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Lost destiny, Page 2

Michael A. Stackpole

  Above him two gulls fought over the eyeball one of them had plucked from the death's head in the cockpit.

  * * *

  Kai's immediate impulse was to pull all the dead pilots— friend and enemy alike—from their 'Mechs and burn them in a huge pyre to keep the birds from feasting on them. No matter his desire, the task was impossible. Not only would it require more strength than he had right now, but the fighting had consumed everything combustible for kilometers in every direction.

  He also knew that a pyre would tip off Clan patrols in the area that at least one person had survived the battle. As that warrior would not have reported in to them, they would know he was not Clan, and the chase would be on.

  Kai wanted to hate the gulls, but he knew they were simply scavenging to survive. And with those glittering pinpricks in the night sky going away from, rather than coming into Alyina, he was going to have to start doing his own scavenging to survive. The Clans had defeated the Tenth Lyran Guards, trapping Kai so deeply behind enemy lines that escape back to his side was unimaginable. His only salvation would be if a rescue mission were sent back for him. Twenty years ago Hanse Davion dispatched the Lions of Davion to pull my father off Sian. But then this isn't Sian, and the Clans are not as stupid as Maximilian Liao.

  His spirits sank even further. And I am not my father. No rescue mission is coming for me. I'm on my own.

  That realization might have driven some to contemplate suicide, but it fired Kai with the fierce will to survive. I've already blown my mission, and my 'Mech is trapped on the ocean floor by another 'Mech lying across its chest. At the very least, they probably presume me "missing in action"— and more than likely dead. Determined not to further dishonor his family and friends by getting captured, he resolved to avoid that possibility with the last ounce of breath in his body.

  Like the gulls flying above him and the feral dogs howling off in the night, he searched the battlefield for whatever he might use. He pried open a storage locker in the rear of one Wolverine cockpit, and pulled out an olive drab jumpsuit. It had belonged to Dave Jewell, a member of Victor's command lance. The legs were too long because Jewell had been taller than Kai, but that mattered little now. Using his knife, Kai slit the leg seams so he could still wear his 'Mech boots, and he kept on the cooling vest beneath the jumpsuit.

  The locker also yielded some survival rations, which Kai slipped into the small rucksack hanging from a hook next to a web belt and gun. The pistol, a Mauser and Gray M-39 needier, felt good in his hand as he checked it out and loaded it with a block of ballistic polymer. As he strapped the belt on, he took in some of the slack to make it fit snugly around his narrow waist.

  At the bottom of the locker, Kai found a small packet containing two holodisks, a hologram, and a small verigraphed card. The holograph worked into the fabric of the card showed the smiling faces of two children, a boy and girl who looked several years apart in age. Kai looked at the childlike scrawl in which the message was written and realized that the children had composed a prayer-poem to keep their father safe in combat. It was signed, "Katrina and David, Jr."

  The hologram showed a slender, attractive woman holding a baby in her arms. Seeing it, Kai remembered Jewell bragging that his wife, Katherine, had recently given birth to their third child, Kari Lynn. Not even five months old. A shiver ran down his spine. "She never even had a chance to meet her father."

  Kai looked over at the body hanging half out of the command couch's restraining straps. He slipped the soldier's dog tags from around the man's broken neck and dropped them into the packet, which he tucked into the rucksack. He brushed one hand across the name emblazoned on the breast of the jumpsuit he'd appropriated.

  "I promise to get these things back to your children, David Jewell. I will let them know you bought Victor Davion's freedom with your life."

  Kai crawled from the cockpit and shouldered the rucksack. Glancing up at the night sky, he could no longer see the DropShips heading out of the system. "Well, I'm about three hundred light years from home and I don't have a good pair of walking boots. The Clans own Alyina and I doubt shooting one of their foot soldiers with this needle pistol would do much more than get him angry." He shook his head. "You've really gone and done it to yourself this time, Kai."

  A worse thought followed. On Outreach, they had counted him among the best MechWarriors facing the Clans. If he was in this much trouble now, what hope could there be for the Inner Sphere?


