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Fighting Uphill (Chapter Cover Art)

Fighting Uphill - Chapter 20[]


Reflecting on Her Dilemma[]

17th August, 3013
Star League Field Library Facility, Helm
Free Worlds League

Candace stared morosely at the projected map of the Free Worlds League, complete with best time jump routes drawn radiating from Helm to Oriente, Tamarind, and even Katlehong. She ran the numbers again, knowing the results already. Eight jumps to get back to Oriente. Seven jumps to Tamarind, six if she cut through uninhabited systems. Nine jumps to Katlehong. All of them, even Tamarind, would take too long. Hanse Davion's fleet parked over Oriente was a knife at Duncan's and Candace's throat, and the loss of its industries while not lethal immediately could spell the end of Duncan's campaign in the long term. Robert certainly wasn't going to wait long enough for Candace to move her own forces to threaten him in turn before he decided ceasefire negotiations had failed and give the go ahead to Hanse.

Not that Candace had anything to credibly threaten Robert with. Her space forces were still damaged from the battle with the Steiners and Helm didn't have much in the way of industry to help fix up the survivors. Colonel Brutus had promised supplies were on the way from Connaught, but he had to fix up his own forces after kicking the Combine out. But even if Candace's space fleet was intact, she couldn't leave Helm uncovered – a Helm undefended by space forces was just too tempting a target for any Lyran forces still on the border – and splitting her space forces would leave them too small to threaten Robert anywhere except maybe his Katlehong base.

With the news of Archon Alessandro's being deposed in favor of Katrina Steiner who was promising that the Lyran Commonwealth was no longer involving itself in the Free Worlds League civil war, there wasn't even the threat of a common enemy to force cooperation between Duncan's and Robert's factions, or at least force Robert to commit significant forces to guarding his share of the Lyran border. Combined with the four sided civil war becoming a two sided one, losing Oriente meant that Robert would have the economic advantage and use it mercilessly, and there were no longer any third parties to distract him. And if Robert didn't know how to do that, Hanse Davion certainly did.

That didn't even count the political impact to Duncan's campaign that losing Oriente would inflict. Candace couldn't even begin to estimate how bad that would be.

To make things worse, Candace's father was less than pleased with the situation. The Confederation had invested a lot into building up Oriente and didn't want to lose it all. The Chancellor was even less pleased with what amounted to having a Federated Suns warfleet parked right off his Free Worlds League border in what had formerly been considered a "safe area", and moving monitor and assault Dropship assets to counter it and "rescue" Oriente. Candace was sure the latter couldn't be done due to Oriente's nineteen day transit time, which would basically allow Hanse to wreck Oriente's industries and get out before any relief force could arrive to stop him. That same nineteen day transit time meant Hanse could park his Jumpship assets in another system entirely so that they couldn't be seized by any relief force, and then use Comstar to signal to them which jump point Hanse's forces were running for.

There was just no military way to save Oriente that Candace could see. The only way would require a diplomatic solution, but the only diplomatic solution that Candace could see was Duncan just surrendering the Captain Generalship to Robert, which given Duncan's current mood, he very well might.

If Candace's father wasn't happy about the current situation, he was even going to be outright livid if Duncan just gave up. Chancellor Maximilian had already heard about the rift between Candace and Duncan and was already sending Candace messages to "get Duncan back under control" and "promise him anything", which told Candace clearly what he thought Candace's relationship with Duncan was.

Oh, and if Duncan was going to surrender anyway, the Chancellor would settle for Candace getting pregnant with his child and then assassinating Duncan so the Confederation would still have a fig leaf to grab the Captain-Generalship with. Leaving aside the problem of actually getting pregnant, Candace was sure that such a plan wouldn't work given that the Captain-General had to be elected by the League Parliament and no one in their right mind was going to elect an infant. From what Candace understood, a then fourteen year old Duncan Marik vying for the Captain-General had been considered laughable when the civil war started, and the only reason he was even a serious contender now was because the war had gone off long enough to grow into a man worthy of it. Candace doubted her father could keep the civil war going with Duncan't infant child for another twenty years without turning it into a straight Free Worlds League versus Capellan Confederation war, which given Robert's Davion allies, would be the Confederation versus the two Successor States bordering it, both much larger and more powerful economically and militarily in absolute terms.

