Book: Service for the Dead
Prefecture III, The Republic of the Sphere
February 3134; local winter
Forty-eight hours after the last of the Steel Wolf DropShips lifted from the port, Tara was still burning. The city lay in the grip of a late-winter thaw, and a raw wet wind blew down the sodden streets. A cold rain fell out of a low gray sky—heavy, half-frozen drops that stung and melted against skin when they hit—and soaked into the burned and burning city, rising up again as steam and filling the air with the acrid stink of wet creosote.
The wind carried other, worse smells with it as well. The Steel Wolves had not just burned the city before they left it. They had killed, and had left the dead behind them.
In some quarters of the capital, smoke still rose from the rain-soaked debris. Firefighters labored to extinguish the flames while ConstructionMechs and lesser machines followed close behind, laboring to take apart the wreckage in the hope of finding and freeing any survivors. The sirens of emergency vehicles had been sounding intermittently all day; they had sounded all the night and the day before as well.
While the devastation was not absolute, it was nevertheless comprehensive. All the elegant shops along Tara’s Silver Mile had been gutted—their contents not stolen, but burned in the street. The New Barracks had been ripped into and torn apart by ’Mechs, its carpets and curtains and furniture piled atop the wreckage and set aflame. Even the River Thames, that should have flowed freely in its canals through the city, was black with ash, colored with oil, and choked with rubble.
Only The Fort—the dark, looming structure that was the original home and headquarters of the famed Northwind Highlanders—remained untouched. Its walls of solid stone and gates of heavy iron had been designed to stand against ’Mechs and missiles and artillery, and even the Steel Wolves had proved unable to bring them down. The Fort was a relic of an older time, of the centuries of warfare and chaos before Devlin Stone’s Republic brought the Inner Sphere six decades of peace. It was still standing now that the peace had ended.
Anastasia Kerensky and her Steel Wolves had been driven off of Northwind once before, in the summer campaign that had begun with the Battle of Red Ledge Pass and ended with the Battle on the Plains. They had come back this time with the element of surprise on their side—surprise, and the fact that Northwind’s forces, already spread out to cover nearby planets like Small World and Addicks, had been seriously depleted by the original incursion.
Even that advantage should not have been enough to allow such a disaster. Northwind had augmented its thin-stretched forces with mercenaries under the command of One-Eyed Jack Farrell—a tough bunch, and honest as such things went, with a rep for standing by their contracts and honoring them to the letter. They should have stood by Northwind the same, but (and here, in retrospect, lay the fatal flaw) One-Eyed Jack and his mercenaries hadn’t made their contract with Northwind. They’d made their contract with Ezekiel Crow, Paladin of the Sphere, and Crow had ordered them to stand aloof from the fighting between the Highlanders and Kerensky’s Wolves.
Tara Campbell, Countess of Northwind, was not going to say it in front of the tri-vid news cameras, but she felt at the moment considerably kinder toward Jack Farrell and his mercs than she did toward Crow. Farrell had held to his contract and obeyed Crow’s orders to the letter—to the letter, and no further. He had not exceeded those orders when he easily could have. Without that small amount of grace, the Highlander forces trapped in the city would never have escaped to regroup on the far side of the Rockspire Mountains.
The Countess said as much, sotto voce, to General Michael Griffin. The two of them stood together outside the still unbreached gates of The Fort, waiting for the assembled tri-vid crews to finish setting up. Their dress uniforms were getting steadily wetter and clammy cold; their hair—both Tara Campbell’s spiky short blond locks and Griffin’s close-trimmed military cut—was already soggy; and Tara was half convinced that her eyelashes were starting to freeze.
“One-Eyed Jack and his people can leave whenever they want,” she said. “Tomorrow, if it makes them happy. There’s no point in punishing a bunch of mercs for honoring the deal a traitor cut with them. They aren’t anyone’s friends, and we don’t need for them to be our enemies. You and I both know they could have pushed us a lot harder than they did.”
Griffin gave a nod of reluctant agreement. “What are you going to do about Crow?”
The lips skinned back from Tara’s teeth in what might almost have been a snarl. “When I have him in my hand again?”
What I want to do, Tara thought in the second or so before she answered, is kill him. Anastasia Kerensky would have done it without a second’s hesitation, if he’d served her as he served me. But I’m not Anastasia.
Aloud, she said, “Hand him over to The Republic’s justice, and see him tried for his crimes by the Senate on Terra.”
Big words, she said to herself afterward. But it’s always good to have a plan.
The tri-vid crews were finished with their setup. The leader—a man in a well-cut suit, who looked as if he might be a news interviewer—approached Tara and General Griffin. Like everybody else Tara had seen lately, the crew leader had a drawn and shocky look under his professional polish. Tara found his kind an annoyance in good times, but they were necessary now. He and his people would have been working as hard as everyone else during the past two days, making the record, finding the telling words and the burning images that would make plain to the rest of The Republic of the Sphere what a Paladin of the Sphere had done.
“We’re ready, my lady,” he said. “You’ll be going live worldwide as soon as you give us the word.”
“Good. Do you have the package for Lieutenant Jones ready to go yet?”
“Yes, ma’am. We got our last interview just this morning.”
General Griffin looked interested. “That would have been the survivors from the guard post that passed Crow and his ’Mech through the lines to the DropPort?”
The tri-vid interviewer smiled—Tara Campbell recognized what would have been a fighting grin on the face of someone in her own line of work. “That’s the one, all right. And they’ll clench it, for whoever sees that disc.”
Tara knew that he spoke the truth. The report on Crow’s actions already contained the data from the guard post’s logbook—a small miracle in itself, that the recorder and the discs had survived both the fighting in the city and the retreat into the mountains afterward—but people would believe on a gut level the testimony of two mud-stained and battle-weary young soldiers who had watched a hardened warrior in a Blade ’Mech walk away from the fighting that was sure to come.
Again she said, “Good. The General and I can say our piece for the live broadcast as soon as you give us the signal.”
“Watch the red light over the main camera. When it goes green, you’re live.”
The interviewer retreated to a secondary camera setup on the far side of the street. Tara noted that the cameras were positioned to give a good view of the unbroken Fort looming over the wreckage of the city. He assumed an earnest and trustworthy expression and began talking. She watched the light over the main camera in her own setup blinking steadily amber, and waited.
All that would come next was drama and ceremony. The specifics and the legalities of it had been hammered out already in a marathon late-night session, in which she and Griffin and the surviving council members had hashed out what had to happen, and by whose authority. What remained now was an act not of politics, but of necessary theater.
The amber light blinked rapidly several times in succession, then turned red. The red flashed once—twice—three times, and went green. Tara drew a breath and spoke.
“People of Northwind!” She had her eyes on the main tri-vid camera, as though it were a person standing there, and her voice was pitched for the microphones to pick it up without distortion. In her childhood as the media darling of The Republic’s diplomatic corps, she had grown up doing this sort of thing, and she had not forgotten the technique. “It is my sorrowful duty to acknowledge that Finnegan Cochrane, your Legate, died in the fighting for this city. With so much rebuilding to be done, his place cannot go unfilled for long. Therefore, I am giving you my most trusted General, Michael Griffin—the man who held Red Ledge Pass against the Wolves last summer, and who came to the relief of this city only days ago—to be your Legate, and to oversee Northwind’s defense and recovery in my absence.”
She paused a few moments for reaction from the unseen audience, then continued. “General Griffin!”
The man was looking stalwart and forthright in his dress uniform, in spite of the rain and the wind. She’d have to check the recording afterward to see if he came across as well on the tri-vid as he did in person. In his new position, it would be a great help to him if he did.
“Do you accept this assignment?” she asked. Not that there had ever been any question. Michael Griffin was as loyal as Ezekiel Crow had been treacherous. Whatever his Countess had asked of him, he had always stood ready to do.
This time was no exception. “Yes, my lady.”
“Then care for Northwind as I would care for Northwind, while I and my regiments are away. We leave within the week for Terra.”
Ruth Elliot Fletcher’s House
February 3134; local winter
Night had fallen in Kildare, on the far side of the Rockspires from Tara, and a cold dry wind was blowing down the suburban street where Will Elliot’s sister lived. Will, who was visiting his family on a thirty-six-hour leave, found Kildare’s semiarid winter weather an unsettling change from the still-deep snows of the mountains. Too many changes, too fast, he thought, and wasn’t completely certain he was thinking about the weather.
He’d flown by civilian short-hop aircraft from a small landing field in the western foothills of the Rockspires to the airport in Kildare, using his leave orders to get priority passage. He was wearing a clean and freshly pressed uniform. All of his civilian clothes had stayed behind in a footlocker at Fort Barrett when he went with General Griffin’s force to the relief of Tara, and they weren’t likely to catch up with him any time soon. For his own part, after going from the baking heat of the dry season on Kearney’s Oilfields Coast to the subzero cold and deep snow of a mountain winter, with hard fighting at the end of it, the chance to be wearing something besides dirty summer-weight fatigues was a blessing all by itself.
Now he stood on the front steps under the porch light of his sister’s house, waiting to ring the doorbell. This visit would mark the first chance he’d had to spend time with his family since the end of last summer’s fighting, when he’d helped his mother salvage what she could from the rubble of the Liddisdale house. Jean Elliot hadn’t been happy then to learn that her only son was going off to Fort Barrett on the Oilfields Coast, a long way from the mountains. She’d be even less happy now.
Will realized that he was hesitating, his finger poised above, but not quite touching, the doorbell button. That was irony for you, he reflected. He’d lain in wait for Anastasia Kerensky’s soldiers at the gates of Castle Northwind with less trepidation.
But that, as his friend and fellow Sergeant Lexa McIntosh would say, was because all that the Steel Wolves could do was kill him. His family, on the other hand, could always choose to make a scene. Not his mother by herself, but with his oldest sister involved… Ruth fretted about things, and she liked to spread the joy around.
She’d leaned on Will all during his growing up, pushing him to make something of himself, by which she apparently meant “find a job in an office somewhere instead of spending all your time hiking around the mountains.” His chosen work as a wilderness guide had not pleased her at all. He still didn’t know—though he suspected—what she thought of soldiering.
All right, he thought. Buck up and do it.
He pressed the button. A bell rang inside, and a moment later his sister Ruth opened the door. She said, “Will!” as though she hadn’t expected him and enfolded him in a warm hug. He noticed with surprise that she was crying.
He patted her hair awkwardly. “Here, now, Ruthie. What’s that all about?”
“I’m just glad that you’re still here. The things we heard—” She pulled away and blinked her eyes dry again. “Come in, come in. Dinner’s almost ready, and mother has the good silver out.”
He followed Ruth into the bright lights and good food smells of the house. His nose recognized the scents of roast leg of lamb and his mother’s homemade false-mint jelly, and of mashed purpleroot with lots of butter. His stomach, after too many weeks in a row spent living on field rations, growled in happy anticipation. He saw that the good silver was out indeed—his mother had thrown the entire set into the back of the electric runabout, along with a change of clothing and her wedding pictures, when she left Liddisdale last summer just before the Wolves came through—and the white tablecloth on the big table. Everywhere Will looked, he saw evidence of how the house had been made polished and orderly, and set up to look its best. It was as if the family had gotten ready for the visit of a well-regarded stranger, instead of the homecoming of a son and a brother.
Ruth’s husband John Fletcher was in the dining room already, along with Annie, Isobel, and young John. Jean Elliot brought in the leg of lamb from the kitchen and set it in the center of the table, then gave Will a tight hug while her three grandchildren looked at him with admiring eyes.
There was a place set for him at the table. He took his seat and Ruth’s husband began carving off slices of lamb. Will found that he had to work hard not to eat too fast, after so many meals lately spent eating quickly and moving on to the next camp, the next fight. He needed to set a good example for the children, he told himself sternly, and not forget his manners.
They all spoke at first of little things, weather and school and John Fletcher’s work as a long-distance trucker, but after a while his mother said, “It’s good to have you with us again, Will. I’ve been that worried.”
“You shouldn’t be,” he said. He laid his fork down long enough to tap his Sergeant’s stripes with one finger. “They made me a Sergeant. That means I’m a deal too canny to let myself get killed.”
His sister Ruth gave an eloquent and disbelieving sniff, and Will shot her a warning glance: Don’t say something and get her upset. For a wonder, Ruthie caught his meaning and held her tongue.
Young John was still in primary school, and full of a newly discovered hero worship. “Did you fight in the city?” he asked. “The news channels all say that it was fierce.”
Will shook his head. “I came up from Kearney with General Griffin, but I never got as far as Tara.”
“What happened?” asked Ruth’s husband.
“I went to Castle Northwind instead.”
There was a long pause. Then young John broke the silence. “Is it true what everybody says, that the Countess blew up the castle herself on purpose?”
“Is that how they’re telling the story?” Will laughed a little, not in amusement, but in rueful acknowledgment of how things worked. “The Countess gave permission, true enough, but it’s those of us who were there who set the charges, chose the time, and brought the whole place down.”
His mother said wistfully, “It was always a beautiful place in the pictures.”
“Aye, it was.” Will was silent for a moment, remembering the gray stone castle cupped in its mountain valley. “Too beautiful to leave for the Steel Wolves. Better to break it apart ourselves first.”
There was another pause, longer this time. Will found that a good dinner made an excellent excuse for not talking. His sister Ruth was a fine cook, and his mother was a better one. Between the two of them they’d made the best meal he’d had in months. He finally looked up from his berry tart with heavy cream to ask, “What about the house in Liddisdale?”
Ruth said, sharply, “What about it?”
“It’s half rubble, that’s what about it, and it’s been standing open to the weather since before the start of winter. If it isn’t rebuilt soon, it’s not going to be good for anything but selling for the land under it.”
“Do you want me to rebuild it, Will?” his mother asked.
“I want you to do whatever pleases you with it,” he said. “I’m just saying that if you plan to do anything, you’ll need to do it soon.”
“I don’t want to sell your home out from underneath you.” His mother looked old suddenly, old and uncertain, and Will cursed himself inwardly for bringing the subject up. “The house was always meant to be yours, you know.”
“Don’t worry, Mother. The regiment takes good care of me.”
He heard another disbelieving snort from Ruth. “Tries to get you killed, is more like it.”
“Hush, Ruthie,” his mother said. “He won’t be in the regiment forever, and when he comes back home he’ll need a place to live.”
Will Elliot didn’t know what to say to that. The version of himself who’d lived at home with his mother and hiked the trails of Red Ledge Pass as a wilderness guide was not exactly dead, but he’d left that man somewhere a long way behind him, in a place he didn’t think he could ever get back to again. As for the new and different Will Elliot that the Highlander regiments and the Steel Wolves were making between them—he didn’t know yet what kind of place that man might eventually call home.
“It’ll be a while longer before anyone needs to fret about afterward,” was all that he said aloud. “We’re going to Terra first to catch the Wolves and break them if we can.”
Saffel Space Station Three, Saffel System
In her office aboard Fenrir, Galaxy Commander Anastasia Kerensky looked over the fuel expenditure reports for the Steel Wolf DropShips. To herself—but to no one else—she would admit that work such as this was, for her, the least favorite of the many tasks that her rank required.
Give her a military objective and she would take it. Give her a challenge and she would meet it. Wrestling with inventories and invoices and spreadsheets… even though she assigned as much of it as she could to members of the service and support castes who were trained in dealing with such things, nevertheless at some point the final numbers had to come across her desk.
At the moment, those numbers looked grim. She had brought the Steel Wolf JumpShip out at Saffel to recharge the Akela’s Kearney-Fuchida drive prior to making the second jump that would bring the Wolves to Terra. The reports from the engineers on the DropShips told her that their arrival would be longer coming than she had anticipated.
“The time we spent under the sea on Northwind did not help,” said Star Colonel Marks.
He had brought in the engineering reports—for the pleasure, she suspected, of watching her get the bad news. Marks had been one of the late Kal Radick’s favorites, and Anastasia Kerensky’s most recent successes on Northwind had only served to add fuel to his dislike of her.
“The DropShips were bleeding power the whole time,” Marks continued, “without a chance to make it back up. If we are to cover the distance between the Terran jump point and Terra itself in the fastest time possible, we will need to refuel the DropShips as well as recharge the JumpShip’s drive.”
“How long to full charge for the JumpShip?” Anastasia asked.
“Six point eight days using the solar sail,” he replied.
“That is too long,” she said. “We have the advantage, now, of surprise, and we cannot afford to lose it. Every day—every hour—of delay increases the resistance we will find when we reach Terra.”
“The Highlanders are in no shape to oppose us on Terra,” Star Colonel Marks said. “And Terra’s integral defenses are comparatively weak; they have wasted themselves in sending troops out to protect other worlds, and have kept too few behind to protect their own.”
“If underestimating the enemy is your idea of planning,” she told him, “then do me a favor and check the air lock for leaks. From the outside. The Countess of Northwind blew up her own castle rather than let me take it. Do you think she would hesitate to strip Northwind bare in order to stop us from seizing Terra?”
“If the Galaxy Commander says so—”
“I say so. We cannot afford to throw away any advantage that we may have. Nor can we afford to use anything less than maximum speed for the DropShips’ approach. We have no choice—we will have to recharge and refuel at the Saffel station.”
Once again, Marks took on the manner of someone taking pleasure from the delivery of bad news. “There is a problem. If we refuel and recharge at the station, we will have to pay for the privilege.”
Anastasia frowned. “Do we not have sufficient funds for the purpose?”
I really wish I could trust somebody else with this part of the job, she thought resentfully as she spoke. Growing up in the full Clan tradition on Arc Royal, in her childhood dreams she had pictured her older self doing many things—fighting for honor, for advancement, and for the right to direct the future of Clan Wolf in The Republic; handling weapons and vehicles and all manner of BattleMechs; surviving and holding her own in the literal cutthroat arena of Clan politics. Despite the fact that over time she had acquired an intellectual awareness of the importance of supplies and logistics, she had most certainly never cherished the image of herself as a glorified accountant and purchasing agent.
“The station will charge a high price, especially for refueling the DropShips,” Marks told her. “If they realize that we are in haste, they are likely to raise their prices even more. They might be willing to accept trade goods instead of cash—”
“But warships do not carry trade goods,” Anastasia finished. “The solution would seem to be obvious, Star Colonel. We are, after all, the Steel Wolves. Allow me some time to work out a plan—and meanwhile, see that the JumpShip makes ready to approach the station.”
Cecy Harris, duty sensor tech on Saffel Space Station Three, was midway through the watch and scanning her screens for arriving ships. The work was at once duller and more nerve-racking than it had been in the days before the collapse of the HPG network. Duller because the slowdown in communications meant fewer people making interstellar journeys on a casual basis, and fewer travelers meant fewer ships; more nerve-racking because the confused political situation and the lack of up-to-date intelligence meant that the crew of Station Three had no idea, most of the time, what might come through the jump point next.
Or, as it happened, right now.
“Ship incoming,” she reported to the officer in charge, Luc Desroches. “JumpShip. Big.”
“Any idea who they are?” he asked.
“It’s a Clan configuration,” Cecy replied, after a quick look at the system’s onboard database. “Maybe Clan Sea Fox—they’re traders, or what passes for traders with those people anyhow. It’s hard to tell.”
“We don’t have any Sea Fox ships scheduled to turn up about now,” said Desroches with a frown. “Unfortunately—”
“The schedule doesn’t count for squat these days. I don’t think this is one of our regular visitors, though. None of them are that big.”
“Whoever they are,” said the communications tech at the adjacent console, “they’re keeping quiet. Shall I hail them?”
“Not yet,” said Desroches. “Let them talk first.”
“Looks like they’re deploying the solar sail to recharge their drive,” Cecy said after a few minutes. “They probably don’t have any business on Saffel at all.”
Desroches shrugged. “As long as they stay over there and leave us alone, they can gather all the sunlight they want.”
Outer Islands Resort
Dalton Archipelago, Kervil
February 3134; local summer
Kervil—being mostly water, with its landmasses broken up into a multitude of small islands and a handful of larger ones not quite large enough to qualify as continents—was a planet of many beaches. Even the public parks and seashores seldom witnessed overcrowding. A pundit at the local university had once proclaimed that the world’s ten larger islands alone sufficed to provide each citizen of Kervil with a kilometer of private ocean frontage. Natural human gregariousness, of course, meant that most of those citizens frequented one or another of the popular resorts instead and, on a warm summer day, the sand and the surf alike would be thronged with people.
Jonah Levin liked people, and regarded helping people as the largest component of his life’s work and the entire reason for his job’s existence—but he did not find them, in large numbers, restful. The more people who were gathered in any one place, the more likely it became that one or more of them would recognize him and, inevitably, turn out to have a problem that only the immediate personal attention of a Paladin of the Sphere could solve.
Over the years, Anna and the children had seen far too many of their outings and holidays spoiled by the intrusion of unexpected business. For his family’s sake, as much as for his own, Jonah had finally given in and purchased a membership in the Outer Islands Resort Community, gaining thereby exclusive rights to several kilometers of private beachfront on one of the islets in the Dalton Archipelago, with cottage facilities included. He still felt vaguely guilty about his decision—such luxuries, he couldn’t help thinking, were meant for the likes of Jacob Bannson or Duke Aaron Sandoval, not for people like him—but the happiness that it brought to his family usually assuaged the guilt.
If that wasn’t enough, there was always his Anna to scold him and tell him that he needed to take care of himself sometimes, too. Today was one of those days. Jonah lay stretched face-down on a beach blanket at the water’s edge, letting the warm black volcanic sand bake him from below, while the semitropical sunlight toasted him from above. Anna sat on the blanket next to him, rubbing emollient sunscreen into the skin of his back and shoulders with skillful fingers.
Jonah’s torso, and his arms and legs as well, were marked all over with the silvery traces of old scars—relics of the desperate battle on Kurragin that had first brought a simple captain in the Hesperus militia to the attention of then-Exarch Devlin Stone. The skin there remained sensitive, even after all these years, and stress or exhaustion would cause the muscles underneath to knot and ache.
They had come to the island cottage for a family picnic—Jonah, Anna, their two younger children and a couple of the children’s friends. Though he would have preferred to come with just Anna and the children alone, he knew his teenagers. Trying to push through a plan like that would have meant sullen compliance at best, an argument at worst, and Jonah was not in the mood for family arguments just now. The presence of a couple of strangers—very nice young people, really, he pointed out to himself; your children don’t bring home thugs and hoodlums—was a small price to pay for having the entire still-at-home family together and happy.
“Ah,” he said. Already his tense muscles were relaxing under the gentle pressure of Anna’s fingers. “That feels good.”
“You’re all tied up in knots.” She put pressure on a particularly tight and aching spot, and Jonah groaned pleasurably into the terry cloth beach blanket. “You work too hard.”
“Only because there’s so much that has to get done. Believe me, I’d like nothing more than to spend the next five or six months right here.”
Anna’s strong hands continued rubbing the emollient cream into his back. “That’s why you’re already packing your bags to go away again.”
“I have to do it, Anna.” His voice was muffled by the beach blanket, but he wasn’t certain he wanted to look at her face. “There’s too much stuff I can’t do from here—especially with the HPG network down. Nobody’s heard anything of substance from Northwind since the fighting there last June, and nobody’s heard anything about the Steel Wolves since then, either. What I have heard about the Dragon’s Fury and the Swordsworn doesn’t make me happy, and I don’t trust Jacob Bannson any further than I could throw him bare-handed, but I can’t act to neutralize him if I don’t know what he’s doing.”
He heard her give a gentle laugh. “That’s quite a catalogue.”
“There’s a lot more to it than that,” he said. “Those are just the highlights—or the lowlights, if you want to look at them that way.”
“Taken all together, what they mean is that you’re going to Terra.”
“I’m afraid so, yes.”
Her fingers were still working on the muscles of his back, separating out the scars left by metal fragments and laser fire and—at the very last—by edged weapons in close melee, and he felt himself relaxing into the pleasure-pain. She said, “You’re going to miss Passover with the family, you know.”
“I’m sorry, Anna. But it has to be done.”
“Yes. And you wouldn’t be the man I married if you didn’t do your duty.” He felt a slight hesitation in the steady movement of her fingers against his skin. “How long do you think you will be away?”
“I don’t know. Given transit time, three months at the very least. Maybe more. I’ll come back as soon as I can, I promise.”
He didn’t say what they both knew—that the unsettled state of The Republic might drag out his absence for much longer than three months. He knew that it was superstitious to think that speaking of a thing might make it happen; he kept his mouth shut just the same.
“Your promise is good enough for me,” Anna said. He felt a light kiss on the back of his neck. “It always has been.”
February 3134; local autumn
Bannson Universal Unlimited had its corporate offices on Tybalt, in a massive arcology almost a mile high, a self-contained ecosphere with the walls of the upper portions made transparent so that observers for kilometers around could behold and wonder at the audaciousness of it all. In a single enormous building, one level held multistoried towers rising above fields of summer blossoms, another level appeared from the outside to be nothing but parkland, and a third level was packed with geometric structures whose every surface was as elaborately gilded and bejeweled as a prince’s windup toy.
“Taken altogether, the BUU arcology made for a casual display of wealth and power that drove Jacob Bannson’s enemies to distraction. It symbolized,” said Progressive Republic Today, “all that is worst about the man himself: greed, arrogance, ostentatious display, and a lack of serious feeling for either art or nature.”
Jacob Bannson didn’t worry about Progressive Republic Today. He knew that ordinary readers on Tybalt and elsewhere considered PRT to be snobbish and boring when it wasn’t bordering on actively treasonous, and his local approval rating had jumped by fifty points after that article came out.
Bannson maintained a private office suite in the heart of the building’s uppermost glittering jewel-box level, well away from prying eyes. Cameras fixed here and there on the exterior of the huge structure sent views of the city to the office’s windows—video posters constantly updated in real time—while banks of data consoles and communications links displayed information from across the surface of Tybalt. Other consoles in the same office had formerly displayed similar nearly real-time updates from all over The Republic of the Sphere; now those screens changed seldomly, if at all.
Earlier this morning, a blinking light on one of the offworld display terminals had alerted Bannson to just such a rare update. He was looking now at several months’ worth of reports—recently updated by courier mailship—from his agents in place on Northwind. He’d prompted the machine to give him a sheaf of printouts, then paced back and forth while he read them.
Bannson was an energetic man, a maker of emphatic gestures, who became restless in small or crowded rooms. Short and stocky, with wild red hair and a full beard, he had the look of a Viking raider of old. A magazine considerably less highbrow than Progressive Republic Today had once claimed that Jacob Bannson always looked like he ought to be wearing chain mail and brandishing a battle-ax. Bannson had tracked down the writer of the article and ordered him brought to corporate headquarters by a squad of BUU’s notorious and unmistakable security goons—and then hired the terrified man on the spot to work for Bannson’s own public relations division.
According to the reports Bannson was reading as he paced, things on Northwind were going well. He had long wanted to expand BUU’s operations inside Prefecture III, but had been forced repeatedly to back down under pressure from the government of The Republic of the Sphere, with its too worshipful attitude toward the status quo. The collapse of the HPG network, however, had shattered that status quo for good and all, and the associated destabilization was providing Bannson Universal Unlimited with renewed opportunities to extend its influence.
Opportunities, he thought, to which Northwind was the key. Northwind was at once the gateway to Terra and the guardian of the gate—the base of operations for the Northwind Highlanders, formidable combat troops that anybody looking to become a power in Prefecture III would have to deal with. It was also the home of Countess and Prefect Tara Campbell, who was young and untried, but who possessed large and still mostly untapped reserves of family and personal popularity. If the Countess of Northwind turned against him, BUU could kiss any further expansion into Prefecture III good-bye, and never mind the state of the HPG network.
So… Tara Campbell had to be either crippled or won over to Bannson’s side. In the best of all possible outcomes, he could accomplish both, and without her knowing. It would be tricky, but tricky was one of the things Jacob Bannson had always been good at.
He’d thought for a while that he’d found the perfect tool for the job. It wasn’t every day that you found a Paladin of the Sphere with a verifiable and blackmail-worthy secret in his past.
While there were Paladins whom Bannson would not have been pleased to find corruptible, Ezekiel Crow was not among their number. Bannson had never cared for Crow. The man was too reserved and austere to be good company, and had always regarded Bannson’s flamboyant ways not merely with distrust—which Bannson could have lived with, because no sane man trusted anyone completely—but with puritanical distaste.
Taking care of a hypocrite like that, Bannson thought as he read the reports, would be a pleasure all by itself. He was the first man to admit that his own hands were not clean, but whatever he’d done, he’d done in the pursuit of business, and he had never hidden it. He’d certainly never changed his name afterward and pretended to be a lover of the people and a defender of the right.
The HPG network had just gone down, with Bannson still pondering the best use to make of his hold over Ezekiel Crow, when a wild card had shown up in the game: Anastasia Kerensky.
Anastasia had surprised him, which Bannson didn’t like. She’d come out of nowhere—well, out of Arc Royal, which was one place his external security force had yet to penetrate. She’d walked into Steel Wolf headquarters on Tigress with nothing but a BattleMech, her genetic ID, and—so far as he had been able to learn—a few scraps of military experience gained under a false name, and had walked out again two months later as a Galaxy Commander and the person in charge of the whole Steel Wolf operation.
According to Bannson’s sources, she had pulled off that feat by killing the rogue group’s Galaxy Commander, Kal Radick, with her bare hands in a Trial of Possession. Bannson was not pleased by that. Radick had been straightforward and predictable, if you allowed for the inevitable Clan peculiarities, and no one ever had any trouble figuring out which way he was going to jump. If anyone had ever tried to teach Radick how to dissemble, Bannson thought, the Steel Wolf leader had obviously skipped the homework and failed the final exam.
Kerensky, though, was different. Trueborn on Arc Royal, she was alien in a way that the Tigress-born Steel Wolves were not. She was also ruthless and ambitious—not a crime, in Bannson’s view—but a factor to be dealt with nonetheless. And he’d read enough of the Clans’ history to know what a weight of expectation, and the inherited ability to match it, accrued to the holder of the Kerensky Bloodname.
Jacob Bannson had spent too much time cultivating his position as the preeminent force in Prefecture II to appreciate seeing it seriously threatened by anyone else. Having an Arc-Royal Clan Warrior take over from him in the role of first among equals would not, he thought, be a good thing. Not for Bannson Universal Unlimited, and not for anyone else either.
So… he had three problems: Campbell, Kerensky, Crow.
Campbell could wait, for now. She didn’t have any serious ambitions above the Prefectural level; she didn’t have any interest in pushing into Prefecture IV; and between the Steel Wolves and a duplicitous Paladin, she had problems enough on Northwind to keep her distracted from Bannson’s activities in Prefecture III. She would stay put, and Bannson could give her his full attention later.
Kerensky, on the other hand, needed close watching, not least because he had absolutely no idea what she was planning to do next. He’d tried tempting her with the poisoned apple of mercenary assistance, and she’d refused it outright. Perhaps it was time to throw BUU’s support behind Northwind instead. If he played this game right, Bannson thought, he might even come out of this as one of the Countess’s friends.
As for Ezekiel Crow… the man had served his purpose on Northwind, making Kerensky’s victory there possible through his betrayal. He’d shown his true colors then. In Bannson’s experience, a man who’d sold out once could usually be persuaded to do it again, and a man who’d sold out twice could be relied upon to do it a third time.
But Crow was also a clever, dangerous bastard. Bannson knew that the Paladin wouldn’t have abandoned his own plans and ambitions because of a single setback, and the threat of exposure wasn’t going to work forever. Records could be erased, witnesses could be suborned or killed—and without records and witnesses, all you had was mere gossip.
Crow, then, remained the real threat. Bannson was going to have to take further measures to deal with Ezekiel Crow.
He flipped a switch on the nearest communications console. “I want a JumpShip kept on hot standby at the Tybalt station,” he said, “and advance arrangements made at all Terra-bound intermediate stops for priority recharging of the K–F drive. Hire DropShip couriers if necessary to get out the word. I may have to relocate to Terra unexpectedly, at some point in the near future, and I don’t want to waste time getting ready if I do.”
February 3134; local winter
Even with the HPG net down and interstellar travel diminished, everything of importance passed through Terra. The Belgorod DropPort, located on the steppe of old Russia, dealt mostly in heavy cargo rather than passenger traffic, and it was at Belgorod that the DropShip Quicksilver, out of Northwind, touched down and let off one man and a BattleMech.
Ezekiel Crow could remember when Belgorod and the other Terran DropPorts had seen DropShips landing and lifting in a constant stream. Tonight, he had no time to indulge in nostalgia. He had a great deal of business to take care of, and he had to take care of it before the Countess of Northwind—who was, he thought with some bitterness, most certainly no longer his friend—managed to get a messenger out with her side of the story. If he did not have all of his countermoves in place by that time, he would be, for all intents and purposes, dead.
