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3049: Disaster Strikes (Battletech AU) (Complete)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Starfox5, Dec 29, 2018.

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  1. Threadmarks: Chapter 1: Storm Surge
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    3049: Disaster Strikes

    Disclaimer:
    I do not own Battletech or any of the characters in the franchise.

    Summary:
    AU. The Clans came prepared to invade the Inner Sphere of the Third Succession War. But by the time they arrived, the Inner Sphere had been preparing for ten years to fight the Sixth Succession War.

    Author’s Note:
    This story is set in an Alternate Battletech Universe. A number of canon events didn’t happen or happened differently since the Fourth Succession War.

    I'd like to thank Tsureai for beta-reading.

    Cover:

    [​IMG]

    *****​

    Chapter 1: Storm Surge

    Oberon Confederation, Ferris II, August 14th, 3049

    “Enemy units detected. Eight BattleMechs hiding behind the ridge ahead.”

    Ralik caught himself leaning forward as he heard Tian’s report and forced himself to sit straight inside the cockpit of his Timber Wolf. A 'MechWarrior of Clan Wolf did not behave like an unblooded, overeager sibko member!

    He guided his BattleMech past a rocky outcrop, checking twice to ensure he was keeping pace with Lionel’s Gargoyle A to his left. It would be embarrassing to fall out of formation now, right before they would make contact with the enemy.

    Symbols lit up on the map display in front of him as the Active Probe in Tian’s Ice Ferret identified the enemy BattleMechs, and Ralik fought the urge to slump in disappointment. STG-3R, STG-3R, WSP-1A, LCT-1V, COM-2D, WTH-1, VL-2T, and a BJ-1. Light and medium BattleMechs - this would not be a fight where he could earn glory.

    “Stupid freebirths should have answered the batchall,” Sepha said with a scoff, “That way they would have had a chance, at least - the Heart Eaters might have outbid us by only bidding their Elementals.”

    Ralik chuckled with the rest of the Star.

    “Do not underestimate them,” Star Commander Rylian cut in, but he did not sound as if he really meant it.

    A moment later, the symbols changed - Rylian had assigned targets. Ralik’s was, as expected - he was the newest member of the Star - a light BattleMech, the second STG-3R. He frowned, then frowned even more as he scolded himself for his reaction. He had a received an order and would do his utmost to execute it, as any warrior of Clan Wolf should.

    They stayed in formation, forming a line, as they approached the ridge. The enemy BattleMechs did not move - perhaps they had not yet realised that their ambush had been foiled by Tian?

    “Infantry, dug in on the ridge,” Tian reported as they closed to about five hundred metres. “Company strength.”

    That meant about a hundred and twenty soldiers. Unarmoured. Ralik still had a little trouble translating the old terms into numbers - he had focused on learning the various BattleMechs the Inner Sphere might field, not infantry. Unarmoured infantry did not matter, anyway - unless they were facing Solahma.

    “Engage!” the Star Commander ordered as they were three hundred metres away from the ridge.

    Tian pushed her Ice Ferret into a sprint at once, racing up the ridge, easily outpacing the rest of the Star. Explosions appeared on her legs, and, for a moment, Ralik feared the pirates had laid mines - no, it was the infantry shooting SRMs at her.

    But apart from blowing some armour on her Ice Ferret’s legs away, the barrage did not stop or hinder Tian. She cleared the ridge and Ralik saw her weapons flash before she disappeared on the other side.

    Now the enemy BattleMechs were moving - like rats faced with a terrier jumping into their midst. Ralik’s target was falling back from Tian, and he adjusted his course as he went up the ridge’s slope. The infantry was shooting at him as well, but he ignored them. He had his orders, and the honourless curs would be dealt with once the BattleMechs were defeated.

    “Minimal armour damage,” his computer reported, but Ralik did not really listen - he was focused on his enemy. He reached the top of the ridge and found his prey right in front of him. The light BattleMech turned to face him as Ralik lined up his shot. He was tempted to let the pirate take the first shot, but then he saw his prey stumble and almost fall. Scoffing at the display of ineptitude, he put the stravag disgrace out of their misery with a volley from his lasers that cored the light BattleMech and blew up its reactor.

    Ralik turned to engage the next BattleMech, but the Star Commander’s next order arrived before he could target the WSP-1A. “Ralik, engage the infantry.”

    Ralik opened his mouth to protest - engaging infantry while BattleMechs were still on the field? - but managed to restrain himself. His Timber Wolf was the only one in the Star with machine guns, so the order made sense, even if it galled.

    And the infantry was still shooting at him and the others. His BattleMech was in no danger of succumbing to their attack anytime soon, but to let the enemy damage you if you could avoid it was not the Clan way.

    He turned and started to sweep the slope with his machine guns. The bullets caught a missile team in the open, and the two men vanished in a fireball. He blinked even as he silenced a machine gun pit next - that had been… inferno missiles?

    “Star Commander, they are using inferno ammunitions,” he reported.

    “Confirmed?”

    “Aff.” As if he could be mistaken about this!

    “Star, support Ralik as soon as your enemy is dealt with - let us teach those stravag scum a lesson.”

    Pulse lasers joined Ralik’s machine guns. He used his own as well, though sparingly - his BattleMech’s heat sinks had to be ready to deal with an inferno hit.

    The pirates did not last long under the combined assault, though they took longer to break than Ralik would have expected. Perhaps they wished to die in battle? He would not have expected that from pirates.

    *****​

    Oberon Confederation, The Rock, Clan Wolf Flagship Dire Wolf, August 20th, 3049

    Tech Martina shook her head as she stared at the wreckage in the hangar bay. “They dared to style their BattleMech like a wolf?” That would have enraged the warriors.

    “They call it a ‘Wolfhound’, or so a bondsman claims,” Aris replied, shrugging. “Light BattleMech, thirty-five tons.”

    “That was not in the files,” Martina pointed out.

    “Maybe it is a new model?” Aris shrugged again. “It does not look like it was cobbled together like the other ‘salvage’ we received.”

    “Where is the rest of the BattleMech?” Martina asked.

    “Apparently, they left it on the planet.” Aris scoffed. “They only took the head since they wanted the pilot. Supposedly, the BattleMech had an integrated ejection system that jettisoned the entire head instead of just the seat.”

    Martina looked at the broken cockpit plate, then stood on her tiptoes and peered inside. The cockpit was ripped up, and dried blood covered most of the seat. “Well, it did not save the pilot, quineg?” she said.

    “Neg, it did not,” Aris agreed. With a chuckle, he added: “I heard that the Khan was not happy about that. Especially after the losses the Kheshik took battling mercenaries.”

    Martina clenched her teeth. Warriors were seldom happy if things did not go exactly their way - and they usually blamed the lower castes, no matter whose fault it actually was. She hoped the med techs had not been censured for this. Tilting her head, she tried to decipher the partially-destroyed letters beneath the faceplate. “...lan Kell?”

    Aris shrugged again. “Who cares who he was? We have to see what we can salvage from this. Before a warrior blames us for delaying the operation.”

    She nodded and pulled out a tool. “Let us get started.”

    *****​

    ‘The Clan Invasion remained undetected in the Periphery far longer than one would have expected given the number of planets they took. Even the loss of an entire battalion of the 1st Kell Hounds on The Rock was, in the absence of any reports, attributed to a misjump rather than enemy action.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis’ by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064


    *****​

    ‘If the Hounds hadn’t been so arrogant to assume that nothing in the Periphery could pose a threat to them, they would have brought one of their Black Boxes with them when they went pirate hunting, and we’d have had an early warning. Sure, the signal would have taken some time to reach the Commonwealth’s borders, but we would have been prepared a hell of a lot better. Would have saved a lot of people. Like my brother in the 17th Rangers.’
    - Marty “Jumpjack” Braghan, 10th Skye Rangers.


    *****​

    Oberon Confederation, Ferris II, September 1st, 3049

    “You know, this is a historic moment - The Return has actually started. After centuries, the glory of the Star league is being restored to the oppressed citizens left behind in the Inner Sphere,” Sepha suddenly spoke up as their vehicle came to a stop in the centre of the capital of Ferris II.

    Ralik glanced at her as he left the ground car. The 'MechWarrior was not a Crusader as far as he was aware, and she was not one to recite epics either - as far as he knew, she had been in at least one trial of grievance over her drunk performance of the Remembrance others had taken offence to. Which had been settled with fists.

    Lionel rolled his eyes and sighed. “Sepha, everyone knows that you barely care about the operation. Do not tell me that you have suddenly been overcome with emotion and embraced the importance of our task.” Lionel, on the other hand, was a Crusader.

    “Also, if you care about these things, then the actual historic moment was three weeks ago, when Beta Galaxy took Blackstone,” Tian pointed out.

    Sepha seemed unconcerned about either comment. She chuckled. “I know, I know. I was merely struck by the discrepancy between our historic mission and our current surroundings.” She waved her hand at what passed as the main street of the town. “Where are the paradises? The adoring masses showering us with praise and gratitude for their liberation from the tyranny of the corrupt house lords?”

    “We are in the Periphery,” Lionel retorted. “The Star League had to conquer these realms to civilise them, and it is apparent that they have slid back into barbarism since the Exodus. Given time, they will embrace the Clan way.”

    Sepha snorted - she was a cynic, Ralik knew - but did not contradict the other 'MechWarrior. Ralik himself did not share the sentiments Sepha claimed to have. Of course, the conquest of the planet had been a disappointment. The pirates had barely put up a fight - their infantry had lasted longer than their BattleMechs, and their skill and discipline had been abysmal. That they had fought dishonourably had been expected from the start - you could not expect anything else from criminals on whom even the corrupt house lords and their lackeys looked down.

    But the town was in better shape than Ralik had expected, given what he had learned about the Periphery pirates from the reports of the Wolf Dragoons - before they had turned traitors. The population looked healthy, on par with the labourer castes of other clans, if not quite as well as the labourers of his own Clan, of course.

    Although Sepha was correct in that the people he could see on the street certainly did not look very grateful for their liberation and absorption by Clan Wolf. They looked more wary and nervous. But they also knew their place already, giving way to their group as the Star Commander led them towards the bar nearby, and once the shock had worn off, they would make fine additions to the labourer caste. Or their children would.

    The bar was not quite as packed as it had been the first time they had visited. Ralik looked around as Rylian picked a table in the corner and waved the waiter over. A number of people he had expected to see were absent.

    “They are preparing for the upcoming Trials of Bloodright,” Tian answered his question before he could voice it.

    “Ah.” Ralik nodded.

    Sepha snorted. “Who would have thought that the Golden Keshik, the best of our Clan, chosen by the Khan himself, would lose two Bloodnamed warriors against mercenaries?”

    Rylian narrowed his eyes at her. “Watch your words.”

    Sepha met the Star Commander’s gaze for a moment, then nodded. Apparently, she was not keen on starting a fight today. Or not yet, Ralik amended his thoughts.

    Rylian nodded. “They must have underestimated the enemy. Let that be a lesson to all of us.”

    “The Kell Hounds were supposed to be among the best battalions of the Inner Sphere,” Ralik pointed out. It wasn’t as if the Kheshik had only lost Bloodnamed warriors.

    Lionel scoffed. “And yet, they could not stand against us even with the advantage of numbers. If they are the best the house lords can field against us, we will walk on hallowed Terra within a year.”

    “You talk like you fought them personally,” Sepha said with a chuckle. “Will you compete in the trial yourself?”

    None of their Star had been nominated, Ralik knew. Lionel could take part in the Grand Bloodname Melee to earn a spot in the trial, but Ralik did not think the other 'MechWarrior would - Lionel preferred to pick his fights better.

    And, Ralik thought, though he did not say it out loud, there would be more opportunities to earn a Bloodname once Operation Revival truly began. He certainly was hoping to earn the chance to compete for one himself.

    *****​

    Terra, North America, Hilton's Head Island, October 10th, 3049

    “...and the report from the Station on Oberon VI is quite clear on the matter: The invaders not only have warships - including at least one battlecruiser - and multiple BattleMechs of unknown design, but also technology that surpasses what the SLDF fielded at its heyday. The theory that they are merely a group of pirates or Periphery forces who plundered an SLDF cache must, therefore, be dismissed. Judging by the BattleROMs Precentor Kelly managed to acquire, we’re facing a power that is at least our technological equal, if not superior, and has the resources to conduct weapons research on a large scale. Together with the reports from the other stations in the conquered territory, our best estimate puts the invading forces at twenty to forty regiments of advanced BattleMechs, with armoured infantry and equally advanced aerospace fighters as support elements.”

    Myndo Waterly wanted to close her eyes as Anastasius droned on, but that would have been disrespectful. The Precentor Martial deserved better, even though he had a tendency to get lost in military minutiae instead of coming to a point.

    Fortunately, Precentor Chi didn’t manage to curb her impatience. Myndo glanced at the woman as she raised her hand and interrupted Anastasius. “Could you summarise your report for those among us who aren’t soldiers? How strong are those ‘Clans’ compared to the Successor States?”

    If Anastasius was annoyed by the interruption, he didn’t show it - he had come a long way since his start in ComStar. He nodded with his usual polite smile. “Of course. Although I have to point out that we lack the intelligence to do more than guess - we do not know anything about their reserves, logistics and supply train. But the forces observed so far certainly make them at least the equal of the Capellan Confederation’s military, possibly the Free World League’s, even.”

    “There’s quite a gap between those two,” Precentor Tau pointed out. “One is barely above a Periphery Power, the other is one of the dominant powers of the Inner Sphere.”

    Anastasius nodded once more and repeated himself: “We do not have the necessary information to deliver a more precise estimate.”

    Precentor Tau nodded. “The reports also mentioned that they were led by a ‘Khan Kerensky’.”

    “Indeed.” The Precentor Martial smiled. “Based upon some of the unit insignia displayed, and the names used, we have concluded that they are most likely the descendants of Kerensky’s forces who followed him into exile.”

    Myndo took note of who among the First Circuit looked surprised. That conclusion had been obvious to anyone who had read the actual reports. The alternative - that this was a false flag operation - seemed rather unconvincing.

    “The Star League returned…” Precentor Chi said. “And the report stated that they reacted positively when presented with the Order’s history and goals. If we allied with them, we might be able to fulfil Blessed Blake’s vision!”

    This time, Myndo rolled her eyes. “While the Clans spoke of restoring the Star League, I doubt that they are following Blake’s will. They haven’t announced their future intentions as blatantly as they announced their attacks, but they have displayed an obvious disdain, perhaps even hatred, of the Successor States. I do not think that they plan to resort to diplomacy to achieve their goals.” She wouldn’t let that foolish woman destroy all she had been working for since she succeeded Julian in the moment of the Order’s greatest crisis.

    Precentor Chi raised her chin. “If they truly have warships and advanced technology, then an alliance with them would change the balance of power in the Inner Sphere decidedly. None of the realms has significant war fleets nor are they fielding many advanced BattleMechs. If we add our edge in intelligence…”

    Myndo glared at her. “You would risk all we have achieved in the last twenty years, our reputation as the moral conscience, neutral arbiter and cultural leader of the Inner Sphere, for such a fool’s scheme?” Not to mention their economic influence, of course.

    “We haven’t built up anything but vague hopes!” Precentor Chi retorted. “When was the last time soft power and moral leadership amounted to anything in the Inner Sphere? This presents us with the chance to fulfil Blake’s vision now! We won’t have to blindly hope that the Great Houses will come to their senses, stop their wars, and then reform the Star League with us at the helm because we’re the only power left everyone can trust to treat them fairly!” she exclaimed with a sneer.

    “And when did war ever achieve anything but pointless destruction?” Myndo shot back. “Blake formed the Order to preserve, not destroy! To lead, not conquer! The Inner Sphere fought for over two hundred years, and yet remains divided and at war - as he had foreseen. That, more than anything, proves that Blake’s will cannot be achieved through war!” She shook her head. “It wasn’t martial force or stealth strikes that preserved the Order’s control over the Inner Sphere’s HPG network, but diplomacy.”

    Diplomacy which had consisted of a lot of offers, guarantees and veiled threats made at the time. The Helm Memory Core might have given the Successor States access to the complete knowledge of the Star League, but the Order had never lost that knowledge - and had had the resources of Terra and the entire Solar System to build upon it for over two hundred years.

    Even so, Myndo was well aware that, ultimately, the fact that, even though they had the knowledge, not even the Federated Commonwealth could spare the money to build a network of their own without crippling their military research and production had been decisive. The K-1 “Black Boxes” might be very useful for military communications - arguably more useful than HPGs - but they could not replace HPGs for civilian needs.

    Anastasius spoke up before Precentor Chi could answer. “I also believe that the Precentor Chi overestimates our own forces. We might have the only warship fleet in the Inner Sphere - but as the First and Second Succession Wars have demonstrated clearly, even warships cannot stand up to a dedicated attack by enough Aerospace fighters carrying anti-ship missiles. And our ground forces are fielding more advanced technology than the House forces, but we lack the experience they have and we do not have the numbers to match any of them.”

    “But with these Clans - with the SLDF returned! - we’d have the force needed!”

    “We do not know this,” Anastasius replied. “Only a fool would gamble everything they owned on such a throw of the dice.”

    Myndo smiled - Anastasius was always polite, so when he rebuked someone, it had a pronounced effect.

    “Then we should remedy that as soon as possible so we can make an informed decision,” Precentor Delta cut in.

    “Our agents in the Periphery are already working on it,” Precentor Rho reported.

    “And we can send some of our stealth recon vessels there as well,” Anastasius added.

    “Can we risk that?” Precentor Omega asked. “If these ‘Clans’ are as advanced as the reports claim, the ships might be detected.”

    “They will approach any system cautiously and ready to jump out as soon as they are detected,” Anastasius replied. “The risk should be minimal.”

    “But this will cost a lot of time,” Precentor Gamma said. “Time we might not have to spare. Since according to the reports we received, the Clans seem to look at our Order’s goals favourably, we should use this to approach them diplomatically and sound them out.”

    Myndo would have preferred to bury the notion that they could start a war at once, but any diplomatic mission would offer plenty of opportunities to gather intelligence as well. And such intelligence could serve to further demonstrate ComStar’s importance to the Inner Sphere.

    She nodded. “This is a good idea.”

    Blake’s will would be done. The Order would rule the Inner Sphere and lead them into an utopian future. Provided members like Precentor Chi didn’t ruin all their hard work with their short-sighted plots. To conquer the Inner Sphere with force of arms! As if the Fifth Succession War hadn’t proved that you had to win the hearts of the population if you planned to conquer instead of merely hold a planet. Perhaps the idiot would have to suffer an accident. It wouldn’t be the first time since the Mad Primus’s assassination in 2902 that the Order, even the First Circuit, had to be culled of people so stupid, they threatened Blessed Blake’s goals.

    *****​

    ‘In hindsight, it is obvious that the reactions of the people in the various occupied Periphery states were at least partially responsible for the Clans mistaken assumption that the Inner Sphere’s population would receive them with open arms. The Clans assumed that if the Periphery’s inhabitants, which had never liked the Star League, accepted their presence without much resistance, then the supposedly oppressed population in the Inner Sphere would be jubilant. They completely missed the fact that life in the Periphery, especially in bandit kingdoms, was so bad that the Clan occupation was a clear improvement for he vast majority of the population, which made them accept the Clans despite their origins. This would notably not be the case in the Inner Sphere, with disastrous results.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis’ by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064


    *****​

    ‘The house lords talk a lot about how they have to wage war to protect us, but it weren’t their troops who supported and saved so many of us who had been displaced and ruined in the last war. All those fancy 'Mechs, all the tanks we bought, even the soldiers recruited from our midst, were busy fighting somewhere else. It was ComStar’s adepts and techs who helped us, treated our wounds and even sheltered us in their enclaves as they repaired our power plants. ComStar stepped up when no one else did, and we won’t ever forget that.’
    - Marian Dubois, sales clerk, Quentin, in an interview following the Fifth Succession War


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, New Caledonia, March 12th, 3050

    Ralik was grinning as his Star advanced on the small village - the last obstacle on the road to Redfev, the planetary capital. “Another holding action, quiaff?” he asked as he piloted his Timber Wolf along the road.

    “Aff,” Tian answered. Her Ice Ferret was, as usual, ahead of them. “Three BattleMechs and four vehicles hiding between the buildings.”

    A moment later, Ralik’s display updated, showing both the buildings and the positions and strength of the enemy. DRG-1N, CRB-20, TDR-5S, four Vedette medium tanks. “Mostly fast models,” he said. “They must be planning to disengage.”

    Lionel scoffed. “They still have not learned that they cannot stall or outrun us. They should have stayed and fought instead of retreating. They gained nothing.”

    “They made us walk all over the continent,” Sepha said, chuckling. “And they embarrassed the Flying Lions.”

    Ralik nodded inside his cockpit - the Binary Fighter had failed to keep the 2nd Drakøns’ aerospace fighters from strafing the Command Nova during the first stage of the battle. To be shown up by freebirth traitors in inferior machines… Those pilots should not be allowed to breed.

    “And the Drakøns still have half their Aerospace fighters,” Rylian reminded them. “Expect them to make an appearance.”

    “You mean the Failing Lions will not keep them away from us?” Sepha asked. “If they bungle their mission a second time we should send the entire Binary to the labour caste.”

    “I would rather not see them in the labour caste,” Ralik said, “our technicians are bad enough. If the Lions take over, then I doubt that they will finish servicing our BattleMechs before the operation is over.” If the stravag labourers had been quicker with their repairs, they would have caught the Drakøns in a pincer movement before the freebirths had managed to slip away through the mountains. Ralik clenched his teeth - he should give the fools another beating to remind them that they were at war and everyone had to do their best.

    Sepha chuckled. “Good point.”

    Lionel scoffed again. “We should have gone into the field without repairs.”

    Ralik nodded. They should have challenged the Star Colonel’s decision - Athen Kederk must have been spooked by losing half of his Elementals to that bombing run.

    “This is not a trial,” Rylian snapped. “This is a war. The less damage we suffer in this battle, the sooner we are ready for the next wave. Now stop complaining like labourers and focus!”

    Ralik pressed his lips together. The reprimand stung. They were not fighting another Clan, but mere freebirth traitors. Inferior warriors in inferior machines. Despite the Lions’ failure, the Heart Stompers had driven an entire regiment supported by tanks and infantry from the field! One Assault Trinary - and, he grudgingly added, the Command Nova - had chased the enemy over hundreds of kilometres and crushed them every time they had tried to make a stand.

    And they would crush the fools trying to stop them as well! No freebirth could stand up to a trueborn warrior, no matter their numbers. Like their namesakes, the Wolves had harried their enemies as if they were prey, picking off stragglers and wounded. And there was only one outcome when a pack was on the hunt.

    He sighed - this was the real beginning of The Return. This was not the Periphery, where the glory of the Star League had never been truly accepted. No, Ralik was walking on a planet that had been part of the Star League. He was liberating people who had been oppressed and exploited for centuries by corrupt traitors!

    His Timber Wolf crested a small hill, and Ralik laid eyes on the village. He shook his head - the honourless curs had chosen to hide inside a farming village, choosing to destroy their labourers’ livelihood for a marginal tactical advantage. This, more than anything else he had seen so far, showed that these traitors did not deserve to rule the Inner Sphere.

    “Tian, do you spot any infantry?” Rylian asked.

    “Neg, Star Commander.”

    That was odd - the enemy infantry had been present at every failed ambush or holding action so far. “Perhaps they have none left?” Ralik wondered. Unarmoured Infantry, even mechanised, had a hard time disengaging from BattleMechs or Elementals, and the Militia had suffered heavy casualties in every battle so far.

    “Infantry are like roaches.” Sepha snorted. “Every time you think you have killed the last of them, another appears underfoot.”

    “You have roaches in your quarters? You should beat the janitor!” Ralik replied.

    “I am running a closer scan,” Tian interrupted them. On his display, Ralik saw her BattleMech’s symbol suddenly move faster - she was sprinting around the village. “Neg. No infantry,” she reported, cool as her BattleMech’s namesake despite the fact that Ralik could hear explosions in the background - Tian was under fire already.

    Star Commander Rylian had heard the explosions as well. “Star, engage your targets. Move!” he ordered.

    Ralik checked his display and smiled. He would be facing the heaviest BattleMech of the enemy line, the TDR-5S. It was still inferior in both weight and weapons, but it should pose a slight challenge, at least. His Timber Wolf sped up as Ralik raced down the road. He kept an eye on the surface - Tian had passed through and hadn’t detected any mines, but when facing an enemy who used such cowardly tactics, it paid to double-check.

    But no explosion stopped him as he closed with the village. His target was hiding behind a taller building - a grain storage, Ralik’s computer labelled it. A warning appeared - potentially explosive? Ralik blinked. “They have explosive grain?”

    “A risk of dust explosions,” Tian explained while she circled around the enemy’s position, dodging autocannon fire from all four tanks. Once again, the Drakøns did not respect zellbrigen.

    Ralik shook his head. “Let us see if it is true,” he said, targeting the building with his lasers.

    It did not work - the building caught fire, but it did not blow up. But his assigned enemy moved out of cover to face him!

    Ralik bared his teeth as he moved his Timber Wolf to the side, starting to circle the enemy BattleMech while staggering his fire. The enemy pilot was good - for a freebirth. But Ralik had twice the firepower and twice the skill. After thirty seconds of intense fire, the enemy BattleMech toppled over with its gyro shot out, crushing a farmhouse. A Vedette which had been taking potshots at Ralik was still firing at him. But before he could engage it, Tian blew it up with a PPC hit to the vehicle’s thinly-armoured back.

    “They did not try to disengage,” she said.

    Ralik nodded in agreement. They had stood and fought to the last.

    “They were probably tired of running,” Sepha said. “My opponent certainly fought as if they were half-asleep.”

    It did not matter - the path to the planetary capital was open now. And to the remains of the Drakøns.

    “Aerial contacts!” Tian suddenly snapped as the Star was still forming up again.

    “Fighters?” Rylian asked.

    Ralik tensed. If the Drakøns sent in their Aerospace fighters now… Where were the Lions when you needed them?

    “Aerospace fighters. And dropships,” Tian reported. “Lifting off from the capital’s spaceport.”

    What?

    “The stravags are fleeing!” Lionel hissed.

    Ralik gritted his teeth. “Where are the Lions?”

    “Tangled with the missing Drakøn fighters would be my guess,” Sepha said. “Does anyone want to bet that the Lions manage to stop them?”

    “Let them run,” Rylian said. “We have won the planet. We’ll face them again in the next wave.”

    And then they would not escape, Ralik thought.

    *****​

    Federated Commonwealth, Bone-Norman, March 14th, 3050

    Leftenant Angela Wagner knew that an officer was supposed to always present an optimistic face in order to keep up the morale of her troops, but she didn’t bother hiding her frown when she switched off the radio in her Belleron APC and stepped out.

    “What’s the word from command?” PFC Grönemann asked at once.

    “What do you think, idiot?” The Sarge snarled at Grönemann before Angela could answer. “You know there wasn’t more than a company of the Grave Walkers that made it out of Kelton.”

    “But…”

    Angela cleared her throat and glared at both men. Discipline had to be maintained, especially in a situation such as this one. When both looked sufficiently contrite, she nodded. “The enemy is advancing on the capital, and there are not enough forces left to stop them. Command, therefore, has ordered all surviving units to switch to insurgency tactics.”

    Grönemann gaped. “But… that’s only supposed to happen at the snake border! Not out here!”

    “There was always the risk that the Draconis Combine would launch an offensive through the Periphery,” Angela replied in her best lecturing tone. Of course, that risk had been minimal - the logistics were beyond the DCMS’s ability - but this wasn’t the time to appear as anything less than prepared. “This is why we prepared for this.”

    “You didn’t think we hid all those explosives and inferno launchers so you and your pals could use them for fireworks to celebrate the New Years?” The Sarge chuckled. “I was with the Lyran Guards on Vega when we ran into their ‘All Citizen Resistance’. Bloody insurgents turned the entire world into such a hellhole, we were glad when the counter-attack arrived and we had an excuse to evacuate.” He grinned and tapped the burn scar covering half his face with his index. “Let me tell you, being on the wrong side of an inferno missile isn’t fun. And we’ll teach that to those ‘Falcons’. They’ll be very sorry they decided to invade us!”

    The men cheered. Angela forced herself to smile. She had been fifteen during the Fifth Succession War - just old enough to enter cadet school. She hadn’t fought in the brutal insurrections on the Combine worlds. But she had studied the reports.

    This would be a terrible campaign. A lot of people, many if not most of them civilians, would die. But they would win in the end and see the invaders flee Bone-Norman. If the snakes had managed to give the AFFC a bloody nose with armed civilians and press-ganged Yakuza prisoners forced at gunpoint to fight by DEST agents, then her and her platoon - what was left of it - and everyone else who had survived the battles so far could do the same, or better, against these ‘Jade Falcons’.

    They had been training and preparing for this for a decade, after all.

    So she smiled. “We’ll ditch the APCs and move to the closest underground cache. That would be…”

    “Trentis Mountain Valley, ma’am,” the Sarge replied.

    She nodded. “Trentis Mountain Valley. Move, everyone!”

    *****​

    ‘Even for a scholar with the benefits of hindsight, the effectiveness of the Draconis Combine’s ‘All Citizen Resistance’ strategy in the Fifth Succession War remains almost as much a surprise as it was for the AFFC invasion forces of the time. No one had expected to fight an insurrection of that scope, which meant that the assigned garrison forces were too small and too inexperienced to handle it. That the first response to the demands for more troops was to assign parts of the RCT’s infantry components to garrison duty only compounded the problem since those troops would not only be missed by the RCTs during the next wave of the invasion, but were not sufficiently trained and equipped to deal with a civilian insurrection either. While the popular myth that the people’s insurrection wrecked the supply lines for the invasion is incorrect - that was done by DCMS raiding forces attacking the jumpships and dropships in transit - images and reports of AFFC soldiers fighting teenagers and children certainly was crucial for eroding the public support for the invasion in many areas of the Federated Commonwealth.
    Not quite as surprising was the fact that the AFFC quickly adapted their own version of the tactic in response, although, at the time, no one expected to see the program used on more than a few near-border worlds overwhelmed by a surprise attack of the DMCS.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Fifth Succession War: Changing the Paradigm’ by Hank G. Johnson, New Avalon Military Journal, 3072


    *****​

    ‘When I hear the damned civilians talk about how we ‘should just have shot all the snakes daring to even glare at us in ‘39’, I want to smash their damned faces. Actually did, more than once - which is why I retired as a corporal, not as a sergeant. Those bloody idiots don’t know how it feels when you track down a sniper and discover that it’s a twelve-year-old girl who could have been your daughter and took a poison pill so she wouldn’t get captured alive. The only thing worse than that is checking a body and discovering that they left a grenade under it.’
    - Mike Keller, AFFC, retired


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), New Caledonia, Redfev, April 2nd, 3050

    Redfev was a real Inner Sphere city - not a collection of hovels, like Ralik had seen on the Periphery worlds he had visited. The buildings were tall, and well-maintained - apart from the ones damaged by stray shots from the battle in the air above the city during 2nd Drakøns’ flight, and the block taken out by a crashed Drakøn fighter - and the people Ralik saw as he wandered through the city with the others of his Star were healthy and wealthy.

    Perhaps a little too wealthy, he thought with a frown when he spotted a ComStar Acolyte talking to a local shop clerk.

    “Ralik! What is wrong with you?” Sepha wrapped her arm around his shoulder before he could react, then grinned at him when he shrugged her off. “You should not be frowning, but smiling - we conquered this city! Even the Star Colonel acknowledged our efforts!”

    Ralik rolled his eyes at her. “I know,” he said. He nodded towards the fat man in the white robes as they passed the shop. “I was frowning because of him.”

    “What? You do not like the people who preserved the last remains of the glorious Star League? Why, they are practically our brothers and sisters in arms, quiaff?” Sepha gasped as if she were performing a particularly drunk rendition of some of the Remembrance’s more convoluted parts.

    “Neg! Warriors? ComStar?” Ralik scoffed. “They are not warriors! Look at the fool - he would need help to merely reach a BattleMech’s cockpit without falling off the ladder!” According to what Ralik had heard, ComStar was a bunch of labourers and merchants. They bowed their heads to the corrupt House Lords and toiled beneath them. No warrior would suffer such a fate.

    “He is a merchant or scientist,” Tian cut in. “They have a Star of BattleMechs at the local compound.”

    “Oh!” Sepha turned to Tian. “That does sound as if you have you been doing reconnaissance in the town. So… where are the best bars?”

    Ralik was not the only one who rolled his eyes in response, but Tian did not even blink. “The ‘Valhalla’ seemed to be very popular with the locals.”

    “We should not allow anyone to station BattleMechs in our territory,” Lionel said. “We took it, and it is ours. What if the Jaguars and Falcons demand the same rights next?”

    Sepha scoffed. “Last I heard, they were busy fighting the Inner Sphere. Their reports read as if they had defeated the main host of their enemies already.”

    “These reports are not supposed to be accessible to us,” Star Commander Rylian said, frowning. “How did you manage to acquire one?”

    His glare did not seem to affect Sepha. “I have a friend in the Watch,” she said.

    Ralik frowned as well - though not because of the possible breach of security; it was not as if the Watch had provided much useful intelligence. No, the Watch was a dumping ground for those warriors who could not keep their place in the touman. A Solahma-unit by another name. That Sepha associated with such people… He changed the subject. “Did they decide on the date for your Trial of Bloodright, Star Commander?”

    Rylian did not smile, but he stood straighter. The Star Commander had been nominated for the trial thanks to his actions on New Caledonia. If only Ralik had been a little luckier… But his chance would come as well. Perhaps even during the next wave. “Aff. It’s on the 14th.”

    “Enough time to repair the BattleMechs for the next wave,” Tian commented. “The ‘Valhalla’ is this way.” She pointed towards a side alley ahead of them.

    “Who did decide that we would go there?” Lionel asked with another frown.

    “I did!” Sepah said, grinning at him. “Do you wish to challenge my decision?”

    For a moment, Lionel looked as if he would. Probably because Sepha was all but daring him to with her wide grin. But then he shook his head. “Neg. It might be illuminating to see how the locals live.”

    “Yes,” Tian agreed. After a pause, she added. “Have you heard anything about our targets in the next wave?”

    “You are planning to study ahead, quiaff?” Sepha chuckled. “Unfortunately, I did not. Other than that the ilKhan is doing what he can to limit us to the Free Rasalhague Republic.”

    Ralik pressed his lips together. Everyone knew that the ilKhan favoured his own Clan, the Smoke Jaguars. Instead of fighting the two strongest powers in the Inner Sphere, earning glory, the Wolves were left with the dregs.

    “Well, he did not think his plan through,” Lionel said as they turned into the side alley. “Since we are only facing second-rate forces - by Inner Sphere standards, of course - we will have an easier time to reach Terra before any other Clan.”

    Ralik drew a deep breath. Terra. If they took the ancient seat of the Star League. The home of humanity… He would give anything to take part in that battle!

    “There it is,” Tian interrupted his thoughts.

    Ralik looked up. There was an old shield mounted over the entrance. He smiled - that looked like a bar fitting for warriors of Clan Wolf. Then he saw the Clan transport parked at the corner. And the insignia on it. He sighed. “It seems that the Failing Lions are in there.” Probably drowning their shame in alcohol.

    “Great!” Sepha beamed. “We shall have not just drinks, but entertainment as well as we mock them!”

    That did not sound too bad, actually. Indeed - none of the pilots had earned much glory in the last battle, and everyone knew it. Mocking them might prevent another failure in the next wave.

    He was about to agree with Sepha when the bar ahead blew up, and he found himself on the ground.

    He blinked and rolled on his stomach, drawing his pistol while he looked around for the enemy.

    “We are under attack!” Lionel yelled.

    “Bomb in the bar,” Tian added. Ralik glanced over and saw that she was bleeding from a cut on her face. Glass shards, he realised - the ground was covered by them. He was bleeding himself from cuts on his hands, he noted.

    Then his ringing ears heard the screaming. A figure stumbled out of the smoke cloud covering the bar’s entrance, flailing in a desperate attempt to put out the flames covering the man - no, the woman.

    Ralik did not hesitate. He jumped up and ran towards the burning woman, holstering his gun and pulling his jacket off before he reached her, then threw her to the ground and started to cover her with the jacket to smother the flames.

    It did not work. And that smell… “Inferno gel!” he yelled.

    He heard Lionel curse in return. And Sepha, who was headed towards a small form lying on the ground at the corner.

    The bar was burning fiercely, and Ralik could feel the heat on his skin. He grabbed the still screaming woman and dragged her away, hissing when he burned himself in the process.

    “They should have a medkit in the transport,” Rylian said. “I have called command.”

    “I will get it,” Lionel said.

    “Watch out for attackers!” Sepha yelled. “They might be waiting for you!”

    Ralik tried once more to smother the flames on the woman. He was breathing through his mouth, and even so, the stench of burned flesh filled his nose.

    Then Lionel returned and blasted the woman with a fire extinguisher. The flames died - but so did the woman. One of the Flying Lions, though Ralik didn’t know her name.

    He closed his eyes and cursed.

    “I did not see any attacker,” he heard Tian report. “They might have fled already instead of pushing the attack.” Of course, the cowards would have fled, like the Drakøns, Ralik thought.

    Whimpering made him look up. Sepha was wrapping bandages lathered with anti-burn slaves on the child she had saved. She was still alive - she must have been outside the bar; he remembered seeing a girl coming towards them, right before the explosion.

    “Those stravag dezgra cowards!” He clenched his teeth. Not only were they striking from hiding without honour, but they were even killing civilians to get at the Clan Warriors!

    If - when - he caught them, they would pay for this!

    *****​

    Draconis Combine (Clan Smoke Jaguar Occupation Zone), Tarnby, April 10th, 3050

    When he saw the burly gaijin ahead of him turn and enter the side alley, Okura Masato thanked the kami - this was an unexpected but very welcome opportunity. Masato didn’t show his reaction on his face, of course - he kept his head down and his expression downtrodden, lest the invaders notice him walking through the commercial district. He was but another faceless employee on Tarnby, on his way home from work.

    None was paying attention to him - he checked - when he reached the entrance to the side alley, and he ducked into it in a smooth motion. His prey was ahead of him, but not too far. He caught up easily, running silently through the debris-covered alley - an easy feat for anyone who had completed the ISF close quarters combat training course.

    His knife - a sharp but simple tool, not an obvious weapon the gaijin invaders might notice during one of their clumsy checks - was in his hand three steps before he reached the man. Two steps later, his other hand covered the man’s mouth, and his blade slid between ribs.

    The invader didn’t struggle for long. No warrior, that one. It didn’t matter - an enemy was an enemy. Any death would serve to provoke a violent reaction from the occupiers, which, in turn, would fan the flames of resistance against the ‘Smoke Jaguars’ - people who had lost family to them would be all too willing to take up arms themselves. And he would be there to guide and lead them. And make their sacrifices count.

    A hundred billion blades for the Dragon. Each would cut, bleeding the invaders until they were dead and gone.

    Masato allowed himself to smile until he reached the exit of the side alley. Then he turned back into a faceless, tired worker. He didn’t go home, though. This particular residence was too close to the alley; Masato couldn’t serve the dragon if he were caught up and killed in the occupiers’ blind retaliation.

    But he had another residence, and a new identity, waiting for him in the next district.

    Every Son of the Dragon was prepared for this mission, after all, no matter where they lived. They had saved the Combine once before, when the Federated Commonwealth had attacked ten years ago, and now they would do so again.

    *****​

    ‘In conclusion, ComStar’s know-how and financial investments in joint-ventures in the Federated Commonwealth have contributed substantially to the realm’s economic growth over the last twenty years, with increasing effects over time. From a purely economic point of view, continuing good relations with the Order are highly desirable. Cutting ties, on the other hand, would not only affect the economy but military spending as well since parts of the military’s supplies come from the civilian market, which would shrink as a result. Nationalisation might only partially compensate, as such an act, unless carefully presented to the public, would negatively affect the confidence of our industry and investors as well as trade with other realms in the Inner Sphere and the Periphery, where ComStar’s economic influence is substantially higher than in the Commonwealth.’
    - Excerpt from a classified analysis of the LIC for Archon Melissa Steiner, Tharkad 3049


    *****​

    ‘By the time the second wave of the Clan invasion hit our worlds, every politician and every news agency was screaming bloody murder about our supposed failure to act and demanding immediate deployment of our reserves. Even if we had been willing to expose our borders to an invasion by the Combine or League, the troops the people were demanding wouldn’t have arrived in time to stop the second or even third wave. Moving dozens of RCTs from one end of the Commonwealth to the other and have them arrive ready for action simply cannot be done that quickly. But no matter how often you explained that to these morons, they would not stop demanding the impossible!’
    - Kommandant William Baker, AFFC General Staff, retired


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), New Caledonia, Redfev Starport, April 28th, 3050

    Rylian still walked a little stiffly, Ralik noticed, as he and the others of his Star met the Star commander at the Starport, but other than that he looked well enough for combat duty.

    “Welcome back, Rylian,” Sepha said. “You did well in the trial.”

    “Not well enough,” Rylian replied, frowning.

    Ralik understood the sentiment. It would hurt to lose a trial. How many more opportunities to earn a Bloodname would Rylian have? Bloodnamed warriors did not die often. And the Star Commander was getting old - he was already twenty-eight, past his prime. His age had not yet affected his skills, as far as Ralik could tell, but that was but a question of time. No, Ralik did not think Rylian would earn a Bloodname.

    “The only one to beat you was Star Captain Vlad,” Lionel said, “who won the Trial.” He nodded. “And you lasted long against him.” And unlike almost a dozen others, Rylian had survived the trial.

    “Thank you. How is the situation on the planet?” the Star Commander asked as they walked towards the transporter waiting for them.

    Sepha sighed. “We are doing all we can to raise the average intelligence of the labour caste on the planet, but so far, there is no sign of progress.”

    Ralik saw Rylian roll his eyes, though he was grinning. “Tian?”

    Tian straightened before replying. “There were four more attacks by suspected insurgents since you left, Star Commander. An improvised explosive device was placed in the city’s centre but was detected and defused before it could detonate. Two sniper attacks on technicians working on battlefield salvage. Both died from their wounds. One inferno missile strike against our barracks. Four Elementals were wounded; three are expected to recover. Our forces killed one sniper and the perpetrator of the missile attack.”

    “We have been running patrols every day,” Lionel added, “to provide security for the Clan members on the planet.”

    “Any battles?” Rylian asked as they reached the transporter - the technicians had finally learned their lesson and finished the up-armouring on time.

    “No,” Ralik said. The insurgents were too cowardly to attack a BattleMech. They preferred undefended targets. Like technicians. Or their own people - if that bomb had gone off, the square would have been razed.

    “But as I said - the attacks do not seem to be stopping any time soon,” Sepha sighed heavily and shook her head slowly. “The locals seem to have a surplus of suicidal idiots.”

    “It has only been twenty-six days,” Tian said, driving the transporter. “That is not long enough to base a trend upon.”

    “It is not just this planet. It is happening on every planet, to every Clan. The idiots do not accept their defeat,” Sepha said, frowning. “Many of the attackers caught are not even warriors, but labourers. Imagine that.”

    Lionel scoffed. “They would stop that nonsense if we would execute a dozen of them every time someone attacks the Clan.”

    “That is against the Martial Code,” Tian said - rather sharply for the usually very calm warrior, Ralik noticed.

    “Neg. Others do it already,” Lionel replied.

    Sepha snorted, then pulled at her jacket. “Did I miss a Trial of Possession that made us Smoke Jaguars or Jade Falcons?”

    “We are not taking hostages nor are we punishing people for the crimes of others,” Rylian stated. “We are not dezgra.”

    “How are the Bears handling insurgents?” Ralik asked.

    “Probably by adopting them,” Sepha joked. “You know how they are.”

    That sent everyone laughing. Until they saw the smoke rising from the town.

    Ralik clenched his teeth. Another attack by those cowards! At least their Cluster would leave the planet soon and prepare for the Next Wave. Warriors were wasted here.

    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Ghost Bear Occupation Zone), Thule, Fresdon Desert, April 29th, 3050

    Jan Ringdahl pressed himself to the ground as another explosion shook the small hovel in which he was hiding. He heard screaming from outside - it sounded like Helga. She had been helping Olaf with the SRM launcher.

    He knew he should help them. Race outside, drag them into cover. Treat their wounds. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t stand up. Couldn’t leave the hut. Couldn’t expose himself. He sobbed.

    It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The invaders weren’t supposed to find them in the desert. This was their home. They knew the desert. And they had done everything as they had been trained. No fusion-powered vehicles. No tracks. No lights after dark.

    How had the bastards found them? Someone must have betrayed them. But who? Something blew a hole in the wall above his head, and he whimpered. He didn’t want to die. Not like this.

    This wasn’t supposed to happen. They were supposed to be heroes. Striking at the invaders when they were asleep in their stolen homes before vanishing into the desert like ghosts. Avenging angels. He sobbed again, then coughed when he inhaled sand and dust. His rifle was somewhere in the room - not that he cared any more. It wouldn’t help against the 'Mechs. Or the monsters in battle armour.

    Another explosion, closer - he felt as if the ground tried to shake him off and had trouble breathing. No. No.

    The screaming outside had stopped. Or Jan had gone deaf. He didn’t know. Didn’t care. He just wanted out. But if he stood up, he would die. Like Sven.

    All he could was cowering behind the remains of the wall, and pray. And curse. And cry.

    Suddenly, he wasn’t cowering any more. He was flying through the air. Then he crashed onto the ground. And he couldn’t breathe any more. He tried to but choked. On blood.

    And then he didn’t do anything any more.

