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Frederick Steiner and the Man (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 4[]

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Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little[]

Book 2


Small Talk between Allied Mercenaries[]

Danford, Altair
Dieron District, Draconis Combine
7th January, 3018


“Shut up!” Natasha Kerensky demanded, even though Max hadn’t said anything yet.

It was true that she looked magnificent when she was angry, but she looked pretty amazing all the time, Max thought. Either she was mad 100% of the time or she was just good looking in general. He was leaning towards the second theory but given clan genetic engineering and sociology, the other option was a serious consideration.

“I’d say congratulations on being a better Mechwarrior than I am even without sand filters on your ‘mech, but that’s an awfully low bar.”

“You’re living dangerously, Baron.” the Wolf’s Dragoon warned.

Max laughed. “Aren’t we all?” He shook a canteen to indicate that it was still half-full of liquid and then tossed it to her.

The Black Widow caught it easily, uncapped it and sipped from the contents. “I am a generous goddess,” she declared. “I shall accept your appeasement.” Then she passed the canteen to ‘Gentleman’ Johnny Clavell, whose Rifleman was next to her Warhammer - both of them being swarmed over by technicians who were getting the sand out of the joints before fitting the filters.

“To be fair,” Clavell proved his moniker to be apt, “He did warn us.”

Kerensky gave her second-in-command a beady eye.

Altair was a dry, sandy world that was only habitable because underground rivers hydrated a few regions. Still, it was mineral rich and almost within spitting distance of Terra. Even close to nine hundred years of mining hadn’t exhausted its wealth and when the Succession Wars broke out, the planet had fallen under the control of the Draconis Combine.

The Black Widow Company, the Seventh Lyran Regulars, and Team Banzai had come here to change that - the small Wolf's Dragoonsdetachment present partly as a liaison with the bulk of their forces and partly because Team Banzai had only two full battalions to their name: the Hong Kong Cavaliers and the Blue Blazers. Their remaining company and a half, plus the Black Widows and Frederick Steiner’s command lance was functionally operating as the third battalion.

“You did,” the redhead admitted to Max at last. “Not that it did the Eighteenth Dieron Regulars much good.”

“I noticed.” He accepted the return of his now empty canteen and gestured to the spare camp stools in the little corner of the repair base that he’d been using as an impromptu office. “How many of that company did you bring down - eight?”

Jenner Light BattleMech (backing up) (Farseer Animation)

Jenner Light 'Mech

“Nine - two Jenners and a Locust got away.” Kerensky admitted. “Too fast with the way the sand slowed us down.”

Locust (Unseen version in field)

Locust Light 'mech

Max nodded. “That’s the biggest single hit they’ve taken since landing. How are we doing for salvage?”

“One Hunchback looked like a loss except for parts scavenging,” Clavell told him. “The other eight might be fit for restoration.”

“Thanks.” The balding man made a note. “I’ll flag you to be informed once we verify that, so you can let me know what you want to claim as your share.”

Hunchback (Firing - Hard Wired Ep2 - TMC group )

Hunchback Medium 'Mech

Kerensky perched herself on one of the camp-stools and fanned herself. Wearing shorts and a halter top, she was a spectacular sight but Max had more or less gotten used to Mechwarriors dressing like that when on ops. It was impressive that the woman drew his eye anyway, but he felt no need to do anything more than enjoy the opportunity to look.

“You’re diligent,” she admitted. “And for a pack of scientists, Banzai’s little experiment in mercenary work is working out.”

“It turns out that having a functional brain isn’t an impairment when it comes to piloting.” Max shot back.

The Black Widow grinned: “So when will you get one?”

“I have one - it’s currently on General Steiner’s desk.”

“What is?” asked an amused voice.

Max leant back, craned his neck and saw Doctor Buckaroo Banzai (who did indeed look very much like Peter Weller) emerging from one of the tents behind him. “My brain,” he informed the scientist/mechwarrior laconically.

“I hope it’s in a suitably refrigerated jar, human organs don’t handle the heat well.”

“Natasha was actually complimenting your regiment.” Clavell observed, taking another stool for himself.

