Kerensky and Kurita

Book I of

The Cameron Legacy: The Fall of the Star League

A fictional novel in three parts set in an alternate history

of the

Classic BattleTech Universe

by

Stephen T Bynum

All rights reserved, copyright 2008.

This is an original work of fiction.

Chapter One

February 7, 2767
Imperial Palace
Luthien
Draconis Combine

The oak floor boards of the temple creaked slightly beneath the steps of the weary man. In his late fifties, Minoru Kurita, Coordinator of the Draconis Combine, still retained the fitness expected of the samurai, though his hair had newly turned silver, and lines of worry marked his face. As he crossed the floor of the shrine, a priest lifted a splinter of bamboo, using the ember on the tip to light a stick of incense.

"Welcome, Lord Kurita. Long indeed has it been since you visited the ancestors. What brings forth the Dragon this day?" Wisps of fragrant incense rose around them as Kurita stared at the old priest.

"Sit, my Lord, and tell me of what brings such feelings to the Dragon."

Kurita remained standing for a moment, and then barely shook his head and turned to leave.

"Your ancestors know of your troubles, Minoru Kurita. Do not shoulder burdens that should not be yours alone."

Kurita stopped, but did not face the old wizened man. "My troubles, priest? What do you know of my troubles?"

"Know? Nothing. Other than you ARE troubled, else why would you come here? Now? After twenty-five years?"

Kurita looked down and his right hand trembled. "I have given my word, priest; the word of a Kurita. Yet, a wrong has been committed, against my family, against the Dragon, against the Combine. And because of my word, I cannot lift a finger to avenge this wrong."

The priest nodded. "Honor, Minoru, honor. Such is what keeps a samurai secure, even more so than his pair of swords. You feel you would be dishonored if you broached your sworn word?"

"Yes."

"Sworn to whom?"

"To my father—as he lay upon his death-bed, less than one week ago."

"A promise to the dying father; truly you are bound by much. And the wrong that has been committed?"

"I cannot speak of it to you. I cannot speak of it to anyone, not until my mind is clear."

"So be it. You are the son of the Dragon, my Lord. When your father died, you became the Dragon. What is the path that the Dragon should tread in this matter that shall not be spoken of?"

"Crush my enemies before me, for this insult delivered to my House and to the Combine."

"And, yet, you cannot because of your given word?"

"No."

Minutes passed with neither man speaking. Finally, the priest lit another stick of incense, and a new fragrance filled the room; the sweet aroma of myrrh. "You know what you must do—you knew before you ever entered this place."

"Hai, but it is difficult."

"You are the Dragon. Nothing more needs be said."

And with that Kurita turned and walked out.

February 8, 2767
Imperial Palace
Luthien
Draconis Combine

Whispered conversation carried softly across the great hall. Scores of high officials of the Combine were present, from Jinjiro Kurita—the heir to the Dragon—to the five Warlords of the Combine, from the Admirals of the Draconis Fleet to officers of the Draconis Mustered Soldiery, from courtiers to nobles and their courtesans. None knew what to expect. Late last evening, Coordinator Kurita himself had sent the request that their presence was required, here, before the carved teak throne of the Coordinator, at this time, on this day. All knew that something was wrong; each searched his own actions to find if he was possibly at fault. After all, in the Kurita court, it was not unheard that an action which the Coordinator perceived as incorrect, was justified with the sword before this very throne

All fell silent as Minoru entered the chamber; dressed in his most formal uniform of mid-night black, devoid of all decoration, save for the red enameled disk bearing the Dragon crest upon the buckle of the jackets belt. Echoes of his polished boots striking the flagstones rang across the great hall, as he ascended the dais and the Otomo—the personal guard of the Coordinator—took to their stations around him. Minoru reached the throne, but did not sit; instead he turned to face his guests.

"Eight days ago, word arrived from Terra. Richard Cameron is dead, and his family with him. Stefan Amaris now rules the Terran Hegemony."

Muttered conversation broke out among the crowd.

"Be still," said Kurita. "Amaris has taken as hostage our cousin Drago, his wife, and their children. Before suffering his seizure, my father received a message from Amaris, a message commanding the Dragon to still his hand lest our blood pay the price. Takiro—my father—begged of me an oath; an oath to negotiate and retrieve Drago and his family; to stay my hand and not make war upon this Usurper. I gave my father my word upon this as he lay dying; I gave my word that I would follow his wishes and his will."

Kurita stepped forward, his face as hard as stone.

"And now, I do this—for the Combine. My shame is my own; no one else shall share in it. My cousins and their children are dead to us. We will grieve for them and mourn their loss. However, no one—NO ONE—shall ever demand through force of hostages that the Dragon kneel before them. No one shall ever demand that the Dragon obey their dictates while holding our blood-kin against their will, as pawns in their petty political schemes. And because this insult to me, my House, and the Combine, I do hereby declare war upon Stefan Amaris and all who follow him."

Looking across the silent assembly from one end of the hall to the next, Kurita turned his gaze upon his son. "You will lead our forces. Assemble the regiments here upon Luthien, assemble the ships in orbit. When they have been gathered, you will strike."

Turning from the assembly, Kurita left the dais and exited the room, the Otomo trailing behind him.

Chapter Two

February 10, 2767
Imperial Palace
Luthien
Draconis Combine

It was quiet in the drawing room set in the "public" wing of the Kurita Imperial Palace. Standing before a large painting of a map of 18th century Japan, Colonel Sam Anders of the Star League Defense Force waited patiently for an audience with his counterpart and a "high noble". That was all he had been told. As the SLDF liaison assigned to House Kurita, Sam was used to waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting still more. Patience, he had learned, was nearly as valuable a commodity as his status as a Gunslinger who had beaten all four of his Kurita opponents in single 'Mech combat.

Imperial City was all abuzz with rumors and whispers, and yet, neither he nor his staff knew what exactly had the Dragon so agitated. Troops were moving—more troops than Kurita should have had—but where? And, more importantly, why? Perhaps this meeting with his counterpart in the Draconis Combine Mustered Soldiery would serve some useful purpose and actually let him do his job.

A slight creaking sound signaled the opening of a door. Anders turned and stopped dead cold. Instead of the expected Tai-sai Atsugabe, in through the doorway strode Coordinator Minoru Kurita himself, along with his son—and heir—Jinjiro! Recovering, Anders dropped to a knee—not the full prostration required of a Combine citizen, but still a gesture of respect.

"Rise, Colonel, we shall speak. Guards, you are dismissed," Kurita said—in English, his mind processed. It was nearly unheard of for the Coordinator to meet with a mere serving officer of any service—even his own—and speak personally with them. But to do so in the native language of that officer, instead of Japanese—the official language of the Combine—bordered on heresy here in this tradition-bound state. And without his personal bodyguards, no less! Anders quickly stood, facing the Coordinator and Heir, head inclined slightly towards the floor.

Kurita made a gesture towards Jinjiro, who took a deep breath and nodded at Anders. "My father, Lord Kurita, the Coordinator of the Draconis Combine, has commanded that I speak from henceforth on his behalf, Colonel Anders. He has appointed me as Gunji-no-kanrei to serve the Combine on his behalf."

Anders thoughts whirled. Gunji-no-kanrei—the post had not been held since Shiro Kurita first created it, then awarded it to his brother Urizen at the dawning of the Combine. Jinjiro Kurita was now the sole commander of the entirety of the Draconis military structure, answering only to the Coordinator. Any order he gave would be given with the full authority of the Coordinator. No Coordinator had given such sweeping authority to another individual since Shiro himself—for such authority could easily become a tool for Imperial ambitions.

"Sit, Colonel, the Imperial protocols are waived. Consider us fellow officers, and this the mess. As you say, there is no rank in the mess, no? For this discussion, you shall speak to me as Jinjiro and I shall speak to you as Sam."

No mention was made of the Coordinator, which Sam took to mean that Kurita stood outside the scope—here, but not here. Jinjiro gestured towards a chair, then sat in one himself as the Coordinator remained standing. "As you wish, si—Jinjiro."

Jinjiro smiled—a look that on his polished face could very easily become predatory and vicious. And petty, Anders thought; remember the stories about Jinjiro and the General. Be careful, very careful, these are deep waters in which you swim today.

"Good, then Sam. By the way, on behalf the Coordinator, I must congratulate you on your victories over our Ronin. Those actions were masterfully done."

For a gaijin was left unsaid; the cold false smile showed that this truly was offered by the Coordinator. Jinjiro would never have offered such honor to any who had defeated those who served him—even if he could not acknowledge their service, such as with the Ronin.

"Thank you, Jinjiro. The congratulations of the Coordinator are a gift beyond measure, and one that I will treasure forever."

The delighted twinkle in Jinjiro's eyes faded, as digested the full meaning of that statement.

"I have some bad news for you, Sam. On December 27th of last year, First Lord Richard Cameron was assassinated by Stefan Amaris in the Court of the Star League on Terra."

Cold shock punched Sam Anders in the belly like a cannonball, as Jinjiro grinned. His vision wavered as he swayed slightly.

"My father has received messages from Amaris himself—he has boasted of having executed all living members of the Cameron family line and proclaimed himself Emperor Amaris I, as well as the First Lord of the Star League. Furthermore, our intelligence indicates that he has occupied the Hegemony—and Terra—with the vast majority of both his army and his navy, destroying all military opposition that remained there. He also states that he controls your Space Defense Systems and has insisted that my father—and the other House Lords—recognize his claim over the worlds of the Hegemony and his assumption of the title of First Lord by right of conquest."

Anders swallowed. This was madness! Amaris must know what the fury of the SLDF would be—even though heavily engaged against the Taurian separatists in the Periphery, it still dwarfed any other military in existence. But if Amaris had captured the SDS intact, then . . .

"Yes, Sam. The future is dimming and bloody, a great and terrible war such as man has never seen lies upon the horizon. And I have been given leave to take personal command of the forces of the Dragon during it, to take action against Amaris as soon as possible."

Anders head snapped up, his jaw dropping. Kurita was committing his forces against Amaris? He tried to force the question out of his mouth, but the dryness of his throat and tongue caused him only to stammer.

Minoru Kurita waved his hand at Jinjiro, and spoke, "He tasks me. Amaris has taken hostages of the Imperial family—my own cousin and his immediate family who had served my father on Terra. His ludicrous demands that the Combine acknowledge his ascendancy as First Lord, and bow before him have been an insult; not only to myself and to my ancestors, but to my samurai and my people, to the spirit of the Dragon itself. He tasks me and I shall have him. For this I have dishonored myself before my father's spirit, and when this war is finished it shall be seppuku to right the scales of balance."

Anders was beyond disbelief, he was now numb.

"Jinjiro is my Gunji-no-kanrei, my shogun, and shall lead our armies on this quest. But the Dragon, while stronger than you might think is not strong enough to take Terra alone. Because of this I have commanded my son to obey General Kerensky and conform to his plans for retaking Terra."

Kurita raised a hand, stopping Anders stuttering protest. "Yes, Kerensky does not know that Terra has fallen yet. There are no plans for such a circumstance. But there shall be. Yes, Kerensky may not be of the Dragon, but he is samurai. He has honor, and he will perform as the 47 did, long ago. And Kurita will stand beside him. My son WILL obey the General, he will coordinate with his plan of attack; such is my command. If not," Minoru paused and shrugged his shoulders, "then I have other sons."

"You, Colonel Anders," Minoru continued, returning the meeting to a sense of formality, "should convey this information and our desire to cooperate with the SLDF to General Kerensky as soon as possible. Let him know that our forces will assemble at Luthien. One hundred and eighty regiments of 'Mechs, armor, and infantry, and four hundred ships of war are even now receiving orders to converge here. As of today, General Anders, you are my personal liaison, and you shall have immediate access to the Imperial Palace whenever you desire. Inform me of General Kerensky's answer when you have it. And," he paused, looking down, his voice deep with the pain of someone who has himself lost some very special, "please accept my personal condolences for the loss of your wife."

Kurita turned and without saying another word left the room, followed by his son. Jinjiro stopped in the threshold of the door, turned back to look at him, smiled again—a cold, cold smile—, and said, "A most marvelous, terrible war, indeed, General Anders. I cannot wait for it to begin in full."

As the door closed, Anders felt cold, all warmth drained from his body. It's like the light of the universe is dying out, and nothing will ever restore it. Reaching to his neck, he felt the cross his wife—Joan Cameron Anders—had given him, and knew without a hint of doubt that she was dead back on Terra. Later, he thought, I can grieve later. For now, there's work; and the Dragon does have one thing right, there will be vengeance upon this man Amaris.

May 27, 2767
SLDF Field Headquarters
Carson Plateau, New Vandenberg
Taurian Concordat

The flag of the Star League whipped in the brisk wind at half-staff outside the command center as Aaron DeChevilier took another drag on the cigar. Across the planet, a cease-fire had gone into effect; proposed by Protector Nicoletta Calderon herself for the separatists—strange, he thought, I still call them that, even though we all know it is only pretense, they are supported and supplied by entire Concord—and agreed to by him, on behalf the SLDF. She had arrived yesterday, and the two had spoken about the events on Terra. Kerensky was not available—had not been available for the nearly days since the news arrived.

All of the Star League troops—even those from the member states, whose enlistments were short-term—were in a state of shock. Richard Cameron may have been a spoiled brat and a fool, but still! He was the First Lord, heir of James McKenna, the one person to whom all members of the SLDF officer corps were oath-sworn, and now he and all of his family lay murdered. By a man who had passed as his "friend". Stefan Amaris, the traitor who will go down in infamy, his name never forgotten, but forever hence associated with treachery, regicide, and madness.

Aaron knew that he was on the verge of a dark and deep funk—he chuckled, yes, that was the word, funk. But the troops can't afford that. Not now. Not with the General withdrawn and speaking with no one. Aaron shook his head, he blames himself. Not the spoiled brat-Prince, not Amaris, HIMSELF for failing Richard. If only Richard's father Simon had not been killed in that damn accident fifteen years ago; but that was water past the dam. But the General, the General . . . we can't afford to have him withdraw. He is the Star League, a living avatar representing all that was good; as Amaris will forever more be the symbol of the bad. He smiled—a sad, crooked smile—yin and yang.

"General, Sir?"

DeChevilier turned to see one of the HQ duty staff, a young man who looked barely old enough to shave. God in heaven, he thought, was I ever that young? "Yes, son, spit it out."

"Sir, the General is in the command center and has asked for your presence."

*****************************************************

"You wanted to see me, Sir?"

Aleksandyr Kerensky, commanding General of the Star League Defense Forces looked up from his desk. Christ, Aaron, thought, he has aged twenty years! Dark circles hung beneath both eyes, his face weary and lined with deep wrinkles; even what little hair he had remaining had lost its color. But, his eyes! His eyes are red, but full of fire. This is the man I have followed for thirty years; we have not lost this man, not yet.

"What is the status of the troops, Aaron?"

"We have a temporary cease-fire with the separatists—I agreed to it yesterday with Protector Calderon. Of course, you can revoke it. . . "

"No. The Taurian separatists are no longer our foe. You did well, preserving our forces until we reach the point of decision."

Kerensky stood and walked over to the huge wall-mounted map. He pointed at the very bottom. "Over half of our army is here, in the Taurian Concordat, the remainder scattered throughout the Inner Sphere and Periphery." He touched the map, his hand on the heart of the Hegemony in the very center. "We must presume that the few troops we had back home have now been destroyed. Now, comes the time to consider our options. But first, we must have a base of operations, a source of supply." His hand moved again, north to the upper rim of human settled space; to Apollo, capital of the Rim Worlds Republic. "Here."

"The Rim Worlds? If Amaris moved on the Hegemony in force, they can't have many troops left there. Why spend our time, effort, and blood there instead of liberating the core?"

"Our troops are in a state of shock, Aaron. I was myself, until only a short time ago. That shock will soon be replaced with rage. And against our defenses in the Hegemony, rage will only result in many, many more casualties. You are right; the Rim Worlds are only lightly defended at the moment. So, we will take them, and their munitions factories, and use that as a base of operations for retaking the Hegemony. Our troops will burn out their rage on the homeland of Amaris, and have only cold hate left in their souls when the time comes to face those defenses. Tragic, yes, that innocent people in the Rim must suffer, but I cannot and will not send our troops against the Hegemony defenses without a secure supply-line and in this mental state."

"The other Houses will aid. . . . "

"The other Houses will NOT move on this, Aaron. Trust me. As Regent, I have dealt with each of them in detail; they have no love for us—or for what we represent. Except, have you seen the transmission from Colonel Anders?"

Aaron frowned, "Sam Anders? The liaison officer attached to our embassy on Luthien?"

"That's the one."

"No, sir, I was not informed of any transmission."

Kerensky nodded and walked back to his chair, pointed at a second for DeChevilier, and sat. "It arrived early this morning, via HPG. It was encrypted Critic priority, addressed attention eyes-only Commanding General, SLDF."

"CRITIC? From LUTHIEN?" DeChevilier asked, snapping upright in his seat. Critic level message encoding was only to be used in case of war and was considered to be Ultra-secure.

"Yes. A very interesting message; please watch, General."

Kerensky punched a complicated code into his desk terminal and on the far wall, a holographic image formed. In the center stood a man in SLDF uniform—Colonel Anders—Aaron thought. Very spartan, the only decoration he wore was the crossed six-gun emblem of the Gunslingers and his rank insignia. Fit, his uniform perfectly tailored, and immaculate. Looks like the bureaucrats got one right for change; he would fit in perfectly among the Draconis people who nearly made a religion of fastidious behavior and spotless dress.

"General Kerensky, this message is Critic priority. I have been informed by the Coordinator of the Draconis Combine that the First Lord has been assassinated and Terra—as well as other systems, number unknown—within the Hegemony taken. The usurper is Stefan Amaris, and according to Lord Kurita he claims to have control of the SDS bases. By the time you receive this message, confirmation should be available through other channels. However, I judge the information I have received as factual."

"Sir, Coordinator Kurita has instructed me to present to you the following: First, both the Draconis Combine Mustered Soldiery and the Draconis Combine Admiralty are fully mobilizing. Intelligence has really been behind the eight-ball here. The Combine has AT LEAST twice the troop strength we had based our contingency planning upon. I still have not been shown everything, but they have upwards of three hundred regiments—possibly as many as three hundred and fifty—and over four hundred and twenty WarShips."

DeChevilier whistled, as the hologram continued.

"Second, Lord Kurita wishes you to know that the Combine will not engage SLDF forces, within its borders or outside of them. Instead," a pause, as the holographic Colonel Anders shook his head, "instead, Sir, Lord Kurita has declared war upon Amaris."

At this a bolt of lightning flashed through DeChevilier. His mind flashed through the possibilities; the Combine produced what were quite possibly the best 'MechWarriors in the entirety of the Star League. This offer was beyond priceless. Turning his head, he looked at Kerensky, who solemnly nodded in agreement.

"Third, I don't know what you know of the Draconis culture, Sir. But, Lord Kurita has broken a promise—an oath—to his father in order to prosecute this war. Amaris has taken members of the Kurita family hostage, and the old Coordinator wanted to retrieve them diplomatically instead of militarily. He made Lord Kurita swear an oath to that purpose, but Lord Kurita has chosen to set that oath aside for several reasons. In doing so, he has forsaken his honor, and shamed both himself and his father. Lord Kurita has declared that following the conclusion of the campaign to bring Amaris to justice, he will commit seppuku—ritual suicide—to restore his honor."

"Fourth, he has appointed Jinjiro Kurita as Gunji-no-kanrei—equivalent to our rank of Commanding General—and has ordered him and all DCMS and DCA personnel to subordinate themselves to your command—if you accept their proposal."

"Fifth, he has ordered all state armament factories and military production centers to triple their output. The war material will be made available to the SLDF at cost, as will food and medical supplies. He has offered worlds in the Combine as bases for combined Combine/SLDF forces and asked for no compensation."

"In return for all of this, sir, he asks that for the final assault on Terra, that DCMS troops are to be included in at least the first wave, and that he will command them, personally. And that he is to be present whenever the Usurper is tried, convicted, and his sentence carried out."

"Sir, the Coordinator has also included a personal message for your attention. It will play following the conclusion of my report. Samuel T. Anders, Colonel, Star League Defense Forces, signing off."

Kerensky paused the message and stared at Aaron. Thoughts racing wildly, Aaron played through several scenarios, and then began to smile. Combine MechWarrior on the side of the angels. Who would have ever thought it? "This is a whole new ball game, Sir."

"Indeed," said Kerensky as he resumed the message.

Minoru Kurita appeared in the hologram. "General Kerensky. You have heard my proposal. Your difficulties with my son in the past are in the past, and shall remain there. He will obey you. Or he will die. Use him and his troops as you see fit. If you do not accept the proposal, then I will make war on Amaris myself, though I would prefer to coordinate with your forces. My word upon this matter, General, Amaris shall pay for his many crimes, against both you and I. Your Colonel Anders has been most helpful these past few days; I would suggest promoting him to General so that he may remain my personal liaison to the Defense Force. I await your answer on Luthien, and hope that you will join me and my staff for a strategy meeting here as soon as you are able. Farewell, General Kerensky, and good hunting."

The light from the hologram faded and silence reigned in the office for over a minute.

"A new ball game, indeed, Aaron. Indeed," and Kerensky smiled.

Chapter Three

May 30, 2767
Imperial Palace
Luthien
Draconis Combine

"General DeChevilier will command the assault on Apollo with the Fourth and Seventh Armies. With this move, General Kerensky will deprive Amaris of his source of manpower, equipment, and supply. Please note, however, the Usurper will certainly make use of Star League facilities within the Hegemony—even if he has to use forced labor. This is merely the preliminary operation, and it will be mid August before sufficient SLDF forces are within striking range to carry off the attack." Anders paused and turned from the holographic display filled with troop formations, maps, and bold arrows; such a clean, antiseptic, way to hide the horrors of war, he thought. "Questions?"

Minoru Kurita nodded his head towards the uniformed officers of the DCMS and DCA assembled here in the Draconis War Room—known by local wags as the Dragon's Lair.

"General Anders," began Admiral Matasuke, "you have told us of the SLDF plans for what you call Phase I of the Liberation. Understandably, the other phases are still being discussed and operation plans drawn up. However, you have not discussed what Draconis forces will be doing during this time frame. Are we expected to remain here, in camp, waiting on the SLDF like an anxious virgin on her wedding night?"

Chuckles arose from the room, even Minoru Kurita smiled slightly. Anders grinned broadly. "No, sir. It was my intention to brief you on what the SLDF forces will be doing—and our overall strategic plan of operation. Now having done that—if there are no further questions about what General Kerensky is doing? No? Then, Admiral, Generals, Coordinator, its time to have a look at what we will be doing."

Punching a code into his hand-held remote, Anders blanked the hologram, and then a stellar map of the Hegemony/Combine border appeared. Most of the Hegemony worlds blazed a solid lurid red—but one rapidly blinked. "Asta. Two jumps in from the Combine border. Considered by many to be a backwater world, but more importantly it is a Hegemony world that is not fortified. The planet was scheduled to receive an SDS system nearly ten years ago, but work has been slow and behind schedule. As per my last intelligence report, the system is still incomplete and off-line. As we have had no communication with Asta we can presume that Rim Worlds forces have taken the planet. It will be your job to retake it."

The officers gathered began to whisper among themselves as they as mulled the proposed operation. Finally, one of them stood.

"Yes, General Samasov?"

"General Anders, what reports do we have of the enemy strength?"

"None, General."

"Can Amaris's techs have completed the SDS over the past four months—or before the operation can be mounted?" asked another officer.

Anders shook his head. "Not according to my staff. There is just too much specialized work remaining to be done—especially on the automated fire control procedures—for a full-bore SDS system to be finished in the time frame allocated. My technical experts are not sure the SLDF could finish the project in this short a period. Certainly Amaris cannot. However, elements of the system might be on-line under manual control. Not the automated Caspers, but the ground bases certainly could. And we will not know whether or not this has been done until the operation is under way."

He waited for more questions, but the patient officers asked nothing further. Anders then continued his briefing.

"Asta is a fairly rural world, population of roughly 4.2 million, mostly concentrated here in the northern continent—known locally as North Continent, rather imaginatively." Chuckles broke out across the room; they all knew just how parochial rural planetary populations could be. "Hawkins is the capital, with a population of only 270,000. There is only local industry; no heavy factories. Before the war, Asta was primarily a farming world, mainly in this belt here, along the southern coast of North Continent. Farther north there is an extensive game management industry—Astan Ridgebacks are big, nasty, and have very valuable furs. Other prominent animals are also hunted and trapped by the local population."

"There is also some controlled logging in unpopulated areas. Astan Feroak is very highly valued among the people who can afford the exorbitant price. There is some tourism—primarily to about half-a-dozen resorts located at the hot springs in Amber's Vale, but also some adventurous people who want to brag about hunting Ridgeback. The two smaller continents have very small populations—fewer than 100,000 each—and no significant industries. Roughly 70% of the world's surface is water, and the climate is much cooler than Old Earth—ranging from the equivalent of Southern France and Central Italy here at the equator to extremely cold at the poles. There are no permanent settlements north of 45 degrees in the northern hemisphere. This region—a band about 10 degrees in latitude is very similar to the Taiga regions of Siberia and Northern Canada."

"Before the war, Asta did not have an SLDF base, either ground-side or in orbit—other than the SDS facilities undergoing construction. Since these facilities were not yet operational, no troops had been assigned to them. The only troops on the planet were local militia. However, Asta—despite its fairly small population—has the largest per capita percentage of its population that are either current or former SLDF members of any Hegemony world. There are several old armories left over from the days before the Star League—when the Hegemony did have a presence on the world and three military bases. These armories might still contain usable weapons or munitions for indigenous guerilla activities against the occupation forces. And they are probably being used, gentlemen, even as we speak. Asta is not a world whose people who can't decide what to do in a crisis."

"Taking Asta will provide us with a base of operations inside Amaris's defensive perimeter, one just a single jump away from Terra. Because of that, Gunji-no-kanrei Kurita has determined that we will make the assault on August 1."

A stir went through the room as Anders stepped to one side. Jinjiro Kurita stepped up onto the stage. "This is the first offensive act of this war by the Dragon. Everyone—in every realm—is watching. We will do this perfectly. General Fujita, your DEST teams will go in two weeks before the main assault to conduct reconnaissance and sabotage. I have been informed that the SLDF is making a dozen 'Bugs-eye' class corvettes available for their insertion. General Samasov, your command has the honor of the primary assault wave. I will arrive with the secondary planetary assault wave and the reserve—which will include all five of our Sword of Light regiments. Admiral Matasuke, the Fleet will provide covering fire from orbit—should any of the SDS ground bases become active. It will be your job to ensure the Rim Worlds navy does not prevent our landings."

Officers nodded in the dim room as the holographic projection clicked off. "And now, let us begin with the operations plan in detail," Jinjiro said, smiling.

July 18, 2767
North-west of Granger's Ford
North Continent, Asta
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

The cold rain continued to drizzle down, threatening with each passing moment to become a slushy sleet this late afternoon. Heavy gray clouds hung low, filling the valley. A perfect autumn day for a walk, thought Stephen, perfect for Asta, anyway. Temperatures hovered just above 40, though when the warm front passed, they could expect it to drop below freezing. A light snow cover, just now beginning to turn to mush, still covered most of the forest floor beneath the twenty-meter evergreens. Icy, wet branches drooped overhead, an occasional hazard anytime of the year in the Black Pine forest preserve, but a real threat during the rainy season, when the weight of ice would break branches, sending them plummeting downwards like giant spears.

There were no trails here this deep in the Black Pine, other than what the game made. Not a trace of human civilization, just the rare lodge. An accomplished—and avid—hunter, Stephen tried to spend a few weeks here every year, at least since his discharge from the service. But never before had he gone quite so deep into the primitive taiga of his favorite world. And, he thought, sighing, never with Marianne and Cassie along.

He could hear Marianne whining twenty feet behind him. Cassie at least was still in high spirits, thank God! But then, when you're six, it's hard to keep you down for long, and Cassie always did have more of an adventurous streak than her mother. He had even taught her how to shoot just before they came out here for Christmas—and didn't Marianne pitch a fit and a half about that! "Stephen, Cassie doesn't need to know that stuff. That's what your grunts are for!" Once again, he winced, remembering how Marianne had spoken about the detail, in front of the detail, no less. Sometimes, he could not remember why he had ever married the woman—at least not until he looked at Cassie and her smile.

"Damn it, Stephen, will you stop!"

Sighing, he turned back towards Marianne again. "What is it THIS time?"

"My boot is coming loose, and I have water—cold water—running down my ankle. I am tired and hungry, there are blisters on my feet, I have pulled muscles that I could SWEAR I never even had, and I really, really have to piss," she said as she began laughing, and Stephen remembered why yet again. Oh, yeah, brother, when she's up, she's UP. It's just the rest of the damn time. "It's not like I don't know what a bind we are in, dearest, but can't you just have your people with guns shoot the damn Rimmers and we go back to a nice, warm, hotel room."

Stephen walked over to where Marianne was leaning against a tree, trying to balance on one foot, while relacing the boot worn on her other. Leaning over, he brushed her forehead with his lips, "You know we can't. I've got only six men left, with just handguns, and two hunting rifles. Last word we got from Hawkins was they had landed twelve regiments of Rim World regulars, and two mercenary 'Mech units. For now, at least, we've got no choice. We have to keep pushing away from the central valley, away from the population centers. You know as well as I do what they will do with us—and Cassie—if they catch us."

His wife looked up, her face drawn and haggard—she really wasn't eating enough. But then, neither were the rest of them. Her eyes were red and her mouth pursed in a look of pure worry, "I know. I know, and it's not your fault. As much as I hate this back-water planet and your hunting trips, this time it's the only thing that saved our lives—otherwise, we would have been back in Unity City when. . . . ".

"Shhhh, hon, shhhh. We will make it. I promise you."

Brush rustled ahead of them, and one of their security detail shifted his weapon slightly as he watched. Ferns parted, shedding wet, half melted snow, and a little girl, trailed by her very own bodyguard—carrying one of their two heavy rifles—, ran towards Stephen.

"Daddy!"

"Baby, just where the dickens have you been," Stephen said in mock outrage as he scooped her up.

Cassie looked adoringly up at him, "We've been scouting, just like you showed us. Heather and I crept up to that ridge over yonder . . . ,"

"God, she's talking like a local," muttered Marianne.

". . . over THERE, MOTHER, and we saw a small lake with some houses up under the trees."

Stephen looked at Heather Schell and the guard responsible for his daughter's safety nodded. "About two kilometers away, and there are five buildings tucked beneath the trees on the lakeshore. The overhead is too thick to be spotted from the air; we got lucky to see it at just the right angle across the lake. I think it's worth a shot, at least, Sir."

Looking at his watch, Stephen noted the time—1652 local—, just two hours 'til twilight. And it's going to get really cold tonight. Cassie was still in good spirits, but even she looked tired, and could use a hot meal. God, they all could. "Gerald, you and Thom go a'callin on the locals. The rest of us will follow at a safe distance. If it looks like a trap, I will try to give you some covering fire from ab. . . ."

"No, sir. If it's a trap then you and the family will run like hell. It's my job to trip any traps intended for you and yours. That's why I wear the uniform, that's why I get paid my magnificent salary. Josh, Heather, Chuck, Laura—if it is a trap, get the family the hell out, and that's an order."

Heather Schell nodded, "Gotcha, Top. We hear gunfire, its bugout time."

Stepping close to the short, stocky man, Stephen whispered, "Top, I'm the best shot you got left. Let me cover you."

"No, and that is final, even if you do outrank me. Have them court-martial me later, L.T.," Gerald Howe, First Sergeant, SLDF whispered back. "Don't make me sucker punch you."

"Again, Top? It wouldn't be first time, would it?"

"No, sir. It wouldn't."

"Ok," Stephen said. "See if the people there will take in nine strays for the night; maybe give us some food and supplies. When you give the all-clear, the rest of us will come in."

Howe stepped back one pace and saluted, "Yes, sir," turning to Thom Pappas, "come on you devil-dog; what, you want to live forever?"

As Gerald Howe and Thom Pappas walked off into the dense undergrowth, Stephen and Cassie Cameron—last surviving members of the ruling family—watched, and Stephen said a quiet prayer as Marianne squeezed his hand.

July 18, 2767
Harrison Lodge
North Continent, Asta
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

"I can't thank you enough, Mr. Harrison," Stephen said as the last of his party stepped inside the entrance of the lodge.

"The name is Emil, my Lord, and you don't need to thank me for helping people in distress. It's what we do here in the North Country," the old man said with a smile. "Let's get you and yours in and warm, and maybe Helen, here, can fix something hot for supper, eh, Helen?"

"Supper's simmering in the kitchen, folks. Our kids and grand-kids are mostly out checking the trap-lines, or working in the hot-house, but Molly and I will get y'all fixed right up," Helen said as she knelt down, a grimace on her face as some pain caught her, and looked right at Cassie. "I got some cocoa ready to be warmed up, if you want some, sweetie."

Cassie looked up at Stephen and Marianne, her eyes suddenly big, and Stephen nodded. "Its ok, why don't you run on ahead and see what Miss Helen can fix you?"

"I'll even go with you, honey," said Marianne.

"Okey-dokey, Daddy, Mommy!" Grabbing Helen's hand, Cassie started to lead the way, then realized she didn't know where to go. Helen chuckled and took Cassie and Marianne through one of the doors on the back wall, Heather trailing along behind the little girl, as always.

Emil turned to a sideboard set deep on one wall, and opened the glass door, extracting a bottle and glasses. "Drinks, boys and girls?"

Stephen smiled, while Gerald openly grinned. "We haven't seen whiskey in the better part of four weeks, Mr. Har—Emil," said Gerald. "That would do nicely, if you don't mind."

As Emil poured the whiskey into seven glasses, neat, and passed them around, Stephen looked around the interior of the lodge. Constructed from the heavy feroak Asta was famous for, the dark polished walls contained the heat from three separate fireplaces. Beams of the same material criss-crossed overhead, and two stairs climbed up to the second floor. Towards the back of the room, another stairway descended into the ground. Granite flagstone tiles formed the floor, covered with thick rugs. Chairs and couches were scattered across the room, and as Emil sat in a well-worn recliner, everyone else found a seat—gingerly, since no one wanted to get too much dirt and mud on the Harrison's furniture. Set on the mantle over one of the fireplaces was a display case, holding a worn patch with a golden lion rampant, and a couple of dozen-odd medals—including the Medal of Valor. Two separate racks near the door held a dozen firearms, with empty spaces for a score more.

"You served, Emil, with the Lion-hearted Division?"

"Yes, my Lord, 328th Royals, I was a T-bolt jock back in the day. Retired thirty years back, and came home to Asta. Had enough separation pay and inheritance, that I was able to buy a thousand hectares and build this lodge. Been here ever since, me and my family, trapping and selling the meat and furs. We have a hot-house out back, where we raise our fruits and vegetables."

Taking a pull from his drink, Stephen's face grew still, "And have you had any news from Hawkins?"

Emil grimaced, "Yeah. Still get some radio transmissions from the capital, though the satellite video channels are down. The Rimmers are hunting you; seems they want you and that little girl of yours pretty badly, my Lord."

"I was afraid of that when they began the landings in force. We've been on the run ever since, moving from lodge to lodge."

"Figured as much, smart of you to stay low. The Rimmers have begun taking and executing hostages, until you folks are turned over to them. Not even offering a reward, just 'do it or die' type of talk."

Stephen winced at the thought of Astans being killed just to flush him out of hiding.

"It's not your fault, son. You didn't make 'em do this, and you sure as hell can't turn yourself in. You are the First Lord now, my Lord, and that little girl in the kitchen is your Heir."

"I know, Emil, I know."

*****************************************************

Later, after having eaten, and met the other members of the Harrison clan, Stephen sat upstairs in an overstuffed chair in a small drawing room just off the bedroom Emil had offered him and Marianne. He could hear water running from the bath as Marianne scrubbed dirt, fear, and anxiety from her skin. His hair still wet from his own cleansing—and God had he needed that—, Stephen struggled trying to adjust his leg.

"How is the leg, L.T." asked Gerald Howe from the open door.

"You tell me, Top," said Stephen, disgusted as he tossed the prosthetic to his bodyguard and friend.

Gerald ran a diagnostic, "Hmmmm, power levels down to about 12%. Other than that, we got green lights. The Harrison's should be able to spare a little juice and we will top the batteries off." He looked up and grinned, "You know, they got a thermal tap about four klicks away at some hot springs?"

"No kidding? I kinda wondered where they were getting their power from—any side-scatter from the transmission lines?"

"Nope, all of the lines are buried, with no leakage. L.T., they could look for us for months and fail to find this place. The Harrison's say they are willing to put us up for as long as you are willing to stay, but that's your call, sir."

Stephen sighed, "Top, I wish we could. But we can't just put these folks in danger. If the Rimmers even suspect they are helping us, it will go very badly for them."

"Teach your grandfather to suck eggs, boy. I know that. But," and Gerald paused, "it might not make any difference in the long run."

Stephen experienced a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "What's happened now?"

"Radio broadcast out of Hawkins. The Rimmers are tired of sending troops into the bush—seems the Astans have taken to hunting them, instead of ridgebacks. Instead, the populace has until midnight, August 1st to turn us in."

"Or?"

"Or they are gonna saturation nuke the entire North Continent."

"Shit."

Chapter Four

July 18, 2767
SLS
Beagle
Jump Point KV107 (Uninhabited)
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Sho-sa Hiroyoshi Tanaka had tried meditation, sleep, counting sheep, rechecking his equipment, but still he could not calm his nerves. The DEST commando was not a novice at combat; he was disgusted with himself over his anxiety. His training, however, had never prepared him for this. Sealed inside a two-meter diameter sphere; completely cut off from the outside world except for a single comm and life support line connecting him to the ship. And that annoying little imp in the back of his mind that kept repeating—over and over, like a mantra—what the old SLDF non-com had said last week. "Have I ever done it? Do I look suicidal, boy?"

The drop-pod was a SLDF design, and Hiroyoshi had never before used one—even in training. And this drop would not be a training exercise. No, once the jump was complete, he and his entire DEST team—and the eleven other DEST teams aboard the rest of the SLDF ships—and 2,592 decoy pods would burn for the surface of Asta. Nearly 2,900 hundred pods, just to try and get the 288 commando's safely to the surface. The Mark V individual landing pod (stealth) was a marvel of SLDF engineering. Radar was barely able to make out the pod, even at point-blank range. The outer surface was thermal-neutral, and once separated from the ship, zero-emissions. In fact, he had been assured that once the rocket thrusters burnt out, it would be virtually impossible to detect, let alone intercept, the pods.

If so, he thought wryly, why do we need the decoys? In point of fact, the system had never been used by anyone, even the SLDF, in actual combat conditions. And to add to his worries, once the thrusters fired, he would have no—none—zero control over the pod. It would fly a pure ballistic course, designed to hit the atmosphere and burn in. And burn was the operative word, indeed. In fact, the outer fifty centimeters of the pod were ablative surfaces designed to shear off and burn up, allowing the pod's cargo—himself—to continue his descent. Once past the upper atmosphere, four parachutes would fire in sequence, slowing his fall to a speed that MIGHT be survivable. At 5,000 meters, explosive charges will rip the pod apart, leaving him free-falling in open air. At that point, it would be just another HALO (high-altitude, low-opening) jump, and he had done dozens of those.

But, it all depended on the ship and crew getting the pod to the right place at the right time. A second too early or too late, and his pod could go screaming past Asta, soaring away into deep space until his air supply ran out. Or a Rim ship or a satellite could happen to be in his way, and he would never know until the collision. Or—and this was his deepest fear—the SDS system would be operational, and high-energy lasers and particle beams would simply devour he and his men before they ever knew they had failed.

"All personnel," the sudden voice in his ear startled Hiroyoshi, "stand by for jump, in ten seconds from mark. Mark. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six."

Steeling himself, Hiroyoshi closed his eyes and began reciting a prayer to his ancestors.

July 18, 2767
SLS
Beagle
L-2 Pirate Point
Asta
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

"Jump complete, all systems are . . . "

"Status change! Multiple hostile ships; range—200 kilometers!"

Commander Ginger Kincaid looked at the crowded display—at least a dozen Rim Worlds warships, at point blank range. "Fire the pods, get them off now, damn you! Weaps, target the closest hostile and open fire."

Turning her command chair to her engineer, he shook his head. "It will take four minutes to recycle the KF drive, even with the L/F battery. Sorry, skipper."

"Can't be helped, we were just unlucky enough to pick the wrong jump point. Maneuvering, full power on the drives; set your course 172 Mark 017."

"Ma'am, course 172, Mark 017 . . . ma'am, navicomp projects that course will result in a collision."

"You have your orders, maneuvering; go to maximum thrust on that course!"

"Aye, aye, skipper."

As the corvettes engines began to fire, accelerating the ship at 4.5 g's, the mission specialist barked out "Pods away, all pods are away!"

Well, one part of this mission is successful, Ginger thought.

"Missile launch! Multiple inbound missiles, tracking makes it 14 plus barracuda and white shark from the formation at 214 Mark 084!"

"Point-defense free! Engage as you bear!"

A series of explosions rocked the Beagle as Rim Worlds ships began firing naval autocannons, lasers, PPCs, and capital missiles. The drive system faltered momentarily then came back on-line. As the Beagle rammed the cruiser RWS Takedo Amaris amidships, her abused engines detonated, completing the destruction of the Beagle, and gutting the heavy Rim World ship.

July 19, 2767
Mid-atmosphere
North Continent, Asta
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Hiroyoshi struggled to keep his lunch down as the pod spun around and around. With a sudden BANG, the explosive charges fired, flinging pieces of the disintegrating pod away from his body. Automatically, he extended his body to form an aero-surface, stabilizing his fall. In the light of Asta's two moons, he could see the Coldgleam River to his left and Ridgeback Peak to his right. Ok, Hiroyoshi, he thought, that means your assigned drop zone is. . . . there. As he continued to free-fall, he watched his airspeed and altitude on the heads-up device contained in his helmet. Reaching 500 meters, he pulled the ripcord, and a massive shock slammed throughout his body as the para-sail deployed. Thirty seconds later, the DEST commando reached the ground, landing as lightly as a feather. Moving quickly, he disassembled the para-sail and buried it. Four hours until sunrise. He would have to move quickly to make it to the rendezvous point with his team on time. As Hiroyoshi began to move across the darkened forest, it occurred to him that if he survived the Asta campaign, then he would have to climb back into another pod for the next target. Frak me, he thought.

