Chapter One

War Room, Royal Palace

Tharkad City, Tharkad

Federated Commonwealth

Melissa Steiner, watched silently as her aunt steadily refused to meet her gaze, instead pretending to peruse reports that the Archon knew she had already thoroughly read. She had fond memories of the woman from her infrequent visits while growing up, though their relationship had cooled markedly after her mother's peace proposal and then formal alliance with the Federated Suns. For all intents and purposes that relationship had died the same day she married Hanse.

Whatever their differences, however, Nondi Steiner was not one of the senior-most generals because of her socio-political connections which were immense—not only was she Duchess of Gallery, but remained sixth in line for the Archonship of the Federated Commonwealth, though should she ever inherit that title Melissa knew her aunt's first action would be to spin the old Federated Suns off and leave it to its own devices. Nondi's posting to the High Command and made her a convenient choice to become the Archon's senior military advisor. The only real problem was that she was a staunch Lyran supremacist, and if anything was going to save the Commonwealth (as both woman thought of it, though applying the term to a political entity with very different borders) it was going to be the Federated (Suns) half.

For the most part Melissa was happy to delegate the war-fighting to Hanse. He not only had the experience for the job, but the skill and talent for it as well. But even messages transmitted by hyper-pulse generator only traveled so fast, even those with special priority routing. Having reports routed through Tharkad added to transmission times and cost, it would have been cheaper and faster for ComStar to send messages via their most efficient routing rather than dictating at least one point on that route, but it also allowed her to, if necessary, short circuit the communications-loop. Considering the time it took to charge a KF-drive, or move from planetary orbit to a jump-point, there was little point, but on other occasions…

"Well?" Melissa asked sharply.

General Lady Nondi Steiner, Duchess of Gallery, ADC, MH, etc., looked up at her niece. "I know no more about this Task Force TH-X1138 or something called the '3d Cavalry Regiment' than you do, Niece." She tossed the reader onto the table. "They fought well enough, though, and Hauptman-General Felix Steiner is quite able. A waste of his talents, sticking him with an under-strength regiment of Avalon Hussars."

"I can't say that I've ever heard of him," the Archon said.

"A distant branch of the family. He was one of the volunteer observers that joined Davion during the 4th Succession War," Nondi said dismissively.

Melissa, for her part, managed to restrain the biting comment for the dismissive tone her aunt had used for both her husband and his wedding present. Then she managed to restrain rolling her eyes at her aunt using the tone in the first place.

"Let us assume, for the moment, that they are willing to be an associate power," Melissa said. "They can't stay there. At the Wolves' and Falcons' current rate of advance they'll be cut off within weeks, even if Clan Wolf holds true to its promise and doesn't try to invade Planting again."

"You want to treat them as one of your husband's armies?" Nondi asked with a sneer. "Those Feeblies couldn't even—"

"That is quite enough Davion-bashing for one day, General," Melissa said. Her voice was abrupt and cold and the bite in it surprised her at least as much as it did the other woman. A small voice told her that this wasn't the way to do things while a somewhat louder voice said that she should have done this months ago. Most of her, however, simply ignored both. "You didn't want to get into politics when my mother asked for your help against Alessandro; it is far too late for you to get into politics now. You have made your opinions about my husband and the Federated Commonwealth abundantly clear. I am not asked for your support, of either my marriage or the alliance. I am not even asking for you to help defend the worlds of the former Federated Suns. But I am asking that you help me defend the Federated Commonwealth. Can you do that, Aunt, or do I need to request your resignation?"

Nondi—no, Melissa told herself, General Steiner—glared at her, but she looked away first.

"Ridderkerk," she said.

"Less than twenty light years?" Melissa asked.

"Ridderkerk, Skokie, Tamar," the general said. "That should buy us a little time for your…the First Prince…to decide what to do with them, while also supporting the capital of the Tamar March."

It also put them squarely inside the Tamar Theater, which happened to be commanded by her son. Richard wasn't quite a social general, but he was no military mastermind, Melissa knew. Fortunately he had a very good staff, not to mention all the work Hanse was doing.

"We'll also send them a copy of naval astro-charts for the Tamar March," Nondi went on, ignoring the Archon's silence. "Those are plotted closely enough to use the L1 points, and the most stable of the transitory points. We can let Duke Selwa know they are coming. I don't know if our munitions or spare parts will work with their machines, but we can have food, water, and hydrogen waiting for them. Joy Corelli is command of the 26th Lyran Guards. She's as good as they come and the 26th is as solid a unit as you'll find in the…Commonwealth. She'll be able to integrate them into her defense strategy if the Wolves get that far, no problem."

Melissa restrained a cutting remark about assuming this Task Force, from wherever it was, would blindly allow itself to be subordinated the way her aunt had just suggested. Finally she just nodded. "Send them astro charts of the entire Tamar March, and suggest the Ridderkerk-Skokie-Tamar travel axis, but do not require it. Also inform them that as much fuel, food, and water will be waiting for them on Tamar as they need…and inquire about any military supplies they might need."