First and most important, he needed to see to the care of his ’Mech. The fast and hard-hitting Blade was technically the property of The Republic of the Sphere, but it had been his and his alone ever since he first became a Knight of the Sphere. Even if the worst happened—especially if the worst happened—he could not afford to lose such an asset. While any of The Republic’s military or diplomatic facilities on Terra could supply him with access to a ’Mech hangar free of charge, such a facility could always be closed against him by orders from above, and using one would betray his location to anyone who might be interested.
Commercial storage was safer. The Belgorod DropPort maintained storage facilities for hire, including—as part of its heavy cargo focus—a limited number of hangars for corporations moving IndustrialMechs back and forth. Crow’s luck was in; one such hangar was currently free. He handed over an exorbitant deposit to the Portmaster and received the hangar lock’s cipher code with an inward sigh of relief.
Someone still might shut him out and keep him from his ’Mech, but now the job would be considerably harder. The safeguards placed by The Republic on civilian property meant that the legal process would take longer, and would require more evidence and justification. Furthermore, his rank as Paladin should suffice to overawe the facility operators into complying with his requests. Barring a direct order from the Exarch himself, the Blade was now as safe and as easy to retrieve as Crow could make it.
The next item on his agenda was tricky, but vitally important. Crow had thought about it during the long DropShip transit, and had arrived, eventually, at a conclusion. This was not something he could trust to official Republic channels. Other channels existed, however, and as a Paladin he knew where to find them and how to gain access. He’d never counted on using his knowledge in this fashion, but life, as he had come to know well, was full of unexpected developments.
Not more than two hours after securing the BattleMech, midnight found Ezekiel Crow in Belgorod DropPort’s uptown strip. The establishments there were elegant lounges and high-rolling casinos, rather than the low dives and gaming hells of the streets closer to the port, but the same people ran both.
He moved through the crowd, a quiet man in dark clothing, taking advantage of the fact that outside of the panoply of his office he was an essentially unremarkable figure. The only striking detail about his appearance was the unexpected combination of blue eyes with dark brown hair and olive skin, and he knew better than to draw attention to it by gazing directly at the people on the street.
He looked instead at the signs on the doors and windows and walls of the local buildings. Most of them were in English, here in the up-scale part of town:THE SILVER SLIPPER, CARDINI’S, THE TAJ MAHAL, THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS .
Ah, yes, he thought. That’s the one.
He entered the lounge. The large room was dim and crowded; the floor show featured a single singer under a blue spotlight. Well-dressed men and women sat drinking and talking at small tables. The scene was sophisticated, if relatively tame. Crow knew that other, more dangerous stuff was available in other parts of the building—none of it quite illegal, but most of it definitely on the far side of unwise.
Crow wasn’t interested in delights, licit or otherwise. He was looking for the manager on duty. He spotted the man a few tables over and approached him politely.
“Good evening,” he said.
“Good evening,” said the manager. “Is there anything that you require to make your visit to the Garden a more pleasurable experience?”
“As it happens,” said Crow, “yes. I need to speak with Suvorov.”
Recognition flickered over the manager’s features for an instant, then vanished. “I’m sorry. I don’t believe we have anyone by that name working here.”
“You’re right,” Crow said. “He doesn’t work here. I need to speak with him anyway.”
“Sir, I’m afraid that—”
“Tell him that he got away clean from the Footfall investigation because he was clever enough to have other people dirty their hands for him instead of touching anything himself. That doesn’t mean someone didn’t know exactly what was going on.”
The manager stared at him. “Who are you, anyway?”
“Just tell Suvorov what I said. Then come back.”
The manager departed. Crow took his abandoned seat at the table and waited. Even listening with only half an ear to the floor show, he recognized the blue-spotlit singer as a Sphere-famous recording artist. Alexei Suvorov didn’t stint on appearances.
The manager returned, accompanied this time by an expressionless security guard of a type Crow pegged as muscle paid to be intelligent, but not thoughtful. “Mr. Suvorov will see you in the Eden Room.”
“This way,” said the security guard. Crow followed him through the press of crowd and tables and out into a carpeted hall leading deeper into the recesses of the Garden. As soon as the door closed between the hall and the outer room, the guard stepped aside and gestured Crow forward.
“Down the hall and on the right. Mr. Suvorov is waiting.”
Crow shook his head and made obvious the presence of the slug-pistol he had been carrying in his coat pocket. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but no. Precede me, please. To wherever Suvorov actually is.”
An elevator ride up to the penthouse later, Crow and the security guard arrived at a posh carpeted room with picture windows that looked out over the lights of the city. Suvorov was there, sitting at his ease with a drink in his hand.
“Ah,” he said, smiling. “Paladin Crow, after all.”
Alexei Suvorov was a good-looking man in late middle age. He appeared exactly like the successful club owner and entertainment entrepreneur that he was, and not at all like the ultimate Terraside organizing force behind the infamous Footfall smuggling ring—which he also was.
“I didn’t think you’d be foolish enough to let my security take you out,” Suvorov continued, “but it was worth a try. Thank you for not breaking him, by the way.”
“I didn’t want to cause a scene.”
“Again, my thanks. You can go, Benson.” The guard left—Crow was not foolish enough to think that he went very far—and Suvorov gestured at the couch. “Please, have a seat.”
Crow sat. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, of course. Now, what is it that brings you to the Garden of Earthly Delights?”
“I have a business proposition for you,” Crow said.
Suvorov’s expression sharpened. “Do you indeed?”
“Yes. I need all the Terran DropPorts watched for new arrivals from a certain quarter, and I need it done discreetly. The reports should come to me directly, without going through official channels.”
Suvorov didn’t bother denying that he had the ability to carry out such a request. “You don’t have sufficient leverage—”
“Very well. Evidence. You don’t have sufficient evidence to force me into anything.”
“You’re right,” said Crow. “I don’t, or you would have stood trial years ago. Which is why I’m offering you cash in return for services rendered.”
“Ah. That’s different.” Suvorov relaxed in his chair. “In that case, Paladin Crow, I think we can do business.”
Ian Murchison—once of Northwind, and once the medic on Balfour-Douglas Petrochemicals Offshore Drilling Station #47, now Bondsman to Galaxy Commander Anastasia Kerensky of the Steel Wolves—finished counting the full and partial boxes of latex gloves in the sick bay storage locker.
He made a note of the number on his data pad. Murchison found the work soothing, a welcome distraction from the many changes in his life since the Steel Wolves had taken over Balfour-Douglas #47 for their base of operations on Northwind.
Murchison’s peculiar status aboard Fenrir–more than a prisoner and less than a fully trusted passenger or member of the ship’s crew—led him to spend most of his time in the vessel’s sick bay. His sleeping quarters were nearby. He bunked with the Wolves’ tech and support people, not with the Warriors, which he suspected was meant to keep him from getting an inflated notion of his own importance.
He didn’t mind. The Wolf Clansmen who did the actual hard work of keeping the ship’s engines running, its communications gear listening and talking, and its crew and passengers healthy, seemed less alien to him than the Warriors. All of them, he was convinced, were crazy. From Anastasia Kerensky on down.
Fenrir’s sick bay, on the other hand, bore a comforting similarity to every other sick bay in The Republic of the Sphere. The Steel Wolves even bought their medical supplies from the same catalogs. Murchison kept himself busy inventorying supplies and making up requisition lists. The ship’s stocks had been depleted on Northwind—the Wolves’ victory there, he thought with a bitter pride that he didn’t let show, had been far from bloodless. Fenrir would need more of everything soon, if the Steel Wolves intended going into battle on Terra.
Murchison fiddled with the single cord around his wrist. It had formerly been a doubled cord, but Anastasia Kerensky had remained true to her word. She had given him the job of finding Jacob Bannson’s mole in the Steel Wolves, and had cut the first cord herself after he had done so, bringing him in one stroke halfway from Bondsman to adopted member of Clan Wolf.
She had cut the traitor’s throat as well—and would undoubtedly do the same for Murchison, if he ever did anything she saw in that light.
It disturbed him sometimes that he didn’t feel more concern for the fate of Terra. Any attachment he had to humanity’s home planet was low-key and mostly abstract. He’d never been to Terra and he didn’t know anyone who had. He’d never even bothered working for Republic citizenship. Northwind had always been enough for him. He suspected that his homeworld wasn’t as thoroughly conquered as Anastasia Kerensky thought, but it wasn’t his place to say so and he definitely wasn’t going to bother telling her as long as he wasn’t asked.
He’d certainly never sworn any oaths of allegiance to Terra or to The Republic. The only oath he had ever sworn was to care for the sick and the injured wherever he might find them. That oath, he had kept.
The sound of footsteps approaching roused him from his reverie. He knew the sound. Not a heavy tread, but a firm and aggressive one all the same: Anastasia Kerensky.
Murchison braced himself. Conversations with Anastasia were like playing a game of catch with a live grenade—never dull, but hell on the nerves. He’d wondered at first why she bothered talking with him. Eventually, he decided that it was precisely because he was not a Steel Wolf Warrior. His lack of status, in fact, made him one of the few people in the whole expeditionary force who was not, ultimately, Anastasia’s rival for power.
When Anastasia entered the sick bay, Murchison saw that she wasn’t wearing a uniform. Instead, she had on her black leather trousers and matching jacket, and her high leather boots. Murchison became even more wary. That outfit usually indicated to the cautious spectator that Anastasia was in one of her wilder moods, and that reckless, or at least headlong, action was in the offing.
He put aside the data pad with its inventory and requisition data, and said carefully, “Galaxy Commander.”
“Is there something that I can do for you?”
“As a matter of fact,” she said, “there is. I need you to board the Saffel Space Station with me.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Just the two of us?”
“No. There will be others. But you will conduct yourself as the JumpShip’s medic.”
Murchison nodded. “If the Galaxy Commander asks it, I’ll do my best. But—” He let his curiosity creep into the unfinished phrase.
“I’d heard that the Akela was going to use its solar sail to pull in the power, and sunlight’s free. In that case, why bother with a courtesy visit at the station?”
Anastasia smiled. “Because nobody’s luck is perfect. It will happen that the solar sail failed to deploy properly, and that it sustained structural damage as a result.”
“Ah,” he said. He had been with the Steel Wolves long enough by now to understand that something other than random bad luck would be at work in the matter of the damaged sail.
“Ah, indeed,” said Anastasia. “It will therefore become necessary for us to enter into negotiations with the station.”
By now Murchison was unsurprised. “And where do I come in?”
“Your job is to lend an air of respectability to the boarding party. And to take care of the wounded, if there is any trouble.”
There would naturally be trouble, Murchison thought. They were talking about Anastasia Kerensky, after all.
He began mentally packing his go-bag for the purpose—making sure to include plenty of pads and bandages and other trauma gear—as he asked Anastasia, “We’re going to purchase energy from the station?”
“No,” she said. “We are going to take it from them, as befits the Wolves.”
February 3134; local winter
The Northwind Highlanders’ DropShip Montrose waited on the ground at Tara DropPort with its cargo hold gaping open. The other two DropShips on the field, Morrigan and Esperance, had already sealed up and declared themselves ready to lift, and only Montrose remained to take on its cargo of soldiers and equipment. Military DropShips were capacious vessels, and Montrose would be lifting at max capacity. That meant row on row of buses and trucks full of Highlanders and their personal effects—one canvas duffel bag per each—idling on the tarmac until word came to get out and form up.
Will Elliot formed his platoon into ranks and gave them a good inspection. Then he moved off to one side to stand with his friends and fellow Sergeants Jock Gordon and Lexa McIntosh in the lee of the nearest truck. The trio talked idly amongst themselves while keeping an eye on their troopers and listening for the order to embark.
Beyond the DropPort, the Tara skyline looked ragged and unfamiliar in the aftermath of battle. What the days of house-to-house city fighting had not destroyed, the Steel Wolves had razed in obedience to Anastasia Kerensky’s order to burn everything before taking ship for Terra. Most of the famous landmark buildings were blown up and gone, although the haze of yellowish gray pollution left behind after their collapse still discolored the air above the city. The port buildings themselves—the hangars and the parking bays and the great domed central concourse—were all gone as well, turned into rubble on the first day of city fighting.
Lexa McIntosh—short, skinny, and gypsy dark—surveyed the damage done to the city with a jaundiced eye. “You know,” she said thoughtfully, “it’s a damned shame Anastasia Kerensky wasn’t riding along with that tank column.”
Big Jock Gordon nodded. “Aye.”
“No argument from me on that one,” agreed Will.
Neither man needed to ask Lexa which tank column she’d been referring to. All three of them had been part of the action when the Northwind Highlanders, acting on Countess Tara Campbell’s orders, had blown up Castle Northwind in its isolated valley, then dropped part of a mountainside onto the only road out.
The Steel Wolf tank column sent to capture the castle had found itself trapped. They’d fought hard, but the Highlanders waiting for them in the valley had fought harder.
The tank column’s fate had not saved Northwind from the Steel Wolves, or the city of Tara from devastation, but it had felt good, which was one more thing that Will hadn’t told his mother and sister because he wasn’t sure that they would understand.
Lexa was still frowning. “Tell me again,” she said, “why we’re leaving a mess like this behind for somebody else to take care of?”
“Anastasia thinks we’re beaten,” Jock said. “We’re going to show her that we’re not.”
“That’s only part of it,” said Will.
“What do you mean?” Lexa asked. She and Jock both looked at him expectantly, waiting for the explanation.
Even back during their days in boot camp, Will had always been a pace or two ahead of his friends when it came to matters of soldiering and strategy. While Jock Gordon was steady and solid, no one would ever mistake him for the fastest thinker in the regiment. As for Lexa, she was quick-witted enough, but she’d never quite lost the hotheaded streak that had landed her in the regiment in the first place, when a perceptive judge in the Kearney outback had given her a choice between time in jail and time in the service. From the beginning, Will had been the responsible one, trained up in it from his civilian days as a wilderness guide.
Nevertheless, the three of them made a good team, and Will was glad that Jock and Lexa had made Sergeant not long after he had himself. Now he said to his friends, “We’re going to Terra so that we can make sure this won’t happen all over again—”
“The bitch has a head start,” said Lexa darkly. “High road or low road, she’ll get there before we do.”
“Or so that we can at least stop it before it gets this bad,” Will finished. “Besides—”
His voice trailed off for a moment, as he went over what he knew about the Clans. He was uncomfortably aware that most of his knowledge came from sources he wouldn’t trust to get Northwind right either—things like popular tri-vid programs and illustrated articles in the newspaper supplements, and one long-ago secondary school history unit on the Battle of Tukayyid that had stopped the Clans from overrunning the Inner Sphere. With his mind already on the mountain trails, he’d never listened all that much in class. Instead, he’d done just enough of the assigned work to get by. He found himself wishing now that he’d paid better attention.
“Besides,” he repeated, “I don’t think Anastasia Kerensky wants to burn Terra. I think she wants to own it.”
Jock’s brow furrowed. “What for?”
Again, Will had to pause and order his thoughts before summoning what he hoped were the right words. “It’s—the Clans believe that they’re supposed to take over Terra for its own good. It’s what they think they were made for, after the Star League fell apart and Aleksandr Kerensky led them away.”
“Kerensky?” Jock asked.
“Aye,” Will said. “The Wolf-Bitch has a famous name. Anyhow, the Clans have always been hot to reclaim Terra, and whichever one of them actually goes ahead and does it gets to wear a fancy hat—”
“You’re joking,” Lexa said.
“About the hat?” said Will. “I think so. But some of the stories… anyway, the Clan leader who does the job gets to call himself by a special title—ilkhan or something like that—and go down in their stories and their history books as a great leader.”
Lexa snorted. “I think our Countess is going to have something to say about that first.”
“Aye,” he said. Off on the far side of the landing field, a Klaxon sounded the signal to embark. Time to get back to his troopers and start marching them aboard Montrose for the trip to Terra. “And so will we.”
DropShip Fenrir, JumpShip Akela
Saffel Space Station Three, Saffel System
In the officers’ conference room aboard Fenrir, with her Northwinder Bondsman a silent background presence, Galaxy Commander Anastasia Kerensky went over the battle plan with her assembled Star Colonels.
“I want the people in charge of the station to think that we are harmless,” she told them, “and that we have come to them for fuel because we are the victims of an emergency.”
“When they see that we are Clan,” Star Colonel Dorn said, “they may not be willing to believe us.” Dorn was a big, blocky man, who might have been a genius had he been endowed with intelligence to match his muscles. “Even if we lie and say that we are Sea Fox traders, and not Steel Wolves.”
“We will not lie,” Anastasia said. “Not about who we are, and not about having an emergency.”
Dorn frowned. “You are planning in advance to have an emergency?”
“Of course,” she said. “Under the circumstances, it is the only way.”
Star Colonel Marks, whose dislike for her, Anastasia felt certain, was much stronger than Colonel Dorn’s, asked suspiciously, “What kind of emergency do you intend for us to have?”
“The solar sail is going to rip,” she said.
“How are you going to arrange matters so that the station believes you?” Marks asked.
“We are going to rip it in truth,” she told him.
Star Colonel Dorn was frowning again. “You are saying that if this plan of yours does not work, we are all going to starve in the dark.”
“No need to worry,” she told him. “If the plan fails, we will run out of air long before we starve.”
Not quite an hour later, the external line-handling team was out of Akela’s tertiary air lock and away. The team members were dressed for extravehicular activity in pressure suits and helmets, and they were busy rigging det cord along the length of Akela’s giant solar sail.
“Reel it out,” said the senior man on the line-handling team. “Slowly. And stay on the dark side of the sail. You do not want the stationers to pick you out with a telescope.”
“Do you think they have telescopes fixed on us?” asked the worker next to him, a young Warrior on his first campaign.
“Would you have a telescope,” the senior man asked, “if you were one of them?”
The first timer paused, then said, “Yes, sir.”
The senior man said, “If you assume that your enemies are stupid, you will only be wrong once. Now, comms dark, no more chatter. Rig the line, then gather in the lock and we will set it off from there. Move it, people.”
Cecy Harris watched the Clan JumpShip on her monitor screen. The vessel had not gotten any smaller while she was studying it. At the console next to her, the communications specialist said over the ship-to-ship short-range radio, “What is the nature of your emergency?”
“We ripped our solar sail,” came the hoarse voice. “Need to come in for repairs, buy a bit of power.”
“We saw your sail go,” Luc Desroches said, after picking up the console handset to make his reply. He was standing a few feet away from Cecy and her monitor, in order not to distract her. To the communications specialist, he said, “Pass the word on all frequencies: You are cleared to approach.”
“Once we have a foothold established in their air lock,” Anastasia Kerensky said to Ian Murchison, “we will see what we can do.”
The Galaxy Commander was waiting with her officers and her assault team—and her Bondsman—in the JumpShip’s enormous docking area. Docked with the space station as they were, the JumpShip no longer had its spin-induced gravity, and they were floating in a loose cluster rather than standing on the deck.
“The first wave is going to have some trouble,” Anastasia continued, as Akela’s outer lock cycled open. “It may take a while for reinforcements to arrive if things go sour in a hurry.”
“So you, of course, are going in with the first wave,” Murchison said.
“Of course, I am,” Anastasia said. “And you are coming with me.”
The air lock—with much groaning of metal against metal—cycled open on the outer side and admitted them to the station’s docking area. Anastasia and the members of her assault team looked out into a cargo port. The room was big and square and solid, with yellow-and-black guidance stripes on all its visible edges, fenders on areas likely to take blows from moving masses, and stark blue-white work lights.
Moving like underwater swimmers in the zero-gee, the assault team left the air lock and clustered again inside the bay. Anastasia herself punched the combination to close the air lock door behind them. Then she turned to address the members of the boarding party.
“Orders for this raid are to inflict minimal damage,” she said. “I want this station working, and I wa~t its people working. So, hand-to-hand, fire your weapons only if you must, and only to save your life or the life of a comrade. And if I find out that any one of you got excessively trigger-happy during the action, I will personally kill you and the comrade you were trying to save. Now move.”
Office of the Exarch
February 3134; local winter
From the Belgorod DropPort, Ezekiel Crow went next to Geneva by means of a quick suborbital shuttle-hop. When he arrived at The Republic of the Sphere’s capital city, he found the weather there cold, the nearby mountains blanketed in white. At another time, Crow might have taken advantage of the opportunity to ski the Alpine trails. He’d picked up the skill during his earlier stints in The Republic’s capital, and had enjoyed the pastime. He had other business today, and no time for pleasure.
He’d had occasional chances to go skiing now and then during his stay on Northwind, in the months before the fighting began again. The continent of New Lanark, at least, boasted plenty of mountains and more than sufficient snow. But skiing had not been one of Tara Campbell’s hobbies, and in those happier and more optimistic days he had been tailoring his free-time activities to match hers.
Well, he reflected bitterly, there was no need for him to make accommodations now.
Even if he were able to make his own version of the story stick in the court of public opinion and in the mind of the Exarch, he and the Countess of Northwind both knew the truth. Everything else that he had lost, there was still a chance that he could recover—but never Tara Campbell’s good opinion of him. Though the pang of realization was not new any longer, it struck him between the ribs like a knife blade all the same.
Crow wasted no time in Geneva, but went directly to the office of the Exarch: not Redburn’s ceremonial office, which was good mainly for video opportunities and for overawing visiting dignitaries from outside The Republic of the Sphere, but his working office, located in a different—and much less impressive—building. Damien Redburn, a vigorous man who still had much of the look of the MechWarrior he had been before devoting himself wholeheartedly to The Republic’s politics, greeted Crow warmly.
There were no backslappings or loud exclamations—both men were too dignified for that—but Redburn favored Crow with a genuine smile and a quick embrace.
“Ezekiel!” he said, stepping away and returning to his seat behind the desk. “You’ve returned to make your report on Northwind in person, I presume.”
Crow took the office’s remaining chair at a gesture from the Exarch. He kept his expression deliberately serious as he replied, “Yes, unfortunately.”
“Unfortunately?” Redburn’s eyebrows lifted. “What’s happened?”
The Exarch’s brow was furrowed with concern, but he wasn’t looking particularly surprised by the possibility of bad news.
Crow remembered that it had been Damien Redburn who first expressed private misgivings about the young Countess of Northwind. He had doubted her ability to handle her new responsibilities as Prefect of Prefecture III without some sort of backup.
“She means well,” Redburn had said at the time. “And her loyalty is unquestioned. But she doesn’t have the experience.”
And Crow—he’d been all sincerity and fairness then; he had not known Tara Campbell, and had believed that his own first life and unforgivable transgression remained safely dead and buried in the rubble of his boyhood home—had said, “What about Sadalbari? She certainly distinguished herself there.”
“No one doubts her courage, either,” Redburn said. “Still, a small-scale field operation against a rabble of pirates is not the same as the responsibility for an entire Prefecture.” He gave a worried sigh. “The problem is that after Katana Tormark’s …defection, there’s nobody else out there with an equivalent level of moral authority and popular support.”
Crow said, firmly optimistic, “I’m sure that the Countess will rise to the occasion.”
The worried wrinkles on the Exarch’s brow did not diminish. “We’ll need to make sure. Or we’ll need to get advance warning if she doesn’t.” Redburn’s eyes had lit up then with the bright light of an idea, and Crow’s spirits had sunk. “You, Ezekiel—you can kill two birds with one stone. Provide the Countess with backup, and report back to Terra if anything goes wrong.”
Ezekiel Crow had not liked Redburn’s idea at the time. He had grumbled and complained as much as the call of duty and his respect for the Exarch would allow, but his protests were all to no avail. At the end of the day, he’d still found himself on a DropShip bound for Northwind.
He was grateful for that conversation now. It made what he had to do next a little bit easier.
Soberly, he said to the Exarch, “The Steel Wolves have taken Northwind.”
“And the Countess?” Redburn said.
“She was still alive when I left,” Crow said. He sighed, despising himself for the lie that was coming. “But she had surrendered Northwind and the Highlanders to the Steel Wolves in return for safety and an end to the fighting.”
“How was it that matters came to such a pass?” Redburn asked. He shook his head somberly. “That a Prefect should surrender to the leader of upstart rebels…”
No shock had registered on the Exarch’s features at the bad news—unhappiness, yes, but not surprise. On a level deep below speech, Crow found himself profoundly angered by the insult to Tara Campbell implied in the other man’s reaction. He set the anger aside; he had no right to it any longer.
“The Highlanders were severely overextended and understrength,” he told the Exarch. “I was able to secure the contract of an excellent mercenary unit to supplement the Northwind defense forces, and I put them at the Countess’s disposal—but she declined to make effective use of them until it was too late.”
Redburn frowned. “Did she give a reason?”
Crow looked down at the office carpet. The next few moments were critical. If he succeeded in getting his version of events planted in the Exarch’s mind, anyone disputing them later would have to overcome the resistance of an already fixed idea. “I have to admit that it wasn’t just reckless pride. She thought she had a reason.”
“What sort of reason?” Redburn asked. “Did she ever say?”
Crow worked even harder at looking reluctant. If the Exarch believed that he’d dragged the story out of a reluctant Paladin a few words at a time, he would be all the more unwilling to reject it later. “It’s my fault, I’m afraid.”
“What did you do to her?”
“Do?” Crow’s shock at the lurid possibilities conjured up by Redburn’s question was unfeigned. “Nothing! But you know that I have enemies—what Paladin of the Sphere doesn’t, after all?”
The Exarch nodded. “Go on.”
“One of those enemies provided the Countess with forged documentation purporting to show—” The words caught in his throat. He paused to gather himself together, then continued in a voice whose thickness of emotion was entirely real. “—purporting to show that I was the party responsible for the Betrayal of Liao.”
“And she believed them?”
“She said not.” Crow shrugged regretfully. “But when the time for trust came… her judgment was affected.”
“I see. So now the Wolves have Northwind.”
“Yes,” Crow said. “And perhaps they have the Highlanders as well.”
Redburn nodded sagely. “It would not be outside the bounds of belief. The Highlanders were mercenaries themselves—if not in living memory, at least in the memory of history—and might not find it a bad bargain to gain safety and independence for Northwind at the price of The Republic of the Sphere.”
Saffel Space Station Three
Ian Murchison, his medic bag firmly in hand, propelled his weightless self through the corridors of the space station in Anastasia Kerensky’s wake. The interior of the station was painted in pleasing pastels, with abstract designs that could have been meant to represent a mountain stream, or flowers, or an artist enjoying the interplay of light and hue. An incongruous background, in any case, for assault, battle, and sudden death.
Murchison still did not completely understand the role that he was supposed to play in the taking of the station—whether he was the Galaxy Commander’s personal life insurance policy, or her good-luck charm, or some other thing which, not being born to the Clans and their way of life, he was doomed never to fully understand. All he knew at the moment was that whenever and wherever Anastasia moved, his job was to shadow her a few meters behind. Two Clan Warriors in full battle armor propelled themselves along beside her as she made her way inward in the direction of the station’s main control room.
“Catch the brain,” she had said as the Steel Wolves—and one far-from-home Northwinder—moved from the air lock into the main station area, “and the body will follow.”
Murchison heard the whine of a laser-pistol coming from somewhere up ahead and to the right. The two Clan Warriors matching pace with Kerensky pushed off and swam away in that direction. As the Warriors did so they switched their laser rifles from their carrying cradles to the ready position.
Murchison found himself alone with Anastasia Kerensky. The leader of the Steel Wolves carried a radio and a hand laser and moved gracefully, but relentlessly forward. Unlike the two armored Warriors, she wore only regular fatigues in an interior-camouflage pattern. Murchison supposed that this meant she was opting for speed and flexibility over protection.
Which is just fine for her, the medic thought, but if she gets herself killed I’m going to be in even bigger trouble than I am right now. Nothing I can do about it, though.
Another laser-pistol sounded from up ahead, and at the same moment Anastasia went limp, spinning away to fetch up against the far bulkhead and float there, motionless. Murchison grabbed for one of the safety handholds that were set at intervals into the bulkhead and brought himself to a stop, his mind already running through the possibilities and not liking any of them very much.
Laser weapon was his first thought. Those could produce nasty wounds. He didn’t see any blood, although that wasn’t as encouraging as it might have been. Internal bleeding was just as dangerous as the visible kind, if not worse. The blood could leak out into the space usually reserved for the lungs, or press on the heart, or fill the abdominal cavity with an infectious brew.
He let loose of the handhold, keeping his medic bag in front of him as a shield, and started eeling his way across the open space to the opposite side of the corridor. The Wolves hadn’t issued him any weapons—he would have refused them if they’d been offered, because without training he’d be as dangerous to his own side as he would to the other. (And which one, the voice in the back of his head asked, is which? Do you even know anymore?) They had, however, given him a number of smoke grenades, on the grounds that even a medic might at some point need something to cover his movements. He popped one of the grenades now to obscure his snakelike progress across what felt like an infinite expanse of corridor.
The station’s air system tore at the smoke screen, tattering it, and the beam from a laser-pistol flashed past his head. He kept going.
He arrived at Kerensky’s side, still keeping low.
“Medic,” he whispered. “Don’t move. Where are you hit?”
“Nowhere,” she answered in a barely voiced murmur. “I am trying to draw their forces in here, so that I can surround them.” Belatedly, Murchison noticed the comm-tracker radio unit in her hand flickering with signals he could not read, presumably from other Warriors in the boarding party. “But thanks for thinking of me. I am certain that having a medic moving in made it look good from out—”
She broke off and spun to one side, bringing up the laser pistol in her free hand and shooting past Murchison’s right shoulder. He scarcely caught a glimpse of the station defender who’d come looming up out of the smoke before the man went limp and slowly began to rotate in the air. The needle-gun dropped from his massive fist and floated away into the smoke-filled air of the station corridor.
“So much for the subtle approach,” Anastasia said, and uncoiled from her position. She spoke into the comm-tracker, “One unfriendly down. Moving forward. Do mop up.”
Unfriendly, Murchison thought, and glanced at the fallen stationer. Just a man who was doing his job, and maybe a little bit more than his job, trying to defend his home and workplace.
Anastasia headed on into the next corridor, not bothering with stealth or concealment. She’s going to get herself killed if she keeps that up, Murchison thought, then turned his attention to the man now floating motionless a few feet above the deckplates.
He propelled himself forward as he had before, medical bag first. Somebody up ahead still had a laser-pistol, and Murchison—unlike Anastasia Kerensky—didn’t want to make himself into more of a target than he already was.
“Medic,” he said to the injured stationer, pulling on latex examination gloves as he spoke. The man didn’t respond, but Murchison could see that he was breathing.
“Where does it hurt?” Murchison asked. This time he got a groan in reply.
He ran his hands down the man’s body, checking for damage, and found some in the front of the right chest. Antibiotics, he thought. Painkillers, muscle relaxants. He didn’t have a lot of any of those with him, so he would stabilize the man with what he did have, then catch up with Anastasia Kerensky once he was done. The Galaxy Commander had, after all, expressed a preference for taking the station with its crew intact.
Murchison cut away the wounded man’s shirt, exposing a cauterized hole that whistled air every time the man breathed. The man’s blue lips, gasping breath, and thready pulse confirmed Murchison’s suspicions—sucking chest wound, possible tension pneumothorax. He pulled out a one-way seal from the collection of bandages in his medic bag, and had just finished slapping it onto the injury when a backup squad of Steel Wolf infantry arrived, armor clanking as they propelled themselves forward in the zero-gee environment.
“They have laser-pistols,” he said to the Warrior in the lead, a burly Star Colonel whose name he couldn’t recall at the moment. “And needle-guns. The Galaxy Commander went through that door there. I’d hurry after her if I were you.”
“One man to guard the prisoner, and everyone else follow me,” the Star Colonel said. “You, medic. Come with us.”
Murchison passed through the same door Anastasia had done, and—like the Colonel and the rest of the backup squad—made his way to Station Control by following the sound of fighting. Their haste turned out to be unnecessary; by the time they arrived, the noise of gunfire had abated and the stationers in Control were either dead or had surrendered.
“Star Colonel Dorn,” Anastasia said when the backup force arrived in the bridge area, even as Murchison started working on the nearest injured man, “take possession of the station. Commence recharge and refueling of our ships as soon as possible.”
For a moment Dorn did not answer. Then Murchison saw him square his shoulders. “You and I have business to transact first, Galaxy Commander.”
Anastasia twisted to face him and raised her eyebrows, balancing her hand laser lightly in one hand. “Business of what sort, Star Colonel?”
“I have a grievance against you, Galaxy Commander,” the Star Colonel said. “You have unnecessarily put at risk the JumpShip Akela and its crew—”
“Do you speak of our ruse with the solar sail?”
“Yes,” said Dorn. “Had it failed, you would have thrown away the lives of valuable Warriors for the sake of a bad idea—just as you did on Northwind, for the sake of a useless castle you could not even keep.”
Saffel Space Station Three
Anastasia Kerensky looked Star Colonel Dorn up and down. The laser-pistol in her right hand made a tempting weight, and she had to fight the urge to raise it and fire.
