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Emergence (Concertverse)
- Chapter 6

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Royal Palace
Roslyn, Eastern Islay
Arcadia, Arcadian Royal March
Royal Federation
13 August 3142

The sprawling Royal Palace dominated the hill along the coastline of Roslyn, long-time capital of the planet Arcadia.  Once fairly smaller, as the Ducal Palace, the Palace's destruction during the Terran invasion of 3050-51 led to its replacement by this larger, more modern structure.  Part armed command post, part government office building, part permanent dwelling for the ruler and immediate advisors and family and temporary dwelling for any number of visiting dignitaries or royalty, its marble walls (backed by ferro-fibrous alloy armor) and twenty storey high structure befitted its place as the center of power in the Royal Federation.

The civilian domestic staff, which numbered in the hundreds, were used to uniformed AFRF officers shuffling and rushing about, usually bearing reports or getting to briefings and meetings on time.  But seeing a Field Marshal, in this case Lord Arnold Proctor-Steiner, doing so was cause to note the matter.  A relation of the current rulers - the elderly man's late father William was a younger son of High King Thomas Proctor and High Queen Johanna Steiner - he usually moved with far greater gravitas than the rushed pace with which he now walked through the halls of the Palace.

A couple floors above the ceremonial throne room, near yet separated from the Privy Council Chambers and the office of the Lord of the Privy Council, the Royal Office was the day-to-day beating heart of the Arcadian government.  In its confines the ruler signed state papers, received visiting officials and nobles, and gave the Royal Assent to laws passed by the Federal Parliament (although like most Inner Sphere rulers, military command and foreign policy were firmly in the monarch's grip).

The reception area was under the tight guard of Lady Sophia Marik, daughter of the Count of Corin, and the official Royal Secretary.  With three secretaries below her, and immediate authority over the power armored detachment of the Household Guards that protected the Office itself, anyone could be forgiven for forgetting the young woman was herself only twenty-seven years old, barely older than the High King himself.

Sophia, a finely-featured woman of light brown hair and grayish blue eyes, arose from her desk beside the large, paneled doors leading to the Royal Office.  She was wearing a white and purple blouse and dress that was very formal looking and, Arnold thought contemptuously, very Marik.  Indeed, the purple eagle of House Marik's sigil was set over her heart. Yet were I to wear a Lyran fist I would be accused of Lyran nationalism, Arnold thought with some frustration.

That frustration was quickly forgotten as he recalled his purpose, and her sad link to it.  "Your Ladyship," he said politely.  "I need to see His Majesty, it is important."

"Understood, Lordship."  She pressed a key on her desk.  "Majesty, the Count of Stronburg is here to see you."

"Send him in."

Arnold took a breath and waited for the door to open.  The two Household Guardsmen, wearing sets of Chasseur light power armor, gave him salutes as he passed by, their automatic gauss rifles at attention.  He saluted them back as he passed by.

The office inside was richly furnished, although not as richly as one might see in, say, a corporate president's office.  Arnold knew by experience the personal office of Roman Brewer-Steiner, the Prince of Hesperus and leader of Defiance Industries, was far more opulent.  But here the need of prestige, for a certain look to the monarch's personal office, clashed with the traditional practicality and humility of House Proctor.  The couches and chairs weren't quite as expensive as others, and the art was not rare and valuable collectibles but all personal portraits of prior Proctors and other figures.  The many portraits included depictions of Count Andrew Laughlin, who helped negotiate the founding of the Arcadian Free March, as well as Archduke Joshua Marik, who essentially formed the "loyal" branch of House Marik that still governed on Atreus, joined portraits of all the ruling Proctors since Sara herself.  Arnold felt old grief fill him at the images of those he'd lost through his life.  The grandparents he'd not met, for instance, given the fabulous portrait of Thomas and Johanna in their prime of life, freshly crowned and leading their unified realm after the near-disaster of the War of Donegal Succession.  Arnold's dear uncle Ethan, with trimmed blond beard and brilliant blue eyes, brought back memories for Arnold of the desperate fighting in 3098 and 3099, and how much they owed to Ethan seeing them through the worst that Scipio O'Reilly could throw at them.  And Jacqueline herself, a loss the entire realm felt so keenly…

