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Malicious intent, Page 2

Michael A. Stackpole

  Grega slowly exhaled. "Luck? That's exactly the sort of attitude that has us concerned here, Hauptmann. Yours is not a military record many would want to emulate."

  I bet the dead ones would love to have my record. Doc leaned forward and clasped his hands together on the desk. "I'm not certain I understand that assessment, Kommandant. All of my evaluations have been satisfactory."

  "Yet you've been passed over for promotion twice now. And if not for the Clan invasion, you'd have been mustered out long ago." Grega tapped the disk with an index finger. "At this point your chances for promotion are dead."

  Yes, but it's not my service record that dooms me. The Eleventh Lyran Guards had been a linchpin unit in the AFFC, holding the line against possible Free Worlds League aggression in the Sarna March. When it pulled out and joined the newly formed Lyran Alliance it became a key unit in what was now known as the Lyran Alliance Armed Forces. The irony of the resulting acronym—LAAF—had not been lost upon him, yet to make a joke about it appeared to be akin to treason in the minds of most LAAFers.

  Those who found the joke appropriate were usually warriors hailing from the Davion half of the Federated Commonwealth. Refusing to help her brother defend against the invasion of the Sarna March, Katrina Steiner had seceded from the Federated Commonwealth, baptized her new realm the Lyran Alliance, and called all loyalist troops home. Those who answered the call, like the commanders of the Eleventh Lyran Guard, were staunch Steiner loyalists who showed a certain teutonic lack of humor about life in general and the unit in specific.

  Grega leaned back in his chair and patted scattered strands of brown hair across his balding head. "I know this isn't an easy time for you, Hauptmann. It must have been quite a shock when your wife chose not to leave Calliston when we evacuated. Your career is stalled, and with the Clan truce in place for another ten years, the chances of you seeing combat and reviving your prospects are nil."

  Doc shrugged. "Just my luck we fled from Calliston."

  "Marshal Sharon Byran chose to honor Archon Steiner's request for the return of Lyran forces to the Alliance. It's your bad luck that her compliance ended any hopes you had of advancement." Grega's gray eyes hardened. "However, I have a bit of good luck for you, Hauptmann. The Lyran Alliance Armed Forces is prepared to offer you a generous compensation package if you choose to resign. Your fourteen years of service don't qualify you for a pension per se, but we're willing to give you 20,000 Kroner and an honorable discharge, which will make you eligible for full veteran medical and occupational training benefits. I should think you would find this offer more than fair."

  "Would that include passage back to Kestrel?"

  Grega opened his hands. "I'm afraid transport is limited right now, but you are free to pursue the possibilities on your own."

  "Which means that 20,000 Kroner will get me about as far as Terra."

  "A bit further, perhaps."

  "But isn't the Lyran Alliance paying the full expenses of people who want to repatriate themselves from the Federal Commonwealth?"

  Grega made a vain attempt at hiding his smile. "Different government department, I'm afraid. A bit of bad luck."

  Doc sat back. "All my luck's been bad luck."

  The Kommandant nodded. "So it seems."

  "Yeah, well, I believe in sharing, Kommandant." An edge crept into Doc's voice and he fought to keep the volume below a shout. "Let's get down to the trenches here, shall we? You're moving every paper-veteran you can out of this unit and filling it with Steiner heroes to make this a showcase unit. It's a purge, nothing more and nothing less."

  "We're a military organization, not a political party."

  "It shouldn't surprise me that you're short-sighted enough to think I'd believe politics and the military don't mix—I'm not a fool." Doc reached out and tapped the disk on Grega's desk. "If you'd taken a serious look at my record, Kommandant, you'd have noticed something important. The reason all my evaluations have been good is because I've been assigned to company after company filled with MechWarriors who'd earned only substandard evaluations. Every unit I've every worked with was deficient before I arrived, including your Third Striker Company, but they were sharp and battle-ready by the time I was done with them. I may not be the guy who forges the knife, but I'm the one who puts an edge on it, and our superiors have seen my value in that. Promoting me would have moved me out of that role, and that was the role to which they thought I was best suited."