“Don’t get too excited,” the woman declared. “I was just saying they don’t suck as badly as this bald bastard.”

“My parents were married actually.” Max protested.

Natasha blinked and he could almost see the ‘oh, right, that’s what it means’ behind her eyes. “My point stands.”

“I will accept the rare example of praise,” Banzai declared and lifted the emptied canteen, set it down again and picked up another one, this one still containing some water. “Is there any tactical update?”

“The Black Widows hammered the Regulars’ rearguard pretty hard,” Max replied. “Nine out of twelve ‘mechs down before the sand forced a break in contact.”

“Ah.” The doctor turned and looked at the technical crews. “We can have filters fitted on your ‘Mechs by tomorrow, Captain. If you’re now willing.”

“We gratefully accept the offer.” Clavell said once it was clear Kerensky wasn’t going to say anything.

Banzai nodded. “We’ll get it done then.”

One more thing I’ve changed, Max thought. He wasn’t entirely sure how Team Banzai had formed in the history he remembered, but he was sure they’d been in service with House Davion and had mixed teaching at NAIS with defending New Avalon by 3025 - and probably for most of the previous decade. But when more than fifty expert ‘mechwarriors arrived on Duran under Doctor Banzai’s leadership - and listed three times that many subjects that they could between them teach at Duran A&M - he hadn’t hesitated to sign them up on Frederick’s authority.

More had arrived, and by the time Frederick left for Uhuru it had been plain that there was no short-term need to keep a Lyran Regular unit on Duran as garrison.

Mind you, that had changed with Team Banzai joining this operation, but even so… he’d somehow blundered into providing the Lyrans with an elite regiment. He just wasn’t sure how - something to do with the Halstead Collection? NAIS hadn’t been opened at this point, rather than being three years old as it would have been ‘originally’. While Duran A&M wasn’t comparable, it was definitely a rising institution. Was that why? Or was rumor of the extent of the library available there beginning to spread?

“Is there any news from offworld?” Doctor Banzai asked as he opened a ration-pack.

“Another regiment of the Dieron Regulars seems to be inbound on Dieron.” Max answered. “Given how Colonel Wolf and the rest of the Dragoons are doing, that’s not going to offset the defender’s losses. Nothing definite on more reinforcements but I’d expect more.”

Altair wasn’t unimportant, but it was a sideshow: one of three worlds that were being taken opportunistically while the Warlord of Dieron had no choice but to try to defend his district capital against bulk of the Wolf's Dragoons and six entire brigades of LCAF conventional forces. If Dieron failed, then the gain of Altair, Yorii, and Asta would be some consolation for the Lyran Commonwealth.

The main concern that Max had was the arrival of garrison forces for the three worlds. The feat of shipping the Dieron invasion force had tied up JumpShips for weeks and it would be weeks more before the next wave of troops arrived. Until then, there wasn’t all that much support available to hold ground.

“That would make sense,” Banzai agreed. “I’d expect the Coordinator to be bringing their strategic reserve to bear.”

“That’s why there are operations hitting them all along the border,” Max told him. “AFFS and LCAF units are launching reconnaissance in force operations that look a lot like what we’re doing here. It’s hard to be certain, but ideally there should be pushback from Rasalhague, Galedon, and Benjamin over any orders to send their reserves to fight for Dieron.”

“And Pesht is on the far side of the Combine,” Clavell noted. “Getting reserves from there won’t be easy.”

“I was hoping for some more impressive resistance,” complained Natasha. “If the Eighteenth fade into the desert and play hit and run, this is going to get tedious.”

“I’m okay with this being easy. I lived in the slums on Summer for a couple of years and I was living better than some of the middle-class areas here,” Max told her. “There may be brighter parts of the Combine where things are better for House Kurita’s subjects, but until I see one I’m happy to see worlds liberated from them.”

“You really hate them.” she said.

“No.” He shook his head. “They aren’t even the worst people in the galaxy, but they’re the ones I can reach and do something about.”

Doctor Banzai nodded soberly. “Starting where you can reach is a constructive way to proceed.”

“So who do you hate?” asked Natasha curiously.