He focused his attention to the central desk, and the occupant there: Nathaniel Ethan Proctor, the twenty-five-year old High King of the Federation.  Much to the chagrin of many in the family, Nathaniel kept Jacqueline's habit of not using the Steiner name that, technically, was appended for all the descendants of Thomas and Johanna.  Arnold's younger cousin was fair-skinned, although his face bore some characteristics of the ancestors from India that he shared with his mother's family, House Umayr of Bolan.  His dark hair was finely combed and a proper Proctor brown, but his blue eyes, like Arnold's own, were firmly of Steiner origin.  He bore some resemblance to his paternal grandfather, the Royal Consort King James McQuiston-Stuart, in the shape of his cheekbones and his larger build.  Like his Royal Secretary he was wearing a set of what looked more like robes than a classic suit, with the chest red, the sleeves and lower garment blue, and gold trim to it all.  A white hawk fringed with gold on the wings was embroidered over the heart.  "Cousin."  He nodded to Arnold, who detected the twitch of a salute that was stopped.  It's taken a couple of months but at least he's remembering not to salute me first.

Instead it was Arnold's hand that came up in a formal salute to his monarch, who returned it with a nod.  "Your Majesty."

"You said there was an issue?  Has there been another attack?  The Dracs hitting around Alexandria again?"

"No, sire.  This is worse.  We've lost the 1st Battle Fleet."

Whatever his qualms about Nathaniel's worthiness as High King, Arnold was pleased to see the disbelieving expression begin to pale.  He recognized the severity of the news.  "The entire fleet?"

"And Training Force Siegfried," Arnold intoned gravely.


"It appears to have been a misjump of some sort."

The severe reaction turned to confusion.  "The entire fleet?  They all misjumped?" she asked

"So it would seem.  The Ghastillian contingent was lost as well."

"But… the odds of that…"

"...are quite low, yes," Arnold finished for him.  "I've already ordered an investigation into possible sabotage."

"Even sabotage would require every ship to have a saboteur," Nathaniel pointed out.

"This is the sort of thing the Mask would do.  Spend years making arrangements.  They might even have someone in Personnel to ensure all the ships would be assigned an infiltrator.  Whatever the method, it will be checked on.  In the meantime, I have already spoken with Grand Admiral Stewart.  The Command Staff will hold emergency meetings to discuss the situation, and all of our units on the border will be on standby alert for an attack."

"Yes, a wise choice."  The shock was already fading from Nathaniel's face.  He was thinking, which Arnold wasn't sure he liked.  He thinks too much.  "Do we have any other reports?  Some indication of what might have happened?"

"Just confused claims right now.  Rumors and stories."


Arnold sighed.  Here we go.  Millions of tons ofWarShip and five hundred BattleMechs go missing and he's worried about tall tales.  "We received one report of a persistent jump field remaining where the fleet was.  It has yet to be substantiated."

"We have ships on the way, right?"

At least it's a pertinent question.  "The Suwannee and her patrol group are burning for their JumpShips now, but they're three jumps away.  Even with the Royal Road we won't hear anything for days, not unless another JumpShip reports first.  And the Ghastillian authorities are already ordering that the nadir point at Atocongo be given a wide berth so this doesn't happen again."

"Right. A reasonable precaution." The young monarch's words belied the thought going on behind his eyes.

"You will attend the meeting, I would hope?"

"Of course.  Hopefully we will know more by then."

"Hopefully, but it will do little to improve the situation.  Our fleet has lost a quarter of its fighting power, and we've lost the 8th Strikers and 1st Kell Hounds as well.  The Ghastillians are short Wotan and their 4th Grenadiers.  Those are severe blows to our force levels.  And the wargames with the Principate and Canopians will have to be canceled."

