Chapter 22

I woke up in a sickbay. It wasn't a full-up IC suite, but it was better than anything most droppers had to offer. Fortunately most of the gear was stowed, though I could feel the banding of micro-grav restraints. Several of the other beds were occupied, and a nurse was moving among them. Standing out from all of this was a very familiar figure in orange.

"Hey, Muriko," I said.

She frowned at me, but then, I doubted she'd ever be as comfortably informal as I was.

"Chu-sa Kurita no Takamori Muriko, greetings," I said.

"And now you are teasing me," she said. She held up a hand, clearly uncomfortable. "I am sorry. I came to, among other things, express my condolences. Mary was a…beautiful woman."

That was a surprise. Even for a Drac, and Muriko was about as Drac as they came, she was reserved. Also, she hadn't liked Mary at all, but that didn't make what she said any less heartfelt.

"Thank you," I said. "Where am I?"

"The number-two sickbay on the Hood," she said. "The doctors thought a familiar face might be welcome when you awoke. You were struck in the head by a piece of debris from the second hanger and dropship you destroyed."

Which brought up my second question, "Did we win?"

"Hai," she said, much more relaxed as I turned the conversation to more comfortable ground. "With their transports denied, and not allowed to land any more troops without the planetary government's specific removal, saKhan Garth Raddick had little choice. He could continue to fight, at least so long as his ammunition and machines lasted out, but unable to replenish his losses it was only a matter of time until the Commonwealth was able to bring sufficient forces into the system to destroy his forces. He was most put out that the supplies already off-loaded were taken as, to use his term, issorla, and therefore did not count against his wager…ransom?" she paused, then shrugged it off. "The techs are already drooling over the captured gear."

"Losses?"

"Most of the supplementary forces attached to the Brave Rifles were destroyed," she reported. "The 3d Cavalry lost nearly seventy percent of the ground forces it started with, and nearly its entire air-squadron. Dagger had nineteen killed and an additional seventeen mechs destroyed out of an initial strength of fifty-two mechs, and all of the rest have heavy damage. Several may end up being a total write-off."

"So now what?"

"So now the Clans will not invade Planting," she said. "Not ever. Their honor will not allow it. We have been ordered to Tamar, and have embarked what is left of the 41st Avalon Hussars and are bringing them with us. After that…" she shrugged uncomfortably.

"I will need to return to Luthien. The rest of my pe…the rest of the Kuronami were declared Unproductive when we left our assigned duty posts and joined with you. All save I. I must return to Luthien and…cleanse my honor."

I gave her a long considering look. "Seppuku," I said.

She raised an eyebrow.

"Do you have something else in mind?" I asked. I remembered that historically there was another rite for woman, but I couldn't remember if the Combine used it or not. They didn't have more than a sparse handful of women in high-ranking leadership positions so I doubted the situation came up all that often.

"No," she said. "Will you act as kaishakunin for me?"

So apparently seppuku was the order of the day. "If that is what you wish of me, I will be honored, but I will require the permission of my superiors."

"Of course," she said, then hesitated.

"What else?" I asked.

"The Director-General sent me to get you."

"Grand," I managed. "Where's my uniform?"


The conference room was half-full when we got there. Amanda was sitting at the head of the table, next to her in his life-support frame was Victor, on Amanda's other side was Chris, her former tutor and now Chief of Staff. Setting down from Victor were Generals Winters and Carson, and Admiral Murakama, and that was it. There was a pair of Black Watch guards at the hatch, but no security presence inside the room. The Cap was slipping, or Amanda was being unusually obstinate.

"Paladin," she said brightly as soon as the hatch had cycled shut behind us.

"Don't call me that," I said automatically. I didn't expect it to work, it hadn't after any of the other times in the five or six years since she had read the Song of Roland.

She smiled. It wasn't a happy one, but the kind that you usually see on vets long after they've come home from the wars. The one that comes from remembering friends in situations that were extremely…sub-optimal.

