Return of the Wolverines

By Silver Eagle

Prologue Part 2: Dancing With Dragons

"All right, they're on our left, they're on our right, they're in front of us, they're behind us...they can't get away this time."
- Lt Gen Lewis B. Puller, USMC

January 5, 2824

Shuttle Bay 1

Texas-class Battleship SLS Prinz Eugen

Zenith Jump Point

Uncharted Star System MGC-43-33528

Spinward of the Caliban Nebula, Deep Periphery

Sarah glanced about the shuttle bay as she disembarked from the Palomar Captain's Gig, followed by Minato Takayama and James Gunnarson. The Prinz Eugen looked spotless, the grime of the years it had spent as an orbital prison for anti-Clan dissidents stripped away. Letting the battleship's techs minister to the shuttle, the Wolverine officers caught sight of two welcome figures striding over to greet them.

Kieran Winthrop was the youngest Galaxy Commander in the Clan, born a year later than the departed Lamont Pike of Gamma Galaxy. The commander of Epsilon Galaxy looked unnaturally spry as he strolled over to meet his Khan. The blue caffeine patch stuck haphazardly on Winthrop's forearm answered her unspoken curiosity.

Roberta Sutherland of Delta Galaxy had always been a stalwart soldier. Nearly twice as old as Sarah McEvedy, at 58, she'd been needled by some of the Clans about her age, until her Galaxy had steamrolled Nova Cats and Snow Ravens alike in Trials of Possession on Circe, just after the world had been retaken. The gray-haired woman leaned heavily on her fellow Galaxy Commander, left arm in a sling and pressure cast, but the grin on her face well outweighed the weariness in her step.

The two Galaxy Commanders stopped before her; Winthrop saluted, and Sutherland bowed her head, unable to move her arm for fear of falling over. Waving off the formalities, the Khan clapped Kieran Winthrop on the shoulder. "It's good to see you both. Seems we're not totally out of the fight."

Roberta Sutherland nodded. "Thank Kieran for that. If he and Epsilon hadn't shown up in the Backstabber, that last Brian Cache we hit probably would have been Delta's tomb."

"Backstabber?" Winthrop grinned.

"Prinz Eugen just didn't seem real smart, Ma'am. If we ever meet up with Kerensky's people again, she'll only antagonize them. We know firsthand what can happen when those bastards get worked up.

"She's clean as a whistle, fully reloaded, recrewed, and all systems are checked out. Roberta and I rechristened her on the way, and here we are."

"Here, indeed. The question is where we go next, Sarah." Roberta Sutherland was one of the few people in the Clan who had both the right and the gumption to call the Khan simply by her first name, not that McEvedy would ever have begrudged her that privilege. The older woman was one of the last remaining links to the original 331st Royal BattleMech Division, commanded by Sarah's father, Colin McEvedy. I wish I had better news for her.

"I've spent so long just trying to get everyone away and safe that I haven't really thought about what we'd do afterward. We were waiting to discuss the matter with the two of you." Roberta glanced at her, eyebrow raised.

"Colin never leapt into anything without at least a ghost of a plan; neither do you. Now spill it." Sarah looked over at James Gunnarson and Minato Takayama for a moment; she'd unveiled some of her plans to the two on their way over to the Backstabber, and judging from the reactions of the two younger officers, Roberta and Kieran would be just as surprised, if not more so. Nobody ever said being a revolutionary would be easy.

"Is there a conference room around here? You two better sit down for this."

"Let me explain the situation. Kieran, Roberta, you two are the last two senior Galaxy Commanders we have left. With the addition of the Backstabber and the cruisers, we have eight WarShips; one Texas battleship, a Black Lion battlecruiser, two Potemkin troop cruisers, the three Aegis cruisers, and a Bug-Eye scout ship. If we watch our ammunition closely, Captain Takayama and Fleet Command assure me that we'll reach our destination safe and sound without any supply problems." As Roberta Sutherland made to speak, Sarah raised a hand to forestall the inevitable question.

"I don't think it's any secret that we're going back to the Inner Sphere. The news to you is that we might not be staying there."

"The fastest route back to the Inner Sphere takes us to the coreward border of the Combine. The first inhabited world on the way is Svelvik; we can find out what's happened since we left. Based on that, we'll make a further decision on whether we can safely enter the Inner Sphere, or whether it's best to stay out and make our own home in the Periphery.

