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Frederick Steiner and the Man (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 7[]

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Frederick Steiner and the Man Who Knew Too Little[]

Small Talk at a Funeral[]


The Triad, Tharkad
Protectorate of Donegal, Lyran Commonwealth
18 September 3010


Two royal funerals within the first three years weren’t the ideal omen for Katrina Steiner’s reign, at least among those who weren’t aware that Alessandro’s death had removed a threat to that reign.

For her to have lost a husband within six months of their child being born though…

“It’s rough on Katrina,” Morgan Kell said softly as he and Frederick stood together outside the Steiner family apartments. The Hauptmann-Kommandant had removed his uniform after the formal ceremony and wore a plain black suit, as did his brother.

“His death diminishes us all.” Frederick found himself speaking more sincerely than he expected.

“I actually think you mean that,” Morgan muttered.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

Patrick Kell rubbed his jaw. “Other than the fact you didn’t make any secret that you begrudge always coming out second-best when you’re compared to Katrina?”

Frederick came close to slamming his fist into the younger Kell’s face. “Just because you sabotaged your own grades at the Nagelring to avoid beating your brother’s results doesn’t obligate me to do the same.”

“Peace.” Morgan stepped between. “We’ve just come from a funeral. And no one should be judged for their feelings.”

“Unless they act on them,” Frederick agreed, taking a deep breath to settle his control of his temper. “If you want a brawl, Hauptmann, we can book a sports court and work off your grief there. Not where we’ll disturb my cousin or her daughter.”

Patrick Kell wasn’t a small man, and he’d have known without Max’s advice that the young officer was no coward. But nonetheless, he backed down. “I could have been more diplomatic there.”

“Just a bit.” The elder brother shook his head. “Patrick did basically hit on my reasons. Arthur supported Katrina as the Archon while you considered yourself Alessandro’s rightful heir - or did. So I have to ask: what changed?”

Frederick folded his arms. “You don’t get to question that, Kell. Any more than I do your decision to… leave the LCAF.” He’d almost said ‘desert’ but changed the word before it was spoken.

“I’ll trade you then.” Morgan checked that no one was listening. “It’s a little awkward to be a serving officer when you’ve been outed as Heimdall to the Archon.”

“Do you think she didn’t know?”

“Not until you told her, or rather, you told her about Arthur. From there… well, your cousin is anything but stupid.”

Frederick blinked. He’d rather assumed that Heimdall had supported Katrina’s rise - that a deal had been struck. Apparently, it was not so. “No, she isn’t.” And now he felt obligated to answer. Damn Kell.

“The Archon serves the Commonwealth,” he told them after a moment’s thought. “It’s a responsibility, not a privilege.”

“I don’t disagree. But that’s not an answer.”

“For me to try to overthrow Katrina, I would need to be sure that I would not only be a better Archon but also sufficiently better to offset the damage I’d be doing.” It was a coldly rational argument; one he’d heard from Max first but had not thus far found a good answer to. “Otherwise, I would be serving ambition, not the Commonwealth.” His lips curled. “If anything, I’d be proving myself the lesser to Katrina.”

Patrick folded his arms. “Maybe Arthur was right about you. I hope so.”

“Right about what?”

“He said your patriotism was more important to you than your rivalry with Katrina.” Morgan’s look was inscrutable.

That was an interesting statement from someone deserting his nation’s military to become a mercenary and if he hadn’t had ample warning of the Kell’s intentions, Frederick might have said so. Nothing he was going to say was going to change their mind though so it would be wasted breath. “You have the makings of an excellent colonel, Kell. I’m sure your regiment will do well. Hopefully fighting for the Commonwealth.”

“We won’t take contracts against the Lyran Commonwealth.” the younger brother promised.

“I’ll take what I can get.”

“Frederick!” his sister called out as she climbed the stairs.

“Oh god, what did I do now?” he asked

Morgan laughed at Frederick’s face. “I think is where I should show that command potential by withdrawing from an untenable position.”

