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One by one, the Colonel fielded questions, deliberately walking towards the Mech bays as they spoke. They couldn't afford to waste time while the window for setting the ambush grew smaller, but there was no reason not to answer while they prepped.

"The longer we stay out in the open, the greater the chances are that we get spotted by their aerospace assets," he said, answering Giggles' question. "Mobilizing the salvage crews and getting them into the area will take longer than deploying the combat lance, and the NPDRE will likely have their own recovery team in the area by the time ours arrives. While we can have a skeleton crew ready to pick through the wreckage and bug out as quickly as possible, a full recovery probably won't be an option."

"Ehhh, beggin' yer pardon, Colonel Sir," Mr. Maxwell chimed in as he followed after the military personnel, "But I might respectfully disagree with that last notion. I'm sure your crews are good at their jobs, but my boys are born pickers. An' we know the mountains. We can be on those dead Mechs, pry out anythin' that looks nice, an' git before any o' Federov's boys kin find us."

Colonel Wayne gave the scrapyard denizen an appraising look. "I assume you'll want a share of whatever you recover?"

"Jess what's fair, is all," he said, knowing the two men both had wildly different notions of what "fair" might mean. His grin also told that he knew the Knights had few options if they wanted the job done right.

The Colonel's look was sour, but he nodded. "We'll work out shares when the job is done. Right now, dividing up nothing still leaves us both with nothing."

Maxwell's gap-toothed grin widened. He was going to enjoy putting such a self-serious man over a barrel and making a killing off of this.

"Awright, boys!" he called out. "Git yer shit and be ready ta move, we're gonna have us a helluva haul tonight!"

This brought up a chorus of whoops and cheers from the other scrappers, while Colonel Wayne turned his attention back to his Mechwarriors.

"I want this done quickly," he told them. "First, because there's a limited amount of time before the aerospace assets are called in. Fighting those Mechs is going to be hard enough; fighting them while they have air support will be a whole other story. Second, I want it on record that we are professionals, not butchers. We take them out quickly and efficiently, and we don't let them goad us into losing our composure."

"But make no mistake: the Crimson Fists gave up the right to surrender," he said as unconsciously, his good hand drifted towards his hip, toward the checkered grip of the semi-automatic pistol at his side. "I don't want this to be a spectacle, but it will be an execution. They die, simple as that."

Fort Tie Shan
March 27, 3030

"It's about time I got to speak to someone in management," Captain Sally Roth said with a defiant grin, "the accommodations here are terrible, and the service is even worse. Though by the looks of you, you've been helping yourself to the complimentary breakfasts. See if I come here again next time I visit this planet."

The room was plain concrete, lit by a single bare light bulb. In the center of room was a small floor drain, and a leaky water hose in one corner-- all the easier to clean up with after the evening's 'entertainment,' she guessed.

Seated in a plain metal folding chair with her hands cuffed behind her, Sally measured up the fat balding man who looked like he fit even worse into his own body than he did into his clothes. Though she'd never met the man before, she recognized the dead look in the man's eyes. There was no anger, no remorse, no reaction to her jeering. They were the eyes of a killer. Or, more likely, a torturer.

"My name is Grigori Ilyanovich," the fat man introduced himself. "I am the head Minister of Justice for the New Democratic People's Republic of Espia. Before the revolution, I was trained in the arts of enhanced interrogation by agents of the Maskirovka."

"So you were trained in how to get your asses kicked by better FedSun spies? That explains all the rumors I'm hearing about how your little war is going," Sally sneered, but her poker face slipped just a tad. The Maskirovka were infamous as the most feared intelligence apparatuses in all of the Inner Sphere, if not for their effectiveness, then for their sheer brutality. The business of spycraft was often dirty and ugly, and agencies like the DEST and SAFE had all done more than their fair share of evil deeds in the name of their respective nations, but the horror stories surrounding the Maskirovka left them all in the dust.

Looking at the metal cart being wheeled in by a pair of assistants, and the various implements laid out in a meticulous order on it, Sally knew this Ilyanovich guy fully intended to live up to his former masters' reputation.

"Yes, the wounds of the Fourth Succession War do sting a bit, even if I am no longer loyal to the family Liao," Ilyanovich admitted with a sad sigh. "Still, such pains are not to be dwelled on, as they are now in the past. I am far more interested in discovering what pains await us in the future, aren't you?"

"Honey," Captain Roth scoffed, "if you think you're the first local yokel from some backwater nowhere planet to threaten me, you're in for some disappointment. I'm sorry if you flew all the way from the capital thinking you were going to scare me into cooperation, but I'm not telling you a damn thing."

"Oh, I'm not interested in information," the fat man waved her remarks away. "Today's session is more of an...introduction. I want you to know who I am, what I am capable of doing, and the true nature of your situation."

The first implement Ilyanovich reached for was not a pair of pliers, a scalpel, an ice pick, or any other sharp or blunt instrument. Instead, he picked a remote control up from the cart, and turned on a small holovid projector.

The holo showed Captain Roth the raw footage of the attack on the Keahi Township. The fires, the screams, the rampaging Battlemechs all bearing the sigil of Gaius Wayne's command.

"A truly heinous atrocity," Ilyanovich said, his voice dripping with false admonishment, "And one which Premier Federov and General Malenkov have already vowed to avenge. As we speak, Federov is asking ComStar's local Precentor to label the Green Knights as an outlaw command. When that happens....I'm afraid the protections granted to you and your people will be null and void."