"We obviously don't have a Star League to protect, but the Inner Sphere will tear itself apart if nobody's there to watch over it. The question boils down to how we do it- whether openly from within the Inner Sphere itself, or from outside, in the shadows. Myself, I believe that we may very well have to go it alone, from the outside looking in, interfering as necessary."

"How can we be sure that the other castes will even go for that?" Winthrop sounded off from the back of the room. "I like a fight as well as anyone, but I was bred for it. Most of the Wolverines we have left never anticipated this situation. They just want to go home."

The damnable thing was that he was perfectly correct. Dragging her wounded Clan into more needless fighting was the last thing she felt like doing. Nevertheless, the Successor States simply weren't cut out to have the kind of technology the SLDF had taken with them. To go "home" to the Inner Sphere would be to join that anarchy and lose the ideals of the Star League entirely, suborning them to the daily, single-minded battle for power and survival that was Successor State life. I don't want to be like the Little Prince, but all the same, I can't just take them back to that madhouse.

"Kieran," she sighed, "I'm not saying we have to fight. But we do have a duty to fulfill, and that's to protect the people of the Inner Sphere. That was the goal of the Star League Defense Force. I don't care if we are just one division out of thousands. It's still our job, and we're going to do it.

"The fights won't all be on the battlefield; they'll be in the halls of power, the boardroom, even in a simple research laboratory. You all know your history. The Age of War, the Ares Conventions, Tintavel. Talk of peace and restraint means nothing to these people. How can anyone hope to bring about a better future for the common people if they're constantly worrying about simply staying alive instead?

"The answer lies without. In our own enclaves, our people can be safe while they work on the technology and knowledge that will let us better protect both our own and the Inner Sphere. Whether that's from the Clans or themselves is a question for another day.

"As for castes, the caste system is abolished, effective now. Anyone who wants to pick up a gun, fly a fighter, or climb into a 'Mech is free to do so, as long as they can prove they're not going to waste our resources and they won't shoot themselves in the foot. Those who don't are free to find another occupation that we'll honor just as equally."

Winthrop was only slightly mollified. "I can understand the desire to protect them, but where are we supposed to find a home outside the Inner Sphere without attracting attention? General Kerensky was winging it and it still took a stroke of luck to find the Pentagon. We don't have that kind of time; can't even be sure that the Wolves aren't still pursuing us."

"I can't say that we're in the clear." Crossing her arms, Sarah continued. "But if the Ghost Bears let you go, they can't risk telling the Wolves where you went. My Battle Group was here for two weeks, and nobody came across us either. The thing now is to figure out where to go." She punched up a map on the console in front of her, and a starmap of the Inner Sphere, as it had been when they left in 2784, appeared in the center holoprojector.

"We'll be able to update this map once we hit Svelvik, but the contents aren't important for now. What's important to me is the Periphery." Pointing to a tiny realm near the Draconis Combine and Federated Suns, she prepared to advance her plan. Here goes nothing.

"Over to the Outworlds Alliance. That's my goal for now. We can find a world that's close enough for us to get to their capital, Alpheratz, and influence the nation."

Roberta Sutherland considered the realm that lay squeezed between two Successor States. "Why the Alliance? Wouldn't the Taurian Concordat or the Magistracy of Canopus be a better and safer fit?"

"They could. I did consider them." Sarah conceded her mentor the point with a nod. "Both of those realms have their drawbacks. The Concordat is known for its anti-Star League leanings, and I doubt forty years of our absence has soothed their tempers any. The Magistracy is, well… they know how to throw a great party, but they really aren't much for war.

"The Alliance has none of those worries. Because of the influence of the anti-technology Omniss faction, most of their worlds are agricultural and lightly defended. They're a peaceful people, which should be good for us in the first few years, while we settle down again and rebuild our technology base. Also, their military emphasis is on aerospace, which should let us flex some power without revealing too much Star League technology like 'Mechs. We'll seem like any other group of refugees."

Minato Takayama looked suspiciously at the map; as head of Fleet Command, she was in charge of the lone arm of the Wolverine Touman that they couldn't afford to reveal to anyone else, Inner Sphere or Periphery. "What about our WarShips, then? We can't cart them along without attracting some attention."