Chapter Five

July 31, 2767
Rim Worlds Planetary Headquarters, Hawkins
North Continent, Asta
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Hiroyoshi paused in his creep towards the two Rimmers guarding the entrance to the planetary headquarters. How thoughtful of the Rim Worlders to put spotlights here at the entrance. Though the powerful lights could identify anyone their beams swept across, they also rendered the guards night-blind. The darkness became even darker to their vision, as the spots played across the front of the compound. It had taken Hiroyoshi two hours to crawl across the one hundred and fifty meter swath of clear land surrounding the complex. Two hours of moving one inch at a time—silent and invisible.

Now he paused, just twenty feet from the closer of the two guards. They were alert—probably worried about the ongoing insurrection being waged by the Astans. The corner of Hiroyoshi's mouth twitched in a slight smile—never again would he accuse the Terrans of being pacifists and peace-mongers. No, for the past two weeks, the Astans had relentlessly sniped and bombed, stabbed and garroted isolated Rimmer units. General Brakel—the senior Rim Worlds commander—had responded by rounding up thousands of hostages, and executing them by firing squad by the hundreds every time one his troops was killed. And the resistance had—if anything—grown.

Despite fourteen regiments—two of 'Mechs—on this world, the Rimmers couldn't put down the insurrection. At least not yet, he thought. According to the radio broadcasts, if this . . . this last Cameron did not surrender himself by midnight tomorrow, then the Rim Worlds would pull out—and nuke the entire continent. But, he knew something the Rimmers did not. If everything had gone according to plan—as rare as that might be—then in one hour Admiral Matasuke's Invasion Force would jump insystem. And at that point, the Rimmers were in serious trouble.

And so, here he was, lying in the damp, cold grass just outside the planetary headquarters, waiting for his shot at the head of the Rims Worlds defense.

Click—click, the sudden sound echoed through his earpiece. Without even being aware of it, Hiroyoshi was on his feet, charging the door. To his left and right, the guards fell, two poisoned darts embedded in each of their throats, courtesy of the four members of his team providing cover. Two more team members charged in behind him. Past the main door lay a long corridor, well-lit, but empty. Dozens of identical doors lined it to the left and the right, but Hiroyoshi and his team knew exactly where they were heading.

Reaching an unmarked door two-thirds of the way down the hall on the left, they opened it and began ascending a stairway. At the third—and final—landing, the team paused and Shonani pushed a long, thin sensor probe through the slight crack in the door jamb. Turning the probe around and around, he then pulled it back. "Clear," he said, the first word spoken by any member of the DEST team in almost four hours.

Fraser pulled the door open, and Hiroyoshi went through. The three commandoes moved purposely, deliberately, as they rounded the corner. Two Rimmers stood on guard here, dead-men barely beginning to react as the silenced pistol rounds slammed into their throats. With a snap kick, Hiroyoshi forced the door open and he spun to his right, drawing his katana and slicing the Rims World Colonel from hip to shoulder in a shower of blood and gore.

Shonani and Fraser watched the corridor outside, but no alarm had been raised. Stopping before the desk, Hiroyoshi bowed to the General sitting there, his thumb frantically pushing a button, but still no alarm sounded.

"Your pardon, General Brakel, but the direct land-line for that emergency signal has been severed," he said, pointing to the shuriken he had thrown with his offhand as he entered the room. "And, as for your wireless back-up, the Coordinator has given us the best jamming devices available to the Dragon."

"You won't live to make it outside this building, and your precious Coordinator's cousin will die a painful death."

Hiroyoshi nodded. "Perhaps, but you General, will not see either event happen." And with that, his bloodied sword flashed once more, and a head fell unto the plush carpet.

Twenty minutes later, a series of explosions rocked the headquarters building, leaving it a burning shell, just after a massive explosion rocked the city from near the bay. Hiroyoshi looked up at the flames leaping into the sky from that direction. Still more explosions then occurred at the space-port, the power station, the telephone exchange, the radio broadcast stations, the broadcast media stations, and the HPG station; all had explosions erupt around them—or within them for more than a few. He shook his head; it seems one of the teams had been slightly early on the charges. So much for perfection, he thought. He smiled; their job was complete; now it all depended on Admiral Matasuke and the Invasion Force.

July 31, 2767
Industrial District, Hawkins
North Continent, Asta
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

"Ok, Top, looks good, get them set for the ambush," Stephen spoke softly into the radio.

Two-clicks on the radio gave him his answer as shadows began to move on the street below. Two weeks before, he had been at the Harrison lodge, where he and his detail had learned of the Rim Worlders plans to saturation bomb the continent. In order to kill him, his wife, and his daughter, the Rim Worlders would also kill nearly four million innocent men, women, and children. People that it was now his job to protect.

He and Marianne had had a major fight that night when he told her he was returning to Hawkins, with Gerald and Thom. Emil's sons and grandsons had volunteered to go as well—a sizable resistance force was sparring with the invaders in and around Hawkins. After having lost nearly six hundred men in the outlying areas, the Rim Worlders seemed content to remain in the capital and the few other large cities on Asta. Though his lodge was isolated, Emil had stayed in touch with his rather distant neighbors, and nearly three dozen men had shown up from this district alone to accompany Stephen back to Hawkins. All of the outlying lodges were contributing men and weapons—hunting weapons mainly, but Astan Ridgebacks took a lot of killing, and the weapons were powerful. Emil had wanted to go, but at 70 years of age, he knew that he was far past his prime for this type of fight. Marianne had bit her tongue when they had the meeting down in that huge kitchen, but lord above all had she lost it when they went upstairs. The fight lasted two hours, both of them knowing that neither would change the others mind, and they had tried to keep the noise down, neither of them wanting to upset Cassie. In the end, Marianne had broken down into tears, and then she had surprised him, making love to him with more passion than any since his wedding night—maybe for the last time ever.

The next morning, she and Cassie, the remainder of his security detail, and the Harrison clan members that would not be going with Stephen, had boarded three air-trucks, and headed out to the Windward Isles; four hundred miles off the coast of North Continent. A fishing town was out there, and thanks to the storm that had blown up during the night, it was likely they would make the trip without the Rimmers detecting them. The prevailing winds should keep the worst of the radiation away from his family. The Harrison clan and Gerald—all of his security people—had wanted him to go to. Marianne and Cassie had wanted him to go. Hell, he had WANTED to go, too. But no, this was his duty, and by God a Cameron did his duty! Even if it cost him his life while doing it.

So, here Stephen was, in the second story of an abandoned warehouse, half a kilometer from the main Rim Worlds airbase. The same airbase the resistance was going to try and knock out before it could launch the bombers that would destroy this world tomorrow night. It probably won't matter in the end, Stephen thought, they are bound to have warships in orbit. And they can kill the planet as easily as the bombers, if not quite as fast. And I can't stop them. All I can do is hurt them before they kill me and my people. But when this is over they will know that we did not just roll over and take it. No, sir, live or die this night, the Rim Worlders and the rest of humanity would know just how much courage and spirit the PEOPLE of the Hegemony had.

"Castle, castle, we are go for launch," a broken voice came over the radio. Stephen picked up his mike, "Phoenix, this is castle. Execute."

Eight kilometers away, a resistance team leader replied, "Roger. God bless sir, and good hunting." Then he pushed the button and ran like hell.

Sixteen pods of multiple-launch rockets—liberated from an old Hegemony armory the Rimmers had not located—began to fire in a closely-timed ripple. Three hundred and twenty rockets, each carrying a fifty-kilo warhead screamed over the city of Hawkins on a ballistic course towards the airfield. Their targets were carefully chosen—all four guard towers, the troop barracks, the main gate, the air control tower, and the security command center—and the most important target, the four hangers containing the Maket class assault bombers the Rim Worlders landed the previous night. Despite the care of their aiming, over fifty of the rockets went wild, impacting across the airfield, their thermobaric warheads cratering runways and detonating fuel and ammo stores. One completely overshot the airfield and devastated a (thankfully) abandoned building on the far side. The remaining two hundred and seventy, however, slammed into their assigned targets.

"Castle, this is Pointer! Looks like solid hits on all targets, the hangers are gone, sir. There's just a handful of burning craters there now."

"Roger, Pointer. Top, get them ready, the Rimmers will be here very quickly."

Click—click, went the receiver.

Flashes of light lit up the sky over Hawkins, as yet more explosions erupted throughout the city. "What the hell?" asked Stephen.

Toby Harrison—Emil's youngest grandson, all of sixteen years old—stood up, "They're nuking us! We're gonna die, we're all gon-"

"Simmer down, son, those aren't nukes." Stephen considered, as smoke and flames from over twenty other explosions rippled through the city. "Top, something hinky's going on. Pull your troops out; the ambush is scrubbed, repeat scrubbed."

Click—click, went the receiver.

"All units, this is Castle, abort mission and return to your staging areas. Await further instructions via normal channels." The men and women assigned as Stephen's detail began grabbing gear and getting ready to move, Thom Pappas stolidly watching their every move. "Ok, Thom, let's move it."

Chapter Six

July 31, 2767
DCS
Mikasa
Jump Point KV107 (Uninhabited)
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Admiral Matasuke sat in the leather-lined command chair of the Flagship of the Draconis Fleet. His staff and crew were quietly working on their assigned tasks, while the Fleet readied itself for this last jump. Collected and calm, Matasuke kept his eyes trained on the bright spot of green to one side of the bridge. Last summer, his eldest grand-child had given him that bonsai tree. A gift, trimmed by the little girl herself, and intended for the Mikasa. "Just because it's a ship of war doesn't mean it can't be pretty," she had said. And the year before, it was the cherry tree cutting, now growing in its container on the other side of the deck. And the year before that, the chrysanthemum, set forward just before the main 3-d holographic projection tank.

He was proud of his ship, named after Togo's flagship at Tsushima Straits, when he crushed the Russian Navy and secured the prominence of Japan in the eyes of the West. She was neither the newest nor the largest vessel in the Draconis Combine Admiralty, but was still the pride of the Fleet, with the best crew and officers that he could assemble. Behind him, he could feel the eyes of Minoru Kurita gazing across the bridge, and his mouth twitched as it tried to betray him with a smile. General Anders floated beside the Coordinator in zero-g, and while his mouth was set, his face lit with amusement.

"General, you wonder why I allow these plants upon the bridge of our flagship," he asked.

The Coordinator looked over, he had not wanted to voice that question, it seemed. So be it, the Admiral thought, I serve the Dragon by answering the gaijin—no, this one is not a barbarian, he has been nothing but respectful of our customs. And he has been committed to this operation, working as hard—if not harder—as my own staff. Jinjiro may smile and insult the man with honeyed false words, but for me to do so would be a failure of my own honor. Bushido demands that he be treated as I would treat our own samurai, and so I shall.

"Actually, Admiral, I was wondering why the ASSORTED plants upon the bridge of this exceptional ship?"

Rotating his command chair, Matasuke looked directly at Anders. "My grand-child made gifts of them for the ship and her crew. And because, when I am about to enter battle, I look to the cherry blossoms, the chrysanthemum blooms, the bonsai, and remember for what I am fighting."

The Coordinator slowly nodded, a dawning look of comprehension coming across his face.

"It brings me and my bridge crew peace, General Anders; an inner stillness that hushes the fear and the confusion, and allows us to fight clear-headed and with purpose."

Anders smiled. "Then by all means, Admiral, let us pray the Rim Worlds ships have left their house-plants at home."

Minoru actually chuckled at that, as did Matasuke. "My Lord," he said, addressing the Coordinator, "would you do us the honor of assuming command of the Fleet?"

"It is your ship, Admiral Matasuke. It is your fleet. Command it, and command it well."

Matasuke inserted his feet into the straps specifically placed on his command chair for this very purpose, then stood, his body straight, and he deeply bowed, holding for the bow for many seconds. Straightening, he sat, and then rotated the chair to face forward once more.

"Captain Abe, send the following signal to the Fleet—Hoist the Z Flag!"

Saluting, Captain Abe, turned back to his console, and began transmitting the order. And the fleet jumped as the bridge clock changed to 12.01 a.m., August 1, 2767.

August 1, 2767
DCS
Mikasa
L-2 Pirate Point, Asta
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

"Jump complete, Admiral. Enemy ships are within engagement range."

"Launch the fighter screen, Captain, and by all means target the enemy and engage them."

Anders watched in fascination as his first naval battle began. The Coordinator beside him—and the Otomo—sat still and silent. Probably their first naval battle too, Anders thought. Quite different from the 'Mech fights he had participated in. The Draconis crew moved quietly from station to station, nothing was shouted—in this compartment at least—but orders passed with a casual ease that belied the capital beams and shells even now slamming into the armored hull of the Mikasa.

"Gunnery officer, there are three Pinto class corvettes trying to flank us. Make them go away," Matasuke said, with a casual sangfroid that seemed unnatural to Sam. The young officer at the gunner station nodded, and softly spoke a few words into his boom microphone. Sam could feel the ship rolling onto its portside, and in the holo-tank, the three red Rim Worlds vessels began to maneuver erratically, trying desperately to make the Mikasa miss. Twenty-four naval PPC's—particle projection cannons weighing almost two thousand tons apiece—spat coherent energy at a range of less than 600 kilometers, and where once there had been three one-hundred and sixty thousand ton corvettes was now only rapidly expanding clouds of gas and debris.

"Well, done, gunnery officer. Captain Abe, where are my fighters?"

"Akagi and Kaga are launching now, Admiral. Hiryu and Soryu will launch momentarily."

A tremendous flash erupted on the holo-tank; when it died away, one of the icons representing a Combine battleship had vanished as well.

"Admiral, the Musashi was hit with a nuclear weapon. She's . . . she's gone, sir."

"Captain Abe, order the Fleet to initiate nuclear protocols."

As Abe turned to give the order, Anders thought about what that meant. To keep a single nuclear weapon from damaging more than one ship, Matasuke was spreading the fleet out. But, this also reduced their defensive fire coordination, leaving the defensive systems of each ship on her own. The plans for such an occurrence had been made months earlier, but no one had used nuclear weapons in nearly 200 years.

"Signal Kongo and Hei, Captain Abe. Release of nuclear weapons is authorized."

"Sir."

The battle cruisers Kongo and Hei turned to present broadsides to the Rim Worlds ships—fifteen cruisers, destroyers, and corvettes. As each settled on her new bearing, three Killer Whale capital missiles, tipped with nuclear warheads were launched by each ship, then three more, all aimed at different targets. The missile streaked across the hologram, crossing paths with three Rim Worlds missiles, then fifteen nuclear detonations lit the tank, and the bridge. Twelve Rim vessels vanished in the glare of nuclear fire, as did three more Combine ships—the battle cruiser Haruna, the carrier Shokaku, and the cruiser Tone.

More fire raked the Mikasa, coming from the sole surviving Rim Worlds Cruiser. As the cruiser began to accelerate towards Mikasa to bring her heavy guns into range, squadrons—groups—wings—of fighters appeared on the display. Slayers, Shilones, and Sholagars swept in over the wounded cruiser, and some exploded, hit by weapons designed to kill ships hundreds—thousands—times their size. The survivors, however, poured their own fire into the cruiser and it too died in an eye-searing glare.

August 1, 2767
DCS
Mikasa
High Orbit, Asta
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

"My Lord," Admiral Matasuke said, "I beg to report that there has been no fire from the surface, the SDS is still inoperable. We are ready to proceed."

Coordinator Minoru Kurita took a deep look at the holo-tank, the blue-green world with swirling white clouds floating in the center. "Hai, Admiral. Land the landing force."

Chapter Seven

August 1, 2767
Industrial District, Hawkins
North Continent, Asta
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

A line of bullets ricocheted across the rubble where Stephen had been standing a moment before. Cold muddy water splashed and splattered as he dove into the crater of what had once been a major roadway in the city of Hawkins. Now, it was a war zone. Smoke and dust rose from all around him as the Rim Worlds infantry continued their assault. Lifting himself on his elbows, he took a quick glance around; yes, the insurgents were shooting back. For green troops, these guys were solid, he thought, his old 42nd CAAN (Combined Armor, Aerospace, and Naval) Marine Regiment couldn't have done much better in this situation.

"Sir," a voice shouted from his side, though the sound was strangely muted. He remembered how combat did strange things to one's hearing; the constant abuse by gunfire and explosions, the screams of the wounded, some poor kid sobbing, terrified by his own lack of courage more than the enemy; all of these things numbed the brain that processed them. He shook his head to clear it and lifted a thumb at Thom. Gathering himself, he pushed himself up and into a crouch, and once again began running towards the redoubt he had designated as the last stand.

More bullets whipped through the air around them, and then a grenade landed twenty feet away. The explosion tried to knock him over, but his will kept his legs pumping, and then he and Thom dove through the open door and against the concrete wall.

Gerald Howe crawled over on his elbows, his face a mixed study in terror and rage. "You imbecile! For the love of God, L.T., at this moment you are the one man who we can NOT lose. Christ in heaven, you are frakkin' First Lord himself. First Lords do NOT walk the frakkin' perimeter like some butterbar fresh out of the Academy! Sure as HELL not when we got a couple of hundred Rim World pukes out there gunning for us like we were two-dollar whores and they just been released from serving five-to-ten."

Stephen couldn't help it, he began to laugh, and in a moment, after Gerald Howe's face turned red, then purple, then a color he could not even describe, he started laughing too. Stephen reached up and put his hand on Gerald's shoulder, still laughing. "You still think we are going to get of here, Top. That's good, the troops need to think that too," he whispered, too soft for any except Gerald and Thom to hear. "But we know the truth, there are too many of them, and they are gunning for us with a vengeance. Sure, we are going to drive this one off, and maybe the next, and if we get a miracle the next. But after that? After that Top, they bring in 'Mechs and smash us straight into the concrete. You know it; I know it; Thom knows it. So quit worrying about me eating a bullet and let me do my frakkin' job, Top Sergeant. I was a hell of platoon leader once, you know."

Gerald leaned back and rubbed the bandage covering the shrapnel wound on his right thigh. "You were, Sir, I remember. After all, I was there." Pausing he looked around, the gunfire had diminished sharply and the insurgents of the resistance were cheering, as the Rimmers began to pull back. "At least you were after I taught you few things about combat, anyway, L.T. Damn-fool idiots back at O.C.S. and the Academy; they teach everything except the things that'll keep you alive when the shit hits the fan. About the only good thing to come about from this stinking mess is that all those politically correct REMF's are probably dead by now."

Stephen levered himself up, but stayed below the level of the window. Some redoubt, he thought. An old steel-reinforced concrete building that had seen many better days. At least the rubble would stop a few rounds and give the insurgents some cover against the next attack. Extending his hand, he grabbed Gerald's wrist pulling the wounded man to his feet. "Let's find out who we lost this time, Top. Thom, it's time to pull all the troops back to here. We getting stretched too thin to hold the entire perimeter," he glanced at Gerald as he continued, "would you pass the word to fall back?"

"Yes, sir," he said as crouched and headed back outside.

Stephen and Gerald scuttled across the wrecked building—staying low to avoid giving a sniper a good shot—to a recessed stairwell descending through the floor. They went down the stairs and through a door. Inside, hand-held battery torches provided a dim illumination as the few physicians they had tried to save the lives of the wounded. Already, a dozen dead were lined against one wall, their chests and heads covered with some old burlap that had been found upstairs. Twice that many were wounded, and only three doctors—none of them trauma specialists—were to be had.

"How are we on ammo, Top?"

"Not bad, about half the troops are using weapons the Rimmers don't exactly need any more. Including some squad heavy weapons. Between that and the men down here who can't shoot, we got enough. Enough for what's coming, at least."

"And the docs?"

"If I thought the Rimmers would accept a flag of truce to extract our wounded, L.T., I would give it a try. But they won't, and you know it. We ran out of pain killers and morphine half an hour ago, so they're making do with an old case of hootch we found stashed down here. Piss-poor stuff, but strong."

Stephen stopped, and leaned against the wall for moment rubbing his artificial leg. Damn how it always itches. He stopped—his face white as a sheet as shock hit his system.

"L.T.?" Gerald was suddenly there, worry written across his face at Stephen's sudden reaction. "Let me take a look. Whoa, boyo. Good thing, you had already lost that leg, L.T., cause that's one big nasty looking hole right there."

"Top, I never even felt it hit."

"Count your blessings, L.T. Count your blessings."

Both men swiveled their heads as Thom came pounding down the stairway. "Sir, we need you up top. Now."

Stephen and Gerald broke into a run, as gunfire began to erupt once more in the distance.

*****************************************************

Senior Sergeant Rashal tal-Midon, spat brown tobacco juice out the open hatch cover of his Flea class BattleMech. He didn't like the Rim Worlders, but a job was a job, and with his resume—his record, one might say—The Chain Gang was one of the few independent regiments that would hire him. So now, here he was, working for Amaris on this crappy little world, in the crappy little Hegemony. And the crappy little Rim Worlds troops couldn't seem to get the job done this night. So, the Colonel had awakened Rashal out of a drugged stupor and sent him out here to support these PBI's—Poor Bloody Infantry—along with the other three 'Mechs in his lance.

Three blocks away, he could see the concrete structure this insurgent group was holed up in. Damn guerillas blew the air-field, the power-station, and the Rimmers own Headquarters earlier tonight, plus a dozen other targets. It was just pure blind luck that this group had been found. The Rim Worlds patrol that drove into them—literally—had been on the wrong side of the District they were patrolling. Well, they paid for that with their lives, but ever since, more and more troops had come here to take some payback. Only, the payback was going the wrong way.

What was wrong with these yokels? Sending farm-boys armed with hunting rifles chasing after trained infantry and 'Mechs? Didn't they know when they were beaten? At least the Colonel thought they had finally caught this imposter Cameron; the one who really killed Richard and his family, Emperor Amaris arriving just too late to stop the assassin from fleeing to Asta. An unguarded comm transmission earlier in the night indicated that he was leading this particular group.

"Blazer Three, let's finish this mess. Get in there and flush them out." And, then we get to go to one of the other three-score hot-spots that had erupted spontaneously during the night. Joy, just what he wanted to spend the day doing; getting shot at by the local-yokels for something other than bedding their women. And he really needed his next fix; he was starting to get antsy.

"Roger, that, Blazer Lead."

*****************************************************

Stephen sighed. This was it, the end. Four BattleMechs stood four hundred meters away, behind a burned out row of warehouses. Two Fleas, a Stinger, and a Wasp; all four were twenty-ton Scout 'Mechs. Might as well be an assault battalion for all that we can do to stop them. He knelt down next to the militia-man who had the only man-portable Short-Range-Missile launcher in their group. And their last two SRM rockets.

"You make the call; then take the shot, Paul. When you fire, I'll give the order to open up with everything we've got."

"Yes, Sir, Lord Stephen, don't you worry none about me. I can thread a sewing needle with this baby at 300 yards."

"Just make sure your sewing needle is on one of those 'Mechs, trooper."

The militia-man just smiled and hefted the launcher to one shoulder.

The Wasp began to move, and flame erupted from its back. Stephen stopped. That wasn't jump-jet exhaust, it was. . . "Everyone down, NOW!" he shouted as he dropped prone, pulling his arms up to cover his head.

*****************************************************

The concussion was tremendous as the Wasp simply exploded where it stood. Thirty meters away, the Stinger staggered around as most of its armor—and some of its internal workings—were stripped away by the force of the blast, and slammed into a nearby building, and then fell as the upper two stories collapsed down atop it. Both Fleas stumbled then righted themselves, saved from outright destruction simply by virtue of being farther away. The Rim Worlds infantry were not quite so lucky. Those not killed outright by the explosion were buried alive under collapsing buildings.

Rashal struggled to keep his 'Mech upright as dust from the crumbled buildings and black, oily smoke from the Wasp swirled around outside his cockpit. Martyr's blood, he thought, Hassan's SRM's had detonated! But, there had been no weapons fire, nothing on his scanners, nothing at all that could have done THAT.

Two more explosions ripped into the Flea less than sixty meters away from him. These explosions were around the knees of the twenty-ton 'Mech, and he watched with horror as the blocky main chassis of Carmine's 'Mech simply dropped, then hit the ground—hard—and rolled twice before stopping in front of her still upright lower legs! Shaped charges. HAND PLACED SHAPED CHARGES. That means anti-'Mech infantry; time to get the HELL out of. . . .

"Hello. Thank you for leaving this hatch open. It made my job so much easier. If you wish to die now, I promise it will be quick and relatively painless—otherwise shut this machine down and climb out here."

As Rashal looked up, he saw a gun barrel pointed right at his head. Behind the gun—holding the gun—was a soldier. His helmet and visor completely covered his head, dressed in black camouflage body armor, and . . . and wearing a sword across his back?!?

"Now, now, I know you must understand League Standard English," the voice was guttural—electronically altered, so that any who heard it would not know whether a man or woman spoke, and could not recognize the voice later. "If you do not, well then as we say in all those old movies, 'So Sorry.'"

Rashal's hands shot up into the air, "I surrender. I surrender, don't shoot."

"So hard to find good help these days, is it not, Merc? Climb out. Now, please."

*****************************************************

Stephen, Gerald, Thom and the nineteen insurgents still able to fight watched the amazing events unfold in front of them. First the Wasp's ammo blew and the resulting explosion collapsed the nearby buildings. What Rimmers were left alive had been buried beneath all that rubble. The Stinger took the brunt of the explosion erupting from the back of the Wasp; its pilot likely dead, and only its right arm stood above the mangled heap of concrete and steel. THEN, two sharp new explosions, and the upper half of one of the Flea's just FELL, leaving two lonely legs standing in the middle of a cloud of dust and smoke.

What the hell, Stephen thought, peering over the barrier of rubble that his team had built in front of the old building. Turning his head, he looked at Gerald, who seemed as stunned as he was.

"Lord Cameron?" The voice came from a loudspeaker two blocks away. "I wish to approach under a flag of truce; I will be alone, but certainly not unarmed. Please, sir, do not shoot, for I wish to speak with you."

Gerald spoke up, "Just cover the street, boys. Let's see what these people want. Hold your fire, until I fire."

Stephen nodded, and Thom yelled out, "Come on then. But come slowly—and only one."

"Agreed."

From one of the surviving buildings near where the Rim Worlds forces had been assembling, a man dressed in black camouflage armor walked out into the street, the fires providing only flickering light in the early morning hours. He was wearing a sword across his back, a pistol in a shoulder holster, and a sub-machine gun strapped across his chest, barrel pointed at the ground before him. In his right arm, he held a helmet, the visor made from one-way armor plexi. His left hand, though, he kept carefully away from any of his weapons, held out to one side, fingers spread wide. Crossing the rubble quickly and efficiently, he made his way toward Stephen's redoubt, and stopped five meters away.

"Lord Cameron, I am Sho-sa Hiroyoshi Tanaka, commanding officer Draconis Elite Strike Team Six, in service to my Lord Minoru Kurita, and the Draconis Combine." The tall, young officer bowed slowly, and then straightened once more. "You have my sincerest apologizes for our late arrival, my Lord, it was necessary that the enemy 'Mechs be committed before our presence could be revealed."

"Sho-sa Tanaka? Of the COMBINE?"

"Yes, my Lord. Oh, the Rim Worlders have not passed along the news it would seem. My Lord Kurita has declared war upon the Usurper who now sits upon the Throne of Terra. The reasons for this are many, and not subject to discussion at this time; but my Lord Cameron, he has pledged himself and his forces to your General Kerensky and is coordinating with him."

Stephen felt a tremendous weight lift from his shoulders, and his knees buckled as Thom caught him and kept him upright.

"My team is part of a pre-invasion reconnaissance and sabotage force that landed two weeks ago, Lord Cameron. In fact, I have spoken with Admiral Matasuke not an hour ago. He and his forces are in orbit, and the first wave has already begun its landing to commence the liberation of Asta."

"My Lord Kurita has requested that I find you, this 'last Cameron'. And that I bring you before him," he said, bowing once more.

Chapter Eight

August 1, 2767
Industrial District, Hawkins
North Continent, Asta
Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Gerald bristled off to one side of Stephen, and spoke, "Bring him before the Coordinator? Just like that, huh, Sho-sa? Lord Cameron is going nowhere without his security detail."

Muttering among the insurgents began, as the men considered the position they were in—and the many possibilities of treachery in Sho-sa Tanaka's bald statement.

The tall, young officer raised his hand—his empty hand—and bowed again slightly. "Perhaps I used the wrong words; if so I beg of you your pardon." Turning his head back towards Stephen, Hiroyoshi continued, "My Lord Kurita spoke with me a short time ago, my Lord Cameron. He spoke personally to me, and instructed me in this matter HIMSELF. I am to treat you as I would treat HIM, and I am to protect you and your person from all threats as though I were charged with protecting the Dragon himself. This request—and it is a request, my Lord Cameron—comes from my Lord Kurita wishing to meet the man who may well be the next First Lord of the Star League."

"And, of course, your security detail may accompany you. In whatever numbers you wish," he said, turning his head back to Gerald.

As Stephen, Gerald, and Hiroyoshi continued to speak, Toby—Tobias—Harrison looked around the wasteland that this industrial park had become during the night. Even now, dawn was breaking over the bay to the east. Smoke rose from a hundred fires burning within Hawkins, and it depressed him to see this happen to his world. I shamed Gramps last night, he thought, reacting as he had when those other explosions began. And then again, in the fighting during the night and the early morning hours; he had frozen at first, until Lord Stephen had come over and said a few quiet words in his ear. He couldn't even remember the words—the night had seemed to go on forever.

Funny, it hadn't been like Gramp's stories at all. There hadn't been any glory anywhere to be found, just pain and death, and pure, raw ugliness. And he had done things; things that would be with him forever. Done those things over and over again, because he had to, to stay alive. When that Rimmer had jumped into his firing pit, and he began struggling over the knife, and he stabbed him, again and again and again AND AGAIN! He shuddered, and asked God how was he ever supposed to FORGET?

He had wanted to come—had begged his Dad and Gramps to let him. It seemed like such an adventure, joining the First Lord himself on a quest to regain his throne! Now, he knew they were right, when they had urged him not to. But they let him. They let him come with Lord Stephen, and now he was . . . what? Toby didn't know other than he wasn't exactly Toby anymore. Might not ever be Toby again either. He remembered his Gramps words to him, just before they left two weeks ago. "Toby," he had said, "just remember this. There are lot of things out there with a Y chromosome—but that don't make 'em no man. A man takes responsibility for what he does, son. Good, bad, everything in between. He shoulders his burdens and he takes what he has coming. You just keep your head on—and you remember that. And that I am proud of you, my boy. And come what may, you got a place to come back to, ya hear? A place you can get your head back on straight. That might not mean anything now, but one day it will. Now, go on, before you make an old man cry."

Cry, Toby thought. He had done that last night. He looked down at his hands, the dirty, bloody, hands and shook. Will I ever be clean again?

A flash of light caught the corner of his eye and Toby didn't hesitate—one night can sometimes be a lifetime, and last night had taught him much. "Sniper!" he yelled as he dove at Lord Stephen.

*****************************************************

"Sho-sa Tanaka, thank you for clearing that up, my detail is—understandably—on a bit of a short fuse at the moment," Stephen said, smiling, as he glanced at Gerald, who still did not look happy.

"At the moment, however, we have a number of wounded, and not anywhere nearly enough medical supplies . . ."

"Of, course, my Lord Cameron, if you will allow my men to render assistance, I have several that are trained in field medical care?"

Stephen nodded, and Hiroyoshi quietly spoke into the small microphone along his right cheek. Six men in the same type of camouflage armor as Hiroyoshi ran past them into the building, then down the stairs. Others began spreading out throughout the rubble, looking for Rim Words survivors. When they found one, they did not pull out their medical kits nor did they waste ammunition—a sword worked just as well for treating THOSE particular wounded as a gun would have.

"Have you had any word since your invasion force landed, Sho-sa?"

"Yes, my Lord Cameron. Fifteen regiments commanded by General Samasov—six of them 'Mech units—landed in three drop zones, surrounding the capital. He was hoping to draw the Rims Worlds forces out to spare your civilians any additional casualties, but with the entire city rising up last night," Hiroyoshi shrugged, "that course of action may no longer be possible. As of thirty minutes ago, he was pushing his advance forces into the city itself to engage the Rim Worlders as fast as he can. If the schedule he gave me still holds, your SLDF 3rd Regimental Combat Team will be landing within the next hour, along with the remainder of General Samasov's assault wave."

"I knew that some Rim forces were being pulled away, but how many civilians rose up last night?"

"One of the other resistance groups let slip your name on radio traffic after you got pinned down. After that, the people of Hawkins just poured into the streets. I would estimate nearly fifteen thousand of your citizens here have taken up arms and are fighting the Rim troops across the city."

Gerald whistled.

"Yes, they saved your life when they did that, my Lord Cameron, by diverting the Rim leaders from sending enough troops to finish you off. And that also let ME know where to find you." Hiroyoshi's face broke into a smile. "Which saved your life, yet again, my Lord. You really should avoid placing yourself in such a bad position as this."

Gerald grimaced. "We're working on that, Sho-sa. Working on it hard."

Stephen grinned. "Now, Top, I wasn't that bad last night, was . . . "

"Sniper!" was shouted by someone, and Stephen's world went black as he was slammed hard in the chest and hurled to the ground.

*****************************************************

The shot came at nearly the same moment as the shout. Pandemonium ensued. The DEST commandos and the insurgents both began pouring fire into the building where the muzzle flash came from.

Gerald and Hiroyoshi reached Stephen at the same time. Toby had slammed him into the ground hard—he was unconscious and covered with blood. "Christ," whispered Gerald as the two began trying to find the wound. There was none. They looked at each other, and then at Toby, lying a few inches away. He was sputtering and trying to speak, as his blood welled up from the cavity the bullet left as it entered his back and exited his chest.

"Medic, we need a medic!" yelled Hiroyoshi, as Gerald made certain Stephen was not wounded. Hiroyoshi placed his hands over the wound, trying to stem the flow of blood, as Toby gasped for air.

Paul Geeler—electrician and part-time militia-man trained his SRM launcher on the building. Snipe at my First Lord, will you, Rim-scum. Well take this, he thought as he pulled the trigger once, then again. Two SRM rockets sped out towards the building, trailing smoke and flame as they went. Both rounds flew through the window where the shot had come, then the building exploded; shattering what glass that remained in the windows, and the entire building collapsed in cloud of concrete dust.

Hiroyoshi pressed one hand down—hard—on the wound on Toby's chest, and with the other touched Toby's face, an expression of sorrow on his own. One of the DEST medics arrived and placed an injector against Toby's neck; with a hiss morphine entered his blood stream.

Stephen shook his head, "Top? What freight train hit me?"

"You'll live, L.T., thank God." He stopped and looked away, "I don't think Toby will though. He took the bullet meant for you."

Stephen crawled over to the young man, his head still spinning from hitting the rubble.

"Toby, son, what . . . "

Toby, was still gasping, but his pain was slowly receding, as he looked up at Stephen. "I saw. Sunlight. On his. Scope. Can't. Let these. People." He groaned. "Shoot you. Sir."

The DEST medic was working frantically trying to stem the bleeding, but shaking his head.

"Tell. Tell Gramps." Toby swallowed hard. "I. I did. My best. Tried. Make him. Proud."

"I will, son, and he is proud. So am I." Stephen said, as tears filled his eyes. "Your whole family is proud, Toby; you did good tonight, boy. Real good."

"Sir. I'm. Scared. Sir." Toby was beginning to breathe more raggedly, hyper-ventilating, even as the narcotics began to smooth more of the pain away.

"Do you know the 23rd Psalms, son?" Toby nodded his head as his body shook and he kept trying to swallow. "Then let's recite together."

"The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me besides still waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his names sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."

Toby gasped for breath, and groaned as pain returned for moment, and then he raggedly continued, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life," Toby's voice trailed off and his chest stopped moving, and Stephen softly finished, "and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

Stephen stopped and sat up, tears running down his face, as Hiroyoshi took his hands away from the boy. The medic checked for a pulse and shook his head, then closed the boy's eyes and placed a bloody, torn jacket over Toby's face.

*****************************************************

"He saved two lives, this morning, my Lord Cameron, that young man did," Hiroyoshi said softly a few minutes later after they had moved the body into the basement with the others—to lie beside a brother, a cousin, and an uncle.

"How so, Hiroyoshi?"

"Yours, of course, and mine as well. I owe that young man a dept of honor, one that will be called upon as needed by his family and mine shall answer."

Stephen looked up. He had forgotten that those who protected the Coordinator would often give their own lives if they failed in their duty to protect him. Hiroyoshi nodded, "I would have brought shame upon my family for failing in the charge given me. Such things can only be cleansed one way, my Lord Cameron."

"When this is over, Hiroyoshi, I will introduce you to his family. What's left of them, at least."

"The fault is not yours, my Lord. I have spoken with others in your gallant little band, including the three relatives of 'Toby' that survived. He chose to come with you; and we would be mourning much more if he had not."

"I will have Gerald and Thom as my detail, Hiroyoshi. The rest of the resistance fighters should return to their families. Let's go meet your Coordinator."

Chapter Nine

August 4, 2767
DCS
Mikasa
High Orbit, Asta
Terran Hegemony

The low-gravity environment of the grav deck was a pure pleasure to many of the older officers waiting in the company of Minoru Kurita and his son, Jinjiro. Older men,—none save Jinjiro was younger than 49—the reduced pressure on their joints was heavenly for men who had abused them through their decades of service. Of all his senior officers, only General Samasov was absent, as he rapidly concluded his campaign against the Rim World forces below. The surviving Rim Worlders had scattered—and that decision would be fatal. Tens of thousands of Astan's were hungry for revenge, and took to the woods after those fleeing troopers. Few, if any, would survive between the hunters and the native wildlife. Their 'Mech forces had been decisively crushed; for all intents and purposes Asta was now freed of the Usurper's grip. General Samasov's casualties had been light, and his second landing had nothing more to do than pitch in to aid the civilians—there had been no remaining organized Rim Worlders to shoot at. Though Jinjiro was pleased with the light casualties among the first wave, he had been frustrated when he arrived yesterday with the second assault wave and the reserve; indignant that his command had not been needed. Needed as warriors at least, for Minoru had ordered them to aid in the assistance of the civilians below; an order that did not sit well with many of his own more hide-bound officers—including his own son.

Seven-point-seven percent, Minoru thought. Seven-point-seven percent of the entire planetary population were casualties. Three hundred and twenty-three thousand, four hundred Astan civilians had been either wounded or killed over the past eight months of the occupation—at least that was the initial numbers his intelligence briefing had quoted; it would certainly climb as they searched the planet and found the bodies of the missing. Hawkins, Powell, Sebastian, Farmington—all of Asta's major cities were mere burnout shells where the Rim Worlders had made their last stands before breaking and running; using human shields to try and avert his soldiers' wrath. Are these atrocities what we will find on ALL the occupied Hegemony worlds as we conduct this war? He had changed his mind, Amaris's troops were not mad, they were a disease; a cancer eating away at the soul of mankind. And Minoru knew, without a doubt, that were his troops to go through year after year after year of liberating such violations of the human soul, their own might begin to wither. It takes only a single atrocity to scar a man—or a nation—he thought. Father, he asked, if your spirit still answers me, strengthen my will to see this through.

*****************************************************

It had taken three days to arrange the meeting, and the first face Stephen saw after they were taken to this small compartment to prepare was a familiar one. A very familiar one.

"My god, Stephen, it really is you," General Sam Anders had grabbed Stephen's upper arms, his face gone bone-white. Thom started forward—and Gerald waved him back to where they stood in the small conference room above the DCS Mikasa.

"Hello, Sam. Yeah, it really is me."

Sam's face worked for moment, then he averted his eyes. "Joan?"

"I asked her if she wanted to come with us, Sam, I did. She wanted to stay in Unity for the holiday get-together with all of the family. I am so sorry, my friend."

Sam nodded, the pain threatening to rip its way up from where he had buried it months ago. Steeling himself, he pushed it down again, into a yawning, black abyss that threatened sometimes in the dead of night to consume him.

"I know you are Stephen, and hell, I was married to Joan—you were just her brother," he said, smiling to take the sting out of that bald statement. "So, yeah, I know that she would never have gone to Asta with you over the holiday season, not when she could be at the Court of the Star League. Marianne and Cassie?"

"They came with me—thank God. They are in good company downside, some good people who took us in and gave us shelter."

Sam nodded and collected himself, wiping a few drops from his eyes with a silk handkerchief.

"Are there any rules here that I should observe, Sam?" Stephen asked, trying to bring his brother-in-law back into the present.

"More than you have time to remember. But you are the First Lord of the Star League, brother. Or rather you will be when the Council Lords meet and confirm you in that position. Until then—act like you are. The Dracs respect strength and will—though do NOT piss off Minoru, not if you ever want to be confirmed as First Lord. First there will be some small talk; polite conversation and the like. Mainly to let the senior officers of the Combine see you and get to know you somewhat. Be distant; they will see you as a superior as long as you act like a superior. Act like a hillbilly from the backwoods and you will lose their respect fast."

"Next, Minoru will probably speak with you—alone. No guards for either of you. He will probably not speak in front of his officers. It is not how they do things. You should speak—but keep the words short, simple, and to the point. They don't like leaders who blather wildly. In private with Minoru, he will—most likely—have a relatively normal conversation. Be careful. He is very sharp, and one hell of a strategist and risk-taker. If he offers you something, look at it three times carefully, then again a fourth—there is almost certainly an angle you haven't considered and that he has."

"After the private meeting, there will be a state dinner—you've attended those before. Act like Simon, not Richard. Then the DropShip will take you back down."

Stephen nodded. This meeting would determine how his relations with Kurita would continue. Hell, he had never wanted this—for the love of God, he had been 73rd in line of succession! But, it's your duty, boyo, he thought.

*****************************************************

As the door to the lounge on the grav deck opened, conversation inside stilled. Stephen, Sam, Hiroyoshi, Gerald, and Thom entered the room. A sea of formal black uniforms, lined with red, filled this large room, but not quite to overflowing. A dozen guards stood back against one of the bulkheads—the Otomo, Stephen thought. To one side of the room, a series of buffet tables had been placed; appetizers and drinks residing upon them. Behind the tables, youthful officers press-ganged into service as servers stood respectfully still, not moving until a senior officer indicated that he wanted service. Four windows, slightly curved in parallel with the decks above and below them, graced the forward bulkhead. The stars therein lazily spun in a course around and around as the grav deck rotated about the central core of the Mikasa.

