VII

Arthur Cassini had a wife and two sons, waiting for him, back in Galateia III.

Fátima was the love of his life, daughter of a proud knight of House Davion, like Arthur. They met while still very young, and, even then, the young boy knew he wanted to be a warrior, carrying the golden sun and sword of the Federated Suns over his chest, and over the hull of his BattleMech. With Fátima, he had two sons, Francis, the eldest, intelligent and prudent, who honoured his warrior legacy, but desired to be a politician, and John, the youngest, reckless and exuberant, so eager to learn how to pilot a 'Mech as Arthur himself was when he had been the same age. Two sons so different, but who made him proud in equal ways. And a wife who carried with him the hardships of a life in the army. He would never be capable of expressing the gratitude he had to her, and how much he loved her. Never…

And, still, when Prince Victor Steiner-Davion, ruler of the Federated Commonwealth, came to Galatia III and asked for him to command a company of the 1st Davion Guards in an almost suicidal mission behind enemy lines, he'd accepted without hesitation. And why had he done that? He was nearing his 50s, had a family to take care of, and knew that Fátima would resent that decision, even if she never said it directly. He would leave that family behind, probably never to come back…

Why?...

Why…?

Fátima…

What is that sound?...

The warning whistled right into his ears, piercing his drums painfully.

With a sudden realization, he remembered the battle, the Smoke Jaguars, the landing dropships, and the savage BattleMech. He struggled to raise the Thanatos, which spun and smashed into the ground when hit by both magnetic cannons mounted over the shoulders of the enemy assault 'Mech. In a few seconds, that seemed like an eternity, he managed to bring the machine to its knees, then wasting no time in twisting the torso to see how the battle was going.

Antonios Nova Cat had walked past him, hiding behind a nearby building, while trading shots with the huge unknown machine, and a smaller and nimbler Cougar, a squat 35-ton bird-looking OmniMech. The Cat already displayed some damage, pouring smoke from a huge gash over the right torso, and smaller scars over the chest and shoulders. For some reason, Arthur realized he had passed out for just a few seconds. The battle was still fresh, and the incoming army was still a few minutes away. He brought the Thanatos to its feet and charged into the nearest 'Mech, the big, scary, monster.

"Hammer, report!" He called for the infantry team, fighting to take control of the anti-aircraft towers, looming near the landing pads.

"Still fighting to enter the control room." Someone said from the other side. "They are well entrenched."

"If you cannot, just blow everything up."

"Just four more minutes."

"Two!"

And then the assault 'Mech turned to face him, probably having suddenly realized he was back into the fray. There was no more time for words, and, thankfully, Arthur was close enough to use the autocannon.

The huge thing staggered sideways when its right shoulder was pierced by a wall of pellets. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to penetrate all the way through, although it put it off balance. Arthur came even closer and unleashed the missiles. The monster's chest seemed to boil under the explosions, which gave the colonel a shimmer of hope. And then the thing proceeded to shrug the smoke away with a motion of its damaged arm, again turning the fearsome weaponry to the Thanatos.

Arthur slid sideways, evading both rounds hurled at hypersonic speeds by the magnetic coils of the gauss rifles. The lasers, though, managed to burn away some hundreds of kilos of armour, and even burning the structure under the huge hole now garnishing the right side of the torso. New lights appeared over the control panel, mostly red. Although still able to move and fight, the OmniMech was terribly damaged.

The voice from that thing's pilot came laughing over the open channels.

"You should have kept lying over your face, Spheroid!"

There was no point in facing those 'Mechs in the open. They were still fairly undamaged and outgunned the Davion machines in every respect. Arthur didn't even halt for a second, he simply passed by the assault 'Mech, and kept running at full speed. Time to change the strategy once again.

"Antonios! Into the town!"

The Nova Cat followed him, and both OmniMechs disappeared into the streets darkened by the night. The walls around them exploded when the shots fired by the Smoke Jaguar 'Mechs missed their mark.

"Ah, surats you are! Hiding instead of facing me face-to-face!"

The man now seemed quite enraged. Regardless, he followed them, with the Cougar right behind him. Time to prepare them a surprise.