Sarah pointed at the expanse of empty space between the Alliance and the other major Periphery realms. "Most of the aerospace fighters and JumpShips will come with the civilians and injured. Meanwhile, the WarShips, some BattleMechs, and our ground troops will start the process of searching for a permanent homeworld outside of the Alliance, Concordat or Magistracy. Map what you can, and survey worlds to determine their viability. If you find any pirates, you have permission to eliminate them from orbit, if necessary. We don't need any more avoidable casualties."

"Fair enough, Ma'am." Takayama looked positively euphoric about the prospect of blowing up a few bandit kingdoms.

Sarah glanced about her, taking in both the enthusiasm and the unease. "I know this sounds a little crackpot. I have a hard time swallowing it myself. Get some rest and think it over before you decide. You'll be back in the saddle again once we hit the Combine."

September 29, 2825

Bridge Deck

Black Lion-class Battlecruiser SLS Palomar

Nadir Jump Point

Trondheim

Rasalhague Military District, Draconis Combine

"All hands, battle stations. MechWarriors, prepare for drop and assault. Docking collars 1 through 4, initiate auto-release sequence." Sarah was oblivious to the chaos about her as Delta and Epsilon Galaxies began to drop down upon the world of Trondheim. Her mind was focused on other things; racked with turmoil.

Four decades had not been kind to the Inner Sphere. Almost as soon as General Kerensky had taken his troops on the Exodus, the Successor States had begun duking it out. The Wolverines had expected as much. The scale of the devastation, though, was completely beyond their comprehension. That a war could have gone on for nearly the entire forty years they'd been away was stunning even to Roberta Sutherland.

Their mood worsened once their Bug-Eye returned from Svelvik with intercepted holovid programs and documentaries from the "ComStar" network news, another new development. They read of House Kurita's unprovoked attack against the Eridani Light Horse on Sendai with dismay. Horror followed as they discovered the reason Commander Ezra Bradley had decided to leave the Combine. Thoughts of protecting the Combine had vanished that day. Two words summed up the mood of many as they dropped on Trondheim. Remember Kentares.

James Gunnarson wrestled his neurohelmet on, connecting the leads on his MechWarrior's suit to the medpacks under his seat, and starting the LNC 25-01 Lancelot's fusion engine. The computer flared to life, demanding his voice identification.

"Commander James Gunnarson. Command Keshik, Clan Wolverine." Voiceprints served as the first step in unlocking the war machine for battle. The first of two green lights blinked to life on the HUD, as the computer continued.

"Enter security passcode." Each MechWarrior programmed his own personal identification key into a 'Mech as the second step in unlocking it, usually some personal homily or private memory that another pilot could not possibly know, given that someone's voice was easy to record and play back to the computer.

"Sic Semper Tyrannis." Thus always to tyrants; yes, that did seem appropriate today, of all days. Given the chance to leave the Palomar in command of a group of young recruits and displaced warriors from other units, he'd leaped at it. If the pitiful resistance they'd faced on Svelvik was any indication, the Combine was little more than a crumbling ruin. Better call up those kami of yours, Jinjiro Kurita. You're going to need every last one to stop us from sending your ass to Hell.

"Sierra Battalion Leader to Delta One Lead. The reserves are buttoned up and ready to drop." Roberta Sutherland, in charge of this drop as she had been on Svelvik, responded with her usual curt acknowledgement.

"Delta One Lead copies. Hang back for now, Sierra Lead. I want to gauge their strength before we commit to anything rash. Trondheim's a prefecture capital; Svelvik wasn't. Whoever they have stationed here will be tougher than the last batch."

James snarled a silent curse. "Doesn't matter. We can roll 'em up."

"That's precisely why I ordered you to hang back, Sierra Lead. Don't need any heroes today. We're getting in and getting out of this godforsaken system, to that slave pit on Richmond, and then we leave the Combine for good. The less time spent here, the better, and that means no righteous tirades. Capisce?"

"Sierra Lead complies, Delta Lead." The words were meaningless. He knew what he had to do.

Gunnarson's Lancelot rocked again as a Kurita Atlas fired its massive autocannon, shredding what armor remained on his 'Mech's left torso.

