Chapter 12 of the Snowbird Saga

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Well, the wait wasn't too bad, I hope.

It's been a pretty rough semester for me so far, and it's not likely to get much easier. I finally got some free time this weekend and started hammering out an opening chapter to this story. Given how my schedule is, I don't know how good I'll be about updating, though. I'll try, but no promises.

This chapter takes place roughly between chapters 33 and 34 of Blood Legacy.

SDS Minerva, Inbound

Kagoshima, Pesht District, Draconis Combine

24 December 3051

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Jerome—

It is with heavy heart and much sorrow that I must inform you of the death of your son, Eric. He was a brave MechWarrior and a fine man. By the time you receive this letter, you probably will already have gotten the official notification from the AFFC, but as your son's commanding officer, I felt you deserved to hear from me as well.

Eric was killed on New Caledonia against the Wolves on 26 November 3051. It was a very confused battle in an old mine pit, and while I did not see your son go down, one of my lance commanders, Senefa Malthus, reports that she saw him get hit. He died standing up and fighting back, alongside his comrades, and while that's scant comfort to your loss…

Sheila finished the letter, read it over, then saved it on the Minerva's computer inside a folder marked simply Killed in Action. Next to the computer lay a single sheet of paper, held down by a coffee cup that rattled with the DropShip burning its way through atmosphere. Normally, this part of a voyage terrified Sheila, because of the rare but very real possibility of the DropShip simply disintegrating on reentry. Worse, it could last a good thirty minutes. Sheila found that keeping herself busy was the best way to stave off fear, and in any case, whatever she was feeling was nothing compared to what the families and friends of the people on the piece of paper would be feeling soon. Parsecs and weeks behind them, New Caledonia and Clan Wolf had claimed the lives of thirty-one Snowbirds. Normally it was the job of a chaplain to write letters to loved ones following a death, but the Snowbirds had no chaplain, and Sheila felt it was her job in any case. She knew these people, and ultimately their deaths were on her head.

She glanced at the names again, though she knew them by heart. Only five were MechWarriors: Kassy Holliday, Togan Nordkoping, Robert Copeland, Eric Jerome, Kaatha. The other twenty-six were tank crews, infantry, or techs, few of which Sheila actually knew—only John Williams, Jackson Dinson, and Vincent Lian were names that instantly brought faces in her mind's eyes. Sheila felt ashamed that she didn't know them all, but there had been so little time on Sudeten.

Actually, there were only twenty-nine letters to write. Kassy Holliday had not left any next of kin; as far as her former lover Cecilia Masterson knew, if Holliday had any family they had long ago disowned her. The only member of Kaatha's family left was two decks below, alive but despondent. Felisanna didn't need a letter. She had seen it happen before her eyes. Of all the Snowbirds, Kaatha's death hit the hardest. Sheila had gotten so accustomed to seeing the old veteran there when the lance was formed or when there were briefings that she had taken Kaatha something for granted. Now she was gone. The only comfort was that the Snowbirds had at least gotten her body back, along with the others who had fallen at the mine pit, in exchange with the Wolves. The Wolves had been reluctant to do even that, but getting their captured MechWarriors and Elementals back alive had finally convinced them to give the Snowbirds 24 hours to recover their fallen. It wasn't much, because a formal burial would have to wait until they returned to the Federated Commonwealth; until then, the bodies would be kept disturbingly but necessarily in the Minerva's meat locker.

What was comforting to Sheila and the others were the names that were on a separate sheet of paper, but one with a heading Wounded in Action. Twenty-three names were on that list, none more important to Sheila than the name at the top: Canis, Maximilian.

