The Saffron Agenda
For centuries the Inner Sphere has been aflame with war.
Struggling from the ashes of the Star League are five Great Houses: House Kuno of the Furinkan Combine, House Gosunkugi of the League of Five Nails, House Joketsuzoku of the Jusenkyo Commonwealth, House Shiratori of the Federated Shiratori, and House Tendo of the Nerima Confederation. Each House has a claim to the Star League throne, and each has an army of mighty Battlemechs with which to conquer - but only one House can rule the Inner Sphere, and none will allow that rule to come without a price.
In the year 3025, two Dispossessed mechwarriors named Saotome gave the Inner Sphere its first real hope that the era of unending war might come to an end, when they and a small band of warriors and explorers under the command of the Nerima Confederation's heir to the throne, Lady Akane Tendo, found the location of the mythical Ryuugenzawa System, a fabled repository of old Star League knowledge and technology. After a desperate battle for control of the system, Lady Akane and the Confederation became the sole possessors of the Star League's secrets, and sought to restore the old Star League and the stability and prosperity it once symbolized. While Akane has brought the Third Succession War to an end and saved her people from Combine domination, the path to final peace is yet still an uncertain one, and there are many factions who still oppose her vision of the Inner Sphere's future...
Star League Defense Force WarShip Coronet
Approaching the Melkor System Zenith Jump Point
Melkor System, the League of Five Nails
19 July 3031
"Conn, Sensory; possible new contact bearing two-seven-zero by zero. Range: indeterminate. Classification: indeterminate."
Captain Hinako Ninomiya cocked her head in the direction of Sensory and frowned at the report. They were here to transport Hikaru Gosunkugi to the Capella System to preside over an emergency session of the Star League High Council, and as the current First Lord of the Star League, he made for an inviting target.
"Do you or don't you have a contact at that bearing?" she demanded.
The Sensor Officer tried to look apologetic. "Ma'am, I'm getting intermittant energy readings at that bearing, on a track that is paralleling our course exactly. That's all I can say at this time."
"Is it possible that you're looking at a sensor artifact generated by this ship?" she asked him coolly, having no time for this kind of nonsense.
The Sensor Officer, who had not been part of the Dragonfly crew, and was therefore slightly suspect in Hinako's eyes, held his ground.
"No, ma'am," he replied. "These readings are not consistent with anything we might be radiating ourselves."
Hinako stepped over to the Sensory section to see for herself. From his position opposite the Bridge, Lieutenant Commander Davidge ordered up a diagnostic of the ship's systems.
"Show, me, Lieutenant," Hinako ordered her Sensor Officer.
The lieutenant pointed to several displays at the supervisory station. The Passive EMS board showed what appeared to be faint emissions in the soft ultraviolet spectrum, though their intensity was at best just above the gain setpoint for the sensors, and therefore only slightly stronger than background emissions or the signal noise generated within the sensor array itself. The only thing that looked out of the ordinary was the plot for the anomaly itself, which appeared to be following the Coronet directly off her port bow at some indeterminate but relatively close distance.
"There's more, ma'am," he added, pointing to the gravitic anomaly detector. The GAD was a little understood mechanism on the ship, and so it was hardly used. There was only one person on board who had even the faintest idea how it worked, and that was Lieutenant Barstow, the Sensor Officer himself.
"None of that means anything to me, Lieutenant," Hinako told him in her sultry bedroom voice. "You're the one fresh from the Nerima Institute of Science."
Barstow nodded apologetically. He was unabashedly proud of his attendence at the Institute founded by Akane Tendo - where the secrets of the Ryuugenzawa Library Core were being teased out and put to work for the Confederation and its Star League allies with painstaking care. "I'm sorry, ma'am. Basically, the Gravitic Anomaly Detector can sample and measure distortions in local space-time, and from those distortions determine if a Jump is imminent or has just occured."
Hinako arched an eyebrow. "But you don't think that this is a Jump signature, do you, lieutenant?"
Barstow shook his head. "No, ma'am. I don't know what this anomaly represents. What I do know is that the anomaly is consistent in bearing and course with the ultraviolet emissions." He looked level into Hinako's eyes. "There is something out there, Captain. A vessel of some kind - highly stealthed, I'm assuming - and generating some kind of low level gravity distortion. That's all I know."
Captain Ninomiya looked across the Bridge to Davidge, who shook his head silently at her. There were no detectable malfunctions with the Coronet's systems.
"Gravity distortion?" Hinako asked. "For what purpose?"
Barstow shrugged. "I don't know, ma'am. I guess it may be some kind of stealth ship with a leaky Jump Drive field that doesn't know we can detect its emissions. The Coronet is currently the only starship in the Inner Sphere with a working GAD array, after all."
"That makes sense," Hinako observed. "If there was a ship out there, they might want to make a fast getaway, and so they would have their Jump Drive warmed up and ready."
"It's the best I can come up with, ma'am. Anything else smacks of pure science fiction."
Barstow's off-handed remark caught Hinako by surprise. She gave him an appraising look. "You're on to something, Barstow. What is it?"
He looked embarassed to even broach it.
