Kerensky Cluster, Roche
Cyrus Elam Training Complex
Atalanta opened her eyes, groaning softly as light pouring through a window assaulted her optic nerves and she instantly shut them again.
"Welcome back, Star Commander."
She opened her eyes again, blinking against the grainy crust that had formed. A cool, damp cloth was wiped against them and the blurriness faded.
"Thanks," she said, or at least tried to. Her dry mouth and cracked lips made is sound more like 'Dnxsxs.' A glass straw was pressed to her lips and she took slow sips, swirling the tepid water around her mouth to rehydrate tender tissue.
"Thanks," she said again.
"Do you recognize me, Star Commander?"
Atalanta blinked up at the person standing by her bed and instantly tried to snap to attention. The hospital bed greatly resisted her movement and her body shrieked in protest. "Aff, Loremaster, I do," she said formally, her voice still raw.
"We very nearly lost you," the Loremaster said disapprovingly. "Do you remember what happened?"
"I punched out," Atalanta said, forcing herself to meet the Loremaster's eyes as she made the shameful admission.
"A wise choice, considering the damage you had incurred and the weight of metal you were facing," the Loremaster said dryly, "This after having defeated two mechs when the second candidate initiated a melee, and pounded two more into scrap and inflicted damage upon the fifth. Warrior Eryk managed to kill the only the first one you had lamed, if you are interested."
She nodded politely, but in truth had not been interested in the slightest. Eryk was as close as the Clans came to being a mediocre warrior. Adequately talented, but far too reliant on his extraordinary good luck and not enough time spent practicing his gunnery. She did not say this though.
"Your parachutes only partially deployed," the Loremaster said. "And then your Sibko Instructor demonstrated execrable judgment in giving you necrosia."
"It is tradition for Warriors who pass their Trial of Position to be given necrosia as soon as practicable," Atalanta said defensively. Instructor Gavarn had never belittled them the way some Trueborn Instructors would belittle Freebirth Sibkos. Had he pushed them harder than he would Trueborns? She was not certain, but she liked to think so.
"'As soon as practicable' does not mean 'on their way to an emergency trauma center,'" the Loremaster said bitingly. "In this case, however, is it probably well he had for you are one of the rare individuals who have adverse reactions to necrosia."
"Loremaster?" she asked cautiously.
"It nearly killed you." The Loremaster pulled a chair over to Atalanta's bedside and settled down into it. "Now, tell me what you saw."
I had never seen the chamber before with my eyes.
I never expected to see the chamber with my eyes.
I still recognized it. I had seen it during training in various holos.
I would never be allowed into the chamber, though.
No freebirths were allowed.
It was the Great Chamber where all the Khans of the Clans would meet in Council.
I stood in the center of the chamber, with the tables arranged around me. Twenty tables, each draped with a banner with the colors and crest of a Clan. Behind each table sat two of that Clan's totem animal, giants for their species, for each was at least as large as a tall human and each wore the accoutrements of a Warrior.
I knew them to be the Clan Founders.
I looked behind me and found another figure, human this time, but dressed in black robes that hid his figure. A black hood and mask hid his face.
I knew him to be Ethan Moreau.
I turned to the front of the chamber.
Seated in the ilKhan's chair was the Founder. Neither aged nor a youth, but a Warrior in his prime wearing the dress uniform of a Wolf Lord.
"Do you know who I am, Goliath Scorpion named Atalanta?" he asked me.
"Aff," I said. "You are the ilKhan, Nicholas Kerensky. The Founder of the Clans."
"Do you know where you are, Goliath Scorpion named Atalanta?" he asked me.
"Aff," I said. "I am in the Great Council Chamber in the Hall of Khans."
"Do you know who these are that are gathered here, Goliath Scorpion named Atalanta?" he asked me.
"Aff," I said. "They are the Founders of all the Clans."
They stood then, and in pairs starting with the Khans of Goliath Scorpion they approached me.
When the last had left the Founder rose from his chair, "Remember their words well, but tell no one of what they have told you until the time is at hand."
Then the First Loremaster, Ethan Moreau, placed his hand upon my shoulder and the Great Council Chamber disappeared.
The next I saw I was in a desert at night. I recognized the stars and knew myself to be in the Spiked Heart Desert on Babylon. With me again was the First Loremaster wrapped in concealing robes. The night was bitter, and there was a great fire we sat by to protect us against the cold.
"Remember," the First Loremaster told me, then wandered alone into the night.
As I sat a Goliath Scorpion wandered out of the night.
I greeted it, and suddenly it was no long a Goliath Scorpion but the Founder who sat with me where the Goliath Scorpion had been. He was younger than in the version in the Council Chamber, and wore a simple MechWarrior field uniform, unadorned with Clan, unit, or rank patches or insignia.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked.
"You are the Founder of the Clans," I replied.
"I am a Warrior," he said. "And I have come as a Warrior to speak with a Warrior."
"Then speak, Founder, and I shall listen and take heed."
"Nicholas," he said.
I bowed. "Then speak, Nicholas, I shall listen and take heed."
"First, I say that you must learn to adapt to the times. Things are not as they have always been, and will not always be as they are now. This I have seen in my journeys. You must learn to make part of yourself that what makes you stronger, and discard that which leaves you vulnerable. You must help those that refuse to change or they will die…and with them will die your Clan."