    *****​

    ‘Preliminary analysis of Clan weapon technology revealed a noticeable gap between the effectiveness of weapons used by their frontline units and the weapons used by the Com Guards. Coupled with the greater individual skill and experience of the Clan Warriors, it is evident that the Com Guards would need significant numerical superiority to achieve victory in an engagement with Clan troops. However, as far as I can tell at this point, the Clan space forces are no match for our defences. They do not have anything similar to our Caspar IV drones and if they should, which seems likely according to my information, ultimately attempt to attack Terra itself, we can expect to repel their attack with our autonomous defence systems.
    Nevertheless, I urge the First Circuit to increase our weapon research programs with a focus on conventional weapons and to intensify our exchange and recruiting programs with friendly nations and mercenary units to reduce both the technology as well as the skill and experience gap as quickly as possible if the Com Guards are expected to intervene in the invasion itself.’
    - Excerpt from the classified report of Precentor Martial Anastasius Focht, Terra 3050


    *****​

    ‘If you’d believe the holodramas, then every member of the AFFC panicked when they met the Clans due to their advanced weapons and OmniMechs. Shows that you can’t believe the entertainment media. We had already faced advanced weapon systems with our 'Mechs in the Fifth Succession War. Sure, the Clanners had even better kit, but we could’ve dealt with that. What made them so damn dangerous was the fact that they were the best 'MechWarriors I ever fought against and they knew perfectly how to exploit their advantages. Fighting them was a nightmare. They kept outflanking us whenever we tried to hold the line or counter-attacked, which rendered our combined arms pretty much useless, and any attempt at a war of manoeuvre was doomed from the start - trust me, we tried it with the 17th Rangers often, too often. The only time we made them bleed was when we made our last stand with our backs to the wall, and they had to come at us the hard way.’
    - Sergeant Bethy ‘Hellfire’ McGonagall


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Verthandi, Regis, May 15th, 3050

    “Six enemy BattleMechs advancing towards us from the city’s centre,” Tian’s calm voice reported.

    Ralik glanced at his display while he turned a corner in his Timber Wolf, taking extra care not to brush the damaged right arm against the building - he had lost the limb’s armour to a particularly ill-timed artillery barrage. The freebirth defending the planet - the remains of the 2nd Drakøns and a battalion of mercenaries from the same unit that had bloodied the Golden Keshik in the Periphery - had made heavy use of combined arms tactics in the early phases of the battle, but the Cluster’s Binary Artillery had silenced the enemy artillery in short order, and the Roaming Lions had savaged the armour and infantry. The battle would be decided by BattleMechs, as it should be.

    “They are not trying to hide any more, thinking they can ambush us. I guess even freebirth curs can learn, after half a dozen failures,” Sepha commented as Ralik saw the symbols of the enemy BattleMechs weave through the maze of roads and buildings in front of the Star. Six machines, five heavy and one medium. Not much of a force against an Assault Star, but all of the Star’s OmniMechs were damaged to some degree already.

    “They are not using their jump jets any more, either,” Lionel remarked. “They are trying to close the range without exposing themselves.”

    Not that it mattered much in the city - most of the fighting happened in close quarters anyway. It would not help them, Ralik thought. The curs were caught in the city - the Heart Eaters had taken the starport and, for a change, the Flying Lions had kept the freebirth from escaping in their dropships. Scum who did not respond to the Batchall was not granted Hegira.

    “Five hundred metres,” Tian reported. The computer updated the enemy BattleMechs’ types - QKD-4G, CRD-3R, WHM-6R, RFL-3N, GHR-5A and one GRF-1N - though Ralik knew he could not trust the results blindly. The early stages of the battle had taught them that their enemies had upgraded their inferior machines with selected Star League technology.

    “Enemy unit identified as Kell Hounds,” Tian informed them.

    “Assume all of them are using advanced heat sinks,” Rylian told them.

    “Let us hope that that is all they have improved,” Sepha replied.

    It was a faint hope, Ralik knew - the Kell Hounds had, according to the Watch, close ties to the Lyran ruling family, and therefore received preferential treatment, including new technology, even though they were mercenaries.

    It did not matter. They were facing a full Star. They would lose.

    Only three hundred metres now separated them - but several tall buildings including one factory blocked the line of sight. Ralik clenched his teeth, resisting the urge to charge at them. He hated waiting for the enemy to make contact. He was a wolf - a hunter, not some ambush predator!

    A beep alerted him that Rylian had assigned targets. Ralik would be facing the WHM-6R - provided he would not be attacked by another enemy first.

    “They are jumping,” Tian reported.

    Ralik raised his weapons but managed to refrain from firing at the GRF-1N that rose into the sky, followed by the GHR-5A. They weren’t his to fight.

    Rylian, though, did, raking the GHR-5A with his autocannons and SRMs. But despite previous damage, as the computer showed now, the enemy BattleMech shrugged the attack off and landed right in front of the Star Commander, firing all his weapons - even the LRMs, which went off to land on some poor civilian’s house behind them. What a pointless waste!

    Rylian would handle that fool. Ralik turned to meet his own target, blocking a road with his Timber Wolf. The enemy WHM-6R stepped out of a side road at the same time, already firing. Ralik angled his OmniMech to shield its bare right arm, absorbing the enemy fire with his left side. His Timber Wolf shook under the barrage, but Ralik easily compensated and kept it stable as he returned fire.

    The mercenary advanced and Ralik backed up, keeping his distance, small as it was, from the enemy. His unit had quickly learned that getting too close to an Inner Sphere 'MechWarrior invited a melee attack - Lionel’s Gargoyle A had almost lost its leg to a kick he had received earlier in the battle.

    But the WHM-6R did not advance towards him - Ralik’s eyes widened when the enemy turned and went through the building to their side, emerging directly behind Rylian!

    Fortunately, the Star Commander had already shifted his 'Mech, protecting its more vulnerable rear as his OmniMech shook under the fire from the two heavy BattleMechs.

    Ralik pushed his Timber Wolf forward to deal with the WHM-6R before the honourless cur overwhelmed Rylian through sheer weight of fire. But he hadn’t yet reached the corner when he heard Tian yell a warning.

    He looked up and saw the GRF-1N descending on the Star Commander’s Gargoyle. Before Ralik or anyone else could react, the BattleMech’s legs smashed into the Gargoyle’s head and torso and both BattleMechs crashed to the ground.

    A moment later, the GHR-5A took a step forward, crushing the Star Commander’s cockpit under its foot.

    Ralik gasped. Rylian was dead. Killed by three enemies ganging up on him, dragging him to the ground and stepping on him.

    Snarling, he swung his Timber Wolf around and fired all his lasers at the WHM-6R, followed by his missiles. The enemy staggered back under the impact, ripping up the facade of the building behind them. Ralik followed up, firing another volley, despite the rising heat in his BattleMech. The WHM-6R’s legs - a notorious weak spot of the design - buckled under the fire, and the enemy BattleMech crashed onto the ground.

    Ralik’s next salvo hit the ammunition bay in the torso, and the explosion ripped the BattleMech apart. He turned to engage the other two curs just as a laser barrage from the GHR-5A hit the Timber Wolf’s damaged right arm, shearing it off.

    It did not matter. Ralik grinned and returned fire, breaching the enemy’s armour in several spots. But the GRF-1N was jumping again - and at Ralik. This time, though, it was intercepted in the air by PPC fire. The BattleMech almost disintegrated under the impacts, crashing into the building next to Ralik, which collapsed.

    But those had been more PPCs than any one OmniMech carried in Ralik’s Star…

    “Dezgra do not deserve zellbrigen, quineg?” he heard Sepha on the channel.

    Ralik hesitated only a moment then nodded. “Neg, they do not.”

    The GHR-5A did not last long once Lionel, Sepha and Ralik focused their fire on it. None of Rylian’s killers survived.

    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Rasalhague Nadir Jump Point, June 2nd, 3050

    Korpral Lasse Smith, 2nd Drakøns, pushed himself off the deck and floated over to the small table near his bunk. A few months ago, the room would have been crowded, even with all walls and both the ceiling and floor being available for seating in microgravity. Now, though… Lasse and his wingman had the room, which once housed their whole wing, to themselves.

    No one else from the Drakøns had made it off Verthandi. Lasse and Eila had only made it out because they had been on patrol at the jump point. And they would have stayed and fought if they hadn’t been ordered out.

    Lasse clenched his teeth and twisted the strap that tied him to the ceiling in his hands. He would have preferred to stay. Failing to protect his country was bad enough. But being one of only two survivors of an entire regiment?

    He knew what people thought and said about him. Even the JumpShip crew, who had heard the orders from Överste Clark, gave them a wide berth.

    “It wasn’t our fault,” he muttered.

    “Hm?”

    Lasse flinched. And now he had woken up Eila. “Nothing.”

    “What?”

    He hesitated. He knew how stubborn his wingman was. Which was a good thing in combat - she stuck to him like glue - but now… Then he sighed. “It’s not our fault. The bloody mercenaries were useless.” For a famous unit like the Kell Hounds, they certainly hadn’t lived up to their reputation.

    Eila sat up - or down, in this case, seeing she was sitting on what he considered the ceiling. “What did you expect? All the good mercenaries get the contracts in the Commonwealth, where they get the advanced tech as payment. We get the dregs.”

    He nodded. “Useless.”

    “We didn’t do much better, though. Not in space, and certainly not on the ground.”

    He sighed again. “It’s not our fault. We don’t have the technology to match the Combine or the Commonwealth, and certainly not these Clans. We lost every planet they attacked. And we don’t have the reserves to take them back.”

    Certainly not with what mercenaries were left. And Lasse didn’t think any more would be hiring on with the Republic. The cowards wanted safe contracts, not a real war. And certainly not a war for survival.

    After a moment, he asked: “I’ve heard they’re looking for volunteers for special missions...”

    She didn’t hesitate. “We’re in.”

    He nodded. When he had first heard about them, he had been torn about it. They made sense for a small realm like the Republic. If a country’s survival was at stake, you had to use extreme measures. But he hadn’t been sure that he’d be able to do what was needed.

    But now? He knew.

    Hell, he was looking forward to it.

    *****​

    ’When analysed objectively, it is obvious that the various insurgencies on the planets in the Clan Occupation zones were not quite as effective as the popular media claimed at the time. With a few exceptions, the damage done to the occupation forces was minimal, both in casualties suffered by them and equipment destroyed. And even the majority of those could have been avoided by the Clans if they had focused their forces on securing a few key areas and resources on every planet, and left the rest of them to the insurgents. However, such a strategy would have been anathema to them. What they had taken, they held. Anything else was unacceptable.
    It was this psychological effect, actually, that, in my opinion, was the most important achievement of the insurgencies. The Clan Warriors were forced to realise that winning a battle didn’t mean they had won a planet. They had to face the fact that even after devastating defeats, the Inner Sphere would not break and surrender. That the population in the occupation zone would, instead, fight on.
    And, even worse, they were not just facing soldiers who had scattered in the wilderness after their units were broken, not just agents who had trained for this, but civilians who decided to take up arms and fight for their homes. People the Clan Warriors dismissed as beneath their notice would keep fighting, no matter the cost. This challenged the very core of their caste system.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis’ by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064


    *****​

    ‘I never understood why the Rasalhague people hated us mercenaries so much - before the Clans, I mean. People smarter than I claim they hated that they needed us, that our very presence was a constant reminder of how weak they are. I don’t buy that. We came to help them. Sure, we were paid for it, and sure, some of the bigger units used the contracts to bloody their rookies against pirates, but we were there, protecting their planets. And when the Clans invaded, we stayed and fought, as we were paid to - side by side with the KungsArmé. Or so we would have if the idiots had worked with us as they should have. We wouldn’t have won, of course - the Clans shattered line units from the DCMS and the FedCom in the early waves - but we might have done more than we did. And we might have saved a few more people, too.’
    - Leftenant Marcel ‘Mackie’ Dubois, formerly of the Skinner’s Scimitars


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Verthandi, Regis, May 30th, 3050

    “Can you imagine how much this must irk the Falcons, Bears and Jaguars? They struggle in their corridors, barely keeping up with the timetable, while we race ahead towards Terra!” Sepha lifted her mug and downed it in one gulp, then slammed it down on the table with so much force, it broke.

    Ralik grinned as the other Warrior blinked and stared at the handle, which had remained, in her hand as if she could not understand what had happened. It had not been her first beer of the evening.

    She quickly scowled, though, and brushed the remains off the table. “I should have known that the local mugs were as bad as the local troops!” she loudly declared, her voice easily filling the BattleMech hangar the Clan had erected in Regisport. Ralik even saw some of the technicians who were working on the OmniMechs of their Cluster glance their way, but a glare sent them back to work. The Khan had announced that the Clan would start the third wave early, so everyone had to work hard to ensure they would be victorious.

    “You were the one who took it,” Lionel pointed out. “It is your own fault, quiaff?”

    “I also took the keg you all have been emptying!” Sepha retorted with another scowl as she sat down at the table they had commandeered in the hangar’s corner.

    “I did not hear anything about the other Clans struggling,” Brell remarked. “By all accounts, they are advancing on schedule even though they are facing harder resistance than our own forces.”

    Ralik looked at their new Star Commander. Brell was an excellent Warrior - he had earned his rank in his Blooding and, since this was his first posting, he was eager to earn more glory, as a good commander should be - but he was not yet familiar with the Star. “Sepha has a friend in the Watch,” Ralik explained.

    “Aff,” Sepha said. “And he has let me read the latest report - the Falcons and Jaguars are downplaying their losses against the freebirths. And the Bears lost an entire dropship to sabotage.” She grinned widely. “None of them is in a state to step up the pace - we will outrace them!”

    “The Khan’s plan seems to be a bit of a gamble, though,” Tian cut in.

    Ralik was surprised - the other Warrior rarely voiced such criticism. He saw Brell narrow his eyes. “Do you think that the touman should not be advancing so boldly?” the Star Commander asked.

    Tian set her jaw - she hadn’t missed how Brell had questioned her courage, of course. “I question the wisdom of sending our supplies ahead into the enemy territory with minimal protection so we can speed up our operations.”

    “They will be going through uninhabited systems,” Brell replied. “I would have thought you would be aware of using stealth as protection. You are usually acting as the Star’s van, quiaff?”

    “Aff. But I’m a Warrior, not a merchant.” Tian met the commander’s eyes. Ralik could almost feel the tension growing.

    Sepha chuckled. “As long as they do not rely on the Failing Lions for protection, they should be fine.”

    Brell looked puzzled. “The Failing Lions?”

    “You have not yet heard the tale of their failures?” Sepha grinned widely as she leaned forward. “Let me regale you with a tale most amusing - unless you were with the Command Nova.”

    Ralik shook his head at Sepha’s theatrics, but he appreciated her defusing the tension. Having Tian start a Trial of Grievance over the implied insult to her courage would have been a very bad way to start the next wave.

    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, D-1204 System, unnamed asteroid, June 5th, 3050

    “Installing supply depots behind the enemy lines! It would be far quicker and less wasteful to simply shoot us instead!”

    Harten rolled his eyes; Junis was always complaining. If she were not so good at her job, she would have been sent to a less prestigious posting long ago - or sent home to instruct children or something. “We are in an uninhabited system without any value. No one will find us here.” D-1204 had been surveyed extensively during the days of the Star League, and no resources that would make settling and developing it had been found, after all. “You know what the Khan said - thanks to our work, the touman will be able to outpace our rivals.” Clan Wolf would be the first to reach Terra and become the il-Clan. And Harten would be among those who achieved this. The Merchants of Clan Wolf would be honoured for their contribution to the cause.

    He heard Junis snort over the radio. He knew she was not fully behind Operation Revival, but the Clan was committed now, and everyone had to do their part. “Do you know what I think?” she asked.

    “Neg.”

    “I think we were sent out here to build a supply depot on a piece of rock without atmosphere because the Warriors failed to pacify the occupied worlds where we should have been building this depot.” Junis scoffed.

    “This system is just one jump from the targets of the next wave,” Harten retorted. “We can move supplies much faster from here.”

    She ignored him. “Did you hear how they let half the enemy infantry escape again despite explicit orders to destroy them? No wonder we cannot step a foot outside the bases without getting shot at!”

    He rolled his eyes inside his suit. Junis would be complaining for quite a while, he knew it well. But, at least, she would be working as hard as she was complaining. Which meant they would - probably - make their deadline.

    Unless Junis started complaining where some of the few warriors serving as their escorts could overhear her. That wouldn’t end well.

    *****​

    ‘Operation Revival, as the Clans called their invasion, was one of the biggest logistical challenges in the history of mankind’s militaries. From their homeworlds, they had to travel over a thousand light-years to reach the Inner Sphere. Even with an ideal route, it would take over thirty jumps. The number of JumpShips required to carry the invading force and keep it supplied is staggering. Nevertheless, the operation was not quite as foolhardy as some claim. The Clans didn’t attempt to resupply their forces from their homeworlds, but spent months before the invasion shipping supplies to extensive depots in the Periphery, significantly reducing their supply lines and creating staging areas for their forces. Clan Wolf went as far as moving a factory station to the Periphery to support their invasion. That even the stockpiles of the Clans who prepared for a costly, lengthy campaign proved to be inadequate was not solely or even primarily due to their overconfidence and arrogance, but the result of faulty intelligence.
    The last reports the Clans had received from their spies in the Inner Sphere dated back to the Third Succession War when limited raids and skirmishes rather than large-scale operations were the norm. If the Clans had invaded in the 3020s, before the Federated Commonwealth, followed by the other realms, used the Helm Library Core to greatly increase JumpShip production to both improve the logistics and strategic mobility of their forces, the Clans’ estimations would have likely been on the mark. That didn’t help them, of course, when their supplies started to run out and their only sources for more were either a thousand light-years away, occupied planets with a hostile population, or an overworked factory station which soon started to run out of resources.
    - Excerpt from the term paper ‘Logistics of the Clan Invasion’ by Cadet Mark Hammond, NAIS, New Avalon, 3069


    *****​

    ‘We’ve all heard a variant or three of the saying that amateurs study tactics and professionals study logistics. It’s not wrong, but the problem during the invasion was that the Clans were damn good tacticians and that their OmniMechs were far easier to maintain than anything we had since they could swap out almost all parts between all their 'Mechs. It goes without saying that logistics are much easier to handle when you don’t have to stock and ship hundreds of different parts for each different model in every unit, but can use a single stockpile for most of your needs. Makes it easier to train your techs as well. That, far more than the ability to swap weapons for different missions, was the real advantage of the OmniMechs.’
    - Warrant-Officer Cyril Hagelmeier, AFFC, retired


    *****​

    Federated Commonwealth, Ridderkerk, Eastern Ridge, July 3rd, 3050

    Finally worthy opponents! Ralik grinned as his Star advanced towards the ridge held by the 1st Lyran Regulars. Explosions shook the earth to his left - two hundred metres distance, his computer informed him, most likely an artillery barrage. Ralik agreed with the assessment - so far, the freebirths’ aerospace elements had been neutralised. It looked like the new commander of the Cluster’s Binary Fighter had turned the unit around and would do everything to restore their reputation. And now his Star would break through the enemy lines and savage their rear area.

    “Alpha Assault Star, increase speed and follow me before they can adjust their fire! We will enter that ravine; it will shelter us from more artillery fire until we reach the enemy position.”

    Ralik pressed his lips together as he heard Brell’s order. It made sense - the Lyran RCT had far more artillery than the Drakøns and other units in the Republic had had, and the Lion’s Roar had not yet managed to silence them all - but the Lyran Regulars were supposed to be a line unit of the strongest power of the Inner Sphere power; they were unlikely to overlook the danger the ravine presented.

    “Neg Star Commander!” Tian said. “I picked up a possible contact there. Taking a closer look.”

    Ralik held his breath, but Brell did not censure Tian for her comment. “Scout while we approach!” he ordered her curtly - as if she were not already doing exactly that.

    Brell led the rest of the Star towards their left, apparently counting on the fact that the freebirths were unlikely to fire on the same coordinates. He turned out to be right - the next barrage hit the area behind them.

    “Dug in infantry in the ravine,” Tian reported. “Two… three platoons.”

    “Clear the way for us, 'MechWarrior,” Brell ordered.

    “Aff.” Tian did not hesitate. Ralik had not expected her to - the narrow ravine would make for a difficult battle against prepared infantry, but her Ice Ferret’s missiles had been swapped for a pair of machine guns.

    Halfway to the ravine, the artillery fire, which had been following them, once catching Lionel’s ‘Mech in a blast that shredded the armour on his left side, suddenly started to become less accurate - Tian must have eliminated the spotters.

    “The ravine has been cleared,” she reported as they caught up to her at the end of the gorge.

    “Your ‘Mech suffered damage, 'MechWarrior,” Brell stated the obvious - the freebirth infantry had died well.

    “It remains operational,” Tian replied, a little stiffly. She must not have forgotten the Star Commander’s past remarks, Ralik realised.

    “The freebirths will start shelling our position soon,” Sepha remarked. It was not quite an admonishment, but it could be taken as such.

    “Alpha Assault Star, follow me - we will take the ridge!” Brell put his Mad Dog into a sprint at once.

    They had not received confirmation that Bravo and Charlie Assault Stars were in position, but the Star Commander had given an order, and assaulting the enemy was what the Cluster did. Ralik and the others fell in behind Brell, forming a loose wedge.

    Artillery fire started to cover the ground between them and the enemy, but they pushed through with little damage taken - though Ralik’s Timber Wolf again lost the armour on its arm.

    “Enemy ‘Mechs moving on top of the ridge,” Tian reported. Ralik glanced at his display as he weaved through a rougher spot on the ground. Two ZEU-6T, TDR-5SS, GRF-1N, SHD-2H, two COM-2D, HCT-3F - what? Ralik glanced at the symbol, then remembered the model - an abomination carrying a hatchet. As if the freebirths were not barbaric enough already!

    “Tian, take the GRF-1N. Sepha, engage the ZEU-6T on the left. Lionel, TDR-5SS. Ralik, SHD-2H. I shall face the lead ZEU-6T.”

    Ralik clenched his teeth. It was the Star Commander’s prerogative to assign targets, if the situation allowed it, but… An SHD-2H? Well, Ralik would dispatch it quickly and engage another BattleMech.

    The enemy did not advance, preferring to hold the high ground. I would not help them. As soon as his target was in range, Ralik fired his Timber Wolf’s large lasers, followed a few seconds later by the LRMs. He kept firing as he sprinted up the slope, and the freebirths started to shoot back - but not at him. They were focusing on the Star Commander! Again! And judging by the sheer volume of fire, they had to be running double heat sinks.

    “Star Commander, they do not respect zellbrigen,” Ralik said. He could not tell Brell to fall back and let others draw fire until the enemy lances were engaged.

    “We do!” Brell snapped.

    Ralik clenched his teeth and kept advancing. Some enemies were shifting their fire to him - trying to hit his damaged arm, he noticed. Snarling, he pushed on. The SHD-2H had shifted its fire as well, but too late to make a difference - Ralik’s weapons had shredded and melted the enemy’s armour in multiple places. His Timber Wolf staggered as the two COM-2D focused on him, and one of his lasers was struck, but he easily compensated and kept running, making most of their salvos miss. Ralik’s, though, didn’t, and one of his missiles torched off the SHD-1S’s ammunition. The enemy BattleMech was thrown to the ground from the force of the explosion, and Ralik turned to engage the closest COM-2D. Another full barrage spiked his heat but destroyed the light BattleMech outright as its engine lost containment.

    The other COM-2D proved to be a coward and fled down the slope. Ralik glanced at his display - there might be worthier foes still standing around… He cursed.

    Brell’s Mad Dog was staggering under the fire of his chosen enemy, missing one arm and most of its armour. Sepha was about to finish off her enemy, but Lionel’s was still standing - but he was facing both the TDR-5SS and the HCT-3F. Ralik moved his crosshairs over the ZEU-6T which was advancing towards Brell but hesitated. Zellbrigen. But the enemy had focused on Brell...

    Then Brell’s Mad Dog lost a leg and fell, triggering an ammunition explosion. Despite the CASE, the OmniMech vanished in a ball of plasma. Brell did not manage to eject.

    Cursing the enemy, and, even more, his own hesitation, Ralik fired all weapons he had at the ZEU-6T. The Lyran turned to face him, returning fire, but Brell had died well - the BattleMech’s armour was breached in several places, and Ralik’s fire soon started to tell.

    But others were not faring as well, he realised after a glance at his display. The COM-2D that had retreated had returned and attacked Lionel as well. Three versus one, those cowards! Ralik fired everything he had, ignoring how the heat spiked again - he had to finish the ZEU-6T quickly!

    Sepha beat him to it, though, disabling her opponent with a headshot and turning to support Lionel by dispatching the COM-2D with two salvos.

    It was too late to save Lionel, though - he managed to down the TDR-5SS with his next barrage, but then the HCT-3F’s hatchet smashed into the Gargoyle’s back. The OmniMech dropped like a drunk pilot as its gyro was destroyed, but Ralik saw Lionel ejecting.

    He finished the ZEU-6T at the same time Sepha finished the HCT-3F.

    “No enemies left in range,” Tian reported as her Ice Ferret rejoined them. Her fight had taken her away from the rest of the Star. She had won, of course, but had taken further damage - her OmniMech was limping, and the arm she used to pick up Lionel was all but shredded.

    Two OmniMechs lost, including the Star Commanders, against two enemy lances! Ralik ground his teeth - the rest of the Trinary, and, even worse, the Failing Lions, would mock them for this!

    “Artillery fire incoming!” Tian’s warning interrupted his thoughts.

    He pushed the Timber Wolf forward - they could not stay here! Explosions bracketed him and he had to struggle to keep his balance as the already damaged arm was torn away by a close impact.

    Despite its limp, Tian’s Ice Ferret pulled ahead, racing towards the enemy’s rear - as they had been ordered to before the battle. Ralik and Sepha followed her, all of them quickly outdistancing the enemy fire even before it ended.

    Then an explosion ripped off the Ice Ferret’s damaged leg, sending the BattleMech crashing to the ground, which triggered another explosion that blew through its torso.

    “Mines on the road. BattleMech immobilised. Requesting pick-up for two, one wounded,” Tian reported calmly as Sepha cursed up a storm.

    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Rasalhague System, July 15th, 3050

    “The enemy is approaching. You know your orders. Pick your targets and make them rue the day they dared to attack our home!”

    Korpral Lasse Smith, late of the 2nd Drakøns, now part of the 1st Special Aerospace Regiment, nodded, snarling as he heard Överste Ahl’s announcement. He and Eila had been waiting for this. Finally, they could avenge their comrades!

    He nudged his stick a little, testing the Shilone’s response - the fighter still felt a little sluggish after the hasty alterations done to it in the last few weeks. But it worked, and that was all that counted.

    His display lit up with enemy contacts - three dozen DropShips. Twice that number of enemy fighters screening them. They were approaching slowly, seemingly without a care.

    They would learn better. Today. No matter the cost.

    The 1st Drakøns and the other fighters assigned to cover Lasse’s unit accelerated to meet the oncoming enemies. He saw the symbols on the radar starting to move around seemingly erratically. Then they began to vanish from his display.

    “Special Regiment - Go!”

    Lasse pushed the stick forward, accelerating as fast as his Shilone managed. Eila stuck to his wing, as usual, as they entered the furball that had developed between them and the enemy dropships. He saw one enemy fighter trailing smoke, and had to resist the urge to roll and swoop in, killing it. He had a more important mission.

    “Vengeance-One, targeting Overlord Beta,” he announced as soon as he got a fix on the giant dropship leading the enemy’s invading force. “Secondary target: Overlord Alpha.”

    “Vengeance-Two, copy,” Eila answered.

    “Vengeance-Three, copy.”

    “Vengeance-Four, copy.”

    Lasse focused on the approaching Overlord, adjusting his course to gain the best angle. He trusted Eila to watch his back.

    An enemy heavy fighter made a pass at them, but one of the 1st Drakøns shot it down before it could do significant damage. Another came at them head-on, and Vengeance-Three vanished in a fireball.

    Then they were in range of the dropships’ guns. Lasers, shells and particle bolts flew at them. Lasse’s Shilone suffered several hits, but none of them crippling - he was still on course. But Vengeance-Four was caught in a crossfire and sent tumbling into space with its right wing sheared off.

    Lasse didn’t care. There was the Overlord. He lined his ship up and flipped the cover off the trigger as the combat computer made the last adjustments. More fire hit his fighters, wrecking weapons - he didn’t care. All he needed, all he wanted was to hit his enemy. And that meant getting as close as he could - he could not afford to miss his shot.

    Another hit almost made him lose control of his craft, but he managed it.

    Then he was so close, he couldn’t miss. He pulled the trigger and then rolled away, followed by Eila.

    A moment later, nuclear fire consumed the dropship.

    Lasse yelled in triumph. “Take that! Take that!” he shouted. “We did it! Overlord-Beta down! We did it, Eila!”

    Eila didn’t answer. He turned his head and saw her killer coming at him a moment before the PPCs converged on his cockpit.

    *****​

    ‘The Free Rasalhague Republic was created after the Fifth Succession War, when the Draconis Combine realised that the insurgencies originally started by the IFS to slow down the AFFC’s offensive continued even after these worlds had been retaken by the DCMS and that they would now be facing the exact same problem they had created - and that the longer those insurrections went on, the more the AFFC would be tempted to invade again. Instead of spending troops and resources on a costly counter-insurgency campaign while trying to rebuild their forces facing the AFFC, Theodore Kurita decided to create a buffer state, shortening the Combine’s borders and costing the Federated Commonwealth worlds of their own as the Rasalhague people on both sides of the border were swept up in a wave of nationalism.
    However, the new Republic never had any illusions about the fact that if either the Draconis Combine or the Federated Commonwealth would invade them or try to pass through the Republic’s space, the other would intervene and turn the entire Republic into a war zone. It was also clear that if they wanted to avoid that fate, they had to put up a credible deterrent. However, the Republic lacked the industrial capacity and the finances to enough regiments to achieve that aim. Further, turning every planet into a potential quagmire of insurrections and guerrilla warfare was deemed insufficient given the lack of strategic depth of the realm.
    Faced with this dilemma, the Republic came up with what was later coined the ‘Taurian Strategy’, even though at no point - contrary to rumours - Taurian advisors were actually hired, and built up a nuclear arsenal, announcing their intention to use it as soon as the Republic’s existence was seriously threatened.
    Accordingly, the ‘special weapons’ were used when Clan Wolf attacked the Republic’s capital. However, they were not as effective as the Republic leadership had hoped for, as the invaders quickly adapted to the attacks - and retaliated.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Free Rasalhague Republic: A Brief History’ by Dr Jane Farmer, Tharkad, 3099


    *****​

    ‘What did those bloody fools expect when they used nukes? Didn’t they study history? Of course, the Clans would adapt to the attacks quickly - everyone would. And obviously, they would retaliate. And because of those damned idiots, everyone suddenly had to fear WMDs again! If the idiots responsible for this hadn’t been killed on Rasalhague, I’d have shot them myself!’
    - Kommandant Marius Manstein, AFFC, retired


    *****​

    Federated Commonwealth (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Ridderkerk, July 20th, 3050

    Ralik carefully manoeuvred his Timber Wolf back into its berth in the hangar, then shut the OmniMech down and got out on the catwalk connecting the Timber Wolf’s cockpit. “How did it perform?” the technician waiting there asked.

    “Adequately,” Ralik answered - the test ride had not revealed any trouble. “When will the left machine gun be replaced?”

    “Ah…” the woman cringed a little and Ralik clenched his teeth.

    “When will my BattleMech be fully combat ready again? You were ordered to completely repair it, quiaff?”

    “Aff,” the technician answered. “But we did not receive enough spare pods. Every 'MechWarrior wants machine guns, and since your Timber Wolf has one already…”

    “...you decided to disobey your order and leave me with a BattleMech that is not fully ready for combat?” Ralik snarled.

    “It was not my decision, 'MechWarrior!” she blurted out. “The Star Colonel ordered the available machine gun pods distributed evenly among all Stars.”

    Ralik pressed his lips together. If that had been the Star Colonel’s decision… It made sense, in a way - they were still dealing with insurgents, and well-equipped ones - some of the stravag scum had managed to damage his BattleMech in an ambush. He had massacred them, of course, but once again, his BattleMech’s right arm had been damaged, and he had lost a machine gun.

    But as much as he wanted, he could not blame the technician for obeying the Star Colonel. He nodded curtly and went to join the others of his Star on the ground.

    But when he reached the area they had appropriated for themselves, he only found Sepha there. Star Commander Sepha - she had been promoted after the battle to replace Brell. “Where is Tian?” he asked.

    “Still testing her Kit Fox.” Sepha shrugged. “She has not piloted that model before, and so she needs more time to get used to it.”

    Ralik nodded. He was certain that Tian would have mastered the OmniMech in time for their next battle. He had some doubts about the model, though. “She should have been assigned a Hellbringer if there was no Ice Ferret available,” he said as he took a seat on the battered couch they had taken from the barracks of the 1st Lyran Regulars. The Kit Fox had half the armour of an Ice Ferret and was slower as well.

    Sepha shrugged. “There was no Hellbringer available. Not after Rasalhague.”

    Ralik clenched his teeth. Almost two complete Clusters lost when the honourless scum had used nuclear missiles against their dropships! Almost a hundred warriors dead without having been able to fight back! “Death was too good for those criminals,” he muttered.

    “We can only hope that the rest of the stravag scum has learned their lesson,” Sepha said, “and will not attempt this again.”

    Ralik nodded. The Clan’s flagship, the Dire Wolf, had struck at Rasalhague in retaliation, wiping out the defenders with orbital bombardments. That had allowed the Cloan to take the planet, but it had not brought back the warriors lost. “And it happened in front of the ilKhan, too,” he said. The greatest loss in the operation so far, among all participating Clans - and the Smoke Jaguars had been watching!

    Sepha snorted. “He has no reason to gloat - his own Clan suffered similar casualties in their attempt to outdo us.”

    “But they conquered more worlds, quiaff?” Ralik had no friend in the Watch, but he had read the reports.

    “Aff. But they will not be able to keep that up in the next wave. Their supply situation is worse than ours.”

    “And we took Rasalhague,” Ralik said, nodding. The first capital of the Inner Sphere, taken by his Clan!

    “What is left of it, in any case,” Sepha said. “I guess our warship crew were a little too happy to finally be able to use their guns on real targets and overdid it,” she added with a smirk.

    Ralik snorted. He doubted that - but that was Sepha; not even the promotion to Star Commander had changed her attitude. He ignored the brief spark of jealousy he still felt; he had destroyed more enemy BattleMechs than Sepha, yet she had been promoted. But he would not challenge her for her position - not even if it were still allowed.

    “How is Lionel doing?” he asked.

    “He will be returning tomorrow,” she replied. “But I do not think he will have an OmniMech available yet.”

    And since they had not received a replacement 'MechWarrior either, that would mean their Assault Star was at half-strength. Not that they needed more to deal with the insurgents on the planet, but if they had to fight a real battle…

    “Losses have been heavier than expected,” Sepha said. “At least the other Clans are in the same state as we are - and they were not attacked with nuclear weapons.”

    Ralik grunted in agreement. It was a small consolation, but he would take what he could. And he hoped there would be no more nuclear strikes. It was the worst way to die as a 'MechWarror - apart from dying as a washed-out, useless old relic whose genes would not be passed on, of course. Which brought up another thing. He grabbed a can with some Inner Sphere beer - surprisingly good; better than most beer the Clan labourers brewed - and leaned forward. “Will you fight in one of the Trials of Bloodright?”

    Sepha frowned. “You have not heard yet, quineg?”

    “Neg.”

    “Trials of Bloodright have been suspended for the duration of the Operation.”

    “What?” Ralik was on his feet, the can dropping to the ground. “What?” This could not be true!

    Sepha nodded. “Apparently, the Clan cannot afford to lose more warriors to trials while we are still fighting the Inner Sphere.”

    “But…” Ralik shook his head. His legacy! His chance at immortality! How could the Khan deny him, anyone, that chance? “We should challenge this!”

    She put her hand on his shoulder. “I do not like it either, but the Khan has a point. Each trial costs us about ten warriors. And with the number of Bloodnamed warriors we lost to those cowards…”

    Ralik hissed. They would lose another two Cluster’s worth of warriors. They could not afford that.

    But even as he nodded and sat down again, grabbing another can, he wondered if they were not losing something even more important.

    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, D-1204 System, July 25th, 3050

    “Precentor, I believe I have a contact at the nadir jump point.”

    “Can you identify it?” Precentor Angela Stahl asked as she stood and walked over to the sensor station on the bridge. If a Clan warship had jumped in, the CSV Knowledge Is Power might be in trouble - the modified Vincent-class corvette had sacrificed a lot of firepower for enhanced sensors and a stealth system, and they didn’t know how their stealth systems would fare when facing the Clan ships.

    “Based on the sensor data, it looks like a Scout-class or the Clan equivalent.”

    Angela rubbed her chin. Neither the jumpship nor the single dropship it could carry would be a threat to her ship - unless they used nukes. “Ready the fighters but don’t launch them. Keep observing the contact.”

    “Receiving K-1 transmissions,” Signals reported.

    So the Scout had a Black Box. That indicated an Inner Sphere ship - the Clans would have acquired the technology by now; it was fairly common among the Inner Sphere Militaries after all, but Angela hadn’t heard that they had put it to use yet. “Can you identify the code?”

    “It’s not certain, but it looks like the current DCMS naval code, Precentor.”

    Which ComStar hadn’t yet cracked. She nodded. “It seems we’re not the only ones who found the Clan supply depot in this system.”

    “They have launched a dropship - Leopard Class. Leopard-CV,” Sensors reported.

    As she had expected - this was a strike by the DCMS against enemy supply depots. Angela returned to her seat. “Keep observing and plot a course to the nearest pirate jump point. I want to be ready to leave the system in case Clan warships appear in response to the attack.”

    With a little bit of luck, she might be able to observe not just the combine dropship in action, but the Clans as well. With their diplomatic mission returned and the ComStar enclaves on the verge of evacuating, the Order needed all the intel it could get.

    That was why the Knowledge Is Power and her sister ships had been moved from their usual haunts to the Clan Occupation Zones - gathering intel on the Clans was far more important than spying on the Successor States.

    The Order knew that Terra was the ultimate goal of the Clan invasion, after all. And every bit of information would help improve the defences protecting Humanity’s Cradle. Especially information about their warships, since the battle would be decided in space. The Precentor Martial was trying his best since his return, but the ground forces simply weren’t ready for war.

    Angela almost envied her comrades in the home fleet - they would fight the first real naval battle in centuries. But she had her own battle to fight - without her information, her comrades might very well lose despite being supported by the most powerful automated defence system the Inner Sphere had ever seen.

    *****​

    ‘The Third Wave of Operation Revival wasn’t quite the turning point, as some scholars claim, but the losses the four involved Clans suffered were serious enough to force them to delay the next wave, granting the Inner Sphere desperately needed time to redeploy their forces to meet the Fourth Wave. It wasn’t the use of nuclear weapons that stopped the Clans either, but the fact that they were consuming their supplies at a much faster rate than originally planned, and that they would end up overextended and vulnerable long before they reached Terra if they continued according to their schedule.
    As a result, a race started between the Clans’ merchant caste hurrying to resupply their toumans and the logistic branches of the DCMS and the AFFC moving their best units from the borders to the invasion corridor.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Clan Invasion: Their Finest Hour’ by Hank G. Johnson, New Avalon Military Journal, 3075


    *****​

    ‘When I heard that we were ordered to pack up and move to Lyran space, I wondered what our leaders had been smoking. Exposing our border to the snakes just because the Steiners were too inept to deal with some jumped-up Periphery power? Of course, after we actually met the Clans, I knew better.’
    - Corporal James Urquhart, 17th Avalon Hussars RCT, retired


    *****​
     
  2. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    Well, this is interesting. Waterly has grown to be a better person than she was in canon, it seems.
     
    Death by Chains and Starfox5 like this.
  3. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    I'd not go as far as call her a better person - she merely isn't as dumb as she was in canon. She still wants ComStar to rule the Inner Sphere, but she thinks conquest would not work, so she's going for another plan.
     
  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 2: High Water Mark
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 2: High Water Mark

    Federated Commonwealth (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Ridderkerk, August 1st, 3050

    “Savashri!”

    Ralik did not scream when the inferno missiles hit his Timber Wolf - he hissed as the heat inside the cockpit spiked, his displays filling with warnings as his OmniMech slowed down. “The insurgents are using inferno missiles,” he snapped as he pivoted and raked the small ridge next to the road with machine gun fire.

    “We can see that,” Sepha answered. “You are a walking bonfire. Do you need assistance?”

    “Neg,” he snarled, firing his LRMs at what he recognised as a firing position as he moved up the ridge. His heat sinks would cope; he just had to cut down on his energy weapons for a bit. Not that they were effective when dealing with infantry to begin with. Two figures stumbled out of the smoke his missiles had thrown up, running towards the creek behind the ridge. Ralik’s next burst of machine gun fire cut both down.

    He was tempted to charge down the ridge, trampling any and all infantry left alive, but refrained from acting on his impulse. Enfilade fire would do as well and would not expose him to sapper attacks.

    He caught another insurgent cur trying to hit him with another SRM. Another inferno missile, Ralik corrected himself as the area around his target went up in flames. Nothing and no one else moved, though. He flicked through a few filters on his scanners.

    “The road has been cleared,” he reported.

    “Good. What is the status of the convoy?”

    Ralik clenched his teeth. “Destroyed,” he spat. The cowards had hit the trucks carrying supplies first.

    “Noted,” Sepha answered.

    Ralik expected a rebuke for failing his escort mission, but she merely ordered him to return to base instead.

    *****​

    Tian and Lionel were waiting for him when Ralik climbed out of his Timber Wolf back in their hangar.

    “This should have been my mission,” Tian said. “Your Timber Wolf was not configured for spotting infantry.”

    She was correct, but Ralik also knew that he could have spotted the ambush, with a little luck, perhaps. Should have, probably. And Tian would have been in his place if her BattleMech had not been damaged by another ambush two days ago and were still waiting for a replacement leg actuator. Who had had the bright idea to get an isorla BattleMech assigned to an Assault Star?

    Lionel snorted. “You killed the attackers. And it was merely food and building supplies - nothing irreplaceable.”

    “And ammunition.” Sepha joined them. “But nothing we cannot source from the locals. Once they stop sabotaging us, I guess.” She grinned at her dark joke. “Good news, Lionel. A cargo ship is inbound with your new Mad Dog on board.

    Ralik could see Lionel frown, then nod in acceptance. A Mad Dog was about the lightest OmniMech generally suitable for their Assault Star, not counting dedicated scout units. It was a good machine - but as the late Brell’s death had proved, it could not take the same punishment as Lionel’s old Gargoyle.

    Sepha turned to Tian. “There is no new BattleMech for you, sorry.”

    Tian nodded as if she had not expected anything else. Perhaps she had not.

    “We are also getting a replacement 'MechWarrior,” Sepha went on. “Fresh out the Sibko.”

    Lionel frowned. “I did not think the next batch would be ready for their Blooding yet.” They had gone over those numbers and dates after Rasalhague.

    Sepha shrugged “Accelerated testing, or so I have been told. With almost all of the 279th and the 352th wiped out, they had to get the pilots from somewhere, and they did not want to rob Epsilon.”

    Ralik snorted. Epsilon Galaxy was the dregs of the front line units. Freeborn warriors and ageing trueborns one step ahead of Solahma units. They had taken only one world so far, and only after a struggle, and had failed to pacify the conquered worlds left for them to garrison. It was much better to fill your ranks with the new bloodied - they were sharp and eager to prove themselves.

    “Was there any word about the suspension for the Trials of Bloodright being lifted?” Lionel asked. “If we are going back to full strength…”

    Sepha chuckled. “Do not expect the suspension to end any time soon. We are still stretched thin until the Provisional Garrison Clusters arrive. And we are not the only ones - the ilKhan had to forbid Trials of Possessions and Grievances in his own clan because they cannot afford the losses.”

    Ralik scoffed at that; the ilKhan was supposed to lead all Clans without favouring his own, but Leo Showers might as well be the Khan of the Smoke Jaguars still.

    Lionel scowled - Ralik knew his friend had taken the suspension of the trials worst of them all - but did not comment.

    “Cheer up, though!” Sepha smiled. “I have it on good authority that we will launch the next wave earlier than expected. As soon as Epsilon is ready, we will strike.” She bared her teeth. “And we will finish the Republic once and for all!”

    *****​

    Terra, Europe, Geneva, August 10th, 3050

    “This is not a threat to the three realms under attack, but a threat to the entire Inner Sphere. You have received our intelligence on the Clans, you corroborated it with your own sources - you know that the Clans plan to conquer the entire Inner Sphere. They speak of restoring the Star League, but, in truth, they will subjugate all of us to live as their slaves.”

    Archon Melissa Steiner slowly nodded in apparent agreement with Primus Waterly’s words. While she enjoyed seeing the woman’s obvious concern - she had not forgotten the revelations following the Fourth Succession War and doubted the Order’s claim of having reformed - Waterly was correct; this invasion was a threat to the entire Inner Sphere.

    “That is why we have to form an alliance!” Prince Magnusson interjected. “Only working together can we stop the invasion and liberate our worlds!”

    “An alliance with a fool throwing around nuclear weapons?” Romano Liao sneered at the young leader of the Free Rasalhague Republic. “Why should any of us taint ourselves by associating with you?”

    Melissa’s decades of experience in politics and diplomacy allowed her to keep from laughing at the hypocrisy. Candace Liao didn’t bother, though, and the two sisters glared at each other. Melissa didn’t care - the remains of the Capellan Confederation and the St. Ives Compact would, as they had for the last two decades, hold each other in check, both diplomatically and militarily.