"Ma'am, it's total speculation. Fantasy even."
She put her hands on her curvy hips and faced him down. "Lieutenant, I enjoy the favor of the Grand Duke because he trusts me to act wisely on every conceivable threat to the Star League and the Confederation. If you won't keep me informed about the status of your station, how exactly am I to uphold the trust of His Grace?"
Barstow turned red. "Yes, ma'am," he replied sheepishly. "It's just that I was thinking about some research manuals that had been taken off of the Library Core at the Institute. In the last days before Stephen Amaris assassinated the Camerons and started the war against Kerensky, the scientists of the First Star League experimented with the possibility of a reactionless propulsion system based on controlled gravitic distortion. It was an attempt to localize a ship's Jump Drive field to affect realspace without actually causing a Jump."
"A gravity drive?" Hinako asked him.
"Basically," Barstow answered her. "But the thing is, while it was theoretically possible, it proved to be completely impractical given the state of technology at the end of the First Star League period. They could never get one to work properly - they either ripped the test ships apart or caused misjumps that lost them forever. They ended up scrapping the project and scattering the researchers to other areas two months before Amaris' treason."
Hinako sighed. "I can see what you mean by fantasy," she said. "All the same, this is too unusual to let slip by us. Assume for a moment that such a thing weren't just possible, but practical. Real, even." She gave him a heavy-lidded look. "Who could possibly possess such a thing?"
"I can think of three possibilities," Barstow replied. "One would be Kerensky's exiled army. They had all of the First Star League's technology, plus a good share of the scientific talent when they left. It's possible that in whatever place they went to after they fled the Inner Sphere, they could have perfected the technology."
Hinako had to admit that it sounded good in theory. Were the descendents of Kerensky's exiles observing the Inner Sphere as a prelude to their return? It was a sobering thought, for the Inner Sphere was not ready to face a conquering army possessing such technology. Akane's Second Star League was far too fragile and weak at the moment to even unite the entire Inner Sphere under one banner, much less repulse such an invasion.
"What are the other possibilities?" she asked him.
"Comstar is my second idea," Barstow answered. "We know that they have held on to many of the technologies that the Successor States lost during the wars - HPG technology especially. It's possible that they have kept up lines of scientific research and inquiry in tight secrecy so as not to tempt one of the Great Houses into attacking them to get it. We know also that they've been keeping a wary eye on us in the Confederation ever since the Library Core became public knowledge. We represent a threat to their monopoly on FTL communications with the Library Core, and while we've promised them not to follow paths of research into HPG technology without their approval, they certainly wouldn't trust us at our word."
"So it could be a Comstar stealth ship out there ghosting us," Hinako said gravely.
"The third possibility is that the Jusenkyo Commonwealth could possess such a technology, although what little we do know about their black research programs indicates that they are oriented more towards biological and genetic endeavors rather than advanced physics. I'd say they were a very big long shot possibility."
"I'd have to agree with that," Hinako said to him. "If the Commonwealth possessed something like this, they would have used it by now against the Furinkan Combine."
She turned to face the telescope monitor, which was trained on the bearing of their mystery contact. There was nothing out there but a brilliant field of stars and dust. There were no tell-tale shadows moving across the starfield to indicate that a stealth ship was out there. There was nothing at all, save Barstow's mystery gravitic anomaly.
"Astrogation, mark time to Jump Point," she called to Davidge.
"Three-zero minutes, Captain," Davidge replied.
She toyed with the idea of altering their course to see if the anomaly would react. It was tempting, but all the same, what would she accomplish by it? If there was a starship out there, an advanced starship unlike any other in the Inner Sphere, but one that she could detect because her own vessel had a unique piece of sensory gear on board, why should she give up her advantage? Let them think they were following her unobserved.
"Maintain course and velocity," she ordered. "Sensory, you are not to employ active sensors against that contact without my express permission. Just make sure that everything is being recorded for later review when we get to Nerima."
"Aye aye, ma'am," Barstow replied.
Captain Hinako Ninomiya returned to her command chair and sighed wearily. Grand Duke Tendo's bold 'Saotome Gambit' had bought the Confederation time to regroup and rebuild against its enemies, but in turn it had focused even more attention on them. If Akane Tendo's Second Star League failed to end the continuing balkanization of the Inner Sphere and the conflicts such disintegration engendered, there would be no final hope.
Aleksandr Kerensky Suite
First Lord of the Star League Hikaru Gosunkugi breathed in the pecularly acidic tang of incense procured from an ascetic mystic living on the League/Commonwealth border. It was supposed to assist in achieving the necessary state of being required for communion with the higher powers of the cosmos - a conversation the frail Gosunkugi lord was most eager to begin, for he had exhausted temporal means of separating his beloved Akane Tendo from her cursed fiance, Ranma Saotome. If the dark gods were to assist him in making Akane his at last, he had to reach them first.
