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Frederick Steiner and the Man (Chapter Cover Art)

Prologue[]

Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little[]

“The greatest and noblest pleasure which we have in this world is to discover new truths, and the next is to shake off old prejudices.”
- Frederick the Great


Curitiba, Summer
Federation of Skye, Lyran Commonwealth
4 May 3005


The hospital garden had been left deserted by both patients and staff, thin rain falling over the capital of Summer and trickling like tears down the floor to ceiling windows of the gallery that encircled the small space.

Hauptmann-Kommandant Frederick Steiner found the weather appropriate and headed for the door, one hand wrapped around a plastic cup of truly terrible coffee. Rain falling into the cup would hardly make the brew any worse and he needed to work off the frustrated energy that was boiling inside him. There weren’t many opportunities for that inside the planet’s largest hospital.

The broad-shouldered blond was about to push the door open so he could stride back and forth across the small garden, when a patient strode past, expression reflecting much the same helpless anger that Frederick felt.

‘One of ours?’ No, he didn’t recognise the face below the bandage circling the head as belonging to any of the Third Royal Guards’ mechwarriors and the crown of the man’s head was bare of the light blond hair visible around the top and bottom of the bandage, usually the mark of a mechwarrior using a second-rate neurohelmet, needing to shave some of their hair off so the sensors of the helmet fit close enough. ‘Militia perhaps?’ The Third Royal Guards’ equipment was better than that – one of the perks of being one of the Lyran Commonwealth’s crack regiments.

The rather paunchy middle-aged man didn’t look like an elite soldier, but he knew that appearances could be deceiving. “Were you wounded in the attack?” Frederick enquired; his voice more grating than he’d intended.

The Draconis Combine Mustered Soldiery had hit Curitiba hard, most of the damage falling upon the estates of the wealthy around Mount Curitiba. Objectively, Frederick knew that hitting the other city districts would have caused vastly more casualties, not something that House Kurita’s commanders generally cared about. Emotionally though… he didn’t know the people in those districts.

The upper crust of Summer’s society included many of his friends. He’d spent a couple of months here before entering Sanglamore for his final year of military education - acclimatizing himself to the society he’d been about to enter. The young cadet he’d been back then had been made particularly welcome by the Lestrades…

Frederick didn’t know what his face showed of his black mood, but the patient stepped back defensively. “Sorry,” the officer grunted. Failure was a bitter pill. The Third had been too late. He had been too late.

The blue eyes looking back at him from below the bandage softened slightly in understanding. “I’d ask if you want to talk about it, but you look more like a do-er than a talker.”

“Ha!” The younger man’s head jerked sharply. “You’re not wrong.”

“Given the weather, I was going to see if the hospital gym had anything for venting frustration. Therapeutic exertion or some such…”

“That… sounds like a good idea.” He didn’t have anything else to do while he waited to hear if the last few Lestrades on Summer made it… or learn that he’d failed them completely. The patient’s hospital gown wouldn’t allow him outside. “Do you know the way?” He sipped from his cup and grimaced at the taste - or lack thereof.

The wounded man shook his head. “No, but I figured I could read the signs.” He rubbed his eyes, the gesture choppy with frustration. “If they weren’t so blurry.”

“Should you be out of bed?”

“No one should be in hospital, but it seems to kind of happen.”

For a moment, Frederick considered insisting the man go back to whatever ward he was in, but if the head injury really meant he shouldn’t move then he’d probably be tied down. Curitiba Royal Infirmary was the best hospital on the planet, meaning they got the worst patients – many of them military. They knew how to keep people from wandering off if medical logic required it. And finding a weight bag or something to pummel sounded good right now. “I think I can help you with that.”

Looking around for the signs he spotted the one for the gym - tagged as requiring the stairs to get to it. “This way.” He swapped the coffee to his left hand and offered his right. “Erick.” It was his usual pseudonym when he didn’t want people to realize they were talking to the Archon’s nephew. Royal rank had its privileges, but it also got in the way of talking to actual people.

“They call me Max.”

When they shook, his hand didn’t have the calluses Frederick would have suspected. “Call you?”

“Ja. Whatever hit my head scrambled something up here.”

Amnesia? It sounded like something that belonged in a holovid, not real life.

‘Max’ - presumably Max Mustermann, the usual placeholder for a corpse that no one had identified yet - must have seen Frederick’s skepticism. “Stupid, isn’t it? I don’t know who I am, and what I do remember suggests I’d have to be a thousand years old and all this…” He gestured at… essentially everything around them… as they entered the stairwell. “Is part of a game. Which… objectively makes no sense, I admit.”

“You belong in a psych ward.” Shit, that was insensitive of him. Frederick could feel his late mother’s fingers pinching his ear.

Fortunately, the older man didn’t take offense. “So I’m told. I gather that once they’re sure there’s nothing physically wrong inside my skull, I’ll have a bed waiting for me in a specialized unit where numerous eminent doctors will write academic papers about me.” He shrugged. “Not appealing, but it’s better than starving on the streets.”

“There is social security,” Frederick pointed out. Not that he had any personal experience of it, but it existed on all the worlds of the Lyran Commonwealth in some form.

Max chuckled. “Assuming I have citizenship, and the speed of bureaucracy hasn’t magically been cured somehow, that should have me housed and on some kind of subsistence within a year, maybe two. How long does it take to starve to death again?”