"Unity!" Down a large laser, he was hurting, but four of the bastards had fallen to him, and his reserves had carved a huge hole in the 20th Rasalhague Regulars' main formation. It was the perfect opportunity for Delta and Epsilon Galaxies to exploit. So where are they already? The fact that he had switched off his radio as soon as they'd advanced on the Kurita troops had long since slipped out of his enraged consciousness. Pivoting his torso, he circled the Atlas again and let loose with his last PPC and large laser, carving a huge furrow in the assault 'Mech's rear armor and igniting the autocannon ammunition stored in its torso. Sweat beaded on his brow, as the heat in his cockpit soared into a sauna-like range. Hitting the override to cut off the computer-controlled shutdown, Gunnarson continued his mobile duel with the Atlas. Time to die, you stravag bastards!

Twenty klicks away in his Black Knight, Galaxy Commander Kieran Winthrop cursed and kicked at the DCMS tank he'd just blown up, smashing in its already ruined turret.

"Epsilon Two Lead to Delta One Lead. The Drac supplies here are loaded up and ready to go, but that flipping zealot Gunnarson's taken his reserves straight into the teeth of the Regulars. Do you want to pull him out, or shall we get going?" Roberta Sutherland's voice was strained, taut with frustration. She too had been running a mobile campaign while scavenging the area for supplies and information. The defection of their reserves meant that their escape would be that much more difficult.

"Delta One Lead copies. Get your transports heading for the DropShips with an escort, and then get the rest of your people moving to meet me and finish the Regulars. Can't let those kids and the stragglers die just so Gunnarson can get his licks in. If he survives, I swear to God I'm going to have him strung up and shoved out a flipping airlock!"

Heat surrounded him. No, an inferno. That was more appropriate. Hell beckoned the enemy. But why him? Better to suffuse that madman on Luthien, burn him to the bones in torment and repentance! And what was that incessant wailing in his ears? No matter. He was alive and fighting; it was of no consequence. Slapping absent-mindedly at the board in front of him, he smiled slightly as the wailing ceased. Yes, his attention was best served when placed on the fight. To deliver the punishment these fools so richly deserved.

A Charger sped at him, looking to avenge the loss of its comrade in the Atlas. Ha! You pop-gun toting surat! He sidestepped and cut loose wildly with his large laser, backing away to begin circling the enemy 'Mech. Missed, eh? You're faster than I thought. A hellish beam of manmade lightning crashed into the side of the assault 'Mech; his PPC had better accuracy now, it seemed. I have you, you slithering serpent! You'll all burn! Burn, indeed, just as he was. Why was it so hot? No matter…it would all be over soon enough. Soon enough…

Sarah turned away from the scene in the holotank in disgust. Two hours had passed since the disastrous assault on Trondheim, and the survivors were only now beginning to trickle back to their JumpShips and WarShips. Minato Takayama eyed her quizzically.

"Something wrong, ovKhan? We got the supplies and trashed the Dracs. Three casualties out of two Galaxies is pretty light, considering the downtime."

Any casualty at all was a risk. James Gunnarson's last moments troubled her, and well as the potentially deadly consequences of her ex-aide's actions. What a way to go, roasting himself alive in his own 'Mech. Not only do we lose an able fighter, now they have our technology. They know we're SLDF. She turned back to the head of Fleet Command. This changes everything.

"Kurita knows who and what we are, if he hadn't figured it out already. Send a message to the Delta and Epsilon DropShips. Reroute the Niantic and the Revenant to the Palomar. I'm changing plans." Damn that righteous-minded young pup!

October 15, 2825

Dragon's Tears Rehabilitation Center and Work Camp

Nagahama Point

Richmond, Rasalhague Military District

Draconis Combine

The MSK-7W McKenna turned slowly, but soon enough the gates were within sight. Rather delicious irony, this is… Sarah mused as she approached the Kurita prison and slave camp on Richmond, their final destination before they would make for the Outworlds Alliance. Her modified Mackie had been a bit ungainly at first, after a year of rust, but things were running smoothly again.

The chain-link fence parted like tissue paper as she lashed out with her 'Mech's foot. It's not the gates of the Court of the Star League, but it'll do. Behind the Wolverine Khan, Epsilon Galaxy and Sierra Battalion were arrayed in an inverted V formation, awaiting the camp's defenders. She imagined Roberta Sutherland was doing much the same as she faced the DCMS on Jarett, thirty light years away.