    Instead, Melissa watched Theodore Kurita and Thomas Marik. The Combine was in as much danger as the Commonwealth - more, actually, since half of the Commonwealth was untouched and shielded from the invaders behind the Combine. The Free Worlds League, though, was both powerful and untouched by the invasion.

    “I agree with Prince Magnusson,” the Gunji-no-Kanrei spoke up. “While I have no doubt that the valour and skill of the Combine’s soldiers will prevail against the Clans invading our worlds, I will remind you that we are facing but a fourth of the Clans’ might. Thirteen more Clans wait on their still unknown homeworlds. If we continue to squabble among ourselves, we cannot hope to withstand them.”

    Melissa discarded the posturing immediately. The DCMS was not doing any better, and likely doing worse, than the AFFC. Theodore’s heir had barely evaded being captured according to her information. And Victor was pushing for a front command… But Theodore was correct. She nodded. “Indeed. While the invading Clans are showing signs of overextension, there are rumours of reinforcements being on the way. If we wish to defeat the invaders without ruining half our worlds, we need to concentrate our forces.”

    “Which would mean exposing our other borders,” Kurita said. “Inviting attacks from opportunistic yet short-sighted people.”

    “The Free Worlds League is not interested in conquest at any time,” Marik said, “much less in starting a war with our neighbours in these troubled times.”

    Melissa knew that his first claim was a lie. But the second might be true. She glanced towards Waterly. Marik was a former member of ComStar, but Melissa’s analysts were not certain how close his ties to the Order were. However, ComStar’s economic influence in the League was far greater than it was in the Commonwealth or the Combine.

    “Just because you do not want to do something does not mean you won’t do it anyway,” Kurita replied.

    “The League doesn’t border your realm,” Marik retorted.

    “But it borders mine,” Melissa interjected. “I share the Gunji-no-Kanrei’s concerns.” And, of course, the concern that the the Combine might attack should the Commonwealth withdraw more troops from the border than they already had.

    “ComStar is ready to guarantee any non-aggression pact between the realms represented here,” Waterly spoke up before Marik could answer.

    The Primus was far more involved in the negotiations than Melissa had expected, despite the fact that ComStar had called for this conference. That was worrying in itself. Time to see just how important this was to the Order. “Economic sanctions won’t prevent an invasion,” Melissa pointed out, “and neither would an interdict.” Not with every first-rate Military using K-1 networks for communication these days.

    “The Com Guards will be reinforcing the Free Rasalhague Republic’s forces in the fight against the invaders. That means we will consider any attack on our allies and co-belligerents an attack on ourselves and will respond with any means necessary to defend ourselves.”

    Melissa had known that ComStar had recalled most of the Com Guards protecting their HPG stations, but she hadn’t expected the Order to intervene before the Clans attacked Terra.

    “We will be deploying the equivalent of fifty regiments of Battlemechs with matching support troops as well as a squadron of warships,” Waterly announced, “as an expeditionary force.”

    Melissa had to struggle not to show her surprise. That was double the estimate of her intelligence agencies. And she hadn’t missed the implication that this wasn’t the entirety of the Com Guards’ force. The AAFC, even with the regiments lost against the Clans so far, counted over two hundred and fifty BattleMech regiments in their ranks, but they had hundreds of worlds to protect. And they had no warships. This was a far more credible deterrent than mere economic sanctions.

    She nodded. “The Federated Commonwealth is willing to sign a non-aggression pact for ten years with any of the realms represented here.” She looked at Kurita, meeting his eyes. “And you have my personal word that the Federated Commonwealth will stick to the agreement.”

    “And your husband’s?”

    Melissa felt like rolling her eyes - of course, a Kurita would not trust her to speak for Hanse - but merely smiled instead. “He will send you a priority message to that extent as soon as I call him.”

    A moment later, a giant screen behind Waterly lit up, and a familiar symbol appeared. Melissa looked at Waterly.

    The Primus smiled. “We will wave the fee for the call, of course. As well as for any other transmission needed to defeat the invaders.”

    Another sign that ComStar was worried far more than expected about the invasion, Melissa thought.

    Which, of course, worried her as well.

    *****​

    ‘Among the military, speculation about how the Clan Invasion would have turned out had the Wolf’s Dragoons taken part in the Inner Sphere’s defence is a popular subject. Most of those who claim that they would have turned the tide miss the fact that the Dragoons, for all their achievements and history, were only five regiments and a few smaller units. Elite regiments, of course, but certainly not unique in that regards. Their performance in the Fifth Succession War was excellent, but, again, not decisive, and not above other elite regiments. Compared to the forces that gathered against the Clans, the Dragoons were, therefore, a quantité négligeable. Moreover, the revelation that they originally came from the Clans as spies for the invasion all but ruined their reputation. Their claims of having deserted the Clans and being in opposition to the invasion didn’t change that - quite the contrary, actually. The fact that they hadn’t warned the Inner Sphere of the threat of the Clans turned even close allies of the Dragoons against them. Colonel Morgan Kell publicly blamed them for the loss of two battalions of the Kell Hounds and the death of his son and announced his refusal to serve alongside them. Other mercenaries quickly followed his example.
    And even the intelligence the Dragoons might have provided to the Inner Sphere wouldn’t, in my opinion, have made much of a difference since it wouldn’t and couldn’t have been trusted. Especially not after the Dragoons refused to share their knowledge about advanced Clan technology with the Inner Sphere and it was revealed that their most famous member, Colonel Natasha Kerensky, had rejoined Clan Wolf and died in the attack on Rasalhague.’
    - Excerpt from ‘Mercenaries during the Clan Invasion’ by Gabriel Mannhart, New Avalon, 3072


    *****​

    ‘Some people think general staff officers spend their time going to parties on Tharkad and socialising with the nobles. That’s wrong. We are constantly analysing, planning and revising plans for every eventuality. Granted, we didn’t have a specific “Clans invade us from the Periphery” plan - but we had a plan in case the DCMS would invade through the Periphery, going around the FRR to strike at our flanks. So when the Prince and the Archon gave the order to prepare a counter-offensive, all we had to do was pull out plan “Linker Haken”. Of course, we had to adjust it for the current situation - but the core of it, the redeployment of the logistical base and the rerouting of jumpships to form supply lines, was already ready and could be implemented quickly.”
    - Leftenant-General James Steiner, AFFC


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Basiliano System, Nadir Jump Point, September 5th, 3050

    Ralik clenched his teeth as he heard the reports through the dropship’s intercom. Gamma Galaxy’s transports were on the way to the planet. And the 328th Assault Cluster was stuck at the jump point.

    “Cheer up, Ralik!”

    He turned, a little too quickly for the microgravitation on board their transport, and had to grab a handgrip to keep from spinning around himself as he faced Sepha. “Why should I?” he asked with a sneer. “We are acting as the reserve - as if we were the freebirth and washed-up warriors of Epsilon Galaxy!”

    “And we were not even allowed to bid for the right to invade the planet!” Lionel added.

    “Yes!” Beata, the newest member of their Star, chimed in. She put her hands on her hips as she floated near the ceiling, tethered to the wall by a strap. “That is not the Clan way!”

    Sepha snorted. “The Khan has a different opinion. We’re not the Smoke Jaguars, stuck to tradition no matter the cost. And we are facing dezgra cowards using nuclear weapons, not warriors.”

    “And the Cluster is taking part in the invasion,” Tian added, looking up from her noteputer - isorla from Ridderkerk. “All our aerospace fighters are supporting Gamma Galaxy.”

    Ralik scoffed. The Failing Lions had the chance to earn glory while the warriors who actually had won the Cluster’s battles were relegated to the reserve! “They are only flying because we need every fighter to protect the transports against the surats.”

    “Which should be the duty of the fleet,” Lionel added. “Our warships have not done anything so far.”

    “They bombarded Rasalhague,” Tian pointed out.

    “Apart from that,” Lionel retorted with a frown.

    “Yes!” Beata nodded emphatically, which sent her into another slow spin.

    Apparently, the accelerated training that had allowed her to take The Blooding a year early had failed to teach her how to properly move in microgravity, Ralik noted. But she was, as tests and patrols had shown, a competent 'MechWarrior, which was what the Star needed. Though Ralik had some reservations about her Hellbringer. The OmniMech was perfect for anti-infantry duty and patrols, but it was a tad lightly armoured for a fight against enemy heavy or assault BattleMechs… Well, the pilot, not the BattleMech won a fight.

    “They need to cover our supply line, and the recovery of our forward depots,” Sepha said. “Well, what is left of our depots.”

    Ralik scowled at the reminder that the freebirth scum had found and destroyed several of the Clan’s supply depots. They had lost a handful of jumpships in the process, but that did not change that the Clan had been forced to reduce the scope of the next wave of attacks and focus entirely on the Free Rasalhague Republic.

    “At least once we have taken the last of the Rasalhague worlds, we will not have to deal with their cowardly weapons any more and can wage war properly again,” Lionel muttered.

    “Until the next realm grows desperate enough to use them,” Sepha said.

    “They will not dare,” Lionel retorted. “Not after we taught them the price of such crimes - and their futility.”

    Sepha shrugged, clearly stating without saying that she did not share Lionel’s optimism.

    “Perhaps Gamma Galaxy will run into troubles, and we will get to fight?” Beata said with an eager smile.

    Sepha glared at her. “That would be a bad thing for the Clan. The ilKhan is just waiting for an excuse to activate the Steel Vipers to share our corridor.”

    “He cannot! The Smoke Jaguars have not taken as many worlds as we have!” Lionel protested.

    “The ilKhan will not care. He would have denied us the use of the Garrison Clusters if the other Clans had not needed them even more than we did,” Sepha replied. “So, do not hope that other Clusters fail - we fight as a Clan.”

    Ralik nodded. This was true. But every Warrior also fought for their legacy. He had no trouble sacrificing himself for the Clan, but his bloodline?

    Some prices were too high to pay.

    *****​

    Draconis Combine (Clan Smoke Jaguar Occupation Zone), Kabah System, September 8th, 3050

    “Open fire.”

    Nothing happened. No one moved. On the bridge of the CSJ Veiled Huntress, Star Commodore Kalik Osis glared at his subordinate. “I gave you an order, Star Commander.”

    Star Commander Hestia raised her chin. “I contest this order!”

    “Trials have been suspended,” he retorted. “Execute my order.”

    She bared her teeth before answering, taking a deep breath. “Destroying a city in retaliation for an attack on our barracks? ” She shook her head. “We cannot do this; we would be considered dezgra.”

    “The Wolves bombarded several cities on Rasalhague,” he replied. “And no one censored them.” Not officially, of course.

    “This was in response to attacks with nuclear weapons on their forces, and there were military targets inside the cities. You want us to bombard one of our cities full of lower caste.”

    “Freebirth scum,” he corrected her. “Whether the enemy uses nuclear missiles or ambushes with inferno missiles, they have revealed themselves as dezgra and must be punished. Do you disagree?”

    “Neg.” She shook her head. “I disagree with the target, not the punishment. These people did not attack us.”

    He should not argue with a subordinate, but discipline her for refusing to obey - but he was not blind; he could see that others on the bridge shared her views. “But they shelter the criminals attacking us. How many labourers disappeared in the city, to be found with their throats cut in a back alley, or in the river?” He scoffed. “This is a hive of honorless surats attacking their betters. We need to make an example out of them, to teach the insurgents that they cannot afford the price of attacking us. We have taken hostages before.” And executed them when the criminals did not turn themselves in.

    “But… an entire city…”

    “The principle is the same, quiaff?”

    He saw her struggle before she nodded. “Aff. But we did not set them an ultimatum.”

    “They knew we would take hostages. They know what we will do. And they have not surrendered in the past, quineg?”

    “Neg.”

    “An ultimatum would only allow the criminals to escape the city,” Kalik said. They were criminals even in the Inner Sphere - common bandits called ‘Yakuza’. He could see others on the bridge nod. Enough of them to be able to deal with anyone who still refused to follow his orders without hurting his command.

    “Open fire!”

    This time, his order was executed. And the freebirth scum would learn the price of defiance - and their place.

    *****​

    ‘In all Clan Occupation Zones, civilians suffered in retaliation for guerrilla attacks on Clan members and assets. However, the extent of those war crimes greatly varied. Clan Wolf generally tried to avoid harming civilians in response to attacks, but limited atrocities took place despite the Khan’s general orders. The Smoke Jaguars and the Jade Falcons, on the other hand, reacted with the execution of hostages and the razing of districts and villages to attacks on their forces, with the Smoke Jaguars going as far as bombarding settlements from orbit in increasingly desperate attempts to curb partisan attacks. The Ghost Bears were lenient at the beginning of the invasion but quickly turned to increasingly harsh measures as they apparently felt betrayed by those who should have been new members of the Clan.
    However, no matter the strategy and measures chosen, during the invasion, none of the Clans managed to stop the insurrections on the worlds they had conquered, and dealing with the guerrilla attacks demanded more and more troops as both the intensity of the attacks and the number of occupied worlds rose.’
    - Excerpt from ‘Insurrections: From the Fifth Succession War to the Clan Invasion’ by Toshi Miller, Luthien 3060


    *****​

    ‘I wasn’t a guerilla fighter. Not at the start. I was a truck driver - I had never been a soldier. All I wanted was to keep my head down and wait until the AFFC returned to liberate us. Then the Falcons killed my family with our entire village while I was four hundred kilometres away making a delivery - to the damned invaders, even! My next delivery to the bastards was a fuel truck full of fertiliser. Then I joined a resistance group.’
    - Elsa Martensen, Black Earth Irregulars


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Basiliano, September 12th, 3050

    “Keep your distance from that treeline!” Ralik snapped as he saw Beata leave the road in her Hellbringer.

    “This is an ideal location for an ambush,” she replied. “There could be insurgents hiding there.”

    “Yes, and they want you to approach them. Stay on the road. I will check the woods there.”

    “My BattleMech is perfectly configured for anti-infantry operations,” she retorted. She did not add ‘unlike yours’, but Ralik heard the words anyway.

    “Neg.” Ralik rolled his eyes inside his Timber Wolf. “It is not armoured enough. The kind of mines and explosives the insurgents use are more likely to breach your armour than mine. Once I flush them out, you move in for the kill,” he added in an attempt to make his orders more palatable.

    “Killing unarmoured infantry brings no glory,” Beata said. But she stayed on the road.

    “Aff.” Ralik chuckled. “But it is necessary.”

    He steered his Timber Wolf closer to the trees, trying to spot firing pits and buried mines. Sometimes, the stravag scum acted too hastily and left traces. This did not seem to be the case here, though… Something moved! Ralik fired a burst from his machine guns into the woods.

    “An attack!” Beata sounded excited, not annoyed. Like all first-timers.

    “Neg!” Ralik snapped before the other 'MechWarrior could charge towards his position. He flipped through the different filters on sensors. “Just a deer,” he stated as the thermographic picture revealed a dead animal.

    “You hunted a deer?”

    “No,” Ralik corrected her, “I fired on a suspected insurgent, which turned out to have been an animal.” He chuckled. “It also means there are no insurgents here - they would have spooked the deer. I am returning to the road.”

    “Is it always this slow?” Beata asked a minute later.

    “Aff,” Ralik answered. “We have to carefully patrol the roads, or we risk attacks on our supplies and lower caste personnel.”

    “This task seems better suited for Elementals,” Beata replied.

    “They are too slow and too vulnerable,” Ralik replied. “Attacks that would only damage our armour will kill an elemental. Like inferno missiles.” Which the Inner Sphere infantry used almost as much as the surat insurgents.”

    “Honourless curs,” Beata muttered. “I wish we could fight real opponents instead of hunting down vermin.”

    Ralik chuckled. “So do we all.” You could not earn glory killing lower caste insurgents. No matter how dangerous they were.

    *****​

    “The road to the power plant is clear,” Ralik reported as he climbed out of his Timber Wolf three hours later, back at the base at the starport.

    “As expected,” Sepha said, nodding at him.

    “What?” Beata blurted out. “You said that you suspected an ambush!”

    Sepha snorted. “The surats usually need some time after losing the planet before they start launching their attacks,” she explained. “It is still too soon for that.”

    “Why did we waste six hours on a pointless patrol, then?” Beata complained.

    “Because it was not pointless,” Sepha retorted, still grinning. “The freebirths are unpredictable. You cannot count on them doing what they did the last time.”

    “Unless it involves nuclear weapons,” Lionel, sitting on a rough bench and sipping from a bottle of what the locals called mead, cut in. “The cowards tried to use them in every engagement since Rasalhague.”

    “And they succeeded twice,” Sepha added. “Fortunately, both times they destroyed Union class dropships, and one was not carrying troops.”

    That was news to Ralik. “Which Galaxy let them reach their transports?” he asked.

    “Epsilon, of course,” Lionel said. “Everyone else fended them off.”

    Ralik nodded, as did Beata. The stravag scum could try as they want - their scavenger state would be annihilated and their people absorbed. “Where’s Tian?” he asked, looking around.

    “Scouting the route to the city,” Sepha said.

    “By herself?” Ralik frowned. She was too good to be ambushed, but her Kit Fox was the lightest BattleMech in the entire Cluster.

    “She has a star of Elementals from the Heart Eaters with her,” Lionel replied.

    “Ah. New ones?”

    “Aff. Fresh out of the sibko,” Sepha said. “They need some seasoning before we can use them on the battlefield.”

    Ralik saw that Beata was scowling at the remark. Good. She would do her best to impress the Star Commander once they had a real battle.

    Sepha had not missed the new warrior’s reaction, either. “Do not worry - we will be attacking the next world soon enough.” She frowned. “There are rumours that our lack of progress might cause the other Clans to activate the Steel Vipers and, perhaps, even the Nova Cats and Diamond Sharks.”

    “What?” Ralik stared at her. “They cannot!”

    Sepha shrugged. “It would be a shame, but the operation’s progress has slowed down across the entire front. Even the Clans not facing nuclear attacks are struggling.”

    “Typical,” Lionel muttered.

    Sepha nodded. “I have heard that the Falcons and Jaguars were not prepared enough - not enough supplies, not enough garrison troops for their worlds. And they are bleeding more than expected, as well.”

    “More supplies are supposed to be on the way,” Ralik pointed out. It would take them a few more months, but they were coming.

    “Yes, but they need to protect the supply lines even more - we cannot let the freebirths discover the route back to the homeworlds,” Sepha replied. She looked at Beata. “And we cannot get more warriors as easily as we can build more BattleMechs.”

    Ralik nodded. Everyone in the Clans remembered the warning tale of the Caspar drones.

    “I passed The Blooding!” Beata spat, glaring at the Star Commander.

    “You did, yes. But how far can they accelerate the sibkos’ training and still produce warriors rather than whelps?” Sepha shook her head. “They were even considering freebirth bondsmen from the Commonwealth as garrison troops in the former Republic, but that was before that mass break-out in the Falcon Zone.”

    “Fools,” Ralik spat. “You cannot trust them to keep their word.” The captured soldiers were the worst. A single traitor, armed, could cause a disaster.

    And that was a risk they could not take.

    *****​

    Federated Commonwealth, Outreach, September 13th, 3050

    “Allez! Allez! We need to be in our assigned transport in an hour!”

    Sitting on the open commander’s hatch of her Manticore tank, Sergeant Marcy “Mac” Fernandez rolled her eyes as she heard Leftenant Clavette. The leader of her lance acted as if the Second FedCom would actually take off on schedule. “Bloody green officers,” she muttered, which caused Jack Peters, her gunner, to laugh.

    “But he’s right - we’re already behind schedule,” Jeanne Beckett, the new loader, commented.

    “The entire RCT is moving to the spaceport,” Marcy said, not bothering to keep her voice down. “Each time we did this before, we had delays and traffic jams.”

    “But this time, it’s not an exercise,” Beckett replied.

    “That won’t change a thing,” Marcy assured her. “And everyone knows it.” Apart from Clavette, who seemed to be trying to get the lead tank to move past the JagerMech blocking the road to the starport by sheer volume. At least the Leftenant would be too hoarse to scream soon if he continued like this.

    “Besides,” Peters cut in, “they won’t leave without us, no worry. It’s always like this. Unless we’re evacuating under fire. Then we’d crush all those trees and gardens and the odd building under our treads and hightail it to the dropships. It’s great fun!”

    Marcy didn’t add that odds were, their company would be covering the retreat in such a case. Manticores were among the slower vehicles but packed a decent punch - ideal to keep pursuers at bay and dig in at choke points to stall the enemy. Beckett would realise that herself soon enough.

    “A few hours longer won’t make a difference,” Marcy said instead. “We’ll need weeks to reach our staging area.”

    “Yes,” Peters chimed in again. “And then we’ll wait a few more weeks, for the stragglers from the Draconis March, before we flatten the invaders by sheer weight of bodies or drown them in our blood.” He laughed, but the joke was a little too close on the mark to be funny.

    She shook her head - Peters did talk too much and was too sharp to remain an enlisted for much longer. If they survived the counter-offensive, Marcy would recommend him for officer’s school. If only to get him out of her hair before he antagonised another Leftenant.

    “Ah,” Beckett said. Marcy didn’t have to see the girl to know she was nodding with that solemn expression of hers.

    “Don’t worry - we’ll hit them with so many troops, they’ll be dead before they can do much damage to us,” Marcy tried to assure the young soldier. She wasn’t lying, not exactly - overall, concentration of forces worked. Just not always for everyone involved. Some poor sods always got killed before the enemy was done. But… “Heads up!” she yelled as she saw the ‘Mech ahead of them starting to move. She slid down into her seat. “We’ll advance another few metres!”

    They made it a little further than that, an MP stopping them at the last crossing before the landing field and waving through a small convoy coming from their left. Marcy drew a hissing breath as she realised what the trucks were carrying - the symbols on the missiles were unmistakable. Nukes.

    “We’re going to use nuclear missiles?” Beckett asked in a slightly small-sounding voice - she must have spotted the trucks on her station’s display.

    “We’re not going to use them first,” Marcy assured her. “Not unless the Clans start using their warships against us. Which they haven’t, so far.”

    But, and Marcy didn’t tell Beckett that, the invaders didn’t have to use the warships so far, not in the Federated Commonwealth. They had taken every world they had attacked anyway.

    Marcy doubted that the invaders would show the same restraint once the AFFC’s offensive was starting to roll them back out of the Federated Commonwealth.

    *****​

    ‘The decision not to reinforce the immediately threatened worlds of the Federated Commonwealth with whatever troops were available in favour of preparing a massive counter-offensive instead, on secure staging areas behind the frontline, remains controversial to this day. However, the military realities were clear: To move relatively small numbers of fresh units to the worlds threatened by the next invasion wave would risk seeing them defeated in detail by superior forces having the initiative. On the other hand, evacuating the garrison units stationed in the threatened worlds in advance would run the risk of the Clans reaching the staging areas for the counter-offensive before they were ready. Accordingly, the garrison units were ordered to fight delaying actions for as long as possible before retreating. An unpopular and costly order - but an effective one.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis’ by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064


    *****​

    ‘By the time we reached the staging areas, we had watched the BattleROMs we had received a dozen times. We thought we were ready for the Clans. We weren’t, as things turned out. Fortunately, they weren’t ready for us either.’
    - 'MechWarrior James “Blackjack” Schröder, 3rd FedCom RCT


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Kufstein, September 30th, 3050

    Ralik balled his hands into fists as the dropship shook from multiple hits. The sound of the autocannons firing back at the enemy fighters was scant consolation - the Failing Lions were supposed to keep the enemy off the transport entirely! All it took was one nuclear missile and the Union transporting his entire Trinary would be destroyed.

    “Touchdown in one minute. Prepare to disembark at once.” Ralik sneered at Star Captain Krynos Vickers’s order - he had been ready the second their dropship had reached the planet’s orbit.

    Once more, the Union-class ship shook, and Ralik clenched his teeth. He was not afraid of death, but to die as cargo, helpless…

    Then he felt the familiar jolt of a dropship touching the ground and sneered. The freebirths had failed to keep them from landing, and now they would pay! A moment later, the bay’s doors slid open, and Ralik guided his Timber Wolf down the ramp. Finally!

    “No enemy in range,” Tian reported.

    “For once, intelligence seems to be on the mark,” Sepha replied. “We will move towards our first objective, the Village Bergheim. Tian, you are the van.”

    “Aff.”

    Ralik saw Tian’s Kit Fox sprint ahead, towards the main road into the planetary capital. They had to secure a small pass for the rest of the Trinary. Sepha followed a moment later, and Ralik fell into formation at her right flank, with Lionel covering the left flank and Beata bringing up the rear.

    They moved at flank speed, with Tian slowly pulling ahead. Too slowly, in Ralik’s opinion - her OmniMech was barely faster than Ralik’s. He shook his head - he had to focus on the battle. The freebirth they were facing would, as usual, fight fanatically.

    Ten minutes into the march, Ralik’s Timber Wolf started to develop a slight vibration in the left leg. Something the technician should have caught. There would be words, Ralik told himself. How was he supposed to fight for the Clan without properly maintained equipment?

    Half an hour after disembarking, Tian reported: “I have reached the pass. No sign of enemy BattleMechs or armour, just a platoon of infantry.”

    “Dispatch them,” Sepha ordered. “They will be spotting for artillery.”

    “Aff.”

    By the time Ralik and the rest of the Star reached the pass, Tian had wiped out the enemy infantry, at the cost of some armour damage.

    “Still no sign of the enemy?” Sepha asked. Rhetorically, of course - Tian would have reported any sighting at once, Ralik knew that as well as Sepha. “We will push on towards the capital then, until we find the enemy.”

    Ralik smiled as he heard Beata cheer - they would be the first to make contact with the enemy’s real forces. That honour would be theirs!

    But four hours later, they were reaching the outskirts of the capital and had not met an enemy yet. Ralik clenched his teeth - they would be waiting in the centre of the city, forcing the Trinary into close quarter combat. And Bravo and Charlie Assault Star had caught up as well.

    “We will advance in close formation.”

    Ralik nodded - Sepha’s order made sense. Tian’s Kit Fox would be too vulnerable if she went ahead.

    The entered the city proper as the sun started to set and the shadows started to grow longer. That would not help the freebirths, though - quite the contrary. Their damned infantry lacked night vision goggles. “There is a bunker ahead,” Tian reported after they had crossed a highway.

    Ralik turned quickly towards the highlighted building. “I do not see any turrets!” he snapped.

    “I have not detected any weapon emplacements,” Tian confirmed.

    “But it could be hiding infantry!” Lionel pointed out.

    “Ralik, keep an eye on the entrance,” Sepha ordered. “It could be a civilian shelter. Advance.”

    They started to move past the shelter’s entrance when Tian yelled: “Enemy contact! BattleMechs!”

    Reflexively, Ralik glanced at his display. DRG-1N, HBK-4G, SHD-2K, PNT-9R. A medium lance - no match for the Star. Distance 500 metres.

    An explosion nearby interrupted his assessment. The building next to Tian had blown up, catching the Kit Fox in the blast, and she was struggling to keep the damaged machine standing.

    Ralik looked up. Artillery fire? There had been no warning. No! “They planted charges!” he yelled. “Stay away from the buildings!”

    “Enemy BattleMechs are moving,” Tian reported.

    Another building blew up, damaging Lionel’s Mad Dog. And the shelter’s doors were opening, people storming outside.

    Ralik twisted his OmniMech’s torso and raked the entrance with machine gun fire. Half a dozen figures fell over, and, a moment later, a fireball engulfed the shelter’s doors. “There is infantry carrying inferno missiles in the shelter,” he reported as he gunned down a group of three moments before they reached the closest building.

    “Keep them suppressed until Tian relieves you,” Sepha snapped. “Ralik, Beata - engage the enemy BattleMechs with me. Focus on the HBK-4G.”

    Beata gasped. “That is dezgra!”

    “That is an order!” Sepha retorted. She and Lionel were already engaging the HBK-4G, ignoring the DRG-1N for the moment.

    Ralik pressed his lips together. It was wrong, but Sepha was right. A fight inside a city, with buildings rigged to blow, was no place for zellbrigen. He saw the PNT-9R and the SHD-2K jump towards them - no, flanking them - and opened fire, catching the SHD-2K with his lasers. The enemy BattleMech wobbled in flight but landed safely. And someone was shooting missiles at him from a few blocks away - infantry. Had the shelter another exit?

    “Engaging the PNT-9R!” Beata yelled, and Ralik saw her Hellbringer turn to charge the light BattleMech.

    “No!” he yelled as his Timber Wolf shrugged off a hit from the SHD-2K’s PPC. “There is infantry in the buildings!”

    “I can handle them!” Beata scoffed.

    Before Ralik could say anything else, the buildings on both sides of her blew up. The Hellbringer was caught in both blasts, and Beata could not keep it standing. Her OmniMech crashed to the ground and slid into a heap of rubble left from the explosions. From two other buildings, infantry charged towards the fallen Hellbringer.

    Ralik shot another laser volley at the SHD-2K - the PNT-9R had taken cover behind a building - and sprinted towards Beata, firing his LRMs at the infantry. One of the groups scattered under the bombardment. But the rest had almost reached the Hellbringer. Beata fired her Anti-Personnel Pods, wiping them out as she stood.

    “Surats!” she cursed, turning as she brought her own machine guns to bear on the survivors shooting missiles at her. Flaming liquid covered parts of her BattleMech. And the SHD-2K was shifting its fire towards the heavily damaged Hellbringer.

    Ralik turned once more, firing lasers and LRMs at the medium Battlemech, sending it crashing to the ground. But the PNT-9R had snuck around, and while the enemy’s SRMs were taken care of by Beata’s Anti-Missile System, the PPC breached her armour. The Hellbringer’s heat spiked on Ralik’s display - the shielding of its reactor must have been damaged!

    “Savashri!” Ralik heard Beata curse as she returned fire - with both PPC and her lasers. The enemy BattleMech staggered, one arm dropping to the ground.

    “Watch your heat!” he warned as two flights of his LRMs covered the PNT-9R, setting off an ammunition explosion that ripped the machine apart.

    “That was my enemy!” Beata snarled. Then a volley of missiles hit her back, and her Hellbringer tuned into a walking torch.

    “Eject!” Ralik yelled.

    “Neg!” she replied, “I can handle it!” But she could not - her OmniMech shut down.

    The enemy didn’t waste the opportunity. More missiles and machine gun fire hit the helpless Hellbringer, followed by a PPC hit that toppled it over - the SHD-2K had gotten back up.

    Ralik turned to engage it, but the enemy ignored him, focusing on Beata’s fallen OmniMech. Another PPC hit torched off some of the Hellbringer’s ammunition, and Ralik heard Beata yell in response.

    But the SHD-2K had exposed itself and was already severely damaged. Snarling, Ralik poured more lasers and LRMs into it, blowing off the enemy’s right arm and torso. It spun around and crashed to the ground again.

    Ralik moved to finish the BattleMech off when he heard Beata yell.

    “Help!”

    What the… He turned, and his eyes widened. Infantry had swarmed the fallen OmniMech, despite the lingering flames covering it. Before he could react, they scattered again.

    “Help!”

    A moment later, the Hellbringer’s head exploded as the infantry’s breaching charges went off.

    *****​

    Draconis Combine, Bangor, October 1st, 3050

    Star Commander Leran frowned as his Star - one OmniMech short, but otherwise combat ready - advanced on the starport of the industrial centre of the planet. There were too many civilian vehicles clogging the roads. Had the freebirth labourers no sense? Why were they fleeing towards a military target? Did they hope that they would be evacuated?

    He shook his head. The freebirth warriors had no honour, but they were not stupid. They would not waste their transports on worthless civilians. No warrior would.

    One of the trucks on the road suddenly went up in flames.

    “Kerstin!” Leran bellowed. “What are you shooting at?”

    “There were soldiers on the truck,” she replied.

    “Ignore the fleeing cowards - we have to secure the starport.” As long as they stayed in the open fields, and out of range of man-portable missile launchers, any infantry hiding among the civilians could not reach them anyway.

    “Aff.”

    He led his Star towards the ferroconcrete fields. A dropship started to lift off in the distance. Not his problem any more - the fighters would have to deal with it.

    “Any contact with enemy BattleMechs?” he asked. They had hit the defenders hard but had failed to trap and destroy them. And they would defend their only chance at escape fanatically.

    “Neg.”

    “Enemy armour!” June announced. “Hunters. And unidentified hovercrafts.”

    Unidentified vehicles? They should have all models the freebirth used in their computers. Relan frowned again and checked the data on his display, then zoomed in on the approaching hovercrafts. “Those are civilian transports,” he said. Had the enemy armed them in a desperate bid for more vehicles or to serve as a distraction?

    “Enemy BattleMechs advancing towards us!” Kerstin reported. “Six of them.”

    The hovercrafts had to be a distraction. Relan was about to tell his Star to ignore them when he reconsidered. Something was off. He toggled a switch and zoomed in on the closest hovercraft even as the enemy armour and mechs entered the range of his weapons.

    He could not see any weapons on the hovercrafts - but they were loaded. Why would… He targeted it and fired two PPCs of his Warhawk at it. It vanished in a huge explosion that left a crater in the field.

    “The hovercrafts are loaded with explosives! Focus on them!” he yelled, targeting the next vehicle which had started to weave in a futile attempt to throw off his aim.

    But there was a dozen of them, racing towards his Star. Two more blew up as June and Kerstin switched their fire, another when Harton, the youngest 'MechWarrior in the Star, finally hit it.

    LRMs started to hit their OmniMechs, and Leran longed to return fire - but the cursed hovercrafts were the bigger threat. Three more vanished in fireballs, one after the other, and June managed to kill another before it crashed into her OmniMech.

    Harton was not so skilled, though, and one of the hovercrafts managed to ram his Mad Dog. The explosion threw the OmniMech to the ground, and the enemy BattleMechs immediately started to focus on it.

    By the time Leran and the others had dealt with the rest of the hovercrafts, Harton’s Mad Dog had been destroyed.

    As he turned to engage the enemy BattleMechs, now outnumbered two to one, Leran could not help shivering.

    What kind of enemy would willingly serve as a living bomb?

    *****​

    ‘Contrary to popular opinion, neither the Gunji-no-Kanrei nor the Coordinator ever officially sanctioned the Kamikaze attacks that started to hit the invading forces during the fourth wave. To preserve forces and retreat when possible remained the standing order for all units engaging the Clans. However, every member of the DCMS who took part in such ‘special attack units’, as they were called, was routinely awarded a decoration for valour, showing the Coordinator’s stance towards such actions clearly if no explicitly.
    Despite the suicidal bravery of the ‘special attack units’, though, their effect on the war was very limited. The Clans quickly adjusted their tactics to meet the threat, and the vast majority of the men and women who served in those units never managed to damage the enemy before they were killed.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis’ by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064


    *****​

    ‘We shall be the divine wind that devastates the enemy! A billion lives for the Dragon!’
    - Chu-i Masaki Tomoe, 2nd Bangor Militia


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Kufstein, October 14th, 3050

    Ralik frowned as he looked at Tian’s new Hellbringer. The cockpit had been replaced and the damage repaired, but something looked off to him. The older parts still looked a shade darker than the new parts. As if the fires had left traces new paint could not erase.

    He pondered talking to the technicians about it but decided against it. Tian could do it if she felt like it - it was her Battlemech now. He snorted. Beata certainly had no use for it any more. He shook his head, sighing - if only she had listened to him, or to anyone else with experience…

    He noticed Tian approaching, a towel around her neck - she had just showered after their coupling. “How does it run?” Ralik asked, nodding towards the Hellbringer.

    “Slowly,” she replied, a faint grin on her face.

    He shrugged. “But it’s better armoured than your old BattleMech.” And in the configuration she had chosen, she could still serve as a scout for the Star - the Active Probe had survived her Kit Fox’s destruction in the last engagement and had been fitted to her new OmniMech.

    She nodded. “I would prefer an Ice Ferret, but I am glad I was not assigned a repaired Inner Sphere BattleMech.”

    Ralik gasped. “They could not do that!” Tian was an excellent 'MechWarrior, not some Solahma or freeborn! And she was young - she would have plenty of chances to prove herself.

    “Sepha said that they are assigning isorla BattleMechs taken from the freebirths to garrison units,” she replied. “Temporarily, until the supply situation improves.”

    Ralik chuckled without humour. He did not expect the supply situation to improve any time soon. Not with the losses they kept taking. “The Failing Lions need to stop losing fighters so we can get more OmniMechs shipped to us.”

    “All of the Clan’s Aerospace forces have been taking significant losses,” Tian pointed out. “It seems that the average enemy pilot is of higher quality than their 'MechWarriors.”

    “Or our pilots are not as skilled as they should be,” Ralik replied. They certainly did not dominate their enemies as they should.

    Tian inclined her head. “Aff.”

    “Although it seems that we might lose our advantage,” Ralik added, glancing at the fifth OmniMech of the Star, which was getting serviced two berths down from them. A Nova A was a decent OmniMech, even if it was an older design and an isorla. But its pilot… Ralik clenched his teeth. A freebirth, in their Star!

    MechWarrior Olef was standing at the foot of his OmniMech, talking with a technician. Probably trying to get her to couple with him. Ralik sneered at the thought.

    “He has passed The Blooding,” Tian said. “And he has served in Epsilon Galaxy.”

    “That does not mean that he should have been assigned to our Star,” Ralik retorted. “We’re an Assault Star, not a garrison unit.” And the freebirth’s OmniMech did not even have machine guns, so it was useless against infantry.

    “We were one MechWarrior short.”

    He scoffed. If not for the cursed freebirths’ cowardly tactics, they would not be in such a need for trained MechWarriors to assign freebirths to frontline forces.

    “He will get killed in the next serious battle, mark my words,” Ralik muttered. They had lost three trueborn MechWarriors so far, two of them Star Commanders. A mere freebirth would not last long.

    Ralik just hoped that Olef would absorb some fire that might hit someone more valuable otherwise.

    *****​

    Federated Commonwealth, Sudeten, October 20th, 3050

    “We need fire support!” Star Colonel Adler Malthus yelled as he pushed the button for his radio. “We are facing at least five regiments of Battlemechs, and dozens of armour and Infantry regiments!” As good as the Jade Falcon Guards were, they could not defeat that many enemies. Not even with support from the Jade Eyrie Cluster. Certainly not after the mauling they had taken making planetfall. As much as it galled him, Adler had to call for support from the naval forces in orbit.

    “We are still fighting the enemy’s aerospace elements, Star Colonel, and cannot spare any for ground support.”

    Adler snarled as he twisted his Summoner and slid to the side, evading a flight of LRMs. The enemy was making a push for his centre, and this surat in orbit was claiming they could do nothing? The Jade Talon was an Aegis-class heavy cruiser!

    He noticed a light BattleMech trying to close with him - a WLF-1, his computer identified it - and fired his PPC at it, followed by a volley of LRMs and cluster rounds. The enemy BattleMech shook from the hits and lost its right arm, but managed to withdraw behind a ridge before Adler’s weapons finished cycling.

    “I am requesting an orbital bombardment!” he snapped. “Transmitting coordinates now!” He hit the transmit button to send the navdata of the enemy’s positions into orbit.

    “Star Colonel, we are not authorised to use naval weapons on ground targets,” the useless warrior told him.

    “I am authorising it!” Adler retorted, jumping back another hundred and twenty metres and covering the remaining two OmniMechs of his Command Star as they retreated as well. “You dropped us in the midst of a killing zone!”

    “This is an order from the Khan himself.”

    “He would authorise it if he were here!” Adler spat as he moved again - they had to keep moving to avoid the freebirth artillery. The WLF-1 appeared again, trying to get into Adler’s rear, but Adler’s next volley left it on the ground with its gyroscope shredded by LRM missiles and cluster rounds. “Hold your ground,” he ordered his Command Star.

    “Star Commander, Alpha Assault Star here. The pass we were ordered to secure is held by a company of enemy BattleMechs with artillery support. We need reinforcements to take it.”

    Adler cursed. The stravag curs had managed to surround his Cluster, preventing him from linking up with what was left of the Jade Eyrie Cluster. “Cluster Command to Trinary Assault - concentrate all your forces on the pass at the following coordinates!”

    “Aff, Star Colonel.” His computer informed him that the Trinary was down to two effective Stars. It would be enough.

    He was flipping through his displays to send the data when his Summoner suddenly shook from a hit that almost tore off he OmniMech’s left arm. Gauss rifle, he realised. The stravag bastards on this world were using far more advanced weapons than the forces he had fought so far.

    He pressed his lips together as he pushed his Summoner into a sprint, his Star following him. He had to deal with the BattleMech carrying a gauss rifle at once. As he charged through a small patch of forest, he pushed his microphone again. “Jade Talon, I repeat, we are surrounded by enemies here. Our landing zones are overrun. We need fire support from you at once!”

    “Neg, Star Colonel. The Khan’s orders are clear: We are to avoid pushing the enemy into using nuclear weapons. Jade Talon cannot assist you. Contact Jade Eyrie Cluster for Aerospace support.”

    Adler cursed again, crushing the limb of a downed ENF-4R under his Summoner’s feet as he charged ahead. “They have nothing left!” Not after clearing a path for the drop.

    “I am sorry, Star Colonel. We will send help as soon as we clear out the enemy aerospace fighters.”

    Adler was about to curse out the stubborn naval coward when his OmniMech was struck again by a gauss rifle, and he had to struggle to keep it standing. His sensors finally found the enemy BattleMech. “Stravag!” - he was facing an AS7-D. But that model had no gauss rifle! And there were more BattleMech’s emerging from a small gorge. Assault models. Kilian Malthus’s Hellbringer turned to face a BNC-3S, but an entire lance focused on the OmniMech, and Kilian barely got a single volley off before his reactor lost containment and the Hellbringer vanished in a ball of plasma.

    In return, Lily Pryde and Adler managed to destroy a ZEU-6S and damage the BNC-3S, but they could not stand up to an entire lance. Not damaged as they were. “Fall back!” he ordered her.

    “Aff.” She started to give ground when another gauss rifle hit tore off her OmniMech’s left leg. She did not eject, but could not get off another volley before the rest of the enemy lance shredded her Summoner.

    “Surats!” Adler was alone, now. LRMs and lasers hit his Summoner, breaching the armour in several spots. His own fire was ineffective. For a moment, he was tempted to stay and fight. Go out as a warrior, with Lily and Kilian.

    But he was a Star Colonel. He knew his duty. He triggered his Summoner’s jump jets. They carried him a hundred and fifty metres back, behind a rock large enough to shelter his entire Star.

    “Star Colonel, Alpha Assault Star. We have been repulsed with heavy losses - we need more forces to take the pass.”

    Adler clenched his teeth. They were trapped. He had to rally his Cluster and break through the enemy lines. Link up with Jade Eyrie. Half of the dropships had managed to escape the debacle at the landing zone and they would be enough to evacuate the remains of the two clusters. “All units, rally on my position. We will focus our attacks here and break through to Jade Eyrie,” he spat. “Then we will…”

    A warning from his computer made him look up. A Scytha was flying overhead. He started to smile - air support was here! - when he noticed the fighter was trailing smoke. A moment later, the OmniFighter was torn apart in a hail of laserfire.

    Two enemy fighters flew past him, then turned around. STU-D6s, his computer identified them. Snarling, Adler pushed his OmniMech into a sprint again. He was exposed here - he needed to get into the forest, take cover. Hide.

    The strafing fighters caught up with him before he managed to clear the rock and his battered Summoner disintegrated under their fire. He did not manage to eject.

    *****​

    ‘The attack on Sudeten, which served as a staging area for six AFFC Regimental Combat Teams preparing for Operation Hammerstrike, the Counteroffensive against Clans Jade Falcon and Wolf, was a tactical debacle for Clan Jade Falcon. Surprised by the presence of far more troops than expected, they lost two entire Clusters and half of the transports that had made the drop. Further, thanks to the AFFC units being able to concentrate their forces, casualties were relatively light - little more than two battalions of ‘Mechs were lost in the fighting as the parts of the two Clusters which had survived the drop were effectively overrun shortly after landing.
    However, strategically, it was a mixed success for the Jade Falcons. The damage suffered to the RCTs’ aerospace and transport assets as well as the repairs needed for all damaged units caused Hammerstrike to be delayed by two weeks. More importantly, though, was that the Clans were now aware that the AFFC was about to launch an offensive and could prepare accordingly.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Clan Invasion: Their Finest Hour’ by Hank G. Johnson, New Avalon Military Journal, 3075


    *****​

    ‘I almost pitied the Clan bastards when they arrived at the pirate point above Sudeten and dropped right into our staging area. Two Clusters against six entire RCTs and the Gray Death Legion? All of us ready to go and take our worlds back? It was a massacre. They were good, damned good - I have never fought better Mechwarriors - but quantity has a quality all of its own, as the saying goes. The fight in space went not quite as well - but they had a bloody warship there and were still sent packing! At the time, I thought that was a very good start for Operation Hammerstrike.’
    - Leftenant Martha “Jersey” Campbell, 9th FedCom RCT


    *****​
     
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2019
  5. Antagonist

    Antagonist Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    Liking this one so far.
     
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  6. Threadmarks: Chapter 3: Ebb Tide
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 3: Ebb Tide

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Kufstein, October 30th, 3050

    “We’ve been ordered to stop our advance?” Ralik stared at Sepha. This had to be a mistake.

    The Star Commander, leaning against the ferrocrete wall in their part of the hangar, nodded. “The Jade Falcons discovered that the freebirths are preparing an offensive. They lost two Clusters on Sudeten when they dropped on half a dozen regiments staging there. The Watch confirmed that - it is not an attempt to slow us down so they can catch up.”