Sheila had won her battle on Brecon Plain through deceit; Max had won his at the tunnel through raw courage. The Wolves had been so stunned by the sudden, mad charge that had carried both Max's Battlemaster and the Daishi over the cliff that they had hesitated. David Moore had seen a chance and taken it, throwing everything he had left at the Wolves in the hopes that they would break before the Snowbirds. He had been right: the Elementals had already been on the ropes fighting heavy tanks, direct fire artillery, and maddened techs, and the 'Mechs had found themselves in a close-range fight they were ill-suited to, with their primary firepower taken out of the fight in the first minute. The 'Mechs had retreated, leaving Elemental Star Captain Marijoan Shaw alone. She had surrendered by the time Sheila's relief column reached the tunnel. Sheila had briefly considered killing Shaw and her Elementals out of hand after hearing of Erik Kerensky's "no prisoners" order, but changed her mind after she found Max injured, unconscious, but alive at the bottom of the canyon. Instead, she had told the Elementals to strip off their armor and start walking east, through the tunnel. Shaw had nodded, told Sheila, "We're not all Erik Kerenskys," and left.

Max had suffered a mild concussion and a dislocated shoulder, but he was all right otherwise and resting in a bunk behind her. Of the other MechWarriors, Troms Fiordur had cuts and bruises, but nothing serious, and to everyone's surprise, despite her Panther being blown in half, Glynnis Griffin had climbed out of the destroyed 'Mech with nothing worse than a jammed index finger. Tam Seneca had woken up a week after being knocked out at the mine pit, demanding to know what happened to his 'Mech and for a stiff drink. Only Kahvi Falx, who had a broken arm, and Ariel Munroe, who was still in intensive care but expected to live, were still combat ineffective among the MechWarriors. Most of the tankers, techs, and infantry would also be back on duty before the first of the year as well. Considering the odds, thirty-one people was a small price to pay. Sheila was sure the historians would say she had gotten away with light casualties, despite being outnumbered and outgunned…but they weren't the ones who had to write the letters.

There was a slight knock at the door. "Come in," Sheila said. She heard the door hiss open and the click of crutches on the deck; Mimi Stykkis was no longer capable of sneaking up on anyone. "What is it, Mimi?"

"Just brought you a cup of coffee, with a little extra. Thought you might need it. I recall you're none too fond of DropShips." Mimi set down a steaming cup next to the empty mug. Sheila picked it up and took a sip, then winced. There was the unmistakable taste of vodka. "Just what I needed," Sheila coughed out. "A White Russian."

"Like I said, figured you needed something."

"Thanks." Actually, it was the last thing Sheila needed, but she appreciated the effort. Somehow Mimi had balanced two cups of coffee—she was drinking the other mug—and walked from the Minerva's galley, up two decks, and to Sheila's cabin despite walking with crutches and the shaking and rattling of a DropShip in reentry. Everyone was supposed to be confined to their cabins until the all-clear, but Mimi had always figured that rules only applied to other people.

"How's Max?"

"Resting. He had to take a painkiller for his shoulder."

"Too bad." Mimi smiled devilishly. "He could've shown you a real hot reentry."

"Not in the mood, Mimi." Sheila nodded at the screen.

"Oh. Still at it, huh?" Mimi took another drink. "Marion offered to write those, you know."

"So did Elfa. But I'm in command, Mimi."

Mimi sighed. "Was there something else?" Sheila asked sharply.

"Captain Baron said that Chu-sa Nakamura is waiting for us on Kagoshima with some other Snake high mucky-muck or some other. Satori something."

"Hestor Satoridon. He's the CO of the 1st Sun Zhang Cadre. Probably commands the garrison here."

"Yeah, that's him." Mimi waited for Sheila to say something else, but when nothing else was forthcoming, sighed again. "Well, see you dirtside."

"Yeah. Thanks, Mimi," Sheila said distractedly. Mimi hobbled out as the shuddering ceased and the ride began to smooth out some, indicating the Minerva had safely made it through the atmosphere. Sheila looked after Mimi for a moment, then opened a new window on the computer and started a new letter.

Dear Mr. Kuchiki…

The Minerva and the Snowbirds' other DropShip, the Cambrai, landed half an hour and one letter later. As the DropShips secured and prepared to offload the Snowbirds' remaining 'Mechs and tanks, Sheila dressed in her formal uniform. Max closed the clasp on her cape. "You look fine," he reassured her.

"I don't feel fine," she replied. "I wish we could just skip all this formal stuff, get two weeks rest, load up and head back."

