Crossover The Greater Game (Babylon 5/BattleTech)

Or she becomes obsessed with him. Didnt she have naughty dreams about him at some point?
In the Warrior Trilogy, during the wedding arc, she did have on-page fantasies about seducing Justin Xiang during their time on Terra. Of course, that may just have been a manifestation of extreme sibling rivalry: Justin was romancing Candace at the time, and Romano might've only wanted to steal him for the simple fact that he was Candace's new favourite toy....
In the Warrior Trilogy, during the wedding arc, she did have on-page fantasies about seducing Justin Xiang during their time on Terra. Of course, that may just have been a manifestation of extreme sibling rivalry: Justin was romancing Candace at the time, and Romano might've only wanted to steal him for the simple fact that he was Candace's new favourite toy....
Women, am I right?/jk

17:24 hours
Celestial palace

“Pack those files! Just shove them in a bag!” Colonel Dubrov worked as fast as he could, frantically emptying cabinets full of documents and stuffing them into whatever was at hand, clawing open drawer after drawer as fast as his hands could manage. One of the quirks of his department was that many records were still recorded on paper as a security measure. Hacking a manila envelope was, of course, impossible, but it also meant that moving them was far more difficult. It hadn't been considered a problem, after all, who was going to storm the heart of the Confederation?

“Get those interrogation reports!” He gestured sharply for one of his subordinates, his small squad of six people loading bags and boxes onto a trolley. “Forget the transcripts, just the key notes, first few pages of every file!”

The gunfire was still distant but it was definitely getting closer, the clatter of automatic rifles mixed with the hiss and sizzle of the attacker's plasma weapons. They had recovered a few from the EA transport ship and while lacking in range, the weapons were very nasty in close quarter battle.

“What about the...” One of his squad began to ask a question and then just stopped mid sentence, suddenly frozen.

“About what?” Dubrov turned to the man. “Mikhail, what? Spit it out!”

Mikhail remained totally still for another few moments, then in one unbidden fluid movement, unholstered his sidearm, placed the muzzle under his chin, and pulled the trigger.

The rest of the squad bolted for cover, crouching behind whatever desks or nearby office furniture, preparing their fight or flight responses. There was no enemy visible, just the sight of their comrade falling to the ground and their Colonel speckled with blood.

“He... he just shot himself.” Dubrov was saying the words, but hadn't grasped the reality yet. These people were his staff, interrogators or assistants to them. They were iron willed and in most cases, quite psychopathic. He had never expected one to crack and commit suicide so abruptly. Despite the unprecedented situation, they all seemed to be managing it. A distant rumble shuddered the office, a prompt reminder to him of the task at hand. “Keep packing! We leave in five minutes with whatever we've got!”

The squad turned back to their work, all but one who turned his back on the files and stood ramrod straight.

“Kay...” Dubrov immediately went on guard. “Kay, what is it? Don't you snap on me too!”

“I can't move, Comrade Colonel!” The trooper replied, terror edging his voice. “I can't... nothing is moving! I can't move my body!”

“Get a grip, it's a panic attack. You aren't frontline soldiers, I know this, but you must do what I...”

“It's not that, Colonel!” Kay shouted, eyes wide with fear. “I...I...”

Kay's arm moved without any prompting, again unholstering his sidearm and raising it to his chin. This time though, Dubrov acted, rushing forward and seizing the weapon. Kay brought up his other hand to the grip, the two men struggling against each other, the younger trooper slowly winning out as the muzzle inched closer to his chin.

“Colonel!” Kay screamed at his superior officer, his voice earsplitting at this distance. “Stop it! Stop me! I'm not doing...”

His words were interrupted by the passage of a large caliber bullet through his throat, the interrogator dropping to the ground in a heap of bent limbs.

That was enough for the rest of the squad. The remaining four abandoned whatever they were doing and bolted for the exits without looking back, shoving chairs and desks out of their way with grinding screeches. Dubrov called after them, but they didn't care. This was something far outside their understanding or ability to resist. They wisely chose to be somewhere else.

“Stop! Halt!” Dubrov yelled after the terrified squad, his own voice starting to crack as the situation spiraled out of his control. “Halt!”

To his particular surprise, they actually did, all four skidding to a stop. His relief was short lived.

“Squad! Form honor guard!” Corporal Elena barked sharply, the NCO's eyes showing a mix of confusion and abject terror. The three troopers lined up, Elena falling in beside them and saluting at nothing. Dubrov had no idea what was happening, no clue what these bizarre and deadly theatrics meant. He drew his laser pistol and gripped it tight, scanning for trouble, for some source of this madness. A moment later, he found it.

From the side of the room emerged a half dozen black shadows. Formless and amorphous at first, they resolved into human shapes, each wearing baggy black clothing. The closest one unfastened a covering over his face and drew back the hood over his head, showing black eyes locked in an ice cold smirk.

“Colonel Dubrov, Alfred Bester. Pleased to meet you.” He walked past the four saluting soldiers, suddenly halting. “Ah, of course, stand at ease.” He returned a theatrical salute and clicked his heels, the squad lowering their hands, bodies rigid and faces tight with panic.

“Who are you!?” Dubrov roared in fury born of fear. “Did you do this?”

“To answer your questions in order, I just told you who I am, and yes, we did this.” He gestured at the other still shrouded figures. “And we are still doing it. You and all your people are under our complete control. Don't believe me?” He stretched out his arms. “Take your best shot.”

Dubrov leveled his pistol and pulled the trigger, except he didn't. He made the motions, sent the command, willed it to happen, but instead he could only watch dumbstruck as his hand holstered his pistol against every impulse and command his brain sent it.

“I don't expect you to understand, and I don't care if you do.” Bester advanced. “I need you to answer a question. Where are the hostages?”

“Hostages? I have no idea.”

“Hmm.” Bester pursed his lips. “Byron, three.”

Bester didn't even turn around, entrusting the task to his unit. This time, the three troopers still standing in line in perfect unison took their weapons, placed them to their heads, and fired leaving just Dubrov and Corporal Elena, the woman screaming at the top of her lungs.

“Silence,” Bester said softly, Elena's voice immediately dying, leaving her still trying to scream and shout, but creating no sound. “Colonel, we both know that isn't true. Where are the hostages? Oh, and if you lie to me again, the future will not be looking very bright for Elena here.”

Dubrov's eyes flickered between the corporal and Bester, his mind racing, trying to find a way out. If he admitted what he knew, he'd be admitting he was a part of this, and if he did that he didn't fancy his prospects.

“I'm telling you I don't know!”

“Colonel, you really haven't figured out who I am, have you?” Bester sighed. “Fine.”

This time it was Corporal Elena who went through the motions, fighting vainly to resist, but utterly powerless. She pressed the gold gun barrel to her neck, eyes streaming tears as she looked pleadingly at her Colonel.

“Last chance to do the right thing.” Bester gave one last offer.

“I can't help you.” It was a lie, one he told to Bester and Elena simultaneously.

“Pity.” Bester raised a hand and clicked his fingers, the noise lost in the final gunshot. “But not unexpected. I wanted to know what kind of man you were, if you would put yourself above the lives of your loyal soldiers. Now I know.”

“If there was something I could do to...” Dubrov stuttered.

“Of course you know where they are. I pulled it from your mind five minutes ago and sent it to my allies. They are probably already storming the cells.” Bester waved away dismissively. “My official role in this mission ended after that message was sent. What I'm doing now, this isn't on the record.”

He approached the Colonel. Bester was considerably shorter and far less physically powerful, but he radiated absolute dominance in this situation. For all his cunning and ruthless brutality, Dubrov was utterly helpless.

“What happens now, Colonel, is very personal.”

“I... I don't understand? You pulled it from my mind?” Dubrov laughed nervously. “Well, whatever it is, you have what you want, yes?”

“I have what my superiors wanted, but I want something more. Do you remember Nigel Morrison?” Bester tilted his head. “You do, I see it, you know who I mean. He was only a diplomat, but he turned fourteen of your best commandos into vegetables. You were right to fear him, and you are starting to understand. He was different, more than human, just as we are. Nigel was one of my people. You had him killed, and I am not a forgiving sort of person.”

“I was just following orders.”

“Yes, but it was your idea to mutilate his body. Use his severed head as a negotiating tool. You can't hide the truth, Colonel.” Bester grimaced. “If you had simply killed him, then it would have cost you your life, but it would have been clean. Now, after this little showcase,” he waved at the dead squad, “it won't be clean.”

“We can negotiate, the documents here are vital, the secrets, blackmail material...”

“I don't give a damn for your mundane posturing and games,” Bester cut him off. “Nothing in here means anything to us. If we want your secrets, we'll take them.”

He took a step closer.

“Have you ever wondered what boiling in oil feels like, Colonel? To be cooked alive? Well, I have good news and bad news.”

“You can't, you don't have time to do that, you can't!”

“You tortured a few people to death that way, didn't you? Well, justice is about to start rhyming. I am going to make your brain think your nerve endings are telling it you are being cooked in oil, and the best bit is, I'm also going to interrupt the part of your brain that shuts down in shock. You get to feel it until you die. Which will be what? About three days?”

“The last one made it to five,” one of the shrouded men said.

“You'll die of dehydration, because you will be too busy screaming to drink,” Bester informed helpfully. “Funny fact, when we started doing this, our first test subjects ended up swallowing their own tongues and choking to death, far too quick. So Colonel, I'm going to need you to stick out your tongue. As far as you can.”

Dubrov battled with every ounce of will to resist, to keep his mouth shut. He failed.

“Good.” Bester stared directly into Dubrov's eyes, seeing the terror of all of the Colonel's past victims and making sure his crimes were at the front of his mind in these last moments of lucidity. “Now, Colonel, bite.”

“Fucking Hetzers.” Jaime backtracked hard as a streak of black and orange sailed past his canopy, an AC20 shell that took the top two floors off the building behind him, buffeting his Archer with the shockwave and clattering debris off his hull like rain.

“I got him, flanking right.” Natasha sounded as gleeful as ever, the joy of piloting her mech through the carnage still ever so slightly unnerving, even to a veteran like Jaime. He could appreciate the thrill of battle, understand the pride and satisfaction in victory, but he had never really gone so far as enjoying it. Not like that anyway. He caught glimpses of the jet black Marauder between the shattered buildings, the machine moving with a speed and precision it had no right to, Natasha deftly lining up on the Capellan ambush party and blasting them from the far side of a hotel, obliterating its glass facade.

“Good kill,” Jaime confirmed, the red dots on his screen blinking off as his sensors updated.

“Good kill? That was an amazing kill! Did you see I shot them through a hotel?”

“I saw.” Jaime broke a laugh despite himself. “I'm not reading anything else in this district.”

“Move on?”

“No, we're starting to get strung out.” Jaime looked at the bigger picture. “They might be trying to draw us further from the dropships. Hold here.”

“Aff.” Natasha pulled back, for all her fighting spirit, she was still in complete control. She returned to her post beside the Archer, guns constantly tracking. “Muskat is dead, ejected into a bridge.”

“Was he a newby? I don't know the name.”

“Yeah, six months in,” she confirmed. “Going to need more after today, we've lost seven so far.”

The city was turning into a nightmare to fight through, the burning buildings laying black smoke over several districts, limiting their line of sight. The roads had been cracked and churned up by impacts, and the heavier mechs, coupled with the countless bricks and lumps of concrete, made traction extremely difficult. Just moving back and forth, Jaime had seen several mechs slip a little on the loose ground. It would be worse when the real fight began. On top of that, broken water mains and gas pipes sprayed water or flame from the streets at random places.

The water at least had some utility beyond making the ground even harder to navigate. His Lance took turns to stand in the jet of water spouting from a broken fire hydrant, the icy liquid cooling off their heatsinks faster than the air alone.

“Wolf Command, Agamemnon, are you receiving?”

“Wolf here, go.” Jaime switched instantly back on task.

“Movement in your sector, we're seeing a major attack forming up.” The radio voice from the warship relayed. “Updating your tactical displays.”

Jaime quickly checked, a mass of new red dots approaching from the west.

“Aggy, any chance of a little fire support?”

“Negative, rules of engagement forbid strikes within the city limits.”

“That's what I thought you were going to say.” He exhaled a long breath. “We'll hold them here.”

“Command reports we almost have the hostages, won't be long now.”

“No hurry,” Jaime quipped. “Appreciate the heads up, Wolf out.”

He closed the channel and took a moment to center himself, ordering his mind and aligning his thoughts. This was what they were here for.

“Alpha Regiment, consolidate your position and prepare for frontal attack. Hostile mechs on approach, approximately three regiments. Get into overlapping positions and stay mobile. They'll be expecting a static defense, don't get caught flat footed.”

His battalion and company commanders sent confirmation. No words were needed, just taps on their comms gear. The entire unit altered their posture, loosening up and finding suitable ground to engage from. He was outnumbered, but in urban terrain, that wasn't as bad as it sounded. If his units stayed mobile, if his line flexed and bent instead of trying to remain solid and brittle, if he gave ground and absorbed the momentum of the attack... they could do this.

“Three Regiments.” Natasha tapped into the images sent down from the destroyers overhead. “There's our Red Lancers, Prefecture Guards... Capellan Reserves in there too?”

“Looks like.” Jaime checked his missile status, flicking the master arm switch, and tapping the regimental channel. “All long range units, standby LRM salvo. Give them half now, keep half to cover the withdrawal.”

“No Imarra units though, I was hoping.” She sighed. “I guess they're too far away. Think some will get here in time?”

“Doubt it, if they try to march down here, Sheridan will atomize them as soon as they reach open ground.” Which Jaime was very happy about. “You'll have to make do with the Liao household guards.”

“Maybe next time.”

He had to smile at the pure confidence encased in that black Marauder.

“They're not coming in all at once, I'd guess they are converging as multiple small units,” she observed. “It won't be a disciplined attack, but I'll bet they give it everything.”

The red and orange sky was filled with a call of trumpets mingling with the rumble of machines, bugles broadcast from the incoming mechs sounding the charge. Like many old regiments, the elites of House Liao held many traditions and practices from the distant past, the piercing call of Chinese bugles among them.

“If I wasn't so well armed, that might be a little unnerving.” Natasha ran the servos and myomers to check for faults, the Marauder looking like a dog shaking itself out. “Where do we go?”

“Anywhere the enemy breaks through.” Jaime tapped a few controls, the armored covers shielding his missiles popping open at the command. He stepped out from cover and into the rubble strewn avenues of the Forbidden city, the approaching Capellan mechs creating clouds of dust as they barreled through buildings in their path. “Still glad you came along?”

