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Malicious intent

Michael A. Stackpole


  Khan Elias Crichell thought to himself. The man who stood before him wore a gray jumpsuit with Clan Wolf markings. His flesh had gray and yellow tones to it as befitted a man who had been fighting for months and living the last few days on survival rations.

  Crichell looked down at the man at the foot of the dais. "Your message indicated you had valuable information for me."

  I served ilKhan Ulric Kerensky as aide during the Trial of Refusal." Vlad smiled in a lopsided way that made Elias feel uncomfortable. "What I saw will give you the means to destroy Khan Vandervahn Christu. I will even kill him myself. Your path of ascension to ilKhan is clear."

  "If you are right, you will want something of me in return."

  "I will, but we may speak on it after I have fulfilled my half of the bargain. When he is gone, you will not deny me what I desire."

  "How can you be that certain?"

  "I am willing to kill a man to avenge a dead leader from a dead Clan whose policies I found repugnant and opposed with every fiber of my being." Fire burned deep in Vlad's eyes. "Deny me what I want, and you will discover how truly dangerous I can be...."

  "In the tradition of Gordon Dickson's Dorsai, Stackpole's battle clans swash and buckle with style and vengeance."—Simon Hawke




  Michael A. Stackpole


  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

  New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

  Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane,

  London W8 5TZ, England

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood,

  Victoria, Australia

  Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2 Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth. Middlesex, England

  First published by Roc, an imprint of Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

  First Printing, March, 1996 10 987654321

  Copyright © FASA Corporation, 1996 All rights reserved

  Series Editor Donna Ippolito Cover Roger Loveless

  Mechanical Drawings: Duane Loose and the FASA art department REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA BATTLETECH, FASA, and the distinctive BATTLETECH and FASA logos are trademarks of the FASA Corporation, 1100 W. Cermak, Suite B305, Chicago, IL 60608.

  Printed in the United States of America

  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


  If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book."

  To Richard Garfield

  A creative genius and innovative game designer who proves that nice guys don't have to finish last and, in special cases, can finish way out in front.

  The author would like to thank the following people for their contribution to this work:

  Sam Lewis and Bryan Nystul for story direction; Donna Ippolito for pinpointing those areas where I get lazy and making me fix them; Liz Danforth for not killing me every time I interrupted her painting to share something I thought was brilliant; John-Allen Price for the continued loan of a Cox; Lisa Koenigs-Cober and the members of the Crazy Eights for donating generously to charity in return for their appearances herein; and the GEnie Computer Network over which this novel and its revisions passed from the author's computer straight to FASA.


  Unfinished Business



  Wotan, Jade Falcon Occupation Zone

  11 December 3057

  Now the Wolves belong to me.

  As he regained consciousness, this was the first thought that came to him. It worked its way past the fiery ache in his left forearm and the scattering of other stinging annoyances on his arms and legs. He clung to that thought and made it the core of his life and universe. The rest are all dead, now the Wolves belong to me.

  Vlad of the Wards slowly turned his head, alert for any pain in his neck that might signal a spinal injury. It seemed unlikely, what with his arms and legs faithfully relaying their discomfort to his brain, but with so much responsibility facing him he could take no chances. As he moved his head, dust and gravel raided off the faceplate of his neurohelmet, pouring more grit down into the collar of his cooling vest.

  Through the dust Vlad thought he could see his left forearm, but it looked distorted and odd. He brushed the viewplate clean with his right hand and was able to correlate the bump on the top of his arm, and the bruise surrounding it, with the lightning-like shooters of pain emanating from that spot. Glancing up he saw the hole made in the viewport of his Timber Wolf when Wotan's Ministry of Budgets and Taxation building had been blown to bits and buried Vlad in a smoking pile of bricks.

  One of those bricks must have struck his arm and broken the bone that ran thumbside up the forearm. The bump meant the break was dislocated. Unset and unhealed, the injury rendered the arm all but useless. As a warrior buried beneath a building in an enemy zone, Vlad knew the crippling injury could easily be fatal.

  For most warriors it would have been cause for panic.

  Vlad smothered the first spark of fear rising in his breast. I am a Wolf. That simple thought was enough to forever tame his panic. Unlike the freebirth warriors of the Inner Sphere, or even those of the Jade Falcon and other Clans, Vlad refused worry or anxiety. Such emotions were, to his mind, for those who abandoned all claim on the future— those who preferred to exist in a state of fear instead of pressing on to a point where fear was banished.

  For him there was no fear because he knew this was but one more twist in the legend that was his life. His existence could not end so ignominiously, with him dying of exposure or starvation or suffocation in the cockpit of an entombed BattleMech. Vlad refused to let that possibility exist in his universe.