I was shocked. Of all the things I had expected to hear, this was the least. Emotions roiled through me like a barrage of missiles, a thousand questions like shard of armor splintered by laser fire. Shock, surprise, fear… Goliath Scorpion, die? How could such a thing happen? We are Clan. We understand our history—and thus ourselves—better than any other. We know Our strength is true strength. A strength not of numbers of OmniMechs and potency of weapons, but in knowing both ourselves and our foes. A strength that came from knowing where we had come from, and where we were journeying too. It was a subtle, potent strength that the other Clans neither had nor understood. What could possibly defeat us?
"What pride," spoke Nicholas, his voice dripping with contempt. "What arrogance!
"Do you not remember why my Father led us from the worlds of our birth and brought us here? It was to protect the denizens of the Inner Sphere. It was to keep them from using our might to destroy themselves, just as I created the Clans to prevent us from destroying each other.
"We do not march forth with bared swords as Conquerors. We are meant to serve, not rule. We do not subjugate those who come under our sway. We are meant to guard, not oppress. We do not sit and judge the rights and wrongs of those before us. It is our Duty and our Honor to return the universe to a peaceful state of prosperity, not condemn it to an eternity of darkness.
"We protect those who are unable to protect themselves. This is our highest calling. Strip away all pretenses and it is our only calling!"
I trembled. His gaze was not stern. There was no reproof in his voice. But he spoke with such intensity my heart quailed.
Yet I could not remain silent. I was Warrior-trained and proven, with two kills—mayhap three, I was uncertain of the Summoner—in my Trial of Position. How then was I supposed to be a guardian?
"Nicholas," I said, "the Clans are made up of Laborers and Technicians, of Merchants and Scientists, this is true. But the heart of the Clan is its fierce warriors. How can we be expected to protect when we have spent a lifetime in the heat—in the flame, the furnace, and forge—of battle and conflict? When have we ever known peace? Even in the days of the great Star League there were places where warriors were fighting and dying. How can we achieve peace? It is not the kind of thing that a Warrior seeks, nor is it something that I believe we can all live with."
"There is always a price for peace, Atalanta. Often it is a price you will not know until you have paid it. Frequently it will be a price that will seem to be too much to bear. Such is the way of things. And yet however great the price, the reward will make it worth paying even if you never see it. Remember the duty I have just instructed you in, let it be your guide and seldom will you find it ill-advice."
His voice changed subtle. A trace of fear? I shivered and almost doubted myself at the thought, but forced myself to think it nonetheless. He no longer looked at me, but past me. As though he could stare through my flesh and peer into my thoughts, but also that be looking through me he could see the future. My future? The future of Goliath Scorpion? Of all the Clans?
I could not know.
"The Star League entrusted my Father with their defense, and so he brought us out of the Inner Sphere that the Inner Sphere may survive," he said in a soft voice. "He entrusted to me Our survival, and so I brought us out of the Pentagon Worlds and formed the Clans that we may survive. Now I in turn entrust to you, to your fellow Warriors, to your Clan, and to all the Clans, you must learn to adapt. Survival of all depends on it."
"I will remember," I assured him.
He stood, and I quickly rose to my feet.
The fire had burned low, and he stood to place it between us so that he was lit with a ruddy glow. He no longer wore the simple field uniform of a Warrior, but once more the full Wolf regalia. "Only twice more shall you drink necrosia, for if you taste it a fourth time you shall surely die. On the First occasion, search amongst my heritage. Learn that which will strengthen you and prepare you for the Test which is to come. On the Second occasion, seek amongst my Father's heritage, for in the ruins may you find a firm foundation."
Kerensky Cluster, Roche
Cyrus Elam Training Complex
"And this was all of your vision?" The Loremaster asked as I finished.
"Aff," Atalanta said, "Aside from that which I was told to tell to no one."
"Until 'the time is at hand.'"
"With respect, Loremaster—"
The Loremaster waved a hand. "You believe that you will know the appropriate time when it comes. You may well be right. I will not begrudge you this, Warrior, though I will admit regret at not being able to record it and compare it to other visions. Still…"
Atalanta said nothing and the Loremaster leaned forward. "Tell me, do you know who your parents are?"
"Aff," Atalanta said uncomfortably. It was hardly the sort of question a Warrior asked, not even among Freebirths.
"And your grandparents?"
"How far back?"
"I know which of my… progenitors followed the Founder," Atalanta admitted, "and which did not."
The Loremaster stared at her long and hard before giving a terse nod. "Good. That leaves us with only the matter of your orders."
"My first posting?" Atalanta asked, trying to keep the eagerness out of her tone but not quite managing to do so.
"Rho galaxy. The 8th Scorpion Grenadiers have an opening for a Star Commander," the Loremaster said.
Atalanta nodded. It was hardly a prestigious posting. They had once been the honor guard of the Khans, but had been disgraced in the Ghost Bear raid on Tokasha in 2982. The raid had been a disaster and left the 8th severely mauled and Khan Mikhail Yeh dead. It was, however, still counted as an elite unit and was an excellent posting for a brand-new freebirth Warrior.