"Regrettable, yes.  Is there anything else, Lord Arnold?"

"Nothing, sire.  By your leave?"

The nod was sufficient to give Arnold permission to withdraw.  'Regrettable'.  As if he wouldn't have canceled the war games himself if it wouldn't have caused a diplomatic row.

It was times like this that made Arnold all the more wistful for High Queen Jacqueline.  The old woman hadn't lost sight of the threats against them, and given half a chance she'd be marching them against the Capellan Empire or the Draconis Combine, whatever the damned Concert had to say about things.  To die as recklessly as she had… it was almost tantamount to dereliction of duty.

Don't fool yourself.  Jacqueline had the right attitudes, but '23 and the failure of MORNINGSTAR broke her spirit.  Even she might have rejected EAGLE CRY…

Nathaniel watched his distant cousin depart and drew in a breath.  An entire Battle Fleet lost. The AFS Arcadia itself, built and rebuilt twice after bringing desperate victories over the Terrans and the Oriento-Capellans in 3051 and 3098, was gone, as was her whole fleet.  The famed 8th Strikers and the best of the two Kell Hound regiments, likewise gone, along with the stalwart 4th Grenadiers, the heroes of the Buckminster campaign in 3117.

It defied comprehension.  One ship could misjump.  But dozens?  Ships relied on their own navigational data to avoid this sort of thing, and there were further safeguards.  How did so many navigational officers, military and auxiliary, all fail in precisely the same way, along with all the necessary failures of command and mechanism to produce a mass misjump?

It's no wonder Lord Arnold believes it to be sabotage. It was a convenient reason.  Convenient especially for those like Arnold who never reconciled themselves to the end of the War.

The War.  Twenty two years and it still shaped everything, as did his grandmother's failed challenge to the Peace of Dieron.  Its prominence was obvious: the outcome formed the modern Inner Sphere.  No worlds had traded hands by force since the final territorial dispositions, even the remaining conflicts were all by raiding, and none allowed to become greater.  For the first time since the Star League, the Inner Sphere's borders weren't changing.  For trillions like Nathaniel, that was a happy thing, but it seemed for others, it was a leash they struggled to snap loose from.  Now this incident might give Arnold and those like him the justification they needed.

But it made no sense. Sabotage was just as ludicrous a cause as any other.  If the Mask had that many spies and agents in the Royal Navy, they'd have been able to steal the ships just as easily as destroy them via misjump, and agents that skilled would be too valuable to lose callously. Would that many Mask agents have been so devoted and fanatical as to kill themselves?  Without a single one breaking down?  It defied comprehension.

There was something else.  It had to be something else.  He'd have to call up Professor Whateley at the Royal University and see if the hyperspace physicists there had any thoughts.  If this was some new phenomena, well, it had to be investigated.  They had to be sure this wouldn't happen again.  Losing all of those people…

A second jolt came to him.  Thoughtless, Nathaniel!  Thoughtless!  So wrapped up in the thinking you forgot there's more to it! All those people,, all their loved ones…  I should be the one, shouldn't I?  Just like Mother told me about my father…  He pressed his intercom key.  "Lady Sophia?  A moment?"

Within thirty seconds the doors opened. Sophia Marik entered and stood before him.  While her expression remained quite business-like, her face curled into a slight smile that matched his own.  "Your Majesty?"

"No."  He stood and shook his head.  "That's… not for this."

"Okay then.  Nathaniel."  She approached the desk, which he rounded so he could be close to her.  She'd need that.  "What is it?  I'm guessing Lord Arnold said something?"

"It's the news he came to convey," he replied.  "I should be the one to tell you."

The quiet joy and little smile left her face.  "Tell me what?"

There were so many ways to do this.  Going to quick would sound callous, drawing it out would just make it hurt more…  "The Arcadia is believed lost," he said.  "From a misjump."

