Port Sheridan, New Vallis
May 24, 3026
Lieutenant-Colonel Sean Walker was riding the high produced by his adrenal glands as he rounded the final turn of his daily run. Passing between the concrete dividers that lined the traffic lanes heading in to and out from the Defense Force military reservation, he cast a casual salute with a sweat-soaked hand at the sentry on duty, all the while not breaking the rhythm of his exercise. Shaking his head, and trying not to grin (but failing!), the sentry waved the officer ahead. He continued to jog as he passed by row upon row of barracks and vehicle hangers, marching soldiers in field dress and raw recruits running in formation while a grizzled DI called cadence. First a right turn, and then a left, and another left, and he was past the sprawling circle of buildings that surrounded the military port of New Vallis.
Breathing steady and deeply, he slowed down and came to halt, checking his pulsing carotid with two fingers even as he gazed out over the collection of DropShips on the pads before him. Slowly, he sat down on the grass, and began to stretch; flexing muscles and tendons taut from the fourteen kilometers he had covered in the past seventy-two minutes. Finally, he stopped and sat upright, resting his elbows atop his knees. With a sigh that was almost a groan, Sean got to his feet and began to walk towards one of the near identical four-storey tall brick and masonry buildings.
Kirkland Hall was the name etched in the stone arch above the two doors, although the wooden sign that stood among the grass in front proclaimed something slightly different: Transient Mercenary Quarters #3. As Sean walked past the sign, he reached out with his right hand and lightly rapped his knuckles against a hanging plaque emblazoned with the silhouette of a Osprey-class BattleMech on a shield of red and white. One of his men had hung the plaque shortly after the unit arrived, proclaiming to the world at large that this structure was the temporary home of the Roughneck Cavalry.
A sentry stood at the door to the building, but this sentry was not wearing the field browns of the Taurians; instead he wore trousers and blouse of olive drab, along with a cloth garrison cap. A polished belt of rich brown leather circled the sentry’s waist, and a second belt crossed over his shoulder, holding a silver whistle on a chain of steel links. One his right side hung a holster filled with a heavy revolver, and the pommel of a short knife extended butt forward from a sheath on his left. A black armband with two letters in gold—MP—circled his right bicep.
“Good run, boss?” the sentry asked as he opened the door, releasing a blast of cold dry air into the humid spring morning of New Vallis.
“Not bad, Rabbit, not bad a’tal,” Sean replied with a smile. “You ought to get out and try it sometime, helps you keep your wind.”
Franklin ‘Rabbit’ Banner grinned at his lord and master. “Four or five hours of fun between the sheets with two or three of the local pretty young things works wonders on my wind, that and lifting weights—twelve ounces at a time.”
“You are incorrigible, Rabbit,” Sean said between chuckles. “One of these days the father is going to come looking for you with a shotgun.”
“Been there, done that, became a merc one step ahead of the marriage party,” the sentry replied. “And speaking of which, are we going to be lifting soon?”
“Tomorrow in fact; heading back to our old stomping grounds on Bell, but this time we’re working for Hasek.”
Rabbit grimaced. “The man’s a weasel, boss.”
“Yeah, but the pay is good and we need the job. And it seems that he wants us to do to Mad Max what the Chancellor paid us to do to him. Besides, think of it as a challenge; you’re gonna need extra silver on that tongue if the girl lost family in our raid.”
“On Bell? Don’t make me laugh, boss. All the young and stupid ones swoon for a well-dressed merc with money to burn and a belle to spend it on. Besides, after experiencing the short-comings of the Feddies and the Cappies those oh-so-sweet and not-so-innocent lasses will be lining up for real men—Taurian men.”
Shaking his head with a laugh, Sean went on in, and began to climb the stairs, taking three steps at a time as he pounded his way up to the third floor. Once he reached his quarters, he stripped, tossing his t-shirt and shorts into the laundry hamper and climbed into the shower. Even with dial marked hot turned to full, the water was icy, but Sean scrubbed the grit and grime from his body anyway. A quick and careful shave later, and the colonel got dressed in his own OD green fatigues, and then sat down in a wicker chair to lace up his boots.
The phone on his bed-side table rang, and Sean hit the speaker button and then went back to tying tight the nylon cords. “Walker.”
