One of the Snowbirds' assault 'Mechs, an Awesome, apparently heard the transmission and opened fire on Rika. The Snowbirds broke off the fight and retreated, but Jewel found out that the Trial had merely been a distraction, because the Snowbirds' tanks had already attacked Swedenborg Heavy Industries, which had been left undefended. They had little trouble convincing the workers there to wreck the facility, and because the Choyers were chasing the Snowbirds, they had plenty of time to do so. The Snowbirds retreated offplanet soon thereafter."

"Casualties among the Choyer?" Ulric asked.

"Light. Three MechWarriors dead, eight wounded, seven 'Mechs destroyed. The Elementals suffered 25 casualties. We assume the Snowbirds also took some casualties, but they were light. However, the Swedenborg Industries will be out for eight months, best estimate." Phelan handed Ulric a sheet of paper. "Star Colonel Jewel has offered her resignation."

"I know. Conal wanted her reassigned to a dezgra unit. Natasha overrode him and has refused to accept Jewel's resignation. I agree—Jewel is a good woman and a fine commander. She merely was outmanuevered this time."

"Why is Conal so upset?" Phelan wanted to know. Conal Ward had a bad temper, but he usually kept it under control.

It was Ulric's turn to smile. "There is something that is not in the reports, at least not ones you had access to. It seems that the Snowbirds believe in adding insult to injury." Phelan nodded once; not only had the Mozrije base been burned, it had also been extensively vandalized. Wolf sigils had been spraypainted over, water pipes had been broken to flood out barracks, and even the toilets boobytrapped with non-lethal, but highly effective tear gas grenades. "It seems that Conal's personal luggage was on Kirchbach. The Snowbirds apparently identified him as a high-ranking member of our Clan, and stole his dress uniform. The rest of his luggage was thrown into a sewage ditch. Is that a smile I see on your face, Star Commander Phelan?"

"Neg, ilKhan," Phelan lied. Conal despised Phelan, and the feeling was more than mutual.

"You are a remarkably poor poker player, quiaff? You must ask Natasha for additional training. In any case, what is our supply shortfall from these two raids?"

"17 percent. However, the loss of Swedenborg could cut into our ammunition supplies in the short term. We can make up the shortfall easily by bringing up supplies from the homeworlds, but it could cause us problems—not insurmountable ones, of course, but some."

"Where are the Snowbirds now?"

Phelan brought up a map of the coreward sector of the Inner Sphere, and pointed to a world that glowed green. "Intel believes here, on Maxie's Planet. The ComStar HPG station went off the air two days ago, we believe with the collusion of the local Precentor." He looked at Ulric. "If I may venture an opinion, sir, I do not think we can entirely trust ComStar. Primus Myndo Waterly and Precentor Martial Anastasius Focht may be working with us, but individual Precentors on occupied worlds do not seem to completely share their willingness to work with the Clans."

"Interesting. I will have to bring that up when I see the Precentor Martial later today. Maxie's Planet has an active resistance, quiaff?"

"Aff. More than likely the Snowbirds are there to assist or evacuate the remaining members." Phelan turned back to his computer. "Sir, I am afraid that is all I have for now. I have not yet written the conclusion to my report."

"Let me add something to it." Ulric finished the coffee. "Losing his dress uniform is just the catalyst for getting Conal enraged, but it is more than that. Garth Radick is very concerned—and I am inclined to agree with him—that the Snowbirds may be attempting to raid even deeper. They have struck three planets in less than a month. Obviously, and correctly, Commander Arla-Vlata is avoiding pitched battles, which means she is preserving her force, and her supplies."

"Both the Mozrije and Kirchbach garrisons reported that the Snowbirds stole supplies as well," Phelan added.

"Which makes sense. We have adapted Inner Sphere supplies to our stores; the reverse can be true as well. The question is, why? Most raids are confined to one or two planets. Arla-Vlata has struck three, and I believe that she is far from finished. Do you concur?"

"Aff, ilKhan."

"Which has worried Khan Radick," Ulric repeated. At the confused look on Phelan's face, he reached out and traced a finger 'upwards,' towards the galactic core—and the Clan homeworlds. "That's impossible!" Phelan exclaimed, shocked enough to forget the Clan tradition of avoiding contractions and reverting back to his Spherian speech pattern. "I don't know the route back to the planets; no Clan warrior below Khan rank does…right? Er, quiaff?"