Sally took her eyes off of the horrific footage to shoot an indignant glare at Federov. "You're full of shit," she said. "You know that's not the Knights, and ComStar will know it, too. Federov, Malenkov, your corny 'Crimson Fists,' you're all full of shit and you know it."

"Perhaps ComStar will reach a similar conclusion," Federov's man nodded, "or perhaps they will not care. As you said, Espia is a 'backwater nowhere planet,' and Gawain's Green Knights are a small command. In the grand scheme of things, I doubt it will matter to them who is 'right' or 'wrong,' merely who remains a paying customer. Rather than spend the time and money and effort on a lengthy investigation, perhaps they can be convinced to simply take the path of least resistance and make this problem go away. Surely a woman as well-traveled as you is aware how little the various players of the great game care about small pieces like Gaius Wayne."

"So that's the play?" Sally asked. "Tell me everything's hopeless, then either torture me and whoever else you can get your grubby sausage-fingers on until one of us gives up where the Knights are, or start executing hostages until Gaius gives himself up?"

Ilyanovich shrugged. "You are free to make whatever conclusions you wish. As I said, tonight I'm merely interested in--"

"An introduction, I heard you," Roth spat. "Well, while we're getting to know each other, maybe you'd like to know something about Gaius. Ever hear of the planet Sendai?"

Grigori shrugged again. "Should I have?"

"It's a Kurita world," Sally explained. "Back during the First Succession War, the Eridani Light Horse were stationed there, working under contract for House Kurita. When they heard about the massacre on Kentares IV, the Horsemen decided they couldn't work for a bloodthirsty lunatic, so they packed up their things and took off. The problem was, their civilian contingent was caught by the local Kurita troops before they could leave, and the planetary governor held them hostage. The Eridani had to either turn around and get back to work, or watch their people die."

"And I suppose the Light Horse pulled some daring rescue to break their people out of prison?" Grigori asked.

"No," Roth answered, "they called the governor's bluff. They appealed to the governor's better nature, hoping that he'd let their families go. But the governor was a true believer in the Kurita cause. All that jazz about honor and service to the Dragon, that mattered more to him than the lives of some mercenary wives and kids. So as the Eridani took off to leave Sendai, he gathered up their civilians and had them all shot, sending the footage on a tight-beam broadcast directly to the Light Horse. Once again, the message was clear: turn around and get back to work."

"That was the Light Horse's mistake, then," Ilyanovich scoffed. "They needed to be taught that actions have consequences."

"Oh, they learned that lesson," Roth nodded, "And they turned their ship around and they got right back to work. As soon as the Eridani Light Horse touched back down on Sendai, they went about killing every Combine official they could find. And I mean every one. Every Mechwarrior, every pilot, every officer, every soldier, every government official, from the highest-ranking government brass all the way down the goddamn mail clerks. Every man and woman on Sendai who was on the payroll of Lord Kurita was in the ground by the time the Eridani Light Horse were done. A small band of mercenaries took on the government and military of an entire world, and by the time they left, that government was fucking dead. Like you said, actions have consequences."

Silence hung between them for a moment, before Grigori snorted.

"An amusing story," he dismissed her words, "but an irrelevant one. The First Succession War was centuries ago. And I've read Gaius Wayne's file; he never served with the Eridani Light Horse."

"Oh, you're right," Sally nodded, "Gaius was never a Horseman. He's worse: he's a fan. Which means he'll stop at nothing to live up to the stories of the mercenaries he's idolized. He knows the story of Sendai by heart-- hell, he's the one who told me about it."

Sally glanced at the cart, the tools that Ilyanovich had laid out, and considered all of the sinister implications of each one.

"So by all means, Grigori Ilyanovich, introduce yourself to me," she said, her expression hardening. "Just know that when Gaius Wayne gets to introduce himself to you, whatever you do to me and the rest of my people? He's going to do ten times over, to you, to Federov, to the Crimson Fists, and to your entire goddamn outfit."

"Uncle Mack's" Industrial Scrapyard
Property of Maxwell Metals Incorporated
A subsidiary of the Aqua Vitae Corporation
100 km south of Geom Haebyon
150 km northwest of Fort Tie Shan

Rivers was the first to speak, followed by Daschke and Ziska. Little of it registered to Gaius, as his thoughts were filled with fire and thunder.

Pacing back and forth before his Knights, Colonel Wayne held his tongue until he could cool his mind enough. In desperate times, people tended not to rise to the occasion, but rather to fall to their training. And his years of training and experience in a Mech cockpit kept him from firing off while he was running hot.

Slowly, some of their words were penetrating the rage that clouded his thoughts.

Mount a rescue, perhaps? Unlikely; most of the people in that town were already dead, or would run screaming from the sight of the Green Knights returning.

Send exonerating footage to ComStar? Maybe, but there was no guarantee the Precentor wasn't already bought off.

Use the Davy Crockett in exchange for Sally and the others? As tempting as the thought was of erasing Federov and his goons in a mushroom cloud of righteous fire, the Crockett didn't have the kind of yield to guarantee success. And if anyone survived, that would only confirm the propaganda that the Green Knights were heartless war criminals.

Considering the possibilities cooled his thoughts, dispersed the haze of his anger enough so that he could see a course of action.

"Lyons," he called to the leader of the Mobile HQ team, "Map."

"Ah, yes sir!" Lieutenant Lyons nodded, scrambling about her person for the control to the holo-projector she had set up outside the MHQ.

After a few moments of fumbling about, Lyons sputtered "Got it, sir, sorry for the wait, sir," and activated the projection of the regional map.