Duncan thought he was completely out of his depth as far as being a leader went. Candace was discovering much to her dismay that she too was out of her depth. Candace was about to lose everything she cherished, all because for one weak moment, she had thought like a foolish girl in love than a proper heir to a Successor State.

Working out one's Frustrations[]

The Star League facility that Duncan's and Candace's army had moved into had several gyms. Of course it did; any troops stationed there would need ways to stay in shape after all. The exercise machines once dusted off, lubricated, and in some cases, powered up, all worked perfectly fine. Although there were a few complicated ones that no one was sure how to actually use, and the little picture diagrams on them were of no help whatsoever.

Duncan and two of his bodyguards walked into the facility's largest gym wearing nothing ,but standard FWLM physical training uniforms which was basically just a T-shirt and exercise shorts with the FWLM logo plus socks and running shoes. Without rank insignia or nametags to identify them, they looked like any other trio of soldiers coming for a workout, at least as long as no one took a good close at Duncan and recognized him.

The door guard did recognize Duncan though, and as he inhaled to announce Duncan's presence, Duncan shook his head at him and made a "be quiet" gesture. The guard, wide eyed, did what he was told and nodded. Duncan and his bodyguards signed in like any regular soldiers, and then went looking for a free machine.

Since storming out of the Ops Center three days ago, Duncan had spent a great deal of time going over his life. His father had always encouraged Duncan's ambitions to be Captain General, so when Uncle Janos and Anton had their falling out over who should be Captain General, Duncan's father had thrown Duncan's hat in the ring for him, arranged the alliance with the Capellan Confederation. Duncan's mother was more reserved about fighting her brothers, but she'd always been a doting mother to Duncan, and since Duncan wanted to be Captain General, she didn't stand in his way. Duncan had been devastated early on in the war when his father had died in the field to mere mercenaries, and resolved to win the Captain Generalship not just for himself, but for his dead father as well. Mother... had never seemed all that broken up about losing him. Now Duncan couldn't help but wonder if his own father had just been using Duncan as an excuse to gain power, and married his mother for the same.

The original Capellan commander had been friends with Duncan's father and had tried to ingratiate himself with Duncan. But Duncan never liked him he had a superiority complex lightyears wide and talked down to Duncan like he was an idiot child. Then again, he had talked to everyone like that, League and Capellan alike, which resulted in so much friction between him and everyone else that he had gotten sacked and gotten replaced by Candace.

Candace Liao had been a complete breath of fresh air. She was quiet, modest, exotically beautiful, competent – at least compared to her predecessor – heir to the Capellan throne, and was only two years younger than Duncan. Duncan had almost immediately fallen for her at their first meeting. He thought Candace had done the same, although looking back, he realized that she had just been humoring him and trying to not offend an ally. When Duncan had expressed his interest in Candace to his mother, Duncan's mother had contacted the Chancellor directly and arranged for their marriage... with the Free Worlds League being the dowry.

Candace, ever the dutiful daughter, hadn't objected to the marriage, which Duncan had foolishly decided was further proof that she loved him back. She still kept him at arm's length though, and that had only changed once they had started doing field exercises together, culminating in the kiss on top of the mobile field base. Did Candace love him now? She said she did, but for all Duncan knew, Candace was still being the dutiful daughter.

"Don't even try with this one, Candace. He's already taken."