“This is where I belong.” Natasha spoke with simple truth. “Come on, let's take this up a notch.”

“Aff.” Jaime found he'd forgotten his nerves, the infectious confidence of his friend making him believe they might actually live through this. “Missile units, barrage pattern, open fire.”

The Archer's missiles ripple fired, tiny pulse rocket engines throwing them clear of the machine before the main thruster ignited with a tearing sound, pouring white smoke behind it. It was a little risky to salvo off half the arsenal at once, but today was a day for risk taking, the entire line shrouded as dozens of LRMs from an assortment of mechs filled the sky. Some came from Archers, some from the small number of Catapults and Trebuchets, the rest from whatever forward units had a few slapped on. It was a good barrage and, as expected of the Dragoons, fell exactly on target, but just as much of the earlier Capellan strike had been blunted by buildings, so too were the Dragoons' missiles.

The impacts were impressive, mushrooms of flame and black smoke shattering the target area, but the actual damage was limited, the brunt of the force absorbed by apartment blocks that crumbled into concrete dust. A few Capellan mechs fell, but most wisely took cover and let the missiles fall before advancing. That was good enough for the Dragoons, it gave them a few precious moments where the Capellan advance stopped.

“Alpha Regiment, move forward and engage! All units engage!”

While the strike hadn't done much damage, it did sow confusion. As the leading wave stopped or slowed down, the follow up units ran into them, creating knots and clusters of mechs. It wouldn't take long for the elite Capellans to shake themselves up and go back on the attack. That small window of opportunity was Wolf's best chance to maul the enemy and buy a little more time.

As one, the regiment attacked, the loose formation breaking from cover and closing the range as quickly as possible. The urban terrain had separated them into smaller groups, a lance or two in each cluster, with the by-now burning and ruined remnants of the residential district splitting the force and interfering with their lines of fire. It wasn't ideal, but was affecting the Capellans just the same, turning this from a regimental battle into instead a cluster of small unit actions. Jaime welcomed that, he was supremely confident that in these kinds of fights where skill counted for everything, his Dragoons would triumph.

The Dragoons seized positions close to the Capellans, within optimal firing range but outside point blank. They wanted a close range gunnery duel, not a melee where Capellan numbers would tip the scales. Instead, they picked their spots, levelled their weapons, and delivered every joule of firepower they could muster into the still reorganising hostiles. It was a ferocious fusillade, the sudden aggression surprising the Capellans, who had expected to meet dug in enemies, not an assault. Several units staggered and fell, the sheer weight of gunfire breaking them down and overwhelming their armour. The first casualties dropped smoking to the ground or collapsed into shot up buildings. It was a deadly opening salvo delivered with precision and fury. Most opponents would have collapsed then and there.

Not today. Not here. Not these warriors. Capellans were not renowned for their bravery, their reputation was more for cunning and underhanded deeds, but these were the defenders of the Chancellor, the custodians of House Liao itself giving battle in the Forbidden City on Sian. They were the elite, better than most and they fought under the eyes of the Daughter of Liao. They did not break, did not panic as they received the volley. They stepped over the dead and disabled and fired back with even greater fury, giving the Dragoons back their salvo with interest.

“Weight the flanks, they will try to get around behind us,” Jaime warned, keeping a very close eye on his tactical display. Smoke had rendered visual scans useless and the Agamemnon was now beaming down infrared pictures, but even they were starting to flicker as more fires and explosions erupted across the line. “Baker, wheel left a few degrees, there's a heavy company moving up.”

“Heavy Lance coming in, dead ahead,” Natasha called a warning. “I got it, Vordel, on my six, fire support.”

Jaime was too busy juggling formations to get involved at this point, much as he may have wanted to. Instead, that privilege fell to Captain Kerensky and Junior Lieutenant Hans Vordel's Victor, a pair quite suited to the task. Both advanced with speed toward the front, Natasha sweeping around a cluster of Dragoons blasting a steady chain of gunfire into some Capellan light mechs that had picked the wrong part of the line to attack. More dangerous though was the reinforced Lance trying to break through a public library and open up a new line of attack. That was Natasha’s target.

“Reading two Orions, two Centurions,” Vordel updated. “Do we need back up?”

Natasha answered with a laugh. “Just put some fire on those Centurions. No need to get close, I'll go tease them.”

They were already within two hundred metres. Vordel's idea of close obviously was not the same as Kerensky's. Still, he wasn't going to argue and pounded forward the last few strides down a torn up intersection and turned right to get a clean shot between the buildings at the incoming hostiles. The Capellans had successfully stomped through the library, pulverising countless works of indoctrination, and were forming up to flank the command Lance when they met a salvo from Vordel's Victor. His aim was true, a massive AC20 shell whistling across the short distance, hitting a Centurion at less than seventy metres, peeling apart its LRM launcher and triggering a magazine explosion. The pilot automatically ejected as the remnants of the mech fell sideways, serving to focus all attention on Vordel.

He immediately backtracked, loosing off a pair of SRMs that grazed an Orion, forcing it to duck as it opened fire, sending a brace of AC10 shots ploughing into the buildings beside him in showers of glass and bits of furniture. He returned fire from his medium lasers, but even a Dragoon wasn't going to land a hit on an evading target while sliding into cover himself. He managed to ignite a few piles of surviving books, so not a totally wasted shot, then soaked up a direct hit from another AC10 that rattled his teeth before he made it back to the intersection.

Vordel anchored himself and prepared to make his stand. He had tall buildings on both sides and was using one for cover. It wouldn't survive long, but it would absorb at least some hits while he fired back. Two Orions and a Centurion were steep odds, but a Victor was a beast of a mech in urban combat, and he just needed to keep them busy until Natasha did something stupidly heroic.

The Capellans were smart. The two Orions began blasting the building Vordel was behind, while the Centurion acted as security, guarding the flanks and defending the Orions as they carefully moved up. The Victor leaned out of cover to fire another shot from its monstrous cannon, a pair of well placed hits throwing off his aim at the last moment, causing the valuable shell to hit the ground and crater the road pointlessly. He cursed and pulled back, the two Orions advancing in unison behind staggered laser fire, making sure he didn't have any windows of opportunity. They were definitely better than the average Capellan.

He was contemplating giving ground and finding a better spot when a black shape skidded with a screech of metal on concrete into the hollowed out library in a shower of burning books that fluttered like embers around it. The black machine hadn't even finished sliding before it opened fire, a pair of PPC blasts striking the Orions from behind, while the top mounted AC10 barked at the Centurion. Natasha had finished her flanking move, dodging the battle, and was now in position to bracket the Capellan lance. A great idea in most situations, but with only two mechs, was extremely risky. The Capellans were skilled enough to simply concentrate on one target at a time and defeat them in detail. The forward Orion halted and shifted position to keep Vordel under fire, while the second teamed up with the Centurion to engage Natasha's Marauder.

Ordinarily, this was a good tactic and the Capellans were flexible enough to make it work. Vordel was grudgingly impressed by how swiftly they changed priorities and adopted the new orders, but this was not an ordinary battle. This was a battle against Natasha Kerensky.

The Marauder moved with the speed and fluidity of a machine a quarter of its size, Natasha pushing the myomers almost to their limits. She lunged forward toward the Centurion, pounding forward and depressing the knees of the machine to lower her profile and throw off the aim of her opponent. The Centurion also moved, dodging to the left as she lined up on it like a shark fixating on its prey, the sleek hull of the Marauder a terrifying sight no matter the pilot. He managed a hit with his lasers that scored the upper armour in a flash of steam, but was far too close to evade retaliation.

Echoing Vordel's earlier tactic, she fired on the chest mounted LRM launcher, putting two PPC spears clean through the rack, peeling away its protection and following up with an AC10 into the now exposed magazine. Most pilots, even at this sort of range, would have been lucky to hit such a small target with one weapon. Natasha nailed it with all three, precisely timed for maximum effect. The Centurion detonated and wobbled but remained upright, a good quarter of its mass redistributed across the high rent district, with an arm hooking itself on the sixth floor of a luxury complex.

She was at the top of her game, moving on a combination of killer instinct and perfectly honed training. She knew where she had to be, had her position plotted several steps ahead, knew her firing arcs, her expected enemy responses, the optimal placement for gunfire, for evasion. She was already figuring out which part of the line to hit next. She just needed to mop up here.

That was when things got a little tricky. The lead Orion was piloted by an actual veteran mechwarrior, someone who deserved to be in that cockpit. Wolf's Dragoons were famous, and Natasha Kerensky in particular was well known as an Ace of Aces, piloting a signature Black Marauder. In those seconds, he understood who he was up against, hastily re-evaluated his position, and began ripple firing every weapon in his arsenal, heat build up be damned.

That sudden barrage caused Natasha to deviate from her plan, the sudden wall of LRMs something of a surprise. The range was, of course, far too short for the weapons to be a serious problem. They were inside their minimum arming range, so anything that did actually strike her just spiralled away or shattered in a brief flash of igniting fuel. It did, however, obscure her vision and rob her of a clean gun kill. Instead, she would have to get closer, past the exhaust smoke. It was risky, but she did not hesitate, grin plastering her face, digging the heel of the mech into the road surface with a crunch and making the best use she could of the relatively close confines to charge.

The Orion was expecting something like this. Natasha's reputation for aggression was not much of a secret, but expecting a threat and beating that threat were two very different things. He had rippled off his missiles partially to create a sixty thousand C-Bill smokescreen, but mostly to empty his magazines. He'd seen two of his brethren killed by precise magazine hits, that was a clear pattern of attack, and he had no doubt Natasha would try the same on him. It had filled up his heatsinks and the temperature in the cockpit had spiked to jungle conditions, but it didn't matter. If he made even one error, he wouldn't live long enough to cook.

He called in his last Lance member, the second Orion currently engaging Vondrel's Victor. Turning their backs on such a dangerous machine was a near suicidal risk, but neglecting to put all their guns on the Black Marauder was deemed worse. It was rapidly apparent this was turning into a no win scenario, but if they could at least take down Kerensky, it would be worth it. His brother also salvoed every remaining LRM, granting him the same obscuring smoke for a few moments from the Victor. Those few moments were probably twice as long as they expected the fight to last.

Natasha charged ahead, firing lasers blind into the smoke. It was pure guesswork, but her guesses were better than most warrior's calculations. The left hand laser hit the lead Orion, the beam causing little damage to the heavy armour, but providing a sudden burst of heat and light that gave the Marauder something to shoot at. She followed up with an AC10 round that cracked into the still obscured Orion, pinging pieces of broken armour from its hull, then ducked her warmachine into a crouch to avoid the inevitable return fire. The Marauder complained, its metal groaning but holding together as she abused the controls, massive grin still firmly affixed to her face. Gunfire from both Orions went overhead, missing by mere inches, and smashed into buildings, showering her with concrete. The retaliation was surprisingly good, if not for her sudden evasion, they would have caught her in a well placed crossfire. That gained her respect - bringing these two down would be a privilege.

She made a final lunge out of the smoke, bringing her level with the lead Orion, the second one about fifty metres further back and reloading. She put all her attention on the leader, the Capellan warrior already swinging an arm at the Marauder, anticipating exactly her tactics. She decided to absorb the hit, her forward momentum and the shape of the Marauder ensuring it was little more than a glancing blow that slid down the hull, in order to get in close behind the Orion.

This small fight was, in that second, over. They both realised it at the same time. Natasha had one arm pointed at the back of the mech's knees, the other close to the reactor, and her top mounted gun locked on the Orion's cockpit. She fired the arm guns together, the lasers cutting through the weak points while she held back the PPCs. It was enough to trigger an emergency shutdown and caused the mech to lose balance. She held fire with the AC10 for a long moment, locking eyes with the Capellan pilot, a grey bearded warrior just a few metres away. She gave him that moment to punch the ejection button, to save himself, an act of pure respect to a fellow warrior. He made no move to do so. Instead he chose his fate, gave Natasha a quick salute, and accepted his final defeat.

Natasha granted his unspoken request. Among the Clans, such an end was glorious, a honourable death in battle with a worthy foe, especially for a warrior nearing the end of his career. She admired his resolve and skill, this unnamed mechwarrior, and when she noted the kill in her logbook, she'd drink to his courage.

That left one more target. The final Orion had finished reloading and was bracing to fire. This one wasn't as experienced or skilled, but at least had the nerve to stay still and provide a steady platform for his AC10. Again, that earned a little respect. Standing fast after watching your whole Lance torn down in less than thirty seconds was no small achievement. She pushed the motors again, threw the Marauder into a sharp right swerve to try and bounce the cannon shot, but in the end didn't need to. The Orion was enveloped in an explosion from behind, Vondrel putting an AC20 into its already weakened back armour and hollowing out the torso.

“Good shot.” Natasha observed this pilot did eject, in another five or six years he might make a real opponent. “Anyone else?”

“Not here, command needs us to help Charlie Battalion.”

“With me then. You did good keeping up,” Natasha allowed. “These guys are as good as they pretend to be, watch your back.”

“Aff Captain.”

“Kill them quick, get in close and destroy them.” She ordered. “This is a fight for the history books, keep alive to read how awesome I am.”

From a distance, the battle was a lot like the simulations she had run, the view from the air conditioned cockpit detached from the visceral reality of the frontlines. Romano watched the smoke rising and noted the flash of weapons fire and billowing explosions. She could cross reference with her tactical displays and work out which unit was engaging where, how far they were advancing, how much damage they were doing. She could also watch the status displays of the mechs in battle, seeing the icons go from green to yellow to red and finally to black. Sometimes, it took minutes for a unit to gradually wear down, sometimes it was instant. She watched mech after mech turn black on the screen, sometimes matching it with a distant explosion, rarely with a fluttering parachute.

It was, from her position, no different from a simulation, but this time there was no reset button. Her icons didn't all turn green again at the end of the fight, ready for a repeat attempt, the city did not restore itself, the comrades she had met did not take their seats at her table to praise or chide her. While she had no responsibility in this fight, she still felt it, she carried the weight of her name and the knowledge that one day she would be the one directing fights like this. She would send those green icons forward and when they winked out, it would be her fault. This was just a small hint at what was to come, and the way things were going, future battles for the Confederation might end up very brutal indeed.

“Mistress Liao.” She snapped back to the present as Albemarle's voice crackled in her headset. “Are you able to bring up the next wave? They need to be organised for deployment.”

“Yes, I can do that,” Romano affirmed eagerly. “Leave it to me.”