Max fastened his own cape. He winced as tendrils of pain wound their way up his shoulder. It was healing well, but still hurt. He was in better shape than his Battlemaster, which would be spending some time in the 'Mech bay. Nicia Caii was sure she could get it back in action soon enough, but it would require the services of a repair facility. Kagoshima had one that would be adequate, but no one knew how forthcoming the Draconis Combine would be. Sheila and Max had been raised to see House Kurita as an enemy; the Kuritans surely felt the same about them. It was an alliance of convienence at the moment, and would take more than a handshake between Hanse Davion and Theodore Kurita to erase almost three hundred years of hatred.

They left the tiny cabin that had been their home for nearly a month. Already they felt the heaviness of Kagoshima's gravity, which was slightly higher than Terra standard; the DropShip was a good bit less than Terra standard, as it relied on slow turning to generate a degree of artificial gravity. They would probably be tired for a few days, but it was good to be back on solid ground. Everyone in the Minerva stopped for a moment as the hatches were open and cool air flowed into the DropShip: fresh air that wasn't recirculated and didn't have a metallic smell.

The lower 'Mech bay was filled with Snowbirds and DropShip crew, but Sheila and Max would be the first out, with Nisa Kinosh in full if battered armor just behind, just in case. As the trio walked out of the DropShip's passenger hatch, heat from reentry still shimmered off the Minerva's hull. Coming towards them were two men, wearing the white dress uniforms of the Draconis Combine Mustered Soldiery with paired swords thrust into their belts, and both wearing heavy pistols as well. Apparently, the Kuritans trusted the Snowbirds somewhat more than vice-versa, but not much more.

Sheila felt a little better when she recognized Lee Nakamura. She stepped forward slightly, and bowed to all three men, hoping she got the angle correct. Noting that the sun was setting but still above the horizon, she said formally, "Konnichi wa, Chu-sa Nakamura."

Nakamura grinned and returned the bow, then stuck out his hand. "Good afternoon, Commander Arla-Vlata. It's good to see you hale and hearty. We heard through intelligence sources of the battle on New Caledonia and were not sure you'd be here at all. It was good to hear from you at the rendezvous in Brocchi's Cluster. I would have been there myself, but unfortunately there were matters of state."

"Domo arigato, Chu-sa," Sheila replied.

"May I introduce Tai-sa Hestor Satoridon, commander of the 1st Sun Zhang Cadre." Nakamura motioned to a man on his left. Satoridon was shorter than Sheila by a good three inches, and an otherwise handsome face was marred by a scar down his right cheek. His black hair was beginning to show signs of gray, but otherwise Sheila could not guess his age. He did not smile at her, and though Sheila was careful to bow slightly deeper and hold the bow a half-second longer than she had for Nakamura, Satoridon returned the bow only just enough to be polite. Wondering if she had already made a faux pas, Sheila began, "Konnichi wa, Tai-sa—"

"I speak English," Satoridon cut her off.

"I was just trying to—"

"I know what you are trying to do," Satoridon growled. "And I know what you want. Chu-sa Nakamura here has already briefed me. You'll get what you want, Commander Arla-Vlata. You'll have your 'Mechs and tanks fully repaired. And as soon as that is done, you and your hireswords will leave Kagoshima and return to your own realm, and leave us to ours." Before anyone could say anything further, Satoridon spun on one foot and walked away, leaving them all speechless.

Nakamura turned to Sheila, his grin now sheepish. "I apologize for the Tai-sa's actions. Attitudes change very slowly in the Combine when it comes to mercenaries."

Sheila watched Satoridon's stiff back as it disappeared into the terminal of the Edo DropPort. The Kurita colonel's actions had been highly impolite by Kurita standards; if she had been a samurai, it might have been enough to kill Satoridon over. Sheila was not a samurai however, and merely sighed. "No problem, Chu-sa. I can see that we're going to get along like a house on fire." And I hope the bastard burns, Sheila added silently.

