Warrior: riposteMichael A. Stackpole
Waves of heat washed up and over him as dazzling white fire flashed around the Firestarter. Again, he felt himself slammed down into the couch, but his legs had fallen from their positions on the jump jet controls. Some titanic force grabbed his Firestarter at the feet, whipping the thirty-five-ton 'Mech into the air like a doll.
Andrew clawed desperately for the eject button, but gravity pinned his arms into place on the command couch's arms. Spots flashed before his eyes and a dim, horrifying realization crawled up from the place where his nightmares hid. Out of control . . . G-forces too much. Can't black out! Gritting his teeth, he forced his right hand to punch again at the eject button, but consciousness had already drained away before he could hit it.
Michael A. Stackpole
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To my family:
Mom, Dad, Kerin, Patrick, and Joy.
Thanks for the help, encouragement, and support throughout the years.
The author would like to express his special thanks to the following people for their help (in many different forms) in completing this novel: Liz Danforth, Jennifer Rober-son, Ross Babcock, Donna Ippolito, Jordan Weisman, Bob Charrette, and Sam Lewis. Thanks for straightening out problems, pointing out omissions, filling in the details, and noticing errors that I had allowed to creep into the manuscript.
ComStar First Circuit Compound
Hilton Head Island, North America, Terra
15 July 3027
Standing alone in the center of the First Circuit chamber, she held her head high and glared straight ahead at the Primus. Her golden hair fell to the shoulders of her red robe, and hooded her face, cutting off her view of the other Precentors standing at their translucent podiums. Beneath her feet was the gold star inlaid into the alabaster floor, and the harsh overhead spotlight almost seemed to pin her to the spot.
They do not matter. They may surround me physically and their smug contempt provide background annoyances, but this is a battle between Primus Julian Tiepolo and me. Myndo let a thin smile upturn the corners of her mouth. A battle between the Primus and the Word of Blake.
The spotlight's backglare left no shadows on Primus Tiepolo's lace, whose sallow, waxy flesh was barely a shade lighter than his unpretentious dun robe. His aquiline nose and flat, dark eyes had something predatory about them, and his voice was strong, despite being barely above a whisper. He still has some strength. I must be careful here.
Unblinking, the Primus met her stare. "Do you understand, Myndo Waterly, Precentor of Dieron, that we have summoned you here to account for your actions on May the twenty-second of this year? After hearing your version of what happened, we, the First Circuit of ComStar, will determine whether or not to convene a trial of excommunication. If we do so decide, you will be temporarily stripped of your rights and privileges as a Precentor until the verdict is rendered. Do you also understand that the penalty for the alleged infraction of our directives is death?"
Myndo forced herself to nod calmly. "I do."
The Primus folded his arms, tucking his hands into the robe's voluminous sleeves. "You have been charged with informing the Internal Security Forces of the Draconis Combine that Melissa Arthur Steiner, Archon-Designate of the Lyran Commonwealth and fiancee of Prince Hanse Davion, ruler of the Federated Suns, was present within their territory. This action involved use of information that ComStar had culled from confidential messages sent through our stations as well as through other, covert methods of information-gathering. Your deed, therefore, threatened to reveal some of our Blessed Order's secret operations. It also jeopardized our neutralist posture by helping the Draconis Combine." The Primus paused, fixing Myndo with a piercing stare. "Furthermore, your action flaunted a policy agreed upon by this body—a policy we all know you personally loathe. Do you offer a defense of your action?"
Precentor Dieron nodded slowly. "I would submit, Primus, that my action differed in no way from the other operations ComStar has undertaken. We have used information leaks throughout the two and a half centuries that our Blessed Order has been custodian of interstellar communications. Did not Jerome Blake himself write, 'A well-placed word can defeat a BattleMech legion ...?'"
The Primus nodded mechanically. "You should complete the quote, Precentor Dieron. 'A well-placed word can defeat a BattleMech legion, but worry for the messenger if his duplicity is revealed.' Your claim that your action mirrors those performed throughout our history could only be true if you were to warp beyond recognition the concept of similarity. Only the Primus can initiate when and how we might meddle in the politics of the Successor States—not some renegade Precentor with delusions of divinity!" Tiepolo's voice echoed from the chamber's shadow-shrouded walls, seeming to batter at Myndo from all sides. "Above all, our actions must be subtle!"
Summoning her courage, Myndo laughed harshly. "Subtle? Since when, Primus, have your actions been subtle? In 3022, you allowed Hanse Davion and Katrina Steiner to sign a treaty that bound their two realms together. Next year's marriage between Hanse Davion and Katrina's heir—a match made possible by the treaty's secret provisions—will seal that bargain. At the same time, you directed me to engineer another treaty, one allying the Draconis Combine, the Free Worlds League, and the Capellan Confederation. How is that subtle? Certainly, all the players have seen our hand in this series of alliances. Do you even know what subtle is?"