Max looked at her. “There’s another bunch of snakes that decided to conquer a three planet state out in the Periphery. Not in and of itself worse than anything that’s been done here.”

She nodded.

“They killed ninety percent of the population of that state.” Max kept his voice calm. “They liberated those people from freedom, from prosperity, and from being alive.”

“That’s almost Kentares levels of atrocity,” Doctor Banzai exclaimed. “I trust someone stopped them?”

“To the best of my knowledge,” Max said, “The Cloud Cobras didn’t face the slightest consequences.”

Natasha went very still. “Do you know where they are?”

“Not exactly,” he told her. “Deep in the coreward periphery. The story was passed from trader to trader, but they had enough hard data that I don’t think it’s exaggerated.”

Doctor Banzai reached over and slapped his shoulder. “Like I said. Do something about the problems within your reach, before you worry about those further away.”


A Call in the Middle of the Night[]

District City, Kathil
Capellan March, Federated Suns
31st January, 3018

The buzz of his comm woke Hanse Davion from a deep and happy sleep. Before his hand reached the handset, he’d determined two things: the buzz was one that signaled an emergency, and that it had also woken Dana.

That gave his voice a certain snap as he answered. “Davion speaking.” His wife needed as much sleep as she could get - even her usual vigor was being sapped by her pregnancy.

“Sir, we have a Priority Alpha from New Avalon. It’s flagged as Code Canine.”

He could feel Dana’s alarm from where she lay in his arms. That priority meant that the message would have been bounced from HPG to HPG as quickly as they could be powered up and set for the next link in the chain. Not much was so time sensitive as to require that. And Code Canine was the current status for a royal-grade message: intended for himself, Ian or a tiny handful of others.

“I’ll unlock my console,” he told the poor man in the comm center. Almost certainly more excitement than he’d really wanted at this time of night.

Dana sat up so that Hanse could move his arm out from under her. “Should I step outside?” she offered.

“What?” he asked her as he threw his legs over the side of the bed. “No, you’re cleared for Canine and be damned if you should leave your own bed.”

His wife lay on her back and rested her hands on her belly. “I suppose this little one isn’t a security risk yet.”

“I don’t think we’ll share a bedroom with them after the birth. Except for moments of extreme importance.” Hanse found the console without turning the lights on, the cord on the handset just long enough. “Alright,” he told the operator as he keyed in his password. “I’m in, send it through and log one secure copy until I confirm receipt.”

That was standard procedure for Canine: once he had his own copy to watch, all others would be scrubbed. Except whatever ComStar retained, of course. Hopefully the encryption would hold, but who on New Avalon could be sending him something…? Still sleep-blurred, Hanse worked his way through the list… It would have to be Yvonne Davion, he decided as the bar showing the file being sent reached full.

“Alright, I’ve got it.” he declared.

“Thank you sir. I’m wiping our copy now.”

“Have a good night.” Hanse went back to the bedside and set the handset down. “This had better be good.”

Dana shook her head, not lifting it from the pillow. “No news is good news.”

He sighed. “Point to you.” Starting the message, he sat on the edge of the bed to watch.

The ComStar logo appeared on the screen, not the AFFS or Federated Suns banner he’d expected. When it cleared, he realized that Yvonne was in one of the neutral recording rooms in an HPG station, not her office. Why would she do that? A cold chill went down his spine… His distant cousin - more of an aunt, really - looked far older than she had at their wedding. Decades older.

<<}“Hanse, I don’t know how long this will take to get you,”}>> she told him. <<}“Right now it’s the thirtieth…”}>> She looked aside. <<}“No, very early on the thirty-first.”}>>

“Less than a day ago,” Dana noted, checking the clock. They were almost an hour from midnight, having turned in early for once.

On the screen, Yvonne straightened and looked right at the camera. <<}“Hanse, you need to be on New Avalon. As fast as you possibly can. Leave the minute you’ve heard this message. It can’t wait.”}>>

Hanse wanted to look at his wife, exchange the silent ‘why’ that both were asking, but he didn’t want to look away.

<<}“I’m sorry,”}>> Yvonne’s recorded voice continued. <<}“Ian is dead.”}>>

“No!” The word burst from him. His hand automatically reached back and he felt Dana’s palm and fingers close around it.

