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Author Topic: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little  (Read 33418 times)

drakensis

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #300 on: 04 December 2022, 01:45:22 »
Chapter 4

Nagelring, Tharkad
Protectorate of Donegal, Lyran Commonwealth
20 January 3024


Sitting in a coffee shop, hands wrapped around a mug of hot chocolate, Max was staring into the middle-distance when he was greeted. He hadn’t been this stressed since Frederick recruited him in 3007. Dieron hadn’t been this bad. Helm hadn’t been this bad, even when Donna was pointing a gun at him!

“Uncle Max.” The face of the young man who dropped into the chair facing him reminded him very much of Donna Steiner. “What’s wrong?”

“A whole heaping lot of everything,” Max responded. “It shows?”

“You look like hell,” Ryan Steiner told him bluntly. The young man poured some sweetener into his coffee. “Not that I’m not glad to see you.”

Ryan was Frederick’s nephew, not Max’s, but they’d known each other off and on since the young Steiner was a toddler. Max still had a sneaking suspicion that Donna had coached her young son to call Max his uncle as part of her long-running claim that Max and Frederick were the next best thing to a married couple.

“How’s the Nagelring treating you?” he asked. Ryan wasn’t wearing his cadet uniform, since he was on one of his few breaks from the intensive training as an aerospace training, but he was wearing academy branded sportsgear. There were a fair number of other young people in the coffee shop wearing the same sort of thing - some with the physique of people who were being put through the wringer by academy DIs and some that were obviously hoping for the same mystique without putting in the work.

The young man shrugged. “I preferred Sanglamore. The classes weren’t any easier, but there were fewer people wanting to latch onto the Steiner name.”

“Really?”

Ryan held his thumb and forefinger a few millimeters apart. “About this much difference. Plus I’ve a friend there I can only talk to by HPG now. It’s kind of mean to expect her to pay the ComStar bills for regular contact.” A trivial expense for a duke-in-waiting, but Skye to Tharkad costs would stack up, even for plain text messages, if the young lady in question didn’t have the same deep pockets. “What brings you to Tharkad? I thought you’d pretty much settled down on Duran. On your way to join Uncle Frederick?”

“No, I’m busy beating my head against the stone walls of the Triad.” Max rubbed his eyes. “I’m looking into something for him, but no one is willing to talk to me. Most of my clearances got yanked when I stopped following Frederick into combat zones.”

“That sucks.” The younger blond sipped from his coffee. “I wish I could help, but I can’t even put you in touch with Mom - she’s off touring border worlds shilling aerospace fighters to their militias. A favor for Aunt Katrina.”

“...well that explains why she wasn’t answering my calls,” Max grumbled. “I didn’t know that and her house staff wouldn’t tell me.”

Ryan snorted. “You’re kidding? Who did you speak to?”

“Ge-something. I want to say Jeeves but I know that’s not it…”

“Gerrold,” the cadet concluded. “He’s new and he’s kind of stuck up. I’ll have a word with him. He’s probably never heard of you.”

“My low profile coming back to bite me.” Max sighed and sipped on his chocolate. “I didn’t just set up meeting you for the pleasure of your company, Ryan. Or to try contacting your mother.”

“Don’t worry.” Ryan looked him up and down. “You’re not my ideal date either.”

Catching sight of himself in one of the mirrors on the wall, Max smirked. At Ryan’s age, a balding man in a rumpled suit wouldn’t have been his first choice either. “Would that be the lady friend at Sanglamore?”

“Shut up,” Ryan hissed, but the tips of his ears were red. “Jeana’s a good friend.”

“I’m glad you have one. Unfortunately, I’m going to try leaning on you for inside information.”

“Ah, a Class C threat. You’re not out to kill me and you’re not out to become duchess of Porrima. I feel so much safer.”

“In this case,” Max admitted, “You’re pretty much the only Nagelring cadet I know since Caesar graduated.”

“Yeah, he’s got a lance with the Donegal Guards.” Ryan leant forwards. “Seriously, I know you wouldn’t ask if this wasn’t serious. What can I do for you?”

“You were at Caesar’s graduation dinner, right?”

“Yeah, I was just back from Skye. Why?”

Max put his mug down and folded his fingers. “I’m trying to find out what the hell happened with Ardan Sortek.”

Ryan winced. “Oh yeah. I don’t know what Aunt Katrina is thinking.”

“But you were at the Nagelring when it happened. I can’t get any details, can you tell me anything?”

“Well, I was there but I wasn’t there exactly… I mean, I was at the dinner but I wasn’t anywhere near the vaults.” The young pilot shook his head. “I… Okay, what I saw for myself was that Sortek was her escort for the dinner. You know, the way she usually has some in-favor dignitary escort her since uncle Arthur died. So he was sitting with her and the commandant. She’d welcomed me back from Skye the day before so I wasn’t getting pulled up close. You know she is about appearances.”

He nodded. “You were sat with continuing cadets, not the graduating class.”

“Exactly. Down the far end of the hall.” Ryan scratched his chin. “Anyway, they seemed to get on pretty well. I don’t know Sortek, but he’d just crushed the Seventeeth Skye. He wasn’t gloating or anything, very respectful. He made a toast to the graduates… made a little joke about how he wished them better luck if they wound up facing whoever Hanse Davion sends to the fourth games.”

“And afterwards?”

“I didn’t see any of it. There was a lockdown called part way through the after dinner reception,” Ryan told him. “Alarms had gone off at the vaults, but I didn’t know that. Everything else I know is second-hand.”

“That would still be more information than I’ve managed to get so far.”

“...you’re really out of the loop.”

“I had noticed,” Max said, trying not to sound bitter.

“Am I going to be in trouble for talking to you? I know Mom trusts you. Uncle Frederick obviously does and Aunt Katrina made you a baron, but there was a sort of low key directive not to talk about this.”

“And yet here we are.” Max gave him a sympathetic look.

The teenager took a swallow of coffee. “Mom always said she didn’t care for politics, but it’s kind of like following a radar contact when you don’t know if it’s friendly or not.”

“I’ll take your word for that.”

“What I heard,” Ryan said in a low voice, “Is that the alarm was from the biolocks. Sortek had the codes and when they caught him, he had an accomplice dressed up as the Archon. She was good enough to fool the guards, but the DNA scanner tripped her up. They were actually trying to argue that the lock must be broken when Aunt Katrina arrived and everything went pear-shaped… Are you okay?”

Max stared at him. “There were two of them?!”

“Uncle Max!”

He was about to ask what and then his mind alerted him to the sting of hot chocolate on his left hand. He swore and grabbed a napkin, having knocked his mug over and spilled the thankfully only lukewarm contents over his fingers. “Sorry, but there were two Katrinas?”

“Yes.” Ryan looked around guiltily, but no LIC agents sprang out to detain him for telling Max this. “What I heard was that Davion surgeons had created an imposter who could stand up to close scrutiny. For Aunt Katrina, that is. Sortek had a briefcase sized data-core with him, if they’d managed to get in then he could have walked away with ridiculous amounts of classified data.”

Doppelganger, Max thought numbly. It had been decades but he remembered something of the scenario. There it had been Davion scientists captured by the Capellans and used to create an imposter who replaced Hanse Davion. Was this why the Capellans were now making such progress in negotiations with Katrina? Or was this a Davion agent, having retained the technology and willing to risk the entire alliance with the Lyran Commonwealth for access to their lostech data?

As much as he wanted to assume the former, which would be a disaster, Max couldn’t rule the latter out. Hanse Davion was called ‘the Fox’ with good reason, and obtaining the data to rebuild his realm’s losses was a core goal of his. For years the Lyran court had essentially paid for Davion support with a regulated flow of data, it wasn’t inconceivable that someone might have suggested taking the whole pie.

Sortek wouldn’t have stood for that, but if the biolocks hadn’t triggered, he’d have had little reason to doubt Katrina making him a gift of more data than expected. He was too honest to doubt it. On the other hand, if it was the real Katrina captured, the locks changed to match the imposter…

Ryan reached over and shook his shoulder. “Uncle?”

Max focused on the younger man. “You’re sure about this.”

“It’s gossip,” Frederick’s nephew told him with a helpless shrug. “It’s what I heard, but I didn’t see it myself. I’m sorry, that’s all I can tell you.”

He nodded, still shaken. “You’ve been a huge help. If this is… if this is any of what I think it is, then things are pretty bad.”

“Is there anything more I can do? I can ask Aunt Katrina to meet you - family channels.”

Max considered it… dismissed it. If it was the real Archon then it would do little good and if it wasn’t, he’d be putting himself in her hands. “No offense, Ryan, but I think this is going to need someone more high power than either of us.”

Ryan made a face. “Aunt Nondi isn’t around, or Mom or Uncle Frederick. Are you thinking of Uncle Hermann.”

“No. Someone Katrina trusts even more than anyone you just mentioned.” Max pulled out his wallet and dropped some kroner on the plate that had held a serving of cake for while he waited for Ryan. Something to compensate the shop staff for the spill. “Keep your head down, Ryan. And good luck with your girl at Sanglamore.”

A protest of “It’s not like that!” followed him out of the coffee shop as he headed for his rented groundcar.

-

Mount Ripchuk, Sevren
Tamar Pact, Lyran Commonwealth
3 February 3024


The ground shook as hundreds of Battlemechs fought each other for control of Mount Ripchuck. Theodore Kurita could feel the vibrations even through the legs of his Hatamoto-Chi.

The Coordinator had considered going to war in the Orion he’d been given on his graduation, the same ‘mech that had carried him through his short military career… the ‘mech of Aleksandr Kerensky. But after Jaime Wolf had suggested - in jest, he hoped - trading Natasha Kerensky for the Orion, Theodore had decided the historical value outweighed the military use of the ‘mech. Besides, leading the operation in it would invite comparisons between himself and the SLDF’s greatest general… and he hadn’t quite the hubris to think he would match up to the legend.

He hadn’t taken Wolf’s offer either. If nothing else, he already had one lethally competent woman in his household and Natasha lacked Tomoe’s discretion. He’d left the Orion on Luthien, in trust for his son Martin when the boy grew up and instead taken another Hatamoto from the same production run that had yielded his gifts to the Warlords. It made him distinctive among the Otomo ‘mechs, but three other officers had been assigned Hatamoto-Chi so that he was less of a target.

Ahead of him, the First Drakons were heavily engaged with the Third Regiment of the Twelfth Star Guards. The mercenaries had little choice but to stand and fight against Aldus Bergen’s command - their base of operations was the LCAF base at the foot of the mountain. For all the traditional disdain for mercenaries, they were fighting fiercely against the former militia Theodore had assigned to learn from the Wolf Dragoons.

“I feared you would win no glory here, tono,” General Yodetobo offered from his Dragon, the general’s command company marching alongside Theodore’s Otomo escort. “But the Star Guards are managing well against the Drakons. It seems Bergen’s command has much to learn.”