“Get out of here while I cover your retreat,” he sighed and leant over the rail as the two Kells headed off to find one of the other stairwells out of this part of the Triad. “Hello, Donna.”

Wearing black for the occasion rather than her uniform, Donna Steiner gave him a skeptical look. “What were you loitering around here for?”

Seeing the Kells were out of sight, Frederick indicated the door leading into the nursery suite. “Wondering if I dare go take a firsthand look at little Melissa. I don’t want to set her off screaming - Katrina doesn’t need that as well today.”

“Blithering idiot,” Donna accused him. “Babies will cry over basically anything. She has plenty of staff here to deal with any tantrum the little brat throws. Come on. I’ll defend you from the six-month old.”

Entrapped by his own deception, Frederick followed her into the familiar confines of the nursery. He’d been here a couple of times as a child and made further visits as the next generation of House Steiner arrived and he was required by social obligation to confirm that they had the proper number of eyes, fingers and whatnot.

“Having ejected more than twenty times from various prototypes,” his sister told him, “I am looking forward to doing something safe - like going back to frontline forces.”

He nodded. “How many of the prototypes crashed?”

“Four,” she told him promptly. “Although, to be fair, two of them were intentional crashes. At some point you have to try ejecting in atmosphere to test it and at that point the fighter is basically expected to crash. Lack of a pilot does that.”

“I suppose that would follow.”

An attendant ushered them into the appropriate room, where the Archon’s only child - now very likely to be her only child - lay on her back. There were a few hints of blonde-hair on the baby’s head but there wasn’t really much family resemblance yet. Frederick remembered commenting on this to Nondi Steiner about her daughter Lisa at a similar age and getting dragged outside for a pointed lecture on how babies grew into their eventual looks.

Seeing that the little girl was busy sucking toes on one of her bare feet, he shook his head. “Enjoy your last chance to get your foot in your mouth, Melissa,” he confided in a low voice. “At least without being called on it forever.”

“She’s allowed to experiment at this age,” Donna told him, reaching down to pat the baby on the head.

Melissa let go of her toes and began to clutch at this new arrival, finally securing a two-handed grip on the hand and giggling triumphantly.

Frederick’s sister smiled down at her niece for a moment and then looked over at him. “Are we going to have problems with my taking an active post again?”

He sighed. “I’m aware it’s not my decision, Donna. I’d prefer that you didn’t - if only so that there was less risk of little Ryan growing up without both his parents if something goes badly wrong. But it’s your life and your career.”

“So there won’t be any little suggestions about assignments from you?” she asked.

Frederick reached down and tickled Melissa’s cheek. “Only in the sense that I’ve tentatively explored options to get you into the Winfield Guards if that’s still what you want. I’m not going to try anything unless you’re alright with it.”

She gave him a curious look. “Go on.”

“When are you expecting that your current assignment will wrap up?”

“Next year, probably. After that Lockheed will still be working out how to retool production and possibly a refitting program, so don’t expect the new Lucifers that soon, but they won’t need a test pilot so much.” she warned him, drawing her hand back from Melissa.

Frederick felt little fingers clutch onto his own much larger ones. “I see. I do happen to know that the current senior aerowing commander with the Winfield Guards is looking at transferring to an instructor position so he can spend more time with his family. Not immediately, but when there’s a suitable opening. And Sanglamore’s chief instructor-pilot is up for retirement after the Class of ‘12 graduate. It’s almost two years away, but as a Sanglamore graduate I can put my name to nominating him. He must be good, or he wouldn’t be in the Winfield Guards. That should mean that there’s an opening for an officer of your rank. If, that is, you’d like me to do that.”

His sister looked up from the baby and studied him. “You’ve actually put some thought into this.”

“I do try to learn from my mistakes.” And then, to avoid her eyes, he lowered his face and solemnly advised Melissa. “Although it’s less painful to learn from other’s mistakes, remember your Uncle Frederick’s advice.” The baby’s eyes scrunched up and he pulled back quickly. “Oops.”