Her face paled.  While she was as controlled as ever, he knew her well enough to see the blow was telling.  "Father's gone."

"His whole fleet.  And the troops with them."

"Dear God… how?"

"They're not sure.  We're still getting details."  His arms twitched a moment, as he thought of embracing her but stopped.  It wasn't his place.

It also wasn't necessary.  In this private place, where they didn't need appearances, she didn't bother trying to maintain them.  As sobs tore from her throat she sought comfort, and he gave it.  "Father, no.  It wasn't… he's not supposed to…"  She had no words after that, merely grief-stricken sobs, and as he had nothing to say to ease that grief, he chose to say nothing.

That was what you did for those you loved.

Nighttime was falling when the Command Staff meeting was set to begin.  Nathaniel traversed the corridors of the Palace toward the usual location,  the War Room, the large command theater in the subbasement levels that allowed him access to military information from across the realm, every report delivered in real time once it was received by the officers present.  He'd spent his first week of his rule in daily meetings there, seated in the upper conference room where windows could be set to transparent or opaque as needed, but since only attended biweekly meetings given his time was set so heavily to other matters.

The lift was manned by a House Guard in Chasseur light power armor.  The insignia of the 2nd Proctor Guards was on the shoulder, an open palm with a white and gold-winged hawk set into it.  The soldier, a woman of dark bronze complexion, saluted and reached to close the lift door.

Before it could close, another figure bounded through the door.  Despite everything Nathaniel felt a small grin crease his face at the sight of Prince Peter Proctor-Steiner, wearing a civilian formal suit like his own with the gold-winged hawk as lapel pins, and the crown sigil that marked him as Lord of the Privy Council.  The youngest brother of his late grandmother Jacqueline, Peter was a veteran of the War as were many in the family, fighting in the Arcadian Guards and Proctor Heavy Guards through the decade of battle that cost so many lives, including Nathaniel's father Prince James.  "Uncle."

"Nathaniel."  Peter stepped up beside him.  The trooper closed the lift door and keyed them down to the Command Level.  While the powered lift descended into the armored bunker beneath the Palace, Peter said, "It's been a rough day.  How is Lady Sophia?"

"Grieving.  I gave her the news."

"That was kind of you.  Hopefully we'll find out something.  Sometimes… ships survive misjumps.  They even end up close enough that they can be found and brought home."

"I'm praying for it."

They said nothing more until they arrived at the bottom.  Once they were in the rather more utilitarian, gray walls of the command bunker, Peter spoke again.  "Are you still intending…?"

"I am.  When the moment's right.  But not right now."

"She's a good match, don't let the others convince you otherwise," Peter said.  "I've been working the Privy Council to make sure there's no strong objections.  Honestly, just securing the succession will please most of them."

Nathaniel nodded.  An idle thought came to him.  "You know Tom Fitzroy finally asked Laura Michaels out on a date?"

Peter snorted.  Were it any of the others, Nathaniel would know the snort was directed at him and his casual interest in the lives of the civilian staff.  With his uncle… it could be 50/50.  "About time," he said noncommittally.

"It's so much easier for them.  They just have to work up the courage, and there's no politics involved.  No worry about complications to feudal contracts or property rights.  Just… love."

"That's a fairy tale view of commoner life."  The admonishment was clear in Peter's voice.  "And ignores a lot of the problems they have we never will.  In war they suffer the most easily and have fewer means to deal with that."

"It's why war is the last resort, or should be," Nathaniel said.

A look of forbearance for his nephew's views showed on the older man's face.  "Tell that to Yorinaga Kurita."

The reference to the Coordinator of the Draconis Combine made Nathaniel frown.  "I heard about New Wessex, but not the casualty count."

"As usual the Dracs are being dismissive and refusing to acknowledge any casualties, but our estimates are now up to seventy thousand dead, three hundred thousand displaced, about half of them in ISF resettlement and indoctrination camps."

Nathaniel frowned and shook his head.  "Is it…?"