  Doc's dark eyes narrowed. "You've also made two assumptions about me that were unwarranted, sir. The first is that just because I've not seen combat and not been promoted, you assume I'm a slack warrior. You think I'm substandard and that I can't fight. I can. You're sure I'd fall apart in combat, but you ignore the performance of units I've trained—they've done damned well. And if I'd been leading them, they'd have done better because I've studied our enemies. I know them, their tactics, and how to defeat them. All things being equal, I'd have no second thoughts about taking on either the Falcons or the Wolves."

  Grega slowly shook his head. "My, my, perhaps I should send a message to the Archon and have you appointed her advisor."

  She could damned well use one. Doc held his tongue. While he was willing to toe the line between dissent and treason, he didn't want to step full on it. "Perhaps you should, Kommandant, because she'd tell you all about Archon's Order 5730023—Reorganization of the Lyran Alliance Armed Forces. I've read it. Because a state of war technically still exists between the LAAF and the Clans, company and field grade officers cannot be dismissed from the service through anything less than a court martial. You have nothing on me that would warrant you bringing legitimate charges against me. Unless I resign, you're stuck with me."

  Doc folded his arms across his chest. "You thought this would be easy. No way. You figured my wife leaving me, my poor career prospects, and the rest would make me go meekly because I've got nothing to live for. Well, I do have something to live for, sir, and that's making sure nothing is easy for you. If I let you jerk me around, you'll end up mangling the life of someone who actually has a life."

  Grega raised an eyebrow. "Are you finished?"

  "Wasn't I finished before I stepped in here?"

  "Perhaps, in fact, you were." Grega shrugged. "Exactly how you were to be finished was not cast in ferrocrete. You aren't the first officer who's cited AO-5730023, though I hadn't expected you to protest. I do find your arguments about your performance quite self-serving and indicative of an overblown ego, but I also find the irony of your making this point rather delicious."

  Grega's precise pronunciation of the word "delicious" was disturbing. He fit his mouth delicately around each syllable, as if the word were a razor he would use to carve Doc up. He's taking great delight in this, and I don't like that.

  "You see, Hauptmann Trevena, there are units that have been carefully chosen as repositories for warriors such as yourself."

  "Units on the line with the Clans?"

  "You would like that, wouldn't you?" Grega shook his head. "Of course, those worlds have to be guarded by units of unquestioned loyalty and superior abilities. I would be negligent in assigning you to such a unit, despite your self-assessment. No, you'll be sent to command a company in the Tenth Skye Rangers on Coventry."

  Doc kept a defiant smile on his face, but inside he felt something dying. The Isle of Skye was a hotbed of anti-Davion sentiment, and the Rangers had been formed from some of the region's most loyal sons and daughters. Duke Ryan Steiner had used Skye as his power base for an attempted coup that would have torn the Skye March away from the Federated Commonwealth, and he had been the brains behind the Free Skye Movement that had fomented open rebellion on several of the worlds just last year. Victor Davion had put the rebellion down and, some believed, had given the order for Ryan Steiner's assassination on Solaris. The Gray Death Legion had slapped the Tenth Skye Rangers down on Glengarry, and Doc guessed that restructuring the unit was LAAF's way of keeping it benign.

ling such a unit with people who had not seen combat, like him, or had little aptitude for combat would certainly accomplish that goal. If his luck were to turn good, Doc knew he'd have six difficult years before he could resign with a pension. After leading such a Skye unit, anything would seem an improvement, so retiring on half-pay wouldn't be that bad. If I can stand it for that long.

  Being killed in a training accident looked like the only early release he could hope for, largely because of the unit's posting. Coventry was a key world within the Lyran Alliance, so the posting seemed honorable, but in reality it was a sham. Coventry was deep enough inside the Lyran Alliance that only a serious Clan push would ever reach it. Moreover, the Coventry Academy had its Cadet Corps and the Coventry Militia was known to be one of the most highly trained units in the Alliance—largely because it was staffed with warriors who also served as test pilots for the Coventry Metal Works 'Mech production facilities.