None save the Otomo—and his own detail—were armed, not even with the two swords that these men were entitled to wear. Stephen—just like Minoru—was weaponless this evening also.

Stephen suppressed the urge to sigh, and smiled instead, as he entered the compartment.

*****************************************************

The reception had been underway for nearly an hour, and Stephen was fairly happy with his performance. So far, he had managed not to commit a major gaffe, and he had met the majority of the men in this room. Introduced by Hiroyoshi in order of seniority from the least upwards, he was nearing the end of this reception. Afterwards . . . afterwards would come the important part, when he met Minoru in private. As Stephen and his detail continued to meet and greet the officers, they finally approached where Minoru, Jinjiro, and Admiral Matasuke were standing. Turning to Matasuke, Jinjiro whispered sotto voice in Japanese, "Behold the gaijin who feels he should be our master. Three days ago he was pissing his pants before our troops had to rescue him."

Conversation drifted to a halt. Many of the Combine officers looked away, as Jinjiro smiled and lifted a glass filled with sparkling liquid in Stephen's direction. Admiral Matasuke grew more rigid, and though he tried hard to repress it, a look of disgust spread across his face. Minoru said nothing. Sam winced—he knew Stephen, and knew that Stephen spoke excellent Japanese. Stephen took a deep breath, trying to control his temper, and considered how to react, when all his options were taken from him.

Hiroyoshi took two steps forward, placing himself between Jinjiro and Stephen, and bowed deeply—but did hold the bow, a subtle insult. Rising quickly, he spoke, "My Lord Jinjiro, that insult was not worthy of any Son of the Dragon, let alone the Heir. I must demand your apology to my Lord Cameron. Now."

Jinjiro's face flushed with anger. "You demand?!? Peasant! How dare you speak to me in such a fashion!"

"How dare you, my Lord, speak so towards an ally? One who has led men in battle—successfully, I may add, my Lord Jinjiro."

The room stilled for just a moment; for a second it seemed time had frozen. Shock registered on the faces of all present—save that of Minoru and Hiroyoshi—as the true insult struck home, for Jinjiro had yet to lead on the field of battle.

"Guards! Arrest this man." Jinjiro yelled, taking a step forward. "You have just signed your own death warrant, you peasant bastard."

As two of the Otomo left their positions against the wall, Minoru lifted one hand; and the guards halted in place. With a slight motion, he gestured for them to return to their station. They hurriedly did so.

"Father? What . . . ."

"Your pardon, my Lord Jinjiro," Hiroyoshi interrupted. "My Lord Kurita himself instructed me—with his own VOICE—to protect and serve my Lord Cameron as though he were the Dragon. And as I would not abide such an insult directed at the Dragon, so I shall not abide such directed at my Lord Cameron. You, my Lord Jinjiro, shall—with your own tongue and your own voice—render an apology. NOW, my Lord, or you shall answer to this insult with my steel against your own."

Hiroyoshi's eyes blazed, his every muscle quivering—and everyone in the room knew that a meter of razor-sharp steel lay upon his back. Including Jinjiro.

Jinjiro's jaw clenched, his fists opened and closed tightly, his neck and face flushed. He was a master swordsman, but Hiroyoshi was a DEST commando. He knew he was outclassed in this arena. So, he forced himself to smile.

"Of course, a misunderstanding, Lord Cameron," he spoke smoothly, though the tension and stress remained audible in his words. "I have had, perhaps, too much to drink this evening, and I should not have said what I did. I must ask for your acceptance of this—misstatement on my part."

In fluent Japanese, Stephen flatly replied, in a cold, hard, dangerous voice, "I have not yet heard an apology, Lord Jinjiro."

His face turned white, Jinjiro's eyes bulged and a vein began throbbing along his forehead. "In that case, then, I render to you my apologies for the words spoken tonight. Is that satisfactory?"

"Quite. Sho-sa Tanaka, attend me."

"Hai, my Lord Cameron," Hiroyoshi said as he straightened to attention, and resumed his post behind Stephen.

Jinjiro turned to his father, "I have lost my appetite for dining this evening, Father. I shall retire, with your permission, of course."

Minoru made a slight motion with one hand, and Jinjiro stalked—indeed nearly stormed—from the compartment, followed by half-a-dozen of the lower-ranking senior officers.

Chapter Ten

August 7, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

The sun was setting, casting long shadows across the ruins of the city of Hawkins. Stephen stood on the balcony, watching the rays of light pass through breaks in the clouds. To the east—over the sea—, the sky was a deep, rich blend of shades of red and purple, as the golden light reflected from the tips of waves. At least the fires are out, he thought. These fires. Below him, soldiers from the 3rd Regimental Combat Team (the Eridani Light Horse)—detailed to him by Colonel Bradley, their commander—patrolled the grounds, near fanatical in their devotion to keep him from harm. The news that a Cameron—a Cameron of the ruling family in line of succession to the throne—still lived had stunned the troops; their officers as well. Colonel Bradley had detailed the better part of a full regiment—comprised of officers and men from all four regiments under his command—just to protect him. Lord Minoru had further surprised him—he had gifted Stephen with DEST Six; the survivors at least; and given him Hiroyoshi as his Draconis liaison. Gerald Howe—a mere non-commissioned officer—had wanted to shrink back into the background, but Stephen refused. He point-blank told Colonel Bradley that GERALD was the chief of his detail. If Bradley did not like that, then Bradley could go to hell. Ezra Bradley had not pushed the point; Stephen had been in a serious mood that evening after returning from the Mikasa in orbit.

Marianne and Cassie had rejoined him the day before yesterday—and he had spoken with Emil and Helen Harrison and their son Roland—Toby's father—and Roland's wife Patrice. Today had been the funeral. For Toby and the other Harrison's, as well as the other fourteen men and women who had died under his command that fateful night. He attended the service—in the open fields of the Asta Memorial Cemetery—where the dead who had served Terra and her lords for nearly five hundred years lay at rest. Some of his new guards—and Colonel Bradley—were concerned about assassination attempts from the surviving Rim Worlders who had not yet been found, but they had not tried to stop him. Smart of them, he thought. I would have ripped Ezra a new one if he had. Colonel Bradley had posthumously enlisted Toby—Tobias—Harrison in the rolls of the Royal Black Watch by having his grandfather swear the oath on his behalf. Then the young man, and the others, had been laid to rest with full honors. Down to the lone bugle playing that simple, ancient, lonesome, and moving song; the song that had been written during another Civil War, nine HUNDRED years earlier.

Tomorrow . . . tomorrow he would be at the Planetary Capital to be coroneted, crowned, staked out like a goat for the tiger, he thought, and chuckled. And then he would have to make a speech, in front of the people of Asta and the journalists that had accompanied Kurita's invasion force; then send a message to General Kerensky. Before the end of the year, the speech he would give tomorrow would be played on every world inhabited by mankind in a 1,500 light-year sphere. But something about tomorrow just was not right, he knew it wasn't, but he couldn't make out what exactly. So instead of finishing the damn speech, he stood here; on this balcony of the home of Amelia Branson, heroic fighter pilot of the Reunification War and native of Asta. Amelia had been wealthy, but she had enlisted anyway—and been selected for flight school. Before the end of the War, she had accounted for fifty-seven confirmed kills—and over two hundred assists. Then she returned home and spent the rest of her life in Asta's politics. When she died childless, her will left her home to the government of Asta, and they had chosen to preserve it ever since as the residence of the family of the First Lord whenever they visited this beautiful, cold, primeval world. The Rim Worlders hadn't known of its history, so they hadn't bothered to destroy it, though one of the regimental commanders had commandeered it as his headquarters. Somehow, the fighting had spared it and now—thoroughly cleaned—it once more housed a First Lord, or someone who was almost a First Lord.

"Stephen?"

The soprano voice from behind him belonged to Marianne. It was filled with worry; oh, she was certainly used to his sulks by now, but this wasn't really one of them. It was worse.

"Lovely evening isn't it, Marianne. There should be some frost by morning."

He heard her heels clicking on the brick-work as she walked over beside him, and leaned against the rail—looking at him, not the sky nor the city, not the sea nor the gardens, at HIM. And she leaned over and kissed him.

August 7, 2767

DCS Mikasa

High Orbit, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Minoru Kurita sat in his private stateroom with Hideki Matasuke, Gregor Samasov, and Mitsuo Fujita. Jinjiro had been scheduled to attend, but sent his apologies; urgent matters with the DCMS required his attention. The three men—the Draconis Combine's three most senior commanders and his oldest surviving friends—set easily in the presence of their Lord and Commander. They were alone—not even a single member of the Otomo stood watch over them; though they did stand post outside these quarters, and each of the three had been thoroughly searched before being allowed to enter.

"He is no Richard," Minoru said, as he sat down the cup of hot tea he had been sipping from.

Matasuke smiled, "No. And he is what no Cameron has been for nearly a century—a warrior, perhaps even at heart a samurai."

"I did not see his performance aboard ship, my Lord, but when I met him . . .," Samasov paused, attempting to put the perfect words to voice his thoughts, ". . . I was startled by his intensity."

"Hai," Fujita spoke. He HAD been at the eventful meeting three short days ago. "His behavior was . . . almost Draconis."

Minoru nodded. "I will cast my ballot to confirm him. I knew the moment I met him he had the will and strength to govern; that he could instill such loyalty in a young officer like your Tanaka merely confirmed it."

Fujita sipped from his cup, and looked up, "It is for the best, perhaps, that you assigned Tanaka to Lord Cameron, my Lord. I have heard whispers from some of our more . . . impetuous officers that they intend to avenge this insult to your son."

"My son deserved what face he lost. He has not impressed me over the past week. Though . . .," Minoru paused and took a sip, "though he did plan this campaign most thoroughly and in great detail."

"My Lord," Matasuke began, "the qualities of a staff officer, who makes plans and looks to the details to ensure their success are quite different from a commanding officer. So far, at least, the Gunji-no-kanrei has had no chance to demonstrate his level of competence in that arena."

"Hai."

Nodding, Samasov pitched in, "This operation he has planned for Saffel. He is proposing to lead and command the first wave, my Lord. Now, like Asta, Saffel has not been fortified, but we have no idea what they will be walking into. And he has moved the timetable forward—to late September! We are still trying to organize our logistics—never in our history have we moved so many troops and ships so quickly. Asta will have to be garrisoned against counter-attack, my Lord, on the ground and in orbit—and at all the jump points. So, at best he would have half the forces committed here, perhaps two-thirds if you pulled in the reserves from Benjamin."

Minoru raised his hand—and the three generals fell silent. "He is Gunji-no-kanrei. He commands this force, unless and until I deem otherwise. Perhaps we should see what he can do without me there to distract him. I shall remain here, where I may hold discussions with Lord Cameron and await the Council meeting in November. Jinjiro may launch his assault upon Saffel; perhaps we may liberate two worlds of the Hegemony before the coming of the new year."

There were no responses—none were needed, as Minoru once more raised the cup to his lips.

August 7, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

"Why are you so . . . tense, love?" Marianne asked after they came back in, the last vestiges of daylight fading outside.

She sat in one of the overstuffed chairs, and picked up her drink—a tall crystal glass set in a silver holder—and sipped at the hot liquid. Stephen could smell the cinnamon and vanilla rising in the cocoa's steam.

He smiled, and she laughed. "Yes, it is hot chocolate. Helen is downstairs and made some for Cassie—and me." She looked away. "She says she needs to keep busy; you know they are going home tomorrow after the speech."

Stephen's mood plunged. "I know."

"Don't do this to yourself, Stephen."

"Do what?"

"Shut down your emotions; lock up your feelings and bury them like you don't have a heart."

"I can't just show what I feel, Marianne! I have to keep up . . ."

"Bullshit."

Stephen stopped. Marianne was always so proper. Seldom, if ever, cursed.

She sighed. "Stephen, you were the best man I had ever met." She looked up at him, and her eyes twinkled, "I knew from the day I was introduced to you that one day I would be Ms. Stephen Cameron, and that no matter what you did with your life, I would be there. I KNOW you. This is not you, you are trying to be Simon, and Ian, and James-frakking-McKenna. Be Stephen Cameron, love. Be the man I married and with whom we made the best thing that ever happened to either of our lives."

"Marianne, I am . . . "

"I am not finished. You are so busy trying to act like the First Lord, you are losing yourself. Forget about all those people outside who need you to do something. Be YOU, Stephen. Be who you are; and if that isn't good enough for the Kurita's and the Kerensky's and the Steiner's and every other person in the whole damned Inner Sphere; well, then frak them.

"Be the MAN that I married, not the politician that wrote this . . . garbage," she said as she picked up the draft of the speech he had written for tomorrow, handed it to him, and walked out of the room.

As the door closed, Stephen placed his head in his hands, and the tension inside began to die down. Could it really be so simple? Could that be why he knew tomorrow was all WRONG? She's right, I'm trying to be other people; and I can't. She's right; he thought looking up, as an idea began to take shape in his head. Tossing the draft of his speech into the roaring fireplace, he opened the door and followed his wife downstairs—to spend his evening with his family, and the Harrison's.

Chapter Eleven

August 8, 2767

Industrial District, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

The well groomed man stood in front of the piles of rubble, stained in places with clumps of reddish brown. He was dressed casually, but his khaki field jacket had never come from a government warehouse; his combat boots alone would have cost most soldier's a months pay. His crew were assembled before him, making certain the lighting was correct; when they nodded, he spoke, "OK, then, let's do this."

The powerful lights on the camera turned on and the man picked up the slender microphone in his manicured hand.

"This is Brian Hopkins, reporting for Interstellar News Network, broadcasting from the planet Asta in the Terran Hegemony. Over seven months ago, all of us learned that Stefan Amaris had assassinated the First Lord of the Star League and laid claim to the worlds of Terran Hegemony. His troops—in a brilliant and ruthless stroke of planning and foresight—were positioned throughout the Hegemony worlds. They quickly overpowered what little defenses the SLDF Army had left behind as it fought the uprising in the Periphery states. Asta was one of those worlds. And it remained under the heel of Amaris and his brutal followers until one week ago today. Coordinator Minoru Kurita—leader of the Draconis Combine—led a combined strike force of his troops and Star League soldiers of the Regular Army and retook this world in less than two days of campaigning."

"The people of Asta greatly suffered under the cruel tyrant; official estimates—and estimates are all we may ever have—are that nearly 400,000 citizens of this jewel of the Hegemony were killed or wounded during the occupation. I learned—soon after I landed with the MechWarrior's of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Galedon Regulars taking part in the first assault wave—that the Astan's had fought the Usurper with a guerilla-style insurgency. And that this; in part; accounted for the terrible losses they suffered. But only today have I learned the reason behind their uprising against the troops and the 'Mechs and the other war machines of their occupiers. The reason that Amaris sent over a dozen regiments of his best troops to this pristine, undeveloped world."

"A Cameron of the ruling line was alive and well on this planet following the Coup." Hopkins paused and nodded. "Stephen James Cameron, 73rd in line of succession to First Lord Richard Cameron—a distant cousin of our slain First Lord—had chosen to spend that fateful holiday season alone with his wife and daughter, here on Asta. He escaped the murder that Amaris committed against all other living members of his family on Terra, and eluded the assassins sent after him by the Rim Worlds forces for over eight months. A true Cameron, he then led insurgents on attacks against the occupation forces, preventing the Rim World forces from carrying out their threat to saturation bomb the entire planet with nuclear weapons. When the Star League and Combine forces arrived to liberate this world, Stephen Cameron was engaged in a fire-fight, right here, on this spot, with Rim Worlds forces."

"Today, here, in this war-torn district of Hawkins—the capital city of Asta—Stephen James Cameron will take upon himself his inheritance, and the duties of the First Lord. He will then address the people of Asta; indeed, all people throughout the Inner Sphere immediately following the ceremony. INN will cover the coronation and address, in its entirety. This is Brian Hopkins, reporting, from liberated Asta, in the Terran Hegemony."

*****************************************************

"But, it hasn't been done in over two hundred years, my Lord!" Alistair Fairbanks whined at Stephen, as Marianne adjusted his hastily-tailored suit. Stephen repressed a sigh—he had been doing THAT a lot, recently—and considered his answer. Fairbanks was the newly sworn Governor of Asta—the old Governor, his deputy, and most of the Assembly had been shot in the first week after the Amaris troops took the planet. Fairbanks had survived, and with Asta liberated, the former Assembly whip had popped up from hiding to become its newest governor. That would hold until the next election only; already Astan's who knew the man were talking about a recall. He had only held the office for four hours now! And the man had been whining to Stephen for the past two and a half of that.

"Governor Fairbanks, I know that no one since Ian Cameron has done this. I even know why they have not. But I will. Since it seems to bother you so much, feel free not to attend."

As Fairbanks began to sputter and gasp, Stephen continued, "In fact, Governor, why don't you just go on home. Now."

Thom stepped up to one side of the man and touched his arm, "Sir, if you would follow me." He motioned towards the door, leading the man out before he could recover enough breath to argue still more.

Marianne jerked his ascot slightly and smiled at him as she smoothed it out. "I thought you would do that two hours ago, love. You must be mellowing in your old age."

"I tuned him out, quite some time ago, dearest. I was thinking about you last night—you know you are still as beautiful to me as the day I married you?"

"Bet you say that to all the girls, soldier-boy. They love you long time?"

"Only you, Marianne, only you. 'Til death do us part, remember?"

She placed her arms around his neck and kissed him—deeply and longingly. "Knock their socks off, lover," she said, stepping back and nodding at him in approval. She and Cassie would be sitting in the hastily erected VIP stands—Heather and her detail providing cover. He had wanted her to stand with him on the stage; but she said no. This was his moment, now that he had his bearings; this was his time.

Hiroyoshi cleared his throat, "Two minutes, my Lord Cameron, my Lady Cameron."

*****************************************************

As Stephen stepped out onto the stage built this morning, he could FEEL the thunder of applause from the nearly one hundred thousand Astan's who had assembled here from across the planet. Here at this little section of asphalt and concrete where he had nearly died seven days earlier; where Toby had given his life so that Stephen might live. He thought it fitting—to Toby, to the seventeen others who gave their lives at this spot, to the tens of thousands who had fought—to hold the ceremony on this hallowed ground. It had been originally scheduled for the Planetary Capital—all clean and sparkling. But last night he had changed the venue; over the objections of everyone but Marianne. No, this felt RIGHT.

As he walked to the podium, he could see Justice Morrow waiting, in his formal black magisterial robes, holding in his hands a Bible. The eighty-four year old Morrow was one of seven Justices who sat on the Star League's Supreme Court—and the holiday break in their deliberations had found him returned home, here to Asta. Whether any of the other Justices were alive or dead, Stephen had no clue. He stepped up to the Justice and took a deep breath, then reached out and accepted the hand that was offered him, and shook it.

"God bless, son. And good luck," the old man whispered.

Stephen nodded, trying to swallow, as the crowd—interspaced with soldiers, Terran and Combine both—continued to applaud.

Morrow turned to the podium and held up his hands; slowly the crowd quieted. Then, he turned to Stephen.

"Raise you right hand and place your left upon the book you have chosen."

Stephen stepped up and did so.

"Repeat after me . . . I,"

"I, Stephen James Cameron, do solemnly swear, upon the book of faith in which I have trust, before God and Man, witnesses both near and far, that I will execute the office of Director-General of the Terran Hegemony. That without reservation or evasion, I take upon myself, the Duty, to the best of my ability, to preserve, protect, and defend the Grand Charter of the Hegemony and the People who are its greatest treasure. So help me God," Stephen finished, as the crowd erupted once more, the cameras of a dozen news agencies catching everything on disk.

"So help you God," said Morrow. He leaned over close to Stephen and whispered, "I will pray for you, boy. I will."

Then Morrow shook his hand again and made his way off the stage.

*****************************************************

It took fifteen minutes for the thunderous applause to die away. Fifteen minutes, standing in the light, watching his people cheer. Cheering not for him, precisely; rather for the ideals that the Grand Charter stood, the ideals that had founded the Star League—and since faded to nearly nothing. You are only mortal, he thought. Flesh and blood, and he looked across the crowd, finally spotting the only two faces who really mattered. And then, as it grew silent once more, he began.

"No Cameron in two centuries has taken the Oath I swore today. Not since Ian Cameron presided over the founding of the Star League and my family decided that was to be our legacy. But, we began centuries before that, when James McKenna wrote the Grand Charter and became our first Director-General. Since then, we have changed much, but this has always been true; without the people of the Hegemony, the Hegemony does not exist. Without the Hegemony there can be no League. And without the League, there would only be war, unending war, relentless and total war."

"Now, in the darkest hour of our time, I once again take the title of Director-General. I have sworn the same oath that James McKenna himself penned before he solemnly swore it. And I give you this promise—that when the Hegemony has been liberated, and Stefan Amaris brought to justice for the crimes he has committed, I will stand to a vote, as the Grand Charter intended. The people of the Hegemony, the people of Asta and Terra and New Earth and Dieron and Caph and Northwind and one hundred and twenty-six other worlds will determine if I am to remain as their leader in a free and fair election."

"I assume the mantle of First Lord, given to the Cameron line at the signing of the League Accords nearly two hundred years ago. In that time, my family has done many great things—and many poor things. We—and the leaders of all the Great Houses—wrote the documents that guide us. And we promptly ignored that which we had written. We created the situation where Amaris could achieve what he has done by failing to do our duty to the laws we had made. We placed tax burdens upon our brothers and sisters in the Periphery that the people of Asta would never willingly pay, and yet do not give them a voice in Council."

"After all, they are only Territorial States. Not full Member Nations. We had to conquer them, and it cost us twenty years and nearly one hundred million lives to do so. And ever since, we demand more and more from them, until they are being crushed beneath the weight of us. For what reason did we do this? Greed."

"GREED! We wanted more, we wanted their prosperity, their ingenuity; we wanted their souls. And we sucked them dry. Amaris can not, and WILL NOT, excuse his actions because of our bad dealings. But neither does it make those dealings right. It may be too late to change our course, but my tenure as First Lord will make the attempt. I intend to offer full Member Nation status to the Territorial States of the Outworlds Alliance, the Magistracy of Canopus, and the Taurian Concordat. They will pay the same taxes as we do. They will have the same VOICE that WE do. And I intend to grant them full voting privileges in Council."

"This will be a long, bloody war to retake our worlds, and rescue our brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers, our human family that resides on occupied ground. But we will not falter in this. Already, General Kerensky is reducing Amaris's homeland, stopping the flow of supplies, manpower, and equipment to the Usurper sitting upon the Throne of Terra, in the Court of the Star League. Volunteers have already stepped forward to serve. More arrive daily. Men and material are flowing in numbers never before seen as throughout the Inner Sphere, people—OUR PEOPLE—choose to gallantly risk their own lives to save others whom they have never even met."

"But what of the leaders of the Five Great Houses? What of them?"

"Minoru Kurita has stood beside me. Four days ago, we shook hands aboard the flagship of the Combine Fleet in orbit; he is committed for the duration. His nation is committed, and for that we are eternally grateful. We will remember always the debt we owe to Minoru Kurita and his heirs. The Dragon has come to our defense, and he shall be honored for his deeds."

"The others wait. Some have had difficulties in the past with my family; others with General Kerensky; some with our policies. But they wait, and while they wait people are dying. The Star League itself is dying."

"Fifty years from now, when your grand-children ask you this—Where were you, when the League fell?—what will your answer be? When war and rumor of war are constant and your people suffer in anguish—what will your answer be?"

"John Davion, in your grand palace on New Avalon. Where were YOU, when the League fell? Where were YOU, when the Pope was tortured and made a martyr of YOUR faith, by faithless men in service to Amaris? When your people cried out to rescue their brothers and sisters held in bondage. John Davion, WHERE WERE YOU?"

"Robert Steiner, in your cold halls of Tharkad. Where were YOU, when the League fell? Where were YOU, when Summer was taken, and Victoria Steiner, that grand old dame of film, your own cousin, was forced to make pornography for the wretched villains who eagerly follow Amaris. Robert Steiner, WHERE WERE YOU?"

"Kenyon Marik, in your mountain fortress of Atreus. Where were YOU, when the League fell? Where were YOU, when your people demanded their Captain-General lead? Where were YOU when the people of the Hegemony begged for your help? Kenyon Marik, WHERE WERE YOU?"

"Barbara Liao, in your rich estates on Sian. Where were YOU, when the League fell? Where were YOU, when barbarism rose up and swallowed Terra? When the brothers and sisters of your own Highland Regiments were slaughtered as they tried to defend their First Lord; and the Black Watch fell. Barbara Liao, WHERE WERE YOU?"

"And you, each of you out there. Where were you, this day? And what answer will you give—fifty years hence, to the little boy or girl asking that question?"

"Some have tried to call me heroic, for what I did here, at this place we stand today. I am not. I had no choice—my hand was forced, for if I did not fight, I would have died, and my family with me. You have a choice. Each of you has a choice. And I am asking—begging—for your help. I can not do it alone. Not even with Kerensky and Kurita. This is something that must be done by us all, so that in the end we can keep our souls—and be the men and women that we want to be. That we can be. THAT WE SHOULD BE."

"Right there, right next to those cameras, a stain lies upon the rubble. That stain was left by the blood of a sixteen year old boy—Tobias Harrison—who gave his life taking a bullet meant for me. He leapt between me and the sniper, and he died in my arms—on that very spot. If you want a hero, there's your hero. YOU CAN BE THAT HERO."

"As we get ready to go forth, we have much work to do. Blood will be spilled and tears will be shed. Families across the length and breadth of the Inner Sphere will mourn. But we have always rolled up our sleeves and gone to work when we had to. And now, we have to. So I ask you, WILL YOU STAND WITH ME? Or will you wait, until the play is done, and the curtain falls on civilization? Finally, in the words of that ancient Terran philosopher—it's time, and past time, let's git 'er done."

And Stephen left the stage to a thunderous ovation.

Chapter Twelve

August 12, 2767

Sea World, San Diego

North America, Terra

Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

General Luis Kraal nervously made his way across the metal platforms arrayed over the tops of the holding tanks. He hated the ocean—and the creatures that dwelled in it. But his Emperor had commanded, so here he was. Ahead of him, Emperor Stefan stood on an elevated platform with his son, five-year old Khalid, feeding the sea-life that graced the symbol of his nation. The Emperor had been delighted when he first saw these beasts, years before—Apollo had nothing like them, and films and computer files did not do them justice. Now, as Emperor, he had access to this facility whenever he desired, and today was an educational lesson for the son and heir.

His aide, Major Walter Chou, assisted Kraal as he climbed the last series of ladders to the platform. Amaris's personal guard watched both men closely as they climbed, though they knew both well. A third man stood with the Emperor and his son—Colonel Gunthar von Strang, the Emperor's preferred hatchetman and trouble-shooter, the commander of the 18th Amaris Chasseurs, the Death's Head Regiment. Kraal shuddered; he was not a man who spooked easily, but Gunthar von Strang frightened him. Von Strang had no conscience—no soul, some said—he could just as easily celebrate with the guests at a party as he would kill everyone there on orders from his Imperial master.

At the edge of the platform, Kraal and his aide waited as Amaris—on one knee—spoke softly to his son, telling him all about the sharks swimming below. As Kraal watched, the boy lifted a ladle from a bucket—a dripping, red-coated ladle filled with offal—and tossed its contents into the water. When the chum hit, the sharks began to grow more and more agitated. Stefan smiled and whispered something to the boy, who smiled back. Then he noticed Kraal, and the smile vanished.

"Your Majesty!" Kraal said, coming to attention and saluting; all moisture having fled his mouth, his heart pounding.

Amaris stood and walked over to him.

"General Kraal, my right arm, my trusted right arm, why have you failed me?"

"I . . . I, failed you, my Master?" Kraal was freely sweating now.

"Did I not say that this last Cameron and his family must die, General? Gunthar, I thought that I said that, eight months ago!" His voice rose, until Amaris fairly screamed at Kraal.

"You did, your Majesty." von Strang smiled as he spoke, his face boyish and quite handsome; and Kraal began shaking more as Gunthar von Strang looked at him like one of those fish below would look upon their next meal.

Amaris stepped back. "So, General, why then is this IMPOSTER still living? Why did our forces on Asta fail to prevent that bastard Kurita from taking the planet? WHY? Explain this to me."

"Sire," Kraal paused and tried to collect himself. "Sire, General Brakel was given the assignment, not I. I have been here at your side, Sire. Brakel failed you, your Majesty, and had he lived, he would have deserved your fury. I . . .," he took a deep breath and knelt, "I have a plan to eliminate this Cameron—and Minoru Kurita, most blessed and divine Majesty."

Amaris stopped and smiled. "A plan, Luis, my old friend? Please, by all means, let us hear of it."

"Your agent in the SLDF 3rd Regimental Combat Team has contacted us, Sire. He has passed along information about the next operation Kurita is conducting. Jinjiro Kurita—Minoru's son and heir—will personally lead an assault on Saffel to take place on September 25th. He is drawing his invasion force from those Draconis and Star League troops on Asta—so neither will be as strong as the invasion that destroyed Brakel's forces."

"Saffel? Interesting. Gunthar?"

"It is not fortified, my Master, there is no SDS in that system. We have a single 'Mech regiment and eight of conventional forces based upon the world." Turning to Kraal, he asked, "What strength will Jinjiro have?"

"According to his Imperial Majesty's agent, forty-five regiments—nine of them 'Mech, including two of the four SLDF regiments of the 3rd RCT, with half of their fleet to provide escort and transport. This is half the number that took Asta—the rest will remain at Asta where Minoru and the last Cameron are waiting for a meeting of the Council."

"Guard, get me Commodore Daragou on your sat-comm," Amaris said.

One of Amaris's guards set down the heavy back-pack satellite communications device he had been wearing, and began to place the call.

Amaris began pacing up and down the platform, smiling when he saw his son still pitching ladles of chum into the tank.

"Major Chou, is this information accurate?"

Kraal nearly panicked; Amaris asked his AIDE, not him? His shaking increased.

"Yes, your Majesty."

"Good. Then you, General Chou will take and command fifteen regiments of 'Mechs from the reserve here on Terra to Saffel; Gunthar will assign them to you. Bring me Jinjiro Kurita's head, General Chou."

Walter Chou came to attention and saluted, then turned and left, leaving Kraal alone, with Amaris and his son, his guards, and Gunthar von Strang.

"My Lord, Commodore Daragou," the guard said.

"Commodore," Amaris spoke, taking the microphone. "Are our newest ships ready for an excursion?"

Static filled the channel for a second, and then cleared. "Yes, your Majesty. The ships and crews are ready."

"Excellent, Commodore, most excellent. Prepare a briefing for me for a counter-offensive against Asta, on or about the 25th of September, if you please, then Commodore."

"What ground troops should I include in the operations plan, Sire?"

"Why, NONE, Commodore. They will not be needed. I simply want you to turn Asta into a charred piece of rock, with nothing living upon its surface."

"Of course, Sire. Then with your leave, may I begin planning the operation, your Majesty?"

"Yes, Commodore, you most certainly may."

Amaris turned back to Kraal and smiled again. Then he looked down at his son. "Khalid, what should an Emperor do with those who fail him?"

The boy looked up. "Hurt them, father. They fail you because they don't love you enough. And if they don't love you enough, then they hate you."

"Most correct, Khalid. Such a darling boy, wouldn't you say, Luis, my old friend?"

Kraal turned to run, but Gunthar von Strang was there, and a sudden shove thrust him into the open air over the tank. Kraal felt a shock when he hit as the icy water enveloped him.

Stefan Amaris and his son Khalid, along with Colonel von Strang, stood watching as the hungry sharks ripped Luis Kraal to pieces; his screams echoing through the complex, as the water quickly turned to a frothy red.

Chapter Thirteen

August 18, 2767

The White Palace, Avalon City

Continent Alpha, New Avalon

Federated Suns

John Davion stood leaning against the sill of the window in office, looking out over the bright morning sunshine. Across the Square, the spires of St. Mark's Cathedral rose into the air, as its bells tolled on this Sunday morning. People moved about, enjoying the fine morning air, as they traveled on their business, unaware the First Prince of the Federated Suns watched. His people, who owed him their fealty, but what did he owe them? Questions, he had only questions, ever since that damned broadcast yesterday. And too few answers were to be had.

The intercom on his desk buzzed. Taking two steps he pressed the receive key, "Yes?"

"Your Highness, your Council is assembled in the conference room and waiting for you."

"Thank you, Abigail, tell them I will be there momentarily."

As he finished, he looked around his office once more—the same office where Lucien and Reynard and Alexander had in their time sat—the 'Great Princes' of the Davion line. What would they do, he wondered? Am I worthy to be in their company? And then he strode from the office, his head inclined to the floor in thought.

*****************************************************

The Privy Council was assembled as it waited for the arrival of the First Prince. The ministers—six men and four women—sat making small talk as they waited. Finally, the door opened, and John Davion—First Prince of the Federated Suns—entered the room. Saying a few pleasant greetings, he took his seat at the head of the table, and rapped the gavel twice—which automatically started the recording devices concealed within the massive table itself.

Then he spoke.

"This emergency meeting of the Privy Council of the Federated Suns is hereby called to order. The first—and only—piece of business for today is yesterday's broadcast from Asta. I open the table to comments."

He looked at Finance, and she answered. "The economy is going strong; what with the stimulus packages you put in play after the Coup, Sire. Entering this conflict will affect that. I can't say for certain, but it could have a negative impact on our economy. My advice is to stay clear."

Science and Education was next. "My Ministry has no bearing on this, but as a FedSuns citizen, Sire, we should avoid going to war."

"Why?" asked John Davion.

"Sire, this is NOT our war. It is an internal affair between Cameron and Amaris and Kerensky. Even Kurita should not have been involved. Simply put, your Highness, it is not our fight."

"Agreed," said the Minster of the Draconis Marches. His bailiwick placed him continually at odds with House Kurita, and the people he represented were concerned with the Dragon. "Besides, letting Cameron and Kurita go it alone will go a long way in reducing the Combine's military strength, right Marshall?"

The Marshall of the Armed Forces of the Federated Suns—the AFFS—looked up, "Yes. Besides, Sire, we aren't ready. We should wait, and watch, and if we see an opportunity, then take it."

"You should consider your Highness that until the High Council meets and confirms either Amaris or Cameron as First Lord; the request he made in that broadcast yesterday has no LEGAL basis. In point-of-fact, Stephen Cameron is NOT Director-General of the Hegemony; the argument could be made that he assumed that post in a fashion as illegal as Amaris's Coup was," Justice pointed out in her own serene, convoluted way.

"And for what purpose would be do that, Karen?" asked John Davion.

She smiled, "We all know that you were going to be Regent for Richard before Kerensky was pushed into accepting it. We have the closest relationship of any of the Great Houses with the Cameron family. If Stephen Cameron is found to have acted outside the scope of the law, then you, your Highness would become next in line to be First Lord."

"I am not certain that the other Great Lords would agree," said Foreign Affairs, "but we could certainly make the case that Cassandra—his daughter—be given to John to raise as her Regent while Stephen either went into exile or served time."

The Minister of the Capellan March then spoke up, "It would be better to assume the Regency; many of our people would see superseding a living Cameron as presumptuous."

"And we need to gather more information, Sire. It appears that Kurita and Amaris have both greatly exceeded the agreed upon limits of their House forces. My people are gathering that information now, but before we act at all, we need facts, not supposition," Intelligence said.

John Davion held up a hand, and silence descended across the room. He stood and began to pace. "Didn't any of you WATCH the damn broadcast yesterday?"

Administration spoke, "Yes, your Highness. We all watched it. But our first—and only concern—should be with the Federated Suns. As should yours, Sire."

"Stephen Cameron is just a beggar prince at the moment; of no political consequence, Prince John. He is a passing moment in the footnotes of history," voiced the Minister of the Crucis March.

"John, I served your father, and I have served you now for over a decade and a half. The smart thing to do, my Lord, is to wait and watch. Now, we will certainly give our aid to General Kerensky, you've already directed us to begin doing that both clandestinely and openly. Star League ships and divisions have access to our bases and supplies, and Howard here has been giving them looks at our intel reports, right Howard?"

"Right, Marshall," replied Intelligence.

"So, before we commit our troops—our citizens—to a long and bloody conflict, it just makes sense to determine all of the relevant facts. That's all we are saying, your Highness," the Marshall concluded.

John Davion looked at the men and women of his Privy Council. Men and women he had personally appointed to their posts. He could see it written on their faces. "I remember a Davion prince who was once nothing more than a beggar," he whispered. "He is now remembered as our greatest leader in history."

Justice scornfully said, "You can't possible compare Stephen Cameron to Alexander Davion in any way, your Highness!"

John looked down at his hands and sat, heavily, in the chair which Lucien, Reynard, and Alexander had sat so many years before. "I call the vote. Shall the Federated Suns mobilize for war on behalf of the House of Cameron and the Star League?"

One by one, the ten men and women at the table voiced their vote—NO. John nodded his head, "Ten nays—and one aye—the ayes are carried."

He lifted his head, and fire glinted in his eyes are he looked at his Ministers; his friends; his family. "I will expect your resignations on my desk by this time tomorrow."

Chaos erupted as each Minister began speaking, and John slammed his open palm down on the table—hard. A sharp CRACK sounded through the room, and the sound died away, as it grew quiet.

"I watched that address yesterday. I LISTENED TO IT YESTERDAY. You are all correct; the SMART thing for the Federated Suns is to wait. BUT THAT IS NOT THE RIGHT THING!" John stopped and sat back, a weary look on his face.

"This morning, I rose from sleep, and dressed and made my way to the breakfast nook. I was behind schedule and late; my night had been troubled with dreams. And when I entered the room, Amanda—MY DAUGHTER—asked, without knowing she echoed Stephen Cameron, 'Daddy, where were you? I've been waiting!'"

"Where were you, John Davion, where were you? I could see her daughter or grand-daughter—fifty years from now—asking me that question. It hit me then, just what Stephen Cameron was trying to say. Don't you people SEE THAT? I can not, I will not, be the source of disappointment for daughter, my grand-daughter, my great-grand-daughter, or ANY of my people. I will not dishonor those Davion's who came before me by taking the easy course, instead of the right course. And I will not dishonor myself, based upon your advice."

John Davion stood and looked at the men and women in the room. "I will have your resignations by tomorrow or I will publicly cashier each and every one of you. We go to war, to support Cameron and Kerensky, and you either stand with me or you stand against me in this. Now get the hell of out of my palace."

Stunned, the former Ministers of State left the room, leaving John Davion alone, with the unseen spirits of his three great ancestors nodding their approval.

Chapter Fourteen

August 22, 2767

SLS James McKenna

High Orbit, Apollo

Rim Worlds Republic

Aleksandyr Kerensky sat alone in his spacious office aboard the flagship of the Star League Defense Forces. He had been going through the reports from his subordinate commanders—all was proceeding according to plan and ahead of schedule here in the Rim Worlds. Resistance had been extremely light—it was almost as if the Rim people KNEW their lord had crossed a line that should have never been dared. The few remaining Rim Worlds units had laid down their arms almost to a man. Those who wanted to die fighting for their homelands did so—targeted by full battalions of Star League 'Mechs. The rest? They simply surrendered; gave up their arms and went home. Everyone that is except for the troops holed up in these last twenty fortifications; the Star League's own Periphery Castles. Damn you, Richard, for ordering me to turn them over to Amaris years ago—and damn me for not disobeying you and having them destroyed at the time, he thought.

Each of the forts was modeled on the ultra-modern Castles Brian the SLDF had constructed in the Hegemony; and though he had stripped the forts of their computers and weapons, they were still powerful defensive emplacements. Each held the most fanatical of Amaris's defenders here in the Rim Worlds—they would not surrender, so he would have to dig them out. So be it, he thought. At least the boys will learn how to assault a Castle Brian—this will serve as a learning exercise for all of us before we tackle the Hegemony; but the casualties will be heavy. Six of the mighty forts lay here on Apollo; two more each on seven other worlds of the Rim. He nodded and leaned over his desk. DeChevilier's assault plans—twenty separate forts, twenty separate methods of attack, twenty separate operations plans—were in the electronic document storage of his desk-unit. Reaching out with his thumb, he placed it on the touch-screen; the device reading the thumb-print and scanning his surface DNA—as well as determining whether or not the thumb was still attached to a living person. A moment later, a green light came on, and Kerensky entered a short code. In bright red letters, the bold word APPROVED appeared on each page of the plan, as Kerensky sent the document and then leaned back, reclined his chair, and wearily closed his eyes.

*****************************************************

Captain Lauren McNeil woke from a sound sleep as the buzz of the comm-unit snarled at her from beside her bunk. No alarm klaxons where shrieking, so it could not be that urgent, was her first thought. Without turning on the lights—or the video transmitter—she hit the receive button. The face of one of her junior watch officers—Lieutenant Evan Manson, assistant tactical officer—appeared brightly on the comm-screen in the darkened cabin.

"Report," she snarled, as she noted the time—0247—she had been asleep for less than ninety minutes!

"Sorry to disturb you, Captain, but a Combine ship has just jumped in-system at the L-3 point with urgent dispatches for the Commanding General. They won't talk to me, and I didn't want to wake HIM, so . . ."

"So you woke ME instead, Lieutenant? Never mind. Tell the Dracs to give me fifteen minutes and I will be on the bridge—but go ahead and confirm their identity."

"Already have, Skipper. It's the corvette Leyland, one of their Alshain class light patrol ships. According to CIC, ma'am, the Leyland is stationed as part of the command circuit Lord Kurita built linking us, Benjamin, and their fleet base at KV106."

McNeil sat bolt upright and hit the lights and video transmitter. "The Leyland? Wake the XO and have the first watch up and reporting to stations, then inform the General's headquarters staff to get their people alert. NOW, Lieutenant!" she said as she stripped off her pajamas and began pulling on a uniform.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!"

As the comm-unit switched off, her mind raced. According to the operations plans, the Leyland was ONLY supposed to jump here if it had vital information and news about the Asta campaign. Lord Kurita had assembled a command circuit—forty-two ships spaced one jump apart, reducing the time lag from months to mere days—in order to quickly pass needed information between Kerensky's HQ and his forces. She sealed her tunic, and pressed her heel down into her boot, seating it firmly. Then she stepped across her compartment in one of the ship's four grav decks and exited, heading for the bridge.