"You'll always be our Paladin, Roland," replied her brother.

"Hello to you too, Ian," I said lightly. Victor did not care at all for his first name and liked his second even less (which I don't think anyone blamed him for, under the circumstances). Normally I wouldn't have gone after him, but he had dealt himself into it.

Victor raised a hand slightly and Amanda smiled. "Okay, Roland, point taken, no need to tease my brother to get back at me. Sit down."

"You know, I've never understood why she calls you that," Christine McCay said as I sat.

I looked at her with some surprise. "You mean she's never told you, ma'am?"

She shook her head.

I shrugged. "I was the one who carried them out."

She frowned, "I thought Major MacIntosh—"

"Mighty Mac was in charge of the evacuation," I said, then shrugged again. "Amaris nuked most of the mech-hangers, and he used nerve gas on the infantry barracks and thermobarics on both of the morgues—"

"Morgues?"

"Battle armor storage," General Winters. "The best way of storing it for active use looks rather like the corpse-chests in morgues." He nodded for me to continue.

"But the Black Watch believed in distributed nets. If one part is taken out the others remain. The Fat Man didn't know about the supply drops, and GOTH caches, for example, and Colonel Hazen was able to utilize those effectively, at least the ones she knew about or was able to find out about. He didn't get all of the hangers. He got most of us before we could get to our equipment of course…"

I shook the memory away. "By the time we formed up the Colonel figured she needed the best teams to keep the Amaris Dragoons busy so she took all of the whole lances that had formed and then all of the stragglers as well. Normally the Black Watch had mech battalions of fifty, three companies of fourteen, plus two command lances so that the commander and XO were physically separated in case one of the command lances got hit. Major MacIntosh had three-quarters of his command lance available and I was the only one from my lance there so I got to carry the twins while the rest of his command lance screened me."

"Ahh," Christine said.

"I'm sorry about Bun Bun," Amanda said into the silence that had followed my explanation. "We both are," she said, lightly resting her hand on Victor's shoulder, "we know how attached you were."

I shrugged, but it hurt. It wasn't quite the same hurt as losing a friend. It was the hurt of losing something that you had entrusted your life to for years. I expected a Marine would feel something similar if his rifle were to be destroyed. And, hell, abrasive programmed smart-system and creativity of a dim dog aside, the DI had been…something.

"You wanted to see me, Director-General?" I asked bluntly.

She nodded, the suddenly intent, serious expression she bore didn't really have a place on any sixteen-year old's face. She and Victor had had to grow up fast. Fortunately both were better than Ricky had ever been, and seemed inclined to go right on growing up that way. "Thanks to Admiral Murakama we have managed to fill in some of the holes in our knowledge of what has happened since we…left."

"Such as?" I asked.

"You don't know?" she asked.

"I just got woken up and brought down here," I told her.

"Oh," she frowned. She looked down the table at Murakama. "Ariel, I think you can explain this better than I."

Murakama frowned slightly and I tried not to smile. There were certain ways that things were supposed to be done. Majors were not supposed to be called in to be given assignments directly by the Director-General, and navy-side Vice-Admirals do not brief army-side Majors. "While you were fighting on the planet, Major, I was able to strike up something of a rapport with my counterpart among the Clan Wolf fleet. She was…very reticent about their…social/civilian background, but was very open about their military posture. For example, it appears as though they have no military-intelligence capability, both sides are expected to provide comprehensive unit strengths."

"The invaders are not just Clan Wolf," Amanda said. "There are actually more than a dozen, all apparently named for predatory animals though most match no animal in the database."

"A colony mission that…left after we did," I said. "The SLDF? I think there was something about most of it packing up and leaving in the background brief that General Steiner gave us and the Colonel squealed up to us-Dagger, I mean."