Donna sighed. “What did I just tell you.” She picked the baby up and rocked her reassuringly. “Wet.” she concluded after a moment and one of the attendants stepped in quickly and took charge of the littlest Steiner.

Frederick exhaled slightly in relief and his sister snorted. “You would be the most useless father in the galaxy,” she told him. “Although I suppose the chances of you ever having children of your own is pretty low.”

“I’m married to my job,” he responded defensively.

“You’re married to your secretary, is what you are. I wouldn’t have thought older men would be your thing…?”

It took him a moment to realize what she meant and his expression had Donna covering her mouth and trying to hide giggling. “What…?! It’s not like that!”

“You have him stashed away in your chalet up in the mountains…”

“That’s…” he spluttered, red-faced. LIC had declined to admit Max to the Triad due to his still suspect security status. Even playing such a huge role in recovering the New Dallas data core didn’t help because there was no good explanation for how Max had known about it. Simon Johnson, the head of LIC, was apparently still suspicious that the data provided was genuine and not some sort of subtle sabotage to take factory lines out of use.

“You do know the regulation for bringing along a civilian secretary is mostly used to bring a mistress onto military bases?”

“Donna!” he explaimed

She gave up hiding her hilarity. “Alright, alright. I know you’re not screwing him.”

“Thank you!”

“But I’d genuinely never guessed that you find it better to receive.”

If she wasn’t his little sister, he’d have been really tempted to strangle her.


Unpleasant News[]

Sigfried Glacier Reserve Environs, Tharkad
Protectorate of Donegal, Lyran Commonwealth
19 September 3010

Max had gone to bed early the night of the funeral. He wasn’t attending any of the court gatherings and he didn’t know all that many people on Tharkad anyway. He’d actually been invited to go to one of the other chalets up on the mountains but it had fairly clearly been a pro forma request in the hope that it could lead to a future connection with Frederick – and not by anyone he or Frederick cared about - so he’d turned it down.

Thirty minutes going through the holovid channels had convinced him that even in the future there wasn’t anything on the idiot box that he cared about. Or at least, not at prime time.

When he found himself nodding off over a fantasy knowledge, he’d finally given up on waiting up in case Frederick wanted anything when he got back and retreated to the guest bedroom he’d been assigned.

The next morning was bright and clear, making him glad for the thick shutters over them otherwise he’d have woken far too early. When he went downstairs, Frederick had opened the floor to ceiling windows out onto the balcony, letting in cold air that finished waking him up.

“Max!” The Steiner raised a mug that contained such strong coffee that it could be smelt even across the room. “Have you had breakfast yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Well help yourself.” The command was accompanied with a wave towards the hotplates that were fighting determinedly to keep the breakfast foods warm.

Waste not, want not, Max thought and filled his plate before walking over to sit facing Frederick. He was glad he’d dressed fully before leaving the room.

“I’d like an update on where we stand on the industrial front before I follow up any of the conversations I had last night,” Frederick began, savoring the coffee. “But something else came up that I’d better bring up.”

“Oh?”

The younger man looked out at the distant towers of Tharkad City, visible far down the mountain slope. You could just ski all the way down to the edges of the city from the chalet - Max had seen some people actually doing just that. It looked terrifyingly steep to him. “My sister made an off-color joke yesterday,” Frederick said carefully, an unusual tone for him. “And when I asked a couple of people, she isn’t the only one who’s raised that line of thought.”

“What line of thought?” Max watched Frederick fidget. “Are they speculating about how you found Halstead Station’s library?”

“No, Donna thought we were screwing.”

Max almost choked on a mouthful of sausage. He coughed violently, ending up spitting the half-chewed meat out onto a plate. “You could have timed that better.”

Frederick wasn’t laughing though. “I’m not really sure what to do about this.”

The older man sighed and put down his cutlery so he could rub his forehead. “I would suggest laughing or you could get a girlfriend. I mean, I’m flattered they think I’m that charming but taking this seriously will just add credibility to the idea.”

“It doesn’t bother you?”

“For my own sake? No, not really. I can see it bothers you, but…” It was distantly amusing to see Frederick so discomfited. He was usually pretty damn confident, but this had evidently gotten under his skin.