*****************************************************

"I understand, Commander. But General Kerensky is not available now, and I am the commander of his flagship. If you will just . . . "

The Combine officer shook his head. "My Lord Minoru himself gave taped instructions that this message packet be PLACED in the hand of General Kerensky, himself. My shuttle will be ready to depart for rendezvous with the McKenna in ten minutes time. Please ensure that General Kerensky is available to receive it."

Captain McNeil was at a loss. Commander Fuchida would not budge on this, so, that meant she would have to wake HIM.

"No need, Commander. My staff awoke me when they informed me of your arrival," Commanding General Aleksandyr Kerensky spoke as pulled himself floating onto the bridge in the zero-g environment.

Fuchida came to rigid attention and then bowed deeply—how the HELL do the Dracs do that in zero-g, McNeil thought. "I can not transmit the message, General. It has been transferred from ship to ship in the communications circuit—physically. The message is encrypted on a secure data-net platform—and only your bio-code will unlock it; or in the event of your death, General DeChevilier's."

Kerensky nodded. "Then we will expect your arrival, Commander."

Kerensky turned to McNeil as the communications screen blanked, "Interesting times, eh, Captain McNeil? Would you happen to have a spare bulb of hot tea, by the way?"

*****************************************************

The transfer took less than an hour. Forty minutes after that, a flurry of signals erupted from the McKenna, directed to every senior SLDF officer in the entire Apollo system.

*****************************************************

"A member of the Royal family survived?" DeChevilier asked; his face as white as a ghost. The images of the other senior SLDF commanders floating in the holotank looked equally shaken.

"Yes, Aaron. Incredible is it not?" Kerensky perused his notes. "Stephen James Cameron, age 30, married, one . . . "

"Sir," a voice broke in.

Kerensky looked up, and took off his reading glasses. "Yes, Commandant Fulton?"

General Bernard Fulton, Commandant of the Star League Marines, asked, "Did you say Stephen James Cameron, Sir?"

"I did, Commandant."

Fulton smiled. "He's a firebreather, sir, a real risk-taker and heart-breaker. It was a shame he lost his leg on Jasmine during that anti-terrorism campaign a few years back."

"I take it that you knew him, Commandant?"

"I wouldn't say that exactly, sir. But my nephew was his company commander on Jasmine, and I have heard all about him ever since. Seems he earned those medals, unlike some others of the Cameron line. In fact, it was because of Lieutenant Cameron that the 42nd Marines were disbanded three years ago. I know, because I was at Court when it happened."

Kerensky leaned back. He had learned long ago that men are not just what is written in their records and service jackets. And he needed to understand this new First Lord. "Go on."

"It was Christmas, three and a half years ago, sir. I was posted to Terra at the time, and Lord Richard wanted me at his celebration in full ceremonial uniform, complete with medals and cutlass. I suppose I was just another ornament in his eyes—something glittering to be shown to his guests. Anyway, the party had begun, and all the Cameron's were there, just like every year. I knew Stephen Cameron would be there, so I made certain to memorize his face from the photograph in his file—that was one marine whose hand I wanted to shake. I met him, and his wife, and their toddler—lovely little girl, be about six or seven now, I think. And then Richard came in—with Stefan Amaris."

"The party was for the Cameron's only—and a few select guests. All of Richard's family stayed away from Amaris—ignored him, pretty much—, and Richard grew moody. No one was paying him or his guest any attention. Well, then Amaris caught a glimpse of me and made a crack about the Star League Marines—a joke to Richard, who laughed loudly and praised Amaris for his humor. My blood boiled, but I did nothing. Hell, he was my First Lord, and Amaris his guest. But Stephen, he handed his daughter to his wife, and walked right over across the Court to where Richard and Amaris were standing. And he read Richard the riot act—tore that boy a brand new strip; better than a twenty-year's service drill instructor, I swear—while telling him about the heroism and history of the Marines. THEN, he told the First Lord that no REAL Cameron appreciated an ill-mannered guest who would make jokes about the men and women who shed their blood and gave their lives on behalf of the League. That if Richard had ever bothered to serve, then he would have understood that bone-deep, and been a man instead of a dilettante."

"Amaris was mad as blazes, I remember it well. And Richard; well Richard was furious at Stephen, for embarrassing and humiliating him in public. Richard called his guards into the room, and threatened Stephen with arrest. And that young marine walked right up to Richard—stood nose to nose with him, and told him that he had been shot at by people trying to kill him, just for wearing the uniform. He had shed blood for the uniform, and the League, and even for Richard himself no less! That he would not be frightened by the threats of anyone who had never worn a uniform in his life—except as a costume. And if Richard wanted to arrest him for telling him the truth, then he could damn well try."

"Richard backed down. I guess Stephen intimidated him; so he backed down and walked out of the party with Amaris. But that next week, he exercised his right as First Lord and ordered Stephen's old unit—the 42nd Royal CAAN Marines—disbanded and their colors cased. It was his petty way of exacting revenge for what Stephen did to him at that party."

"But, I tell you this, that boy was one HELL of a Marine, and one HELL of a Cameron. Stephen, I mean, Sir."

Kerensky smiled. "That's who I thought you meant. And it confirms a lot of what was in Lord Kurita's message, and the messages from General Anders and Colonel Bradley and from this Stephen Cameron himself."

Kerensky looked across the room at the map and frowned. "And now he is on Asta, where Amaris has suffered his first defeat of this war; just one jump from Terra and the bulk of Amaris's troops." He paused and considered, then nodded. "Aaron, you will assume command here."

"Yes, sir; are you going somewhere?" asked DeChevilier.

"To Asta, ladies and gentleman. To Asta."

Chapter Fifteen

August 23, 2767

SDS Base Asta-01

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

"Out of the question, my Lord!" thundered Colonel Ezra Bradley at Stephen.

Stephen looked up, his face flushed, his mouth tight. "It is not your decision, Colonel. It is MINE, as commander-in-chief of the Star League Defense Forces. This, all of this," and he swept his arm across the central control room of the command facility for the jury-rigged Space Defense System, "is just machines. Just technology, Colonel—defensive technology. My family made a PROMISE, to the leaders of the other Houses, when we developed these systems—a promise we haven't kept. I WILL keep that promise, Colonel."

The forty or so technicians in the chamber desperately looked as though they wanted to be someplace—anyplace—else. None of them were the highly-trained specialists who normally worked on the SDS facilities; Stephen had asked them to try to get the systems operational, regardless. The Rim Worlders had attempted to do so themselves, and the unholy mess they had left behind nearly convinced Stephen to halt the project. Until an eighty-four year old Astan named Nick Chalmers had come forward and told Stephen's people he had worked on SDS systems during his time in the service nearly forty years ago. And so, while Chalmers supervised and advised them, skilled Astan electricians and mechanics, Star League Defense Force technicians, and Combine engineers had just completed the activation of this base—under manual fire control. They wouldn't be able to initialize the automated fire-control systems, however; they lacked the extremely specialized equipment and knowledge set that required. The base was functional though, even if half the systems were a jury-rigged hodge-podge of components never designed for the control systems of an SDS planetary-based facility. Still, this one facility had the firepower of four McKenna class battleships—the most powerful ever constructed. And this was only one of a dozen identical such facilities on North Continent.

He jabbed his hand angrily at Bradley, "The point is moot, Colonel. We could not have finished activating this base—or be able to complete the work on the other eleven—without Combine help. My mind is decided on this, the final base complement will consist of Astans and SLDF personnel in equal numbers to personnel from the DCMS and DCA. And you WILL provide Coordinator Kurita, or his liaison officer, General Anders, if you prefer, with the COMPLETE specs for the ground-based systems. That, Colonel, is a direct order. Or I will have you arrested and held for court-martial. Understood?"

"Sir," Ezra Bradley stopped and tried to compose himself. "Sir, this is vital HEGEMONY technology. We can't just . . ."

"First Lord Jonathon Cameron gave his word, Colonel, nearly fifty years ago, that when the system had been tested and found reliable we would share the technology. WE HAVEN'T. That makes me a liar, and I really hate being a liar, Colonel. Are you trying to make me a liar?"

"No, Sir. I just . . . "

"Good, Colonel. Because then you have your orders. Carry them out, or I will find someone who will. Dismissed."

Bradley came to attention and saluted, then left the control room.

August 23, 2767

McMurtree Space Port, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

"Damn it, Sam! Talk to the man. He will listen to you," Ezra Bradley urgently whispered to General Anders amid the thundering exhaust plumes of plasma from dozens of DropShips lifting off. Combine DropShips primarily, but two of his own regiments rode heavenwards on pillars of fire—bound for the Combine transports and WarShips that would take Jinjiro's Strike Force to Saffel.

"Ezra, it would not do any good. Besides, do you think—really think—the Combine has not thoroughly gone over those systems in the month they have been here? You have less than two thousand SLDF troopers—to guard the First Lord, and twelve SDS bases, and contribute forces to Operation Brody. You've seen Kurita's DEST teams; if they want that information, then they have that information, Ezra."

"Not the complete specs, Sam. They might be able to piece together a manually operated ground base, but he wants us to give them the complete specs!"

"So? What are you going to do, Ezra, mutiny?"

Ezra Bradley jerked as he physically recoiled from the thought.

"He's NO Richard, Ezra. And he has served, and worn the uniform—the same damn one you and I wear today! Get your mind straight, Colonel, he IS the First Lord. And this is his decision, not yours, not mine, not even the General's. HIS. Now, do you have a packet for me to give Lord Minoru, or should I ask you to place yourself in the stockade?"

Bradley's shoulders dropped, and he laid a secure data-module in Sam's outstretched hand. "I should report back to HQ, General Anders. This will be in my report to the General, however."

"Never thought otherwise, Ezra. Never thought otherwise."

Chapter Sixteen

August 23, 2767

SLS Black Lion

Zenith Jump Point, Skye

Lyran Commonwealth

General Basil Christophos was a thoroughly frustrated individual. His command, the 11th Royal BattleMech Division had been serving in the Periphery since 2765, and been heavily engaged with the separatists. Then word arrived of the Coup, and the Periphery fight seemed to be just a gentle love-tap between intimate friends. He had served in an SDS base—he knew the odds they were going to be facing. But that didn't matter—it had to be done, and Basil planned to be there doing, as long as he had blood in his veins and a 'Mech to pilot.

Then, just as the Army was preparing to move to the Rim Worlds, one of his transport ships—that were also carrying what was left of the 65th Royal Mechanized Infantry—suffered a K-F drive failure! For three bloody damn months they had sat in the frakkin' Periphery and waited while repair ships struggled to restore the drives. Finally, though they were on the move. And would probably arrive too late. Even with their advanced lithium fusion batteries, his transport ships could only move 30 light years every three and half days. And he still had almost 500 light-years until he reached Apollo. It was very frustrating. At least they would get the latest news of the war here at Skye during this 84-hour layover.

*****************************************************

"Is this some sort of joke, Commodore?" Basil asked.

Shaking, Commodore Alicia Hall held out the message form again. "No, sir. This arrived over the black box forty minutes ago. It seems to be on an auto-broadcast, because we received the exact transmission again ten minutes ago. It was encoded with our latest code, and the transmission indicated it began on Asta and has been automatically retransmitted by each black box relay station between here and there."

The black boxes were highly-classified technology. Not as versatile as the Hyper-Pulse Generators that allowed interstellar communication, they were much more limited—text only in fact. And a limited amount of text at that. But they were small. And the Hegemony had seeded scores—hundreds—of unmanned relay stations with the things. Because once built, they were simple to operate—even by automation—unlike the extremely massive and cantankerous HPG's.

Basil looked down at his own shaking hands and read the blocky, primitive looking lettering once more.

ASTA LIBERATED BY FORCES OF DCMS AND DCA 1 AUGUST 2767. SURIVIVING CAMERON IN LINE OF SUCCESSION FOUND ALIVE ON ASTA. STEPHEN CAMERON ASSUMED TITLE OF FIRST LORD 4 AUGUST 2767. ANY SLDF FORCES IN RANGE OF TRANSMISSION PLEASE RESPOND SOONEST. ANTICIPATE AMARIS COUNTERATTACK AT ANY TIME. URGENTLY REQUEST ALL AVAILABLE SLDF FORCES DIVERT TO ASTA. SAMUEL T ANDERS GENERAL SLDF.

Basil's thoughts raced. He had two divisions of Royal troops—the best equipped men and women the League could offer. Every person in both his divisions—for the 65th had lost their commander during the uprising and been placed under his command—was a native of the Hegemony. Hall's 247th Armed Transport Flotilla had twelve WarShips—a Black Lion class battle-cruiser, a Potemkin class troop cruiser, two Sovetskii Soyuz class cruisers, two Congress class frigates, and six Essex and Lola III class destroyers—and twenty transports. But everyone knew the fate of Admiral Braso.

"Encoded with the latest codes, Commodore?"

"Yes, sir, the codes we adopted after the Coup."

Basil sat for a moment, thinking, then raised his head. "The hell with it, Commodore. If it's a trap, then that's why we've got the L/F batteries. Make your course for Asta, at your best speed."

"Aye, aye, Sir!" she barked as she snapped to attention, saluted, and then left the compartment.

Maybe, Basil thought, just maybe this is for real. And if not, then at least I'll get to kill someone for sending it.

Chapter Seventeen

August 23, 2767

DCMS Mikasa

High Orbit, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Jinjiro Kurita fairly strutted down the corridor of the ship to his father's stateroom on Grav Deck One. Today, TODAY, he would depart and show them all what his qualities were. He still fumed over the insult the DEST commando—and the Cameron—had given him nearly three weeks before. They had humiliated him—in public, no less!—and forced him to apologize for his actions. And his own father . . . father, how could you aid them in this loss of face for me? But, those men would pay, at some later day. For today, TODAY, he would lead the army of the Dragon—HIS ARMY—to battle. Today, none of the old men his father surrounded himself with would interfere or rob him of his rightful glory. No. And soon enough, when Amaris lay dead, he would be Coordinator. Oh, he would mourn and grieve for his father, but the old bastard had forsaken his honor. He should have gone ahead and cut his belly the morning he declared war. Then he, Jinjiro, would have been Coordinator for this war. And NO ONE could rob him of his glory, then. Not a jumped up peasant, not this gaijin Cameron, not the oh-so-great Kerensky, no one.

As he reached his father's stateroom, the Otomo standing outside the hatch waved a sensor wand across Jinjiro's body. The corner of his mouth twitched—how dare these low-born insinuate he would do harm to the Coordinator? Of course—and he smiled as he thought that lovely, lovely, thought yet again—it is good they take their job so seriously. After all, soon they will be protecting ME. The Otomo nodded and pressed the admittance key set beside the hatch.

Jinjiro stepped into the darkened compartment. To one side, his father sat, on a simple mat, back as straight as a ruler, as candles provided the only light. From discrete speakers set in the bulkheads, the soft music of bamboo flutes and plucked strings echoed stirringly. Jinjiro bristled as two of the Otomo followed him inside, and the hatch slid closed. Ignoring the dishonor, he forced himself to concentrate on his father, dressed in a silk robe, the grey hair on his chest visible in the dim, flickering candle light. He father lifted a long straw, a glowing ember on the end, and lit a stick of incense. Then he sat the straw down, tamping the flame.

Without looking up, Minoru asked, "What is this order you have issued, Jinjiro?"

"Which order, Father?"

"The order you intended be carried back to Luthien aboard the Fuso when she returns for repairs. The order you gave for over a thousand of our Internal Security Forces and ten thousand of our Peace Enforcers to board ship for this world, and Saffel?"

Jinjiro swallowed. "We took this world, Father. And we will take Saffel. The Dragon keeps what he kills; I believe I learned that lesson from you."

Minoru looked up for the first time. "You are a fool, my son. Kerensky will NEVER let you keep a world of the Hegemony. Cameron will NEVER allow you to keep a world of the Hegemony."

"We earned this right by the blood we shed, Father!"

"This war is not to expand our borders, Jinjiro. It is a war of honor. Nothing more. Nothing less."

"Honor? Don't try to fool me with that, Father. It is a war of OPPORTUNITY. We take a few worlds, and garrison them—so Kerensky does not have to. And when Amaris is defeated, he will so weaken the SLDF that they can't throw us off."

"Honor, Jinjiro. It is about honor. This man Cameron is a man of honor. You convinced me on Luthien that we could acquire the SDS secrets here, so we came here. Perhaps the ancestors guided our decision on that, for we found this Cameron here. He has—today—given me the complete specifications on their planetary-based Space Defense Systems. Enough information my engineers assure me that we can duplicate this on Luthien and New Samarkand and Benjamin and Pesht within the next five years. I did not ask him for this—by doing this, he has sent the message that his family has chosen to deal with us falsely; and that he will not, so long as he is First Lord."

Minoru stopped and stood. "And so, I will not deal falsely with him. Your orders are countermanded, they will not be transmitted. And I have transmitted instructions to Luthien that you are NOT to issue orders to any outside the Mustered Soldiery or the Admiralty."

Jinjiro gaped, his face white and pale, and he began to speak, but was cut off.

"Silence! I do not yet relieve you of your post as Gunji-no-kanrei, Jinjiro. Go, before I change my mind on this matter. Go and retrieve your honor. And maybe you will remain my heir."

White hot lightning flashed through Jinjiro and he wanted—oh, he wanted—to step forward and strike the tired old man before him; then he remembered the Otomo standing behind him. And stood still where he was.

"Go. And return the son I once thought I had raised. Or return not at all."

Chapter Eighteen

August 28, 2767

McMurtree Space Port, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

For what had become the busiest single location on Asta, the space-port was eerily quiet. Throngs of SLDF and DCMS troops surrounded the port—preventing anyone from approaching. And inside the port there was only Minoru Kurita and his Otomo, Stephen Cameron and his security detail, and a few high-ranking officers of the SLDF and DCMS. All others had been cleared from the facility. Gerald stood watch at Stephen's back—just as he had always preferred, while Hiroyoshi commanded the detail in his name. Though Gerald was the titular commander—Stephen had insisted upon that—he had taken Hiroyoshi to the side soon afterwards.

"Sho-sa, I'm just a non-com, a grunt. I served with Lord Stephen, and have followed him around ever since; will continue serving him too, as long as he will have me around. I never wanted to be an officer—much less commander of the First Lord's detail. You, however, are an officer—and one I have come to trust. You decide how the detail functions, sir, and I'll ramrod it for you. Just leave me with the close-in section, right?"

Gerald Howe had been so adamant—and sincere—that Hiroyoshi found he couldn't refuse the request. He made certain that everyone knew GERALD remained in charge, then planned the protective details and wrote the orders—and had Gerald sign off. Hiroyoshi didn't mind the extra work—he took it as a compliment to his skills, and a sign of trust that the Star League Marine would place Lord Stephen's safety in his hands.

Of the twenty-four men and women assigned DEST Six when they were aboard the pods fired at this world nearly six weeks ago, six had never made it to the surface. Four more died during the two week campaign of sabotage in the lead-up to the invasion—one of those when he accidentally disturbed a nursing Ridgeback in the forest surrounding Hawkins. That left him fourteen men and women—including himself. To that he added the six survivor's of Stephen's security detail—giving him twenty men and women. The 3rd RCT had made an overstrength regiment, four battalions drawn one from each of Bradley's four regiments, available—but those were line troops, not security protection specialists. So, Hiroyoshi had widened his net—picking the absolute best people with the qualities he wanted from the 3rd. And from the Astan volunteers who had stepped forward in droves. And a few select Draconis volunteers that had gained permission to serve the First Lord. Over the past three weeks he had assembled what he considered the minimum detail size—sixty men and women, plus himself and Gerald. Each had been chosen based upon his ability—not where he had been born, or his rank. And Hiroyoshi had ruthlessly stomped hard on any volunteer—SLDF or Astan or Draconis—who had not lived up to his standards.

He smiled; some he had even broken to the point they asked for a transfer. None of HIS boys or girls, of course, or Stephen's original detail, but the new ones, yes, some of them had broken. Of course, he had three separate charges—Lord Stephen, Lady Marianne, and Lady Cassandra. Each needed their own detail, and that stretched his small command to the limit. Lord Kurita's Otomo numbered the better part of a battalion—all experts in protective security—just to protect one single man. His force was barely larger than a platoon. So far, at least. He expected more volunteers of the right type to arrive and be judged by him and Gerald, to determine who would to stay and serve and who would be sent home. And—he sighed—soon enough the Star League will descend on this world in force. It is unlikely that I will remain as commander—in fact, if not name—of Lord Stephen's detail. Kerensky would certainly assign his own people to this task; and Hiroyoshi found himself feeling sorrow that he would not remain so near such an incandescent light. It had been a rare pleasure, these last few weeks, to meet and know the man that was Stephen Cameron—and his family.

So, here he stood. On the outer perimeter of the security personnel, watching his troops—Gerald's troops—as they diligently stood guard over their charge. Lord Kurita had asked for the space-port to be cleared; he had informed Lord Stephen last night that he had a gift for the 'gallant Astan people'. Some of Lord Cameron's advisors had worried over that, but not Lord Stephen himself. Nor Hiroyoshi. No, he had faith in his Lord's honor, and his instinct told him this was no gift with strings. Late last night nine Mule class cargo DropShips had arrived and set down here—in the section of the star-port Lord Kurita insisted upon for the meeting today. Apparently, with his gift onboard.

Minoru Kurita walked side-by-side with Stephen Cameron, in the shadow of the DropShip Suribachi. Even the close-protective details of both men stood back—out of earshot. Colonel Bradley, General Anders, General Fuchida, and General Samasov stood at a respectful distance as well. Minoru looked up at the DropShips and extended his hand, "Here is my gift—the Combine's gift to the gallant people of Asta who rose up as warriors against Amaris, and made my samurai's task so much the simpler."

Stephen smiled. "We thank the Coordinator and his people, the mighty and powerful Combine for his gift. I take it that it is NOT the DropShips themselves, Lord Minoru?"

"No, Lord Stephen, it is not. The gift lies within. Would you care to open it, on behalf of your people?"

"It would be an honor, my Lord."

"Then after you, my Lord," Minoru said, extending his hand towards the lowered boarding ramp. Stephen's detail had already swept the ship—it had been cleared of all people before the two leaders arrived.

Stephen walked briskly up the ramp, followed by Minoru, the generals, the colonel, and both their close-in details. Inside the cavernous cargo bay stretched far overhead. Scores—hundreds—of transport containers stood within, in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Minoru gestured towards one of the largest and handed Stephen a control unit. Intrigued, Stephen toggled the device on and hit the button to open the container. The outer door swung wide, and inside, swathed in plasticene inserts—cut and shaped to fit on and protect the 'gift'—stood a gleaming, factory-fresh Dragon class BattleMech, newly painted in the green, silver, and blue of the heraldic shield of Asta. The sixty-ton war machine towered nine meters tall, with the heavy limbs and squat body typical of such a massive construct.

"In addition to this 'Mech, there are another three hundred and twenty-three, Lord Stephen. Plus, infantry weapons and body armor enough to outfit nine full regiments of infantry."

Stephen, his eyes wide, looked at Minoru, and then asked, "Why, Lord Minoru?"

"We are allies, Lord Stephen. The Edict prevented us—somewhat—from raising troops; it did not prevent us from building equipment. These 'Mechs—three full regiments worth—are from the storehouses laid up by my father before me; a mere trifle from those storehouses. You have volunteers here—many volunteers—on Asta, most with prior service and military training. But you have no equipment, other than hunting rifles and ancient Hegemony hand-me-downs. So, now you have 'Mechs enough for one of your Star League brigades, as well as weapons, armor, communications equipment, supplies, medical gear, ammunition, spare parts—everything that you need to outfit nearly a full strength division of conventional troops—if you can cull that many trained volunteers from all those stepping forward." He paused and turned to look at Stephen. His face hard and cold, but his eyes lit with an inner fire.

"We are in this fight, together Lord Stephen. Live or die, we shall do it together." He looked up at the Dragon, his namesake looming over them both. "Let no one ever say that the Dragon failed to honor his word—just as you are making certain that no one can ever again say that of the House of Cameron. And with warriors such as these on Asta, Amaris shall tremble at our coming, Lord Stephen. Tremble and quake, and truly know what it means to fear."

Stephen stared for an eternity at Minoru. Then he extended his hand—and Minoru took it.

September 1, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Stephen looked up from the piles of paperwork on his new desk as Gerald entered his new office.

"Morning, Top. Will you shoot me now, please?" he said, holding up nearly half of a ream in each hand.

Gerald smiled, and walked over to the coffee dispenser the house staff kept full and hot. "Java, L.T.?"

Stephen sighed and placed the paperwork back on his desk. "God, yes, Top. If I had known how much frakkin' paperwork these people expect me to plough through in a day, I . . . I swear I'd almost rather have let the Rimmers nuke the bloody planet."

"Well, L.T.," he said as he handed a cup across the desk, "if you wouldn't mind some advice from an old decrepit non-commissioned officer . . ."

Stephen snorted as he took a long pull from the cup of steaming black liquid.

". . . then first of all, don't worry about it. L.T., there's not a bureaucrat born that's not convinced that just one more piece of paper will make everything in life perfect. Problem is, each time they give us a shiny bright and new piece of paper that will fix everything, they don't take away any of the old. What you need, if you don't mind me saying, is a staff. One that will go through this mess and put what you really need to see on that desk. You're getting lost in the weeds, boy, so stand up and take a look at the field."

"Isn't that supposed to be something about trees and the forest, Top?"

"Only on Asta, sir." Gerald replied with a straight face.

Stephen snorted again. He took another pull from the cup, then cleared off a spot and set it down. "Yeah, I do, Gerald. But I haven't had the time."

Gerald was shaking his head. "L.T., you are still thinking like a junior officer. Damn, you should have kept the leg until we got you through staff college at least. You, sir, have things called MINIONS now. Dozens and hundreds and even thousands of loyal and enthusiastic minions. Well, not sure about the enthusiastic part. Colonel Bradley runs an entire Regimental Combat Team, right L.T.?"

"Right."

"And he has a staff to help him do it. Doesn't he?"

"He does. Top, I'm not sure . . . "

"Hey, you wanted the advice. Steal his staff."

Stephen grimaced. "Top, I can't just take the man's staff! I've already landed on him like a load of bricks, when he was just trying to do his job."

"So? He's a Colonel. You're a First Lord. Guess which outranks which. Seriously, sir, he has people trained in this bureaucratic snafu you are all snarled up in. And they all got guns; which means if it piles up too high, you can have 'em shoot the bureaucrats. Win-win; for you at least, L.T."

"Sat—Top get thee behind me," Stephen said, putting his face down in his hands, trying to keep from bursting out in laughter.

"L.T., you are the First Lord of the Star League. Even if you think you hit Colonel Bradley a little too hard, well, he's an SLDF officer. He damn well better be able to take it. He does want to help, sir. Ask him and he will tell you the same thing. If he doesn't, then I'll shoot 'em for you, and you can ask his deputy."

"Gerald, sometimes I don't know when you are joking."

"Was I joking, L.T.?"

*****************************************************

"Of course, sir, I didn't even think about your lack of staff—or any of the personnel the First Lord normally has on hand to make sure he can do his job, without all of the minor distractions and disruptions."

"Good, Colonel. Damn it all, when I call you Colonel I want to come to attention and salute. Can I call you Ezra?"

Bradley looked across the desk, really seeing Stephen for the first time. A junior officer, medically discharged before even beginning to climb the ladder of rank, never trained for the sudden and immense responsibilities dumped on his shoulders. He's trying to learn, but his responses are those of a platoon leader, not a staff officer, he thought, not a First Lord. He is trying to do all this himself, and that's partly my fault for not seeing the problem and helping him. "Yes, sir, you most certainly can call me Ezra."

"Good, then, Ezra. I know what I want to do. But, I have no idea HOW to do it. And this paperwork, it's just piling up and burying me alive. Marianne threatened last night to come in here with a flamethrower if I crawled into bed after 0200 again."

"I think we can help out with that, my Lord. My staff is assigned tasks at the moment, but if you give me until lunch, I should have . . . "

"Just whenever you can, Colonel. I don't want to overload you."

"That's my job, sir. And it's good training, because I pass the workload on down the chain. That's why God invented junior officers and enlisted men." And Ezra Bradley smiled.

Stephen grinned back. "Well, you should join me and my family for dinner one night this . . ."

A raucous buzz from beneath the pile of paperwork interrupted Stephen. He frowned. He had asked the Branson House staff to hold all of his calls during this meeting. Picking up the hand-held, he held up his index finger to Bradley, motioning him to wait.

"Yes? What?!? By all means; when does he arrive? Thank you, Gretchen."

Stephen shut down the phone and sat back in his seat. Ezra Bradley frowned; he did not like the sudden shocked look on the First Lord's face.

Stephen looked up at Ezra, his mouth slightly open. "Commanding General Aleksandyr Kerensky just arrived at the L-3 jump point aboard the Combine vessel Amatsukaze. He will be dirt-side three hours from now."

Chapter Nineteen

September 1, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

General Aleksandyr Kerensky stepped out from the armored hover transport that had met him and his staff at the spaceport. He nodded, seeing the alert men and women of the Eridani on the perimeter looking outwards—towards possible threats, not him. Good troops; he thought, concentrating on their job instead of him. Not everyone in the SLDF was so disciplined—a fault he had tried hard to correct over the last thirty years. Watching him—and his staff—disembark from the transport were a dozen or so armed men and women; including four wearing Kurita uniforms. DEST commandoes, he remembered from the briefing on the way down. Lord Minoru had assigned the remnants of a full strike team to Lord Stephen's security detail. And THEY, and the other security personnel, were observing him closely. Good. A little paranoia was useful in protective security forces; he approved heartily of it.

The journey had taken only nine days, thanks to the command circuit Lord Minoru had laid in; though his staff had nearly had a fit of apoplexy when he announced he would be making the trip on the Combine ships. Even with her lithium-fusion batteries, it would have taken the better part of two-and-a-half months for the McKenna to make the same voyage. So, instead, he and his staff boarded his command DropShip—the Borodino—and transferred to Combine vessels at each waypoint. A task force built around the McKenna was following at their best speed, carrying a full strength Field Army of troops. But he had not time to waste. No, I must meet this man, my new First Lord. Meet him and make my own judgment of his capacity.

Colonel Bradley, the 3rd RCT's commanding officer, stood waiting for him at the base of the steps. Kerensky casually returned the salute the officer sharply cast his direction, as a master sergeant commanding a detail to one side announced, "Commanding General, arriving!", his troops snapping to attention and presenting their weapons in a flawless display of ceremonial drill.

"Colonel Bradley, a most impressive greeting," Kerensky said.

"Thank you, sir. If you will follow me, please, General, the First Lord is waiting inside."

*****************************************************

"First Lord Stephen Cameron, may I introduce to you Aleksandyr Kerensky, Commanding General of the Star League Defense Forces," said Colonel Bradley.

Stephen stood from behind the massive—and hurriedly cleaned—desk. Not a scrap of paper was to be seen in the office and the wood work shone. He walked around and extended his hand towards Kerensky as he took stock. About Lord Minoru's age, he thought, considering the man. Shorter than he imagined, but filled with vigor that belied his height and years. What little hair he had remaining was a silvery-grey, but his body was solid, his handshake firm.

"It's good to finally meet you, Sir," Stephen said.

"I believe, my Lord, that I am supposed to call you that, not vice versa."

"Well, I seem to have a penchant for not doing things the exact way others want, General. Can you live with that?"

"I believe that I can, Lord Stephen."

Kerensky sat in one the chairs arranged around a coffee table as Stephen gestured, and then sat himself. Thom Pappas came in, carrying a silver service tray with two pots, a sugar bowl, and several china cups. Placing it on the table, he took one of the cups and poured Stephen a steaming cup of coffee, and handed it to him. Turning to Kerensky, he asked, "Coffee, Sir? Or perhaps, Astan Tea?"

"Tea, please, Sergeant Pappas. Thank you," he finished as Thom handed him the sweet, hot beverage.

Taking a sip, he sighed with pleasure. Astan Tea was the closest blend to that of his native Russia of any grown and brewed on nearly 3,000 worlds. Once the supplies for his samovar ran out, this was what he would be drinking for the duration of the War. Sweeter than he preferred, but still excellent—unlike that English tea most of the high court favored.

He took another sip, using the movement to observe Stephen Cameron. The First Lord was watching him—and smiled in recognition that Kerensky was doing the same.

"You've traveled a long way, General, so I will not keep you waiting. Why are you here?"

Kerensky sat back, and considered his answer. Lord in heaven, he thought. He sounds just like Simon, twenty-five years back. Confident in his own competence; self-assured and yet, lacking that patronizing air so beloved of the Court in Richard's time. He smiled, "I had to see you for myself, Lord Stephen. I had to know whether or not I served another Richard. That is the first reason."

"And are you, General, serving another Richard Cameron?"

"No. No, Lord Stephen, I do not believe so."

"Good. I really hope that I do not present that particular impression to anyone."

"Did not care for Lord Richard, much, Lord Stephen?"

Stephen grimaced. "No offense meant, General Kerensky, I know you were his regent, after all. But, he was as big a failure of the dynasty as any since Conrad McKenna; perhaps even more so than Conrad. The League is dying, General, and Richard is the cause of that. Perhaps we—you and I and a few others—might manage to resuscitate it, but unless we change how things are done, the seeds of our destruction have been laid. We WILL reap what we have sown, unless we plough the old seeds under and start over."

"Yes, I was told that you gave the SDS plans—for the ground facilities, at least—to Minoru Kurita. And that you plan on doing so with the other Council Lords."

Stephen nodded, a grim look on his face. "We promised them that, General. And I will give the SDS technology not only to Davion and Steiner, Marik and Liao, but to Calderon, Centrella, and Avellar, as well."

Colonel Bradley and Colonel Hall—Kerensky's aide—both winced at the thought of the Periphery having those systems.

Stephen waved his hand over both of them. "They don't see it, General, but I do. And I believe you do as well. We can't go on like this—using the people of the Territorial States like we own them. Eventually, we will have to give them their rights—the same rights we ensure for the citizens of the Hegemony—and let them choose whether or not to stay. If we don't, then we will be fighting uprisings across the League for the next hundred years—and still lose the Periphery in the end. If giving them the technology to defend their worlds makes them feel more secure—and willing to talk about their other grievances, then it is all to the good. And our idiotic polices have to change. Already, water purification systems and fusion power generation stations have begun to fail throughout the Inner Sphere and Periphery—the factories that produce their components are all in the hands of Amaris. Minoru and I have been talking about that and some possible solutions, but that is for a later day," he said, with a sad little smile.

"Today, General, we have more pressing concerns. Amaris."

Kerensky took another sip of that excellent tea and nodded. "You are correct, Lord Stephen. And that is the second reason why I decided that I must come here. You stated in your message to me that you intended to declare Asta as the Star League's capital-in-exile until the Court of the Star League on Terra has been recovered, did you not?"

"I did."

"As much as it pains me to say so, you cannot remain here. You and your family must move somewhere safer, Lord Stephen, for the time being, at least."

Stephen leaned forward, began to speak, then forced himself to stop. Calmly, Stephen, calmly. This man is the Defense Force. What he decides is what they will decide. Yelling at Kerensky will only complicate matters.

"General, I will not leave Asta. As of this moment, Amaris has taken and occupied all but five core worlds of the Hegemony—one of which, Carver V, is still actively resisting his efforts to take it; thanks to it being the headquarters of the Star League Marines. Semper fi. And, of course, Amaris has not occupied our jointly-owned worlds scattered through the entirety of human space. Asta, however, is the first world liberated from under the heel of Amaris. This is where it begins, General. And this is where I will direct the war."

"Lord Stephen, I know how difficult this must be for you. But, Asta is only a single jump from Terra. Amaris could launch a counter-attack at any time—and no disrespect intended towards our Draconis allies—they can't stop it. Not alone. And they will be alone, for at least the next three to four months, perhaps longer. They can't stop an attack in force—and you know it."

Stephen bowed his head and then raised it defiantly once more. "Maybe, General, maybe. We have gotten the ground-based SDS on-line and operational—not up to SLDF standards, but still a very fearsome array. We are training over a division of infantry troops and a full brigade of 'Mech forces—from local Astan volunteers—in addition to two full regiments of the Eridani. And the Coordinator has forty-five regiments of conventional forces and 'Mechs on this planet, along with over ninety warships in orbit. We can hold this world, General, we WILL hold it."

"Lord Stephen, Amaris will not invade. He will make a fast pass with his fleet and fire every nuclear weapon he has at the surface. And now that we have a surviving First Lord, we can't afford to lose him."

"I know that, General. I know that," Stephen said wearily. "That's why you will take my wife and daughter with you when you return to Apollo. I, however, will remain here. The fate of the people of Asta will be my own. Live or die, I will remain here, Amaris be damned."

September 10, 2767

SLDF Bachelor Officer's Quarters, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

The man was mad as hell. He had never expected Kerensky—the Commanding General, himself—to come here, nor to try and convince the First Lord to leave Asta with him. Or, for that matter, Lord Minoru to argue so strenuously with the First Lord that Kerensky was right. Must have been quite a shock for the Old Man to find himself in agreement with the Snake. But—thankfully—the First Lord had remained adamant. So, he would be here when the attack arrived—but his family and General Kerensky were leaving today.

Damn them all for mucking up the plans! The Emperor would never forgive him for failing to ensure the death of all of them—and for that his own family would pay the price. He couldn't have foreseen Kerensky coming here, so that could perhaps be forgiven, but it was all for nothing if he didn't get the little bitch of a Cameron that pretended to be the heir. At least Minoru was staying. That was something he tried to tell himself. But, it wouldn't be enough. No, Amaris would slowly and painfully put his family on Terra to death when he found out that his agent had failed in the task he had been given.

It had seemed such mild treason, years ago when he let himself be convinced by Amaris's people to pass along information. Information and technological secrets. The money had helped—his family had a rough patch a few years back, and the secret funds the Rim Worlds had provided kept them afloat. But he was in far too deep now to back out. If he gave himself up, then Kerensky would stand him before a firing squad—especially if he ever discovered that he gave von Strang the complete documentation on Terra's Castles Brian—and the Royal 'Mech storage facilities. Thousands, ten of thousands, of Royal class BattleMechs—far, far more advanced than even the commonly seen Star League machines—were stored there, for use by the Hegemony and the SLDF in the event of a crisis. Now, those machines were in the hands of Amaris. Enough to completely refit and reequip his entire army.

No, he was in too deep, and only his continued cooperation kept his family alive. The last message passed him through the cut-outs was that von Strang had taken in his family—to ensure their safety; they were now his guests at his small modest Terran home. At least his death would buy their safety, he thought. He picked up the pistol again, having checked every component twice. It gleamed, reflecting the light here in his quarters; then he slammed home the loaded magazine and chambered a round.

September 10, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

"No, Daddy! Please, don't make me go! Mommy, don't let him make me GOOOO!" Cassie wailed, her face covered with tears cascading down both her cheeks. Stephen and Marianne were nearly in tears themselves—they had spent the past nine days talking about this; neither of them wanted to be separated. But, she finally agreed—for Cassie. And for the unborn child Marianne was carrying. No one—other than the two of them, her doctor, Gerald, Heather, and Hiroyoshi—knew about that yet, not even Cassie. Last night, he had held his baby girl, and explained why she had to leave, with Mommy, and he had to stay. She had nightmares after the last separation—when she and Marianne flew with the Harrison's out to Windward. She still had them, and she didn't want to go.

Not this time. No, this time she wanted to stay. Wanted to be here with her Daddy and her Mommy—because that was the way things were supposed to be. Not halfway across inhabited space aboard a ship of war. A refugee from his fear and dread of what might be.

"Hush, baby, hush," Marianne was holding her tight, stroking her hair. "We can't stay, baby, it's not safe."

"But Daddy's STAYING," she sobbed. "He can. Go with us. PLEASE?"

Aleksandyr Kerensky stood to one side of the room, his face reflecting his own inner sadness. She is a truly lovely child, he thought, just as Commandant Fulton said. I envy Stephen Cameron this time he has had with his child—and his wife. His thoughts turned to his own bride—and their children—hidden away in Moscow, safe from Amaris only in their anonymity. Will I be the father this man is? I failed with Richard, what makes me think I can succeed with Nicolas and Andrei?

Gerald looked at his watch—1042. Thank God, they started early! Kerensky's DropShip wasn't scheduled to leave for another hour and eighteen minutes. He snorted—it wasn't bloody likely they would hold their schedule and leave without the man! Which is good, he thought. 'Cause it's gonna to take a hell of a lot longer than that to calm Cassie down.

*****************************************************

Hiroyoshi turned to climb the stairs to the suite of rooms set aside for Stephen and his family. He had just finished making certain that every single piece of luggage for Lady Marianne and Lady Cassandra had been packed and loaded in the vehicle. The escorts were ready to proceed, the security detail was standing by, and Hawkins PD had confirmed the route—and both alternates—were ready to be cleared at a moment's notice. They weren't running behind—yet—but he knew children. He had three of his own back on Luthien. None QUITE so impetuous as Lady Cassandra, perhaps, but still just children. And he remembered leaving home the last time—for this journey. His oldest child trying manfully not to cry; his smaller siblings failing, not understanding why Daddy had to go away. Oh, he understood what Stephen was feeling today.

As he reached the steps, he paused. "Good morning, Major. What brings you here, today?"

Major Wallace Turner turned to Hiroyoshi and smiled, lifting a metal secured-materials case handcuffed to his wrist. "We just received Critic priority transmissions from Apollo, via SLDF channels. Colonel Bradley instructed me to hand deliver them to the General and the First Lord, immediately."

"Hai, Major. They are both upstairs, after you please."

"Thank you, Sho-sa," Major Turner said as he began climbing the stairs.

Major Turner had been a familiar sight here at Branson house for the past week or so. A member of Colonel Bradley's staff, he had spent about half his time here, organizing the First Lord's work-load, conducting briefings, and making himself useful, then spent the remainder of his day working for Bradley and the Eridani. A very hard-working man, Hiroyoshi thought.

The two of them climbed the stairs to the doors leading into the suite where Stephen and Marianne now lived. Even through the closed doors, Hiroyoshi could hear Cassandra wailing. He turned to Major Turner and smiled, "She is not very happy to be leaving, today. If you will wait here, Major, I will inform them of your arrival."