James Gunnarson's foolhardy death on Trondheim had sped up their timetable. Delta Galaxy had taken the Aegis cruisers, plus most of the Clan's aerospace support, and headed straight for the supply bases on Jarett. Sarah had shepherded Epsilon and the remaining reserve forces on a more leisurely path to Richmond, to free the prisoners there and see if any were willing to join them. Human intelligence might be more reliable than anything they could intercept with the Bug-Eye. If all was going according to plan, Roberta was nearly finished with Jarett, and would soon be on her way to a meeting point coreward of the Combine border.

Resistance had been light so far. The Combine itself might have been on high alert, but nobody was paying much attention to the fate of several thousand Unproductives. From the ComStar reports they'd picked up, most of the prisoners here were political. Guess the Dragon would like us to take care of his problems for him. The buzzing of her radar's threat warning system ended that thought, indicating the approach of the rest of the camp's meager defenders.

Or maybe not… She trained her targeting reticle on a Maxim hover transport that was wending its way towards her, launching a spread of LRMs. The missiles crushed a few armor plates on her assault 'Mech's barrel chest, but did nothing to stop Sarah from pressing her trigger buttons. As the targeting sight flashed gold, indicating a lock, a silvery ball of metal whipped out from the gauss rifle in the McKenna's right arm. At the same time, two lances of ruby light speared the hovertank, extended range medium lasers blowing a hole in the Maxim's turret. Looks like most of the weapons work fine after a year's worth of rust…time to finish the job. She trained her sights on the Maxim, now trailing black smoke out the top, and cut loose with the rest of her weaponry. The DCMS craft vanished in a ball of plasma fire, as a PPC bolt blew its fusion engine to scrap.

A rebel yell echoed over the general broadcast channel as another Wolverine scored a kill. Star Colonel Jake Walker, a tech-turned-warrior, had assumed command of the reserve forces by acclamation after nobody stepped forward to replace James Gunnarson. Already qualified as an aerospace pilot, Walker had noticed the lack of morale among the "strays," as he'd tagged his new troops, and switched into a BattleMech to lead by example. His white Exterminator stood triumphantly over a Kurita Jenner that had had its cockpit caved in with a single punch. Twisting his torso around quickly, he zeroed in on an enemy Locust and let fly with a spread of ten LRMs. A few hit, chipping armor off the light 'Mech's stubby left wing, but most of the flight sailed wide.

"These guys are sure eager to fight, for a bunch of slave-drivers." Walker sounded self-righteous, but the Khan chalked that up to his innate irreverence more than anything else. James Gunnarson's death had, thankfully, quieted most of the zealots.

"Sure they're not a Chain Gang?" Kieran Winthrop's Black Knight hung back from short-range combat, but his PPC and lasers were stabbing forth liberally at any DCMS unit that targeted him. "Stick anyone in a place like this and they might start believing what the ISF feeds them about getting a pardon for fighting."

"They could just be a disgraced unit, Kieran. You know Kurita; all that talk about honor and glory. They manage to take us down and save the camp, maybe they'll get back to the front lines." Still, it bears looking into. "Why don't you see for yourself?"

"I think I will." His 'Mech turned towards the body of enemy troops and opened its arms.

"DCMS troops! Stand down immediately or we will be forced to eliminate you. We are only here to rescue the prisoners in the work camp. We do not want any more casualties."

"An interesting exchange, Chu-sa. They do not seem so bad. Perhaps we should let them pass." Chu-sa Goro Taniguchi said nothing as his unit discussed the raiders' broadcast. Was it not enough of a disgrace already that I be assigned here? Now to have my own troops contemplate surrender? I must truly have done terrible things in another life to deserve this karma.

Yet there was no escaping the terrible logic of the situation. To fight these raiders would be futile, perhaps even for the Sword of Light regiments, let alone a ragtag militia. Dedicated to the Dragon he might be, but Goro Taniguchi did not presume to have the gall to waste DCMS resources. This was a hopeless battle for an objective they would lose anyway. But to let the enemy go was even more unforgivable. He had already been demoted from Tai-sa and transferred for attempting to circumvent a superior's order that would have put his unit in needless danger. Taniguchi shuddered to think what would happen if he should fail here. Is it my fate to join these Unproductives? There must be a solution.