<<}“Ian was killed in action on the twenty-fourth,” the Marshal of the Crucis March continued. <<}“Reports were diverted by someone and I only just found out. The details… It's ugly. We believe the DCMS has his body.”}>>

Another gut-punch. Ian was on Proserpina, a Combine world. More than one First Prince had died on the border - more than a few, really. But they’d always been recovered, died in a victory or at the least a relief force had managed to drag them away before they could be treated like some obscene trophy.

Not Ian. No, not him. Please god.

Yvonne’s eyes were hollow and Hanse knew what she was feeling. She loved their First Prince, for all his foibles. For all his decision to let the Hasek’s smash her career, he was still a boy not unlike the children of her own body. She was as devastated by this as he was…

And that, as much as the warmth of his wife’s hand, forced him to control himself. If Yvonne could force herself to send this message, then he could bear to hear it.

<<}“Whoever diverted the message has forwarded it on,”}>> Yvonne continued. <<}“I believe, to New Syrtis and to other key worlds with High Council representation. I can only assume that Council members will start towards New Avalon as soon as they hear. I’m going to send word to as many of our allies as possible, to avoid a quorum that’s weighted in the Duke’s favor, but I don’t know how much time or preparation he has for this. It was enough to keep me ignorant for almost a week, so there’s definitely some.”}>>

And then, urgently - painfully: <<}“I don’t know who to trust anymore. You need to come home, Hanse. Now. Before it’s too late.”}>>

The recording cut back to the ComStar logo.

Hanse forced himself to inhale slowly. Exhale. His pulse was thundering in his ears.

Dana let go of his hand and for a moment he felt adrift, then he felt her arms around his shoulders. Her face against his hair. Their child between them.

“Is the threat real?” she asked quietly.

Hanse nodded, slowly. “I’m heir presumptive, but Marie only voided her own claim. The High Council can rule in Michael’s favor as her husband, or appoint him as regent for Morgan. It’s one of the few powers they have left in practical terms.”

Since the start of the Succession Wars - before that, really. Since before the Star League, House Davion had been steadily expanding their control of the Federated Suns at the expense of the High Council that was made up of the leaders of member-worlds in the Federation. Long before Hanse’s birth, the High Council had been reduced to essentially rubber-stamping the First Prince’s chosen policies. But now they had a chance to make a difference and the members wouldn’t be human if none of them at least considered doing so.

Dana exhaled slowly, his hair stirring in it. “Alright. Worst case scenario?”

“He’s appointed as First Prince and we’re quietly gotten rid of so we’re not a rallying point against him.”

She drew her head back, then rested it against him. “Worst case.”

“Not that probable, at least the last part. But Michael’s smart, he wouldn’t try if he didn’t like his chances on the first part.”

“And the best case?”

“We get there, and they hail me as First Prince.” Hanse closed his hands around his knees. “I don’t want to be First Prince!”

“I know. But is there a middle road?”

“I… don’t think so.” He forced himself to reach up, to rest his hands on hers. “And if I want to have any say…”

Dana kissed the back of his neck. “So we’re going to New Avalon.”

“We…”

“For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” She held him a moment longer and then released him. “You chase up the dropships and jumpships to get us there, I’ll make sure our gear is packed. We’ll get through this… together.”


Ally Exercise[]

Nadir Jump Point, Dieron
Dieron District, Draconis Combine
4th March, 3018

Frederick Steiner was adrift in the zero-g of the compartment. He found it curiously relaxing to do this but it was rarely feasible for any great length of time. Usually he would be aboard a dropship that was under thrust, or the jumpship was using its Kearny-Fuchida drive so he would be strapped down.
But since his own task force was waiting for a second to join them at Dieron’s nadir point, so that they could combine their aerospace defenses during the flight to the planet itself, there was no point engaging thrust for a few hours of gravity at the expense of fuel. And thus, he was able to simply close his eyes and imagine that he was amid the stars…

“Sorry to disturb your nap.” Max told him from the bunk where his secretary was strapped in and reading a book.