Theodore’s eyes narrowed at the criticism. “He who ceases to learn has begun to die,” he observed, falling back on aphorisms. His father had done that with great effect, but he wasn’t confident of having the same impact.

Yotetobo hesitated at his response. “I see, tono. And the Drakons do not lack discipline or courage.”

In fact, Theodore thought that morale among the Drakons was high. They were drawn largely from Rasalhague natives, so returning to their home district with all expectations that they would be given the respect and opportunities long denied to the Rasalhague Regulars was fine motivation.

“All victories are to the glory of the Dragon,” he added as they closed to the weapons range of the melee between the other two regiments. “If I joined the deployment to Tamar, Warlord Samsonov might see that as a lack of confidence in him.”

The general was politically astute enough to see the logic of that… and not to comment on the fact that landing on Tamar might leave Theodore needing to take the blame for a failure there. He was untested as a commander, and would be up against the formidable Nondi Steiner. As glorious as defeating her would be, a loss would be problematic. Sevren was a good compromise: a chance for Theodore to gain some credit as a commander, without taking undue risks with the prospects of the Kurita dynasty.

And then there was no more time for conversation as the four battalions of the Seventh Sword of Light and Theodore’s own Otomo battalion crashed into the battle.

The Twelfth Star Guards had seen them coming, of course, but with the Drakons engaging them closely, it was impossible for most of them to withdraw without exposing their rear armor to punishing fire.

Theodore centered his cross-hairs on a battered looking Rifleman and fired off one PPC and then the second an instant later.

Both shots hit home and blasted away panels of armor on the chest of the lighter ‘mech. Before he could finish it, a pair of Drakon Jenners saw the opportunity and closed in on the Rifleman, lasers and SRMs exploiting the battle damage.

There was a burst of cursing the Sword of Light radio channels, and Theodore saw a crimson Quickdraw moving as if to drive the Jenner’s away.

Idiot! He bit back the curse. This wasn’t the time for screaming at his own officer. Swinging one arm around he fired a PPC across the field, the shot passing in front of the Quickdraw to score a hit on an Archer that was at the extreme end of the weapon’s range - most likely doing little more than burning paint off it.

The Quickdraw stutter stepped and he could almost see the occupant prepare to deliver a diatribe at the source of the shot, only to cut off at the realization it was from one of the Otomo’s black ranks.

“General Yodetobo, have your warriors focus on the enemy, not on their fellow samurai,” Theodore snapped on the private channel. “We are here to take this world, not to bicker over scoring kills.”

“Yes, tono.”

The Rifleman fell before Theodore could take another shot at it, but a Thunderbolt peppered him with LRMs as it backed away. He sidestepped an obviously telegraphed shot from the mercenary’s large laser and triggered both PPCs. Unlike his previous staggered shots, this built up heat enough to leave him sweating.

It did more to the Thunderbolt though. The heavy ‘mech had already been battered by the Drakons and the PPCs hit the left chest hard enough to visibly smash one of the lasers mounted there.

Closing in, Theodore took hits from the remaining lasers but in exchange he landed another PPC hit on the damaged side of the Thunderbolt’s target and followed it up with salvos from both his SRM launchers. The Thunderbolt fell and while it wasn’t out of action, Theodore was comfortable leaving it to be finished off by lighter ‘mechs, staying at the forefront of the advance, where his heavy armor could soak up the fire from the retreating mercenaries.

There was no chance that three battalions was going to hold back eight and the Star Guards knew it. Within minutes the leading elements of the Seventh Sword of Light had broken through the rear ranks and Theodore was about to do the same when the mercenaries abruptly split and retreated, all but a scattering of those too damaged, bravely dying to buy time for their comrades to try to escape.

General Bergen cut into the command channel. “Tono, the Star Guards are making for their dropships.”

“Hunt them down!” demanded Yodetobo.

“Indeed, General Yodetobo,” Theodore inserted his instructions. “Take command of the pursuit while General Bergen’s Drakons secure the base.”

“...hai,” Yodetobo agreed stiffly.

The Coordinator hid a sigh. “The Teak Dragon fought well, general. But the dragon has both fangs and claws. In this case the Drakons served as the claws holding the enemy in place so that you could devour them. Each of you deserves credit for this victory.”

“Indeed,” Bergen added. “The Drakons are honored that the guardians of the Combine’s culture share in our first battle honor.”

Yobetobo brought his Dragon to a halt and Theodore saw him turn the ‘mech to face the Goliath that Bergen commanded the Drakons from - distinctive since quadrupedal ‘mechs were very rare in the DCMS. The commander of the Seventh Sword of Light bent his ‘mech’s torso forward in a bow.

“No, General Bergen,” the Sword of Light officer declared. “It is we who are honored to fight alongside the Dragon’s newest heroes.”

He was either entirely sincere, or he was one hell of a liar, Theodore thought. Either way, he had spoken on the general channel and the Drakons spontaneously cheered the Seventh Sword of Light as the red-painted ‘mechs broke off to pursue the retreating Lyran mercenaries.

-

Wytheville, Donegal
Protectorate of Donegal, Lyran Commonwealth
14 February 3024


Even with access to military codes, Max didn’t think this was something he could trust to a comm call, but it would be rude to arrive unannounced, so he’d called ahead to request a meeting.

As he entered the drop-port concourse he was going to look for a taxi but someone was holding up a sign saying ‘Mustermann’. Paranoia told him that it could be a trap, but the man holding it when he gave it a second look was evidence to the contrary.

“Colonel Kell,” he greeted him, offering his hand.

Patrick Kell, little changed from when they’d met on Helm, shook his hand briskly. “Good to see you, Baron Mustermann. My brother’s eager to speak to you, so I thought I’d save you the trouble of arranging your own transport and quarters.”

“It’s appreciated.”

Max followed him to the car park, talking only of inconsequential matters until they reached a repainted military-grade staff-car - complete with a driver with a discreet Kell Hounds badge on his collar. They were taking this seriously, he realized. Good.

Patrick opened the door and climbed into the back with him. “No problems, Jones?”

“No sir, we should still be secure.”

The younger of the Kell brothers turned to Max. “You just came from Tharkad. I’m guessing that you or Duke Frederick think there’s something off there.”

“He asked me to look into the Sortek business. I think that might be just the tip of the iceberg.”

Patrick nodded. “I don’t know Katrina as well as Morgan does, but the way she’s handled that isn’t like her. And then there’s Aldo Lestrade’s bid to claim Skye… I’ve met the man. Katrina wouldn’t even consider him unless there was something going on.”

“I’m not rushing to disagree with you.” Max looked out of the window and saw they were driving to the edge of the city. “The sudden alliance with Liao puzzles me as well.”

“I’m not an admirer of House Liao, but I can’t deny that Maximilian Liao is effective,” the Kell Hound’s second-in-command admitted. “And there’s a certain amount of realpolitik in working with him against Marik the way we’ve co-operated against Kurita with the Davions.”

“They say that when a Liao is born the gods toss a coin - if it lands on one side they get a genius, on the other it’s a madman. I think with Maximilian it must have landed on the edge.”

Patrick snorted. “I could believe it. He’s reigned the longest out of the current Successor Lords though. Genius or madman, he’s not incompetent.”

Max grunted. “I heard that Theodore Kurita is hitting Tamar, is that true?”

“I don’t think he’s on Tamar himself, but the DCMS has landed three regiments, and they’re hitting the worlds around it as well. Sevren fell in less than a week and if we lose Laurent as well, just reaching Tamar will mean running a gauntlet of hostile systems.”

“Are you being sent there?” he asked. Donegal was an important world, but it was deep inside the Commonwealth and could be covered by less elite units. The Kell Hounds were stationed here for six months of rebuilding after a series of raids on the bandit kingdoms along the coreward edge of the Commonwealth, but such deployments were also a matter of keeping a few crack regiments available to respond to situations like this one.

Patrick shook his head. “No. Trellshire and Ryde Theater are taking enough hits that they can’t really spare reinforcements, but Katrina’s last comment before she left Tharkad was that she had every confidence Nondi had enough regiments in Tamar Theater to deal with this.”

“Wait…” The incongruity of that statement was enough that Max needed a moment to process every part of it. “She’s left Tharkad? And she’s not reinforcing her sister?”

“Yes to the first, no to the second.”

“Nondi must be peeling paint.” Max muttered. “Where is Katrina going? What could be more important than potentially losing the capital of the Tamar Domains?”

The Lyran Commonwealth had been founded by three trading federations, the Federation of Skye, the Protectorate of Donegal and the Tamar Domains. Never as large as Donegal (which now formed four distinct provinces) or as wealthy as Skye, Tamar had been shrinking for generations under pressure from the Draconis Combine, but it was still important politically and industrially. Losing control of Tamar itself would be a military disaster and a serious blow to Katrina’s credibility. The acquisition of Dieron and the impact it had had on the Draconis Combine had only recently demonstrated how serious such a loss could be to a Successor State.

Patrick ran one hand through his hair. “You’re not saying anything Morgan and I haven’t said. She’s decided to relocate to Skye to settle the succession personally. If Tamar wasn’t being assaulted, I could almost see the logic. Whatever’s stopping her from dismissing Lestrade’s claims with prejudice, if going to Skye solidifies Aten’s position then it would make sense. But Selwin Kelswa will never forgive her for not sending him reinforcements and you’re not wrong about Nondi’s likely reaction.”

Selwin Kelswa was the Duke of Tamar and not the brightest spark in Max’s opinion, but he also loathed the Draconis Combine on a visceral level after seeing firsthand how they dealt with conquered populations. “Did she say anything to justify not sending more troops?”

“Third party analysis says she’s worried about deep raids like the ones that followed from Alessandro stripping the interior worlds to launch his offensives.” Patrick shook his head. “But it makes no sense. The periphery border is tying up more regiments than it really needs to at the moment. She could pull a couple of second or third rate units back and cut us loose - or send the Third or Fourth Royal Guards out. After the losses on Dieron, I doubt the DCMS has any units with equipment like that.”

The car slowed as they reached a checkpoint and Max looked out at the signs, realizing they were entering the Kell Hounds’ current base of operations.

“Do you have any ideas what’s going on?” Patrick asked him.

“I do. It’s not such a happy one that I want to go through it more than once though.”

The groundcar stopped outside a utilitarian looking building and they exited. In the distance, Max could see the Kell Hounds’ own dropships, and beyond them the same outline of dropships he’d seen at the commercial port. The Hounds must be based next to the drop-port, sharing the support facilities he supposed.

Patrick ushered him inside and through a series of bustling offices where the familiar paperwork of managing the hundreds of soldiers and thousands of support staff that made up a military regiment was handled.

Morgan Kell was waiting in an office that had been personalized with a wall of pictures. Some were of Morgan in the company of various notables - Katrina herself, Frederick Steiner and Cranston Snord in another, but some were simple groups of Kell Hounds or of LCAF personnel. A few were discreetly edged in black.

The colonel himself was as dynamic as ever, leaping up from behind his desk to walk over and shake Max’s hand. Salome Ward Kell was quieter with her own greeting, the redhead visibly pregnant, with the result that her uniform jacket visibly couldn’t be closed up over the bump.