Glad to have a task to do, she backed up her Highlander and walked away from the command lance, the leadership of the Red Lancers keeping her safe, but also recognising the value in letting Romano see them at work. They were professionals, confident in victory, but not arrogant. They knew they were going to win, not because they were the celebrated elite of Liao, but because they had the numbers, the training, and the motivation. Albemarle was throwing units into a frontal attack, but she wasn't been wasteful with lives. Her units were well supported and arrayed to apply pressure across Jaime Wolf's entire line. She had him pinned down, and the next phase was to deploy the reserves and initiate a break through.

This was where Romano played her small part, marshalling the break through force and bringing them up to their jump off points. It was straight forward enough but with three Regiments all mixed in together and with reinforcements arriving in small groups, rather than organized companies, she had to do a little juggling.

“Red Company, Green Company, assembly here.” She used her tools to try and sort the mass of inbound machines. “Tank units hold back, you need to deploy after the mechs go in. Don't get in their way.”

“This is White Company reporting in,” an officer checked in adding some more to her workload. “I'm missing a Lance.”

“Missing? Were they attacked?”

“Just lost, Ma'am.”

“How is that even... just march to the sound of the guns!” She grew frustrated. “Take what you have to Blossom avenue and wait for orders.”

“Yes Ma'am.”

“Red Company, you are slow! Our warriors are dying while you wander in circles! Blossom Avenue! Immediately!”

“I'm down a Lance too, Ma'am, and my scout group is somewhere with Blue Company.”

“Take what you can and assemble with the others.”

Romano was starting to understand the chaos and confusion of warfare. Without the time to prepare and properly deploy units, she was finding it difficult to arrange the attack group. If she waited too long and tried to get the different units organised, the battle would be over with unacceptable losses. If she just threw them in piecemeal, their impact would be lessened. She needed to ask someone, to seek advice, but her senior officers were either handling the frontlines or missing. This was on her shoulders to get right.

“All units, I need you to detach your assault mechs.” She had a sudden idea. “All companies continue to mass at Blossom Avenue, but I need all Assault Mechs to join me, form on my position immediately.”

She couldn't mass numbers, not quickly enough, but maybe she could mass some quality instead. She noted with satisfaction eleven mechs broke off from their parent formations and moved towards her, the biggest and toughest machines from the reserve formations. It wasn't much, but it might be good enough.

“Assault mechs, you will operate together in a temporary formation. Advance to Major Albemarle and act as the spearhead. She'll know how to deploy you. The rest of your unit will follow you once you split the enemy line. Go.”

They signaled their understanding and moved off, Romano hoping the Major would understand what she was doing. Romano had studied with the Warrior Houses and so understood about concentration of force. The Assault Mechs weren't a team, but in this situation it didn't matter. There was no need for clever teamwork, fluid formations, or ingenious tactics. All they had to do was charge ahead together and open a way for the rest to exploit by applying extraordinary amounts of violence.

What she had to do now was make sure that once they did break the Dragoons' line, there would be enough reserves to push through and finish the job.

“Green Company! On the double or the next guns you see will be those of your firing squad!”

“We're close.” Candace peered around a corner while she waited for her bodyguards to scout ahead for danger. “The command bunker is in the next building.”

“This is taking too long.” Jiang checked his watch for the hundredth time, acutely aware that every second this battle continued was costing lives.

“It would have been faster if your army wasn't ripping the palace apart.” She sneered slightly. “Thankfully, most of them seem to be withdrawing. Presumably they have what they came for.”

“Not yet, not until we get into that bunker.”

From up, ahead a Commando appeared and waved them over, the man wearing the blue strip of cloth that identified him as an ally.

“Mistress, the way is clear, we can cross the courtyard. Once we reach the building, we will be faced by soldiers loyal to your father.”

“I will handle that,” Candace promised firmly. “Come on Jiang, time to get this done.”

They darted out across the courtyard, Jiang only now seeing the signs of combat, smelling the acrid smoke in the air. The walls around were pitted and scorched by weapons fire, while the yard itself was scattered with piles of bodies. Some were wearing Liao uniforms, but there was at least a platoon of Earth Force Rangers there too.

“Wait.” Jiang made a detour for the fallen soldiers, causing the team to halt.

“Wait? We don't have time for this!” Candace snarled at his back. “My city is burning! We end this now with or without you!”

He knelt beside one of the fallen Earth Force soldiers. While the loss of a fellow soldier of Earth was painful, it was not sentimentality that drew him over. He detached the man's tactical commlink, a simple earpiece and microphone that reached across his cheek on a stalk. He brought it to his own ear and tapped it twice to activate it.

“Li, Jiang, EIA, authorise Rho nine, activate secure link,” he spoke into the device, a chime confirming his voice and DNA was recognised. “Ranger Command, this is Agent Li, EIA, respond on this channel.”

“Ah, I see.” Candace hovered behind him. “Secure communications?”

“Earth Force is jamming short range frequencies, my normal comms won't work. I need one of these.” He quickly searched through the trooper's gear, taking his rifle and energy caps. “Ranger Command, I say again, this is...”

“We heard you the first time, glad you're still in one piece, Jiang.”

“That you Groves?” He recognised the voice of his companion from the Tortuga mission, Ben Groves of Naval Intelligence. “What's happening?”

“We have the surviving hostages, but we're still looking for the Ambassador.”

“I think I have him, can you track this signal?”

“Already got it, need back up?”

“No,” Candace answered.

“Yes.” Jiang ignored her. “No need for the whole army.”

“I'll be there with my squad, five or six minutes.”

“We're not waiting.” Candace knelt down beside one of the other bodies for a second in curiosity, then stood. “Come on, chat later.”

She was right. Jiang fell in beside her again, her entourage picking up several of her loyal guardians as it approached the building housing the entrance to the bunker. It was respectably fortified. The Earth Force Rangers likely had no idea what it was and had been mauled by the strong defences and elite Death Commandos manning them.

“I'll talk.” Candace accelerated her pace to take the lead, her escorts fanning out. Jiang stayed close to Candace, but hung back enough to let her do her job. One of the Death Commandos stepped out from cover and greeted her.

“Lady Candace, you were ordered to a different bunker.”

“I am here to see my father. You may escort me.”

“I cannot, Madam. To have both ruler and heir in a single place is too dangerous. You must leave.”

He was maintaining formality, but had noticed her men setting up a kill box, his own commandos carefully taking up a defensive posture themselves. Both knew what was on the cards, but neither was quite ready to declare it.

“It seems you had some action.” She peered back at the courtyard filled with bodies. “You are down to four men, you should let my guards take over.”

“We are still strong enough to hold this gate against any attackers,” the Commando replied bluntly. “Any attackers at all.”

“You are a brave man, and obviously a skilled one. I think given the losses we have taken, there will be opportunities for men like you.” Candace smiled, it was her best expression, a mix of innocence and promise. “You could be a Colonel tomorrow. The Confederation has need of heroes like you. All you have to do is live.”

He stood a little straighter.

“You should leave, Lady Candace, before something unfortunate happens.”

“I regret we are past that point.”

The gunfire didn't come from her guards, nor from the commandos. It cracked out from the far side of the courtyard, from snipers Candace's captain had set up in the windows of the main palace before they even began the confrontation. The Death Commandos fell as one, none even raising their weapons.

“A waste.” She sighed. “But thank your commanders for me, Jiang. Without your Rangers whittling down their numbers, my guards would have had quite a fight on their hands.”

“I don't think it was intentional.”

“Never the less, their sacrifice was not in vain.” She stepped over the body of the commando and passed through the gateway. “Come along, the door needs Liao DNA to unlock it.”

“You're really going to do this then?” Jiang trotted up beside her. “This is a coup?”

“I wouldn't be a true Liao if I didn't otherthrow someone to get ahead.” She smiled, eyes burning fiercely. “My path is set. Once I am Chancellor, I will call off my forces if you do the same.”

“Once we have Sheridan, we're gone.”

“Good enough.” They headed down the ramp to the doors of the bunker, the immense armoured portals unbreachable by any weapon short of an orbital strike. “Give me a moment to get this all unlocked and we can bring this unfortunate series of events to an end.”

“Keep them here!” Jaime commanded, breathless and dehydrated from the intense combat, the interior of his mech heavy with the smell of cooked dust and burnt plastic. “Give some ground if you have to, but keep this line! I don't care if you bend, but we'll be damned if the Dragoons break!”

The Capellans were fully committed now, with three full Regiments pushing into the Dragoons. Mechs, tanks, gunships, artillery, nothing was held back. He could see suicidally brave infantry squads dodging around the mechs and piles of rubble to take potshots at his forces, light vehicles shrieking past, chugging gunfire, all of them just footnotes to the vicious clash of mechs. A gunship cartwheeled overhead, spewing flames and spinning wildly. Shattered tanks and fallen mechs created fresh obstacles while the surviving warriors blasted each other from almost point blank distances. The only reason the Dragoons hadn't been overwhelmed already was the urban terrain preventing the Capellans from concentrating their full force in one place.

It wasn't great, and to make matters worse, an entire fresh regiment was flanking the whole position and going after the landing ships, giving Beta Regiment something to keep them busy. This was the tipping point, the time when it was necessary to pull back and begin evacuating. That was, of course far, easier said than done.

“I'm down to three rounds,” Natasha informed with absolute calm in the midst of hell. “And my heat sinks are at eighty percent.”

“Can you handle a few more minutes?”

“It's me,” she chimed back, her Marauder taking position beside Jaime's Archer, the Black Machine dented and scarred by the combat, its heat dissipation systems shimmering the air behind the machine. “I could do to sweat off a little weight anyway. Where are we, you know, big picture?”

“Time to start heading back,” Jaime confirmed his decision. “We're going to fall back by lance, phased withdrawal.”

“Cappies ain't going to let us do that.” She pointed out the obvious. “They'll be on us all the way back. We've got to break them.”

“The dropships can cover the last phase of the retreat.”

“You sure about that?” Natasha was less convinced. “We need these guys broken and running to give us the space to get out. Get our new buddy Sheridan to glass them from orbit.”

“He can't drop fire inside the city. That's against his rules of engagement.”

“So is losing.” She made a fair point. “If you call it down and tell him it's the only way to get us out of this, he'll do it.”

“They'll Court Martial him.”

“He'd still do it, Sheridan's one of us.”

She was probably right, but Jaime wasn't quite finished yet. His response, however, was cut off by an urgent signal.

“Alpha Actual, Baker Scout Lance, new enemies inbound. At least two, possibly three Assault Lances!”

“Scout lance, confirm that was Assault Lances?”

“Confirmed! Atlas, Victor, Awesome class, massed and heading for the point Baker and Able battalions overlap.”

“Report received, keep your distance and engage targets of opportunity.” Jaime switched frequency. “Command groups form on me, standby for heavy contact.”

“Still say we glass them.” Natasha rotated the Marauder and dropped in beside Jaime's Archer. “This is going to suck.”

She was not wrong, but Jaime wasn't going to put his new allies in such a difficult position. Partially it was because they'd built a good personal rapport with John Sheridan, a man who seemed to be on an upward trajectory in the Earth Alliance Fleet, and that was a valuable asset to cultivate. But there was also the element that if they asked for help, it showed they were in over their heads, and while that might end up being true Jaime, didn't want to show it in front of Earth Force. The EA had shown its strength in getting them here, now the Dragoons had to show they were just as dominant in their niche.

He linked up with the Command Lances from Able and Baker Battalions, a motley assortment of machines built around medium and heavy mechs with outstanding warriors. Putting them on the frontline was a risk. It meant they had to leave operational decisions to each Company commander in turn, but Jaime had faith his subordinates had the training and courage to hold their own.

“Assault units coming in near the stadium car park, eight hundred metres west,” the scout team reported. “ETA less than a minute.”

“We'll be there,” Jaime confirmed. “Firing positions, let's put a kill box around that stadium.”

“Taking the right flank,” Major Chan of Baker Battalion confirmed. “I can give you about four minutes before the heat sinks fill.”

“I've got the left,” Major Yukinov of Able echoed. “We've also got about four minutes before we need to disengage and cool off.”

“That won't be a problem,” Natasha cut in. “I expect we'll all be dead in two.”

There were a few grim chuckles. As dead pan as her delivery had been, they were wizened enough to know she might well be right.

“Once in position fire at will, you know your jobs.” Jaime put his unit right in the path of the enemy advance. “If this goes bad, drop smoke and rally on Beta Regiment and the Davions.”

They took position among the ruined buildings, the destruction serving to level much of the battlefield by now. When they had started, the apartments and office blocks had provided a fair amount of cover, but by now the district was little more than skeletal facades and piles of concrete rubble. It had changed the nature of the fight from a mech sized game of hide and seek to a far more treacherous battle where the rubble hindered mobility, but left lines of fire open.

The Capellans again showed some professionalism as they arrived into position, coming up on the far side of the shot up stadium, carefully checking their surroundings. There was the obvious temptation just to come barrelling across the carpark and lay into the Dragoons, simply because they were manning Assault mechs, but whoever was in charge was marshalling their forces and making sure they maintained mutual support.

“Got a lock, opening fire.” Jaime started proceedings, lobbing some missiles across the few hundred metres, a few other long range units joining in. The Capellans instantly responded, the front line units scattering and immediately returning fire with respectable accuracy. The Dragoons gave some back, long ranged PPC shots whizzing back and forth across the sky, but with little effect.

“They're deploying against us,” Natasha recognised, sending off some staggered fire from her PPCs to keep her heat levels steady.

“Which means they aren't going for their primary target.” Jaime shuffled around some piles of bricks and burning cars, taking a little time to use the large robotic hands of his Archer to pile up some of the rubble into a very makeshift rampart.

“Unless we are the Primary target. All four of the Regiment's senior staff in one place,” She noted pointedly. “Hell of a gamble, Colonel.”

He didn't have time to ruminate, the Capellans began to advance, wasting no time and maintaining the pressure on Jaime's ad hoc company. The Assault force divided, five Awesome and Banshee mechs formed a loose firing line and laid down some intense suppressive fire while the rest of the group began to charge. From somewhere behind, in an effective bit of coordination, a platoon of mobile mortars threw some smoke rounds overhead to cover the attack, robbing the Dragoons of a clear shot across the carpark.

Jaime's unit held its fire. Earlier in the battle, they might have blindly sprayed gunfire into the smoke, but by now, they had to make each shot count. They had been so heavily engaged with no respite. Their heat systems were almost maxed with no opportunity to bleed off. It was going to be rough.