    Ralik glanced over at Tian. Without being asked to, she held up her noteputer, the system highlighted on the map on display. “That is not in our corridor,” he said. The Clan had barely taken any Federated Commonwealth Worlds. “I do not think that the Republic has the forces left for an offensive.” And if they tried, they would only hasten their defeat.

    “They have not,” Sepha confirmed. “But they have allies. Our Naval Stars have sent out scouting missions and observed significant forces gathering in their remaining systems. Preliminary analysis points at ComStar.”

    “Filthy traitors!” Ralik balled his hands into fists. “That is why they agreed to remove their Com Guard forces from the worlds we took! They must have been preparing to stab us in the back for months!”

    Sepha nodded with a thin grin. “It seems that they were not quite as pacifist and neutral as they wanted us to believe, quiaff?”

    “Aff,” Ralik spat. “But now that we know this, we should strike at them while they are gathering their forces and are vulnerable!”

    Tian nodded in agreement.

    Sepha inclined her head. “I would be in agreement, but the Khan decided that we do not have the forces ready for such an attack. Not if we want to avoid suffering the same fate as the Falcons.”

    Ralik pressed his lips together. With so many ships transporting supplies, they could not gather the touman quickly enough to strike.

    “What else did our scouts find out?”

    Sepha sighed. “Little enough. They could not stay long, or they would have been attacked with nuclear missiles by the freebirths. But they sighted one warship - a corvette.”

    But where there was one warship, more could be around as well, Ralik knew.

    “The freebirths are not supposed to have any warships left,” Lionel said. “And since neither we nor any of the other clans have encountered warships so far, that means it is a ComStar ship, quiaff?”

    “Aff,” Sepha confirmed.

    “What about the Ghost Bears and Smoke Jaguars?” Tian asked.

    “The Bears have stalled their attacks as well, as far as we know,” Sepha replied.

    “They have not advanced as far as we have, though,” Ralik pointed out.

    “They probably want to let us take the brunt of the enemy attacks, then strike at the weakened enemy when we are recovering,” Lionel said. “Opportunistic cowards!”

    Sepha snorted. “We will not let them profit from our battles. And they have to worry about the Combine as well - the Smoke Jaguars have been facing weaker forces in their last attacks.”

    Which meant that the Combine would be gathering forces for an attack as well. Ralik shook his head. “Stopping our attacks does not seem to be smart. You do not surrender the initiative to the enemy.”

    “We do not know enough to launch attacks,” Sepha replied. “And between unknown numbers of ComStar warships and the freebirths using nuclear weapons, a hasty attack could end in disaster.”

    Tian nodded in apparent agreement, and Ralik frowned at her. He hated waiting. A Warrior should be striking at the Clan’s enemies, not waiting at home until battle found them.

    “Let them come!” Lionel said. “We will break them and then we will roll up their retreating forces and finish them off.”

    “And once they have committed their main force, the Clan can attack their vulnerable supply lines and bases,” Olef suddenly spoke up.

    Ralik turned to look at the freebirth, who had been sitting on a folding chair behind them. The warrior met his eyes as if he were his equal. Ralik clenched his teeth. Olef should know his place!

    “It will be a little rough on the Clusters facing that main force, but that is about the general strategy, as far as I know,” Sepha said, a little louder than before, and Ralik turned to look at her.

    “They will earn glory, though,” Lionel said, “facing such odds.”

    Ralik nodded. Such stands were what earned warriors lines in the Remembrance.

    He still prefered to attack the freebirth scum, of course. They would not conquer Terra by merely holding their ground.

    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Engadine, November 7th, 3050

    Precentor Howard Stone forced himself to stop gripping the armrests of his captain’s chair as the CSV Toulouse’s engines ignited and the Dante II-class frigate fell into formation with the rest of the First Expeditionary Fleet facing the Clan Wolf ships. He was the captain; the entire crew depended on him remaining calm and confident. Or at least to appear so.

    He could not help being nervous, though. This would be the first time that his ship, his crew, himself, was facing actual combat. The first naval engagement in the Inner Sphere between warships in over a century. The first engagement of the ComStar fleet. The eyes of the entire order, of the entire Inner Sphere, were upon them.

    “Sensors?” He looked at Adept Germain manning the station to his right.

    Her faint French accent was audible when she answered: “Sensors have identified enemy units as the Sovetskii Soyuz-class CWS Dire Wolf, two Liberator-Class Cruisers and one Congress-class frigate.”

    Howard smiled. The intelligence had been correct, then - they had caught the enemy flagship in transit between the planet and the jump point. And they outnumbered and outmassed them. “Course?”

    “Accelerating towards us,” Germain replied from her station.

    Howard checked the data from Sensors on his display and nodded. “They’re planning to push past us to reach the jump point.” It was a good plan, with a decent chance of success - if they were facing SLDF-era ships.

    But they weren’t. The Fleet had been the Order’s shield for centuries, guaranteeing Terra’s safety. Now it would be its sword as well.

    “Helm, keep formation,” Howard ordered, then berated himself silently - it was unnecessary to repeat the same order. He trusted his crew. They might not have actual combat experience, but they had excelled in training and exercises.

    He glanced around, but no one seemed to have picked up on his slip. Or didn’t let it show. Good enough. He took a deep breath. “Very well. Crew, stand down from battle stations and resume normal shifts.”

    He forced himself to relax as his XO passed the order on. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t stay on the bridge until the battle began - it would be a day until the two fleets would meet.

    *****​

    “Dropships separating!” Adept Smith reported. “Docking collars clear. Aerospace forces deploying.”

    Howard nodded, clenching his fingers for a moment. This was it. In a few minutes, the two fleets would clash.

    “Enemy fleet deploying supporting dropships, modified Overlord- and Union-classes, as well as Aerospace fighters,” Germaine reported.

    Standard procedure, then.

    “BattleNetwork expanded,” Germaine continued. “All units integrated.”

    Howard could see how the data streams improved as the dropships added their sensors and computers to the BattleNet. As Blessed Blake had said - power was nothing without guidance. Therefore, ComStar naval research had focused on electronics - sensors, computers and stealth systems - instead of weapons.

    “Tactical computers linked,” Adept N’Teli added. “Main batteries ready. Anti-Missile and Anti-Fighter Systems ready.” She sounded eager, not nervous in the least.

    But the first few minutes would be rough, Howard knew. According to ROM’s reports, the Clans had the better weapons - more range and likely more power as well. The Fleet would have to brave their fire without being able to respond until they could close the range. Then the Fleet’s superior electronics would turn the tide.

    That was the plan, at least. Howard flicked the displays on his command console. Dozens of Aerospace fighters were racing ahead from both sides. He forced himself to appear calm as the symbols on his display started to veer off - and to disappear. And, as he had expected, the Com Guards got the worst of the exchange. The Clan pilots were better and had far more experience.

    But the Fleet had more fighters than the enemy. And they had been preparing to engage swarms of Aerospace fighters for decades. Fighters wouldn’t decide this battle, and neither would missiles. Naval Gunnery would.

    “Enemy fighters accelerating,” Germaine reported. “They are focusing on the Invisible Truth.”

    That had been expected as well - the Cameron-class flagship of the Fleet was the biggest threat to the enemy. And according to ROM, the Clan warriors would focus on the most prestigious target anyway.

    Howard and his ship had other things to worry about, anyway. As soon as… His display lit up with a priority message from the Invisible Truth. They were cleared to manoeuvre at max speed and acceleration! “Set an interception course for the enemy frigate!”

    “Aye aye, sir!”

    He was pressed into his seat as the Toulouse accelerated. A minute later, he frowned. Was the enemy holding their fire? The Toulouse was inside the expected range of their improved weapons now. Had the unexpected acceleration shocked the enemy? No, Clan warriors wouldn’t be shocked according to the briefing he had received. Not for so long.

    Then it didn’t matter any more.

    “Enemy in range!” N’Teli reported.

    “Fire!” Howard ordered.

    “Enemy firing!” Germaine yelled.

    A moment later, the Toulouse shook under the impact of naval shells. A missile alert sounded. Howard jerked and glanced at his display. Killer Whale and White Shark inbound. But his ship could handle that. It should.

    Fighters were attacking them now and met concentrated laser barrages from the Toulouse and her escorts. An enemy dropship caught a naval autocannon volley and exploded. One of their escorts dropped out of formation, too damaged to continue the battle. More fighter symbols vanished from the screen. And the enemy kept hitting his ship.

    He clenched his teeth as the first damage reports came in. With the BattleNet, any ship linked could fire from their maximum range with almost the same precision as if were alongside the enemy, but someone in the Net had to close with the enemy. And dropships didn’t last long at that range.

    “Keep firing!” he ordered, barely noticing the loss of their second escort. The enemy frigate was trailing parts now. Another flight of missiles incoming, but dealt with. He flipped his display. The Invisible Truth was savaging the Dire Wolf’ despite the latter’s attempts to disengage - the Clans must not have expected the improved engines on the Fleet’s flagship.

    And the enemy had to decelerate if they wanted to be able to make the jump, should they reach the jump point. The Toulouse shuddered, and warning claxons went off. “Damage report!” Howard snapped. “What hit us?” Had a missile gotten past her defences?

    “Enemy fighter crashed into our right side. Hull breach,” Adept Parkinson reported.

    “Roll her,” Howard ordered. Presenting their undamaged flank was the only thing they could do, so close to the enemy. “And keep firing.” They had to take out the frigate.

    “Enemy flagship lost power!” Germaine yelled. “It’s disintegrating!” she added a moment later.

    Cheers went up on the bridge. Howard bared his teeth in a triumphant smile. Now all that was left was to mop up the rest of the enemy.

    And the frigate would be next. He grinned as the enemy shook under the impact of more shells and the computer listed the projected damage. Another volley and she would be crippled.

    “Enemy cruiser turning!” Germaine reported. “Both of them.”

    He glanced at the display. They were turning towards the Toulouse. “Evasive action!” he yelled.

    But they were too close to the enemy. Heavy naval PPCs and gauss cannons opened up. Many missed. But many, too many didn’t.

    The Toulouse bucked under the impact. The displays lit up with dozens of damage reports. Engine. Reactor - they were running under emergency power now. Hull breaches.

    “Abandon Ship!” he ordered, unbuckling himself. “Abandon ship!”

    Then the enemy frigate’s last White Shark hit the bridge.

    *****​

    ‘Preliminary reports from the Battle of Engadine show that the Clans’ advantages in weapon technology seem to be largely restricted to ground and aerospace forces. In contrast, the Com Guards ships enjoyed a significant advantage in sensors, targeting and electronic warfare. The BattleNet performed as expected, greatly contributing to the victory over the enemy. However, the battle also showed significant deficiencies in crew skill and experience, which were telling in Aerospace fighter engagements. Losses exceeded projections by over ten per cent. Missile defence was also not as effective as expected, though still adequate. Judging by the Clans’ performance against our First Expeditionary Fleet, our automated defences should be sufficient to protect Terra. Therefore, I propose to free the Second Fleet for offensive actions as well. Further, I once again suggest switching research and production efforts to mobile forces, both on the ground and in space. We need to not only replace our losses but build up our forces. As the ground battles on Engadine showed, even outnumbering the enemy to a great degree will leave us with serious casualties, though loss rates should decline as our surviving forces acquire combat experience.’
    - Excerpt from the classified report of Precentor Martial Anastasius Focht to the First Circuit, Terra 3050


    *****​

    ‘No one who hasn’t fought the Clans before can understand just how great it felt to see them run and get torn apart by overwhelming forces. After their flagship was destroyed and Rasalhague avenged, we felt that nothing could stop us. Then we met them on the ground. And the damned Com Guards refused to bombard them from orbit!’
    - MechWarrior Jan Olsen, 4th Drakøns


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Kufstein, November 13th, 3050

    Ralik finished his drink and crushed the can before throwing the remains to the ground and stomping on it. Twice. It was not as good as hitting something that could fight back, but it had to do.

    “We are not retreating,” he heard Lionel say behind him. “We are just moving to a staging area, quiaff?”

    Ralik snorted. “Neg. We are abandoning the planet. A planet we shed blood for.” Beata had died here, as had many other Clan members. And now they were abandoning it to the freebirths.

    “Neg,” Lionel said, moving to stand next to him at the top of the open ramp to look at the starport in front of their dropship. All around them were ships being loaded. “We will return once we have crushed the freebirth attack. And we are not abandoning the planet either. The freebirths will have to bleed for the planet for a long time.”

    “They will not bleed for long.” Ralik scoffed. “They have not on the other worlds they attacked. We are wasting the garrison cluster.” They were only freeborn warriors, with second line and even inferior isorla BattleMechs, and the Freebirths had crushed frontline Clusters with the sheer weight of their numbers.

    “They will not stand and fight,” Lionel said. “They will strike and fade away like insurgents.” He chuckled. “The freebirth scum will have a taste of their own medicine.”

    The orders made sense, but he did not like them. To be forced to use freebirth tactics… Ralik pressed his lips together and shook his head. It felt wrong. That was not the Clan way.

    “Khan Radick knows what he is doing,” Lionel said. “And so does saKhan Ward.”

    Ralik snorted again. “He was not elected.” That was not the Clan way either.

    “We cannot hold a Kurultai,” Lionel retorted. “And he was saKhan before, quiaff?”

    “Aff.” But Garth Radick was no Ulric Kerensky. “Both are from Beta Galaxy,” Ralik pointed out if only to say something.

    “Well, no one is perfect,” Lionel joked. He clasped Ralik’s shoulder. “We will avenge the Khan,” he said in a more sombre voice, “and the 4th Wolf Guards.”

    Oh, yes. Ralik nodded. The surats had denied them Hegira on Engadine. The 4th had died well, though, making the cowards pay in blood for every part of the planet. But in the end, the Clan had lost another veteran frontline Cluster. And a garrison Cluster. He shook his head again. “I still do not think it will be worth sacrificing the garrison clusters,” he said.

    “We have to, to split up and delay the enemy forces before we strike back at them. As they did to us.”

    Ralik made an agreeing noise. He hoped Lionel was right. Because it still felt wrong to him.

    *****​

    Federated Commonwealth (Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone), Dompaire, November 15th, 3050

    “Everyone out! Go! Go! Go!”

    Private First Class Jenna Deveraux clenched her teeth as she pushed herself up from the bench inside the Belleron APC, held her submachine gun so it wouldn’t trip her and followed Ramirez to the exit, where Corporal Meier was waving at them and yelling. She knew that the APC wouldn’t withstand anything heavier than a machine gun and would attract fire from armour and ‘Mechs, but she still hated leaving its meagre protection.

    “Go! Go! Go!”

    She passed the Sergeant, receiving a light blow on the back propelling her forward, then turned and grabbed a pack with replacement missiles from the rack on the Belleron’s side before running after Ramirez, into the forest nearby.

    The ground was soft and wet, and she stumbled and almost fell into the ditch next to the road, splattering mud all over her legs, but made it into the trees without falling behind, panting with the exertion.

    “Deploy at the tree line facing the village!” Leftenant Klaas yelled.

    Jenna could see the village through the trees already - and hear the sound of combat. ‘Mech combat. Smoke and flashes of laser fire were visible as well. A single stray shot would kill her easily. Or hit the missile she was carrying and burn her alive. She clenched her teeth again, struggling against the sudden urge to drop and curl up and pray. She was a soldier of the AFFC. She couldn’t leave her comrades down.

    Ramirez had already picked a decent position for their fire team - a low hollow, with lots of underbrush providing concealment. She dropped on the ground next to him, then crawled half a meter forward so she could see the village.

    Or what was left of it - BattleMechs had turned most of the buildings to rubble. And they were still fighting. She pulled her binoculars out of the pocket on her hips out of reflex, then stuffed them back inside. She could see their target, the closest enemy mech, without them. “Thor, a hundred and fifty metres,” she said anyway.

    “Got it,” Ramirez replied, already aiming his missile tube.

    Jenna glanced behind them. “Clear!” she yelled.

    Ramirez fired, and Jenna ducked down, then rolled to the side, crawling to the left as quickly as she could. SRM fire teams who stayed still after firing didn’t live long. SRM fire teams who did everything right didn’t tend to live much longer either, though.

    She sprinted over a bare patch, rolled under a fallen tree trunk and pulled out her binocs. The Thor was burning - Ramirez had hit it. Probably.

    “Reload!” Ramirez yelled before he dropped to the ground next to her.

    Jenna pulled out the inferno missile in her box. Ten seconds later, Ramirez was crawling forward to get into position again. She followed him. “Thor, two hundred metres!” she announced.

    “Got it!” Ramirez fired the next missile.

    A moment later, heavy machine gun fire hit the tree trunk above them. Jenna heard someone scream nearby, then another as she crawled into a nearby ditch, followed by Ramirez. They waited a few seconds, but no more bullets chewed through the terrain around them.

    Jenna crawled a little further, then raised her head to look around. A headless corpse was on the ground a dozen metres away. She couldn’t tell who it was, and was glad. But Corporal Gladstone was screaming behind a rock, trying to stem the bleeding from the stump of his leg. Jenna grabbed the medpack from her belt and took a deep breath. “I’m going to get him,” she said.

    “Alright,” Ramirez replied. “On three. One. Two.”

    The rock serving as cover for Gladstone suddenly blew up. Jenna reflexively ducked as rock shards were blown all over the area. When she raised her head again, she saw at once that Gladstone was beyond help. Cursing, she shook her head.

    “Let’s get back to reload,” Ramirez said.

    They crawled and sprinted through another patch of the forest until they hit the road, then used the ditch there to reach the waiting APCs. “We hit the Thor twice, we need reloads!” Jenna yelled at Corporal Schmidt, who was standing inside the cupola of her APC, behind the machine gun. “Grab some, there’s enough for everyone!” he yelled back, eyes trained on the trees.

    Ramirez was already reloading his tube. Jenna grabbed another box when Schmidt suddenly started firing. “Battle Armour in the trees!”

    Jenna felt as if her blood froze in her veins. Elementals. They were dead.

    Ramirez, though, snarled and jumped in the ditch. “Come on!” he yelled.

    And Jenna followed him. “Target Elemental, straight ahead, one hundred metres!” she yelled. Behind her, the APC went up in flames. Someone screamed - Schmidt, she realised. Others were firing, but machine guns wouldn’t do much against the inhuman monsters.

    Inferno missiles would, though. Ramirez fired, and one of the advancing armoured forms disappeared in a fireball.

    “Burn, motherfucker!” Ramirez yelled.

    Jenna was already crawling through the ditch, as she had been drilled to. “Come on!” she yelled. “Reload!”

    Ramirez had almost reached her when something flew over the ditch. No, not flew - jumped. Jenna froze as she saw an Elemental land in the middle of the road and fire at the second APC.

    “Reload!” Ramirez yelled.

    Startled, she slid down in the ditch and ripped the box open, almost fumbling and dropping the missile in the mud.

    Ramirez pushed the missile into the tube then stood - and toppled over as a burst from a machine gun hit him in the back. The SRM launcher fell on the road. Jeanna reached up to grab him, but another salvo shredded his torso.

    Covered with blood, Jenna slid down into the mud. They were surrounded now. She could hear machine gun fire - different cadences. And something exploded. She knew she should get up, grab the launcher and fire, but she couldn’t.

    She could only curl up, cry and hope the nightmare would be over soon.

    *****​

    ‘Clan Wolf forces attempted to copy the insurrection strategy of the Inner Sphere to slow down the Com Guards’ counter-attack. However, while the garrison clusters left on the planets under attack tried to fight using guerrilla tactics, they lacked both sufficient supplies as well as support from the population and, having only been a few weeks at most on the targeted planets, were not familiar with the terrain at all and so were quickly hunted down and destroyed. Overall, the strategy must be deemed a failure. Although Clan Wolf managed to preserve almost all of their frontline forces while inflicting significant casualties on the inexperienced Com Guard forces. In comparison, Operation Hammerstrike by the AFFC fared better, as the Jade Falcons mostly stayed and fought at first, and the greater experience of the AFFC RCTs showed in the battles of the first phase.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis’ by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064


    *****​

    ‘Everyone talks about the Com Guards as if we didn’t do any fighting. Heh, ComStar gets all the glory, but their pilots and warriors were green. Without their better kit, they would have been massacred. Well, more than they were.’
    - MechWarrior Sven “Bloodhound” Larsen, 3rd Drakøns


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Rasalhague, November 30th, 3050

    Watching the touman gather was both inspiring and depressing, Ralik discovered. Seeing the frontline Galaxies assembled, row upon row of dropships covering the spaceport, OmniMechs standing in formation on concrete, demonstrating the Clan’s might, made his heart lift. On the other hand, noticing how many warriors were gone, though, entire Clusters missing from the assembly, not even fully replaced by including the Epsilon Galaxy… He sighed and shook his head inside his Timber Wolf.

    “...and even as the enemy thinks they are triumphing, they are, instead, ensuring their defeat. They have overwhelmed some of our forces with sheer numbers, but they have never faced the full might of our Clan on the field of battle. The traitors have waited, spying on us as we crushed the craven Republic, hiding behind criminals and pawns, until our relentless advance towards Terra forced them to show their true colours and finally take the field with their forces. But their troops are inexperienced, never having faced battle, much less war, before. Their BattleMechs are inferior, their cause wrong. They shall discover that when we are united, no one is a match for our touman! They shall reap what they sowed when we crush them and clear the way to Terra!”

    Ralik nodded at the speech of his Khan but, unlike the warriors gathered in front of the Khan on the field to his left, he did not cheer. He was on duty, after all, securing the perimeter of the spaceport and base on Rasalhague.

    *****​

    An hour later, returning to their assigned quarters on the dropship assigned to their Cluster, he found Lionel waiting for him.

    “Ralik! Come join us - we’re celebrating!” Lionel beamed.

    “Not in the city, I hope,” Ralik replied.

    Lionel snorted - he knew as well as Ralik did that visiting the planet’s capital without a patrol was just begging to be attacked or bombed. Hell, even patrols were attacked often enough. “Of course not!” he said. “They turned a hangar into a hall! Come, the others are waiting!”

    Ralik let Lionel drag him to the hangar. The other warrior’s good cheer was contagious. Somewhat, at least. And it had been a long time since they had been able to celebrate like this.

    And the hangar, as he discovered approaching it with Lionel, was full of celebrating warriors. He could see two Circles of Equals outside, surrounded by cheering Warriors.

    Lionel nodded at them. “As long as no weapons are used, the Khan has allowed trials again,” he explained.

    “Trials of Bloodright as well?” Ralik asked. With all the losses the Clan had suffered, he had a good chance to earn a Bloodname - he was one of the more seasoned warriors now.

    Lionel’s smile vanished as the warrior shook his head. “No. We cannot waste the supplies, and to limit the trials would dishonour the name.”

    Ralik agreed with a curt nod. He understood the reasoning, and seeing two warriors fight each other made him feel better. If he ignored the unfamiliar sky, it felt almost like home.

    Sepha waved at them from a table she apparently had won in a trial - she was sporting a bruise on her cheek and wore a bandage on her forehead. “Come, sit and drink!” she yelled, beaming. “I was about to send out Tian to search for you if you had taken any longer!”

    Ralik sat down on the bench, earning a slap on the back from the Star Commander, and smiled at Tian as he grabbed a mug.

    “Won in battle,” Sepha explained, rapping her knuckles against the keg on the table. “Had to fight some idiot from Epsilon for it.”

    Ralik laughed and drank. Only after wiping his mouth did he realise that they were one warrior short. He was about to ask where Olef was, then decided against it. If the freebirth did not want to celebrate with them, then that was his own decision.

    It was not as if Ralik actually missed him.

    “So did you hear anything about our next attack?” he asked after finishing his mug.

    Sepha chuckled. “Eager, are you?”

    Ralik nodded. Of course he was - any warrior worth their blood was eager to prove themselves. As long as it was in a real battle, not some pest control against lower caste criminals or second-rate troops.

    Sepha grinned and leaned forward, the rest of the Star following her example. “As far as I know, we will be striking at the staging areas behind the enemy lines. See how they like it if their own supplies go missing and their garrison troops are mauled.”

    Lionel cheered, but Ralik had to force himself to smile. The plan made sense, as did so many decisions of the Khan, but this would be just another holding action. A raid, not a battle to decide the war.

    *****​

    Draconis Combine (Clan Smoke Jaguar Occupation Zone), Luzerne, November 7th, 3050

    MechWarrior Saito Takashi, steeled himself as he saw the symbols on the display in his Grand Dragon’s cockpit. Seismic sensors detected five enemy Battlemechs, rushing straight at his battered company. Medium and heavy ‘Mechs. They would soon crest the hill in front of him. Apparently, the enemy had detected the attempt to envelop the Smoke Jaguar’s positions and was moving to counter them.

    Takashi sat straighter. The enemy would not prevail. They would smash the invaders and free the world. They were the Fifth Sword of Light, the elite of the Draconis Combine Mustered Soldiery. They had already destroyed an entire Star of these Clans on their march, and the enemy charging them would be next to suffer that fate.

    He glanced at the three hovertrucks hidden behind a rock formation next to his Grand Dragon, bowing his head in respect to the brave volunteers of the Special Attack Unit. A billion lives for the Dragon!

    Then the first enemy ‘Mech appeared on the ridge, barely within range of Takashi’s weapons. A Loki. Takashi fired both his ER PPC and his LRMs, together with the rest of his lance. Most of the volley missed, but Takashi felt a surge of pride as his PPC hit the enemy in the centre, making it stagger for a moment.

    “Focus on the Loki!” Chu-i Watanabe ordered as the enemy returned the fire, lasers crossing the field separating them. “Advance!”

    Takashi pushed his BattleMech into a run, angled to provide a more difficult target, and fired again as soon as his weapons finished cycling, ignoring as the heat spiked and fell inside his cockpit. Right behind him, Nakamura followed his example in her own Grand Dragon. But then the rest of the enemy appeared, and Takashi had to clench his teeth to keep himself from cursing in response - a Sword of Light didn’t know fear, only duty. Even when faced with two Mad Cats and two Vultures charging at him.

    And they were not the only lance advancing - their entire company was moving forward. As the range closed, the fire from his lance started to tell - the Loki staggered, losing an arm to the next barrage from the four Grand Dragons forming Takashi’s lance.

    But in return, lasers, PPC bolts and swarms of missiles rained down on his lance, most of them focused on the Chu-i’s Grand Dragon, but even as his ‘Mech stumbled and reeled, Watanabe’s voice betrayed no fear. “Special Attack Unit, target Mad Cat, go!” he snapped, returning fire.

    Behind Takashi, the three hovertrucks shot out of cover and turned towards the enemy. As expected, the invaders switched fire at once, trying to destroy the trucks before they could ram them.

    Unarmed and carrying explosives, none of the trucks came even near the enemy before they vanished in explosions, but their sacrifice allowed Takashi’s lance to close with the enemy. He braced himself as he steered his ‘Mech straight into the battered Loki.

    The impact slammed him back into his seat with enough force to rattle his teeth and damaged the Grand Dragon’s torso, causing warnings to light up on his displays. But the enemy ‘Mech was thrown to the ground, a leg torn off. Takashi fired his PPC and both lasers at the downed enemy before the invader could react, then kicked out, shattering the other leg. Another salvo would finish the crippled machine off.

    “Saito-san!” he heard Nakamura yell. “Watch out!”

    He turned just in time to see the Mad Cat fire all lasers and missiles at him, sending him staggering in turn as Takashi fought to keep his wounded ‘Mech from falling. He would have managed it, if not for another flight of missiles striking from the side and tipping the Grand Dragon over.

    Thrown forward and to the side, the straps of his seat digging into his chest, the shock as his ‘Mech hit the ground left Takashi stunned. He ignored his ringing head and focused on standing up with his ‘Mech, but another volley hit his Grand Dragon, ripping its left arm off and sending it to the ground again. His displays - the ones still working - were blinking with red damage reports, and the computer’s synthesised voice was blurting out warnings,

    “Saito-San!” he heard Nakamura yell again, “Get up!”

    He snarled - he was doing his best, wasn’t he? - but his damaged Grand Dragon wasn’t cooperating. Damaged gyroscope, he realised. But he could still fight. He just had to focus on standing up. He had done it a hundred, a thousand times in training. He would do it.

    Another barrage of lasers struck his twitching ‘Mech, triggering an ammunition explosion. He screamed as the feedback from his neurohelmet knocked him out a moment before his reactor lost containment and his Grand Dragon was destroyed by the expanding plasma

    *****​

    ‘Despite popular opinion, the counter-attacks against the invading Clans by the AFFC, the DCMS and the Com Guards were not coordinated. That they all occurred within a few weeks of each other was mostly coincidence, not a sign of a united response. Despite ComStar’s assurances, neither the Federated Commonwealth nor the Draconis Combine was willing to work together, much less ally formally, which also prevented ComStar from forming closer relations with either unless they were willing to lose their neutral position. Data and intelligence weren’t shared either, which had negative effects on the whole war. Overall, though, the general lack of experience among the Com Guards was the main reason for their relatively slow progress in the first phase of their attack compared to both the DCMS and the AFFC’s operations.’
    - Excerpt from ‘To Protect and Serve: ComStar’s role during the Invasion of the Clans’ by Kyle Winston, Terra, 3081


    *****​

    ‘While the AFFC focused on equipping every BattleMech with double heat sinks and worked on field upgrade kits before improving the core BattleMech designs, the DCMS gave priority to their elite units. They were equipped with advanced BattleMechs while the rest of their forces had to do with regular kit. That meant the majority of their forces were not nearly as effective as they could have been, but it also meant that their best units were very, very good. Not on the level of the Clans, but good enough to hurt them badly when they were finally deployed.’
    - Kommandant Jeff Levesque, AFFC


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Radstadt, December 10th, 3050

    The BL-6-KNT stumbled as Ralik’s two large lasers melted his chest armour and forty LRMs hammered its torso, taking one, then two steps back in an attempt to keep its balance - but its pilot was inexperienced, and the BattleMech fell over in the muddy field. Grinning, Ralik pressed on, firing all his lasers at the downed machine. The heat rose in his cockpit in response, but remained well within tolerances - his Timber Wolf barely slowed down in response.

    In contrast, the BL-6-KNT fell down again, its attempt to stand ruined when Ralik’s lasers melted two actuators in its right leg. He grinned as he waited for the weapons to cycle again. The damaged BattleMech would not withstand another volley - two if Ralik decided to save LRM ammunition.

    But before he could fire again, two PPCs hit the struggling BL-6-KNT, blowing through its centre torso. Who had… Ralik snarled as the Com Guard MechWarrior ejected. “Olef!” he yelled. “That was my kill!”

    “Neg,” the freebirth dared to reply. “Our orders were clear: We have to destroy the enemy forces guarding the starport as quickly as possible. No zellbrigen.”

    Ralik hissed with rage as the insolent freebirth’s Nova A sprinted past his Timber Wolf and stepped on the outer edge of the port’s landing fields. How dare the freebirth! He clenched his teeth as he suppressed the sudden urge to fire into Olef’s back.

    “He is correct, Ralik,” Sepha snapped over the Star’s channel. “Move it! Beta Assault Star is facing an entire company on the other side of the port, and if we hurry we can catch the surats from behind!”

    Ralik drew a hissing breath through his teeth. He knew their orders - they had to secure the starport while the other Clusters hit the warehouses and barracks of the Com Guards on the planet - but one more volley, and the BL-6-KNT would have been finished. Olef’s interference had only gained them a few seconds, at most - the freebirth was just using their orders as an excuse to ruin Ralik’s fight.

    He spotted the parachute of the Com Guard MechWarrior in the air as he followed Olef and Lionel on the landing field. He hesitated a moment, then fired his machine gun. They had no time to take bondsmen, and the freebirth would not serve willingly anyway. The cowards never did, unless they wanted to betray you.

    Tian was in the front, with Sepha close behind. They passed a burning dropship - their Binary Artillery had won the duel with the artillery the Com Guards had managed to deploy while the Cluster had dropped from orbit, but the exchange had been a little hard on the area. Ralik could see the first enemy BattleMechs on the other side of the field, and flashes of laser and PPC fire through the smoke covering most of the starport. Tian’s Active Probe would reveal the enemy’s positions soon enough. He smiled - he would earn more glory today. The Com Guards were inexperienced and traitors, but they had decent BattleMechs.

    Suddenly, Tian turned to the left. “Watch out, enemy armour detected!”

    A moment later, Sepha’s Gargoyle A shook and fell over, struck from the side. Gauss rifles, Ralik realised as he turned. His computer updated the displays - Alacorn tanks. Two, no, three of them, rolling out of the transport drop ship in which they had been hiding.

    Lionel and Olef turned as well, already returning fire. Sepha… Ralik blinked. Sepha’s 'Mech was not moving. And on the display… he zoomed in, then cursed. One of the gauss rifles had hit Sepha’s cockpit. He shook his head, cursing a streak, as he opened up on the closest tank with his lasers and LRMs.

    When not cowardly ambushing their betters, the tanks stood no chance against the Star, and soon, all three tanks were burning brightly next to the bodies of their crews. Ralik activated his radio. “Star, follow me - we still have to support Beta Assault Star!” he snapped, turning his Timber Wolf and racing towards the still raging battle on the other side of the starport.

    “We need to recover her Gargoyle,” Olef said as they passed Sepha’s fallen OmniMech.

    “After the battle.” Ralik scoffed. Stupid freebirth - they were warriors, not technicians. And their OmniMechs could not drag the Gargoyle anyway. Not after the damage they had taken fighting the enemy BattleMechs and tanks.

    And he really needed to kill some more of the stravag surats!

    *****​

    Periphery, D-1504 System, Nadir Jump Point, December 15th, 3050

    Acolyte Hana “Kitten” Winters swallowed as her Hellcat II shot out of the hangar and left the CSV Knowledge Is Power behind. This was it - her first real combat mission! She muttered a quick prayer to Blessed Blake as she formed up with her wingman, Acolyte Trevor “Bear” Barnes.

    “Alpha and Beta Flight, proceed to target.”

    Hana was pushed back in her seat as her fighter accelerated, following Bear. They didn’t have a long flight ahead of them - the Clan Space Station apparently had been stationed right next to the jump point so there would be no delays for transports docking with it.

    “Target deploying Aerospace fighters!” Ashley “Meringue” James reported.

    “Alpha Flight, focus on the target. Beta Flight, keep the enemy Aerospace fighters off their backs.”

    “Blessed Blake, watch over me!” Hana muttered. She wouldn’t have to brave just enemy anti-aerospace defences, but enemy fighters as well.

    They were quickly closing in on the station. It was huge, much bigger than the Wolf’s Dragoons’ Hephaestus Station had been, according to her computer. And even though it was a repair and factory station, it was bristling with turrets. Lasers, PPCs and autocannons opened up as Alpha Flight approached their target.

    Hana clenched her teeth. “It’s just like in the exercises!” she told herself as she jinked and bopped, trying to throw off the aim of the gunners.

    But it wasn’t like the exercises. When her Hellcat II was hit, she felt it shake and saw the armour getting blown off her wings. A message on her HUD informed her that the station was now in range of her large lasers, and she opened fire, completing a textbook strafing run.

    “Focus on the damaged side!” the Flight Leader ordered.

    Hana nodded, following Bear into another strafing run. Halfway through, though, she spotted a Clan heavy fighter making a pass at them. “Bear! Three o’clock!” she warned him, and Bear broke off at once, turning to face the enemy.

    Hana and Bear met the enemy fighter head-on. Lasers flashed past each other, followed by a swarm of missiles. Hana jinked to the right and rolled, evading most of the enemy fire. Bear wasn’t as lucky - his Hellcat II was savaged by the missiles.

    “Kitten, complete the run!” he ordered as his struggling fighter slowly started to turn to meet the enemy again.

    “But…” He couldn’t survive another head-on clash.

    “Do it!” he snapped.

    “Understood, Bear,” she said, blinking as she dived away and started another strafing run against the stations damaged side.

    She muttered another prayer to Blake when she saw Bear’s symbol vanish on her HUD, his killer’s soon following when a single fighter from Beta Flight cut them off.

    She smiled, then gasped when her fighter was hit again and sent into a spin as warnings flashed over her HUD. A direct autocannon hit had almost torn half of her right wing off!

    She managed to stabilise her fighter, but half her weapons were missing, and her armour was in tatters. She knew what she had to do, as she had been trained. “Kitten to Alpha Lead. I’ve suffered heavy damage. I need to return to base.”

    “Kitten, can you make another attack run?”

    She hesitated. Blessed Blake - her fighter wouldn’t survive another hit. But they had a mission. “Yes, Alpha Lead.”

    “Continue the attack.”

    “Yes, Alpha Lead.” Hana shuddered as she nodded and turned her fighter’s nose towards the station again, then accelerated. “I can do this!” she told herself. She could really - the station had lost most of its turrets and was leaking atmosphere in several places.

    But there were not many fighters left to attack, either. Once more, lasers and PPCs lashed out at her as she lined up her fighter and started her run. Her lasers vapourised more armour and structure - there went another section, ripped apart as its hull was breached. She veered left, rolling as a stream of autocannon shells narrowly missed her, then flew even closer, almost touching the station’s hull as she continued her run. She caught some laser fire anyway, but her armour held.

    An observation post above a docking collar melted under her fire and she had to jink right to avoid the debris before she could pull up, panting. That had been close. She shivered - another run would be her last. Her Hellcat II had no armour left, and only half the weapons were still working. She didn’t want to die. But she had a mission. “Blessed Blake, give me strength!”

    It didn’t help. She couldn’t make herself turn around. She didn’t want to die. She was crying now - more than after Bear’s death. She had to turn around. But she couldn’t. She was a coward.

    A flash behind her made her look over her shoulder before checking her HUD. The station had blown up. She could track a rapidly expanding cloud of debris on her sensors. They had done it.

    “Alpha Leader to Alpha and Beta Flight. Good work, return to base.”

    Shivering, Hana slowly put her damaged fighter into a turn and set course for the Knowledge Is Power.

    And wondered if she would have found the courage to do another strafing run. Or would, next time.

    *****​

    ‘The situation in space during the Clan Invasion showed a remarkable contrast to the situation on the ground. Where Clan OmniMechs were clearly superior to even the most advanced Inner Sphere designs, the advantage enjoyed by their OmniFighters was not as decisive, and the Clan warships were technologically inferior to the ships in ComStar’s fleet. And both sides lacked experience in naval engagements - the Clans because naval battles were so costly, they were rarely fought, the Com Guards because they hadn’t fought in any naval battle at all until the invasion. However, while enjoying superior technology, the ComStar Expeditionary Fleets were outnumbered by the combined naval assets of the invading Clans. If there had been a decisive battle involving all warships deployed in the Inner Sphere, the Clans would most likely have prevailed. But both Clan politics and the need to protect their supply lines against deep raids by the AFFC, DCMS and Com Guards made it impossible for the Clans to gather such a fleet.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis’ by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064


    *****​

    ‘They said we took ‘light casualties’ in the first attacks of Operation Hammerstrike. Those ignorant idiots! They only care about ‘Mechs. If a ‘Mech company loses a lance, they’ll lose at most four MechWarriors - and half of them will be able to eject and survive - and four ’Mechs, most of which usually can be repaired. But the poor bloody infantry? If we lose a platoon, that’s over thirty soldiers gone - and we can’t be repaired. And we lost a damn lot of platoons in the first wave.’
    - Corporal Maureen Stark, 3rd FedCom RCT, medically retired


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Rasalhague, December 30th, 3050

    He was a Star Commander now. Promoted on the field of battle. Sitting at his desk in the Star’s part of the hangar, Ralik shook his head. He should feel proud, not… He sighed. He could not really describe what he was feeling. Or not feeling. And he did not want to, either.

    “Do you have any news about our next assignment, Star Commander?”

    Ralik looked up from his noteputer. He had not noticed Lionel approaching him. Sloppy. His sibko trainers would have punished him most painfully for such a failure. He did notice, though, that Lionel was staring at him with slightly narrowed eyes. And the way he had emphasised Ralik’s new rank… “Do you wish to challenge me for my position?” Ralik glared at the other warrior.

    Lionel pressed his lips together and straightened. “Trials are suspended.”

    That had happened following a scuffle that left two warriors of Delta Galaxy dead. There were rumours, though, of trials still happening - unofficial ones. But mostly Trials of Grievance, Possession and Refusal. An unofficial Trial of Position was meaningless. Unless it ended in a ‘training accident’ - there had been a few, since in the last month.

    “Would you challenge me if you could?” Ralik cocked his head.

    “That is the Clan way, quiaff?”

    “Aff. But that was not a definite answer.” Ralik had to settle this one way or the other. He could not lead his Star if he could not trust Lionel. And if the other warrior was so evasive about his desires, then he could not be trusted. He noticed that Tian and even Olef were watching them from the locker area. He straightened and met Lionel’s eyes. “We can go train.”

    After a second, Lionel shook his head. “Neg. The Clan cannot afford to lose more warriors over such things, quiaff.”

    ‘Such things’ were the Clan Way. But Ralik nodded. “Aff.” He leaned back on his chair. “Neg, I have not heard anything about the next operation.” He had no friend in the Watch, as Sepha had had, and Lionel knew that. “It is hard to tell how things will go right now. We hit the freebirths hard when we destroyed their staging areas, but they still advanced.” ComStar had managed to conquer Ferleiten, Kufstein and Unzmarkt. To lose so many worlds… Ralik clenched his teeth.

    “Those operations were already launched when we attacked. They will not be able to advance further now.” Lionel sat down on the edge of Ralik’s desk. “What about replacements?”

    Ralik smiled. “We have been assigned a replacement, Kenta. A trueborn warrior,” he clarified, “Fresh from his Blooding.”

    Lionel smiled. “Good. A freebirth would not be able to replace Sepha.”

    Ralik nodded, though he was beginning to wonder if anyone could replace Sepha. Including himself. “Unfortunately, he has not been assigned an OmniMech.”

    “What?” Lionel shook his head. “What use is a MechWarrior without a BattleMech?”

    “He has been assigned a Shadow Hawk IIC.”

    Lionel gasped. “But… we’re an Assault Star! In Alpha Galaxy!”

    “I know.” Ralik shook his head. “But apparently, we do not have priority for replacement OmniMechs. I was told that other Clusters suffered far heavier losses.”

    “But a Shadow Hawk…”

    “It does not carry an Active Probe, quineg?” Tian cut in. She was leaning against the lockers but looked tense.

    “Neg.” Ralik chuckled. “I was not planning to make you switch, Tian,” he said.

    Tian nodded, and he saw she relaxed a little.

    “No, Olef will switch ‘Mechs with Kenta,” Ralik went on.

    “What?” Olef took a few steps towards Ralik, glaring at him.

    “Kenta is a Blooded trueborn warrior. He needs an OmniMech. You do not need an OmniMech to ‘follow orders’, quineg?” Ralik sneered at the freebirth.

    For a moment, Ralike had the impression that Olef would attack him. The man’s hands were balled into fists, and he was trembling with rage. Then he drew a shivering breath and straightened. His lips moved, but he did not say anything. Instead, he turned and walked away, striking the locker with his fist as he passed it.

    “A trueborn warrior would have challenged you, no matter the Khan’s orders,” Lionel remarked with a faint smile.

    “Aff,” Ralik replied. “But he is no trueborn warrior, quineg?”

    “Neg.”

    Tian did not say anything.

    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Kufstein, December 31st, 3050

    “Death to the Clans! Death to the Clans!”

    “Revenge for Rasalhague! Revenge for Rasalhague!”

    “Death to the Clans! Death to the Clans!”

    Aris ducked his head as the shouting outside the camp grew louder. He did not want to look outside the tent to check if the crowd had grown again. He assumed so - it had been the case every time he had looked.

    “Do not worry,” Liam told him. “We belong to ComStar now.” The other technician smiled, but his hand was trembling a little, Aris noticed, as Liam reached out for the water bottle on the folding table.

    “We are prisoners,” Aris corrected him.

    “Bondsmen, then,” Liam replied. “Same thing.”

    “ComStar does not have bondsmen,” Aris retorted.

    “I have talked with a warrior about this,” Liam insisted. “Technicians who know their job are valued by the entire Inner Sphere. And we know more than anyone there. Here,” he corrected himself.

    “I am not sure if the crowd at the gate shares your opinion,” Aris said, forcing himself to snort. He had heard the same, of course. Rumours and propaganda - ComStar would certainly claim such things. But it made sense. Technicians were not warriors; they worked for whoever had them. Like machines. That was the way of life. But the crowd outside… He shivered.

    “We are not warriors; anyone can see that. Why would they blame us for what the warriors did?” Liam shook his head. “Do not worry.”

    But Aris did worry. And he knew the other technician was not as calm as he tried to appear. He grabbed the water bottle and found it empty. That meant a trip to the mess hall. Tent. Whatever.

    He did not want to go. He did not want to see the crowd again. But he was thirsty. The tent was hotter than it should be - faulty insulation. Missing air condition. In the night, it would be cold, as usual. Steeling himself, he got up. He did not ask if Liam wanted anything - Liam had drunk the rest of the water; he could go fetch his own food.

    Aris shivered after stepping outside. Despite the sun setting, the crowd had grown larger. And louder. A thousand people, perhaps two thousand? Aris was not good at estimating such things. He was an OmniMech technician. Not a cargo pilot.

    “Death to the Clans! Death to the Clans!”

    “Revenge for Rasalhague! Revenge for Rasalhague!”

    “Death to the Clans! Death to the Clans!”

    He turned his head away from the sight of hundreds of people standing in front of the electrified fence surrounding the camp and quickly made his way to the mess tent, where he grabbed two more bottles and two rations.

    He was halfway to his and Liam’s tent when he heard the distinct sound of a short circuit. He looked around - the lights on the tower had gone out. That meant…

    Aris was not the only one who made the connection. One of the crowd reached out and touched the fence. Nothing happened. More followed. Grabbing. Tugging. Pulling. Pushing.