It wasn't a perfect plan, she decided, but it would do for now. Selwa was likely to prove…uncooperative, of course. "Then arrange for a command circuit to be established from here to Tamar."

"A command circuit?"

Melissa nodded, but didn't say anything; her mind was already considering potential people for a combination diplomatic/military mission.

Ooo

Temporary Officers Quarters

Foshinur Spaceport Complex

Planting

Word filtered down from Command that the Archon of the Lyran Commonwealth—actually it was the Federated Commonwealth these days an amalgamation via marriage of the old Commonwealth and the Fed Suns, which probably explained the who Steiner/Avalon Hussar thing—had suggested that we pull back to Tamar. The strategic brief suggested that the woofies were going to flank around us in the next couple of weeks. Even if they upheld the local commander's word that Planting was free from invasion we'd face being cut off from convenient lines of retreat, or at least that was how the Archon saw it. Apparently the general tech decline hadn't left KF Jump-drive vessels untouched, hence the reliance on system-hopping and the disregard for deep-space jumps. It made sense in a way since solar-sail power collecting was far gentler on the drive cores than the alternatives.

Still, we didn't set out for Tamar right away. We were evacuating the rest of the 41st with us and they had to be assigned spare droppers—which had to be brought in from where the rest of the fleet was hanging—and then there were the usual tasks of post-battle cleanup. Tank and 'mech recovery crews were sent out to salvage woofie and Cav alike. DropShips were filled with captured supplies the woofies had already landed for their logistic base, whether it was supposed to support their invasion or just a planetary garrison we didn't know, but there were weapons, ammunition, even whole 'mechs and aerospace fighters. A construction battalion was landed and immediately went to work fighting fires started by the destruction of the hangers before turning its attention to repairing the trashed runways.

I spent the time sorting through the lists of people available for my new cavalry squadron. Considering the effectiveness of Dagger I decided to use it as a model for my TOE. George was the senior-ranking survivor of Dagger, and got drafted in to serve as my Exec, while Maximilian Irons kept his posting and became my Command Sergeant Major. Tammy Wilson was dead, but both William Penn-Drakkon and Ivania Chomskya had survived and became the commanders of my second and third line troops, while I asked Eugene Mahler, formerly Heavy-Six, to put together and lead a troop of medium/light-heavy 'mechs as a screening/scouting formation, and he requested Leonard Moseley—as soon as he was released from the hospital—be transferred from his old company to act as his 1st Sergeant. Annabelle Oakley had survived ejecting from her Rifleman, and I put in a recommendation for a battlefield commission to 1LT and designated her as the OIC of an air-defense section of four mechs. The Legion didn't have any prospects that appealed to me, but I submitted a request for a battery of 'mechs from the 5th Royal Artillery Regiment.

I was halfway through writing up a formal request for a lance of engineers to be a permanent part of my squadron rather that an ad hoc attachment, when my terminal blanked. For a moment I thought I had just lost a request form I had spent nearly an hour on when it was replaced by a man's face.

"Merlin?" I asked after a moment. His voice was familiar enough, but I had only seen him the once and a few days of field hygiene will change anyone's appearance.

"Hear you're putting together a new unit," he said.

"That's right," I said. "Cavalry squadron. First of the Fourth."

"Good unit," he said. "Just about the most effective Indian-fighter regiment that the United States fielded."

"That's right," I said carefully. I knew the 3d Cav's history well enough, but hadn't had the time to do more than barely scrape the highlights of the 4th Cavalry Regiment's history.

"I want in."

"Excuse me?" I asked.

"Look," he said, "there's a limit to how much we can do from a ship. Most of us are going to end up going solo and waging an electronic guerilla war. That's the nature of our abilities, and the realities of the situation, taking into account interplanetary transport and the enemy's apparent organization. The woofies don't seem to use the type of battlefield systems we're trained to hack. No sophisticated artillery nets, no passive distributed sensor nets, their comms are old-school rather than fully integrated com-webs. I can help, you know I can. I can bring you a lance of Prowlers, but that prick Carson says I need your permission."

I frowned. SFers, and CyberPunks were about as 'special' as SF got, always seemed to do their own thing. I couldn't imagine anyone short of maybe General Winters telling them 'no'. Especially since what Merlin did seemed sort of like Black Magic. It wasn't. I knew it wasn't. But if someone had asked me to do what he did the most I could have managed was a blank look.

"Sure," I said, "if you have techs that can support them and any classified gear…and can train the assigned tech force to do the same for redundancy."

"Done," he said.

"And I'm going to need an Intel Officer."

"I hate staff work," he said.

I shrugged. There just weren't that many staff officers who were competent to pilot a mech. Merlin, I figured, ought to at least be able to do the job.