“Congratulations,” Max greeted her. “You’re expanding the family of one of the finest men in the Commonwealth.” He paused. “Granted, you’re married to his brother, but I guess they’re a package deal…”

Salome laughed and grabbed Morgan’s arm while the Colonel tried to look offended. “Hey…” the elder Kell said at last.

“Sorry, but Patrick covered my escape from the Stewart Home Guards on Helm. You were just kind of there.”

“Thank you, Max,” Patrick managed to choke out around his laughter. “But I’m afraid I’m strictly butter-side up.”

Max shrugged. “It’s a platonic admiration.”

“More seriously, you said in the car that you had some idea what was going on with Katrina.”

“I’ve got a theory. It’s kind of out there though.”

Morgan leant against his desk, one arm around Salome’s shoulders. “Go on.”

“When Ardan Sortek was arrested at the Nagelring it was because he was trying to enter the vaults, with a woman who claimed to be the Archon.”

The Kells nodded. “The biological security didn’t match her though.”

“I have to wonder if a biological check of the woman against Melissa would have confirmed a maternal relationship.”

Morgan frowned. “You think that was really Katrina?”

“I don’t know what checks were done,” Max admitted. “But if I wanted to insert an imposter in the place of the real Archon, I’d want her to pass every possible check - and if the data stored for the Nagelring’s bio-locks and other such checks was swapped out for an imposter’s, then it would automatically reject the real Katrina.”

“Is that even possible?” the elder Kell asked his brother.

Patrick shrugged. “The security is supposed to be airtight, but nothing made by human hands is beyond being altered if someone knows how. It has to be possible to update the data so if someone knew exactly what they were doing and had the right security. Simon Johnson’s very good though, it’d be incredibly difficult to get something like that past him.”

“I find it hard to believe that she could fool the people around her for months,” Morgan said thoughtfully. “Hermann’s known her his entire life and she’d have to fool Melissa! No one knows her better than Melissa, since Arthur died.”

“I really hope I’m wrong,” Max admitted. “But if she’s been replaced, it would explain why some of her decisions have been uncharacteristic.”

“And who would be behind this?” asked Patrick. “There would have to be a reason. And I refuse to believe that anyone could pull off an act like that without slipping. There are too many people around Katrina who know her.”

“As to the first, there are two people who have profited directly from her decisions,” Salome observed.

“Aldo Lestrade and Maximilian Liao,” her husband agreed, pulling a face. “I could believe either of them thinking something like this up. As for the execution, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how such an imposter could be created, but I imagine Liao has the resources. And Lestrade’s not exactly poor.”

“Or there’s ComStar.”

All three of the other people in the room gave Max a look. “ComStar?” asked Salome.

“They have their own factions and some of them are seriously upset that the Commonwealth is making progress in recovering lostech. They see that as their own Blake-given right. I’m not saying the Primus himself would try this, but if one of their radical factions got involved, they’d certainly have the computer and medical expertise.”

The three all looked skeptical and Max shrugged. “There were some suspicious intel leaks about both New Dallas and Helm,” he added. “But I’m speculating.”

“If - and I do mean if - you’re right, that leaves one other question,” Patrick said quietly. “Where is the real Katrina Steiner?”

Salome winced and rested one hand on her belly. “And someone has to get the answers. Someone named Kell, or am I wrong?”

Morgan looked down at her, conflicted. “Patrick can go back to Tharkad, Melissa would talk to him. And Hermann…”

“I hate to say it, but I don’t have the same level of respect there that you do,” his brother admitted reluctantly. “I know that you don’t want to leave Salome but you can cut through the bureaucracy and I can’t.”

“And if this isn’t Katrina then the Tamar situation is probably being neglected intentionally,” Salome added. “It could be an ISF plot as well. That being the case, can we really wait for orders?”

Morgan groaned. “I can’t go both ways. And we do have a contractual obligation to stay here. Even Katrina can’t cover for us playing fast and loose on that.”

“Our exact orders require at least one battalion to be here in Wytheville,” Salome corrected him. “The rest of the Kell Hounds can deploy for training anywhere we need to.”

“On Donegal,” Morgan pointed out.

“It doesn’t say that,” his wife corrected him. “Presumably in case we wanted to go handle Zero-G training, but as long as we keep three companies here, the rest of the Kell Hounds can deploy to Tamar. Live fire training against real Draconians.”

Patrick blinked. “I think you’re right. It’s not in line with the spirit of the contract, but it's the letter that matters.”

“You’re not going,” Morgan told Salome flatly.

“I know.” She rubbed her belly again. “Scott Bradley can take your battalion with Patrick to Tamar. And maybe a company from my battalion as well. I’ll stay here with two companies of ‘mechs and one of our jump infantry companies - that ticks the legal boxes. And you can go to Tharkad with Baron Mustermann and another infantry company.”

“...why do you want me to take an infantry company to Tharkad?”

“Because this might not end on Tharkad,” Salome warned him. “And I’d rather you have armed guards around you and not need them, than the other way around.”

Max nodded. “It’s sound reasoning. If there really is an imposter on the throne then Katrina is either dead -”

Both Kells tensed and Salome flinched as her husband’s hand gripped her tightly.

“- or she’s guarded somewhere. And in the latter case, Morgan and I probably won’t be enough to rescue her. This isn’t an Immortal Warrior holdvid.”

Morgan looked down at Salome. “One reason for taking this post was so I could be here for the happy day we become three.”

“I know. And if this wraps up on Tharkad, you might be back in a month or two.” She set her jaw. “But if it needs more, make sure that you fix this. I want our child to grow up in a Commonwealth we can believe in.”
"It's national writing month, not national writing week and a half you jerk" - Consequences, 9th November 2018

croaker

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #301 on: 04 December 2022, 02:12:50 »
After all, why doppel a mere Colonel when you can doppel the one in charge of all the recovered lostech goodies?

Daryk

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #302 on: 04 December 2022, 07:13:25 »
ComStar pulling a false flag would not be out of character at all...  8)

cawest

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #303 on: 04 December 2022, 11:06:41 »
let see someone is about to have a mad Kat, both Kell's (three if you count the wife), Fed, and Nondi looking at them.  ohhh that is not going to be good.  i sooooo cannot wait. 

Wrangler

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #304 on: 04 December 2022, 15:36:48 »
Damn that heck of a dramatic twist.
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Kujo

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #305 on: 04 December 2022, 16:45:07 »
let see someone is about to have a mad Kat, both Kell's (three if you count the wife), Fed, and Nondi looking at them.  ohhh that is not going to be good.  i sooooo cannot wait.

Also if I am reading it correctly a very 'motivated' Hanse Davion, Arden Sortek...  That is why it is better to deal with you enemies "honorably"(wars, stealing tech, messing up ops, and if things are truly bad offing key personnel, 'changing' the ruling family or government well that truly has repercussions when it fails)...  when an oppsie occurs they know you have been dealing with them 'honestly' and within boundaries.  There is a universe of difference between a Justin Allard screwing up the CCAF and a doppelgänger taking over the Fed Suns/ Lyran Com.  Your not only offing the king but 'eliminating' his/her line and history, so if you miss...

Though it maybe Lestrade who pays Charon the first coins of the 'realm' (Comstar and CC would consider him a knight or rook to be sacrificed as opposed to the 'king/queen' that a dopple Kat would be).  However with the Kells, Fred, Max (the 'good' one) and of course the Davions (know for their desire for retribution) C* and the CC wouldn't have it easy.  That's not including 'Mad Kat' who would bring a hell of her own, and most dangerous and likely most overlooked would be 'Mad Mel'.  I think Melissa could carry a grudge against C* and the CC all the while being quite the 'peacemaker' while very quietly undermining them and leading them down a primrose path of their destruction all the while profiting from it...
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mikecj

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #306 on: 04 December 2022, 16:59:31 »
Nicely done!  All the clues right there and I missed it.   :thumbsup:
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The Wobbly Guy

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #307 on: 04 December 2022, 20:10:46 »
Not difficult for Morgan to discover the doppelganger - he just needs to mention the Red Corsair.

The tricky part is in proving the fake to everybody else.

Btw, the Red Corsair story has never been fleshed out yet, right?

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #308 on: 04 December 2022, 20:41:43 »
Btw, the Red Corsair story has never been fleshed out yet, right?

This story is too early for the canon Red Corsair, who didn't show up until 3054.  Of course we don't know what's going on in the Homeworlds right now as a result of Kerlin Ward receiving Katrina's peace proposal besides how he wanted to keep it a secret.
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croaker

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #309 on: 04 December 2022, 20:53:02 »
This story is too early for the canon Red Corsair, who didn't show up until 3054.  Of course we don't know what's going on in the Homeworlds right now as a result of Kerlin Ward receiving Katrina's peace proposal besides how he wanted to keep it a secret.

WobblyGuy means the original Red Corsair, aka Katrina Steiner, not the Falcon Pretender to the name. Katrina adopted the moniker when she, Arthur Luvon, Morgan Kell, etc, were off in the Periphery hiding from Alessandro.

mikecj

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #310 on: 04 December 2022, 22:30:11 »
and when they found the Black Box
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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #311 on: 05 December 2022, 09:04:39 »
WobblyGuy means the original Red Corsair, aka Katrina Steiner, not the Falcon Pretender to the name. Katrina adopted the moniker when she, Arthur Luvon, Morgan Kell, etc, were off in the Periphery hiding from Alessandro.

Thanks!  Just shows how much of a Clan Invasion Era guy I am  :))
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drakensis

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #312 on: 06 December 2022, 02:26:12 »
Chapter 5

Shore of the Shallow Sea, Zosma
Border Protectorate, Free Worlds League
8 March 3024


“We have an ID on the inbound forces, sir.”

Frederick sat up from where he’d been resting his eyes at the back of the command van. Not napping - the difference was that if he was going to do that he’d go somewhere his snoring wouldn’t disturb the men at work. Sleeping when he could was a long practiced habit on campaign but eyestrain was a new issue. Maybe the holotank in the van needed tuning, he thought. Some of his staff had been rubbing their eyes a lot and it was a new unit.

“Talk to me,” he grunted as he shuffled past two of the techs to look over the shoulder of the man at the aerospace ‘desk’ (actually a console built into one wall of the van).

The man indicated a still shot of two dropships, poor quality and blurry. “A recon flight got close enough to take this.” He tapped a control and brought up a second image. “Markings match and there’s a disabled autocannon turret on this Overlord. Unless someone’s deliberately faking that, it’s the same dropship.”

“And that would be…?” Frederick led him.

“Ah, sorry sir.” The man must have been tired. “It’s Smithson’s Chinese Bandits.”