"As far as we can tell," Colonel Wayne began, "Within the past hour- give or take fifteen or twenty minutes for broadcast editing- the Crimson Fists launched a false flag attack on the township of Keahi, in sector D-14. Their assets included four Battlemechs: a Firestarter, a Hunchback, and two heavy Mechs, a Crusader and Warhammer. The township had a small population, only a few thousand. It's likely that the majority of them are now dead."

The Colonel became aware of a sharp pain in his left hand. Looking down, he saw that his fist was clenched so tightly that his own fingernails were digging into his palm.

"The goal of this attack was two-fold," Gaius continued. "The first was to delegitimize us in the eyes of any possible allies. The FPA, any civilian support, any surviving loyalists to the late Governor Xiu; as far as they're concerned, Gawain's Green Knights are now an outlaw command. This was a deliberate attempt to destroy our reputation. My reputation."

Colonel Wayne felt his anger boil again, and he paused, holding his words until the heat passed over him.

"The second goal is to goad us out," he said once he had calmed down. "In all likelihood they still think we're somewhere in the north, and that we'll pop our heads up to show that we weren't the ones who attacked Keahi...which will then let them zero their bombers in on us and flatten us. They're expecting a fight, but I don't think they'll be expecting when or where they'll get one."

Gesturing to the holo-map, Gaius pointed out another sector, north of the massive city of Geum Haebyon.

"Sector K-7 has a forward operating base capable of supporting Battlemechs," Gaius said. "Going back to the Espian Guard's main headquarters would draw too much attention, but that FOB is far enough out of the way that the Fists can park their Mechs there and remove our markings from them now that they've done their dirty work. If I were a betting man, I'd put money on them heading there right now, avoiding the main roads in case they get spotted."

Tracing a zig-zag line between the two points, keeping away from main connecting highways or any other places that might draw too much unwanted attention, his finger settled on a sector not too far from them.

"Sector H-13," he said. "There's a pass through the mountains where a lance of Mechs can get through without much risk of being spotted. Everywhere else is either too crowded with highway traffic from Geum Haebyon, or too steep for the non Jump-capable Mechs to traverse. The pass has a sharp drop on one side, and a rocky mountainside on the other. I'd considered using the region for training exercises before the coup, but the snowfall on the mountaintops is so heavy that there was too much risk of causing an avalanche. Given that three of their mechs top out at 64 kph, we can expect them to reach the mountain pass in just under four hours. Once our Mechs are spun up, we can be there in two."

Without a word, Crew Chief Aadil nodded, and gestured for the Mech techs to get to work. A dozen technicians got up from the briefing and ran with purpose to the salvage yard's Mech bays.

"While we make our preparations to fight, I'm going to call in a favor," Colonel Wayne continued his briefing. "I'm going to ask Cassandra Jeong for a helicopter to transport a representative of the Green Knights north, and a meeting with a representative of ComStar. Assuming Jeong's connections are as good as she claims, I need someone to plead our case to the Precentor, so they'll drop Federov's petition to declare us outlaws. That will, at the very least, delay whatever abuse the NPDRE has planned for our people they've got captive. Wyatt, I want you on that helicopter. The rest of us are going to the mountain pass."

At Gaius's gesture, Lyons clicked the control of the holo-projector to zoom in on the mountain pass sector.

"The Knights will set up in ambush positions and wait for the Fists to come through the mountain pass," the Colonel stated. "Set up a kill-box with overlapping fields of fire. Once they're in the box, open fire, and don't stop until all four Mechs are destroyed. Alley Cat, your mission will be to capture as much BattleROM footage as possible, and tight-beam the footage directly to the Mobile HQ, which will be positioned high enough on the ridge to send out a long-range transmission. The Mobile HQ will send that footage to Wyatt, who can then present it as exonerating evidence to ComStar."

With the plan set, the Colonel allowed himself to feel that anger again. "This will be an ugly fight. Tonnage for tonnage, the Fists' lance has us outgunned. But we'll have the high ground, and the element of surprise. All else fails, we bring the goddamn mountain down on them."

Typically, Colonel Wayne liked to open the floor to questions and discussion after presenting the mission. This time, however, his word was final.

"They die," he said with finality. "No prisoners, no survivors, no mercy. They die. Actions have consequences. And today, those consequences are named Gawain's Green Knights."

"Oh come on!" Remy grumbled as the "covering fire" he had asked for ended up destroying the Thumper battery before he could close in on it. Between most of the infantry scattering before his Firestarter could do what it was built to do, and the Trebuchet stealing his kill before he could get in range, Overkill found himself reminded why he generally hated driving anything lighter than 60 tons. As it was, "Murder One" was starting to look like it would be the name of his kill count on this outing.

While he was in the middle of stewing in his frustration, the call came out from their Commander: a lance of enemy 'Mechs inbound. Remy frowned as he heard the names of the 'Mechs approaching. The Locusts by themselves weren't much of an issue; the only trouble they might be was that their speed and nimbleness made them hard to hit. The Javelin had the potential to be mean, but that LRM-15 would lose most of its effectiveness if they closed in.

The Jenner, on the other hand, could be a problem. With a monster engine, it was slower than the Locusts, but only by a little, and its jump jets made it even more agile. Worse, while the Locust only carried one or two medium lasers, the Jenner carried four, not to mention a four-pack of SRMs, which let it hit well above its weight. If they didn't neutralize it quickly, that thing could do some major damage.

"Hell, maybe I'll get to party after all," Overkill said, his frown turning into a sneer. With a parting burst of machine gun fire into the remaining handful of survivors from the Thumper crew, Remy turned the Firestarter around and opened up the throttle to close back in with the formation. Carefully feathering his jump jets to keep the occasional misstep from wrecking his Mech's legs, he reached the bottom of the cliff in relatively short order, reaching the firing line just as the enemy Mech Lance came into range.

