|The thrilling conclusion |
Book Three of the Proving Grounds Trilogy
The world of Northwind has been decimated in the battle between the Highlanders and the Steel Wolves—and now the Clan warriors set their sights on Terra. The fate of the planet rests in the hands of three MechWarriors.
Ezekial Crow—betrayer of the Highlanders—and on the run form both political and military enemies.
Anastasia Kerensky—ruthless ruler of the Steel Wolves—and if she has her way, the next Conqueror of Terra.
Tara Campbell—leader of the Northwind Highlanders—and Terra's only hope in its most desperate hour.
The explosive conclusion to The Proving Grounds Trilogy, which includes A Silence in the Heavens and Truth and Shadows.
Sample ChapterDropShip Fenrir; Saffel Space Station Three
February, 3134; no season
In her office aboard Fenrir, Galaxy Commander Anastasia Kerensky looked over the fuel expenditure reports for the Steel Wolf DropShips. To herself—but to no one else—she would admit that work such as this was, for her, the least favorite of the many tasks that her rank required.
Give her a military objective, and she would take it. Give her a challenge, and she would meet it. Wrestling with inventories and invoices and spreadsheets . . . even though she assigned as much of it as she could to members of the service and support castes who were trained in dealing with such things, nevertheless at some point the final numbers had to come across her desk.
At the moment, those numbers looked grim. She had brought the Steel Wolf JumpShip out at Saffel to recharge the Akela's K-F drive prior to making the second jump that would bring the Wolves to Terra. The reports from the engineers on the DropShips told her that their arrival would be longer coming than she had anticipated.
"The time we spent under the sea on Northwind did not help," said Star Colonel Marks.
He had brought in the engineering reports—for the pleasure, she suspected, of watching her get the bad news. Marks had been one of the late Kal Radick's favorites, and Anastasia Kerensky's most recent successes on Northwind had only served to add fuel to his dislike of her.
"The DropShips were bleeding power the whole time," Marks continued, "without a chance to make it back up. If we are to cover the distance between the Terran jump point and Terra itself in the fastest time possible, we will need to refuel the DropShips as well as recharge the JumpShip's drive."
"How long to full charge for the JumpShip?" Anastasia asked.
"Six point eight days using the solar sail," he replied.
"That is too long," she said. "We have the advantage, now, of surprise, and we cannot afford to lose it. Every day—every hour—of delay increases the resistance we will find when we reach Terra."
"The Highlanders are in no shape to oppose us on Terra," Star Colonel Marks said. "And Terra's integral defenses are comparatively weak; they have wasted themselves in sending troops out to protect other worlds, and have kept too few behind to protect their own."
"If underestimating the enemy is your idea of planning," she told him, "then do me a favor and check the airlock for leaks. From the outside. The Countess of Northwind blew up her own castle rather than let me take it; do you think she would hesitate to strip Northwind bare in order to stop us from seizing Terra?"
"If the Galaxy Commander says so—"
"I say so. We cannot afford to throw away any advantage that we may have. Nor can we afford to use anything less than maximum speed for the DropShips' approach. We have no choice—we will have to recharge and refuel at the Saffel station."
Once again, Marks took on the manner of someone taking pleasure from the delivery of bad news. "There is a problem. If we refuel and recharge at the station, we will have to pay for the privilege."
Anastasia frowned. "Do we not have sufficient funds for the purpose?"
I really wish I could trust somebody else with this part of the job, she thought resentfully as she spoke. Growing up in the full Clan tradition on Arc Royal, in her childhood dreams she had pictured her older self doing many things—fighting for honor, for advancement, and for the right to direct the future of Clan Wolf in The Republic; handling weapons and vehicles and all manner of 'Mechs; surviving and holding her own in the literal cut-throat arena of Clan politics. Despite the fact that over time she had acquired an intellectual awareness of the importance of supplies and logistics, she had most certainly never cherished the image of herself as a glorified accountant and purchasing agent.
"The station will charge a high price, especially for refueling the DropShips," Marks told her. "If they realize that we are in haste, they are likely to raise their prices even more. They might be willing to accept trade goods instead of cash—"
"—but warships do not carry trade goods," Anastasia finished. "The solution would seem to be obvious, Star Colonel. We are, after all, the Steel Wolves. Allow me some time to work out a plan—and meanwhile, see that the JumpShip makes ready to approach the station."
Cecy Harris, duty sensor tech on Saffel Space Station Three, was midway through the watch and scanning her screens for arriving ships. The work was at once duller and more nerve-wracking than it had been in the days before the collapse of the HPG network: duller, because the slowdown in communications meant fewer people making interstellar journeys on a casual or ad hoc basis, and fewer travelers meant fewer ships; more nerve-wracking, because the confused political situation and the lack of up-to-date intelligence meant that the crew of Station Three had no idea, most of the time, what might come out through the jump point next.
Or, as it happened, right now.
"Ship incoming," she reported to the officer in charge, Luc Desroches. "JumpShip. Big."
"Any idea who they are?" he asked.
"It's a Clan configuration," Cecy replied, after a quick consult with the system's onboard database. "Maybe Clan Sea Fox—they're traders, or what passes for traders with those people anyhow. It's hard to tell."
"We don't have any Sea Fox ships scheduled to turn up about now," said Desroches with a frown. "Unfortunately—"
"—the schedule doesn't count for squat now that the net is down. I don't think this is one of our regular visitors, though. None of them are that big."
"Whoever they are," said the communications tech at the adjacent console, "they're keeping quiet. Shall I hail them?"
"Not yet," said Desroches. "Let them talk first."
"Looks like they're deploying the solar sail to recharge their drive," Cecy said after a few minutes. "They probably don't have any business on Saffel at all."
Desroches shrugged. "As long as they stay over there and leave us alone, they can gather all the sunlight they want."