Hiroyoshi opened the door and walked in, closing it behind him, leaving Turner standing outside with the two duty guards.

The door opened again, and Gerald Howe was standing there, an exasperated look on his face. The volume level jumped upwards with the door open, and Turner could feel empathy with the man for having to endure this.

"Morning, Major Turner. Bit of a madhouse inside today. Just let me have it and I'll make sure they see it."

"Sorry, First Sergeant, the Colonel ordered me to hand-deliver this and besides, its security-code locked."

Gerald nodded, "Well, if you can stand the noise, come on in."

Nodding at the two guards posted outside the door, Turner strolled in and began to walk over towards General Kerensky.

*****************************************************

General Kerensky noted Major Turner's entry and watched him cross the room towards him. Stephen and Marianne both were hugging Cassie, trying to get her to calm down, to quit hyperventilating, and stop crying. He stepped towards the major.

"Yes, Major Turner?"

"Sir, I have Critic priority transmissions from Apollo for you and the First Lord."

"Very good, Major."

Wallace Turner placed the metal case on a small table, being sure to face Kerensky and the Cameron family. Unlocking the handcuff, he placed his thumb on the security lock on the case and it hissed opened. "Right here, General," he said as pulled out the pistol and fired twice into Kerensky's chest.

Chapter Twenty

September 10, 2767

Celestial Palace, Forbidden City

Delmar Continent, Sian

Capellan Confederation

Barbara Liao sat on her mahogany throne in the Great Hall of the Celestial Palace. The same throne Aleisha Liao sat when she convinced the other five Great Houses to adopt the Ares Conventions three hundred and fifty-five years earlier. The same throne Terrence Liao sat when he signed the Star League Accords to form the Star League two hundred and eleven years ago. Her family had faced crisis since, but nothing like this. Amaris threatened all human space with barbarism; and Barbara knew her realm was the weakest—militarily, at least—of all the Great Houses. Today, the decision would be hers.

Walking towards the throne were four men, wearing the green jackets of officers of the Confederation Armed Forces—the CAF. Each of the four wore the single bronze triangle on their collar designating their rank as Colonel, the highest rank in Capellan service. Each wore the green peaked forage cap, as emblematic of their service to Liao as the raised sword insignia on their shoulder. None were armed—not even senior officers in service to Liao entered her presence with a weapon, save her personnel guard.

But there, the resemblance to rest of her officers ended. For these four were today dressed in full ceremonial regalia. Each wore a dark green and black pattern tartan kilt, with still more tartan cloth draped across their left shoulder, joining the kilt at their waist, front and back, tied in a knot on their right side. Polished brown leather belts, with silver buckles circled their waists. They wore low shoes instead of boots, complete with tassels and silver buckles, and high stockings upon their bare legs. For these were the commanders of the four fiercest regiments in her service; these were the Highlanders of Northwind.

The four halted at the first balk line, and two descended to their knees. The other two continued, to the second balk line, halting once more. One dropped—hands spread on the floor, and head lowered. The last continued, kneeling to the floor at the third and final balk line, four meters from the throne in which she sat. Murmurs raced through the crowd of witnesses filling the galleries. Her court seemed to take offense at the Highlanders. So be it.

"Behold, my gallant and splendid Colonels. My Highland Colonels. You who have never failed me or my family when courage—or skill at arms—were needed."

More murmurs. The court did not like that. Praise was only for the high-born, in their opinion, not paid mercenaries. Barbara could live with that; she ruled this court, not those simpering fools who only made appearance. And mercenary these men might be in name—their loyalty for nearly three centuries now had been unquestioned.

"You have asked for an audience to present to us a petition, my brave Highland warriors. Rise, ask, and we may consider to grant it."

The four men stood, and the one closest to the Celestial Throne—Connor Stirling, commander of the 1st Kearny Highlanders regiment—spoke. "Celestial Wisdom, we come today to beg of you a boon. Our homeworld remains free yet of the traitor that is Amaris, but our brothers and sisters in service to the First Lord lie dead upon the green hills of Earth. The Royal Black Watch has fallen, Celestial Wisdom, and it has yet to be avenged. We ask that you release our regiments from your service, that we may return to Northwind and slake our thirst for vengeance on the traitor, the usurper. We ask this of you, Celestial Wisdom, not in haste, but in sorrow that our paths must, for a time, part ways. Should you release us from your service, we shall pledge to return to serve the Confederation and the Liao once more when our task has been completed."

More murmurs. Perhaps I should have the courtiers shot for this upcoming Harvest Fest. That would certainly entertain me. Oh, well, they will soon most definitely know of my displeasure with them, and their imbecilic ideas of how I should reign. Very soon.

Barbara Liao stood, and descended the six steps until she stood on one carved green marble riser, an arm's length away from Stirling.

"My knights, my brave, brave Highland knights. So pure, so fierce, so loyal. I have heard the call of our people, from throughout the Confederation and all of our Commonalties. From every world I have heard the cry over this tragedy begun by Amaris on the birthplace of us all. Earth. Old Terra herself."

"I can not, however, commit the armed forces of the Capellan Confederation against this barbarian. Nor will I allow him to violate—in any manner—our territory. We will aid Kerensky in whatever way we can, short of war. But you, my proud bannermen, my strong right arm, you are mercenaries; technically not a part of the Confederation Armed Forces. You are released from my service, upon the condition that once this conflict is ended, you will return to me and serve again. Your boon is granted, my Colonels."

She turned and walked back to the throne, adjusted her skirts and sat.

"What is more, I give you a gift, my own storied Highlanders."

"We thank the Celestial Wisdom for her generosity and compassion."

"The gift, my dear, dear, Colonels, shall be this. Any within the Armed Forces of the Confederation who wish—for personal reasons—to ask of me a leave of absence will have that request granted, up to a number of no more than one in four of those serving. Of course, I would never dream of keeping your dear friends in our Armed Forces from visiting their gallant and brave comrades upon the world of Northwind, so transport will be made available for any who wish to spend their absence there. And since you Highlanders engage in games that we mere mortals cannot fathom, it would not be wise for me to deprive my absent soldiers of their 'Mechs. Do try to show them a good time, my dear Colonels, for many have asked to take this leave and visit your fair Tara."

"Lastly, I will not have my Highland regiments travel back to their homeworld as paupers. I gift to you—and your brethren on Northwind—the cruisers Celestial Beacon and Eternal Illumination, which have now been renamed the Northwind and the Tara, and the destroyers Fraser and Carmichael, which are now the Banshee and the Claymore. Imagine my surprise, when I learned of your brothers and sisters that had joined our navy. They have volunteered to take you home, my knights, my brave knights. They are released from our service to join your cause. Travel well, my Colonels, my dear Colonels, and may God honor the righteous and the just."

Barbara Liao rose again, and walked to the door set behind the throne; pausing just once to meet her glance with that of Connor Stirling—her Colonel, her knight, her lover—before she once again turned her head and exited the hall as the four Highlanders knelt once more, and the court murmured again.

Chapter Twenty One

September 10, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

The sharp CRACK was repeated, numbing fragile eardrums in the enclosed room. The stench of cordite and blood filled the air, as Kerensky crumpled to the floor. Wallace Turner paid the General no mind; his attention was already on the three members of the Cameron family in the center of the room. Bringing up his left hand to steady the shot, he pivoted, drawing a bead on the smallest of the three.

Gerald Howe and Heather Schell both reacted the moment they heard the first shot, slamming Stephen, Marianne and Cassie to the ground; not even trying to draw their weapons—there were others for that. Now—at this moment—they only sought to shield their charges with their own bodies.

Wallace snarled in triumph, as the door burst open; they were too late. Time seemed to stand still, as he lined up the barrel on the little girls head, peeking out beneath Heather's arm, her eyes wide, her cries momentarily stilled. He pulled the trigger—and a split-second before the firing pin hit the primer cap to ignite the round, a razor-sharp shuriken sunk deep into the back of his hand, just above the wrist. Wallace involuntarily jerked, and the shot went off target. Cursing, he began to spin to his right, but Hiroyoshi was already there. Three feet of flashing steel soared upwards, and in a spray of blood and fragments of bone, Wallace saw both his hands—and the pistol—fly away, to land on the floor. He stopped, dead cold as shock slammed into his body, and looked at the white bone protruding from where his hands once had been, the red pulses of blood from the severed arteries—then his world went black as the pommel of Hiroyoshi's katana slammed into his temple.

September 10, 2767

Hawkins General Hospital, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

"This is Brian Hopkins, with a special report for Interstellar News Network, reporting from Asta, in the Terran Hegemony. Just moments ago, we learned that General Aleksandyr Kerensky, commanding general of the Star League Defense Forces, has been shot in an apparent assassination attempt, along with Cassandra Cameron, the six-year old daughter of the newly sworn-in Director General—and presumptive First Lord— Stephen Cameron. They arrived at this medical facility only minutes ago. No official statements have been made by either the hospital staff or the SLDF headquarters. We have been given no information on their condition and our crews have not been allowed access to the facility. A source high in the Astan planetary government has confirmed, however, that a member of the SLDF—for reasons unknown at this time—did open fire on Stephen Cameron, his family, and General Kerensky in Branson House a short while ago. We have no information as of yet on the identity of the gunman, or of his condition, but are assured that the man is in custody. To repeat, both Cassandra Cameron and Aleksandyr Kerensky have been shot and are currently being attended to by physicians in the facility behind me. We will be here at the scene and continue reporting as information becomes available in order to keep you up-to-date with the details. Brian Hopkins, INN, Asta."

*****************************************************

Hiroyoshi—his face hardened like brick—watched EVERYONE that came within eye-sight of the waiting lounge of the surgical ward with a glare that screamed 'TRY IT'. The full detail was here, disrupting normal operations, but that suited Hiroyoshi just fine. His people had cleared the entire floor—except for the medical staff—and the hospital administration be damned if they didn't like it. He had spoken with Colonel Bradley a few minutes ago—Ezra Bradley had approved whatever security protocols Hiroyoshi wanted to institute. Then Bradley placed a call to Anders. Anders in turn spoke to Minoru. And Lord Minoru himself had called him. He had offered two more DEST teams—and Hiroyoshi accepted. They were on their way now, as was Lord Minoru himself, with General Anders and Colonel Bradley. Colonel Hall—Kerensky's aide—was here as well, in the waiting lounge with Stephen, Marianne, and five of the six members of Stephen's original detail. Everyone except for Heather—for Heather was in surgery too.

His desperate throw had diverted the gunshot—pushed Turner's hand just far enough that the bullet missed Cassie's forehead—instead it hit Heather in the back, changed course upon striking a rib, then spent the last of it's energy to plow into Cassie's abdomen. Heather would recover; her injuries were not life-threatening, and she had insisted on being kept awake as they rode to the hospital—worried about Cassie. Cassie, though, her wound was vicious; and Hiroyoshi muttered another prayer to his ancestors to intercede on the little girl's behalf.

Kerensky was another matter. Both slugs had taken him square in the chest—how the HELL Turner had managed to miss the heart, Hiroyoshi could not understand. But he still clung stubbornly to life, as surgical teams fought to keep him alive. He had missed something; he must have missed something—ANYTHING—about Wallace Turner. He played back every encounter with the man in his mind, searching for what he should have seen. It was his fault this happened; for he had failed in his duty. And for that—for a DEST commando, for a samurai—there was only one penalty.

*****************************************************

Stephen tightly held Marianne in his arms, his own cheeks damp from the tears his eyes could no longer produce. Two hours, his little girl had been in surgery for two hours. And still they had no word on her condition. Gerald, Gerald was a sight. This whole thing had ripped him apart on the inside. Despite his gruff exterior, he loved Cassie—nearly as much as Stephen himself did. All of his people were taking it on the chin. And Kerensky! That bastard shot Kerensky as well. Colonel Hall knew none of his people—barely knew him—but she was praying as intensely as they were. Stephen had looked at Turner the moment he heard the first shot, just as Gerald thrust him to the floor. He didn't know WHY, but he knew who Wallace had deliberately targeted. And that knowledge fueled his anger.

Wallace had lined his sights on his baby girl, tried to take her from him; and if it hadn't been for Hiroyoshi, he would have. He might still have. He had seen it all from the floor, as Gerald tried to cover him with his body—and Heather the same for Marianne and Cassie. If Hiroyoshi had not reacted instantly when the shots occurred, then his Cassie would be dead now. And Stephen did not know if he could take that, that loss. The threat of that pain stoked the fire inside him even more; and if he did not yet know why, he would. He would.

Hiroyoshi walked into the lounge and looked around—marking certain that no one who shouldn't be here was—then turned back outside and ushered in a surgeon, clad in the green scrubs that even today were worn by hospital staff across human space. Stephen felt Marianne hold her breath—he knew he was doing the same—as the doctor walked across to them.

"First Lord, Lady Cameron, I'm Doctor Chakabarti. Your daughter is out of surgery, and in recovery. She lost a lot of blood, and we had to remove her spleen, but she will make a full recovery."

Stephen grew dizzy and his knees buckled, but Gerald was there; as was Thom, and Chuck, and all the others.

"She will need to rest, and is currently sedated, but there is no reason that you two," he paused, looking at the MANY dangerous glares from around him, "and a SMALL number of your guards can't see her, and sit with her."

Stephen swallowed, trying to get his dried lips and tongue to work. "Her spleen, Doctor? What does that mean?"

"The spleen aids in her immune system. Later in life, she will have a reduced immunity to many pathogens, First Lord. It is treatable, though she will likely need weekly or monthly injections of an immuno-booster serum to prevent infection. While potentially serious, she will live a mostly normal life."

Marianne's tears began again, "I want to see her. I want to see Cassie, NOW."

Stephen nodded, and motioned to Thom and Laura to take Marianne to the recovery room. "I'll be there shortly, love. Kiss her," he swallowed hard, "kiss her for me, 'til I get there."

As Marianne left, Stephen turned back to Dr. Chakabarti and asked the question he had been dreading. "And General Kerensky?"

The doctor sighed, "That is a bit more complicated, First Lord. He was shot twice in the chest—it was a wonder both slugs missed the heart and aorta. But one lung was pierced and his right scapula shattered. That damage is repairable, though it will require further reconstructive surgery. We stopped the bleeding and patched the hole in his lung; he is no further danger from that slug."

"The second passed between the heart and the aorta, narrowly missing both, and lodged directly in his spine. We have removed the bullet, but the cord was severed. I am afraid that General Kerensky will be paralyzed, from the abdomen down, for the remainder of his life."

Colonel Hall let out a gasp. Stephen's world spun. "You can repair spinal cord injuries, Doctor! A simple neural interface clamp will allow . . ."

"Ordinarily, yes, First Lord. That is why you can use your prosthetic leg without having to concentrate on moving certain muscles. The NIC allows us to translate organic neural impulses into signals that electronics can read, and vice versa. In most cases, we would install a NIC on both severed strands of the cord and connect the two, and function would be restored."

"Unfortunately, General Kerensky is in that small minority—about 1.3% of the total human population—whose nerves seem to have an almost allergic reaction to the NIC implants. If we were to attempt the procedure anyway, he would be dead in a matter of hours as his nervous system simply shut down."

"No, First Lord, I am sorry. But the medical science of today offers no quick remedy for General Kerensky's injury. He will never walk again."

Chapter Twenty Two

September 14, 2767

Hawkins General Hospital, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Hiroyoshi walked down the hall, watching every door, every face. Lord Cameron had asked him to join him in Lady Cassandra's hospital room, so now he made his way there. The staff had become very disillusioned with him—Hiroyoshi—and his adamant refusal to allow as much as a single patient on this floor, other than Lady Cassandra and General Kerensky. Hospital staff was kept to a minimum, as well—and they resented having to be accompanied at all times by a member of the detail. They didn't voice their complaints—not to him, at least. Not anymore. Not since that morning two days ago when a committee came to see him, in the room he had commandeered and converted into a command post. He listened—respectfully—to their complaints, to the issues they had with the conditions he had imposed upon them, to their heart-felt desire to treat other patients. He had listened, and then informed them that until Lady Cassandra and General Kerensky were released—or he was relieved of his post—the current security arrangement would not be altered. He apologized to them for the inconveniences they were experiencing, and asked if they had any further issues.

One of the committee, Dr. Satlee, had grown indignant and threatened to take the matter before Lord Cameron. At which point, Hiroyoshi had informed her that she was free to do so. He smiled as he remembered the meeting.

"By all means, Dr. Satlee, please disturb the First Lord and his wife while their daughter lies convalescing from a gunshot wound. Please pester them with the news that my security arrangements for her safety—for General Kerensky's safety—are disrupting your routine. I would be most amused to see his reaction to that, Doctor. Of course, if Lord Cameron is greatly disturbed by this, I would have to correct the affront to his honor. Dueling is legal on Asta, is it not?"

Dr. Satlee decided not to disturb Lord Cameron after all.

He reached the door of Lady Cassandra's room. Standing post before it were two of his best—Thom Pappas and Jarl Halvin, the latter from one of the new DEST teams assigned him by Lord Kurita. Both had been acknowledged by all others of the detail as the two most lethal in close quarters—excepting only Hiroyoshi, himself. Thom nodded as Halvin held up a security scanner. Hiroyoshi peered inside the device, a bright red light scanning his retina and confirming his identity. When the light on the machine's display turned green, Halvin nodded and stepped aside, assured that Hiroyoshi was indeed Hiroyoshi.

Hiroyoshi opened the door and entered the room. It was one of the interior rooms, with no windows to allow a sniper a shot—or a paparazzi a photograph. Lord and Lady Cameron were here, standing by the bed which held Lady Cassandra, with Gerald off to one side.

"You sent for me, my Lord Cameron?"

Stephen nodded. "More precisely, Hiroyoshi, Cassie did. She has something to tell you, don't you honey?" he asked looking down at Cassie in the bed. She was looking much improved; sitting up and color having returned to her face.

"Yes, Daddy," she said, and looked up at him with her great big eyes. "Thank you, Mister Hiroyoshi." She held out her arms for a hug.

Hiroyoshi swallowed. And walked over, bent down, giving Cassie a chance to put her arms around his neck. "Thank you, Mister Hiroyoshi, for saving me from the bad man. And for making me not have to go away!"

Lady Marianne walked over next to him and kissed him on the cheek, hugging him tightly as well.

For once in his life, Hiroyoshi Tanaka was at a complete loss for words. Finally, he simply said, "Hai."

Stephen turned back to Cassie. "Hon, I have to step outside with Hiroyoshi and Gerald for a while. Why don't you rest, and then I'll see if Nurse Ellen has any of that strawberry ice cream you like."

"O.k., Daddy!" she smiled in a bright grin. One could almost imagine that she had never been shot four days ago; until you looked at the tubes sticking out of her little arm. She turned the grin on her mother, and Marianne sat down on the bed, picked up a book, and the two began to read as Hiroyoshi left the room.

*****************************************************

Finding an empty room was not difficult. In fact, Hiroyoshi had converted three of the rooms next door into an office suite for the First Lord—including installing connecting doors, another matter that had antagonized the hospital staff. Entering his makeshift office, Stephen sat down at his desk—not quite as nice as the one back at Branson House, but close—and pointed at a pair of chairs set before it. Gerald poured two cups of coffee, and gestured at Hiroyoshi. He shook his head, and Gerald shrugged, then handed Stephen a cup and sat himself. Hiroyoshi lowered himself into the seat.

For what seemed an eternity, Stephen just looked at Hiroyoshi. He didn't blink, he didn't move; he just considered. Finally, he sighed.

"I spoke with Lord Minoru this morning, Hiroyoshi. He tells me that you have requested his permission to redeem your honor through the ritual of seppuku."

"Hai, my Lord Cameron."

"Why?"

"I failed you my Lord."

"FAILED ME? God in heaven, if you call what you did four days ago failure, I don't want to see what you call success, Sho-sa Tanaka!"

"I allowed an assassin into your presence, my Lord. The fault is mine—as is the shame."

Stephen sat back, and took a sip of his coffee, clearly thinking how to phrase his next words. "Hiroyoshi, Wallace Turner fooled everyone. From SLDF counter-intelligence to Colonel Bradley to me to Gerald. You couldn't have known. None of us could have known."

"That does not excuse my failure, my Lord. Your daughter could have died. YOU could have died, and I allowed it to occur."

Gerald spoke, in a low voice, nearly a whisper. "I have watched the surveillance footage, Hiro. Dozens of times since it happened. You saved Cassie, and Stephen, and Kerensky by taking down Turner as quickly as you did. I couldn't have made that throw to save my life, and I still can't believe that you did make it."

He stood, and took a slug of coffee. "Do you understand how quickly you reacted, Hiroyoshi? You are the ONLY thing that saved Cassie's life—and no one else could possibly have done it. No one. And if you aren't the best damn combat trooper I have ever seen, then I don't know jack about soldiering."

Hiroyoshi lowered his head, digesting what the two men were trying to tell him.

"Sho-sa Tanaka; Hiroyoshi," Stephen said, leaning forward. "I owe you for my daughter's life. That is a debt that I can never repay, thought I will try for the rest of my own. There is no failure here—not from you. And Lord Minoru told me that himself this very morning."

Hiroyoshi looked up.

"Yes, Lord Minoru told me that himself, and said that if you wished to speak further with him, feel free to do so. I believe his views on honor and dishonor, shame and failure might be just what you need to hear now. I have no right to ask anything else of you, Hiroyoshi, but I will. Don't do this. Don't take your own life because of that scum Turner. If you do that, then in a way he will have won."

Hiroyoshi swallowed, a lump in his throat. This, this—what was the word; ah, yes—intervention would be unheard of in the Combine. "I will consider your words, my Lord Cameron. And I will speak with my Lord Minoru before I take any action."

Stephen sat back, a tired look on his face. "Good. That's all I ask, Hiroyoshi." He closed his eyes and lowered his head, then lifted it back up and looked him straight in the eye. "And if your decision is to go through with this, then I will not stand in the way—I will stand for you, then grieve for you as though you were my own brother."

"You would act as my second in this matter, my Lord?"

"Hai, Hiroyoshi, if it comes to that. From what I understand, though, I might well have to contend with Minoru himself for that honor, if it comes to that."

Hiroyoshi looked down again himself, trying to keep down the emotions welling up from deep within.

"There is another matter, as well, Hiroyoshi," Stephen said.

He composed himself and looked Lord Stephen square in the eyes. "I am yours to command, my Lord."

"Wallace Turner. The paramedics managed to save his life. Did you know that he is in this very hospital?"

"Hai."

"Did you know that he has invoked his rights under the SLDF Code of Military Justice to remain silent—that he has invoked his right to counsel and can not be questioned by our people?"

"Hai."

"I need to know WHY, Hiroyoshi. I don't have any right to ask this of you, but . . ."

"You are my lord, my Lord. I would give my life if you but asked. This is nothing."

Stephen nodded, and a grim look overtook his face. "Good."

Chapter Twenty Three

September 14, 2767

Archon's Palace, Tharkad City

Boreal Continent, Tharkad

Lyran Commonwealth

The icy winds howled outside the thick granite walls of the palace. Out there, in the ice and the snow, the temperature had plunged overnight to 20 below as the blizzard roared through the capital of the Lyran Commonwealth. Inside, however, Robert Steiner was warm as he sat before the blazing fireplace in his private study. His three guests were also comfortable, in their plush chairs facing him. Robert swirled the Arcturan brandy in his snifter, watching the three closely. Landgrave Gloria Lanning presided over the gaggle of politicians called the Estates-General. The legislative branch of the Commonwealth, the Estates-General had seen its powers decline over the years. Now it was little more than a rubber-stamp for his will. Landgrave Lanning was here to make certain that it remained that stamp. And as long as the Landgrave pleased her Archon, the Landgrave would continue to make money hand-over-fist from her not-so-secret less-than-legal dealings.

General of the Armies Heinrich Dieter sipped the deep rich amber liquid from his own snifter. A graduate of the Nagelring—the premier military academy of the Commonwealth—he had been a loyal support of Robert since their school days. That fact had been the sole reason Robert appointed him to the highest rank of the Lyran Commonwealth Armed Forces. He had done passably well in his studies, though. His friendship with Robert was genuine, though it had certainly pushed his career along as well; as peer review boards granted him higher and higher rank, thinking that his patron would be pleased with them. Robert was, but he was not about to let his pleasure at Heinrich's elevation through the ranks influence his policy. But by the time they discovered that fact, it had been much too late for the social-climbing officers to correct their error.

The third man was Landgrave Erik Kiplinger—the head of the Lyran Intelligence Corps. Another long-time friend of Robert's, Kiplinger had gone into the intelligence service instead of the LCAF following preparatory school. Erik kept to a low profile, but was possibly the most powerful man in the room, save only Robert himself. He watched the enemies of the Commonwealth—both domestic and abroad—and if necessary eliminated them. Quietly. Robert had used his 'services' quite extensively in the past few years, as a string of 'accidents' confounded his political enemies within the government. Though there were still dissenters who found themselves opposed to his policies—many too highly placed for such an 'accident' to occur without questions.

Erik and Heinrich had finished reading the brief Robert had personally prepared this morning—by hand. No copies existed on any electronic system, and these papers would be burnt before his guests left the room. Gloria sat back as she finished, lifted her snifter, and swallowed a huge amount of the potent brandy.

"It is risky, Archon," she said, considering all of the possibilities that his plan laid bare.

Erik nodded as he ran a finger across the rim of the snifter, looking away into the distance, his keen mind pondering all the imponderables. "Yes, it is. But elegant. I salute you, my Archon," he said raising his snifter.

Robert smiled and lifted his own snifter to return the gesture.

"The LCAF can do this, Archon. There is very little to oppose us on the worlds of the Rim; certainly Kerensky will not wish to initiate hostilities against a second House, not over this, not when we 'cooperate' with him on so many other points."

"I thought so, gentlemen, my lady. And of course, we will answer the will of the people, and raise these two divisions of volunteers to join Kerensky's army. Heinrich, do you have that list I asked you to prepare?"

"Yes, Archon," Heinrich said as he handed the sheets to Eric and Gloria.

"Oh, ho! Well done, my Archon, well done indeed. You will appoint your most vocal critics to command these green regiments. They cannot refuse the appointments without looking the coward, and losing their political support. They will be away from Tharkad for years—in the midst of the most brutal war in centuries. Even if they survive, which is questionable, they will be removed from interfering in your political endeavors here, in the Commonwealth."

"The greatly expanded Commonwealth," Gloria said as she sat back, a smile growing on her face as she considered the many fiscal opportunities that awaited her and her 'associates' on the former worlds of the Rim Worlds Republic.

Robert sat back in his comfortable chair, and his own smile would have generated a fond feeling of kinship with any of the deep pelagic beasts that Amaris so loved. So, it was done. The three voices that must support him and his plans were all in agreement. Now he had but to send the message; to bait the hook that Kerensky and Cameron would swallow.

Chapter Twenty Four

September 15, 2767

Hawkins General Hospital, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

The hospital security ward was quiet; after all it was two-thirty in morning. Only one prisoner was in custody, and no one would be visiting him this time of night. Thirty minutes ago his nurse had changed his bandages and given him his medications. She was not scheduled to return for another hour and a half. The two guards assigned to the graveyard shift were very junior members of the Hawkins Police Department. Loyal and reliable, they were here to enforce the laws of Asta and the Hegemony—regardless of their own personal feelings towards the prisoner. That fact made Hiroyoshi's task slightly more difficult.

He had decided upon the bold approach, so now he walked down the corridor towards the two guards—Hamish Faulkner and Julian Edgerton, or 'ham and eggs' as the local police called them. They were alert as he approached, and Hiroyoshi approved. Good young men, doing a job which they personally disliked, but doing it as well as they could. He admired that trait—and made a mental note to inquire as to if either wanted to engage in the tests to join his detail.

"Good morning, sir," said Officer Faulkner. "What brings you down here this morning?"

"Your prisoner, officer; I have come to retrieve him."

"Sir?"

"Yes, I captured him, so he is to be transferred to DCMS authority."

Faulkner and Edgerton exchanged a glance. "We have received no such notice, sir. Do you have the transfer order?"

"No, officers; such an order will not be needed."

Edgerton frowned, "In that case, sir, I am sorry, but the prisoner cannot be transferred. We will need to contact our superiors to inform them of your presence."

He reached up and pressed the transmit key of his radio—and silence filled the room.

"I do apologize, officers. But the prisoner is going with me. And your radios will not function at this moment in time."

Faulkner turned his head towards Edgerton, who was still trying to make his radio work—and saw a gleaming red dot on his chest. He looked down, and an identical one shone on his own.

Hiroyoshi nodded, "Yes, officer. I apologize for any inconvenience, but I shall be taking the prisoner with me. Kindly drop your sidearms to the floor, and remain perfectly still. My associates do not have lethal weapons, but the drugs that will render you unconscious do have some rather nasty side-effects later, after you recover consciousness."

Edgerton quit trying to get his radio to work, and stared at Hiroyoshi. "You know we know who you are, sir."

"I know. But what you may not realize is that I was appointed as the Combine's Liaison Officer for the First Lord, in addition to my duties as part of his security detail. As such, I am officially a member of the Combine government, and an accredited member of Lord Kurita's diplomatic mission to this world and to the First Lord. One who furthermore has full diplomatic immunity to prosecution. So, may I have the key to the room, or shall I have you take a short nap, gentlemen?"

"I cannot just hand over the key, sir!"

"When this is finished, come and see me about a job, Officer Faulkner, on the First Lord's security detail. I do rather like you, sir." Hiroyoshi looked up, and nodded, and two darts, propelled by compressed air, buried themselves in each officer's neck. The two gave Hiroyoshi an odd look, and then collapsed to the floor. Hiroyoshi bent and removed the key ring from Faulkner's belt as the remainder of his team lowered themselves from the false ceiling above.

He inserted the key in the door; then entered the room. Wallace Turner lay asleep on his bed, thick bandages covering the stumps of both his arms. Hiroyoshi pointed at the video surveillance cameras and two of his team disengaged them. A third scanned for room for audio pick-ups—and found four; each of these was likewise disabled. That accomplished, Hiroyoshi spoke, "Move him quietly to the ambulance, then we have an appointment with Mister Turner that he shall not much enjoy."

The commandoes wheeled Wallace Turner's bed into the corridor, down a service elevator, and loaded the drugged man into a stolen ambulance. Then, sirens blazing, they left the hospital behind.

*****************************************************

Wallace Turner awoke to pain. The first pain he had felt since that Snake had severed his hands. He opened his eyes, expecting to see the nurse changing his medication bags—instead, he saw Hiroyoshi Tanaka sitting besides his bed, shutting down the morphine drip.

"Good morning, Mister Turner. I thought that perhaps the time has come for us to have a little chat—man to man, so to speak."

Turner's heart began to race, he looked desperately around his room—but it wasn't his room. He was not in the hospital at all, but in a dilapidated concrete warehouse. Instead of nurses and local law enforcement, there were only the black-clad DEST commandoes and Hiroyoshi. And his lawyer was nowhere to be seen.

"Where am I?"

"Someplace where you will remain safe from discovery, Mister Turner. Now, I am going to have some questions for you. If I receive a truthful answer, then you will get a reward, Mister Turner," he said, tapping the plastic bag containing the morphine solution. "However, if you play me false, then that too has a gift that you will be the recipient of; one which you will not perhaps enjoy quite so much."

"I know my rights as a citizen of the Hegemony, Tanaka. This interrogation is illegal and cannot be used against me."

"You are most certainly correct, Mister Turner. This interrogation can not and shall not be used against in any court of the Hegemony. But what does that matter? I personally witnessed you shoot General Kerensky—and Cassandra Cameron. As did Gerald Howe, Heather Schell, Stephen and Marianne Cameron, Cassandra Cameron, and General Aleksandyr Kerensky himself. Not to mention that we have the entire affair on video recording. If your attorney-at-law indicated that you would receive anything less than the full sentence for treason when you stand trail, then he is, quite frankly, delusional."

"But, it is a small matter, Mister Turner. I only want to know why. Why did you deliberately target Cassandra Cameron for assassination?"

"Frak off, you miserable Snake."

"Tsk, tsk, tsk, Mister Turner. Gentleman, if you would please remove him from the bed and place him upon the board."

Wallace Turner turned his head enough to see the hardwood board fixed with leather straps lying to his right—next to a concrete pool of water four feet deep. He began to struggle and curse.

"None of that, Mister Turner, I did warn you. However, technically it might be that you have not yet lied to me. Would you care to reassess your answer?"

Wallace Turner swallowed hard. This bastard Tanaka frightened him, nearly as much as von Strang had the one time they had met. But Tanaka was here, now, and no mercy showed in his eyes.

"Why do you want to know?"

"Quid pro quo, Mister Turner? I will play your game; I do not actually care, as long as you are—in the end—put to death in a slow and painful manner. My Lord Cameron, on the other hand, wants to understand why an officer sworn to his service would shoot a six-year old girl, guilty of no crime except that of being his daughter."

"I . . . can't answer that," Turner stammered, thinking of his family in the hands of that other madman, von Strang.

"As you wish, Mister Turner, as you wish." Hiroyoshi turned to the commandoes standing nearby—Turner couldn't see their faces behind the armored visors—and nodded. They lifted him onto the board, place a bag over his head and he was plunged, head-first into the pool of water. He struggled, but could not lift himself; he felt the air in his lungs beginning to burn as he desperately needed to breathe. Just as he could not stop himself from inhaling, he was lifted up from the pool, and the bag removed.

Turner sputtered and gasped, trying to draw in fresh air, while Hiroyoshi looked down on him. "Can you answer, yet, Mister Turner? No?" he pointed at the pool. Once more Turner was bagged and forced beneath the water; his hyper-ventilating had reduced the capacity of his lungs and he began again to kick and struggle, but weakened even quicker this time, then was lifted out once more, trying to force his lungs to draw in more air as his pulse raced and his blood pressure soared.

"You seem ill-equipped to deal with this, Mister Turner. You are still weak from your injuries. Tell me what I want to know and it will all end. Otherwise, Mister Turner, I have no other duties; and nothing but time."

Turner began to cry. He would do it. Tanaka would kill him. He would pretend to drown him for hours, then he would leave him down there, without air, without hope. He shook his head, "No, please, no, not again."

"Then tell me, Mister Turner. Explain to me in words that, say a six-year old child could understand, why?"

And Turner did.

*****************************************************

Hawkins Police Headquarters was abuzz with activity this morning. Wallace Turner had been abducted from the hospital by none other than the second-in-command of the First Lord's security detail. Faulkner and Edgerton had been found two hours ago and an alert was sent out to every officer in the force, calling them all in to duty. Sergeant Jeremy Bryant shook his head as he sat at his desk. To say all hell had broken loose, that would be the understatement of the year. Turner's attorney had shown up—accusing the police commissioner of complicity in the action in order to deny his client a fair trial under the law. Governor Fairbanks himself had made an appearance demanding the police find Turner—alive—and find him today! The three of them were in his Captain's office, arguing loudly enough that he could hear them from out here. So, today, on one of his very few off-days, he found himself here an hour before his normal waking time, holding down the front desk to let an officer who was not disabled participate in the search for the missing would-be assassin.

As he placed several sheets of paperwork in his outbox—damn all bureaucrats anyway—his phone rang. "Hawkins Police Headquarters, Sergeant Bryant speaking."

"Good morning, Sergeant Bryant. This is Sho-sa Hiroyoshi Tanaka, of the Draconis Combine Mustered Soldiery."

Bryant stabbed the button that automatically began a trace and a second that broadcast the call into both the Captain's office and the staff-room set aside for the detectives investigating this case.

"Sho-sa Tanaka? You realize you have given us quite a stir this morning, haven't you?"

"For that, Sergeant you have my apologies. I am certain that you are tracing this call, but really, it will not be required. This call cannot be traced by your equipment. Mister Wallace Turner is at the corner of Stanfield and Whittaker sedated in an ambulance—one probably listed as having been stolen this morning from the hospital."

Officers hurried out of the room as a dispatcher began reading off the location into his microphone.

"And his condition, Sho-sa Tanaka?"

"Not too much the worse for wear, Sergeant Bryant. A few water sports this morning, nothing too strenuous for a convalescent. Some of my associates are watching Mister Turner rather closely, though you will not see them when you arrive at his location. Mister Turner is in no further danger from I or anyone associated with me, today, Sergeant. And we shall ensure his safety until your capable officers arrive on scene."

"And yourself, Sho-sa Tanaka? Are you turning yourself in?"

He actually chuckled on the other end of the line; Bryant was amazed at the sheer audacity of the man. "Why, no, Sergeant. Please check with the Combine embassy for my diplomatic status. You will find that I have full immunity for any crime committed in the Hegemony—up to and including murder. At the very most, you could request that my Lord Cameron declare me persona-non-grata and expel me from Hegemony territory; but you, Sergeant, and your local legal system have no authority over me."

"Then why didn't you just kill that damned traitor?" Bryant couldn't help himself, the question just popped out of his mouth. Hiroyoshi laughed again.

"I have gotten what I wanted from the man, Sergeant Bryant. And I am quite confident the ASTAN legal system will soon correct the small problem of Wallace Turner still drawing breath; quite soon in fact. Have a good day, Sergeant," he said as the line disconnected.

Bryant looked up from his desk to the balcony outside the Captain's office where his Captain, the Commissioner, Turner's attorney, and Governor Fairbanks now stood, all of whom were looking at him, their mouths agape. He shrugged, and went to work on the next piece of paperwork in his in-box.

*****************************************************

Stephen, Minoru, Gerald, Ezra Bradley, Sam Anders, Gregor Samasov, and Hideki Matasuke sat in Stephen's office in Branson House, as they listened to the recording of Turner's statement to Hiroyoshi. As it finished, Hiroyoshi leaned over, pressed the stop button on the device, and returned to a position of attention.

Ezra Bradley responded first, his face ashen. "He was working for Amaris? For the past six years?"

Stephen nodded; he and Gerald had heard the tape two hours earlier, and then arranged this meeting. "Yes, Ezra, he has. Lord Minoru, he informed the Rim Worlders of Operation Brody, as well as our current status of forces here. We must assume . . . "

"Yes, Lord Stephen. We must assume that sufficient forces were on hand on Saffel to defeat my son and his Strike Force. Further, Turner stated that they planned an attack here—in ten days time." Minoru looked at Matasuke, who shook his head.

"My fastest ship cannot intercept the Strike Force before that date, nor can any of the few Star League ships that we have. And the command circuit to Saffel has not yet been built—we suffered too much damage to too many ships taking Asta. Those ships are now in yard hands back home."

Sam Anders cleared his throat, "What of your reserve at your forward base at KV-106?"

"I will issue orders immediately to bring them forward. Asta is the crisis point, Lord Minoru, Lord Stephen. With those ships on hand, it will increase our strength to one hundred and forty-seven capital warships—but seventy-three of those will be mere corvettes and destroyers. It will raise our total number of carriers to six, with six battleships and eight battlecruisers to back them up."

Minoru, his face could have been graven of stone, looked at Stephen. "Will you not have your family take refuge off-world, Lord Stephen? No one could blame you for sending them away."

Stephen sadly shook his head. "Marianne and Cassie won't leave. Not this time, not as long as I stay. And I can't leave."

"So be it," the Dragon said, looking in turn at the eyes of everyone in this room. "Then here we shall make our stand, gentleman. Here we either turn the tide in this war or we perish."

Chapter Twenty Five

September 15, 2767

House of Government, Atreus City

Aquilia Continent, Atreus

Free Worlds League

Minister of Parliament Sienna Stewart waited patiently at her deck, as she awaited the arrival of the Captain-General of the Free Worlds League, Kenyon Mark. In recess for the moment, Parliament awaited only his arrival to reconvene. Stephen Cameron's broadcast had set off a firestorm here on Atreus; indeed throughout the Free Worlds League. Every MP had a constituency to answer to, if he wanted to return for next year's session. Emotions were running high, and the Captain-General; well, the Captain-General was not making things any easier. Kenyon Marik had pointedly ignored the broadcasts and made no public announcements. Finally, Parliament had issued a summons for him to address the body; which he would do when the Speaker gaveled the body to order in a few moments time.

Her own province, the Stewart Commonality, wanted to support Kerensky and the new Cameron now; no further waiting, no more excuses. As did she. As did the MP's of perhaps two-thirds of the provinces of the League. Unfortunately, that did not include three of the largest provinces—Marik, Regulus, and Andurien. She had spent forty years in this Chamber, building power and tracking votes. Despite not having those three on her side, she had the numbers to force action on the Captain-General if she must. He had to take action, despite his personal hatred for Kerensky, he had to. He was Captain-General of the entire League; Parliament could not let one man set their policies, not on a matter such as the Amaris Crisis.

Sienna hoped beyond hope that she did not have to. For the only answer she would have to Kenyon's intransigence would be—desperate. It would cause a Constitutional crisis, one the League could ill afford when so fragmented. She prayed he would see the light and not force her hand on this matter. The remainder of her delegation from the Commonality was not so cautious. For six hundred years, a Scion of the House of Stewart had traveled back to Terra to serve in the Royal Black Watch, a tradition her province had enforced upon every generation like an unwritten law that could never be broken. Now, Jenna Stewart was dead. And the people of Stewart wanted vengeance for the vivacious twenty-three year old daughter of Angus Stewart, Laird of the Commonality—and her own grand-niece. She sighed. Please Kenyon, please see reason on this.

The doors of the Parliament opened, and she craned her neck to see if the Marik had arrived. No, it was his youngest brother, Thomas Marik, one of the MP's for the Marik Commonwealth—seat of the Captain-General's power and authority. He strode down through the tiers of seats, beneath the public galleries, that today were packed with news crews and common citizens. He reached the well of the floor, and continued, ascending the Speaker's desk, until he stood beside the Speaker, and quietly spoke in his ear. The Speaker looked shocked—this was not good, Sienna thought. Then the Speaker nodded—a look of displeasure on his face—and Thomas Marik returned to the floor, and joined his delegation.

The Speaker stood and banged the gavel. "This session of the Federal Parliament of the Free Worlds League is called to order. Order, Ladies and Gentlemen, we must have order."

Slowly, the massive chamber quieted. The Speaker spoke into his microphone.

"Captain-General Kenyon Marik is unable to attend this session today. Instead . . . "

A vast swelling noise erupted throughout the Chamber. The Marik had ignored their summons? It was unheard of!

