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Assumption of risk

Michael A. Stackpole

  Victor Davion returned to his desk and dropped into the chair. Tapping the screen of his computer, he looked up at Curaitis.

  "I know you'll advise against this next thing, but I want it done. Send the assassin to Solaris. Put him in a safehouse."

  Curaitis' head came up, but his face betrayed no emotion. "Is it not premature to kill Ryan Steiner?"

  "You and I know he killed my mother. We don't have the smoking gun yet, but I want the assassin in position for when we get it. He will make a mistake. I'm certain of it." Victor curled both hands into fists and rammed them together. "And when he does, I will have him dead."




  Michael A. Stackpole


  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

  New York, New York 10014, TJ.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, 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 ROC Printing, September, 1993 10987654321

  Series Editor Donna Ippolito Cover: Boris Vallejo Interior Illustrations: Liz Danforth Mechanical Drawings: Duane Loose Copyright © FASA Corporation, 1993 All rights reserved


  BATTLETECH, FASA, and the distinctive BATTLETECH and FASA logos are trademarks of the FASA Corporation, 1100 W. Cermak, Suite B 305, Chicago, 1L 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 William Cox, John Watts, Sr., and John Watts, Jr.

  for helping three guys who never

  assumed the risk

  but got saddled with it anyway.

  The author would like to thank the following people who by intent or accident contributed to this book:

  Patrick Stackpole for his weapons' expertise; J. Ward Stackpole for medical advice; Kerin Stackpole for the title; Chris Hussey and Fredrick Coff for keeping me honest with Kai; Sam Lewis for editorial advice; Donna Ippolito for making me write in English; John-Allen Price for a Cox; Liz Danforth for tolerating me as it all came together; Scott Jenkins for fact checking; Larry Acuff, Keith Smith, and Craig Harris for the loans of characters; and the GEnie Computer Network over which this novel and its revisions passed from the author's computer straight to FASA.


  New Avalon

  Cruris March, Federated Suns

  17 January 3037

  Justin Allard watched his six-year-old son march into his study like a soldier reporting for disciplinary action. The blue blazer, white shirt, striped tie, and short pants made it easy to view his stiff strides as a childish parody of martial precision, but Justin knew his quiet boy was not playing. The boy has begun his own punishment.

  Kai came to a stop at the left side of Justin's chair, well within striking range of the metal forearm and hand Justin had worn since losing the real thing in service to the Federated Suns. The boy's face did not betray the fear he had to be feeling, but the hushed tone of his whisper implied both remorse and personal mortification.

  "I have done something wrong, Father."

  Having spoken to the headmaster before sending a car to collect his son, Justin knew what had happened at the school, but he wanted to hear it in Kai's words. "What was it, Kai?"

  The little boy pressed his lips together into a flat line, then swallowed hard. He held himself together with a self-discipline that belied his years—a self-discipline Justin had at times found lacking in MechWarriors six times the boy's age. It frightened him to see his son so rigid, yet that level of maturity also fed his paternal pride. He knew his son could still be a boy and run and play with other boys, acting his age, but when he had to deal with adult matters, he could handle them in an adult way.

  "Some of the other boys at the school watched a holovid of a 'Mech fight from Slaris."

  "That is Solaris, Kai."

  "Solaris, yes, sir." Kai's gray eyes flicked down and color rose to his cheeks. "They said you were in that fight and that you killed a man. They said you had killed many men. That made you a hero. Then I got into a fight with Jimmy Kefaveur. He said his father could beat you up. I said you could kill his father. That made him cry." Kai's confession ended in a strained whisper filled with pain.

  Justin nodded slowly. "It's time we had a talk." He left his chair and took his son's left hand in his flesh and blood right hand. Father led son to the brown leather couch on one side of the room where they faced the dark holovid monitor. Justin draped his right arm over his son's shoulders, and filled his mechanical left hand with the holovid remote control.

  "Kai, six centuries ago—a very long time, before even your grandfather Quintus was born—some very smart men created BattleMechs. They made them big, taller than two or three of our houses stacked upon one another. They filled them with powerful weapons—lasers and particle projection cannons and missiles and guns—and put armor on them. They made them very strong and, just like in ancient times, BattleMechs ruled war the way knights in shining armor once did."

  "Like King Arthur or Charlemagne?"

  Justin caressed his son's head. "Yes, just like them. In combat the BattleMechs were frightful machines, and everyone in the Inner Sphere fought each other until they decided to unite and live in peace under the Star League. Then three hundred years ago ..."

  "Before grandpa was born?"

  Justin chuckled quietly. "Yes, before my father was born, a very bad man named Stefan Amaris destroyed the Star League and wars have been waged ever since by people trying to put it back together."

  "You got your metal arm in the war."