  JumpShip Dire Wolf, Out-transit Orbit

  Satalice, Wolf Clan Occupation Zone

  17 January 3052

  Phelan Wolf watched his charge, Ragnar Magnusson, wrestle with the contradictions inherent in the Clan invasion of the Inner Sphere. "Yes, Aleksandr Kerensky left the Inner Sphere more than three hundred years ago to remove his army from the internecine battling that had torn the Star League apart. He wanted to keep them safe from the nationalistic sentiments that were bringing the members of the Star League into conflict with one another. You can see the wisdom of that, Ragnar, quiaff?"

  The small, blond-haired youth frowned. "But you said his attempt to keep his own people at peace failed. They started fighting among themselves, and it took Kerensky's son Nicholas and a cadre of loyalists to reunite the army. And the Clans stayed away from the Inner Sphere because Nicholas taught them that their job was to protect the Inner Sphere, not mix in its fights and politics. If this is true, why'd they return?"

  "Speak properly! No contractions!" Running his fingers back through his brown hair, Phelan ended with a weary scratching at the back of his neck. "Only some of the Clanfolk, the ones called Wardens, still believe in protecting the Inner Sphere." He stretched and stood up, beginning to pace in his narrow cabin. "The others, who call themselves Crusaders, believe the Inner Sphere is rightfully their home and they are coming back to lay claim to it."

  "That's nonsense." Ragnar's blue eyes flashed. "They abandoned the Inner Sphere. What right have they to claim the Inner Sphere as their own?"

  Phelan smirked slightly. "The same right your people invoked in claiming Rasalhague a free nation even while under the domination of the Draconis Combine."

  Ragnar opened his mouth to reply, but Phelan saw his charge hesitate as he mentally calculated where this argument would take him. Ragnar shook his head, knowing that a dispute over who had what rights to what slice of the Inner Sphere was a fight he would lose. "But you have told me that the ilKhan, Khan Ulric of the Wolf Clan, is a Warden. Why is he pushing this invasion?"

  As Ragnar spoke, he tugged at the circlet around his right wrist as if the braided white cord irritated him. Phelan remembered how his own bondcord had annoyed him in his time as a bondsman of the Wolf Clan. He also recalled with pride his adoption ceremony into the Wolf Clan Warrior-Caste, during which the hated cord had been cut off. He let a grin slide across his face at the memory, and Ragnar's expression darkened.

  "It is true, Prince of Rasalhague, that the ilKhan is a Warden, yet he pushes this invasion. As you heard him tell the Primus of ComStar, the goal of the invasion has ever been the conquest of Terra, the former seat of the Star League. The Khan whose warriors take Terra will become ilKhan for all time, and his Clan elevated above all others." Phelan raised his head proudly. "When that happens, the ilKhan can order a cessation of all hostilities and begin to rebuild what has been destroyed."

  Ragnar's eyes narrowed into a fierce frown. "You obviously love this war of conquest. How is it that you, a cousin of the Davion heir, have come to embrace the Clans and their brutish ways?" He opened his hands in a gesture that took in the spartan cabin to which Phelan had been assigned. "You were once a mercenary, so I assume they bought you, but with what? This opulence? That woman, Ranna? What was your price, Kell-Wolf, or whoever you are?"

  Even before Ragnar could finish speaking, the cabin door opened to admit a flame-haired warrior-woman. As ever, she did not hesitate to speak. "His price, Prince Ragnar, is the same one you may be asked to pay. I
f one has the goal of preventing as much destruction as possible, he must decide how to accomplish it. One may decide, as did you, to fight until defeated, and then to go on fighting, yet accomplish nothing."

  Ragnar was not cowed. "Or, Colonel Natasha Kerensky, you could become a quisling like Phelan and lead the enemy against your own people. It was Phelan who gave Gunzburg to the Clans!"

  "And did it without a shot being fired. No one died when that world changed hands, Ragnar." Natasha's cerulean eyes sparked with anger. "Not only did he save lives in taking that world by himself, but it sent his stock soaring among Clan Warriors. It makes him a man of great influence, and that influence can be used to slow this juggernaut."

  The little prince blanched at the heat of Kerensky's words. He looked down at the floor and blushed. Phelan, aware that it was something more than Ragnar's statements angering her, faced his superior. "Natasha, what is wrong? What has happened?"