“Could be worse,” Frederick thought. Hansen’s Roughriders had been sent to take over the work of garrisoning Oliver, something that was well within their capabilities now that the Twenty-Fifth Marik Militia had been bottled up on just one of the planet’s three continents. That had let Frederick shift focus to Alula Australis and then push on to Zosma with the Eleventh Lyran Regulars and the Commonwealth Jaegers. Given the enthusiasm for the removal of the provincial government by those they had ruled, the Thirty-Second Lyran Guards weren’t going to need much longer to finish mopping up resistance on Alula Australis.

That made Zosma the critical point of the campaign - the Iron Guard and Steel Guard regiments were clinging to the last world of the Border Protectorate and the numbers were about even. The Chinese Bandits were mercs, a regiment that had fought for Janos Marik against his brother and more recently had been under contract with House Davion. Their arrival on Zosma would swing the balance of numbers against Frederick’s offensive, but not disastrously.

“Good work. When did you last get any sleep, son?” he asked the tech.

“I caught some zees yesterday, sir.”

Frederick patted his shoulder. “Make sure you get a good six-to-eight. We might be running ragged until the Red Arrows arrive.”

The general went over to his own seat and started drafting instructions to the Jaegers. It was pretty much guaranteed that the Protectorate Guards would push for a counter-offensive as soon as the Bandits tipped the numbers back in their favor. While the Eleventh Regulars could stall that, he’d need the Jaegers’ mobility to prop up the tanks and infantry so that they could prevent the League from bringing their ‘Mechs fully to bear.

That meant less raiding and it would let the Protectorate get their defenses back in order, but that was inevitable. And while the forces were slowing him down, they weren’t reinforcing the Sirians. That was good for the alliance.

“Sir?”

He looked up at the questioning tone and saw Kommandant Clark Alexander, his supply officer, had entered the command van. Usually the bearded officer occupied his own van, tackling the complex logistics of the task force. “Ah, I was going to visit you shortly,” he admitted. “Is something wrong?”

“It could be better, sir.” Alexander glanced around. “This is probably best discussed privately.”

Frederick could almost imagine Max muttering, ‘Well, that wasn’t ominous.’ Alexander wouldn’t be asking for privacy if he was delivering good news. “Alright, let’s step outside.”

It was late winter on Zosma - at least in this hemisphere - but it was still hot and dry. The planet wasn’t any great prize - two small oceans on a world continent, with large rocky deserts dotted with mining sites old and new. Frequent earthquakes and other volcanic activity allegedly brought fresh mineral wealth to the surface, or that was what the summaries had claimed. It sounded fishy to Frederick, but he wasn’t a geologist.

“What’s on your mind, Kommandant?” he asked.

Alexander folded his arms defensively. “Our next supply shipment is only going to be around sixty percent of our requests in some categories.”

Biting back the urge to snap at the man, Frederick gave him a searching look and made a ‘go on’ gesture.

“We’re getting the armor and munitions, but Wyatt report they’re low on spare parts our techs need for various repairs. It’s going to mean some ‘mechs and tanks won’t be fully operational until at least the next shipment, and putting salvaged gear back into service will be significantly impaired.”

Frederick hissed between his teeth. That was definitely not going to do morale good. “Is that the only category?”

“A little lower on medical supplies than I like, but we’re not low in that regard. And if we don’t hang on to the diesel refinery, they warned that it’ll be a month until they can send a tanker dropship.”

Shipping fuel interstellar wasn’t really very efficient, Frederick noted. Sometimes it was necessary, but thankfully the Pattons and Rommels that made up the bulk of his armored punch had fusion reactors. “What happened, did the parts get shipped to Tamar?” As little as he liked losing supplies, he’d not begrudge them to Nondi Steiner. The LCAF was barely clinging to Laurent and, while Tamar was holding well against Warlord Samsonov, if Theodore Kurita cut the supply lines through Laurent the situation would be dire.

But Alexander shook his head. “Colonel Ridzik requested use of some of our stores, sir.”

“Ridzik?!” Frederick clenched his teeth. “That…” He forced himself not to curse out the Capellan in front of Alexander. Privacy only went so far. “Doesn’t he have his own supplies?”

“For most things, yes. I believe he’s primarily requested parts for designs that the Capellan Confederation no longer builds.” The supply officer shook his head. “Shadow Hawks, for example. They’re fielded by everyone but there are only a couple of places that build them. My guess is that either the Capellans are also building fewer parts for them that we thought.”

“That or someone in the Capellan supply chain is shorting him.” I don’t know enough about Capellan service politics, Frederick thought. Ridzik’s ambitious - Max said he seduced the Chancellor’s wife and was considering a coup a few years from now. Or maybe I’m overthinking it: Ridzik might not need the parts, he just wants them. “Who authorized the shipment? It’s hard enough to get supplies for us at times, and we’re in the same service. How did Ridzik manage it?” A stern letter to whoever authorized it might prevent any repetition.

The supply officer shrugged. “The orders to release supplies to him came from the top.”

“Mount Asgard?”

“No sir. The very top.”

Frederick felt a chill. Katrina and he had their differences, but for her to stint her own soldiers… Max may be onto something. The message he’d received was short - it had to be to get past ComStar - but the suggestion that Katrina might have been replaced was nightmarish.

For a moment, Frederick considered withdrawing from Zosma and heading for Skye. If he confronted Katrina… but there was no evidence. And yielding the initiative to the FWLM would let them unravel all the progress made - abandoning people who’d accepted Lyran citizenship and his offers of protection from the provincial authorities. And the CCAF offensive would be left hanging, which might not be his first concern but if Max was wrong he could be offending the only ally that the Lyran Commonwealth had right now, just as Marik and Kurita were acting in concert.

One step at a time, he thought and forced himself to take long, slow breaths.

“Alright, there’s nothing we can do about that,” he decided. “Look at sending salvage we can’t repair back home in supply ships - they may be able to do more on Wyatt than we can here and it at least frees up techs for handling ongoing battle damage. Munitions and armor are the biggest users and we’re not being shorted there?” The lifeblood of any campaign, if those ran out then he’d have no choice but to retreat.

“No sir,” Alexander confirmed. “At least so far, that’s coming through.”

“That’ll do for now. However, I don’t think we should let Colonel Ridzik think that he can have things all his own way.” Frederick rubbed at the scar on his forehead. “The Capellans do build some things we don’t, right?”

“Yes sir. The Vindicator, for example.”

“Right, they’re pretty restrictive on exporting spare parts for those.” It wasn’t quite the Company Store approach, that mercs detested, but mercenary units which had salvaged Vindicators or been given the mechs as compensation for losses generally found themselves needing to strike sharp bargains with Capellan authorities or have the parts custom-made at a sharp mark-up in cost. Frederick remembered a few years ago that a merc unit departing Lyran space had received barely functional Vindicators as the replacements they were entitled to under their contract - getting the units off LCAF inventory but essentially forcing the company to sign up with the Capellans just to get their ‘new’ ‘mechs working.

“Notoriously so, sir. And while they’re not the only source of parts for the Locust or the Wolverine, we don’t build those domestically.”

“Alright, Alexander. Get in touch with some of your colleagues and get a feel for how many ‘mechs and tanks are sitting around in militia hands, needing repairs, that the Capellans could provide parts for when we can’t. And then write up a request to Ridzik that the Capellans match our generosity by providing those parts. I’ll sign it and we’ll forward it to him and to the Chancellor and Archon. If they come up with those parts, at least we’re getting paid for supporting the offensive. If not, it should at least let us know that the Capellans aren’t going to hold up their end of the alliance.”

Alexander nodded. “It may take a week or two just to get numbers together, via HPG.”

“It’s not as if we’ll get those supplies soon anyway. It’ll let Ridzik know we’re not a soft touch though, and that’s the best we can get out of this.” Frederick rubbed his eyes and looked around the headquarter encampment. The were getting pretty dug in - better relocate before Marik figures out where I am and sends headhunters, he thought. “How are we holding up otherwise?”

“Pretty well, sir. We’re sourcing locally for food and quality of life goods. Checking them for sabotage is a pain, but it’s saving us space in shipping and putting money into the local economy isn’t hurting relations.”

“Good. We’re going to be fighting here for a while, so good relations are going to be important.” Most border worlds had changed hands a few times - the Border Protectorate had effectively been carved out of worlds gained from the Lyran Commonwealth over the Third Succession War so it was no wonder they functioned as a provincial army that happened to have a civilian population attached.

Frederick saluted Alexander - improper protocol, but good for morale. “Thank you for telling me this, Kommandant. And thank you for your hard work. Enjoy the usual reward for a job well done.”

The junior officer returned the salute. “Yes sir.”

They headed back to their respective vans and their respective wars, Frederick musing that adding allies to a war really did add a third front to the fighting - now there were two high commands out to get you, besides the actual enemy.

-

The Triad, Tharkad
Protectorate of Donegal, Lyran Commonwealth
13 March 3024


The sound of the door being unlocked broke Ardan out of his rhythm. He’d no reference for time but his own activities, but he was sure it couldn’t be that long since his last meal. He’d established a routine of exercise to follow from each time he was fed, not wanting to get too far out of shape. His best estimate was that it took about two hours to complete the routine and he wasn’t quite done yet.

Climbing to his feet, he mopped his brow with his shirt and waited for the instructions to stand against the far wall.

The familiar words (he had a feeling it was a recording) didn’t come though and the door cracked open without any further preparations.

There was a muffled complaint and a small woman walked in, shading her eyes from the bright lights that were never turned off. “Ardan? Are you alright?”

Not a small woman, he realized, a girl. A familiar one. “Melissa? What are you doing here?” Why would the Archon send her daughter in here…? Was she a prisoner now? Or was this not even the real Melissa?

“Getting you out of here.” She uncovered her eyes and then went crimson, looking away. “Oh my god! Put your shirt on!”

With an embarrassed grunt, Ardan complied, the sleeveless singlet providing some decency. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting any visitors.”

“Good grief, have you been working out the entire time you’ve been here?” another voice asked, Melissa joined by a middle-aged man. It took Ardan a moment to recognise Frederick Steiner’s right-hand man, Max Mustermann. The baron looked him up and down. “I know who to ask if I can’t get a jar open.”

“I’ve not had a lot of options for entertainment,” Ardan told him. “If I’m allowed out of here, let’s go now.”

“We’re not completely done,” a third voice clarified as Max backed up to let Ardan leave the cell.

The man outside was slightly more familiar than Mustermann - Morgan Kell had made the headlines more than once in his career as a mercenary. He was holding a heavy case.

“No guards?” Ardan asked, looking around.

“LIC security assumes that if anyone gets out of a cell, it’s better to lock the block down and bring in a response team than have people here with weapons that could be taken off them,” Melissa told him as she also left the cell. “Seriously, they didn’t even give you anything to do in there?”

Ardan shook his head. “I don’t even know how long I was there, months obviously. Don’t get me wrong, getting out is as good as a Christmas present but I haven’t exactly been getting newspapers or holovid.” He’d actually looked forwards to the occasional interrogations once it became clear that there would be no violence involved in them - at least it was someone to speak to. The intervals between them had become longer and longer though, at least by count of meals and laundry visits.