Peter nodded stiffly.  "Butcher Ballymond is at it again, he has the 9th Galedon Regulars on the warpath.  The rebellion's probably going to sputter on a little longer, but they're all going to end up dead at this rate."

The reference to the warlord in charge of the Vega Prefecture, Tai-sho John Ballymond, was unwelcome.  Ballymond was an adherent to the reborn Combine and held a perfectly Kuritan view towards those who dissented; namely, that dissent was a cancer to be rooted out and should be punishable by death for the dissenter, their families, and usually anyone in the general vicinity just to be sure the cancer was gone.

"I want to give more to the refugees, and we should get a couple more units to the Alexandria and Arcturus Marches as a security measure," Peter continued.  "The 1st Arcturan Guards don't have the experience if Ballymond decides to send anyone after escapees, and the 17th Skye Rangers have been truculent lately about re-deploying.  And I'm sure Ballymond won't be sending a Legion of Vega this time."

"I'll give the order.  There's a few units that can be brought up from the Skye and New Earth Marches.  My missives with Emperor Robert have been making some progress."

That drew a sigh from Peter.  "I know Lady Jessup's supportive, but you really should be getting the others more input with this initiative of yours, Nathaniel.  Robert's not a slouch, and any wider peace with the Capellans will have a price attached."

"War would be costlier, Uncle, you know that, even if the Concert makes everyone stop before it goes far."

"I also know how things are in Skye lately, the last thing you need is to make them feel like you're leaving them to dangle."

Nathaniel sighed.  "I'm doing what I can.  I've approved greater funding to their economic expansion and stronger defenses.  I even granted a regiment of surplus Star League-quality BattleMechs to the March Militia."

"And that's all well and good, but it's not always enough.  Before you protest, I know there's little more you can do, and if you give them more, Tamarind will want more, and Bolan, and Arcturus… just be careful with the balancing act."

"I'm trying."  I'm always trying.  If only Grandmother lived longer...

Inwardly he felt guilty, as he always did when his thoughts ventured that way.  He'd wanted to give a gesture to his mother's part of the realm and chose the Bolan Heavy Guards to serve in when he got out of Ayrshire and his post-graduate semester at Tamarind Military Institute.  He was part-Umayr, after all, and the Bolan Heavy Guards deserved the recognition after all they'd done for the Federation.  But that entailed assignment to Bolan, and while he'd enjoyed being around his mother's family and helping to balance the squabbles of Bolan's quarrelling city-states, had he picked assignment to the Arcadian Guards he'd have been posted here, on Arcadia, and he'd have been able to learn from his grandmother directly.

Nathaniel banished those thoughts upon striding into the War Room.  Over two dozen specialists and officers manned various desks and controls, most pointed toward a large holotank that currently showed a stock image of the Inner Sphere and Near Periphery.  The Royal Federation glowed magenta on the display, something of a compromise color between Lyran blue and Marik purple given its cultural breakdown.  The Combine was an angry red and the Oriento-Capellans a rich purple.  While the current borders were well-marked, he noted the "proper" border was still showing too, depicting the worlds formerly in the Marik Commonwealth, Sirius and Procyon, and the Vega Prefecture as within the proper Royal Federation border.  It was something his grandmother ordered and the current AFRF stuck with, and reflected the bitter disappointment so many of them felt with the Congress of Dieron's drawn borders.

He idly wondered how other rulers showed similar maps.  Did Emperor Robert Halas-Liao have personnel depicting St. Ives and Victoria and Kittery in OCE colors instead of Federated Suns, maybe even Irian and Regulus as all still Imperial?  First Princess Grace Silver-Davion might very well see an ideal map that included Sarna and Bellatrix and other former Brethren-held worlds lost to the Empire, plus Kilbourne and Robinson and much of the Kilbourne Union, and they in turn might see Filtvelt and Malagrotta as theirs as well as the handful of worlds they didn't reclaim from the Combine.  And it was rather obvious what the Combine map would show (that is, everything under Combine rule).