"That would be the logical conclusion," McCay said. "They were the only recorded mass migration effort made after we jumped. Several of the Great Houses have sent out colony fleets, mostly small ventures. The current major governments are leaning towards the same conclusions, but they don't have some of our resources. It is unlikely that they realize that the WarShips are carrying SLDF transponders."

"Roland, there's no easy way to say this but…" Amanda took a deep breath. It was maybe the third time I'd ever seen her reticent about speaking her mind. Even as a toddler strapped into Bun Bun's jumpseat in the mad run to the Abyss she hadn't shut up. "We, that is, the Task Force, I think we did jump to Earth as planned."

"But…" I feel silent.

"But we also ended up here, yes, I know," she said, "But according to Star Commodore Chi'in, Liz survived. I don't know about anyone else, myself and Victor likely did not, but Liz was actually at Kerensky' headquarters. She left with the SLDF, but I can't imagine her doing that if there was any chance we were alive…"

It felt like someone had thrust a hand under my ribs, grabbed my heart, and began to squeeze. Blood drained from my face and for a moment I couldn't breathe.

"Rollie?" Amanda asked.

I looked at her bleakly. I had never really liked Kerensky, not many in the Black Watch had. Too many of us had seen his waltzing around the galaxy as abandoning his responsibility as Regent, or, as in my case, had seen the results and wondered if he would have been better if the Old Man had been around. But would he destroy us all out of hand?

"Kerensky?" I asked.

Amanda took a deep breath as Murakama looked away. The majority of the people in the compartment were sworn to her and Victor's service one way or another. McCay as first their tutor, then their Chief of Staff and now, effectively, Foreign Secretary as well. People like Carson and myself were sworn to her as Director-General, either directly through the Terran Hegemony Cavalry as in the General's case, or through the Black Watch first like mine. Murakama was the only person in the compartment who was regular SLDF. Her oath of service saw the First Lord as its ultimate Commander in Chief, but Amanda wasn't the First Lord, would never be First Lord until and unless the Star League was resurrected and the heads of the great houses confirmed her as First Lord.

"We don't know that," Amanda said.

"You think he did," I said flatly.

"I don't know, Roland. Jackson, the Nessies, the idea that I was my father and was just going to kick the whole thing off again, make it worse…" She gave a hollow, bitter laugh that hurt more than the idea that the General may have killed us. "He couldn't stand to be around me. Proof of his failures, I think. Or maybe he thought a sixteen year old, unconfirmed, Director-General was more hindrance to the peace process than an asset. Or that he knew if given the chance I'd force him to retire and he couldn't stand the idea of being brushed off into a honorable retirement even if it's what he and the damned Star League needed. Or he thought that I'd put the Terran Hegemony above his precious Star League. Or that I'd use the SLDF defend the Hegemony and let the rest hang. Or any one of hundreds of other obscene possibilities.

"The man was old, tired and planning on running away, but didn't think he could honorably disobey an order if I gave it to him. Not any more. So for whatever reason he blew all of us into very small pieces—may have blown us into small pieces, I mean…except for Liz."

She looked at me, and I could understand what she was thinking even if I couldn't explain it. Despite spending almost all of her life on a warship she hadn't turned out too badly. Part of that was because we—the few survivors of the Black Watch—had sought out the best tutors we could find, but somewhere along the way she'd adopted me as an unofficial big brother.

Or maybe I was just flattering myself.

Amanda was certainly the more approachable of the twins, the one with the better understanding of human relations. Both were intelligent, but Victor had a tendency to be as coldly analytical as the machines that kept him alive.

"I suppose there is a specific reason why my presence was requested?" I asked. It was rude and my tone made it ruder, but I was tired, some of my oldest friends were dead, and I had probably lost more among the regiment, not to mention the mech that had kept me alive for almost fifteen years.

"We have to keep up some kind of offensive," Amanda said. "We cannot afford to stop. We're effectively as much outsiders in the Inner Sphere as the Clans are, and our military capability is the only resource we have to gain goodwill with."

