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Natural Selection

Michael A. Stackpole


  Nelson stumbled against a bulkhead as the Tigress shuddered with the first hit.

  The ship swayed as gunners activated missile launchers and unleashed their own clouds of missiles. The Tigress started to spin slowly and Nelson realized that it was doing so to bring all its weapons into play. We're too close to the Lioness for a full sphere of fire.

  As a MechWarrior, Nelson felt a mixture of joy and dread concerning fighters. He knew they could easily devastate ground-bound forces and even cripple DropShips. Though such an action would mean his death, it would also bring the Red Corsair's predations to an end. That fed into the optimistic feelings in his heart, and spawned a desperate plan.

  I don't have to die. Nelson knew it was true with the conviction of a madman or a prophet, and he knew two other things without a doubt. The first was that he would survive whatever happened at Zanderij.

  The second was that he would finally be free of the Red Corsair!






  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England

  Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia

  Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V


  Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

  First published in the USA by ROC, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc. 1992 First published in Great Britain 1992 10 987654321

  Collection copyright O FASA, 1992 All rights reserved

  Series editor: Donna Ippolito Cover: Bruce Jensen

  Interior illustrations: Elizabeth Danforth Mechanical drawings: FASA art staff

  Roc is a trademark of Penguin Books Ltd. BATTLETECH, FASA and the distinctive BATTLETECH and FASA logos are trademarks of the FASA Corporation, 1026 W. Van Buren, Chicago, IL 60507

  Printed in England by Clays Ltd, St Ives pic

  Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

  To Dave Arneson, gentleman, scholar and friend. He proves that intelligence, creativity, wit and generosity can be wrapped up in one package.

  The author would like to thank the following people for their contributions to this book: J. Ward Stackpole for medical research; Kerin Stackpole for free legal advice (the best of which being that if she didn't get mentioned, it wouldn't be free); Liz Danforth for tolerating my cackling madly while working on this book; John-Allen Price for the continued loan of a Cox; Dennis L. McKiernan for the challenge; Sam Lewis for editorial advice; Donna Ippolito for translating it into English; and the GEnie Network over which this novel and edits passed from the author's computer straight to FASA.

  A short story of Nelson Geist's early career appears as part of the MechWarrior manual for the interactive BattleMech game by Kesmai and offered on GEnie.


  Kooken's Pleasure Pit

  Federated Commonwealth

  15 February 3054

  Kommandant Nelson Geist started to bark at his grandsons as he once would have yelled at his troops, but then thought better of it. The twin boys, both just turned five, knelt in the dust and marched little plastic BattleMechs into position for a battle. Their blue eyes glittered and the tips of their tongues peeked from the corners of their mouths as they concentrated on their play. So much did they resemble the Kommandant's son that it made his heart heavy to watch them.

  Joachim shook his head violently, spraying his fine blond hair over his face. "No, Jacob, this time I get to be the Kell Hounds. You be the Tenth Lyran Guards."

  Jacob sat back on his haunches, a defiant grimace settling on his face. "I always have to be the bad guys, Joachim. It's my turn to be the Kell Hounds."

  Nelson Geist made sure his left hand had a solid grip on the coffee cup as he set it down on the porch steps. "Boys," he said,"the Kell Hounds and the Tenth Lyran Guards are on the same side. They're allies."

  "But mommy says Victor Davion killed daddy. The Guards are his." Joachim and Jacob both looked troubled as the contradictions slammed together in their minds for the first time.

  Nelson stepped forward and dropped into a squat at the edge of their battlefield. He picked up one of the little plastic miniatures of the ten-meter-tall death machines that were to warfare in the thirty-first century what cavairy had been to Napoleon. "Your father piloted a Phoenix Hawk, just like this. He was part of Prince Victor's unit, the Revenants, when they went to Teniente to rescue Hohiro Kurita. It was the Clans, the Nova Cats, who killed your father, not Prince Victor."

  The boys remained solemnly quiet for a moment as Nelson set the miniature Phoenix Hawk down, then Joachim grabbed it and added it to his army. "Daddy is now part of the Kell Hounds."

  Jacob protested and Nelson would have tried to adjudicate the dispute, but he heard the screen door slam shut behind him. Turning toward the house, he saw Dorete standing there, hugging her skinny arms around her waist. The expression in her eyes was distant, but her mouth was set in the thin, grim line that had become so familiar since his return from the Clan war. She still showed some of the youthful beauty that had attracted Jon, but two years of mourning had changed her.

  "I should never have let you give them those things, Kommandant." Her voice cut at him like a knife. "Those are demonic toys. They seduce our youth with thoughts of glory, then betray them."

  Nelson forced himself to look away as he reached down for his coffee cup. Scars crisscrossed the back of his left hand, which he forced open, ignoring the phantom sensations of the two missing last fingers as he made his half-hand grasp the cup firmly. By shunting all his anger into that action, he brought himself under control.

  "You cannot protect them from life, Dorete. They must learn. They must be proud of their father."