Peter's hand on his shoulder reminded him of his purpose.  He led his uncle up the nearby metal stairs to the upper level and the conference room.  A number of the Command Staff were already present, including Lord Arnold, already in seats and going over noteputers and folders.  The table's holo-projector provided an image of Atocongo and Timkovichi systems side by side.

The last arrival was a man with snow-white hair and lithe build.  Grand Admiral Lord Malcolm Stewart, the uncle of the current Earl of Stewart, served as Chief of Staff of the AFRF.  He was officially Nathaniel's senior military advisor, although in truth he'd been appointed by Jacqueline just a couple months before her death and Nathaniel felt no reason to replace him so quickly.  He gave an uncertain eye to Nathaniel before saluting, and in turn was saluted; Nathaniel's early arrival was clearly something he considered out of sorts.

Once he was seated, Nathaniel spoke up.  "I'm sure we've all heard about the 1st Battle Fleet, but for sake of covering ground…" He nodded to Grand Admiral Stewart.

In his smooth Stewarter burr, the admiral laid out the details about the misjumps.  No other signs of the ships were known yet.  An investigation into sabotage was set to begin, but it was already rather obvious they wouldn't be very effective since the best evidence would be on the ships themselves.

"Sabotage doesn't make sense."  The female voice rose above the other murmurs.  With striking, bright green eyes and a tan bronze complexion, Dame Bethany Verdes-Shameel, an Army Field Marshal and head of the AFRF Engineering Corps, was a tall woman with dark hair not yet more grayed than the fringes.  Her uniform was well-kept, the only aberration being the locket hanging around her neck.

"Don't they, Marshal Verdes?" Arnold asked from his seat.  "It seems the only logical explanation.  Once you eliminate impossible explanations, whatever remains has to be the truth."

"Except there are too many practical issues involved," she replied stonily.  "Too many safety systems would have to be sabotaged on every single ship.  If the Capellans can infiltrate us to that degree, they'd be doing more than making ships misjump."

"So what's your explanation, Field Marshal?" Arnold asked.  "How else can you explain so many ships misjumping together?"

"We can't, not yet, not until we get more data."

"For what it's worth, I concur with Field Marshal Verdes."  The words, spoken with the particular accent of an Iaukean Islander of Arcadia, came from another of the room's Grand Admirals, Lord Samuel Keahi, a noble descendant of famed abolitionist guerrilla leader Auli'i Keahi.  Broad-shouldered and with the bronze complexion common to his people, descendants of Polynesian, Papuan, and Balinese settlers of the Iaukean Islands, the Baron of Molokai looked more like a former battle armor infantryman than a naval officer, even an intelligence officer, as he was the head of the Intelligence Department of the AFRF.  Noting the disagreeing look from Lord Arnold, he added, "We have extensive counter-intelligence assets checking for any Capellan infiltrators.  That they could infiltrate multiple ships, or high enough to somehow force bad jump coordinates over the heads of so many astrogation officers, is the realm of fantasy."

"It would also represent quite the embarrassment for your department, Lord Samuel."  The German-accented voice of Grand Admiral John Pastig, ruling Duke of the planet Bjornlunda and Chief of Naval Operations, had a sarcastic edge to it.  "I would rather the matter be investigated, given my service is the one to lose a quarter of its active fleet."

"Of course we're investigating the matter, but the idea defies reason!" Keahi shouted back.  "Besides, we have more data now, and it hints against a sabotage operation."

Nathaniel's eyes locked on the man.  "What do you mean, Lord Samuel?"

"We have a military intelligence liaison on Atocongo operating with Ghastillian Militia Command," Samuel explained.  "He's forwarded a report that confirms there is an artifact left by the fleet.  A persistent jump field, or something of the sort, marks the point in space where they jumped.  A Ghastillian JumpShip, the Grunstern, witnessed the jump and is burning toward the location to provide whatever readings they can.  It won't be much, I grant, but it would be something."