  "I got it just before the last one, Kai, but that's not the point." Justin hit a button on the remote control and brought a picture to life on the screen. He killed the sound on the holovid with the punch of another button. "That's Solaris VII, Kai. It's called the Game World because people go there to play at war. They engage in fights and all the fighters want to become Champion. Back before the last war Hanse Davion asked me to go to Solaris and fight to become Champion. Because he is my ruler, I did as he asked."

  Kai's head turned toward the screen and Justin felt a jolt run through the boy. "This is the fight."

  The holovid, which had been edited and broadcast throughout the Inner Sphere almost ten years earlier, showed Justin in a Centurion pitted against an equally humanoid Griffin. Because the fight took place in an arena called The Factory, with everything in scale to the thirty-meter-tall BattleMechs, the holovid could have been seen as a fight between two men in exosk

  The lack of sound made the whole battle eerily surreal. "The man in the Griffin was Peter Armstrong. He was a brave man, but he trusted a very bad man. The bad man talked Peter into doing something very stupid."

  The holovid showed Justin's Centurion stepping out from hiding within the debris in The Factory and aiming the muzzle that replaced the 'Mech's right hand at the Griffin. The Griffin, in turn, opened its arms wide. Armstrong wanted me to take the first shot because he thought I had a light autocannon in that arm.

  Fire blossomed from the muzzle, and armor exploded on the Griffin's chest. The Griffin staggered, then fired back with its weapons. Missiles shot out from the launch canister on its right shoulder and peppered the Centurion's chest. The PPC in its right hand came up, but the azure rope of artificial lighting shot wide of its target. Through the swirling smoke from the missile launches, the extensive damage to the Griffin could be seen. Any MechWarrior could tell that a 'Mech with so little armor left on its chest was bound to go down.

  "Peter Armstrong thought I was a coward. He wanted to kill me, but I didn't want to kill him. I tried to end the fight quickly."

  Justin felt his throat constrict as the screen showed the Centurion again pouring fire into the Griffin. The autocannon's second burst blasted away the armor on the Griffin's right arm. It ate into the myomer fibers of the hand and forearm, devouring it as if the artificial muscles were succulent meat served to half-starved dogs. The pistol-like PPC dropped from the crippled hand, then exploded as the autocannon's shells tore through it

  The Centurion's medium laser drove a ruby energy spike through the heart of the Griffin. Compounding the damage done by the first autocannon burst, it burned away the fusion engine's shielding and ignited a fire that would consume the 'Mech's heart.

  The faceplate on the Griffin exploded outward and Justin wished that just this once the outcome would be different than in the countless nightmares he'd had since the day of that fight. He wanted to see Peter Armstrong sailing out of the cockpit on his ejection seat, but where a man should have been, he saw only flames. The Griffin began to fall backward, a votive fire burning where its face had once been, now robbed it of all humanity.

  Justin froze the frame. "Kai, Peter Armstrong died in that 'Mech. I didn't want him to die. I wanted him to live. For all I know he had a family, a son or a daughter, children like you and your sisters and brother. He could have had a wife, like I have your mother, and sisters and brothers of his own like your aunts and uncles. His mother and father could have been crying when he died."

  He saw the boy's lower lip begin to tremble and Justin hugged him. "Remember this, Kai, remember it always: Killing a man is not easy, and never should be. Once you've done it, it's something that never goes away. This is the first time I've watched the holovid of this fight, but I relive that battle in nightmares. Peter Armstrong did not have to die and only did so because Philip Capet made him believe that punching out from a 'Mech was a cowardly thing to do."

  Kai looked up at his father and nodded. "Killing is not easy, and never should be. I'll never kill anyone, father."

  Justin again hugged his son. "It may happen that someday, in a war, you will be forced to kill. As long as you take responsibility for what you do, as long as you don't kill without reason, you will do well, my son."

  The proud smile slowly vanished from the face of the elder Allard. "Now you hurt another boy's feelings. How will you take responsibility for that?"

  Kai's brow knotted with concentration. Justin knew his son would impose a punishment more harsh than his father ever would. And thereby a lesson will be learned.

  "I should apologize. I should give him something to say I'm sorry."

  "What do you think that should be?"

  "My favorite book disk?" Kai offered it as a question, then took on a look of grim determination when his father nodded. "I will give him Owl Moon."

  "I think you have made a wise choice, Kai."

  The boy looked up fearfully. "You don't hate me?"

  Justin killed the picture on the monitor, then pulled his son into his lap. Once again he wished his metal limb could feel so he could enfold the boy in a proper hug. "Kai, you're my son. No matter what you do, I will always love you. I may be disappointed in you, but I will always love you."

  "I love you too, Father."

  Justin held his son close, then looked down at him. "You're a very special boy, Kai."

  "Can I ask you a question?"

  "By all means."

  The boy's face again screwed up with concentration. "The boys said you became Champion of Solaris. They said that made you the best."

  "Yes, I became Champion of Solaris."

  "Why did you stop?"