"At least those were your original orders," the Loremaster continued. "Star Colonel Vlad was impressed by the BattleROMs of your Trial of Position and has placed a bid on you."
"Seeker rights?" Atalanta asked. Most Seekers traveled alone, or with a small entourage of Bondsmen and lower castemen to provide support. Some of them, especially if they were going into another Clan's territory, would bid for additional warriors. A brand-new warrior, and especially a Freebirth, would be highly honored to accept such a position.
"Cluster duty," the Loremaster said. "Before you rush to accept, it will mean a demotion for you. He has an open slot for a Point-Second, and no seniority will be conferred."
"Understood," Atalanta said. Nominally all warriors of a given rank were equal—aside from the disparities between the Trueborn and Freebirth, of course—but there was a seniority system based upon time-in-grade, past assignments and ranks held, and how well one had performed in combat. More seniority could allow a Warrior to bid for superior assignments that were more likely to lead to glory.
The 8th was a very good posting. To be requested by name by one of the Clan's ristars to fill a hole that normally would have been filled by a more experienced—and Trueborn—warrior made it a potentially outstanding posting. And the point-second was the Star Commander's tactical deputy and usually responsible—Star Commanders were free to assign responsibilities as they saw fit after all—for the training of the Star, the maintenance and upkeep of the Star's combat equipment, and in charge of the support personnel assigned to the Star.
"I will accept the demotion that comes with Star Colonel Vlad's bid, Loremaster," Atalanta said.
"Star Colonel Vlad rather thought you might," the Loremaster told her with a wry gin and offered her a small data-slate. "Your orders. Upon release from the infirmary and receipt of a clean bill of health you will report to the armory and draw one Nova OmniMech with a Sierra-configuration package and one alternative configuration package from the list assigned. Transport will be arranged to get you to Dagda, and from there to your final assignment."
GSDS Basset (Attached, GSS Eureka)
Atalanta blinked harshly as sweat stung her eyes. The remains of the enemy headquarters and the mech company that had almost managed to save it burned behind her. It had cost her three mechs and most of the armor on her Nova's left side, and all that kept it from being a clean sweep was an annoyingly persistent aerospace fighter.
Now if only she could find it.
"Caleb, offset a quarter-klick east and set up for a standard ring-search anchored a half-klick to your west. Use your mag-scans as well as radar, this bird may have some advanced electronics, I will run a counter-sweep and watch for electronic emissions."
"Contact, Rapier at—"
Off to the east Caleb's Ice Ferret exploded.
Atalanta pivot-turned on her left foot. The Rapier was an ancient model-101 with a heavy autocannon—ammo depleted by her count, but possibly modified with a larger magazine—a rack of LRMs, and coaxed ten-centimeter lasers. It had set up to rake both of the mechs in a single pass, but the distance was just far enough, the fighter was just slow enough, and Atalanta reacted just fast enough to swing her mech around to face the new threat.
Her left thumb flicked a switch and her mech disappeared behind a wall of electronic jamming. A flick of her right thumb synched the lasers in her mech's right arm together as she took the half-step required to present her mech's profile, simultaneously narrowing her silhouette and protecting her damaged left side.
The fighter launched its missiles first and the anti-missile system in her right torso whined in response. Several got through but instead of the crackle of impact-fused high-explosive armor-piercing warheads, there was a muted whump and they left her mech coated with an incendiary substance. Not the normal inferno-juice either, Atalanta noted as sensors provided a preliminary chemical breakdown. Weapon status lights flashed red as her heat index rocketed up and the weapon computer followed its presets, automatically taking them offline one by one to prevent her from over-heating the reactor and causing a shutdown.
The Rapier roared overhead. The monster autocannon failed to fire so at least her count was accurate, and the electronic jamming—or possibly battle damage to the pilot's targeting system—caused both lasers to come up short. It was, however, already banking around for another pass and the substance on her mech's armor was continuing to burn.
Fortunately the enemy command staff had parked right next to the same river that their supply unit was using as a source for its reverse-osmosis water purification units. One bounding leap took her mech-shoulder-deep into the river and spiked her heat well into the red zone.
Atalanta slapped out a hand in a purely instinctive gesture that over-rode the reactor shutdown. The incendiary continued to burn in the water, but she had sought the river only partially on the off-chance that it could extinguish or wash off the blazing substance. Instead she took her left hand off its control stick to a secondary-systems panel, the kind used during startup for system-checks and use by maintenance techs and otherwise generally ignored. A stabbing finger brought up the heatsinks located in her mech's lower legs. A second job initiated a coolant flush.
Glacial runoff was flash-boiled as the superheated coolant was pumped from her machine. Even with the burning gel covering the glacis of her mech, Atalanta's heat index dropped precipitously.
The enemy fighter quivered slightly and Atalanta smiled grimly. No doubt the pilot knew approximately where she was, but the steam provided both optic and thermal camouflage and her radar, unaffected by her own jamming, had the Rapier solidly locked up.
She would only have one shot. Even with her heat down, the gel was still burning so it would not stay down for long. Worse, with the coolant flushed from her mech's system there was no longer an effective way to remove heat-buildup. If she missed, she would have to wait for her mech to air-cool, submerge it entirely, or risk fusing the lasing chamber…or blowing the reactor plant.