“I’m not exactly in a career that makes it easy to settle down.” The lord of this particular manor slumped back in his chair and rubbed the scar on his brow. “Why don’t you get a girlfriend?”

“Because I don’t want to share my life with anyone. Relationships mean compromising and I’m a selfish ass who wants to keep that to a minimum.” Also, I’ve got all the social courage of a mollusk, he added privately. “Anyway, I’m too old.”

“You’re not even fifty. That’s barely middle-aged.”

“That’s double christmas cake.” The comment got him a blank look. “Look, your sister was probably winding you up - at least at first. If you overreacted, that’s probably what led her to take it more seriously. Ignore it if you can, laugh it off if you can’t. Getting mad just makes people think there’s something to be upset about.”

Frederick folded his arms defensively. “It… caught me off guard.”

“If someone caught you like that on the battlefield, would you panic? Or would you roll with it and hit back?”, he asked Frederick

“The latter, of course!” Frederick shook his head irritably. “Alright. I’ll cope with it.”

“I take it there weren’t any other problems at the funeral?” Frederick had been relatively non-toxic towards Katrina of late, which had Max hoping that he was getting past his resentment of the Archon.

“Patrick Kell being a smart-ass. Hopefully being a merc will shake that out of him - LCAF service doesn’t seem to have managed that.”

Max rubbed his eyes. “Spectacular. I hope you didn’t try to deck him.”

“I behaved, ‘dad’.” The younger man drained his coffee. “I feel bad for Katrina.”

Oh?

Seeing the look, Frederick grimaced and refilled his mug. “She and Arthur had something special. Even I noticed that. No one lives forever, but I’d hoped we’d changed something that would have given them longer together. It feels like we haven’t really changed much.”

“I’m a little surprised that Melissa was born so closely to the original schedule,” Max conceded. “I’d have thought a few butterflies could have changed more over the last five years - three, really. But she was born only a day later than my recollection. Her even being a girl this time was probably a coin-flip.”

“At least Donna seems to have accepted the idea of waiting until 3012.” The younger man sipped his coffee. “If the Winfield Guards to get into trouble next year, she probably won’t be with them.”

“That’s something. No problems with Aldo?”

Frederick shook his head. “Not since we met on Skye. I wish we had something solid on him though. He’s picking up resources and supporters. If Grethar does plan to make his adopted daughter his heir, then Aldo might have a chance at challenging that decision.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be the first contested succession.”

“Dammit, Max. Aldo’s as likely to try to take Skye with the Seventeenth Skye Rangers as I am to tell the Seventh Lyran Regulars we’re coming here to Tharkad. And for about the same reason. He’s going to go appeal to the law, to the court of popular opinion and to every noble he can. That’s not something I can easily counter.”

Max nodded in agreement. “Do you know anyone who can?”

He saw Frederick’s knuckles whiten. “Of course, I do,” the other man all but whispered. “Of course, I know.”

Time to change the subject, he thought. “Moving onto the industrial side of things, Bowie are getting set up on Carlisle. Losing half their tooling on Wyatt has set them back in some ways but in other ways it’s actually helped: since they need replacements anyway, getting new machinery to suit a different location and full production is an easier decision. Funding isn’t quite there yet but I put some of the investment fund you authorized for me into them, and they’ve received a government-backed loan from Tharkad, as well as Duke Gilenni so they’re close enough I don’t think they’ll have any real trouble getting the rest together.”

“That’s good. Are they looking at building the Archer and the Swordsman?”

Max nodded. “It’s not as if they have to worry about the market for either of them. Wyatt’s government invested funds just for first refusal on the first six of each - they want to rebuild their militia and maybe even lure Bowie back someday.”

“Maybe if we push the border back from Wyatt,” Frederick noted. “I don’t think that’s all that likely right now though. The Mariks raiding them just goes to prove that they’re too exposed.”

“I don’t disagree.”

“How about the bigger companies? Did Defiance bite?”