Did Curitiba have homeless shelters? The Hauptmann-Kommandant had genuinely no idea, but even if the city did, a psych ward was probably preferable.

“Aha!” his companion’s vision was at least good enough to pick out the rather large lettering on the door they were approaching. “The gym!”

“It is.” Frederick pushed the door open and held it politely, in apology to his mother’s soul for the earlier discourtesy to a wounded man. “Let’s see what they have available.”

What passed for a coach here was behind the reception desk and suitably impressed by the Lyran Commonwealth Armed Forces ID card. That unavoidably told the coach that he was dealing with a royal, but he took the finger to Frederick’s lips as the intended instruction to be quiet about that around Max. A few moments later, the two of them were set up with adjacent running machines - Frederick had his uniform tunic hung over the railing and turned his up to a punishing pace.

In front of them, a screen showed scenic views of Mount Curitiba and another pang went through the soldier at the reminder. Ernesto and most of his children dead… Fight, Aldo, fight - at least your father can have saved one of his sons!

To distract himself he asked: “You said it was all like a game inside your head?”

“Ja, like… cardboard cut-out ‘Mechs being pushed around on a paper map.”

“There are games like that.” For children, but Frederick didn’t add those two words.

Max nodded in understanding. “Yes, but things like… the Lyran Commonwealth, the Steiners. I remember them like they’re flavor from the game. Part of a story that develops, and as if I’m at the start but knowing how that story unfolds, who wins and who loses. Something players can tie their games too - so it’s not just their bit of cardboard that won, it was a victory for Archon Katrina or something.”

Frederick snorted. “C… Katrina Steiner isn’t Archon.” He almost slipped and called her his cousin. Then he looked at Max and saw the sober, serious eyes.

“Not in 3005,” the man told him softly, seriously. “But after a year of fleeing Alessandro’s assassins, she will overthrow him and be perhaps the greatest Archon the Commonwealth will ever know.” Then the moment passed, and he shook his head. “Inside my head, at any rate. No offense to her royal… you know, I have no idea what her title is?”

“Leutnant-General,” Frederick said flatly. It didn’t rile him that, a year younger than him, she’d climbed the ranks further and faster. Rile was probably too weak a word. She’d been lucky to have opportunities, while he’d been sidelined after that botched ejection. He rubbed the scar above his right eye. “She’s a serving officer.”

“Ah. My apologies, I understand that one naturally feels strongly about the royal family.”

“It’s fine.” He shook his head. “Really, so what does your head say about the other Steiners? The Archon and the others?” Frederick carefully didn’t name himself.

“Archon Alessandro retires to Furillo after his abdication. He doesn’t really give up on reclaiming his throne until he’s almost dead, then he passes the aspirations to his great-nephew Ryan.”

Frederick blinked. “Do you mean Richard?” Alessandro had only two great-nephews and neither was called Ryan.

Max’s lips quirked. “Ryan Steiner, born this year to Alessandro’s niece Donna. She dies in action when he’s five or six, I think Alessandro becomes his guardian - or a mentor, at least.”

Very nearly stumbling, the young man caught himself and tried to hide how the idea of his little sister dying hit him. And Donna was pregnant. “I’m afraid to ask what your head says about Frederick… or Nondi.” His own name and that of Katrina’s sister.

“I’ll keep that to myself then.”

The military officer grunted in appreciation. “I don’t suppose that your memories tell you if Aldo Lestrade lives? The heir to Summer, he’s in an operating theater upstairs right now.”

“If memory serves, he lives.” Max’s voice was flat. “A cybernetic arm, and inability to sire an heir, but he lives. Too bad.”

“What was that?”

“I hope, very much, that the Aldo you’re talking about is nothing like the one in the… story inside my head.”

“I’m going to have to ask you to explain what you mean by that,” Frederick demanded sharply.

Max looked at him and then dialed his running machine down so that he could stop running. “I’ve never met the real man, you understand.”

He slowed his own device so that he was barely walking. “That’s clear.”

“I’m not trying to slander the real person but, in the story, Aldo Lestrade was definitely a traitor and probably a patricide.”

“Bullshit!”

A shrug. “It’s left ambiguous on the last one - Third Royal Guards autopsy showed that his father died to bullets of the right type for the new duke’s sidearm… but the official record on Summer claimed it was shots from a DCMS laser rifle. Probably neither is actually complete yet so my head’s just wildly throwing conspiracy theories around.”

Frederick nodded. “He’d never do that. Aldo loved his parents.” Loved, not loves. Their faces swam before him for a moment. Dammit, I’m trying not to dwell on that.

“Perhaps so. But in the story, he definitely leaked information to the ISF to enable raids on Skye, led the Free Skye movement in their strategically ludicrous claims that Skye was better off independent, and tried to assassinate Katrina Steiner so that he could place a puppet on the Archon’s throne.”

“I don’t want to hear another word of this!”

Max Mustermann gave him a rueful look. “I don’t want to live it. Fortunately, the entire idea I can predict the future is ludicrous.”

“Damn straight it is.” At least Max was aware of how crazy his words were. Nothing he said could possibly come true.

Except that Katrina could be a pretty good Archon, Frederick’s subconscious whispered. And you don’t know what gender Donna’s child will be, much less what she’ll call the kid…


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