"Spread." Antonios promptly obeyed, disappearing in a dark alley to the left. Arthur cut to his right, going around a huge warehouse, while the Clanners tried to understand what were they up to. He purposely kept his instructions to the minimum. Kyrgiakos had a phenomenal warrior instinct, and in that desperate situation he preferred to let him improvise and do what he thought best. Trust his friend.

He finished going around the building, emerging in the avenue from a street a few hundred meters behind the monstrous 'Mech. The Cougar was nowhere to be seen, probably it went after the Nova Cat. In any case, the improvised manoeuvre hadn't caught the Jaguar by surprise. He was already turning back when Arthur aimed the big weapons in his Thanatos arms, the red visor in the front of the lowered head appearing between the arm and the gun over the shoulder, as if looking back at him through the dark. Undaunted, Arthur opened fire, blasting the rear armour of that machine and the facades of the nearby buildings with a ring of fire and smoke. The assault 'Mech staggered forward while the rubble cascaded into the street, the right arm turned to the ground, spilling sparks as if they were its fiery blood. And, still, that Mechwarrior somehow managed to cross the left arm over the chest and fire back at the Thanatos, one turquoise laser beam burning the armour over the legs, the other digging a hole into another building.

The best warriors in the galaxy indeed.

And then the monster also disappeared into one of the smaller streets between the buildings, turning Arthur's plan against him. Undeterred, he moved forward into a parallel street while his weapons reloaded and he thought about his next move.

As soon as he found a corner, Arthur turned at full speed, demolishing a few balconies with the broad shoulders of his machine. The dark creature he was facing was already in the other tip of that street, searching for him. The Davion Mechwarrior fired first, though. Twelve short range missiles flew from his right arm, turning more facades into rubble and chipping away more armour from the big machine, while the autocannon tore a big hole into the other side of the arched torso. The Jaguar fired back with the lasers mounted in his functional arm, adding the missile launcher under the cockpit right after. The beams of pure light melted away the armour over the left side of the Thanatos' torso and one of the missiles penetrated, destroying the medium pulse laser mounted there. Time to keep moving!

While it moved into a new alley, Arthur noticed his 'Mech was answering more sluggishly to his controls. A myriad of red lights over the control panel indicated the destroyed systems, even the vital ECM suite was gone, and he was down to a single pulse laser rounding the two big weapons, now low on ammunition. More critical were the warnings about destroyed heat sinks and coolant tubing. The Thanatos was reaching serious heat levels, and Arthur almost fainted once. Adding to it all, most of the armour plating over the chest was gone, giving the war machine the sorry look of a skinned, eviscerated, animal.

The final clash happened in the following turn. Arthur cut through a secondary street, going all the way back into the main avenue. As expected, the Smoke Jaguar followed. He hoped to catch the Clanner on his back again, but that Mechwarrior was really good, and knew the town better than he did. So, when they met again, they were facing each other, only this time Arthur was the slower gunman.

Both gauss rifles fired as one, hitting hard over the heavily damaged right torso. The structure actually bent backwards before collapsing all of a sudden, the whole arm/shoulder mount flying away and crashing into a building. Off balance, the Thanatos stumbled to its left, slamming the remaining shoulder into a nearby facade, making rubble cascade over its feet. Before Arthur could recover, that mouth-like missile launcher fired another volley, sending a few warheads into the belly of the 'Mech, cracking the gyro, which promptly destroyed itself while spinning out of control. Unable to keep balance, the Thanatos fell to its knees.

Looking beyond the cracked canopy of his ruined machine, all that Arthur could see was that red visor built over the cockpit. The feral-looking machine aimed the gauss rifles for the final blow.

This is it…

Francis, my son, now you're the man of…

Two glowing blue beams hit the flank of the monster, instantly turning armour into shrapnel flying in all directions. Confused, the Clanner tilted the torso to see what was attacking him, and Arthur, pulled away from his vertigo, immediately aimed the 200mm autocannon, the arm rising with desperate sluggishness. Suddenly reminded of his not-so-dead adversary, the Jaguar tried to turn back at him, but it was too late.