  We'll never see combat, and we have two ultra-loyalist units there to watch over us. Putting him on a JumpShip and targeting it for a black hole was about the only other way they could have consigned his career to an even more ignominious end than a resignation bought for 20,000 Kroner would provide.

  Doc nodded once. "I hear the weather on Coventry is nice. I'll send you a hologram of me sunning myself."

  "Please, do that, Hauptmann." Grega stood and waved Doc toward the door. "You know they say it's better to be lucky than good. It's a real tragedy to be like you, because you're neither."

  'That's a historian's judgment, sir."

  "The victors write the history, Hauptmann."

  "No, sir, survivors write the history." Doc gave him a salute. "Given my record, I think you should hope I remember you kindly."

  "And you, Hauptmann, should hope I choose to remember you at all."




  Jade Falcon Occupation Zone

  13 December 3057

  Using the command couch to shield himself, Vlad hunkered down in the darkness of the cockpit as gravel and voices drifted down from above. Even as 'Mechs had labored outside to uncover his Timber Wolf, he'd dug a great deal of the debris out of the back of the cockpit and piled it on the command couch to fortify his position. The lasers the searchers would be using would take some time to burn through the bricks and stone with which he'd armored his haven.

  Vlad had spent his last two days constructively. Using one of the lasers in his survival gear he'd burned a hole up through the stone above his 'Mech. The rubble burying him had enough holes in it to provide him ample air—the laser-burnt hole was meant to give searchers a clue that he'd survived the collapse and, at some point, had been alive. Shooting the laser off at night, letting the red beam play out into the air, would have been an easier way to summon help, and one he'd been saving for when his food ran out. While it would bring rescuers, it would also let them know he lived. And that, Vlad decided, was not necessarily conducive to his continued survival.

  Vandervahn Chistu's murder of ilKhan Ulric Kerensky must surely have been a move to preempt the other Jade Falcon Khan in the race to become the new ilKhan. Khan Elias Crichell, the senior Khan, was a consummate politician—as evidenced by the fact that he'd retained his rank long after abandoning the cockpit of a 'Mech for an office and data terminal. Crichell had orchestrated the political crisis that had culminated in the war between the Falcons and Wolves, leaving Chistu to prosecute that war.

  Though Crichell had a lot of power, including many favors owed him by the Khans of other Clans, Chistu had killed Ulric Kerensky, a deed that could easily win him enough standing to claim the title of the Khan's Khan, the leader of all the Clans. The luster of Chistu's single combat with Ulric might let him eclipse Crichell when the Clan Council met on Strana Mechty to elect a new ilKhan. Ulric had opposed a repudiation of the ComStar truce and Vahn Chistu had killed him, making Chistu the logical choice to carry the war again to the Inner Sphere.

  Unless I can tell the true story of what happened here on Wotan. Were the truth about Ulric's death to come out, Chistu's hopes of becoming ilKhan would fare worse than Ulric had on Wotan. The other Khans would expel him from the Grand Council, and the Jade Falcon Council would surely strip him of his rank. If he was lucky they would assign him to a solahma unit. He would live out the rest of his days hunting bandits and other scum unworthy of a true warrior's attention. Most likely they will just kill him—the Falcons are rather inflexible in matters of honor.

  Chistu could not chance Vlad living to tell what he had seen. Any searchers would surely be coming with the intention of seeing that he never left the cockpit alive. His only chance of survival would be to neutralize the first people down into the hole, then escape before anyone on the surface could call for help. Vlad was sure the rescue team would be composed of relatively few people so that Chistu could preserve his secret.

  Light filtered down into his cockpit and played around. Vlad could see the round beams as they slashed across the cracked and holed viewports. That was a mistake. They had cleared enough debris that he would be able to get out if he somehow got free.

  The dangling tail of a rope descended through the hole in the canopy. "Star Captain Vladimir, can you hear me? This is Star Captain Marialle Radick. Are you hurt?"