Again the pilot opened with a missile launch and Atalanta was only barely in time to override the anti-missile system before it cut loose. Dumb-firing her missiles, nice trick, she thought admiringly. They had little chance of hitting her, but had they provoked the AMS the defensive fire could have given away her exact position.
Lasers stabbed into the steam cloud, but did little besides boiling off still more water.
Then it was her turn.
The targeting bracket flashed red and her finger gently stroked the trigger. The computer decided that her heat index was still below the preprogramed threshold limit and so it didn't need to drop any of the lasers out of the firing group. Twelve six-centimeter lasers reached out for the fighter and slammed into its belly as it flashed by.
Armor shattered and was ripped away by the airstream. Something flared deep inside of the fighter as it slowly banked away from her. Then it seemed to stagger in air. The engine coughed and components were ejected out of the exhaust. The pilot tried to hold her fighter together for a few seconds more, then gave up and ejected.
"Final pilot is ejecting, simulation terminated," Atalanta announced as the simulator darkened. She unhooked the coolant suit, bio-med monitor leads, neuro-helm jack, and communication gear with the negligent ease of purely habitual motions, already mentally reviewing the simulation. In particular she had a few blistering comments for Second Star Two—One had been declared a casualty for this sim and had helped run the Op-Force—about the difference between 'recon with force' and 'raid.'
She finished unstrapping and undogged the hatch which opened with a pneumatic hiss, this time she managed to duck the strut that was did not existent in her mech but was in the simulator.
"Captain Steele," she said, offering a salute to the commander of the JumpShip as though his appearance in the mech-simulator bay of the DropShip was an everyday occurrence.
"Major," he said.
Atalanta hid a smile. She could usually get her way sooner or later where her little foibles were concerned, but Manfred Steele had held out longer than most. As in most things she did, it served a double purpose. Not only did it pay homage to an ancient naval tradition, but should their contingency plan need to be put into effect it would help if the terms of address already felt natural. She wondered idly about the potential benefits of crossing a pilot-genome with her own before disregarding the idea entirely. Steele was Trueborn through and through. He had the flexibility required for this mission, and really that was all that was required of him. Asking anything more would be stretching his honor, possibly to the breaking point, and in any case she could hardly afford to be sidelined. The mission was already a low-order of success at it was.
"Has something happened, Captain?" she asked, taking off her gloves and tucking them into her belt before reaching up to unsnap the chinstrap of her neuro-helm.
"You could say that," he said, passing her a data-slate. "A message from our Khan."
"For us?" she asked, tucking the helm under her left arm before taking the slate.
"Yes," he said tersely. "It includes recent Clan Wolf after-action reports that you may find interesting."
Atalanta thumbed the electronic tab and skimmed down the e-pages. "A unit calling itself the 'Third Cavalry Regiment' stopped the Wolf saKhan cold on Planting."
"Most of the regiment performed a fighting retreat that drew off most of Beta Galaxy," Steele said, giving the highlights and in doing so let her know that he had already read the message. "One major, a 'Roland Talbot', dropped a significant force of BattleMech's in Beta Galaxy's rear area and was able to capture its DropShips. The saKhan was forced to turn over a considerable amount of military hardware as ransom for losing the Trial."
"An Inner Sphere military unit actually responded to a batchall appropriately?"
"It took everyone by surprise."
Atalanta shook her head. "As it should, but we are surprised for the wrong reason." She found the list and raised an eyebrow. "'Considerable,' is certainly one word for it. This is a light cluster's worth of mechs, fighters, and battle armor."
"Not to mention the DropShips."
"Not to mention," Atalanta agreed. "Roland…a good name. That is the one we are after, the knight in my vision."
"You are certain?"
"The Song of Roland is a famous saga, well over two-millennia old. To be confronted with visions of a knight, and now to find a prominent warrior named for a knight…"
"It could be just coincidence."
"A moment, Captain," Atalanta said after a brief pause. "Tanis, tell me what would have happened had my lasers missed?"
The pilot who had been running the last of the aerospace fighters in the OpFor frowned, then shrugged slightly. "I would have flown through the steam cloud. By the time I would have arrived it would not have been substantial enough to significantly degrade flight characteristics, though the heat-transfer may have been unpleasant to bare."
"I once saw a Warrior in an old Woodsman use his lasers to super-heat a geyser pool, causing it to erupt. Just in time for a pilot to crash a brand new Jengiz into a column of water at what was a very…terminal velocity," Atalanta said.
"In this case however, you are correct—at least so far as the effects of flying through the steam are concerned. You would, however, between the steam and my ECM, have been effectively blind for at least a half-second, including time necessary for your sensors to recover and your canopy to clear, perhaps even longer. There are a great many things your enemies could do in a half-second, Tanis. Most of them would have unfortunate consequences for you. Remember that."
"Aff," the pilot said. "I will."
"Blind-firing your missiles in an effort to provoke my automated missile-defense system into revealing my position was a clever tactic," Atalanta continued, "though at the velocity you were traveling you would not have had much time to make the shot had the ruse been successful."
"No, Major," the pilot admitted. "But it would not have given you much time to relocate either."
"Have you ever made such a shot, either for real or in training?" Atalanta asked curiously.