Nobody in the group was a raw recruit. Most of the command elements were hardened warriors, veterans of the Clans and their brutal rites and traditions. They had seen countless duels and battles, faced death several times, they were all but unshakeable. Even with all that, the moment nine Atlases came charging through the smoke, in unison, at point blank range might just have been the most terrifying moment of Jaime Wolf's life.

The Dragoons opened up with everything they had and it didn't even slow down the juggernaut, the Atlas group soaking up the assorted weapons, shrouding themselves in flame and steam. They smashed through any obstacle in their way, shouldering through the torn out remnants of office towers and pulverising the concrete beneath their feet to dust. Upon seeing their enemies they cheered, voices amplified and projected by speaker systems in their mechs, a deafening 'Ura' released from the mighty skull faces as they set themselves loose upon those who had desecrated their home.

Jaime backed off fast, a pair of mechs smashing through his simple rubble wall like it was made of foam pellets. He gave them a salvo of laser fire, his weapons about as useful as a garden hose against the solid armour of the closest Altas, which retaliated with an AC20. The shot barely missed, the ripple of air from its passing potent enough to rattle the blue Archer. Jaime sidestepped, metal gripped feet skidding on the loose ground as he drew on all his skill to stay upright. He fought to keep the closest Atlas between him and the second one, making sure he at least only had to deal with attacks from a single overwhelmingly dangerous warmachine and not two.

His enemy dumped a salvo of laser fire and an SRM into Jaime, the Archer taking the hits but not appreciating it, the armour cracking and buckling. He returned fire but was obviously not going to beat an Atlas in a gunnery duel. He bit his lip and charged, half running and half leaping into brawling range, which the Atlas warmly welcomed.

Both the Atlas and Archer were well suited to a brawling match, both carrying a pair of mechanical fists capable of smashing and tearing lesser opponents to shreds. The Atlas had the advantage of size and mass, the Archer had the advantage of Jaime Wolf. He rotated the torso of his Archer to evade the initial strike from the Capellan Atlas, the massive jab clipping off his shoulder, denting the now empty LRM racks. In return, he delivered a potent uppercut, the strike catching the Atlas' mechanical head in a sharp impact that knocked off a few plates and likely disorientated the pilot. This was his chance to do real damage. He was so focused he almost missed a Capellan Victor running straight at him from his right side.

It took all his skill to disengage and get some distance, abandoning his attack on the stunned Capellan to avoid a point blank barrage from the Victor. He barely survived, but by pulling back, he had now opened himself to attack from the second Atlas, which he had been trying to mask himself from. He was staring down three assault mechs at point blank range. It was absolutely not an optimal situation.

That was when his backup arrived, Lieutenant Vordel smashing into the second Atlas with a shoulder tackle that would have made any member of Clan Ghost Bear shed a single tear of joy. He bodied the machine, firing his last AC20 shot into its chest with enough force to knock out the Capellan's own autocannon and turn it into a fair fight.

On the other side was Natasha Kerensky, her Marauder's left arm a tangle of metal she now used as a club to unbalance the enemy Victor while delivering her last three rounds from the AC10 into its cockpit. The angle was too shallow to beat the armour, but it did at least send the pilot scurrying backwards, skidding on the debris and buying a little time.

“Call in the last line, Boss! They're our last resort, this is the last resort!” Natasha barked as she threw the beat up Marauder into a melee struggle with the Victor, something only she would commit to and expect to actually win. She was also right. Jaime had a few seconds until his target, that first Atlas recovered. He had to play his last card.

“Davion Lead, Wolf here. If you're done covering the Rangers, we could use you over here.” Which was Jaime's best effort at understatement. The Dragoons were on the edge of breaking, he was in the fight of his life, the entire line was collapsing, but he was damned if he was going to actually sound desperate for help.

“Colonel Wolf, I've been monitoring the situation, my people are almost in position already,” Hanse Davion replied, almost at once, with the slightest hint of glee at anticipating this moment. “Standby Dragoons, incoming on your left flank.”

Hanse didn't contradict Jaime. They could both see the situation was dire and both were well aware the Prince was now the only thing that could save the day, but it would have been dishonorable to crow about it. Instead, Hanse simply took his post on the right of his unit and watched as the last mechs took up formation.

“Third Guards, at the ready!” He started the ball rolling. “Staggered line formation, even numbers thirty metres forward! At the double!”

Hanse had brought his Guards mechs around the main fighting and set them up in a single line, virtually shoulder to shoulder, perpendicular to the Capellan attack. They had seen him of course, but his forces had easily swept away the screen of light mechs and tanks trying to stop the Guards. Now he was in place and about to demonstrate what the Third was best at.

“Front Rank, alpha strike, suppression pattern. Ten second rapid fire, on my command!” Hanse rattled off the instructions, the forward half of the formation levelling their assorted guns at the mass of battling Capellans. Some were moving to switch targets, but disengaging from such an intense engagement was not a quick process. “Commence firing!”

The front line delivered a vicious volley of gunfire, a mix of lasers, PPCs, and cannons ripping into the Capellan flank. A lot of the initial shots were wasted on the last remnants of the various structures still scattered across the city, but they at least cleared the way for the next salvoes.

“Second Rank, advance sixty metres! Double time!” Hanse ordered sharply, devoting his efforts now to keeping the attack moving. This was all about timing now, balancing the weight of fire with the build up of heat among his units. His counter showed ten seconds had elapsed, the initial units ceasing fire just as the second group advanced between them to form a new front line.

“Front Rank, alpha strike, suppressive pattern! Make ready! Ten seconds rapid, commence fire!”

The fresh units now took up the attack, shooting across at the enemy. At this point, aiming was a formality, there was so much smoke from fires and screens that much of their barrage was going to miss. Hanse was hoping sheer weight and concentration of fire would inflict losses and sow confusion among the Capellans before the range closed and things became more bloody.

“Second rank, sixty metres, advance!”

Ten seconds wasn't enough to really allow the heat sinks of his units to cool off, but it at least gave them a few percent and that was worth it. If he had simply marched them forward under withering fire, his Guards would have arrived into killing range with heatsinks filled. If he had charged headlong into battle before shooting, the Capellans wouldn't have a chance to panic and break off from the Dragoons.

His lead units ceased fire and were replaced by the original frontline. It was a steady advance by fire drill pulled from ancient history, an example of the perfect discipline and clockwork drill the elite of House Davion could manage. No other force in the galaxy could maintain such clean drill in the face of such a vicious fight. Hanse was immensely proud of them, the clean lines stepping over hollowed out buildings with the red setting sun bathing them in its rays.

“Front rank! Ten seconds rapid, commence firing!”

“Redeploy! Get your tanks on the right and find a clear line of sight!” Romano was shifting units and frantically trying to extricate some form of defence from the confusion. It should have been easy. Relocate one lance from point A to point B, where it could hit the freshly repositioned Davion forces. But in practice, the roads were jammed with vehicles and collapsed buildings, vehicles and mechs were already in life or death struggles with Wolf's Dragoons, and the reserves she had been gathering were still not in position.

“Grenadiers, what is your position?”

“We're advancing on the Landing zone, heavily engaging the second unit of Dragoons,” the answer came. “Unable to assist.”

“Second Capellan Reserve Cavalry, status report?”

“First Company is engaged, other units approaching your position.”

“I'm sending you updated coordinates, get over there immediately!” Romano ordered. Albemerle was keeping up the pressure on the Dragoons, but inevitably she had been forced to pull units out of the drive on them to face Davion. It was infuriating, they had been so close!

Another series of tracers flashed by, a sign the Davion forces now had clear lines of fire across the Capellan positions. Return fire was heading back, a couple of the attackers already sizzling from direct hits, but any Capellan fire was immediately overwhelmed by the Battalion scale volleys hurled back. The Davions were advancing with each attack. As soon as they were close enough, they'd break formation and storm forward, surrounding her allies. Even with numerical superiority, as soon as that happened, it was over.

“Second Reserve, where is your commander?”

“I don't know, Ma'am.”

Romano exhaled, she had her assignment to marshal the reserves, but the situation was clearly critical. “I am assuming command, form on this position and prepare to receive a frontal attack.”

”Yes Ma'am!”

“Not one step back!”

“Commence firing!”

The steady routine of fire and advance, fire and advance ground on. Ahead, resistance was increasing as Capellan mechs and tanks were rushed into a hasty defensive line to meet the attack. This was fine, every unit here was a unit not crushing down on the Dragoons. A few more minutes and the Dragoons would be able to disengage, regroup, and rejoin the fight. For a while, it would fall to the Third Guards to confront the full weight of the Capellan elite, and that was something Hanse was ready for.

A mech to his left staggered and fell out of line, an arm sheared off and leg heavily damaged.

“Twelve, pull back to the landing ships, you'll do no more good here,” Hanse ordered. “All heavily damaged machines or wounded mechwarriors withdraw to the landing ships! You will be the last line of defence! Fall back and assist Beta Regiment!”

Another volley crashed, the mechs showing about sixty percent on their heat sinks, averaged out. That was going to have to be good enough. They were close enough now to pick individual targets and the utility or their rigid formation was vanishing. It was time to claim a little glory.

“Third Guards! Sound the charge!” Hanse gave his eager warriors what they had waited for. “Get in among them and let them know fear!”

His company commanders played out recorded bugle calls, the peeling notes firing the blood and linking every warrior to their glorious tradition.

“With me!” Hanse rushed forward, the Battlemaster blazing every weapon as it rushed the Capellan defenses. “Cry God for Ian, New Avalon, and Saint Robert!”

The two sides met in a clash of heavy metal, often literally as mechs collided with each other. The Capellans were good, but the fighting against the Dragoons had left them exhausted, overheated, and drained of ammunition. As courageous as individual warriors were, the powerful assault by fresh troops was straining them past breaking point. They began to give ground.

Jaime could catch glimpses of the situation changing, the balance of power shifting. His main focus though was still the Atlas, the Assault mech clawing at his Archer and hitting him with whatever weapon it could. Jaime had knocked out the AC20 as a priority, stuffing its barrel with a freight truck to neutralise it. The mech scale fist fight was hair raising, the Archer barely keeping ahead by sheer virtue of Jaime's superlative piloting skills. He used the terrain as best he could, kept the Atlas on uneven ground so it couldn't really lean into its punches, ducked and weaved as much as the mech would allow like an elderly prize fighter.

He finally saw an opening as the opposing warrior overextended, allowing the Archer to drive in under a punch and kick one of the Atlas' knees. As the machine staggered and wobbled, Jaime barged into it, throwing the full weight of his Archer into the push, leveraging the mech with every ounce of power to finally topple it. The Atlas dropped with a crunch into some sort of factory, the pilot knocked unconscious by the impact, causing the machine to fall still and motionless.

“Dragoons!” Jaime tried to sound authoritative, but by now was just so tired and breathless, he was happy simply to be audible. “Disengage and regroup at phase line delta. Withdraw by pairs, do not turn your backs.”

His Regiment responded quickly, the various lances taking some steps back while maintaining as much fire as they could. Normally, the Capellans would have advanced to take that ground, but not anymore, not with the Davions chewing up their left side. Some Capellans held their ground to make sure the Dragoons didn't try anything foolishly brave, while other units pulled back to face the Davion Guards.

“Davion lead, Wolf here. Ee're on our way to the rally point. Disengage at your convenience.”

“Copy that Colonel, we'll see you there.”
"Red Lancers, Prefectorate Guard, withdraw to my position," Judith Albamerle ordered curtly, her voice strained and still incredibly tense. "Reform for a counter attack. Water tankers and cooling teams, move forward and do your duty."

Romana pursed her lips in anger. Their attack had faltered, and while the battle wasn't over yet, they had lost their momentum. The Capellan forces were by now a morass, any regimental lines long since faded. They were a single blob of fighting units, and while that gave them a lot of strength, it offered limited control. Albemarle was trying to fix that, using the relatively fresh reserves to keep the enemy busy, while the superior units took a brief rest to rally for the final push.

"Davion units are falling back too," one of the scouts notified. It seemed both sides had come to much the same conclusion. They both needed time to regroup and gather their strength.

"Second Reserves, hold here." Romano followed her instructions. She desperately wanted to charge after the withdrawing enemy, to keep her blade at their throats, but she recognised it was unwise. If she had been commanding the Red Lancers, she would have done it in a heartbeat, but the reserve cavalry was no match for the Davion Guards if they turned around to swat them. "Take defensive positions and be ready to move forward at short notice."

She watched the enemy withdrawing in good order, maintaining a light fusilade to discourage pursuit. Her blood was burning in her veins. Romano had to fight to keep her composure and bottle up that Liao fury raging inside her head. She had to obey her leaders, follow the orders of the mission commander, and not disgrace herself by letting vanity override common sense. She had seen that happen, perhaps in those closest to her, and if she was to be the future of Liao, she would learn from those mistakes.

"Hold position and await further orders."

"It seems there will be a pause in proceedings." Maximilian watched the drone footage of the battleground. "In some battles, there have been agreements that hostilities will cease after a certain time, so both sides may cool down and recharge in the service of chivalry. Quaint."

"Your city is in ruins." David Sheridan shook his head in simple despair. "How is any of this worth it?"

"How is it not?" Maximilian replied frankly. "Your friends have attacked my throne world, my capital city. I would fight until the whole of Sian was a ruin before I would give up."

"Whatever the price in lives?"

"Ambassador, you still do not understand what is at stake here, do you?" The Chancellor lazily rolled his eyes, his tone that of a weary school teacher. "Lives don't matter. What matters is strength. That is what has always mattered. I had hoped your time here would have helped you see that."

"I've already seen this kind of strength." He thought back to the occupied worlds freed from the Dilgar invasion, or what he knew of the Narn. "It never lasts."

"You have visited four of the Great Houses now, and what have you learned?" Maximilian asked seriously. "All of them value strength and power, and all demonstrate it in the same way. The Inner Sphere is defined by survival of the fittest, the strong prosper, the weak submit or they die. We all believe this, even your smiling friends on New Avalon and Tharkaad."

The Chancellor scoffed.

"You think they are better people than I am? No, they think they can gain what they want from you with kind words and papers. As soon as that fails, they will bring out the threats, then the armies. I am just honest about how things work."

"It might be so, but we have to believe there are rulers here that want a better way of doing things."

"It is your right to believe in a perfect galaxy. In the meantime, I live in the real one." Maximilian dismissed. "You will never understand we who know the power of unrestrained strength."

"And you will never understand the power it takes to use restraint," Sheridan countered. "To refrain from simply conquering and imposing your will on others. To build friends and allies, not slaves."