  The Wolves belong to me. That fact alone was vindication and confirmation of his destiny. Six centuries earlier, Battle-Mechs—ten-meter-tall, humanoid engines of destruction— had been created and come to dominate the battlefield just so that he might one day pilot one. Three hundred years ago Stefan Amaris had attempted to take over the Inner Sphere and Aleksandr Kerensky had vanished into the Periphery with most of the Star League's great army precisely so Vlad would one day be born into the greatest of warrior traditions. The Clans had been created by Nicholas Kerensky to further his father's dream, and Vlad had been born a warrior among them expressly so he could guide the Clans to the ultimate realization of that dream.

  Such thoughts allowed him to soar beyond the pain in his body. Vlad cared little how someone else might view this vision of himself as the end product of six hundred years of human history, for he saw no other way to interpret his life. He shied from the mysticism of Clan Nova Cat, and examined the events with cold logic. Occam's razor sliced his conclusion from events cleanly—his reasoning, as extraordinary as it might seem, had to be true because it was the most simple explanation that wove everything together.
  If his view were wrong, the Clans would have returned to the Inner Sphere a century before or after his lifetime. If it were not true, he would never have suffered humiliation at the hands of Phelan Kell—a humiliation that allowed Vlad to see the true evil the man represented while the ilKhan and Khan Natasha Kerensky had not. The trauma of that defeat had left him immune to Phelan's charm and made Vlad the last true Wolf in the Clan.

  Ulric knew that, which is why he entrusted the Wolves to me.

  A cold chill sank into Vlad. He had come to Wotan with ilKhan Ulric Kerensky and had led him to a battlefield chosen by Vandervahn Chistu, Khan of the Jade Falcons. Ulric and Chistu were to fight a battle between them, a battle in which Ulric would have prevailed had Chistu not cheated. The last Vlad had seen of the Wolf leader was the fire-wreathed silhouette of a Gargoyle pressing one step closer to the enemy despite the withering missile firestorm engulfing him.

  Lying on his back, Vlad glanced up at the dead instruments in his cockpit and smiled. Not only had he witnessed the Falcon Khan's treacherous murder of Ulric—he had recorded it. Chistu had to know that the incriminating evidence existed in the cockpit recorder. Had it been Vlad, he would have recognized the threat immediately and poured fire into the midden that had swallowed Vlad until all that remained of him or his Timber Wolf or the building was a huge crater. That Chistu had not done so marked him as even more a fool than Vlad had thought.

  This means they will be coming for me. Chistu would not order the destruction of the building now—though he should. Vlad decided Chistu would send people to look for the 'Mech and recover the recorder—under the pretense that the medical data recorded there would provide information on how Vlad of the Wolves had died. It would also allow Chistu to view for himself Ulric's destruction from another angle, and to see how handily his marksmanship had buried Vlad under the bricks and mortar of a huge building.

  They will be coming and I must be ready.

  With his right hand he unbuckled his belt and pulled it tree from around his waist. Inserting the end back through the buckle, he then slipped the loop around his left wrist. He slid the buckle down until it snugged against his flesh. Pain shot up and down his arm, leaving him weak for a moment and nauseous.

  Vlad waited for the nausea to subside before pushing on with his plan. He pulled his right knee up to his chest and hooked the heel of his boot on the edge of the command couch. He fumbled with the buckle at the top of his calf-high boot and undid it. He slipped the end of his belt through backward, stabbing the tongue through one of the holes at the very end. He thrust the tip of the boot-belt back over his other belt and fastened it in place. He tugged on the waist-belt until he was sure it would remain in place and would not pull free.

  He lowered his leg again and his foot hit the pedal at the bottom of the command couch without using up all the slack in the belt. He took a deep breath, then gently pulled his left leg up and hooked the heel of that boot over the belt. He eased his left forearm into his lap and let the intact bone rest on his thigh. With his right hand he took up all the slack in the restraining straps that crossed his chest and lap to keep him in the command couch.

  Sweat began to burn into his eyes. He pulled the medi-patch wires from the throat of his neurohelmet, then unbuckled it and tossed it off back over his head. He heard the helmet clatter against some debris, but he didn't care. He shook his head violently, spraying sweat into a vapor that drifted back down like cold fog over his face.

  He knew what he had to do, and he knew it would hurt unbearably—worse than any physical pain he had endured till now. The wound that had torn open one side of his face and left a scar that ran from eyebrow to jaw had been just as painful, but the medics had him so dosed with painkillers that he wouldn't have felt a 'Mech tap dancing on him. Those same drugs all existed in the medkit located in one of the cockpit's storage areas, but if Vlad used them he'd never be able to set his arm.

  Pain is the only true sign you are alive.

  The light brush of his fingertips over the break felt as heavy as stone and started agony rippling out in waves that seemed to liquefy his body. His breath caught in his throat and a sinking sensation threatened to suck his guts down into his loins. Icy slush filled his intestines, and his scrotum shrank as his body recoiled from the pain.

  Vlad smashed his right fist against the command couch's right arm. "I am not a Jade Falcon. This pain means nothing!" His nostrils flared as he sucked in a lungful of chill air. "I am a Wolf. I will prevail."