“No.” Max took some bread and started piling what was left of his eggs, sausage and bacon into a sandwich. “They seem to be taking a wait and see stance. Coventry Metal Works is playing ball for the deal with Corean, but the Bradfords are blocking any attempt to get involved financially.” Harrison Bradford, the Duke of Coventry, was one of Katrina’s closest allies - now that Arthur Luvon was no longer duke of Donegal, the Bradfords might actually be the closest of the major noble families.

“It’s something. So what else have you put money in?”

“Rastaban are still building up, so the other company that’s bitten so far is Blue Shot Weaponry.”

“Who?”

“On Loxley - currently they mostly build spare parts, but they used to build ‘Mechs until the Mariks hit them back in the early Second Succession War.”

Frederick nodded. “What are they looking to build?”

“The Starslayer.” Max told him and waited.

“I don’t…” The mechwarrior frowned in irritation. “I think I’ve heard of it, but I can’t place it.”

“It’s pretty much extinct, but the SLDF was considering it for mass purchase as its new medium ‘mech until the Amaris Civil War and the Succession Wars ended that as an idea. Most of them wound up serving with the LCAF.”

“I see. Well, more medium ‘mechs should be popular with Katrina, even if there’s whining about them not being heavy or assault weight.”

Max gave him a wry smile. “Popular with Katrina?”

Griffin (by meltdonw14)

Griffin Medium 'Mech in combat.

“Fine, fine. I wouldn’t mind having some more flexibility at times. How does it stack up against a Griffin, for the sake of argument?”

“A little lighter, mostly trading off armor, but it has a pair of large lasers, medium lasers and a SRM launcher. Probably it’ll run a little warm unless we can get someone building freezers again.”

“That’s true of everything. Was there data on that in the New Dallas database? I thought the core there predated the Star League.”

“They kept dumping data in it as long as there was a Hegemony intelligence agency,” Max told him. “We don’t have the later Starslayer data, but there’s information on the earlier model, which is what’s in reach now.”

Frederick looked interested. “I’ll have to look it up, but it sounds like a good investment. I’d like more but I guess that once the big players see that the data is good, they’ll jump aboard. Waiting is always the worst part.”

Max nodded in agreement.

“How about the Halstead data? If we can start training up engineers and scientists with the contents of the library, that’ll let us start rebuilding on a much grander scale!”

“...not so well,” he confessed. “Duran A&M has been very cooperative about going through and sorting the data but they’re struggling to make the contents of the more technical volumes fit in with what they know. We’ve got thousands of volumes on other topics - literature and soft sciences, for example - where copies already exist. But the technical aspect is going to take years - maybe decades - to understand.”

“That’s not what I want to hear, Max.”

“I’m not ecstatic myself.”

“Could Snord have tampered with them?”

“Thousands of books? I doubt it. We did check and Snord agreed we can come back to him and cross-reference if any of the copies were unclear - always a risk when scanning books or copying databases in a hurry. I’m not saying he couldn’t have, but he’d run a risk of us catching on and then…”

“I’d drop the Seventh on his head. Snord’s slippery, but at the least he’d have to run from the Commonwealth. That base of his is well fortified but it’s not armed anymore, and we have it mapped.”

“Legally difficult,” Max warned. “His contract is authorized by the Mercenary Review Board and we’d have to prove that he broke it. Hard to do without showing ComStar what we found.”

“I’d pay the damn fine!”

“And if the Commonwealth gets down-rated as an employer? How many first rate units have signed up with Janos Marik since he tried to absorb the units mauled on Rochelle?”

Frederick slammed his mug down on the table. “You’re saying we have to trust him?”

“More likely than not, we can. Snord’s not stupid and in the long run he gains more from working with us.” Max steepled his hands. “The trouble is that what I know about the contents of these caches is short on detail. I think what we’re dealing with is that the Halstead collection is books aimed at a high level. It’s as if a middle schooler is trying to go directly from what they know to a university course without first going through high school. Everything builds on classes they haven’t taken - without that context only a genius is going to make the jumps to understand the more advanced classes. And even then, probably not consistently.”