"Fine," he muttered.

So I added another lance to my TOE.

Three troops of fourteen, a lance of air-defense, six artillery mechs, a lance of engineers, a lance of E-war mechs, I was up to sixty mechs, really wanted to expand the AD section to match the artillery, and still hadn't addressed my command set up. By the SLDF Book I suppose I should have contented myself with a Command Lance that was really led by George while I dealt with business. The Black Watch operated two command lances at the battalion level to make the command-team more survivable. What I really wanted was to take that one lance further and give the Sergeant Major and independent lance. It also appealed to the little part of me that was still the infantryman I had started out as, the little part of me that sometimes looked at a TOE and couldn't help but seeing fire-teams and squads instead of lances and companies. The same part would also insist that the First Sergeant really needed to be able to be anywhere instead of chained to his company commander.

The problem was that if I requested those two ADA-mechs and the 12-mech command force, I'd have 74 mechs on my TOE. That was nearly two-thirds a SLDF-school mech-regiment.

I finally went ahead and submitted it as my preferred TOE. I put together a second more austere TOE that had three line troops, two command lances, and a lance each of E-war mechs, artillery, and air-defense. Signed, sealed, date-stamped, forwarded.

I pulled up the next document in my electronic in-tray.

Requisition forms for a new 'mech.

Joy.

Xxx

Mech-Bay, SLDS Abyss

Planting Orbit

It was early evening when I reported aboard the Abyss. The Colossus-class dropship and its launch-pad had been constructed under Pudget Sound in complete secrecy as an emergency escape vessel for the First Lord and his or her family. I had never been briefed on its construction, had, in fact, only learned of it when I had been assigned at literally the last moment to Major MacIntosh's lance. Aside from being capable of making a submerged takeoff (once), it also carried more armor and weapons than a stock Colossus. The main ground force bays had been removed, but it carried a wing of fighters, and a generous supply of ammunition.

I was shown to one of the lower cargo bays that I vaguely remembered piloting Bun Bun aboard more than a decade before, then my guide left me. The vast bay was empty and dark, but there were lights on in one corner so I walked across the bay to find Amanda and Victor standing, and sitting, just inside a ring of light that shown on a solitary mech I had never seen before. I didn't see any guards, but I knew that there had to be at least one around somewhere. I hadn't seen any by the hatch and Colonel Hazen wouldn't have put up for them to have no guard. Whoever it was, they were probably hiding in a shadow somewhere.

"Roland, it's good that you came," Amanda said. "What do you think?" she asked, gesturing towards the mech.

"I don't recognize it," I said with a shrug. It was big, probably treading right on the upper maximum of how big a combat-capable mech could be built. A wide chest narrowed to a slim waist, then upright forward-jointed legs suggested a rather high center of gravity, that could make it surprisingly nimble, but also prone to tipping. Wide shoulders connected two beefy-shaped arms. The torso, up into the cockpit head, was oddly-shaped, reminiscent of a suit of plate armor from Terra's Dark Age. And to top things off, it was shiny. I don't mean brand-new shiny or parade-gloss paint shiny, I mean the entire thing was covered with a thin coat of metal that had been polished until it could be used as a mirror.

"It's Excalibur," she said.

The Excalibur had been around for centuries, a quick but lightly-armored 70-ton machine with a gauss rifle in its right arm and an LRM-20 rack in its left shoulder. This one didn't look anything like that. This mech was larger, much larger, and lacked the Excalibur's distinctive cone-shaped cockpit/head assembly. Both arms had weapons in them, a ballistic weapon with an oddly-squared muzzle set below the aperture of a more conventional laser. Additional energy weapons—PPC emitters this time, though small ones—were mounted in the side torsos, and the housing for a laser point-defense system stood out on its right shoulder.

"It doesn't look like one," I said.

"Not an Excalibur," Amanda said, stamping her foot as she glared at me, "The Excalibur." Her expression sobered and she turned back towards mech. "It's the BattleMech that fat bastard had custom-made for father," she said soberly. "Beyond cutting edge. Stuff even you didn't have." She set a hand on the arm of Victor's life-support chair, "We want you to have it, to replace Bun Bun."

"Custom-builds aren't good for a military force," I said. "Commonality of parts, ammunition, and armor is an issue. Also, odd mechs tend to get shot-at first on the assumption that they're specialized for some purpose and taking them out will put a crimp in your enemy's plans."

"Abyss had the full stock of spares brought on board the same time it was," Amanda said. "And we had mechanics go over it years ago. Apparently whoever put it together was thinking more than the fat bastard was. We may not be able to replace some parts once the stocks run out—not unless we can get Vulcan to build them, if that's even possible—but there is apparently no reason why standard parts can't be used, though there will be some degradation in performance."

"Size?" I asked, stalling for time

"A hundred tons," Amanda said.

"Speed?" I asked dubiously.