Suddenly, the way was clear. He stepped his Warhammer forward; opening his radio to a general frequency, he activated his external speakers.

"I do not know who you are, warriors, nor do I care. Know this. I am Taniguchi Goro, Chu-sa and commander of the Richmond Provisional Militia. My family has served the Dragon for centuries, and I myself have been involved in countless battles on the Lyran and Davion fronts. You may take this facility, but you will have to destroy me first. Do not force my warriors to endure the shame of surrender. I may deserve it, but they do not.

"Choose one of your number and we will duel, as in the days of the Hidden War."

Backing his troops away, he awaited his imminent death. It is not what I might have chosen for my end, but it is all that remains to me.

"Well, I can't say I'm surprised." Kieran sounded amused, but Sarah wasn't laughing.

"You're taking this awfully lightly for someone in your position, Galaxy Commander. Need I remind you that the Dracs ended up winning the Hidden War?"

"You can't be serious, Ma'am. This guy couldn't possibly be close to a Champion of House Kurita. I'm no Gunslinger, but I ain't Self-Scorching Gunnarson either. I can handle him."

"My apologies, sir, but the position is already taken."

"WHAT!?" They turned to see a steel-gray Cestus marching out of Epsilon Galaxy's ranks, raising an arm in salute.

"I accept your challenge, Chu-sa. In this solemn battle, let no one interfere!"

Kieran Winthrop was livid. "Suarez, you flipping El Cid wannabe! That's my kill!" Star Captain Ramon Suarez continued moving toward the Warhammer, unfazed.

"Sir, your Black Knight has 5 tons on him. He is already at enough of a disadvantage. My Cestus gives up 5 tons to him; that ought to even things up a bit."

Winthrop's Black Knight flexed its hands as though contemplating bodily harm, until Sarah marched up to her subordinate and booted him squarely in the behind, toppling the heavy 'Mech.

"Drop it, Kieran. Star Captain Suarez is looking out for the Clan. We can't afford to lose a Galaxy Commander right now, no matter how hot-shit you may think you are. Star Captain, you may proceed. All Wolverine forces will stand down and let him work." Sarah chuckled to herself. I think I may have found a replacement for James Gunnarson after all.

El Cid? Perhaps that was appropriate. A duel between armored knights, just as caballeros might have done thousands of years ago on old Terra. Certainly, Ramon Suarez had been reared on such tales of chivalry and glory. He and I are not so different. He seeks to cleanse himself of shame before his death, just as I might choose to go out fighting if faced with a hopeless battle. Suarez felt a pang of regret as he approached his opponent. He knows what it is to fight with honor. Is this not what we are trying to preserve and protect? It would be a waste to simply kill him.

I fear that question will have to wait until we are finished, though.

"I will count down from five, Chu-sa, and then the duel shall begin. We will fight until one of us is incapacitated or dead. Is that acceptable?"

The Warhammer simply bowed.

"Very well. 5…4…3…2…1…Mark!" As the last word left his mouth, he was already whirling into motion, as was Taniguchi.

Rolling the dice, he tied in the large and medium lasers on both of his 'Mech's arms into the left and right top trigger TICs. The other glowing light on his weapons display stayed unassigned for now. We shall see whether you make me use it, Taniguchi. Still at a dead run, he swiveled the Cestus' torso about, unleashing his lasers at the Warhammer. The left arm lasers shot wide, but green and ruby beams from the right arm slashed a steaming furrow across the Warhammer's left leg.

Taniguchi's counterstrike did far more damage. Two azure PPC beams cored into his 'Mech's left torso and arm, savaging armor and exploding off more than a ton of metal plates. Suarez gritted his teeth as the cockpit rocked about him, digging the safety straps into his shoulders. It will take more than that to finish me. Turning about, he presented his undamaged side to the Warhammer and fired again.

The DCMS 'Mech staggered as one of the Cestus' two medium lasers struck its cockpit, leaving molten armor running over half the viewscreen. The rest of the laser barrage liberally coursed over its right arm, revealing the stark white of myomer muscle underneath the metal plating. Unable to absorb the loss of so much weight on one side, the Warhammer began to lean over to the left a bit, until its pilot wrestled it upright again.