So we'd become Mercs. Wonderful. I kept the thought to myself.

"We've got a mission planned," she continued, "and I want you on it."

"I have to go to Luthien with Muriko," I told her. The generals were all wooden-faced. You just did not talk to your CO this way, but…the hell with it. It wasn't fair, it wasn't like anyone else could bank on a relationship with Amanda like mine, but at this point I didn't really care about fair.

Amanda nodded as though she had been expecting it. Who knows, if Muriko had forwarded it to General Jackson then it was quite possible that she had known to expect it. "A command circuit is being established between Tamar in the Federated Commonwealth to Luthien. Minimal transfer time. You'll be there in four days, maximum. A similar circuit will bring you back. You're authorized temporary leave for up to twelve days including transit time, from the time we jump into Tamar.

"General Winters, the mission brief, please."

Winters reached forward and touched a control that brought up a holo.

"We are going to conduct a series of deep raids, some targeting specific clans, others swinging back and forth along the boarders of each occupation zone. Our objective is to force them to slow the invasion to reinforce their current garrisons. If possible we will take advantage of their bidding practice to force them to either permanently relinquish certain strategic worlds, or to gain specific supplies and cause logistical shortages. The raid units will carry a large quantity of local war material for distribution to arm and equip insurgents and irregular forces."

I nodded slowly. It made a great deal of sense. If the whole Inner Sphere was mobilizing, of even if just this Federated Commonwealth was, given its size, then delaying would give them time to move additional forces to the front. It would also give us time to get the House Lords to work together. If that could be managed than maybe, just maybe, the armies of the House Lords could all be brought to bear on the invaders. That would be a brutal, attritional strategy, but as one Terran dictator had once observed, 'quantity has a quality all its own.'

"Who are you going to use?" I asked, already partially knowing the answer. Not the 3d, not with losses as severe as Muriko had intimated, at least not without some serious I&I followed by a great deal of rebuilding.

"There will be several raid teams," Carson said. "But the Jade Falcon OZ presents us with a unique opportunity. Elizabeth Hazen, the one that was left in the past, was part of Kerensky's 'Exodus'. According to some of the prisoners, she was one of the founding members of that Clan, its first leader in fact.

"She's going to be in charge, but has little practical experience in this kind of operation or commanding a force this large. You'll be her ground commander, and a navel-component commander will also be assigned."

"Forces?" I asked warily

"The remainder of your company will serve as a foundation for a new unit," Amanda said. "I'm reactivating the first squadron/fourth cavalry regiment as your personal command. A battalion of the Kuronami will also be assigned. Armor will be provided by one of Colonel Stewart's Highland Borderers battalions, and another from the Régiment de Hussards Parachutistes. Plus the 2nd battalion, 11th Marine Artillery."

That was…not a small force. Two 'mech battalions, depending on how the Quarterhorse mustered the number of mechs could equal nearly three battalions or more. The Highlanders were technically mercs, though they'd been in the employ of the Capellan Federation since God-knows when and had taken leave to fight against Amaris. They didn't have Hexapumas, but their equipment was nothing to sneer at, and the RHP had a number of rough field-capable aerodynes that made them light-weight air-mobile armor which had the potential to be really useful. Plus a mixed battery of artillery with both tubes and missiles, as well as an air-defense section.

A heavy ground force indeed.

"…upgraded as much as possible in the next month," General Carson said, drawing my attention back to the briefing. "In fact, the rebuild has already started. Vulcan has already had a chance to analyze captured examples of the Clan's ferro-fib armor and figured out how they make it. It's bulkier than ours, though half that of the type used in the few House units that have the stuff which is essentialy old Royal-quality. It'll take time and resource to spin up a new plant, but in the end Vulcan thinks it can produce the stuff quicker than it can ours or the old stuff.