"Just over a hundred kilometers an hour."

Victor's vocoder buzzed. "It has a ground speed comparable to that model of Longbow the 3d Cav favored…the same ones that you specified for the Quarterhorse. Sixteen tons of ferro-fibrous armor, twin railguns each with an independent 45-round magazine, paired extended-range large lasers and light-weight extended-range particle-projection cannons."

"Ground speed?" I asked. It was an odd kind of clarification on Victor's part. The improved booster the Cavalry used, and the multi-environment jets used by the Marines, had problems scaling up for the larger mechs. Standard jets were available of course, but there was a reason why the vast majority of assault-class mechs weren't built with jump jets.

"It has a new type of jump jet developed from the LAM program that utilizes direct-feed fusion-plasma injection instead of laser-pumped air the way ordinary jets—or super-heating, as those used by the Cavalry—do. They are very light and low-bulk for the thrust they impart.

"Three semi-modular weapon bays. The two side bays are each capable of up to five tons of weapons, ammunition, electronics pallets or other gear. The center bay can only handle four-tons, usually an advanced targeting computer that can enhance all of the permanently mounted weapons, although it is capable of interfacing with the modular weapon packs. The computer itself is semi-modular as well, which provides some redundancy in the event of battle damage."

"I authorized your preferred squadron TO&E," Amanda said. "General Carson didn't want to, but I went ahead and did it. I, we need a Paladin, Roland. A standard-bearer. A flagship. Someone who can go out of show this is who we are, this is what we represent. That even in the Terran Hegemony, a waster kid from the bad side of the belt can—"

She stopped abruptly, and it took me a moment to realize I had scowled at her.

"Sorry," I said uncomfortably. She was so damn mature that sometimes it was hard to forget just how young she was.

"I don't know what I said," she muttered. "I mean, you haven't bothered to ever try to keep it a secret, and you've referred to yourself as a 'waster kid' before."

"That's because you were raised by people from the pits," I said, tossing in another bit of old slang.

"The bottom of gravity wells," Victor said. The vocoder robbed his voice of most inflection, but it wasn't a question.

I nodded.

"Okay, so what?" Amanda asked.

I had to think about that for a moment. Part of the problem was that I had done my best to put my past behind me, but to be honest I never really thought about the cultural differences before. Not the big things, but the kind of little every-day things that you take for granted. And part of the problem was that despite having spent most of her life in space, they had been raised by people who hadn't, or who at least had come from the bottom of a pit.

"What do you think of when I say 'waster'?" I asked.

"Someone who loiters around after they're out of school, doesn't have a job, doesn't really have a place to go, has no plan for where they want to go or what they want to be in life," Amanda said.

"Habitats don't come with a nice endless supply of oxy. In belter-idiom wasters are literally a 'waste of air,'" I said, trying to ignore the half-remembered particular kind of self-loathing. A mix of belief in that one didn't have a future and a hatred for a person who put other people in danger. "People like that are a drain on the habitat that potentially hazards the community," I finished.

"Oh," she said.

I considered the 'mech for a bit longer. "All right, Director-General. I'll do it, and I'll use it. Mind you I think I have the wrong mission for it, especially if you're putting Colonel Hazen in charge no matter what I may end up doing. But I'll give it my best shot."

Ian Stefan Victor Cameron settled back a little in his life-support chair as his sister and Roland talked. The neural-feeds built into it were like those found in a mech, but without the need for EMP hardening and the robustness of combat equipment, were much more responsive.

"What do you think?" he asked. With the vocoder turned off the dry rasp of his voice was nearly silent.

"You know him better than I do, sir."

"You were his commanding officer."

"Two steps in the chain of command, sir, not one. He was the lance-sergeant in my second lance. I only knew him for about six weeks before the coup. You've known him for more than a decade."

Victor contemplated this. "Do you think he should remain with the Task Force?"

"Frankly, if you're going to insist that I go play with the Falcons, I'd prefer that he'd stay as your head of security."

"All of the Black Watch is famously loyal, and while there are few survivors, we do have several others. Do you think the guard is inadequate?"

"If I did I wouldn't have agreed to this," Colonel Hazen informed him instantly. "But as far as loyalty goes, you do know that Roland Talbot has one of the highest loyalty indexes in the Black Watch?"

"Indeed? Even higher than yours?" Victor asked.

"Excuse me, I didn't mean the survivors, sir. I meant the Black Watch as a whole…or at least since we started recording them. Didn't you know?"

"No," Victor said. "Most of the Black Watch-specific parts of your files are redacted before my sister and I can view it. Major McIntyre explained it to us, briefly. And even those parts we can read tell us what, but not why."

"It goes back to that magistrate that, uh, encouraged him to join the SLDF," said the voice was flat in the receiver implanted in his mastoid. "The SLDF gave him a purpose in life and self-respect, and that isn't a little thing, no matter who you are or where you came from.