“Boss,” the alto voice of Elise ‘Castle’ Blenheim, his operations officer, emerged from the speaker. “Final pre-lift staff meeting in five.”
“Told you I’d be back in time, Castle.”
“That you did, but one of these days you’re going to sprain an ankle and come limping in an hour late. Until then, the pool just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
“The things you people bet on; next thing will be whether or not I have croissants and coffee or orange juice and eggs for breakfast.”
“Nope. That’s a sucker bet; you’ve had the same breakfast every single blasted day for the past six years outside of combat ops—pepper grits and . . .”
“. . .buttered toast, with four slices of bacon, two sausage patties, and half a grapefruit,” Sean finished.
“And don’t forget the tall glass of milk.”
“Have I ever?”
“Not in six straight years; damn it.”
Sean laughed. “I’ll be down in two,” he said as he made certain his trousers were bloused perfectly.
The conference room was full when Sean made his way through the door a few short minutes later. Almost a dozen men and women surrounded the table, their conversations abruptly ending as one of the crowd barked out, “Attention on deck!”
“As you were,” Sean said as the leaders of his combat and support units began to rise. He circled around the table until he came to the coffee cart, stopping to pour a cup of thick black java to which he added three heaping spoonfuls of sugar and a sizable portion of cream. Taking a sip of the hot drink, he sighed, and then he moved on to the single empty chair and sat down.
“Master Chief, where are we on fixing Hunter’s ‘Hammer?”
Master Chief Technician David Gregg, the senior tech of the Roughnecks, shook his head. “We’ve been over the machine three times now, boss. So far we have not been able to trace the fault in its right arm. The actuators look good; my teams have yanked them three times and ran diagnostics without a single blip on the screen, so the glitch has to be somewhere in the control runs.”
“And how long to run through all the runs?”
“It could take weeks.”
“Yank the whole bloody thing and get a replacement from base stores. I want Sergeant Kidd’s ‘Mech one hundred and ten percent by the time we go feet dry at Bell.”
Gregg shook his head sadly. “Already tried that, boss. Would you believe they have no complete sets of left arms for a WHM-6T on base? Three right arms, sure, but no lefts.”
“Da, Colonel. I shall find you and the intrepid Sergeant Julia one working right arm before we lift,” Captain Vassily Romankov, the Roughnecks quartermaster and logistics officer, replied.
“Good, I don’t care who or what we short, or how it gets done, but get the parts and get that machine in the green again. How are we on stores?”
“Vassily’s people have finished loading the general supplies on all the DropShips,” Captain Jason ‘Bullseye’ Hamilton, the battalion exec and commander of 2 Company chimed in. “Final load of munitions is scheduled to arrive at 1430 local today. Gregg’s techno-geeks have full stocks of spares and replacement armor, as well.”
“I still say that we could use more medical supplies,” interrupted Surgeon-Captain Valerie Piersdale. “We can never have enough pharma for every contingency.”
“Doc,” the XO shook his head, “no matter how much you have, you always want more. Do you sell the morphine on the streets?”
The brunette pursed her lips and turned to glare at Bullseye. Sean could feel the chill inside her green eyes. “No. Keep in mind, Captain, that the next time you’re injured and we run short, I might have to buy your meds there.”
“Are we that short on medical?” asked Castle.
The surgeon shook her head. “Not really short, Elise. It’s just that we can run through the drugs so fast if things go south.”
Sean rapped the table top with his knuckles. “Until we get our first checks from Hasek, folks, the financial cupboards a bit bare. We can’t afford to spend more of our budget on medical unless we absolutely have to; and you know it, Doc.”
She nodded glumly. “In that case, boss, medical is good to go.”
Felicia Philips, commander of the DropShip Roughneck and the senior of his transport skippers smiled. “The eggs are fueled and ready to lift on your word, Major. Life support, water, and provisions have been fully stocked and secured; in fact, the entire battalion is combat loaded. Well, except for that ‘Hammer that Gregg’s boys are working on over on Open Range. Captain Hall says we will have full charge on the drive by the time we dock with Big Sky.”
“Any problems with the shooters I need to know about?” Sean asked.