Myndo's outburst provoked not even the slightest reaction from the Primus. Allowing the echo of her words to die out, he narrowed his eyes. "I understand subtle, Precentor Dieron, and understand it in degrees you will never comprehend. As an example, I offer our gracious reduction in prices for all communications sent out by the guests who will gather here for the wedding of Hanse Davion and Melissa Steiner next year. Already the rulers of the Successor States plan out their lines of communicat
ions, and their messages of praise for our action come pouring in. We will be privy to every communication transmitted from this most important of gatherings, and our policy encourages that those messages will be sent in abundance."
Myndo shook her head. "What you consider subtle I find needlessly reckless. I dislike the idea of having so many people invade our home. If anything goes wrong, it will be upon our heads. There is too much that could be discovered here. As for encouraging increased messages, will this not raise suspicions about our motives?"
Myndo waved off the Primus's attempt to reply. "Name one thing, Primus, that you have done in the past that does not bear the stamp of your manipulation."
The coldness of the Primus's smile shook her confidence, but her anger was undiminished. What is in his mind? she wondered briefly. There is no quote from Blake to answer this.
An amused tone wove its way through the Primus's answer. "I would not have expected you to notice, as you were so busy provoking a war, but Justin Xiang Allard is now a member of the Maskirovka in the Capellan Confederation. His addition to the Capellan intelligence organization will help Maximilian Liao deal with Hanse Davion. Justin Xiang, as he now styles himself, knows how his father, Quintus Allard, runs Davion's Ministry of Intelligence, Information, and Operations. Xiang's addition to ihe Maskirovka should blunt Davion's intelligence operations."
Myndo snorted derisively. "And you claim this chance happening as something you engineered?"
The Primus nodded. "Though we cannot claim credit for having Justin Allard tried for treason and exiled from the Federated Suns, we did manage to turn the situation to our advantage. I ordered dispatches about Justin's victories in the BattleMech games on Solaris VII to be paired with depressing messages also ruing to Maximilian Liao. More often than not, news of Justin Xiang's victories was the only bright glimmer in the Chancellor's dark days. I manufactured Liao's fascination with and hunger for Xiang. That moved him into place."
Myndo bowed her head in a gesture that was equal parts respect and penitence. "I understand what you have said, and I stand corrected." Her head came back up, slowly, and she met Tiepolo's dark stare. "I submit, however, that my action was just as carefully orchestrated. I merely jested to a person known to us as an ISF agent that I was surprised at the Combine allowing bandits refuge in the Styx system. The ISF itself manufactured all the other information. They discerned Melissa's presence on the Silver Eagle. They reacted."
Myndo narrowed her eyes. "What has happened as a result of my actions that is so important? Quintus Allard has successfully created a story to explain why the Silver Eagle was so important, while keeping Melissa's presence secret. Melissa was delivered safely into her fiance's arms. Some bandits, ISF troopers, and mercenary MechWarriors died. This is no great calamity."
The Primus winced, and Myndo's heart leaped. In that instant, she knew that she'd struck some chord that worried him, and that told her he had some weakness she could use against him. By the same token, it means there is something he fears, something he cannot control. Perhaps it is something I should fear as well.
The Primus forced emotion from his voice, but the effort made his lower lip tremble slightly. "One of the mercenaries killed was Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Kell. Indeed, it was fortunate that his Kell Hounds arrived in time and with sufficient force to save the Archon-Designate, but his death unlocks a problem that I believed was safely behind us. I have no doubt that his elder brother Morgan will return and once again take control of the Kell Hounds."
Myndo frowned. This frightens you? "I fail to see the significance of that eventuality, and I challenge the possibility of it ever occurring. The Kell Hounds have not even sent Kell a message about his brother's death."
The Primus shook his head slowly. "No, they have not, nor would they. They will send a messenger to tell Morgan personally. That messenger will also tell him that his old enemy, Yorinaga Kurita, once again fights for the Combine. If the conflict between those two men ignites again, it could become a conflagration beyond our control."
Myndo watched as the strength drained from the Primus's body. It is as though he is deflected from his attempt to crucify me. Myndo opened her hands. "I have offered my defense, Primus. I submit that my effort was subtle, and undertaken at a time when it would have been impossible to summon this august body together. Rash though my judgement may have been, I contend that it has caused no real harm. Let it serve as a lesson for all of us concerning the true power behind information, and let this experience temper our thinking. Let it be so in the sacred Name of Jerome Blake!"