"You waste your time and power. What do you think I would have done with those ships above us? Strike a few airbases and missile sites? Hold back from causing civilian casualties?" He croaked a laugh. "It is not enough to show you have power, you must show the will to use it."

"We have used it. Take a look outside."

"No, you haven't. You could have levelled every city on this planet as a warning to others. I would have, Ian Davion would have. All you have shown here is weakness. The other Great Lords are watching, and the lesson they will learn is that you are too afraid of killing to do what must be done."

"My people have seen enough killing," David remarked sombrely. "Enough in the last twenty years to last forever."

"That is your weakness," the Chancellor spoke simply. "How much killing do you think we have seen? We were horrified up to a point, but then it all just becomes numbers."

"And as a result, your whole civilisation collapsed, and here you are, one more big war away from extinction."

"Or final victory." Maximilian smiled. "Perhaps that is the difference, I would risk all those lives to become First Lord. You wouldn't."

"I think we finally agree on something."

"That is why we will win in the end. It doesn't matter what happens here today. We will recover, rebuild, we will be ready for our next fight. Maybe in ten years, maybe in a hundred. In the end we will win, because we are willing to do what you cannot. War broke both of our peoples, but whereas we were reforged into a stronger society, your people remain broken. That is why you will lose."

His words ended as the doors to his command centre unlocked with a hefty clank, the massive metal bolts withdrawing as powerful engines began to draw the entrance open.

"Ah, now this is interesting." Maximilian smiled. "I wonder which child it will be?"

A squad of Capellan Guardsmen rushed into the room, rifles held ready at the shoulder, sweeping for targets. Maximilian's two protectors raised their own weapons in response, outnumbered, but far from intimidated. Behind the guards walked exactly the person the Chancellor was expecting, svelte and smiling down as usual.

"Candace, I think you're in the wrong bunker."

"Not this time, father."

"You will address me as Chancellor while in public, my child."

"You are no longer Chancellor. For your poor decision making, litany of mistakes, and failure to resolve this crisis before catastrophic damage befell our capital and our reputation, you are dismissed."

"You don't have anywhere close to that sort of support," Maximilian hissed. "What do you have? A few Guardsmen you shared your bed with? Where are your divisions? Where are your Lances?"

"Where are yours?" Candace snapped back. "Burning on our streets! Melted by orbital strikes! You have nothing left anymore! The galaxy has changed and so will we! Stand down or be put down!"

The opposing sides kept their guns on each other. Candace's forces were superior, but Maximilian's guards could easily kill her before they were cut down in turn. For whatever power she had, the final choice in what happened next belonged to Maximilian. He was unlikely to survive, but he could take Candace with him leaving Romano to become the new Chancellor. That had its appeal, and if Romano was a few years older, he might well have made that choice.

"Bad timing." He smiled slightly. "Lower your weapons."

His guards hesitated.

"Do it, this is finished." Maximilian put some hardness in his voice. "Clear the room, I have some words for my daughter. You too, Ambassador. It seems this is where we part ways."

"I wish I could say it was a pleasant stay."

"Don't forget what I have taught you. This was a painful lesson, but the memorable ones always are." The words were offered to David, but his gaze never left Candace. "Safe journey, Ambassador Sheridan."

The assorted staff did as they were told, David finding Jiang just outside with rifle in hand.

"Mr. Ambassador, can you move?"

"Yes, yes I'm fine."

"We need to go right now, a shuttle is putting down just outside." He hustled the older man away, parting company with his erstwhile Capellan allies. "We have the other hostages, you are the last one."

He risked a last look over his shoulder at the Chancellor, Maximilian Liao rising to stand facing his daughter, the old facing the new. There was no doubt the Confederation would look very different tomorrow morning. For better or worse though, was another question.

"I expected you'd wait a few more years." Maximilian exhaled heavily. "But I knew this day would come eventually. Romano would have waited until I died, but not you."

"I will never have a better opportunity." Candace nodded. "And I am right, the galaxy has changed and your way of doing things just doesn't work anymore."

"So you will try your own way? The diplomacy of the bed chamber? The poison cup?"

"I wouldn't have brought a fleet of warships to our doorstep," she said offhand. "And now I'm going to have to go and fix this situation. Try to restore some honour to the Liao name."

"You speak well, like a Davion or a Steiner. But do you have what it takes to rule? What it really takes?"

"Yes." She withdrew from her pocket an Earth Force PPG pistol, one she had taken from a fallen Ranger outside. "I have."

She put a single shot into his chest, enough to knock him off his feet and deposit him back in his chair. He was surprised for a moment, then just managed to bring forth a hoarse laugh.

"I was expecting poison."

"I've been putting one half of a binary agent in your food for months, but none of us have time for that now." She shrugged, speaking as if this were a normal conversation. "At least you die honourably, shot by an Earth Alliance soldier while defending your command centre."

"This doesn't end here. Whatever you do, it won't end."

"Of course not, it never ends, not until a Liao becomes the rightful First Lord." Candace nodded in agreement. "But I will choose the moment of our response. It isn't now."

"You will be seen as weak."

"I will be seen as smart." She smiled. "And anyone who thinks me weak will not live to regret it. Just as you think me weak."

He laughed, weaker now, his breath rasping.

"I never thought you were weak. You take after your mother too much, you were more her child than mine. But you are not weak. You are a Liao, you will do well enough... until someone better..."

Maximilian Liao's words faded with his final breath, his eyes losing their light as the blue glow from the strategic displays illuminated his final moments. He died more quietly than most had done this afternoon, but where his passing was silent, his end would be the turning of an era.

Candace reached across her father's body, not a single flicker of emotion on her face, not a twinge of feeling or regret. She took from his hand his signet ring and placed it on her own, the heirloom of her household. Her House now. Hers and hers alone. She savoured it for a few seconds, then got to work saving it.

"Ground forces, who is in command?" She activated the communication set up at the nearest console. "Is it you, Major Albemarle?"

"This is Albemarle, who is on this line?"

"This is the Chancellor. I need you to cease fire and pull back to a safe distance."

"I need that order and your identity confirmed."

"My father is dead. I am Candace Liao, I am the new Chancellor. I am sending my security confirmation on the sub channel. You will cease fire and fall back."

"Madam, we have them outgunned. We can overrun their landing zone and destroy them all!"

"And then what? What will you do when they nuke us from orbit in fury?" Candace growled. "You will obey my orders or the next airstrike is heading for your position. Am I being clear on this matter?"

"Affirmative," Albemarle reluctantly answered. "Chancellor." She quickly added.

"Good." She flipped through to a private channel. "Hello Jiang, you will find I have kept my side of the bargain. Now you keep yours. Go. Take your people and go."

She flicked the channel off, neither interested in or needing a reply. He would obey, her people would obey. They might hate her for it, but they would obey. Candace Liao was Chancellor, her Confederation was wounded. It would need someone like her to lead it to new heights. Her father could never have managed this, but she could. And she would.

"General, ground forces are confirming they have been offered a ceasefire." Major Ryan pressed the commlink to his ear. "Twenty minutes to get off the planet or they go all out."

"Have we confirmed all hostages are recovered?" Hague didn't take his eyes off the tactical screens.

"Yes sir, Ambassador Sheridan is on his way up. Psi Corps confirms nobody left behind."

"Then we take the offer. Order all ships to form up in high orbit, dropships will dock as quickly as practical, then we get the hell out of here." He turned to his fighter control. "Pull back our Starfuries, have them grapple and recover anyone who managed to eject."

"Aye sir."

"No one left behind, even if we go over twenty minutes." Hague resolved to the quiet approval of everyone on the bridge. "Major, I also need a targeting plot on the diplomatic transport. We can't tow it with us and don't have the spare crew."

"Yes sir, locked on and ready to engage."

"I don't want any of it left behind. Load tactical ordnance, five megaton should do it."

The withdrawal was smooth, each dropship and assault shuttle loading up and lifting off without interference. Candace watched them go from the front courtyard of the Celestial palace, its paving stones cracked and churned up by mechs, its gardens smeared with blood.


She tilted her head to see Romano storming toward her, sweat stained and grimy still in her cooling suit. She covered the distance in seconds, drew back a hand and slapped her elder sister with all her force.

"You let him die! You didn't save him! You let him die!"

"Firstly, you are a child so I will let this assault pass without response. This time." Candace touched her cheek, it was already stinging and tender. "Secondly, you will refer to me as Chancellor in public."

"Why didn't you stop them killing father?!" Romano demanded tears in her eyes. "He trusted you!"

"Maximilian didn't trust anyone," Candace said flatly. "He trusted no one, he had faith in no one, he loved no one." Her voice remained monotone. "All he cared about was the reputation of Liao, and his actions have nearly ruined us."

"That's not true!" Romano looked away. "I know he loved me."

Candace's blank face broke, a tiny giggle escaping her lips. "You can be so sweet sometimes. He had no love for anyone."

"You think you know everything!" Romano snapped her head back. "You aren't as clever as you think."

"I don't need to be, I just need everyone else to think I am." She smiled slightly, the heat from the lift offs tingling her skin even at this distance. "Hate me if you want, but if you value what our father wanted, you will work with me to restore our power. We have taken great damage, we must rebuild quickly. Do you understand?"

"Yes. Yes, I understand."

"This isn't even close to finished," Candace promised, a commitment both to her sister and herself. "But we will wait, we will be patient, and we will pick our moment. You did well in the battle. You knew what you could do and what was beyond you. This is the same thing. We will have retribution for this outrage, but not today. Today, we mourn our dear departed Chancellor, tomorrow we smile for the galaxy, and then one day in the future, everyone who has wronged us dies."

She turned to Romano.

"This is what it is to be a Liao."

"This is what it means to be a Liao," her younger sister echoed, and as Candace turned back to watch the ships leave, Romano kept her eyes on her elder sister. There was nothing but hate in them.

"Agamemnon to fleet, docking operations complete. We are clear to depart."

"Roger that Agamemnon, angle for departure, standby to jump."

The flagship initiated her jump drives, coring a vortex through reality big enough for the whole fleet to depart through. The two destroyers laden with dropships left first, covered by the others, then one by one the remaining vessels left. The last to go was the Alexander, and on her way out she fired a single missile from her flank launchers, the device snaking around to connect with the silent transport ship in a brief violent sphere of light and wave of plasma that left nothing in its wake. With the task done, the last Earth Force ship left orbit for the brief hop back toward the middle of the system, far from pursuit.

"Jump completed," Commander James reported with evident relief. "No sign of hostile contacts. As soon as the KF drives cooldown, we can get out of here."

"I'll be glad to see the back of this place." Captain Sheridan remained tense. "Damage report?"

"Negligible, a few missile impacts and one suicide plane. We lost eight fighters, three pilots recovered."

"Ground forces?"

"Still coming in but a lot. Thirty percent killed or wounded among the Rangers, I don't know about our allies."

"Bloody day." The Captain scrunched his eyes. "Damn stupid, all of it."

"The shuttle carrying the Ambassador has cleared the airlock," Commander James noted on his data pad. "I can handle things up here for a while."

"No, no that won't be necessary. We're still in enemy territory."

"Sir, with all due respect, go to the hangar deck." His First Officer gave him a friendly nod. "We've got this Captain."

Sheridan glanced around his bridge, each officer and technician giving him exactly the same reassuring look. He was still fairly new to this command, but in that moment, he recognised that after this trial, they had become a crew.

"Alright, you have the ship Commander."

"Aye sir. I'll give you a call in the event of enemy action or attack by a giant space squid."

It only took the Captain a few minutes to head down to the docking section, tired and worn out Rangers lined the corridors, still in body armour drinking and eating while medics checked them over. His pilots were already filing back for debriefings while maintenance crews headed the other way to do their own jobs.

Among these assorted groups, he identified a smaller knot of people closer to the main airlock, a team of special operations troopers gathered around a smaller frailer figure. David Sheridan had never been particularly big, but standing with the elite soldiers really made him look his age. John strode over on a direct line, the troopers noticing him inbound and making a path for him.

They faced each other for a moment, father and son, not quite sure what the procedure here was going to be. A senior diplomat and naval captain surrounded by tired soldiers crashed out after a hard fight. That mixture of relief, joy, the desire to just do something. After about two seconds it was David that broke through.

"Come on, son."

He grabbed his considerably taller son in a strong hug, the action gaining a few slaps on the back and cheers of approval from his rescuers. Neither needed to say anything more, to express what they were thinking, the concerns they would never meet again, the simple joy that it had not come to pass, the depth of gratitude to those who had landed on the planet to rescue all of the hostages. It did not need to be spoken, but it was known.

"Welcome aboard the Agamemnon," John finally managed to speak, the effort to keep his voice steady immense.

"Glad to be here, very glad." David was also making a serious effort to hold back his emotions. "Hell of a ship, son."

"That she is."

"So, they got a bar on this thing?" David looked around. "I think we could all use a real drink."

AN: Had to break this into 2 parts as it was so huge. The Sietch will only allow 8500 characters. Wish I had known that before.
Nice update.

Candance is a fool if she doesn't realise that the EA intelligence services will be keeping a very close eye on the Capellan Confederacy going forward. After all it is the most like the Centauri Republic at its machivellian worst of all the successor states. If she goes too far out of line or trys anything against them or threatens their interests well it wouldn't be that difficult to end the existence of House Liao. Alternatively if they have to openly attack Sian again in the future well next time they might not bother pulling their punches and either nuke the planet or throw a few asteroids at it.

You have to wonder though what ComStar will whisper in her ear.
Chapter 22
New Aragon
A few Weeks Later

It seemed like every soldier on the planet was there to welcome them back. The base was packed like a cup final, a sea of humanity all clamouring for a look at the conquering heroes. One by one, the dropships landed at their designated pads, several showing scars of battle, but all of them returning to the place that had waved them off. Word of their success had preceded them, talk of their daring strike at the very heart of the Capellans was all anyone had talked about for weeks and now, finally, they were home.

The Third Guards disembarked at a steady pace, taking their time and going by the book. Each mech formed up by Lance, several of the units leaving gaps in their ranks to note a fallen brother or sister. When all units were offloaded and accounted for, only then did they begin their march from the landing zone to their encampment, a route that took them through the middle of the base crammed with eager observers.

It didn't have the pomp and ceremony of a usual parade of Guards. The mechs were beaten and dirty, some lacked pieces or were shot through with holes. On the surface, they were a ragged formation held together with rough welds and gaffer tape. But their drill was flawless, their pace even despite the various types of mechs marching side by side. They moved with pride, every man or woman among them would carry this battle honour to their grave, they would never need to buy a drink in any bar within the Federated Suns ever again. The Regimental colours already carried the new battle honour stitched into the fabric under the royal crest in the place of highest prestige, those flags currently flying at the end of the parade route, behind the waiting First Prince.