  Her blue eyes flashed like a PPC beam. "Proud, Kommandant? Proud of a man who foolishly followed a princeling on a mission to save the spawn of our greatest enemy? Don't bother bragging about how he died to save Victor from a Clan attack. I've viewed the holodisk the Prince sent, and I know every syllable of his message by heart. Victor is no different from his father—may he burn in Hell—raping the Lyran Commonwealth and killing our men. Jon died a sacrifice on the altar of Victor's ego, and you know that as well as I do. Didn't you lose half your hand as a sacrifice on that same altar? How can you defend the man who murdered your son?"

  "The Prince did not kill Jon!" Nelson's shout brought a look of shock to Dorete's face and even made the boys look up from their play. "Jon died defending the Inner Sphere from the Clans. I lost my fingers and more good young men and women like Jon doing the same thing." He looked down at his grandsons. "Those warriors died to keep their families from becoming slaves to the Clans. These boys need to know and understand that because the day will come when they too must take up arms to defend their homes."

  "Never!" Dorete's eyes sharpened. "The Clans have given us peace."

  "But only for ComStar, and only for thirteen more years. Besides, we're located above the truce line. The Clans have already been carrying out limited attacks and raids into Federated Commonwealth space,
and they'll be back in full force when the truce is over. When that day comes, your sons will be of an age to fight."

  "Old enough to die, you mean."

  "No, not if they're prepared."

  "Preparation did not save Jon."

  "Dorete ..."

  "No, Kommandant, no. You don't understand, do you?" She looked away, her eyes glistening with tears that threatened to spill down her pale cheeks. "Your universe has been swept away. Things are changing. Takashi Kurita is dead. Hanse Davion is dead. Jaime Wolf is out of the picture. Morgan Kell is retiring. The old ways are no more. I will not have my sons trained to preserve old ways that have killed billions."

  Nelson's nostrils flared. "They are Jon's sons, too, Dorete. Think of him."

  Her lower lip trembled. "I do, all the time." She whirled and retreated into the house, her shoulders already beginning to heave with silent sobbing.

  "Grandfather, why is mommy crying?"

  Nelson choked down the lump in his own throat. "Because she misses your father very much." He knew that Dorete hated relying on him, but she had suffered a breakdown after Jon's death. Nelson had gladly taken her and the boys in, but Dorete's feelings of helplessness and abandonment fed on each other. He was the only object for venting her frustration and he accepted the role. As much as her actions hurt him, he knew they were motivated by her love for his son and he could dishonor neither that nor Jon's memory. "She loves your father very much and it hurts her that he is not here."

  As he dropped his body wearily onto the porch steps, the twins approached him. Joachim planted the tiny Phoenix Hawk on Nelson's left knee and set another 'Mech beside it. "You had a BattleMaster. "

  Nelson nodded. "Just like that one there. A BLR-3S BattleMaster." In the background he heard the bleat of the visiphone, but ignored it. "I captured it while still a cadet at the Nagelring and kept it all during my service in the Armed Forces of the Federated Commonwealth. Now I'm here with you, and my 'Mech is in Dobson, with the First Kooken Reserve Militia."

  "Can we see it?" The twins looked at each other, their eyes widening in anticipation. "Please?"

  The creak of the screen door hinges cut off Nelson's reply. "Come inside now, boys," Dorete called.

  "Mom," they pleaded in tandem.


  They obeyed but only reluctantly, leaving the toy 'Mechs balanced precariously on Nelson's knee. Bracing himself for another stinging blast of Dorete's venom, Nelson didn't turn around. "I would have said no, Dorete."

  "That was the duty officer in Dobson," she said coldly. "You're being called up, Kommandant."

  "What?" As Nelson turned and stood up, the plastic 'Mechs spilled off his knee and onto the ground. "What's happening?"

  "Need to know, Kommandant." She stared straight through him. "You're to report immediately, and it's not a drill." She tossed him the keys to the aircar. "Go."

  He looked at the house. "The boys ..."

  "I'll tell them." She pressed her lips into a thin line. "Go."

  Nelson Geist nodded and moved quickly away from the house, barely aware that the heel of his boot had ground the toy BattleMaster into the dirt.

  * * *

  These are no ordinary bandits. Riding high in the forward seat of his BattleMaster, Nelson Geist looked out over the battlefield. Once-green meadows had been churned into a black and brown quilt of smoldering grass and torn sod. In the valley below him the shattered remnants of the Kooken Reserves fought a delaying action. In theory, the Robinson Rangers were somewhere behind them, re-forming after a brutal battle that had lasted more than twenty-four hours.

  During his briefing, Nelson had learned that bandits had been spotted coming in fast toward Kooken's Pleasure Pit. The Grave Walkers and the Robinson Rangers were the Pit's active garrison, but the Grave Walkers could not reach the Rangers' location in time because they were stationed such a distance away on the southern continent. That was how the Rangers had happened to call up the Reserves, for the bandits arrived with ships enough for a regiment or more of BattleMechs—though the possibility that all those ships could contain 'Mechs had seemed inconceivable. No bandit group had that many 'Mechs.