The Primus looked up and polled the Precentors, then nodded wearily. "In the Name of our Blessed Blake, let it be so." His body jerked with an silent laugh. "Your peers absolve you of any guilt. You are free to go, but mark your own words. Let this experience temper your thinking, Precentor Dieron."
Myndo bowed her head. "It shall, Primus. It shall." When next I make a move to undercut your power, it will be even more subtle—so subtle, in fact, that you’ll not see it coming, nor will you survive it.
Capellan March, Federated Suns
10 October 3027
"Damn you, Hanse Davion!"
Duke Michael Hasek-Davion's oath echoed off the white adobe walls of his private office. Angrily, he crumpled the message he'd just read and hurled it across the room. It bounced from the wall and Michael stared at it, wishing fervently that it would utterly vanish or, better yet, have never arrived at all.
The Duke narrowed his restless jade-green eyes and shook his head in a motion that made his long, black braid slither like a snake. "How pained your wording sounds, brother-in-law. Written even in your own hand. You honor me with the information. You trust me with the information." Michael spat at—but missed—the crumpled piece of paper. "You damn me with it."
He crossed to the missive and recovered it in his prosthetic left hand. Returning to perch himself on the edge of his desk, he smoothed out the sheet against his thigh. Though he hated to do it, he reread the message, hoping that somehow he had missed some fact, some nuance, that would cast the whole communication in a more benign, beneficial light.
"My dear Michael," it began—with a lie. "Had it been solely up to me, I would have apprised you of this information much earlier. As well you know, I value your wisdom and devoted service as the guardian of the Capellan March. However, other forces have prevented me from sharing this joyous news with you before now."
Michael snorted derisively. You pretend to blame the security precautions of your own Quintus Allard or the Lyran Commonwealth’s Simon Johnson for this unspeakable breach of faith, but you do not fool me, Hanse. You are not known as the Fox for your slavish devotion to the wishes of subordinates. No, Hanse, I see your shadow hand behind all of this.
The Duke slid from his desktop and crossed the room to stare out the arched window. Any other time, the view he had of the New Syrtis Spaceport would have calmed him, because it was such a strong reminder of how much power he did wield. He studied the dozen egg-shaped DropShips squatting on the tarmac. Their cargo ports stood open for loading, with service personnel hurrying about to fill the ships' empty bellies before New Syrtis's unpredictable weather could close the scheduled launch window.
In and around the DropShips marched BattleMechs on sentry duty. Ten meters tall and humanoid in configuration, the heavily armored war machines moved steadily around the spaceport's perimeter. Though the Duke was too distant to hear the thunder of their heavy tread, he accurately conjured up the sound from memory. Each step raised a thick, red cloud of dust, but Michael saw it as a bloodmist.
I am the master of all this. I command those ships. My orders dispatch them to rendezvous with JumpShips, and my orders send those JumpShips hopping thirty light years at a burst to carry out my whims. And I command the BattleMechs of a dozen Regimental Combat Teams. I should be invincible. He glanced down at the n
ote. How is it that this piece of paper can destroy me?
He forced himself to continue reading. "Ordinary though the situation is, it will come as a shock. Yes, Michael, my years of bachelorhood come to an end next August. In Melissa Arthur Steiner, I have found a woman who is all that I have been looking for."
Michael's fingernails scratched across the window's casement as his right hand slowly tightened into a fist. You speak of your bride as though she is secondary to the whole situation. You call her a woman, but she‘ll reach her majority barely six months before your wedding. Yet, I must agree that you speak true in saying she is all you have been seeking. She is the link that forges an alliance between your Federated Suns and the Lyran Commonwealth. You'd have married her as a babe in bed if her mother Katrina would have stood for it, or you would have wed Katrina herself were she capable of bearing you an heir.
A purple stormcloud roiled overhead, cutting off the soft golden glow of New Syrtis's nearest star. It robbed the angular landscape of its bright scarlet, bathing it in a deep maroon whose color reminded Michael of dried blood. Lightning spikes stabbed down into the earth with terrible power, forcing even the Battle-Mechs to retreat before the storm's fury.
Michael returned to his desk as the storm started the wind howling like a kalacine waiting its turn at a slaughterhouse. "I'm sure, Michael, that you see the political benefits of this marriage. With the Lyran Commonwealth tied more tightly to us, we will box in the Draconis Combine. This means, as you have long requested, that I will be able to shift some of my military resources to your Capellan March. Together, we can strengthen your domain so that the covetous Capellans will be persuaded to look elsewhere."
Michael smashed his right fist into the desk and then, raising it to his mouth, sucked at his bruised knuckles. No, Hanse, you'll not sink your military talons into my realm. No. You seek to be Brutus to my Julius Caesar. You cloak your attempt to oust me with words of friendly intent, but I see beyond them. Once you have married Melissa Steiner, you will need fear no one.