    He stared as the Com Guards on duty moved, fumbling with stocky rifles - grenade launchers. Would they massacre the crowd? But the fence broke before the guards fired.

    And the mob surged into the camp. Screaming. Yelling. Wielding clubs and knives and axes.

    They came straight for him.

    “Death to the Clans! Revenge for Rasalhague!”

    *****​

    ‘Clan Jade Falcon attempted to duplicate Clan Wolf’s attack on the staging areas and supply lines of the Com Guard Forces. However, after suffering from similar attacks by the DCMS in the Fifth Succession War, the AFFC was, unlike the at the time still inexperienced Com Guards, prepared for such raids. Despite this, though, the Jade Falcon forces managed to do significant damage to the AFFC’s supply lines for Operation Hammerstrike - though at the cost of significant casualties as well. All in all, it is hard to say whether the loss of the supplies slowed the AFFC’s offensive down more than the loss of frontline Clan units sped it up.’
    - Excerpt from ‘And the Hammer came down - Operation Hammerstrike in Context’ by Karl Martens, Tamar, 3077


    *****​

    ‘Of course we wanted to kill the bastards! Have you forgotten what they did to Rasalhague? My Uncle died when they bombed the cities! I don’t bloody care whether they were warriors, techs or farmers! They were Clanners, all of them! They deserved to die!”
    - Sarah Ingerson, Electrician, Kufstein


    *****​
     
    Amrynel, ward201 and Prince Charon like this.
  7. Threadmarks: Chapter 4: Second Wind
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 4: Second Wind

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Rasalhague, January 16th, 3051

    Ralik blinked, then frowned when he heard the sound of fighting after entering the hangar serving as his Star’s barrack and ‘Mech bay. He looked around, noticing how the technicians were all focusing on their work so much, none of them was looking at him or at his Star’s corner of the hangar. First the new from the Star Colonel, and now this! He really did not need more problems!

    Clenching his teeth and snarling, he marched over. Rounding the row of lockers which blocked his line of sight, he shook his head. As he had expected - Kenta and Olef were fighting each other. They broke off when they noticed him, Olef landing a last blow to Kenta’s stomach before drawing back. Both were sporting small cuts and growing bruises.

    “Training, quiaff?” Ralik spat, glaring at them, then at the others present.

    Tian, who was leaning against the lockers, straightened in response but did not say anything. Lionel, standing near the cooking unit they had acquired, inclined his head as if he tried to distance himself from the whole affair.

    “Aff, Star Commander,” Kenta answered, his pronunciation slightly impeded by his swollen lip. “MechWarrior Olef wanted to keep up his hand to hand skills.”

    Ralik looked at the freebirth, sneering. Kenta was another warrior who had had an accelerated Blooding. He was a good MechWarrior, but his skills in hand to hand fighting had suffered as a result. And Olef knew that.

    But the freebirth glared at him and curtly nodded. “Aff.”

    Ralik scoffed. “I assigned you your ‘Mechs,” he said. “And nothing you do will change my decision.” As if he would let the freebirth manipulate him like this!

    Olef scoffed and walked off. Kenta cleared his throat, but Ralik shut him up with another glare. There would be no more of this.

    Shaking his head, Ralik sighed and grabbed a can from the fridge. The freebirth didn’t fit into the Star. As Ralik had known. And Epsilon Galaxy’s dismal performance in the war so far had proved. He took a swallow from the can, then put it down. “I have information about the war,” he said after several seconds of silence.

    Tian cocked her head, and Lionel leaned forward. Kenta stopped trying to conceal his attempts to cool his swollen lips with a can.

    “The ilKhan has activated the reserve Clans,” Ralik said. “All of them. The Steel Vipers, Nova Cats and Diamond Sharks will be joining Operation Revival.”

    “What?” Lionel stood. “How could he do this? That’s an insult to us! To all Clans in the operation - including his own!”

    “We have been put on the defensive,” Ralik said. “Across the entire front.” A warrior had to be honest, with himself as well.

    “Temporarily,” Lionel retorted. “They will try to steal our glory.” He shook his head. “How will they be deployed, anyway?”

    Ralik took a deep breath. “They will be sharing our invasion corridors. The Steel Vipers will be deployed between us and the Jade Falcons. The Nova Cats will take our other flank, squeezed between the Ghost Bears and us.”

    Lionel gasped. “We will have to surrender worlds to them? Worlds we have won? Worlds for which we have bled?”

    “We cannot hold all of them,” Tian cut in. She raised her chin slightly when Ralik and Lionel looked at her. “It is the truth. We are already abandoning worlds to the freebirths.”

    “Temporarily,” Lionel repeated himself. “We are consolidating out forces to renew our attack.”

    Tian did not say anything but her expression told Ralik that she did not share Lionel’s opinion. He pressed his lips together - as much as he hated to admit it, even to himself, he did not share Lionel’s optimism either.

    Lionel must have noticed since he muttered a curse under his breath. “I assume the Diamond Sharks will take a corridor between the Bears and Jaguars, quiaff?” he said.

    Ralik shook his head. “Neg. They will have the corridor at the flank of the invasion front.”

    Lionel scoffed. “Where they will have to bear the brunt of the freebirths’ attacks while the ilKhan’s Clan can focus on the path to Terra, quiaff?”

    “Aff,” Ralik said.

    “Terra is the only goal that matters in the end,” Tian said. Whoever took Terra would become the ilClan.

    “And we will reach it first,” Lionel said. “The other Clans lack our experience against the freebirths. They will suffer for their ignorance.”

    Ralik nodded.

    Kenta cleared his throat. Ralik had almost forgotten that the warrior was present. He looked at the newest member of his Star, tilting his head.

    The other warrior stood straighter. “The other Clans, they sneer at us in the homeworlds. They say that we are weak - or that we are not fighting to win since we opposed the invasion.”

    Lionel scoffed again. “Those fools. They have no idea.”

    Ralik chuckled. “They will learn.”

    As had his own Clan.

    *****​

    Federated Commonwealth, Outreach, January 17th, 3051

    When she saw Leftenant Archie ‘Ack-Ack’ Humboldt enter the ‘Head Hit’, Ellen ‘Ripper’ Kern knew he brought good news - he was smiling from ear to ear, and not even the sight of the four Dragoons occupying a table in the corner made him frown.

    “Folks! We’ve got a contract!” Archie blurted out as soon as he reached their table. “Finish your drinks and get up - we need to pack!”

    “Where are we going, Leftenant?” Harald ‘Bowtie’ Mackenzie asked. “I thought the only contracts available were from Rasalhague. We’re not going to work for them again, are we?”

    Ellen frowned. Lyndon’s Regiment had worked for the Republic before, protecting the border against pirates, and Ellen had thoroughly despised the experience.

    “Well, not exactly,” Archie said. His grin shrank a little, Ellen noticed.

    She also noticed that the traitors at the corner table were paying close attention to them. “Leftenant,” she said. Nodding towards the Dragoons.

    Archie made a dismissive gesture with his right hand. “Forget them! Their spies probably already know, and it’s not as if it’s a secret. We’ve been hired by ComStar!”

    Harald groaned. “That means Rasalhague. I’ve still got a scar from our last tour there.”

    “Come on!” Archie said, frowning. “It’s a good contract - garrison behind the frontlines. And we’ll get advanced equipment!”

    Ellen perked up. “Really?”

    “Yes. I saw the contract the Colonel signed myself. That’s going to be our big break, folks!” Archie was beaming again.

    “Great!” Harald nodded several times - his Rifleman certainly could do with freezers. As could Ellen’s Phoenix Hawk, of course. “But if we’re leaving tomorrow, we have ample time to celebrate, Leftenant. We’ve been ready to deploy for weeks. No need to pack.”

    Ever since the last contract had fallen through, Ellen knew.

    “Ah.” Archie shook his head. “We’re not gonna merely deploy. We’re leaving the planet for good.”

    One of the Dragoons twitched at that, Ellen noted.

    “We’re moving HQ to Galatea?” Harald asked.

    “Probably,” Archie said. A little louder, he added: “Who would want to stay on a planet full of traitors and spies, huh?”

    Two of the Dragoons stood. “Watch your mouth!” one of them bellowed.

    Archie sneered at them. “I’m going to fight the Clans; I’m not going to bother fighting the likes of you!”

    Ellen nodded. Bloody Dragoons, always acting so high and mighty while they were but traitors and spies. It was their fault that the Inner Sphere had been unprepared for the Clans. Many mercenary units had been wiped out in the first waves of the invasion because the Dragoons hadn’t bothered to warn anyone. Friends of hers had died because of them!

    “Yeah, go pick on Clans if you wanna fight. Or is that too dangerous fer ya? Don’t have the stomach for it?” Harald added with a sneer of his own.

    “We would be fighting if you’d let us!” one of the Dragoons still sitting snapped.

    Archie shook his head and turned to the Harald and Ellen. “Let’s go, folks.”

    Ellen half-expected the Dragoons to attack them, but apart from glares and muttered curses, nothing happened as they left. Once outside, she sighed. “I’m glad to leave the planet.”

    “Oh, yes!” Archie nodded. “I’d rather not be here either when things finally come to blows.” He looked up.

    They couldn’t see them from the ground, of course, but Ellen knew what he meant. The warships the Dragoons had brought in to Outreach since their offers to join the fight against the Clans had been refused.

    “Yeah,” Harald said. “Once the Clans have been dealt with, things will get ugly here.”

    Ellen agreed. She didn’t want to be on Outreach if the FedCom ordered the Dragoons to leave. She was certain they would - as she was certain that the Dragoons would refuse.

    *****​

    ‘The mercenary units involved in Operation Hammerstrike fared remarkably better against the Clans than those who had fought the invaders before them. That was to be expected, of course - unlike most of the mercenaries who had been on garrison and pirate hunting duties on the Federated Commonwealth’s border to the Periphery, the mercenaries used in Operation Hammerstrike were elite units with advanced technology, most notably the Kell Hounds, the Eridani Light Horse and the Gray Death Legion. All of them served either alongside the AFFC’s regimental combat teams during planetary invasions or, taking advantage of their higher mobility thanks to the smaller size of their conventional support units, as raiders behind the enemy lines, distinguishing themselves in either role, but also suffering significant casualties.’
    - Excerpt from ‘Mercenaries during the Clan Invasion’ by Gabriel Mannhart, New Avalon, 3072


    *****​

    ‘They claim they come to restore the Star League. But we have upheld the banner of the Star League and its traditions, and we know that the Clans have nothing in common with the Star League. They are a stain upon the memory of the finest force ever deployed in the Inner Sphere, and as the last remains of the SLDF, it falls upon us to defend its honour. To the last.’
    - Warrant Officer Jeremy ‘Kickstarter’ Callahan, 71st Light Horse Regiment, Eridani Light Horse


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Rasalhague, January 30th, 3051

    They were abandoning Rasalhague. According to Khan Radick, the Clan was merely reorganising their holdings in response to the arrival of the Steel Vipers and the Nova Cats. The ilKhan had ordered them to cede worlds to either Clan, after all, and Rasalhague lay on the border to the invasion corridor of the Ghost Bears, smack in the middle of the Nova Cats’ new occupation zone. It was an obvious choice to cede to the Cats.

    Ralik snorted as he piloted his Timber Wolf up the ramp of the Union-class dropship. If Sepha were still alive, she would make a comment about how they were relocating just after Dawn had fallen to the Com Guards, making Rasalhague the next obvious target, and how that was merely an amazing coincidence. Quiaff?

    But Sepha was dead, and Ralik was leading the Star now. He was not her. And while he resented giving up a planet that had cost the Clan so much, he understood the reasons - all of them - and would not undermine the Khan’s orders by commenting on them.

    He carefully moved the OmniMech into the bay waiting for it, then shut it down and climbed out of the cockpit to check on the rest of the Star. Tian’s Hellbringer A was already secured for transport, as expected. As was Lionel’s Mad Dog. Kenta, on the other hand, was still sitting in his Nova A, talking to some technician. He must have noticed something amiss. And Olef… The freebirth had parked his Shadow Hawk IIC, but Ralik could not spot him.

    “He went to our quarters,” Tian answered Ralik’s question before he could ask.

    He nodded. It did not matter. As long as the freebirth obeyed his orders, Ralik did not care where he spent his time when off-duty.

    “I wonder if the Nova Cats will have to take the planet when they arrive,” Lionel said.

    That was a surprising comment from the warrior. Ralik cocked his head towards the staunch crusader. “Do you expect the freebirths to invade before the Nova Cats reach the frontline?” It was not impossible. If the situation were reversed, the Clan could have done it. Had done it, in the first waves, actually.

    “Neg,” Lionel replied, chuckling, “I expect the freebirths to lose it to the insurgents.”

    Ralik laughed at the joke, dark as it was. The Garrison Cluster assigned to the planet had been mauled on Dawn and was at less than half-strength. Of course, the Cluster was still far too strong for the insurgents to have even a shadow of a chance of beating them.

    “The Com Guards will know about our movements,” Tian said.

    “They probably already know,” Ralik agreed. The native population was riddled with spies and insurgents, and since the garrison and the useless Watch had not managed to find all the ‘Black Boxes’ on the planet, the spies could inform the Com Guards easily.

    “Losing the planet before handing it over will be an embarrassment,” Tian pointed out.

    “Bah. We’re only moving because the Cats are coming,” Lionel said. “And they will be embarrassed themselves soon enough.”

    “Yes,” Ralik agreed again. The Cats had no idea how the Inner Sphere fought. Not really. None of the reserve Clans did.

    “And once they have bled the Com Guards, we will swoop in and crush the remains,” Lionel said. “The over-eager fools will absorb the brunt of the enemy’s attacks.”

    Especially if the Cats held Rasalhague. The enemy would focus on the capital of the republic - as would the other Clan.

    It was quite a clever move by Khan Radick. Worth the loss of face the Clan was risking by leaving only a token garrison force.

    In the end, only Terra mattered anyway. That was another lesson the other Clans had not yet learned.

    *****​

    Draconis Combine (Clan Smoke Jaguar Occupation Zone), Tarnby, February 10th, 3051

    “You are the officer in command of the Garrison?”

    “Aff.” Kerran ignored the surprised expression on Star Colonel Faulk’s face and kept his own stoic expression. The Diamond Sharks were supposed to be more open to the lower castes than his own Clan, but apparently, they could not fathom that the Smoke Jaguars had freeborn officers in their ranks as well. Even on planets that were, technically, on the frontline. Of course, Kerran had no illusions - he knew very well that owed his current rank and command to the grievous losses the Clan had taken against the DCMS. But he had earned this as well.

    Faulk shook his head with a faint smile. “Let us get on with it, then.” He straightened, and the warriors lined up behind him stood at attention.

    Kerran snapped to attention himself, as did his Star behind him. Saluting, he stated: “Clan Smoke Jaguar cedes this planet to Clan Diamond Shark under orders from the ilKhan.”

    Faulk returned the salute, and both held their poses as the standard of the Smoke Jaguars next to them was lowered and replaced with the standard of the Diamond Sharks.

    Once the Diamond Shark banner was flying above them and the Smoke Jaguar standard had been recovered by the flag bearer, Kerran lowered his hand. “The planet is yours, Star Colonel.”

    “The planet is ours,” Faulk replied. He motioned to the Overlord-class dropship behind him. “Will you join me for a drink? We have brought a wide selection from the homeworlds with us.”

    It was Kerran’s turn to be surprised. The Diamond Sharks were known for their egalitarian culture and merchant leanings, trading with every Clan, but that had been changing over the last few years, or so he had heard. Of course, this could be merely an attempt to gain information - but Kerran appreciated the gesture. He nodded. “I would be honoured.”

    “So, how dangerous is the frontier here?” Faulks asked as they started walking towards the dropship. “You were not attacked so far, quineg?”

    “Neg. The Combine forces struck at the worlds closer to Terra,” Kerran answered. “They do not seem to consider the worlds this close to the Periphery worth the effort. We do see the occasional raid, though smuggling is the bigger concern.”

    Faulk frowned. “Smuggling?”

    “Explosives, inferno missiles, mortars and small arms.” Kerran shrugged. “The Combine raids mostly serve as a cover for resupplying the insurgents.”

    “I see.” Faulk’s frown deepened as they reached the dropship’s ramp. “Our naval assets will put a stop to that.”

    Kerran did not point out that there had been more Aerospace fighters and dropships patrolling the Tarnby system at the start of The Return until they had been drawn away to reinforce the frontline units pushing towards Terra. Together with the OmniMechs stationed on the planet.

    “What is that?” Faulk suddenly asked right before they entered the dropship.

    Kerran turned. Nothing out of the usual… “The smoke?” There was a cloud of smoke rising from the city next to the Starport.

    “Yes,” Faulk replied.

    “Probably a bomb. Or arson.” Kerran rubbed his chin. “Looks like they could not get close enough to disturb the ceremony.” He noticed the expression on Faulk’s face and added: “They rarely manage to hit the base and starport.”

    Somehow, that did not seem to please the other warrior. Well, he would learn.

    *****​

    ‘The Steel Vipers, Nova Cats and Diamond Sharks joining the invasion approximately doubled the number of clan forces fighting in the Inner Sphere. However, while they brought fresh material, they lacked experience fighting the Inner Sphere. And unlike the first four Clans, they were not facing second-rate mercenary and garrison units, but the frontline forces of the AFFC and DCMS as well as the Com Guards, who had already faced Clan troops before and, as a consequence, inflicted proportionally larger casualties on the new Clans. Nevertheless, their arrival, especially the higher numbers of warships and Aerospace fighters they brought with them, stalled the Inner Sphere’s operations for a time as plans had to be adjusted to take the additional enemy forces into account.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis’ by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064


    *****​

    ‘Just when we had them on the run, more of the bastards arrived. Some people claim they were inexperienced - well, compared to the Clans we were fighting, they might have been. But they were still on the level of our best MechWarriors, on an individual and tactical level, at least. Strategically… well, they hadn’t learned anything. But we were ready to teach them the same lessons we had been teaching the first wave.’
    - Corporal Markus ‘Kaulquappe’ Müller, AFFC


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Unzmarkt, February 28th, 3051

    “Alpha Assault Star, fix them in place! Bravo Assault Star, hit them in the flank! Charlie Assault Star, reserve!”

    “Aff, Star Captain!” Ralik replied. He flipped his comm to his Star’s command frequency. “You heard our orders. We will hold the line.”

    “Aff,” Tian replied at once.

    “Aff.” “Aff, Star Commander!” Lionel and Kenta reported.

    Ralik waited.

    “Aff,” Olef said a moment before Ralik would have called him. The freebirth would need a talk after this - the middle of the battle was not the place to behave like this.

    Especially a crucial battle like this one - the Heart Stompers had to destroy the Com Guard Forces in front of them to secure the landing zone for the Cluster’s dropships. Embarking under fire would result in casualties. And the Cluster could not afford that. Not after the garrison force on Unzmarkt had turned out to be the Com Guard division that had taken the planet instead of some mercenaries.

    Sepha would have commented on the intelligence failure. And on the fact that the Star Captain’s Charlie Assault Star was acting as their reserve because it had been mauled in the last engagement against the company facing them. But Ralik was not Sepha. “Spread out and seek cover!” he ordered. They would be outnumbered until Bravo Assault joined them. Fortunately, the enemy had not deployed artillery. Yet.

    He moved his Timber Wolf into the ruins of a farm nearby - after checking for explosive storage units, of course. He chuckled, remembering that report as the rest of the Star sought similar positions.

    Then Tian reported enemy units advancing towards them, and he clenched his teeth as symbols appeared on his display. FLS-8K. MAD-2R. ST-8A. Two CRB-27s. No, CRB-27bs. All of them showed battle damage - Charlie Assault Star had clashed with them before - but Ralik’s Star had not come unscathed through the raid so far, either. Still, they had weight on them. And they were better warriors, of course.

    “I do not detect further units,” Tian reported.

    Her Active Probe was best to detect hidden ambushes, but Tian was an excellent scout - if the rest of the enemy company were advancing as well, she should have spotted them. And the Com Guards had lost a ‘Mech or two against Charlie Trinary, not more than half their strength. So where were they?

    “Bravo Assault Star. We are engaged with the enemy. Estimated strength: Two lances.”

    Ralik clenched his teeth. So, the enemy was trying to flank them and had met their own flankers. Which meant their own task was no longer fixing the enemy in place, but destroying them.

    “Alpha Assault Star, focus fire on the ST-8A!” he ordered. That BattleMech had to be destroyed before it could reach close range.

    Unlike during his first battle, right after the drop, Kenta did not protest. Good, the warrior was learning.

    Half a minute late, the enemy was in range of the Star. Ralik started firing his lasers and LRMs, followed by the rest of the Star. The ST-8A vanished in a cloud of dust and smoke when a hundred LRMs descended on it, and when it reappeared, it was stumbling, its already damaged armour breached in multiple places by the lasers and PPCs.

    But the CRB-27bs and the FLS-8K were racing ahead of the enemy line now, their lasers flashing - and they were focusing on Kenta, who had exposed his Nova A in an attempt to get a better angle on the ST-8A, Ralik realised.

    “Kenta, fall back!” he ordered as two PPCs hit his own OmniMech. “Olef, support him!”

    “A-aff!” Kenta replied, putting his OmniMech in reverse. Olef once again didn’t confirm his orders immediately. But his Shadow Hawk IIC was moving towards the enemy.

    Lionel finished the ST-8A with his next volley while Tian was switching fire to the leading CRB-27b. Good decision. “Focus fire on the CRB-27bs!” he ordered, firing himself despite the MAD-2R shooting at him. The medium ‘Mechs would not last as long as the two heavy ‘Mechs left.

    Then he cursed - Kenta was advancing again. “Fall back!” Ralik yelled into his comm.

    “But your orders…” Kenta started to say, then cursed when his OmniMech staggered under the fire from the four remaining enemy BattleMechs, tripping over the rubble left of a barn and crashing into the wrecked remains of a tractor.

    And the enemy BattleMechs rushed towards the fallen Nova A, lasers flashing as they savaged Kenta’s rear armour while he tried to get up again.

    Ralik cursed. Where was Olef? Close-range fighting was the Shadow Hawk IIC’s strength! But Olef was on the enemy’s flank, focusing on the CRB-27B. Following orders, no doubt, Ralik though as he clenched his teeth and fired everything he had at the FLS-8K.

    It was not enough. One CRB-27b fell under the combined weight of fire from Tian and Olef, but Kenta’s Nova A lost a leg to the FLS-8K’s fire, which sent it to the ground again - and the heavy Mech’s foot came down on the OmniMech’s cockpit.

    The enemy turned towards Olef, but the freebirth was already falling back into the cover of a small forest. And the second CRB-27b was reeling from Tian’s and Lionel’s fire. Ralik added his own, once more firing every weapon despite the spiking heat in his cockpit. They had to finish this now.

    His lasers burned through the reactor shielding of the medium ‘Mech. “Focus on the FLS-8K!” he ordered as the CRB-27b’s pilot ejected.

    The two Com Guards left tried to focus on Tian, but she outmanoeuvred them and slid behind the farm ruins, although her Hellbringer lost an arm to the laser and PPC volleys. In return, the FSL-8K bore the brunt of Lionel and Ralik’s fire and started to fall back.

    Ralik grinned. The enemy would not make it - it was already limping. He fired his medium lasers followed by his LRMs, lessening the strain on his Timber Wolf’s heat sinks. Even so, he melted most of the enemy’s right arm. And Tian was circling around to cut them off with Olef.

    “Alpha and Bravo Assault Star, break off and proceed to the landing zone at once!” Star Captain Vickers announced. “Another company is attacking our rear. Charlie Assault Star will hold them.”

    Ralik gasped. Charlie Assault Star was down to three damaged OmniMechs including Vickers’s own. They would not last long against a company, even a damaged one.

    But if they did not move, the entire Trinary would be caught and destroyed. Even so, they would have to board the dropships under fire - exactly what they had tried to avoid by this whole battle. “Aff,” he confirmed the order. “Alpha Assault Star, break off and follow me to the landing zone.”

    This time, Olef confirmed the order at once.

    *****​

    Federated Commonwealth (Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone), Leskovic, March 1st, 3051

    Leftenant Jackie O’Connor, 3rd FedCom RCT, smiled as she pressed the rangefinder button on the periscope on her Wiesel. “Distance: Two thousand five hundred and forty-five metres. Bearing 00-52.”

    “Two thousand five hundred and forty-five. 00-52!” Corporal Brown repeated as he entered the data into the computer. Newer models of the armoured recon cars had the periscope linked with the computer, but in war, you made do with what you had. “Transmitted.”

    “Good. First correction…” She looked at the five Clan ‘Mechs moving through the valley below, then at their surroundings. They would be right in the target zone when the first volley arrived in two minutes. And then they would… She licked her lips as she quickly scanned the area near the target zone. There! The forest on the slopes of the valley. Without a target or enemy in view, they would be trying to break line of sight and fade into the forest. And given the speed of the ‘Mechs… She centred the crosshairs on the upper part of the forest and pressed the rangefinder button again, reporting the next results to Brown.

    A minute later, the artillery fire came in, exactly where she had ordered. And most of the enemy lance - or ‘Star’ - was smack in the middle of the zone. She saw one of them lose an arm to a direct hit and another get thrown to the ground from the force of a double impact next to it.

    But they weren’t running for the cover of the trees - they were charging down the valley. Directly at her. She pressed her lips together, angry at having misread them. On the other hand, those ‘Steel Vipers’ were new. Not green, of course - they were an elite force. But they lacked the experience the Falcons had. The Falcons would never charge straight down the valley like this. They would know better.

    She calculated the rate of advance, then nodded. “Baker!” she addressed her driver. “We’ve got ‘Mechs incoming. Get us out! Brown! Order a double volley on our position!”

    She kept her periscope turned on her former position and counted down as the Wiesel raced away at max speed. When an enemy light ‘Mech - the one already missing the arm - appeared on the ridge right before she reached zero, she grinned again.

    *****​

    ‘Clan society was set up to produce the finest warriors and pilots for their toumans. Genetically enhanced and trained from birth to become a warrior, then honed in countless battles against each other, the average Clan warrior outclassed their Inner Sphere counterpart to a considerable degree. However, as the invasion progressed, it quickly became apparent that the Clan system could not cope with the sheer number of casualties they were suffering. They could not produce warriors quickly enough to replace their losses, and the measures taken to remedy this - recruiting among the lower castes, especially among those who had failed warrior training, and accelerating the graduation of the existing ‘sibkos’ - resulted in less trained and prepared warriors as training resources and instructors had to be spread out over a greater number of trainees.
    Since the lesser skilled warriors tended to be killed more quickly on the battlefield, the Clan forces became a mix of a shrinking number of very experienced warriors and an increasing number of inexperienced warriors who didn’t measure up to the veteran Inner Sphere forces they were facing. The three new Clans were no exception. Facing not second-line units but veteran and elite formations and only having fought each other before, their casualties mounted even more quickly than the original invaders’ - with lasting consequences for their entire society.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Clans: A Society of Warriors for Warriors’ by Anna-Lee Jones, Terra, 3093


    *****​

    ‘Yeah, the Clan reinforcements weren’t as dangerous as their veterans. They were good, but every one of them badly wanted kills. And despite what the holodramas try to tell you, that won’t work out in a dogfight. If you don’t have a wingman watching your back instead of trying to get their own kills, you won’t last long in a furball against pilots working together. Of course, the bastards were quick learners - but even their veteran pilots were easier to bait into dropping formation for a seemingly easy kill than they should have been. The real trouble were their dropships and, of course, the warships. ‘Swarm them with fighters’ is rather hard on the fighters doing the swarming, you know.’
    - Wing Commander Ashley ‘Trouble’ Delacroix, AFFC


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), The Edge, March 18th, 3051

    Ralik’s performance as Star Commander had not been the best he had hoped for. He had lost a warrior and an OmniMech. Neither was easily replaceable, not these days. That he had done well compared to the rest of the Heart Stompers was no consolation - quite the contrary. Bravo Assault had lost two warriors and their BattleMechs. And Charlie Assault had been wiped out, Star Captain Vickers and his Star sacrificing themselves to allow the rest of the Trinary to escape to the dropships.

    Half the Trinary lost to the freebirths. And the rest of the 328th Assault Cluster hadn’t fared much better. There had been far too few OmniMechs leaving their transports after touching down on The Edge to rejoin the rest of the Clan’s frontline force. Binary Fighter and Binary Rogue had lost roughly half their numbers. Supernova Battle and the Command Nova had fared better, suffering fewer OmniMechs lost, but the Elementals had been hit hard. Forty per cent casualties, Ralik had heard. And Elementals were even harder to replace than MechWarriors - few freebirths had the size to serve in that role. At least Binary Artillery had come through the raid unscathed - and their fire had been vital in keeping the Com Guards from overrunning the landing zones before the dropships could lift off.

    Of course, the 328th had achieved their objective. The Com Guards on Unzmarkt had been decimated. Official reports placed their losses at about a regiment’s worth of BattleMechs, and more in material destroyed in depots.

    Ralik snorted as he leaned back in his seat - apparently taken from some freebirth bank, not that he cared - and closed his eyes. The reports might very well be correct, but the Com Guards remained in control of the planets. They would be able to repair a good portion of the ‘Mechs they had lost. They would recover the warriors and pilots who had ejected. And their green warriors would be easy to replace anyway. Far easier than the Clan’s own.

    Ralik did not expect a replacement warrior or OmniMech for his Star. Not with the rest of the Trinary, and the Cluster, needing replacements more urgently. His Star still had four warriors including himself - and three of them were trueborn, veterans of the invasion. But a Timber Wolf, Mad Dog, Hellbringer and Shadow Hawk IIC were a far cry from the Star’s roster at the start of the operation. They no longer had any assault OmniMechs even if they were, nominally, an Assault Star.

    “Star Commander.”

    He opened his eyes. Tian and Lionel were standing behind him, next to the row of lockers - a different design than on Rasalhague - that formed a corner for his ‘office’.

    “Have you heard anything about our next target?” Lionel asked.

    “Neg,” Ralik replied, turning his chair round to face them. He had no friend in the watch, nor was he a rumour-monger. “I am certain that Star Captain Shaw will inform me as soon as we have new orders, although I do not expect a new assignment until the Cluster has rebuilt its strength.” At least somewhat. And Shaw would need some time to get used to her new position, as would Bravo Assault as a whole. Ralik certainly had needed some time to adjust after his promotion.

    Tian nodded. Lionel, though, frowned. “Have you heard anything about that?”

    “Neg.” Ralik shook his head.

    Neither Tian nor Lionel commented on that, but Ralik saw Lionel frown. He looked around but did not see Olef lurking nearby. The freebirth was probably glad Kenta had been killed. He sighed. “But as you know, we do not have priority for replacements. We are better off than most other Stars in the Cluster.” Even with the freebirth.

    Tian nodded.

    Lionel sighed. “I know we need to rebuild, but we cannot surrender the initiative to the enemy, quineg?”

    “I am not the Khan,” Ralik said. “I am a mere Star Commander. But we cannot keep fighting the enemy when we’re outnumbered that much, quineg?”

    “Neg,” Lionel said. “We have to concentrate our forces, as the Khan said. We have to overwhelm the enemy with our full might, not battle them piecemeal, quiaff?

    “Aff,” Ralik nodded.

    “But we cannot allow them to concentrate their forces against ours either,” Tian pointed, out.

    Which left them in a quandary. Most of the expendable units, freebirths and solahma, were already serving as garrison clusters. Or dead. “At least the other Clans have now occupied their corridors,” Ralik said after a moment. “That should keep the enemy distracted while we rebuild.”

    If the other Clans wanted to behave like scavengers, taking over half the worlds his own Clan had fought and bled for, then it was only fitting that they now serve as a distraction for the enemy, bleeding and dying in Clan Wolf’s place.

    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Nova Cat Occupation Zone), Rasalhague System, March 20th, 3051

    “Aerospace fighters have engaged the enemy.”

    Demi-Precentor Kelly Mason, commanding officer of the CSS Truth in Fiction, ignored the reports from Adept Sanders at the sensor station. She could see that herself on the display in front of her. And she didn’t care. They had their tasks, she had hers. And hers was to get her Union Escort-class dropship in a position where her heavy missile launchers could be brought to bear against the enemy Aerospace fighters.

    The data from the BattleNetwork was increasing in details with each second the linked warships and dropships closed with the enemy battle line. She pressed her lips together. Three Aegis-class heavy cruisers, two corvettes, and a frigate - a formidable fleet. Clan Nova Cat’s reputation as a naval force obviously hadn’t been overstated.

    But they were facing the best the Order had to offer - ComStar’s First Expeditionary Fleet, led by the Invisible Truth.

    “Nuclear explosions detected,” Sanders reported. The man sounded slightly nervous, even though that had been expected - the Republic forces kept using nuclear weapons even though their effect was rather marginal. A quick check of the data confirmed Kelly’s opinion; the enemy had lost a Leopard CV-Class dropship to the nukes.

    She shook her head. If only the KungsArmé would listen and stop using WMDs! But they wouldn’t - the conflict between the Republic and Clan Wolf, and, by extension, all Clans, had long since turned into a war to the knife.

    She checked her display again. They were entering the range of the Clan Aerospace fighters soon. “Helm, begin evasive action!” she ordered. They would soon be entering the range of the enemy warships. And while it was unlikely for the warships to focus on a dropship, it happened. At least the BattleNetwork allowed them to achieve good firing solutions from maximum range without having to fly into the middle of the furball.

    The rapid course changes and changing accelerations shook and squashed her in her seat, but she was long used to that from countless exercises.

    They were in range of the Aerospace fighters now, and the Truth in Fiction’s missile launchers spat Killer Whales and White Sharks at any Clan fighter in range. Enemy symbols started to vanish from her display as the missiles hit. Barracudas followed, but these would be less effective.

    She clenched her teeth, “Helm, take us closer!” she ordered.

    “Aye aye, ma’am!” Adept Brandis replied.

    Their task was to destroy the enemy Aerospace fighters, and even with her heavy missiles spent, the Truth in Fiction had cannons and LRM launchers. Weapons that were brought to bear as they entered the furball.

    One Clan fighter vanished from her display, struck by a barrage of LRMs, PPC bolts and a gauss rifle. Another veered off, damaged. In return, Kelly’s ship hadn’t suffered more than light armour damage.

    She studied the display again. The BattleNetwork had marked the enemy Congress-class frigate as the flagship of the Clan fleet. Accordingly, the Invisible Truth was focusing on it, and several squadrons of Aerospace fighters were swarming the enemy as well.

    Kelly noticed that the Poisoned Fruit, another Union Escort-class dropship, was following them. Good. They could protect each other.

    A Clan Leopard CV-class dropship tried to intercept them but was shredded by the coordinated fire from both Unions before it could bring its own weapons to bear.

    Yet the effort had provided the enemy fighters with an opportunity, and the Clan pilots didn’t miss it. Kelly’s ship shook as missiles and shells hit it and armour was blown away or melted. “Helm, get us out of here!”

    “Aye aye, ma’am!”

    The straps holding her in the seat dug into her chest as the Truth in Fiction started to sverve even more. Then naval-class autocannon shells narrowly missed them, and she hissed despite herself. That had been close.

    Another salvo missed them - no! Kelly clenched her teeth as the Poisoned Fruit exploded behind them. If they focused on her next...

    But the enemy frigate was under heavy fire herself. As Kelly’s display showed, the main batteries of the Invisible Truth were shredding the frigate’s armour, Secondary explosions indicated multiple hull breaches.

    “Enemy Missile launched!” Sanders shouted.

    Kelly pressed her lips together. There was nothing she could do but trust in her ship’s electronic counter-measures and the anti-missile defences.

    Seconds passed. Nothing hit them. Kelly relaxed again.

    Behind them, another fighter trying to attack them exploded. And then the Clan frigate blew up.

    *****​

    ‘The Second Battle of Rasalhague was as bloody as the first. ComStar’s First Expeditionary Fleet lost two corvettes and one destroyer, with all other warships suffering various damage, but of the Nova Cat fleet, only one Aegis-class cruiser and one escort escaped, together with most of the Galaxy that had been deployed on the planet itself. To the surprise of the attackers, the remaining Nova Cat Clan ground forces, an entire Cluster, surrendered after losing their transportation and Aerospace cover. As a result of the brief time the planet had been occupied by Clan Nova Cat and the relative lack of clashes with the insurgents on the planet, captured Clan members were treated according to the articles of war even when not guarded by ComStar forces, although a few small incidents still took place. Most of the population, though, celebrated the fact that the planet had been liberated without suffering further fighting and orbital bombardments.”
    - Excerpt from ‘The Free Rasalhague Republic: A Brief History’ by Dr Jane Farmer, Tharkad, 3099


    *****​

    “Our visions were not as clear as we had hoped. Or the visions of Biccon Winters were clearer than we had hoped. But most certainly, we did not observe the invasion as clearly as we assumed, and our preparations were lacking as a result. Fighting after the outcome of the battle was clear and no escape possible would have been foolish.”
    - MechWarrior Sebastian Leroux, Clan Nova Cat


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), The Edge, March 25th, 3051

    Ralik grabbed the bottle of liquor and refilled his glass. The Edge did not have decent beer - and the imported stock had run dry not long after the Clan had taken the planet - but the locals produced good hard liquor. And after today’s news, he needed that. And so did his Star. Well, not Olef, who was off somewhere else again.

    “Those bloody, cowardly Nova Surats!” Lionel shook his head and emptied his own glass. “They are a disgrace for all of us! To surrender the capital of Rasalhague without a fight? Did they send their merchants instead of their warriors?”

    “No, those would be the Diamond Sharks,” Ralik said, chuckling.

    “They lost most of their fleet in the battle and only those who could not be evacuated surrendered,” Tian pointed out. She was still nursing her first glass.

    Lionel scoffed. “Our freebirth garrison clusters would have put up more of a fight! We should never have surrendered the planet if they abandon it anyway!”

    “To waste lives when there is no chance to achieve anything is not the Clan way, quiaff?” Tian retorted.

    “Neg! They would have killed some Com Guards, and a few more of the Rasalhague bastards!” Lionel spat.

    Ralik had to agree with this, which he did with a nod. “Instead, the Com Guards have now an entire Cluster as bondsmen. And their OmniMechs.”

    “The enemy gets our BattleMechs, and we are still missing replacements!” Lionel refilled his glass.

    “The Com Guards will not be fielding the captured OmniMechs,” Tian said. “They will most likely send them to Terra to be analysed.”

    “So the Cats even are the first Clan whose OmniMechs walk on Terra’s soil!” Lionel laughed.

    “I believe they have captured BattleMechs from our Clan before this.” Tian, as usual, could not leave a joke be.

    “Not undamaged ones, though!” Lionel said. “If they continue like this, we’ll be flanked by Com Guards in a month!” he looked at Ralik. “Any word on replacement OmniMechs?”

    Ralik shook his head. “Nothing. Most of what we received last week went to Beta Galaxy.” Which meant their Trinary was still a Star short. Sometimes he wondered whether they would be renamed ‘Binary Assault’ instead of being rebuilt.

    “Bah! It’s all material from the Clusters left on the homeworlds anyway,” Lionel commented. “At least we can get some use out of it here. Or we could if it were not going to Ward’s favourite Beta Galaxy.”

    “They need it for their operation,” Tian said, taking a small sip from her glass.

    “Operation ‘Deep Penetration Raid’!” Lionel leered in an exaggerated manner. “Personally led by saKhan Ward!” He chuckled. “Do you know what the freebirths call him? Vlad the Impaler!” He laughed loudly and slapped his thighs.

    Ralik shook his head and exchanged a glance with Tian, who looked decidedly unamused as well. She turned to face him, seemingly ignoring Lionel, who was still laughing at his own joke. “He is not correct. We already received what our Clusters back home could spare. Most of the latest shipment was traded for with other clans.”

    Ralik nodded. “And they even transport them part of the way.” Which relieved the pressure on the Clan’s naval and aerospace assets.

    “But we need to pay for the supplies. Concessions, technology, favours…” Tian sighed. “We cannot keep this up.”

    “We only need to keep it up until we take Terra,” Ralik replied. Every sacrifice they had made - the warriors and ‘Mechs the Clan had lost, the loss of face the Clan had suffered needing help from others, the worlds they had abandoned - was worth it as long as they took Terra.

    Tian did not disagree. But she frowned.

    *****​

    Federated Commonwealth, Dompaire, March 30th, 3050

    Astech Michael Brown sighed when he heard the first drops splatter against the windshield of the Hamster BattleMech Recovery Vehicle. “Bloody Rain,” he muttered. That wasn’t supposed to start until tomorrow.

    Kenny Papandreou, the driver of the vehicle, chuckled. “Guess we didn’t beat the clouds. Well, there’s always next time.”

    Michael rolled his eyes. Kenny wasn’t as funny as he thought he was, especially once he had run through his repertoire of jokes and started repeating them. And Kenny wasn’t the one who had to go out in the rain once they reached their last ‘Mech for the day - it was already dark outside.

    The Hamster suddenly bucked, as if it had hit a speed bump. “What was that?” Michael asked, peering through the windows - it had started raining in earnest now, and visibility was down even more.

    “Beats me. Didn’t sound like a log. Metal, probably,” Kenny replied as he brought the Hamster to a stop. He looked at Michael.

    Michael sighed. He didn’t want to leave the dry, warm cabin of the vehicle, but they were ordered to recover as much salvage as they could from where the main force of the raid by the new Clan, the so-called Steel Vipers, had clashed with the 7th FedCom RCT. So he grabbed the SMG from the rack next to the door - everyone had heard the story about the Clan MechWarrior who hadn’t been as dead as she had looked and had woken up and started shooting when her ‘Mech had been recovered by the Techs from 3rd Company - put his rain hat on and opened the door.

    The rain wasn’t as bad as he had feared, but he still would have to clean the SMG in the evening or it’d rust. More time lost before he could sleep. Muttering a curse, and another when a gust of wind almost dislodged his rain hat and sent cold water down his collar, he made his way to the rear of the vehicle using his flashlight. He checked the wheels at the same time - they looked good.

    The Battle Armour on the ground behind the Hamster, though, didn’t look good. Looked like it had been hit with an inferno missile - Michael was very familiar with the sight and smell of those - and then someone or something had stepped on the armour, crushing it. At least it meant the Sergeant wouldn’t yell at Michael for damaging valuable salvage.

    He went back to the cabin and stuck his head inside, ignoring how that caused more water to run down his back. “Hey! You rolled over a flattened Elemental. Unlock the small winch; we can fit ‘em in between the PPC and LRM pieces we got from the Mad Cat’s remains!”

    “Did you check if he’s dead?”

    Michael rolled his eyes and sighed. He certainly wouldn’t open the armour himself - he had made that mistake before. “The armour’s flatter than the sergeant’s chest.”

    Kenny laughed. “Deader than her sex life, then.” He flicked a switch. “Done.”

    “Thanks.” Michael nodded at him and closed the door, walking back to the loading ramp. Recovering, checking for unexploded ordnance and securing the armour would take at least fifteen minutes. And they were already late and still had to recover the Uller Leftenant Fields had killed during the Clanners’ retreat. Which meant dinner would be over by the time they returned to the base. Which meant it would MREs again.

    “Fucking Clanners,” he cursed, kicking the arm of the Battle Armour on the ground. It was all their fault. They had been supposed to be new to the Inner Sphere according to the officers, but the bastards certainly hadn’t fought like green troops. Between the two battalions they had wrecked in their raid and the salvage they had left on the field themselves, Michael’s unit had been working overtime for a week straight.

    He sighed and knelt down to find a good spot to attach the chain from the winch to the armour, then cursed again when that caused ice cold water to run down his neck again.

    *****​

    ‘The stark differences between the invading Clans remains one of the most remarkable aspects of the invasion. Instead of presenting a united, coordinated front, the Clans fought individually, often seemingly competing with each other where cooperation would have been far more effective. Every Clan had their own supply line, their own factories and their own strategy. That made them less predictable and vulnerable to attacks on their staging areas, but, overall, hurt their war efforts far more than it helped. And one can only speculate what Clan Diamond Shark, with their very mercantile attitude, might have done when faced with the Federated Commonwealth instead of the Draconis Combine.
    Even in battle, the differences between the individual Clans were often obvious, in choice of both tactics and ‘Mechs. The Smoke Jaguars and Jade Falcons were most aggressive, on several occasions fighting to the death, while others, most notably the Nova Cats, appeared to be far more cautious.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis’ by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064


    *****​

    ‘Yeah, the Steel Vipers surprised us. The Jade Falcons had long since stopped their small raids due to the casualties they had been taking, and the Wolves were busy getting hammered by ComStar, so we didn’t expect the new Clans to make the same mistakes. Which meant their ‘mistake’ almost worked, and threw off our timetables and plans once more just when we had started to straighten things out again. On the other hand, that’s pretty much normal for an operation of that size anyway.’
    - Kommandant Hugo Mertens, 7th FedCom RCT


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Feltre, April 8th, 3051

    “Alpha Assault Star, engage the enemy!”

    Ralik bared his teeth in a fierce grin as he ordered his Star forward. The Com Guards caught between his and Bravo Assault Star split, forming two ragged lines of four battered BattleMechs each.

    They didn’t panic and break - apparently, the freebirths had hardened a little over the last few months - but they were doomed anyway. His Timber Wolf quickly covered the distance between his Star and the enemy, putting the closest Com Guards ‘Mech, an STN-3L, in range of his weapons.

