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The 'Mech carriers reached the landing field. Atwyl could see their landing gear still was retracted even though they were barely ten meters above the ferrocrete. When he noticed that the 'Mech egress doors were retracted, too, and that the ships were not slowing, he knew what was coming. In his ten years of service in Wolf's Dragoons, he had heard often enough about this maneuver, but he had never seen it. It took well-trained warriors and reliable equipment to pull it off. Dragoon ‘MechJocks called it downloading. Lesser men called it crazy.

The Leopardsopened fire to suppress any hostiles who had survived the sweep of the fighter cover. The right wing ship dropped back to clear a fire lane for the starboard weapons of its partner as well as for its own port weapons. The Pathfinders' BattleMechs appeared at the edges of the bays.

The winds of the DropShips' passage buffeted the mighty machines. Atwyl heard the jump command come over his comm unit. In unison, the 'Mechs hurled themselves clear of the ships, some firing jets from back units, others using the jets set into their legs. In either case, the terrible momentum was slowed.

Sparks flew as the 'Mechs skidded to shaky stops on the landing field. One, a Stinger,crumpled to the ground as its left leg buckled on contact with the ferrocrete. The remaining BattleMechs began to spread out at top speed. Some opened up with their own weapons as they targeted on emplacements that the aerospace forces had missed. Behind them the Furiesroared closer.

Again Atwyl's comm unit barked with a command. The BattleMechs on the landing field threw themselves prone and ceased their fire. Like the Leopardsbefore them, the Furiescame in as a staggered vee with clear firelanes. Coherent light, charged particles, and missiles rained on the defenses.

A Davion BattleMech lance appeared near the control tower, but the lead Furycut down the first two 'Mechs with its particle beams and missiles. The third 'Mech, an ENF-4R Enforcer,went to ground while the fourth disappeared back behind the tower. The prone 'Mech opened fire, bringing its autocannon to bear on one of the Dragoon 'Mechs. Shell craters pocked the ferrocrete and ripped into the target 'Mech's armor. The Dragoon ‘MechJock held his fire. The Davion pilot probably never had time to wonder why as beams from the passing DropShips converged on the Enforcer'sposition. As the only fusion-powered combat machine firing weapons on the tarmac, the Enforcerwas an easy lock-on for the DropShips' targeting systems. Limbs flew as its ammo storage blew. The Enforcer'sFederated autocannon fired the last shells in its chambered cassette round as the arm assembly spun through the air.

While the guns of the DropShips were wasting the Davion BattleMech, a third order came through on the Dragoon battle frequency. Trooper after trooper leaped from the speeding Furies,each wearing an individual jump pack. Like the 'Mechs before them, the Jump Troops used the exhaust as a brake so they would hit the tarmac at something approaching a reasonable speed.

Having laid their troops, the DropShips leaped for the sky to rejoin the rest of the aerospace forces. They would be harassing the Federated Suns troops trying to flee the port, discouraging the arrival of any reinforcements. Atwyl knew that part of the mission well. He had flown on it many times.

The comm unit at his side came to life. Now that the time for split-second commands had passed, the channels were clear for normal battle traffic. The Dragoon 'Mechs were up and attacking again. The infantry, highly mobile with their jump packs, moved swiftly to hold what the 'Mechs had won.

Surprise and the lightning assault made the rest easy. In short order, the Dragoons were in control of the port. From his vantage point, Atwyl observed the Davion troops retreating in good order out of Batan. As they headed south and away from him, the battle calls and commands on the Dragoon frequency changed. Victory yells and postbattle chatter filled the channels as the Furiesreturned to unload the infantry's vehicles.

Atwyl relaxed as he listened to the excited talk. The tension of watching the battle had drained his strength. He was drifting off to sleep when the babble cut out suddenly, overridden by the command call buzz.

In the comm silence, Colonel Carmody's voice was clear. “Landing zone secure, Colonel Wolf. You may begin landings, as scheduled.”


Batan Spaceport, Quentin IV

Draconis March, Federated Suns

14 June 3023


The gee forces made breathing hard, but they were not enough to explain the difficulty Minobu was having. He had made combat drops in the insubstantial ablative shell that protected a BattleMech as it fell through the atmosphere. He had ridden down through the firestorms of enemy defenses while locked in the cockpit of a 'Mech that was, in turn, locked in the belly of a DropShip. Those were harrowing times. Why a problem now?

He closed his eyes, blotting out the small stateroom. Was it because this was the first time he had landed on an enemy-held planet without being in the cockpit of a 'Mech? Was it the lack of a 'Mech's protective armor? Was it fear of death? No. Death held no fear for a true samurai. The old, old proverb of his spiritual ancestors said it best, “Death is a feather; duty is a mountain.”

It was the duty, then, that raised his pulse and made his breathing shallow. Or rather the fear of it. The message with his assignment had been clear. He was walking a narrow line, facing concerns that were new to him. He feared failure and the shame it would bring. He had always been calm before battle.

Minobu forced his head around and opened his eyes to look across the compartment. Sho-saGensei Terasu lay stiff on the lower bunk across the stateroom the Kurita officers shared. He was pale, with sweat beaded on his forehead, and his muscles were taut with more than just the strain of acceleration. Fear etched the face that a short time ago had been set with disdain for Minobu, the Dispossessed ‘MechWarrior.

Minobu found it ironic that Terasu feared a descent outside his control. ‘MechWarriors, accustomed to the feeling of vast power that came with piloting a 'Mech, often showed quirks and superstitions when traveling in machines piloted by other men.

Minobu turned away. To see a warrior in such fear only added to the shame of that warrior. Such enslavement to fear was pitiful, even in so crass and overbearing a man as Terasu. The man's combat record was superb, indicating that he had courage. Minobu wondered if Terasu's courage in battle was really fear of shame, which could overmaster him as thoroughly as fear of death did now. That would fit with his bullying attitude, too.

Between the rattling and creaking of the DropShip plowing through the turbulent upper air over the Ajan continent, Minobu caught a softer sound. It was a voice, soft and monotone, reciting a Buddhist chant. If it had been coming from anywhere other than the acceleration bunk immediately below him, he would never have heard it. Minobu had not expected Sho-saBrett Hawken to have any religious inclinations at all, unless one counted his fervent devotion to House Kurita. Did Hawken feel the same fear that gripped Terasu? Did he intone the prayer from a true religious impulse or was the chant merely a focus to calm his mind? Did it matter?

As Minobu listened, the Starblade'srattling lessened, but the roar of the drives continued. The ship had slowed its velocity. From his estimate of the time elapsed since they had started the descent from orbit, he calculated that they were beginning the final approach to Batan spaceport. The Dragoon AeroSpace Command had been as good as their word. The Starbladehad come through unmolested by the Davion defenders.