  He slowly straightened his left leg, his vision blurring as the belt tightened on his wrist. He tried to lean forward to give the belt slack, but the restraining straps held him in place. His left arm extended and the elbow locked. Shimmering bursts of pink and green exploded before his eyes, and blackness crept in at the edge of his vision.

  He continued pushing and then dropped his right hand over the break. The fiery agonies consuming his left arm magnified what his right hand felt in incredibly fine detail. Millimeter by millimeter, bone slid against bone as the belt tightened and the break began to slide into place. Each little bit of motion sent seismic tremors through Vlad's body, wrapping him in pain that seemed to have existed his entire life and promised to engulf his future. Yet, despite that, he knew from the sensations in his right hand that the ends of the bones were still kilometers apart and would never slide into place despite eons of torture.

  The squeak of teeth grinding together echoed through his brain and almost drowned out the first faint click of bones beginning to slide into place. He almost let the tension on the belt go, convincing himself that everything was repaired and that what his right hand felt could not be right. A firestorm of pain flared up and through him. He felt his resolve begin to melt in its inferno.

  Then he remembered the image of Ulric's 'Mech taking just one more step.

  I will not surrender.

  Screaming incoherently, Vlad straightened his left leg. Bone grated on bone, the lower half pulling even with the break, then slipping past it. The gulf between the ends of the break seemed to stretch on forever, but he knew that was an illusion. He clenched his right hand over the break, clamping it down. Bones snapped into place.

  The argent lightning storm that played out from the break bowed his spine and jammed him hard against the couch's restraining straps. He hung there forever, his lungs afire with oxygen deprivation. He wanted to scream and his throat hurt as if he were, but he could only hear the wheezing hiss of the last of his breath being squeezed from his chest.

  His muscles slackened and the restraining straps slammed him back down into the couch. He felt more pain, but his nervous system had not recovered from being overwhelmed and could only report faint echoes of it to his brain. He took a shallow breath, then another and another. Each one came deeper, and as his body learned that breathing would not hurt him, it gradually returned to normal functioning.

  The break throbbed, but the bones had been slid back into place. Vlad knew he would find a splint in the command couch's medkit, but he didn't have the strength to get free from the restraining straps and go digging around for it. He let his head loll to one side and then the other to drain sweat from his eyes. It was not much, but along with breathing it was enough.

  As strength gradually returned, Vlad wasted a bit of it in a smile. He had passed the first test in his ordeal, but he knew there would be many more. There would be enemies to be destroyed and allies to be used. The war—technically a Trial of Refusal—between the Jade Falcons and Wolves would have left both sides devastated. Vlad knew, based on the fact that he had not been rescued immediately, that the Jade Falcons had won. That meant he would have to appeal to the Falcons who shared his disgust with the Inner Sphere if he were to have any help from them. Better I seek aid from the Ghost Bears, as they have long been allies to the Wolves.

  Vlad nodded slowly. There are many matters with which I will have to deal. I can use the time here, waiting in my cockpit, to consider them all. Those
who come for me will believe themselves scavengers, only to find themselves rescuers. Little do they know they will be midwives to the future of the Clans.


  Eleventh Lyran Guards Temporary Headquarters

  Elation City, Wyatt

  Isle of Skye, Lyran Alliance

  12 December 3057

  This is going to be a disaster, he thought as he snapped to attention and clicked his boot heels together. "Hauptmann Caradoc Trevena reporting as ordered, sir."

  Without rising from his chair, Kommandant Grega flipped Doc a two-fingered salute, then pointed to the heavy wooden chair opposite the desk. "Sit, Hauptmann."

  For a half-second Doc almost refused, choosing instead to stand at ease, but the weariness of fourteen years in the military bore down on him. He sat, but forced himself to sit straight instead of slumping in the uncomfortable seat. He looked up, seeking some sign that things weren't going to be as bad as he feared.

  Grega popped a gray data disk from his computer and tossed it onto the middle of his Steiner-blue desk blotter. "I've been reviewing your file. It's rather remarkable, Hauptmann. You joined the service in 3043, just after the 3039 festivities." The multiple ranks of battle ribbons on the left breast of Grega's jacket showed that he hadn't missed that war. "And despite being in the Armed Forces of the Federated Commonwealth during the Clan invasion, you have never served in a unit that has seen combat. How is that?"

  Doc shrugged. "Luck?" He knew that was the wrong answer before he said it. To people like Grega—those who'd been under fire—he was a paper-veteran. He'd served during a conflict, not in the conflict. Even in the most recent fighting, when the Free Worlds League invaded the Federated Commonwealth and took back worlds lost a quarter century before, his unit had opted out of the fighting. The Eleventh had decided to abide by Katrina Steiner's proclamation of neutrality. They'd left their station on the embattled world of Calliston and returned "home" to Wyatt.