Duncan's mother and Candace had become fast friends, but a lot of what passed between them had completely mystified Duncan. Girl talk, Duncan had assumed. But now his mother's words to Candace suddenly made a lot of sense. Had Duncan's mother been giving Candace advice on how to seduce not just Duncan, but other men as well? Duncan still didn't doubt that his mother loved him, but had that love taken the form of her just giving Duncan whatever he wanted, even a girl who wasn't in love with him?

If Candace only really wanted Duncan because he was going to be Captain-General, why had she told him she hadn't loved him? These questions all made Duncan's head hurt.

How many people lied to Duncan, told him only what he wanted to hear because he was supposedly in charge? The only person Duncan was sure that had been one hundred percent honest with him was Major Kerensky, who had taken an almost sadistic delight in demonstrating to Duncan how inadequate he was as a warrior and commander, and she was back on Oriente facing down Hanse Davion. Here on Helm, everyone was under his command, including Candace theoretically. Duncan needed the honest truth, one that wasn't being filtered through people trying to curry favor or fearing reprisals,

Hence, he had come to this gym. It was the largest in the Star League facility, and as such was mostly used by the common troops, League, Capellan, and Mercenary alike. Higher ranking officers being fewer in number, used one of the smaller, better equipped gyms that had apparently been designed with high ranking officers in mind.

Naturally, the most popular topic of conversation was him and Candace.

Cyclop (In Mountain Valley by Philbobagginzzz)

Cyclops Assault 'Mech

"...most amazing thing I've ever seen. Lyrans were right about to break through our line when the Senior Colonel's Cyclops and a whole company of mechs came outta nowhere and pushed them back with just one volley of fire. They didn't even bother to stop, just kept on going. I don't know how they knew to be there..."

Duncan didn't remember the specific incident. He had just run Candace's Cyclops back and forth along the back line, shooting at any targets of opportunity that presented themselves. And he supposed his and Candace's bodyguard lances following them had done the same thing. Still, Duncan's skills at shooting and driving a mech had never been in doubt.

" idea that Lyran company was coming up our backside, but the Senior Colonel not only got us out of there, but had an ambush waiting for them..."

Of course, she did. Candace had always been better better at battlefield tactics than Duncan. She was probably better at politics too, but that clearly wasn't a high bar to clear.

"...heard General Marik and the Senior Colonel had a fight. Do you think they're breaking up?" a guard asked.

"Doubt it. Couples get into fights sometimes. You should see me and my wife! But you never know with nobles. It'd be shame if they did break up. They're a cute couple and they work so well together."

Did they? Or was it just Candace doing all the work while Duncan just stood around thinking he was helping by looking pretty?

" Capellans have no idea what you're talking about. I heard the Senior Colonel didn't want the General on the left flank at all, but the General fought tooth and nail for it..."

"Tooth and nail" was an exaggeration, but yes, Duncan had insisted on facing Janos' FWLM forces directly in opposition to not just Candace, but all previous practice in this war. And he had won almost bloodlessly with only his Uncle Janos dying, because Duncan had talked Janos into a personal duel rather than fight a mass battle.

That was the only accomplishment that Duncan had to his name. It must have been a fluke, pure luck.

"...saw Duncan actually talk Candace into driving her mech for her. He's totally not her puppet. Candace actually listens to the guy as much as he listens to her."

Candace was a mechwarrior herself. Of course, she didn't want anyone else piloting her mech, least of all Duncan. Still, Duncan had managed to convince her to let him pilot for her. Did that really mean Candace listened to him?

"...hole Robert is trying to pull? Doing 'peace talks' while he's got an invasion force ready to invade Oriente?", someone commented

"Of course. Robert is allied with Hanse Davion. We Capellans have fought the perfidious Davions since forever. This was likely all the Davions' idea and Robert is just their puppet."

Well, it seemed like Robert and Duncan had something in common then. That didn't exactly make Duncan feel better.

"...been a merc a long time, kid. Oriente's probably a lost cause, but if I gave up every time I got outmaneuvered and my base hit behind me, I wouldn't be a merc any more. I'd probably be dead or rotting away in some prison somewhere. Duncan and Candace should keep on fighting whatever happens to Oriente. Sure, they might lose, but they'll never win if they give up."