"No," Tanis said. "It was the first time I even attempted it. Anti-missile systems are not common."
"Fair enough. Write up a simulation package for it, fighters, mechs, and battle armor. Adaptable environments, various terrains… When you have completed that, I want you to gather a small working party to discuss ways that anti-missile systems can be used. Explore ways we can use them to enhance mission success, and also ways that opponents—both Clan and Inner Sphere—may employ them and how we can best exploit that use."
"Yes, Major," Tanis said. At least it is not another historical analysis, she thought to herself.
Atalanta ignored the unvoiced sigh. By now all of her people, both Warriors and service/support techs, were used to—or at least familiar with—her habit of handing out these 'extra' assignments to help keep them sharp.
"Caleb," Atalanta continued, "The remainder of the simulator debrief is postponed. Reschedule it for…thirteen hundred. We shall make a working lunch of it."
The Warrior nodded a reply and led the rest of the warriors from the simulator bay.
Atalanta tucked the data-slate away. "Very well, Captain."
Steele watched, hiding his amusement as the ground-pounders filed out. "Are you a Star Captain, or a sibko instructor?" he asked once the rest of the Warriors had filed out of the simulator compartment.
"Both, it seems. We may have a higher standard of education than most of the Clans, especially in history and in fields not related to a person's duties in general, but that does not mean that we are any more successful at making our people think."
"And what would you say about the other Clans?"
"That they don't want to think," Atalanta said bitingly. She paused, winced, then shrugged the slip away like she would a particularly annoying biting insect.
Steele considered her for a moment. "Your comment about our, the Clans', surprise at how the 'Third Cavalry' fought. The batchall is our tradition, not theirs. We are not quick to adopt their way of War, why should we expect them to be quick to adopt ours? You express surprise that this unit has, while the rest of the Clans express surprise that the remainder of the Inner Sphere armies have not. That they fight in an honorless fashion." He paused, her expression had not changed, and yet somehow it had become slightly disapproving.
"The rest of the Clans are surprised that they fight in a fashion that we deem to be without honor," he amended.
"Better, Captain," she said. "To be able to recognize your prejudices for what they are, and be able to set them aside to evaluate another culture honestly is no small thing."
"I still think Tanis had a point with that historical analysis you made her do," he said, unable to come up with a better response. She really did make him feel like he was back in his sibko, he thought to himself and wondered briefly if she had ever served as an instructor. It was possible, he decided, but not likely that a Clan would assign a Freebirth instructor as a way of goading particularly young Truebirths who had yet to realize that life was not as neat and orderly as it was in the sibko.
"Which part?" Atalanta asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Her conclusion. Yes, Spruance had to cover Midway from invasion, but his primary responsibility was to inflict damage upon a superior enemy fleet. He could have advanced upon the enemy instead of retiring east and done both."
"And what would he have inflicted these casualties with?" she asked in reply. "Losses to USN, Marine Crops, and Army aircraft already exceeded forty percent. Aside from the two carriers with depleted aircrews he had just six cruisers and nine destroyers, while the IJN order of battle included more than ten battleships. His two flattops were the only ones available in the Pacific until Saratoga was able to finish provisioning and its air-group and escort could be organized. If he lost them that would have left the USN with that one carrier until more could be transferred from the Atlantic.
"Spruance had been sailing closer to Japanese all day and he feared a night-attack by surface ships—the very kind of attack Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku attempted to engage in that evening, A worthy fear for the Japanese would prove beyond a doubt during the Solomon Island Campaign that they were masters of the gun-action night-fight. Under those conditions, any losses he could be reasonably expected to inflict would have been minimal and among lesser-effective ship-types. Balanced against the possible loss of his carriers, and the fact that it would leave Midway exposed were he destroyed, he decided the risk was not worth the possible gains and decided to call it a day.
"And realistically he had already dealt more damage than the IJN was capable of recouping. The loss of four fleet carriers was crippling. The whole reason Japan went to war in the first place was for resources. The need to build replacements took resources they could ill-afford to spend and prevented them from increasing the number of those ships. Even worse, while they had carrier-trained and qualified pilots—or could train and qualify more with relative ease though at the cost of decreasing combat efficiency—they could not so easily replace the maintenance and deck-handling crews that went down with their lost carriers, which would have a disastrous impact on their air-fleet efficiency for the remainder of the war."
"Roland Talbot was seen again not a week later at Ridderkirk, this time as a lieutenant-colonel and commanding the 1st Squadron of the Fourth Cavalry Regiment," Manfred Steele said, abandoning the lesson for business. "This unit and another calling itself the Seventh Cavalry Regiment—though I should add that all three 'cavalry' units have displayed very different TO&Es—fought a delaying action that distracted the Lionhearts long enough for the regimental combat team garrisoning the planet to evacuate the planet and destroy much of the equipment and facilities they were forced to leave behind."
"Impressive," Atalanta said evenly. "They must have refitted their WarShips and JumpShips with Lithium-Fusion batteries."
"That they refitted across the board is an assumption."
Atalanta looked up from the 'slate.
"The Texas and two Potempkins that jumped in late," Steele said. "Obviously they had to jump in from Planting. A lithium-fusion battery only provides a single additional charge for the KF-drive. If they were left in the first system it was likely because they were assigned to guard vessels that were still charging their drives. The Task Force allowed itself to become split, and one portion exhausted its batteries jumping to Ridderkirk instead of charging their drive and all vessels jumping together."