  Vlad's eyes narrowed. Marialle Radick had been his partner in bringing treason charges against ilKhan Ulric in the Wolves' Clan Council. Ulric had even transferred her from the Sixteenth Battle Cluster to the Eleventh Wolf Guards for the war with the Jade Falcons. That she had survived the fighting did not surprise him—she was a good Mech-Warrior—but her participating in his rescue did puzzle him. Could we have won after all?

  "I am here, Star Captain."

  "I am coming down."


  "As you wish."

  "And unarmed."

  A faint tremor of fear ran through her reply. "As you wish, Star Captain."

  Vlad raised his left hand and gently pressed it over his left eye. That way any flash device they dropped would blind only one of his eyes, and he could still return fire when they came in. At his feet lay the gas mask from his survival kit. He could have it on before they could fill the cockpit with an anesthetic or irritant gas.

  The dangling rope danced a bit, then the silhouettes of two booted feet appeared on either side of the hole in his 'Mech's windscreen. A second later the canopy sagged, then peeled away and crashed against the interior of the cockpit. Vlad remained hidden and safe as dust billowed up in the small enclosure.

  "Are you unhurt? I did not expect it to collapse."

  "Keep coming."

  Marialle Radick lowered herself into the 'Mech's cockpit. Small and slender, wearing a dark jumpsuit that hugged her narrow waist, she looked more child than adult. Her blond hair had been gathered at the back of her head in a tight knot. Her amber eyes glowed gold in the light reflected from above. "Are you hurt?"

  "I have injuries, but none grave."

  She nodded. "I have a light, if you do not."

  "I have light, both focused and unfocused. I would prefer to use only the latter, but only after I have determined what the situation is outside. Today is the thirteenth, quiaff?"

  "Aff. Ulric died on the tenth."

  "I know. I saw him die."

  "But he died several miles north ... What are you doing here?"

  "Let me ask the questions, please." Vlad coughed lightly. "And I assure you I am in my right mind—I suffered no head injuries. Did we carry the day?"


  "And there have been no reprisals against the Wolves?"

  "There was a Ritual of Abjuration carried out against those of our brethren who retreated from Wotan and those who fled with Khan Phelan."

  "Abjuration." Holding that ritual made sense because it exiled all those who had fled. Abjuration was seldom invoked, and then only in the case of gross cowardice or dereliction of duty. An abjured warrior surrendered his bloodname, if he had one,
and any chance of his genetic material becoming part of the Clan's breeding program.

  Vlad would not have pursued abjuration against the fleeing Wolves because he would not want to relinquish jurisdiction over those who had gone to the Inner Sphere. At some point in the future it might be possible to bring them back into the fold, but after abjuration that would be difficult. The ritual was held prematurely. Another sign my leadership is needed.

  "Abjuration was believed to be the best choice, given the circumstances. The Wolves defeated at Morges will be in no way associated with us."

  "That would not do." Phelan and a goodly number of Wolves had run for the Inner Sphere. They faced Jade Falcons on a world known as Morges. Vlad was not as confident as Marialle of the Wolves' defeat, but preventing backlash caused by the fighting on Morges was a wise idea.

  "Who sent you to find me, Star Captain?"

  "Standard salvage detail. Aerial survey picked up a lot of battle damage in this area. The way this building had collapsed did not suggest bomb damage, so we were sent out to check."

  "You weren't sent here to kill me?"

  "Kill you?" She blinked in astonishment. "We didn't even know it was you until we uncovered enough of your cockpit to see that this was a Timber Wolf assigned to the Eleventh Guards. Your name is stenciled on the side."

  Is Chistu that stupid? "Star Captain, I am going to turn on my light." Vlad scraped the flashlight taped to the barrel of his laser pistol against the edge of the command couch. The button clicked on and he pointed it at her. "Freebirth!" he cursed.

  "What is it?"

  The woman at whom he pointed his laser wore a green jumpsuit with Jade Falcon insignia on the shoulders. He recognized her face and form, for he knew Marialle Radick well, but seeing her dressed in the emerald green of a Jade Falcon warrior threw him utterly. He almost pulled the trigger, then he raised the gun and hid her in darkness again.