"If you want my speculation, after he was selected for MechWarrior training he was sent to the Sun Zhang MechWarrior Academy on New Samarkand. The SLDF certified a few military academies among the great houses, General Kerensky—"

"Attended the Nagelring, I remember."

"Yes, but the SZMA wasn't one of them I'm guessing it was a kind of throwaway gesture of good will, probably with an exchange commission component as well. The SZMA was notorious for drilling loyalty to the Coordinator into its graduates, but Roland was apparently able to twist that into loyalty to the First Lord, and the Cavalry mutated that into loyalty to the Director-General."

"Oh," Victor said.

"And he was the Honor Graduate of Sun Zhang."

"I remember reading that, but I still don't understand it, what with the loyalty requirement."

"The Dracs are a funny bunch. I doubt more than a handful of them know all of the intricacies of their honor-code for all stations in life. But for a warrior to show that kind of loyalty to his lord, even if it isn't their lord, it makes a certain amount of sense."

"Ahh," Victor rasped in understanding.

Xxx

Central Bay, SLDS Lord George Murray

Zenith Jump-Point

Planting System

I shifted in my command couch. It was supposed to be identical to Bun Bun's, but it wasn't. It just…wasn't. Having delayed long enough I reached out and hit the Master Power control. Beneath it a ten-pad key lit. I gave it an eye-roll and hit the accept button.

"Greetings, MechWarrior," intoned the startup program that had so far resisted my best efforts to change and I made a mental note to sic Merlin at it. "You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Inner Sphere against Amaris and the Rim Worlds Republic.

"Enter your command code."

"By the brand on my withers the finest of tunes/ is played by the Lancers, Hussars and Dragoons," I replied. Unfortunately the computer flat-out required a phrase of a certain length or I'd have told it 'just get on with it.'

A twirl of bagpipes playing Bonnie Dundee acknowledged the correct response.

"All systems appear nominal for fusion core start, Paladin," a smooth, low, baritone said.

That was going to take some getting used to. It had taken more than a decade for Bun Bun to do anything without prompting. Getting it to make simple observations on its own was easy enough, that was part of the voice-interface that most mech-jocks disabled as a matter of course. Its ability to analyze intel and how a battle was moving was an outgrowth of the original design-purpose of the voice-interface. Getting it to actually do anything without me telling it to had been a real pain in the ass.

Durandal, as Amanda had renamed my new mech, had started running the basic systems check on its own after the second time I had logged in. So far I'd only had three practice sessions with its myomers and actuators locked down while I used the ARES system as a simulator. Well, three practice sessions and the short hop when I moved it from the Abyss to my new command dropship. Altogether this was my fifth startup.

I'd called in after the second session and a response had taken days to get back to me, but it had been confirmed. I was piloting a true AI. There were all sorts of limitations programmed into it, but I wasn't too sure how well they would hold. After all, one of the key components of a true intelligence was the ability to adapt, to grow. Was it conceivable for Durandal to grow beyond its programming? For that matter, what were the purely physical limitations on its growth? The Casper AIs had scores of tons devoted to just the computers that served as their 'brains'. Durandal, needless to say, didn't have anywhere near that kind of room.

I made a mental note to find it a name. Durandal had been meant as a name for the 'mech, not the AI driving it. Maybe Bob?

At least I had had it repainted. The polished-armor look was pretty enough for parade, but for field use it just screamed 'target'. So it now sported Black Watch Tartan around one shoulder paldron and the opposite upper half of the opposite thigh, plus a camouflage pattern dark enough that the tartan didn't stand out on the rest of the mech. I'd had the defaced Star League star put on one chest panel, and the Hegemony disk on the other with field-subdued crossed six-shooters of a Gunslinger—honor graduate-black instead of the normal brown—under that. I had avoided them on Bun Bun whenever I could get away with it as they made for a far too convenient an aiming point that was right over my old mech's autocannon magazine. Durandal, I figured, had enough armor to make it less of a worry.

When it came time for the leg-art, however, I'd been stumped. I'd been introduced to the ancient e-comic back when I'd still be a poor young grunt. Later I'd used it as inspiration for a solo run in the Advanced Combat and Maneuver School, where I had taken a mech with enough jump jets to do a fair impression of an aerospace fighter and proceeded to 'hop around and blow stuff up'. It just…wouldn't have been right to put the switchblade-wielding minilop up on Durandal

For now the right leg had been left blank save for the base camouflage coat. I'd have to change that and soon, just like I'd have to decide what camo-scheme we were going to use or if we were going to repaint for every landing.

"Is there something that you'd like to be called?" I asked.

Long pause. Bun Bun wouldn't have understood the question at all, or would have responded with something like 'I am Bun Bun.'

"I am…unsure of the question. I am designated 'Durandal'."

Personal pronouns? Oh, I had heard DIs use them before, but that was a technical execution of speech and this was…a technical execution of speech, but there was something else in the way it said it.