“Solitary for this long.” Max shook his head. “If Hanse wasn’t already furious about this…”

“What’s even going on? Why am I being released now? That’s not a complaint, but…”

“Morgan demanded that Hermann and Simon transfer custody to him,” Melissa explained as they went down the corridor to another door, Max checking the numbers which followed no sequence that Ardan could recognise.

“And they listened?”

Morgan shrugged. “I had the Archon’s ear once.”

“Once?” That sounded like a summary of a long story. “And Archon Steiner is…”

“That’s what we’re hoping to find out.” Max tapped one of the doors. “This is the cell on the paperwork, and for what it’s worth, the occupant should be the only other prisoner down here.”

“And who’s that?”

“The woman who was arrested with you.” Melissa looked up at him. “There’s something very wrong.”

Ardan rubbed his chin. He’d had no choice but to grow a beard in the cell. “You don’t say.”

The girl looked away. “I don’t know what happened. Even if you were guilty of what they said, you’re a diplomat -”

He winced.

“Here as a diplomat, anyway,” she said as Max unlocked the door. “There are rules!”

Morgan looked through the doorway and then turned sharply on Max. “Are you sure this is the cell?”

“It’s the number.” All four of them stared into an unoccupied cell. “We can check the others.”

“Do it,” the mercenary said flatly. Then he raised his hand. “No, I’ll check them. You and Melissa bring Ardan up to speed.”

Max accepted the case that Morgan passed him. “You’ve been here six months and diplomatic relations with New Avalon are in tatters.”

Six months? “I’d lost track of time, between chemical interrogation and… I think they went out of their way to vary meal times so I couldn’t keep count of days. They never turned the lights out and…” Ardan turned away, not wanting them to see the tears forming at the corners of his eyes.

A small hand took his own. “I’m sorry, Ardan. This prison was made by Claudius the Cruel, almost two centuries ago. Alessandro was the last one to use them, I never thought that mother would.”

He took a deep breath. “I wouldn’t have believed it either.”

“Can you tell us what happened?” Max asked him gently. “I have a third-hand claim that you were trying to enter the Nagelring vaults.”

“Well… I was, but it wasn’t espionage! Katrina said she wanted to send Hanse some data as a prize for winning the Third Alliance Games. But the locks didn’t open for her and then another Katrina arrived and claimed I’d brought an imposter in.” He’d relived that encounter over and over, during and between questionings. The one thing he’d been sure of was that there were two Katrinas and that he had no idea why. “She could open the door, so the guards believed her.”

“And they both looked like mother?”

“Exactly alike…” he admitted. “Same face, same clothes… A mirror image would have been less alike.”

Max raked one hand through the loose locks of what remained of his thin blond hair. “And now we can’t find one of them. That’s not good…”

Ardan snorted. “Is anything good about this?”

“Theodore Kurita has cut off Tamar,” Melissa told him, face pale. “Uncle Frederick’s been sent to help the Capellans invade the Free Worlds League… and mother’s gone to Skye. There’s a disputed succession there that could tear one of the richest part of the Commonwealth apart. No, there’s nothing good about it.”

“We’re pretty damn sure that Melissa is who she says she is,” Max interjected. “Besides getting you out of here, we wanted to do a blood test comparing her and Hermann to the woman captured with you, because if she’s who she claimed then the Archon’s been replaced by an imposter.”

“Is that even possible?”

Max shrugged. “Medical researchers inside the Suns have been working on surgical reconstruction intended for those disfigured by war. The same techniques could be used to turn someone into a duplicate - a doppelganger, if you will - of someone else.”

“Hanse would never order that!”

That seemed to amuse the Lyran. “I don’t think he’d do that in this case. He’s not stupid. But to get a volunteer past security in the Combine or the Confederation? I doubt he’d rule it out. As a frame up, it’s exactly the sort of audacious scheme he might endorse as a prince.”

Ardan was about to protest but Max raised his hand.

“As a prince, and against an enemy. But as a man, I don’t believe he’d do so to an ally. Particularly when it left one of his closest friends was left dangling as a result. Whether the imposter is the prisoner or the Archon, someone else is behind this. And we need to find them, because if this isn’t cleared up we may be looking at war between the Suns and the Commonwealth. AFFS strategic reserves are moving into the Terran Corridor and I’d be surprised if MIIO wasn’t at least considering whether they could get someone in here to release you without getting you killed in the process.”

As they spoke, door after door had been flung open. Morgan opened the last and swore at the results. “We’re alone,” he reported. “Wherever the imposter is, she’s not here.”

“Do you think Simon’s hidden her somewhere?” asked Melissa, eyes wide.

The mercenary shook his head. “No. But this might be sufficient proof to get him to act on our behalf.”

Max looked at Ardan. “I can get you on a dropship off Tharkad tonight, but I can’t be sure you’ll make it back to the Suns without someone arresting you. Right now, nothing short of Katrina herself can get you away from Morgan’s protection. Your call.”

Ardan met the baron’s gaze and then nodded. “Whoever did this used me like a weapon against our alliance. Let me send a message to Hanse - and I’m with you. I want answers.”

“That makes four of us.” There was a steely determination in Melissa Steiner’s eyes, the teenager looking much more like her mother than usual.

-

Hilton Head, North America
Terra, Solar System
13 March 3024


“This time last year I wouldn’t have believed this could happen,” Huthrin Vandel observed as the update from the Skye HPG station concluded. “The Chancellor of the Capellan Confederation visiting the Lyran Commonwealth for personal negotiations with the Archon?”

“I wouldn’t have believed it six months ago,” Ulthan Everson murmured. Precentor Tharkad had spoken less and less at meetings of the First Circuit, of late. Julian Tiepolo suspected that he was struggling to keep his supporters in line. The status of the capital Precentors tended to vary with the strength of the state they were advocates to and the Lyrans’ sudden rise now seemed to be about to reverse.

The Primus glanced over at Villius Tejh. “Is the Chancellor’s absence likely to cause issues on Sian?”

“I don’t believe so. The House of Scions is quite enthusiastic about this diplomatic opportunity and the Chancellor’s wife is generally their spokesperson on the Prefectorate.” Precentor Sian hesitated for a moment. “His elder daughter is not enthused, but it seems unlikely she’ll endanger her standing in Liao’s eyes by acting. She’s only the Heir Presumptive, after all.”

“My understanding is that Hanse Davion has sent a personal emissary to Skye since Katrina is avoiding the new ambassador by leaving Tharkad for these talks,” Vandel noted. “I don’t have any information to suggest how well that’s working out.”

“Not well.” Tiepolo folded his hands behind his back. “Green-Davion has met the Archon before but she is closer to Duke Frederick and without him she lacks a personal connection. And now that the negotiations with the Chancellor are beginning, security concerns and time demands for the talks are going to further limit her chances to make contact.”

“However damning this may be for the Davion alliance, a Capellan partnership for the Lyrans still isn’t something we should encourage.” Thomas Marik managed to make it look almost as if he wasn’t discussing his family’s hereditary enemies making common cause.

Precentor Sian grimaced. “It would be a mistake to imagine that Maximilian Liao is lacking in personal charisma.”

“You think that this alliance could work?” Pedrigo Aliz asked, looking at Tejh.

“I hesitate to rule it out,” the man continued. “He asked for a joint invasion of the Free Worlds League and that’s happened. His other proposal for advancing an alliance was permanent high level representation in Katrina Steiner’s advisors. And as I understand it, that’s at least being considered?”

“In principle yes, although the details of how that would work in their respective governments is yet to be decided,” Tiepolo advised. “Steiner’s own interests are less clearly expressed but I believe economic interests are, somewhat predictably, foremost in her negotiator’s minds.”

“I don’t know how well they’ll do in Capellan markets,” admitted Tejh. “They are much more heavily regulated, although perhaps not any more corrupt.”

“In an ideal universe we’ll never need to find out.” Marik’s voice was calm, trying to present himself as objective perhaps? He’d risen as far as he reasonably could, Tiepolo thought. What were his ambitions now? Promoting him to head Luthien had set up the Kurita-Marik alliance, but he would never be acceptable as Primus so what else was there for the man?

“I think we can rely on the Chancellor to follow his nature and betray the Archon once he’s extracted as much value as he can from the arrangement,” he said out loud. “In addition, Romano Liao is apparently very enthusiastic about the potential for crushing the Mariks between her nation and the Archon’s. My understanding is that she can be easily encouraged to overreach, Villius?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say she’s an utter fool,” the Precentor said after a moment’s thought. “But I don’t believe she has any real understanding of how different Lyran society is from what she’s used to. If the alliance progresses to the point she has close contact with Lyran officials, some gaffes wouldn’t be hard to arrange. If anything, they might be harder to prevent.”

“As Thomas says, better we don’t need to. But having the option to use such incidents is worthwhile,” Tiepolo agreed.

“Unfortunately, arrogance doesn’t preclude real ability,” Marik warned. “If she survives mistakes, she might learn enough to be a capable leader. I’d love to say she’ll self-destruct, but if she was that easily disposed of then her sister Candace would have removed her long ago.”

“I yield to your knowledge of dynastic politics,” Aliz said sarcastically. “Can we be sure that the worst case scenario doesn’t arise? If this Green-Davion woman manages to win Katrina over then Davion might join the talks and Liao was in theory open to such discussions. I believe his original response to the Peace Proposal was that he’d only participate in talks if at least one other Successor Lord was involved.”

“The Federated Suns and the Capellan Confederation hate each other,” Tiepolo mused, “But Hanse Davion himself has had little direct contact with the Capellans…”

“And the longest single peace along any border since the fall of the Star League was between Davion and Liao,” Tejh added. “Granted, it was a century ago but there was a lengthy ceasefire at one point so that they could each focus on their other neighbor. It lasted over twenty years.”

“Who broke it?” asked Everson curiously.

“Davion.”

“Mm,” Precentor Tharkad said with a nod suggesting he’d expected as much.

“I would very much doubt that the Archon could act as a mediator between Hanse Davion and Maximilian Liao at the moment,” Tiepolo observed. “She’s thoroughly alienated from the First Prince at the moment. And if anyone believes that Maximilian Liao would play peacemaker between the other two, I would have to question your qualifications to be on this council.”

“If anything, it would suggest wilful refusal to read briefings on him,” Marik agreed.

“That leaves Hanse Davion.” Vandel observed. “I am not quite willing to say that he couldn’t mediate the other two but I’m hesitant to say he would.”

“In the unlikely event,” the Primus said, “We will provide as much assistance as we can to Candace Liao and Michael Hasek-Davion who are not only natural enemies, but have immense personal hatreds towards Romano Liao and Hanse Davion that would predispose them to oppose such an alliance.”

Aliz nodded. “So, does anyone have more serious thoughts about the negotiations on Skye?”

“I am puzzled that Katrina Steiner has yet to make a clear ruling on the matter of Skye’s succession,” Everson noted. He looked over at Tiepolo suspiciously. “Do we have any clues as to why she’s making such… questionable choices over the last few months? It’s convenient, but if she continues to act like this then she may go the way of her uncle. She did set a precedent for an ineffectual Archon being deposed, after all.”