"Keep your voice down," Ulric ordered, inclining his head towards Ranna. "We of the Kerensky blood are notoriously bad-tempered when we are awakened. In answer to your badly-worded question, Phelan, neg. Some Star Colonels know the route. Senefa Malthus was not one of them…that we know of. The Jade Falcons say that she did not, but the possibility exists, however remote, that they are lying or that Senefa found out without their knowledge."

"One battalion cannot do much damage," Phelan insisted.

"They do not need to. They merely need to find the homeworlds. I do not worry about a counter-invasion, Phelan, but the mere threat of Inner Sphere units among the homeworlds would inflame the Crusaders to the point of no return." Phelan went pale at that. The more fanatical of the Crusaders had proposed that the Clans threaten to strike recalcitrant planets with orbital bombardment or even nuclear weapons to insure an Inner Sphere surrender. So far, cooler heads had prevailed—after all, few amongst the Clans wanted to rule an Inner Sphere of radioactive cinders—but it would also undercut the Wardens' position that the Inner Sphere was no threat to the Clans. Sheila Arla-Vlata was playing with armageddon and didn't even know it.

Ulric sighed. "In any case, Phelan, even if the Snowbirds are not aimed for the homeworlds, there is plenty of damage they can do here. You said that the Swedenborg workers actively cooperated, quiaff? And that the Precentor on Maxie's Planet voluntarily shut off his HPG transmitter? Resistance already is transmitted by word of mouth—DropShip captains and the like. If Precentors who resent the Primus' cooperation with us decide to start surreptitiously transmitting, or worse, openly rebel, then we could face a massive rising in our rear areas. So far, ComStar has managed to prevent that, and Clan Wolf of course has tried to treat our conquered planets decently. The other Clans have not shared our views. Moreover, raids have increased over the past month. Another mercenary command, Snord's Irregulars, struck Jade Falcon units in the Dark Nebula region. House Kurita Ryuken units are staging from Wolcott against the Smoke Jaguar and Ghost Bear rear areas."

Phelan glanced at the map, seeing where Ulric was going with this. The longer raiding parties stayed loose in the Clan rear, the more word would spread among the occupied planets. Resistance groups, which had slowly been surrendering or convinced to give up a hopeless fight, would take heart and fight on. More resistance groups might follow. If a few ComStar Precentors or even ComGuard garrisons decided to join them, things could rapidly get out of hand. By themselves, the Snowbirds were a nuisance. Multiplied, or allowed to run rampant—and, Phelan knew, there wasn't much that could stop a veteran unit that deep behind the lines—the Clans could face a fire in the rear equal to the one to their front. "We must run them down," Phelan said sadly.

"Aff." Ulric was no less unhappy. It was the biggest paradox of the Wardens in the Clans. Having failed to convince the Clans to leave the Inner Sphere alone, their best bet to foil the Crusaders was for that faction to spectacuarly lose. The Wardens, however, simply couldn't sabotage the invasion openly. Ulric hoped that Clan Wolf could make it to Terra first: once they were proclaimed the ilClan, which the other Clans would have to obey, then he could order the Clans to leave the Inner Sphere forever. Unfortunately, that meant beating the Crusaders at their own conquering game. While the Snowbirds were doing a fine job of making the overconfident Crusaders look like fools, they were also threatening to become the snowflake that would send an avalanche hurtling in a direction Ulric couldn't control. "We must do it quickly, as well."

"One Cluster?" Phelan ventured. "The Nega and Gorbeng Garrison Clusters are on Laurent."

"Natasha has already ordered the Nega to proceed to Rasalhague. We cannot afford a popular rising on the former capital of the Free Rasalhague Republic." Ulric shook his head. "No, a Garrison Cluster might not be able to stop the Snowbirds. They simply do not have the hitting power, or the speed. No, Khan Radick and Conal insist on a frontline Cluster, and for once, I agree." Ulric chuckled. "Of course, in doing so, we are playing right into the Federated Commonwealth's plan. I am quite sure that Hanse Davion would very much enjoy the spectacle of Clusters we need to take planets chasing our tails instead. But my hands are tied, as are Natasha's. We are sending two Clusters, the better to end this quickly."

"Which ones?"

