A few days before we were scheduled to drop in on Skandia for a quick workout, I received another one of these mysterious notes from the Tiger Group. As usual, it was a blank piece of paper, with a picture of a tiger at the center. This time, however, it also included a question: "Which are you?"
From what I'd heard of this Tiger group, and what I had read about similar organizations in the past, I knew that my answer to the question would be critical. So, I prepared a list of alternate responses, and merely thought about the issue for the next 24 hours. Somehow, I knew that when my answer was ready, the agents of this group would know it, and would pick it up.
I considered my options carefully, then finally decided on four possible responses:
After much consideration, I had a leap of intuition, and a fifth option presented itself: "What do you offer?"
I wrote that (and only that) on a fresh sheet of paper. I chose not to sign it: its recipients would know who it is from! I placed it in the same place I had seen the tiger paper: on my pillow. Finally, I crumpled up the sheet with the other options and tossed it in the trash can, then went about my daily routine as normal. When I returned, the sheet with my response had disappeared, but to my surprise, so had the sheet in the trash can! However, I had just received orders for the Skandia battle, and did not spare much thought for this unusual occurrence.
For the next few days, nothing exceptional happened. Then, on February 8, we dropped on Skandia, and prepared to enter the battle. The fighting itself was tenacious but unspectacular, though I managed to earn a few kills.
After we returned to base, we were allotted a few days for rest and refit, and then we received an unusual circular: a bid for battle. It was decidedly unconventional to hold bidding at the Trinary level this late in the battle, but I certainly had no objections to getting some extra target practice!
Well, the most convenient way to get to the bidding center was to take my Mech, so I did. Randel grumbled about how I had managed to get every speck of paint shot of my Mech in the last battle, but also told me that he had patched the Mech back up to full specs. As usual, I needled him about what I was going to do to it after I bid to take on the entire brigade single-handedly!
However, when I mounted my Mech, and keyed the start-up sequence, nothing happened for a second. I was surprised: the fusion engine usually comes up instantly. Then, all of a sudden, my viewscreen lit up with the image of a tiger! The still figure suddenly animated into a living, growling tiger [similar to what some modern movie openings look like]. Then the screen cleared, leaving a black screen. Suddenly, a voice that sounded suspiciously like ilKhan Ulric's spoke. [He sounds like Sean Connery. -- JA]
"Adrian, we are aware of the Bidding report that you received, that J-3 reports the defenders to be a battle-torn company of the First Skandia Royal Militia. And that is what the defenders were, when the report was made. No longer. The facts, whether known by intelligence or not, have changed."
The screen faded in to recorded shots of the Drakons moving in. "With the supplies that had been reported moving into the township came a company of Mechs, Rev’s Company of the Third Drakons, to replace the Militia. An elite company of assault Mechs, with infantry support. Unlike the Militia, they have not yet seen battle on Skandia, and therefore their Mechs are in pristine shape."
Again the scene faded to shots of a Drakon Zeus in a fortified position in Spiez Town. "They have faced the Clans before, in previous battles against the Wolves; they are the battle hardened and tested, remains of the 3rd Drakon’s second battalion." The screen faded once more to a shot of several Drakons in a restaurant in Spiez Town, apparently eating lunch. I recognized the restaurant from area briefings, but I was shocked to note from the wall clock in the picture that it was happening now. Somehow, I was viewing live shots!
The voice continued, "And they want revenge."
It paused for about 5 seconds, as the screen slowly faded back to black. Suddenly, the tiger graphic was back on screen; and a new voice took over the narration. Again, it sounded very familiar -- perhaps Sara's voice?
"You asked us to show ourselves. Here we are.
"You asked, 'What’s in it for me?' For now, the chance to save your troops.
"You told us to show you our power. Here it is. Did you recognize the restaurant? Any questions?
"You asked, 'Who are you?' That, you shall find out in time ... "
The screen faded to black, and my Mech continued to start up normally. I was in a state of shock. I shook my head, and proceeded to do some furious thinking. I completed the Mech's start-up check automatically, barely realizing what I was doing. When the startup was completed, I had decided on a course of action.
I called up Michael on a private frequency. His countenance appeared on the screen, looking slightly sleepy. "What's up, boss?"
I told him, "Battle orders." Instantly, he lost his sleepy look. "Get to your Mech at once. I'll have Randel prep it."
He asked, "Should I get the rest of my Nova as well?"
"No, just you," I replied.
"On my way," was the response.
I called up Randel on the intercom. "Randel, prep Michael's Mech for immediate travel, then join me in my cockpit. Something has just come up." Randel looked shocked at the unexpected order, then recovered and nodded hastily.
Next, I called up Klen Kerensky, and told him to suit up. "Something wrong?" he asked in his usual laconic style. I told him, "We'll talk when you get here."
Finally, I called up Kelly, and told her, "I've asked Klen and Michael to join me on the trip. I'm putting you in charge of Alpha Nova. Michael's second will take Bravo. Be sure to get them to the combat site on time." She acknowledged, and I signed off. Just then, I noticed a puffing Randel climbing the ladder to my cockpit. As I helped him in, I saw Klen enter, wearing his suit, and Michael running for his Mech, still closing his cooling vest. Techs helped him mount and start up, and a few minutes later, we set off, Klen clinging to my hull.