  Justin hesitated for a moment as he searched for an answer—not just one that a six-year-old could understand, but one he could understand as well. "Solaris is a world of make-believe, Kai, where men fight battles for no reason. Many people go there to hide. I could not. I went there, and I left there, because the real world needed me."



  District of Donegal, Federated Commonwealth

  19 December 3055

  The slight breeze brushed the lazy drizzle lightly over Kai Allard-Liao's clean-shaven face. It is right that the world weeps this day. Unconsciously he hunched his shoulders, less in reaction to the chill air than to the chill of standing graveside watching a casket being slowly lowered into the dark ground. He pulled at the two ends of the belt holding his black trench coat closed, tightening the knot that imitated the one in his stomach.

  The priest standing at the head of the grave smoothed down the page of his prayer book. "Salome Kell, into this earth we commit your earthly body, returning it again to the dust from which all men are made. We are confident you now dwell in heaven with our Lord, and will remain there for all eternity, forever and ever, amen."

  "Amen," Kai echoed, crossing himself as the others did, but not moving away as the rest of the mourners departed one by one. He remained there alone, staring down at the casket but with his thoughts far away. Time passed unnoticed, and it was only the touch of a hand on his shoulder that brought Kai back from his reverie.

  "Kai, thank you for coming." Phelan Ward, clad in Clan Wolf leathers as gray as the storm clouds overhead, gave Kai a tight-lipped smile that died almost before it was born. Phelan, who had been born on Arc-Royal, but who had been captured by the Clans and risen to the rank of Khan among the powerful Wolves, did not look nearly as strong or terrifying as legend would paint him. Grief at the loss of a parent humbles even the greatest of warriors, Kai thought.

  He looked up, then nodded slowly. "Thank you for permitting me to attend."

  "You do us great honor, coming here as a representative of the St. Ives Compact, my lord." Morgan Kell moved stiffly forward to stand beside his son. He offered his left hand, which Kai shook firmly, painfully aware that Morgan's empty right sleeve was pinned up in place at the shoulder. "Your mother and your nation have been most fair in their dealings with us."

  Kai nodded, suppressing the shiver that the sight of Morgan Kell threatened to produce. He had first met the mercenary commander on Outreach, during the year of special training he had undergone in preparation for battle against the invading Clans. Morgan had been a powerful and charismatic presence there—and the fact that he had survived the bomb blast that killed both his wife and Archon Melissa Steiner Davion attested to his vitality. Still, the bomb that had taken his arm had also stripped away his veneer of invulnerability; at the moment Morgan looked drawn and weak.

  Kai felt a lump rising in his throat and swallowed it back down again. "I have done my best to stay out of state business, accepting its obligations only when I must. Coming to Arc-Royal has been a painful duty, and your grief is my grief. I must confess, though, that I am not here only because my family honors you. I am afraid I usurped a bit of this service for my own ends."

  Morgan looked him in the eyes and Kai
felt an electric tingle run through his soul. "Of course, for your father. I understand, and I am yet more honored."

  Phelan frowned, obviously confused by his father's statement. "Your father died years ago, quiaff?"

  Kai ignored the clanism in Phelan's question. "He died during the time that I was trapped on Alyina, trying to escape from ComStar and your Clan Jade Falcon. Afterward I did make a pilgrimage—though visit is probably the more correct word—to his grave on Kestrel."

  Morgan Kell nodded solemnly. "I knew your father. What he endured, the sacrifices he made in the war against the Capellan Confederation, make him worthy of such reverence. In fact, you owe your existence to what he did in the service of Hanse Davion."

  The comment brought a quick smile to Kai's face. "True. Had he not been in place on Sian, working for Maximilian Liao as a double agent for Davion, he and my mother might never have married, and St. Ives would still be part of the Capellan Confederation." His face darkened a bit. "Even though I visited his grave, I never really had a chance ... the funeral was held while I was away ... I ..."

  Morgan reached out with his left hand and squeezed Kai's right shoulder with more strength than the younger man would have thought possible. "I understand. None of us begrudge you the opportunity to say goodbye." He looked up and around at the newly turned mounds of earth dotting the green bowl of the graveyard. "We've been saying goodbye to many of our dead, both recent and long departed."

  Kai again felt his throat thicken. "My father and I, we understood each other—or, at least, he understood me. I always thought he put on a brave face for me, telling me he was proud of me without really believing it inside." Kai tapped the fingers of one hand against his own chest. "After Alyina and all I did there, I thought I would finally make him truly proud, but then ..."

  Phelan's eyes half-closed and his face tightened. "I'm sure he would have been proud. I recently had reason to visit Alyina. The Jade Flacons and the Wolves are rivals and treat each other with barely concealed contempt. When I met Taman Malthus, the leader of the garrison on Alyina, I discovered that using your name helped make it possible to deal with him. In return for your Uncle Daniel's promise not to attaek, Malthus gave us what we needed. He gave in out of respect for you, purely and simply. Whatever you did on Alyina, it impressed him mightily."