"Amanda designated the 'mech Durandal when I pointed out that there was already an Excalibur," I said, then went a little further. "I was wondering if you had something you'd preferred to be called. A name."

Another long pause.

"I shall…contemplate this," it said, then. "All systems appear nominal for fusion core start."

As subject changers go it was about as subtle as a hammer to the teeth, but I went with it and the go-ahead the fusion plant startup.

The rest of the fleet was going to jump into the out-system away from any prying eyes and use their fusion plants to recharge. Meanwhile, the Quarterhorse and the two Roger Young-class assault transports currently attached to it—SLS Ernst Jünger and SLS Philip Gardner—were going to jump into the L1 point of Ridderkirk's solitary natural satellite.

The Rogs were yet another vessel built on the proven Quixote-class hull-frame, though, like many vessels, they had been built entirely new after the supply of available hulls had run out. My squadron was split evenly between them, with their other three hardpoints occupied by a pair of assault dropships and a fighter-carrier.

Currently we were riding in rebuilt Buccaneer dropships. The original Buccaneers had been passed over for an SLDF contract because of the Union-class dropper hitting the market. I've never cared for spherical dropships. If something goes wrong with the engine when you're on descent, that's it for those riding along. There likely won't be enough time to jump for it, whereas an aerodyne at least has the chance to glide.

But these weren't originals.

Star Masters Inc., a firm that specialized in beyond-cutting edge aerospace hardware (and incidentally had a not particularly small team 'field testing' prototypes with us), had bought a dozen of them and under their in-house Project STERN REBEL, rebuilt them. The STERN REBEL variant had traded in the spacious crew quarters and cargo bays for an interior that was so cramped that the crews and mech-jocks were bunked on the transports, much like the troops nominally assigned to Vampire infantry-landing ships. The original Buccaneer had been intended to lift one of the SLDF's light or medium-mech battalions or a reinforced assault-mech company, the ones we rode in had room for barely half of that. But despite of the cramped conditions, each was capable of dropping a company in a single drop. The internal structure had been stiffened, armor added, and its weapon bays would be a very unpleasant surprise for any fighter that poked its nose around.

In all likelihood I wasn't going to be able to keep them all. I'd probably end up having to consolidate the command lances and the special service troops onto a single vessel, probably an Overlord. Or maybe split up the SSTs into element-size units and pair a set of elements and a command lance with Big Horn and Comanche troops, and leave Apache free…

"Five minutes to Jump!"

The warning wasn't piped through into the cockpit, but I heard it just fine regardless.

"All right then," I said. My squadron was in no condition to be pulling ready alert, which is why it wasn't the only ones jumping into the L1 point. While the rest of the ships charged at the nadir jump point, we would have a chance to pull a practice drop, and then conduct several days of maneuvers. The Seventh was coming along as an OpForce. This being Lyran territory (FedCom, whatever), General Steiner was riding along in the command center of Lord George Murray, my command dropship.

Discontinuity

I felt more than heard the clang as Gardner released. Murray spun on its gyros and thrusters and then I felt heavy as the transit drive kicked in and we sent out for Ridderkirk.

"Let's see the task force," I said.

ARES flicked on and I swam in holographic space. At the center were a half-dozen airfoil-shaped dropships flying 'up', the oddly-appearing effect of aerodynes under transit drive. At the edges, and slightly behind the Bucs were a pair of escort droppers. Ahead of us were a quartet of odd-shaped vessels that weren't quite spheroids, but weren't exactly aerodynes either.

I reached out for one, and instantly 'swam' through holographic space as the image zoomed in on the odd vessels.

"GunStars," Durandal said.

Another Star Master product, they were experimental vessels intended for system defense. They were small for dropships, and while technically capable of operating in an atmosphere, were largely restricted to space operations. Despite massing the better part of 800 tons, each had a crew of only two, and bristled with weapons. Unusually, they hadn't been intended to ever attach to a jumper, but instead act as a sort of manned system-defense super-heavy fighter.

They were larger and more heavily armed and armored than any conventional fighter or assault shuttle, designed to hang out at jump-points or on airless bases in asteroid fields or moons. There were dropships, little more than open frameworks really, that they could dock with and had originally been intended for shipping the vessels from their factory yards to other systems. They had been modified after the coup into long-term support structures.

They were a niche weapon and, like many of the weapons in Task Force TH-X1138, didn't conform to standardized specs. Fast as most modern fighters, as well armored as many assault dropships, and heavily armed. They were highly effective. There also weren't enough of them. Star Masters had never been able to produce more than a really long test-run and most of them had been destroyed. I doubted there were a score of them left.

"General Winters assigned you nearly thirty percent of the remaining Gunstars."

"They're temporary, more likely than not. I just didn't have the experience of coordinating with the navy-side to make my own units requests. General Carson forwarded a request to Admiral Murakama for a list of recommendations."