"A point, definitely a point," Atalanta agreed. "Still he will only be delayed a few days if he remains with his original WarShips, or up to a week and a half if he waits for his entire force to consolidate. In either case we are behind him."
"But gaining ground," Manfred said.
"An illusion," Atalanta disagreed. "We rely upon Clan Wolf for much information, and they upon Comstar. The inherent inefficiency in the system alone would lessen any chance we have of catching him. Coupled with the fact that we have little knowledge of who he is, where he is going, or what his and his comrades' objectives are… No, Captain. We cannot catch him from behind, so we must wait in a place where he shall be forced to come to us."
Manfred considered this for a moment. "Tamar?"
"Aff," Atalanta agreed. "Tamar would likely be little more than a temporary stop, though passing through that system would be logical. If we make straight-line maximum-range jumps into deep space and charge via the reactor, can we arrive before them?"
"I do not care for the stress that would place on the drive-core," Steele said. "But yes, if we do as you say and this fleet anchors itself to its slowest vessels then we shall easily arrive before them."
"Let us try Tamar, then," Atalanta said. "If he has not arrived we shall wait as long as we can make our cover hold. If we miss him, then baring a strong indication of his next intended destination I propose we divert to our secondary mission.
"You do not agree, Captain?"
"It is not my place to agree or disagree," Manfred Steele said. "My Khan instructed me that you are our mission commander."
"I make it a point to listen to my subordinates, unlike certain senior officers—especially in those in certain clans—who react with disdain to any idea they have not personally thought of. As the senior officer on our expedition I highly value any insights you may have."
"Very well, I shall speak plainly," Manfred said. "Hunting pirates and bandits, and even shadowing a WarShip or task force, is one thing. Without knowing your true objectives, however, there is little advice I can provide."
"Knowledge is a very dangerous thing, Star Commodore," Atalanta said at length, using his proper rank for the first time since their arrival in the Inner Sphere. "I am sure you have seen enough of my trinary's simulations to know that something distinctly unusual is going on."
Manfred nodded slightly. The traditional rivalry between a ship's embarked fighter component, and those belonging to the 'ground pounders', was noticeably lacking. In fact both fighter crews interfaced seamlessly and neither displayed any evidence of the limited, highly ground-attack oriented, skill set that was a trademark of far too many Goliath Scorpion pilots. There was also the issue of the individual latitude and initiative displayed in her subordinates. Goliath Scorpion Galaxy Commanders had a tendency to micromanage their forces—including their assigned naval battle groups, much to the disgust of the Star Admirals that commanded them—which usually put a damper on initiative. That was not the case here, quite the reverse actually. Nor did her Warriors seemed locked into the strict upholding of zellbrigen—past that even of some Falcons and Jaguars—that was the norm for Goliath Scorpion Warriors. And despite what her 'official' Table of Organization showed, the real organization he had seen frequently used in the simulators was something quite different.
"Today's simulation aside, the organization and tactics you utilize conform with those of most Inner Sphere militaries," he said. "I assume you are practicing these in the event that you need to act surreptitiously on the ground, though you will need to acquire Spheroid equipment to do so."
"Among other things," Atalanta murmured.
"You plan to activate our secondary cover? As…mercenaries," he said, forcing his voice to not show any of the disgust he felt at the thought.
"Appearing to be merchants is an excellent cover for moving around behind the lines without drawing attention, Captain," Atalanta said. "But there may well need to be a military reason for allowing us so close to our final objective, and merchants—especially the barely breaking even ones that we are pretending to be—simply will not do."
"I know this mission has been planned for some time," Steele went on. "The Snow Ravens did much of the reactivation work on Eureka, and that they replaced the old in-system drive, the armor, and fitted Eureka with both a hyper-pulse generator and lithium-fusion battery. But I also know that other Clans provided and installed the new sensor arrays, weapon mounts, and the hanger for a light fighter star. Reading between the lines it became obvious that a great deal of effort was taken to keep any one clan from knowing the extent of the modifications. Including tying up one of our few major docks for at least three months to replace the fusion generators with a Star League prototype a Seeker recovered more than fifty years ago."
Atalanta raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
"As to your mech," Manfred Steele continued. "I did not think that there was room for both an electronic warfare system and an anti-missile system inside of a Nova-prime."
"What is it you really wish to know, Captain?" she asked. "It is not about my mech, I think."
"Why do you seek this man?" he asked. "I will follow without question, because that is what my Khan asked of me and all of my crew, though it was her right to order us. But seldom have I ever known so little about my objectives, and not at all since attaining command of my first WarShip.
"Your trinary is very oddly arranged. Not even the stars match existing standards. Aff, I know," he said before she could reply, "our…secondary cover, but many of your machines have also displayed none-standard characteristics or configurations in simulation. And your personnel have an unusually high number of freebirths and those considered on the verge of solahma if not there already."
"I am a freebirth and well past the verge of solahma," Atalanta said dryly.
Steele paused. Being solahma might not be the last thing a Warrior would joke about, but it was near the bottom of the list, and it was on the short list of things that no Warrior would admit to being. Yet his mission commander had just done both and he wondered if he had just insulted her.