"Please, Ministers, can we have order?" the Speaker shouted. As the noise lessened, he continued, "Instead, his brother, MP Thomas Marik has a statement prepared by the Captain-General which he has been instructed to read for our attention. I recognize MP Marik and grant him the floor."

Thomas Marik stood from his delegation box and lifted the microphone in one hand, a single sheet of paper in the other. "I thank the Speaker, and my fellow Ministers of Parliament for allowing me to address this body. My brother, the Captain-General of the League, the Marik, Kenyon Marik, has a short statement that he wishes to be entered into the records of this parliamentary session."

"Honorable Speaker, Distinguished Ministers, citizens of all the Provinces of the League. We are in troubling times. Times of crisis. Times when all public servants must consider the good of the Free Worlds League over all else. We have all seen the broadcast from Asta, from the man claiming Lordship of the Star League, Stephen Cameron. We know the perfidy of Stefan Amaris and his crimes in the murder of Richard Cameron and his seizure of the Terran Hegemony. We know that General Aleksandyr Kerensky has declared war upon Amaris."

"That, my people, is what we do know. What you do not, what we do not know is this. What shall the Free Worlds League do in response? That is the question before us today. And my answer to that is this—the League must look to itself. This matter between Kerensky and Amaris is an internal affair between the Hegemony and the Rim Worlds. Our obligations under the Star League Accords do not require us to support anyone—a Cameron of the blood or otherwise—that is not a duly elected First Lord by the High Council of the Star League."

"Accordingly, despite calls for action by some among us, I have decided that the Free Worlds League will remain neutral in this conflict. As of today, with no clear, legitimate, and lawful First Lord of the Star League, the Free Worlds League will place in escrow all taxes, fees, tariffs, and other sundry sums collected within its borders in the name of the Star League. These funds will be held in escrow until a First Lord has been chosen."

"All jointly owned planets of the Free Worlds and the Star League will be placed under Free Worlds authority, until a First Lord has been chosen."

"All Star League facilities and installations will be handed over intact to officials from the government of the Free Worlds League to manage or be destroyed by the military forces of the Free Worlds League, until a First Lord has been chosen."

"Any military forces of either combatant currently within the borders of the Free Worlds must leave immediately or face internment for the duration of the conflict, under the threat of destruction by the military forces of the Free Worlds League."

"The Free Worlds will initiate an embargo of goods to all planets within the Terran Hegemony and Rim Worlds Republic, and to all military forces acting underneath their banners, until the cessation of hostilities has begun and a First Lord has been chosen."

"These are my words, the words of the Marik, your Captain-General, on this 15th day of September, in the year of our Lord, 2767."

Thomas Marik finished speaking and sat as the Chamber erupted. Some of the Ministers were protesting loudly, others were cheering for the Captain-General—but most seemed stunned by the callous harshness of the proclamation.

Sienna sat still for a minute, then for two, then pressed the call button on her desk. The Speaker, trying to restore order, must have hundreds of calls for the floor; but he knew her. Raising his head, he met her gaze across the chamber, and nodded. Banging his gavel and yelling for order, he slowly brought some calm back to the Chamber. When it was once more quiet enough to be heard, he spoke.

"I recognize MP Sienna Stewart and grant her the floor."

As she stood, she could have heard a pin drop. Everyone waited to hear her words—some holding their breath, others praying she wouldn't push the matter. Before speaking she looked at her fellow Ministers, and the newsmen, and the citizens, and lowered her head.

"I have heard the words of the Captain-General, as read by the Distinguished Gentleman from the Commonwealth of Marik. I have heard them. And I can not say that I really expected otherwise. Our Captain-General has served us well in the past, led us to peace and prosperity, but on this matter, his reasoning is clouded."

She lifted her head as she continued. "Twenty years ago, Kenyon Marik was chastised by Aleksandyr Kerensky—and he has harbored resentment ever since. The Marik does not do this for the Free Worlds; he does this to exact revenge on the man who wounded his pride two decades ago! He has not the concerns of the people of the Free Worlds in his heart—only the desire to see Aleksandyr Kerensky laid low."

"Because of this, my fellow Ministers, Mister Speaker, because of this, I now call the vote. I call for a Vote of No Confidence in Captain-General Kenyon Marik! Let us vote, and remove from office the Marik who is too blinded by his personal pride to stand for the good of the Free Worlds and the Star League. I call the vote, Mister Speaker!"

And utter chaos erupted in Parliament as Sienna Stewart sat, her head held high.

Chapter Twenty Six

September 16, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

"Governor Alistair Fairbanks to see you, First Lord, on what he deems an urgent matter," solemnly intoned Gerald from the doorway to his office. Stephen winced; just as soon as he finished reviewing the basic operational outline Admiral Matasuke had devised for the defense of Asta with Sam Anders, Gregor Samasov, Ezra Bradley, and Hiroyoshi he was due back at the hospital. Cassie was being released today. But, he nodded, might as well not put this off.

Alistair Fairbanks entered the office, and frowned as he recognized Hiroyoshi. Crossing over to the front of the desk, he nodded his head. "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Director-General. This is a private matter, however."

Stephen leaned back. The man truly was a pompous ass, he had learned over the past few weeks. "General Anders is the senior SLDF officer in the system, while Colonel Bradley commands the only SLDF ground forces on planet, and General Samasov is the senior Combine officer groundside today, Governor. Speak your mind."

Fairbanks jaw muscles clenched slightly, for Stephen had not offered him a seat, unlike his other guests. "Very well, Director-General. I have come seeking a warrant for the extradition and trial of one Hiroyoshi Tanaka for the violation of multiple laws of both Asta and the Hegemony. Here is the documentation." He placed a sheaf of papers on Stephen's clean desk.

Stephen placed one finger on the documents, and tapped them lightly, fixing Fairbanks with an icy stare. "What are the charges you wish to bring against a member of my staff, one with full diplomatic immunity, Governor?"

"He kidnapped a citizen of the Hegemony, assaulted officers of the law, stole an emergency services vehicle, and committed acts of torture. He should be declared persona non grata immediately and then his extradition demanded from the Combine government."

"The citizen in question shot my daughter, Governor Fairbanks, and General Kerensky. Aleksandyr will never again walk because of that man. That is who you are referring to, correct? Hiroyoshi, have you tortured anyone else that I am unaware of?"

"No, my Lord Cameron, I have not."

"You may choose to pretend that this is a joking matter, Director-General, but it is not in the least amusing. Torture of prisoners is specifically forbidden under Hegemony law. The other acts might well be covered by diplomatic immunity, but I believe a case can be made for the extradition of that man as a war criminal—something not covered in his diplomatic immunity."

"Your request is denied, Governor," Stephen said as he slid the papers back across his desk to Fairbanks.

"It is not a request, Director-General. Under the Great Charter of the Hegemony a Planetary Governor has the right to demand action of the Director-General to seek justice for laws broken by parties of extra-planetary origins. I do so demand."

"I am familiar with that section of the Charter, Governor. Are you familiar with Article VII, Section IV?"

"Of course, Director-General, I was a civil rights attorney before I entered politics. That section details the Director-General's powers of clemency and pardon."

"Good, Governor. Please read this, then," Stephen said as he pulled a document from a drawer and slid it across the desk.

Fairbanks took the document and scanned it, "Are you mad, Director-General? This document gives a full and complete pardon to this, this criminal for any and all crimes committed in the borders of the Hegemony at any point in time prior to today. This is blanket immunity—and thoroughly illegal, sir!"

Stephen stood. "Sir, we are at war. The citizen in question is an agent of our enemy. Hiroyoshi was acting on my direction when he questioned Turner. And he is now pardoned. And because of the information he gained, we now know that Amaris is planning a counter-strike against Asta within the next ten days. You would have been informed of that later today, but since you are here now, consider yourself so informed, Governor. I intend to make an address to the people of Asta tomorrow to inform them of the threat we face."

Fairbanks grew pale. "Amaris? Attacking again?"

"Yes, Governor, and in even greater numbers than last time. This fight might well include Amaris firing nuclear weapons at the planetary surface. After all, he attempted to do so last time."

Fairbanks looked down and then glanced at his watch. "I should be going then, Director-General."

"Good."

Stephen remained standing until Fairbanks had left the office, escorted again by Gerald. He placed his finger on the call button, and his new secretary answered, "Yes, my Lord?"

"Monica, pass the word to the staff. I don't want to see or hear from Governor Fairbanks at any time in the foreseeable future. Don't let him in here again."

"Of course, my Lord."

Sitting once more, Stephen looked across at the three men across from him. "In that case, gentlemen, where were we?"

September 17, 2767

Planetary Capital, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

"L.T., you pegged the guy just right," Gerald said as he walked into the anteroom with a grin across his face.

"Top, you sound so shocked that I can read dilettantes like an open book. Remember the family I grew up in? Fairbanks bailed?"

"Boarded a private transport this morning bound for Northwind. Along with his family and his mistress, and about two dozen others of the same mindset. No great loss for the defense of Asta, thereaways."

Stephen clucked his tongue. "Did he inform the Assembly of his departure, Top?"

"Seems that he did not, First Lord."

"Pity, but the Asta Constitution clearly spells out that before leaving the planet, a Planetary Governor must inform the Assembly of his reasons for doing so and the expected length of his absence. Seems the good Governor has abandoned his duties."

"Yep."

"Would you bring Paul in, please Gerald, and give us a few moments."

Gerald nodded and left the room.

*****************************************************

Paul Geeler walked into the ante-chamber where the First Lord stood. He knelt, unsure what to do.

"Damn it, Paul, get back on your feet. We've slogged the same mud together, spilled our blood together, trooper, no need for that crap between us old soldiers."

"Lord Stephen, it is a pleasure to see you again."

Stephen smiled and offered Paul a seat. Hiroyoshi came in and gave Paul a cup of coffee, then withdrew. Not a single one of Stephen's detail remained in the room with him and Paul.

"Bet your wondering why I asked you here today, Paul."

"Yes, sir, I was kind of."

"I have a job offer for you. It's a tough job, but you showed me you have toughness during the Resistance. I won't lie to you, it'll lay a lot on your shoulders, and you might not get many thanks other than mine, but I think you can do the job right."

"It would be my pleasure to serve in any way, my Lord."

"Don't say that so fast, Paul. I'll be making a speech in about half an hour—the gist of which is that Amaris is coming back, loaded for Ridgeback. You know Governor Fairbanks?"

"Yes, sir, not personally, but I have seen him in the news."

"Governor Fairbanks has fled the planet; abandoned his office, his people, and his planet. He did so because he is a coward, Paul. He knows about the Rim Worlds counter-attack and he ran."

"He was always worthless, sir. Everyone knew that, but his little district keeps reelecting him. If he hadn't been Whip in the Assembly, he would have never had a chance to be Governor. Who are you going to appoint to replace him, if I may ask?"

"You may. I was thinking perhaps, you."

Paul Geeler sat bolt upright in his chair. "You have got to be joking, my Lord!"

"Nope."

"I, I'm just an electrician. Not a politician!"

"Right. You build and repair things. And this planet needs someone who can do that, without being beholden to the Old Guard who have their own interests that must be satisfied. Things have got to change, not just on this world, but across the League. We are at war, in the fight of lives with a barbarian who won't hesitate to kill a world to kill a single man. You know that, and you had the courage of your convictions to do something about it. I've met your wife and your kids, they adore you, and that—and serving alongside you—tells me all I need know about you. I served an eternity in hell alongside you. Paul, I trust you, the trooper who could thread a needle with his SRM launcher. That's who I want as Asta's next governor. That's who I NEED as Asta's next governor. The job might kill you, but it's one you can do—and do well."

Paul sat back and sighed Kathleen would kill him, but, he looked at the face of his lord. I don't want to let this man down, he thought. He sure as hell hasn't let any of us down. "If you need me, my Lord, then I will serve."

Stephen grinned. "Excellent, Planetary Governor Geeler. Now that that is settled, how about we consider what you are going to say to your people in just a few moments when we tell them about the upcoming attack, then go say hi to your wife and kids, they're in the next room."

Chapter Twenty Seven

September 25, 2767

DCS Dragon's Fist

High Orbit, Saffel

Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

There had been no resistance at the jump point. The Strike Force had arrived less than two hours ago at the L-4 jump point, fully expecting a pitched battle. Instead, there was nothing. Not a single ship—military or civilian—in orbit, at any of close orbit jump points, not even at the systems two primary jump points.

Jumping a ship across the trackless waste of interstellar space was a risky endeavor, even when the crew observed all possible precautions. Ships vanished for all time, even now, nearly seven hundred years after the discovery of the Kearny-Fuchida jump drive. Jumps could only be initiated or resolved at points of gravitic balance. Every system—regardless of whether or not any planetary bodies were present—always possessed two jump points. These two, located directly above—the zenith—and below—the nadir—of the star's plane of gravity were the most stable; they were the safest to use, as well as the largest. Unfortunately, these two jump points were days—or even weeks—away from the inner planets; the life zone that surrounded roughly one star in ten. Planets where man could walk without gravity crippling him, with air he could breathe, water he could drink, and temperatures that neither roasted nor froze him.

There were other jump points, though. Commonly called 'pirate points', these formed where a planet and a moon orbiting each other and their star generated one or more Lagrange points, named after the physicist Joseph-Louis Lagrange who postulated their existence. At these points, gravity from the three objects—the star, the planet, and the moon—were in near perfect balance, allowing a stable orbit—and the ability to jump. But these jump points were small in comparison to the two primary points, and much riskier to use. However, their sheer usefulness in military operations overruled the safety concerns much of the time. Planetary defenders could prepare much less thoroughly on four hours notice rather than four—or fourteen—days warning.

Of course, few systems possessed the perfect combination of one star, one habitable planet, and one moon that Terra did. Adding more moons—or stars—reduced the size of 'pirate' jump points still further, and made it exceedingly difficult to calculate jumps. And if a habitable planet had no moons of sufficient mass, then it had no 'pirate' jump points. Luckily, Saffel had a single large moon, and thus five separate jump points arrayed in close proximity to it.

Jump points that should have been guarded. That had been a basic tenet of military operations since the first armed JumpShip was launched centuries ago.

Jinjiro was worried about the lack of resistance. Still, Amaris must be stretched to the breaking, Jinjiro thought. Perhaps he can't spare his WarShips for a back-water world such as this. Not when he has immensely rich and industrialized worlds—such as Dieron, Caph, New Earth, and Terra—to garrison and protect. But those worlds have Space Defense Systems; Saffel does not, an annoying little imp whispered at the back of his mind.

Looking down at the communications screen near his knee, he saw his naval commander—Admiral Genda—waiting patiently for his instructions.

"Admiral, launch the DropShips of the first wave, and prepare to give orbital fire support."

"Hai, Gunji-no-Kanrei."

Jinjiro tightened the straps holding him in the cockpit of his Dragon class BattleMech once more, as he waited for the DropShip he was aboard to release from the battleship DCS Fuso and begin its descent.

September 25, 2767

DCS Dragon's Fist

Mid-atmosphere, Saffel

Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

The descent was rough—as always—winds buffeting the ninety-seven hundred ton craft as if were a feather as it screamed into the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. And this was a combat drop. When the DropShip reached ten thousand meters six hatches on the outer hull snapped open, allowing the noise of the howling wind to penetrate even through Jinjiro's sealed cockpit. A red light flashed on his console as the machinery moved his sixty-ton 'Mech directly over the drop chute. When his 'Mech had locked in place, the red light turned solid, then changed to green. A tremendous concussion slammed Jinjiro back into his ejector seat as solid-fuel rockets drove his 'Mech out of the DropShip and away from its lethal plasma exhaust. Within seconds, the rockets died out, and the drop package attached to the outer surface of his 'Mech began steering him towards the designated landing zone of his headquarters.

Dozens—scores—of smaller thrusters attached to every surface of the 'Mech that could support them fired in controlled bursts. They steered him, and slowed his descent. Even with their aid, the ground approached fast. Finally, all of the thrusters fired at maximum power—and did not cease. The thrust they generated was enough—barely—to slow his 'Mech to point where he would land without injury. A thruster failure now would kill him. It was one of the risks of being a 'Mech pilot, of being a Kurita. He accepted that and grinned, as the combination of gravity and the jet thrust made his body feel though it weighed twenty times his normal amount. Then, the jets cut off, and he landed with a thud, running through a dozen steps to shed the last of his inertia before he was able to bring his 'Mech to a halt. Almost as an afterthought, small explosive charges detached the now-useless weight of the drop package from his 'Mech, leaving Jinjiro in an undamaged, fully capable war machine standing on the surface of Saffel.

September 25, 2767

Outskirts of Arcadia

Byer's Land Continent, Saffel

Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

The recon lance bounded outwards from the landing zone. Six regiments of 'Mechs, plus Jinjiro's command headquarters—over seven hundred and fifty of the massive humanoid war machines—had landed in a forty-nine square kilometer area fifty kilometers south of Arcadia, Saffel's capital city. They had landed ready for combat in a 'hot' drop zone, expecting to be targeted on the descent by enemy 'Mechs, artillery, armor, aerospace assets, and conventional fighters. Not a single shot had been fired, however. Three dozen lances of scouts sped away from the landing zone; their mission to find the enemy.

The second wave was already entering the upper atmosphere—twenty-four regiments of armor and infantry troops, bound for the ferrocrete landing strips of the abandoned space-port captured by the 'Mechs already on the surface. The reserve—fifteen more regiments, including an elite Sword of Light regiment, and both of the Eridani regiments—waited in orbit, ready to descend on a moment's notice.

Chu-i Devon Patrick commanded the lance of four Jenner class BattleMechs speeding towards the southwestern suburbs of Arcadia. They saw nothing—no enemy forces, no Saffel citizens, not even livestock or domestic animals. There were even no birds. He shook his head, something was wrong. They had just entered the outlying sub-divisions of this area, and still there was nothing. Suddenly, a harsh alarm blared from the speakers in his neuro-helmet, a rapidly blinking crimson light appearing on his cockpit console. Patrick blanched—that was the CHEMICAL alarm. His 'Mechs sophisticated sensors were detecting chemical warfare agents in the air outside. Hurriedly, he checked the environmental systems; all were green. His filters were in place and functioning properly. Then he saw the first dead bodies.

September 25, 2767

Combine Field Headquarters

Byer's Land Continent, Saffel

Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

"It's confirmed, Lord Jinjiro. It appears the Rim Worlders used nerve agents against Arcadia—estimates are near 100% civilian casualties, that's over three hundred thousand, sir," Tai-sai Hikaro Mikato said his face pale with shock.

Even Jinjiro was stunned. This wasn't war, it was a massacre; wanton butchery. And where were the Rim Worlds troops? They still had not found them, and already his scouts had cleared an area sixty kilometers in radius.

That annoying imp was whispering at the back of his mind again, and for the first time in a long time he found himself in agreement with it. Something was not right here. "Tai-sai, disperse the landed regiments and have the second wave abort and return to . . . "

"Incoming aircraft! Multiple incoming aircraft, moving fast on a vector towards the second wave's DropShips!" the sensor tech in the mobile command post sounded out. His face blanched. "Radiological alarm! My lord they are carrying nuclear weapons!"

Another communications tech turned to Jinjiro, "Sir, recon Fox-Seven-Delta reports multiple enemy 'Mech formations moving fast towards the landing zone, sixty-two kilometers out bearing to the east, over the Keroon Plains. He confirmed visual sightings of over five hundred enemy 'Mechs before his transmission ceased."

Jinjiro turned to his aide, "It's a trap; they knew we were coming. Raise Admiral Genda, I want immediate orbital fire on those formations—and get our fighters scrambled to intercept theirs!"

The naval liaison officer looked at Jinjiro, "Sir, Admiral Genda is on the line for you; a fleet in excess of one hundred and eighty Rim Worlds vessels has just jumped in system at the L-3 and L-4 points. They are launching fighters and maneuvering to pin his command against the planet."

September 25, 2767

Combine Second Wave

Mid-atmosphere, Saffel

Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

The aerodyne DropShips carrying the second wave received the abort order just as the first squadrons of Maket class assault bombers and Mako class interceptors appeared on their radar screens. Over two hundred Rims Worlds aerospace craft screamed through the atmosphere towards them as DropShip crews began to apply more thrust and climb back out of the thick, entangling atmosphere. Their fifty-four escorting fighters—Shilones, primarily—banked hard to meet and engage the enemy before they could enter weapons range. But the Combine escort fighters were outnumbered four-to-one; and this enemy carried nuclear weapons.

The Shilones splashed over seventy Makos and forty Makets in four minutes of intensive fighting, but they were spent—and had lost forty-one of their own number. Fourteen surviving Maket class assault bombers reached their own weapons range and fired; salvoing eighty-four nuclear tipped missiles as they applied full thrust to their drives and climbed for the heavens. Of the two hundred and fourteen DropShips of the second wave, one hundred and fifty-nine vanished amid the eye-searing glare of the nuclear detonations. The survivors fled back to their transports in orbit, leaving Jinjiro's 'Mech force alone on the surface.

September 25, 2767

Combine Field Headquarters

Byer's Land Continent, Saffel

Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

The tremendous concussion nearly slammed Jinjiro to the ground as multiple blinding detonations erupted far, far above. They were outside the radius in which the thermal pulse was lethal, but still the explosions were deafening, and gale force winds ripped through the hastily erected command post. Reaching his 'Mech, Jinjiro quickly climbed aboard and strapped in; firing up the fusion reactor powering the machine. As the gyros stabilized, and the control systems came on-line, he could see the radiation gauges climbing steadily—the Rim World's nukes had been exceptionally 'dirty'.

The imp was silent—for something inside Jinjiro had snapped at nearly the same moment the weapons detonated. This was his fault, for he had led his men—HIS MEN—into this death trap. He had ignored the advice of his father's men, and now his men would pay for that. The rage that so consumed him nearly every waking minute had died, and only icy cold gripped his soul. Father, what have I done, he thought. The imp was gone, because for the first time in a long time, he knew that the imp had been him—the true Kurita inside, not the spoiled prince who had laughed at the thought of war and carnage.

Around him, the thirty-five other 'Mechs of his headquarters were also powered up, and Jinjiro shook off his thoughts. He raised his 'Mechs left arm and thrust it forward. Pushing his 'Mech into a run, he headed towards the approaching enemy forces, and the soldiers of the Dragon followed in his wake.

September 25, 2767

DCS Fuso

High Orbit, Saffel

Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Admiral Genda watched the holocaust erupt beneath him, his stomach sick. Over twenty-five thousand Combine soldiers and spacemen had died in that one single attack. The surviving DropShips were running for his Strike Force, even as his reserve fighters reached them, giving them a protective umbrella to shelter beneath. The Rim Worlds ships were launching fighters as well—nearly four hundred so far—and they were speeding towards his command.

"Signal all carriers to launch every remaining fighter they have to intercept that incoming strike. All other fighters are to be held back for close defense against any hostiles that penetrate the screen."

"Hai," his operations officer responded, bending down at his console to pass the word.

"Admiral, the Gunji-no-Kanrei is on-line for you."

Genda spun his command chair to one side, and placed the boom microphone and earpiece of his headset over his head. This conversation was not for his crew to overhear. Pressing a button, Jinjiro's face, enclosed in a neuro-helmet, appeared on a small communications screen, static from the radiation crackling across, but still understandable, even if just barely. "My lord."

"Admiral, get your ships out of this mess and return to Asta."

"Lord Jinjiro, we can't abandon you . . . "

"Genda, that's an order. They outnumber you two-to-one and they will pin you against the planet if you stay and support me. Get the Strike Force out."

His sick feeling intensified; it was the right order, but his peers would see it was cowardice, fleeing battle in the face of the enemy. Not to mention he would be leaving behind the HEIR. And to be truthful, it was an order he never once imagined Jinjiro could give.

Jinjiro smiled; a grim, sad smile. "Activate your bridge recorders, Admiral, and transmit the following to all ships. Make certain it is recorded—and broadcast—aboard every ship, please."

As Jinjiro waited, Genda passed the order, removing the headset, and placing Jinjiro on the ship-wide speakers. The communications techs nodded—the recorders were running.

"I, the Gunji-no-Kanrei of the Combine, Jinjiro Kurita, issue the following order to Strike Force Saffel. The Strike Force is to immediately disengage and return to Asta. No ship is to deviate from this instruction. You are to break orbit immediately and evade the enemy forces in system. Any vessel incapable of maintaining the minimum thrust to disengage will be abandoned and scuttled. In my considered opinion, the odds are too great to risk losing a sixth of the Fleet. There is no dishonor associated with this, other than my own. The shame for this is mine and mine alone. I—and the troops already on the surface—will remain to buy time for you to disengage. Return to Asta, Admiral; get my people clear of this ambush. And tell my father. Tell my father, that I die a Kurita. Jinjiro out."

Chapter Twenty Eight

September 25, 2767

Keroon Plains

Continent Alpha, Saffel

Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

His forces had quickly sped towards the enemy with all the precision the highly trained and veteran warriors who piloted them could offer. Now, Jinjiro stood in his Dragon atop a small bluff overlooking the Keroon Plains—a vast expanse of grass-lands and small groves of trees forty kilometers east of the drop zone. Twenty minutes ago, his headquarters had ceased broadcasting as yet another mushroom cloud erupted into the sky. Still more explosions detonated amidst the grounded DropShips that had brought him here to the surface of this world; leaving him with no chance of escape. Escape, he thought, they still think I—a Kurita—would flee. The corners of his mouth lifted in a grim smile. There will be no escape from this.

The enemy had not yet begun firing his weapons of mass destruction at his 'Mech forces. This area of Saffel was covered in a fairly dense forest, making it difficult to detect his units from the air. But that cover now lay behind him. Ahead of him, the rolling plains of grass—with only occasional clumps of forest—spread out. Once he exited the forest on those plains, it would be different..

Or perhaps not, he considered. For in the distance, three kilometers away, he could see the glints of sunlight reflecting from the Rim World's 'Mechs. Five hundred strong, the initial report had said. His tactical computer showed more than seventeen hundred 'Mechs, standing and waiting for him to appear. And not just any 'Mechs; no, those were Royal machines of the Star League. Amaris must have refitted these troops, before sending them here to ambush him. To kill him and his men. So be it, Jinjiro thought. His only regret was that the story of the battle might never be told. Outnumbered two and a half to one, in machines of a lower technology, he would fight both his first and last battle as a samurai should, as a Kurita should. With the honor that his Kurita heritage had tried to teach him—and he had failed to learn, until now on the surface of a world that he would never again leave.

Six regiments of the Combine's finest stood behind him; no, he shook his head. They stood WITH him. And he with them. The 3rd and 4th Sword of Light—elite troops each and every one, fanatical in their defense of the Combine and the House of Kurita. The 5th Benjamin Regulars—tough veteran warriors who had excelled at the tests given to ensure their continued service. The 2nd Pesht Regulars—many of whom had engaged in duels with Star League MechWarriors, and won. The 1st and 3rd Galedon Regulars—commanded centuries before by Urizen Kurita himself, regiments that had participated in every major engagement of the Combine across the roll of the centuries. Seven hundred and fifty-one of the finest samurai who served the Combine and the Coordinator stood with him. And he—for the first time in his life—could feel the spirits of his ancestors, and the ancestors of all his warriors, standing with him as well.

He radio crackled as the interfering ECM died away. A voice spoke from within.

"Jinjiro Kurita, I am General Walter Chou, commanding the Imperial Amaris Army upon Saffel. Surrender, and give your men a chance at life. Kneel before my Emperor and he shall spare the lives of those who follow you."

Setting his radio on wide-broadcast, Jinjiro replied. "The Dragon may die, General Chou, but he never surrenders. He never ceases to fight. And though our death may come today, you at least shall perish as well."

"So be it, Dragon."

The radio shut down, and before the jamming could resume, Jinjiro summoned up all the courage his spirit could offer and yelled into the microphone, "BANZAI!"

"BANZAI!" screamed seven hundred and fifty-one throats as the Combine 'Mechs charged out onto the plains below.

*****************************************************

Shocked by the yell, General Chou watched in wonder as hundreds of 'Mechs painted in red and black swarmed down the hill at their maximum rate of acceleration. From this distance it looked as though someone had kicked open a Pangkalan fire-ant hive. He looked down on the screen at the face of his artillery commander, and said, "Fire."

Seventy-two Long Tom guns situated behind the Rim Worlds forces traversed and began spouting flame from their long howitzer barrels. Explosions erupted of grass and dirt as the shells impacted atop the charging 'Mechs. Dozens dropped, but the remainder pressed onwards. The artillery kept pouring fire into the area, but the Draconis 'Mechs did not slow.

When the Combine forces reached six hundred and ninety meters hundreds of extended-range PPC's spat coherent energy from the Rim Worlds lines. Chou watched in amazement as each Combine 'Mech—at the exact moment he entered range—began weaving and bobbing, ducking and dodging, all the while still closing at their maximum speed. He began to feel concern as he noted that fewer than one in twenty of his soldiers managed to hit their targets.

At six hundred and sixty meters, gauss rifles snarled, hurling their bright silver bullets down-range with tremendous kinetic energy. A Dragon exploded as it was hit with four separate projectiles, but hundreds more continued onward.

At six hundred and thirty meters, long-range missiles from both sides erupted in a massive sheet of flame and smoke covering the entire six kilometer long front. Explosions erupted on both sides as 'Mechs were hit by the enemy fire—there were so many 'Mechs that the normally inaccurate LRMs were almost guaranteed to strike SOMEONE. Scores of 'Mechs simply exploded as the double-edged salvo of almost TWENTY THOUSAND missiles struck home. A missile warning beeped in Chou's ears as his Devastator was targeted by the enemy.

He began to move his 'Mech, as seven warheads smashed into his right torso, ablating armor and turning him slightly to the right.

Perhaps he should have blindly nuked the woods after all, he thought, as smoke and flame and fire of tens of thousands of individual weapons erupted all around him.

*****************************************************

Jinjiro led the banzai charge in his Dragon. The shells landed around him, and though some of his men fell, the rest charged onward, like ancient samurai into the barrels of their enemy's guns. Weapons fire began to erupt from the enemy as they entered the superior range of the Star League weapons. It is a small matter, Jinjiro thought, but he prayed the ancestors would protect him until he reached his own range. They did, and locking his crosshairs upon the Devastator from which Chou's broadcast had originated he fired his long-range missiles, closing the distance with each running step still more. Seven of the ten missiles impacted his target, blasting away chunks of armor.

Chou returned fire, two silver slugs ripping through the air to either side of Jinjiro's 'Mech. Jinjiro bared his teeth. These warriors were not the same quality as his; not by far. Letting loose a primeval howl, he entered range of his autocannon and came to sudden and complete halt—firing a burst of twenty rounds at maximum range.

*****************************************************

Chou tracked the black Dragon whose only emblem was the red dragon crest of the Kurita family across the field. His Gauss slugs missed the target as it weaved. Then it entered range of his standard PPC's and he fired—missing completely as his target came to a sudden halt, and the bolts of azure energy hit the ground before it. Then the Dragon's right arm snapped up and shells began pouring outwards, towards him. The armor-plexi of his cockpit cracked as a dozen slugs slammed into it, and Chou lost control of his 'Mech momentarily. When he recovered, he pivoted; bringing both of arm mounted gauss rifles to bear on the Dragon standing . . . it was gone! He began to look around, searching for the 'Mech of the man who was trying to kill him.

*****************************************************

When the burst ended, Jinjiro accelerated again, changing his angle of approach. A PPC bolt hit his right leg as another Rim Worlder targeted him—or more likely it was a stray bolt from the chaotic melee filling the area. He stumbled, but his training, his skill kept the machine moving forward as he recovered from the sudden loss of more than a half ton of armor. Most of his staff were engaged in their own fights, caught up in the madness and the blood-lust of the charge. But Hikaro stayed with him on his right side. His aide-de-camp and the Otomo into whose charge his father had laid his life. But he focused his attention on the Devastator as Hikaro kept the others off of his back. The Devastator was HIS target, and he would have him. Oh, yes, Jinjiro thought, he would have this gaijin. He reached his maximum land speed, and pushed his reactor to 130% of rated power—dangerous, but he was a Kurita. His ancestors would not let him die in a reactor explosion, not yet, not until he slew this insolent barbarian who had demanded not merely his surrender, but that of the Combine's finest who followed him. His 'Mech answered his punishing request with its ferro-ceramic bones groaning under the strain and his speed crept upwards once more.

*****************************************************

Chou couldn't find him. Nearly half of the Combine 'Mechs were Dragons! There were over three hundred of them on his scanners. Which was Jinjiro? There! That was him, and he stepped forward, unleashing a blistering fire from both gauss rifles, both PPC's, and all four of his medium lasers that now had the range. Two of the lasers missed, but the remainder slammed home, and the Dragon that he targeted exploded in a furious detonation. And through the smoke and fire charged the black painted Dragon Chou thought he had just killed.

*****************************************************

Hikaro was dead, taking the blow Chou meant for him. But now Jinjiro was in short-range, and he too fired everything he had. Ten LRM's streaked outwards, hitting the weakened right torso of the Devastator, as did the medium laser in his left arm. Armor still remained there, but not much. His autocannon spat a stream of shells that tracked across the Devastator's chest—and one found a chink in the armor. The Devastator shuddered and collapsed as Jinjiro's shells destroyed the fragile gyro that should have been protected by the thick armor plating. He howled in triumph and closed the distance to physical combat range.

*****************************************************

Chou did not have time to eject as the Dragon's shells penetrated his armor and his command console burned with dozens of lurid red lights. That shot found a weak point and hit his gyro—the system was failing! He panicked as the 'Mech collapsed, releasing the straps holding him tight, then falling unconscious as he was flung forward and struck his head on the canopy when the 'Mech fell to the ground.

*****************************************************

Jinjiro walked up to the Devastator, and broadcast at maximum volume. "So dies all who oppose the Dragon!" Then he slammed the broad heavy foot of his sixty-ton war machine down on the exposed cockpit of collapsed giant, crushing it as though it were a soda can, and General Chou as well.

He paused, scanning the battlefield, taking a long look about him; the Rim Worlders were fleeing in panic. His samurai—his surviving samurai—were assembling around his scarred and battle-hardened 'Mech. Fewer than one hundred Combine 'Mechs still stood—all were damaged to a greater or lesser degree. Nearly a thousand of the Rim World 'Mechs did not flee—their pilots were dead, or their machines disabled. Still, the survivors of General Chou's force outnumbered him by seven to one. But they were fleeing.

An alert signal screamed on his console. No, he thought. Not fleeing, clearing the blast radius.

*****************************************************

The Mako class interceptor streaked towards the battlefield at seven times the speed of sound. Its sole payload was one single bomb. Reaching his waypoint, the pilot hauled back on the stick and slammed his throttle to full overthrust. Halfway through the loop he was executing, he hit the release, and the nuclear weapon flew clear—continuing from the 'lob-toss' on a ballistic arc that would end three hundred meters above Jinjiro's 'Mech.

*****************************************************

Jinjiro watched his scanners track the bomb. Father, he thought, I have redeemed my honor. I AM a Kurita. Avenge me, Father. Avenge my men. Then he closed his eyes as the one-megaton device detonated directly overhead.

Chapter Twenty Nine

September 25, 2767

RWS Hand of Destiny

Zenith Jump Point, Terra

Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Commodore Jerem Daragou looked with grim pleasure over the holographic display projecting the symbolic images of his command. Floating in the display—floating in the ether of the jump point—lay two hundred and ten ships of war, the most powerful flotilla the Rim Worlds Navy had ever assembled at one place, at one time. Commodore Eli Ranson should even now be completing her final jump to Saffel, to ambush the heir of Minoru Kurita and his forces there. In a way, her problems were greater, since Jinjiro could always run. In fact, secretly, Jerem thought that he would—and Ranson's flotilla would capture nothing—though he had no intention of voicing such thoughts to his Imperial Majesty. Expectation of failure could be considered treason. And Jerem was not a stupid man.

Eli's command was not nearly as powerful as his—it consisted entirely of older ships the Rim Worlds had built in secret over the past two centuries. Fewer than half of his command—one hundred and four ships—had been launched into service as part of his navy. The remaining vessels had, until very recently, served the Star League or even the Terran Hegemony. Ships recovered from the massive shoals of reserves laid up here in the Terran system, ships in dry-dock captured almost intact on the day of the Coup, ships in building slips at Mars and Titan that Rim Worlds engineers had completed. No, today Jerem had under his command more firepower than any previous naval officer in the service of House Amaris.

But not enough firepower to do what he secretly wanted to do. Kill Stefan Amaris. The man was mad—though his plans had succeeded, so far, at least. But, he just kept pushing. Did he WANT to be at war with all of humanity? Jerem had been dirtside two weeks ago; at the new Imperial Palace being constructed on the Pacific coast of North America. He had been there, when the Emperor received Nicoletta Calderon's reply to his demand that the divisions of 'Mechs and armor that he had helped raise and supply for the Periphery separatists to fight the Star League join him on his crusade to rid the universe of Kerensky and the Cameron line. Calderon had said NO, and suggested that the Emperor sue for peace, as rapidly as he could, if he wanted to keep his realm for his heirs. She had told him—in her recorded message—that he, Amaris, was in fact a dead man. That nothing would prevent Kerensky from crushing him for what he had done. And that the Concordat would play no part in his madness.

The Emperor had gone berserk at this 'betrayal'—and ordered everyone from the Concordat embassy rounded up and fed to his pets in the aquarium. Not even Gunthar von Strang had the nerve to tell the Emperor that the embassy had been empty when they took Terra nine months ago—Nicoletta had recalled everyone in protest over Richard's use of force against New Vandenberg, nearly a year before. Instead, von Strang rounded up two thousand innocent people from across North America and Europe; and then presented these 'Taurian diplomats' to the Emperor in a six hour long blood-bath as the sun set over the ocean to the west of San Diego. Jerem shuddered. Did such a fate await him? Luis Kraal had been a friend—as close a friend as any Jerem had in this scorpion infested officer corps Stefan Amaris had created. He had done nothing to deserve what he had received.

But despite his growing distaste—even hatred—of the man he served, Jerem was a pragmatist. The Emperor forbade any armed ship from approaching closer than the orbit of Mars. And this was Terra. No ordinary Space Defense System here, no, this one dwarfed any other ever constructed. Two hundred ground-based facilities dotted Old Earth itself—another fifty on Luna, with two hundred and fifty more on Mars, Venus, and Titan. The automated M-5 combat drones—robotic WarShips with the firepower and armor of cruisers and the speed and agility of corvettes, the 'Caspers' as the Leaguers had called them—they roamed the entirety of the Terran system hunting for targets, just like the Emperor's pets in their massive tanks. The other Hegemony worlds that had an SDS were supplied with just fifty-four of the damned things—Terra had nearly six hundred defending it. And that did not even include the thousands of drone fighters that each of the Caspers controlled. The sheer numbers had both surprised and shocked him—and Amaris—when they took control of the system back in December; for the public records showed that no more than two hundred and fifty drones had been completed. But, as they had both learned, the Cameron line seemed to have no qualms when it came to lying about their defense infrastructure. So, no, killing Amaris from orbit was not even in the realm of possibility.

Instead, Jerem sat in his command chair of the McKenna class battleship Hand of Destiny—formerly the Shandra Noruff of the Star League Navy. Sat, and waited for the jump clock to count down. He would have offered a prayer for success, but forty years service in the House of Amaris had driven from him all belief in a benevolent god. Hell, though, that he still believed in. He had seen it with his own eyes, not two weeks ago, on the warm shores of the Pacific, as his Emperor's heir cheered the churning red water. He was a prisoner in Hell, with no hope of ever escaping.

September 25, 2767

DCS Amaratsu

Zenith Jump Point, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Captain Charles Sorenson watched as yet another massive ship suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Four waves had arrived thus far—eighty ships—and the evenly spaced arrivals showed no sign of slowing. Task Group Asta Three had been assigned to defend the zenith point, but every man and woman assigned to the twenty-eight Combine WarShips knew they were a forlorn hope. Including Sorenson. The jump point had to be defended—they knew that; and they knew that this time they had drawn the short straw. So, here they were. Waiting for two weeks for the attack they knew would eventually come; and now it had.

Twelve minutes ago, the first wave had arrived. Since then the jump point had been a holocaust of beams, shells, and missiles as the Combine vessels at general quarters immediately engaged the ships disoriented from their jump. Those eight vessels had bought time for the remainder of the Task Group to come to action stations—bought and paid for with their lives. Commodore Nagita had died aboard his cruiser Mogami, one of the ships ready and waiting at the jump point. His death left Sorenson as senior officer of the Task Group.

Of the twenty Rim ships of the first wave, Nagita had gutted ten, and damaged the rest. When the second wave had arrived, Sorenson and the other ships were still thrusting for the jump point. But Nagita—with only four of his ships remaining—had switched fire to the fresh opponents, blooding them badly. Another seven of the enemy died. Then the third wave arrived, and before the last ship could finish their translation, only the cruiser Mogami had remained. Two more of the newcomers ended as drifting hulks without power or life support, but Mogami and Nagita and his crew were reduced to an expanding cloud of dust. But they had bought enough time for the remainder of the Task Group to arrive.

The Rim ships had nuclear weapons—and plenty of them. So, Sorenson and the Task Group had to get in close—really close—to prevent the enemy from using them. Knife-fighting range. And thanks to Nagita's sacrifice, they had. One of Sorenson's ships exploded on the display, leaving him with fifteen fighting the Rim World's assault. Those fifteen were firing every weapon they had—as fast as they could—hitting and hurting as many targets as possible. Survival was not even being thought of—every man from Sorenson down to the lowest deck hand knew they were dead men walking. Instead, their goal, Sorenson's goal, Nagita's goal, Matasuke's goal, was to damage enough ships that Admiral Matasuke could stop them short of the planet.

"Hiryu and Soryu report the fighter strike is inbound and will arrive in two minutes, Captain," his executive officer announced. Good, Sorenson thought, the carriers had been stationed even further out, with only a pair of lightly armed corvettes as escorts. Those four ships had been stationed well out of weapons range—but that increased the flight time of their one hundred and forty-four fighters. The remnants of Nagita's fighter squadrons swarmed about the leviathans, adding their own sting, but they had depleted their ordnance and most of their fuel. Sorenson's own fighter screen was adding their own weapons fire to mix already; but those fighters were carried to DEFEND his ships, not carry out offensive actions. They lacked the heavy anti-ship ordnance to effectively challenge enemy capital WarShips. The carriers, on the other hand, their fighters and crews were trained and equipped for exactly this sort of anti-shipping strike. Despite the wealth of firepower his ships mounted, the fighter strike launched by his two carriers would nearly triple his offensive capacity—for a limited time.