Snarling a curse under his breath, Goro Taniguchi backed up and lashed out against his foe once more with all he had. The sweat on his brow and arms evaporated in seconds as the temperature within his cockpit soared. Fired in this wanton manner, the Warhammer's energy weapons taxed its heat sinks (and his own cooling vest) to the breaking point. He gaped as the Cestus dashed away and nimbly avoided what had struck it just seconds before. What manner of warrior is he? Could they truly be SLDF?

What did it matter anyway what they were? If he could not disable the enemy, the Cestus' precision laser strikes would surely cripple him before long. Then there would be little else to do but compose his death haiku. Iie. I have never been a poet, and I refuse to be pushed to it now! But before then, he would have to wait until his heat levels subsided. Closing the protective covers over the muzzles of his PPCs, Taniguchi throttled his 'Mech to flank speed. I will show you why they named this 'Mech after a blunt weapon. There is more to me than simple gunnery.

Still on the run, an irritated Ramon Suarez brushed hair out of his eyes; damp from sweat, it was now plastered directly in his line of sight. The rigid frame of his neurohelmet pressing down on him wasn't helping him see either. So it was that he had just cleared it away when he caught sight of the 70-ton Warhammer bearing directly down on his position at full speed. What does he think this is, a game of chicken?

Caught off guard, all he could do was try to roll with the blow, while triggering his weapons again. His luck held, barely.

Whether by design or chance, Goro Taniguchi had chosen to lead with his 'Mech's damaged right side, battering the Cestus with a shoulder charge. At the same time, all four of the Cestus' lasers flashed out, exploding the Warhammer's shoulder actuator and tearing off its right arm at the joint.

Suarez heard damage alerts all around him as his 'Mech toppled to the ground. Of course, it could also have been the bells ringing in his head. It seemed even a neurohelmet hadn't kept him from suffering a mild concussion. There will be time enough to worry about that if I survive. Looking at his HUD, he saw that the Warhammer had overshot him and also fallen. That was the least of his worries.

Judging from the yellow and red overlays on his display, he was in bad shape. The fall had jammed the elbow actuator on his left arm, and knocked the focusing lens of the large laser on that arm out of alignment. His left torso was now more myomer than armor, venting coolant fluid from two crushed heat sinks. Levering the Cestus up on its good right arm, he caught sight of the Warhammer trying to do the same. I think not, Taniguchi. You have had your fun.

Rising slowly, the Cestus turned and faced its foe. A dull tone blared in Suarez's ears as the targeting system acquired a lock. Time for the trump card. A round slug sped forth from the gauss rifle in his 'Mech's right torso, joined by the two lasers on its good arm. The crack of the supersonic projectile's flight was followed with another loud crack as the Warhammer's remaining arm snapped off, sending the 'Mech down to earth once again.

His duel finally over, Ramon Suarez slumped back in his command couch. That went well.

"You are not finished yet, warrior. Kill me and spare me the indignity of being sent to join these Unproductives. Your honor demands that much." Goro Taniguchi sounded tired, both from the stress of his position and from the failure he'd just suffered.

He'd almost forgotten. Being in battle again after so many months had dulled all of the Wolverines' instincts, his own no exception. But was it really necessary to do this?

"I cannot comply, Chu-sa. To kill you would not be in either of our best interests, and I do not believe in wasting valuable resources." Taniguchi laughed bitterly.

"You come to this world, capture my garrison, defeat me handily, and now you begrudge me even the cost of a bullet? Had I known, I would have borrowed a sword from one of my officers." That's odd.

"I do not understand, Chu-sa. Do you not carry your own dai-sho, as most DCMS soldiers do?"

Now the enemy officer's voice carried some asperity. "If I had a dai-sho, do you think I would do it the dishonor of leaving it at home? Iie. My right to the two swords disappeared the day I was transferred here. I imagine some Tai-sa is admiring them on his wall as we speak." An opening! Ramon Suarez keyed his radio into the general broadcast frequency, as well as activating his external speakers.

"So here we sit, Chu-sa. You believe your honor is in tatters, but I see a path to even greater glory for you just beyond the horizon. Which road would you rather choose?" Now Taniguchi, too, was broadcasting to everyone around them.

"What madness do you speak? I owe my service, my very life, to the Dragon. To betray him would be unforgivable!"