“That is not a grievance, Star Colonel,” she said, keeping her voice deliberately calm and scornful. “That is a pretext. I have taken Northwind, I have taken this station, I will take Terra and bring the Clans back to their rightful home. This is neither the time for a Trial, nor the place.”
“Are you afraid?” he demanded.
She laughed. “No—and I am not stupid, either. You do not goad me into foolishness as I goaded Kal Radick.”
“It does not matter. You cannot refuse a Trial.”
“Nothing impels me to it except my own will,” she said. “I do as I please, and it pleases me to accept. But not here and not now, while the station remains partially unsecured and the JumpShip is not yet docked for recharging.”
“Tomorrow noon,” she said. Despite her bravado, she knew that Dorn—damn his eyes!—was right. She could not refuse, and a long delay would be as bad as a refusal. “The choice of place is yours.”
“Before the Star Colonels assembled,” Dorn said. The gleam of triumph in his eyes vanished as quickly as it had come, but Anastasia found it worrisome nonetheless. It confirmed her suspicion that this confrontation had been planned out in advance. “In the crew recreation area on the station’s gravity deck. Clear everything out, and we will have room enough to make the ring. Since we are in space, it will have to be unaugmented—as you fought Kal Radick.”
Yes, Anastasia thought, but Kal Radick was a stupid man. While you… are also a stupid man, which means that somebody else wrote out this script and tutored you in your lines. And if I live through tomorrow, I will find out who.
“So let it be done, then,” she said, and met Dorn’s gaze straight on. “Seylah.”
The Warriors in the control room echoed her. “Seylah.”
She drew a deep breath. “In the meantime, Star Colonel, you have your orders. Take possession of the station and commence recharge and refueling.”
Noon the next day came sooner than Anastasia would have liked. She dressed for the occasion with some care, braiding her hair tightly and securing it close against her head with pins, so as not to give her adversary anything to grab. It would have been even safer, she knew, to cut it all off—many MechWarriors did, as a matter of convenience, and even the little Countess of Northwind had kept her blond hair clipped short—but to herself at least Anastasia would admit to being vain enough to keep her own hair long.
She selected her clothing with similar care: snug-fitting black tights and black soft-sided combat practice shoes, topped with a red silk scarf worn halterwise and knotted beneath her breasts. When she was dressed, she summoned Ian Murchison from his quarters—telling herself that if she intended to continue her project of making a Wolf Clansman out of a Northwind medic, a Trial of Grievance would be an educational experience for him—and went down to the crew recreation area on the station’s spinning gravity deck.
The rec area had been cleared out completely during the night, and now only held a circle of Star Colonels in their dress uniforms—except for Dorn, who had chosen to fight in a loose-fitting tunic and trousers combo, with soft shoes laced high—and a throng of spectators. She wondered briefly whether some enterprising technician had managed to rig the area’s security cameras for a live feed to the rest of the station, then decided that she didn’t need to know.
“I am ready,” she said to Dorn, and stepped into the center of the circle under the overhead track lights. Peripherally, she was aware of Ian Murchison taking a stand with his medical bag, not far away. “Are you?”
“I am,” Dorn said, and stepped into the circle. “For the honor of the Wolves, and to wipe out Grievance, let us see who is fit to command.”
“I already know that,” Anastasia said, allowing herself to drift into his striking range. She hoped to goad him into striking first. If he did, and if she could block or dodge the blow, her counterstrike could be quick, and the Trial would be over before it had well begun.
But this is Dorn, Anastasia thought, going over her opponent’s strengths and weaknesses in her mind even as she let her body with its training and reflexes take over the first stages of the combat. A good fighter, but not too bright. And not ambitious—not on this level of ambition, at least.
Dorn struck at her right flank with a reaping kick. She blocked, and found herself blocking nothing but air. He was back in guard, balanced.
What Dorn is, she thought, is the best hand-to-hand man of all the Star Colonels. Which means he was put up to this Trial by—
Not a kick this time, but spear-hand blows, aimed at her throat. Anastasia leaned back out of range, at the same time kicking up so the reinforced point of her practice shoe grazed one of his elbows.
The impact was not hard enough to hurt him. Instead, he grabbed her ankle with both hands, raised it, and twisted, throwing her down on her back. The landing would have been hard enough to stun had she not been ready for the move. She slapped the ground to absorb energy and rolled back to her feet, with a flurry of knife-hand blows aimed at Dorn’s jaw and ribs.
Dorn blocked them easily, and laughed.
Someone, Anastasia thought, was pulling his leash. Someone had offered him backing in return for—
“Whoever put you up to this is planning to kill you as soon as you’ve killed me,” she said, low enough that only Dorn could hear it. “He did not tell you his entire plan.”
She saw Dorn’s face grow a trifle stonier. That shot had come close to a bull’s-eye. She reached with her left hand, grasping his left wrist, and used the leverage to pivot herself around. But Dorn was fast. He had his right hand on top of her left hand, squeezing it to his arm and pivoting, pulling her around. An elbow strike to her midriff made her gasp. Before he could strike again, she pushed up against him, and dropped her head under his arm, so that he had the choice of letting go or suffering a broken elbow.
He let go, with a kick to the back of her right calf that threatened to cramp the muscle. He was bigger than she was, and stronger. And just as well trained.
“So who was it?” she asked. “Tell me their names and I will go lightly on you.”
Dorn laughed again. “Not likely.”
Anastasia grasped the ends of her halter-scarf and jerked loose the knot. Pulling the scarf away from her body, she snapped the square of red fabric along its diagonal to make three feet of silken rope extending from her right hand to her left. She gathered up the loop of silk into her right hand.
The move left her naked to the waist. The sight of a woman’s bare breasts wasn’t likely to distract her opponent—body shyness and prurience were not Clan vices. Lack of imagination and rigid adherence to tradition, on the other hand… Anastasia smiled. Clan Warriors might debate for hours whether or not a discarded article of clothing counted as a weapon for the purpose of an unaugmented fight, but it would never occur to most of them that anyone might test out the idea in practice.
Dorn, at least, appeared to have recovered from whatever surprise he might have felt. He stepped forward, bent, and grasped Anastasia by her haunch bones while her hands were occupied and her feet too close together. She bent forward and attempted a head-strike against his skull—another distraction, and an effective one this time, to keep him from noticing that her hands were busy working a slipknot into one end of the silk.
She dropped the noose around his neck and dived over his shoulder, skidding to the deck. Before he could turn, she planted one foot firmly in the small of his back and pulled on the end of her makeshift rope. Dorn grabbed and clawed at the silk band tightening down against his throat, but to no avail.
The actual time it took for Anastasia’s adversary to lose consciousness was three minutes; it felt to her like three years. At last Dorn stiffened, quit struggling, and fell—first to his knees, then backwards as she maintained a steady pressure on the noose around his neck.
He was down. He was blue. Anastasia did not stop to check whether he was still capable of breathing, nor did she bother to cover her upper body. Instead, she turned to the rest of the Star Colonels where they stood to form the combat circle. She stalked forward and prowled around the inside perimeter of the circle, looking each man in the face before moving on to the next, her teeth bared in a fighting snarl.
“I smell corruption in this,” she said. “I have a Grievance against those who tempt good officers into ill-advised combats that lead to their deaths. Whoever is responsible—step forward and face me now. It is possible, after all, that for the price of a few minutes’ hard work you can gain everything that you wanted, without having to dispose of poor Dorn afterward. Fight me.”
“If that is the way it has to be—”
The speaker was Star Colonel Marks. He stepped forward, and the other Star Colonels closed ranks behind him to mend the gap. Anastasia moved to her left, circling, looking for an opening. Star Colonel Marks was not the best fighter present. He relied on his wits and his tongue to get results. Still, he was a Wolf Clansman, which meant that standing next to anyone else in the galaxy he would be the man to put your money on.
“Since you brought a weapon into this circle,” Marks said, “I claim the right to do the same.” He reached inside his uniform tunic and brought out a knife.
Anastasia heard the sound of muffled exclamations and indrawn breaths from the ring of watchers. Turning a silken halter into a garrote, as she had done, was a titillating dance on the edge of what was permitted. Drawing steel, on the other hand, was a gross offense against custom.
Worse, Anastasia knew that there was no sure defense against someone with a knife. If a man with a knife could get within three meters of his target, not even a slug-pistol made for a foolproof defense. She turned to present her left side, her weaker side, toward the Star Colonel. If she had to take a hit, she decided, she would let her left arm take it. She could afford that much, if it allowed her to make a telling stroke in return.
The stroke would have to be telling. She might not have a second chance.
The Star Colonel tossed his blade from his right hand to his left. “Are you no longer ready to play?” he asked. “Come on, where is the Kerensky courage?”
He claimed before witnesses to doubt her courage—and she half naked, and now bare-handed. She knocked her mental estimation of Marks a notch further down. She’d killed better men than he was—one of them was lying on the deck behind him right now.
Colonel Marks had the blade in his left hand. He pivoted right and swung the blade downward at the same moment, so that it protruded from the little-finger side of his fist, laying it back against his forearm. He reached for Anastasia, taking her left wrist in his right hand, pulling her down and toward him.
She twisted her wrist outward, breaking the grip. At the same moment, she kicked with her left foot, aiming for a kneecap.
Marks whirled away from the kick, slashing with the knife at the same moment. Anastasia blocked down and out with her right forearm. Too late, too slow. The tip of the knife slashed a line of burning pain across her exposed midriff.
Marks tossed the blade back to his right hand and lunged forward, aiming for the center of her chest. Anastasia pivoted away; the blade went past her rather than into her.
As she moved, she felt the injured tissue tearing across her abdomen. The pain blossomed like a brilliant light behind her eyes, leaving a blackness when it faded. She shook her head to clear it. Her body continued the fight, a block and a counterstrike, without her fully conscious direction, before she mastered the pain, tucked it into a small part of her mind to be dealt with later.
“I could just stand here, stay out of your way, waiting for you to bleed to death or your guts to fall out,” Colonel Marks said. “Or you can offer me your neck, and I will make it quick and clean. Which do you want?”
“Neither,” Anastasia said. She kept her voice cool and level. She’d be damned if she let on she was hurt, by word, by gesture, by expression. The pain was manageable now, even as she felt blood running down her legs. “There is not any surrender here.”
“Your choice,” Colonel Marks said.
Anastasia moved a bit to her right, circling. The Colonel kept his distance and his relative position.
You think you are in control, Anastasia thought. You are following my lead. I have the initiative. I am acting, you are reacting. And you have desperately overplayed your hand.
She took a step forward, her hands in a ready position. The Colonel took a step backward. She moved to her right again, and the Star Colonel matched her movement. He was watching her every move, but she wasn’t watching him. Her attention was on the deck behind him, where Colonel Dorn lay with a silk scarf wrapped around his crushed neck.
There. Anastasia had Marks lined up. She lunged forward, starting a rising side-kick. Marks stepped back, out of range, and tripped against Dorn’s body.
He hesitated. He did not trip or fall. But his smooth action was broken, and Anastasia was ready for it. She sprang against him, bearing both of them to the deck.
She landed on top, knees on either side of his chest, his knife hand trapped in both of her hands. She twisted his fist until the blade pointed down. Then she fell forward, throwing her entire weight against his arm.
The knife penetrated his chest. He convulsed and pink-tinged foam sprayed from his nose and mouth. She rolled free, pushing back to her feet, and watched as he tried to remove the blade. His efforts grew less and less organized. He convulsed once again, and lay still.
She spun way from the body and glared at the rest of the Steel Wolves’ Star Colonels.
“Anyone else?” she shouted. “If anybody else wants to break tradition and challenge me to a knife fight, now is the time to do it!”
Nobody spoke. The pain of the knife wound took up more and more of her attention, but she refused to fall. She stood for what felt like a long time, breathing heavily and swaying a little on her feet. No one came forward. She was aware, in the part of her mind that was not occupied by a fascination with the splashing noise of her own blood hitting the polished deckplates, that the Star Colonels were breaking up the combat circle and moving away.
A shadowy figure approached her from her right-hand side. The cargo bay was growing unaccountably dim, in spite of the work lights. When she concentrated, the shadow resolved itself into Ian Murchison.
“You can fall down now and let me get to work on patching you,” her Bondsman said. His gloved hands were busy pulling things she didn’t recognize out of his medical bag, and his voice had a harsh note in it that made her wonder, fuzzily, if the silly man had actually believed that she was going to lose. “I think you’ve made your point with the boys in uniform.”
March 3134; local winter
Jonah Levin endured the long trip from Kervil to Terra with equanimity. With the HPG network down, and with wars and rumors of wars cropping up all around The Republic of the Sphere, he felt lucky to have found a berth at all, let alone passage on a DropShip heading more or less directly to where he was going. Five days to Kervil’s jump point, a jump to an intermediate point for the purpose of recharging the JumpShip’s Kearny-Fuchida drive, then a jump to Terran space and nine days transit to Terra itself—an easy trip compared to some he’d made in the course of his years in The Republic’s service.
As usual, the greatest danger on shipboard was boredom. Jonah passed the time going over his questions about the current state of The Republic of the Sphere—questions about all of those things that could not be entrusted to written or electronic correspondence, and about all of those things that required a physically present person in order to be observed.
Eventually, it was time for him to pack his bag and stand by for departure.
The Belgorod DropPort in old Russia was lit by high-intensity flares that banished the night while leaving inky shadows anywhere the white glare was absent. Jonah was one of the first passengers off the DropShip, unhindered by the need to retrieve any trunks or boxes from the ship’s cargo handlers. Years of experience in The Republic’s service had taught him the virtues of traveling light. Almost anything that he needed he could purchase or borrow right on Terra, and he could do so faster than hauling it across space as luggage.
He presented his papers to the functionary at the first gate.
“Welcome to Earth, Paladin,” the man said, glancing at the identity swab and the screen readout that matched, calling up Jonah’s technical stats as it did so. “Downstairs and to your right, sir.”
The functionary turned to the next passenger in line, reaching for identification as at the same time he said, in the same warm tone of greeting, “Welcome to Earth, milady.”
Jonah was not offended by the obviously standard-issue courtesy—although he suspected that some others might be. The man was undoubtedly hired for his ability to exercise patience and maintain a friendly demeanor, no matter how tired and irritable the passengers he dealt with might become. And this was, after all, Terra. Even an out-of-the-way cargo DropPort like Belgorod would see people of importance coming through on a regular basis.
He continued onward as he’d been directed, downstairs and to the right, along a passageway lined with marble and floored with steel. The indirect lighting was pale white and obviously artificial, and the air moaned and clanked in the environmental system, giving out warmth and a mixed smell of industrial-strength floor cleaners and—from what source, he couldn’t imagine—boiled cabbage.
At the end of the passageway, a second rank of port officials stood behind movable barricades. These officials would have been watching the readout repeater screens, and would know exactly who was on the arriving ships. One of them moved forward now, her eyes fixed on Jonah.
“Good evening, Paladin,” the woman said, as soon as she was standing at a correct and polite two-meter distance. “What brings you to Terra?”
“Business,” Jonah replied. “I’ll be continuing on to Geneva as soon as I’ve had a chance to rest here for a few hours. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make advance arrangements for a place to stay. Perhaps you could recommend someplace—?”
“It would be my pleasure.” The port official turned, snapping her fingers at the same time and pointing to a hoverlimo driver. “A hotel? The Gospodin Manuel O’Kelly is the best in town, Paladin.”
“That will do admirably,” Jonah replied.
He allowed himself to be led to the exit, out under a sky washed clean of stars by the high-intensity lights. The wind smelled of dust and oil, heavy with water vapor—not at all like ship’s air, or like the heated and conditioned atmosphere of the port buildings. He stretched, breathed deeply, and entered the hoverlimo.
The hotel was a grand place, set back behind lawns, hedges, and statuary, with a row of flagpoles lining the drive to the main entrance. Jonah insisted on taking his bag himself, only surrendering it to the concierge inside.
“A room,” Jonah said to the deskman. “And”—he consulted his chronometer—“a wake-up call in six hours.”
Paladins do not lie long in bed, he thought, when The Republic is on fire.
Six hours later, dawn was tinging the eastern sky. Jonah availed himself of room service for breakfast, made an appointment at a twenty-four-hour tailor for clothing suitable for a visit to the Exarch, and turned on the tri-vid to the English language news channel. He’d need to wait until Geneva for the deep briefings, but some time spent watching the generally available news would allow him to catch up on the state of The Republic of the Sphere, as viewed by its oldest and most famous member world.
As soon as he had finished breakfast and the sun was well up, he paid his visit to the custom tailor, then returned to his hotel and used the room’s communications console to call for a messenger from the planet-girdling General Delivery service. Part express couriers and part confidential agents for hire, GenDel’s operatives were bonded and reliable, and an invaluable resource for all those people who needed to do business on Terra, but who didn’t wish—or couldn’t afford—to maintain permanent offices there. Jonah had availed himself of the firm’s services more than once, and had been satisfied with the results.
Half an hour later, a knock on the door heralded the arrival of a messenger in the red-and-blue GenDel uniform.
“I see from the tri-vid news that Paladin Crow is somewhere onplanet,” Jonah told the messenger. “Ezekiel Crow. Find him. Say to him that Paladin Jonah Levin sends his compliments, and wishes to speak with him at the earliest convenient time.”
“Will you be expecting a reply?” the messenger asked, seemingly unsurprised by the latitude of his instructions. GenDel employees prided themselves on handling much more difficult assignments—company legend told of a courier who had searched for ten years, including a stint with a company of mercenaries, in order to deliver a “Come home, all is forgiven” letter to the run-away eldest daughter of a Terran banking house.
“Yes,” Levin said. “Bring it to me in Geneva, at the Pension Flambard. Tell General Delivery to send its bill for your services there as well.”
“As the Paladin commands.”
“One more thing,” Jonah said. “How much is General Delivery paying you?”
“More than enough,” the messenger said. He regarded Jonah with an interested expression. “Although the term of my current contract with them is drawing to an end in the near future.”
“I’m currently expecting to be on Terra for an extended stay,” Jonah said. “If my past experiences here are any guide, I’ll need to hire someone during that period who can handle investigations and legwork for me without attracting unwanted attention.”
“Are you offering me the job?”
“Assuming that your performance in this current assignment is satisfactory,” said Jonah. “Then, yes. I can pay you at the GenDel rate plus expenses and performance bonuses, which should provide you with a financial cushion while you renegotiate your contract.”
“I’ll need to finish this job for GenDel first,” the man said. “But after that—I’ll get back to you, Paladin, and if you’re satisfied with my work, I’ll probably say yes.”
The man bowed respectfully and departed. We’ll see what comes of that, Jonah thought as the door of the hotel room swung closed behind him. At the very least, I may have secured myself a trustworthy legman pro tempore.
He returned to the tri-vid box and the broadcast news. The currently running stories had cycled back to the arrival on Terra of Paladin Ezekiel Crow. The latest information on that subject was that Crow was scheduled to address the Senate in private session tomorrow afternoon. Jonah considered using his prerogative to enter the Senate chamber and hear the presentation, but ultimately decided against it. The full text and video files of Crow’s speech would be made available to those with a Paladin’s level of data access as soon as the meeting was over, and Jonah could go through them in detail without making it obvious to all concerned that he was doing so.
By now the day had advanced well into midmorning, and the windows of the suite in the Gospodin Manuel O’Kelly were flooded with natural sunlight. Jonah Levin looked out over the city and across the rolling plains beyond. The view seemed peaceful enough, and the long row of flagpoles in front of the hotel flew the banners of the worlds that made up The Republic of the Sphere.
Jonah turned again to the communications console. He had many calls to make today before he caught the shuttle-hop to Geneva. But he could not help wondering, as he left the window and the view it gave him, how many of those banners would be missing in a year’s time.
Pension Flambard, 14 Rue Simon-Durand
March 3134; local winter
Jonah Levin didn’t like visiting the Terran capital of Geneva in wintertime, or even early spring. The cold weather made scar tissue ache over old wounds, and broken bones that time had mended and reknitted would remind him again of every long-ago insult.
Most of the reminders came from the desperate battle that had nearly killed him, and that had brought him unsought fame and advancement, but he had acquired newer ones here and there as well, over the years. The life of a Knight of the Sphere was not one of peace and quiet, no matter how much a person might try to make it turn out that way. That was another reason Anna never liked to see him go away from home, although she wouldn’t say as much aloud. She was always afraid that she’d end up visiting him in the hospital afterward.
Jonah had offered more than once to find a less hazardous line of work. His heart, though, wasn’t in the offer and Anna knew it. He valued too much the way that a Knight could act directly to redress grievances and do justice when needed, instead of having to humbly petition some higher-level bureaucrat who might give or withhold needed help, purely in order to serve a political agenda.
The rulers of The Republic meant well. They were men and women of—for the most part—high ideals. But they were a long way removed, most of them, from those other men and women whose lives they sometimes expended in the service of the government.
As usual, the inner voice of conscience and reason (which sounded, during the times Jonah was not at home, a great deal like Anna) took the opportunity to point out that the rulers of The Republic were no longer “them,” but “us.” Jonah Levin was as much a Paladin—one of the seventeen men and women who ruled The Republic at its highest levels, and from whose numbers the next Exarch would be elected—as was Heather GioAvanti or Victor Steiner-Davion.
That still didn’t mean he liked freezing rain and snow, or even bright cold days like this one, when the sky was an intense and pitiless blue and the sunlight off Lake Geneva blinded his eyes without giving warmth. He had known that the change was coming. He’d packed for it, and had adjusted the climate controls in his quarters on the DropShip during the long transit.
Nevertheless, he was cold, toes and fingers and nose and ears. He was glad to reach the small residential hotel on the Rue Simon-Durand that had been his preferred lodging place in Geneva since he was first made a Knight and started having to make periodic visits to The Republic’s capital city.
He passed through the doors and entered the pocket-size lobby and guest parlor, made warm by efficient central heating and by the psychological effect of the briskly burning faux logs on the small hearth. The crackling fire was only molded ceramic heating elements and a specialized tri-vid display—preserving clean air above the city was too important to allow for the real thing—but it made an effective imitation. Jonah resisted the urge to go stand in front of it and toast his extremities back to normal, and went straight to the front desk instead.
Madame Flambard herself was at the desk. The plump, gray-haired woman broke into a smile at the sight of him.
“Monsieur Jonah—I mean, Paladin Levin! It’s an honor to have you back with us.”
Jonah could not help smiling in return. “You have a room, then? I sent word from Belgorod—”
“Yes, yes. We were all so surprised—we hadn’t thought we’d see you here again, now that you’re not just a Knight anymore.”
He shook his head reprovingly. “Nobody is just a Knight.”
“Of course not. But Paladins—”
“Should give up staying in places where they’re known and comfortable, and go stay somewhere big and impressive instead? No, Madame, the Pension Flambard suits me very well.”
He took the key-card and ascended to the small room up under the eaves, which had been his favorite ever since he first came to Geneva as a new-made—and far from wealthy—Knight. The garments he had bought from the tailor in Belgorod would arrive later by van from the transit hub. Anything important or private had come with him in his single small bag.
He secured the bag and its contents in the wall safe, then turned to the combination desk, communications console, and entertainment center that took up most of the space in the room not occupied by the bed.
Madam Flambard’s grasp of the priorities was yet another thing that Jonah approved of. Most of the Pension Flambard’s furnishings were either genuinely old or deliberately retro, but its communications consoles were always kept current with the state of the art. Jonah connected to the government’s secure network and entered the password that gave him access to the Paladin-level files and private areas. He needed to get an idea of the general state of affairs—and not just the commonly available information, either—before he talked to anybody.
Genevan politics at the Knight level had been full of old feuds and secret alliances, private antipathies and conflicting agendas, and he had no reason to believe that things would be different now that his rank was higher. So far as he knew, being named a Paladin had never made a man—or a woman—any more righteous than he or she was before, and even people of goodwill and good intentions could be bitterly divided on what course of action was best for The Republic.
He went to the situation updates on the Prefectures first. With regret, he noted the changes in the format there. Updates were no longer available in as close to real time as to make no difference. Instead, entries were tagged with the date of their first report and the date of their confirmation, and sorted by provenance and reliability—direct transmission, official government data disc or other storage medium, commercial or personal data medium, verbal report from official source, verbal report from outside source, and so on.
Scanning the entries, he found himself missing Anna with a real and sudden pang. She had always been much better than he was at disentangling complex webs of hearsay and pulling loose the threads of truth and relevance.
Intelligence analysts do this sort of thing all the time, he told himself sternly. So can you.
The hot spots of the moment appeared to be Prefectures II and III. Former Prefect Katana Tormark and her supporters in the Dragon’s Fury were making serious inroads there. Katana made as formidable an enemy of The Republic as she had made a supporter, and her defection—nobody wanted to use the painful word “betrayal”—had shocked a number of people who’d thought that her loyalty was absolute.
And maybe it still was, Jonah thought. Perhaps Katana’s loyalty had always been given to something whose true nature only she knew, and which she didn’t see as embodied in The Republic anymore.
He turned from the Dragon’s Fury to Clan Wolf. The Steel Wolf faction had been active recently, but at the moment appeared quiescent. Reports had come into Kervil several Terran months back that Prefect Kal Radick, the Wolves’ de facto leader in The Republic, was dead in a challenge, and that his successor had led the Steel Wolf forces in a strike at Northwind. But if the Wolves had thought to profit from the relative inexperience of Katana Tormark’s replacement as Prefect, they were sadly mistaken. Countess Tara Campbell—with the aid of Paladin Ezekiel Crow—had repulsed them handily.
A far bigger threat, in Jonah Levin’s mind, came at the moment from Jacob Bannson. The business tycoon, thwarted once already in his desire to set up operations in Prefecture III, was rumored to be moving again in that direction.
Jonah frowned. Bannson was dangerous. Richer in his own right than some planetary governments, the man hungered now for things other than money: power, high office, and a voice in the running of The Republic. Some informants claimed that he even had his eyes on Paladin status. More than one person, in fact, had confided in Jonah that his own elevation had enraged Bannson, who had thought of the vacant seat as owed to him.
Jonah could not imagine Bannson wanting the title of Paladin for its own sake, or even for the sake of what a Paladin could accomplish. But for the sake of a shot at the highest prize of all, though… yes.
Jacob Bannson doesn’t want to be a Paladin, Jonah thought. Jacob Bannson wants to be Exarch.
March 3134; local winter
Lieutenant Owain Jones of the Northwind Highlanders had not been on Terra for more than two hours before he knew that they planned to kill him. He was not completely clear on who “they” might be—although he had a strong opinion about who had sent them—but he had no doubts whatsoever concerning their intent. He was a combat soldier who had been entrusted with a vital mission, and he knew that he was going to die.
The leather portfolio in his right hand, heavy with data discs and papers containing the testimony and the pictures concerning the battles of Tara, the attacks across the northern hemisphere, and the destruction of Castle Northwind—and concerning the part that a certain Paladin of the Sphere had played in all those events—was slippery with the sweat from his palm, in spite of the chilly winter air. He drew his other hand across his forehead, brushing back his hair.
He had felt for some time now that he was being shadowed. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, but he could feel eyes watching him. He would need to deliver the material in the portfolio to someone—to a Knight, perhaps, or to a member of the Senate. If, that is, his shadowy pursuers allowed him to approach anyone remotely like that.
His arrival at the Belgorod DropPort had been unremarkable, and his clearance through the checkpoints had been swift and easy. The feeling of being watched came upon him when he left the port building and reached the sidewalk outside, just beyond the edge of the field. The feeling didn’t lead him to anything that he could put his finger on, any more than his nervous glances found a skulker in the shadows or a hovercar with tinted windows parked across the way. Nevertheless, his jumpiness increased.
Lieutenant Jones took the first hovercab that presented itself under the awning at the DropPort transit stop, and directed it to take him downtown to the transportation hub. Buildings flashed by him outside the windows on either side of the cab, causing him to think uneasily that he couldn’t tell whether the driver was going to the location he had specified.
He pointed to a restaurant on the side of the road, up by the next corner. “Stop here.”
“But we aren’t anywhere near city center,” the driver protested. “I thought you wanted—”
“I want to go here,” Jones said. “Pull over.”
“All right, all right,” said the driver. “But you still have to pay the full fare to center city.”
“I’ll pay it,” Jones said. “Now pull over.”
Maybe this would throw off pursuit, he thought. Maybe no one was pursuing him. Maybe… maybe he was about to pay the price for carrying evidence that would damn a popular and powerful man.
The cab came to a stop. Lieutenant Jones stepped out, clutching the portfolio, and handed the cabbie a substantial amount of cash. He’d been issued travel funds before departing Northwind, but he hadn’t found an opportunity to break up the large bills into smaller ones before becoming aware of the pursuit. The cab driver started to put the money away, then looked at it again and glared at him angrily.
“Hey, I can’t use this!”
“You can change it at the nearest bank,” Jones said. “There’s a lot more in there than what I owe. Keep all of it.”
He backed off, turned, and ducked hastily into the restaurant on the corner. Only the pride of Northwind kept him from breaking into a run.
At this hour, the establishment was deserted except for a barman who was doubling as a waiter. The lunch hour was over, and the dinner hour had not yet started. The waiter bustled up as soon as Lieutenant Jones walked in.
“One, please,” Jones said. “And do you have a communications console?”
“Yes, sir. May I suggest the fillet of sturgeon?”
“Sure. Give me whatever is good. But right now I need to make a call.”
The waiter pointed. “Over there, beside the washroom.”
Lieutenant Jones walked back to the public communications console and punched in the code for the Northwind Interests Section in Belgorod. Whoever answered, however, was unimpressed with the call.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the disembodied voice said. “I cannot put you through directly to the chargé at this time. The current wait for a voice connection to a representative of the Northwind Interests Section is a minimum of twenty minutes. Alternatively, you may present yourself in person tomorrow morning at 0817.”
“Listen to me,” Jones said. “I have important papers here. Northwind has been attacked! There’s a chance that Terra will be next. I have evidence with me that needs to go to the Senate as soon as possible.”
“Press one to wait for a connection; press two if you prefer to conduct your business in person,” the voice said. Lieutenant Jones couldn’t tell whether it belonged to a live human or to a synthesized recording. He pressed one. The voice said, “You have chosen to wait for a connection. If you wish to conduct other business during the waiting period, and have a signal sent to your receiving unit when a representative of the Northwind Interests Section is able to speak with you, press three.”
They’ve all gone out to lunch, Jones thought. They’re sitting at a table somewhere eating caviar and drinking vodka while the world is falling apart. He pressed three.
“You have chosen to have a signal sent to your receiving unit. Please be aware that the Northwind Interests Section is not responsible for any calls missed due to the caller’s absence from the receiving unit. Good day.”
The connection broke.
“And a good day to you, too,” Jones said to the silent console.
He walked back to the table that the waiter had indicated for him, and took his seat as the greens and a drink were brought out. The grilled fillet of sturgeon had just been set before him when the door of the restaurant opened. The little bell attached to the door frame jingled cheerfully as two men entered. They wore long coats, and they scanned the nearly empty room with humorless eyes.
The man closest to the door pulled a slug-pistol from his coat pocket. The two men walked toward Lieutenant Jones, arriving one to either side of him before he could stand.
“Come with us,” said the man with the slug-pistol.
“Don’t make a scene,” the other one said. “We’re here to take you to the Northwind Interests Section.”
Lieutenant Jones looked around. The dining room was empty, and the waiter had vanished. He stood up, reaching for the leather portfolio.
“We’ll take that,” the man to his left said, and picked up the portfolio. The man with the slug-pistol remained alert, his hands otherwise free. “Can’t be too careful.”
“Of course not,” Jones said.
He walked a little ahead of the two men as the three of them left the room together. Behind them, the bell over the outside door jingled again as they left.
Ivan Gorky was the waiter and afternoon barman at the Pescadore Rus. It had been a slow afternoon with just one customer, a stranger who spoke only in English, and that with a strong off-Terran accent. Ivan had gone to the kitchen for sauce to go with the man’s grilled sturgeon and, upon his return, was surprised to see that his solitary customer had fled, leaving the bill unpaid.
Ivan frowned, puzzled—you never could tell about people, it was true, but nevertheless the man hadn’t seemed the type to defraud a restaurant. Upon closer inspection of the abandoned table, Ivan had another surprise. Customers who ran out on a bill seldom did so before finishing their meals, yet this fellow hadn’t so much as taken a bite of his main course. One corner of the fish had been cut away with the edge of a fork, but not eaten; it still lay untasted on the plate.
Another surprise came when he removed the white linen tablecloth and he found underneath it a data disc lying near the edge of the table, sparkling silver against the polished wood.
“That’s certainly odd,” he said to himself, and put the data disc away behind the bar. Maybe the man would come back later to look for it. If he did, he wasn’t getting it until he paid his bill.
Some ten minutes later, the communications console buzzed with the signal for an incoming call. Ivan shuffled over and picked up the handset.
“No,” he said in response to the voice on the other end. “No one here is waiting to speak with a person at the Northwind Interests Section. I’m sorry. Good-bye.”