“New folks a little green, boss,” Battalion Sergeant Major Miles ‘Bulldog’ Rutherford drawled in slow and lazy accent he had gained growing up on Jamestown. “This latest batch has potential, but damn it all; can’t the bean-counters let us keep what we train?”
“They do, Bulldog,” Sean answered with a chuckle, “or have you forgotten Rabbit? Or Hunter? Or Six-pack?”
The non-com frowned at Sean. “They leave us the screwballs and take the ones that we have just gotten up to speed. But, before you say it, Major, sir, we will make bricks without straw. I’ll have the new guys up to speed before we debark at Bell.”
“Good. All right, let’s get down to the nuts-and-bolts of what the battalion will be doing on . . .”
A sharp knock at the door caused Sean to stop in mid-sentence. He looked up as the NCOIC (non-commissioned officer in charge) of the day stuck his head in. “Your pardon, Roughneck,” he said to Sean, using the officers call-sign, “but General Derry insists on seeing you . . . and a Monsieur Jouett.”
Sean sat bolt upright in his chair, his face suddenly drained of all color. Jouett? Here on New Vallis? “Thank you, Thunder; please show them to my office and inform them I will be there shortly. You know the drill, people; I want to see asses and elbows from now until we lift. Dismissed.”
As his men and women filed out of the room, Sean leaned back in his chair and pursed his lips in thought. Jouett. Things are about to get interesting, he thought to himself. I hate interesting.
Even before he opened the door to his office, Sean could hear the two Taurians within arguing—in French, no less! He shook his head. Half of the Roughnecks had been raised either speaking the language as their native tongue, and the other half had all been taught it way back in primary school. Although the official language of the Concordat had long been the standard of Star League English, a necessity engendered during the centuries long occupation of the Concordat by that hated band of robber barons who had ruled the known galaxy from Old Earth, the men and women of the Concordat—the Hyades worlds especially—were infamous for the distance which they travelled to cling to their traditions. To call a Taurian stubborn would be akin to saying that space is black, or that an ocean is damp. And since Samantha Calderon hailed from Aix-la-Chapelle, was of Gallic descent, and had spoken fluent French during her life, then by God and all his holy saints so would the children of her followers! Even if she had lived more than seven centuries in the past and virtually no other group of people had bothered to retain the language. And because her husband had been a hidalgo, most spoke Spanish as well. A few even spoke a hybrid language called Creole, brought by their colonist from a small portion of North America on Terra. It’s tradition, the Taurians said; and in their minds that settled that.
And the outer worlds, those not shielded by the great clouds of gas and dust and asteroids of the Hyades, those not settled by Sam’s followers but who had joined the Concordat back in the dawn of time of their own free will and accord, those worlds had nearly universally embraced the idea as well. Sometimes, it seemed the outer systems wanted to out-Taurus the Hyades; to prove themselves every bit the equal of the Old Worlds of Hell’s Heart. And so it was that scores of differing cultural and ethnic groups had embraced and adopted the language and customs of three small and insignificant table-top sized provinces of ancient Terra. Language and customs that not even two centuries of occupation and concerted effort by the Star League could stamp out.
Of course, the mercs who normally passed through New Vallis knew barely enough French (or Spanish or Creole) to get by; many hardly knew the difference between a beignet and a bidet! Only his Roughnecks weren’t the normal run-of-the-mill, down-on-their-luck, hard-scrabble mercenaries that Port Sheridan normally encountered. And neither was he. The Roughnecks were Taurians, one and all; many had served in the Defense Force before going over the fence to seek a mercs life among the stars. Sean had been one such himself in days long past.
He smiled to himself as he forced his thoughts back upon the matter at hand, and he opened the door.
The conversation within drifted to halt as Sean walked in and laid his data-pad on the center of his desk. The desk that half-hid the obese, balding man who wore the uniform of the Defense Force and gestured with the silver-chased marble baton that signified the rank of General in the Taurian Defense Force. Sean shoved the man’s booted feet from the blotter atop the desk as he snarled, “Get your fat lazy ass out of my chair, Francis.”
“Is it your chair, Sean Gerard Walker? This chair belongs to the Taurian Defense Force, it belongs to III Corps in whose sector the defense of New Vallis is entrusted, it belongs to the Port Sheridan Military Reservation; in short monsieur Lieutenant-Colonel, the damned chair belongs to me.”