I was silent for a moment, then swept the holo back out to encompass the little assault force heading for the planet.

"Okay, Durandal, why don't you bring up a game of Go for while we wait."

Xxx

Central Bay, SLDS Lord George Murray

En-route to Ridderkirk

"Colonel."

I started, still unfamiliar with the recent promotion. In fact, it wouldn't be official until I got back from Luthien. General Steiner's head appeared in a section of flat-holo instead of cutting the holo-field so I could use the standard com-panel. "General Steiner," I replied.

"I've gotten in contact with Ridderkirk space traffic control," he said grimly.

"Oh?" I asked.

"The 1st Lyran Regulars Regimental Combat Team is supposed to be garrisoning this world," he said.

"I take it they aren't anymore?" I asked.

"No, they are, barely," he grimaced. "Their commander was in a traffic accident yesterday and is a coma. The situation on the ground is…confused, and they have DropShips inbound. I'm afraid it's Clan Wolf."

"Nadir jump point?" I asked. By whatever or whoever controls the strands of fate and deals out luck, TH-X1138 had gone to the zenith jump point. If the woofies had been there we would have received word by now. Equally obviously they hadn't been hanging around the planetary L1 point.

"We don't know, but that's the assumption," he grimaced.

"All right, how far away are they from landing?"

"One hour, maybe two," he said. "That's an estimate. As I said, the situation ground-side is very confused."

"Understood," I said tightly. System geometry had put our emergence at the L1 point between Ridderkirk and its solitary companion almost exactly four and a half hours from a zero-zero intercept. The 7th was over three hours behind me assuming they began boosting immediately. Originally it had been planned that I'd have a full day of running my squadron around on the ground. Now it meant that I'd have to be very careful until the 7th arrived, and aside from my arty none of my sub-units, except maybe Merlin's lance, were experienced working together, much less with the rest of the squadron. The escorts would keep me alive to the atmosphere interface, but they weren't meant for atmospheric combat.

"Does the First Lyran have droppers available, General?" I asked.

"Yes, their assigned DropShips are still on planet," Steiner said.

"Can you take charge of that RCT?" I asked.

He grimaced. "Legally and technically, no, we're outside of my command area. As the situation exists…" he shrugged. "As I said, the situation on the ground is very confused, Colonel. They've known about the invasion force for nearly twelve hours and I only just learned about it."

"Understood," I said. "Durandal, Trudy."

Captain 'Trudy' Buckler was a tall woman with pale blond hair. Lean and pale from too much time in micro-g without enough time spent in the g-rings and under Vitamin-D lamps. If she had a first name other than her handle I'd never heard of it, but I knew her. Once upon a time a much younger Trudy Buckler had requested that a magistrate exile a young snot who had boosted a heavily customized runabout, and a not much older Trudy Buckler had piloted the shuttle that had taken the same snot to the boot camp another magistrate had 'strongly recommended' he attend.

In one of the weird coincidences that the universe seems to run on in the same way that the SLDF navy-branch runs on coffee, we'd bumped into each other every other year or so until the coup. By that time she had been captain of the Abyss, and I privately wondered how she felt trading that post for her current one because, unlike every other crew and the fighter escort, I had made a point of requesting her. Not that I really cared how she felt. Amanda had a whole fleet to guard her. The loss of the best pilot we had wouldn't hurt her all that much.

There was a pause, then a second figure joined General Steiner.

"Captain," I said.

"Major," she said coolly. "General Steiner told me. Combat drop?"

"Yes, and you're going to need to push your birds."

"I thought you were going to say something like that," she murmured. "How high do you want to go?"

"All the way," I said shortly. "Atmo-braking if you need to."

"Understood," she said. She glanced off to one side and laid the whole thing in by eye. "Squadron Orders. All personnel, secure for main-drive. Come to zero-zero-zero, One-eight-zero, secure transit drive, main drive to two-point-five gravities as soon as the squadron reports ready."

She turned back to me. "Turn-over will be in nine-point-six minutes, Major, but you aren't going to gain more than eight-point-eight-six minutes, less since we'll need to secure for using the main-drive first."

"Understood," I said. "Do it anyway."

She nodded tightly and signed off.

"Durandal, stand by to record a message."

"Standing by."

"First message, to General Winters, attention Admiral Murakama and General Carson. Message begins. 'General Winters, General Steiner has made contact with Ridderkirk Astro-Control. Astro reports invasion force from Clan Wolf now approximately one hour from landing. Garrisoning force, First Lyran Regulars Regimental Combat team, cannot be considered mission capable at this time. Reports indicate that their CO was in a traffic accident and is in a coma, and ground-side situation is very confused.