Nakamura chuckled. "Well, it's not just you or the Snowbirds, Commander. We received word while you were in transit. The Smoke Jaguars and Nova Cats are massing to attack Luthien. We figure they will strike on New Year's Eve or immediately thereafter."

Sheila thought that she should feel surprised, but she wasn't. Part of it had to be the lingering fatigue, but part of it was that it made military sense. Luthien was the nerve center of the Combine, the seat of its government and location of much of its heavy industry, including the colossal Luthien Armor Works, the largest 'Mech production facility in the realm. Taking Luthien would badly damage House Kurita's ability to defend itself; if they could kill either Takashi Kurita, the Combine's ruler, or his son Theodore, the DCMS' commander, it might win the war on this front for the Clans. "I suppose the DCMS is massing everything you've got to defend it."

"As much as we can—five regiments, including the Otomo, both Genyosha regiments, the 1st Sword of Light, and the 2nd Legion of Vega, last we heard." His face betrayed nothing, but Sheila and Max shared a glance: five regiments would not be enough, not with what the Smoke Jaguars and Nova Cats could throw against the planet. Granted, the population of Luthien would probably die to the last man to defend the Imperial Palace, but rifles and grenades against 'Mechs and Elementals would only ensure that millions of people would die gloriously. The Snowbirds had gotten lucky with the Wolves only because they had caught Erik Kerensky by surprise twice, and that they had fought harder—and even then.

Nakamura gestured towards the departed Satoridon. "The Tai-sa is angry because his Sun Zhang Cadre was stripped of all the upperclassman cadets to fill out the 2nd Legion of Vega's ranks. He wanted to evacuate Kagoshima entirely and have the entire Cadre on Luthien, but the Kanrei—" he referred to Theodore Kurita "—refused to take the sophomores or freshmen. He says that if Luthien falls, we will need young men and women to retake it later."

"I suppose Tai-sa Satoridon didn't like that idea," Max said.

"Not at all."

"What's left to defend Kagoshima?" Sheila asked.

"One battalion of cadets, plus three regiments of militia." Nakamura shook his head. "Not much, granted, but it's not likely Kagoshima will be attacked. Other than the Sun Zhang Academy, there's nothing really here to attract the Clans. If Luthien falls, Kagoshima has been designated the rally point, but if your Senefa Malthus is correct, the Clans' objective is Terra, and Kagoshima is a bit off the beaten path. Did Lance Commander Malthus survive, by the way? I found her to be quite interesting."

"Senefa's fine," Sheila replied, with a bit of a smile. Senefa Malthus was fine and of all the Snowbirds, probably the happiest. Killing Erik Kerensky had settled an old vendetta, and she had been busy helping Nicia Caii do what repairs they could on the trip. Any animosity towards the ex-Clanswoman from the other Snowbirds was gone forever.

"That's good. And how about Bob Copeland? He and I are to coordinate payment of what the Snowbirds will need to get here."

"Copeland's dead," Sheila said flatly, her smile fading. "He got it in the last battle on New Caledonia."

"How bad?" Nakamura asked. Sheila had not transmitted a casualty report; she didn't want ComStar—and hence the Clans—to know just how badly the Snowbirds had been shot up.

"Thirty-one KIA, 23 wounded," Max told him.

Nakamura sighed. "I see. Terrible. You have my sympathies. Well." He nodded to both of them. "We'll worry about payment later. Why don't you get your battalion unloaded, and we'll get all the 'Mechs and tanks where they need to be. We also have some comfortable lodgings for you—we'll put you up in some of the empty dorms. I figured that you would be tired from your long journey, so since tomorrow is the Christian Christmas, we can have a formal dinner then. Would that suffice?" The last thing Sheila wanted was to have a dinner with Satoridon, but she agreed. "Good. Shall we get started, then?" Nakamura smiled, then walked towards the Minerva, exchanging greetings with Kinosh on the way.

"You know, it's crazy," Max said, "but I'd completely forgotten tomorrow is Christmas."

"Me too," Sheila replied. "Well…it's not going to be a very merry one."

They followed Nakamura to the DropShip.