Pension Flambard, 14 Rue Simon-Durand
March 3134; local winter
Jonah Levin ate his dinner in the small family-owned restaurant where he took most of his meals during his visits to Geneva, then returned to the pension and a night’s sleep untroubled by dreams. In the morning, after bathing and putting on the change of clothing he’d brought with him in the small bag, he settled down to a light breakfast of sweet rolls and coffee—brought to his room on a silver tray by Madame Flambard herself—and the early-edition tri-vid news.
Halfway through the economic report—heavy manufactured goods up, especially in the ’ Mech-production sectors, tourism down, interplanetary stock and bond markets uncertain—a knock sounded at the door of Jonah’s room. He switched off the tri-vid and got up to check the door. A quick glance through the security peephole showed him the GenDel messenger from Belgorod standing outside in the narrow hallway.
Jonah opened the door and gestured the man inside. “Come on in,” he said. “I’m glad to see that you didn’t have any trouble finding this place.”
The messenger looked, Jonah thought, a bit smug. “A street address in Geneva isn’t particularly challenging,” he said. “Not like a shack in the Amazon rain forest, or a DropShip somewhere in transit between Terra and the Rasal-hague Dominion.”
“I suppose you’ve done both of those,” Jonah said. “Do you have any news for me?”
“I have,” the messenger said. “Paladin Ezekiel Crow says, ‘Let’s get together, somewhere private. We have a lot to talk about.’ He also provides a private number to make contact.”
The messenger handed across a folded piece of paper. Jonah tucked it into his shirt pocket for later.
“Thank you,” he said to the messenger. “And my offer of employment is still open. Are you interested?”
“I am,” the messenger said.
“Excellent,” Jonah said. “Now—because we’re going to be working together for several weeks at least, you should probably tell me your name.”
“Burton Horn,” the messenger said. “But most people just call me Horn.”
“Well, then, Horn,” Jonah said. “Welcome to employment with The Republic of the Sphere.”
Jonah took out a sheet of the pension’s stationery from the communications console and began writing. He signed the note with his name and the pension’s address.
“Go to the nearest shopping arcade,” he said, “and buy yourself some plain business clothes. Give them this and tell them to put the cost onto my account. You can send your General Delivery uniform back to your former employer COD.”
Horn took the note. “Yes, Paladin.”
“Call me Jonah,” Jonah said. “We’re going to get to know each other too well for greater formality.”
“Jonah.” Horn nodded. “With your permission?”
Jonah made a shooing motion with his hand. “Go, go. But don’t take too long. We have a lot of work to do.”
As soon as Horn had left, Jonah turned back to the communications console and punched in the number that the messenger had given him. The ring at the other end trilled softly in his ear for a few seconds, then broke off.
“Yes? Who is this?” The voice on the other end of the connection had no planetary accent that Jonah could identify—not in the way that his own spoken English still carried traces of both Hesperus and Kervil—but the pitch and timbre of it were nevertheless familiar to him from previous dealings with Ezekiel Crow.
“Paladin Crow,” Jonah said. “This is Paladin Levin. You suggested that we should get together for a private conference, and I agree. The sooner the better, in fact. Where would be a good place for you?”
“Where are you now?” Crow asked.
“In Geneva,” Jonah said. “At the Pension Flambard.”
“I’m in Geneva as well—at the Hotel Duquesne,” Crow replied. “Shall we meet here?”
“That would work,” Jonah replied. He recognized the name as belonging to one of several grand establishments in which The Republic maintained suites of rooms for the convenience of Paladins and other visiting dignitaries. It was for such a place as the Hotel Duquesne, he suspected, that Madame Flambard had expected him to abandon the familiar comforts of her pension. “When would be a good time? I have no pressing appointments so far—I’ve only just arrived from Kervil—and my day is entirely at your disposal.”
“Let’s see… would two in the afternoon be convenient? The Duquesne serves excellent tea and pastries.”
“That would be fine,” Jonah said. He doubted if the pastries would be as good as Madame Flambard’s, but if every Paladin and Senator in The Republic knew about those, his own quiet refuge would surely be overrun.
“Then we will meet at that hour,” Crow said. “Until then, Paladin Levin.”
March 3134; local winter
Ezekiel Crow sat at the table in a windowed alcove of the dining room at the Hotel Duquesne, watching the vehicles and pedestrians on the busy street outside while he waited for the arrival of Jonah Levin. All things considered, he was not displeased with the way matters were progressing. Suvorov had come through with news of Lieutenant Owain Jones of Northwind, and the crime lord’s people had dealt with the man efficiently, as directed.
Now the evidence of what had happened on Northwind, like the evidence of what had happened on Liao, was gone. It had ceased to exist. Lieutenant Jones, who had carried the information to Terra, had likewise ceased to exist. The portfolio and its documents came to Ezekiel Crow; the courier, he never saw.
The documents in the case—Crow had looked them over briefly—appeared to be originals: orders, tapes, photographs. Taken all together, damning. Now they were ash. Suvorov did good work.
Not that Crow deluded himself for an instant that Suvorov was in any way trustworthy. The man was scum—he lived off the vices of others for no other purpose than his own enrichment—and the necessity of dealing with such a person only served to increase Crow’s resentment of his current plight. It was even possible that Suvorov had made copies of the material in the Northwind files. If so, then the crime lord was in a position to do serious harm at a later date.
I must never allow myself to forget, Crow thought, that Alexei Suvorov is not my business partner, and he is not my friend. He is a bad man, and a menace to the health of The Republic, and at the first opportunity I will need to strike him down.
At the first opportunity… but not just yet. Crow pushed his darker thoughts aside and composed his face into a smile of welcome as the Duquesne’s maitre d’hotel escorted Paladin Jonah Levin into the dining room.
The Paladin from Kervil approached the table with hand extended. “It’s been a while,” he said. “And The Republic has changed since then.”
“That it has,” Crow said, rising and meeting Levin’s handclasp with his own. He waved the other man into the opposite chair, then sat back down himself. “And not for the better. Would you care for something to drink? Tea or coffee?”
“Tea, please,” Levin said.
Crow summoned a waiter with a nod of his head, and gave the order. Then he continued, “You must have had a long journey. And with things so unsettled—”
“The unsettled nature of The Republic of the Sphere is in fact my primary concern,” Levin said. The Paladin from Kervil looked about him at the heavy silver table service, the fine antique furniture, and the deep carpets that filled the dining rooms of the Hotel Duquesne. “But I have to admit that the lap of luxury isn’t the sort of place I’ve usually run into you. The barracks yard suits both of us better than this, I think.”
“It’s a different world here,” Crow said.
“I’d noticed,” Levin agreed. He paused. “Have you heard from Jacob Bannson lately?”
“Not for some months,” Crow said. He allowed himself a brief moment of amusement. “In fact, not since you and he crossed swords over whether he should be allowed to expand further into Prefecture III. You won, I believe.”
“Ah. That,” Levin said. “I was scarcely alone in my opposition. If Bannson isn’t active at the moment, what’s your assessment of the other major threats to The Republic?”
“Disorder,” Crow replied promptly. “We’re seeing it already on worlds that lack a strong central authority, and so far the Senate has been remarkably lax in addressing the problem. And after disorder, the Clans.”
“The Clans aren’t likely to agree with that,” Jonah observed. “Or to appreciate being ranked second at anything.”
The tea arrived, followed at once by a tray of excellent pastries. Crow poured cups of tea for himself and Jonah Levin, then returned to leaning back in his chair, cup and saucer balanced on its wide, upholstered arm.
“No, I suppose not,” he said. “But I tell you, the Clans are important. Even if they do have an exaggerated idea of their own worth.” He sipped at his tea; it was still too hot to drink more than a sip at a time. “Leaving the Clans aside for now—do you have you any theories on what became of the ’Net?”
“Nothing rational,” Levin admitted. “Sabotage, bad luck, the wrath of God—either none of them seems likely, or all of them, depending on the mood I’m in when I think about it.”
“I don’t believe in bad luck,” Crow said. “At least not on this scale, and not simultaneously from one side of the galaxy to the other. But I do believe in treachery.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“That’s a strong accusation,” Levin said. “Particularly if there’s no proof.”
“Given how smooth an operator the man is, I’d say that the very lack of proof is significant.”
“I don’t like that logic,” Levin said. “But there isn’t much that can be done about Bannson until he becomes active again. The Clans, though… you’ve been on Northwind recently, and so have they. What’s the situation there?”
“The Steel Wolves hold the planet,” Crow said. “When I left, the Highlanders had been defeated and their Countess was in the process of negotiating their surrender.”
Levin frowned slightly. “But you came to Terra instead of staying to put some spine into them—if spine is what was needed.”
“I became separated from the main Northwind force during the fighting in the capital,” he said. “When I saw that there was still a civilian DropShip remaining on the field, I realized that somebody had to get away and warn Terra that Northwind was no longer reliable and that the Wolves were on the move.”
“I see your point,” Levin said. “What do you suppose are the Wolves’ long-term intentions?”
Crow shrugged. “With the Clans, who can ever tell? But Terra has come under threat from that quarter in the past—and if the Steel Wolves are as in love with their own history as some of the other breakaway factions operating in The Republic are, it would be foolish to think that such a threat will never come again.”
March 3134; local autumn
One-Eyed Jack Farrell lounged at his ease in the upper-level waiting room at Jacob Bannson’s Tybalt headquarters, his long legs stretched out before him and his head leaning against the back of the leather couch. Anyone looking at him would have assumed that he was half asleep, rather than working hard—and succeeding—at not appearing impressed. Luckily for Farrell, his usual method still worked: imagining what his surroundings would look like when they were broken up for plunder, and pricing the result in his head.
Is that tabletop solid jade, or just a high-grade synthetic? This is Bannson we’re dealing with. Call it real. Add in the gold-leaf trim on the cabinetwork… hell, the solid gold trim on the cabinetwork… and that brings the total up to…
The game worked as well for him in Bannson’s office as it did anywhere else. The only difficulty was adding up numbers that big without a data pad.
It kept Farrell from getting bored while he waited, though, which was the important thing. Like most self-made men, Jacob Bannson was all about keeping the hired help cooling their heels and building up a nervous sweat. Farrell might take Bannson’s money, but he’d be damned if he was going to give him or anyone else the pleasure of seeing him twitch. A man who’d taken a Jupiter BattleMech and made it his own didn’t have to stand in awe of anyone.
Bannson’s administrative assistant—a weedy man who looked like his palms sweated at the thought of driving an electric runabout in light traffic—finally showed up. He looked down his pointed nose at the mercenary leader. “Mr. Bannson will see you now.”
Farrell yawned and slouched easily to his feet. Standing, he was a full head taller than Bannson’s assistant. “High time.”
“This way, please.”
Farrell allowed Weedy to lead the way into the inner office. He knew enough to understand at once that this wasn’t Bannson’s real center of power, only a room for conferring with mercs and other unsavory types—as with the outer waiting room, everything in it was designed to scream, I have more money than you ever will, so don’t even think about selling me out. Stick with me and stay honest, and you’ll make more than enough money to buy anything you ever wanted.
Money talked, and Jacob Bannson spoke its language fluently. So, as it happened, did One-Eyed Jack Farrell.
“You can go now,” Bannson said to Weedy. “Mr. Farrell and I have business to discuss.”
Weedy departed, looking miffed. By the time the door closed again, his employer had to all appearances already forgotten him.
“Have a seat,” Bannson said to Farrell, and gestured at a side table. “Brandy? Cigar?”
“Thanks for the offer,” Farrell said. “But not while I’m working.” He took the offered chair. “I’ve still got my report to make.”
Bannson sat also. “I read the written version this morning.”
“Thought you might have.” Farrell considered his employer. Bannson wasn’t the type to offer a man a drink and a smoke before giving him his walking papers. “Good enough for you?”
“More than good enough, Mr. Farrell.” Bannson poured himself a brandy and raised the glass to Farrell in a toast. “You’ve put the screws on Ezekiel Crow, you’ve helped to weaken Northwind enough that it won’t get in the way of my expansion into Prefecture III, and you’ve managed to put both Anastasia Kerensky and the Countess of Northwind in your debt. And you accomplished all of that with minimal loss of equipment and personnel—which may not impress the polished-buttons-and-military-medals set, but it sure as hell impresses me. War is a business, and I like a man who understands business.”
“You’re getting paid a good bonus,” Bannson said, “which is better.”
“Damn straight,” agreed Farrell. “You want the verbal report now?”
“All right. Crow you know about already—holier-than-thou son-of-a-bitch and proud as Lucifer. Brains and guts, though. And if I had to make a bet on it, I’d say that he’s already managed to convince himself he did the right thing by cutting and running on Northwind.”
“He’s that type,” Bannson said. “Go on.”
“Tara Campbell. Still a bit green, but getting over it fast. Good fighter, and not too proud to take help when it’s offered. Knows how to pick her subordinates.” Farrell paused, considering. “Maybe a bit too trusting, at least until our friend Ezekiel showed her the error of her ways. I don’t believe she’s going to thank him for the lesson, though.”
“You’re probably right.” Bannson contemplated his brandy for a moment. “What are the odds of her going the Katana Tormark route?”
“Setting herself up as a faction leader and saying the hell with the memory of Devlin Stone?” Farrell shook his head. “No way. She really is as loyal as all the posters and magazine articles make her out to be. And where the Countess goes, all of Northwind follows.”
“Moral authority’s a wonderful thing,” said Bannson. “Stupid, but wonderful.”
He swallowed a healthy slug of his brandy. Not the sip-and-savor type, after all, Farrell thought, recognizing the betraying mark of a man who’d learned to drink on rough spirits. He goes right for the burn.
“How about the leader of the Steel Wolves?” Bannson asked.
“Anastasia Kerensky”—Farrell spoke slowly, choosing his words with care—“is crazy. Vicious fighter, not afraid of anything, sees what she wants and takes it without asking. None of it matters, though, because it’s the kind of crazy that makes all the Clan Warrior types want to follow her around with their tongues hanging out.”
“How good is she?”
“Almost as good as she thinks she is. Growing better all the time, if she doesn’t get herself killed first. She and the Countess of Northwind are quite a pair. Probably hate each other’s guts by now.” Farrell chuckled, thinking about it. “Now that’s a ’Mech fight you could sell tickets to and clean up on the simulation rights afterward.”
Bannson looked at him over the rim of his brandy. “Would you like a chance at a front-row seat?”
Farrell straightened, coming alert like a warhorse hearing the distant sound of bugles. “You have another job for me and my people, then?”
“Yes,” Bannson said. “The next world a Clan Warrior like Anastasia Kerensky is going to think about, after securing Northwind, is Terra. And the Countess of Northwind, Republic loyalist that she is, will almost certainly follow and attempt to stop her. I’m going to Terra, Mr. Farrell—a matter of looking after my investments—and I’d like you and your people to go there also. I won’t ask if you know the pirate jump points—”
“Never heard of ’em,” said Farrell, with a straight face.
“But a commander who did know of them would be well-advised to get himself into position there and wait for my signal to land and hit his target.”
“Where and who?”
“Does it matter?”
“If I’m getting paid for it—nope.”
“Good enough,” said Bannson. “When I decide on the answer, you’ll be the first to know.”
Farrell gave him a slow grin. “Who’ll be the second?”
“The person I tell you to attack.”
Belgorod and Vicinity
March 3134; local winter
The Northwind Highlanders had landed their DropShips at Belgorod DropPort, and the DropShips had spilled out their cargo of soldiers and equipment onto the expanse of rolling fields outside the city. A garrison suburb of tents and vehicles grew up on the frozen ground as if by spontaneous generation, and there the soldiers of the Highlander Regiments drilled, and tended their gear, and waited.
The hour was late afternoon, and the sun was already sinking toward the western horizon. The work of the day was done, and Sergeants Will Elliot, Jock Gordon, and Lexa McIntosh sat drinking mugs of strong black tea in the large, open-sided tent currently serving as the Sergeants’ Mess. The smells of mutton stew simmering on the stove, and of baking bread, drifted past on the breeze from the field kitchen not far away. For a little while, at least, they and their troopers would have a chance at better food than ship’s cooking or battle rations.
Will Elliot was still not happy. He turned his heavy ceramic mug around in his hands, added more sugar, stirred, and turned the mug around again. Then he shoved it away. Finally, he said, “I don’t like this place.”
“It could be worse,” said Lexa. “At least we have cold-weather uniforms again.”
Jock for his part gave Will a curious look. “I thought you were the one who was used to snow. Guiding winter tourists in the mountains and all.”
“I am,” said Will. “That’s the problem.” He frowned out through the open front of the mess tent at the slate gray sky. “This is March. Eventually, it’s going to be April. And do you know what happens in April?”
Lexa said, “The snow melts?”
“You make it sound like a bad thing.”
“The snow melts,” said Will. “And the ground thaws.”
“All the water down in the dirt that turned to ice during the winter turns back to water down in the dirt again,” Will explained patiently, reminding himself as he did so that Lexa had grown up in the blistering-hot Kearney outback. She hadn’t even seen snow until she joined the regiment and found herself fighting in it. “Sometimes the frozen layer goes down for two or three meters. Then all the water that used to be snow soaks into the ground and joins up with the melted ice that’s already there. Which gives you—”
Farm-raised Jock Gordon knew the answer to that one, at least: “Mud.”
“Mud,” confirmed Will.
Lexa looked down at her feet, then out at the field of tanks and men and ’Mechs, with a dawning comprehension. “Damn.”
“And there aren’t enough hovercrafts to carry all of us,” Will said. “Just marching out of here is going to be nasty, if we have to wait long enough. As for combat—trust me when I say that you’ll be better off tying your bootlaces together, slinging them around your neck, and fighting barefoot. That way you’ll still have a pair of boots left at the end of the day.”
There was a gloomy, extended silence. Finally, Lexa said, “Maybe we won’t have to fight.”
“Do you really think that?” Will asked.
Lexa shook her head. “No. Just because we got lucky and beat the Wolf-Bitch to Terra doesn’t mean that she isn’t coming.”
“Maybe she won’t show up until after the ground’s dried out again,” Jock said.
“Forget it,” Lexa told him. “Nobody ever gets that lucky. Will’s right. We’re going to end up fighting for honor, glory, and the dream of Devlin Stone in mud that comes up to our armpits.”
“Your armpits, maybe,” said Jock.
“Don’t laugh,” she told him. “You’ll just stick up higher and make a bigger target.”
Jock said, “Why are we camped out here in the middle of nowhere, anyway? What’s going on?”
“Who knows?” Will said. “What I heard was that the Exarch summoned the Countess straight to Geneva as soon as he found out that our ships were in-system. And we’re damned lucky they let us set down here instead of making us stay penned up on the DropShips somewhere in orbit.”
“Makes me feel all unloved and untrusted, it does,” said Lexa.
“Aye,” said Jock. “We’re the ones who did the bleeding and the dying back on Northwind, and we’re the ones who’ve come here to do it all over again.”
“So you’d think we’d at least get a hug and a smile,” Lexa said, “instead of being treated like everybody expects us to steal all of their silver spoons.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” Will advised her. “We’re not doing this for anybody’s gratitude—”
“Damn good thing, since we’re seeing so little of it.”
“We’re doing it because this is what we do.” He paused. “And while you’re at it—pray for a late spring.”
Office of the Exarch
March 3134; local winter
Tara Campbell took the shuttle-hop from Belgorod DropPort as soon as the ships from Northwind touched down, only taking enough time to put on her dress uniform in place of the fatigues she had worn on shipboard. She spent the brief journey from Belgorod to Geneva in a state of tightly restrained impatience that only her years of diplomatic training enabled her to hide.
She had found the reception of her message from space, sent while en route from the Terran jump point, to be galling beyond belief. The Exarch had all but denied her the permission to land her forces. If she hadn’t demanded to know outright whether the Terran defense forces were planning to treat her as an enemy or as a friend, she suspected that she might actually have been denied permission.
It was bad enough that the Exarch and the Knights of the Sphere, with the Senate’s agreement and backing, had required the Highlanders to make their camp out on the godforsaken plains of old Russia, and not at one of Terra’s regular military bases. It was bad enough that she herself had been issued a peremptory summons to a conference with the Exarch, as if she were a truant schoolgirl called into the headmaster’s office for a reprimand. But the worst thing… she’d believed during the journey from Northwind that the worst possible thing that could happen would be arriving too late, so that she found Geneva and Paris and London dealt with as the city of Tara had been dealt with, and Anastasia Kerensky in charge of it all.
She’d been wrong. This was worse: Arriving ahead of the bad news and having to fight to be believed.
Tara caught herself. That was nothing but her own ego talking. An upset and embarrassed Prefect—or even a Countess—was nothing at all by comparison with what the Steel Wolves had already done on Northwind, and what they stood poised to do all over again right here if nobody tried to stop them.
On the other hand, she thought bitterly, if I can’t get the Exarch and the Senate to listen to me, and to believe, what happens next will be worse than getting here too late. Because then I’ll have to watch, and know that I could have been able to stop it.
She took a hoverlimo from the Geneva shuttle port to the building where Damien Redburn had his working office. The building wasn’t a famous landmark or an architectural prizewinner, just a many-storied box of steel and glass that housed the administrative personnel for a number of The Republic’s bureaucracies. In the days before the collapse of the HPG network—when travel to Geneva had been much simpler and more common than now—Tara had often heard it referred to jokingly as the Paperwork Palace.
One thing her rank was still good for—when she got out of the hoverlimo at the Palace’s front entrance, she was recognized and admitted at once. She took the elevator straight up to Redburn’s office. The office occupied a suite of rooms on a floor only accessible by means of a key-card, and the palace doorman summoned a member of the service staff to work the key and escort her upward as soon as she walked through the door.
The administrative assistant in Redburn’s outer office passed her through without a word. That was a bad sign, if the woman wasn’t trying even a little to ingratiate herself. It was still better than if Tara had been put on hold in the waiting area and left to contemplate her sins for long enough to feel properly insignificant.
Not yet cast into the outer darkness, Tara thought. I suppose that’s something.
Redburn was at his desk when she came in. He’d been working—she saw paper and folders and a data pad—but the work had all been laid aside before she entered. He gestured her to a seat in the room’s other chair, and she sat down.
“You’re prompt,” he said.
“The message said, ‘at my earliest convenience.’ So I came at once.”
Redburn regarded her across the desk, looking even more like the headmaster getting ready to ask who put the fluorescent purple dye in all the washing machines in the south wing.
It wasn’t me, honest, she thought, with a touch of silent hysteria. And I’ve got the purple underwear to prove it.
“Tell me about the situation on Northwind,” Redburn said. “I know that, with Paladin Crow’s help, you repulsed the Steel Wolves when they attacked last summer—”
“Yes.” She wanted to protest that the credit for the Steel Wolves’ earlier defeat belonged more to General Michael Griffin than to Ezekiel Crow. Taking on Anastasia Kerensky ’Mech-to– ’Mech, as Crow had done, was the sort of spectacular action that news reporters loved, but Michael Griffin had held Red Ledge Pass for thirty-six hours with nothing but untried infantry—and as a soldier she knew which feat counted for more in the scales of battle. Instead, she forced herself to concentrate on the issue at hand. “The documents that I’ve provided you with deal with events that occurred during the Wolves’ second, more recent attack.”
The Exarch regarded her, stone-faced. “No such documents have come to this office.”
“But—” She stopped and began again. “I sent a messenger. Because I knew that assembling a relief force would take time. And the warning was important.”
Redburn shook his head. “There has been no messenger. And Paladin Ezekiel Crow tells a story far different from the one you told us in your message from the DropShip.”
Tara felt a slow, rolling queasiness in the pit of her stomach. This was bad. This was worse than bad. She had been betrayed not once, it looked like, but twice.
“What, exactly, did he say?”
Redburn’s expression was grave, almost sorrowful. “According to Paladin Crow, you were defeated by Anastasia Kerensky and the Steel Wolves, and sued for peace.”
“What?” The amazement choked in her throat like bile.
“The surrender terms are alleged to include handing over both Northwind and the Highlander regiments to the Steel Wolves.”
Amazement gave way to anger, rising up in an incredulous, adrenaline-fueled wave. She understood now the kind of rage that might cause someone to order a whole city burnt.
She swallowed the anger, pushed it down, and forced herself to keep her voice low and steady.
“Exarch Redburn, Ezekiel Crow lied to you.”
Redburn’s face revealed nothing. “Someone, certainly, is lying.”
“At least authorize me to take steps to resist the Wolves when they attack.” She knew that she was pleading; she was made even angrier by the realization. “I did not bring my Highlanders all the way from Northwind to Terra in order to stand idly by and watch while Anastasia Kerensky brings the Steel Wolves down on the lot of you!”
“Perhaps not,” said Redburn implacably. “But I can’t take the risk that you may have come not to resist the Steel Wolves, but to help open the door for them. Not without something to go on besides your unsupported word.”
Tara stood abruptly, pushing her chair back so hard that it toppled over. She let it lie on the carpet where it fell.
“Very well, Exarch. I will go back to the place you have assigned to us, and wait there for time to give you the proof you need.”
She stalked over to the office door, then paused. “And don’t come crying to me then that I didn’t warn you.”
She turned and left, closing the inner door with careful precision on her way out. She was almost to the door of the outer office when Redburn’s administrative assistant stopped her and handed her a card.
“I was asked to give this to you,” the assistant said. “While you were with the Exarch.”
Tara looked at it. It was a plain white business card, no ID codes or anything fancy like that, just a few lines of black type in a restrained, old-fashioned font:
Underneath the printing was an additional, handwritten note:
Please call on me at this address as soon as you can.—J.L.
Pension Flambard, 14 Rue Simon-Durand
March 3134; local winter
Jonah Levin had not been waiting for long in the guest parlor of the Pension Flambard before he heard the street door open and close, followed by the sound of Tara Campbell’s quick, light steps in the foyer. Madame Flambard’s eyes widened when she recognized the visitor—the Countess of Northwind was too well known to The Republic’s media even to think of going anywhere incognito—but her discretion remained as absolute as ever. There had been more than one reason why a much younger Jonah Levin had preferred his lodgings at the Pension to other, more fashionable or luxurious quarters.
Madame ushered the Countess into the parlor, then vanished into the back recesses of the pension. Jonah suspected that she was planning to pump the newly hired and on-call Burton Horn for gossip—and that Horn would be doing the same in reverse. Neither one of them was likely to succeed, in Jonah’s opinion, but the effort would keep both of them amused.
Tara Campbell, on other hand, was not amused at all. Her interview with Damien Redburn clearly had not gone well. The Countess’s face was pale except for a betraying flush of red along her cheekbones, her full lips were pressed thin, and all her motions were tight and controlled, as though she had to hold herself back from physical reaction by main force.
So, Jonah reflected, the Countess of Northwind has a temper—not surprising, considering that she’s a born aristocrat with a hereditary claim on the loyalty of a whole planet. She knows how to control it, though, and that is surprising.
Tara Campbell took a seat in the overstuffed wing chair on the other side of the small parlor hearth. The faux-logs burned low; winter was drawing to its end. Her hands gripped the wooden ends of the chair arms so hard that her knuckles showed white.
Jonah realized it was going to be up to him to speak first. “I’ve listened to a recording of your initial message to the Exarch.”
“I’m glad that somebody did.”
From the tone of her voice, he suspected that the Countess wasn’t accustomed to having her word dismissed out of hand—or even having it doubted. Jonah was less and less inclined, however, to think that Tara Campbell was lying. There were politicians in The Republic of the Sphere who could feign that kind of righteous indignation, but nothing in Tara Campbell’s record hinted at either the taste or the talent for such high-level duplicity.
He wasn’t quite ready to say that aloud, however. Instead, he looked at her gravely. “As I understand it, you possess evidence that Ezekiel Crow betrayed Northwind and ran out on you, and perhaps that he was even in the pay of the Steel Wolves.”
“Yes,” Tara replied. Jonah sensed powerful emotion behind the curt statement, a hint of pain that was more than merely political. Her self-control became visibly harder to maintain. She stood, her hands clasped behind her back, and began to pace. “We relied on him, and we were betrayed.”
Perhaps more than merely relied? Jonah wondered. If that were the case, any betrayal would carry a double sting. But nobody in The Republic was ever likely to know, except for the two people who might—or might not—have been involved. He continued his questioning.
“And this evidence is… where?”
“I sent it to the Exarch, via courier.”
Her frustration was evident again, this time stronger than before. Maybe the problem was not just a matter of her doubted word. Jonah shook his head.
“The Exarch, I assure you, has not seen any such evidence. Do you have copies?”
“Then verification should be—”
The Countess’s porcelain cheeks reddened further. She looked down at the carpet. “The copies are on Northwind, in the regimental archives at The Fort.” She raised her head and met Jonah’s eyes as if daring him to comment. “For safekeeping.”
Jonah gave an understanding nod. There was no use in pointing out a mistake that she was, clearly, already well aware of and deeply regretting. “Sending for them would take weeks or even months.”
“Which you—we—don’t have! The Steel Wolves are coming. I’m only surprised that they aren’t yet here. I don’t care what you believe about Ezekiel Crow, so long as you believe me about the danger to Terra.”
“Unfortunately,” Jonah said, “people—even people like the Exarch—will want to believe either both, or neither. And for such strong allegations—treason, on the part of one of The Republic’s most respected Paladins!—most of them will want more than your unsupported word.”
Her chin went up at that, and her blue eyes went hot. “Are you calling me a liar?”
“Oddly enough, Countess, I’m not,” he said. “But either you are lying, or Ezekiel Crow is, and a Paladin’s word before the Senate is powerful, indeed. You’ll need to have something a bit more powerful if you want to overcome it.”
“This is maddening.” She began pacing again, hearth to parlor door to street window and back again. Jonah could scarcely remember being that young, and having that much energy. “I have the proof!”
“Had the proof. Let’s think for a bit—tell me exactly what you did with it.”
“I sent it ahead on the first DropShip leaving for Terra, in the hands of Lieutenant Owain Jones, a combat officer of unimpeachable integrity, formerly aide to General Michael Griffin. General Griffin commands Northwind in my absence.”
“When did you send Lieutenant Jones?”
“February fifteenth. The Steel Wolves had left Northwind fewer than twelve hours before.”
Jonah rose and left the parlor for the pension’s front desk. He pushed the button on the antique call bell next to the guest register, and Madame Flambard emerged from the back office.
“Madame, would you locate Monsieur Horn and tell him that he is required in the guest parlor?”
Jonah returned to his chair by the hearth. A few minutes later—during which Tara Campbell resumed her restless pacing—Burton Horn entered the room. The former GenDel employee was now wearing civilian clothing of a cut and color so ordinary and moderate as to be almost invisible.
“Reporting as ordered,” Horn said. “You’ve got some work for me?”
“Yes. A Northwind officer named Owain Jones arrived on Terra some time after fourteen March of this year,” Jonah said. “Find him.”
“Yes, sir. Once I find him, what do I do with him?”
“Bring him here. I’d like very much to speak with him—and so, unless I’m gravely mistaken, would his Countess.”
Horn gave Jonah a quick nod of respect, gave another nod—somewhat belatedly—to Tara Campbell, and left.
“That’s it?” Tara said.
“That’s as much as I can do right now,” Jonah said. “But if Horn succeeds in locating your missing officer—and the evidence—I should be able to do a good deal more.”
Geneva and Belgorod
March 3134; local winter
Burton Horn hit the streets of Geneva as soon as he left the Pension Flambard, intent on the task of finding one man on the entire planet—a tough job, though not impossible for someone who’d learned his trade with GenDel. The most important thing on his side was that the man was a stranger, with a known starting point. Strangers make ripples. Horn was going to find the ripples.
The communications listings didn’t have an entry for an Owain Jones of Northwind—innumerable entries for that name in old Wales, but those could be ruled out, at least for now. Nor did the Office of Social Information carry listings for transient offworlders. Furthermore, the Genevan emergency records showed that nobody answering to the name of Owain Jones had checked in at any hospital or aid booth.
Horn left the communications grid office. So much for official help. His next stop would be his old pals at GenDel.
“Horn!” David Ashe said when he walked in the door. “I heard that you quit.”
“I went on leave, that’s all,” Horn said. “Got a temp gig that pays pretty well. How’ve things been here?”
“Not too bad. Every day gets me one day closer to retirement. What can I do for you?”
“Can you find out for me the names, dates, and locations of any civilian DropShips that arrived on Terra from Northwind, or that arrived having made connections with a vessel from Northwind, since fourteen March of this year?”
“Right into the proprietary data banks, eh?” said Ashe. “Why not just go to the ports and ask the cargo masters? That’s actually legal.”
“Chatting up cargo masters takes time, and time’s what I don’t have. My boss wants results.”
“He’s not my boss. Sounds like a personal problem to me.”
Horn regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. “Want a bit of spare cash?”
“From the temporary gig?”
“Sort of,” Horn said. “The info I’m after isn’t anything that’s illegal to have, and you know I can get it in other ways.”