As if sensing his quandary she said in a formal tone that she used as rarely as she did his proper rank: "no insult was meant or taken, Star Commodore. I simply have yet to find a Warrior deserving of the Honor of killing me in battle and I refuse to be killed by anyone less. You were saying?"
Manfred Steele nodded in understanding. He doubted whether any other Warrior—especially one approaching solahma—would voice it quite so openly, but it was a perfectly understandable attitude. Of course, most Warriors would choose to die by the hand of a lesser Warrior rather than grow old. "I said that the…nature of the personnel making up your trinary was…odd," he said. "And then there is the nature of my ship and my crew."
"They are not dissatisfactory, quineg?"
"Neg," Steele said crossly. Quite the reverse, his ship was far more powerful than he had expected when first informed of its class, and despite their…oddities his crew was one of the better ones he had served with. No, he mentally chastised himself, not 'one of the better ones.' The best. But it did not change the fact that his Chief Engineer was a Scientist who had been caste down to a Technician, and that his tactical department actually did have a Scientist who was in charge of his ship's sensors. A Merchant as his supply officer was not terribly unusual, but his flight-ops manager was a laborer of all things.
And there were the subtler things as well. How this ship and crew were incomprehensibly right, somehow.
"The Loremaster and I had a wager when you would finally break down and ask. It appears I have now lost it."
Manfred Steele said nothing.
"How much time do you have?" She asked.
"As much as necessary," he said.
"Very well," she said again, but held up a warning hand. "Be warned, some of the answers you would be more comfortable not having. Some of them," she said, dropping her tone to convey the significance of what she was telling him, "are Clan secrets. Secrets known only to the Khans and the Loremaster, and some not even known to them. Are you certain that you still wish to know?"
"Aff," Manfred said. "Yes I am."
Atalanta did not speak for some time, but at last she nodded. "Very well, Captain, come with me."
She led him from the training deck down to the mechbay where a short command had the techs quickly leaving. She floated across the bay with a deft kick, the kind of habitual ease acquired only after much exposure to micro-gravity and that not even training could instill. They floated across to where her Nova loomed. It had been painted a glossy black with gold trim to give it a disturbingly chitinus appearance. There was a Goliath Scorpion identifier on its right breast, but was otherwise unadorned.
She pulled herself across the mech from handhold to handhold lest she go drifting away, and did not stop until she reached the access hatch to the cockpit.
Manfred Steele climbed inside, the usual cramped conditions of a Clan mech cockpit made worse by the presence of two people. He started to pull the hatch shut when a cloaked figure pulled itself into the hatch. He stilled, forcing himself not to betray his surprise.
The figure did not speak. To the best of Steele's knowledge no one had ever heard him speak. Atalanta's Harbinger wore long, flowing black robes with a deep hood and black mask to hide his face. Without a doubt the role of Harbinger was the rarest of various camp followers and support personnel that a Seeker could draw upon for a quest. They were artisans and chroniclers, but those that Steele had found when he had checked the records filled that position openly. If anyone had seen Atalanta's outside of his—her, its?—robes, or if he even had a name, Steele had never heard of it. Instead it lurked in dark corners and ghosted along in the wake of the Seeker like a dire portent.
And that was when it was noticed.
All too often the figure slipped into a shadow or a corner and went entirely unnoticed even by those who should have known better.
Manfred Steele found himself using the lap buckle to hold himself in the command couch while Atalanta wedged herself into a perch on the bank of controls and monitors before him The Harbinger slid into the narrow space behind the command couch. Atalanta quickly sealed the hatch, powered up the mech, disengaged the umbilicals connecting it to the DropShip, and had the atmosphere in the bay evacuated.
"All right, Manfred," she said. "We are as secure as I can make us, so let us talk."
Steele paused, it was the first time she had addressed him by name and not his position or Bloodname. The first time that she had ever addressed him as anything other than 'Captain' in the hearing of someone else, at least so far as he was aware.
"Our official orders are to recon the Inner Sphere, posing as a tramp freighter. Our secondary mission is to make contact with the Wolf Dragoons and retrieve the Codices and Giftake of the Goliath Scorpion Warriors who accompanied the Dragoons."
"I am fully aware of our official orders," Manfred said testily.
"What I want to know is what it is that we are after. Our true mission. Why do you have us pursuing this man, this…knight?"
Atalanta had spent not a little time considering just how to tell him. Many people on board knew parts of their mission, but even they were limited to their small part of it. Several new broader topics, such as the details of Eureka's refit or how the crew—and ground force, for that matter—had been recruited. There had only ever been three people who had been informed of every detail, and two of them were dead. A few people knew more and still lived, but she could count them with fingers to spare.
Finally she decided to just drop the biggest shock she could and go from there.
"I am pursuing him because Operation Revival as it currently stands will fail," she said.
"Outrageous!" Manfred cried. He actually forgot where he was for a moment and tried to leap to his feet, but the lap belt prevented it. "We are too powerful. No force the Inner Sphere can field can stand before the Clans. Look at how quickly Clan Wolf moves, how many worlds it has conquered."