    Ralik fired his extended range lasers at once. One went wide - he cursed at his sloppy aim - but the other hit the medium ‘Mech in its squat torso, breaching the battered armour. The enemy staggered but managed to hit Ralik’s Timber Wolf with its gauss rifle, shattering the armour on the left arm. But then forty LRMs descended on the Com Guards ‘Mech, and dozens of explosions erupted all over its torso, sending to tumbling the ground with a blown-off leg. Ralik fired his lasers again as he kept charging forward, breaching its engine - that enemy would not call in any artillery fire any more.

    Another gauss rifle hit his Timber Wolf, followed by a PPC - the CHP-1Nb Olef was still trying to close with apparently had decided to focus on Ralik instead. He obliged the freebirth, returning fire with his lasers and LRMs - this was not the time to conserve ammunition - further battering its already damaged armour.

    Olef had finally closed the range enough to use his Shadow Hawk IIC’s SRMs and pulse lasers, and the CHP-1Nb quickly went down under their combined fire - with Ralik coring the ‘Mech’s oversized engine.

    He caught Olef turning towards the KTO-19b Tian was facing. “Olef, cover our right flank!” Ralik snapped.

    “Aff, Star Commander,” Olef replied after half a second.

    Ralik shook his head. The freebirth warrior still did not fit in with the rest of the Star, only thinking of himself instead of the Star. Tian had that battle in hand - the Com Guard mech had already suffered an ammunition explosion that had wrecked most of its launchers. And Lionel’s Mad Dog was just finishing off the LNX-9Q he had engaged from the start.

    A glance at his displays told him that Bravo Assault Star had not fared as well, having lost an Ice Ferret to the enemy while destroying two Com Guards machines, but the other two enemy ‘Mechs were in full retreat already.

    He smiled - Khan Radick’s plan, bold as befitting Clan Wolf, had worked perfectly. They had caught the Com Guards division invading Feltre with the full might of Alpha Galaxy, and faced with equal numbers of Clan warriors, the freebirths stood no chance. With Delta Galaxy’s attack on Mozirje and Beta Galaxy’s deep penetration raid about to wreck the enemy’s rear area, the enemy would be hard-pressed to mount further attacks on this front. Concentration of force was key to defeating the freebirths!

    He was watching Bravo Assault Star destroy one of the fleeing ‘Mechs and cripple the other when Tian suddenly yelled through the radio: “Artillery fire incoming!”

    A moment later, shells started to hit around Ralik’s Star. “Fall Back!” he ordered as his Timber Wolf was hit by a near-miss. “Leave the target area!”

    He wasted no time waiting for confirmations and put his OmniMech into a sprint, pulling a tight turn towards the Clan’s lines. Tian and Lionel followed. More shells hit around them, but none of their OmniMechs suffered critical damage, though Tian’s Hellbringer had lost most of its armour by the time they had left the area under fire. Olef had not moved, but his position was not under fire, and so he was, technically, following orders.

    “Do you see an observer?” Ralik asked Tian. If someone was watching the fire, then they would adjust it soon.

    “Neg.”

    Perhaps the lance they had just fought had ordered the barrage before they had been destroyed? Possible.

    “Enemy lance approaching!” Olef announced.

    Ralik quickly checked the map. His computer showed Six Com Guards BattleMechs - a demi-company, as the freebirths called it - advancing towards Olef. Even if Olef had been a trueborn warrior, he would not be able to last against so many enemies. But to support him, Ralik’s Star had to pass through the ongoing artillery barrage. And that would risk losing one, perhaps even two of their ‘Mechs. They had to go around it. But that would leave Olef cut off for too long. And open a gap between them and Bravo Assault Star.

    “Fall back to our position!” Ralik ordered. It was the freebirth’s best chance. His Shadow Hawk IIC was damaged already, but it was fast and with a little luck…

    “Neg.”

    What? “This is an order!” Ralik snapped.

    “If I die, it will be fighting, not fleeing.”

    Olef’s BattleMech was moving towards the approaching enemy! Ralik cursed the freebirth and ordered his Star to circle around the artillery barrage. If only Binary Artillery had silenced the enemy’s guns already… But they had not. And now Alpha Assault would have to avenge Olef.

    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Gunzburg, Havalstett, May 15th, 3051

    “The dropships are launching!”

    Frel sounded as if she could not believe it. Lothar could. He had expected it for days. Ever since the Arctic Wolf and its escorts had been destroyed by the ComStar fleet blockading the planet.

    “They are leaving us?” Frel craned her head as she tracked the ships rising into the sky. “Why are we not evacuating with them?”

    “Because they are not evacuating. They are going to fight the enemy,” Lothar pointed out. It was not as if they had a chance to escape the system anyway. Not with the Clan ships taken or destroyed.

    She turned to look at him. “Oh.”

    He nodded. “They will make their stand in space.”

    “And we will make our stand here, quiaff?”

    He nodded again. “Aff. I expect orders to move soon.”

    “We will make them bleed!” Frel said before turning to walk to her battle armour.

    “Aff, we will,” Lothar replied. But they would not. Not enough. Last reports pegged the enemy ground forces at around six divisions. And Beta Galaxy had been reduced to three understrength Clusters. No one with any sense could doubt the outcome.

    But they had wrecked the defenders on Gunzburg as they had on Memmingen and Vorarlberg. If they died well here, they might still fulfil the goal of their raid.

    Lothar shook his head - behind Frel’s back so she would not notice - and went to suit up in his own Battle Armour. The 3rd Battle Cluster’s Bravo Command Nova would soon be moving - saKhan Ward would want them in the best possible positions to meet the enemy.

    *****​

    Lothar snarled as he fired his laser right at the Cockpit of the HSR-200-Db, holding on to the ‘Mech with his left claw. One more shot would penetrate!

    But before he could fire, the light ‘Mech’s arm hit him, ripping him away and sending him flying. He flipped in mid-air and fired his jump jets, landing hard, but without taking further damage, in the remains of the farmhouse where Frel had died to the very ‘Mech he was now fighting.

    The Com Guards Mechwarrior fired at him, but the large laser missed, vaporising a broken fridge behind Lothar. Lothar jumped forward, trying to reach the ‘Mech again, but the HSR-200-Db was already backpedalling, and Lothar failed to close with it. The ‘Mech was damaged, though, limping - and the rough terrain behind it would further slow it down. Lothar jumped forward and to the side, landing on a barn. Once more the laser missed him, and he grinned when he saw the ‘Mech’s foot break through the covered cesspool. That was his chance!

    He triggered his jets and flew towards the trapped, struggling ‘Mech, his own laser hitting the enemy’s torso.

    But before he reached the machine, the enemy got off another shot, and Lothar screamed as his damaged armour melted around him. Unable to control it any more, he crashed first against the BattleMech, then onto the ground. He felt the injections as the suit pumped more combat drugs into him, but he could not move. Could not feel anything below his chest. Could barely breathe.

    Could only lie there and stare at the sky. Until the foot of the HSR-200-Db, dripping with manure, came down on him.

    *****​

    ‘At the end of March 3051, Clan Wolf forces had been retreating across their entire sector of the invasion front, all but abandoning worlds as they only left token garrison forces to face the advancing Com Guards and KungsArmé forces. Their April offensive, though, showed that the Clan wasn’t beaten yet. At the same time their Beta Galaxy started their raid far behind the Com Guard lines, Alpha and Delta Galaxy counterattacked on Mozirje and Feltre, quickly overwhelming the two divisions of Third Army assigned to liberate these worlds. Three more divisions of First Army, which had been pulled off the frontline to rebuild, were mauled in the raids on Memmingen, Vorarlberg and Gunzburg.
    However, ComStar’s Second Expeditionary Fleet caught the Clan forces in the Gunzburg system, quickly wiping out their naval assets including a Black Lion-class battlecruiser and trapping the entire galaxy on the planet, where it was destroyed by Com Guards Second Army a week later. In addition to those losses, Clan Wolf also lost the garrison forces on the three worlds on which they did not counter-attack. And with Clan Nova Cat forces staying on the defensive and the Steel Vipers having to deal with the next phase of the AFFC’s Operation Hammerstrike, the Com Guard forces had ample time to reinforce their front and rebuild and reorganise their supply lines. They had been bloodied and suffered a setback, but they had not been knocked out of the fight.’
    - Excerpt from ‘Com Guards in Rasalhague Part I: The Invasion’ by Demi-Precentor Sebastian Hauri, Terra 3080


    *****​

    ‘The AFFC and the Com Guards were facing two Clans each and struggling. Yet at the same time, the DCMS was facing three entire Clans and holding the line. Our accomplishments speak for themselves.’
    - Tai-i Nakatomi Jerome, 5th Sword of Light, retired


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), The Edge, May 17th, 3051

    Beta Galaxy, lost in its entirety. Three full Clusters - rebuilt with the best material the Clan had had available - destroyed. The Arctic Wolf, gone. SaKhan Ward, dead at the hands of the freebirths.

    Ralik still had trouble believing it, as shameful as that was - he was a warrior, he had to face the harsh reality of combat every day. But to lose so many warriors… He closed his eyes and leaned back, abandoning his report to the Star Captain for now.

    His Star had not received a replacement for Olef, even though they were down to three warriors. But other Stars had suffered worse. Bravo Assault Star had lost two warriors. And Charlie Assault Star had been rebuilt with second-line ‘Mechs and mostly freebirth warriors, and was still understrength… Ralik was lucky to have only lost Olef and his Shadow Hawk IIC.

    He frowned, remembering the battle. The freebirth had died well - almost killing a heavier enemy - and his death had been avenged by Ralik and the rest of the Star, but it had cost them as well. Lionel’s Mad Dog had still not been fully repaired. The damned lazy technicians kept making excuses about missing parts and other units having priority. And Tian had spent most of the trip back to The Edge in the sick bay of the transport, having her wounds treated.

    But both were ready for combat, now. Technically, at least. Three points did not make a Star. Or should not. But with another supply shipment lost to raiders, they would have to wait even longer until they could replace their losses.

    His noteputer - another isorla piece Tian had gotten him - beeped. Startled, he realised that it was almost time for the ceremony. He stood, straightened his vest, and walked to the hangar’s entrance. Lionel and Tian were there, standing in the shade and watching the formation gather on the starport.

    “How are your ribs?” Ralik asked.

    “Fine,” Tian answered.

    She did not sound fine, but Ralik would not question her. And even if they were ordered into battle right now, they would have to travel two weeks until entering combat. Unless there was another attack by insurgents, but slapping down the fools hardly qualified as a battle - unless the surats ambushed the lower castes, they rarely managed to cause damage any more. Not on bases on The Edge, at least.

    “Have you heard the lines they created for saKhan Ward and Beta Galaxy yet?” Lionel asked with taking his eyes off the stand in the centre of the starport.

    “Neg,” Ralik replied. “They are supposed to be revealed at the ceremony, quiaff?”

    “Aff. But I have heard someone practising,” Lionel said. “Very moving. Their sacrifices will remain forever in our lives. They paved the way. Threw the enemy into disarray.”

    Ralik hoped Lionel was not quoting the actual lines. That sounded… It did not fit the occasion, in his opinion.

    And it might not be true, anyway. SaKhan Ward’s raid did a lot of damage to the enemy, but Ralik harboured doubts that it had done enough damage to turn the tides and justify the loss of Beta Galaxy. And he had not heard any talk about an offensive - only about the need to rebuild and to be frugal with supplies. As if they had any supplies to speak of!

    He would not voice his thoughts, of course - the last thing the Clan needed right now was defeatist talk. As a Star Commander, he had a special duty to remain optimistic, to serve as an example for the others.

    “Let us go take our place in the formation,” he said. “The ceremony will be starting soon.”

    And the touman’s ranks looked awfully thin.

    *****​

    Federated Commonwealth (Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone), Alyina, March 30th, 3050

    “Enemy OmniMechs, distance five hundred metres. Focus on the Loki! Two volleys, then we retire to the fall-back position!”

    Leftenant Marcy “Mac” Fernandez kept an eye on her computer’s display as she checked if her short lance - they hadn’t received a replacement for Leftenant Clavette’s Manticore tank yet - was still properly placed. A tanker who didn’t pay attention to the terrain and used every scrap of cover and concealment was a dead tanker.

    Peters, her gunner, fired before she had completed her check, but she was quick enough to see the LRMs landing. Or not landing - the enemy’s anti-missile system shot down most of them. Enough missiles still hit the ‘Mech, together with two PPC bolts - Franklin’s tank had missed, she noted - to send it staggering.

    It didn’t regain its balance, crashing to the ground. That meant it was piloted by an inexperienced MechWarrior. And it couldn’t return fire. But the Thor and Uller with the Loki could, and did. Lasers, PPC fire and autocannon shells hit Marcy’s lance. Most hit the earth and rubble behind which they had parked the tanks, but Marcy’s turret was struck by a laser, causing several warning messages to appear on her display - and everyone inside the tank to curse and hiss.

    Her lance fired again, PPCs and LRMs. “Move! Move!” Marcy yelled, but Kowalski had already put the tank into reverse and backed her Manticore out of its improvised fortifications on the small ridge.

    The second volley struck the Loki again, and this time, all three PPCs hit, and most of the missiles - the anti-missile system must have run dry. Marcy saw one arm get blown off and noted a possible armour breach on the torso before she lost sight of the ‘Mechs as her tank reached the road behind the ridge and Kowalski left a circle of burned rubber from the tracks’ pads as he turned in place before dashing off towards the fall-back position at max speed.

    The two other tanks of her lance followed hot on her heels, turrets rotating to cover the ridge - a Manticore’s max speed was slower than the clan ‘Mechs’, but fear of mines and ambushes would keep them cautious enough to slow down. At least Marcy hoped so.

    It seemed to work - it took long enough for the Thor to appear on the ridge, where it was promptly hit with PPC and LRM fire, driving it back down into cover again as the lance raced on towards the increasingly dubious safety of their next prepared position.

    “Beckett, call in the prepared artillery fire on the ridge!” Marcy ordered - perhaps a little too late. But she hadn’t gone to officer’s school; she had been promoted in the field after Leftenant Calvette had been killed on Parakoila.

    “Yes, ma’am!” Beckett replied, proper as always.

    “‘Mech in front!” Kowalski screamed, and Marcy stopped breathing for a moment as she checked her periscope.

    The Uller! It had circled around them and cut them off! Her tank’s turret was rotating, but the Clanner fired first. Lasers, missiles and cluster shells peppered her tank, and her turret stopped moving - stuck. Beckett was returning fire with the medium laser in the hull, but that wouldn’t be enough. “Ram it!” Marcy yelled.

    Kowalski cursed but kept the tank on course. The Clanner managed to fire again, blowing off the Manticore’s LRM rack, but then sixty tons of tank smashed into a ‘Mech half its mass and sent it reeling.

    The rest of the lance opened up as well then, and the stumbling ‘Mech went down as PPCs, lasers and missiles converged on it.

    “Keep going!” Marcy snarled, wiping blood from her face where she had hit her head during the crash. “There’re still two enemy ‘Mechs around!”

    Thor on the ridge!” Beckett yelled.

    Marcy turned her periscope, gritting her teeth in frustration - she couldn’t do anything with her tank half-wrecked - as she saw the lumbering war machine crest the ridge and take aim at Keel’s tank.

    Its rear hit by a PPC, missiles and cluster shells, the Manticore blew up before it could bring its weapons to bear. No one of its crew got out in time.

    Smith’s Manticore returned fire, but one working tank wouldn’t bring a Clan ‘Mech down.

    Fortunately, the requested artillery fire finally arrived, and while the Thor wasn’t hit as far as Marcy could tell, it retreated back down the ridge, disappearing from view.

    “Keep going!” Marcy ordered. “There’s still a Loki out there as well!”

    “To the fallback position?” Kowalski asked.

    Marcy hesitated a moment. “No. We’re crippled, and one tank won’t do anything useful here. We’ll retreat all the way back to the landing zone. I’ll call HQ so they can send another unit to cover our sector.”

    Someone else from the 2nd FedCom RCT could risk their neck until Marcy’s tank was repaired. And if things went as they had on Parakoila, and, according to what she had heard, as they had on Baker 3 and Goat Path, the planet would be secured before that happened.

    It didn’t look like the Jade Falcons had much fight left in them, the way the AFFC were rolling up their front.

    *****​

    ‘Clan logistics were only temporarily improved by the addition of three new Clans to the original invasion force. The new Clans brought fresh frontline troops in significant quantities but required even more transports to supply themselves adequately and lacked the supply depots the original Clans had prepared in advance. And as other Clans had provided a sizeable portion of the transport assets used to supply the original invading force in the Inner Sphere, now that spare transport capacity had not only shrunk considerably by the change in status of Clan Diamond Shark but was spread out over almost double the number of toumans in need of resupply. In addition to that, the warships and dropships lost to ComStar’s fleets also reduced the transport capacity of the Clans in question.’
    - Excerpt from the term paper ‘Logistics of the Clan Invasion’ by Cadet Mark Hammond, NAIS, New Avalon, 3069


    *****​

    Everyone talks about ComStar when they talk about the invasion as if they had done everything. Sure, they had the warships, but ultimately, BattleMechs decide a war, and the numbers of AFFC ‘Mechs committed to Operation Hammerstrike outnumbered both ComStar and the DCMS’s frontline forces combined.’
    - Kommandant Georg “Boxer” Müller, 1st FedCom RCT


    *****​
     
    Amrynel, Aires Drake and ward201 like this.
  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 5: Storm Front
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 5: Storm Front

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), The Edge, May 25th, 3051

    Beta Galaxy would not be rebuilt. No other formation would carry the name - it would forever remain as a memorial of their sacrifice.

    Ralik snorted as he deleted the message and turned his noteputer off. Sepha would have made a joke about how the Khan’s declaration neatly hid the issue that the Clan did not have enough ‘Mechs and warriors to rebuild the Galaxy anyway. Not when there were barely enough available of either to rebuild the remaining four frontline Galaxies to close to full strength. The Star Adders had to be laughing back home.

    He pressed his lips together and stood from his desk. Paperwork could wait. He needed some fresh air. Or as fresh as it got on The Edge. He grabbed a can of beer from the fridge near the lockers and walked past the ‘Mech bays to the hangar’s entrance. At least the lazy technicians had finally fully repaired the Star’s OmniMechs. The other ‘Mechs in the hangar, though…

    He opened the can and took a swallow as he saw one of Charlie Assault Star’s MechWarriors head towards him. A freebirth - the entire Star had one trueborn warrior, Star Commander Jena, and even she had to pilot a second line Battlemech. Her Rifleman IIC was far too slow, in Ralik’s opinion, but it was at least sturdy enough for the Trinary. But the other ‘Mechs… a Griffin IIC and two Glass Spiders. Not even Glass Spider 2s. The whole Star was a Support Star, not an Assault Star.

    “Star Commander Ralik.” The freebirth saluted but kept walking.

    Ralik nodded at the warrior as he passed him. At least that one knew his place. Even if he did not know how to fight. Not well enough, at least, for the Heart Stompers.

    Ralik had emptied his can by the time he reached the hangar’s door and looked out over the starport, to the concrete walls protecting its outer border. He crushed it and dropped it in the container next to the door before stepping outside. Supposedly, the metal would get recycled, and turned into something useful. Perhaps a spare part.

    “Star Commander.”

    He turned and saw that Lionel was sitting on a battered bench next to the door, raising a bottle in greeting. “Did you finish the reports already?”

    “Neg,” Ralik said, walking over and sitting down. “I am taking a break.”

    “Everyone is taking a break,” Lionel said. “The entire Clan is taking a break.” He sounded drunk. “So, I am just following their example.” He chuckled.

    Ralik frowned but did not call Lionel on his state. The warrior was not on duty, and if he wanted to relax with a drink, instead of training like Tian - well, one day off would not dull his edge. Lionel was, even drunk, still twice the warrior of the freebirths and solahma units the Khan had withdrawn from the garrison clusters to fill the ranks of the frontline Galaxies. “We will be fighting soon enough,” Ralik said, watching a line of BattleMechs disembark from a Union-class dropship. They were not even second line designs. No, these were isorla ‘Mechs taken during the invasion. Freebirth machines piloted by freebirth warriors. He shook his head.

    “Did you see Charlie train today?” Lionel asked.

    “Neg.”

    Lionel chuckled again. “I did. It was why I took a break.”

    Ralik cocked his head, but did not reply, waiting for Lionel to continue.

    “I did not like Olef, you know. But he would have beaten most of them easily. Barely above the mercenary scum we trashed in the early days.”

    Ralik grunted. He did not like to talk about Olef. “That was to be expected,” he said instead. “They spent their time hunting rebelling labourers instead of fighting.” That would even dull a trueborn’s edge. A freebirth? He scoffed. “The Khan should have let them stay and fight the freebirth scum before withdrawing them from the Garrison Clusters. They would have had some actual combat experience against our enemies then,” he said.

    “Heh!” Lionel laughed - he was quite drunk, Ralik realised. “They would be dead in that case.”

    Lionel mumbled something else, but Ralik did not catch it and did not want to ask.

    *****​

    Draconis Combine, Teniente, May 28th, 3051

    “The remaining defenders have withdrawn into the capital, Star Colonel.”

    Sitting in the cockpit of her Gargoyle, Star Colonel Kana Arbott nodded upon hearing the report. She had expected that - it fit the tactics observed by the DCMS on the planets Clan Diamond Shark had attacked so far. The surats would avoid open combat, preferring to strike from ambush, and withdraw quickly if they could not achieve local superiority. And once they ran out of forests and other places to hide in, they would retreat to the cities and dig in.

    Her 39th Strike Cluster had moved to cut the enemy off, but even though they had destroyed about a battalion, the rest of the enemy forces had managed to escape into the city. She sighed as she zoomed in on the city on her main display. Densely built, lots of sturdy buildings in which the damned enemy infantry could hole up. Plenty of ambush locations for the remaining enemy ‘Mechs and armour. And their cursed suicidal units. If she went straight into the city, it would cost her Cluster more ‘Mechs than she was willing to lose.

    “Star Colonel, Alpha Nova is in contact with the enemy in the outskirts of the city,” Star Captain Cyrus reported. “We have confirmed that they have rigged buildings to explode.”

    “Thank you, Star Captain.”

    Which meant if she used her Elementals as a scouting force, they would be the ones taking the casualties instead, which was equally unacceptable. That left air strikes to flush them out. Her Binaries had achieved air superiority, with the enemy dropships and fighters evacuating a day ago. But even if she used up her entire reserve of bombs, some enemies would remain and would have to be rooted out with ground forces. And it would completely wreck the city and kill countless civilians trapped inside.

    “Stravag surats!” she spat, then keyed her command channel. “Thirty-ninth, all forces are to immediately withdraw and take up positions outside the city limits, covering the main routes into the capital.”

    “Star Colonel,” Star Captain Hui called at once, “are you planning to use air strikes?”

    “Neg,” Kana replied. “I will try an alternative first.”

    “An alternative?” Hui sounded confused.

    “Parley.”

    *****​

    The officer sent by the enemy commander to meet her was a Sho-sa - below her own rank. It was probably meant as an insult, but Kana was above such petty gestures. “I am Star Colonel Kana Arbott, commanding the thirty-ninth Strike Cluster of Clan Diamond Shark.”

    “Sho-sa Suzuki Haru.” The man’s stiff bow was barely better than a nod. “You requested to parley.”

    At least the man was direct and to the point - which, as far as Kana knew, was unusual for the Combine. Perhaps it was different in the Military. “Yes,” she replied. “My forces have surrounded you. I have air superiority. My Clan controls the planet’s orbit and the system’s jump points. You have fought bravely, but further resistance is futile, and escape is impossible. We can and will destroy you from the air. In order to avoid unnecessary loss of life, I ask you to surrender honourably.”

    He tensed, but his face remained expressionless. “There is no honour in surrender. We will fight to the last drop of blood for the Dragon.”

    She refrained from frowning. “I can respect that,” she lied. “But your civilian population is caught in the city as well. We offer safe conduct to them so they will not be killed in the fighting.”

    He raised his chin a little. “Every citizen would rather die than become a slave to barbarian invaders. They will not abandon their homes but, instead, help defend them.”

    She clenched her teeth. She had seen the kind of carnage the man was talking about before. Suicide attacks and civilians used as human shields. “It is not honourable to hide behind civilians,” she spat. “It is cowardly.”

    He glared at her. “Every soldier and every citizen know what the Dragon expects of them. We will do our duty.”

    She nodded stiffly even though she wanted to smash the man’s face in. “As will I. The armistice will end in an hour.” When the bombing would begin.

    *****​

    ‘While the AFFC’s Operation Hammerstrike and the Com Guard’s offensive quickly resumed following the arrival of the Clans Steel Viper and Nova Cat, the DCMS was forced to adopt a defensive posture by Clan Diamond Shark taking over part of the invasion front, losing several worlds to their forces in the first few weeks. However, unlike Clan Smoke Jaguar’s relentless attacks over months, the Diamond Sharks’ offensive did not continue for long. Some claim this was because the Clan abhorred the DCMS’s tactic of turning cities into strongholds with the intent of forcing the invaders into costly fights inside them, where the numerous DCMS infantry regiments were most effective. This certainly played a part. As the foremost traders among the Clans, they were very much aware that they could not afford the casualties they were suffering for too long.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis’ by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064


    *****​

    ‘Of course we did not want to destroy cities to take them - ruined worlds and dead populations do not add to the Clan’s wealth and power.’
    - Ottokar, former member of Clan Diamond Shark


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), The Edge, June 1st, 3051

    Ralik was almost at the fridge, having travelled the path from his desk around the row of lockers separating it from the recreation area of his Star so often, he did not have to think about it any more, when he noticed that Lionel was sporting bruises and a blackened eye. He stared at the warrior as he took out a can of beer. “What happened?” he asked when Lionel did not volunteer information.

    “Got into a fight.” Lionel scowled before taking a deep swallow from his own can. Several empty, crushed ones littered the floor around him already.

    A fight he had lost, then, Ralik concluded. Nothing serious, in any case. He took a seat himself, nodding at Tian, who nodded back before going back to reading something on her noteputer.

    “Lost a bloody bottle of the best wine the Clan took! Bloody cheating bastard!” Lionel muttered.

    Ralik frowned. “Who did you lose it to?”

    “Some freebirth from Charlie Assault Star,” Lionel muttered as he got up and got himself another can.

    Ralik narrowed his eyes. A freebirth, fighting a trueborn? “Trials are still suspended,” he said.

    “Lionel challenged Jacob,” Tian cut in, looking at him and Lionel.

    “Bloody cheating freebirth!” Lionel spat. “That wine was too good for him! Federated Suns vintage! Almost as good as Terran wine.”

    Ralik sighed. That was different. Lionel losing a fight he started against a freebirth was not something Ralik was keen on spreading around. “Well, let us hope ‘Jacob’ will fight as well against the enemy,” he said, shaking his head.

    Lionel muttered something uncomplimentary.

    Tian shrugged. “Charlie Assault Star are not bad according to their training results.”

    “That does not mean that they are good enough, quiaff?” Ralik replied.

    Tian shrugged once more in response.

    “They will die well, in any case. Cheating freebirth!” Lionel mumbled. He fumbled with his can for a moment, before he managed to open it.

    Ralik looked at them both, but neither Lionel nor Tian mentioned Olef. He cleared his throat. “We have been put on four hours readiness to depart, commencing tonight, twenty thirty.”

    That made Tian stare at him and Lionel look up. “An operation?” the warrior asked, suddenly sitting straighter.

    Ralik inclined his head. “The entire Cluster has been put on alert.”

    “Last reports claimed that the Com Guards were moving against the Ghost Bears and Nova cats,” Tian pointed out. “We could be poised for a flanking attack.”

    “Let them bleed the bloody Guards,” Lionel muttered. “They left us to take the brunt of the first attacks, and surrendered Rasalhague without a fight!”

    Ralik agreed with the other warrior - Clan Wolf needed more time to rebuild and train. After abandoning so many worlds to gain time, charging into battle as soon as the opportunity presented itself did not make sense. Not when the other Clans were finally receiving their share of the enemy attacks.

    On the other hand, he really wanted to fight. Waiting, watching the freebirth bungle around as if they were still in Garrison Clusters, hearing about the enemy advancing towards them, taking world after world, grated on his nerves. A warrior needed to fight, and they could not even duel each other, not with so few supplies and replacement warriors arriving.

    He shook his head. “In any case, we need to prepare the ‘Mechs, so they are ready to embark on schedule, should we receive the order.” He looked at Lionel.

    Frowning, the man put his can down and stood. “I will get on it,” he said. Tian nodded and rose as well.

    Ralik joined them, sighing - he just knew that the technicians would make up excuses again why the Star would not be ready on time.

    *****​

    Federated Commonwealth (Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone), Beta VII, June 10th, 3050

    The Firebird started to shake as the Union-class dropship entered atmosphere. Leftenant Carlos Fernandez wasn’t fazed - he had been on the ship for four years now. Ever since she had been commissioned. He had been on her shakedown cruise and knew her inside out. Or at least the part of her he was responsible for. She wouldn’t let her crew or the company of Syrtis Fusiliers in her transport bays down.

    Not unless the damned Falcons managed to surprise them. And they wouldn’t. Not with him on Sensors. “No enemy aerospace fighters detected,” he reported. That was unusual - standard procedure was to attack the dropships when they were most vulnerable during the landing operation, and even if the Falcons were planning an interception in the lower atmosphere, they should be in range of the Firebird’s sensors by now.

    The ship’s flight stabilised after re-entry, and she started to slow down. Still no sign of the enemy. “Airspace around the invasion fleet clear,” Carlos reported. “No fighters in the air.”

    The captain didn’t copy. He glanced at her - she was frowning at the display on her command couch.

    “Continue on the planned approach!” she ordered Papandreou on Helm.

    Carlos checked the radar display, then the planetary maps. There were no airbases or airstrips in range of them, other than the Starport - and that was being suppressed by two squadrons of fighters, though they hadn’t reported enemy contacts either.

    Perhaps the Falcons had packed up and left? According to what Carlos had heard, the Wolves had been abandoning most of the worlds they had taken, only defending key ones. The Falcons had been consolidating their forces as well, but Beta VII was supposed to hold an entire Galaxy.

    But even when the Firebird started her final approach, no enemies appeared on his sensors. He clenched his teeth - what if they were dropping into a trap? There were several landing zones suitable for an attack on the starport, and command hadn’t chosen the most obvious, but still… The Firebird was in the first wave. Unions and Leopards. Expendable.

    He actually held his breath when the ship touched down, then recalibrated the sensors as soon as the seismic probe dug into the scorched earth below the ship, looking for buried mines and other explosives. A Leopard had done that before the rest of the force had touched down, but it never hurt to recheck yourself.

    “Landing zone clear!” he reported after half a minute of flipping through several displays and results, “no mines or charges detected!”

    “Understood,” Brown replied. “Captain Nelson, you’re free to disembark.”

    As the ramps started to lower from the Firebird’s bay, Carlos’s display suddenly started to light up with red dots - enemy contacts! “Multiple fighters launching!” he yelled. He flipped through the planetary maps. There were no airbases in range… “They’re launching from roads!”

    “Clever,” Brown replied. “Prepare to repel fighters!”

    “Vectoring in our air cover!” Communications reported.

    Carlos’s computer flashed another warning. He wanted to curse. “Seismic sensors indicate BattleMechs approaching. Over three dozen.” That was an Enemy Cluster - the equal to a regiment. Which was what the first wave had just delivered on the ground. Where had they been hiding? He shook his head. It was a trap. And the ships couldn’t lift off with friendly ‘Mechs right outside.

    Brown cursed - of course, she would have realised that as well.

    “Squadrons engaging enemy fighters,” Carlos reported. Symbols started to vanish on his screens as the fighters met and tangled with each other. But they weren’t the main threat - the dropships could weather air attacks. For a while at least. But the ‘Mechs advancing on them…

    The 4th Syrtis Fusiliers were still forming up when the first Falcon ‘Mechs came into range, and PPC bolts, lasers and autocannon shells cut into their ranks. The Firebird’s LRM launchers returned fire a moment later - which was a bad sign. It meant the ship was in range as well already.

    Carlos forced himself to watch his displays. Do his duty. Report enemy movements. And ignore the way the ship shook from hits and nearby explosions. The aerospace fighters were holding their own, but the ‘Mechs were being pushed back - and not so slowly being destroyed.

    “Signal the fleet that we need reinforcements,” Brown ordered. “Close air support.”

    The Fusiliers were now taking cover underneath and behind the dropships, instead of shielding them. Carlos cursed under his breath - but if the battle continued for much longer, the ship would be too damaged to lift off anyway. They had already lost several weapons and most armour on one side.

    But reinforcements were coming. Two more squadrons were swooping down on the enemy - one going after the enemy OmniFighters, the other after the Mechs. A minute later, his sensors reported several explosions - bombs hitting the enemy lines. And the Heavy guards were about to drop behind the enemy, too - three Overlords had just completed re-entry and were on final approach.

    Carlos smiled - until the entire enemy force rushed towards the ships on the ground. Towards the Firebird. A moment later, an explosion shook the dropship.

    “Ammunition explosion - we’ve lost most of the weapons able to fire on the enemy,” tactical reported.

    Lost most of the ship on that side, Carlos thought - a cacophony of alarms went off. The Overlords were touching down, but the Guards wouldn’t reach them in time.

    “Boarders! Boarders inside the sh…”

    Carlos froze. Boarders. That meant Battle Armour. He looked at Brown.

    “Prepare to repel boarders,” the captain ordered, standing up and drawing her sidearm. “All non-essential personnel, arm yourself!”

    Carlos shuddered. He was a naval officer, not infantry. He had barely shot a gun since basic training. He almost fumbled drawing his pistol when he heard screams and more explosions, inside the ship.

    “They’re heading for the reactor!” someone reported through the internal communication system.

    Brown cursed. “We need to stop them at all costs! Follow me!”

    Carlos shook his head - what chances had they stopping monsters who went through heavy infantry like they were cardboard targets?

    But if the enemy reached the reactor, they were all dead anyway. He took a few deep breaths, glanced at his displays again - the Heavy Guards had almost reached them, and the enemy fighters had disappeared - and followed Brown as she left the bridge.

    They met the enemy two bulwarks from the reactor room. A single, giant armoured form stood there, trying to melt its way through the bulwark with a laser. The captain immediately started firing. Carlos and the others joined in.

    But the figure ignored the bullets and laser bolt striking its armour. It merely lifted its clawed arm towards them, and the last thing Carlos saw was plasma filling the entire hallway.

    *****​

    ‘April 3051 saw the defeat of Clan Jade Falcon’s main forces as the majority of the worlds still held by that Clan were struck by the next wave of Operation Hammerstrike. However, the victory came at a steep cost - the Jade Falcons had been preparing their last stand well, and after fighting less skilled garrison clusters mostly made up of green recruits and armed with obsolete ‘Mechs in the last wave, the AFFC forces were not fully prepared for the ferocity of the Clan’s finest and most experienced Galaxies. Despite the numerical superiority of the attacking RCTs, they lost multiple regiments in the brutal fighting that ensued.
    However, the destruction of the Jade Falcons as an operational force both greatly raised the morale of the AFFC forces and shocked the Clans even though this outcome had been foreseeable from the moment the Falcons, despite being having advance warnings of Operation Hammerstrike thanks to their attack on Sudeten, failed to withdraw enough of their scattered forces to keep from being defeated in detail.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Clan Invasion: Their Finest Hour’ by Hank G. Johnson, New Avalon Military Journal, 3075


    *****​

    ‘The bastards were ready for us. If anyone ever tries to tell you that the Falcons were a bunch of duellists lining up to be shot, slap the stupid out of him. They had converted roads into airstrips, allowing their OmniFighters to launch from hidden bases, and buried their mechs underground in camouflaged shelters until the 4th Syrtis Fusiliers started to disembark. Then they rushed the entire landing force. By the time we hit them in the rear, most of the Fusiliers and half their dropships were gone already. Of course, the Falcons weren’t in much better shape, and we finished them off quickly, but the damage was done - and that had been just one Cluster of the Falcons’ Galaxy on Beta VII. Fortunately, the rest of them didn’t manage to surprise us like that again, but they still cost us another regiment’s worth of ‘Mechs. And a few Armour and infantry regiments as well.’
    - Kommandant Jack “Sparrow” Miller, Davion Heavy Guards


    *****​


    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), The Edge, June 21st, 3051

    “It looks like we will finally move,” Lionel said from his favourite spot on the bench outside the Heart Stomper’s hangar. “It is about time, too. How often were we put on four hour’s notice in the last few weeks?” He kicked one of the crushed cans on the ground.

    Ralik, sitting next to him, chose to ignore the complaining. “The entire touman is preparing for deployment,” he said instead. “At least the frontline units.”

    “It will be a glorious battle!” Lionel chuckled. “We will take the Com Guards in the flank. They will not see us coming.”

    The Jade Falcons had fought glorious battles, Ralik knew. But they had been destroyed. An entire touman, brought low by the freebirths! What disgrace! Their remains might not even find someone willing to absorb them. He knew better than to mention that, though - this was not something the Clan talked about.

    “Their intel is very good,” Tian pointed out.

    Ralik looked up and saw her leaning against the wall at the door. When had she arrived?

    “That does not matter. They are engaged with the Nova Cats and the Ghost Bears now,” Lionel said, scoffing. “They cannot spare too many troops to face us. It is the ideal moment to strike at them and roll up their flank.”

    “We do not have too many forces to throw at them, either,” Tian replied.

    “We have enough. We are almost at full strength now,” Lionel said.

    “But most of our ‘Mechs are second line models,” Ralik said. “And many are isorla.” Piloted by freebirth and solahma, too.

    “Bah!” Lionel shook his head, sneering. “Even our freebirths are good enough to crush the Com Guards!”

    Tian made a doubting noise in response. Ralik glanced at her, but she was staring straight ahead, at the dropships getting loaded.

    Lionel scoffed - he, too, knew what she was thinking. “That was one time,” he said, standing. “Freebirth got lucky. And he is one of ours.”

    “We do not have many reserves,” Tian went on.

    “More supplies and replacements are coming,” Ralik said. Though while it was true, there never seemed to be enough of either available for them. He hesitated, but decided that his Star deserved honesty, and added: “Although some of the replacement warriors will be chosen from those who failed their Blooding.”

    “What?” Lionel whirled and stared at Ralik. “They failed, and yet will become warriors?”

    “Other Clans have been offering their failures a second chance for a long time,” Tian said, “as long as they pass the Blooding.” She looked at Ralik.

    He cleared his throat. “They have passed a modified trial. The Clan cannot afford to lose ‘Mechs right now.”

    “A simulated blooding?” Lionel scoffed. “That is a travesty! How can we trust a warrior who has never risked their life, never been in real combat?”

    Even Tian looked taken aback, Ralik noted. “I heard that they are supposed to prove themselves in combat,” he said.

    “Not in our Star!” Lionel spat, then looked at Ralik. “Right?”

    “Of course not,” Ralik said.

    Even though he had no idea how to keep the Star Colonel from assigning such… replacements to his Star if they were the only ones available.

    Of course, he thought, barely keeping from snorting, by the time the washouts and failures arrived, there might not be any ‘Mechs available for them anyway if the touman truly went for a large-scale attack.

    There was another possibility, of course. One Ralik had not allowed himself to contemplate often since he had heard that the Jade Falcons had been destroyed by the Freebirth.

    There might not be a touman left for replacements to join in a few months.

    He shook his head. No, this would not happen. The Clan would prevail. It had to.

    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Nova Cat Occupation Zone), Leoben, June 22nd, 3051

    Acolyte Elizabeth Baker bit her lower lips as she guided her Shootist through the narrow valley, covering the right flank of her demi-company. According to reports from locals, about a company’s worth of enemies had retreated into this area after the 50th and 207th Division had smashed the 44th Nova Cat Cavaliers yesterday. And since you couldn’t trust civilians, the reports had to be verified. And instead of sending a recon troop or whatever, her company had been sent to hunt the stragglers down.

    She spat a curse, after checking that her microphone was off, of course. A company wasn’t enough to deal with that number of enemy ‘Mechs unless they were either all half-destroyed already, or lights and mediums. And her company was too slow to catch light and mediums.

    Well, she tried to find a silver lining, the ‘Cats might surrender. You never knew with that Clan. They might surrender after a token effort, like on Rasalhague, or fight to the last against impossible odds because they had a vision or something.

    Elizabeth scoffed. Superstitious fools! The SLDF would be ashamed by their descendants. At least the Ghost Bears generally stood and fought.

    She checked her displays as she crossed a small clearing - no enemy contacts. Then she pushed her ‘Mech through dense forest again, wood splintering and trees toppling under the weight of her ‘Mech. Where were those cowardly cats? Did they honestly think they stood a chance? The Com Guards had air cover and artillery on stand by, and dropships ready to airlift entire companies to cut the enemy off.

    As soon as they showed themselves, of course.

    She crested a ridge and stopped, sending another report to Adept Keller. They were halfway through the valley and hadn’t found any sign of the enemy. The locals must have made a mistake.

    “Demi-company Delta, rally at my position, we’ve been recalled to base!”

    What? Elizabeth keyed her microphone. “Delta-lead, repeat please?”

    “Rally at my position, we’ve been recalled to base,” Keller repeated. “Enemy JumpShip have been detected at a pirate point near the planet. We’ve got dropships incoming. At least two Clusters.”

    Elizabeth gasped. A raid? No, a counter-attack. Blessed Blake, the Nova Cats were trying to take the planet back!

    She turned her ‘Mech and started to make her way towards Keller, pushing through another patch of forest. Halfway to the rally spot, her display suddenly lit up with red contacts - headed towards her and the rally spot.

    She froze for a moment, then quickly transmitted the data to Keller and started to run. “Enemy incoming! A dozen contacts!” She pushed her ‘Mech into gear. A Shootist wasn’t fast, but it was heavily armoured. If the enemy had mostly light ‘Mechs, she had a chance.

    But three contacts quickly closed in on her. A Puma, an Uller and a Fenrir! “Delta-lead, I’m under attack and being cut off!” she snapped, crashing through another patch of dense trees and almost stumbling. “I require immediate assistance!”

    “Copy. We’ll reinforce you as fast as we can!”

    Which wouldn’t be fast enough, Elizabeth realised as her ‘Mech was hit by two PPC bolts when she crested another ridge. Descending the slope on the other side brought a short reprieve - until the Fenrir appeared in front of her.

    “Blessed Blake, give me strength!” She ran towards the enemy, firing all her weapons. Most missed, though - only her large laser scored a hit. But once she closed the range… The medium OmniMech couldn’t take many salvos from the Shootist’s autocannon.

    But the Clanner moved to the side, almost blurring as it disappeared behind the trees. Her sensors were tracking it, but she couldn’t get a bead on it.

    Then the Puma and Uller arrived behind her. Two more PPC bolts hit her ‘Mech as she turned to face them, followed by Cluster shells peppering her damaged armour.

    She returned fire, glancing at her display - her reinforcements were still too far away.

    And the Fenrir stepped out of the woods straight behind her. A moment later, its PPC blew through her torso and gyro.

    Elizabeth managed to eject before her ‘Mech hit the ground, but her seat still hit a tree on the way out.

    *****​

    ‘The Com Guards’ offensive against worlds held by Clan Nova Cats and Ghost Bear granted the battered forces of Clan Wolf a reprieve and much-needed breathing room, but from a strategic point of view, there was no choice - further operations against Clan Wolf’s touman, which had retreated to a world at the border to the Periphery, needed a secure flank. Further, the attacks on several planets also provided relief to the DCMS forces, which were locked in a war of raids and counter-raids against Clan Diamond Shark while the Smoke Jaguars tried to push towards Terra. In addition to that, there were also logistical reasons for the change of focus - attacks on that front had a shorter supply line and were easier to support. And it was assumed at the time that the Clan Wolf forces were spent after their deep raid had cost them an entire frontline Galaxy and several reports had noted the quality of their warriors and ‘Mechs declining over the last few months.’
    - Excerpt from ‘To Protect and Serve: ComStar’s role during the Invasion of the Clans’ by Kyle Winston, Terra, 3081


    *****​

    ‘We held fast in the face of the enemy and never surrendered. Whenever a planet was lost, we took it back, no matter the cost. The Diamond Sharks claimed to be warriors, but the Clan had a merchant’s soul. No wonder their spirit broke when pitted against an army of samurai following bushido.’
    - Chu-i Ito Sho, 12th Dieron Regulars


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Unzmarkt, July 5th, 3051

    Unzmarkt, again. Ralik didn’t have fond memories of that planet. The first time he had attacked the planet, his Star had lost Kenta. And this was the third time that the Clan was attacking the same world. If Ralik were a member of Clan Nova Cat, he would probably have misgivings.

    But he was a member of Clan Wolf. And the entire touman was about to descend on the planet. And this time, it was not a mere raid, but the first phase of the Clan’s offensive against the vulnerable flank of the Com Guards.

    And they were vulnerable. Ralik had yet to see an enemy ‘Mech, and his Star had been advancing from their landing zone for hours. But they were approaching a major traffic node now, which the enemy had to defend.

    “Star, be on your guard,” he said over their channel. “There might be enemy ‘Mechs hiding in the town ahead.”

    “Aff,” Tian replied at once. Ralik did not have to check his display to know that she would be speeding up to take the van.

    “Enemy contacts!” she reported, and Ralik felt his heart speed up. A battle! “Armoured personnel carriers. Twelve of them.”

    He almost sagged back in his seat. APCs. That meant infantry hiding in the town ahead. There was no glory waiting for him and his Star. Just an ugly fight. “Understood.” He glanced at the map on his display and briefly studied the enemy’s position. “We will circle around the town and attack the vehicles from the rear.” And spring out whatever ambush or trap they had prepared.