"Well, that is something."  Nathaniel folded his hands on the table.  "We do need to learn more about such a phenomena.  There are other concerns, though."

"We've lost a quarter of the fleet and a number of skilled forces.  The fleet in particular is the greatest loss.  It will take us years to make good on it."

"Yes.  Until that time, the Concert remains our best bet to avoid wider entanglements."

Even before speaking the words, he anticipated the hostile reaction.  The Concert was not widely loved in the AFRF's upper echelons.  These were men and women who felt that they'd been on the cusp of greater victories in 3120, and that the Concert did them wrong in '23.  Nathaniel remembered the attack on Sirius as the first time he understood what war was, and how much it disgusted him.  The entire thing was unnecessary, provoked by generals and admirals exploiting his father's death and his grandmother's bitter grief for it.  As if taking the planet where his father died would fix everything.

"We'll need the Skye and 4th Fleet to remain on station permanently," Admiral Stewart commented, not speaking for or against Nathaniel.  "This will complicate our naval deployment patterns, but we're fortunate that the peace with COMINTERSTEL remains solid.  If we can keep the Dracs and Cappies from cooperating, it will go far in buying the needed time to replace the Arcadia and her fleet.  Emergency construction orders will be necessary but the funding…"

The meeting adjourned with little fanfare.  It was getting late and the department heads had the regular peacetime duties of their positions awaiting them in the morning.  Nathaniel watched them go quietly.  They always frustrated him, especially Lord Arnold and the others most hostile to his support for the Concert.  As if war was the superior alternative, given all it'd cost the peoples of the Federation.

Given all that it'd cost him, and those he loved.

His memories of Prince James Proctor-Steiner were old holorecordings of the messages he sent home to his wife and son.  Princess Sita, his mother, played them with him as a child, enduring emotional agony given the depth she'd loved James, which was admittedly not an often thing among the nobility.  You didn't marry for love, after all, you married to improve the dynasty and expand links to other great families.  But for Sita, the long-desired match of an Umayr to a Proctor heir was a gift from the gods, as James was "the most kind and gentle lord a lady could ask for".

Jacqueline was different, of course, but James' death wounded her as deeply.  Sita was a pacifist studying agricultural sciences and spearheading the effort to expand arable land on Bolan.  Jacqueline had been a Warrior Queen, the first such Proctor since Sara the Liberator won her crown by her own hand, stubborn and willful and death in the cockpit of a BattleMech.  And yet, in the end, she'd lost her son in a battle her injuries and position denied her participation in.  Giving up the planet he died taking, then failing to capture it by force in defiance of the newly-formed Concert, was something Nathaniel saw as the cause of her own inevitable death.  All her escapades, her 'Mech duels and grueling lifestyle in defiance of her injuries and age, until she finally failed at the wrong moment and lost her life.

A hand touched his shoulder.  He looked up into the face of Prince Peter.  "Uncle.  You were rather quiet."

"You were handling them well enough," Peter said, his voice full of gentle pride.  "And it's good for their perception of you to be the one speaking."

"Arnold will not relent."

"True.  But you won't either, and that's what matters."

"He's angling for the Chief of Staff position, and I'm not inclined to give it to him."

Peter sighed.  "I know you're not, but that's not going to do you any favors with the senior staff."

"And the rank and file?"

"That depends, he's not a popular man there.  But you're not universally popular either."

"I was trying to extend a hand to Bolan.  They've had their concerns put by the wayside often enough," Nathaniel pointed out.

"You needn't defend yourself on that count to me.  As I said, balancing the components of the Federation is always going to be tricky.  Speaking of which, you should consider scheduling your first official visit to Tharkad and Skye soon."

"I will.  Once this mess clears up."  Nathaniel stood.  "Thanks, Uncle, you've been there for me since… well, since I could think."