  The woman known as the Black Widow let her shoulders sag disconsolately. Phelan felt an immediate desire to comfort her, but refrained for fear of disturbing her dignity. "I have news you will welcome, Phelan, and news that, I believe, will sadden you."

  A million horrible thoughts ran through Phelan's mind, but he dismissed them immediately. He knew, given the Clans' abrupt break with ComStar, that no word could have come to him regarding his family back in the Inner Sphere. He had already seen reports concerning the Smoke Jaguars and Nova Cats' losses in the battle for Luthien. Both he and Natasha had shared secret smiles concerning the success of their old units—the Kell Hounds and Wolf's Dragoons, respectively—in defending the capital of the Draconis Combine. Neither had seen casualty reports concerning the mercenary units to which they had belonged before the coming of the Clans, but they were confident their friends and kin had survived the fray.

  Unable to puzzle out what might be distressing Natasha, Phelan waved her to a chair. "What is it?"

  She exhaled slowly. "Cyrilla Ward is dead."

  "What?" Cyrilla was the matriarch of the House of Ward, the Bloodname family to which Phelan belonged. The last time he'd seen her, which had been just before the Clans resumed their advance the previous September, she had seemed healthy and hearty despite being in her early seventies. Ever since his adoption into the Warrior Caste, the white-haired woman had instructed and encouraged Phelan in the ways of the Clans. The idea of her death was, for him, inconceivable.

  Natasha drew a holodisk in a clear plastic envelope from one of her black jumpsuit pockets. "She recorded this for you. It just arrived in a shipment from Strana Mechty."

  Taking the disk from Natasha, Phelan noticed her hand was trembling. "Natasha, I know Cyrilla was your close friend and that the two of you were raised in the same sibko. Though I only knew her for a short time, Cyrilla was my lifeline in the Clans."

  The woman nodded solemnly. "She still is, Phelan."

  "I do not understand."

  Natasha stood and smoothed the breast of her jumpsuit. 'The holodisk will explain it all." She glanced at Ragnar. "Come with me, Princeling. Phelan will want to view this disk alone, so let us find you something to do that will annoy Vlad and Conal Ward."

  Phelan looked at the disk, then his head came up again. "Wait, Natasha, how did she die?"

  The Black Widow shook her head. "We will talk after you have seen the holodisk." She sighed wearily. "Watch it twice or even three times. Remember that she believed in you and in Ulric's vision for the Clans. That thought is just about the only thing that makes any of this even remotely sane."

  Phelan waited for the door to close behind Natasha and Ragnar before slipping the disk from its sheath and putting it in the viewer. As he settled down in a chair, he wasn't sure he wanted to watch it. How strange to receive a holovid from someone who is dead. It is like a letter from a ghost.

  From static, the disk focused the screen into the smiling face of a white-haired woman. She stared straight out at Phelan, and for the barest of moments, he was certain Natasha was mistaken. Cyrilla had to be alive because no one with such vitality could succumb to death. Unbidden, Phelan returned her smile, yet the ache of her loss had already begun in his heart.

  "I hardly wish to be melodramatic, Phelan Wolf, but I fear I must. If you are viewing this, Natasha has informed you of my death. Please, do not mourn or grieve for me because I did not suffer. I did not linger. My death came cleanly and I departed this world with only one regret. Unfortunately, that regret concerns you."

  Her expression shifted to one that Phelan knew well from her countless lectures on the rites and customs of the Clans. "You know that the name Ward is one of those accorded the honor of being a Bloodname because Jal Ward fought alongside Nicholas Kerensky during the war of reunification. You also know that, of all those in the Ward bloodlines, only twenty-five warriors may claim the right to call themselves Ward at any one time. Only by defeating all other claimants to a name may a warrior win that right, and with his victory also comes a seat in the Clan Council and eligibility for election as a Khan of the Clan.