"All right, you pirate slap-nuts," he called out on an open comm channel, "Let's friggin' mosh!"

Breaking into a dead sprint, Overkill felt the heat buildup in his Mech already as he looked for his dance partner, the incoming Jenner. As he closed in, the enemy Mech let loose with a salvo of Laser and SRM fire. One of the incoming Lasers went wide, but the other caught his Firestarter on the right side of his Torso. Before Remy could register the damage, he felt himself thrown hard against the restraints of his command couch, and his world went white for a moment. Remy regained his senses to see that one of the Jenner's Short-Range Missiles had struck him in the head, and another had made contact with his right leg, the other two pockmarking the ground behind him.

"Sonofabitch," he growled, tasting blood in his mouth. "Now it's my turn; hope you like it hot!"

Remy let loose with nearly a full Alpha Strike, opening up with both of his Lasers and all four of his Purity L-Series Flamers. One of the Lasers dug a small trench of molten earth into the hill behind the Jenner, but the other hit it square in the torso. The Flamers, on the other hand, did virtually no damage to the enemy Mech's armor, but were instead meant to spike its Heat sharply. Heat was one of a Mechwarrior's worst enemies, with an overheating Mech prone to slowing down and having trouble targeting as its myomer muscles seized up. At intense enough heat levels, a Mech risked its reactor shutting down, or worse, its ammunition cooking off. While the Firestarter was outgunned by the Jenner, he could severely cripple its ability to fight.

As the gouts of superheated plasma dispersed, Remy grinned when he saw the enemy Jenner glowing from the excess heat.

"That's right, Feel the Fire, you shit," he snarled, spitting out a wad of blood from the internal injury that stray head-shot had caused. "Feel the fuckin' fire."

"Uncle Mack's" Industrial Scrapyard
Property of Maxwell Metals Incorporated
A subsidiary of the Aqua Vitae Corporation
100 km south of Geom Haebyon
150 km northwest of Fort Tie Shan
27 March, 3030

“I’m just sayin, let’s be reasonable,” Pops pled with the thin and wiry old man over the half-assembled frame of the Rotunda.

“Hell, I been reasonable all dang day,” “Honest” Ollie Maxwell said back, “Waitin’ on you boys to be reasonable back.”

“Po-o-ops, can we go???” Sunny tugged on Pops’s sleeve. “He’s not helping, and he smells funny.”

“In a minute, little one, first we’ve got some business to settle,“ the old man reassured her, then turned back to the scrapper. “Now look, the Colonel’s willing to pay you handsomely for it.”

“With what?” Maxwell responded. ”The last fella who was payin’ ya got blown up, an’ the gover’mint’s already pokin’ their noses into Mizz Jeong’s accounts. No sir, if Federov an’ his boys start followin’ a paper trail, I don’t want nothin’ leading back to me.”

Pops sighed. “It’s not even like you need it. I mean, who the hell ever heard of a car with a Large Laser in it?”

“Ees collector’s ityem,” the big burly Marozov chimed it. “Veel be vyaluwabul ven ees feexed.”

“Oh sure,” the grizzled old Mech tech nodded, “And if you believe that, I’ve got some wedding plates to sell you from military intelligence.”

“Look, fact of the matter is,” Maxwell said with a tone that his patience was wearing thin, “We’re already givin’ you room and shelter and plenty of other things without so much as a thank-you-kindly. And I’ve yet to be convinced as to why on top of our already generous hospitality, I should part with the Large Laser on this here classic piece of Star League era engineering. You ain’t got money, you ain’t got booze, an’ you ain’t got women lookin’ to spend time with the likes of me. So do tell, Pops, what do you have to bargain with?”

Pops frowned for a moment, then an eyebrow raised from behind his oversized mirrored shades. Hanging on the back wall of Maxwell’s workshop was an old beaten-up guitar, a Dobro from the looks of it.

“That six-string hangin’ on the wall,” Pops gestured. “You play, or is that just for decoration?”

“Oh I’ve been known to pick a song or two,” Maxwell grinned proudly. “Had that since I was a sprout; ain’t no one on this planet better’n me with it.”

”Ees vyery good,” Marozov added.

Pops nodded slowly, stroking his chin with his thumb as he inspected the guitar, then said “I’ll play you for it.”

Ollie sneered. “Play me for the guitar?”

“For the laser,” Pops corrected. “Your six-string against mine. Winner gets the laser, loser has to do the winner’s work for a week.”

Ollie and Marozov looked at each other for a second, then burst out laughing.

“Awww hell, Pops,” Maxwell said between bursts of laughter, “Now yer speakin’ my language!”

As the two old men shared a laugh, a young woman in filthy overalls and a coat of grime poked her head into the workshop.

”Hey Pa?” the girl said. ”Ma says there’s somethin’ happenin’ on the holo-vid. Somethin’ real bad.”

The expressions of everyone in the room soured. “There’s already a war on, Jenny, how’s it gonna git much worse?”

“Just come take a look,” Jenny said, and motioned for them to follow her.

In the next building over, an old Star League pre-fab Quonset hut with a few storage cubicles welded onto one side, a small crowd was staring at a large but static-filled holo-screen.

—appears to have been a supply raid gone wrong, the mercenaries then turned their guns on the civilian population. As of now, the estimated death toll is well into the thousands, and is expected to climb. We warn audiences at home, the footage we are about to show you may be disturbing.”

Few things ever got the man everyone only knew as Pops to lose his composure, but his jaw slowly dropped open as the newscast replayed the footage.