    But the enemy did not seem to have an ambush prepared. The APCs tried to form a line to meet them when his Star looped around the town, instead of withdrawing, but broke quickly when the first of them started to blow up under fire. And there was no coordinated infantry support - just some hasty missiles fired at maximum range.

    “These are not Com Guards,” Ralik said.

    “Aff,” Tian agreed. “Planetary militia with Com Guards equipment, I believe.”

    Worthless rabble, in other words - they would have had no more than a few weeks training since the Com Guards had taken the planet.

    “Wipe them out,” Ralik ordered, advancing with his Timber Wolf. Someone shot a missile at him from a small building but missed, setting another building on fire. In return, Ralik fired his OmniMech’s lasers at the house. To his surprise, half a dozen people ran out of the building a few seconds later.

    Rabble indeed - no veteran troops would have broken so quickly. A burst of machine gun fire cut all of them down in the middle of the street.

    The others did not last much longer. Ten minutes later, enemy activity had stopped, as Tian would say.

    Lionel, scoffed. “Infantry. And militia - not even Com Guards. The Star Colonel should have bid for the right to attack the capital. We would be fighting actual enemies there.”

    Ralik laughed with the other warrior - until he realised that what he considered absurd now had been a core part of the Clan way, once. How long had it been since they had stopped bidding before battles? Batchalls? Ralik had been a mere warrior back then, so he had not been involved in any bidding, but… When had they stopped? And when had he stopped caring?

    He shook his head, clenching his teeth as the Star continued to advance. Once the war was over, things would return to normal.

    They had to.

    *****​

    Draconis Combine, Yamarovka System, July 8th, 3051

    Chu-i Nakamura Jiro ground his teeth, then took a deep breath and composed himself. A samurai had to remain stoic, no matter the situation. No matter the humiliation or provocation. No matter the temptation.

    But to know that the enemy who had cut a swath of destruction through the Combine was in the system, at the Nadir jump point, yet have to wait for them to attack - it was barely bearable.

    But he was an officer of the Draconis Combine Mustered Soldiery. He knew his duty. Giri above all. And his orders were clear - until the enemy started to move towards the planet, his squadron of Shilones was not to engage.

    Which was why they weren’t even deployed yet, and he was waiting in the ready room of their dropship.

    Tai-i Ikeda entered the room, gently floating towards the table in the middle.

    Jiro felt a pang of envy - he had never achieved that kind of grace in microgravity - as he came to what passed as attention in zero-g, together with the rest of his squadron.

    “I have news,” Ikeda announced. “The enemy ships have been identified as belonging to Clan Smoke Jaguar.”

    Jiro wasn’t the only one who took a deep breath in response. The Smoke Jaguars hadn’t launched a planetary invasion since the Diamond Sharks had started their limited offensive. For them to strike now, and with such force…

    “Recon flights have confirmed that they have a squadron of warships as escorts, and enough dropships to transport four regiments of Battlemechs.”

    Once more, Jiro drew a hissing breath despite himself. A squadron of warships? The DCMS forces in the system couldn’t stop that. And four regiments of Clan ‘Mechs? He was an Aerospace pilot, not a MechWarrior, but that was the equal of eight to ten regiments of the DCMS.

    They had only two regiments on the planet, and two squadrons in total - enough to deal with an attack up to a regiment’s strength of Clan forces. Not this. Jiro steeled himself. He knew what was coming.

    Ikeda’s expression didn’t change. “Faced with such a force, it has been decided that a special attack unit will be formed to do as much damage as possible to the enemy before they reach the planetary orbit.”

    The entire squadron volunteered.

    *****​

    ‘At first sight, the July offensives of Clan Wolf and Clan Smoke Jaguar in 3051 seem to share a lot of similarities. Not only were they launched at about the same time - though by coincidence, as far as is known, since they were not coordinated - but both involved almost the entirety of the respective Clan’s frontline forces left in the Inner Sphere, and both achieved a measure of surprise since neither the Com Guards nor the DCMS leadership had expected such a development. However, where the Clan Wolf offensive aimed at the worlds forming the flank of the Com Guards’ advance against the Clan Nova Cat and Clan Ghost Bear occupation zones in an obvious attempt to cut the Com Guards’ supply lines and catch them between the forces of all three Clans, Clan Smoke Jaguar’s offensive, allegedly led by the ilKhan himself, was aimed straight towards Terra, apparently hoping to exploit the fact that most of the DCMS’s elite forces were engaged in brutal fighting with Clan Diamond Shark’s touman to achieve a breakthrough through the DMCS lines. Whether they were planning to swing back and ravage the supply lines of the units facing Clan Diamond Shark or hoped to push on to Terra itself is not known since their attacks never managed to achieve a breakthrough as they were met with fanatical resistance from the DMCS units in their path, which, at great cost, managed to delay the offensive long enough for reinforcements to arrive in the projected attack corridor. Crucial among these reinforcements were Com Guards warships, which, for the first time in history, were given leave to operate within the Combine borders.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis’ by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064


    *****​

    ‘The Smoke Jaguar Naval Star escorting their invasion forces in July 3051 was a typical Clan naval unit for the time: Old but well-maintained ships, mostly frigates, cruisers and destroyers, crewed with eager but inexperienced crews. Well, the First Independent Squadron hadn’t seen action either until we caught up with the Smoke Jaguar force in the Mualang system, but we had the better ships, better training, and all the reports of the Fleet’s previous battles against Clan forces. We still lost the Righteous Fury and the Hammerstrike, and the other four ships were all so damaged, we returned straight to Earth for repairs, but between us and the DCMS’s aerospace forces, none of the enemy ships made it out of the system. Of course, that still left the better part of three Galaxies on the planet - but dealing with them wasn’t a naval task.’
    - Precentor Earl R. Giles, Com Guards (retired)


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Dawn, July 25th, 3051

    Dawn. A promising name, Ralik thought. And a prize worth fighting for - even the enemy had realised that. Unlike on Unzmarkt, the Com Guards on this planet were not trying to hide but put up a fight, and they were defending extensive supply depots. Depots full of inferior technology - but the touman had so many isorla ‘Mechs within their ranks now, the Com Guards’ supplies would be very useful.

    And all that was left between the Heart Stompers and the depots was a ragged demi-company of medium ‘Mechs. Ralik smiled - his own Star was barely damaged from a skirmish earlier this morning when they had broken through a company of light tanks.

    “Have you found the enemy yet?” he asked.

    “Neg,” Tian answered. “But I am approaching the next plausible position to fight a holding action now.”

    Ralik nodded inside his cockpit. He could track Tian’s Hellbringer A on his display’s map. “Lionel, we will move up to be ready to support Tian.”

    “Aff!”

    Ralik piloted his Timber Wolf forward, past a burned-out farmhouse, towards a crossing before a low ridge. Lionel followed in his Mad Dog.

    “Enemy detected!” Tian reported before they reached the crossing. “Five BattleMechs, close formation.”

    Ralik checked his map. The Com Guards were arrayed in a half-circle about a kilometre ahead, in a patch of woods. Tian’s Hellbringer A was staying out of range, and they were not trying to chase her. Experienced, then. Or scared. MCY-99, CRB-27b, GRF-1N, two KY2-D-02s. Most of them damaged. They might be running low on ammunition as well.

    His Timber Wolf crested the ridge in front of him, granting him a clear line of sight to the enemy. Definitely damaged, but less than he had hoped. But his Star had the advantage. “Focus on the CRB-27b!” he ordered - the energy-based medium ‘Mech wouldn’t run out of reloads for their missile racks.

    “Aff,” Tian replied.

    “Aff!” Lionel yelled.

    Ralik and Lionel reached Tian’s position, who fell in behind him and to the side, forming a wedge-formation with him on point - his Timber Wolf was the ‘Mech with the best protection. And he was the Star Commander.

    “Advance!”

    He pushed his OmniMech to its maximum speed and raced towards the enemy line, firing his lasers as soon as the computer signalled the CRB-27b was in range. A moment later, Tian’s lasers joined him, causing the CRB to stagger.

    It did not fall down, though, and a few seconds later, they were in LRM range - over fifty LRMs flew towards Ralik. He clenched his teeth as they struck, battering his armour, and fought to keep his Timber Wolf upright and moving even as he returned fire with an LRM volley of his own, followed by Tian and Lionel.

    A hundred missiles descended on the CRB-27b, followed by six pairs of lasers. The enemy ‘Mech seemed to fly apart under the onslaught, losing an arm and a leg before crashing to the ground.

    Ralik guided his OmniMech to the side, evading another volley from the two KY2-D-02s. Lionel’s Mad Dog almost crashed into him, though, as the warrior kept going straight towards the enemy.

    Ralik opened his mouth to chastise Lionel but held his tongue as he caught the MCY-99 trying to circle around them. A volley of lasers and LRMs left it limping, but still quick enough to vanish behind the ridge. Perhaps…

    “Savashri!” Lionel cursed aloud. “Stravag!”

    The warrior’s Mad Dog was getting hit hard, Ralik realised, and almost fell down after another volley of LRMs hit him. Lionel still kept going, though, closing with the enemy. Once more holding his tongue, Ralik pushed his ‘Mech forward. Lionel was in a heavy ‘Mech and a skilled warrior. He could handle a trio of medium ‘Mechs.

    Or he should be able to, Ralik thought as Lionel kept closing the range - past the point where he had the advantage. “Lionel, pull back! Tian, take out the KY2-D-02 to the right,” Ralik snapped as he fired at the same target, which seemed to be the most competent enemy left on the field.

    “Aff,” Tian confirmed his order and started focusing on the medium ‘Mech.

    “Neg!” Lionel snarled. “I will teach these freebirths a lesson!” His Mad Dog, now with most armour lost, staggered as it entered point-blank range.

    “Lionel! Pull back!” Ralik yelled. “That’s an order!”

    But it was too late - even as one of the KY2-D-02s fell under his and Tian’s fire, the other and the GRF-1N charged at Lionel, Laser and PPC fire hitting the Mad Dog. Lionel battered the GRF-1N with lasers and missiles in return, but it was not enough to stop the charge, and the medium ‘Mech lashed out with a kick that sent Lionel reeling - no, falling!

    Ralik gasped as Lionel’s Mad Dog crashed to the ground.

    “Stravag!” Lionel cursed. His OmniMech seemed to flail as Lionel struggled to get up - only for the KY2-D-02 to kick the Mad Dog as well, shattering its leg.

    “Eject!” Ralik yelled, feeling a cold shiver run down his spine as he remembered similar situations. “Lionel, Eject!”

    “Neg! I will teach…”

    The GRF-1N’s PPC hit the Mad Dog’s cockpit and cut off Lionel.

    Snarling, Ralik unloaded all his weapons on Lionel’s killer, blowing through the damaged armour and sending it crashing on top of the Mad Dog while Tian finished off the second KY2-D-02.

    That left the MCY-99, but a crippled light ‘Mech would not stop them from reaching the depots. And as much as Ralik wanted to hunt down the freebirth, the mission came first. “Proceed to scout the path to the depots,” he ordered Tian. “I will inform the Star Captain about the loss of Lionel.” The damaged OmniMech would have to be recovered as soon as possible.

    “Aff.” A moment later, Tian added: “My seismic sensors register detonations.”

    Detonations? No! Ralik pushed his Timber Wolf through the woods blocking his view. And cursed.

    Thick smoke was rising from the direction of the depots.

    *****​

    Federated Commonwealth (Clan Steel Viper Occupation Zone), Romulus, July 27th, 3051

    Her computer informed Leftenant Gina Sterling, 3rd FedCom RCT, of a new fire mission in the middle of moving to their next prepared position. A quick check of her map showed that they would take five minutes to reach the prepared position, and the mission was tagged urgent.

    “Platoon, deploy at once!” she snapped into her microphone. “Heading 0005,” she added after a glance at the computer. A moment later, Tom, the driver, took their Slingshot fire support vehicle off the road, followed by the rest of the platoon. Gina checked the firing solution while the vehicles manoeuvred into position. It wasn’t in any exclusion zone - not that there were any to begin with, on this planet. They had the shells for the mission as well.

    “Thunder-Three, inertial navigation system and compass not working. Manually sighting the tube.”

    She muttered a curse. Always No 3! “Understood,” she replied. That would delay the piece. It seemed the techs still hadn’t managed to track down the bug in the system. Well, Avery was getting quite fast with his aiming circle. They would likely only miss one volley.

    Less than a minute later, her vehicle shook as the Thumper tube mounted in the turret in the back roared, together with two more tubes. Twenty seconds after that, it fired again, joined by three Thumpers this time. Flight time was about a minute - quite close, she thought - so any second now would come a report…

    “On target, fire for effect!”

    Gina rolled her eyes even as she copied the message. They were already firing for effect. Two volleys followed. Her Slingshot was still rocking from the recoil when she keyed her command channel. “Thunders two through four, pack up and continue towards Position Beta.”

    Once more, Tom didn’t need an order - their own Slingshot was already moving, its tracks digging through softer soil as it climbed back towards the road. “Thunders two through four, ammunition report,” she ordered as soon as the platoon was on the road again. You had to keep the crews busy and on top of things, or you’d run into problems in the worst possible moment.

    As she had expected, They had enough shells left for another two missions before they would have to restock. Not ideal. She relayed the news to command so they wouldn’t count on them for more missions. Wouldn’t do to let the frontline units down because of a mixup - the Steel Viper bastards weren’t as experienced as the Falcons had been, but they were as hard to kill, and every artillery barrage was direly needed.

    A few minutes later, they reached Position Beta. They had scouted out that area before, so the Slingshots just had to park in the assigned spots.

    And wait for the next mission.

    Which apparently took a while, since half an hour later, they hadn’t been called on yet.

    “Do you think they forgot about us?” Tom asked through the intercom.

    “Unlikely,” Marcel, the loader, answered. “I still owe the Sergeant fifty.”

    Gina chuckled at the weak joke, together with the rest of the crew.

    “Perhaps the rest of RCT finished the bastards already, and they’re now looking if they missed anyone,” Ciara speculated, her gunner’s station half-hidden from Gina by the breach of the Thumper.

    More laughter followed. According to the last reports, the Steel Vipers had two Clusters on the planet. Even four RCTs and two additional mercenary regiments would take considerable time to root them out.

    Gina was about to point that out - she didn’t want her crew to start daydreaming - when an explosion shook the Slingshot. She checked her periscopes and displays - No 3 was burning, and No 4 had blown up. What the…

    “Enemy Aerospace fighter!” No 2 reported.

    “They weren’t supposed to have any left!” Ciara yelled.

    “Bail out!” Gina yelled. The fighter would be coming back, and her platoon had no way to stop it. It must have escaped notice by flying very low on the ground. Crazy Clanners! She switched channels to reach the Battery as the rest of her crew bailed out. “Command, this is Thunder-1. We’re under air attack at Position Beta!”

    Duty done, she jumped out of the hatch behind her right when No 2 exploded. A moment later, her own Slingshot blew up as well, and the remains of its top hatch smashed her head in before crashing to the ground.

    *****​

    ‘The attack by Clan Wolf on Unzmarkt and then Dawn was a clear threat to the Com Guards offensive against Clan Nova Cat and Clan Ghost Bear. And even though the Steel Viper occupation zone evaporated under the next wave of Operation Hammerstrike at the same time the Clan Wolf forces attacked the flank and then the rear of the Rasalhague front, the Com Guards couldn’t expect any help from the AFFC since the Steel Vipers had managed to inflict substantial casualties on the AFFC regiments and RCTs involved in the operation, crippling their capabilities to conduct offensive operations until they had recovered. On the Combine front, the DCMS was massing forces to strike at the remains of Clan Smoke Jaguar’s touman which were cut off on Mualang, and with the Combine forces still engaged in a battle of attrition with Clan Diamond Shark’s touman, they couldn’t provide any assistance to the Com Guards either. As a result, the Com Guards had to face the forces of three Clans by themselves.’
    - Excerpt from ‘To Protect and Serve: ComStar’s role during the Invasion of the Clans’ by Kyle Winston, Terra, 3081


    *****​

    ‘Special Contract? More like Special Attack, if you get my meaning! None of us wanted to hire on with the DCMS in the first place, but to attack a dug-in force of Clanners wanting to go out in a blaze of glory? Hell, the only mercenaries I know who would have accepted such a contract were the Wolf’s Dragoons, not that the Dracs would have ever hired them, of course.’
    - MechWarrior Diane ‘Hacker’ Carpenter, Laurel’s Legion


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic (Clan Wolf Occupation Zone), Dawn, July 28th, 3051

    Lionel was dead. Ralik still had trouble accepting it. Death was part of a warrior’s life. Death was part of every real combat. And Death certainly had been part of The Return, from the beginning. Rylian, Brell, Sepha, Beata, Kenta. Olef, too. And now Lionel. His Star had lost seven warriors since they had come to the Inner Sphere. He chuckled, shaking his head. His Star had been destroyed one and a half times - more if you counted ‘Mech losses.

    Still. Lionel, Tian, and Ralik himself - they had been together for so long.

    He closed his eyes and leaned back on his seat. He should have noticed. Should have said something. Should have been firmer with his orders. When Lionel had almost rammed him in the last battle. When he had not pulled back. When he had advanced too far.

    He clenched his teeth and stared at the can of beer on his desk. When Lionel had started drinking.

    “Savashri!”

    He swept the can off his desk and sent it flying.

    “It was not your fault. He disobeyed a direct order.”

    He whipped his head around. Tian was leaning against the door to his ‘office’.

    “I am the Star Commander. It is my responsibility.”

    She did not contradict him; she merely looked at him until he scoffed and pushed his chair back and to the side until he was facing her.

    He shook his head and sighed. “I should have realised that his drinking was affecting his judgment.” And skills - Lionel would not have stumbled and fallen like this, before The Return. Before he started drinking. Really drinking.

    “I should have realised it as well. As he should have.”

    He sighed once more. “Now we are all that is left of our Star.”

    She cocked her head. “Are there no replacements coming?”

    “I have not yet been informed of any.” That could have been a simple mistake, of course. They had just taken the planet.

    “Two OmniMechs is not a suitable complement for a Star, quineg?”

    He snorted - that was a very Tian way to protest. “Neg, it is not. But neither is three. Replacements might merely be held up. Other units might need replacements more urgently than us.” Or he had lost too many warriors, and they would not assign anyone else to his Star. Or the technicians were not doing their part, again. Or… the Clan had no more replacements left.

    Tian nodded, though. “My BattleMech is operational.”

    He nodded. “Good.”

    “Have… have we received new orders yet?” She sounded almost hesitant.

    “Neg. Not officially.” The death of the ilKhan in the naval battle in the Mualang system supposedly had thrown the invasion into disarray, though that sounded more like an excuse to him - it was not as if the ilKhan’s orders had done much lately. He hesitated a moment, then added: “But I have heard we will attack Rasalhague next.”

    Her eyes widened for a moment before she slowly inclined her head. “That makes sense. It is a supply hub for the entire front.”

    “And the Republic’s capital,” he said.

    And it would be fanatically defended.

    Once more, Tian hesitated. He saw her wetting her lips. “Can we take the world without crippling our touman?”

    “Our Khan believes so,” he said.

    “And what do you believe?”

    He shrugged. “I am a mere Star Commander.” Of a Star with only two OmniMechs. “I cannot answer this.” But he didn’t think they could do this. Not without a lot of luck.

    “Aff.” She nodded once more and turned to leave. He could not tell what she was thinking, but on her way out, she picked up the can that he had thrown to the ground .

    Rasalhague.

    He shook his head.

    *****​

    Draconis Combine (Clan Diamond Shark Occupation Zone), Kabah, July 31st, 3051

    Medical technician Jamison turned when he heard the man on the bed he had just passed groan. The tag on the bed’s display read ‘Elemental Oliver’. The bulk of the bandaged body matched that. Oliver groaned again - he had to be in pain. Jamison frowned and tapped the bed’s display to flip through the data. The painkillers should still be working… but Elementals were tough. He renewed the dose, and the groans stopped. He stayed for a minute, checking the vitals - stable.

    Nodding, he left the room and entered the next in this wing of the Diamond Shark’s field hospital. It was the busiest wing, of course - the burn ward. Those stravags sure loved their damned inferno missiles. In this room were the survivors of a group of merchants who had been foolish enough to go on a ‘fact-finding mission’ outside the Starport. They had been looking for trade opportunities, and one of the insurgents had hit their aircar with a missile.

    All of them were groaning, but they were too weak for another dose of painkillers. All Jamison could do was to adjust the gel-bandages’ temperature, which would bring them a little short-lived relief. At least all their vitals were improving - they would survive.

    There was nothing Jamison could do about the scars, though. But he was certain that the scientists were already working on new skin-grafting techniques - there were simply too many burn victims in this dirty war the locals fought.

    “Barbarians!” he muttered under his breath as he left this room. The stench of burned flesh and skin stayed with him, though. And it was right before lunchtime.

    He checked his noteputer, shuffling around a few assignments. A late lunch would be preferable to one without any appetite.

    His next patients were amputees waiting for prosthetics. Loud, as most warriors were, impatient to return to the fight, and irked at being told that they would be shipped back to the homeworlds for the surgery. But the hospital had neither the facilities nor the capacity to handle advanced prosthetics.

    His lunch ended up very late, and the only meals still available were soup and vegetable mush with those protein cubes the locals used in their meals. Healthy, but bland.

    “Medtech Jamison!”

    He looked up and politely smiled. “Merchant Warren.”

    The merchant sat down at Jamison’s table. Merchants were not quite as arrogant as warriors, but they certainly came close. “How are my friends doing?” Warren had been sick the day their aircar had been hit.

    “Their condition is improving as expected.”

    “When can they be moved?”

    “Moved?” Jamison frowned. The hospital could not handle advanced cybernetics, but they could treat burn patients just fine. Better than the homeworlds, he would wager, since they had so many here everyone was very experienced by now.

    “We are going back to the homeworlds,” Warren said.

    “What?”

    “All of us,” Warren explained. “Only those of us providing essential services to the touman are staying.”

    “That sounds like an evacuation,” Jamison said, putting his spoon down.

    “It is an evacuation. We’re also transporting non-essential labourers.”

    Jamison hissed through clenched teeth. “I was not aware that our situation is so bad.” He knew they were taking far more casualties than expected - better than anyone, he would wager - but to evacuate the Clan’s civilians?

    “Our situation is not so bad,” Warren said. “But the other Clans are hurting. The Ghost Bears and Nova cats are being pushed back, and the Wolves are on their last leg. And the Jade Falcons, Steel Vipers and Smoke Jaguars…”

    Jamison nodded. The Smoke Jaguars were holding out, but they had no hope to win or even escape. And the other two Clans were done. “And we are evacuating.”

    Warren grimaced.

    Jamison pressed his lips together. No matter how bad it would get, medical technicians like him would always be considered essential.

    And Warren knew that, of course, even if he was too polite to say it.

    Jamison sighed and stood. He had lost his appetite.

    *****​

    ‘As Operation Hammerstrike wound to a close with the destruction of the last frontline Clusters of Clan Steel Viper, the supply trains of the AFFC forces involved were stretched to the breaking point. As cynical as it sounds: Without the heavy casualties that the units had taken during the operation, which lessened the supply needs of the active units, the offensive would have had to be stopped before reaching the last holdouts of the invaders. However, the need to resupply the frontline RCTs and rotate the decimated units out to rebuild them meant that even a limited offensive at Clan Wolf forces was beyond the logistical capacity of the AFFC at the time.’
    - Excerpt from the term paper ‘Logistics of the Clan Invasion’ by Cadet Mark Hammond, NAIS, New Avalon, 3069


    *****​

    ‘Everyone always forgets about the Ghost Bears when talking about the invasion. People remember the Jade Falcons and Steel Vipers because they were shattered by the AFFC. Everyone remembers the Wolves for their daring offensives behind our lines, the Smoke Jaguars for their last stand on Mualang and the Nova Cats for their surrender on Rasalhague. The Diamond Sharks would always be remembered because of the half a dozen worlds that were utterly ruined in the brutal, bloody slugfest between them and the DCMS. But the Ghost Bears? They were among the original invading Clans, yet even in the Combine, most people consider them tagalongs. Of course, those who lived on the planets they took and those who fought them remember them very well. They fought as hard if not harder than the other Clans.’
    - Acolyte Jeremy ‘Basil’ Kessler, Com Guards, retired.


    *****​
     
    Amrynel, Prince Charon and ward201 like this.
  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 6: Dead Ground & Epilogue
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 6: Dead Ground

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Rasalhague, August 7th, 3051

    Rasalhague loomed on the display in the cockpit of Ralik’s Timber Wolf, fed by a link to the dropship’s sensors. He clenched his teeth - and not just because he hated sitting in a mech bay, helpless, while outside the ship a battle was raging. Rasalhague. The Clan had lost two entire Clusters to nuclear attacks here. It had been the first time the Clan’s warships had conducted orbital bombardments, in retaliation for the cowardly attacks by the freebirths. So many warriors had been killed here, in space - and, later, on the ground.

    And then they had turned over the planet won at such a great cost to the bloody Nova Cats, who had surrendered it without a fight. Ralik balled his hands into fists. If he ever met any of those cowards, he’d beat them, no matter what the ilKhan had decreed about trials.

    The dropship suddenly shook, jolting him inside his cockpit. That meant an enemy fighter had broken through the Clan’s fighter screen. The Failing Lions had screwed up again! All they had had to do was to cover the invasion fleet for the two hours from the pirate point to the planet, and they did not succeed! Where one fighter could break through, others could - and it took only one carrying a nuclear missile to destroy a dropship.

    He closed his eyes for a moment, then forced himself to stare at the display again. He was a warrior. A Star Commander. He would face his fate with resolve and dignity.

    They entered the planet’s orbit - he was feeling weightless for a moment. The view on his display tilted and quickly turned yellow-red as the dropship entered the planet’s atmosphere at high speed. Was that the trail of an Aerospace fighter? A Wolf, or an enemy? He could not tell.

    A bright flash briefly covered the display, then the atmosphere seemed to light up with a meteor shower. Ralik hissed. It was no meteor shower - that had been a dropship breaking up during atmospheric entry. How many had they lost? A Star? A Trinary? A Cluster? Those bloody freebirths would pay for this!

    He forced himself to calm down as the ship slowed down even more and the display changed to a top-view of the landing zone.

    “Landfall in two minutes.”

    “Understood,” he mumbled, even though no one could hear him. He keyed his radio. “Be ready to disembark!” Tian would be ready, but this was something a Star Commander said.

    He checked the time. One minute left.

    Something shot past the dropship and Ralik was jolted again - another attacker had managed to get past the Failing Lions. He snorted. As if it could be any other way.

    Then he was jolted in his seat again, harder - the dropship had touched down. A moment later, the clamps released his Timber Wolf, and the ramp started to lower. “Alpha Assault Star, move out and proceed to assigned sector!” he snapped as he started to move his OmniMech.

    He was the first to leave the ship, of course - that was his duty and prerogative as the Star Commander. Even if it was a Star of two Points. His displays showed no enemy outside - not on the ground, at least.

    Tian’s Hellbringer passed him, sprinting ahead as usual. He followed her.

    “No enemy contacts,” she reported.

    There were not supposed to be any - the landing zones were farther away than usual, deliberately chosen so to throw off enemy ambushes. Still, the landing zone had to be secured, and his Star was to cover a small gorge.

    Another fighter passed overhead - a Jagatai - as they took up positions behind rocks. He quickly checked his displays, flipping through several feeds, then cursed. They had lost Binary Artillery - their dropship had been destroyed during atmospheric entry.

    He snorted, even though he wanted to scream. Binary Artillery had been the only two Stars in the 328th Assault Cluster which had been at full strength and using their original OmniMechs. Another group of survivors, like himself.

    And now they were gone.

    He forced himself to focus on covering an empty gorge.

    *****​

    Terra, North America, Nevada Desert, August 7th, 3051

    “No, no - you need to adjust this part with far more precision!” Technician Martina snapped at the ComStar Acolyte, then bit her lower lip with a sharp hiss - she had lost her temper again and snapped at a superior!

    But Acolyte Perry - James, as he insisted she call him - did not lash out at her or even sneer. He smiled and nodded as he moved the PPC part in his hands some more. “Ah. Like this?”

    Martina nodded. “Af… Exactly.” She was no Clan member any more. Not since she had been captured after the loss of the Dire Wolf.

    His smile grew a little. “You’re adjusting well; don’t feel pressured to overdo it. You’re on Terra, not in the Republic. No one will harm you here.”

    She nodded. As long as she cooperated and did what she was told, of course - years as a Technician had taught her that. James might not be a warrior, but he was a high-ranking scientist. And in ComStar, scientists were the ruling caste.

    “Remarkable. So this is how you manage to produce extended range particle projection cannons that weigh less than ours yet produce beams that are 50 per cent more powerful.”

    “I am just a technician, James,” she said. “I can only repair, not research equipment.”

    “Oh, please, don’t denigrate yourself.” He chuckled. “As Blessed Blake said in his wisdom: ‘Theory is nothing without practice, and a good researcher will heed this.’ You might find out that ‘tinkering’ with parts is not too different from research. And I have yet to meet a technician who didn’t tinker.”

    Martina had ‘tested new configurations’, once or twice. But to admit that to someone outside her caste? But lying was not an option either; ComStar might not treat her as another Clan would, but she knew her duties. She cleared her throat. “What exactly did Blessed Blake mean by that?” If there was one thing she had learned in her time with ComStar, then that everyone loved to talk about their Founder.

    “Ah!” James’s face lit up with a smile as he seemed to look at something on the wall behind her. “He said that after a group of Acolytes had come to him to tell them who was correct with regards to a problem with an HPG. Of course, he did not merely tell them the answer, but taught them how to come up with it themselves, teaching them wisdom, not rote learning, and, therefore ...”

    Martina nodded with an appropriately attentive expression as James launched into another anecdote full of Blake’s wisdom. As long as she kept her head down, listened to her superiors, and did what she was told, she would be fine. Just like in Clan Wolf.

    *****​

    ‘The Third Battle of Rasalhague was mainly fought on the ground as the Clan Wolf forces used a pirate jump point to cut down the transit time to the planet to a few hours. KungsArmé and Com Guards Aerospace forces intercepted the Clan’s dropships but didn’t manage to inflict significant losses on the transports before they reached the planet’s surface. However, the Clan Aerospace fighters escorting the dropships suffered heavy casualties, which greatly reduced their use in the ground campaign. Unlike other invasions, the Clan forces set down in greater distance than usual to their objectives, although this, ultimately, didn’t spare the battered population further destruction as the Clusters moved with their usual aggressivity and speed towards the planetary capital.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Free Rasalhague Republic: A Brief History’ by Dr Jane Farmer, Tharkad, 3099


    *****​

    ‘The enemy fought hard over every inch of ground they held. Their skill and bravery were unquestionable, and their ‘Mechs technologically superior to ours. But all that didn’t matter when we were fighting for our homes and the Dragon, and they were fighting for themselves and fleeting glory. While it was a costly battle and much samurai blood was spilt, the Smoke Jaguars perished like the barbarians they were - hunted down and killed by the righteous in defence of the Dragon.’
    - Tai-sa Suzuki Jin, Second Sword of Light


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Rasalhague, August 8th, 3051

    “Aerospace fighters approaching from the north. Identified as Hellcat IIs.

    Ralik suppressed a curse at Tian’s report. “Understood. Prepare for anti-air action.” He moved his Timber Wolf south of a farm building and angled it so he could use the building as cover and be able to fire on the fighter once it passed overhead. On the other side of the road, Tian did the same with her Hellbringer A and a large rock - far enough from Ralik so the fighter would not be able to catch both of them in one strafing run.

    If only they had been able to switch Tian’s ultra autocannon for an LB-X model. But the few spare guns had gone to other units since the 328th Assault Cluster was supposed to have their own air cover. Only, the Failing Lions had failed for the last time - the two Jagatais which had survived the landing operation had been shot down a few hours earlier.

    Ralik almost ducked inside his cockpit when the fighter swooped in, lasers blazing. They were spaced out, covering both Tian and himself. Stravags! His Timber Wolf could take a strafing run easily, but Tian’s Hellbringer carried far less armour.

    Ralik barely noticed the damage done to his ‘Mech, focusing on returning fire with everything he had. Lasers and LRMs reached out for the fighter as it sped away, half of them hitting, but the fighter’s armour shrugged the damage off and the pilot expertly kept control of the craft.

    Tian had more luck - her autocannon volley caught the right wing of the fighter attacking her, causing her target to spin away. Its pilot failed to recover the craft, and the Hellcat II crashed into the forest nearby.

    “Good work!” Ralik praised her. She had taken minor damage, but remained operational as well. “Is the other coming back?”

    “It is circling around our position.”

    They might be trying to line up another strafing run. No. Ralik did not think so. Not after losing their wingman. “We are moving!” he ordered. “They will be calling in artillery.” The Star was close to their objective, after all, and they knew the enemy had artillery there.

    He led them down the road for a minute, enough time for the fighter to call in a strike, then they went off-road. A minute later, shells started hitting the road. Ralik smiled, briefly - the Com Guards were still a little too predictable.

    Not that that being predictable meant they were easily beaten. Ralik and TIan had to spend the next fifteen minutes randomly changing course every minute to avoid several artillery barrages. And, of course, they had lost any element of surprise - the enemy knew they were coming and would be prepared for them.

    But the other Stars of the Heart Stompers were converging on the town ahead of them as well. Some of them should have escaped notice - not even the Com Guards could be everywhere, and there was still dense forest covering large parts of the planet, even after the orbital bombardment last year.

    They went around a hill, not over it - too exposed, in Ralik’s opinion - and finally had a line of sight to their target. The small town straddling a river ahead of them was not particularly important, but it had not been touched during the first invasion of the planet, and its bridges were still intact. That would facilitate moving towards the capital.

    And, even though it felt dezgra to think like that, once the Trinary held the town, they would be safe from nuclear attacks. The freebirths had not yet launched such weapons at them, but the risk remained. They would not nuke their own towns, though. At least not for a Trinary.

    “I am detecting enemy BattleMechs in the outskirts of the town,” Tian reported.

    “Com Guards?”

    “Neg. Older models,” Tian replied. “Lance strength.”

    Ralik checked his display. DRG-1N, SHD-2K, PNT-9R and STG-3R. Almost certainly KungsArmé.

    He grinned. He would enjoy killing the dezgra surats. “Primary target PNT-9R.”

    “Aff.”

    He broke out of the forest and started to charge over the open fields, Tian close on his heels. As soon as the PNT-9R was in range, he fired his lasers, followed a few seconds later by his LRMs. Tian added her own weapons. The light ‘Mech staggered under the impact as the house it had been hiding in collapsed. Instead of seeking better cover, though, the enemy pilot returned fire with the ‘Mech’s PPC, joining their lance mates long-range fire.

    Typical, Ralik thought with a sneer. Their hatred of the Clan ran so deep, it affected their effectiveness in battle - a cardinal sin for any warrior.

    His and Tian’s next salvo finished the ‘Mech off, and Ralik switched targets to the SHD-2K. The enemy was focusing on him, but his Timber Wolf could take the paltry damage of their inferior weapons.

    “Mines ahead!”

    Ralik stopped at once, snarling. Those cowardly surats! They had been trying to lure them into a minefield! But Tian had foiled their plan. “Backtrack!” he ordered, putting his OmniMech in reverse as he kept firing at the SHD-2K.

    “Aff!” Tian, too, kept her fire up. The freebirths were still focusing on Ralik, but with the SHD-2K missing as often as not, their fire was not very effective.

    But it would add up over time. Ralik clenched his teeth and fired all his lasers once more, followed by the LRMs, ignoring the spiking heat in his Timber Wolf. That enemy had to die before their PPC breached his armour.

    And die it did. One of the LRMs set off the ammunition in the enemy’s torso, and the MechWarrior ejected moment before the resulting explosions ripped his machine apart.

    Ralik snorted. The enemy machines did not even have their ammo bays protected by CASE - they were truly the dregs of the Inner Sphere. Brave, though, he had to admit when he spotted the STG-3R launching itself into the air in an attempt to get into his and Tian’s backs. But she shot it out of the air before it could complete its plan, the light ‘Mech blowing apart when its reactor caught the better part of Tian’s volley.

    That left the DRG-1N.

    “Enemy Aerospace fighter approaching! Hellcat II!”

    Ralik cursed again. He had forgotten about that enemy. But they could take the fighter and the DRG-1N at the same time. “Prepare for anti-air action!” he snapped.

    “Aff.” But a moment later, she added: “Enemy ‘Mechs detected. Two lances, approaching through the town.”

    Ralik felt a cold shiver run down his sweating back. He and Tian could not take so many enemies. They could either die here or retreat - but they would be harried by the fighter and artillery fire, which would allow the enemy lances to catch up. And the rest of their Trinary was still held up ten kilometres away.

    He took a deep breath and was about to order Tian to retreat while he covered her when Tian spoke up again. “Leopard-class dropship incoming. Identified as Lion’s Pounce.”

    Lion’s Pounce - carrying Binary Rogue! The Roaming Lions!

    Ralik grinned as the dropship barrelled in, its cannons driving the Hellcat II off before hovering over the road and deploying its cargo. The Binary had only five BattleMechs left, but they would be more than enough to deal with two lances of the KungsArmé.

    He chuckled as he fired his lasers and LRMs at the DRG-1N caught between his Star and the dropship.

    Then artillery fire struck the dropship, sending it crashing into the ground. Ralik grit his teeth - that ship wouldn’t fly any more. Not after such a fall. But the Roaming Lions had already been deployed.

    “Infantry detected in the town,” Tian reported.

    Ralik snarled again. Of course!

    The 328th would still win this fight. But it would cost them.

    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Trondheim System, August 8th, 3051

    This was a disaster. Taral was well aware of it even as he rolled his Jengiz and evaded a barrage of laser fire from a Hellcat II then accelerated to gain some more distance before pulling up into an Immelman turn.

    He caught the enemy before it could break off, and the enemy fighter disintegrated when he unleashed all weapons of the Jengiz. One more kill for his tally.

    And yet, it would not be enough. There were too many of the enemy. Too many fighters, too many dropships, and too many warships. There was an entire fleet which shouldn’t be present according to their information. The Com Guards warships should be headed to Rasalhague, to deal with the Wolves’ attack, not massacring his own Clan’s attack on Trondheim.

    But it looked like the Watch had failed again, and Clan Ghost Bear would pay the price. He glanced at his display. No enemy in close range. He risked a glance on his long-range radar and hissed. The Ursa Minor was drifting, leaking atmosphere. The Shining Claw was accelerating directly towards the enemy squadron, buying time for the surviving dropships the two warships had carried to reach the transports at the jump point.

    But they needed more time, even pushing their engines to the maximum. Physics was a harsh mistress, as Taral’s old instructor used to say. And so it fell on Taral and his comrades to hold the Com Guards off a little longer, distract them a little more, until the remaining Cluster of the Golden Bears reached safety.

    He ground his teeth and pushed his OmniFighter again, flying straight towards a Leopard-class dropship trying to catch the transports.

    He would not survive this battle. But he would ensure that his Clan would not lose any more Clusters.

    *****​

    ‘With Clan Wolf’s entire touman invading Rasalhague and the forces of Clan Nova Cat and Clan Ghost Bear launching their own attacks to exploit the situation, the Com Guards were in a difficult position. If not for the fact that both Independent Squadrons had already been deployed to the theatre, they would have had to pull back the frontline, possibly allowing the Wolves to link up with the other two Clans. As it was, though, the First Expeditionary Fleet repelled the Ghost Bears’ attack, inflicting heavy losses on their forces, before moving to deal with the Nova Cats’ invasion of Susquehanna while the Second Independent Squadron was moving to reinforce Rasalhague. This did, however, necessitate leaving the forces engaged on the ground on various planets without much support, and while the Com Guards performed valiantly, they suffered significant casualties as a result.’
    - Excerpt from ‘To Protect and Serve: ComStar’s role during the Invasion of the Clans’ by Kyle Winston, Terra, 3081


    *****​

    ‘Those damned Cats! They hammered us hard on Susquehanna, drove us out of the capital, but we held the line south of it, despite the cost. And then, when relief forces arrived, and we were about to turn the tables on them, the bastards managed to slip away by using a pirate point for their evacuation. Not exactly our Fleet’s finest hour, if you get my drift.’
    - Acolyte Jenny ‘Sparky’ Lindstrom, Com Guards, retired


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Rasalhague, August 9th, 3051

    “You were ordered to repair our ‘Mechs!” Ralik shoved the useless, snivelling technician against the wall and snarled at her. “They are not repaired, quineg?” His Timber Wolf was still missing the large laser in its right arm! And Tian’s Hellbringer A had not had its autocannon replaced.

    “Neg. But it is not our fault!” The woman shook her head wildly. “We do not have the parts needed to fully repair your OmniMechs!”

    He grabbed her collar with both hands and twisted as he lifted her off her feet. “Do not lie to me! The Clan’s entire touman is here! You did not even reload the LRM racks! You neglected your duty! And right when we needed you the most!”

    The woman ineffectively clawed at his wrists and tried to say something, but Ralik was not in the mood to hear more excuses. He and Tian needed their ‘Mechs repaired - they already had their orders for today! Repaired and reloaded!

    “Star Commander.”

    He turned his head. Tian stood there, frowning. At him, he realised. “What?” Did she not realise what the technicians had done?

    “The rest of the Trinary is in the same shape,” she said. “It seems that there is a lack of spare parts.”

    He blinked. That could not be. He turned to Tian, letting the coughing, wheezing waste of space slide to the floor. “How are we supposed to beat the freebirths if we cannot even repair or reload our ‘Mechs?” His Timber Wolf did not have many LRM volleys left, and Tian’s OmniMech was in a similar state.

    “We are expected to make do with what we have, I suspect.”

    He snorted, and Tian’s lips twisted into a thin smile. “Like we have before, quiaff?” he said.

    “Aff.”

    “We will have to conserve ammunition,” Ralik said as they walked to their ‘Mechs. “This will make achieving our next objective more difficult.”

    The stopped at the foot of her Hellbringer. The replaced armour patches stood out in dull grey next to the camouflage painting, Ralik noted. His own ‘Mech looked the same.

    “What is our objective?”

    “We - the 328th - will be moving to encircle the Com Guards in their positions to the north,” Ralik said. “Just as we destroyed the KungsArmé forces in this area.”

    Tian nodded. She must have expected that - with the last organised resistance by the KungsArmé dealt with, that left the ComGuards as the only remaining defenders of the planet. “Do we still expect nuclear weapons to be deployed against us?”

    “Neg,” Ralik said. “The Heart Eaters dropped on top of their nuclear arsenal and destroyed them.” The Supernova Battle had paid a high price for that, but it was worth it. The freebirth scum had paid for their crimes, and the touman did not have to worry about weapons of mass destructions any more.

    They still had to worry about ComStar reinforcements, of course, but so far there had been no reports of warships in the system - only stupid rumours among panicking technicians. And with the Nova Cats and Ghost Bears fighting the Com Guards as well, and the Smoke Jaguars holding out, the freebirth traitors would not be able to spare the warships. Rasalhague would fall.

    He nodded at Tian and turned to walk towards his own ‘Mech when he froze. “What is this?” He stared at a trolley loaded down with spare parts that two technicians were pushing over the gravel road. If the stravag technician had lied to him...

    “Isorla,” Tian said. “Taken from KungsArmé depots.”

    Ralik shook his head. “Charlie Assault Star could have used them.” But Charlie Assault Star had been destroyed yesterday. And Bravo Assault Star had been reduced to three ‘Mechs.

    The Trinary had been reduced to a single Star. The Roaming Lions who had saved him and Tian had lost half their remaining forces in the battle. And now inferior machines would be completely repaired while his Star’s OmniMechs had to go into battle with missing weapons.

    Somehow, this travesty fit this entire war.

    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Dawn, August 9th, 3051

    Ellen ‘Ripper’ Kern wasn’t the first prisoner in the camp who heard the noise, but she was the first who recognised it. They had cost her so much sleep when she had been quartered in a barrack next to the main airfield of a base on Terra while waiting for the field kit for her ‘Mech, but now it was the sweetest sound she could imagine.

    “Cobras!” she yelled as she stood and left her tent, craning her neck to scan the sky.

    Yes! There came Cobra Transport VTOLs. A whole squadron, as far as she could tell. Com Guards. She had been waiting for them ever since she had seen the fusion plumes in the sky last night.

    The prison guards - older Clanners - had noticed them as well. One guard tower’s machine gun opened up at the approaching birds, despite the distance.

    In response, the lasers on the first transport reduced the tower to kindling and scorched meat. Ellen grinned even as she dropped to the ground and took cover so she wouldn’t catch a stray round as the other guards started to shoot. Dumb Clanners never knew when to give up.

    It didn’t take the Com Guards long to deal with the handful of guards left at the camp. By the time the infantry disembarked, the VTOL’s lasers had done most of the work. Ellen, like everyone else in the camp, cheered as the last VTOL reduced the main gate to slag before setting down.

    They were free. Finally.

    But she started to cry as she saw a MASH transport touch down and medics spill out. If only they had arrived a week ago. It wouldn’t have saved Harald - he had died in the cockpit of his Rifleman two weeks ago, when their company had been massacred by the fucking Wolves - but Archie… The Leftenant had lingered for a week after they had been captured, despite not receiving any help other than what Ellen and others could give in the camp, before dying from the wounds he had taken in his Wolverine. And he hadn’t been the only wounded to suffer and die in the camp while the Clanners watched and did nothing.

    She clenched her teeth, wiping the tears from her cheeks. Bastards claimed they had no supplies to spare. If any of the scum who had let Archie die had survived the Com Guards’ invasion, she would show them that she had a bullet to spare for them!