"You're also going to get a heavy company of mobile infantry, three platoons of blackhawks plus the usual scouting elements and a mixed heavy platoon of voidhawks and aquahawks. A Marine littoral combat demi-battalion will provide you with an aquatic combat element."

"A reinforced regiment," I said, depending on air units assigned it was practically a combined-arms brigade. "But I only have direct command of the Quarterhorse?"

"No, you will have command your cavalry squadron, but also all planetary operations. Liz will be in over-all command, and ride along on the ground. A person appointed by Admiral Murakama will command the naval component," Amanda said.

I got that, sort of. While I had been trashing Amaris' forces from one side of the known galaxy to the other, Liz had been embroiled in a nasty guerilla war. She had the rank of Colonel, but realistically didn't have the experience to command something like this. But then…

"Ma'am, with all respect," I said, the formal tones telling both of them what I really thought, but then I went ahead and said it anyway. "The most I've ever commanded was a cavalry battalion, and that only for the last year or so of the Terra campaign. Now you're talking about tanks troops, which I've never been or commanded, artillery, Marines…"

"We simply don't have that many combined-arms units available," General Carson said frankly. "A stand-up fight with the woofies isn't something we can win. Not against units of equal mass, and especially since most of our units aren't pure 'mech units. Even with mechs we have problems. We're faster because of the Helium-3 plants and advanced myomers, and able to fit more in because our core systems—engines, armor, and skeletal structures—are less bulky. They, however, carry as much armor as we do, and their lasers and missile-launchers are considerably better than ours.

"We have to exploit our strengths, which are also their weaknesses. We have to be mobile, we have to use the Marines effectively, and we have to exploit the advantages of a true combined-arms doctrine. Their advantages in energy weapons go too far in negating our customary advantages in mobility, and they don't seem to have any conventional armor force."

"Escort and transports?" I asked. "The Nessies?"

"The Nessie frigate/destroyer squadron is providing escorts for their carriers. The Falcons have a heavy warship component so your task group is going to have a heavy escort. Surprise and Orkid from the Nessies, assuming their weapons come back as expected. Currently they are limited to just their defensive weapon suites. Plus Moon and Phillips. Moon is going to swap out its normal dropships for a pair of Ark Royal's aerospace carriers."

"That's a tidy little fleet," I said. Phillips and Moon were both custom variants of the Lola III and Riga classes respectively, that had been purpose-built as escorts for the First Lord and his family. Most of the Rigas had left service well before the coup, and a lot had been reactivated from SLDF yards when the navy-side's voracious appetite for warships became obvious. The Black Watch Riga rebuild, however, had stayed in service. Both class-rebuilds were fast, high-tech, and very heavily armed and armored in comparison to their lesser brethren although the Wodehouse -variant of the Lola III had been somewhat unluckily named for admirals who had gone down with their flagships. As for the Nessies, Surprise was a cruiser and Orkid was another destroyer, both again, heavily armed.

"It should be enough firepower to smash any single or two-some you run across, but if you get the attention of the Falcon's fleet it won't be nearly enough," Carson said. "You'll evade, get the warning out to us, and allow yourself to be shadowed until you can lead them into a trap of our choosing. Destroying their fleet, however, is a purely secondary objective.

"A full briefing will be ready when you get back," he said before I could say anything else.

But there were two points, one that was very problematical. "Sir, I don't have the seniority for what you are proposing."

"You're being brevetted to Lieutenant Colonel," Carson said. "That's rank enough for command of a cav-squadron and to advise Colonel Hazen. I assure you, there will be no problem from the other commanders." He very carefully did not look at Amanda or her brother. "Is there anything else?"

A brevet wasn't the kind of think a person could reject out of hand. Well, you could, but the Cav felt that if a person felt he wasn't ready then that person was likely correct. I wouldn't get it…and it was highly unlikely I'd ever get an assignment worth a damn again. Not even Amanda could swing that.

"Just one, sir. What are we calling it?"

He smirked. "Operation Ghost Rider."