"Doing right by my sister, and my nephew." Peter's voice strained a little.  "I was too slow to save him on Sirius.  The least I could do is make sure his son is okay."  The old pain was clear on his face.

"And all I can do is be the ruler he'd have wanted me to be," Nathaniel replied, embracing his uncle.

Their tender moment was interrupted by a knock at the door.  Peter got there first, where an AFRF Lieutenant with an intelligence branch insignia - crossed keys under a miniature sphinx figure - stood, an intent expression on her face.  "Your Majesty, Your Lordship, you'll want to hear this."

They followed her out into the War Room proper.  The Watch Officer, an Aerospace Force Group Captain of Afro-Asian ancestry with the name M'Buta on his uniform, saluted and nodded to another officer.

The central holotank display came alive with the visage of a dark-skinned woman with a spacer's pale complexion, wearing a jumpsuit common to long-service JumpShip crews.  "We received this message on high priority from Atocongo, Majesty," Group Captain M'Buta explained.

"I am Captain Greta Gunderson of the Grunstern, addressing authorities in Ghastillia and the Royal Federation.  My ship has detected a sensor drone emerging from the unknown jump field here. The probe is relaying information from an Arcadian naval vessel.  It is requesting that the drone be remotely dispatched back into the field with acknowledgement of receipt.  Some of the message is coded and I cannot read it, but the uncoded part makes clear that the ships that misjumped are intact and their crews and passengers alive on the other end.  I will await confirmation of receipt by related governments before I send a reply.  Grunstern out."

"Oh thank God," Peter gasped.

Nathaniel heard the news.  "Send immediate acknowledgement, thank Captain Gunderson and ask her to make contact with our people.  Let them know we're sending ships to investigate.  Group Captain, have the data decoded and prepared for the Command Staff and myself.  We'll go over it first thing in the morning."

"Yes, Majesty."

"And… which set of command codes came with the coded segment?  Can you show me?"

Captain M'Buta gestured to another of the officers.  The arriving data was still being loaded, but within ten seconds they had a reply.  "Code is from Admiral Lord Paul Marik, CO 1st Battle Fleet," the naval Lieutenant replied.

"I'll see you later, Uncle," Nathaniel called out, already rushing for the stairs leading down to the War Room's entrance. By then he was nearly at a run, and would be by the time he was in the corridor.  He made it to the lift where the same soldier from before was still on duty.  "Up, now!"

She wordlessly operated the control, and the lift ascended.

Once the doors opened again he rushed out into the corridors.  Surprised expressions were his reward whenever he passed a member of palace staff or one of the security agents on duty, and a part of him knew it was inappropriate for him to be running like this.  But he had to get where he was going, and quickly.  This had to be shared.

His course took him to the main gallery of the Palace, where portraits of battles and individuals abounded, and he swiftly ascended the stairs to the side, took a corridor, then more stairs, until finally arriving in the residential suites.  Bewildered security men saw him through, escorting him and clearly wondering why he was running.

For all his exercise regiment kept him fit, Nathaniel was still nearly out of breath when he arrived at the door of fine white wood.  He knocked vigorously and spent the wait regaining his breath before it opened.  Sophia Marik was in her nightrobe, modest and no longer in any makeup, if yet still plainly beautiful to his eyes.  Her cheeks were still wet with tears, and the pain on her face gave way to an expression of surprise.  "Nathan— Your Majesty, what is the matter?"

"Your father's alive!" he blurted out.  "They've made contact!  He's still alive!"

Her chest heaved from the rushed breath that escaped her lungs.  Disbelief briefly appeared before giving way to inescapable hope.  "He's alive?"  She asked the question haltingly, as if she couldn't dare say more lest the universe reverse it all.

"Yes!  We don't know how or what happened to him, but we received a message under his codes.  It couldn't come from anyone else."

For a moment she remained silent.  Only a moment.  Then the tears came back.  She threw her arms around him, overcome with joy, and sobbed happily into his chest as his arms embraced her in turn.

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