    She wanted to pay back the Wolves for everything they had done to her even more than she wanted her Phoenix Hawk back. Dear Lord, she wanted to make them pay!

    “Ma’am? Do you need any help?”

    Ellen blinked at the Com Guards medic in front of her, then shook her head. “No,” she said. “No, I’m fine.”

    Unlike so many others.

    *****​

    ‘Most mercenary units active in the second phase of the Clan Invasion either served with the AFFC during Operation Hammerstrike or as garrisons behind the Com Guards lines in the Free Rasalhague Republic. Both kind of contracts generally had generous terms for the mercenaries - both with regards to payment and to being supplied with advanced technology. However, salvage rights were severely limited as both the Federated Suns as well as ComStar were almost desperate for Clan technology. This didn’t stop all mercenaries from salvaging Clan weapons, but overall, the vast majority of the salvaged war material went straight to the NAIS and Terra. This led to many dispossessed mercenaries finishing their contracts with brand new Star League level ‘Mechs. For those units which suffered heavy casualties during the battles, this was at least of some small comfort.’
    - Excerpt from ‘Mercenaries during the Clan Invasion’ by Gabriel Mannhart, New Avalon, 3072


    *****​

    ‘The Clanners love to go on about their so-called honour - but they only care about it as long as it benefits them. The treated their mercenary prisoners barely better than the Dracs used to. The things we saw when liberated their prison camps… They claimed it was all the fault of the prisoners, who didn’t embrace being slaves of the Clans and refused to work hard for their new ‘owners’ like they should have and had to be kept in camps as a result. That excuse didn’t help the scum, of course, when they finally faced military courts.’
    - Lt. Trevor McMillan, 71st Light Horse Regiment, Eridani Light Horse


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Rasalhague, August 10th, 3051

    “Trinary Assault, engage the enemy!”

    “Aff!” Ralik replied to Star Captain Shaw and pushed his Timber Wolf forward. He switched channels. “Alpha Assault Star, follow me!”

    “Aff.”

    ‘Alpha Assault Star’ - it was just him and Tian. And the rest of Trinary Assault were the three OmniMechs in Bravo Assault Star, including the Star Captain. But they had their orders and would obey. It was not as if the entire Cluster was in better shape. Supernova Battle had been gutted destroying the freebirths’ nuclear arsenal. Binary Rogue had been reduced to a single ‘Mech while saving Ralik and Tian two days ago. Binary Artillery and the Failing Lions had not survived the drop. All that was left were the Cluster’s Command Nova and Charlie Battle Nova. And both were short on Elementals. About a Trinary in total, with the Heart Stompers.

    But the Com Guards had been suffering as well. Two ragged companies were all that stood between the 328th and control over the last town blocking the Clan’s advance. Ralik shook his head and focused on the fight ahead. He could not afford to be woolgathering.

    He left the dubious cover of a light forest and piloted his OmniMech over a field covered with mud - the rain had not let up since this morning, and the Com Guards had gone through the field while retreating from the 328th.

    He took an angled path to the town, changing direction every minute. Artillery started to hit the field but did not come close enough to him or Tian to damage their ‘Mechs. And, for a change, no Aerospace fighters were circling overhead. Almost ideal conditions for a battle.

    Snorting, he changed direction again. He could see Bravo Assault Star advancing now as well - they would converge on the same position in the town. Tian’s computer started to list the enemies facing them. HGN-732, KTO-19b, BL-6b-KNT, STN-3L, FLS-8K and a MON-66.

    A demi-company, with a number of heavy ‘Mechs and even an assault ‘Mech. Ralik pressed his lips together - this would be a hard fight. “Primary target KTO-19b. Kill the MON-66 if it engages us!” he ordered. That might be a command ‘Mech.

    “Aff.”

    Another change of course and they were in range. He fired his remaining laser at the KTO-19b, melting some armour. A few seconds later, A PPC bolt missed his Timber Wolf, followed by a gauss slug. These were not veteran troops. He might be able to hold his LRMs back... No. His ‘Mech was missing one large laser already. He fired his LRMs, followed by Tian’s LRMs and her lasers. The KTO-19b toppled over, disappearing behind the ruins the enemy was using as cover. Damaged, but not destroyed according to Tian’s sensors.

    Ralik switched to the STN-3L, not bothering to announce it as he hit it with laser and LRM fire. Tian would focus on it as well. And she did. He changed direction again - it would not do to enter close range against that demi-company. A gauss slug hitting his left side sent his Timber Wolf reeling for a moment, but he easily kept control of it even when twenty missiles followed the slug. The FLS-8K and the BL-6b-KNT had left the ruins to close the range, but Bravo Assault was engaging them.

    His Timber Wolf took more damage, but only missiles - the HGN-732 kept missing with its gauss rifle. He could handle that. Another volley of his breached the STN-3L’s armour and Tian’s lasers torched off ammunition in the enemy’s side. The ‘Mech fell down with most of its left torso blown off.

    But the KTO-19b had managed to stand up in the meantime - the Com Guard pilot was even trying to charge at Ralik so they could bring their missiles to bear. The medium ‘Mech collapsed, though, its torso shot out by Tian’s Hellbringer A, before it managed to clear the rubble serving as cover.

    That left… Another gauss slug smashed into Ralik’s ‘Mech, tearing off its already damaged right arm. Ralik cursed, barely managing to keep the machine upright until the gyroscope compensated. He returned fire, running his LRMs dry in a quick exchange that left the HGN-732’s armour pockmarked and smoking and his own breached.

    Tian moved her Hellbringer between the enemy and Ralik, firing all her weapons at the charging assault ‘Mech.

    “Fall back!” Ralik ordered. “We need to widen the distance!”

    To his relief, Tian obeyed. But that left him exposed again. He clenched his teeth. So be it. He fired all weapons he had left, breaching the enemy’s leg armour. But that didn’t stop the HGN-732 either. And Ralik’s ‘Mech would not withstand a full salvo.

    But the assault ‘Mech did not fire on Ralik - they twisted their torso and unloaded everything into the side of Shaw’s Mad Dog! Already battered by the two heavies her Star had been fighting, Shaw’s ‘Mech collapsed as ammunition explosions tore its engine apart. Ralik did not see her eject.

    And there was the MON-66, trying to flank the rest of Bravo Assault Star still fighting the BL-6b-KNT! And the STN-3L was getting up!

    Ralik focused on the HGN-732, firing his lasers as fast as he could, but the assault ‘Mech ignored him, methodically wrecking the battered Nova facing him while the BL-6b-KNT was engaged by the Star’s Stormcrow.

    By the time Ralik and Tian, who had destroyed the Mon-66, finally managed to bring the HGN-732 down, the damaged Stormcrow was all that was left of Bravo Assault Star.

    The Heart Stompers had been reduced to three ‘Mechs. But they had taken the town and won the day.

    *****​

    Draconis Combine, Clan Diamond Shark Occupation Zone, Teniente, August 10th, 3051

    “We are abandoning the planet?” Star Colonel Kana Arbott did not quite manage to sound as composed as her position and rank demanded. “We have just repelled another invasion by the enemy!” And at great cost - she had about half of her Cluster left.

    SaKhan Sennet nodded on the screen in Kana’s office. “Aff. You fought well and earned honour for the Clan.”

    She knew that tone and pressed her lips together for a moment. There had been rumours, of course. Especially after all nonessential civilians had left the Inner Sphere. “But it is not enough. We are retreating to the homeworlds, quiaff?”

    “Aff. The numbers do not lie - we cannot win this war. We cannot sustain the casualties we are taking in every battle.” Sennet sighed. “According to my information, Clan Nova Cat has come to the same conclusion. They are evacuating their entire occupation zone.”

    “What is left of it,” Kana said, scoffing.

    Sennet chuckled. “Indeed. The Ghost Bears are, as expected, more stubborn, but they cannot hold out against the forces arrayed against them - even if the AFFC should stay put. So, even if we were to defeat the Combine’s forces, we would be overwhelmed before more Clans could arrive to reinforce us.”

    Kana nodded. The numbers did not lie. There were only so many JumpShips and supplies available - the Diamond Sharks knew this better than any other Clan thanks to their merchants. Still… “What about the Wolves?”

    Sennet sneered. “Forget them. Even if they chose to retreat now, they would not be able to save a single Galaxy.”

    Kana blinked. “They have fallen that far?” The Founder’s Clan?

    “Aff. They gambled and lost.”

    That meant four Clans had been effectively destroyed in the Inner Sphere - more than half the forces assigned. Their remains would be absorbed, as was the Clan way. But… “Can we afford to abandon worlds we have taken without a fight?” To lose so much face…

    “Neg.” Sennet sighed. “Not even with the absence of an ilKhan as an excuse. We will have to leave forces to defend the worlds. To the last.”

    Kana nodded. Solahma. And perhaps some second line units. She did not like to do this, but they had to be sacrificed to save Clan Diamond Shark from being absorbed as well.

    That was the Clan way.

    *****​

    ‘The treatment of the prisoners taken during the invasion by the forces of the Inner Sphere varied greatly. Those captured by the Free Rasalhague Republic generally faced the harshest fate. Even the captured civilians were blamed for the Clans’ atrocities. Fortunately, the Com Guards handled the vast majority of the prisoners taken in that theatre and even pressured the KungsArmé to hand over their prisoners, mostly interning the civilians. The AFFC treated their prisoners similarly, though with more reservations. In both cases, the civilians quickly adjusted to their new circumstances due to their indoctrination in the Clans.
    In the Draconis Combine, though, things were handled differently. The disdain shown by the Clans towards the realm they blamed for starting the Succession Wars was returned on their prisoners - the Combine considered them barbarians and treated them accordingly. The civilians fared best, being pressed into service not unlike their prior status, but the warriors were sent to forced labour camps - or executed in some cases, when the DCMS took prisoners at all.’
    - Excerpt from the term paper ‘Prisoners of War and the Clan Invasion’ by Acolyte Jan Kowalski, Sandhurst, Terra, 3062


    *****​

    ‘From a certain point of view, the Clans acted more like Periphery pirate bands than regular forces. They dropped their ‘honourable ways’ as soon as it was convenient, they ruled the conquered planets through naked force and they enslaved their captives and forced them to work for them - most pirates would have behaved exactly the same.’
    - Professor Allison McNeal, New Avalon Institute of Science


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Rasalhague, August 11th, 3051

    Looking at his rank insignias, Ralik scoffed and shook his head. He was a Star Captain now. Field promotion. Two years ago, he would have been proud. But now? It was meaningless. He had not earned it - he had merely been lucky enough to survive while almost everyone else was killed in the invasion. The failed invasion.

    He suddenly chuckled - so many warriors had died, Ralik doubted that there were enough trueborn warriors left to fill all the vacant bloodnames. The greatest honour for a warrior, reduced to a joke.

    He leaned back against the wall of the half-destroyed warehouse in which his Trinary had been set up. So many warriors had been killed, and it had been all for nothing. The Nova Cats and Diamond Sharks were fleeing. The Ghost Bears would not be far behind. And his own Clan?

    Com Guards warships had jumped into the Rasalhague System yesterday, using a pirate point. The planet was blockaded - they were trapped on the planet. Rasalhague would be the touman’s grave. He looked at the rain falling down in front of him, turning whatever part of the ground wasn’t covered by the broken roof into mud.

    “The technicians have finished the repairs, Star Captain.”

    He opened his eyes and looked at Tian, then chuckled again.

    “Star Captain?” She looked confused and concerned.

    Ralik shook his head. “It is nothing. Thank you.” At least the technicians had managed to scrounge up enough ammunition and spare parts from the remains of Bravo Assault Star to cobble together some field repairs for the three ‘Mechs remaining in the Trinary. His Timber Wolf had the missing arm replaced, and he had about four volleys for the LRM racks.

    “They worked through the night,” Tian added.

    Ralik nodded. Nothing less could be expected, of course - and yet, did it matter any more?

    Once more, Tian looked slightly concerned - or annoyed - for a moment, before she went on: “The Khan will address the touman in a few minutes. I have prepared a radio.”

    “Good,” Ralik said, if only because Tian deserved recognition. What could Khan Radick say now that would matter?

    *****​

    “...and the enemy failed to stop our JumpShips, which are now beyond their reach and will serve the Clan well in the future! The enemy might have the advantage for now, but Clan Wolf will return - stronger than ever! Our deeds will serve as an example for the next generation of warriors and inspire them to reach heights undreamed! Our enemies think they have trapped us! Beaten us! But in reality, they have trapped themselves! We will make them bleed so much, the survivors will cower at the very thought of facing our Clan again! Warriors! Every enemy you slay is one who will not live to fight again! Warriors! We are about to ear the ultimate glory! Warriors! We are…”

    Ralik flicked the radio’s power off. Tian looked at him but did not say anything. And neither did Glen, the last survivor of Bravo Assault Star. Ralik chuckled again.

    Garth Radick was a bloody idiot. The touman’s death would not matter. Not for the homeworlds. Not for the Inner Sphere. Like Beta Galaxy’s death had not mattered in the end. They would all die for nothing.

    But what else could they do? They were warriors of Clan Wolf.

    *****​

    Terra, North America, Hilton's Head Island, August 11th, 3051

    Bert Miller rubbed the bridge of his nose when Kelly entered with another stack of data discs. “More family pictures?”

    She nodded with a wry grin. “Indeed. From Clan Wolf’s lower castes this time.”

    Bert closed his eyes. “I’ve finished analysing dozens of pictures, and I’ve done the spectral analysis for every star we found on the pictures.”

    “Well, perhaps there’ll be a new one in this batch,” she said.

    “Perhaps?” He frowned - he knew what that meant: the pictures must have been gathered from wrecks and ruins, their owners dead already, or they would have been questioned about their pictures’ origins. He would have to spend more days looking at the family pictures of dead people.

    Kelly grimaced. “Sorry.”

    “It’s not your fault.” She was his direct superior in ROM’s analysis section, but she wasn’t the one assigning the tasks. Not that going over JumpShip maintenance logs and reports to find out how far they had jumped in the past was any more exciting than doing spectral analyses of stars. Or sifting through communication logs between JumpShips and orbital stations to find the lag to determine how far a planet was from its star.

    But the work was necessary to find the Clans’ homeworlds. The barbarians had purged their navigation computers but hadn’t realised that there was enough data left in their ships to find where they had come from anyway.

    Even though it would take time and a lot of effort. A lot of boring effort. But Bert and his colleagues had all the time they needed - they would have results far before the Com Guards were able to even start planning an invasion of the Clan homeworlds, given the casualty numbers Bert had seen so far.

    “Well, ‘it’s in the small and boring details that a man’s work shines’,” he quoted Blessed Blake.

    “Indeed,” Kelly said. “Oh, are you doing lunch with the rest of us?”

    “Of course,” Bert said. “Unless we’re going to the ‘Bar and Grill’ again.”

    Kelly laughed. “Oh, no. I put my foot down - no more TexMex this week. I was thinking Chinese.”

    “Chinese sounds good,” Bert agreed.

    Well, his day was looking up already!

    *****​

    ‘All forces involved in the Clan Invasion suffered heavy casualties in both in men and material. Both the DCMS and the AFFC lost the equal of about thirty BattleMech regiments, the Free Rasalhague Republic lost their entire forces together with several mercenary outfits, about twenty regiments in total, and the Com Guards lost about twenty regiments as well. In addition to that, armour and infantry units suffered worse casualties and the Com Guards lost six warships as well.
    While the killed and wounded were easily replaced through increased recruiting and training efforts, the numbers of lost BattleMechs and Aerospace fighters were only partially made good by salvage operations. The militaries affected were also faced with the decision whether or not to ramp up production of existing models to rebuild their units as quickly as possible, or use the opportunity to switch to more advanced designs. With the amount of captured Clan technology available, it was not surprising that all three involved powers - the Draconis Combine, the Federated Commonwealth and ComStar - decided to focus on reverse-engineering captured technology before developing new designs and keep production of existing models up until then. The Free Worlds League, predictably, followed suit after making a deal with ComStar, trading production capacity for technological know-how. With the St. Ives Compact closely allied with the Federated Commonwealth and the Free Rasalhague Republic becoming a ComStar protectorate in all but name, that would have left the Capellan Confederation as the only Inner Sphere realm without access to Clan technology. In hindsight, Chancellor Romano Liao, faced with the danger of the St Ives Compact using this opportunity to reunite the two realms under one banner, deciding to join forces with another pariah of the Inner Sphere and hiring the Wolf’s Dragoons shouldn’t have been a surprise. That development, of course, only accelerated the warship building programs of the Inner Sphere.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis’ by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064


    *****​

    ‘As expected, as soon as the last Steel Viper holdouts had been taken care of, the press began to demand a counter-invasion of the Clan homeworlds. Never mind that we had no idea where the Clans’ homeworlds were located and that our forces were in no shape to conduct operations for quite some time! Never mind that the Clans had just demonstrated the folly of launching an invasion without sufficient logistics! I would have expected that from civilians with no grasp of strategy, but to hear fellow officers talk as if we were but months away from launching an invasion instead of years or decades boggled my mind.’
    - Leftenant-General James Steiner, AFFC


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Rasalhague, August 13th, 3051

    It had taken the Com Guards longer to reach their positions than Ralik had expected. Almost a full day had passed since they had dropped on the planet. With complete air superiority and the number of dropships they had at their disposal, Ralik would have been more aggressive, air-dropping forces behind enemy lines instead of advancing slowly against the ragged lines of the Clan.

    On the other hand, time was on the Com Guards’ side. The touman would not escape - not after Radick had sent the dropships and the handful Aerospace fighters that had been left at the Com Guards’ forces to disturb their landing operations. According to the Khan, an entire regiment had been destroyed by the attack. Ralik doubted that. The Com Guards would not have let the Clan force reach their transports. Not with the numbers available to them.

    He did not doubt that the Clan fighters and dropships had been destroyed, though. Perhaps that had been the real reason for the attack - to rob the touman of even the slightest hope of escape. What warrior would retreat if it would only prolong the inevitable?

    Or hasten it, if Com Guards fighters caught a retreating force out in the open.

    Which was Ralik’s Star - he could not think of the three ‘Mechs as a Trinary - was hiding in a small village on the road of what was deemed to be the Com Guards’ eastern flank. The possible presence of civilians might even keep the Com Guards from bombing or shelling the village after the Star’s presence was discovered.

    Hiding behind civilians was not the Clan way. Even deceiving the enemy into suspecting the presence of civilians went against what Ralik had been taught. But then, what was the Clan way anymore? Zellbrigen had not been brought up in months, and even before that, only warriors who had not yet fought in the war had mentioned it. He could not even remember the last time commanders had bid for the right to fight a particular battle. Trials had been suspended for over a year now, and no vacant bloodname had been filled. Not even their Khan had been properly elected.

    They had lost their way, but Ralik cold not say when it had happened. And now they were facing their doom and would meet it as if they were freebirths.

    Ralik shook his head. It was a fitting end for an invasion that had long since become pointless. A fitting end for a Clan which had lost its way. And a fitting end for a Star Captain commanding half a Star.

    A voice shook him out of his thoughts. “Enemy contacts.” Tian, of course, was as attentive as always. She would not let doubts and defeatism influence her.

    Ralik glanced at his display as Tian’s computer relayed the approaching ‘Mechs. HSR-200Db, STN-3L, SHD-2Hb, CHP-1Nb, CHP-1N and FLS-8K. A recon-demi-company. “Target the HSR-200Db and the STN-3L first,” he ordered. “Then switch to the SHD-2Hb.” If they could take out three ‘Mechs quickly, they had good chances to win this battle. Even with their patched up ‘Mechs.

    “Aff,” Tian replied.

    “Aff,” chimed in Glen in his Stormcrow.

    It did not take the Com Guards long to reach the village. As Expected, the HSR-200Db was the first to approach, covered by the STN-3L, with the SHD-2Hb hanging a little back and the heavy ‘Mechs forming a line behind them. Ralik licked his lips as he saw the symbol of the HSR-200Db enter the village. Almost. Almost.

    Then the symbol stopped suddenly - they had been detected. “Engage!” Ralik ordered, pushing his Timber Wolf through the walls of the barn hiding it. The HSR-200Db was already backing off, but Ralik’s Star was too close and the village too narrow. A dozen lasers melted its armour and wrecked its internals. Ralik was already switching targets as the light ‘Mech collapsed, its pilot ejecting a second later.

    The STN-3L was not retreating, but dashing to the side - probably trying to flank them. That kept it out of Ralic’s arc of fire but brought it close to Glen’s Stormcrow. Ralik aimed at the SHD-2Hb charging at him and Tian, firing his lasers and LRM racks - there was no point in preserving ammunition; not now. Tian did the same, and the medium ‘Mech staggered, stumbling - but recovering - under the onslaught.

    The heavy Com Guards ‘Mechs were opening fire as well. A gauss slug slammed into Ralik’s Timber Wolf, with a PPC bolt barely missing, followed by cluster shells from the SHD-2Hb. But even patched and unpainted, the OmniMech’s armour held. He returned fire against the SHD-2Hb with all his lasers. Despite its armour breached in multiple spots, the enemy did not go down, and its SRMs slammed into Ralik’s ‘Mech. But then Tian’s lasers dug into the SHD-2Hb’s torso, and the ‘Mech was ripped apart as its ammunition blew up and its reactor shielding failed.

    But the STN-3L was still fighting Glen, and now the enemy heavies were in range of most of their weapons. The CHP-1N charged in, focusing on Glen while the CHP-1Nb hung back, firing its gauss rifle and PPC at the Stormcrow. And the FLS-8K was charging at Tian.

    “Fall back to our position!” Ralik ordered.

    “Neg,” Glen replied. “Actuator damage.”

    Ralik hissed. Tian could beat the FLS-8K, but it would be close. But Glen would not be able to defeat three ‘Mechs. He pushed his Timber Wolf forward, firing at the FSL-8K as he passed it, but failing to do anything more than melting some armour off the heavy ‘Mech’s flank. But then he had a line of fire to the three ‘Mechs fighting Glen’s crippled Stormcrow. His lasers and LRMs finished off the battered STN-3L, and his last LRM volley hit the CHP-1N.

    The enemy ‘Mechs shifted position, wheeling so they could face both Ralik and Glen. Ralik did not let them, circling to flank them while his lasers stabbed at the CHP-1N. But Glen’s crippled ‘Mech could not keep up - and as Glen and Ralik focused on the CHP-1N, the two Com Guards concentrated their fire on Glen.

    And Glen’s Stormcrow could not stand up to the combination of gauss slugs and PPC bolts breaching its armour followed by SRMs and cluster shells. Ralik, still pouring laser fire into the damaged CHP-1N, saw it suddenly freeze before toppling to the ground with its gyroscope destroyed - and its cockpit breached by cluster shells. Glen did not eject - nor did he answer any call on the radio.

    Cursing, Ralik fired his lasers, ignoring the spiking heat. He would take that ‘Mech down. Both enemies turned towards him. But the CHP-1N was already heavily damaged. Ralik shifted his ‘Mech to the side and kept firing. His next volley struck an ammunition bay, and the enemy ‘Mech vanished in a fireball as cluster ammo shredded its torso.

    That left the CHP-1Nb. Ralik kept his Timber Wolf moving around the enemy as the Com Guard turned to keep facing him, exchanging laser fire for PPC bolts and gauss slugs. But Ralik was too close for the enemy’s gauss rifle to properly fire, and the Com Guard was not good enough to compensate. And Ralik’s Timber Wolf outmassed it and had much more armour.

    A few volleys later, the enemy machine collapsed with its leg shot out, then blew up as the gauss rifle broke in the fall. Ralik turned to support Tian and cursed.

    Her Hellbringer A was a wreck. She had kept it standing - but it had lost its large lasers together with the arm they had been mounted in and what looked like all its armour. And she had been backed against a silo that must have been sturdier than expected - the FLS-8K was closing into melee range.

    Ralik fired his lasers at the enemy, but they struck its rear armour for no effect. Tian managed to blow away one of the heavy ‘Mech’s arms, but the Com Guard’s kick pulverised her Hellbringer A’s remaining leg structure. She ejected, yet her OmniMech failed her - twisting to the side as it fell, which caused her seat to slam into the silo.

    Ralik screamed and charged at the last enemy, firing all his remaining weapons. The FLS-8K staggered but turned to face Ralik, returning fire with a handful of lasers that breached the Timber Wolf’s armour and dug into its right arm, wrecking the large laser.

    He did not care. He fired another volley, then twisted his ‘Mech’s torso and rammed the enemy at full speed. His useless right arm got crushed, but the impact threw the FLS-8K back and ruptured its reactor shielding. The ‘Mech was covered in escaping plasma before it hit the ground.

    Ralik did not care. He stopped his OmniMech and hit the release button on his safety harness.

    He had to get to Tian.

    *****​

    Terra, North America, Hilton's Head Island, August 13th, 3051

    “...and the main line of defence of Clan Wolf on Rasalhague has been broken. What enemy units have escaped the pocket south of the capital are scattered, but eliminating them will take some more time.”

    “Thank you, Anastasius.” Myndo Waterly nodded at his image on her screen. “With the other three Clans retreating, that concludes our operations.”

    “There are still holdouts, and the matter of tracking and shadowing their remaining ships, but I don’t expect further large-scale fighting to take place for the foreseeable future.”

    She smiled. That was a typical answer of his - he was a perfectionist when it came to military matters. That was why he was the Precentor Martial, of course. That, and his aversion to politics.

    “Casualties were heavy, though. We will need to recruit and extensively to replace our losses, and the current building programs will need to be increased as well.”

    She nodded again. “Of course.” The casualties hadn’t exceeded the worst projections, so as far as she was concerned, everything had gone according to plan. There wasn’t exactly a shortage of able-bodied young people willing to defend Terra against the ‘barbarian descendants of the worst deserters in Terra’s history’, as the current news put it, after all. And the shipyards had been expanding for some time - the six lost warships wouldn’t take long to be replaced. “We’re already bringing another factory online to replace the destroyed ‘Mechs - and to give us some spare production capacity for the transition to new designs.”

    “Once we manage to reverse engineer Clan technology,” he said.

    She made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “We have captured enough technicians to work things out.” Technology was Blessed Blake’s domain, after all. ComStar’s brightest scientists wouldn’t have trouble duplicating and then improving on what weapons some barbarian horde had managed to invent. The next time the Com Guards met the Clans, they would enjoy a technological advantage.

    “We will also need to help the KungsArmé with rebuilding their forces,” Anastasius continued.

    “We’re in negotiations with the Free Worlds League about purchasing ‘Mechs from them,” she replied. The old designs would be good enough for the KungsArmé. It wouldn’t do to let them grow too strong - the Rasalhague people were currently very grateful for ComStar’s assistance, but that might change in the future. As long as they depended on ComStar for their defence, though, they wouldn’t grow too independent.

    Anastasius nodded but did not comment - as she had expected. He despised politics but was no stranger to them.

    Which made her switching subjects so amusing. “As long as the Clans remain a threat, the Federated Commonwealth and the Draconis Combine should be unlikely to start another war. This provides us with an opportunity to foster more unity among the realms of the Inner Sphere.”

    He made a noise that she knew signalled grudging acknowledgement.

    “And Thomas can be bribed with new technology,” she went on. “Which will balance the realms out a little more.”

    “Yes.”

    “It will take at least a decade to build up enough forces to be able to invade the Clans’ homeworlds, right?”

    “That’s our most optimistic estimate. A few decades would be more realistic, given current JumpShip and warship production rates.” He looked at her.

    She knew what he meant. ComStar was already producing JumpShips in increasing numbers, but that could be improved even further. On the other hand, the longer the truce between the realms held, the better - for ComStar and humanity. The Reunification War had been the birth of the Star League. A counter-invasion of the Clan homeworlds a few decades from now might see the Star League’s rebirth - under ComStar’s leadership, of course.

    Blake’s will would be done.

    *****​

    ‘Terra is the cradle of humanity! The brightest star of the Inner Sphere! When the Succession Wars brought chaos and ruin down upon countless worlds, Terra preserved both the knowledge and culture of humanity as it remained at peace in the midst of war. But now a new danger has risen, threatening everyone - and merely protecting Terra itself is no longer enough. We must, once more, step up and do the right thing for the whole of humanity. The Com Guards, guardians of peace and those who cannot protect themselves, must now fight to protect humanity and Terra against the barbarian hordes of the Clans!’
    - Excerpt from ‘Why We Must Fight’ by Clarence Hill, New York, 3051


    *****​

    ‘I was certainly surprised at how many ComGuards fought, and that they had warships - I had thought they were merely guarding refugee camps, hospitals and HPG installations - but worried? No. They saved Rasalhague, didn’t they? Probably saved the entire Inner Sphere. I trust them more than I trust the Federated Commonwealth or the Combine. Sometimes more than our own government, to be honest.’
    - Sven Borgje, farmer, Tukayyid


    *****​

    Free Rasalhague Republic, Rasalhague, August 14th, 3051

    Tian looked far too weak on the cot in the field hospital. Pale, covered in bandages, tubes in her throat and nose, what skin was visible was bruised - a warrior should not look like that. But she was alive. Unlike all the others Ralik had fought with and later led. He had managed to save her. If only for a while - the sole reason the Com Guards had not yet overrun Alpha Galaxy’s field base was that they were busy mopping up the remains of the other Galaxies. The remains of the remains, he thought with a snort. Only Khan Radick might have considered them Galaxies.

    Two years ago he had fought his first battle in the invasion, on Ferris II. And today, he would fight his last. Ralik’s Timber Wolf - the remains of it - was standing outside the hospital. Once the Com Guards arrived, he would die defending it. As his Trinary - his Cluster, actually - had been ordered to. A Cluster consisting of a single crippled ‘Mech. A fitting end for him. He snorted again.

    “Star Captain?”

    Ralik frowned as he turned to glare at the med tech standing in the doorway behind him. “What is it? Have the Com Guards been sighted?” They were not supposed to be close enough, yet - but it would not be the first time Command had been wrong about the enemy. Far from it.

    The woman cleared her throat. “We have received orders to evacuate the hospital.”

    “Evacuate?” He frowned. Evacuate to where? There was no way out.

    “Yes. The Khan himself gave the order to fall back to a more defensible position.”

    He chuckled, briefly. Perhaps the Khan thought that the current location was not fit for their last stand. A mountain pass or other choke point would serve better, but Ralik could not recall one in the vicinity. “I see,” he said, gesturing to Tian. “Go ahead and prepare her for transport.”

    The woman chewed her lower lip, and Ralik frowned, then glared at her.

    “The Khan has given the order that all medical supplies shall be reserved for warriors that can still fight. Since warrior…” She looked at the tag on the bed’s frame. “...Tian would take at least two weeks to recover…”

    “‘Would’, med tech?” Ralik stood, towering over the woman.

    She paled and glanced at the machines keeping Tian alive. “The Khan has ordered to… to stop treating them. To preserve supplies.”

    What? What?

    Ralik drew his pistol. “What?” he snarled, not sure if he had heard wrong.

    She shrieked and raised her hands, cowering. “The Khan ordered it! It was his decision! Please!”

    Radick! Ralik clenched his teeth. That dezgra surat! To order this...

    “Please!”

    Radick had to die. But anyone else responsible for this… this betrayal… had to die as well. He aimed at the woman’s head.

    “Please! No!”

    His finger curled around the trigger. Just a little squeeze… No! This was Radick’s fault, not the snivelling lower castes’ doing his bidding.

    He took a deep, shivering breath, trembling as he raised his pistol until it pointed at the ceiling. “Get out! Leave! And if you cut power to the hospital, I will hunt you down and kill you and your comrades!”

    The woman fled.

    Ralik closed his eyes. Radick had to die for this. Ralik’s Timber Wolf was still able to walk and even sprint. He knew where the Golden Keshik was - he could reach their position. Challenge the surat to a Trial of Grievance. Kill him!

    But that would leave Tian unprotected. Helpless. Anyone - a fool of a tech, or freebirth civilian - would be able to kill her easily.

    He clenched his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut. No, he could not leave her. She was all that was left. Of their Star. Their Trinary. She was all Ralik had left. There was nothing else - Radick’s last betrayal had ensured that.

    He sat down again on the chair next to her bed and waited.

    And when he heard the vehicles outside, the soldiers jumping out, entering the hospital, he looked at the pistol in his hand, then threw it to the floor.

    *****​

    Clan Homeworlds, Ironhold, August 14th, 3051

    “You are a disgrace for the Clan!”

    Star Captain Joanna glared at the snivelling sibko in front of her. She did not want to be there, had not wanted to become a falconer. She should have died with the rest of the Falcon Guards on Sudeten. Or on Trell I, when that freebirth had shot her cockpit. But she had survived, if barely - when she had woken up, she had been halfway back to the homeworlds.

    And now she was stuck training a bunch of fledglings and she could not even get rid of all the rabble not fit to become a warrior in front of her! Walking down the line of teenagers covered in mud and shivering in the rain, she sneered. This was supposed to be the future of the Clan? The warriors who would erase the shame of her generation?

    Joanna scoffed, causing the fledgling she was walking past to jerk. She stopped and leaned towards the girl. “Look at you! Trembling at the mere sound of a warrior walking past!” she spat. “And you think you can fight? Hah!”

    The girl glared back - or tried to. Her trembling lower lip ruined the effort, though. Joanna snorted. Not that it mattered, anyway. This was a fool’s errand - not even the fledglings who were not hopeless rabble would be ready in time to defend the Clan against the Trial of Absorption anyone with half a brain knew was coming.

    The vultures were gathering, just waiting for the invasion truce to formally end. Those who had been too weak to earn the right to invade the Inner Sphere were now circling, falling over each other in their greed for the Jade Falcons’ resources. Like the Star Adders. And to add insult to injury, Joanna’s clan would be absorbed by the weakest competitors - those who did not dare to bid for the right to absorb the Wolves.

    She bared her teeth, causing the girl to flinch. Even though the Wolves had failed as badly as the Falcons, even though it had been their spies who had failed and betrayed the Clans, they were still seen as more valuable than Joanna’s own Clan.

    But no one had ever claimed that life was fair - least of all herself. She punched the girl in front of her in the stomach, doubling her over, and took a step back, continuing her walk down the sibko’s line as her victim vomited into the mud.

    It was pointless. Hopeless. But Joanna would do it anyway. She would form this rabble into a group of warriors who would at least take an enemy with them when the vultures came to feast upon her Clan’s carcass.

    As a warrior of Clan Jade Falcon, as the last survivor of the Jade Falcon Guards, she could do no less.

    *****​

    ‘At first sight, the Clan invasion looks like an obvious mistake. The distances involved, the logistics needed for such an undertaking and, most of all, the huge numerical discrepancy between the forces of the Clans and the Inner Sphere - it seems impossible that the Clans seriously planned the invasion, much less expected the operation to succeed. Not even all seventeen Clans put together would have equalled the forces of the AFFC and DCMS combined, for example.
    And yet, when one realises on what information the Clans had based their plans, one has to admit that their mistakes weren’t quite as obvious as they might seem. For the last report they had received from the Wolf’s Dragoons dated back to 3019 - when the Inner Sphere had been in the last years of the Third Succession War. Back then, warfare was generally limited to raids, not invasions. A regiment attacking a planet was considered a large-scale operation. The rarity of JumpShips and dropships severely limited strategic mobility, so even larger forces rarely managed to bring their numerical superiority to bear. Had the Clans attacked in 3020, they would have faced far weaker resistance from a far less organised and united Inner Sphere. Neither the AFFC nor the DCMS were equipped with advanced technology at the time, and the Com Guards were still in the process of being trained up to the level of a planetary militia. Whether or not the Clan invasion would have succeeded under such conditions cannot be judged with any certainty - but the battle would have certainly been much closer than the actual invasion.’
    - Excerpt from ‘The Invasion of the Clans - An Analysis’ by Jeffrey Meier, Tharkad, 3064


    *****​

    ‘Pirates. Clans. ComStar. Who cares who rules our world? None of them cares for us. The pirates only cared for themselves, and the others only want secure forward bases for their future invasions. In other words - nothing ever changes out here, other than the flags on the poles.’
    - Max Hawker, farmer, Ferris II


    *****​

    Epilogue:

    Federated Commonwealth, Outreach, November 20th, 3051

    Darren took a last look at his empty room, struggling with the desire to wreck it just to relieve a little bit of his frustration. To be evicted from his home, his world - to lose everything he and his family had built for generations… The injustice of it all galled.

    How could the Federated Commonwealth dishonour itself so? Outreach had been a backwater planet before the Dragoons had taken over. They had built its industry up, had made it a hub for business and trade. And now they were forced to leave, losing everything they had struggled and worked for! This could not stand!

    And, worse - the Dragoons, who had once been courted by every employer in the Inner Sphere, the best and most famous mercenary unit, were now forced to work for the Capellans. Contracted by the weakest realm in the Inner Sphere while other, lesser units such as the Kell Hounds and the Gray Death Legion were receiving praise and accolades for their actions in the war! A war the ungrateful fools in the Federated Commonwealth had barred the Dragoons from taking part in even though the Dragoons had prepared for decades to fight the Clans! He could barely stand the thought without wanting to hurt someone, anyone.

    It was all ComStar’s fault. They had poisoned the entire Inner Sphere against the Dragoons with their lies and plots. They had been jealous of the Dragoons’ technology and knowledge. Like the other mercenaries who had jumped at the chance to sneer at the Dragoons, jealous surats, all of them. And ComStar’s pets had murdered the Black Widow using nuclear weapons. The greatest MechWarrior of all times, killed like this - no, these people had no honour at all!

    At least the Capellans would not scorn them - the Dragoons were their only chance to keep up with the research and rearming programs of their enemies.

    Darren lifted his duffel bag on his shoulder and slammed the door. Well, they would reap what they had sowed. All of them. The Dragoons would return. It might take decades, but in the end, they would prevail. Against everyone. The Combine had learned that lesson in 3029, and the others would learn it in the future.

    Because the Dragoons were the best warriors the Inner Sphere had ever seen. And they would prove it.

    *****​

    Clan Homeworlds, Strato Domingo, February 10th, 3053

    Star Colonel Kana Arbott put down the latest report from her Star Captains - some trouble with the freeborn warriors - and rubbed her aching shoulder. The med techs claimed that the wound she had taken in the Trial of Absorption against Clan Snow Raven’s forces had completely healed, but Kana still felt it ache sometimes. It was only a nuisance, though, not a crippling injury. A reminder that things could have been worse.

    She leaned back in her seat and activated the massage function and sighed at the relief this brought to her shoulder. This chair was the best piece of isorla she had brought back with her from the invasion. If the Clan’s techs managed to duplicate it, they would reap huge profits from everyone forced to work at a desk at least part of the time.

    But it was not a priority. Not when the Clan needed to rebuild its forces, depleted twice now - first in the invasion, and then against Snow Raven. She shook her head. If the Ravens had not been so eager to get rid of their rivals to bid too low, the Diamond Sharks might have joined the ranks of the Jade Falcons, Steel Vipers, Wolves, Ghost Bears and Smoke Jaguars, all of them gone, absorbed by rivals or supposed allies. Or torn to shreds in a feeding frenzy, like the Wolves, after they threatened to hold the Kerensky legacy hostage. All in all, the whole farce, including all the Trials of Grievance following it, had probably cost every Clan involved a Galaxy or two - and Clan Wolf everything.

    Ah, well - good riddance to them. They hadn’t had the sense to see a losing battle and retreat in time, unlike her Clan and the Nova Cats. The weak and the foolish perished, strengthening the smart and the strong. That was the Clan way.

    And her Clan had proved itself both smart and strong, winning their trial and then convincing the rest of the Clans, who had been busy looking for someone to blame for the failed invasion, someone in addition to the conveniently dead ilKhan, of course, that they needed to prepare for an invasion by the Inner Sphere, and, therefore, needed another truce.

    She chuckled. There would not be an invasion for at least a decade, of course - the logistics were too much for the Inner Sphere. But the other Clans had not fought the freebirths and would not realise that.

    Which would give her Clan more than enough time to rebuild and prepare. For all eventualities.

    After all, there was an opportunity for profit in almost every situation. The Diamond Sharks knew this better than everyone else - even with the losses they had taken, they had still made a small profit from providing supplies and transportation in the first phase of the invasion.

    *****​

    Solar System, Titan Shipyards, March 25th, 3053

    Floating in microgravity in front of a window, Precentor Angela Stahl smiled at the sight of her new command - or what would be her new command once she was finished. Right now, the future CSV Subtle Wit was still barely more than a hull being worked on. But what a hull! Angela would always remember the CSV Knowledge Is Power fondly - no captain ever forgot their first command - but in front of her was no converted Star League frigate, but a purpose-built stealth frigate.

    The rest of the Fleet might gush over the new CSV Conrad Toyama, the future flagship of the Fleet, dwarfing even a modernised Texas-class, but Angela knew that without ships like her old and her future command, the big battleships wouldn’t ever find their targets. Stealth ships would be the vanguard of the next war, sneaking through enemy territory and providing the crucial information that would let the Fleet defeat the Clans. And protect the ground pounders on the way down.

    She smiled. The ground forces might have taken the brunt of the casualties and were currently being rebuilt and expanded, but the Fleet was the senior service. The Shield and Sword of the Order.

    And since an invasion of the Clan homeworlds would need far more warships and jumpships than were presently available, that would remain so - the shipyards were working around the clock to not only replace the losses they had taken but expand the fleet.

    Even with the Successor States launching their own warship programs, and the handful of inferior ships the Dragoons had, the Order would remain the dominant naval power in the Inner Sphere for the foreseeable future.

    Which meant Angela’s own future was secure as well.

    *****​

    Federated Commonwealth, New Avalon, NAIS Testing Grounds, April 7th, 3053

    Leftenant Marcy “Mac” Fernandez didn’t bother to hide her frown as she eyed the tank in front of her.

    “What’s wrong?” Beckett asked. “Isn’t this the tank we need to test?”

    “It is,” Marcy replied. “But I’m not sure I like what they have done to this poor Manticore.”

    “It looks exactly like the pictures in the manual,” Beckett pointed out.

    “Yes. Right down to the missing laser turret.”

    “Ah.” Beckett nodded. “The improved PPC is supposed to compensate,” she went on. “Longer range as well as more effective at close range.”

    “Yes, emphasis on ‘supposed’,” Marcy grumbled. She held up a hand when Beckett opened her mouth to reply again. “I know, I know - studies showed that the tank’s effective firepower wouldn’t have been reduced in most engagements since the added range and precision up close more than made up for the loss of the laser. I’m just not sure I would agree.” If faced with an elemental coming too close, she’d rather have one more weapon to fire than a slightly more precise PPC - a surplus extended range PPC, as far as she knew, inferior to the latest generation which were based on reverse-engineered Clan weapons. And losing a ton of armour didn’t sit well with her either.

    “Isn’t that what we’re here to test, ma’am?”

    Marcy didn’t have to look at her gunner to know Beckett had her ‘I disagree, but you’re the officer’ face. Ah, well - the girl would enjoy that soon enough; Marcy was planning to recommend her for officer’s school in a few months. If Peters could make it, Beckett would excel there. “We’ll see. I don’t intend to go easy on the thing,” she said. “As soon as the testing range is open, of course.”

    Beckett checked her noteputer. “It’s still occupied by the ‘Mech tests.”

    Marcy snorted. Some things never changed. And ‘Mechs having priority was one of those things. “Let’s hope we’ll get on the range before the evening, at least.”

    “Do you think it’ll take that long?” Beckett asked.

    Marcy chuckled. “I hope it won’t, but… with all the rumours about OmniMechs of our own being developed, and even the snakes building one - who knows what they are testing there?” Certainly not a tank crew temporarily detached for testing a tank. “What do you think, Kowalski?”

    Their driver looked up from where he had been peering into the hatch of the tank. “Driver’s seat looks the same.”

    And that would be enough for him, Marcy knew. In the end, it wouldn’t matter anyway - they would test the thing, write their report, and the brass would then decide whatever they wanted no matter what the tests said. Probably scrap the Manticore upgrade in favour of ‘focusing on new ‘Mechs’ or something.

    Marcy could live with that.

    *****​

    Terra, Alberta, August 14th, 3054

    Ralik saw the aircar on the landing pad as he piloted his ‘Mech towards the garage. He had expected it - Tian would never miss their ‘anniversary’ if she could help it. Neither would he, of course - although since he was not a training officer for the ComGuards, but a mere farmer and lumberjack, he doubted he would have to miss an anniversary. Especially since they were being held on his farm. It was Tian’s too, of course, but she did not work there.

    He parked the GM Excelsior AgroMech, checked the maintenance log, flicked the piece of armour from his of Timber Wolf which was dangling on a chain from the cockpit frame and climbed out.

    Tian was waiting for him on the porch, a bottle and two glasses standing on the small table there.

    “Good evening,” he said, smiling, as he took his usual seat.

    “Good evening.”

    He did not ask how her day at been, and she did not ask about his. If nothing bad had happened, then it had been a good day.

    They waited in silence until the sun began to set. Then Ralik filled the two glasses, handed one to her and took the other. Raising it, he started to speak.

    “Rylian. Brell. Sepha. Beata. Kenta. Olef. Lionel. Glen.”

    Then they both drank. The whisky burned in his throat, as usual - neither of them drank alcohol, not even beer, unless on this occasion.

    They remained in silence until the sun had set, then went inside to have dinner. Nothing fancy - neither of them was a good cook.

    “There is still a position open in the Com Guards,” she said later, when they were in bed, arms around each other.

    “It has been open for years,” he answered.

    “Yes.”

    He shook his head and felt her nod in response. She would ask the same question next year as well. And his answer would be the same. He was no officer - everyone in his Star apart from Tian had died on his orders. All he was, all he had ever been, was a MechWarrior.

    And he did not want to be a warrior any more.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2019
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