  Coming in, the bandits boldly announced themselves. An audio-only message from a woman who identified herself as the Red Corsair challenged the Rangers to come out and prove themselves. By itself, such bravado would not have been unusual—Nelson knew that most bandit leaders had a loose board or two between their ears—but the gesture was a chilling reminder of the Jade Falcon challenge that had preceded the fighting on Wotan.

  Nelson made a call to the Catapult on his left. "Spider, suppress the Vindicator over on the right flank. Two barrages."


  Slowly and reluctantly the Reserves gave ground. The bandits came on hard, surprising Nelson by pressing their attacks even after his command lance began a barrage of long-range missile fire against them. It made no sense for the bandits to keep on coming once the command lance had spread its missile umbrella. Unless ... A sinking feeling tugged at Nelson's heart.

  A 'Mech appeared over the hilltop on the other side of the valley, instantly attracting his attention. But for its bright scarlet paint scheme, it looked remarkably like his own BattleMaster. The main difference was that the red 'Mech mounted a particle projection cannon in each of its massive hands. In a show of incredible skill, the pilot pointed each PPC at a different target and then fired.

  One azure lightning bolt drew a broken line from the weapon muzzle to a war-worn Locust, hitting one of the 'Mech's birdlike legs. The particle beam boiled the leg's armor away, then melted the ferro-titanium bones. The Locust spun about before crashing wildly to the ground.

  The second PPC bolt flogged a humanoid Dervish. The blue beam whipped away what little armor remained on the 'Mech's right arm, devouring a medium laser and a short-range missile launching pod. Unbalanced, the Dervish fell, too, then stayed down as another bandit 'Mech flogged it with laser fire.

  Nelson flipped his holographic display from vislight to infrared. The computer compacted the 360-degree circle around his BattleMaster into a 160-degree arc in front of him. He expected to see the red BattleMaster shining bright as a beacon in a black night, but the 'Mech showed very little heat after having fired two PPC beams. That 'Mech should be white hot!

  That the other BattleMaster's heat profile remained a cool blue gave Nelson a real fright. In the three hundred years that the Clans had lived apart from the Inner Sphere, their weapons technology had progressed well beyond what the Inner Sphere knew or could produce. The Clans had weapons and advanced heat sinks that made their 'Mechs run cooler and hit harder than could their Inner Sphere counterparts. It was just that technological edge which had let the Clans overwhelm the forces of the Inner Sphere on almost every world they deigned to attack.

  Nelson dropped his golden crosshairs onto the scarlet BattleMaster's dark outline. The dot in the center pulsed fast, confirming a target lock. Nelson tightened down on the trigger of his right joystick, sending a line of twenty long-range missiles streaking out, one after another, from the launcher in his right arm.

  The LRMs hammered the bandit 'Mech. Virgin armor cracked and splintered amid the fireballs, the explosions running across the torso and left leg. Armor plates dropped smoking to the ground, but the pilot rode out the assault as if it were little more than a hailstorm.

  Nelson nodded to himself in acknowledgment of the skill that let the enemy pilot shoot at two targets while keeping his 'Mech upright after being attacked. Meanwhile a blinking light on his command console told him he had just used the last of the LRM ammo against his red counterpart. All I've got left is shorter-range stuff.

  "Spider, take command. Pull out all you can. Run for it." He glanced at his left hand and tightened his grip on the joystick. "I'll buy you some time."

  "Don't do anything stupid, Skipper."

  "That's an order, Spider." Nelson started his BattleMaster down the hill toward the red 'Mech. "Besides, if
these bandits were really any threat, do you think anyone would send a one-handed Kommandant after them?"

  Without waiting for Spider's reply, Nelson opened his radio and sent a widebeam broadcast out to the bandits. "I am Kommandant Nelson Geist of the First Kooken Reserve Militia."

  The red BattleMaster stopped and raised both of its PPCs in salute. "And I am the Red Corsair. Your troops were pitiful."

  "Then pity them." Nelson kept his crosshairs on the Corsair's BattleMaster as he stepped his 'Mech around the blackened carcass of the Dervish. "They have a half-handed commander and cast-off equipment. They're not prey worthy of the likes of you."

  "What would you know of what I am?"

  "It's obvious you are a warrior." Things began to click together in Nelson's brain. After the battle of Tukayyid, in which the Clans had been defeated and forced to accept a truce of fifteen years with ComStar, there had been rumors that some Clan warriors had angrily renounced their Clan ties. It was also said that others had revolted and repudiated the truce agreement, setting off minor internal battles within the Clans. Still others had gone renegade, taking their equipment and heading out on the bandit trail. With Kooken's Pleasure Pit so close to the border of the Clan Jade Falcon occupation zone, it had been a convenient target for raids by some of these bandits, but the Rangers had been more than able to handle them. Even when two of the groups had actually made landfall, the Reserves had not been called up.

  Nelson kept his 'Mech heading in toward the bandits,with each step closing the distance between him and the Red Corsair. Her troops had stopped their chase, waiting for some sign or signal from her. But Nelson knew that each step he took deeper into danger was one more his troops could take to escape. "I would surmise, from your voice, that you were once Clan."

  "I do not recognize your name, Kommandant. Should I?" She spoke the question almost as though it were an order, yet her tone also carried a hint of curiosity.