At the front, leading his unit, was Hanse, scorched Battlemaster advancing to the roars of the crowd. He couldn't help but feel elated at the response. It was a victory he'd be hard pressed to equal if he lived to be a hundred. If he had one regret, it was that the Dragoons had chosen to land at a secondary base closer to their own forces. Hanse had invited Colonel Wolf and his units to join this parade, to lead it, in fact, given the weight of the action had been on their shoulders, but Wolf had politely declined. They would bask in the glory later, apparently they had something important to do first.

The Guards entered their encampment and continued through to form up an a clear square facing the command tents for the various staff officers. Most of the troops were kept at a distance as the Guards took formation for formal review, their every move captured by a gaggle of reporters.

While the bulk of the unit formed ranks, Hanse halted at the front of the command post where his elder brother waited to formally greet them. He knelt his mech in both a mark of respect and to get his cockpit hatch closer to the ground, then exited the machine and deftly descended a rope ladder. It wasn't the easiest or most graceful act, Hanse also highly aware hundreds of billions of people were going to be seeing this moment, but he managed it without embarrassing himself and snapped to attention before the First Prince, offering his salute.

"Your Highness, I report your Third Guards have returned from the field. We have met the enemy, and we have made them ours."

The formal report, broadcast across the base, drew another riotous cheer from the massed soldiers just outside the encampment. Ian waited for the cheers to subside before answering the salute.

"House Davion welcomes your return with joy and with honour. Dismiss your warriors, until I call upon them again to fulfill their duty."

Hanse inclined his head in a simple bow, then turned on his heel and took a microphone hastily handed to him by an adjutant.

"Third Davion Guards! Stand down and fall out!"

And with that the formalities were done, the mechs moved off to their mech bays for vital repairs and maintenance, legions of mechanics, logistics trucks and specialised vehicles keen to receive them. Hanse himself turned back toward the command tent, his brother beckoning him over.

"You have no idea how jealous I am. Five hundred years from now, people are still going to be talking about this." Ian slapped his brother's shoulder, grinning heartily. "You're already called the Scourge of Sian. I've had to hire an entire team of secretaries to sift through all the marriage applications you've been sent!"

"That's not something I really need to think about right now." The two brothers headed into the privacy of the tent, dropping into some folding chairs beside a large map table. "Did you receive my after action report?"

"I did, the Cappies really took a beating then?"

"Their Aerospace units were savaged, their ability to project power is severely reduced," Hanse quickly laid out. "With the changeover of government too..."

"You don't need to tell me, Hanse. I already have four RCT's massing for a full assault into the Chesterton worlds, with another fourteen line regiments getting over here as fast as we can move them. If we're lucky, we might make some real gains." Ian could see his brother's train of thought. "I heard old man Marik is also expediting an attack, which means we should expect them to deploy some time in the next thirty years."

Hanse coughed out a laugh. The Marik's were notoriously disorganised, but given the circumstance he guessed they already had troops deploying for an invasion on the opposite side of Capellan space.

"Should we coordinate with Marik?" Hanse asked. "Might upset the Steiners."

"Already done. I'm not interested in cutting across Capellan space in some grand blitz. This is more of a focused attack to claim the maximum territory in the minimum time," Ian replied honestly. "The Capellans are vulnerable, but Kurita hasn't made any moves. We can't afford the effort needed to break Liao with those snaky bastards looking to jump on us."

Hanse nodded. Much as he wanted to turn around and go right back to Sian with a full invasion, it wasn't a realistic option. Not yet anyway.

"What happens next?"

"You go back to New Avalon with the Third Guards, dress up in your Sunday Best, march up and down waving at crowds and generally boost morale. This victory is a gift for recruitment and national pride, milk it for all its worth."

"So I'm the Davion show pony?" Hanse tilted an eyebrow in distaste.

"You know the value of keeping the people motivated as much as I do," Ian chided. "Besides, it'll take time to bring the Third back to full strength, and I need to get this campaign moving here. When that is done, you'll be back here. I'm making you governor of New Aragon."

"Old George isn't going to like that."

"George Hasek will do as he is told," Ian spoke firmly. "He's cantankerous, but he knows his duty. New Aragon will be a major staging area for our campaign against the Capellans, a lynchpin in our logistics system. It will be a thankless, stressful, infuriating job. Have fun."

"Thanks brother, truly."

Ian laughed genuinely. "It'll give you a taste of my life. You think all you have to do is sit on a throne and wave at courtiers for a while before charging off into some grand battle somewhere. Best advice I can give you, get your signature made into a rubber stamp. You'll thank me later."

It wasn't exactly what he was expecting, but the logic was flawless. Ian was setting up Hanse for a future role at the top of the table, one of the great offices of state, which meant he needed experience ruling a people. New Aragon was an obvious choice, small enough to be manageable, but important enough to be prestigious. He'd have to deal with a potentially hostile population, violent raids, and the probable machinations of his nearby neighbours on New Syrtis. Setting Hanse up in the Hasek sphere of influence was a clear statement from Ian to that bloodline, remember your place.

"I serve as requested, First Prince."

"You're a war hero, nobody will ever question your courage or capacity as a leader of warriors. Make a good job of this and you can show you are a wise, even handed, and benevolent lord of the common people," Ian explained. "And then I'll bring you home and give you a crash course on Courtly Politics."

"Saving the best for last then?" Hanse grinned, drawing a weary exhalation from his elder brother.

"It's a nightmare. Hardest lesson I learned was that I couldn't just stomp all my enemies with a mech. Some I have to invite into my home."

"Hardly sounds worth being First Prince if you can't bring a mech to court. The Steiners did."

"Sadly, we have to be more clever about it, and by we I mean you." Ian turned very serious. "I'm going to rely on you in the near future, brother. You were always better at reading people than me. Don't give me false flattery, you know you are. I'm counting the days until I can get you into court as my ally. Can I rely on you, Hanse?"

"What sort of question is that?"

"The most important question I've ever asked."

"Of course you can," Hanse promised. "To the death."

"Well, let's try and avoid that." Ian smiled again, a weight lifted from him. "Come on, tell me all about your trip. Start with those warships, did you get anything on how they work?"

"Intel is already taking the data logs. You know they have a completely different form of faster than light travel? Also, did you see what their energy weapons can do?"

"Start at the beginning, if there's anything we can use I want to know."

Four Months Later
Capital World of the Free Worlds League

"Are you alright, Ambassador? Are you okay to do this?"

David Sheridan had been lost in thought to the point that he had neglected his companion, the old diplomat raising his head and addressing the concern with a warm smile.

"I'm fine, thank you, really."

"It's just... well..."

"I know, and I appreciate the concern." David clapped his hands together. "But we have a job to do, and I am going to damn well finish this tour. I have to, I've made promises I can't take back."

The President had initially voiced the same concerns when David had indicated he was ready to finish the mission and visit the last of the Great Houses. Levy had told him other diplomats were quite able to take up the role and he should consider a quiet posting after his ordeal. David Sheridan was having none of that.

All of his colleagues had said the same, they wanted to finish the job in honour of those who now could not. A second ship had been prepared, pulled from other duties and given a quick coat of paint and FTL upgrade which had taken a month to finish, and then they were sent on their way. There had been a little reluctance in some of the Senate when it came to sending the mission back out, but by most accounts House Marik was fair and reasonable, if you could manage to get them organised enough to see you. After the Raid on Sian, scheduling an appointment had been very simple.

So they had come to Atreus, in the heart of Marik territory. Sheridan now sat in the back of another limousine, being driven to another grand building to talk to another dictator. Though perhaps that wasn't entirely fair. The Free Worlds League was ostensibly a democracy of a sort with a functioning Parliament, or at least somewhat functional. It seemed to have a lot of issues due to its size and inability of its member principalities to agree, meaning the nation had a lot of talking, but not much deciding. In emergencies, the Captain General, almost always a Marik, could exercise some executive authority and make things happen, but the actual power of the position varied depending on the strength of the Captain General. Janos Marik, the current head of the House, was not considered a great example of his line.

Still, for all the possible hurdles, the Free Worlds had much to commend them and many in the Alliance Senate were keen to establish trade and business contacts. While the Lyrans appeared to be the manufacturing kings of this galaxy, the League had embraced free trade and had a strong mercantile outlook, which mirrored the Alliance economy. As soon as the prospect of wealth had been brought up, the reservations in the senate had rather quickly evaporated.

Sheridan was still considered the Alliance's most able diplomat and there was no overt objection to his assignment. He wasn't blamed for the Sian situation. No Ambassador could have realistically avoided that situation, though there was always going to be an undercurrent of failure there. The rescue mission had cost Earth Force two hundred highly trained personnel, and while considered a success, the losses to one of the few elite units the army had left were keenly felt. It made the atmosphere a little uncertain, apprehensive, and that was probably getting to him.

He forced himself to brighten up. In the grand scheme of things, this was probably going to be an easy meeting. The Free Worlds had sounded keen to establish trade links and the demonstration of naval power at Sian offered a new guarantee of safety. Still, he just didn't feel as comfortable as he once did. Maybe the ordeal had affected him more than he wanted to admit.

His new companion was also nervous, no doubt picking up on the atmosphere as she sat opposite him in the back of the car. While the President and Senate were supportive of the mission, the Psi Corps had been less thrilled. Nigel Morrison had been their most experienced diplomatic operatives. If not a telepath, he'd probably have been skilled enough to do David's job one day, and the Corps was extremely displeased at his loss. They had in the end agreed to send another telepath, but instead of an experienced veteran, they had sent an extremely young looking woman.

"This should be nice and straight forward, Miss Alexander. All our reports say the Mariks are drooling over the idea of a trade agreement, especially after seeing what the Lyrans have."

"I know, and just Lyta is fine." His new telepath smiled quickly. "Just my first time doing this kind of thing."

"I'm not sure I follow?" Sheridan frowned. "You mean negotiations?"

"On this scale." She quickly clarified. "I started in law enforcement but... but it wasn't for me." She moved away from that subject very quickly. "I am a fully trained commercial telepath, I've sat in on dozens of negotiations. Just, well, nothing like this. A first contact with a massive empire? A trade deal maybe worth trillions?"

"Thousands of trillions." David smiled. "Relax, we're just making initial contact and your job is just to make sure everyone is telling the truth. Remember, they don't know about telepaths here."

"Yeah, and we're not telling them?" Lyta grimaced. "Is that okay?"

"We won't be violating their privacy, no scans of any kind. Just get a feel for their aura and let me know if they are going to try screw us over. Or throw us in jail."

"Right. That's not likely, is it?"

"After what happened to Sian, I think we'll be fine."

Their vehicle came to a halt before the stunning chrome and marble facade of Government House, wide stone steps rising to great doors lined with immaculate purple uniformed soldiers.

"Ready?" Sheridan shuffled forward, a pair of Marik guardsmen advancing to open the door.

"Right behind you." Lyta exhaled. "Oh, wait, is this going to be on TV?"

Before he could say anything else, the door swung open and the show was on. Sheridan took it in his stride, the noise, the cameras, the massive crowds all curious about these unknown people from the deep periphery who had embarrassed a great house. Lyta was considerably less prepared, not for the first time reflecting that her assignment here was perhaps a punishment rather than an opportunity. Still, she had a job to do so she raised her head and kept a couple of paces behind and beside the Ambassador.

They were escorted inside to a much quieter, but still excessive marble lined lobby, where they finally met their hosts, a few cameras there to catch the moment.

"Greetings and welcome!" A dark bearded man stepped forth and stretched out a hand. "I am Anton Marik, Marshal of the Capellan Front and brother to the Captain General."

"Marshal." Sheridan took the hand. "It is an immense honour to be invited to your breathtaking city."

"You are too kind." Anton inclined his head slightly. "I am sorry my brother is not here to welcome you personally. He is unwell at the moment, so I stand in his place."

"Nothing serious I hope?" Sheridan knew a negotiating ploy when he saw one.

"The Captain General is a man of great responsibilities and many troubles weigh upon his brow." Anton spoke with not entirely sincere concern. Sheridan was quite aware the conversation was being recorded for the news services. Implying the leader of the nation was in some way overwhelmed struck him as unwise. "He will speak with you when he can. In the meantime, I will conduct this meeting."

"Then I am in your care, Marshal Marik."

"May I introduce Duggan Marik, our recently appointed Minister of Trade, and Shane Eastwick representing Parliament."

The party moved from the lobby to an architecturally bold meeting room that stood apart from the more ancient looking dwellings of the other Great Houses. It could have easily been one of the diplomatic offices in Geneva back home, yet to Marik what Sheridan saw as modern design ideals would be ancient history.

"To begin with Ambassador Sheridan, I personally guarantee your safety." Anton Marik placed his hand on his heart, perhaps a little too dramatically. "Our word is our bond here."

"That is reassuring." Sheridan took the gesture at face value. "I understand your nation has been engaging the Capellans recently?"

"That is very true, my own forces in fact." Anton smiled widely. "I am responsible for operations on the Capellan front and we have made some progress. With reinforcements from our core armies, we're looking forward to taking some key territories. Some even speak of taking Tikonov itself."

"Those people are, of course, idiots." Eastwick bellowed a laugh. "We can make some real progress but only if we get more Militia mobilised. Correct, Marshal?"

"Correct." Anton nodded. "It is taking time, drawing troops from some principalities is like getting blood from a stone. Even when we have such a golden opportunity."

"For all the greed and ambition out there, you'd think getting them to pounce on the weak would be much easier." Eastwick sighed, the big man clearly disgruntled. "Anyway, you don't need to hear our problems. Let's talk business."

"The Earth Alliance is keen to open diplomatic relations and trade links to the Free Worlds League." Sheridan made his move. "My government sees a lot of itself reflected in your commitment to trade and entrepreneurialism."

"Wars come and go." Duggan was leaning forward over the table. "Business is eternal."

"I have a list of items we'd like to offer, and some things we'd like to acquire." Sheridan handed over a thin data tablet for the delegation. "We're mostly interested in raw materials, but in light of recent events, the military is now interested in buying a selection of mechs for evaluation."

"What sort of evaluation?" Anton wondered.

"We aim to buy a broad selection of types from manufacturers across the galaxy, see which fit our needs, and then offer a partnership with any winning bidders."

"Partnership?" Duggan frowned. "Usually you just place an order and we deliver. What can you offer that would justify a partnership?"