“You mean we could help each other out?” Ashe’s nondescript GenDel features took on a calculating expression. “Why didn’t I know you were a crook when you worked here?”
“I try to keep my worse impulses in check,” Horn said, straight-faced. “Now how about it?”
“Okay, but you have to make it worth my while. Tell me who your boss is.”
“It’s no secret. Jonah Levin.”
“Okay,” said Ashe. “That and a spot of cash, and we can do business.”
Horn pushed a pile of currency across the desk. Ashe picked it up and whistled. “Not too careful of your expense account, are you?”
“He’s a Paladin,” Horn said. “He’s got a budget big enough to handle it. Results is what it’s all about. Now I’d like to see some.”
“You got it.” Ashe pushed some keys on his terminal. A moment later the printer whirred, and a sheet of flimsy drifted into the output tray. “Here you go. Four vessels, all from within ten parsecs of Northwind, since fourteen March.”
Horn took the sheet, glanced at it, folded it, and put it into his inner pocket. Only one bingo—a ship giving its journey’s point of origin as Northwind itself. He’d look at all four of them, but that one was going to be the first on his list. He stood to go.
“It’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” Ashe said as Horn left. “Next time your boss wants to throw away good money, let me know.”
“I’ll do that,” said Horn, and let the door swing shut behind him.
David Ashe waited a moment, until he was certain Horn was out of earshot. Then he turned to his communications console, picked up the handset, and punched in a code. When the line opened he said, “You wanted to know if anyone got curious about Northwind? Well, a guy was just in here…”
Horn took a shuttle-hop to Belgorod DropPort, where the direct ship from Northwind had grounded. When he had reached the center city transit hub, he paused and took a deep breath, orienting himself to his surroundings.
“Now, if I were Lieutenant Owain Jones, fresh from Northwind with vital information, where would I be?”
The streets, busy with traffic and pedestrians, did not reply.
“Think,” he told himself. “You’ve just arrived by DropShip at a city you don’t know on a planet that you’ve never visited. You have a mission. What do you do?”
He drifted with the foot traffic toward the east, not caring where he was going. He considered a cup of coffee. That would be nice.
A combat officer would want a cup of coffee, too, he thought. And a man newly arrived would want a place to stay. A hotel? That would be a place to start.
Someone was drifting with him, Horn realized. A tall man, but not so tall as to be freakish, and plainly dressed just as Horn himself was plainly dressed. And moving just as unpurpose-fully as Horn himself was moving.
Horn crossed the street and reversed his direction. By the time he had made it halfway up the next block, the man whom he suspected of following him had crossed the street and reversed direction as well.
I didn’t ask for this, Horn thought. It was, however, all part of the job.
Ahead on his right was a breakfast café. He walked in, and without a word walked briskly through the dining area, through the kitchen, and out the emergency door to the garbage-can-lined service alley in the back.
He continued along the alley to its end, turned right, and right again, bringing him to the street he had just left. His shadow was still there, standing in front of a store near the café, window-shopping. Horn contemplated walking up and accosting the man on the open street to ask him who he worked for. He decided against it—there wasn’t enough privacy to make it worth his while—and turned away.
It would be a while before the man realized that he’d been shaken. Horn could use that time.
The pursuit had given him information as well. It showed that someone in Belgorod was taking real interest in a matter that should have been of no interest to anyone.
Lieutenant Owain Jones had met with misfortune, of that much Horn was now sure. Time to pick up the trail.
He found a pawnshop on a nearby street corner—the sign saidHONEST IGOR’S in five languages and three alphabets—and ducked inside. The pawnshop counter had a bulletproof plastic window in front of it. On an impulse, Horn rapped on the window.
“Hey,” he said.
The man behind the counter—Honest Igor, presumably—turned around to face him. “What do you want?”
Horn slipped a twenty-stone note through the slot in the counter window. “Local knowledge,” he said. “You look like a man who has some.”
“A little,” said Igor. “The people who come in here, they tell me things sometimes. And if I don’t know it, I can hook you up with someone who does.”
“That’s what I figured,” Horn said. “What I want to know is, where do the taxi drivers who service the DropPort hang when they’re not working?”
“For that, I’ll have to ask around. If it’s a particular driver that you’re after—”
“I’m looking to talk with a driver who might have picked up a fare from Northwind sometime around the fourteenth.”
“Gotcha,” said Igor. “I’ll ask around. Where can I reach you?”
Horn handed over a business card with the number of a call-forwarding service. “These people can reach me.” He slid another twenty through the slot. “There’s more where that came from if I hear from you, and the same for the taxi driver when I talk to him.”
Horn nodded. “See you around.”
He left the pawnshop and hit the street again. Maybe the pawnshop owner would come through, and maybe not. In the meantime, he needed to check the hotels.
March 3134; local winter
Aweary afternoon’s work spent going through hotel guest registers sufficed to let Burton Horn know that Owain Jones hadn’t checked into any of the respectable establishments in Belgorod. It remained possible that the Lieutenant had chosen to stay at one of the port’s less-than-respectable establishments, but Horn considered that an unlikely choice for a military man with a vital mission.
A military man, Horn thought. He’d look for food, for a place to sleep… and for a place to report in. Not necessarily in that order.
But to whom would he report? To the Exarch in person? The Countess of Northwind might have assumed something like that, when she sent Jones ahead with the evidence, but the Exarch was too high in the chain of command for a mere Lieutenant to think about reporting to him directly. He’d be looking for… the Northwind Interests Section, that was it. Horn grabbed a cab and did the same.
Once he’d reached the building that housed the local representatives of The Republic’s member governments, he employed Paladin Jonah Levin’s name without hesitation in order to gain entry. That got him as far as a bored bureaucrat in a natty suit who invited him to sit at a desk.
“I have an inquiry from Paladin Levin,” Horn said.
“This is most irregular,” the man replied. “The Paladin has every right to request aid from any Republic body. However, that request ought to come through official channels. Most irregular,” he repeated, steepling his fingers in front of his shirt. “What is the nature of the Paladin’s request?”
“The Paladin would like to know if the chargé received a visitor from Northwind at any time since fourteen March of this year.”
“I can tell you that directly,” the bureaucrat replied. “He did not. Nor is the chargé able to assist you now. With the recent arrival of an army from Northwind, he is very busy.”
“The Paladin understands,” Horn said. “He doesn’t want the chargé disturbed, either.”
“Then there’s nothing more I can do for you,” said the bureaucrat. “Good day, sir.”
“Perhaps one small thing,” Horn said. “May I see the call logs for fifteen March?”
“Out of the question,” the other man said firmly.
“I understand… perhaps you could look at them yourself, and answer me one question. A simple yes or no.”
The bureaucrat hesitated. “Perhaps.”
“Paladin Levin will be pleased,” Horn assured him. “The question is this: Did the Northwind Interests Section receive any prank calls on or just after fourteen March?”
“Let me see.” He called up the logs on his desk screen and perused the listings without bothering to show them to Horn. “Yes,” he said at last. “There was one.”
“When did it come in?”
“I’m afraid that I’ve already exceeded my warrant,” the bureaucrat said. He stood and offered his hand. “May I show you out?”
“I know the way,” Horn said, standing also.
As he stood, he glanced casually at the desk screen. One line was highlighted in yellow. Thirty-second call, abandoned before connection. Pay phone. Number identified as a restaurant and bar. Time, twenty-two minutes before three in the afternoon. That would be about right for someone who’d just gotten in at the DropPort and was looking for lunch.
The address of the bar, unfortunately, wasn’t on the screen. Nor was the text of the call.
Back on the street, Horn checked in with his answering service. No messages. Belgorod was a DropPort, which meant that there were probably half a thousand licensed bars in the city. He’d need a way to narrow them down. With no guarantee that he’d come any closer to Lieutenant Owain Jones if he did.
While Horn was turning the problem over in his mind, a car pulled up to the sidewalk next to him. The car’s back door opened and a man inside said, “Get in.”
Horn took an automatic step away. “Thanks, I don’t need a ride.”
“I said, get in.” The speaker had a needle-gun.
Screw that, Horn said to himself. Aloud, he said, “Sorry, tovarich, I don’t have the time.”
He spun, kicking the door closed fast enough to break a wrist on anyone who might have been holding it open, and sprinted into the open door of the nearest shop.
The store sold hats. Horn tried one on, examining himself in the mirror and watching the front door at the same time. Sooner or later, someone would get tired of waiting and come in after him.
A salesman approached. “May I help you, sir?”
Horn removed the hat he’d been trying on and looked at it. “Yes. Do you have this style in dark brown?”
“A moment.” The salesman vanished.
Horn took the opportunity to check his answering service again. This time the service operator said, “Yes, there’s been a call. The man wouldn’t identify himself, said you’d know. He left a number.”
Horn copied it.
“Here’s a brown hat, sir,” the salesman said. “We have several in various shades of brown, and a similar style in charcoal gray. Would you care to see it?”
“Charcoal gray? Yes, please.”
As soon as the salesman had gone away again, Horn called the number he’d gotten from his answering service. Honest Igor from the pawnshop answered.
“Thought it might be you,” Igor said. “Found you a driver who picked up a fare at the DropPort. He remembers the guy.”
“Can you put me in touch with him?”
“I know how.”
“Great. Have him and his cab meet me in front of”—Horn checked the name on the shop’s hatboxes—“the Abelard Hat Shop as soon as he can get here.”
“That’ll cost you.”
“I’ll pay it.”
“You’re the boss.”
The line clicked off as the salesman returned with yet more hatboxes. Horn tried on the charcoal-gray hat and several others, still watching the mirror.
“I’ll take the dark brown one,” he said, when he had drawn out the process for as long as he could. He was about to add—since a good hat was a worthwhile investment no matter who was paying for it—“And the one in charcoal gray as well,” when three men walked in through the front door of the shop.
“Call the police. Right now,” Horn said to the clerk.
“It’ll have to wait,” Horn said.
The leader of the group of men had his hand in his pocket, and there was a suspicious lump in the cloth. That meant he was either an amateur or an incompetent—he couldn’t aim that way, and his hand and arm were tied up and useless.
Horn grabbed the man by his coat sleeve and pulled him forward and down. The man staggered a bit. Horn pushed him into the path of the two men who were trailing after him, then tossed a hat rack through the shop window and followed it out onto the sidewalk just as a cab pulled up in front. Horn opened the cab door and slid in.
“Where to?” asked the cabdriver.
“You’re the guy who called?”
“Yeah. And now I’m in a hurry.”
The cab driver put the vehicle into gear and took off, just as the trio from inside the store plunged out to the sidewalk. “So what’s up?” the driver asked, once they had left the hat shop several blocks behind them.
Horn passed him a sizable roll of money. “Did you pick up a fare at the DropPort a few days ago, around the fourteenth?”
“I pick up guys at the DropPort every day,” the cab driver said. “What was so special about this one?”
“He was from Northwind.”
The cab driver thought for a moment. “Yeah,” he said finally. “I had me one of those. He wanted a ride downtown, but halfway there, he wanted to stop. He handed me a wad of cash, just like you did—big bills, twenties and fifties, a whole lot more than the fare. Like the money didn’t matter to him.”
“That’s good,” said Horn. “Take me to where you dropped him off. And if you can make sure no one is following us on the way, that’s even better.”
The cabdriver looked at him curiously in the rearview mirror. “You’re one of the guy’s friends?”
“Does it matter?”
“Not to me it doesn’t.”
“Then don’t worry about it.” Horn settled back against the upholstery of the car seat and waited, watching the buildings zip past on either side.
“Here you are,” the driver said at last. “This is the spot where he bailed.”
“Did he say where he was going from here?”
Horn passed over another large wad of cash. “Thanks. And if you can forget that you saw either him or me, your life will probably be smoother all the way around.”
“You got it, boss.” The driver grinned. “So tell me now—are you on his side?”
“I think maybe I am.”
“Good. He seemed like a decent enough guy. See ya.”
“I don’t think so,” Horn said, but he said it after the cabdriver had departed.
Horn looked up and down the street. The neighborhood was an older one, full of small shops with apartments above them. Well, time to wear out more shoe leather. The call had come from a bar. He’d do an expanding square search around this spot, stopping at every establishment with a liquor license until he found the right one.
The fourth place he stopped was the Pescadore Rus, where Ivan Gorky was waiting tables and tending bar. Gorky remembered the man with the short hair and the Northwind accent, who’d come in on a slow afternoon and left without paying his bill.
“I’ll pay it for him,” Horn said. “He’s a friend.”
Gorky’s face brightened, and he reached for an object that he had tucked away by the cash register. “Then maybe you can give this back to him, as well.”
Sometime after that, Burton Horn sat in a branch of the Belgorod Public Library. He’d just viewed a data disc, and had seen things that no one should have seen:
A Paladin of the Sphere, departing through a checkpoint in a Blade BattleMech.
A log recording of that Paladin’s interaction with the outpost guards, with voice data.
Testimony from the guards themselves, confirming the evidence recorded in the log.
He’d have to be careful, Horn thought, on his way back to Jonah Levin. Because somebody very powerful was about to be made very, very unhappy.
Saffel Space Station Three
For a while, Anastasia’s return to consciousness was not so much waking as recalling a time spent floating in a gray and hazy place. She had vague memories of things going on while she was there—people crowding around her, pain in her belly, bright lights in her face, and disconnected bits of conversation that didn’t make sense: “Tried to gut and fillet her like a mountain finny… Why are you asking me, I think you’re all crazy… Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.”
She came back to full lucidity with a jolt.
Her eyes snapped open, and she was aware—with a bright, hard-edged clarity—that she was Galaxy Commander Anastasia Kerensky, that she was lying on a bed in an unfamiliar sick bay, that the heavy soreness across her abdomen was a knife wound courtesy of the late Star Colonel Marks, that she was taking the Steel Wolves home to Terra. And that she had lost a dangerous amount of time.
“Damn.” She struggled up to a sitting position in the bed. “Ahhrrgh. Damn.”
Someone was catching her, helping her to sit upright. She saw the hand first, and the Bondsman’s cord around the wrist. It was the medic, Ian Murchison.
She glared at him. “What are you doing here?”
“Keeping you from killing yourself, it looks like.” At second glance, Murchison did not appear to have slept in some time. His eyes were red-rimmed and shadowed underneath, and he had forgotten to shave. “Since the gentleman with the knife did his best to spill your guts out onto the deck.”
“Oh.” She sounded bad, even to her own ears. She could not afford the weakness, once she was in public. But there was nobody in here except herself and her Bondsman, who did not count. Relentlessly, she quashed a half-formed wish that she could rest for a little longer. “How long has it been since—”
“Twelve days, while you were ill and the ships were recharging and refueling.”
“Twelve days!” The exclamation hurt; she sat breathing hard for a minute, then went on, “Are we still at Saffel Station?”
“Then I have to get up now.”
“I don’t suppose I can stop you.” He paused, as if weighing his next words. “Just for the record, Galaxy Commander, you’re currently held together with staples and surgical glue. Now is not the time to pick fights.”
“I do not pick fights.”
This time Murchison said nothing, but his expression was eloquent enough without words.
“All right,” she said. “You’ve got me.” It felt good to lapse for a moment into the casual speech patterns of the alternate persona she’d adopted when she was traveling across The Republic of the Sphere as a soldier of fortune. Tassa Kay had met a number of people like Ian Murchison—steady, reliable types who did their duty and didn’t worry too much about the greater scheme of things—and she’d liked most of them. She’d probably have liked Ian Murchison as well. “I do pick fights. But I’ve usually got a reason for it when I do.”
“I’m just saying—”
“‘Not now.’ Right.”
Moving carefully, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and tried to stand. Murchison reached out and supported her with a hand under one arm. Success.
She stayed that way for a moment, taking stock. Legs holding her up—good. Head clearing more moment by moment—good. She tried a few careful steps, then said, “As long as I don’t make any sudden moves, it’ll do. Time to go out and put the fear of me back into people.”
“No need to worry just yet.” She wasn’t certain about the note in Murchison’s voice, but she thought it might be amusement. “They’ve all been too busy promoting themselves to bother causing trouble.”
For a moment she failed to understand him. Then she remembered that he was not Clan, or at least not yet, and would not know.
“Trials of Position,” she said. She laughed under her breath, but cut it short when the knife wound protested. “I suppose I did create a couple of openings at the top.”
She contemplated, for a moment, the beautiful chaos of it all. The Star Colonels who had been junior to Marks and Dorn would have begun it by challenging one another for seniority. Then the more ambitious Star Captains would have started their own round of challenges for the empty Star Colonel slots, and the ripple effect would have extended all the way down into the ranks. She shook her head regretfully, and pushed Tassa Kay and her taste for brawls and bad company well back into the dark recesses of Anastasia Kerensky’s mind.
“I need to get out there,” she said. “Before somebody else gets the idea that they can do this job better than I can.”
“Sit back down. I’ll find you some clothes.”
“Who do you think you are, giving me orders?” She sat down on the edge of the bed anyway, and watched him searching efficiently through her duffel.
“Your Bondsman.” He emerged from the duffel with a pair of hip-riding trousers and a loose shirt. “You should be able to wear these and not mess your bandages up too much.”
Murchison helped her dress. His touch was asexual and oddly impersonal, and in a way she was glad of it. The last time a man’s hands had touched her in those places, it had been Nicholas Darwin, Jacob Bannson’s mole.
“I cut his throat,” she said suddenly. “And hung his body up for the carrion birds.”
“I know,” said Murchison. He was helping her on with her boots—tall boots—to make her into Anastasia Kerensky whether she felt like being Anastasia or not. “I was there.”
“What did they do with Marks and Dorn?”
“Out the air lock to space.”
“Good.” She was fully dressed now, armored in the identity of her rank and Bloodname, ready to go and walk alone among her Wolves. “Then our business here is finished, and it is time to make the jump to Terra.”
April 3134; local spring
In the regimental encampment near Belgorod, Tara Campbell lay awake. The night air was cold, but the weather in general had grown perceptibly warmer since she and her Highlanders had first arrived, and there was the smell of a thaw on the wind. She’d had a long day, followed by a long evening spent in discussing possible strategies and tactics—and the vexing question of just where, exactly, was Anastasia Kerensky—with her senior commanders. She’d collapsed at the end of it on the cot in her command tent and tried to sleep.
She could, she supposed, have taken a hotel room for herself in downtown Belgorod, or stayed in Geneva on The Republic’s hospitality. She could even have looked up one or another of her parents’ old Terran friends, either diplomatic or military, and begged for a place to stay from them.
She could have, but she didn’t. She’d been taught from childhood—by her parents and others—that she could not expect to lead men and women whose hardships, and even small inconveniences, she could not be bothered to share. If the Northwind Highlanders were going to be relegated by the Exarch and the Senate to freezing in tents on the Russian plain, the least the Countess of Northwind could do was freeze right along with them.
The sense of her own righteousness didn’t make her any warmer, unfortunately, or the cot any more comfortable. She was still awake well after midnight when her aide, Captain Bishop, appeared at the entrance to the tent and cleared her throat.
“There’s a message coming in for you, ma’am. At the communications tent.”
“Now?” Tara sat up, grabbed her fatigue trousers and blouse from the folding chair by the head of her cot, and started pulling them on in the dark. “Is it the Steel Wolves?”
“No, ma’am.” The regret in Captain Bishop’s voice sounded genuine. “It’s Jacob Bannson. A radio message from his private DropShip. He’s landing in eighteen hours, and he says he wants to talk to you.”
“Bannson?” Tara’s mind was blank. She couldn’t imagine what the business tycoon would have to say to her under these circumstances. She shook her head to clear it, reminding herself that Bannson might want to talk to Tara Campbell, the Northwind aristocrat, or to Tara Campbell, the politician, rather than Tara Campbell, the commander out in the field. Just because she tended to forget her other identities from time to time didn’t mean that anyone else ever did. “What does Bannson want with me?”
“He says it’s about Paladin Ezekiel Crow.”
“Bannson? Has word on Crow?” Tara’s mind raced as she pulled on her socks and began lacing her boots. No matter how rich and important Bannson was, he wasn’t worth going over frozen ground barefoot for. “What does Jacob Bannson have to do with Ezekiel Crow?”
“Damned if I know, ma’am,” Captain Bishop replied. “But he says you’ll be interested.”
“He does, does he? We’ll see about that.”
Tara shrugged her heavy wool greatcoat over her shoulders, jammed her beret on her head, and left the command tent at a pace not quite a run. Anastasia Kerensky and the Steel Wolves would have been worth running for. Jacob Bannson wasn’t. Quite.
The communications tent was dimly lit, and empty except for the soldiers keeping the night watch. Tara slid into the empty chair at the main console and took the handset that the tech handed to her.
“Tara Campbell here.”
She waited through the pause as signals traveled back and forth—the jerky rhythm of a radio conversation at space-travel distance. Then, “Jacob Bannson, Countess.”
“My aide says you want to speak to me about”—this wasn’t an encrypted conversation, and she chose her next words with care, wishing that she knew how much Bannson had already betrayed onto the airwaves—“a certain person.”
“What do you want to say about—that person?”
“I have some information that you might find interesting.”
“Not over an unsecured line.”
“A meeting, then,” Bannson said. “Where?”
She didn’t have to think long. Jonah Levin was a friend, or at least had believed her unsupported word enough to send his man out looking for the missing evidence. He’d want to hear whatever Bannson had to say. “Geneva.”
“Geneva it is, then. The penthouse suite at the Hotel Duquesne. I’ll be waiting for you. Bannson out.”
Tara gave the handset back to the tech on duty and turned to her aide. “Things are starting to move. I don’t want to set anything into motion that isn’t moving already, so direct contact with Paladin Levin at this point might be a bad idea.”
“If you say so, ma’am.” Captain Bishop was still frowning at the radio console as though Bannson were there in person. “Does that guy really think he can get the penthouse suite at the best hotel in town just by showing up and asking for it?”
“Yes, he does. And he’s right.” Tara didn’t think that this was the best time to mention that she could have done the same—only with her name, not money, to open the door. “It doesn’t matter. I want you to get busy with the communications listings, and track down the personal number of a man named Burton Horn. It may be unlisted. Lean on people and use my authority if you have to. I’ll back you.”
Captain Bishop nodded. “Burton Horn. What do I say once I’ve got him?”
“Tell him to find his employer as quickly as possible, and bring him to meet me in Geneva at the Hotel Duquesne.”
April 3134; local spring
Roughly twenty-four hours after the Countess of Northwind had seen her sleep, or lack of it, so unexpectedly interrupted, in Geneva Paladin Jacob Levin was walking back to the Pension Flambard from the small neighborhood restaurant where he had eaten dinner. The evening was dark and still, and few people were about. The occasional vehicle passed by him on a hum of tires or a sigh of hoverjets, its shadow looming up and fading again in the circles of pale yellow light thrown onto the sidewalk by the street lamps.
It was a pleasant night. A light breeze, not yet fully springlike, but hinting nevertheless at the eventual possibility of spring, blew toward the lake. The taste of dinner’s roast lamb with rosemary still lingered on Jonah’s lips, as did the bouquet of the wine. The meal had been excellent, even for a man whose thoughts remained preoccupied as his had been by the developments of the past few days.
The data disc Burton Horn had recovered from the Pescadore Rus in Belgorod had not left Jonah’s possession since the former GenDel employee had delivered it to him. Jonah suspected—though he would not alarm Madame Flambard by saying so—that his rooms in the pension had been searched at least once, and he was unwilling to let such damning evidence fall into other hands.
Tomorrow, he thought, with the Countess of Northwind’s concurrence, he would present the data disc to the Exarch. A formal investigation would follow, and much adverse publicity. Damien Redburn would undoubtedly want to keep everything quiet until the investigation had officially settled the question of who, exactly, had sold out whom on Northwind, but Jonah didn’t think that he would succeed. News as shocking and frightening as this—that a Paladin, one of the seventeen most trusted men and women in the entire Republic of the Sphere, could have betrayed and abandoned the very people whom he had been sent to help, and slandered their leader to the Exarch afterward—would find its own way of getting out.
“Lift ’em up.”
The voice was that of a stranger. Jonah saw that a man with a slug-pistol had come out of the shadows ahead and was standing in front of him.
“What is—” he began.
“It’s a robbery, Gramps.”
Jonah raised his hands. In his peripheral vision, he saw another man approaching from his right. And there was a third coming up from behind, his presence made known by the scuffling of his footsteps.
“Over there.” The man with the slug-pistol gestured toward a nearby alley.
“It wasn’t in his room,” the man coming up from behind said. “So it’s got to be—”
The gunman said, “Shut up.” And the man behind fell silent.
Not ordinary robbers, then, Jonah thought, and resigned himself to putting up an active resistance. The small amount of money in his wallet was not worth disturbing the quiet of the evening with violence. The data disc currently residing in his inner jacket pocket was another matter altogether.
He turned toward the alley. At the moment when his side was toward the gunman, with his narrowest aspect exposed, he reached out with his left hand, grabbed the gunman’s arm by the sleeve, and pulled it straight out.
At the same time he pressed in toward the man, letting the side of his leg, with his weight behind it, push at the man’s knee and bend it backward. The knee joint resisted, then gave way under the pressure with an audible crack. The man grunted in pain and lost his grip on his weapon. Jonah took it.
He didn’t want to fire the slug-pistol. In the dark and confusion, he had no way of telling what kind it was, how well it had been maintained, or even if it was loaded. Instead, he threw it as hard as he could at the upper torso of the man on his right—who was now, after Levin’s rightward turn and this fellow’s collapse, the man in front of him.
The man sidestepped to dodge the impact. Jonah, seeing an attacker off balance, with his plans—whatever they had been—disrupted, took the opportunity to move forward.
He stepped in close, and struck the bottom of the man’s chin with the heel of his hand. The man collapsed.
Something moved in Jonah’s peripheral vision. It was the man who had come up behind him, now on Jonah’s right. He was lifting his arm, raising a firearm of his own before Jonah could move or react. A shot sounded.
Jonah braced himself for the burning pain. It never came. Instead, the gunman lowered his arm, sank to his knees, and fell to his face on the sidewalk.
“Good evening, Paladin,” Burton Horn said. The former GenDel messenger stepped out of the shadows and replaced his own handgun in his pocket. “The Countess of Northwind sends her greetings, and begs me to inform you that she wishes to discuss the matter of Ezekiel Crow with you, in private, as soon as possible.”
“I have her to thank for your timely arrival, then.” Jonah was not going to let Horn outdo him in the sangfroid department, even though the voice of reason—sounding, as it so often did, very much like the voice of Anna—would not be stopped from pointing out the foolishness of such a reaction. “Do you know who these men are?”
“I saw them in Belgorod not too long ago,” Horn said. “They were trying on hats. My contacts tell me that they work for Alexei Suvorov.” He glanced over at the trio of dead or unconscious men. “Some of his more expendable talent, at a guess. Not up to your weight, anyhow.”
“I don’t know. If you hadn’t stopped that last one, I’d be dead by now.”
“Maybe,” said Horn. “But you didn’t look like a guy who was getting ready to give up.”
“If you say so. But I’ve gotten shot before, and believe me, the experience doesn’t get any more enjoyable with repetition.” Jonah looked down at his attackers where they lay on the pavement. The one with the broken knee was starting to groan and twitch feebly. “Suvorov’s men, you said. Am I supposed to know that name?”
“I don’t think so,” Horn replied. “But I get the feeling that someone you do know, does know it. And right now, we should probably go someplace else before the police arrive and start to ask us a lot of awkward questions.”
April 3134; local spring
The last time that Tara Campbell had stayed in the Hotel Duquesne, she had been a five-year-old girl following in her Senator mother’s wake. She remembered the marble pillars in the main lobby as being much bigger, like stone trees holding up the sky, and the concierge as an enormous and godlike figure in gold braid and a majestic waxed mustache. The current concierge had to be the same man—you couldn’t possibly find two mustaches like that, even in Geneva. But he was shorter now than she was.
Tara pushed away an inexplicable feeling of disappointment. She was aware of Captain Bishop at her shoulder, trying very hard not to appear impressed by the surroundings. She didn’t think her aide would be cheered by the information that the Countess of Northwind had paused to mourn the loss of another bit of her younger self.
“Countess!” The concierge was beaming at her over the sweep of his mustache. “It’s an honor to have you with us again! Will you be staying here long?”
“I’m sorry, Emil. I’m just here for a conference. I’m in Belgorod, with the rest of the Northwind Highlanders.” She saw his face start to fall, and couldn’t help herself. “Though if things run late, my aide and I may need rooms for the night.”
“It would be our pleasure, Countess,” Emil assured her. “Alas, your mother’s usual suite is currently occupied.”
“That’s all right. Whatever you have will do if we end up staying. For now, if you could let Mr. Bannson know that I’m coming up—”
“Of course.” Emil bustled off.
Captain Bishop, in the wake of his going, murmured, “If you don’t mind me asking, ma’am, just what was your mother’s usual suite?”
Tara felt her face reddening, and was grateful for the dim lighting of the Duquesne’s lobby. “The penthouse,” she admitted. “Captain, the way things look, whatever’s going down may well be above even my rank, let alone yours. But I’m in it already, and you’re not. Go buy yourself a drink in the hotel bar and keep yourself safe from guilt by association. I’ll call for you if I need you.”
She headed on up to the penthouse suite where Jacob Bannson was waiting. The business tycoon rose from the couch to greet her. She’d seen his image often enough in magazines and on the tri-vids, but this marked the first time she had ever met him in person. She’d thought he would be taller—another disappointment, like the sadly shrunken Emil.
“Welcome, Countess,” he said. “We’ve got lots to talk about, so let’s get down to business.”
“Not yet.” She sat down in the armchair beside the couch. It had been big enough once to hold her younger self and her father both, but as with everything else, it was smaller now. “There’s a third party I want to see involved in this discussion. Not the person we spoke of, but someone else.”
Bannson’s face hardened. “Tell me who. If I don’t like him or her, the whole deal is off.”
Tara reminded herself that behind the outward appearance of the nouveau riche poseur was a ruthless entrepreneur and hardened negotiator, rumored to have more than just metaphorical blood on his hands. “Fair enough,” she said. “Paladin Jonah Levin.”
She waited for several long moments while Bannson played with the hairs of his full orange beard, his eyes squinted half closed in contemplation of something invisible. Finally, he said, “All right. Levin’s no particular friend of mine, but he’s honest. Better yet, everybody in the whole Republic knows that he’s honest. This business can use somebody like that.”
Tara said, miffed, “And I’m not honest enough for you?”
“Countess, you’ve got problems of your own or you wouldn’t be standing here now.”
She couldn’t come up with a counterargument, and was spared the need to think of a reply by the sound of a knock on the penthouse door. Bannson went to the door and admitted Jonah Levin. The Paladin took the second of the room’s two armchairs, leaving Bannson with the couch as before.
“I see that Mr. Horn found you in time,” Tara said to Levin.
“Just in time, as it happened.”
Levin didn’t explain the remark any further, but Tara received the impression that the Paladin, while still maintaining his sober demeanor, was faintly amused about something.
“Mr. Bannson,” he continued. “I understand you have some information that you’re interested in sharing.”
Bannson moved over to the antique secretary in one corner of the suite—Tara remembered her mother drafting speeches at it, years ago—and took out a bulky paper envelope. He emptied the contents out onto the inlaid ebony and mother-of-pearl surface of the low table in front of the couch: papers, photographs, letters, and a battered paperback book with a slip of paper marking one page.
“All of these are copies, of course. The originals are kept safe elsewhere.”
“Of course,” Levin said.
I get the point, Tara thought. Jacob Bannson would have brought a copy of that data disc with him on his private DropShip, instead of giving one to poor Lieutenant Jones and leaving the other one in a safe back at The Fort on Northwind. And Paladin Levin would have hand carried the disc all the way from Northwind.
She swallowed her irritation and joined Levin in going through the stuff on the table. Within minutes, her awareness of being the youngest and most inexperienced person in the room had faded away entirely, replaced by a profound sense of shock.
She stopped, words failing her. Even the pain of Ezekiel Crow’s first betrayal on Northwind hadn’t felt like this. Here was evidence not of one single act, but of an entire life and a career of public service based on the most heinous treason imaginable.
“Despicable,” said Levin. “If the evidence is genuine.”
Bannson said, “It’s the real deal, all right. Crow pulled off a first-class cover-up, but once you’ve got hold of the first loose end”—he indicated the paperback book, a popular war memoir by a Capellan novelist who’d been a CapCon intelligence officer in his youth, with its reference to a young man named Daniel Peterson who had betrayed his homeworld of Liao to the Capellans—“you can track down independent confirmation for everything else without much trouble. Name any set of events you care to. They’ll verify.”
“I think somebody else did track them down,” Tara said. “I can’t imagine anything besides blackmail that would make him turn traitor again after all this time. And with so much to lose.”
Bannson shrugged. “What can I say? Once the information is out there, it’s out there. He probably never expected this guy to start telling war stories.”