  "I had great hopes for seeing you win your Bloodname, Phelan. Your service to the ilKhan, your conquest of Gunzburg, and your capture of the heir to the throne of Rasal-hague all mark you as a Warrior more than worthy of the honor of a Bloodname. Your actions have guaranteed you a berth among the twenty-four claimants chosen by members of the House of Ward. Another seven will be selected by a committee overseen by the Loremaster. In this case, that is Conal Ward and he is no friend of yours. Even so, you will not have to battle through the preliminary contest to win the thirty-second spot, so your chances in the Trial of Bloodright should be good."

  Cyrilla's face knotted with consternation. "At least, that is what I had assumed concerning your chances in the next Bloodname contest. Now I have learned that certain parties, Crusader parties, are dead-set against your ever winning a Bloodname. As Vlad suggested when he tried to kill you in your testing on Strana Mechty, Conal Ward and others would openly welcome your death. Whereas we are not given to assassination, it is entirely possible that, as your fame grows, you might be left to your own devices on a battlefield and die of neglect.

  "I have no reservations about your ability to handle yourself in battle, and I am proud of all you have accomplished. I know you can and will accomplish yet more, but if your wisdom is to help guide the Clans, you must be able to give il voice in the Clan Council. That means you must fight to win a Bloodname, and events dictate that you must do so very soon."

  Cyrilla sighed and shook her head. "So far this invasion has not resulted in the death of anyone with a Ward Blood-name for which to fight. That reflects well on the Warriors of the House of Ward, but it leaves me with only one choice: the name for which you shall fight will be mine."

  A lump rose in Phelan's throat and his stomach seemed to plummet into a bottomless pit. "No!" he cried. "You can't have done this! Not for me!"

  Cyrilla's expression became somber. "I would have preferred to die fighting against the Smoke Jaguars, much as Natasha and I had vowed to do so long ago. I would have settled for hunting down bandits, but all available Wolf Clan forces are in the invasion, and no one will give an old woman a 'Mech. Do not worry, though, for I have seen many before me do what I must do, so I shall know how to do it correctly and cleanly."

  Cyrilla continued, forcing a smile again. "I have declared, in my will, that you are the designated heir to my Bloodname. That decree has the force of law among us, and even Conal would not dare try to cheat you of your inheritance. I have also arranged that if you and Vlad are to meet in the contest, it will only be in the final battle. This will give you time to study his methods. If there is any justice in the universe, someone from the Inner Sphere might rid you of him even before it comes time to fight him.

  "Phelan, none of my gene children have excelled, which has made me feel like a dead end for the House of Ward until you came to us. You are my child, a Child of the future. With Ulric and Natasha, you will be one to lead the Clans int
o a new future where we can recognize our full potential—as warriors and as human beings."

  She looked out at him with a satisfied expression. "Do not mourn me, Phelan Wolf. Rather, make me proud of you."

  The screen's image dissolved into fragments of white and gray, then went black. Phelan continued to stare at it, hoping and praying for something more, something that would tell him what he had seen was false. He knew that among the Warrior Caste, a Warrior was considered too old at the age of thirty-five. From that point on, his role was to raise and train new generations of Warriors. Many decided to take their own lives when they considered themselves no longer useful.

  Not Cyrilla. Involving herself in the politics of the House of Ward, she became its head and skillfully brokered power in the Clan Council. She approved or negotiated exchanges of DNA with other Clans in an attempt to strengthen the House of Ward bloodline. Her life had meaning and use beyond what a member of the Warrior Caste could normally expect. For her to die, for her to kill herself ...

  Phelan's mind rebelled at the frustrating stupidity of it all. Natasha, Jaime Wolf, and even his own father, Morgan Kell, had long ago proved that MechWarriors were not washed up after their mid-thirties. And he knew hundreds of other warriors from the Inner Sphere who didn't consider a Mech-Warrior dry behind the ears until he'd seen ten years in a cockpit, which would certainly put the warrior beyond his prime by Clan standards.

  Though Phelan knew the Clan system was madness, the Clan's overwhelming success in invading the Inner Sphere also marked them as the finest warriors. He might have wanted to dismiss their ability as due to the advantage of superior technology, but he also knew their training was far more rigorous and demanding than that undergone by Inner Sphere warriors. Still, his own success in joining the ranks of the Wolf Clan Warriors pointed out that their way was not the only way.