"Excellent, Commander, please signal Captain Suchien with my compliments on the quick reaction time of his pilots and deck crews. Guns," he said, turning to speak to his gunnery officer, "maximum fire rate on all batteries, if you please."

"Hai, Captain."

At maximum fire rate, the frigates weapons would begin overheating and be prone to malfunction, possibly even rendered inoperable. No matter that, Sorenson thought. It was unlikely that he would have to answer to yard engineers for such abuse of the Combine's valuable weaponry—and right now he needed every erg of firepower available. Amaratsu bucked and kicked as her naval autocannon began firing continuously, straining the loading systems and heat sinks to the breaking point. Her naval PPCs and the dual-purpose secondary battery of fighter scale lasers spat coherent energy as quickly as the capacitors could recycle—reducing their life-span dramatically. Six of her eight Killer Whale launchers were hurling missiles as fast as the launchers could reload their tubes. All of her weapons—except the two Killer Whale missile launchers Sorenson kept in reserve—were firing at rates far above their designed limits, and savaging the enemy ships in the process. But even as he watched an enemy Aegis class cruiser explode under the hammering of his guns, he heard a new report from tracking.

"Fifth wave has emerged, Captain. CIC confirms ten of them are battleships."

The previous four waves—eighty ships—had all consisted of destroyers and cruisers, with a few frigates and corvettes mixed in. That meant the REAL assault was beginning.

"Signal all ships and all fighters—those are the targets. Switch all fire onto the battlewagons."

Sorenson stood and pulled himself against the thrust of the drives to the gunnery station. He looked at the readouts as they confirmed ship identities against the warbook—three Rim World Thresher class battleships, and seven Star League vessels that Amaris must have captured and placed in service—five old Monsoons, a Texas, and something very interesting. His warbook could not identify it. Sorenson pursed his lips and examined the data—1.2 million tons displacement, lamellar ferro-carbide armor, with a heavy battery of naval PPCs backed up by mid-caliber naval autocannon and a formidable array of capital missile launchers. He stopped and pursed his lips as he considered. The unknown ship had to be one of the League's new Alaska class battlecruisers. The very latest and most advanced capital warship designed by the League; its very existence had only been rumored about in the Combine. No Alaska's were in service—but six were supposedly under construction deep in the heart of the Hegemony, and they were the ONLY vessels in Star League service to mass 1.2 megatons. Sorenson patted his young gunnery officer on the shoulder as he made his decision.

"Guns, that's your target—the Alaska. Release of nuclear weapons is authorized, Helena. Give me two missiles on that ship, please."

"Hai, Captain."

Sorenson dragged himself back to his command chair as the latest arrivals began firing at his command. Strapping back in, he turned to his XO. "Have the liaison send a message to the Admiral, Commander. Task Group Asta Three engaging enemy forces—at least one hundred WarShips in five waves. Arrival of more is likely and expected. Commandeered Star League vessels in hands of Rim World force. We will do our duty to the Combine and the Coordinator. Sorenson out."

As the XO passed along the Skipper's order, Gunnery Officer Helena Mitsushama locked the two missile launchers held in reserve onto the Alaska. Releasing the safeties on the two nuclear weapons, she turned the firing key and felt the ship buck slightly as the launchers ejected the pair of fifty-ton weapons from the bowels of Amaratsu. Nuclear weapons were in short supply in the Combine fleet—none had been produced for nearly three hundred years. Amaratsu had just four special weapons onboard, but the Skipper said this was a priority target. The Alaska lay just over three hundred kilometers from the Amaratsu—outside of the range where her own weapons would be lethal to herself; and the missiles flew straight and true. Both detonated as they impacted on their target and the balls of fire from two 500-kiloton explosions—fed by escaping oxygen from the broken hull—consumed the vessel. Three other battleships found themselves far too close to the twin detonations. The Texas class ship survived, protected by her heavy armor plating, but was streaming air from several dozen breaches in the hull. A Monsoon and a Thresher were not so lucky—their hulls shattered like glass ornaments as the sleet of debris slammed into them. Another half dozen ships suffered minor damage as well.

And then the six intact capital WarShips rolled to present their own weapons and returned the favor.

September 25, 2767

Slayer Katana Actual

Zenith Jump Point, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Tai-sa Helka Jorgensen watched from the cockpit of his Slayer as a hail of weapons fire erupted from the Rimmer's battleline. A frigate—Amaratsu he thought—caught the bulk of the fire, and her drives faltered, spilling atmosphere from scores of hull breaches. The cruiser Atago exploded under a withering hail of fire—leaving nothing heavier than a frigate remaining in the Combine Task Group. Jorgensen was the commander of the combined fighter strike force from Carrier Division Twelve. The one hundred and seven Slayers and thirty-six Shilones arrayed behind him were piloted by highly trained, professional warriors—trained over the past four years by Jorgensen himself.

"Attack groups 121 and 122, arm external ordnance. Our targets are the battleships. 123 follow us in and hammer the survivors. Strike group 124, you've got top cover. Keep their fighters off our backs on the attack run."

Click-click went the transmitter in his helmet as the three group commanders replied. "Katana flight, Katana actual. Designate target Monsoon Beta. Follow me in."

Click-click went the transmitter as Jorgensen banked his fighter and bored in on an undamaged Monsoon, eleven Slayers following his lead. Weaving his fighter, Jorgensen reached down and flicked the switch that armed the sixteen pods mounted beneath his fighter's aero-hull. Normally considered a ground-attack weapon, the pods had been loaded aboard the Slayers of Carrier Division Twelve at Jorgensen's request. Each pod carried ten 76mm hypervelocity rockets, capable of gutting a tank, or letting a 'Mech know that he had been hit. But sixteen pods—one hundred and sixty rockets—could, if fired at short enough of a range, penetrate even the most advanced naval armor. And his one hundred and eight Slayers carried 1,728 pods—over SEVENTEEN THOUSAND rockets. More than enough to shatter even the armor of the League's most modern naval designs and wreak horrendous damage to their internal systems. If he lived long enough to get within firing range, of course. For if the rockets were powerful, they were also VERY short-legged, and inaccurate to boot. Most of his colleagues preferred to carry the long-range Harpoon IV standoff attack missile—but each of his Slayers could only carry two of them. And their heavy warhead only did the raw damage of three of his rocket pods. No, for this strike, Jorgensen wanted the heaviest possible damage, even if it meant taking his pilots into the teeth of the anti-fighter defenses of a battleship. Not all of them would be coming home after this strike, he knew.

Flak erupted from all around him as the Rim World's battleships switched munitions from standard anti-ship projectiles to the anti-fighter cluster rounds. Conventional weapons snarled as he closed, and twenty-four Rim Worlds Mako class interceptors tried to bounce his command on the approach. But the Shilones of Strike Group 124 were waiting and Jorgensen plowed through the cloud of debris they had left behind. A Slayer exploded on his left, another on his right; then the group was through the main flak-belt.

"Visual range launch, Katana Flight. I say again, visual range launch!"

His Slayer streaked towards the ancient Terran battlewagon before him. It rapidly grew from a pinprick in the distance to something the size of a scale model, and then kept growing as the range dropped still more. Thirty kilometers, fifteen, five, one, two-hundred fifty meters!

"Fire!" Jorgensen snarled, as he squeezed the firing trigger on his control stick. Five medium lasers went into barrage fire mode, firing as fast the capacitors could recycle. The nose mounted heavy autocannon buzzed like a chain-saw as it spat armor-piercing shells towards the behemoth in front of him. And sixteen rocket pods spat flame and fire as one hundred and sixty rockets raced for the armored flank of the battlewagon. Grunting, he yanked back the stick and slammed his throttle to the firewall as the sixteen empty pods automatically released, freeing his fighter of their added mass. The Slayer leapt forward as its thrust tripled without the pods drag and screamed across the dorsal surface of the Monsoon, with a bare thirty meters of separation. Then he was clear. Explosions behind him erupted across the surface of the battleship, then something deep inside cut loose. A single massive eruption broke the spine of the ship, ripping it in two; streaming air, flame, wreckage, and bodies in his wake. Eight surviving fighters from his flight followed him as he altered course back to the carriers. Time to get back, reload, and do that again, he thought. Except next time, we won't have rocket pods—we just used all the ones the carriers had aboard.

September 25, 2767

DCS Amaratsu

Zenith Jump Point, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Sorenson shook the cobwebs from his head as he glanced around his ruined bridge, a sharp pain emanating from his right side. Smoke from electrical fires hung low in the air, and only the emergency lighting provided illumination. One entire bank of controls on the starboard side had exploded during the chaos, spalling deadly shrapnel across his bridge. The bulkhead behind the controls was actually bulging inwards—but the armor had held, mostly. Helena Mitsushama was dead at her station—decapitated by one of the shards ripped free. Over half his bridge crew was dead, he realized, including his XO. Amaratsu was no longer accelerating, so he floated in zero gravity as he released the straps of his command chair and made his way to the tactical station, trying—and failing—to ignore the pain in his side. His surviving crew was already beginning to recover and get reports from below decks on the damage; from the lurid red lights blazing on all intact consoles he knew it would be bad.

The tactical repeater stilled showed a condensed version of CICs main holotank, and he wiped Helena's blood off to read the display. It was bad. Turning to the comm-station, he was surprised the comm-links still functioned. Gently moving aside the rapidly cooling young man who had served under him for a year, he signaled the carrier Hiryu. Captain Suchien's face appeared on screen between bursts of static.

"Captain Sorenson, we thought Amaratsu was dead, sir."

"We are Jean-Paul, just not quite yet. It's time to execute the Admiral's order."

Jean-Paul Suchien's face went white. "We are winning, Charles. We can still get you . . . "

"No, their next wave will be arriving any moment. The fighter strike was our best bet, but the Task Group is done. Captain Suchien, I instruct you to pull out Carrier Division Twelve and proceed to your rendezvous point with Admiral Matasuke. Please confirm and acknowledge."

Suchien looked down off the screen for a moment, and then raised his head. "Yours orders are confirmed, sir."

Sorenson nodded. "Give Kathryn and the kids my love, Jean-Paul. Now recover every fighter you can and get clear. And tell the Admiral we did our best."

"I will, old friend. I will. And Charles," he paused for a moment. "Good hunting and Godspeed." The screen went blank as Hiryu terminated the transmission. The wounded officer pulled himself back to his command chair, noticing the bubbles of his blood floating in his wake. Ignoring the expanding stain on his uniform, he sat and tightly belted himself in, wincing as the pain in his chest protested against the restraining straps.

Sorenson reached down and flipped the switch on his chair that activated the all-ships frequency, and then a second that would broadcast throughout the ship. Adjusting his boom microphone, he noted that only six of his ships remained operational—if, that is, you counted Amaratsu as operational. The sixth wave was even now exiting jump space—including another ten fresh battleships.

"All ships, all hands. This is Sorenson. Prepare to thrust and brace for impact. Let's take a few more of these bastards with us. For the Combine! For the Coordinator! BANZAI!"

As he cut the circuit, he looked around his bridge. A junior officer had removed Helena's body and taken over her station. "Skipper, safeties have been removed from both remaining warheads and the weapons are armed. Missile transfer systems are down, however—we can't move the weapons from the magazines to the launchers. All other weapon systems are currently inoperable, as well."

From the helm station, a petty officer spoke up. "Drives are online, but are heavily damaged and can only generate a maximum of 2-g's of thrust, Sir. Plus we are venting fuel into space from a ruptured line in engineering. Damage control estimates it will take an hour to effect repairs, but we will be out of fuel in twenty-four minutes at the present rate of loss."

Sorenson forced himself to chuckle. "So after all this, we will run out of gas?"

His bridge crew laughed—gallows humor. He straightened up in his command chair, ignoring the splintered white bone that protruded through his uniform. "Set your course for that big bastard right there helm. Best possible thrust. Gunnery, set special weapon fuses to detonate on our impact."

"Hai, Captain."

*****************************************************

Amaratsu was hit four more times as she slowly charged the former Star League Ship Montana. She did not stop, though, and both her remaining nuclear weapons detonated on impact.

September 25, 2767

DCS Mikasa

L-3 Jump Point, Asta

Terran Hegemony

"Report," spoke Hideki Matasuke calmly as he hit the acceptance key on his communications screen. He was already sitting up and grabbing for his boots before his conscious mind realized the alert klaxon was sounding throughout the Mikasa.

Captain Abe appeared on the display. "Rim Worlds vessels have begun jumping in-system at the zenith jump-point, Admiral. The task group we assigned there has already engaged the enemy and inflicted significant damage."

"Numbers?"

"They are being cautious, sir. They are exiting jump in waves of twenty ships each; seven waves so far have arrived. No transports, sir, they are just bringing WarShips to the party it seems."

Matasuke grunted as he finally seated his heel properly and checked the integrity seals. Damned thing seemed to shrink two sizes every time he took it off! "That is not surprising, Captain Abe—and it is what we planned for. Any sign of the enemy at the nadir point?"

"None, Admiral."

Matasuke nodded. It would have been helpful for the Rim Worlders to divide their forces—perhaps allowing him to engage one force while the other was out of range; helpful and foolish. He had not thought that their commander would do so, but contingency plans had been drawn up just in case.

He stood, and began fastening his tunic. "Very well, Captain. I will be on the bridge shortly; please inform the Coordinator and the First Lord that the attack is under way. Have the Fleet stand by to execute Operations Order Four; and order Task Group Asta Four to rejoin the main body from the nadir point."

Captain Abe came to attention and saluted. "Hai, Admiral," then broke off the transmission.

Buckling the belt of his jacket, Matasuke looked at the pictures of his wife, his children, his grand-children hanging on the wall. He walked over, touched the first two fingers of his right hand to his lips, and placed them on the picture of his wife, dead now five years from cancer; then bowed his head for moment. Raising it, he bowed to the pictures, turned, and left the silent cabin at a brisk jog.

Chapter Thirty

September 25, 2767

Asta Defense Headquarters

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Stephen walked into the conference room where Minoru waited. As Minoru rose and bowed, he halted and returned the bow. "Lord Minoru, I trust that you have not been kept waiting long?"

Minoru waved the suggestion away. "No, Lord Stephen, I have not. It is a most impressive facility—for such a hasty project." Minoru looked around the room at the bare ferrocrete walls, floors, and ceiling. The table was good solid Astan feroak, but that and the dozen or so chairs were the only objects not painted a flat haze gray—other than the various pipes running across the ceiling and the lighting fixtures. Minoru imagined that he could feel the weight of the mountain above them—this facility had been carved from bedrock nearly five hundred meters beneath the surface of the planet; 1.2 kilometers beneath the jagged peaks of the granite mountain above.

Stephen smiled and walked across the room to his seat and sat, while Hiroyoshi and Gerald took positions to behind and to either side of his chair. Two of the Coordinator's own Otomo stood behind him. Stephen looked down and chuckled as he considered the situation—he and his two men at one end of the table, Minoru and his at the other; 'High Noon', indeed.

"I thank the Coordinator for his kind words. And yes, Lord Minoru, the facility is completely new, and quite hastily built. General Anders, General Samasov, and Colonel Bradley insisted upon its construction shortly after the liberation. This facility shall serve as the planetary defense headquarters—one that Amaris does not even suppose exists. We are not near any major city, nor any of the SDS facilities. We have our own power, water, and can recycle our air for years without difficulty. The good generals have assured me that sufficient supplies have been laid in to allow us to live in reasonable comfort for up to two years if necessary. And we have full communications—all over buried transmission lines—with every defense installation on the planet."

Not to mention the hyper-fax taken from the Borodino installed in the highly secure communications room, he thought. Stephen stopped and grinned. "They haven't gotten around to installing the paneling and carpeting yet, however, my Lord."

"No, they did not, my Lord. Still, if I must spend this fight ground-side, then this place does appear to have more than adequate protections. And the holographic tank in the command center will allow me to observe the battle in full when it begins."

Stephen nodded as his smile faded away. "Gerald threatened to punch me in the jaw if I even tried to get anywhere near the capital or any of your ships during this fight, my Lord." His lips quivered as he paused, then continued. "I don't even think that Hiroyoshi would have tried to stop him—this time at least."

Newly promoted Tai-sa Hiroyoshi Tanaka, bowed to the two leaders as both turned their gaze upon him. "You are correct, my Lord Cameron. Indeed, I would have aided First Sergeant Howe had you not agreed to lead the fight from here."

Minoru nodded. "Yes, Lord Stephen. Young Tanaka and your Sergeant Howe have the right of it. I have other heirs, safe on Luthien. If I am to die, it is no matter. The Dragon lives on, through the product of my loins. You, on the other hand, have only one heir—who is still here, along with your wife. In this very facility. At this very moment. And, at this time, during this crisis, we can not afford a second regency."

"Hai, Lord Minoru. Marianne and Cassie won't leave—and it's too late to try to get them off-world now."

"And where are Generals Anders, Samasov, and Fujita, Lord Stephen? I was under the impression that there would be a briefing on the current situation."

"We are waiting upon another, Lord Minoru. When he arrives, the briefing will begin."

Minoru nodded, and lifted his steaming cup of tea, taking a sip. The two men sat, saying nothing, for several minutes.

Finally, the door opened, and Colonel Tricia Hall wheeled in Commanding General Aleksandyr Kerensky. Stephen rose, followed by Minoru, as the general's aide wheeled the life-support chair to the table. Anders, Samasov, Fujita, and Bradley followed the pair inside, along with half-a-dozen lower-ranking officers—all of whom had just been most thoroughly searched by the guards outside for weapons. Hiroyoshi had personally ordered that each and every person attending this briefing—save only the Coordinator and Stephen—be searched to ensure that none carried weapons, open or hidden.

Aleksandyr Kerensky looked up from his chair, his face ashen, and slightly sunken. "My Lord, it is I who should rise when you enter."

"And as I believe I told you before, Aleksandyr, I have a bit of a problem with other people's expectations and beliefs about how I should conduct my life. I quite simply fail to give a damn about them."

Colonel Hall locked the chair—which contained medical monitoring equipment and a complete pharmacopia feeding into Kerensky's body via the tubes inserted into this arms. Stephen and Minoru sat, followed by the officers in service to their two states. Kerensky took a moment to catch his breath, and then looked first at Minoru, then at Stephen.

"I am given to understand that Amaris has sent an attack force, yes?"

"Yes, General Kerensky, he has."

"And that despite your Fleet's gallant efforts at the zenith point; he still outnumbers and possesses far greater firepower than your own ships, Lord Minoru?"

"Hai."

"And the latest news?"

General Anders spoke from across the table, his eyes fixed on the man before him—broken perhaps in body, but never in spirit. "Two hours ago, they completed bringing ships in-system, General Kerensky. Before being destroyed, TG Asta Three managed to inflict critical damage upon or destroy thirty-four enemy vessels—damaging another forty to either a greater or lesser extent. Carrier Division Twelve was the only surviving unit, and it has performed an in-system jump to rejoin Admiral Matasuke's main body, as has TG Asta Four, which is undamaged. The enemy force—now numbering one hundred and seventy-six WarShips—have split into four Task Forces, each consisting of approximately forty ships. We have identified these Task Forces as Vampire One through Vampire Four. Sixteen of their vessels were too heavily damaged to accompany them; these cripples have been left at the zenith point. These Task Forces are advancing on Asta in mutual support range, at 1-g of acceleration."

Kerensky nodded, leaned over and whispered in Colonel Hall's ear. She nodded, stood, and left the conference room.

"And what of Admiral Matasuke's command, General Anders?"

"Admiral Matasuke has one hundred and twenty-three ships of war, General, consisting of six carriers, six battleships, eight battlecruisers, fourteen cruisers, sixteen frigates, forty-two destroyers, and thirty-one corvettes. Aboard the carriers are twelve carrier fighter groups—each consisting of thirty-six aerospace fighters—armed and equipped for anti-shipping strikes; for a total of four hundred and thirty-two. The other ships of the Draconis Fleet can put another one thousand, three hundred, and thirty-two fighters into space—primarily as Barrier CAP, Fleet Defense, and Strike Escort, but they include another two hundred and forty designed and armed for an offensive strike role. Call it roughly twelve and a half of our aero-regiments for strike missions and another twenty to protect the strikes and the Fleet."

"The Kurita ships are currently assembled in high orbit of Asta, ready to deploy to intercept the Rim Worlds fleet before they reach firing range of the planet. The ground forces—including the two remaining regiments of our own 3rd RCT—have another four hundred and fourteen fighters between them, slightly less than nine additional regiments. These fighters have only limited experience in deep- or near-space combat; they are ground support units, primarily. They are forming our reserve, just in case the Rim Worlds ships get too close to the planet. And of course we have the SDS installations on-line, jury-rigged though they may be."

Colonel Hall came back in, as Hiroyoshi listened via his earpiece to the outside details report on what she had retrieved. She walked over to General Kerensky and placed a china saucer and cup on the table, a cup filled with steaming Astan tea. Then she sat once more.

"An impressive force, to be sure, Lord Minoru, Lord Stephen, a most impressive force. Let us consider though, what the Rim Worlds strike force has available. General Anders?"

Anders grimaced. "At last count, not including their cripples at the zenith, General Kerensky, the Rim Worlds naval force approaching Asta has twenty-two battleships and battlecruisers, thirty-eight cruisers, forty-one frigates, forty-nine destroyers, and twenty corvettes. Between them, those ships can deploy two thousand, five hundred and twenty aerospace fighters. Carrier Division identified at least sixty Leopard and Titan fighter carriers among their DropShips as well, giving the Rim Worlders another seven hundred and twenty fighters. Call it roughly sixty of our aerospace regiments."

"If my sources of information are correct, General Anders, a good percentage of that force consists of ships that Amaris captured when he took the Hegemony, yes?"

"We have confirmed just about half of their total force does consist of former Hegemony and League vessels, General Kerensky."

Kerensky nodded and took a sip of his tea.

"And how, gentlemen, do you plan to stop them before they can range on the planet and bombard with nuclear munitions?"

Kerensky looked first at Minoru then across the assembled officers and finally fixed his gaze on Stephen's face.

"Any damn way we can, Aleksandyr," Stephen growled. "Any damn way we can. Would you care to give us your assistance in this planning session, sir?"

General Kerensky smiled broadly, his eyes twinkling as his cheeks dimpled, color returning to his face. "Why, most certainly, First Lord. I thought you would never ask." Then he took another sip of tea.

Chapter Thirty One

September 30, 2767

Asta Defense Headquarters

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

For five nerve-wracking days, Stephen had watched the icons on the holographic projector crawl towards Asta. With the Rim Worlds forces divided into four separate battle-groups, Admiral Matasuke should have been able to engage any one and defeat it in detail. But they could not afford to try that, not against this enemy. If he had sortied and defeated one—or even two—the remainder would skirt past and strike the planet. No, Matasuke had remained in orbit, until thirty minutes ago. Thirty minutes ago, the one hundred and twenty-three ships of Matasuke's fleet had fired their thrusters and moved to engage the enemy that had finally crossed the orbit of Sapphire—Asta's largest moon.

Stephen looked across the command center. There was Minoru, speaking softly with Aleksandyr; the Otomo and Colonel Hall in attendance. Sam Anders engaged in a video conference with Gregor Samasov, still on the surface with his troops—where he had decided to remain. Hiroyoshi and Gerald watching everyone in the room like a pair of hunting raptors. The dozens of personnel—Kerensky's staff, SLDF troopers, Combine naval and army officers, Astan volunteers—who manned the various stations and coordinated the defense efforts. Stephen swallowed hard. He was proud of these people, his people all. Even the Combine personnel were his people, he realized. He was First Lord, not just of the Hegemony where he had been born, but of everyone throughout the entirety of settled space. And today, his heart swelled with pride at the courage and confidence his people showed.

Admiral Matasuke appeared on one of the monitors on the far wall, and Major Julian Chen—one of Kerensky's staff that had accompanied him to Asta aboard the Borodino—stood and spoke. "My Lords, General Kerensky, its time."

Stephen nodded to himself and made his way across the command center to the small platform where two chairs—and space for a life-support chair—had been placed. Colonel Hall wheeled General Kerensky in his chair to the empty space in the middle and Stephen leaned over and grasped the man's right arm, above the wrist.

"God speed, General, and good hunting."

"Thank you, First Lord. Lord Kurita?"

Minoru Kurita nodded as he sat besides Kerensky to the left as Stephen did to the right. Kurita clutched in his hand the mahogany case containing the ancient 'Z Flag'—a swatch of silk cloth nearly eight hundred and fifty years old. The flag that had been raised by Togo at Tsushima; by Nagumo at Pearl Harbor. It had been a gift to Shiro Kurita from the last member of the royal family of Japan centuries before—as a way to bridge the gap between the Combine and their heritage; to ensure that the new Imperial power ruled by those who had served Japan in the past would not forget from where they came. When DCS Mikasa had been commissioned into service two hundred and seventeen years ago, the Coordinator had personally placed the ancient flag into the hands of her commander—charging that officer, and all who would come after, with the honor to defend it. Until yesterday, it had never left that ship. Yesterday, Matasuke sent it to the surface in the hands of an aide, ordered to place it in the hands of the Coordinator himself. Stephen had been there when Minoru received it. He understood the meaning of the gesture. Even if we die here today, the passing of that flag said, what we fight for lives on. The Mikasa will live on, even if this incarnation falls. He understood, and he approved.

It had been decided that General Kerensky would speak on their behalf, so Stephen and Minoru waited. Finally, after an eternity, Kerensky nodded, and the technicians sent the signal.

September 30, 2767

RWS Hand of Destiny

Asta Local Space

Terran Hegemony

"Sir, we are receiving a transmission from the planet."

Commodore Jerem Daragou looked up from the remote conference with his three battle-group commanders. A transmission? Now? His flotilla was less than thirty minutes from weapons range with the Combine ships. In five minutes his fighters would launch to sweep the heavens clear of their aerospace support, leaving his superior numbers and firepower to crush the Dragon's ships like eggshells, before turning the lovely little planet on his view screen into a burnt cinder.

"Yes, Lieutenant. What do they want?"

"I . . . I think you should see this, sir." Elias Tambora was stuttering and seemed shaken. Daragou shook his head. The most difficult part of reactivating the old Hegemony and League ships of the reserve—as well as the captured and incomplete modern designs—had been the manpower. Already stretched past the breaking point, the Rim Worlds navy simply did not have enough men to crew them all. Amaris had an answer for that, of course. The dozens—scores—of civilian cargo ships that had helped carry his forces to the Hegemony had been stood down, their crews press-ganged into service as conscripts for the Navy.

That had helped some, and given Daragou trained spacers, but not nearly enough. So Amaris reached down into the Army, and transferred several thousand Army personnel into the Navy. Personnel who had never served aboard a capital warship, personnel who might, today, have six or seven weeks of experience with the equipment they were to operate. That fact worried him, but it was out of his control. Lieutenant Tambora, though, he wasn't one of the new crew. No, Tambora had served with him for the past five years.

"Put it on the main projector, Lieutenant."

"Sir."

Daragou waited as the holo-graphic projector shifted colors then solidified into a view of three men. He sat bolt upright as he recognized two of them. Aleksandyr Kerensky and Minoru Kurita!

"Good morning, gentlemen. I am Aleksandyr Kerensky, Commanding General of the Star League Defense Forces. Here with me—on Asta—are Minoru Kurita, the Coordinator of the Draconis Combine and Stephen Cameron, First Lord of the Star League and Director-General of the Terran Hegemony."

Daragou snarled. Kerensky, here! The Emperor would reward him beyond all measure if he brought news of the death not only of the Cameron, but of Kerensky and Kurita as well.

"I am Commodore Jerem Daragou, commanding the First Flotilla of his Imperial Majesty's Navy. Have you a desire to surrender yourself to us and spare this world our wrath, General?"

Kerensky shook his head. "No, Commodore. I only want to convince you to lay aside this madness. Power down your ships and accept boarding parties and you will be interned for the duration. Unless you or your men have committed war crimes against innocent civilians, you will be fairly treated as prisoners of war for the duration, after which you can return to your homes in the Rim."

Daragou couldn't help himself; he emitted a bark of laughter. "General, have you not seen the numbers of our two forces? If you do not surrender, then you, and the Coordinator, and the so-called First Lord sitting beside you will die, as will the entire planet. I give you my word, surrender now, and I will neither fire upon nor bomb the planetary surface."

"Yes, Commodore, quite an impressive force you have. Of stolen ships. Hegemony and League ships for the most part," he smiled as he said that, and Daragou felt a cold chill run up his spine. He was up to something. Kerensky knew something that he did not, but what?

"Have you never wondered, Commodore, why the Hegemony and the League never seemed to place much emphasis upon defending and guarding the ships placed in the Inactive Reserve; ships freely orbiting in the Terran system, the New Earth system, the Keid system, and others? Why, even before we were engaged against the Taurian Separatists we did not place armed space stations in their midst to keep dishonest people from attempting to hijack our property?"

"Have you never wondered, Commodore, why we would treat so many mega-tons of capital warships in such a cavalier fashion? After all, they were only inactive. As you well know, their K-F cores still function, their maneuvering drives still function, their weapons needed only fresh munitions to operate. So why did we leave them, sitting there alone, without a guard, an open invitation to any thief who could sneak aboard to hijack a cruiser or battleship of the Hegemony?"

Daragou frowned. He had never considered the League's Naval Reserve in such a light. Where was Kerensky going with this? But the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach grew.

"The reason, Commodore, that we were not concerned with a hijacking was simple. We ensured that it could never happen." Kerensky nodded to someone off-screen. "You see, whenever a ship of the Hegemony or the League is retired from active service, Commodore, it is deactivated and moth-balled. As part of that operation, all systems and software are upgraded to current standards. During the work to prepare a ship for her long sleep, one of the many, many procedures is the installation of a small, unmarked black box module—one of the many thousands scattered across the entire ship. None of the technicians who installed the module were aware of its purpose, and no records are kept of either the installation or its location."

"This module was first developed during the reign of First Lord Ian Cameron, two centuries ago, Commodore. Since then, its very existence has been passed along from Commanding General to Commanding Admiral, down to me. No one else in the entire Star League knew of it, so of course you could take no precautions against its activation. I am quite sorry, Commodore, but I simply shall not let you use those stolen ships of our Reserve against us." And Kerensky's face broke into a broad grin.

Lieutenant Tambora snapped upright at his station. "Commodore! Every ship in the fleet is receiving a data-stream burst transmission from the planet!"

"Shut down all communications receptors! Shut them all down!" Daragou screamed, but it was far, far too late for that.

September 30, 2767

RWS Tempest

Asta Local Space

Terran Hegemony

Aboard the ancient Monsoon class battleship Tempest, the data-stream burst reached the comm receptors less than three seconds after being broadcast. The receptors recognized the signal and relayed it into the ship through the optical fiber cables, doing exactly what the communications system had been designed to do—communicate. This transmission though was not intended for the human crew of the ship, but for the central computer core. So, obedient to the hard-wired instructions, the comm system relayed the transmission directly to the core. More precisely to a single black box module that had been installed one hundred and sixty years earlier when the Tempest had been retired from service. For one hundred and sixty years that module had slept, like a well trained dog, while keeping one ear cocked, waiting for its master's whistle. Now it heard that whistle, and it awoke.

Not in the least drowsy after its long sleep, the module examined the data-stream. Yes, everything matched the commands etched into its memory, and the confirmation was there as well. Good, now it could finally do its job. The module began to issue commands of its own, written in computer code two centuries before by men long dead. But the module did not know that—and could not have cared if it did. It only wanted to do the job it had been designed to do, like a good dog eager to please.

The first command—issued one second after the transmission reached the ship—shut down every instrument panel and control console on the ship, cutting power to every board and depriving the human crew of any measure of control. It also contacted the computers of each of the DropShips attached to the Tempest's hull and every aerospace fighter carried onboard and replicated itself into their memory, then activated aboard those ships as well. The anti-viral software of the attached vessels and fighters let the command pass without even trying to halt it; the worm had the proper access codes, after all.

Receiving an acknowledgement that the first task had been completed, the module sent a second command forth. Throughout the Tempest—and her attached DropShips and her aerospace fighters—powered hatches slammed open and locked in place; every powered hatch and cockpit aboard, including those that lay on the outer hull and the half-dozen cargo bay doors. A hurricane of air and heat and more than a few bodies erupted from the Tempest and her parasites as they bled air and life like a living creature would blood.

A third command went out, and the fusion power generators went into emergency shutdown mode. Power throughout the ship failed, and back-up batteries began to come online. In an afterthought, the module sent a command to the fuel transfer system, opening vents and ports on the outer hull, and flushed the tanks to vacuum. Finally, the module reached the fourth and last command function. It confirmed the order, and then transmitted it deep into the heart of the central computer core—without which nothing on the ship would ever again function.

The core recognized the order, and asked for a confirmation. It received the correct one. It was a most unusual order, one it had never before received, but the idiot-savant acknowledged the order as valid and began to implement it. The Tempest shuddered as the core began to reformat, erasing all software and data-banks as the massive computer overwrote itself, selfishly committing suicide.

Within seven seconds of the data-stream burst being transmitted—four seconds after receiving it—the Tempest was an inert piece of metal, cold and dead, drifting through space, as were the six DropShips attached to her hull. Of the six hundred and forty-eight men who comprised her crew, seventeen managed to avoid death from vacuum exposure by donning space suits in time. The rest were not quite so lucky. And this was only one of the sixty-eight ships of the Reserve in Daragou's flotilla affected by Kerensky's transmission.

September 30, 2767

DCS Mikasa

Asta Local Space

Terran Hegemony

Admiral Matasuke looked with pleasure at the display as the precise Rim Worlds formations disintegrated into chaos. Sixty-eight of the Rim vessels—fourteen battleships, eleven cruisers, twenty-four frigates, and nineteen destroyers—lost power and began to helplessly drift, bleeding air and fuel into space.

"Captain Abe, the Fleet will advance. Target only active Rim Worlds vessels, leave the remainder alone. And, Captain, order the carriers to launch their fighter strike, if you please."

"Hai, Admiral."

The Rim Worlds force had lost their decisive numerical advantage; in fact, Matasuke now outnumbered his opponent by fifteen ships. In the weight of ships, however, Daragou still held the superiority; though he would not hold that superiority for long. Once again, Matasuke wished they had held off just three more weeks—for that was when he was expecting the shipment of brand-new nuclear warheads to arrive; warheads that were just now finishing assembly at plants deep in the heart of the Combine. But he had to fight this battle with what he had, so forty-two would have to suffice.

"Pass the word to the battlecruisers and frigates, Captain Abe, release of nuclear weapons is at their own discretion. Make certain they know that each one needs to be on target, we don't have that many to spare."

Captain Abe nodded to acknowledge the order as he continued speaking into his boom microphone as Matasuke swiveled his chair to face the communications station.

"Communications, please ask General Anders to send the execute command."

"Hai, Admiral."

September 30, 2767

SLS Black Lion

Jump Point KV-112 (Uninhabited)

Empire of Amaris (Terran Hegemony)

Basil Christophos and Alicia Hall waited on the bridge of the Star League battlecruiser. Arriving at the jump point four days ago, he had sent ahead a signal over the hyper-fax—as some called the black box communications units—to Asta. They had received a reply almost instantly—from none other than General Kerensky himself. Terse transmissions conveyed the situation on Asta, and Kerensky's orders for himself and Hall. And the order was to wait. Wait while their drives recharged, wait for the command that would bring them instantaneously into weapons range of the enemy.

So, they had waited. For four days, the crews had been standing by at Condition Two—half of the crew manning battle stations with weapons armed and ready, jump coordinates fed into the K/F drive, fighters and assault DropShips ready to launch; while the other half tried to sleep or eat, waiting to come back on duty and take up their share of the load.

He had ordered the troop carriers with his divisions onboard transferred to other ships, but too few docking collars were available for all of them. Half of the DropShips carrying his 'Mechs and infantry and armor were keeping station with their own drives, a thousand klicks away, along with the unarmed and unarmored JumpShips and lightly protected transports. But he had stayed aboard the Black Lion. He could have left—he was no naval officer, after all—but in the Defense Force, in Kerensky's Defense Force, officers did not shirk their duty because of technicalities. Truth be told, he thought to himself, nothing could have dragged him away.

The 247th was taking a monumental risk, Hall had explained, using words that a six-year old could have understood. The L-1 Point that was their destination was the smallest of all of the pirate points surrounding Asta. By arriving there, the 247th would be directly between the Rim World ships and the planet—to get to the planet, the Rimmers would have to go through them. But with twelve WarShips making a simultaneous jump, things could get dicey, she had said. Ships entering or exiting jump could do so only at Jump Points, everyone knew that. But the real kicker was that if a substantial mass—such as another WarShip—lay in close proximity of the jump, BAD THINGS happened. Sometimes the ship never appeared and vanished, its fate unknown. Other times a massive explosion occurred, destroying both the arriving ship and the one already present. Sometimes, the arriving ship arrived safely, to find the vessel too close to its jump point torn to ribbons by the still imprecisely understood gravitational forces associated with a hyper-jump. Basil and Hall would be making this jump at the absolute minimum separation between ships. But jumps were seldom so precise. A single error in plotting aboard a single ship before the jump could result in two ships attempting to jump into the same exact coordinates. BAD THINGS, indeed.

Commodore Hall floated across her own bridge to where Basil waited; a message board in her hands. She passed it across to him and he quickly read it, inhaling deeply. It was time. He nodded at her, handing it back.

"Fraser, sound General Quarters and send the ship to action stations," she barked. "Signal the remainder of the Flotilla to do so as well. Becket, prepare to initiate simultaneous formation jump in four minutes. Start the jump clock." She floated down into the command chair and opened the all-hands circuit as the lights were suddenly switched to dim red battle lanterns, and the other crew shift began rushing onto the bridge. "Alright, people, listen up! The General has sent us the Word—and the Word is Go. We are going in hot, so stand by and be ready for anything. This is the best ship in the Fleet, and you are the finest crew any captain could want. I'm proud of all of you. Let's get in there and do our jobs."

Basil pulled himself down into a station chair and began to fasten the intricate set of straps that would hold him place—regardless of the sudden changes in thrust and vector that the ship may make. As the jump clock continued to count down, he placed his hand on the breast of his uniform, and felt the crucifix beneath. His other hand began to stroke the rosary he held. He began whispering, "Hail Mary, full of grace . . . "

September 30, 2767

RWS Hand of Destiny

Asta Local Space

Terran Hegemony

Commodore Daragou was in shock. One-third of his flotilla has just been disabled. His decisive superiority had evaporated to nothing. And on the projector display, the Combine ships were accelerating and launching fighters.

"Battle-groups two, three, and four launch all fighters and engage the Draconis ships!" He barked as he turned to his executive officer. "Harley, pass the order for our battle-group to go to maximum acceleration, and load nuclear weapons in all launch tubes—programmed for saturation coverage of the northern continental mass of Asta. Hold our fighters back, but I want them ready to go on a seconds notice—we may need them to cut us a path."

"Sir."

Daragou forced himself to look back at the projector. He would be lucky to extract twenty ships from this mess. But, if he plastered Asta from orbit—killing Cameron, Kerensky, and Kurita—then maybe the Emperor would not feed him to his fish.

September 30, 2767

Slayer Katana Actual

Asta Local Space

Terran Hegemony

Jorgensen grimaced as yet another of his flight exploded to his left. Six hundred and seventy-two fighters were part of this strike—the largest aerospace operation in which he had ever participated. Another five hundred and forty provided cover, while the remaining five hundred and fifty eight were trying to keep the Rim fighters off of the Fleet. Unfortunately, even with the surprise Kerensky had sprung, the enemy had almost two thousand fighters of their own in space, over half of them trying to stop HIM. Or so it seemed. And to make matters worse, the surviving Rim Worlds vessels were firing nuclear weapons non-stop. As he weaved his fighter through the fire, yet another nuclear detonation announced the death of one of Kaga's attack groups.

There had been no rocket pods available to resupply his group, so this strike was loaded with Harpoon stand-off missiles instead. But it was going to take a lot more than a single pass with a pair of the long-ranged weapons to stop the enemy.

The deck crews aboard Hiryu had time to unpack replacement fighters, so at least he had a full complement of fighters. And even more important, was the Fleet doctrine that every carrier must embark two full crews for each fighter they carried. So the replacement pilots of the replacement fighters under his command were men and women he had worked with, men and women he trusted to get the job done right.

But this furball was pure chaos—and suddenly his attack groups were under fire from enemy Makos. Then the Shilone's of Strike Group 124 appeared, and he was out of the fire. A dozen Slayers had not been so lucky, but he still had nine arrayed behind him. His display crackled with static—interference from all of the nuclear weapons was rapidly becoming a problem—but cleared, giving him a solid look at six enemy ships just off his port-side. Four cruisers escorted by a pair of destroyers.

"121 and 122, we are taking those cruisers. 123 try to keep those damn Makos off of us until 124 gets here. Press the attack, boys and girls. No one goes home with so much as a single shell left in the magazine. Flight leaders, paint your targets and prepare to release Harpoons, then we follow the birds all the way in."

Hurried acknowledgements crackled across the static filled radio. Jorgenson banked hard, bearing down on the Sovetskii Soyuz class cruiser that now lay ahead of him; nine other of the heavy attack craft following in tight formation. Flak began exploding all around them as the cruiser spotted the incoming strike. A constant tone sounded in his helmet as the seeker heads of the two missiles he carried locked on the target. Green lights across the board showed the rest of Katana flight was locked as well. He squeezed the trigger and felt the Slayer jolt as the two heavy missiles dropped and began to accelerate rapidly towards the cruiser.

"Missiles away! Go to max thrust and follow me in!"

A piece of flak caught his right wing, but the armor held. One, then two, then three of the fighters behind him exploded. His display cleared, identifying the two destroyers riding herd on the cruisers—Brilliant class. Frak me, he thought. I had to pick the cruiser group with a pair of anti-aerospace destroyers as escorts.

The Harpoons bored in, and eighteen explosions lit up the flanks of the heavy cruiser. Still more were impacting on the other three big ships—and at least some of his people had identified the Brilliants. Dozen of explosions wracked those ships as well.