“Pops, who is that?” Sunny asked, her breath quickening. “What are they doing to those people? Why do they look like—“

”Go on back to the barracks now,” Pops gently shooed the young girl away. “This isn’t the kind of thing you need to be watching.”

“We take you now live to Balya Gora, where Grand General Malenkov is addressing these events:”

“People of Espia, it is a well-known fact that mercenaries are honorless dogs, barbaric sell-swords who care for nothing but coin. But rarely are we reminded how true this is, until it is too late. The heinous actions of Gawain’s Green Knights will not go unpunished! I will see to it that the People’s Justice is brought upon—"

“Pops, why did they do that to—“

“I said go on now!” Pops said with an authority in his voice he usually didn’t use.

As Sunny turned and scurried back to her corner of the big housing block, Pops turned his attention back to the screen, which was once again playing the footage Malenkov had condemned.

“Sons of bitches,” he muttered.

Keahi Township
50 km Northwest of North Nui Awa

The air was choked with smoke and dust, the groan of twisting metal, the deafening punches of gunfire, and a chorus of human screams.
Lumbering into frame of the Espian News Network’s camera drone was the imposing frame of a 70-ton Warhammer, using the club-like barrels of its Particle Projector Cannons to smash into the sides and roofs of buildings and houses. People scattered out of the crumbling buildings like insects from a hive, and the heavy Battlemech, taking big, bounding strides, began to deliberately step on them as they ran. As sparks and flames erupted in the Warhammer’s path, the camera drone zoomed in to show the logo of Gawain’s Green Knights painted on its torso.

A second heavy ‘Mech, this one a humanoid Crusader, fired its arm-mounted long-range missiles wildly into the sky, which then arced back down into the suburban sprawl. It let loose a second volley, this time of it leg-mounted short-range missiles, into a panicked crowd. Instead of explosives, these missiles erupted into splatters of white-hot Inferno jelly, engulfing the innocent people in a wave horrific molten death.

The camera drone turned, now showing a third ‘Mech herding what appeared to be a few hundred terrified civilians down the main street of the township. This one, a broad-shouldered Hunchback, stomped on cars and crushed its fists into storefronts, before aiming its massive shoulder-mounted autocannon at a church at the end of the street. With a cataclysmic roar, the AC/20 fired, obliterating the church and any unfortunate souls inside it.

As the horror-stricken crowd fled the Hunchback, a fourth ‘Mech emerged at the opposite end of the street. Smaller than the Hunchback, it was also humanoid, its arms ending in the barrels of Flamers. As the Firestarter raised its weapons, it played a familiar voice over its external speakers.

"Hahahahaha!" came the pre-recorded voice of Family Man, captured from the Green Knights’ battle with the Crimson Fists, "If you guys want to be psychopaths and sociopaths, I will oblige! I will kill you all! All!”

The Firestarter let loose with a hellish wave of superheated plasma from its four Flamers, as well as a spray of lead from its pair of Machine Guns. The air filled again with the screams of the dying as fire and lead washed over the crowd.

The sound of Family Man’s recorded laughter replayed from the Firestarter over the screaming, and the camera drone once again zoomed in on the logo of Gawain’s Green Knights painted across it.

“As of this morning,” The voice of Premiere Federov announced on the holo-vid, “I am petitioning to our local representatives at ComStar to have the Green Knights officially categorized as an outlaw command. This will strip them of any protections from the Mercenary Rating Board, and allow the Espian Guard and our heroic Crimson Fists to bring them to justice by any means necessary. My administration will not stand for such atrocities while—“

“GREEN KNIGHTS!” the voice of Colonel Wayne roared through the camp as he stormed out of the Mobile HQ, a deadly fury on his face. “NEW ORDERS, BRIEFING IS NOW!

"Bastards are dug in like a Hainfield tick-lizard," Overkill scowled as another shot from a recoilless rifle whizzed past the cockpit of his Firestarter. "Infantry units in entrenched positions high up on tricky terrain, sure makes me wish we had a jump-capable 'Mech with some flamers or machine guns to-- oh wait, haha!"

Breaking formation, Remy charged his 'Mech forward, barely registering the loud metallic PANG as a shot from one of their field guns glanced his left shoulder. As the 'Mech's reactor surged, he felt a wave of heat wash over him-- Steph had warned him that some of the coolant pumps were on the fritz. Still, in a light 'Mech with nothing but short-range weapons, he needed to close the gap between himself and the enemy, and to do so fast.

Practically stomping on the control pedals, Remy triggered the Firestarter's jump jets, and again the cockpit became an oven. "Frackencrack, I'm gonna be goddamn deep-fried before we're done here," he said through gritted teeth as sweat began to pour down his face. Even working normally, jumping always cooked you a little, but it usually wasn't this literal.

Still, he didn't let up on the pedals, even as the heat grew harder and harder to stand. 200 feet was a solid height advantage, but the Firestarter's six Luxor Load-Lifters could propel the 35-tonner surprisingly far. The sales brochures all said the 'Mech had a jumping distance of 180 meters, but that was more accurate to its forward leap rather than its vertical. Going straight up put a lot more strain on the jets, but it proved to be enough.

Just as the heat was becoming unbearable, the top of Murder One's head crested the ridge, and Remy quickly cut the jets and used the 'Mech's hands to grab onto the ridgeline. Rocks cracked and threatened to give way, and all the while, he heard the pings and pangs of machine gun fire chewing into the armor on his arms and head, but after a few unsure moments, the Firestarter climbed its way up.