"Sit," she snapped. "Do you have any idea how impossibly big the Inner Sphere is? How many worlds it contains? Do you honestly expect that every soldier in the successor states will simply roll over like a dog before an angry wolf when we take Terra? I assure you they will not. They will force us to garrison every planet, every moon, every miserable space station, habitat, and asteroid mine until the cream of our warriors are bled out on the rocks.
"It takes time for the scientists to create the next generation of Warriors, time for them to mature in the iron wombs, years of training. We have neither the time nor the capacity in all the Clans to create the sheer numbers we would require simply to garrison each world. And if we did we would not have the capacity to insure the same quality of training in our Warriors that we have today. Were those not problems enough, we would not have the capacity to support them, in material, mechs, battle armor, weapons, ammunition, or to simply transport them.
"The Great Council, or at least the crusader-minded Khans, has convinced our warriors that all it will take is for us to land on Terra, proclaim the Star League Reborn, and the people of the Inner Sphere will bow down and hail us heroes and saviors. Why should they? They have been conquering each other without pause for the better part of three centuries. Why should they see us as anything but another conqueror, especially with the example of Turtle Bay?"
Manfred's anger left him in a sudden rush. The disgraceful episode had been carried out by a different Clan with very different philosophies, but it had been carried out by another of aerospace fighter pilot stock and he felt a certain amount of unreasonable yet nevertheless real guilt by association. And…she was right. There were not enough clusters in the toumens of all the Clans to put a garrison on each inhabitable world.
He doubted there were enough trinaries and binaries to do so.
"Do you have any concept of the sheer numbers in the Inner Sphere militaries?" she inexorably pressed on. "Any one of them has as many regiments as all the Clans together have clusters. Most of them have a great many more. Even if we kill a hundred of their soldiers for every casualty we take, a thousand, ten-thousand of them for every casualty, we will be wiped out. And that is as things currently stand. Do you think that they might not be pressing their scientists to create new weapons? That their strategists and tacticians are not designing new strategies and tactics? That their recruiting and training facilities are not expanding? Do you not think that if pressed far enough that they might resort to the use of nuclear weapons? They have in the past. Now they follow the Ares Conventions because they must, it is a matter of survival, but we have already broken those ancient laws, quiaff?
"If we do not change, and change soon, the Inner Sphere will be the Clans' grave. The Founder warned me of this in my first vision though I did not understand. I think the Loremaster at the time did, but I never had the opportunity to ask."
"I…you cannot mean that there is no hope," he said softly.
"No, there is hope," Atalanta said. "Even now the Inner Sphere starts to unite. For the first time a centuries they start to reach for the Glory of the Star League. Their research centers are advancing rapidly, the Successor Lords are working together instead of fighting. They are united in a common purpose. Our downfall. Maybe they can delay us, possibly they can destroy us.
"In a few short years the ilKhan will have succeeded in reforging the Star League, but only because we will have been the fire, the anvil, and the hammer that has made it so. We will be the tools that make it, not the instrument itself. The Star League remade is our true objective, not conquest, our own fates are immaterial to our goals. But the ilKhan cannot fathom such a thing. To have the Star League without us in control is anathema to too many warriors. If the Crusaders, if we cannot have the Star League as we see the Star League, then we will destroy it, if we can, so that we can remake it in our image."
"You do not think it possible that we could win?" Manfred asked, but his tone made the question a statement.
"Define victory, Captain," Atalanta answered anyway. "If you mean it the way the ilKhan does, then I see very little hope. If Clan Wolf were to become the ilClan, and Ulric Kerensky ilKhan, then perhaps—perhaps, Manfred—he could pull everything together without it all collapsing into the very kind of war that the Great Father left the Inner Sphere to avoid in the first place! Whether or not he could hold it together long enough for it to become seld-sustaining, I do not know. I am certain that Leo Showers will do all he can to prevent that from happening."
"You seek to foster this 'hope,' to turn it upon the Clans?" Manfred asked. As soon as he started to ask he knew it wasn't the answer, but felt compelled to ask anyway.
"No," she said gently, without the anger he expected from someone so insulted. "Yet we too represent a hope, a different hope, yet one nonetheless."
She felt silent, and for minutes that threatened to stretch into eternity Manfred could not bring himself to break it. But Atalanta said nothing further, and at last he could wait no longer.
"What is our mission, then?" he asked.
"Our mission?" she repeated in surprise. "Star Commodore, our mission is nothing less than those entrusted to our forbearers and Clan Founders by the Great Father and the Founder themselves! Our mission is to protect the people of the Inner Sphere, to do all we can to spare its peoples the horrors of war, to promote peace and the prosperity of its denizens, and to bring about the return of the Star League. A pure Star League, with all of the glories and greatness of its predecessor, but none of that which was base or corrupt.
"It is to this we have sworn our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. It is this that I Seek. To do any less would be to fail in the Charge They have given to us. It is not for our sakes' we fear failure, but what it means for the sake of the people we would fail. To be unworthy of the sacred trust our forbearers have passed on to us, and to condemn the innocent to live under the pall of Death and Destruction and Terror. It is for these that we dare not contemplate failure.
"I do not know how Roland Talbot fits into things. I do know, assuming I have interpreted my vision correctly, that he represents our best chance…or can at least point us in the right direction of where to go and what to do next."