“And I never expected to be presented with all of this,” she said. “What’s your stake, Mr. Bannson?”
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “Ezekiel Crow’s been standing in the way of my business plans for quite a while, and when I heard rumors about what he did on Northwind, I decided that the two of us had a problem in common—for now, at least. Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about making any long-term alliances.”
“I think we all understand that,” Jonah Levin said. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a data disc. So his man Horn recovered it after all, Tara thought. He certainly was taking his time about letting me know. “In the interests of sharing information—I assume there’s a data reader in the room somewhere?”
“In the armoire, along with the tri-vid screen,” Tara said absently, before Bannson could reply.
Bannson didn’t say anything, only took the data disc from Levin and set it up to play. Tara knew a moment’s panicky fear that bad luck had struck her again and it would turn out to be nothing but popular music or children’s cartoons—but it was the Northwind file, with all the information intact, exactly as she’d sent it with Owain Jones. By the time it had finished playing, Jacob Bannson was grinning through his beard.
“Oh, yeah.” For a moment, his voice lost all its expensive polish and was pure low-class St. Andre. “Between the old stuff and this, we have got the man laid out on toast for breakfast.”
Tara said to Levin, “When do you think we should present it to the Exarch?”
“You don’t,” Bannson said at once. “You hand it over to the tri-vids and let them run with it. After that, it won’t matter what the Exarch thinks. He’s done for.”
“Paladin Levin?” Tara said again.
Jonah Levin was looking thoughtfully at the last image on the data disc—the pair of battle-weary young troopers who’d manned the checkpoint on Northwind.
“Give the information to the Exarch,” he said. “There’ll have to be a formal inquiry. But give a copy to the tri-vids first.”
April 3134; local spring
Captain Tara Bishop took the Countess of Northwind’s suggestion, and found herself a spot in the hotel bar from which she could keep an eye on the main lobby while she waited on events taking place above. Just another episode in the exciting life of a Prefect’s aide, she thought. Lucky me.
Under the circumstances, she couldn’t help remembering the Colonel she’d served under on Addicks, back in the time—far off now, even if not quite a full year had elapsed between that day and this—when all she had to worry about was intermittent local skirmishing between the Highlanders and the Dragon’s Fury, instead of the Steel Wolves and the fate of Terra. She hadn’t wanted to leave off soldiering in the field in order to serve as Tara Campbell’s aide-de-camp, and her Colonel had needed to give her a stern and fatherly lecture on the proper care and feeding of a good career.
Promising young officers—by which, it seemed, he meant her—should listen to their superiors and go where they were posted, especially when the new assignment offered them a chance to gain valuable experience and make useful political connections.
“If you’re aiming for the top,” he’d finished, “you need to know what it looks like up there first.”
So far, she thought, the main descriptive term that came to mind was “expensive.” The bottles drawn up in ranks on the shelf behind the bar included a full platoon, at least, of genuine Terran whiskeys, most of them old enough to bear arms in The Republic and a good half dozen of them older than she was. She pulled out a twenty-stone note and laid it on the bar. The bartender came over.
“I’ll have the Glen Grant,” she said.
“Will that be the twenty-five year old, or the fifty?”
What the hell, she thought. I’m not likely to have another chance any time soon. “The fifty.”
The twenty-stone note went away, and the bartender came back a few minutes later with a heavy paper bar coaster, a crystal tumbler full of amber liquid, and a handful of small coins.
Expensive was the word, all right, she thought. She took a careful sip. But worth it.
She settled down to make the shot of Glen Grant last until the Countess finished her meeting upstairs. At this late hour on a weeknight, there was only one other customer in the bar, a plain man in a plain suit, apparently no more inclined to chat than she was—and, like her, watching the lobby as he drank.
Popular hobby around here, she thought. In fact, the bar was situated admirably for keeping tabs on the comings and goings of the hotel guests. Tara wondered if the Duquesne’s architect had designed it that way on purpose, for the convenience of spies, aides-de-camp, and flunkies in general.
This is Geneva, she reminded herself. Anything is possible.
Lobby watching might have been the bar’s main attraction, but the management appeared willing to give at least a nod to the traditions. There was a discreet tri-vid box on the back counter, tucked underneath the shelves full of bottles, small enough that the figures moving around inside it appeared as dollhouse-size miniatures.
Captain Bishop, as usual, found the display annoying. It was bad enough to have to watch entertainers shrunk down to the size of her thumb, but the news stories were even worse. Something in Bishop’s mind balked at the idea of taking real people and their real pain and happiness and dirt and calamity, and turning them into bright little toys.
I’d sooner have a flat-screen video wall, she grumbled to herself. If anybody even makes those anymore.
Perversely, her irritation only helped the tri-vid box draw her attention even more. It was a news channel, too. Winter sports scores, for hockey and curling. I didn’t know they played that on Terra, she thought, I always believed we invented it on Northwind. And the weather: a warming trend over western Europe, storms in the North Sea, the possibility of a thaw in Russia. That wasn’t good. She had no illusions about what the terrain around Belgorod was going to be like when the ice melted in the frozen ground.
The top of the hour came around again, and the breaking news, read by a bland-faced announcer whose head and shoulders filled most of the box. Captain Bishop had read a story once, when she was a little girl, about a witch who kept a closet full of different heads, and tri-vid newsreaders always made her think about that. The book had given her nightmares for weeks.
The volume on the box was kept low; it took almost a full minute for the announcer’s words to penetrate into her awareness.
“New details coming in from the jump point space station on the identity of the unknown ship that emerged several hours ago: DropShips are disengaging and setting course for Terra. These ships have likewise refused to identify themselves…”
“Damn.” She slammed back the last of the Glen Grant and headed out into the lobby at a near run, pulling out her phone as she went. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that the plain man was doing the same thing with an urgency almost equal to her own.
I wonder who the hell he’s talking to? she thought, her right thumb already hitting the Countess of Northwind’s private code. If she’s disconnected, there’s no help for it, I’m going to have to go up to the penthouse and pound on the door myself. But Tara Campbell’s familiar voice said, “Yes?” after the first ring.
Bishop ignored the sharp-edged implication that this had better be good. “Countess, the Steel Wolves just came through at the jump point and are heading in.”
April 3134; local spring
Ezekiel Crow slept uneasily in his bed at the Hotel Duquesne. His nights since leaving Northwind had all been restless, and his dreams were bad.
He had recurrent nightmares about an enemy whose face he couldn’t see, dogging his footsteps through scenes of war and devastation: the mass graves of Chang-An, after the CapCon troops had their way with the city; the streets of Northwind’s capital, defended at every square and intersection by grim-faced Highlanders caught between the hammer of the Steel Wolves and the anvil of Jack Farrell’s mercenaries; the placid streets of Geneva, untouched by war for centuries and even surviving the Word of Blake Jihad unscathed, stained in his nightmares by fresh blood. He revisited them all, night after night, and always the shadowy figure was there as well.
The images had more truth in them than paranoia; his waking hours were haunted by the same awareness. Whoever had pulled together and rewoven the raveled threads of his past had to have intended more than a one-time act of blackmail, however devastating to the recipient that act might have been. Crow’s enemy hadn’t been content to destroy the trust between him and the Countess of Northwind—the trust, and every good thing that might have grown from it. Sending the evidence directly to Tara Campbell would have sufficed for that.
Instead, his enemy had arranged for Crow to destroy Tara’s trust himself.
That alone was enough to convince him that gaining Northwind for Anastasia Kerensky had never been the shadow stranger’s goal. The Steel Wolves’ victory had been only a side benefit, or perhaps not important at all. He, Ezekiel Crow—Daniel Peterson, once of Liao—had been from the beginning the one real target.
In the dark hours of the night, Crow was forced to admit that the shadow stranger had done his work exceedingly well. He’d succeeded so thoroughly on Northwind that Crow was now engaged in the most desperate fight of his life—a struggle for his career, for his reputation, for his very identity—even if nobody on Terra knew of the battle but him.
It did not surprise Crow that he should be the target of so much concentrated enmity. It was perhaps even inevitable, now that the one thing that had kept his past safely buried for so many years—the fact that no one had ever spoken aloud the true name of the infamous Betrayer of Liao—had been taken away.
But a hatred that strong wouldn’t be able to resist the urge to show its face. Sooner or later, the hidden enemy would no longer be content with making Ezekiel Crow shove the knife into his own guts. He would want to step out of the shadows and twist it himself.
Until that day came, however, Crow would fight back—because it wasn’t in his nature to let himself be defined by either the words or the silences of others—and he would have bad dreams.
He woke from his most recent nightmare to the sound of the room phone ringing. Still half asleep, he reached out an arm and picked it up.
“Ezekiel, my friend.”
The voice, recently familiar, was most definitely not that of a friend. Crow knew better than to use Alexei Suvorov’s name over an unsecured line. “What is it?” he asked.
“A word of timely warning, in regard to the package that my firm handled for you recently.”
Package, thought Crow. Tara Campbell’s messenger.
“There have been recent attempts to redeliver it. You’ll be glad to hear that the latest one seems to have been successful.”
Glad? he thought. No, probably not.
“Did you get a signature from the recipient?” he asked.
“Yes, indeed.” Suvorov sounded like he was enjoying the conversation. If he was, Crow thought, it wouldn’t be surprising. Crow’s breakup of the Footfall smuggling ring had set the crime lord back several million stones, and had come close to bringing him to trial. “Paladin Jonah Levin.”
Crow hung up and let the wave of despair wash over him. Jonah Levin was the worst possible person to have obtained proof of Tara Campbell’s story. The Paladin from Kervil was, so far as Crow knew, the only genuinely incorruptible person he had ever met. Levin wouldn’t be deterred from doing justice, and he would definitely not appreciate Crow having lied to him directly about the matter.
Maybe, Crow told himself, it’s time to start thinking about cutting your losses and getting out.
In the morning, he decided, he would go to Belgorod, and begin making arrangements for transporting one man and a Blade ’Mech to someplace else.
Someplace a long way from The Republic of the Sphere.
Coming to Judgment
April 3134; local spring
Ever since the news had came out that unknown DropShips were emerging at the Terran jump point, the Northwind Highlanders encamped near Belgorod had been on high alert. No one had as yet produced absolute confirmation that the incoming ships belonged to Anastasia Kerensky and the Steel Wolves, but no one was foolish enough, either, to believe that they didn’t. When word came of a second wave of unidentified DropShips following close on the track of the first, that made things even worse, since the most likely explanation was that the new ships were more Steel Wolves, being kept in reserve for a second-wave attack.
The uncertainty made for taut nerves all around. The arrival of slightly warmer weather only served to compound everyone’s troubles by turning the ground underfoot into sloppy, spongy mud with the consistency—and the tenacity—of very thick glue.
Evening after dinner on the eighth day found Will Elliot and his friends sitting at a table in the Sergeants’ Mess tent. By now, the three of them had evolved their own separate ways of dealing with the tension. Will was writing a letter home, Jock Gordon was mending a torn pocket flap on a set of fatigues, and Lexa McIntosh had taken her boots off and was painting her toenails dark blue and stenciling them with silver-glitter stars.
Dear Mother [Will wrote]
So far I haven’t seen much of Terra. Belgorod is very flat compared to Liddisdale, but the weather has been just as cold. The spring thaw is starting now, and you can imagine what that’s like. So far the mud hasn’t swallowed anything too important, unless you count a scoutcar and several pairs of shoes.
Speaking of feet and shoes, he thought, and looked across the table at Lexa. She’d finished painting the toes on her right foot, and was now applying silver glitter to the big toe of her left foot with an expression of intense concentration. “I still don’t understand why you’re doing that.”
“Because the regs won’t let me paint my fingernails.” The tone of Lexa’s voice implied that the reason should be transparently obvious.
Jock glanced up from his mending. “No-body’ll see them once your boots are back on.”
“But I’ll know about them. And that’s what counts.”
“I don’t see how.”
“Morale,” said Will firmly, before the argument could go on any further.
“Ah,” said Jock, satisfied, and returned to his mending.
“You tell him, Will,” Lexa said with a wicked grin, and began work on another star
My friends are well, and told me to thank you for asking about them. I’ll certainly bring them to visit if I ever have the chance. It may be a while, though, since nobody knows how long we’re going to be sta—
The tactical radio clipped to Will’s belt gave out the earsplitting warble that preceded an all-frequencies announcement. He laid his pen aside, and turned up the volume on the radio in time to hear an unfamiliar voice begin to speak.
“People of Terra!” it—no, she—said.
“Uh-oh,” Lexa said, putting aside her nail polish. “Anybody want to bet it’s not the Wolf-Bitch?”
“No,” said Will.
Jock shook his head in silence. The voice went on.
“We are the Steel Wolves, and we have come to take back what should have been ours. None can dispute our right.”
“Hell, yes, we can.” Lexa made a rude gesture in a vaguely skyward direction. “Get stuffed, Kerensky.”
“Hush,” said Will. “Listen.”
Another voice came over the tactical radio, a more familiar one this time. “I am Tara Campbell, Prefect of Prefecture III and Countess of Northwind, and I do dispute it.”
“Will you fight me for it, Countess?”
“Gladly,” Tara Campbell’s voice replied. “It’s what I came all this way to do. I’d begun to think that you were going to disappoint me and not show up.”
“I would never do that. Where shall we meet, then?”
“Here. On the plains outside Belgorod DropPort. Just the two of us. ’Mech against ’Mech.”
“Oh, no, Countess. I will not deny my Wolves a battle, not when I have brought them so far for it.”
Lexa made a face. “Do us all a favor, bitch, why don’t you?”
“Be quiet,” Will said.
The Countess’s voice came again, low and steady. “Bring your army then. My Highlanders will stand with me, for The Republic of the Sphere.”
“The Republic is hollow and already dead. We fight for the possession of Terra. Kerensky out.”
There was a long silence in the Sergeants’ Mess. Finally, Jock Gordon said, “Well.”
“Yeah,” agreed Lexa. “Fun times ahead.”
Will picked up his pen and began once more to write.
–ying. The next few days are likely to be busy ones, so I’m going to post this now while I have the chance and try to write you some more later.
April 3134; local spring
If Ezekiel Crow had been a different sort of person, he would have found it a subject for considerable dark humor that the only thing letting him withdraw unnoticed from Geneva to Belgorod had been the impending arrival of Anastasia Kerensky and the Steel Wolves.
He had awakened, on the morning after receiving Suvorov’s call, to the news that a fleet of DropShips was heading in toward Terra. Repeated statements by the announcers that “highly placed sources admit that the ships may have a hostile purpose,” combined with reassuring references to the Highlander forces encamped outside Belgorod, effectively confirmed that Damien Redburn and the rest of Republic officialdom had accepted Tara Campbell’s version of events.
For the first few crucial hours, though, the Terran media were too busy covering the imminent threat to report on its accompanying scandal, and Crow was able to check out of the Hotel Duquesne, and leave the city unnoticed.
His good fortune had not lasted long. By the time he left the Belgorod shuttle hub and started out on foot for the commercial DropPort, the tri-vids had a new toy to chew on—him.
He saw it first in the screen crawl over a newspaper kiosk. A screaming headline—TREASON DURING A CRISIS!—over a file photo captioned Paladin of the Sphere Ezekiel Crow (third from left, in black), others, seen here receiving the Exarch’s commendation for role in elimination of Footfall piracy threat, and a sample paragraph of text:
Terra’s greatest crisis since the inception of The Republic of the Sphere was worsened, this morning, by allegations that one of The Republic’s most trusted Paladins may harbor an unspeakably dark secret. Scholars and victims alike have speculated for years over the true identity of the notorious Betrayer of Liao… (continued in printed version; insert coin)
Crow paid the money, and the newspaper kiosk whirred and disgorged a printed copy of the paper in return. He took it to a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop near the DropPort and sat down in a corner booth to read.
It was even worse than he’d feared. The paper was only running selected items, but those were enough to make it clear they had the whole thing, and from at least two sources.
Part of it had to have come from Tara Campbell. There was no other possible source for the transcript of the young checkpoint guard’s testimony at a Northwind inquiry:
Q. Did you recognize the Warrior in the ’Mech?
A. Yes, ma’am. It was Paladin Ezekiel Crow.
Q. How did you know that? Are you sure?
A. Yes, ma’am. It was a Blade , and everybody who was at the big battle last summer knows that Paladin Crow has a Blade.
Q. Are you sure that it wasn’t someone else in the Paladin’s BattleMech?
A. Yes, ma’am. He identified himself as Paladin Crow, on Republic business.
Q. Let the transcript show that Private Higgins’ testimony is borne out by voice analysis of the checkpoint log.
The Northwind data, Crow thought, was not the worst of it. He could have challenged the interpretation of the checkpoint incident. A Paladin’s judgment on what was or wasn’t Republic business was not something to be lightly questioned. But that damnable Capellan memoir had surfaced again as well, and the medical and genetic records that his unknown enemy had collected for the presumably dead Daniel Peterson, native of Liao, and had then correlated with the publicly available records for Ezekiel Crow, Paladin of the Sphere.
If the media had those, they had all the rest of it. Sooner or later, they would publish it all.
By the evening of his first day in Belgorod, the tri-vid channels were alternating clips of a video interview featuring the checkpoint guards with file footage of the combat on Liao and its grisly aftermath. Ezekiel Crow himself was reliably reported to have vanished from Geneva, and to have been sighted—more or less simultaneously—in London, Addis Ababa, and Santa Fe.
He was fortunate that Alexei Suvorov’s dubious friendship extended to the maintenance of a firm control over transport, loading, and storage at the Belgorod DropPort. The existence of a commercial ’Mech hangar containing a Blade BattleMech remained—for now—one of the few remaining well-kept secrets in Ezekiel Crow’s life.
However, Suvorov’s control over groundside operations at the DropPort didn’t extend to other matters. The port itself—like all other DropPorts on Terra—had been closed to commercial arrivals and departures by order of the Exarch for the duration of what was already being termed “the invasion crisis.”
For all these reasons, Ezekiel Crow had not taken rooms in a local hotel. Nor was he patronizing the local restaurants. Instead, he was camped inside his rented ’Mech hangar, sleeping on a pile of boxes with his carry bag for a pillow, at the foot of his Blade. He was taking no risk that Suvorov’s friendship might unexpectedly reach its expiration date.
Such precautions made for a furtive and mole-like existence. He went out only at night, and then only to the parts of the city where the law didn’t extend, and where nobody remarked on resemblances or asked for names. The days he spent penned up in the dim, unheated hangar, his only news of the ongoing crisis was what he was able to pick up by scanning the communications frequencies from the cockpit of his ’Mech.
He had never expected that shame and dishonor would turn out to be so boring.
Now that the worst had happened, his dominant emotion was no longer fear, but a burning frustration. He had buried his old identity in the rubble of Chang-An, and had remade himself into a man whose entire goal had been to serve The Republic and to fight for it at need. Now the greatest threat of his lifetime had aimed itself directly at Terra, and he could do nothing, nothing at all, save listen to the airwaves for situation updates and curse the unknown name of his hidden enemy.
He was doing just that when the all-frequencies signal went off. He listened, half in envy and half in anger, as Anastasia Kerensky arranged with the Countess of Northwind to do battle for possession of Terra—and the answer to everything came to him, fully formed, between one breath and the next.
He keyed on the ’Mech’s radio to the all-frequencies setting, and began to speak.
“Anastasia Kerensky! This is Ezekiel Crow, Paladin of the Sphere, and I challenge you to finish the combat between us that began last year on the Plains of Tara.”
There, he thought. Kerensky’s arrogance would not allow her to let his challenge go unmet.
He had tricked her into defeat last year outside Tara, drawing down the lightning and frying her ’Mech’s electronic systems with the resulting burst of EMP. If he could defeat her again now, he could—not restore his former good name, it was too late for that, even if he succeeded in taking out the heart of the Steel Wolves with one decisive stroke—but he could at least put the Exarch and The Republic sufficiently in his debt that he would be permitted a dignified withdrawal from public life.
And if he lost—well, that would also put an end to his problems.
The all-frequencies signal sounded again, but it was not Anastasia Kerensky’s voice that he heard reply. It was Tara Campbell’s.
“Ezekiel Crow, you damnable traitor—if you want to fight Anastasia Kerensky, you’ll have to go through me first. This battle is mine!”
Before he could gather his thoughts and speak, he heard Anastasia Kerensky’s laughter. Was the woman mad?
“Countess, Paladin,” Kerensky said, still chuckling, “you will have to settle this one between yourselves. The winner leads the Highlanders—and then we fight.”
Countryside Near Belgorod
April 3134; local spring
Tara Campbell walked across the open field to her Hatchetman. The spring air was crisp, the rain shower of the previous afternoon long gone, and the morning sun was bright across fields of silvery frost. The frost would be melting soon, and the ground underfoot would turn again to mud in the midday heat.
The distant lines of the Steel Wolves did not concern her now. She had argued the reasons behind her acceptance of Kerensky’s challenge with Jonah Levin and Damien Redburn, and had won the argument. Both the Paladin and the Exarch had chided her for rashness, but they were practical men as well. The struggle for Terra would come down in the end to a struggle between two armies, no matter whether the confrontation was arranged or left to the chances of war. Anastasia Kerensky had already sent out elements of her command to attack and pin down Terra’s regular defense forces at their bases elsewhere, but she herself and the greater part of the Steel Wolves were here.
Better for the world’s noncombatants, Tara had insisted, if most of the fighting took place on the open ground of old Russia, and not in Geneva’s tranquil streets. Redburn and Levin had, reluctantly, agreed—and nothing now nothing stood in the way of a final reckoning with the Steel Wolves for the injuries done to Northwind.
Nothing except Ezekiel Crow.
Anastasia Kerensky had found Tara’s anger at the traitor’s challenge a matter for amusement. She had laughed—and, laughing, had declined to fight anyone at all until one or the other was dead.
That was one more thing, Tara thought, to add to her quarrel with the leader of the Steel Wolves. The struggle for the future of The Republic was going to have to wait, purely because Anastasia had thought it would be funny to watch the Countess of Northwind in a duel to the death with Ezekiel Crow.
I didn’t want to have to kill him, she thought. Scratch that—I do want to kill him. Something very good was starting up between us, and that son-of-a-bitch threw it all away two decades before we ever met. But I know better than to think that killing him is a good thing—and I resent like hell having him and Kerensky box me into doing it anyway.
She put the anger and resentment out of her mind as best she could, and concentrated on the task at hand: the necessity, since it could not be helped, of defeating and killing Ezekiel Crow.
Crow, in his faster, lighter Blade.
His heat efficiency was as good as hers. His weapons were almost the same as hers. He lacked the crushing, slashing hatchet that made her ’Mech devastating in hand-to-hand and close-quarters fighting, and that had allowed her to cut through the Steel Wolves’ lines during the defense of Northwind’s capital city. He’d have to be a fool to get within half a kilometer of her.
He wouldn’t have to. He’d just run in, fire, and run away. Again and again, until he’d hit—or created—a vulnerable point on her ’Mech. He could keep dancing around her all day—until her heat built up, her weapons broke down, and she would be left crippled on the field. Then he would be the hero of The Republic after he took on Anastasia Kerensky. The news media had a short memory, and present victory would wipe out past disgrace.
Or maybe Crow would have been too weakened by the single combat to lead an army effectively—especially an army he’d betrayed and abandoned to the same enemy once before—and Anastasia would triumph.
I could be handing Terra over to the Steel Wolves right now.
She stopped herself. It didn’t pay to think that way, not so close to combat, with everything already fixed and decided. Later, if she lived, she would have plenty of time to think about how she could have done things better.
Her aide-de-camp, Captain Bishop, was waiting by the foot of the Countess’s Hatchetman ’Mech. It would be warm inside the Hatchetman, and would get warmer as the day progressed. Tara removed her quilted jacket and warm-up pants, stripping down to the shorts and T-shirt she wore underneath. Goosebumps sprang up on her arms and legs as the chilly air hit her bare skin.
Captain Bishop took the discarded garments from Tara and folded them over her arm. “Nice day for a ’Mech fight,” she said. “I’ll stand by in my Pack Hunter in case anything goes wrong.”
“Just stay with the troops,” Tara said. “They’ll want to see you.”
“You’ve got it,” Bishop said. “Take care of that bastard Crow, and they’ll chase the Steel Wolves from here to Tigress for you if you let them.”
“Pushing them back to their DropShips and away from Terra will be enough for one day. But Crow has to come first.”
Tara climbed the access ladder into the cockpit of her ’Mech. Once inside, she put on and connected the neurohelmet that allowed her to interface with and control the ’Mech, and the cooling vest that kept her from succumbing to the debilitating heat of the cockpit’s interior during a battle. With her mind still mostly on the twin problems of Anastasia Kerensky and Ezekiel Crow, she ran through the Hatchetman’s primary and secondary security sequences, and brought the ’Mech’s power plant to life.
“Testing, command circuit,” she said over the cockpit’s internal comms. “One, two, three, three, two, one. How copy, over.”
“Copy all, test sat,” Bishop said over the earphones. “I’m mounting up now.”
“Keep your honor, that’s all I ask.”
“That’s all I’ve ever tried to do, ma’am,” Bishop said. “And you try to keep your head. We’re going to need you later.”
Tara Campbell set the Hatchetman into motion, walking it out of the camp, heading west. She felt the earth tremble under the Hatchetman’s feet with every step she took. The quickly thawing ice crystals in the previously frozen earth left voids in the soil where water gathered, and the ground she walked over had the consistency of thick chocolate pudding.
Up ahead of her, Ezekiel Crow was waiting.
Countryside Near Belgorod
April 3134; local spring
Tara Campbell saw the Blade’s heat signature on infrared before the opticals picked it out. Not long after, it came into visual range: a long-legged silhouette, for a ’Mech, and short in the torso, with the distinctive multiple weapons array of rotary autocannon, medium laser, and short-range laser in its right arm. Not the most hard-hitting of BattleMechs, but fast, and—with a clever MechWarrior at the controls—capable of devastating feats of fire and maneuver. She keyed on the all-frequency broadcast.
“Good morning, Paladin Crow.”
“Good morning, Countess,” came the reply, also over all frequencies. “We still don’t have to do this, you know. Tell Anastasia Kerensky that you’ve rescinded your challenge. Let me kill her for you, and then you can defeat the Wolves.”
“I don’t make deals with cowards and oath breakers,” Campbell replied, keeping her voice even. “If you still want to help the Republic in spite of everything that you’ve done, then behave in a civilized manner and step aside.”
“Civilized?” She could hear the bitter mockery in his voice; what she couldn’t tell—with only the words to go by, and not his face—was whether the bitterness was directed at her, or at himself. “We are standing between two armies, my lady, and before tonight the fate of a world will be settled by force of arms. Don’t talk to me of civilization.”
“Then there’s no more point in talk. Come here and pay for your crimes.”
“One more thing before we begin,” he said. “This is not for you, Countess. Captain Bishop—if I happen to win, I would ask you and the men and women of Northwind to join me in defeating the Steel Wolves.”
Tara Campbell keyed the private circuit between her and Bishop’s Pack Hunter. “I don’t want to sound like a spoilsport,” she said, “but if Ezekiel Crow happens to win I want you to kill him. Let him take out Anastasia first, if you think it’s a good idea to do it that way—but kill him afterward.”
“You got it,” her aide said, also over the private circuit. Then, on the open circuit: “Don’t worry, Paladin. I’ll take the honorable course.”
“Thank you, Captain Bishop,” Crow said. “And now the time for talk has ended.”
The circuit snapped off and the sound of the carrier wave died away.
Tara flipped on her targeting computer and locked it onto Ezekiel Crow’s heat plume. He was in motion, and she’d been right in her analysis of the coming fight. He was running at her, approaching on a diagonal to make her targeting more difficult, and dodging from side to side as he came.
He was fast. The first wisps of laser fire came from the extended-range laser in the Blade’s right arm. He had two lasers to her one, and she had to shift her ’Mech’s entire torso to bring its single laser to bear.
A stitch of autocannon rounds slammed into her and into the ground in front of her, and then Crow was dancing the Blade back out of range.
Tara walked steadily in his direction. She could feel the thick mud sucking at the Hatchetman’s feet. Crow was circling her. She turned to follow his motion. No sense getting heated up chasing him when he could so easily outdistance her.
If he wanted to achieve all of his goals, he had to win this fight. All she had to do was not lose it.
“How are you doing out there, ma’am?” came Captain Bishop’s voice over the command circuit.
“Doing well so far, no damage.”
“Don’t let me distract you then. Standing by this circuit. Out.”
The Blade was coming straight on. Tara set the ultra autocannon in her ’Mech’s right torso to fire at optimal range—let Crow waste ammo if he felt like it—and brought the Hatchetman into a crouch to lower her target profile. A glance at her temperature readouts showed her that the Blade’s lasers were scourging the skin of her ’Mech unmercifully, but the Hatchetman’s heat sinks could take it, especially if she didn’t move.
Instead, she waited. He was approaching—approaching—now! Her autocannon whirled, its shells hurtling downrange like a bar of explosive iron—only to see the Blade dodge aside, the rounds whizzing past it to explode harmlessly in the barren hills outside Belgorod.
Crow was no fool, she reflected. He had to have the range figured as accurately as she did. And he knew to the round how many shells she habitually carried—he’d been all over her ’Mech during their time on Northwind. He’d been less forthcoming about his own. She knew some things—and here she broke off thinking as she tried to pull the Hatchetman up out of its crouch and jump away, the better to dodge his own autocannon fire.
Too late. He’d only taken five shots; they all hit, slamming into her ’Mech’s upper chest and head. The rounds impacted on the Hatchetman’s armored exoskeleton like blows from an enormous fist. Her laser sought his ’Mech as he once again dodged out of range, seeking to circle and attack again from a different angle.
The morning outside was growing warmer, and the Blade and the Hatchetman were churning the ground to mud under their feet. The Blade came in again, at a run. It too was splashed with mud, the colors of its bright exterior obscured as if by a coat of dark, wet paint.
Tara set her laser to tracking, aiming at the center of the Blade’s torso. With the autocannon, though, she’d need to be more careful. Target his legs. If she could cripple him—
Her rounds spattered into the opposing ’Mech. It didn’t break stride. Instead, it dashed quickly out of range. A readout on her instrument panel blinked red. She’d taken some hits, and her laser was burning hot. She’d have to be more cautious from now on—the suction required for each step in the steadily thickening mud was taking more power than she’d calculated.
The ground underfoot would have to be affecting Crow, too. His ’Mech was lighter than hers, but even a light ’Mech was a heavy and ponderous thing. Thirty-five tons of sprinting steel would chew the wet earth to a sucking, semiliquid slop.
But Ezekiel Crow doesn’t have jump jets, she thought. I have jump jets.
More autocannon rounds took her. She fired back. The Blade and the Hatchetman were matched in range. And she was a bigger target. Desperate situations—
“Captain Bishop!” she said over the private command circuit. “Do you have a fix on the Blade?”
“Yes, Countess. I’m tracking him.”
“Then I want you to get with a battery of JES II SMCs. Two batteries would be better.”
“Wouldn’t that be dishonorable, ma’am? This was supposed to be a match just between the two of you, agreed and sworn.”
“I’m not asking you to shoot at him,” she said. “I want you to shoot at the ground around him. Make sure you miss his ’Mech by at least fifty meters every time, just so long as you put a box of shell holes around him a klick in every direction. North, south, east, and west of him—I don’t want to see anything but craters full of mud.”
“If you’re ordering it, ma’am—”
“Then I’ll see that it gets done.”
April 3134; local spring
Ian Murchison hadn’t been expecting to watch the battle for Terra from the Steel Wolves’ rear command post. He made no claim to know much about war and soldiering, but it seemed only good sense that a person of ambiguous status and divided loyalties—such as himself—should be confined to quarters for the duration, or at the very least told kindly to go back to sick bay and stay out from underfoot. He’d neglected to take into account the fact that he was Anastasia Kerensky’s Bondsman, and good sense and Anastasia Kerensky were only the most distant of nodding acquaintances.
He would observe the battle from the field, she told him, and would not be denied.
When he went out to the command post—an array of communications and data consoles set up in a tent near the open hatch of Anastasia’s DropShip Fenrir–he took his medical bag with him. He wasn’t able to fully explain his insistence upon doing so even to himself, much less to Anastasia, who maintained that a post so far from the front lines was unlikely to provide casualties requiring his immediate attention. He suspected, however, that something to do with identity was involved. A medic could watch a battle and tend to the injured of either side without qualms of conscience. A man of Northwind without a proper job to do—that was another matter.
Anastasia Kerensky, for her part, appeared untroubled by either scruples or qualms. She stood in the shelter of the command post in shorts and a thin knit shirt, her hands busy working her long hair out of the way into a braid. If Murchison had seen her that way in any other place but here, he would have thought—after observing her cheerful demeanor—that she was thinking of nothing more than a country hike on a sunny day.