Remy couldn't help but flick the switch to his 'Mech's external speakers. "Attention, peckerwoods! You've got one chance to lay down your arms and surrender before--"

Remy's ultimatum was cut short by a loud boom and a hard impact that tossed him around in his command couch. One of the field guns-- a medium caliber towed autocannon-- had trained on him, catching him with a shell. Diagnostics indicated that shot had blasted off a little less than half of the armor on the left side of his torso.

With a vengeful glee, Overkill sneered. "Aww, hell. I was hopin' you'd do that."

While he wanted more than anything to cut loose with his flamers and wreak unholy hell on these mud-marchers, the sweltering heat inside his cockpit told him he still needed a little more time to cool off. Fortunately, the Firestarter had other ways of dealing with pesky infantry units. Switching to his third target-interlock circuit, he aimed the targeting reticle in the general area where the shot had came and held down the firing stud.

Murder One's pair of Deprus RF machine guns were all but useless against Battlemechs (fully armored ones, at least), but they were vicious against soft targets. Tracer rounds let him walk his fire up to the source of the autocannon fire.

Tufts of snow, shredded lichen and camo netting were thrown into the air from the impact of high-velocity lead, and Overkill's sneer grew when he saw a puff of red mist among the clouds of dust, followed by a second and a third. Remy didn't let up until he saw a series of small popping explosions, the sound and thudding tremors reaching him a split-second later-- a surefire sign that his fire had hit one one of their ammunition crates.

"Splash another gun battery!" he called back to the rest of the Lance. He couldn't celebrate long, though, as more gunfire from another emplacement whizzed past him. Even if he was loaded up with the right weapons for this part of the job, the Firestarter didn't have enough armor to stand there and take it. Like the fella in the Mongoose, he had to keep moving.

Some 200 meters away, he saw a flash from a rise in the canyon wall, and a few seconds later, the ground around him hurled upward, filling his vision with a spray of dirt and smoke and fire. Remy struggled to keep the 'Mech upright, both from the impact of the explosion and from the ground giving way under his feet. "Shit, that was close!" he hissed as he now saw the artillery piece that had nearly tagged him.

"Got a Thumper in sector Kilo-5," Remy reported to the Lance. "I wouldn't mind a little covering fire while I move in on the target."

Doing his best to serpentine, Overkill ducked and weaved Murder One to try and keep the Thumper gunners from drawing a bead on him as he approached. He could probably withstand the shrapnel from a nearby blast, but a direct hit could cost his 'Mech a limb or turn him into confetti.

At this range, the Thumper would have him dead to rights. If he could close the gap, though, they'd be all but helpless. All or nothing.

Looking at his heat gauge, he saw the 'Mech had cooled enough that he could finally bring his flamers to bear. And as the Thumper calibrated its aim, he felt a rush of adrenaline through is veins, and charged forward.
Lol, good artists borrow, great artists steal.
Always good to have another Mechwarrior around! I'm down to play. That makes three possible Battletech games going at once, between this, Disposable Heroes, and Rise Of Rasalhague. Kinda cool seeing this much stompy goodness on the Guild.

"Your concerns are valid, Daschke," Colonel Wayne said after Ingrid's protest. At the very least, he appreciated her taking this escalation in firepower seriously, compared to Ziska and Marit. "I've always run this command according to the MRB's regulations, the Ares Conventions, and the informal Honors of War, and I've got no intention of changing that. If we do deploy the Davy Crockett-- and that's a very big 'if'-- it'll be far away from any civilian population centers, critical points of civilian infrastructure, or places where it could do permanent ecological damage. Military targets only, and only with my explicit orders."

The Colonel scanned the looks of the people around him. Some were relieved, others disappointed.

"Make no mistake," he continued, "I plan on doing anything necessary to get our people back and get off this planet alive. But I also plan on making sure the Green Knights have a future after that. Getting branded by ComStar as war criminals is an easy way to make sure we never find work again, or worse, have bounties placed on us by the House Lords looking for more 'bad guys' to kill now that the bigger war's over. I don't want the Knights to have to fight through the Espian Guard and the Crimson Fists, only for the Mariks or Liaos to label us as a 'rogue outlaw unit' and have their regulars use us for target practice."

Despite the stereotype of mercenaries being rowdy gangs of callous killers with a devil-may-care attitude about the damage they do, mercenary commanders had to take their reputations very seriously. From a political standpoint, every one of the Great Houses wanted to project the image of themselves as the good and rightful inheritors of the Star League, regardless of the actual truth, so hiring a band of ruthless cut-throats was usually poor optics. From a tactical standpoint, escalation on that scale invited the enemy to respond in kind, and total unrestricted warfare wasn't something a small 'Mech outfit could sustain for very long.

And, of course, from an ethical standpoint, the decision to deploy a weapon of mass destruction-- even a small one against a purely hostile target-- wasn't something Gaius would put on anyone's conscience. If that decision had to be made, it would have to fall on him.

"We're keeping the Davy Crockett deactivated and disarmed," the Colonel stated. "Only myself, Sgt. Dalton, and two members of his platoon who shall remain anonymous know its location. It will remain off the table until I specifically say otherwise. That is final."

Putting that matter to rest, the Colonel then changed the subject of the conversation.

"As for recovering Wrathchild," he said, "I plan on having a team head back into South Nui Awa in 24 hours. Volunteers only, no more than four. Wyatt, I want you to relay what you know about Von Kemp's means of communication to the team so they know what to look for. Start with where you found her message, and work your way out from there."

As much as the Colonel wanted to get one of his Mechwarriors back, he also knew not to fill the team with false hope. He decided it would be best to manage expectations.