“Belongs to you, yes, monsieur Général, your own porcine self, but currently leased to me and my Roughnecks at the ridiculous prices that you are charging for a poor—but honest—mercenary to rest and refit between contracts. So, once again, with all due respect you corpulent sedate bastard, remove yourself from my seat or I shall demand in the Courts that III Corps refund my command a sizable portion of those inflated charges which you have billed us.”
Général de corps d’armeé (in the French fashion) Francis Derry stood with a groan and adjusted his uniform jacket, and then he glared down through the bi-focal lenses of his eye glasses at the third man in the room. “I told you he would be useless, Monsieur Jouett,” the Corps commander rumbled. “Not only is he a traitor and a criminal, but he is an insolent one as well. The Protector would best be served letting a loyal unit of the Defense Force handle this; not some bottom-feeding band of ex-patriates led by an officer who was drummed out of the service in disgrace.”
“And where would the troops come from, monsieur Général? Your own III Corps, perhaps? With tensions rising daily between the Fox and the Bull, and the Liao just waiting for his own chance to sow mischief into the mix; you would voluntarily donate a battalion or three of your own men and ‘Mechs?” the third man answered with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Perhaps not from III Corps, but surely the Guard can spare the men. We do not need to rely on this band of scum.”
Sean bristled at the characterization of his men, as well as the complete disregard the two men had of his very presence in the room, even as he sat in the too-warm seat. While he had long ago made peace within himself over what ill thoughts his former fellow officers might yet still hold for him, the sheer levels of contempt and barely concealed hate in the voice of Francis Derry was beginning to kindle his own slow-burning rage towards ignition.
“My Roughnecks already have a contract, gentlemen, so if this is your idea of a business proposal then you can rest assured the answer is no. Since the battalion is lifting in less than eighteen hours and I have quite a bit of work left to do, I believe that you can find your own way out.”
The dapper civilian known as Jouett simply smiled and shook his head. “I took the liberty of messaging monsieur Hasek on your behalf via the HPG station here on New Vallis; your apologies were quite profuse, but you decided at the last moment to accept instead a contract offered by the Protector for duty here in the Concordat. Furthermore, you informed him that the fault lies entirely with you, and you have withdrawn all claims upon the monies deposited with ComStar for escrow.”
“YOU DID WHAT!” Sean exploded as he came to his feet, his anger no longer controlled.
“The Concordat needs you, Sean; Protector Thomas needs you,” Jouett said softly without moving from his chair.
“HAH!” sputtered the fat General. “Thomas might need troops, but he damned sure doesn’t need this man.”
“Henri,” Sean growled, struggling to control the blaze within his blood from erupting. “My people needed that contract; we don’t have your budgets to draw on if things slow down.”
The slight man nodded. “I understand, Sean; really I do. And rest assured, you and your people will be compensated appropriately; if you survive, that is. General Derry, rest assured that rumors to the contrary, Lieutenant-Colonel Walker and his men are not criminals—they work for me . . . and they have the personal trust of Protector Calderon.”
“It had best be worth it, Henri, whatever you have planned. Damn-it-all,” Sean spat as he down in another of the wood-and-leather chairs the reservation favored for mass purchases, “it took us four bloody years to get a contract on the Davion side of the Capellan March. You are just throwing that opportunity away? MIIO is not stupid, Henri, whatever some of our senior officials and officers think; they will eventually find out that the entire battalion works for you behind the scenes.”
Henri Jouett, the head of the Taurian Concordat Office of Special Intelligence and Operations (TOSIO) nodded gravely. “Forty-one days ago, raiders hit Charleston in battalion-strength. Over ten thousand civilians were killed and the capital was leveled.”
“Charleston? That’s a newly recovered colony from before the Collapse; there’s nothing on Charleston to warrant that size of a raiding force.”
“Oh, but there was, monsieur Colonel. Edward Calderon was on planet as part of the annual IG inspection tour,” Jouett paused and he looked Sean squarely in the eyes. “He was killed leading a group of Constabulary in defense of the planetary headquarters.”
Sean’s cheeks drained of all color and he froze; slowly, he lowered his head and closed his eyes. “Merde,” he whispered, as he sank back down into the chair; he shook his head and looked back up.