Her custom-modified, seventy-five-ton Ryoken II, however, stood only a few meters away from the command post, and gave the lie to all such innocent appearances. This was the first time that Murchison had gotten a close-up view of Anastasia’s heavily armed personal BattleMech, with its missile six-packs and particle projector cannons. This was a ’Mech that could both run and fight, perfectly suited to the leader of the Steel Wolves.
Anastasia had set up a sensor repeater on the map table in the command post, the better to monitor the fight between the Countess of Northwind and Ezekiel Crow while she braided her hair and waited on the outcome. She had piped the radio traffic between the two combatants over the external speakers of her Ryoken II so that everyone in range could hear.
Murchison frowned as Anastasia tied off the braid and began stretching to limber up her muscles for the day’s work to come. She had to still be experiencing considerable discomfort from the knife wound she’d taken at Saffel Station. He’d patched her up as best he could, but was by no means certain that his handiwork would hold in the face of vigorous physical activity.
Anastasia finished stretching. Catching his eye, she nodded toward the screen of the sensor repeater.
“What do you say, Bondsman Murchison?” she asked him. “Those are your people over there. Do you wish you were standing with them now?”
“What I wish isn’t of much importance at the moment,” Murchison said. “If I were you, I’d be more worried about where the Countess of Northwind wishes to stand.”
Anastasia laughed. It was a sound of pure delight. “I like you, Murchison,” she said. “Give me your wrist. Now is the time to cut your last cord.”
Murchison shook his head. “Thank you for the honor, Galaxy Commander—but I’d prefer it if you waited until this evening. There’s many ways that a battle can go.”
“I see,” Anastasia said. She gave him a considering look. “What you wish is of little importance, eh? But if that is what you truly want, then I have no objection.”
“Thank you, Galaxy Commander.”
“Wait until this evening,” Anastasia said. “Then thank me.”
Their conversation was brought to an abrupt halt by the arrival of a messenger, a young Warrior on a fast scout vehicle.
“Galaxy Commander,” he said, saluting. “Star Captain Illis reports DropShips landing to the south. Whose or what they are, we do not yet know.”
“Tell Illis to send a detachment southward to find out,” Kerensky said. “This is not a day for surprises.”
“No surprises,” the Warrior repeated, saluted, and left.
“Those would be the DropShips that followed us in,” Anastasia said thoughtfully. “Whoever they are, they have pulled up a seat at our table. Tell me, Bondsman Murchison, what do you suppose it means?”
“Trouble,” the medic replied. “This is Terra, after all. Every hand in The Republic will have been raised against us.”
“It could be trouble,” Anastasia agreed. “Or it could be a friend. Regardless of what you Northwinders seem to think, not every person in the Inner Sphere loves The Republic with a whole heart.”
“As you say, Galaxy Commander,” Murchison said absently. His thoughts were occupied with wondering why he had referred to the Steel Wolves as “us.” Maybe the cord that encircled his wrist was already cut.
One of the readouts on the sensor repeater began to flicker on and off repeatedly, and he saw Anastasia Kerensky stiffen. Something new had apparently happened in the single combat between Tara Campbell and Ezekiel Crow. Murchison wondered which one of them had won.
Anastasia seemed either not to know the answer, or not to care. She picked up a microphone, and spoke to the Steel Wolves over the main Clan frequency.
“All stations,” she said. “This is Galaxy Commander Anastasia Kerensky. Commence the attack.”
She put down the mike, climbed the Ryoken II’s access ladder, and entered the cockpit through the hatch. A few minutes later the ’Mech stretched its articulated metal arms skyward—a maneuver that Ian Murchison, watching, found eerily reminiscent of Anastasia’s own movements—then lowered them again and strode away to the east.
Countryside Near Belgorod
April 3134; local spring
Tara Campbell turned back to the work at hand, dodging and shooting and watching the red line climb on her heat readout. Ezekiel Crow had to be heating up too by now, didn’t he? She couldn’t count on it. He was a canny MechWarrior—she hadn’t forgotten how he had lured Anastasia Kerensky’s Ryoken II into the path of the lightning, back on Northwind—and by now he undoubtedly had reason to want her dead.
“Two missile batteries on-line.” Captain Bishop spoke in Tara’s earphones. “Coordinates laid in for fire. A walking barrage, stopping fifty meters from Crow on all sides. All you have to do is give the word.”
“Crow,” Tara said on the all-frequency channel. “Stand where you are.”
“I prefer not to, Countess.”
“I suggest it only for your own safety,” she said.
“Thank you for your concern, Countess. But I’ll see to that myself.”
Tara switched over to the command frequency. “On my signal. Stand by, execute.”
“Missiles away,” Bishop replied.
From two batteries of JES II Strategic Missile Carriers, a hundred long-range missiles launched from each vehicle. They rose up on pillars of fire, white smoke trailing. They passed the tops of their arcs. They fell. The first landed a kilometer from Crow. The air between him and Tara Campbell became suddenly thick with flying clods of earth, obscuring the two fighters from one another.
“What is this?” Crow demanded over the all-frequencies circuit. “We agreed to single combat, not an ambush!”
“You’re a fine one to talk about keeping to the spirit of the law,” Tara snapped back. The earth trembled under her feet as the missile barrage continued, the huge impacts sending up geysers of mud and dirt, shot through with flame and roiling smoke. “No one has targeted you—and no one will, except for me. You’ll be safe if you stand fast. This is merely in honor of keeping you from running away. You have a habit of running away, Daniel Peterson.”
As suddenly as the assault had begun, it ended. Tara was gratified to see that the missiles had plowed up the earth around Crow’s Blade into overlapping craters, some of them already filling with muddy water.
“Now, Paladin, you have my permission to move.”
Tara fired her jump jets, blasting a hundred and twenty meters forward. Rounds from the Blade’s autocannon took her as she jumped, nearly tumbling her in midair. She fired back with her lasers, not daring to risk the recoil of her own autocannon without being anchored on solid ground.
As soon as she touched down, she started to sink. Heedless of the heat buildup, she triggered the jump jets again to pull herself out of the mud and into another leap. Only a few jumps more, and she’d be joining Ezekiel Crow inside the small circle of untouched ground.
Crow tried to escape through the mud field. At the Blade’s first step, he started to sink. He pulled back from the mire and started hosing the autocannon onto her. The Mydron spun and flared, spitting flame. It went dark, and then the second ammo bin came on-line.
Tara continued leaping forward. She stopped firing her lasers. She couldn’t afford any more heat buildup. She’d need to be careful once in the ring—one wrong move, one unlucky break, and her ’Mech’s autoshutdown might engage, leaving her vulnerable to anything Crow wanted to do to her.
One last jump, and she touched down half a dozen meters from the solid ground of the untouched sector. Rather than risk another jump, she walked the rest of the distance, surprised in spite of everything by how quickly the Hatchetman started to sink, and by how far below the ground’s surface the layer of mud extended. Ankle-level—knee-level—the mud was nearly up to the Hatchetman’s thighs by the time she stepped out of the final crater.
“Now, Crow,” she said, and brought her autocannon to bear on him.
He’d been firing steadily as she approached; he must be low by now. She lined him up in her sights, and her Imperator Ultra-10 spat fire and steel at the Blade. Crow’s ’Mech staggered as the rounds took it. He dodged, the shells followed. At this range he didn’t have time to calculate where they were coming from and step aside.
Tara’s autocannon spun to silence, its ammo exhausted. She glanced at her temperature gauge. She might risk it… she took a step in Crow’s direction.
“Why don’t you run away now,” she said, taunting him. “I’m coming for you, Ezekiel.”
The Blade was definitely staggering. It had taken damage. Taken hits. The two lasers in its right arm weren’t damaged, though. They came up and locked onto the Hatchetman’s instrument-sensor cluster.
That was a waste of time and power, Tara thought. What she was going to do didn’t require either sensors or instruments.
The Hatchetman’s remote targeting computer went dark. She took another step. Its magnetic anomaly detector went off-line. She didn’t care. She could see out through the front view ports if she had to. All she needed to do now was keep on moving forward.
“Come and wrestle with me, Ezekiel,” she said. “You always enjoyed that. You said that I was the best, remember?”
Tara raised the ax at the end of the Hatchetman’s right arm—the weapon that gave the ’Mech its name and made it such a terrible opponent in hand-to-hand fights.
She brought it down.
She felt the impact in her own arm as it struck, and felt the housing of the Blade being driven down. One of the Blade’s legs broke. She swung again.
The great expended-uranium-edged hatchet rose and fell, slicing through the layers of ferro-fibrous armor into the interior of Ezekiel Crow’s ’Mech. Black smoke poured out. She struck again.
This time a spark blossomed in the crevice she had made in the Blade’s hull. As she pulled her hatchet back the spark burst into a flame, then flared up with the brilliant white light of burning magnesium. She stepped backward, forced away by the glare as the ’Mech spat out a cascade of sparks and a fire too brilliant to look at with unshielded eyes.
“Countess! Countess!” Captain Bishop’s voice was sounding in Tara’s ears.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Get out of there. Get to our lines. Please. Now.”
“It’s the Steel Wolves,” Bishop said. “The whole line. They’re moving. They’re advancing. They’re attacking. Now.”
Tara looked at the sea of mud around her.
“I’m afraid I’m not moving anywhere right now, Captain. I can’t fire my jump jets and expect to do anything more than freeze up.”
“Then stand fast, ma’am. I’ll be there directly.”
Over the command circuit, she heard Bishop start giving orders to her subordinate troops: “On my command, in column of divisions, forward. Condition red. Weapons free. Stand by, execute.”
On Tara’s sensor readout she could see rank after rank of soldiers, artillery, and tanks coming from the Highland side. Rank after rank, wave after wave, moving in her direction, as orderly as if they were on a parade field.
But that was nothing compared to what she saw on her forward sensors, a mass of men and ’Mechs and armor that made her own force seem puny.
The Steel Wolves were attacking at speed.
April 3134; local spring
Will Elliot’s scout-sniper platoon, like those of his fellow Sergeants Jock Gordon and Lexa McIntosh, was mounted on Shandra Advanced Scout Vehicles. Together with the rest of the unarmored Northwind infantry, they were formed up and awaiting the order to advance. Will felt oddly light-headed and impatient; he knew that any moment now the signal for the advance would come, and he could stop anticipating the need for fear and get on with dealing with it.
This fight wasn’t going to be like Red Ledge Pass or the Plains of Tara, all broken terrain and small-unit skirmishes that didn’t resolve into a bigger picture until long afterward. This one was going to be more like one of the springtime mating fights between the big mountain lizards back home, when you got a pair of two-ton reptiles running at each other head-on as fast as they could move. Mountain lizards were stubborn, too. The ramming and clawing usually didn’t stop until one of the combatants fell over and didn’t get back up.
The sooner the battle started, Will thought, the sooner he could quit thinking about things like that.
He cast an eye over the soldiers in his platoon. Most of them looked as scared as he felt, and a lot of them didn’t have two campaigns against the Steel Wolves to keep them anchored.
“Remember,” he said, “if things get heavy, ditch the Shandras and keep going on foot. You’re harder to see and to hit than your scoutcar is.”
Then, between one moment and the next, the waiting ended. Loudspeakers and external communications circuits throughout the Highlander lines came to life with the drone and high-pitched skirl of bagpipes, and Will Elliot gave a sigh of deep relief.
“There’s the advance,” he said to the platoon Corporal. “Let’s go.”
To either side of them on the clear spring morning, the other soldiers of Northwind were heading west. The air vibrated around them with the rumble of motors and the tornadic roar of heavy-duty hoverjets, and the muddy ground shook under the footsteps of the ’Mechs—the Pack Hunter, and the battle-modified Forestry and Mining and Construction ’Mechs that swelled their ranks. At the ends of the extended line, ranks of armored infantry advanced by leapfrogging, jump jets sending one squad forward while their mates covered them, then the jumpers taking defensive positions while those who had been left behind jumped on ahead.
On the horizon to the west, Will spotted a single column of black smoke, and Lexa McIntosh’s voice crackled over his tactical radio. “Someone’s been having a bad day.”
Another crackle over the radio. Jock Gordon this time. “Just hope it isn’t us before sunset.”
“Aye,” said Will.
Overhead, the contrails of aerospace fighters showed against the blue of the sky. The air-power of both sides was meeting in combat high under the heavens. From time to time, the black burst of an exploding missile showed against the few clouds. Once an aircraft fell, trailing smoke, to land out of sight to the south.
“No help from them,” Will said. “They have their own war going.”
“They never are much help,” Lexa replied over the radio. “Their brains don’t function below a thousand meters.”
Already, Will could see signs of trouble in the Highlanders own ranks. Only the hovercraft, making their forward progress above the ground rather than on it, were still advancing untroubled, and those vehicles were now slowing to allow the tracked and wheeled vehicles to keep up. The Shandras, with their big wheels, were doing well enough, except for throwing up gouts of semiliquid mud that splashed and caked on the vehicle’s superstructure and rider both. Will’s uniform, that had been clean and crisply pressed at the start of the morning, now was dark brown and plastered to his body. The treaded tanks were caked with mud as well; they were in bad shape, their treads churning, their forward motion slowed to a crawl as they lurched from semisolid ground to semiliquid mire.
“This stuff sucks, Sarge,” said the soldier on the Shandra next to him.
“It’s mud, Corporal,” Will said. “It’s supposed to suck.”
“How do you think the ’Mechs are doing?”
Will scanned the area with his binoculars. “Can’t see any,” he said. “I think they’re away to the north of us.”
The ground underfoot was tolerable enough when the Shandra could manage to be the first vehicle to cross it. It was when they tried to cross the ruts left by some other, heavier vehicle that the going got slow and treacherous. Once the members of Will’s platoon found a Schmitt tank up to its hull in mud, wheels spinning, unable to gain traction, with a pair of Jousts ahead of it trying to pull it out with chains.
“Are things as bad where you are as they are where we are?” Lexa asked over the tactical radio.
“We still have our rifles, and we still have our legs,” Will replied. “The poor bloody infantry. Nothing stops us.”
“Right,” said Lexa. “Nothing.”
April 3134; local spring
Farther to the west, Captain Bishop in her Pack Hunter was facing heavy going of her own. She was well ahead of the Highland lines and moving on west as fast as she could—which in her case wasn’t fast at all.
Heat was slowly building up in her ’Mech as though she were running flat out on concrete or packed earth at one hundred nineteen kilometers per hour and firing away; her real speed over the muddy ground was well under fifty. At just thirty tons, the Pack Hunter’s relatively light weight was the only thing that kept her from sinking to the waist in the low-lying areas.
“How are you doing, ma’am?” she called out to the Countess of Northwind over the command circuit.
“Hanging in here,” Tara Campbell replied. “You shouldn’t have any trouble finding me. I’ve sent up a flare.”
“I’m not worried about me finding you. I’m worried that the Steel Wolves are going to find you first.”
“It’s all right, Captain,” Tara Campbell replied. “I’ve done what I came here to do.”
“You certainly have not, ma’am,” Captain Bishop replied. “You came here to save Terra from the Steel Wolves—and the day is only beginning.”
The burning hulk of Ezekiel Crow’s Blade now came into sight, a tangled mass of broken and twisted metal flung down in the midst of a circle of devastation. The hulking, hunch-shouldered form of Tara Campbell’s Hatchetman stood motionless above it. From this distance, the scars left by the artillery barrage that had penned Crow in and forced him to stand up to the Hatchetman’s ax showed up clearly against the fresher ground both within the ring and without.
Captain Bishop sprinted to the edge of the churned-up area and fired her jump jets. She couldn’t take the Pack Hunter over the encircling mud in a single jump, but five jumps should just about do it. She hoped.
Her heat efficiency was good.
Five jumps. She could do it.
Anastasia Kerensky strode eastward in her Ryoken II and felt like singing. The day was fair, all her most cherished plans were coming to fruition, and her enemies had all but lined themselves up to do her honor. Even the lingering soreness from the knife wound that had nearly gutted her at the Saffel station had been washed away by the battle-generated adrenaline rush.
She checked her sensors and readouts, then looked to her right and left along the battle line. All was still well. The Steel Wolves were advancing along with her, sweeping toward the Highlanders in a huge metal wave over the winter-brown fields of Russia.
The spectacle reminded her of stories she’d heard about the knights of old, who rode at one another with lances leveled and fought until one or the other had measured out his length on the ground.
The Countess of Northwind and I are like that, she thought. We will see who is still alive and on horseback after the meeting.
She took the Ryoken II forward, and the earth quaked under her feet. The long lines of IndustrialMechs, armored vehicles, and infantry squads followed after her. She did not think she had ever been happier.
“Anyone have a fix on the Countess of Northwind’s ’Mech?” she asked over the command link. “Or on the Blade?”
“Aerial reconnaissance puts them eight klicks ahead, on your right.”
“I will head up in that direction and see for myself,” Anastasia said.
“Messages are coming in from the heavy armor, Galaxy Commander. They report slow going. Tracked vehicles are bogging down.”
“Our tracked vehicles or theirs?” she asked.
“Very well. Relay these orders to all units: Tracked and wheeled vehicles, find tactically significant terrain. Tops of knolls, ridgelines, whatever will give you protection or increase your fields of fire. Stand fast. Hover vehicles, move up. I want hovers swinging wide, north and south. Come around to attack the Highlanders from the flanks and rear.”
Acknowledgments poured in from the Stars and Trinaries of armor. She continued giving orders, “Infantry and ’Mechs, right up the middle. Make contact, keep contact. Press contact. Do not let the Highlanders rest for a moment.”
Acknowledgments were still coming in from the outlying units when she saw the column of black smoke in the sky up ahead. That would be where the Countess of Northwind had fought Ezekiel Crow. She turned the Ryoken II’s footsteps in that direction. The closer she drew to the scene of that battle, the muddier and harder to navigate the terrain around her became.
She spotted a ’Mech up ahead. No, two ’Mechs. Sensors identified them as a Pack Hunter and a Hatchetman. The burned-out hulk of a third ’Mech lay on the ground beside them.
“I know you,” Anastasia said. “Countess.”
As she spoke, an SM1 tank destroyer topped a rise on the far side to the east. She sent a burst of particle projector cannon fire in its direction; the tank destroyer reversed course and scuttled out of sight back behind the ridge. Anastasia ignored it as not worthy of her further attention. Instead, she keyed on her comm set.
“Hello, Countess,” she said. “Surrender to me now and I will send you home with honor.”
“No, thank you, Galaxy Commander,” came Tara Campbell’s voice over the radio. “You surrender to me, or I’ll send you back to Tigress in a box.”
“Neither one of us is given to making idle threats,” observed Anastasia. “This could get complicated.”
She fired a pair of missiles across the intervening ground, one for each ’Mech.
“Unless my scouts and my sensors misinform me,” she continued, punctuating her remarks with blasts from her particle cannon, “both you and your friend over there are damaged, not to mention low on ammo and cut off from your troops.”
“I hate to disillusion you,” Campbell replied. “But you’re wrong.”
Hatchetman and Pack Hunter fired at once, laser and particle cannon. The mixed fire struck Anastasia’s Ryoken II with double intensity. The Pack Hunter jumped toward her. Anastasia fired another pair of missiles, trying to ruin the Pack Hunter’s forward leap.
At the same time, she saw the Hatchetman jumping away from her, heading east.
“Running out on me, are you?” Anastasia said, and put her Ryoken II into a trot around the edge of the plowed-up ground. Even here at the outermost perimeter of the circle, her ’Mech was sinking into the earth up to the ankles with every step she took.
Horrible terrain, she thought. But it ties them down as much as it does us.
Over the Steel Wolves’ private command circuit she ordered, “I want some tank destroyers and tactical missile carriers up here. Guide on my location. We have a chance to end this battle here and now.”
“Galaxy Commander,” the voice at the other end said, “the scouts you sent away southward have returned with word. The DropShips have opened. We have mercenaries on our right flank.”
“The leader is riding a Jupiter.”
“No problem,” she said. “Jack Farrell is the only merc I know of who rides a Jupe. They are friends.”
“Galaxy Commander, they have destroyed five of our vehicles already. I doubt that they are friends.”
“Not according to their current contract, at any rate,” she said. There was no point in resenting mercenaries for doing what they were paid to do—but it did present a problem. “Continue bringing the JES and SM1 up to this location. I am going to swing south to take a look.”
She put the Ryoken II into a trot and headed away to the south.
“I hate to leave a fight unfinished,” she called back to the Hatchetman and the Pack Hunter on the all-frequency channel. “But I have important things to deal with elsewhere. We will finish this later.”
April 3134; local spring
“What was that all about?” Captain Bishop wanted to know, as Anastasia’s Ryoken II turned and sprinted away to the south. “She was getting herself all psyched and ready for a bit of two-on-one action, and then she just breaks off and leaves.”
“Who knows?” Tara Campbell replied. “Considering that this is Anastasia Kerensky we’re talking about, the only thing we can be sure of is that she wasn’t scared.”
“You’re probably right, ma’am,” Captain Bishop said. “She isn’t nearly sane enough to be scared. Unlike some of us, who I have to tell you are getting saner by the minute.”
“I’m practically a textbook picture of sanity myself,” Tara Campbell said. “And I’m getting reports of fighting up and down the line. What do you think are the odds that Kerensky targeted us for her people before she took off?”
“Pretty good, ma’am.”
“I don’t see anything but small stuff around here at the moment,” Tara Campbell admitted. “But ’Mechs will go down under small stuff if there’s enough of it in the air, and I’m sure that Anastasia called in as much as she could.”
“And then took off,” said Captain Bishop. “We still don’t know what that was all about.”
“My guess? She went looking for a ’Mech to fight.”
“We’ve got ’Mechs right here,” Bishop protested.
“Somebody else has brought along bigger ones, then,” Tara Campbell said. “If I had to guess, I’d say that means One-Eyed Jack’s in town.”
“What the hell—sorry, ma’am—is that merc bastard doing here?”
“What mercenaries do, most likely,” said Tara Campbell. “Earning his pay. He’s a loaded weapon, and somebody’s pointed him at Anastasia this time, and not at us. So long as he stays bought, that is.”
“He’ll keep to the letter of his contract,” was Bishop’s considered opinion. “Of course, there’s no rule that says he has to tell anyone exactly what his contract is.”
“And when you shake hands with him, count your fingers afterward,” Tara Campbell agreed. “But if he’s the only advantage we’ve got, we’ll make the best of him while we’ve got it. Now, listen, whatever Anastasia whistled up to take care of us is going to be here soon. I think we can ambush it.”
“How? There isn’t any cover for miles in any direction.”
“Just do what I tell you.”
April 3134; local spring
Agroup of Steel Wolves shot over the low crest of a rise to the west of the muddy ground where Tara Campbell had devastated Ezekiel Crow: Three SM1 tank destroyers, their hungry autocannons seeking prey, a Scimitar MKII tank providing close-in support, and a JES tactical missile carrier with medium-range six-packs studding its body, ready to deliver a devastating volley into any armor or ’Mech.
The hover vehicles did not care about the churned-up ground. Their powerful fans could carry them across water or sand, mud or stone. Ahead of them, bright in their infrared sights, the Countess of Northwind’s Hatchetman strode back toward the Highlander lines. The ’Mech was moving at a slow, deliberate pace, its power plant clearly on the verge of an overheat shutdown.
The five Steel Wolf vehicles did not pause. They opened out into a combat line, so that no one of them blocked another’s line of fire. The JES missile carrier was the slowest of the group; the rest guided on it, spreading out to either side.
The SM1 on the far right took a ranging shot with its autocannon. The shells stitched across the Hatchetman’s back. The impact spots glowed in infrared.
“Dress it up. Stay in line,” the tank commander told the other Warriors in the armored squad. “Stay together. Tank destroyers, fire at will. Missiles, fire as soon as you have a fix and lock.”
The line of armor crossed the western edge of the muddy collection of shell holes. The Hatchetman gained the top of the rise on the east and started down the other side.
The Scimitar MKII tank approached the still-smoldering wreck of the Blade.
“Looks like someone had a fire,” the Scimitar’s sensor operator commented to the tank’s commander. “I wonder if anybody bothered to get out of the Mech Warrior before it went up?”
“Not our problem,” said the tank commander. He had the Scimitar’s extended-range laser locked onto the fleeing Hatchetman and was firing, adding a little heat to the mix. “Concentrate on the one that is still on its feet.”
The Steel Wolf Warriors had all heard of this Hatchetman, and of the way it had fought them in the streets of Northwind’s capital.
Honor to the one who brought it down.
Tara Campbell watched the approaching Steel Wolf units through her rearward-facing sensors. She was taking the Hatchetman forward as fast as she dared. The muddy ground was slowing her, making her work too hard for every step, setting her power plant on the verge of betraying her.
She found the crest of the hill. On the other side of the crest line one of the Highlanders’ SM1 tank destroyers was waiting. Not much of an ace in the hole, but it would have to do.
Her long-range weapons were empty, and she didn’t dare to fire her laser for fear of the heat. ’Mechs could be overcome by enough force, and enough force was heading her way—the pursuing armor had drawn even with the wreckage and was coming on fast. The autocannon hits rattled like hailstones against the back of her ’Mech.
“Bishop,” she said. “Now.”
On the western edge of the mud pit, Captain Tara Bishop’s Pack Hunter sat up from under a concealing and cooling layer of mud. The three SM1s were the chief threat. Bishop targeted the farthest one, out to the right, with her Ripper particle cannon. The tank destroyer’s main gun was pointed away from her, its vulnerable side and rear armor showing. She fired.
Without waiting for damage assessment she switched her aim to the next closest SM1 and fired again. Then to the one remaining. Before the startled tank destroyers could react, she repeated the entire sequence a second time, and then a third, before the SM1s fell still and silent.
“Good shooting,” Campbell said. “You got all of them.”
Surprise was lost now; the tactical missile carrier had spun in place with the speed and agility that only a hover could demonstrate, and was moving in close. Its first turret-mounted short-range missile box lined up, then shook with fire and smoke.
“Incoming!” Bishop shouted, out of habit.
Then the missiles struck. Damage lights lit up all over her control board. Before another salvo could hit, she fired up her suite of minilasers and played their beams over the missile carrier. As she did so, a second multiple launcher cut loose.
Then Bishop’s particle projector fired. The beam could cut through a tank destroyer’s armor; the light armor of the missile carrier could not withstand it. The JES’s missiles impacted the Pack Hunter, and the missile carrier itself detonated, both at the same moment.
Then it was the Scimitar’s turn. That vehicle was still racing at flank speed toward Tara Campbell’s Hatchetman, trying to bring its short-range weapons to bear. Its machine guns were chattering, even though they were nothing more than annoyances to the armored ’Mech. Soon they were joined by the Scimitar’s extended-range laser, by its small lasers, and by its four short-range missiles. All inbound.
Tara Campbell raised her hatchet like a shield, trying to take as many of the hits as possible on its solid depleted-uranium blade. Better that, than on the hull of her ’Mech, where autocannon and missile fire had been striking her all morning.
The multiple impacts staggered her backward. Then the hover vehicle sped past her and over the crest line—into the sights of the Highlander SM1 that lurked there.
The SM1 fired once, and the Scimitar died.
April 3134; local spring
One-Eyed Jack Farrell sat in the command seat in the cockpit of his Jupiter. His mercenary unit was arrayed in formation behind him, ready to move out. The DropShips that had brought them to Terra were staged yet farther back from the fighting line. In a few minutes, he and his troopers would be moving out—another day, another battle.
He paused, took a deep breath. By nightfall, some of his people might not be alive. He’d do his best to keep them all safe, but there was no getting around the fact that combat operations were dangerous. He knew that luck would take some. It was the nature of the job.
The other nature of the job was to give the employer what he paid for: the selective application of violence in support of some larger goal.
“Okay, guys, listen up,” Farrell said over his all-circuit command net and external speakers. “We are going to link up with the Northwind Highlanders. This is going to be tricky.
“First off, as you know, any linkup can turn into a cock-up in about a minute flat. Thirty seconds or less if it’s in the middle of a shoot-out. Second thing, the Highlanders may not know that we’re coming. Third thing, last time we saw them we kinda had a spat. They may not be the forgive-and-forget types.
“So here’s the scoop: Under no circumstances shall anyone here shoot at a Highlander unit. Even if they take you under fire.”
“Who do we shoot at, boss?” The question came from second echelon.
“The Tin Puppies are our targets for today. Separate ’em out, push ’em back, get ’em off planet. The battle’s started. We finish it. We’re moving north to contact. Now move.”
With that he stepped forward. The Jupiter had a low cruising speed, and the rest of the mercs limited themselves to its slow but relentless pace. They formed up in open order with scouts and skirmishers out, and with the sun on their right side, the long advance began.
“Rotten ground for a fight,” Jack’s segundo said over the private command net.
“Sloppy underfoot,” Jack acknowledged. “Not too bad, otherwise. Good lines of sight. Our ranged stuff will pull us through today if anything will.”
“Right, boss. But I sure wish we had us some eyes in the air.”
“Maybe I can arrange some intel from that side,” Jack said. “Depends on how happy our friends from Northwind are to see us once we show up. Meanwhile, look sharp. The good guys and the bad guys are using the same sorts of gear. Be really sure of your targets before you fire.”
“You got it.”
The mercenaries walked north, dead slow.
Up the road, the hills were brown. Smoke rolled across the sky. The road itself was little more than a pair of ruts that had once had gravel on it. It marked the path across endless rolling steppes.
Farrell’s mercenaries guided on the road. They spread out to either side. Individual men and women in battle armor jumped and skittered ahead of the main column, looking for targets and checking for ambushes. So far the fighting had consisted of a patrol of Steel Wolves running into far more firepower than they’d counted on. Jack Farrell expected the Wolves’ return hammer blow to come down at any time.
“I’m seeing magnetic anomalies heading south,” a sensor operator reported across the tactical net.
“So they see us heading north,” Farrell said. “Identify them, if you please.”
“Two ForestryMods, a pair of SM1s, maybe some smaller stuff.”
“Which team are they playing for?”
“We’re checking that out.”
A man sped forward on a hoverbike—a light, fast vehicle with a satellite uplink.
“Give me some cover,” Jack said. “All self-propelled artillery, load long. Close on me, best speed.”
He continued to stride up the road. A Jupiter was too big to hide and too slow to run, but when it kept on coming forward most things eventually got out of its way.
The road was where the ground was most solid, but nevertheless Jack was splashed with mud up to the waist of his ’Mech. “Hovers,” he ordered. “Form up, hunter-killer groups. Swing west, get around by the Wolves’ DropShips. Force them to fall back to defend their line of retreat.”
“Suppose that Kerensky doesn’t plan to retreat?” his segundo asked over the private circuit. “Then what?”
“Then we’ve got some DropShips to sell next time we go to market.”
“Commander,” the voice of the scout said. “Positive ID on inbound units. Three. Two ’Mechs plus one Smiley. Forestries have autocannons plus forestry saws. Smiley has one autocannon plus MGs. No supply or support. Traveling south, speed two-five. Steel Wolf markings. No unusual equipment.”
“Very well,” Jack said. “The ’Mechs are mine. Can we get some long-range missiles onto that tank destroyer?”
“Got a section of Jousts in range.”
“Take care of it,” Jack said, and marked the bearing and range of the two ’Mechs.
He picked up his pace, even if it felt like strolling through wet cement. Combined speed put their closing velocity at about fifty. He didn’t want to waste his autocannon or his long-range missiles on low-value targets like these, not this early in the fight. So he’d take them hand-to-hand with a bit of particle projector fire to soften them up on the way in. It was a risky tactic, especially against close-in brawlers like ForestryMods, with their massive armor-chewing chain saws, but he had some ideas about how to deal with that.
The heat buildup would just have to take care of itself. He set his heat-sensor alarms to warn him when he was one minute from redline and concentrated on understanding the shape of the battle to come.
“The Steel Wolves are trying to destroy the Highlanders utterly. The Highlanders are planning to bloody the Wolves enough to make them want to retreat. And I’m here to make sure that the Highlanders win. Highlanders to the east, Wolves to the west and… here we go.”
April 3134; local spring
Amoment later, the tank destroyers vanished amid the smoke and flying earth of a barrage of missile hits. The two ’Mechs were still visible.
Jack left his armored forces to handle the SM1s. He had lock on. He fired. The particle projectors in his right and left torso pressed against him; he could feel their recoil in the feedback from his ’Mech’s controls.
He linked the projectors’ fire to his visuals, so that the beams would strike where he was looking. Then he glanced from one ForestryMech to the other as they split up in an attempt to jump him from either side. “Oh, no, you don’t,” he said, and halted so as to ruin their predictions concerning where he would be at a certain time.
He felt a hammering in his right leg and knee, and looked to his right. At least one of the SM1s had escaped from the missile barrage and was targeting his mobility.
There was a time to be frugal, and there was a time to expend ammo. Jack raised and pointed with his ’Mech’s right arm, allowing the twin DL Ultra-5 autocannons to do their work and chew into the SM1 tank destroyer’s superstructure. The hovertank broke off the engagement, circling out and away from him.