You unbelievable fool! "Owe him, Taniguchi? Owe him? That crazed, bloodthirsty lunatic? Oh, yes, you owe him. You owe him for sending you here to die. For demoting you to a nothing post on a nothing world. For giving you all such an honorable legacy to live up to." Now he turned to the other militia warriors. "How many of those 52 million people are you willing to be responsible for, all of you!? How much of their blood do you want on your hands?"

Shame filled him. Whether it was for his personal failures, or for the legacy of the Draconis Combine Mustered Soldiery, he did not know. The alien warrior's words should not have had an effect on him. He had not yet been born when the Kentares Massacre had occurred. And yet here he was, unable to prevent the image of the Dragon in his mind, once so proud and strong, from twisting in upon itself, sprouting devil's horns and a forked tongue, cackling with insane laughter. Have I truly been so blind? What manner of monster have I helped to create?

The Cestus stepped forward, right arm outstretched, Ramon Suarez's words echoing to all. "Join us, Goro Taniguchi. I know you are smart enough to have figured out who we are. We can offer you the opportunity to redeem yourself, through service to the entire Inner Sphere, not just a single nation. You may even bring your unit with you, if you like. But in order to do so, you must take that first step." Would it truly be that easy? To walk away from the only life he had ever known? Taniguchi could only sit in his downed 'Mech and think. For a long moment, everyone was still.

Suddenly, another voice intruded into Goro's thoughts. His aide, Tai-i Hikaru Kuwata, stepped forward in his Shadow Hawk.

"Fellow comrades, he speaks truth! Who among you have not railed against the fate that sent us here, or whispered about the rumors of the Dragon's madness? Are we no more than a Chain Gang, sent to guard the Dragon's dregs, and die alone on this barren rock? Serve the Dragon loyally, without question, and this is how he rewards you! We call these gaijin barbarians, but they have shown us more honor than any within our own ranks."

Striding past the downed Warhammer, the Shadow Hawk faced the Cestus and bowed briefly.

"Warriors, I am Tai-i Hikaru Kuwata. I cannot speak for my commander, but I wish to join your ranks, if you will have me."

Sarah McEvedy's McKenna advanced to stand at Ramon Suarez's side. "As commanding general of this unit, I, Sarah McEvedy, bid you welcome to the Star League Defense Force. We shall strive to be worthy of your respect."

"Iie, McEvedy-sama. Your warrior has already earned my respect, and my gratitude, by sparing Chu-sa Taniguchi's life. Such honor can only be repaid in one way."

Ramon Suarez turned back to Taniguchi's prone Warhammer. "It is said, Chu-sa, that death is light as a feather, and duty as heavy as a mountain. Do you still wish to be relieved of your burden?"

Taniguchi's reply was clipped and tight. Very well. It seems my karma is not yet done with me. "I would know your name, warrior. The name of the one who has brought me to this dilemma."

"I am Captain Ramon Suarez, Chu-sa Taniguchi."

"Very well, Suarez-san. Your logic is inescapable. I formally surrender control of the work camp to your unit, and I will join your forces. Those soldiers in the militia who do not wish to come with Tai-i Kuwata and myself are free to leave." He laughed softly.

"You realize, Tai-i Suarez, that in the Combine, you would now be responsible for my life, since you have just saved it." Ramon Suarez simply grinned.

"I see no problems with that, Chu-sa Taniguchi. Together, we can keep the true spirit of honor alive, so that future generations will benefit."

"Well said. Now let me get out of this junkheap, and I will lead you to your objective."

Sarah looked in on the scene, lost in thought. This is what we forgot, in all that fighting over politics, petty property and caches. The true way of the warrior. No, scratch that. It will be the Way of the Wolverine, and these two will help me spread it among our children, and our children's children.

Looking up at the sky for a moment, she caught sight of Richmond's brilliant sun, rising towards its zenith. We will rise again, Nicholas Kerensky. Rise to defend the Inner Sphere, humanity itself, if you should ever be foolish enough to come back. Rise to uphold the ideals of our forefathers, no matter what it takes. Then she throttled up her BattleMech, to go and free her charges. On my honor, I swear it.

"Who remembered honor on Richmond?

Few but those two, Suarez and Taniguchi

Their battle may have been brief,

But its lessons will live forever.

Honor thy foe, warriors,

And you may find

That soon enough he becomes your ally

That is the Way of the Wolverine."

-Wolverine Remembrance, Passage 2, Verse 15, Lines 12-20