“ROM has a number of theories,” Tiepolo answered carefully. “House Steiner does have a record of hereditary mental conditions and it’s possible that the Sortek scandal has pushed her into some degree of paranoia with regard to the Federated Suns.”

“Could such a thing be chemically induced? If Lestrade had dosed her with something to improve his chances of securing the throne of Skye then that would give us a great deal of leverage on him.”

“I’m fairly sure that chemically compromising someone in such a specific manner is beyond even the Star League,” he said lightly. “And the Archon’s security is formidable. I suppose there could be some degree of blackmail but I find it hard to believe that Steiner has any dark secrets so vital that she’d be willing to hand over a quarter of the Lyran economy to preserve it.”

Everson continued to study the Primus for a moment and then shrugged. “I remain curious. If nothing else, if Katrina self-destructs then it’s likely there would be a regency in her daughter’s name - most likely with Frederick Steiner as regent. If nothing else, he would almost certainly move decisively to restore relations with the Davions.”

“That is a troubling prospect.” Tiepolo considered that for a moment. “I will ask Emilio Rachan to see if there’s anything else we can do to investigate the matter, but I doubt he can guarantee any results. We’re well informed but alas even ROM can’t answer every question.”

“That’s all I can ask I suppose,” Everson agreed and then he retreated from the conversation, declining to be drawn into discussions of what impact Lyran merchants might have on the long sluggish Capellan economy.
"It's national writing month, not national writing week and a half you jerk" - Consequences, 9th November 2018

paulobrito

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #313 on: 06 December 2022, 04:38:28 »
The missing Katrina is bad news...

Daryk

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #314 on: 06 December 2022, 04:41:23 »
Indeed... and if it was ROM that pulled it off, Tiepolo is keeping the First Circuit in the dark...  ^-^

BATTLEMASTER

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #315 on: 06 December 2022, 07:49:11 »
The missing Katrina is bad news...

She probably took a stroll over a bridge, tripped, and fell into the river.  It's a shame that she put on her favorite concrete sneakers that morning. xp
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Sir Chaos

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #316 on: 06 December 2022, 07:58:37 »
Indeed... and if it was ROM that pulled it off, Tiepolo is keeping the First Circuit in the dark...  ^-^

Or ROM is keeping Tiepolo in the dark...
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PsihoKekec

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #317 on: 06 December 2022, 08:58:19 »
She probably took a stroll over a bridge, tripped, and fell into the river.  It's a shame that she put on her favorite concrete sneakers that morning. xp
Most likely it is like with real and fake Hanse, they are keeping the real one to interrogate the state secrets out of her.
Shoot first, laugh later.

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #318 on: 06 December 2022, 09:30:02 »
Most likely it is like with real and fake Hanse, they are keeping the real one to interrogate the state secrets out of her.

Agreed - she's more valuable alive.
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Daryk

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #319 on: 06 December 2022, 19:03:03 »
Only to some...  ^-^

DOC_Agren

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #320 on: 06 December 2022, 21:08:28 »
but who got her?  Mad Max or Comstar
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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #321 on: 06 December 2022, 21:23:35 »
but who got her?  Mad Max or Comstar

I bet it was Mad Max.  She's doing stuff to benefit the Capellans and Comstar seems to be in the dark about it, but happy enough with it to play along.
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PsihoKekec

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #322 on: 07 December 2022, 01:21:24 »
Not to mention that this exactly the kind of shenanigans that Mad Max did in OTL.
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drakensis

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #323 on: 08 December 2022, 03:27:09 »
Chapter 6

The Triad, Tharkad
Protectorate of Donegal, Lyran Commonwealth
14 March 3024


Max had spent little time with Simon Johnson before and the head of LIC was notoriously hard to read - an excellent quality in a spy. Today he had no doubt that the man was furious, and he was quite glad not to be the target.

“Whatever else is going on, losing a prisoner from the Triad’s own detention center is unacceptable,” Johnson grated.

There was a distressed sound from Melissa, who was still rubbing her arm where blood had been drawn earlier.

“If that is indeed the Archon, that is much worse,” he admitted, blue eyes a little apologetic as he glanced at the girl. “At least we can be reasonably sure that you and your cousins have not been compromised.” The first orders that Johnson had given were to identify and detain everyone who had had access to the cells since Ardan was locked up there, and to have fresh blood samples taken from Melissa, from Ryan and from their mutual cousin Ivan who was currently serving in the Second Royal Guards as a junior officer. “I’ll arrange a blood test for Hermann as well, but that will require more discretion as he isn’t under my authority.”

Melissa’s great-uncle had been deputized to carry out the ceremonial duties of the Archon during Katrina’s absence. Together with acting command of the Royal Guard, that left him in a position of considerable power. While Max didn’t think a man who would have renounced his titles and rank entirely to avoid a power struggle in the other timeline would yield to temptation in this one, he’d also been resistant to Morgan’s persuasion over Sortek. Either he’d been compromised or he was so blindly loyal to Katrina’s orders that he was a liability right now.

“That’s all very well, but until we can test the current Archon we don’t know if the Commonwealth is in the hands of an imposter,” he pointed out.

“And if she refuses to be tested?” Johnson asked. “Oh, it would be suspicious, but short of force we can’t make her. She could claim a mismatch meant that her daughter had been abducted and replaced. Alessandro had many failings as an Archon but even he had enough support that he could have forced a civil war rather than abdicating. Sparing us that was perhaps his wisest decision, but Katrina is far more trusted and if you’re right that she’s been replaced by an enemy agent that could be a goal.”

Ardan leant forwards. “So you need absolute proof to act.”

“I am acting.” The spymaster glared at Sortek. “You have my sincere apologies that the Tamar situation led to my negligence over your care. I will do everything in my power to resolve this, but we can’t afford a civil war. As we speak, the Norns are combing every record we have about the detention wing and interrogating the staff. More people are digging into this than are investigating Tamar right now.”

“My brother is taking the bulk of the Kell Hounds there,” Morgan informed him.

Johnson nodded. “I’m aware.” He paused. “And given the deep trust that Katrina has in you, unless the Archon asks specifically, I won’t volunteer that information.”

“You already had suspicions?” Max asked speculatively.

“The Archon and I have disagreed more than once over the years. Sometimes she has been proven right, sometimes not. I won’t directly disobey her, but since she isn’t on Tharkad I’m acting on the basis that forgiveness will count for more than permission in providing support to her sister.” Pain flickered in Johnson’s blue eyes. “Dozens of Bondians have paid with their lives and I’m going to expend more in the weeks to come to buy time for Nondi Steiner. And now, to buy you time as well.”

“Bondians?” Ardan asked in a low voice.

“Active agents outside the Commonwealth,” Melissa told him, equally quietly.

“You knew there was an imposter,” Morgan pointed out, ignoring the byplay. “Even if you thought she’d been caught, you must have explored where she came from.”

“The Federated Suns research program was an obvious lead - perhaps too obvious.” Johnson spread his hands. “Outside of that, the Canopians could likely do the same.”

Max grunted. “Or Terran medicine.”

The spymaster gave him a dry look. “You have a reason to suspect ComStar?”

“It isn’t paranoia if they really are out to get you,” he replied. “But I have nothing specific here.”

Eyes narrowed in thought, Johnson continued: “Investigating the Suns’ scientists has only muddied the waters - someone has compromised their security already. Both the Maskirova or the ISF would target anything in the Suns and I can’t say that their parent realms aren’t benefiting from the current situation.”

Max closed his own eyes for a moment in thought. There had been another Capellan doppelganger beside Hanse - a short story had detailed an attempt by the Maskirova to replace Tormano Liao with one of their agents, to allow the appearance that Maximilian Liao had a more compliant son. While the agent had claimed Maxmilian had ordered it, that meant nothing - it could have just as easily been a power play by Chandra Ling, director of the Maskirova to create a puppet heir.

But the Capellans were definitely a possibility.

“So we don’t know anything?!” Melissa exclaimed.

“We know that…” The comm on Johnson’s desk cut him off and he picked it up sharply. “Johnson.”

The four of them watched with silent frustration as the head of LIC responded to the caller with nothing more than faint encouraging noises, giving them no clue as to what was being said on the other end. The discretion of a life-long spy, Max thought.

“Alright, good work.” Having tripled the number of words he’d contributed to that conversation,” Johnson lowered the handset. “And now we know more. Since the detention wing was not being used, sometimes the associated storage was made available for other purposes. Not the cells themselves, but it’s close enough.”

“And?” demanded Melissa.

“And a cryocapsule was being stored there prior to Colonel Sortek’s arrest, a capsule large enough that someone could have been placed inside it. With the facility now being used, it was removed and the storage cleared for use supporting your detention.”

“What the hell was a cryocapsule doing in the Triad?” Ardan asked, gesturing to one of the windows of the office. Outside, snow was visibly coming down.

“Duke Aldo Lestrade was a guest in the Triad as he made his appeal against Margaret Aten’s succession to the throne of Skye,” Johnson told them. “He’d supposedly brought it to ensure his beer stayed cold as he travelled from Summer.”

“He needed a cryocapsule for that? Did he think there was no beer on Tharkad?”

Melissa rubbed her hands together nervously. “That’s not the craziest thing people have brought here, Ardan. One of mother’s guests had a pet elephant.”

Johnson sighed heavily.

“In this climate?” Max asked, incredulously.

“Many of the Lyran nobility have the wealth to take eccentricities to extremes,” the spymaster said heavily. “The Triad staff tries to be accommodating. As Lady Melissa says, bringing your own beer is hardly the most extreme behavior they’ve dealt with.”

“If we’re looking from someone who is benefitting from the current situation, Aldo Lestrade is on the list,” Morgan said grimly. “Did he take the cryocapsule to Skye?”

“To Summer. Even if he then took it to Skye, he went via Lestrade Castle.” Johnson drummed his fingers on his desk. “The capsule wasn’t intended for a human occupant but it could have been used that way. Other than medical monitoring equipment, the technology is the same.”

“And Lestrade could keep a prisoner at Lestrade Castle easily,” Max murmured. “It’s the center of his power.”

Johnson nodded. “It’s not much of a lead, but it’s all I have.”

“Then we need to follow it,” Max decided. “Unless anything else turns up.”

Morgan nodded. “And we need to be discreet. A Kell Hounds dropship arriving would raise flags so we’ll have to lean on you to arrange an alternative, Simon.”

“I can help with that.”

“Will there be room in your transport plans for my Victor?” asked Ardan. “You didn’t take that apart or anything, did you?” he enquired, looking suddenly at Simon Johnson.

“It was stored at the Suns embassy,” the spymaster replied. “I believe it was returned to the Suns when the ambassador was replaced though.”

“They took my ‘mech home without me?” The mechwarrior seemed appalled.

“And all your personal effects, I would assume.”

Ardan groaned. “So we’re on a rescue mission to save the Archon and I don’t have so much as a toothbrush to my name.”