Jack ignored the Smiley. The Jousts could handle it, or the Jupiter’s armor could take the punishment if it returned.
Here were the ForestryMods. Jack lit them up with particle beams, and was pleased to see their IR signatures flare up. Overloaded and shut down, they’d be easy prey for his infantry.
All he had to do was keep their saws off of him. Close-up in hand-to-hand fighting, those saws—designed to tear through the thickest forest on any world—could damage even his armor.
He turned both his particle beams onto the closest of the two ForestryMods. It and its partner responded with their own autocannons, the rounds spattering off his torso and trunk—annoying, but not immediately damaging.
“More Steel Wolves, incoming.”
The hovers were out to the west, circling wide. That left wheeled and tracked vehicles plus infantry to deal with the newly arriving forces.
“Screw this,” Jack said, and charged the nearest ForestryMech. He pressed against the ’Mech, put one of his Jupiter’s legs behind its leg, and used a hundred tons’ worth of hip throw to flip the ’Mech onto its back. Then, standing with one foot planted firmly on the overturned Forestry-Mod so that it couldn’t get its saw back into action, he raised both arms and hosed down the second ’Mod with autocannon fire at close range.
It staggered, turned, and in the next moment an infantry squad with flamers showed up to put the ’Mod into heat overload shutdown. The ’Mech burned inside a coating of jellied gasoline, frozen in its last position.
“Pull the MechWarrior out of there as soon as that thing cools down,” Jack said. “Stand by flamers on this unit if he gives you any funny business.”
He turned on his universal ’Mech-to-’Mech circuit.
“Forester under my foot,” he said. “This is the Jupiter that’s standing on top of you. Surrender or die. Your call.”
“Free passage?” came the reply.
“Don’t know about that. Safe haven’s the best I can offer.”
“I’ll take it.”
“We’ve got one coming out here,” Jack said to his people over the Jupiter’s external circuits. “Take the Warrior to the rear. Don’t flame him.”
The leader of the infantry squad looked up at Jack’s pilot compartment and gave him a big thumbs-up.
“That’s a Ryoken II up there,” the forward scout reported. “Inbound from the northwest, moving fast.”
“Ah. I think I know who that is. So let’s go play.”
Jack left the two ForestryMechs to the infantry, and turned his steps toward the Ryoken over the quaking plain.
April 3134; local spring
Jack Farrell looked out to the northwest. The Ryoken II was approaching fast, splashing over the muddy ground. He marked the oncoming ’Mech both visually and by IR. It was hot, but not yet approaching redline.
“Someone’s spoiling for a fight,” he said. “I can give it to ’em.”
He keyed the command link. “Anyone want to report to me on how our hovers are doing?”
“They’re moving west. Haven’t reached the turn point for the run north yet.”
“Roger that,” he said. “Let me know if they meet any significant resistance, or when they have the Wolves’ DropShips. I’m going to be busy here for a bit.”
The Ryoken II was nearer now. Jack turned toward it and keyed the long-range missiles on his right torso for salvo fire, locked on and tracking.
His own ’Mech was a bit hotter than he’d like. He paused, considering.
Let the Ryoken II come to me, he thought. Every step closer that it takes is a step closer to being in range. Let it come.
Anastasia Kerensky saw the smoke of battle ahead and picked up the magnetic signature of the ’Mechs at the same time.
She listened on her own tactical circuit. Her people were getting hit. The hitter was someone in a Jupiter. None of the Highlanders had anything nearly that big. Not many merc units did either. That meant…
“Jack Farrell. You owe me a debt,” Anastasia said. “You let that bitch from Northwind get by you. Now you have to pay.”
The Steel Wolf units up ahead, a pair of modified ForestryMechs, were definitely getting the worst of their encounter with One-Eyed Jack and his Jupiter. Her fault, probably. She hadn’t expected mercs down here. What other surprises did Terra hold for her before she could walk into Geneva as a conqueror?
She keyed up the all-frequencies link. “Jack Farrell!” she said. “Whose pay are you in this time?”
“I’m afraid that’s confidential,” he replied over the same frequency. “Let’s just say that it’s not yours and leave it at that.”
“Are you planning to sell them out, too?”
“I’m planning to follow my orders and fulfill my contract,” he said. At that moment the missile warning gauge in her cockpit chimed—long-range missiles, inbound.
“No fair, Jack, shooting while we were talking,” she said, and keyed up her own spread of Streak short-range missiles.
If she wasn’t in range now, he would be inside Streak range soon. The missile pack on her left torso held six short-range missiles. She set them to begin continuous fire as soon as the Jupiter came within range, so that the next one would launch the moment the first one cleared the tube, then powered up her medium lasers.
Maybe he wasn’t expecting those; and they could play hob with his missiles. She scanned the skies ahead, using vision both normal and enhanced. There he was, standing tall on the horizon.
“I see you, Jack Farrell,” she said. “I see you.”
In the noise, dirt, and confusion of the battlefield, at least one unit of the Steel Wolves was advancing rapidly, moving north and south behind the Highlander lines. The unit was divided into hunter-killer groups—two JES Tactical Missile Carriers traveling with and guarding one SM1 tank destroyer, and two Scimitar MKII weapons carriers with one Condor Multipurpose Tank. They crossed mud and streams with equal ease. They ran as tactical teams, each group moving at the fastest speed of the slowest unit in the little fire groups.
“Commence turn, all units, turn to rendezvous point,” Command and Control back at the DropShips advised.
The units that had bypassed the Highlanders to the south turned north. The units that had bypassed the Highlanders to the north turned south. They streaked toward one another to form a mass that could not be resisted.
“Any Highland units encountered, take under fire at extreme range,” said Command and Control. “Do not slow down. We can afford to lose tanks better than we can afford to lose time. Flank speed. Forward.”
The Steel Wolves dashed toward their meeting place. Nothing the Highlanders had on the field could stand against them.
In another part of the field, missiles clashed against armor and other missiles exploded harmlessly nearby, as One-Eyed Jack and Anastasia Kerensky targeted, aimed, fired, and dodged.
A Jupiter could take hits, but its pilot didn’t dare risk too much speed or too high a rate of fire, lest it go into overheat shutdown. Anastasia took advantage of that care to fire two shots for every one of Farrell’s. She brought her Ryoken II in close, so that the rest of One-Eyed Jack’s mercenaries could not shoot at her for fear of striking their leader.
The modified Ryoken II wove and dodged, firing first its lasers, then its particle cannon, then its lasers again by turns. Anastasia laughed with the excitement of it, even though the laughter pulled at the unhealed wound in her abdomen and made it hurt. She felt the first of Murchison’s stitches tear away with a bright flower of pain.
Warm blood trickled down her flank, mixing with the sweat already pouring off her body. Fighting a ’Mech was hard work. The physical strain of making seventy-five tons of powered death obey her will was draining energy out of her despite the adrenaline-enhanced exhilaration that kept her in the fight.
She fired her laser, her particle cannon, and then her laser again—flashing, aiming, taking the Jupiter under fire and increasing its heat. He was getting hits on her, too, but nothing hard enough to kill or cripple her. Laser, fire. Anastasia laughed again. This was the life for a MechWarrior—out on the field of battle with an enemy before her.
“Galaxy Commander!” a voice sounded in her ear on the tactical frequency. “I am here to back you up. Kriya Wolf from the Crusader Cluster, arriving on your right flank.”
“Welcome, Kriya,” Anastasia said. Kriya piloted a Tundra Wolf, a valuable addition to any ’Mech fight, and more so to this one. “You have come to the right place. Jump in anywhere—the Jupiter is big enough for us to share.”
Long-range missiles from the Tundra Wolf’s Long Bow pack arched overhead, targeted on the Jupiter.
“Watch your heat,” Anastasia said. The only drawback the Tundra Wolf had was its terrible heat efficiency. “Pick your shots.”
Her magnetic anomaly detector beeped. Another ’Mech was approaching, this one from her left flank. She keyed the open mike again.
“Surrender now, Jack Farrell, for you see that we are three to your one.”
April 3134; local spring
“What’s the status of the battle?” Tara Campbell asked her aide-de-camp over the Highlander command and control circuit. She herself was nearly done with reload and field repairs on her battered Hatchetman.
“We’re getting reports of Steel Wolves at our rear,” Captain Bishop reported. “Condors and JESs, coming in groups of three. Kerensky must have sent the hovers around our flanks.”
“What do we have back there?”
“Light stuff. That’s about all.”
“Call back our Scimitars,” Tara ordered, cursing herself meanwhile as seven kinds of fool for not leaving heavy security in the rear. It would be just like Anastasia Kerensky to try a sneak attack from behind while everyone was watching and guarding the front. “All of them. They’re the quickest stuff we have. Tell them to mix it up with the Wolves, slow them down, until we can get something heavier back there.”
The field repairs were done, and Tara remounted her ’Mech. “Captain Bishop,” she said, as soon as she’d dogged down the entry hatch and strapped herself into the command seat. “Where exactly are you?”
“South of your location,” Bishop replied. “I have a magnetic signature on Kerensky, and I’m going to take her.”
“Understand—you’re pursuing Kerensky. Carry on. Stay in touch.”
“One more thing—there may be friendlies beyond your position. They won’t know you’re coming. So be careful.”
“That I will. Bishop out.”
Calling for infantry and heavy armor was all very well, Tara Campbell thought, and the best she could come up with on short notice, but there was no way she would make it back to the rear of her lines herself in time to fight the hovers. And with the relative speeds involved, very little she could do about the light armor that was harassing her forces elsewhere. Nevertheless, she had to do something—in a pitched battle, one did not waste a Hatchetman on standing around and waiting.
“Control, this is Prefect Campbell,” she said on the tactical net. “I need some armor to punch through the Wolves’ front line. I believe they’ve stripped it of units in order to make a run around our flanks.”
“We don’t have much,” Control replied. “Our heavies are mostly bogged down.”
“If our heavies are bogged down, then so are theirs,” Tara said. “Give me infantry, then, as much of it as we’ve got.”
“What we have will be moving to your location,” Control said. “Pop a beacon they can home on.”
“Beacon, aye,” Tara said. “I’m moving west. Guide on me.”
“Control, roger, out.”
Tara walked west. She moved slowly, picking a way for her ’Mech over the sloppy ground, avoiding the lowest places where the ground glistened with surface water.
This is a hell of a place to fight, she thought. I hope no one else has to do it ever again.
“Looks like some excitement away south,” Will said to his fellow Sergeants over the tactical radio. “Somebody’s just popped a flare. We’re scouts. I say we take our platoons and check it out.”
“You’re the one with the ideas,” Lexa said over the same circuit. “Who’s going to cover our asses with Command and Control?”
“Watch me,” Will said. “Control, this is Scout Two Three. Radio check, over.”
“Two Three, Control, roger, over,” came the tinny-sounding reply.
“Two Three, scouting southward, over.”
“You see?” said Will. “No problem.”
“Now that we’re covered if anyone says that we left our appointed duty station,” Lexa said, “what are we going to be looking for down there?”
“I’ve got a feeling,” Will said. “Something tells me that our people will need some eyes on the ground, that’s all.”
The ground ahead of Tara Campbell was clear. Nothing on it moved or stirred. Then the reason came to her in a flash. The Wolves were out there, waiting in concealed positions, ready to shoot at close range with their heavies as soon as she came in range. Maybe they couldn’t move, but they could still shoot.
I’ll have to do something about that, she thought, and considered the possibilities.
Bogged-down armor—no infantry support.
She could handle any infantry she found. Her laser was good for that. Her own infantry was coming up fast, and they would blind the bogged-down tanks with smoke and fire, even with mud if they had to. Then her ’Mech could swing into action with its hatchet, close-up and personal.
“Listen to me, people,” Tara said to the infantry as they arrived, some of them in armor, and others—remnants of a scout-sniper company—in plain mud-caked fatigues. “We’re going to knock a hole in the line up ahead, and force the Wolves to pull back to deal with us. Things might get thick. Stick with me, I’ll stand with you, and we’ll do it all together.”
Will Elliot passed by a M1 Marksman with Steel Wolf markings. Its turret-mounted Lord’s Thunder Gauss Rifle swung right and left, blind but still menacing.
Before the tank could fire, the Countess of Northwind’s Hatchetman ’Mech strode up on the tank’s left side. The tank wasn’t going anywhere. Its treads had chewed great ruts in the steppes, effectively creating its own antitank ditch, in which the Marksman was now stuck. Battle damage had rendered its sensors dark and inoperative, blinding it to the Countess’s approach. The massive ax at the end of the Hatchetman’s right arm rose and fell, crushing the Marksman’s turret and snapping off its rifle.
“That’s our Countess,” Will said to the troopers in his platoon. The Hatchetman was already ranging on ahead, seeking more tanks to kill. “Guide on her, and move forward.”
April 3134; local spring
Captain Tara Bishop had reached the point of interface between the three armies that occupied the field. She had the ’Mechs she’d been looking for in visual ahead of her: One Jupiter, one Ryoken II, one Tundra Wolf.
The two smaller ’Mechs were ganged up on the Jupiter. The Jupe was holding its own at the moment, though how long that might go on was anyone’s guess. A pair of enemies could do an even better job than a singleton at the wear-it-down-and-overheat-it game.
The sensors of Bishop’s Pack Hunter crackled with the shadows of particle pulse blasts. She checked her own heat gauge, and saw that she still had some reserve.
Now that she was in visual range, she recognized the Jupiter as One-Eyed Jack Farrell’s, and no mistake. Jack knew her, and she knew him. They’d fought and she’d won, back on Northwind—and only the two of them knew that Jack Farrell had thrown the fight.
“Payback time, Jack,” she whispered. “You saved my bacon, now I’ll save yours.”
If she wanted the element of surprise, she needed to take out the Tundra Wolf with one shot. That meant just one thing: Alpha Strike.
She opened the shunts to put power from the reactor directly to her particle projector cannon, and carefully dialed in her aim point on the Tundra Wolf. Then she fed raw power to the cannon, getting it ready.
The cannon shot its bolt of energy, the already devastating punch increased by the raw power she’d poured into it. The Pack Hunter instantly went into shutdown, frozen in place by the energy expenditure needed for the strike, but the shot it had fired was away, and it was on target. The particle beam connected with the Tundra Wolf.
The Streak missiles on the Tundra Wolf’s right torso cooked off in a ball of flame and sparks, sending it staggering back. Then the ’Mech’s safety mechanism engaged, and the Tundra Wolf–like the Pack Hunter–went into heat overload shutdown.
One thing Captain Bishop knew: the Tundra Wolf would be out for a lot longer than she would be, while both ’Mechs waited to cool down sufficiently to move and fight again. But until the Pack Hunter recovered, she was still fair game for other foes.
That Ryoken II, for example. If Anastasia Kerensky noticed that Bishop’s ’Mech was frozen in its place by shutdown, the only thing stopping the Steel Wolves’ commander from walking over and finishing her off would be an unwillingness to break away from the combat with Farrell’s Jupiter.
“Jack, don’t fail me now,” Bishop whispered.
“Captain Bishop!” One-Eyed Jack’s voice sounded in her ear. “Is that you?”
“Darlin’, we’ve got to stop meeting like this,” he said. “Let me tidy things up a bit for you.”
As he spoke, the Jupiter brought up the twin autocannons mounted in its massive arms, and at the same time twisted its torso to put its particle projector cannons on target. The overwhelming force of the attack struck the Ryoken II like one of the thunderbolts of the bigger ’Mechs’ namesake of old, hammering Kerensky’s ’Mech until it staggered, limning it in flame and steel.
One-Eyed Jack didn’t stop firing. He has to be getting close to redline, Bishop thought. Then, at last, Kerensky spun her ’Mech away and began to run. A Ryoken II had a twenty-kilometer-per-hour speed advantage over the Jupiter ; she could wear it out if she chose—or leave off the fight and go for the Pack Hunter’s easier target.
Captain Bishop watched, still frozen in her heat overload, and waited for Anastasia Kerensky to decide her fate. Would the Galaxy Commander be able to resist the lure of taking out a Jupiter in a fair fight? Or would she go for the wiser tactical choice?
Something else was happening instead. The Ryoken II’s movements were becoming more erratic and less precise, and it seemed almost to stumble and waver on its feet, usually the sign of an injured or incapacitated pilot at the controls—not a common sight out in the field, since anything nasty enough to do damage to someone inside the armored cockpit of a BattleMech had usually put the ’Mech completely out of action first.
“Somebody’s put some serious hurting on that lady,” One-Eyed Jack observed, as the Ryoken II staggered, straightened, and headed away again, back to the north. “Funny thing is, though—I don’t think it was one of us.”
The Steel Wolves’ hovercraft turned back to the west, heading for the back of the Highlanders’ lines.
“You have a lot of targets ahead of you,”
Command said. “Fire, move, and forget them. Return to our own lines. Fast. We have trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“A world of hovercraft. They are not wearing Highland insignia, but they are shooting at us all the same.”
Jack Farrell’s mercenaries had reached the Steel Wolves’ DropShips, and the tide of battle had turned.
At the Steel Wolves’ command post, Ian Murchison had a closer view of the action than he had either expected or wanted. He didn’t know enough about military tactics to follow what was going on by listening to the steady flow of reports, but when the smoke of battle began drifting into the command tent, and the thunder of missile fire and the whine of overstressed turbines began coming closer and closer, he knew enough to realize that things were no longer going well.
A squad of armored infantry trotted past him, rifles at the ready. None of them gave him a second glance. He might as well have been one of their own, stationed for some reason at the command post with a medical bag slung over his shoulder.
Murchison looked down at himself, and considered his appearance as someone might who was encountering it for the first time. His own clothing had been left behind on Northwind months ago, and he wore Steel Wolf uniform fatigues without insignia—unless, he thought, the Bondsman’s cord around his wrist counted as insignia in its way.
He wasn’t part of the Steel Wolves, and wasn’t likely to be, but he’d grown accustomed to them. They were plain-talking people, and trustworthy in their own way—even if they were crazy by most standards—and they didn’t appear to hold the fact that he was a Northwinder against him.
On the other hand, if he ever made it home and the news got out that he’d once saved Anastasia Kerensky’s life, he didn’t think that explaining “I’m a medic; saving people is what I do” would be enough to make people understand.
He heard the sounds of more firing, coming from the south. Not long after, a Ryoken II BattleMech appeared out of the smoke, drawing closer to the command post at a staggering, badly controlled run, its hull creased by the marks of energy fire and multiple missile hits. The last time he’d seen that ’Mech, he realized, its metallic body had shone brightly in the light of morning, and Anastasia Kerensky had been climbing up the access ladder to the cockpit.
As he watched, the ’Mech halted, toppled, and crashed to the earth. There wasn’t enough damage to the exterior, he thought, to make it do something like that. Based on everything he’d ever heard about the giant battle machines—and the younger Steel Wolf Warriors talked about them incessantly, much like the ’Mech-struck adolescents of his own youth—most of the time when they broke down they just stood there like statues until whatever had halted them either went away or got fixed. A ’Mech laid out and measuring its length on the ground had usually been the victim of a completely devastating attack.
Or of the injury or death of the Warrior inside.
Slinging his medical bag over his shoulder, Murchison abandoned the relative safety of the command tent and sprinted for the fallen ’Mech. The rear hatch unlocked when he twisted the wheel, and the door swung open. A wave of hot air rolled out, humid and heavy with the smell of blood.
Murchison crawled into the cockpit. Yes, there was Anastasia, still strapped into the pilot’s command seat. Her face was pale and sweat streaked, and a steady trickle of blood was running out from underneath the bulky cooling vest.
“Galaxy Commander!” Murchison shouted.
She lifted her head, her eyes barely focusing. “Bondsman?”
“Yes, Galaxy Commander. You have to get out of here. I have to take care of you.”
She tried to resist, but she was too weak. Murchison removed her helmet, unplugged the coolant line from her vest, and undid the straps that bound her, making her one with the machine—and that had saved her from worse injury when the BattleMech fell over and slammed into the earth. Pulling her out through the hatch of the Ryoken II, he shouted, “Get a stretcher!” to the first Warrior he saw, then opened his bag and set to work.
She needs a dressing on that wound, he thought, to stop the bleeding. And an IV to replace fluids and bring up her blood pressure. She’s going into shock.
“Bondsman Murchison,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of you.”
She gripped his wrist with her left hand. Then, with a speed and strength that he wouldn’t have believed that she still possessed, her right hand drew a knife.
She sliced away the cord on his wrist.
“Welcome to the Clan, Wolf Lancer,” she said. Then her head fell back, and Anastasia Kerensky lost consciousness.
A Small Neighborhood Restaurant
April 3134; local spring
Late in the evening after the battle, the Countess of Northwind and Paladin Jonah Levin sat talking over dinner in the small restaurant near the Pension Flambard where Jonah took most of his meals. The meal, and the venue, had been his idea. Tara Campbell had gone directly from the brutal stress of an all-day pitched battle to an equally brutal onslaught of news reporters and the Exarch’s public gratitude, with scarcely a chance to shower and change into a dress uniform, and she had clearly found the experience harrowing. The Genevan media corps were no respecters of personal boundaries, and extravagant public praise from Damien Redburn had clearly done little to wipe out Tara’s earlier, private grievances.
Jonah had watched the Countess of Northwind give her third in-depth personal interview in a row with unflagging courtesy and smiling charm, and had decided that a rescue mission was in order. He’d exercised his authority as a Paladin to break up the conference on the grounds that the Countess’s presence was urgently required within, and had taken her away, going into the depths of the government office building and out again through an inconspicuous service door. From there he brought her by circuitous ways to his neighborhood restaurant, where the proprietor neither knew nor cared that the middle-aged offworld gentleman who dined there regularly was a Paladin of the Sphere.
Jonah could tell even before they arrived at the restaurant that he had made the right choice. Tara Campbell said little until they were seated discreetly at a corner table not visible from the street. Perhaps, Jonah reflected, the owner knew who his guests were, after all. Then the tension that had held her together in public seemed to break all at once like a cut string, leaving her seeming much tireder, much younger, and much less self-assured.
“Thanks for getting me out of there,” she said. “One more stupid question, and I would have cracked… and the way I feel right now, they’re all stupid questions.”
“Sleep and a good meal will help,” he promised.
“Will it make the news reporters any brighter? Will it make the Exarch—” She stopped and closed her mouth tightly. After a moment, she picked up her dinner roll and began breaking it apart into small, even pieces. Her hands were trembling. “Maybe I need to go home and go to bed right now. Except I can’t—we blew it up, you know, so that the Wolves couldn’t have it.”
The fate of Castle Northwind had been included in Tara Campbell’s original detailed report to the Exarch: a bare, concise statement, stripped clean of emotional resonance. Jonah was distressed with himself now for taking it at face value. He had thought of the castle as a landmark only, never realizing that it had also been the home of someone’s heart.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He continued, gently, “I know that food and rest don’t help with everything… but in the morning, not everybody will be stupid.”
Tara Campbell gave a shaky laugh. “I’ll take whatever improvement I can get.”
Dinner arrived—roast beef with horseradish and small new potatoes steamed in their jackets—simple food but filling, and well-prepared. Jonah was pleased to see that Tara, after taking a few tentative mouthfuls, attacked everything with a good appetite. The waiter—an observant man, and the restaurant owner had to know more about his guests that he was letting on—was assiduous in keeping her water glass brimming full no matter how often she emptied it. An all-day battle could leave even the hardiest of MechWarriors in a state of borderline dehydration. By the time the meal had reached its end—a dessert of pears simmered in red wine and flavored with cinnamon—Tara Campbell had relaxed enough to talk.
“I meant what I said about going home, though,” she said, when the conversation came around again to postbattle events. “I know that a lot of people seem to want me to stay here.”
“You’re a local celebrity,” he said. “At least temporarily. You exposed a traitor and you saved Terra from the Steel Wolves.”
“I didn’t expose anyone,” she insisted. “All I did was have the bad luck to be standing in the way when the truth came out. And as for saving Terra—every man and woman in the Northwind Highlanders did as much as I did, and gave as much as I did. Some of them gave everything, and there’s nothing The Republic or anyone else can do to give it back.”
“I know,” Jonah said. He had discovered that bitter truth himself, after the battle on Kurragin, and had taken a long time to come to terms with it. “But it’s you that everyone associates with those things. Whether you like it or not, that gives you a great deal of power at the present moment.”
Tara shook her head and made a pushing-away gesture with one hand. “I don’t want power in Geneva. Northwind is a big enough problem—the economy is shaky, the main DropPort and most of the capital are going to have to be rebuilt from the ground up, and we still have to provide defense for Prefecture III. I don’t know where the money for all of it is going to come from, either. You can’t tax people if they don’t have anything left.”
She gave a tired sigh. “I swear, fighting the Steel Wolves is already starting to look easy by comparison.”
That question at least, Jonah thought, was one that he had an answer for. “I wouldn’t worry too much,” he told her. “I expect that the Senate and the Exarch will be happy to express the thanks of a grateful Republic in the form of an appropriate recovery aid package.”
“Especially if I go back to Northwind with it?”
“Your departure will free them of an inconvenient reminder that Exarchs can be mistaken in their judgments, and that Paladins are not incorruptible.”
“Gratitude at a safe distance,” she said. “I can live with that.”
Jonah reminded himself that Tara Campbell had grown up around politics, and that not liking a game didn’t necessarily imply ignorance about how it was played. Less fearful now of her possible disillusionment, he said, “There’s a chance that some people may want to show their gratitude with more than aid packages.”
“What do you mean?”
“With Ezekiel Crow… gone… there are only sixteen Paladins remaining. And you are the heroine of the hour.”
Her shoulders stiffened. She met his gaze, her blue eyes clear and more than a little angry. “I’ll tell you right now: If they ask, the answer is no. It would be a slap in the face to every Knight of the Sphere who has a right to be considered, and it would be an insult to me, as well. I am the Countess of Northwind, and The Republic of the Sphere does not need to buy my loyalty with another title.”
“I doubt that anyone would think they did.”
“Maybe not,” she conceded, relaxing a little, but still looking dubious. “But even if they do it out of sheer goodwill and the kindness of their hearts, it would be stupid. I’m a decent administrator and a fair-to-middling field commander, and Prefecture III is about all I can handle.”
She grinned at him suddenly. “Ask me again in fifteen years or so, Paladin Levin—maybe then I’ll say yes.”
April 3134; local spring
The day after the great battle, Will Elliot was back at the table in the Sergeants’ Mess, writing another letter home.
Dear Mother–[he wrote]
By the time this reaches you, everyone on Northwind will probably know that our Countess has done it again, and beaten the Steel Wolves in a big battle here on Terra.
My friends and I are well; all we had to do this time was keep our heads down and let the tanks and BattleMechs do the hard work.
Lexa McIntosh came up to the table with a mug of tea and a sandwich and sat down next to him. She glanced over at the letter and shook her head. “Oh, Will, Will. Didn’t they ever tell you that lying was a sin?”
“She’s my mother,” he said. “Do you think I’m going to tell her what it was really like?”
“You’ve got a point there.” Lexa took a bite of her sandwich, chewed, and swallowed. “She’d just get after you to leave the infantry and come back home.”
“I could do that, you know. When my enlistment’s up.”
“Are you going to?”
“I don’t know yet,” Will said. “I’m thinking about it.”
The question was one that had been occupying his mind off and on for some time now—ever since the dinner in Kildare with his sister and her family, if not before. Sometimes, he missed the mountains of Northwind with an almost physical pain, and there were days when the constant press and presence of his fellow soldiers was enough to make his head hurt. At times like that, all he wanted out of life was to be alone somewhere above the timberline in Red Ledge Pass, with snow on the ground and a clean wind blowing. But he wasn’t certain he could feel the peace there like he used to. He was a different person now, in too many ways.
He set the problem aside and turned back to his letter.
You’ll be happy to know that we won’t have to worry about the Steel Wolves again for a long time. Anastasia Kerensky was badly wounded near the end of the battle, and that took the heart right out of them. When our Countess offered them the chance to get aboard their DropShips and go home for good, they took it.
He didn’t really believe that Anastasia Kerensky was going to stay defeated for all that long. After fighting against her and her armies in three campaigns, Will knew better than that. She’d go home to Tigress, yes, but as soon as she was patched up and back in fighting trim, she’d have the Steel Wolves out making trouble somewhere.
The Countess of Northwind apparently agreed with him. She’d already announced that there was going to be another big recruitment drive once they got home to Northwind, with promotions and reenlistment bonuses for any experienced troopers who chose to stay in. That was something else Will hadn’t told his mother yet.
He was still trying to think of what to write next—something about the fight between Tara Campbell and Ezekiel Crow, he thought; Ruthie’s children would think it was exciting, and his mother would be happy because he wasn’t anywhere in it—when Jock Gordon entered the mess.
“What’s the news of the day?” Jock asked, coming over to join Will and Lexa.
“Our Will here is telling his mother all about the great battle, and how we brought a picnic basket and watched it from the sidelines.”
“I told you,” said Will. “She’s my mother. She gets upset about things.”
Jock nodded in understanding. “Will’s right. You don’t want to worry your mother.”
Lexa looked from one of them to the other. “The two of you are a pair, do you know that?”
“Aye,” said Jock. “But you love us.”
Will let them tease at each other, and went back to his letter.
I don’t know what stories you may have heard about the Paladin that came to help us on Northwind last year—how he turned traitor and abandoned us when the Wolves landed in the city—but I can say that the whole truth is even worse, or at least what I’ve heard of it. He was a wicked man, but our Countess dealt with him the same way she did with the Steel Wolves. I saw what was left of his BattleMech, after the fighting was over, and she’d chopped it into pieces.
Lexa broke off her chaffering with Jock to glance again over Will’s shoulder.
“Just goes to show,” she said. “Never make an enemy of a girl who rides a Hatchetman ’Mech.”
“Are you writing this letter, or am I?” Will demanded in mostly mock indignation.
“I’ve got an interest,” she said. “I’m thinking of stealing some of it for myself. There’s still one or two old flames and partners in crime back home in Barra Station who might be interested.”
“You’re not planning on going home and telling them yourself?” he asked her curiously.
Lexa shook her head. “Not me. I’m taking the Countess’s bonus and signing on for another hitch. Join the infantry and see The Republic.”
“Most of it’s mud,” he said.
“Nah. Some of it’s under three feet of snow, and the rest of it’s desert. But what the hell, it’s home.”
Will, smiling, took up his pen again, realizing that he had in fact, come to a decision.
I’ll be visiting you on leave as soon as the regiment gets back from Terra, but I won’t be staying. I’m going to keep on with the army instead.
Somebody has to keep Northwind safe from people like Anastasia Kerensky and Ezekiel Crow, and right now, it’s us.
Garden of Earthly Delights
Belgorod DropPort, Terra
May 3134; local summer
The foyer of the Garden of Earthly Delights was smoky and dim. A man entered and paused at the doorway to speak with the bouncer.
“I want to talk to Suvorov,” he said.
“No one here by that name,” the bouncer replied.
“Give him this,” the man said. He held up a ring—Footfall work, done in red gold etched with an elaborate pattern. “Tell him I’ll be in the bar.”
The man walked on in. He wore a dark coat with a high collar, despite the warm air outside the Garden of Earthly Delights and the overheated atmosphere within, and a hat that he did not bother to remove. The turned-up collar and the overshadowing hat brim weren’t enough to hide the mass of heavy bandages that covered the entire right side of his face and neck.
“A whiskey,” the man said, sitting on a stool in the bar. The bar was, if possible, even dimmer than the foyer. The drink came. He paid, but didn’t touch it.
A little while later, resplendent in a white suit, Suvorov himself slid onto an adjacent bar stool.
“You remind me of a man,” Suvorov said.
“Many people say that,” the other replied. “They’re all wrong.”
“Ah. I understand. What can I do for you tonight?”
“I need passage off Terra. With a new set of papers.”
“I see. Such things are likely expensive.”
“I believe you hold some funds in trust for a man who is not coming back for them.”
Suvorov raised a finger. The bartender brought him wine mixed with sparkling water.
“I could just keep those funds,” he said. “Since you say the man isn’t coming back.”
He sipped, watching for a reaction.
“You could,” the man said. “But I don’t think you will.”
“Are you the sort of person who remembers his friends?” Suvorov asked.
The man said, “I am.”
“Then the papers will be here tomorrow. Where do you want to go?”
“Off earth. Beyond that is of no importance.”
Suvorov sipped his watered wine. “You remember your friends?” he said again.
“Yes,” the man said. “Nor do I forget my enemies.”
“I would not have thought you did. The deal is arranged. Be here tomorrow at this time. Alas, there are no more funds in the fellow’s account.”
“I understand.” The man with the bandaged face pushed the untouched glass of whiskey away from him and stood to leave.
“Always a pleasure doing business with you,” he said.
With that, he walked out through the foyer and into the night.