"South Nui Awa is a big city, so the chances of finding her on one expedition are slim. Portions of it are also held by the Espian Guard, meaning you'll likely be operating in enemy territory. Keep a low profile, don't draw attention to yourselves. If you don't make contact, leave messages in the same code Von Kemp uses so she'll know where to find us."

With that, Gaius turned back towards the Mobile HQ, which was now being surrounded with additional equipment and a small tent to become a more "proper" headquarters.

"I'm going to consult our maps, have the MHQ team scan the airwaves for enemy communications, and confer with our current employer, and from there I'll plan the Knights' next combat mission," he said. "Until then, enjoy the night off."

On the far end of the Mess, Remy sat alone at a small table, digging his spoon into a bowl of questionable brown slop. He didn't look at the slop, the spoon, the bowl, or even the other Mechwarriors talking about whatever it was they'd gotten into last night. His eyes were fixed dead ahead, at the scowling fat woman serving breakfast to the Ankhanne's crew. The fat lady glared right back at him, as she had for the past ten minutes.

Slowly, deliberately, he raised the spoon with a heaping helping of mysterious brown slime, put it in his mouth, and slurped it down.

"Mmmm," he said, his voice a barely contained growl. "Good chili."

"Hey, you Overkill?"

Remy felt a thump on his shoulder. "Oi pal, you listenin'? I'm lookin' fer Overkill."

With no small degree of annoyance, Remy broke eye contact with the fat mess lady to see who had thumped him on the shoulder.

"Well, you found him," he said, before raising an eyebrow at the sight before him.

Standing with her left hand on her hip and a prosthetic right hand holding a technician's noteputer was a tattooed woman in black coveralls and a purple tank top that matched her spiked hair. She had a tattoo of a hand of poker cards on one side of her neck: Aces and Eights, the old "Dead Man's Hand." Her left arm was sleeved from shoulder to wrist in a mash of clashing patterns that looked like a graphic designer had stepped on a land mine, and the mechanical housing of her right arm had engravings to match. She had a half-dozen piercings on each ear, a ring on her lip, and if Remy were a betting man, a few more he'd be interested in seeing some other time.

"Steph Fitzpatrick, the 'Mech tech assigned to th' Foirestarter," she introduced herself, her voice carrying a thick St. Ives Irish lilt. "Elena th' Chief Tech had me an' the boys up 'alf the bloody noight troyin' ta fix leakages in th' coolin' system. The patch job oughta hold fer th' mission, so long as ya keep from rollin' yer face across't th' command console. I just need ye ta soign off on th' work order so's I can--....Christ, what are you eatin'?"

Remy turned his glare back at the fat lady at the counter. "Chili."

"Sure that's chili, fella?" Steph asked with a chuckle.

"That's what the lady says," he growled.

"Looks ta me loike someone poured some red pepper an' a can o' corn into a bucket o' congealed engine grease, an' saved it fer if one o'th' new Mechwarriors really pissed 'er off."

"It does look like that," Remy said, before taking another slow, deliberate slurp. "It's real tasty."

"So whaddidja do?" Steph asked with an impish grin.

"I said I'd like to have some sausage and eggs before I headed out for the mission," he answered, "and offered to give her some sausage when I got back."

Fitzpatrick burst out laughing. "Fuckin' hell!"

Remy kept his glare on the cafeteria lady. "She said she was fresh out of sausage, but that if I liked the chili, maybe we'd talk."

He slurped another spoonful, and thumped a fist against his chest to help force it down, never breaking eye contact the whole time.

"It's real. Good. Chili," he stated as his stomach audibly gurgled.

"Y'know that'll probably make ya shit yerself in th' cockpit, yeah?" Steph said.

"Maybe," he shrugged. "Wouldn't be the first time."

Steph scoffed in disbelief. "What, wouldn't be th' first time ye shat yerself?"

"Ever gone up on the front lines against the Black Widow Company?" he asked.

"Can't say I 'ave, but what's that gotta do with--"

"Well there you go," Remy said with a flatness that implied that was the end of that particular line of conversation.

"Well," the Mech-tech cleared her throat, "If ye wouldn't moind soignin' off on this 'ere work order, we'll get the last bit o' prep done before drop. Anythin' you wanna request before then?"

"Nah," Remy waved her off. "Just gonna enjoy my breakfast, get the job done, then come back here and see what's on the menu."

"Suit yerself," the tech shrugged. "I'll make sure ta leave a fresh pair o' shorts in th' cockpit fer ye if ye need it."

As Fitzpatrick left the Mess, Remy took one last spoonful of slop, looked the cafeteria lady dead in the eye, and wolfed it down.

"Good fuckin' chili."

"Green Knights, listen up!" Colonel Wayne's voice cut over the hustle and bustle of the Knights, the infantry, and their crews all getting settled into the new digs. The sound of his voice didn't carry as far as it did inside the cave, but even so, the commotion quickly subsided. "Now that I've received reports from all three of our away teams, we'll begin with debrief."

The three concurrent missions the Green Knights had carried out had all been considerably high-risk, but done in the hopes of high rewards. Over the past few hours, each team made it back to the junkyard and reported in. Now it was time to go over the situation as a whole.

Gaius let his Mechwarriors, command staff, and crew leaders gather around before he began.

"First off," he began, "I'd like to commend you all for your work out there. Each one of these missions had the potential to go wrong, but all of you completed your objectives. That's three wins under our belt, three steps closer to getting our people back."