"That, Phelan, depends largely on you." Ulric put a hand on the young man's shoulder. "You know Sheila Arla-Vlata. Where do you think she will strike next?"

"I do not know her that well…"

"Nevertheless, you have proven yourself remarkably able at predicting an enemy's moves—both foreign and domestic."

Phelan returned his attention back to the map. He thought about it for several minutes and called up data on a few planets, while Ulric waited patiently. Finally, Phelan's finger stabbed at a planet that glowed Wolf brown. "Here, ilKhan. New Caledonia."

Ulric stared over his shoulder. "Why there?"

"Well…Mozrije, Kirchbach, and Maxie's Planet are all within one jump of each other. For the Snowbirds to hit so many planets in so short of a time means that their JumpShips are not taking a great deal of time to recharge—just enough to make short duration jumps. New Caledonia is close to Maxie's Planet. Moreover, there are several steel plants there and a great deal of mining interests, ones which produce 'Mech armor plates that we need. It also has a small but active resistance. The Snowbirds could expect the same reception they got on Kirchbach."

"Are there other planets that fit the same parameters?"

Phelan quickly scanned more data. "Just Verthandi." He shrugged. "Of course, there is the possibility that they will either make a long jump somewhere else, or raid further into Jade Falcon space."

"That will be the Jade Falcons' problem, quiaff?" Ulric shook his head. "Neg, Phelan. Clan Wolf is the primary target, almost certainly because we have advanced the farthest the quickest. I think Maxie's Planet is a feint. What units do we have in the area?"

"The Choyer Garrison Cluster is still on Kirchbach. They are closest."

"I would rather not send the Choyer…they are already understrength, and I am not sure that Khan Radick will trust Star Colonel Jewel."

"Well, in that case, the closest is actually the 11th Wolf Guards. They are on New Oslo, on their way to the front—they're supposed to take Vorarlberg in two weeks. Star Colonel John Ward has just finished a R&R period."

Ulric closed his eyes in thought. "Vorarlberg is poorly defended, as I recall. It can keep. John Ward is a good commander and a good man." Phelan knew that John Ward was also a Warden and one of Ulric's allies. "What else?"

Phelan scrolled down the Wolf order of battle, and was surprised. "The 352nd Assault Cluster is heading back to Mozrije. Star Colonel Erik Kerensky was ordered to refit and take in replacements. They got a little torn up on Sevren." Phelan tapped at the keys. "Orders are a week old—issued by Khan Radick. Star Colonel Kerensky probably does not know Mozrije has been sacked."

"Well, well…Erik." Ulric stroked his goatee, wryly smiling. Erik and Ulric were sibkin, growing up together in the same company. They did not like each other: Erik was a fanatic Crusader. Phelan could clearly see Ulric wondering if Sheila Arla-Vlata might rid him of a thorn in his side before she was run to ground. "What is the 352nd's strength?"

"60 percent of normal. Their fighters are still on Sevren."

"Excellent." He stood. "We will send two frontline Clusters, then—divert John Ward's 11th Guards from New Oslo to New Caledonia, and Erik Kerensky's 352nd to Verthandi. Either one will destroy the Snowbirds." Ulric patted Phelan's shoulder again. "Excellent work, Phelan. You are making this a habit. Now get some sleep—that is an order, quiaff?"

"Aff, ovkhan."

Ulric paused on the threshold of the door. "Phelan…I know you and Sheila are not friends, but…does it bother you helping to plan her demise?"

Phelan knew why the question was asked. Ulric was always testing him. Phelan's loyalties were with Clan Wolf, but neither did he want to see his homeland destroyed by the Crusaders. It was a catch-22. On one hand, he wanted Sheila to succeed, but the consequences for Clan Wolf were not good if she did. "Aff," he finally answered.

"I as well. I hate to see a good unit and a good commander destroyed, especially when they could be valuable allies in the future. Such is the nature of this war." He nodded and was gone.

Phelan stretched and grinned at Ranna, who was now softly snoring. Ranna was capable of sleeping through an atomic bomb. Before he shut off his computer, however, Phelan brought up a picture of Sheila Arla-Vlata from the newsnets. She looked different from the young, gawky girl he remembered from the Nagelring. He felt a sudden pang of sorrow for his former classmate. "You poor woman," he said quietly. "You don't know what you've started."