Reaching out, Frederick found a stanchion easily in reach and pushed himself down to the deck. “I’m sure.”

“I am!” the older man drew the last word out with mock petulance. “But business calls. A K-F signature is forming - the bridge estimates that it’s something large.”

“If they’re on schedule, that’s our reinforcements.” Frederick pulled on his uniform jacket while Max unstrapped himself.

“And if it isn’t, we’re in the shit.”

“That depends.” Unless there had been a couple of aerospace wings ready to jump in, Frederick thought that they’d be alright. And that wasn’t that likely. If they had been available, the Warlord of Dieron Military District would have probably already called them in to help him fight off the Wolf's Dragoons. After weeks of fighting, Marc DuQuesne had to be getting frantic.

The pair went up the stairwell to the Retribution’s bridge and found the compartment red-light, the crew strapped into their seats with eyes locked on their consoles.

“Not quite a minute until they jump in,” the captain reported without prompting. “One jumpship, heavily loaded. Has to be a Star Lord or a Monolith.”

“We’re expecting a Star Lord,” Max noted.

“We’ll find out in a moment.” Frederick strapped himself down in case the Retribution started to maneuver, Max taking the seat next to him. Around them, the other dropships of the Seventh Lyran Regulars were doing the same, and presumably the Union-class dropship carrying the Black Widows was as well. Team Banzai had remained on Altair after the Eighteenth Dieron Regulars loaded their depleted force and an as-yet-undetermined amount of the planetary militia.

The rest of the militia were lurking in the deserts, lashing out where they could. It was almost certainly not going to change the fate of Altair but it was keeping Team Banzai (now expanding up to a full regiment with the benefit of salvage) from joining the battle on Dieron.

The same logic was keeping the Tenth Skye Rangers and Tenth Lyran Regulars pinned down on Asta and Yorii respectively: the inbound garrison forces would be focused on breaking down the existing government and police structure and working on transitioning back to Lyran levels of both.

That left Frederick with limited options to assist the Wolf's Dragoons. Jaime Wolf’s reports made it clear he’d mauled the local militia and Ninth Sun Zhang Cadet Cadre to the point that they’d been essentially folded into an auxiliary force for the Fifth Sword of Light, but the confined battlefields formed by Dieron’s massive mountain ranges meant that the Dragoons hadn’t been able to fully exploit their larger numbers until Warlord Duquesne had managed to bring in reserves.

Once the Eighteenth Regulars arrived - a day or two - they’d be joining three of their brother-regiments as well as the Second Legion of Vega, tipping the balance of numbers against Jaime Wolf.

In a flare of visible light and of radiation only detectable by the Retribution’s sensors, a jumpship exited hyperspace. Frederick leant forwards and looked at the visual display, magnified and refined enormously due to distances that would have left the Mark I Eyeball quite inadequate.

He exhaled in relief at seeing the Lyran fist visible upon the Star Lord-class jumpship, just as one technician confirmed: “It’s the Tedric, sir. We’re exchanging confirmation codes, but it’s her.”

The long, needle-like jumpship sported six egg-like dropships. Two of them could have been reflections of the Retribution: massive Excalibur-class combined arms transports - and the other four were Overlords, each carrying a battalion of the Third Royal Guards.

“Your old regiment.” Max noted.

“The Pride of Tamar,” he agreed, thinking back for a moment to Summer and the last time he’d fought with them. The Third Guards had been assigned to the mission but only under tight constraints, held in reserve so that it shouldn’t be obvious that they were available for deployment. If it was possible for victory to be accomplished without them, they would be held back. If the operation fell apart, they would be available only to help extract the forces committed.

But the middle road, the range of possibilities he’d agreed with Katrina… they did include committing them for decisive effect if the battle was in the balance. Frederick had felt the temptation to call on them from the first day, the call to commit his best troops right away. But Katrina had been right: that would have wasted them. Keeping them fresh and out of sight meant that he had them now, when they were really needed.

“Sir.” A crewman unstrapped and carried a headset over to him. “General Steiner wants to speak to you.”

“This could get confusing.” Max noted, taking the headset and passing it over.

He wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t a new issue either. “Pete, welcome to Dieron.”

“Let’s save that for once we’re on the surface.” his cousin replied.

Frederick felt a pang of empathy for the older officer. Just as Katrina had leapfrogged him in ranks once, he too had risen faster and higher than Pete Steiner, who was from one of the more distant branches of House Steiner but was certainly an admirable officer. “Fair enough.”

Pete sounded uncomfortable. “Are you listening to me privately? I have a message for you from the Archon.”

“Just a moment.” Frederick glanced at Max and mouthed ‘privacy’. What could be sensitive?

The balding man nodded and left his seat, stepping over to the communications officer’s console. After an exchange of words and some controls being adjusted, Max gave Frederick a thumbs up.

“Alright, Pete. No one should be able to hear you now.”

“Good.” The older man took a deep breath. “LIC has some troubling reports from the Federated Suns. They believe that they’re pulling out of the offensive.”

Frederick’s first thought was that that was impossible, but he bit that response back. Simon Johnson wouldn’t say such a thing without reason, and Katrina wouldn’t have sent the message unless she believed there was something to it. “What are the reports saying?”

“There are reports of regiments that were supposed to be in action returning ahead of schedule. The Thirty-Sixth Avalon Hussars and Fourth Deneb Light Cavalry were supposed to be joining operations but the jumpships supposed to carry them didn’t arrive so they aren’t going anywhere. In addition, although they wouldn’t usually meet until autumn, our ambassador reports a third of the High Council are on New Avalon and more are arriving with every jumpship.”

“I see. Has Ian Davion made any statement?”

Pete’s voice was grim. “We have no verified communication from the First Prince for over a month. It’s not unusual for him to leave recorded statements to be released on upcoming events that can be predicted, while he’s actually on the battlefield, but they’re usually intercut with the occasional live report. Right now, we have nothing like that.”

Frederick frowned. On their own, that proved nothing. The shift of jumpships might be a simple change in targets to respond to a developing situation. There had been more than enough time for the situation to alter from expectations. Ian Davion was hardly obligated to tell them that, but at the same time…

He’d expect him to. The First Prince seemed committed to building bridges with the Lyran Commonwealth. Keeping them in the dark wasn’t in line with that.

What was the High Council doing? Frederick had to remind himself of their role. They were almost the inverse of the Estates-General, which was in theory merely a group of representative advisors with no actual authority save that delegated to them by the Archon - but in practical terms the custom of them holding those delegated powers had real force. The High Council was older as an institution than the office of First Prince, and in theory had at least equal power. It was just that in practical terms, that power had been stripped away while the Estates-General had risen in comparison to the point that they had been a critical political battleground in deposing Archon Alessandro Steiner.

A chill went down his spine. The High Council couldn’t be doing something of the same kind?

“That’s concerning,” he admitted out loud. “Has the Archon altered my orders?”

“No.” He could almost see Pete shake his head. “But she may have to. If we don’t start getting clear messages that the Suns are carrying out their side of the operations, she’ll authorize no further strikes into the Combine. That means you have about two months before the other warlords have no real excuse not to back up Duquesne’s district.”
“I’d say closer to six weeks,” Frederick calculated. “Thanks Pete. We’re on a tight timescale then. But we’re not out of cards to play yet. Even if the AFFS isn’t going to back our play, Jaime Wolf’s had Duquesne on the backfoot for a while now. And there’s no regiment down there on either side that’s the equal of yours.”

“Thanks. I’ll see you on Dieron.” Pete cut the transmission with those laconic words.

Frederick took the headset off and looked at the captain. “Eight and a half days to reach Dieron?”

“At one standard gravity, sir.”

“We’re making the initial run in at one point five,” he ordered. “Then decelerate at one-gee so the troops have some chance to recover.” It was going to be rough, but with the clock ticking faster than he’d thought, every hour saved could make all the difference in the world.

Max met his eyes with an implicit question. Frederick squared his shoulders and ignored him. He’d tell him later, right now he needed to update his key officers on the change of plans without revealing why. Everyone knew the AFFS had their backs. Morale would take a beating once the certainty of that cracked.


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