He knew how eager many of the crew were to making their move on Fort Tie Shan, himself very much included. Knowing that they were less than fifty kilometers away from their families, from their spouses and children, from Sal--...from Captain Roth, he bridled at the thought of having to bide his time. However, he knew that without a proper plan of attack, charging at the fort would only get them all killed.

Still, he had to keep that hope alive, to foster the belief that they were that much closer to getting their families back and being done with Espia. But he also had to make sure their thoughts were in the here and now, so he brought the conversation back to the completed missions.

"The defense of the Nui Awa Dam was an overwhelming success," he began, deliberately choosing to omit Saarinen's embarrassment in the river. "The First Infantry Platoon suffered moderate casualties-- Privates Duffey, Dautrieve, and Borden were KIA-- we'll have memorial services for them at sundown. Fortunately, their sacrifices helped save millions of lives; between the combined efforts of the 'Mech lance, the Von Luckner, and the Buckshot Boys, we stopped the Heavenly Sword dead in their tracks. While we don't know exactly how many soldiers or vehicles the faction has in reserve, it's likely we've dealt a severe blow to their ability to carry out large-scale attacks like this, if not crippled it completely.

"What's more, we were able to recover an ace in the hole: a Davy Crockett half-kiloton tactical nuclear warhead. It's not a full-blown city-buster, but put in the right place, it can vaporize a lance of 'Mechs, destroy enemy infrastructure...possibly crack open the reinforced walls to a prison fortress. However, the fallout--both the literal and political kinds-- will have to be taken into account before we decide what to do with our new prize. Until then, it's being safely stored far away from this location,"
he emphasized, partly to ease any fears from the locals who may be listening in, and partly to discourage over-eager scrap-hunters.

"Now for the bad news," he continued. "While inspecting and disarming the nuke for safe storage, our crew found the serial numbers of the warhead. Its registry number marks it as having last been shipped as part of a group of three. So while the Heavenly Sword may not have any more armored-up land trains, it's very likely they have two more nukes on the planet. It also means their story of being Espian radicals simply loyal to House Liao is just as bogus as the holovid characters the Crimson Fists are pretending to be. They're being funded by someone with deep pockets and no regard for the survival of this planet."

As murmurs carried throughout the group, the Colonel continued.

"Charlie Team also brought us some concerning news from the spaceport," he said. "Whoever is supplying the Espian Guard has significantly upped their air power. In addition to the wing of Meteor atmospheric fighters the Guard has on hand, they've now got their hands on two MechBusters, and a Shilone aerospace bomber. Each of those MechBusters has a nose-mounted cannon on par with the Von Luckner's; they can destroy Light 'Mechs outright and cripple most Mediums in a single volley. Fortunately, those cannons have a short range, so they'll need to be within range of our own weapons to hit. Still, trading fire with one is not advised; operating procedure is to get behind cover when it approaches, then return fire from the back or sides.

"The Shilone, on the other hand, is a whole other set of problems,"
the Colonel continued. "It can drop bombs from high altitude, well out of the effective range of our weapons, and can outgun most heavy 'Mechs even when strafing from low altitude. What's worse, because it's space-capable and fast as all hell, it can be on us in minutes when we emerge. The Archer's LRMs and the Shadow Hawk's autocannon can reach out and hit it if it comes in for a strafing run, but without a dedicated anti-air platform, the Shilone's going to make things considerably more difficult for us."

This news didn't go over well with most of the crew, nor was the Colonel particularly happy about it. What he wouldn't have given right now for a Partisan tank or a Rifleman in this situation.

"Charlie Team was able to perform some internal sabotage on the enemy aircraft before extracting," Gaius offered some good news. "While we don't know the extent to which they succeeded, hopefully their efforts will render the planes less effective when they come at us. Still, until those fighters are down, this does mean we'll need to maintain a doctrine of hit-and-fade. We'll use the tunnel network to move on our objectives without crossing open ground, hit our targets hard and fast, then bug out before the skies get crowded."

In truth, Gaius didn't like sending any of his 'Mechs out against superior air power, and the tunnel networks were only a stop-gap measure in the long run, but having even a stop-gap plan was always better than having none.

"And finally, Bravo Team successfully made contact with Stiletto, the information broker Ms. Jeong told us about," he said. This last mission was a bit more abstract in its rewards, but had the potential to pay off big. "She provided us with the name of a representative from the Free People's Army, insinuating they were interested in joining forces. While Stiletto didn't provide direct contact information, she did provide a set of numbers-- possibly coordinates-- to arrange a meeting. Once we confirm and verify this, a team will be selected to meet with the FPA and propose an alliance. If Stiletto can be trusted, this could give us substantial aid. And if she can't...well, I'm not sending in a team without adequate backup."

Gaius knew this meeting had the potential to be a trap, but it was risk the Knights had to take. Over time, they might be able to pick apart the Crimson Fists, but the Espian Guard were an entire army. If the Green Knights were to have any chance to do anything beyond raiding and running, they needed an army on their side as well.

"Lastly, one bit of bookkeeping to take care of," he announced. "Keeping track of the current Green Knights roster, we are removing Corporal Lena Von Kemp from the KIA column. While we had initially thought she was killed by the Crimson Fists during the coup, Bravo Team was able to uncover evidence that Wrathchild is, or at least was until very recently, still alive and operating in South Nui Awa. How she got there, we're not sure, but it's a story I hope to find out. I'll be accepting volunteers for a search-and-recovery mission once we've established our base of operations here."

The Colonel hoped this last bit of intel would end the debriefing on a high note. They were making good progress, even if the situation on Espia only seemed to get more complicated.

"If you've got questions, now's the time. Otherwise, dismissed."
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