“Yes. And according to eye-witness accounts of the battle, it was a Federated Suns unit that carried out the massacre.”
“The Davions hit Charleston? That’s nearly sixty parsecs on our side of the border! Three full jumps from their space, just to get there! And no matter how much we may dislike the Fed-Rats, Henri, they don’t normally commit atrocities; not on this scale. We’ve learned that much from our operations in the Confederation these past few years.”
“The eyewitness survivors confirmed Davion ‘Mechs, painted in the colors and insignia of the 33rd Avalon Hussars,” Henri continued. “They were using ‘Mechs that match what our data-banks show the Hussars as fielding. The attack came as a complete surprise; the raiders hid their initial force aboard one of our supply ships, which we can only presume they jacked, and once it landed, they swarmed out to take the Port and hit the planetary HQ.”
“Did the Defense Force just sit on its hands and do nothing?” Sean asked through gritted teeth.
“Half of them died attempting to defend Pendle’s Town and the spaceport, Walker,” General Derry snapped. “Brigadier Jessup, yes, that Jessup,” he continued as saw the recognition in Sean’s eyes, “was mortally wounded when the HQ building collapsed on top of him. Commandant Calderon assumed command of the local defense and led the Constabulary into the fight with small arms and man-portable heavy weapons from the capital armory. He fought, and died, like a true Calderon,” the General said with a sad shake of his head. But then he looked up and continued.
“The Charleston Armor Battalion was forty kilometers outside the capital on an unscheduled FTX, along with three full battalions of infantry. The capital only had just one battalion of foot and the Constabulary to defend itself for the first half-hour. By the times the tanks and heavy infantry had returned, the raiders were preparing to lift for orbit; leaving Calderon dead and half of Pendle’s Town burning and broken.”
“They tried a hasty assault on the space port to disable the transport, but additional DropShips had landed—and no one told the tankers. We lost half the battalion of armor and two entire battalions of infantry trying to break in before the survivors decided to pull back into a defensive perimeter. The raiders let them go and they lifted under the coverage of aerospace assets—fighters and assault ships.”
Henri nodded in agreement. “They couldn’t have kept the raiders from wrecking the capital, even if they had been there the moment our supply ship grounded. And it wasn’t just Charleston that the raiders hit. Celentaro, Dicallus, Grossbach, and Organo were all struck at nearly the same exact time; but those worlds were hit with just company-level units. Still, the raiders deliberately engaged civilians; it seems they wanted the maximum numbers of dead and wounded.”
“Why? Why would Hanse Davion do this?” asked Sean, his voice trembling with shock and fury.
“I don’t think he did,” answered Henri.
Both Sean and Derry stared at the intelligence officer for several long seconds. And both—at the same time, in the same flat and dangerous voice—said one word: “Explain.”
The two men glared at each other, but then turned back to face Henri as he cleared his throat. “The Defense Force on Charleston managed to capture one raider alive; only one, even though they disabled or destroyed eleven BattleMechs. That prisoner has been interrogated, rather thoroughly, I may add, and what he said disturbs me. Davion wasn’t behind any of these raids; rather a pirate lord on Tortuga is orchestrating these attacks to provoke a war between Thomas and Hanse, if we are to believe him.”
Both Sean and Derry began to speak, to question what had just been said, but Henri held up one hand. “We aren’t the only target, gentlemen; the pirates are also hitting Davion worlds, but using ‘Mechs wearing our colors and insignia. TOSIO has confirmed that six Federated Suns worlds have been struck hard and that the Outback governors are screaming to New Avalon to defend them against the Taurian threat.”
“It could still be a false-flag operation, with our POW the sacrificial lamb who feeds us this cock-and-bull story to draw our attention away from the Davion border,” muttered Derry.
“Which is why the Guard is being redeployed to serve as rapid-reaction forces all along the Davion border; and why your III Corps is not being asked to give up a battalion or two or three for this operation, Francis.” Henri stood and turned to face Sean. “Thomas needs to see you, Roughneck; he needs to speak with you, and he needs you to give him his vengeance. More than that, he needs you to find the truth of those who will pay for the death of his eldest son. Your Protector is calling for your help; can you in good conscience say no?”