It had taken him the better part of the last five years to reach a level of study where he felt confident that such a communion was possible. His occult dabblings prior to the end of the Third Succession War had been along the lines of divination and prophecy; endeavors that had been frustratingly difficult to actualize with any real measure of success. Now he was desperate, for while he still believed that Akane Tendo was his destined bride, she was in love with the brash mechwarrior Saotome. Though wedding plans for the two were still in the indefinite future, it was only a matter of time for them, and though Hikaru's affection for Akane would be undiminished, he wanted her unsullied with the stain of such a union.
The final breakthrough in his designs had come from his own secret cabal of researchers. Their work had predated the discovery and slow dissemination of secrets from the captured Ryuugenzawa Library Core, though until this point Hikaru had been reluctant to utilize it. Their research led down a path of inquiry from which there was no backtracking.
He had the lights dimmed in the spacious cabin where the great general Alexsandr Kerensky had spent many of his days during the campaign to restore the Star League from Amaris the Usurper. The luxurious wood paneling on the bulkheads soaked up the flickering light from an array of candles set upon his traveling altar, and the soft plush carpet felt warm and comforting beneath his bare feet as he knelt naked before it. He would not be interrupted in this stateroom - the voluptuous Captain Ninomiya had seen to that upon his arrival on board.
Satisfied that his procedures were in order, he leaned over the ornate leaded-iron casket that occupied a central place upon his altar. Within the casket, upon a bed of velvet, lay a vial of clear liquid and a spray hypodermic injector. His hands trembled slightly as they reached inside the casket for the two objects. With infinite care he measured a dose of the liquid into the injector, and then placed the tip against the bare flesh of his thigh.
The hiss of the injector went unnoticed over the hiss of discomfort Hikaru emitted as the chemicals flowed into his body. The drug had been distilled from the sectioned brains of human beings who had demonstrated above normal aptitude in psionic abilities to his investigators. It had taken no small amount of effort to conceal such a heinous crime from his parents and the people of the League of Five Nails at large, and the tiny vial represented the entirety of the distillate in the Inner Sphere. If it worked, he would move to procure more, though it might take some time to find enough raw material to begin replenishment.
He began to feel his awareness expand as the chemical reached his nervous system. Though it was necessary to achieve his goals, he did in fact feel a pang of conscience at the means by which his drug was acquired. If he thought he could trust the Amazons (which he couldn't), he would have tried to have the chemicals synthesized with their forbidden biotechnology labs buried deep below their mountain fortress.
In spite of himself, he laughed at that thought. His recent forays into higher modes of consciousness had allowed him to see far more than those silly Amazons could have dreamed, and he had wandered unmolested and undetected through their dark caverns. He had looked upon the god they thought they had made, and while he feared what Saffron could become if they ever lost control of him, he was confident that he could make an alliance with a power much greater than that genetic monstrosity.
His brain was begining to sing now, motes of starflame flashed within his consciousness as his mind expanded out into vast gulfs of infinity. His first foray into this higher realm had nearly consumed him with its infinity, and in spite of his rapture, he had to maintain great care not to lose himself in his ecstatic state. The ancient texts had been quite clear about the dangers of this frame of consciousness.
He focused now upon himself, willing himself to be in this realm of impossibility that a more pedantic type would simply call hyperspace. Another laugh burbled up from his murmuring lips at this, for he, Hikaru Gosunkugi, who hated interstellar travel, was now journeying naked and alone through the hyperspace he abhored.
The shining hull of the Coronet was left far behind him now, for he was beyond her physical constraints, moving at - for lack of a better term - a velocity of staggering magnitude. The universe was laid bare to him, revealing him to be a meager light in a dazzling gulf of brilliance. Time flowed in many directions here, entropy was a state ignored as often as it was honored, and many modalities of thought and being (Hikaru realized that the two were one in the same) could be experienced simultaneously and yet independently from one another.
He did not intend to contact the powers that were rumored to exist full-time in this realm. This was but another preliminary reconnaissance to acclimate him and to hone his mind for the struggle that would surely arise from such a confrontation. And yet as he stretched out his being into the void, contact was made.
Hikaru recoilled instantly at the touch of minds, knowing that there were no accidents in this realm of infinite possibility. In spite of his reflexive action, he could feel a shard of an alien will embedded within his own, like a thorn that had somehow worked its way past his skull and into his living brain. Terrified, he focused all his efforts on actualizing himself in the void, willing himself to be with even greater effort, that in so doing, nothing that was not himself could remain.
He returned to physicality with a shout of pain and surprise, spilling forward over his altar to burn his chest upon the candles. Still shrieking at the terror within, he beat mindlessly at the pain without, wiping away the solidifying wax from his reddened skin. His heart trip-hammered in his chest as he fought for breath. His very soul felt contaminated.
Much later, when he could breathe normally again, and his pulse was no longer the flutter of a hummingbird's wings, he pulled himself up to his knees. Had his encounter been real, or was it merely a vivid and terrifying hallucination brought on by the injection of powerful psychoactive chemicals? Had he really touched the mind of a god, or was he merely looking at his own astral grotesque - a reflection of the taint in his soul caused by his black crimes?
The Jump Alarm sounded three times on the 1MC intercom as he heaved and shook. As the Coronet plunged into hyperspace for the trip to the Capella System, it was all he could do not to scream in terror.