The huge muzzle exploded and the red visor shattered while the armoured plate around the cockpit bent inwards before spewing a mixture of burned electronics and pulverized flesh. That terrible monster simply fell backwards, like a colossal rag doll, crashing into the ground with a huge boom.

And that was it. The entire control panel went dark right after that final shot, and even the smooth hum of the fusion engine dimmed until it disappeared entirely. Arthur allowed himself to sink into the command chair with a sigh. The adrenaline was still rushing through his veins, making him tremble, and his heart beat like a drum. Down there, in the end of the street, Antonios Nova Cat came to a halt near the downed assault 'Mech, to see if it was really dead.

"Thought you needed a hand." Antonios voice come through the portable communicator placed over the neck guard of his uniform.

"Thanks… Where's the Cougar?"

"Somewhere…" The Nova Cat moved with the grace of a huge athlete, something it somehow looked like, scanning around in search of its prey. "I'll get it."

And then he disappeared, back to track his own adversary. Suddenly alone, Arthur sensed he shouldn't stay there for much longer. He pushed a lever on the side of the canopy, and the bolts holding it closed exploded, sending the whole part away, to crash violently into the tarmac. After getting rid of the harness, he moved to the tip of the cockpit and jumped to the leg, and then to the ground. His feet touched a pool of viscous dark-green fluid, spreading under the ruined chassis. Coolant fluid, shedding through ruptured tubing, the dead machine's blood. Looking up, Arthur could get a better sense of the damage. He would later prefer to not have done that.

The Thantos was an utter ruin. Illuminated by several small fires consuming its innards, its torso was an unrecognizable mess, of bent internal structures, burned electronics, ruptured tubes and pending myomer musculature, looking a little too much like ripped flesh. That thing would never fight or even walk again, and it would be a marvel if the technicians could get any spare parts from it at all. For a prototype, though, it had served wonderfully.

Saying goodbye to the machine he'd fought with for those last, terrible, weeks, Arthur walked away, seeking shelter in one of the nearby buildings; the main door cracked open by a splinter of armour, tall as a man. Through one of the windows (the glass miraculously intact), he looked up into the night, observing the descent plumes from the arriving dropships. The liberation army. He touched the communicator, searching for the infantry's radio channel.

"Hammer, this is Anvil, do you hear? Are you there Hammer?"

For a second, nothing… And then…

"Anvil, this is Hammer reporting."

"What is your situation?"

"Situation reports as follows… We have taken control of the anti-aircraft command centre. The towers are ours. We are facing a counter-attack, though. Infantry."

"Can you hold the line?"

"Humm…" The man didn't seem that secure, but he ended up saying. "We will hold. Just let the Kuritas land and then these Jaguars will taste some of their own medicine!"

"Good luck then, Hammer. Anvil out."

So the mission was a success. Grabbing his sub machinegun to give him some comfort, Arthur proceeded to make contact with the decoy strike team. The fate of those men and women was more uncertain. Was someone still alive, yet?

"Lobo One, this is Anvil, please report. Lobo One, are you there? Jezebel, are you there?"

The answer came from a shaky voice, a young man.

"Anvil, Lobo One here."

That guy was probably a young sergeant, or a corporal. What happened to rest of the unit?

"Please report situation…"

"Well… We sustained heavy casualties. All 'Mechs destroyed, and a lot of injured. We're now taking refuge in an abandoned building…"

"The Smoke Jaguars?"

"I think they are retreating, sir. Seeing that many dropships might have scared them somehow, and their remaining forces are leaving the town."

Clanners, retreating? The other operations should have succeeded too, forcing the Jaguars to pull back and reorganize their defences.

"I think… I think we've won, sir!"

Arthur sat in a chair, in the middle of that abandoned dark room. Now that his body was starting to chill, the pain from the injuries sustained during the fight was making itself too pungent to ignore. He massaged his neck with his free hand, where a sudden pain exploded around the nape, making him dizzy.

So, they won... He'd performed his duty to House Davion, and would now get to return to Galatia III and see his family again.

But how many had been refused that chance?

"Yes… We've won…"