"Based on your own publicly available financial reports, your nation produces about five hundred mechs per year of all types." Sheridan observed. "If you partner with us, in exchange for full access to your Mech production infrastructure and licences to build our own, we can fully refit and modernise your factories."

"What do you mean by modernise in this context?" Anton pressed.

"It will depend exactly on what we find. It might be cheaper just to build a new factory. Which we can do. A fully automated production line controlled by intelligent computers which could increase output by a factor of ten."

"By a factor of ten... you said." Duggan was almost drooling.

"If you win the bid." Sheridan reminded him. "The bid is open to all mech producers."

"I'll make it known." Anton promised. "I am sure you'll see a lot of offers."

"A factor of ten..." Duggan was still on the last comment.

"We will also of course offer the same Tachyon communication system we have given the other Great Houses. Well, those who didn't imprison us." Sheridan flickered a smile. "It will grant you secure real time communications across vast distances. I am sure you can appreciate the ability to coordinate with House Davion almost instantaneously."

"Are you setting yourself up to rival Comstar?" Anton queried.

"No, this system is smaller in scale and likely to be reserved only for the highest priority users. Comstar's place as the general purpose communication host of choice is safe. We also charge no money for its use. Once it's yours, it's yours."

"These are very generous offers Ambassador, the potential technological benefits..."

They were interrupted by a uniformed officer entering the room, he did not knock.

"Ambassador, the Captain General will see you now."

The atmosphere chilled notably as Anton cleared his throat.

"I am in the middle of negotiations." He glared. "Talks the Captain General was not well enough to attend."

"He is well now. Ambassador, if you please."

"These are my negotiations now." Anton reacted with bitterness and anger in his voice. "The Captain General should leave me to finish them. He put me here to do a job and now he insults me by..."

"Ambassador." The guard cut off Anton with zero concern for his predicament. "You may return to continue afterwards. The rest of the delegates may remain here."

"My aide?" He looked at Lyta.

"Just you, personally."

Sheridan nodded and stood. Anton was absolutely furious at this apparent slight, while the other two maintained an awkward silence. Lyta also remained still and quiet, David giving her a little smile and wink as he started walking past.

"Be back soon," he promised. "You can trust me on this one."

"I hope so." She remained rigid and hyper alert. "I'll save your seat."

The officer led him to a different part of the well kept building to a small side apartment. He knocked on the door, waited for a reply, then opened it for the Ambassador alone to enter. Inside was fairly plain, just a basic room for visitors and guests, with only a few amenities. Waiting slouched in a chair was the Captain General, looking a lot more tired than his pictures had hinted.

"Ambassador Sheridan, sit down somewhere, anywhere." He waved about the room. "Take some food or drink as you wish."

"I appreciate the hospitality, Captain General."

Janos Marik just grunted, he didn't seem to care much for appearances and pleasantries, his lank hair long and unkempt. Sheridan reasoned he could be ill, suffering from some ailment, but based on the briefings from the Davion and Steiner households, the theory was Janos was just ground down by a string of disasters. Katrina Steiner had guessed that the death of Janos' first wife had been the tipping point, but enough had gone wrong for him it could have been anything.

"You killed Maximilian." Janos eventually spoke.

"He was alive when I left him." Sheridan answered honestly. "I'd say one of his own did it."

"It wasn't a rebuke, you should take credit for it." Janos chuckled a little. "Wily bastard deserves to rot."

"His daughter seems more level headed."

"Give it a few years and she'll be just as bad. Still, maybe in a few years there won't be any Liaos left."

Janos took a long swig of something, his face blank and hanging heavy. He didn't look inspiring, but he still acted as a man with immense power. He might not have been especially strong or popular, but he wasn't entirely out of place.

"I was listening in on your meeting. Why are you giving away technology?"

"We're not Captain General, we're trading it." Sheridan countered.

"Yes, I saw your terms. You want trash for treasure." He waved dismissively. "Minerals, metals? Certain mechanical parts? In exchange for a completely new and vastly superior form of communication? I bet the other Lords bit your hand off."

"They were happy to accept."

"Nobody gives away something like that for a few million tons of resources."

"Several billion tons," Sheridan again corrected. "Over the next two decades."

"Irrelevant, with this you could be king makers. Is that what you want? Are you angling to replace Comstar as the arbiters of any disputes?"

"We'll be speaking with Comstar very soon to reassure them we have no plans to supplant them."

"I'm not taking this deal until I know what you really want," Janos said simply.

"Then I suppose we leave empty handed."

The head of House Marik glared at Sheridan for a long while, a little fire in his expression before offering a curt nod.

"They sent the right man. You don't crack easily, Ambassador."

"I've had a lot of practice." Sheridan spoke the truth. "Of course we have our goals, but they are not hostile. Superior communication between governments will reduce misunderstandings, help ease tensions, generally make the galaxy a safer place."

"Which benefits you?"

"Of course it does. I wasn't just flattering your team when I said we share similar views on trade and business. The Earth Alliance is a free market economy and we are very keen to get into business with new partners. We can offer you a lot, and in turn we gain plenty."

"This partnership with mech manufacturers then, are you serious about it?"


"Automated factories are worth their weight in platinum, there are only a handful still left working and they are defended jealously."

"That is true here in the Inner Sphere, it is not true in the Earth Alliance." Sheridan spoke as clearly as possible. "We can build new factories in months. We have the resource base and infrastructure to mass produce military units from now until the sun burns out. It is very important, Captain General, that you understand this simple point. The golden days that you look back on and will never be able to restore, they are our present."

"Then why share it?"

"Because we want to trade. Because we want the best mechs you can provide and no corporation in the galaxy is going to look away from this deal," Sheridan said simply. "And no government is going to let their rivals secure such an advantage without matching it themselves."

"You will fundamentally shift the balance of power in the galaxy. It will trigger an arms race," Janos warned.

"Perhaps, but is the status quo really working out for anyone?" Sheridan asked. "Maybe a change is needed."

"One that triggers a full scale war?"

"Or helps prevent one." Sheridan replied. "In either case, you can see the obvious advantages of accepting our trade deal."

Janos took a long drink.

"Were you this blunt with the other Lords?"

"No, but times have changed." Sheridan admitted. "President Levy is leaving office and President Elect Santiago is far more energetic when it comes to our relationships in the Inner Sphere. In the past we tried to hide our capabilities. We weren't sure where we stood, how much danger we might be in. This caused us to be underestimated, made certain groups assume we were weak. That cost many lives."

"Your next President has a new philosophy then?"

"Yes, to treat you the same as we would treat any neighbours. We will be open, we will be fair, and if we are attacked or otherwise compromised, we will respond with the wrath of an angry god."

"I see." Janos managed a tiny smile. "Glad to see you are fitting in."

"The other side of that is President Santiago is saddened by the hardships of the Inner Sphere, and as such is ready to help make things better. The mech factories are just a taste, we can restore standards of living, of education, of industry to a level you haven't seen in centuries."

"But again, why? Why would you give potential rivals such a degree of power?"

"Officially, because we wish to become allies and partners with the more noble of the Great Houses. Unofficially, we want strong, stable and prosperous trading partners bringing in new ideas, technologies, and resources. This will also boost our own economy to levels nobody could dream of a few years ago. But don't assume that we are putting our future in your hands. Everything we give, we can take away."

"I see." Janos nodded simply. "I read briefings on you, Ambassador Sheridan, they were wrong. You are as hard in negotiations as any man I've known."

"We made some mistakes. Our approach was flawed, but I think we're starting to figure out how this game works," Sheridan allowed. "The purpose of this diplomatic tour was to see who we could work with, who could become partners in trade and security. We've made our choice, and we would very much like to work with you and House Marik."

"But not the Liaos and Kurita?"

"They had their chance."

"It will be war then." Janos shrugged. "But not with me, Ambassador. Only a fool would turn his back on this, even with the strings attached."

"The President also has some idea on how to foster diplomatic relations between the big players, providing a type of forum where they can talk instead of fight." Sheridan remarked. "Still in the planning stages, but he's thinking big."

"It won't work, but I'm curious to see what he wastes his money on." Janos half smiled. "But for us, at least, well, I know a good investment when I see one."

About the same time

It didn't really look all the different, the same continents and oceans, same population centres, some variations in urban sprawl and orbital structures, but to all intents and purposes, it was just the same planet. It brought up the same sort of pride and desire to defend this blue marble as their true home did, and that was actually quite disconcerting. It took a moment of real effort to disconnect instinct from logic. This was not their home, rather they were pilgrims in a dangerous land.

"High orbit achieved, we are clear to head down to the surface at our convenience."

General Hague gave a nod of acknowledgement. He did want to get down as quickly as possible, as much from overwhelming curiosity as anything else, but he also had a job to do. He'd arrived in system a few days ago aboard the Alexander with the Agrippa acting as escort, seventh of the Omega class and the first of the second batch of destroyers. By now the yards were at full capacity, building half a dozen Omegas per month, plus an assortment of smaller units. In a few years, they would be back to full strength, but then what?

The scientists were still theorising about what had sent them to this place with no obvious answer yet. The chances of them figuring out how to reverse it was right now infinitesimally small. There was also the question of whether or not they actually wanted to go back, whether they wanted to throw themselves back into the hopeless grinder of war. At first, the answer was obvious. As soon as the military was ready, they would strike back. But now that idea was starting to become less popular, the vigour was fading and people were cooling on the prospect of fighting.

Earth was getting used to the loss of its colonies, which was a terrible thing to many, but rapidly becoming the new reality. This new place offered new opportunities, new chances to advance and to prosper. It had dangers, but so far nothing like the danger they had just escaped. The Alliance could do well here. People were starting to realise that, to see a future where they could be incredibly influential, and they were liking it.

Hague was firmly in the return to finish the job camp, as were most of the officers he knew. The military wasn't happy running from a fight and abandoning the people they had sworn to defend, but even the hardiest warriors knew going back right now was suicide. Every year that passed dampened that fervour, and the potential threats from elsewhere would draw their focus and resources. The army was already receiving a boost to their budget to establish a Battlemech brigade based on local experience. It was apparent that the Senate was settling in for the long run.

The Inner Sphere was a different enemy, familiar yet utterly alien. Earth Force could fight them, but it couldn't meaningfully conquer them, just destroy them. There was no way the people of the Alliance would sanction Mass Drivers being used against fellow human beings, unless the situation escalated to be an existential threat to Earth, something that seemed unlikely given Earth Force's clear superiority in space. The future President knew that. He was stepping into a very complex game where he had the option of small scale, highly precise warfare or outright flipping the table and not much in between. Not yet anyway.

Santiago would work on that. His approval of an expanded Battlemech force was an attempt to mimic the style of warfare within the Sphere, but improve upon it, give Earth the option to make limited attacks with a high chance of success. Hague wasn't sure it was a great idea and remained a firm believer in the fleet as the best option in any conflict, but the raid on Sian had fired the public imagination and the Senate had practically thrown buckets of money at the army so it could do the same thing. So now they would hold trials, test the various models of mech, then team up with whoever made the winners and churn out several hundred shiny new warmachines. It didn't sound a lot, but initial reactions from the Federated Suns and the Lyrans had been very favourable.

Before that though, there was Terra.

"Alert traffic control, tell them we are on the way down at the Primus' invitation."

The journey down was just as odd. Their destination was coincidentally enough Geneva, where the day to day government of Terra ran its business. Hague was aware that true power rested with the Comstar inner circle at a place named Hilton Head Island, but that location was strictly controlled and shrouded in secrecy. Hague didn't mind. It would be interesting to compare Terra's version of the well known city, even the de-orbit followed the exact same flightpath he'd used countless times back home.

"You'd never tell." His aide Major Ryan peered from the small windows at the ground rushing past. "They've kept the place nice."

"Tidied it up after the last wars at least." Hague nodded. "Though they say the old capital is still a no-go area."

"We did pick up some residual radiation, though not as bad as expected," Ryan confirmed. "There's a lot of defences still intact down here. Back when it was the Star League, this place was a fortress."

"And yet it still fell." Hague watched the clouds in the distance. "We'd have a hell of a time doing the same thing, even if it was a couple of centuries ago, it shows what's possible."

"Long range scans show some decent shipyards out at Saturn and some successful attempts at terraforming. Those stories about them making Venus habitable were true."

"But they let it all slip away." The General felt bad for the people of the Inner Sphere, to have risen so high and then for all their glories and achievements to slip through their fingers. President Santiago was interested in helping the more friendly nations, but that had limits. Alliance scientists were terraforming Venus and Mars back home, but it was a painfully slow process scheduled to take centuries. Even if they wanted to, they couldn't save this version of Venus, or even Mars. It was a small reminder that whatever the state of the current galaxy, the Star League had been a truly mighty institution.

The shuttle touched down at a small spaceport allowing the pair of officers to disembark. Waiting for them were a selection of Comguards dressed in their curious attire that made them look like something from a fantasy middle aged world. They boarded a monorail which took them swiftly to one of the government buildings set aside for their mission. This was not officially a meeting with Comstar, rather they were here to finalise matters with Chancellor Candace Liao on neutral ground. Comstar was happy to facilitate the meeting naturally, their leadership using it as a chance to ingratiate themselves with both parties.

Hague and Ryan were led to an antechamber, their arrival through one door mirrored precisely by the arrival of two robed men through a different one. No waiting. The guards departed giving the small group the appearance of privacy. Hague had no doubt every word and gesture was being recorded.

"General Hague, welcome to my world." A somewhat affable middle aged man welcomed him, smiling widely from beneath his religious inspired hood. "Julian Tiepolo, Primus of Comstar."

"Glad to be here Primus. My government sends its regards and appreciation for your offer to host this moment."

"Exactly what we are here for, to promote and facilitate peace," Tiepolo said confidently. "This is my good friend Precentor Vesar Kristofur, he will be assisting me today."

"And my aide, Major Ryan," Hague finished the introductions.

"This is your first visit to Terra gentlemen?" Tiepolo asked. "Or Earth, as you might say. What do you think of the world you still honour with the name of your nation?"

"Yes, our first time setting foot here." Hague was telling the truth. "And it is beautiful."

"This is what peace looks like, what the whole galaxy will one day look like." Kristofur spoke with absolute certainty. "This is proof of Blake's vision."

"Terra is the cradle of civilisation, a shining example," Tiepolo agreed. "But one that we have carefully nurtured and protected. The peace you see is recent. As I understand, you were not present for much of our history, so you may not know the terrible calamities this world suffered."

"Only from books and videos, Primus." Hague again spoke true.