"Spoken like a true warrior! And do not call me 'kid'..."

Wise words, but what if fighting was the wrong thing to do entirely? The obvious answer was to change up your tactics, try different avenues of approach. But what else could Duncan do?

"...sure General Duncan will think of something. I was there at his first field exercise when Major Kerensky told us to 'shoot the purple turkey'. He's come a long way since then. A lot further than the rest of us to be honest."

Duncan nearly winced at the "purple turkey" crack, but he supposed what the Dragoons said was true. He had come a long way since then. But had he come far enough to competently run a war? Or to negotiate with someone like Robert or his Davion backers?

Well there was only one way to find out. But first, Duncan had to take care of things closer to home.

Starting Over[]

Candace walked down the corridor to her quarters, lost in thought. She wasn't alone precisely; her bodyguards accompanied her of course. But they were never chatty with Candace, so she might as well have been alone.

So far, all Candace had accomplished today was read a bunch of new intelligence reports that didn't tell her anything new, recorded a message for her father that assured him that Candace was doing everything she could, and hired a local construction company to lay down ferrocrete to give the Star League facility a proper Dropport. It's not like the facility's location was a secret any more, and since Duncan thought they should make the base permanent, why not put up a bunch of obvious signs that said "BASE HERE"? It was all pure make-work idling to cover the fact that Candace had no idea what to do about Or...

Candace's thoughts cut off when she saw Duncan's bodyguards flanking the door to her quarters. Which meant Duncan was here. Hope and dread filled Candace's thoughts as her imagination ran through the whole spectrum of good to bad of what Duncan might be here to say to her.

"Ma'am, the General is waiting for you inside." the bodyguard on the left told her. He glanced at Candace's bodyguards. "He wants to speak with you alone." He didn't look happy with the thought that the man he was guarding would be alone with anyone, least of all her.

Candace nodded and turned to her own bodyguards.

"Stay out here." she told them. They nodded compliance while looking just as unhappy as Duncan's guards, probably for much the same reason.

Duncan's other bodyguard opened the door and ushered Candace inside.

Like Duncan's quarters, Candace's quarters were designed for Star League flag officers. Which meant that they didn't just have a bed and a desk and a full built-in bathroom off to the side. It also had an entire living room, complete with coffee table and lush sofas flanking it for entertaining guests. Duncan sat alone on one sofa with a bottle and two empty wine glasses sitting on the coffee table in front of him.

"Duncan?" Candace called uncertainly as the door closed behind her.

"I still feel like I don't know you," Duncan told her quietly. Duncan patted the empty space on the sofa next to him. "but I think I really want to. Why don't you sit down and tell me about yourself?"

Meanwhile, in the Hallway[]

The four bodyguards standing outside Candace's quarters stood watching each other and the corridor in awkward silence. If they had all be guards for the same person, that might have been different. Gossiping about one's primary where other people couldn't hear was a time honored bodyguard tradition. After all, bodyguards needed to know their primary's quirks and the boneheaded things they were likely to do in order to better protect their primary, and what better way to learn such details than from the bodyguards who had been with the primary longer?

But their primary's confidentiality and privacy was also important and had to be guarded just as much as the primary themselves. And since two were here to guard Duncan, and the other two Candace, the end result was the bodyguards standing around in awkward silence.

They had been that way for quite some time when a muffled cry came from inside the quarters. The bodyguards reacted instantly. The one nearest the doorknob reached for it and... paused when he heard what else was coming from inside Candace's quarters. The others paused a moment later as they heard the same things. With just a look and some minute gestures, they all agreed that what they were hearing was something that they should not be interrupting.

"So," one of the Capellans said quietly to one of his League counterparts so as to not disturb their respective primaries. "what have you guys been up to for the past few days?"

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