“I can lend you my week’s allowance to get kitted out,” Melissa offered impishly.

Max was fairly sure that the Archon-Designate’s weekly allowance would have paid for Ardan to get a commercial ticket all the way home, never mind bought him a toothbrush. It probably wouldn’t cover getting him a ‘mech though.

“When do we leave?” the girl added.

“You aren’t going,” Max and Morgan said in unison, then exchanged amused looks.

“We’re talking about my mother!” she protested.

Johnson cleared his throat. “I can’t cover for your absence, Ladygravine Steiner,” he pointed out. “I’m afraid that staying on Tharkad while others act in your name is one of the burdens you’re going to have to get used to.”

“But…”

Max cleared his throat and broached the topic no one had voiced yet: “Lady Melissa, if something permanent has happened to your mother… then you are the Archon now.” He felt bad about saying that, and worse when the teenager started to cry.



Imperial City, Luthien
Pesht Military District, Draconis Combine
2 April 3024


It was the silence that alerted Tomoe that something was wrong.

All of the Otomo were hand-picked by the Coordinator, which was the only formal requirement. However, most had proven themselves in the ranks for five years before being vetted by the ISF and having their names submitted to Takashi as potential candidates. Theodore’s first selections had been to replace the Otomo members killed alongside his father in the dropship crash on Rasalhague and he’d brought his entire command lance in.

No one questioned the Coordinator’s right to do this, but at the same time there was a degree of friction expressed in hazing from the veterans and a drive to prove themselves by the new recruits. In Tomoe’s case, she had been assigned quarters near the entrance used for infantry patrols and the sentries made a point of stamping their feet briskly outside her room - disturbing her sleep.

She’d gotten used to it though, and instinct brought her to wakefulness when it didn’t happen. It wasn’t until she heard the sound of boots shuffling past her room in the same quiet steps that the Otomo infantry used in other parts of the palace that she was able to put her finger on why.

Slipping out from under her bedcovers, she had the pistol kept under her pillow ready before her feet were under her. As a mechwarrior she didn’t keep body-armor ready, but her cooling vest was kevlar lined and it slipped on almost silently.

Drawing the wakizashi from the scabbard on the stand, Tomoe used her right hand to carefully slide the bolt on her door. She found herself wishing for a third hand - she was holding her pistol in the same hand, but might need every weapon she could carry if this was what it might be.

The door was as well-oiled as the bolt, opening silently and Tomoe saw two soldiers right outside her door, eyes looking further down the corridor. It took them a critical heart-beat to register that the door next to them had opened - the last heart-beats of two lives, because she didn’t recognise the faces beneath the stylised helmets of the Otomo and drove her wakizashi into one, the sharp blade finding the gap between chinstrap and upper jaw.

The sharp retort of her pistol blowing the brains out of the other soldier woke the entire dorm but there were other soldiers at every door on the corridor. Her comrades woke, unwarned and all of them outnumbered two to one.

Still, they were Otomo and when doors crashed open, screams mixed with gunfire as the Coordinator’s elite guards went from sleep to violence in the blink of an eye.

Tomoe emptied the magazine of her pistol down the corridor, landing four of the six shots in men a fraction too late to enter their target rooms.

Then two more soldiers turned from the barracks entrance and she flung the pistol into the face of the second before side-stepping the bayonet of the leader.

Her wakizashi, still slick with blood from her first target was just a fraction off target, the edge striking the edge of the helmet and snapping the blade. What was left didn’t strike as deeply as she wanted, but it was enough to open his eyes and the bridge of the man’s nose.

Screaming in agony, he plowed into her and knocked the young woman to the floor, her cooling vest muting the impact only slightly.

Seizing the rifle, Tomoe coiled her legs beneath her burden and kicked out, heaving the man aside and giving his back-up a clean shot at point blank range.

She should have died in that moment but a shot from further down the hall went over her head a moment before the soldier’s finger could tighten his trigger. Chu-i Sebastian Monroe used a needler as his side arm and razor sharp flechettes made a nonsense of the flexible armor covering the soldier’s throat, almost decapitating him.

Tomoe rolled over in time to see Monroe, perhaps the most vicious of the hazing participants, lurch forwards, blood and fragmented bullets bursting through him as battle rifles chattered at fully automatic rates.

Her own fingers confirmed her captured rifle was in semi-automatic before she pulled the trigger twice and both of Monroe’s killers hit the ground.

Scrambling up, bare feet finding slippery blood on the floor, Tomoe jabbed the bayonet into the thigh of the man she’d blinded, ripping open his femoral artery. He’d be dead quickly, but as sounds died down along the corridor, she might follow if more of the attackers had survived than her comrades.

Bounding from door to door, she fired again and again at anyone wearing armor, taking advantage of the momentary disorientation natural to soldiers who had expected a slaughter of helpless sleeping men and women. There were a dozen rooms on either corridor, though some had not been opened - their occupants absent and presumably this was known to the attackers - and only two of the open rooms had both of the intruding soldiers still standing before she corrected that… but none had Otomo fit to join her either.

At the second to last doors she had to duck inside for cover when another of the attackers opened up down the corridor with his rifle.

Dropping her own almost empty rifle, Tomoe lifted one from one of the soldiers on the floor (a knife in his throat, thrown by Mechwarrior Omi Suhasi before she was gunned down by the second soldier through the door, a part of her mind noted, automatically deciphering the map of combat). Dropping to one knee, she waited a instant and heard the telltale of a magazine emptying.

Rolling out, she was about to fire, but with a twang, a yard of steel-tipped wood drove itself through both her target and the second soldier about to point his own rifle down at her.

Tomoe stared at the arrow that was connecting both men for an instant and then traced it back to the door facing the one that these soldiers had used.

A black shape emerged, carrying a bow and already nocking a second arrow. “Chu-i Sakade,” the voice of Tai-i Minobu Tetsuhara greeted her as politely as if this was just another day of guard duty.

“Tai-i.” Tomoe rolled to her feet. “This can’t be the only attack.”

The black man nodded sharply. He was also barefoot, wearing only exercise pants. “Your warning was timely. We need boots and information.”

Tomoe nodded and half-ran, half-scrambled down the corridor cluttered with bodies back to her own room. As much as she wanted to run onwards, Tetsuhara was correct. WIthout footwear she might render herself useless for further battle.

Besides her boots, she picked up her radio but the Otomo channels were full only of static - jammed.

Hopping down the corridor as she pulled first one boot on and then the other, she found Tetsuhara had also taken the time to don his sword belt. “Nothing on the radio,” she reported.

He nodded thoughtfully. “Our first priority is the consort and the young lord.” He pointed out the window. “If we go across the roof, we have less chance of being intercepted before we reach the imperial apartments.”

“Hai.”

The windows weren’t really intended to allow someone to enter or exit, but a little more property damage didn’t matter now and Tomoe shattered one with the butt of her rifle before climbing out onto the slanting tiles outside. Fortunately it hadn’t been raining, so they weren’t slick beneath her boots, and the curved lip at the bottom of the roof gave slightly better footing. Tetsuhara followed, still carrying his bow and a quiver of arrows.

Tetsuhara gave him a questioning look and the older officer held one finger against his lips. She grasped his point - while a bow wasn’t silent, it would certainly be quieter than her borrowed rifle.

The two Otomo crossed the roof at a trot, not fast enough to make significant noise or to risk their footing, but they weren’t taking their time either. The Otomo occupied barracks attached to the main residence by covered walkways, and the duo were able to use the roof of the walkway as a route directly to the second floor of the main palace.

Ahead, Tomoe could hear the sound of gunshots, suggesting that the attack had reached the guards around the imperial apartments. As much as she hoped that their comrades would be able to hold off the attack, the fact that his had got so far suggested that they would send as many men after the heir and his mother as they felt would be necessary.

Minobu was about to try opening the window facing them but Tomoe caught his shoulder. “Give me a leg up to reach the lip of the roof above us,” she asked. “It’s the level we need to be on.”

The Tai-i nodded and set down his bow, cupping his hands. She put her foot on it and as he heaved her up, she was able to get both hands on the edge of the roof above them. With practiced effort she got her elbows over, swung and then managed to hook a leg over the edge as well.

Pushing her rifle over, she caught the bow and quiver, pushing the weapons along and out of the way before Tetsuhara also leapt up, catching her hand and - once she pulled with all her might - getting his own grip up on the roof.

A moment later and they were up and armed again. The windows would be harder to break open from the outside, but Tomoe knew of a balcony and they reached it right as the rattles of gunfire ended and the lights went on in the room behind it.

Illuminated obviously by the electric lights, Tomoe prayed that the door was unlatched and gave it a kick.

Her prayer was answered and the armored glass panels swung open, giving Tetsuhara a clean shot at the nearest soldier, the arrow punching through chest armor intended to resist lighter and less archaic projectiles.

There was a cry of pain - a child’s, she thought - as someone fell to the ground and out of sight behind a couch, then Tomoe opened up - short bursts at anyone in body armor. If the attack had got this far then every Otomo on guard was dead.

Two rounds hit her in the chest, distinct impacts, and sent her sprawling, head very nearly smacking into the rail of the balcony. She saw Tetsuhara bound inside, the crescent arc of his katana blade reflecting the electric lights as he swept it around.

Rolling over, Tomoe managed to get view of the dark-skinned samurai cutting down one soldier just as two more burst in. Her shots cut the legs out from one of them and the last - an officer - gained a third eye as a laser pistol’s bolt caught him squarely in the face, right at the bridge of the nose.

The pistol was in the hands of a hyperventilating Anastasi Kurita, the barrel wavering so much it was a miracle she’d hit the officer at all, much less with a killing shot.

“Lady Kurita,” Tetsuhara reported crisply. “We need to evacuate the apartments until the situation is clearer.” He walked past her and kicked the doors open.

“Who-who… Martin! Father!” The coordinator’s wife dropped the pistol and ran to the couch.

A tearful wail went up as the woman pulled the infant heir to the Combine up from the floor. She was crying almost as much as the boy.

Tomoe followed her and saw Otto Sjovold face up on the floor. Blood was pooling beneath him, no wounds visible on his front.

“He - he was on top of Martin.” Anastasi exclaimed.

Well, having a fully-grown man on top of a small child wasn’t ideal, Tomoe thought. But better shots hit the grandfather than the grandson. “He gave his life for Lord Martin,” she declared solemnly and looked around the room. Right, this was where she thought it was.

“What are you doing?” the mother asked as Tomoe went to a cabinet in the corner and opened the lower of its two doors.

Feeling it was easier to show that tell, the Otomo member found the hidden switch and the floor beside her popped up, revealing a stairway less than half a meter wide. “A hidden escape route,” she explained. “There are several in the apartments. This leads to a secure bunker beneath the palace.”

She had to take the lead, Tetsuhara wasn’t familiar with the route so he took up the rear behind Anastasi, who was crying almost as much as the son she carried. But for all her tears, Lady Kurita didn’t hesitate to trust and obey the orders, which was as much as Tomoe could have hoped for.