"Our entire purpose in life, the purpose of Comstar as a whole, is to preserve what is best in mankind, guard it, and then when possible, return this peace to everyone. Sadly, at least for now, there is too much war and discontent for that to be a reality."

"It is an honourable goal," Hague allowed. "My government would also like to see peace and prosperity return to the Inner Sphere. Perhaps we have common cause?"

"I would like to think so, but I must be honest General, your actions have recklessly disrupted the order of things."

"We are merely attempting to establish peaceful relations with the powers of the galaxy," Hague said innocently. "When our delegates were attacked and imprisoned, should we have ignored the provocation?"

"You might instead have asked me to intercede," Tiepolo very gently chided. "We have experience in these matters, a history which regrettably you do not share. We could have done with words what you did with guns."

"Or you might not," Hague pointed out. "It is also necessary for us to resolve our own problems, if possible. To show other potential aggressors we are not so weak as they believe."

"So instead, you restart the age of warships." Kristofur glared daggers at the General. "The galaxy is afraid, they know they are vulnerable to such an attack themselves. Now they will try to expand their military power, making the galaxy a more dangerous place."

"There is also the matter of tachyon communications," Tiepolo brought up. "Such a system is a remarkable technological achievement. I am surprised you were able to master it."

"I don't know many of the specifics, I am no scientist." Hague responded carefully. "I just know they work."

"And you have a completely unknown method of faster than light travel. Again, this is something never even hinted at in any study or theory." Tiepolo watched him carefully. "It seems in several ways you surpass the Star League. And now you bring this technology back with you, and offer it to the Inner Sphere."

"Some of it," Hague nodded. "Mostly civilian technology."

"It isn't hard to shift civilian infrastructure to become military facilities." Tiepolo lowered his head in a show of regret. "Truck factories can easily make tanks, passenger shuttles may quickly become bombers, nuclear reactors can produce the core materials for atomics."

"We are trying to promote peace, yet you will be sharing the means for the Great Houses to rebuild for another massive war," Kristofur accused. "Probably the last war that will finally finish us all."

"There is no guarantee they will turn those technologies to war."

"Of course they will!" The Precentor snapped. "It's all they ever do!"

"What we mean is it is too great a risk." Tiepolo spoke more calmly. "And we would ask that you refrain from giving any more technology until we can create a schedule for it. Share it slowly over an extended time frame."

"With all due respect, Primus, we don't have the time to drip feed vital technologies and industry," Hague responded bluntly. "We will sell approved civilian technologies to our trade partners as they wish. We will sell them jumpships by the thousand, automated mines and refineries so they can build cities, industrial hubs, laboratories, schools, and infrastructure. It is within our power to make every world look like Terra. Everyone can live like this within a few decades. This is a great moment, and we would like you to help us do it."

"Help you?" Kristofus spat, Tiepolo silencing him with a raised hand.

"History has shown us General, that too much, too soon can lead to disaster. It feeds arrogance, pride, overconfidence. The carefully laid out words of the Blessed Blake guide us on how best to manage the rebirth of the Star League and civilisation. Your methods would undo all of that. So instead it is I, we, who ask for your help. Cancel your trade deals, disable your tachyon relays, go home and forget about the Inner Sphere. You survived well enough all this time alone, trying to integrate yourself here will lead only to destruction. For you and for us."

"I'm afraid that die is now cast, Primus, we will be providing industrial, economic, and humanitarian aid to our partners," Hague promised. "This galaxy has squandered centuries of growth and potential, it has been robbed of what it might have been. We want to change that."

"Then you will kill us all."

"No Primus, but trust me when I say that there are plenty of things out there that would."

"Let me share with you the fundamental truth of our time, General. The Inner Sphere is full of those who would burn everything to dust, rather than see it in the hands of an enemy." Tiepolo emphasised his words very clearly. "Every gift you give is a target, everyone who gathers around it victims waiting to die. By giving advantages to one group, you force those who do not have them to attack before the gulf in abilities grows so wide victory becomes impossible. You must see this."

"We have taken that into account." Hague nodded. "President Santiago is confident that the promise of prosperity will sway all powers to seek partnership with us."

"Liao and Kurita never will."

"We are confident they will, if not the current leaders, then perhaps their successors."

Tiepolo smiled again, but not the gentle smile of a priest this time. "I think I understand where your President is coming from. Please pass on my regards, I hope to meet him one day, and perhaps he will listen to my words if I speak them directly."

"I'll pass it along."

One of the guards returned, he said nothing, just nodded.

"It seems Chancellor Liao is ready." Tiepolo switched his attitude, once again radiating a calm gentle aura and gesturing for the group to follow him. "Let us conclude this treaty and at least end one conflict."

The moved to the next room over to find Candace Liao and a few attendants already at the large table. Hague took his place opposite, with Tiepolo sitting himself at the head of the table. By his side he had several sheets of thick paper containing the formal text of the treaty.

"Now, I trust the terms are acceptable to both governments?"

"The President and Senate have ratified the terms," Hague confirmed.

"They are acceptable, but only under protest." Candace said flatly. "We acknowledge the responsibility for the conflict lies with Maximilian Liao, but we agree to reparations only under duress. The attack inflicted great damage to my people, the damage to the Forbidden city will take many years to fix at great cost. We believe we have suffered enough."

"Do you acknowledge these points, General?"

"I do, but the Earth Alliance Government rejects them."

"The reparations are to consist of..." Tiepolo looked through the documents. "The transfer of one mech factory and all associated infrastructure, including reactor manufacturing plants, armour forges, myomer production facilities, and armament factories."

"We are currently at war and have need of such facilities," Candace spoke sharply. "We seek a delay until after the conflict is over."

"My government rejects any delay," Hague responded. "Please disassemble and prepare the marked facilities for pickup by Alliance freighters."

Candace kept a blank face but her anger was obvious.

"You can refuse to sign," Tiepolo said.

"Negotiations have already taken too long." Candace shook her head. "We need peace."

"The Earth Alliance will honour the peace. We accept the rule of Chancellor Candace Liao as a fresh start and as a sign of this, we will give the Capellan Confederation a Tachyon communication device."

Tiepolo almost imperceptibly twitched.

"We believe this will help prevent future miscalculations," Hague concluded. "I will sign on behalf of the President."

The two sides moved to stand beside Tiepolo, Candace signing first, then Hague, then the Primus as witness.

"Well, that's done," Tiepolo stepped back. "The conflict between you is over."

"My President hopes we can move past this unfortunate incident," Hague said formally.

"I hope so too. You seem to grant many favours to your allies, as I hear it. One day, I hope to be among them." She inclined her head. "Enjoy your Urbanmech factory."

"Chancellor." Hague nodded, then turned on his heel and left, Major Ryan falling into step beside him.

"Those people are the death of the Inner Sphere." Tiepolo turned to Candace. "They will make half the galaxy depend on them, let their puppets crush those who remain free, and then they will be lords of a mockery Star League."

"I don't care for your narrative Primus, don't feed me stories." Candace waved him away. "They don't give a damn about conquering the galaxy, but they are definitely up to something."

"Can I assume I still have your support?"

"If I have yours." She nodded. "I brought what we were able to recover from their forces. We couldn't strip the entire KF drive from their diplomatic transport in time, but we have the key components. The initiator, the power systems, whatever made it different."

"I'll ensure it is studied by my best scholars."

"My engineers tell me the design is simple, but the alloys involved are far beyond our ability to replicate. You might have more luck."

"And the weapons?" Kristofur asked.

"An assortment of rifles, recovered guns from destroyed fighters, examples of their hull material." She nodded. "All as requested. What do you have for me?"

"Communications intercepts from the Chesterton front," Tiepolo responded. "Their key orders are sent on the new Tachyon relay, but their less critical communications still go by HPG. Supply orders, messages from soldiers to their homes, transportation requests. We can see where they are gathering, narrow down their targets. That should let you concentrate your forces where they need to be."

"I expect you to update my strategists daily. Locate their supply lines, their depots," Candace demanded. "If I can cut them off at the knees, their offensive will falter and die before I lose too much."

"What about Marik?" Kristofur asked.

"What about them?" She shot him a cold smile. "Anton Marik is the regional commander, all military operations against us go through him, and Anton Marik lives in my pocket."

"Your father was cultivating him. Will he be loyal to you now instead?" Tiepolo asked.

"Given Precentor Kristofur was the one holding Anton's lead at the time, what do you think?"

The Precentor ROM laughed. "So you recognise me."

"And the good work you do. I value Comstar as my father did. I hope we will have a similar fruitful relationship."

"I can guarantee it." Kristofur bowed happily.

"Anton will delay the offensive, misdirect supplies, limit the forces." Candace said confidently. "Any great victories will be attributed to Janos, making him more popular. Anton doesn't want that. I will give him a few small wins to boost his name, he will feed any central Marik forces into a meat grinder I will set up to kill their offensive and weaken Janos' loyal troops before Anton makes his own moves."

"You will have our full support in this matter." Tiepolo nodded. "And of course, access to any new weapons we make."

"You will need our factories, even with Terra you can't mass produce enough weapons to counter what the Alliance is going to flood the galaxy with. I bet you've already signed up Kurita, haven't you?"

"It would be a wise move." Tiepolo appreciated her insight. "We will do what we can to reproduce as much of this technology as possible, then we will give it quietly to the Combine and yourself. I can offer no guarantees, but it should at least prevent you from being overwhelmed in any future war."

"Good enough." Candace accepted. "If we put Anton where he needs to be and bring the Free Worlds into our camp, then I think the future is looking very promising indeed."
Nice update.

Candance is a fool if she doesn't realise that the EA intelligence services will be keeping a very close eye on the Capellan Confederacy going forward. After all it is the most like the Centauri Republic at its machivellian worst of all the successor states. If she goes too far out of line or trys anything against them or threatens their interests well it wouldn't be that difficult to end the existence of House Liao. Alternatively if they have to openly attack Sian again in the future well next time they might not bother pulling their punches and either nuke the planet or throw a few asteroids at it.

You have to wonder though what ComStar will whisper in her ear.
Problem is that the EIA is years away from establishing an intelligence network in any other BT policy, they are starting from zero against agencies with centuries worth of justified institutional paranoia and (in this specific case) the support of Comstar own counterintel to ferret out any spy. After Candance purges her father loyalists -including whoever remained alive from their interrogation teams that could have been compromised by Bester- it might take up to a decade to get even third hand sources on a somewhat permanent basis with the Liaos and even then it will probably be monitored by one security service or another. And Comstar for once won't earn anything other than outright hostility from everyone by betraying the capellans and is going to keep their research in well protected facilities with fanatic and properly vetted personnel so no worries in that front either.

And of course Candance is perfectly aware that Comstar is filled with perfidious snakes worse than her father at his worst so she will take every deal offered by the Telephone Company with a grain of salt, using her Tachion network to confirm vital instructions so no great worries about her becoming their puppet.

Being completely fair I think that Candance deal with Comstar was a low risk move that earned her tangible results at the short term without seriously endangering any future deal with Earth Alliance.
Problem is that the EIA is years away from establishing an intelligence network in any other BT policy, they are starting from zero against agencies with centuries worth of justified institutional paranoia and (in this specific case) the support of Comstar own counterintel to ferret out any spy.

Perfectly sensible thinking and in general I'd agree with you except for three things. EA's potential transport & communication, EA's telepaths (obvious), and the example of that special bit of Btech implausibility that is Wolfnet.
Perfectly sensible thinking and in general I'd agree with you except for three things. EA's potential transport & communication, EA's telepaths (obvious), and the example of that special bit of Btech implausibility that is Wolfnet.
Transport and Comms will not help a lot when only a few dozen people know about the exchange and are ordered to keep everything to a single secure dropship while on transit and to a very secure shoot-on-sight facility afterwards. Telepaths are harder to counter but they are few, every other agency in the EA mistrust them to operate beyond EA borders unsupervised (or supervised for that matter) and all but the most powerful 'paths need to touch their target, something that is hard with priority targets who will be protected by multiple layers of electronic and physical barriers, which will prevent entrance even if you brainwash the guards in front of you.

As for Wolfnet? They are bullshit, in particular coming from the Clans who shouldn't have the right tradecraft to infiltrate the Inner Sphere to begin with...
Nice update.

ComStar really isn't liking what the EA is up to as it threatens the plan they have been working towards for centuries. As they have been quietly encouraging the wars and hoarding all technological knowledge for themselves. The trouble is they have no way of forcing the EA to do anything as their main source of power is refusing to send messages along, something that the tachyon comms circumvent.

Though EA is also being a bit arrogant and overconfident but that is fairly normal for them.
…I wonder if those buried Shadow cruisers on Mars and Ganymede are still there. I mean, by all rights they should be.

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…I wonder if those buried Shadow cruisers on Mars and Ganymede are still there. I mean, by all rights they should be.


No reason that they wouldn't still be there as both were shutdown and buried. Thing is since this is another reality the unearthing of the battlecrab beneath Syria Planum would not trigger a beacon signal that will bring Shadow minions to Earth to reclaim the vessel and to infiltrate and subvert the government. Without them Clark will struggle to gain power as they won't be there to kill Santiago by destroying EarthForce One as EarthForce One was destroyed by a Shadow explosive device planted on the primary fusion core.
And of course Candance is perfectly aware that Comstar is filled with perfidious snakes worse than her father at his worst so she will take every deal offered by the Telephone Company with a grain of salt, using her Tachion network to confirm vital instructions so no great worries about her becoming their puppet.

Being completely fair I think that Candance deal with Comstar was a low risk move that earned her tangible results at the short term without seriously endangering any future deal with Earth Alliance.
The problem is how much more it allows Comstar to infiltrate Liao organizations. I have a feeling the CC will replace the FWL in this timeline.
No reason that they wouldn't still be there as both were shutdown and buried. Thing is since this is another reality the unearthing of the battlecrab beneath Syria Planum would not trigger a beacon signal that will bring Shadow minions to Earth to reclaim the vessel and to infiltrate and subvert the government. Without them Clark will struggle to gain power as they won't be there to kill Santiago by destroying EarthForce One as EarthForce One was destroyed by a Shadow explosive device planted on the primary fusion core.

All very true. I was mostly looking at it from a ‘bringing up something to talk about’ standpoint.

And a ‘ace in the hole from EA if the ships get stumbled upon’ given how easy to use Shadowtech is. Or at least elements of it see the ‘Advanced Omega destroyers’ fielded by Clark.

(Admittedly I have a massive soft spot for the Shadows and really wish that the Shadow Omegas had gotten more use).

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