“So we need the equivalent of a high school.” The younger man cupped his hands around the mug. “I don’t suppose you know of anywhere we can find one?”

Max frowned. “I’m not entirely sure.” There was one possibility, one he’d been keeping in reserve. “Give me a moment to think.”

“Sure.” Frederick stood and walked out to look out over the city below. And the spires of the Triad, only a little further away.

Slowly, as he ate his sandwich, Max considered the man leaning on the rail. “Can I ask a question?”

“You just did.”

“Got me there.” He rubbed his eyes. It was too cold for this. “Back in the life I remember, if Duran’s population was on Earth, you’d have been ruler of the third most populous nation there. Effectively, head of a great power - the equivalent of a Successor State.”

Frederick turned around and looked at him. “What was the population back then? Five billion?”

“Seven or eight. The thing is, you barely go there. I can’t imagine the Premier of China or Prime Minister of India taking up a long term commitment to command troops outside their homelands. Or at all, really, but that would be a cultural difference.”

“It’s not the same. I’m not a sovereign ruler. As the duke I’m a vassal of the Archon.” The duke shook his head. “I’m not sure how your world functioned without those connections up and down. And I’m head of the planetary state, not its government.”

“So why do you want to head the entire Lyran government? Governing clearly isn’t your passion the way military command is?”

Frederick glared at him angrily. “Where are you going with this?”

“The one possibility I can think of that might bridge all the gaps we need was found with quite a bit of war material. I don’t have a good estimate on what exactly. A few ‘Mechs at the least, but most sources suggest much more, probably weighted towards consumable. Possibly including a very large store of weapons of mass destruction.”

“I take it there’s a reason you haven’t mentioned this before?”

“It’s not particularly easy to get to, and there’s a self-destruct that is overkill. Make a mistake and you could bury everyone within a hundred miles of it.”

“Ah. Never easy,” complained Frederick. “Your questions still don’t make sense though.”

“The man who wound up triggering that self-destruct wanted to use the contents and overthrow his cousin.”

The Lyran officer folded his arms behind him and his brow furrowed in thought. “From what you said, not me. Not Ryan either…”

“It wasn’t a Steiner.”

“So you don’t want to put temptation in my way?”

“Something like that,” Max admitted. “You’ve had an ax to grind when it comes to Katrina ever since I met you.”

“I’m every bit the general she is!”

Max covered his eyes. “And you’re the oldest. Right, that makes sense.”

“...what are you talking about?”

“You’re Giovanni Steiner’s first grandchild. You had all the expectations on you. Katrina was your sickly cousin, until she was in her teens, you were the apple of everyone’s eye until she outshone you.”

“Do you really think I’m that petty?”

Max shrugged. “When did she first outrank you?”

“‘Ninety-six,” Frederick said grudgingly. “She was a First Leutnant when she joined the Tenth Lyran Guards. I was a Hauptmann. By the end of the year she was a Kommandant.”

“Five promotions in two years.” Katrina had gone from commanding one of the Tenth’s lances to the entire regiment faster than anyone except maybe her instructors at the Nagelring had expected. Rumor had it they’d recommended she be given a battalion on graduation. Instead, she’d spent two years with infantry, armor and artillery units before joining a ‘Mech regiment. She’d been a Colonel by the age of twenty-three. “I don’t recall exactly what I was doing at that age…” Max frowned. “No, actually I do. And it was nothing like that.”

“You think that if I find the material to mount a campaign that I’ll try to overthrow her?”

“I think that temptation is a deadly wrestler.”

Frederick stared at him. “If I tell you that I won’t, will you believe me? Because if that datacore is what you say…”

Max steepled his fingers and took a deep breath. “Yes.”

“If Katrina becomes the sort of danger that our uncle was as Archon, I will remove her. For the good of the Commonwealth. I will not do so out of wounded pride!”

Gray eyes and blue eyes stared at each other for a long moment.

“Helm,” Max admitted, hoping that he wasn’t making a dreadful mistake.


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