It wasn’t an easy route, particularly in the pitch darkness, but at last Tomoe found the metal door she needed and it swung open - into an alcove just wide enough to allow it, revealing a well lit room behind, part of a larger complex.

“I had no idea there was anything like this beneath the palace,” Anastasi admitted. Then she showed her first hint of suspicion. “How did you know, Chu-i?”

Theodore told me, Tomoe thought. “I served Lady Florimel for a time,” she said instead.

“Are there communications here?” asked Tetsuhara.

She nodded and indicated one of the doors. “A hardline connects us to the main planetary commnet. It shouldn’t be cut even if the main palace links are - and tracing it back to us won’t be easy.”

“Given the number of soldiers sent here, I imagine contacting the palace security would be a waste of time,” he murmured. “But those soldiers weren’t good enough to have been with the Sword of Light.”

Tomoe followed him into the room, seeing the computers already set up. Rather than checking a directory, she set a channel she knew by heart. “Candle,” she reported.

No reply.

“Candle,” she repeated after a moment. Tetsuhara watched her.

“Water,” a slightly familiar voice responded.

A thread of tension went out of her. “Udon.”

“Archer.” The woman on the other end also seemed relieved. “Tomoe-chan, I’m glad you’re alive. What’s your situation?”

“I’m in a safe place with the nest and the egg,” she replied - Anastasi and Martin, in other words. “Can I speak to the heart?”

“I am the heart now,” Constance Kurita replied sadly. “My predecessor died getting word out to the Sword of Light and they are loyal. They are on their way, and nothing Elias can bring to bear will stop them.”

Tomoe slumped slightly, Lady Florimel was dead? That was a savage blow. “Understood. Please update me within twenty-four hours or I will assume things are not going to plan.”

“Of course. Be safe, and protect the egg.”

The line cut out and Tomoe dropped the handset.

“I got part of that,” Tetsuhara said. “But…”

“What is going on?” demanded Anastasi.

Tomoe straightened. “Warlord Elias Kurita is attempting a coup, my lady. The Keeper of the House Honor is dead, but before dying she alerted the First Sword of Light.”

“The Ivory Dragon,” Anastasi mused. “Yes, they would take her guidance, wouldn’t they?” The First Sword of Light was closely tied to the Combine’s religious practises, meaning they had the closest ties to the Order of Five Pillars, which Florimel headed… had headed, Tomoe corrected herself. Now that fell to Constance.

“Our duty now is to wait,” Tomoe concluded. “The Sword of Light will crush the coup and Lady Constance will alert us as to when it is safe to leave the bunker.”

“I see.” Anastasi rocked her son gently, trying to stop his tears. “I assume we have no shortage of supplies here.”

“There are stores here sufficient for years if absolutely necessary.”

“Good.” The consort looked at Tetsuhara. “Be so good as to find me a stiff drink, Chu-i. Take one yourself if your duty allows.”

Tomoe blinked but the other Otomo simply bowed and departed.

Anastasi waited until he was out of easy earshot and then asked matter-of-factly: “Is this one of the places Theodore sneaks off with you to?”

She froze. Oh hells…

“I’ll take that as a yes,” the consort continued after a moment. “Just tell me which room you use so I can avoid it. I…” Fresh tears formed and she held her son one handed. “I just lost my father and you saved my life. I just… I don’t want to sleep on a bed my husband shared with you.”



Jumpship Bifrost, Chukchi
Protectorate of Donegal, Lyran Commonwealth
4 April 3024


The jumpship Bifrost didn’t maintain a formal dining hall - if passengers on dropships being carried wanted that experience they’d have to look to the dropship facilities. As a result, the three passengers hidden in one of the small onboard cargo holds could eat alongside the crew without running into anyone from the dropships being ferried along the busy route between Tharkad and Skye.

There was nothing suspicious at all in the Bifrost making the run. While it had been working the Skye to Robinson for a few years, the current problems had led to many Lyran-flagged jumpships deciding that operating in the Suns too risky. And not having diners from off the ship meant no one asking why there were more than forty diners (eating in shifts) when the normal operating crew of a Merchant-class jumpship was only twenty-one.

Max had been waiting to get a good feel for the captain before asking the question that was on his mind when they were several jumps away from Tharkad.

“I hope you don’t mind my asking this,” he said diffidently as they finished a rather decent lasagne. “But given our quest, to dignify it a bit, takes us to Summer - might we impose on your local knowledge?”

From the way Danica Holstein’s shoulders tensed, she did mind him asking. She picked up a napkin, wiping her mouth in a transparent way of buying herself time. “I thought you were working up to another question, with the way you’d been watching me.”

“If you mean what I think, I’m probably a bit old for you.”

She gave him a thoughtful look which he wasn’t sure how to interpret. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not from Summer.”

Max didn’t know Captain Holstein’s tells, but her son Clovis was a teenager and much much easier to read. She was lying and her son knew it. “I lived there for a couple of years, starting right after the Kurita raid in 3005,” he observed. “I can understand wanting to leave it behind.”

“I don’t appreciate being called a liar, Baron Mustermann.”

He placed his own napkin on the table and watched her quietly, ignoring the way the crewmen were bristling at the confrontation. The captain met his gaze with a brittle expression. “I’m sorry to bring up what I’m sure are unpleasant memories, Captain Holstein. But the stakes are such that being rude is perhaps necessary. We may even have crossed paths in those two years, although I don’t recall it.”

“We wouldn’t have,” Clovis said snappily. The boy’s limbs were shorter than they ought to be, something that didn’t matter much in zero gravity but here on the gravity decks it made him a little short-tempered. “How did you know?”

“Clovis,” his mother snapped.

“He knows. But we wouldn’t have met a baron. We lived in the slums.”

“So did I - Curitiba’s, which unless I miss my guess is where you were until you got off world.” He looked at the boy. “I wasn’t always a baron, that came later. It wasn’t an easy couple of years, and I wasn’t a fugitive. Much less a fugitive with a new baby to care for.”

“Max, is this a conversation we want to have?” Morgan Kell asked firmly. “This is obviously a subject the captain doesn’t want to discuss.”

“I’m aware,” he admitted. “But I believe the good captain knows Lestrade Castle better than any of us. I’ve never even been inside.”

“Damn…” Holstein buried her face in her hands. “How much do you know?”

Clovis moved closer to her, looking angry and defensive.

“Very few details. I’m not trying to bait you into telling me more, or looking for any form of leverage.” Max sighed. “But if I’m right then Aldo Lestrade has a very important prisoner, one who might give him the keys to controlling the entire Lyran Commonwealth. I lived under his rule for two years and I don’t like the idea of him ruling the Commonwealth from behind the scenes - my guess is that you know far better than I what it’d be like to be under his thumb again.”

“I don’t have good memories of Curitiba,” Clovis said when his mother didn’t speak.

Max nodded and pushed himself back from the table. “I appreciate you hearing me out, Captain. I’m sorry to rouse those demons. If you change your mind, you know where to find me. If not… well, I can’t blame you.”

Morgan frowned but backed up to let Max get past him to the door.

“I don’t…” the elder Holstein said slowly as Max reached the door, “Have good memories of Aldo Lestrade.”

He paused and waited.

“The old duke did not keep prisoners,” she continued. “Unless you count the staff. Most of us were proud to work for him.”

“You were one of the staff?” asked Ardan cautiously.

“In Aldo Lestrade’s eyes, the staff were part of the estate. His to do with as he wished, unless his father objected. At the time, I believed the old duke knew and did not object. Looking back, perhaps I just lacked the confidence to try.”

Morgan tensed. “You mean he…”

Holstein nodded, sharply. Those of her crew present looked horrified. She looked aside at her son. “I didn’t want you to know.”

“I figured out the names you got called back then,” the boy told her. “It’s not your fault. It’s his.”

The woman sighed. “I won’t go back. I’m not sure I could. But if what you say is true… I wouldn’t want him to have that power. He has too much already.”

“If he’s done what we think, he’s a dead man walking,” Morgan promised her, eyes flat and dangerous.

“I’ll tell you what I can.”

“And I’ll help too,” Clovis promised boldly. “I know computers. If you need information, you’ll need to crack his systems.”

“Clovis, no.”

“Mom, they’re Heimdall. They got us off Summer, gave us a new life here.” The dwarf put his arms around his mother’s shoulders. “You taught me to pay it back or pay it forward.”

“It’s good of you to offer,” Ardan said diplomatically, “But this is going to be dangerous.”

“I’m short, not a little kid,” Clovis shot back sharply. “What do you know about encryptions? About computer memory and the ways you can hide that databases even exist, or how to stop them wiping themselves.”

The soldier turned to Danica Holstein who closed her eyes. “Clovis is very gifted,” she admitted. Her lips twisted. “He got that from his father. The only thing he got from him.”

Morgan lent his weight against the door frame. “You’ll need to take orders, Mr Holstein. We do this together, and to a fixed plan. No crazy revenge plans, you understand?”

“My weapon is here,” Clovis said, tapping his brow. “If I want revenge I’d need you to take it for me. I’ll behave.”

“Are you happy, Baron Mustermann?” the captain asked. “You’ll have my information and a new recruit for your crusade.”

“More than I bargained for,” he admitted.

“If my son comes to harm, I’ll drag every secret you have out into the light and see how you like it.”

He scratched the bald part of his scalp. “I’d be fascinated to see what you find, captain. My secrets are all questions that I don’t have the answers to myself.”
"It's national writing month, not national writing week and a half you jerk" - Consequences, 9th November 2018

Daryk

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #324 on: 08 December 2022, 04:45:42 »
Well played!  :thumbsup:

PsihoKekec

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #325 on: 08 December 2022, 07:20:31 »
They are like 80's action movie hero team, Leastrade and Mad Max stand no chance.
Shoot first, laugh later.

BATTLEMASTER

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #326 on: 08 December 2022, 09:45:40 »
 :popcorn:
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Cannonshop

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #327 on: 08 December 2022, 10:58:23 »
So GOOD...
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Gorgon

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #328 on: 08 December 2022, 13:21:01 »
I didn't know I needed Tomoe and Minobu teaming up this badly
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Vehrec

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Re: Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little
« Reply #329 on: 08 December 2022, 14:01:08 »
I feel like Minobu is a weirdo even for the Combine for his ******.  Maybe an admired ******, but a ****** all the same.

Also, I wonder if this coup is going to do anything to move the needle for the combine, or if it will be swept under the carpet and things will continue on in the same vein they always do by the next chapter.  Because that's certainly the vibe I'm getting-everything is fine, the 1st Sword of Light will clean things up, and there won't even be a need to pull forces away from Tamar to patch the sudden holes at home and clean house at the court. 

Chukchi isn't far from Tharkad.  It will take some time for the jumpship to get all the way to Summer, which is probably closer to Sian than it's own capital...actually, I just checked and no, Tharkad is 50 light years closer.  But maybe that's a downside to Lestrade, who wants to be his own god-prince.
*Insert support for fashionable faction of the week here*