"Unless otherwise directed, I intend to land my squadron and conduct operations in Clan Wolf rear areas to relieve the First Lyran. General Steiner will attempt to exert local control over indigenous forces. At this time it is believed that restoration of the First Lyran to combat capable status is not, repeat not, possible. General Steiner will therefore attempt to evacuate local forces. Signed, Roland Talbot, Commanding Officer, 1st of the 4th Cavalry, Message ends.

"Second message. To, Colonel Hal Franks, Commanding Officer, 7th Cavalry Regiment. Message begins, 'Colonel. I have received word that Clan Wolf forces are estimated to be less than an hour from planet-fall on Ridderkirk. The situation on the ground is extremely confused, owing, in part, to the commanding officer of the First Lyran Regulars Regimental Combat Team having been in an vehicular accident and now in a coma.

"General Steiner believes it possible to evacuate the majority of the First Lyran off-planet, but thinks the likelihood of being able to restore them to combat effectiveness is negligible. I am going to push my transit to get him on the ground and buy time for the evacuation. I request reinforcement as soon as practicable. Signed, Quarterhorse, Roland Talbot Commanding. Message ends."

"Both messages have been recorded."

"Send both to Philip Gardner and request a hyper-com relay for the first message, and relay to the CO of the 7th. Then initiate a Command Group conference. I want the company COs, COs of the support lances, the XO and Sergeant Major, the captains of the transports and the escort droppers, the CO of the Gunstars, and General Steiner."

xxx

As before

I looked away from the assembled holographic faces of my officers as a window split. A tiny light code indicated a laser-com from the Philips forwarding a hyper-com transmission. General Carson's grim face stared at me for a moment before beginning to speak. "Major Talbot, your Op-plan, such as it is, is approved. Unfortunately, given the situation on the ground, we can only conclude that moving further forces forward, plus necessary escorts will only cause further confusion among the local defenders.

"You are authorized to conduct limited mobile operations to draw forces off of the Lyrans while General Steiner attempts to evacuate them. You are not authorized, repeat not authorized to become decisively engaged."

I waited while the message fizzled out before turning back to the command group conference.

"And now it is official," I said. "We're go. So this is how we're going to do things. Kim," I turned to the commander of the outsized artillery lance, "We're going to leave your third section on the droppers."

She nodded unhappily. "I don't like it, but without more than a token allotment of rockets…" she shrugged. "Can I snag some additional rounds from the dropships' racks?" The dropships and her mechs both mounted Thumper artillery pieces, though the droppers' could only be used when landed and the landing struts locked down.

"I have ten rounds per tube," Trudy said with a grimace. "I had a rather pointed conversation scheduled with a certain supply officer, but that doesn't change the situation. I can cut you the rounds, but I'd just as soon keep them. If you need us to cover you—"

"We're going to need it heavy," I finished. "How are you set without, Kim?"

"About eighteen rounds a tube," she shrugged. "That's a little more than a quarter of our standard load-out."

"We'll just have to live with it. Annie," I turned to my Air-Defense Officer.

"You don't have to tell me," she said. "We're storing the IIbs."

Annie's last Rifleman had been a complete write-off, and she was transitioning to one of the Royal-series Rifleman II rebuilds. The II-Alphas were armed along a similar line as the standard Rifleman with MetalStorm-5 autocannons and a laser battery that was scheduled to be upgraded with lasers captured from the woofie stockpiles. We couldn't use their ordinary weapons due to some kind of modular harness they were built into, but the stocks intended for secondary troops seemed normal enough.

The Rifleman II-Bravo was less maneuverable and more lightly armored than the II-Alpha, but it traded in for the MetalStorm-5s for a pair of MetalStorm-10s. Its ammunition supply was nowhere near the II-Alphas, but it was hoped that it wouldn't be needed. Instead of the customary laser secondary-armament, the II-Bravo had a pair of Sparrowhawk air-intercept missile quad-packs.

The same supply issue that had side-lined Kim's missile-artillery section plagued my entire Squadron. We had enough ammunition for planned range-time, not a battle. Most of our missiles were training rounds with marker warheads. Ballistic ammunition was cheap so aside from the Riflemen we were good there, but when the Riflemen IIb had been assigned at the last minute they had come with stocks of MetalStorm-5 ammunition. Annie was actually running a surplus and had cross-loaded the II-Alphas with three tons of standard 'ball' rounds, but the IIbs couldn't use MS-5 ammo and they had only a limited number of missiles.

"Next item, missile allotment," I said. "George, Sergeant Major, I was thinking we could leave our Longbows at home and release their stocks to the companies." I paused and raised an eyebrow. George frowned and the Sergeant Major gave me an old-fashioned look that had more to do with me leaving behind part of a unit tasked with keeping me alive than it did with having to give up some of his combat power. But he nodded at last.

"Actually swapping out the missiles will have to wait until we land—" since all of the line troops were on separate dropships "—but they can be palleted and if we do a drop they can be dropped as well and we can load them on the ground. Next I thought we'd take a look at…"