Freed of the drag of the big missiles, Jorgensen's Slayer charged forward at maximum acceleration, as he crossed the inner threshold of the flak belt. He was pressed back in his seat by the crushing hand of gravity, straining to draw breath as the ships expanded in his gun-sights. Five of his fighters were still behind him. As he reached weapons range, he opened fire, the autocannon spewing shells and the lasers spat bolts of coherent light. Still more explosions—but far smaller ones—began erupting on the cruiser.

Suddenly, his fighter was hit, and began to spin. Red lights flashed on his display, as the stick went dead and the engine died. Three Makos screamed past, but his four surviving fighters kept boring in. Another shot hit his fighter and Jorgensen looked down in horror as the life support system began dumping his oxygen reserve into the cockpit. An electrical spark from the damaged systems ignited the gas and he screamed as his own fighter roasted him alive.

Only fourteen Slayers and eleven Shilones would survive the strike and return to Hiryu and Soryu—none of the enemy cruisers did.

September 30, 2767

SLS Black Lion

L-1 Jump Point, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Basil breathed a sigh of relief when the systems stabilized and the plot showed that they were in Asta, and in one piece. In fact, all of Hall's ships had come through, according to the plot—but dozens of lurid red icons began to appear as well, and very close. He turned towards her command chair, but before he could speak she began barking orders.

"Launch all fighters and assault ships! Weapons, target the McKenna and the Alaska! Maneuvering, keep us between them and the planet!"

A ragged chorus of 'aye-ayes' answered that string of orders from Captain Hall. The Black Lion began shuddering as fifty heavy naval autocannon opened up in rapid-fire mode—consuming ten tons of ammunition in less than a minute. The ship rocked hard as dozens of beams and shells impacted the heavy armor plating, and then the Alaska class vessel in the holotank detonated under the combined fire of her ships. Across the bridge a cheer went up at the red icon winked out.

"Alright, people, that was good. Now pick another target, damn it, and do it again!"

She turned her head to look at Basil. "General, sir, I bet now you wish you'd stayed with your divisions."

"Not on your life, Cap . . ."

"Incoming!" screamed a voice from Tracking—and the entire ship lurched, lights flickering as the very hammer of the gods slammed into the side of the Black Lion, and everything went black for Basil.

September 30, 2767

RWS Hand of Destiny

Asta Local Space

Terran Hegemony

Daragou cursed viciously as the twelve brand new, fresh Star League ships popped into existence between him and the planet. The twenty-two ships of his battle-group had them outnumbered and outgunned, but they reacted so fast, faster by far than his crews did. Before the hyper-space emergence wave had even settled they opened fire, rocking the Hand of Destiny with just a dozen hits. Swift Death was not so lucky—she took the brunt of the fire from two Sovetskii Soyuz class ships, as well as a pair of Essex class destroyers and a Black Lion class battlecruiser. Even as the Swift Death exploded, the Star League Navy ships began launching their fighters and assault ships—and there were a lot of them.

"Order our fighters to keep theirs off my back, damn it, Harley! Weapons, target that damn Black Lion!"

The McKenna class battleship skewed as the helm turned them broadside onto the League ships. Then its twenty-four heavy Naval PPCs spat coherent energy, splintering armor plate and spilling air from the battlecruiser.

Daragou pounded his fist on the command chair. "Yes, now fin . . ." a massive explosion caused the bridge to shake, and damage alarms began to howl, interrupting his order. The enemy Potemkin had completed her own turn, and returned nearly the same amount of fire into the Hand of Destiny. "Destroy that ship, weapons, NOW!" he screamed, forgetting about the Black Lion for the moment.

September 30, 2767

DCS Mikasa

Asta Local Space

Terran Hegemony

Smoke from an electrical fire stung Admiral Matasuke's eyes as he peered at the display set near his knee on his command chair. Mikasa had taken heavy damage from the Rim Worlds fighters, despite the best efforts of his pilots and weapon crews. Both sides' aerospace complements had engaged in an orgy of destruction over the past twenty minutes—both were now spent, racing away trying to find a functioning bay in which to land and refuel, before their tanks ran dry and they joined the drifting debris.

Nearly two-thirds of Matasuke's ships were air-streaming wrecks; or worse, expanding clouds of dust and debris. But of the eighty-six Rim Worlds ships that had turned to engage him, only eleven battered, broken hulks remained. Twenty-two enemy ships though had evaded his forces during the fight and were pushing hard for the planet. He had let them go; knowing Commodore Hall and her flotilla were arriving there momentarily. And they had. Commodore Hall's ships had stopped dead the Rim Worlders driving for the planet, but at a frightful price. All of Hall's ships were battered derelicts, those that still existed at least. Only six Rim Worlds ships in that force remained—a McKenna, a Thresher, two Dauntless class Rim Worlds frigates, and two Lola III destroyers, all of them streaming air from multiple hull breaches. And they were moving towards the planet again.

He pivoted his chair towards Captain Abe as he considered his options. There were not many. "Captain Abe."

"Admiral?" he replied, his face tight from the pain of his newly broken right arm, courtesy of the last series of hits that had nearly broken Mikasa in half.

"Signal General Anders. Have General Samasov launch the reserve fighters from the surface; we won't be able to stop those six ships in time."

Before the order could be passed, yet another explosion erupted through the hull of the Mikasa, as a badly damaged Rim Worlds cruiser fired into her side. Two Combine cruisers and a frigate—with perhaps the total firepower of an undamaged light cruiser remaining between them—targeted the Rim Worlds ship and it died in a eye-stunning glare of light.

"Hai, Admiral."

Matasuke looked at the display, at the enemy ships creeping closer to the point where they could bring their weapons to bear on the planet. And he hoped—he hoped and he prayed that the order had been sent in time.

September 30, 2767

SLS Black Lion

High Orbit, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Emergency lighting glowed red across the shattered bridge of the battlecruiser. Bodies floated in zero-g as the ship drifted. Commodore Alicia Hall looked over her ruined command in a state of shock. She had no intact weapons left and the drive was capable of only a half-g of acceleration. Her ship's armor had been shattered; she was streaming atmosphere from scores of breaches in the hull. The K-F drive was off-line; it was unlikely her ship would ever leave the Asta system. The remainder of the 247th wasn't any much better off—the Aleksandyr Nevsky, a Potemkin class, had been lost with all hands. Both of her cruisers were broken wrecks; the frigate Constellation had gone up when her magazines detonated, her sister ship President was tumbling away, without power or life-support. Of her six destroyers, only the Reuben James—a Lola III class ship—had any functioning weapons remaining, but her maneuvering drives had failed completely. Her tracking systems were still functioning and she could see she had failed. The enemy ships were limping towards planetary orbit. Six of them, all hurt badly, but still capable of maneuvering; perhaps still capable of firing nuclear weapons against the planet. She closed her eyes and prayed for a miracle; none of her ships could catch them short of their firing point—or do anything other than ram if they did. Please, God, don't let this have been in vain, she pleaded, as she looked down at the lifeless body of General Basil Christophos, SLDF.

September 30, 2767

RWS Hand of Destiny

High Orbit, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Commodore Daragou coughed as the last of the acrid smoke was pulled from his bridge by the powerful fans set in the ducts behind the bulkheads. Emergency lighting showed his systems were on the brink of failure—and his other ships were in worse condition. But his missile launchers were still functional, and the magazine containing the nuclear weapons was intact. But he was the only ship in his broken and battered battle group that could claim that. That damn Star League naval officer had delayed him, and shattered his battle-group. But neither he nor the Draconis ships could stop him now.

"Harley, load nuclear bombardment rounds into all launch tubes. Fire the moment you enter range."

"Aye-aye, Sir," his XO replied from the gunnery station. His weapons officer had died during that last exchange of fire, so Harley had taken over. Good. Just five more minutes and he would have the range.

"Sir," an exhausted voice called out from Tracking. "Sir, we have four hundred and fourteen fighters inbound from the surface, headed on a reciprocal bearing. They will intercept in two minutes and twenty seconds."

Daragou's shoulders dropped. Three quarters of his weapons were gone, so was ninety percent of his armor. He had severe internal damage. And only fourteen fighters—nearly out of fuel and munitions—left in his entire battle-group. He lowered his head and made the only decision he could.

"Communications. Is the transmitter still working?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Broadcast our surrender on all channels. Maneuvering kill our forward momentum, and put us in stable orbit out of weapons range of the surface, then shut down the drives. Harley, disarm the nukes and safe the tubes."

His bridge crew looked at him, disbelief in their eyes. Daragou stood. "It's over, people. We will spend the rest of the war in a P.O.W. camp, and then hopefully go home after that damn madman we call an Emperor has be. . ." CRACK! The sharp discharge of a pistol echoed across the bridge as the front of Daragou's skull erupted in a fountain of blood, brains, and bits of bone.

Commander Harley Eversol glared across the bridge from behind the smoking barrel of the pistol that he had just fired into the back of Daragou's head. "Belay that traitor's order. Maneuvering go to maximum thrust on all drives; full speed ahead. NOW, sailor."

As the bridge crew leapt to follow his orders, Harley turned back to his control panel and locked a pair of nuclear weapons onto the incoming fighters. Time to plough the road, he thought. Three minutes, we only need to survive for three more minutes. Then he turned the firing key.

*****************************************************

The battle was short and vicious on both sides. The Rim Worlds forces fired a dozen nuclear weapons into the midst of the Combine fighters, killing over two hundred. Then the aerospace fighters assigned to General Samasov broke past the missile barrage and entered their own range, salvoing more than twenty thousand rockets, and adding their own weapons to the carnage. When the explosions died away, there was only tumbling debris and dust left where the Rim ships had been.

Chapter Thirty Two

October 11, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

We stopped them, Stephen thought. But god in heaven, the cost! Forty-nine Combine WarShips destroyed, another twenty-four fit only to send to the breakers; every last one of the remaining fifty survivors damaged—some critically, including Mikasa, the sole surviving Combine battleship. At the end, even the six carriers had closed to weapons range and opened fire on the enemy, suffering damage themselves. Commodore Hall's 247th Armed Transport Flotilla had suffered even worse casualties, proportionately. Of the twelve ships she had brought to the fight, six had been destroyed. None of the rest remained capable of performing a jump, and if the six survivors had enough intact weapons between them to arm a corvette, it would surprise him. At least her transports had remained behind at KV-112; the unarmed JumpShips would have been slaughtered had they followed her. They were here now, though, with the late General Christophos's two divisions and support personnel.

There had been sixty thousand dead and wounded aboard the ships and fighters of the Combine and the Star League. But those casualties paled when compared to the Rim Worlds forces. None of the Rim Worlds vessels had surrendered—they fought until they could not fight any longer, and then tried to ram. Of the one hundred and fifty thousand crewmen Commodore Daragou had begun this operation with; there were a grand total of three hundred and forty-seven survivors, mainly aboard the ships lobotomized by General Kerensky.

Kerensky and Kurita and their staffs had worked wonders; from the depths of the Combine the last reserves of the Kurita Fleet had answered their call. Minoru had stripped his borders of WarShips completely, though it would be months before they all arrived. A massive redeployment of SLDF assets—begun a month earlier—had been increased vastly in size and power. Those ships and troops would start arriving very shortly. Still, with the arrival of Admiral Genda and the Saffel Strike Force yesterday, their strength was actually higher than it had been for the fight nearly two weeks ago. If you included in the count the as of yet unrepaired WarShips of the Combine that could still somewhat engage in combat, that is.

And Genda brought word of Saffel with him. When he left Jinjiro and his people behind, he also left a satellite in orbit; that satellite recorded everything that had occurred once the Strike Force ran—and the Rim Worlders had pursued. It told the tale of Jinjiro's final stand, and of what happened afterwards. The Rim World Fleet broke off their pursuit and returned to Saffel where they boarded all of Amaris's troops. Then, seemingly in a fit of pique, they bombarded the world with nuclear weapons from orbit. Saffel—and her population of one hundred and forty million—was now dead; a world contaminated by radiation, locked in the grip of a new ice age brought on by the thousands of nuclear detonations. It would be centuries—perhaps millennia—before man could set foot there again. Compared to those deaths, the twenty-six thousand additional casualties suffered by the Strike Force had seemed insignificant. Insignificant to all but Minoru Kurita. Today the Combine mourned the loss of his heir and eldest son. Stephen had offered his condolences, but though Minoru wept in private, he insisted that Jinjiro had redeemed his honor. That he had become a true Kurita in the mold of Shiro and Urizen at the end. And Stephen agreed; mourning not for Jinjiro, but for the pain inflicted on the man he had come to know as a friend, Minoru.

There was good news, though. He had received a reply from John Davion. The Federated Suns had declared war on Amaris and were mobilizing for action. In fact, an AFFS Task Force would be accompanying the Davion Prince here for the conference next month, the Task Force to remain when John Davion returned to his realm, which should increase our naval strength by about a third. Barbara Liao would be attending as well, and while she was not declaring war, she did say that in order to ensure her safety, she would be accompanied to Asta by no less than forty warships of the Confederation Fleet. None of those would remain when she left, but her 'volunteers' were beginning to arrive on Northwind, as eager for action as the Highlanders they followed. Robert Steiner would be attending, but he was bringing only a single ship, the LCS Tharkad, one of their newest battlecruisers—and that ship would also take him home afterwards. Kenyon Marik had not even bothered to reply to his message. That worried him, for the Free Worlds had one of the largest Fleets among the Great Powers; second only to the Star League's own navy—though a distant second.

All three of the periphery leaders, Nicoletta Calderon, Janina Centrella, and Allyce Avellar would be present as well. None would bring any WarShips—they didn't have any, or rather they weren't supposed to have any—or troops. That was fine with Stephen; for soon enough he would have the troops and ships he needed to end this war. End it on his terms.

*****************************************************

Aleksandyr Kerensky sat in the First Lord's office, waiting for his arrival. He was no stranger to casualties—not in his thirty-eight year career as an officer in the First Lord's Defense Force. But, he had forgotten—if he had ever learned—just how bloody naval combat between two bitterly opposed forces could become. Once, just once, in their entire history had the SLDF and allies acting under its aegis taken such heavy casualties, the Taurian Campaign of the Reunification War.

And the Taurians did not have the SDS, he thought. He shuddered, as he considered the eighty-four worlds equipped with the defensive networks. And then, there is Terra. Mother Earth. The homeworld, whose defenses are more powerful than anyone in history had ever assaulted. But, they would have to face the 'Caspers' and the SDS ground bases—because once the SLDF arrived here in force, Amaris would have to withdraw from worlds not protected by those shields. The thought of those casualties though, that sent his blood pressure soaring.

The door opened, and Stephen Cameron walked in, alone.

"Good morning, General Kerensky, thank you for coming to see me," he said as he walked over and shook the General's hand.

"I am a serving officer, First Lord. Your request is literally an order for me."

"Would you care for some tea, General?"

"Yes, that would be kind of you."

Stephen sat behind his desk and pressed a button, "Hiroyoshi, General Kerensky would like a cup of tea, please, and may I have a cup of coffee? Thank you."

Hiroyoshi entered, carrying two cups on a tray, which he sat down, handing one each to Stephen and Kerensky, then withdrew.

Kerensky sipped the hot liquid, considering Stephen. For the last week, he had been . . . depressed was too strong a word, ah, perhaps moody. The number of casualties had hit him hard, and his reaction had been quite revealing. Be careful, my Lord, he thought. Your empathy does you credit, but your enemies will seek to turn it against you. This Stephen, though, the one sitting before him now, this Stephen showed so signs of his emotional struggles.

"If I may ask, First Lord, why did you summon me here?"

Stephen leaned back, looking at Kerensky. For a long time, he did not answer; he just sipped his coffee and looked at Kerensky. Finally he set the cup down.

"Two reasons, General, Aleksandyr. We won a great—but pyrrhic—victory here two weeks back. I know that you—and your staff, and Minoru's staff—are working on where we go from here; but I have been considering Saffel. Having nightmares about Saffel, actually, Aleksandyr."

He looked up and gave Kerensky a weary, sad, smile. Kerensky was beginning to get concerned—we cannot have the First Lord suffer a nervous breakdown, by all the gods, no, not now.

"I have spoken with Sam and Ezra, and I think I have the gist of what you have planned next." He paused and waited, until Kerensky motioned for him to continue.

"A slow, steady, and unrelenting campaign that will retake about a dozen Hegemony worlds a year—and create panic in Amaris's command structure as they realize they can't stop you. That not even the SDS will stop you. You plan to take the outer systems first, to cut Amaris off from the flow of supplies and material he is shipping to Terra from those worlds. Then hit Terra with everything you have left. Right?"

"At its most basic, First Lord, that is indeed the seed of the plan that we now have."

Stephen slumped in his chair, and then looked back up, staring Kerensky right in the eyes. "It's the wrong plan, General."

Kerensky stopped in the middle of taking a sip and looked at Stephen. He sat back, and once more motioned for the Fist Lord to go on.

"You are—pardon me if this treads a little too close to home, sir—treating this as if it were an action against a Periphery State. As if we are fighting the Reunification War, again. You want to break the morale and the will of Amaris's troops, but while you do that, the SLDF will be gutted, General. I know that, and you know that. And your commanders know that."

"So, First Lord, what would you have us do?"

"The one thing Amaris will never expect, General. We gather every last man, every last ship we have and that our allies will contribute and we hit Terra itself next. We smash his command and control there and sever the head from his armed forces."

Kerensky shook his head. "The casualties from the Terran SDS, First Lord, it . . . "

". . . will be there, Aleksandyr if we assault in January or ten years down the road. We will still have to fight our way past those defenses, and if we wait, our casualties before that might prove to be our undoing. Right now, General, we are as strong as we will ever be. Now, not in ten years, not after liberating over one hundred worlds. You just saw in the naval battle here what we will be fighting. Now is the time, General. Terra should be our next target. Decapitate the Rim Worlds forces, and maybe we can convince the rest to lay down arms, without a fight."

Kerensky set down his cup on the saucer. "I know you are concerned, First Lord, and I will have my staff look into your request and . . . "

"It's not a request, General," Stephen said roughly. He slid a paper across the desk. Kerensky lifted it and read it quickly. It was a directive, a direct order from the First Lord, the Commander in Chief of the Star League Defense Forces to him, the Commanding General, ordering him and staff to plan and prepare to execute an assault upon Terra within the next year.

"And if I refuse, First Lord?"

"Then I will ask for your resignation, General Kerensky, regrettably."

Kerensky nodded. "If . . . IF I do this, First Lord, put together an operations plan and have my staff run simulations, and I find that it is too risky, I will not give the execute order."

"Fair enough, General. Just look at the idea, that's all I ask. If it can work, we can end this war in one year instead of ten—or more."

Kerensky sat back, and looking down at the floor, smiled suddenly. Well, he is definitely not a Richard; be careful of what you wish for Aleksandyr, you just might get it. He looked up.

"You said there were two things, First Lord. What is the second?"

Stephen looked down, his face flushed. Then he looked Kerensky in the eyes. "My family and I owe you a great deal, Aleksandyr. You are the heart and soul of the SLDF, the one man who can make this work—and give me time to preserve the League. I intend to see that you are well rewarded for what you have done; what you have suffered in the doing. When this is over, I want you to retire from the SLDF."

A sudden cold shock ran through Kerensky's body. Retire? From the only life he had ever known?

"They say the only reward for a job well done is another job, General Kerensky. And when this is over, I have one for you, if you will take it."

Kerensky nodded as the First Lord paused.

"I will not permit any surviving Amaris—or anyone associated with Amaris—to hold any position of power or influence in the Rim Worlds, Aleksandyr. So I intend to appoint a new leader, a leader of the Rim Worlds Protectorate, replacing the Rim Worlds Republic. I want to appoint you, Aleksandyr Kerensky to serve as that leader and reform the Rim Worlds into something we can all be proud off. Something that will ensure that some good comes from all this shit Amaris unleashed. So will you think about taking the job, Lord Kerensky, of House Kerensky? Or do I need to find someone else to take up this burden?"

Chapter Thirty Three

October 22, 2767

Asta Defense Headquarters

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Aleksandyr sat in the office Stephen had insisted that he be given. It was quite a nice office, complete with an adjoining bed-room suite, a private dining room, and a separate study. Following the defeat of Commodore Daragou's attack, the Astans had been ecstatic in their joy and pleasure at both the SLDF and the Combine who had given so much in their defense. For the better part of the past month, anyone wearing the uniform of either the Star League or the Draconis Combine had not had to open their wallet for a meal, a drink, or a bit of friendly 'companionship'. Truly, for the common soldier and sailor, Asta had become a type of paradise found only in myth and legend. Kerensky grinned, for he too had once been young, on his first deployment, on leave in a strange culture, wearing his best uniform and trying new experiences.

The Astan's reaction had not ended there. No, thousands had volunteered to finish completing this new defense headquarters—they had even agreed to travel to the site in vehicles with covered windows, without knowing where they went. The Astan's had not been allowed out until the vehicles were parked in the underground bays; when they finished their days work, they returned home in the same manner. And in the time since the attack, they had worked a magnificent job on the HQ facility. All of the walls were now lined with hand-carved feroak panels, polished to a dark, glowing sheen. Carpet? Not for our Headquarters, the craftsmen had proclaimed. No, they had cut tiles from the native marble found in the far western mountains, a mesmerizing blend of grays and greens and blues. In the central alcove of the upper floor, near the reception desk, the masons had laid a mosaic of the Cameron Star and the Kurita Dragon, superimposed upon each other in a stunning array of cunningly shaped and fitted tiles of multi-colored marble, deep rich red polished granite, and pure black obsidian.

False ceilings had been placed overhead; and somehow—no one quite knew exactly how—artwork had made its way on base. Paintings and sculptures, intricately woven tapestries and heraldic shields carved from feroak and painted in the colors of every world of the Hegemony; the artisans of Asta had created a spectacular feel for this place, unlike any other SLDF facility Aleksandyr had ever before seen. Rolling along the corridors yesterday in his wheel-chair—accompanied by Colonel Hall and a gaggle of other aides—he had seen for the first time the shield representing Saffel. The craftsmen had placed a thick swath of black silk around the shield and carved the words 'We Shall Never Forget' upon its base—and a lump had grown in Aleksandyr's throat. Some anonymous trooper had placed a small table beneath the shield, along with four dozen candles—each in its own polished glass holder—and a glass jar containing matches. Many of the candles had already been lit, and fresh flowers lay strewn before them on the table. One of his aides—Captain Trevor Nielson—had inhaled sharply, and with shaking hands lit one of the remaining candles, tears welling in his eyes. Captain Nielson, Aleksandyr remembered, was from Saffel.

Aleksandyr turned back to his work, pushing aside the wool-gathering. In four hours time, the first Star League reinforcements would finally arrive. The SLS McKenna and the Task Force—the Fleet—that had been built around her on the day he left Apollo two months earlier. The 144 WarShips and 240 transports were carrying the entire 11th Field Army—three Corps with twenty-two Divisions and sixteen independent regiments of 'Mechs, armor, infantry, and aerospace fighters. 10,800 BattleMechs and 3,564 Aerospace Fighters, plus over two hundred thousand infantry, armor crewmen, artillerists, engineers, military police, and many, many others. That number did not, of course, include the Navy crews of the WarShips, JumpShips, and DropShips, and their own aerospace fighters.

And this Field Army was one of just twenty with which the SLDF had begun this war. Casualties during the eighteen months spent fighting the Periphery Uprising and during the first months of the Coup had utterly destroyed or gutted four of those Armies, and damaged half-a-dozen others. The survivors had been consolidated en route to Apollo, with General DeChevilier and Aleksandyr reorganizing the entire SLDF on the fly. When the dust settled from the administrative shake-up, he found that he was left with fourteen Field Armies—each one at or above full strength. Forty-two reinforced Corps—310 Divisions and 224 Independent Regiments—of the Star League Defense Forces remained at his command, out of the 450 Divisions and 304 Independent Regiments the Star League had just three short years ago.

And then there was the Navy. 2,016 WarShips and 3,360 transports provided transportation for the fourteen newly reorganized Field Armies. An additional 6,720 transport ships were devoted to supply, repair, and other sundry tasks; escorted by 1,344 more WarShips. 2,744 WarShips had once been assigned independent operations, but were now gathering in fourteen Fleets, each 196 vessels strong. His Naval casualties to date had far lighter—except in the Hegemony itself, during the Coup.

He looked back down at the study on his desk, tapping the fingers of his right hand across the polished wood. It is a risk, he thought. But, Lord Stephen may be right about this. It just goes against everything I have learned in thirty-eight years of military service—the last seventeen spent as the Commanding General. We always soften the target before we go in—and Amaris knows that. He can bleed us to death on one hundred worlds; death from a thousand cuts. And maybe, just maybe stop my troops on Terra. That path was what his original plan had called for, a ten-year campaign against the Usurper. For Stephen was wrong on one point. They were not as strong as they could be, not yet. Volunteers from all the Great Houses had descended upon SLDF recruiting stations in force. It would take time though to train and equip those troops, months, if not years. Yet . . . he might just have the firepower to crack Terra's defenses now. And end this war decisively. Capturing Amaris would break the will of many of his officers—and if he could be convinced to order their surrender on the other Hegemony worlds . . .

His hand stopped tapping the desk-top as he sat upright and turned to the keyboard of his computer system. He quickly wrote a simple order, and pressed the send key. Saving the document, he shut the system down, and prepared to retire for the night. I will greet General Montoya tomorrow, he thought. As the weary, injured man wheeled his chair into the conveniently located bedroom; the screen began to shut down, leaving an afterglow which—for just a moment—could still be read.

Aaron, it said, I need you here; report to me on Asta as soon as possible. Leave two Field Armies and two Fleets to garrison the Rim. Bring everything else with you. Kerensky.

Chapter Thirty Four

November 1, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Stephen smiled as he shook the hands of his guests. General Esteban Montoya clasped his hand firmly, then took Marianne's, bowed before her, and kissed the back of her hand. Straightening, he entered the large ballroom, where dignitaries stood waiting, dressed their most formal, interspaced with the men and women of eight separate militaries all wearing their own dress uniforms. He hated these affairs; always had, ever since he had been forced to attend such gatherings in his youth. That had been one of the many reasons he had entered the Military Academy at the age of 18—to escape these boring, formal parties. Marianne, on the other hand, she lived for this. If it made her happy, then he could endure—besides, he had no choice. The Lords of the Council had to be greeted in a fashion commensurate to their status, lest he offend any. He had a few moments, so he looked as his wife again. God, she was truly lovely, glowing even. The baby inside her was barely showing, but even so, she had fretted over the tight formal gown. She had even asked him the age-old trap of a question, 'does this make me look fat?' He smiled again, as he remembered his answer—a deep passionate kiss that had sweep away her worry and fretting, for a short moment, at least.

Cassie had not been happy when they told her that she would soon have a baby brother or sister—while the doctors might know the child's sex, Stephen and Marianne wanted to be surprised. No, she had not been happy, and asked if they could just return it, maybe for a pony instead? That had been four weeks ago, though, and now she was excited. Tonight, she had been put to bed early, for Stephen would not force his little girl to endure this boring soirée. Marianne had frowned; pointing out that it would be good for her to learn how to behave at these functions. To be sure, Stephen agreed with her on that, but not tonight. No, soon enough Cassie would learn just how much her life had changed over the past year, and tonight, he wanted his little girl to be his little girl, not the Heir to the Throne of Man.

Hiroyoshi—standing behind Stephen—whispered into his microphone. "Barbara Liao, Chancellor of the Capellan Confederation."

Stephen turned his attention back to his guests as he heard Hiroyoshi's voice over the small, nearly invisible earpiece he wore. She was just beginning to pass through the line, conversing with Paul Gellar and his wife, here in his capacity as Planetary Governor. Paul had nearly fainted when he learned that he would have to attend, but his wife had quickly brought him around. That appointment had been a roaring success. Over the past month, he had worked eighteen hour days and led the Astans to rebuild their cities. And the Astans had responded to his leadership. According to the polls he had an approval rating of over 88%, and he had earned that. The special election was coming up in three days, and none of his three opponents were expected to even break into double digits.

Former Governor Alistair Fairbanks had returned yesterday from Northwind, threatening a legal challenge to Stephen's appointment of the electrician and militia man to his post. Stephen had shrugged and then stepped aside as a delegation from the Planetary Assembly read the warrant for his arrest—for dereliction of duty and abandonment of his office during a time of crisis. Not even Fairbanks's renowned political connections could save him now. For none of those men dared to oppose Stephen and Governor Gellar. Not now, not after the Second Battle of Asta. The good former Governor would have enjoyed this party, but instead he now waited for his trial in a cell in Asta's prison complex over on Dawson Island, six hundred miles to south, sitting alone in the middle of the vast and stormy Southern Ocean.

The Chancellor continued down the line, stopping to speak with General Kerensky. She was visibly shaken at the sight of him in a wheelchair, and knelt to whisper to him. Her courtiers began muttering and she stopped, her vibrant, warm face turning to cold ice. Standing she motioned to one of her guards and whispered to him. He nodded, took the arms of the two courtiers and ushered them out. Then she knelt once more.

"They are being returned to her ship in orbit, Lord Cameron," Hiroyoshi whispered a few moments later. "Apparently, they think they are going to be executed. I trust she will not go that far—but her ship is Capellan territory and their laws apply there."

Stephen nodded slightly as Barbara rose, wiped a tear from her cheek, and advanced on him. Stephen bowed; taking her extended hand and kissed it, then rose. "Chancellor Liao, may I have the honor to present to you my wife, the Lady Marianne?"

The two spoke for a moment in an infuriatingly feminine fashion—for somehow Barbara Liao's spies had learned of Marianne's pregnancy. Then she turned back to him.

"Director-General, we finally meet."

"Chancellor, the honor is mine to encounter not only your beauty, but your wisdom. Both of which are renowned across the width and breadth of settled space."

She turned her head back to Marianne. "You may keep him, Lady Cameron. He will do."

Marianne smiled and passed her arm through Stephen's as she leaned against him. "Yes, I know, Chancellor. He already has, as your agents have discovered."

Barbara Liao laughed. "Touché, Lady Cameron. Until the Council meets then Director-General, may both you and your lovely wife fare well."

Stephen gave a gracious nod—not wanting to risk sparking a confrontation between Barbara Liao and his wife with something else he said. God, would not that be a disaster? Aleksandyr to his left was coughing—or was he trying to cover a laugh? Stephen sighed; he just could picture tomorrow's headlines.

"Please, Lord Cameron, smile and don't shrug your shoulders when you do that. There are cameras present, my Lord," came Hiroyoshi's voice is his ear.

He suppressed yet another sigh—but this time his shoulders did not even twitch.

*****************************************************

Thirty long and boring minutes later, John Davion had finally reached them. Dashing in his tailored uniform, down to the silver spurs he wore upon his polished black boots, he was a suave and charming man—but one with a keen mind and a firm sense of duty. Stephen had met John once before, at a gathering much like this one on Terra. Twelve years ago, after he had graduated Sandhurst, but before he had been assigned to the 42nd. He doubted though that John Davion would remember that.

"Prince John, welcome to Asta. May I present to you my wife, the Lady Marianne?"

John smiled, a warm, utterly likable smile on his boyish face. "You may indeed, Director-General Cameron. Though we met once before, I believe; she was on your arm for that dinner back on Terra in the late spring of '55."

Marianne smiled and extended her hand, and curtseyed as John lightly kissed the back. "I am surprised that you remember that occasion, Prince John."

"Who could forget such a lovely woman, obviously smitten with a young officer shortly to leave on his first assignment? Indeed, my dear, had I not already have been happily married, then I might have had to engage in a duel of honor over the right to your hand." He smiled, and clapped Stephen on the upper arm.

Stephen returned his smile with one of his own. "I am glad that I did not have to engage you in that duel, Prince John. By all accounts you are deadly with a blade."

John waved aside the thought. "Nonsense, Director-General, you were a strapping young Marine officer. I had spent—and still do today— far too much time behind a desk. If I had indeed been so impetuous, then my younger brother might well be here representing my people tonight."

His grin died away. "It was your speech, Director-General, on your assumption of the office that convinced me. In case you were not certain, then one vote for confirmation you shall have when the Council convenes next week."

Stephen nodded. "Prince John, I have not yet thanked you for your support—and for declaring war against Amaris. But we must speak before you set your mind to confirm my position. For some of my policies you will dislike—very much so. I will not force you to feel trapped between speaking plainly to me here, and feeling betrayed at the Council. So, I ask that you wait, Prince John. Wait and hear what I have to say, what I have to ask before you decide upon your vote."

John stopped, and looked at Stephen for several long moments. "Very well, Director-General, you have piqued my interest, but I will wait until we can speak again. In private, perhaps, to discuss those things not appropriate for this venue?"

"That would be helpful, Prince John."

"Then I bid you and your lady a good night, Director-General. Now I shall feast upon your food and drown myself in your wine," and he laughed again.

Stephen smiled and nodded as he bowed once more to Marianne and entered the ball-room proper.

"In another life, love, he would be a most charming rake," Marianne whispered into his ear.

"Hush, hon, the cameras are still rolling."

In answer, Marianne, his prim and proper Marianne, grabbed his jaw, turned his head and kissed him. "Frak the cameras, Stephen, you need to relax and enjoy this party."

As she smiled to the cameras—and the men and women gossiping away who operated them—Stephen waited for Hiroyoshi to make a comment in his ear. Perhaps wisely on his behalf, the earpiece remained silent.

*****************************************************

Stephen and Marianne met Janina Centrella and Allyce Avellar—the leaders of the Magistracy of Canopus and the Outworlds Alliance, respectively. Neither had a vote on the Council, though they sat there, representing their people. That was a tragedy in the case of Centrella, and a blessing in the case of Avellar. Allyce Avellar was perhaps the most naïve person that he had ever met—and a firm believer in the 'give peace a chance' school of thought. His campaign against Amaris was just horrible, she said, for the people suffered. Surely if the two of them could just sit down and talk everything would work itself out. Allyce's aides had winced, but expected nothing else from their leader. Stephen had been flabbergasted—it had been up to Marianne to pat her on the hand and say 'Yes, dear, it is simply dreadful. Of course they should talk.' Allyce seemed pleased, and wandered off into the ballroom—perhaps to persuade the men in uniform there to give up their guns and their 'Mechs and their warships and work instead for the cause of peace.

"Nicoletta Calderon, Protector of the Taurian Concordat," Hiroyoshi's voice snapped Stephen back to the present.

"Madame," he said, bowing deeply to the seventy-four year old woman who had ruled her distant realm with such skill for nearly half a century.

"Director-General Cameron. Not First Lord yet, eh, boy?"

"No, Protector Calderon, not yet."

"My aides say that you have requested a private meeting with me, at my convenience. With a wife who looks like that, Director-General, you obviously don't want me for my body, so what do you want?

Stephen paused—Nicoletta was trying to push him, see how far she could go. How far the Concordat could go. Though she didn't possess a vote, Nicoletta was the most powerful of three Periphery Council Lords—and her opinion was widely respected, even among the five Great Houses.

"Go ahead boy, speak up," she snapped, sounding for all the world like one of his elementary school teachers many years before.

Stephen laughed, as Nicoletta stared at him. Then slowly, her stubborn frown began to twitch, and she chuckled. "You've got a sense of humor, boy. That's good, 'cause in our jobs you have to have one or you go crazy. Richard didn't, but he was not sane to begin with. Trusting an Amaris," she shook her head. "I thought you Cameron's are supposed to possess somewhat better sense than that, Director-General."

"Richard paid for his stupidity with his life, Nicoletta. I think you will find me a different man to deal with. And it is important that we talk—soon, and in private."

She regarded Stephen for an eternity, until Stephen began to feel like a mouse being examined by a hawk. Finally she nodded. "I will listen, I might not agree, boy, but I will listen."

She turned to face Marianne and regarded her, then nodded. "You both have iron in your backbones, that's good," she reached up and touched Marianne's check with an open hand. "Just remember, girl, that he can order those jackals shot if they begin to annoy you too much." She extended her cane to the cameras. "And they will. Oh, they will, girl."

She nodded her head sharply, and then entered the ball-room, moving slowly with age, but also with a regal dignity.

*****************************************************

Robert Steiner arrived late—as he was wont to do. It showed his importance, making others wait for him, but tonight, he received a surprise. Director-General Cameron's invitation to his residence at Branson House had specified the receiving line would last from 1900 to 2100; however, he would not dare insult Robert by failing to be there to greet him. But he had! The nerve of that upstart. It was 2130, and the receiving line was gone—all of the guests were in the ballroom.

His aides were muttering to themselves as Robert fumed, and the staff of Branson House took their coats. Finally, a man clothed in the dress uniform of the Star League Defense Force came to meet him.

"Archon Steiner? I am General Anders, sir. The Director-General sends his apologies, but the invitation did specify the receiving line ended at 2100. He asks if you would join him and General Kerensky in the Blue Room, sir, as a way of making amends." Sam smiled and glanced at the pack of aides who accompanied Robert. "Alone, sir."

Robert waited as his staff argued with the man, but Anders did not budge on the issue. After all, none of Stephen's or Kerensky's people would be present. "Very well," he said at last. "Take me there."

Turning back to his aides, he waved a hand at the ball-room, "Be ready to depart when I am."

*****************************************************

The door opened, admitting Robert Steiner into the small private study—with a deep, royal blue tile covering the floor. All of the furniture was covered in cloth dyed the same shade—offset by the rich warm tones of the feroak trimming.

General Kerensky sat in his wheelchair and Director-General Stephen Cameron leaned against a desk. Robert heard the door close behind him.

"I take it that you received my offer, General Kerensky? Director-General Cameron?"

Stephen nodded. "Yes, Archon Steiner. It is most generous on your part—offering to garrison the Rim Worlds with two-thirds of your army to allow the SLDF to take the war to Amaris. And so is your offer to raise two divisions of troops for our campaign."

Robert smiled. "Well, yes, Director-General. It is the least I can do to support the rightful First Lord. And the great General, so gravely wounded in that cowardly attack. A pity that, General Kerensky. I would imagine that your wounds and, ah, disabilities, will make it rather difficult to carry on as Commanding General. Is General DeChevilier going to be appointed in your place?"

"He will be appointed the new Commanding General, Archon, just as soon as Lord Cameron is confirmed as First Lord. I have recently been persuaded to retire; my injuries and all, you understand. Though, of course, I will remain on hand to advise the new First Lord—and to see to the successful conclusion of this campaign—and Amaris's trial and execution."

Robert smiled. This man was the heart and soul of the SLDF. This news, combined with the casualties the SLDF would suffer over the next ten or fifteen years, would forever end the Hegemony's dominance of the Inner Sphere. And with the worlds of the Rim added to his own Lyran Commonwealth, Robert would be the premier power. In fact, if not quite yet in name.

"Yes, Archon Steiner," Stephen said, standing up and walking across the room towards him, "it was good you to offer such support for our forces."

"Excellent, gentlemen; I will send the message tomorrow instructing my people to occupy the Rim—in the name of the Star League, of course."

"That will not be necessary, Archon Steiner. The Rim is already under Star League control—and protection."

Robert frowned. "Do not be hasty, Director-General. You need my help—and my vote in Council—to win this war."

"Actually, Robert, I don't. Frak your vote. And keep your troops on Tharkad, or the new Guardian of the Rim Worlds Protectorate will hand you your head—with full SLDF support."

Roberts blood pressure soared. "Guardian? Rim Worlds Protectorate? What the hell kind of nonsense is this?"

Stephen glared with contempt at the man who had sought to use him and the Amaris crisis for personal gain. "The Rim Worlds Protectorate is the government that even now is being formed out of the remnants of the Rim Worlds Republic. The Guardian of the Rim is their leader."

"You are at war with those people, Director-General, and you are allowing them to form a new government?"

"Actually, Archon, I am forming that government. Should I introduce you to the first Guardian of the Rim? I believe you have already met him." Stephen waved his hand to General Kerensky, and Roberts's blood went cold.

Kerensky smiled and leaned forward in his chair. "Two Field Armies remain in the Rim, Archon Steiner, to discourage—adventurism. You do not want to provoke me by occupying worlds that I am now the leader of; of that, Archon Steiner, I can assure you."

Roberts jaw dropped. This was preposterous! "You are not First Lord, Director-General! You can not appoint anyone as ruler of anything!"

"Like I said, Robert Steiner, I don't need your vote. Cast your ballot however you wish. Of course the vote is public, and will be broadcast throughout your realm. Imagine how it would look to your citizens if their Archon chose not to support a legitimate Cameron successor—the last Cameron successor of age to take the Throne of Man. Then make your choice, Archon, and live by it."

"Enjoy your stay here this evening, Archon Steiner. Now, General Kerensky—excuse me, Guardian Kerensky—and I must rejoin the soirée," Stephen paused as he reached down to wheel Aleksandyr Kerensky from the room, and then turned back to Robert. "And Robert. In the future when I extend to you an invitation to attend an event, either arrive on time, or do not bother attending at all."

Stephen and Kerensky left the room, leaving Robert Steiner alone, his plans crumbling around him.

*****************************************************

As Stephen wheeled Kerensky back to party, he leaned down and whispered, "Remind me to congratulate your intelligence corps on that little piece of information, Aleksandyr."

Aleksandyr smiled, "Thank Minoru, Lord Cameron. One of his agents acquired the information and he passed it to me last week."

As the two moved along towards the ballroom, Hiroyoshi appeared, stopping four paces away and saluting.

"Yes, Hiroyoshi?"

"My Lord Cameron, we have just received word from the Defense Headquarters. A flotilla of Free Worlds ships has arrived at the zenith point bearing the Captain-General aboard. He has requested to speak with you and General Kerensky upon his arrival."

Chapter Thirty Five

November 3, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

John Davion stood at the door to the open balcony, watching the snow fall lightly across the gardens that stood to the rear of Branson House. In the fading twilight, he could see soldiers dressed in winter uniform of the SLDF making their rounds. He swirled the wine in his glass absently as he stared out the frost covered panes of bullet-resistant plexi.

"You ask far too much, Director-General. Even for a man who has accomplished what you have done here, it is too much to ask of me, and the Federated Suns."

Stephen stood, leaving his own glass on the table, walked over to his desk and lift a carved box from the surface. Opening the humidor, he extended it to John.

"These cigars are from San Martino, Prince John. It is said, by people who judge such things, that the tobacco from there is richer and fuller than that of Old Earth herself. Care to try one?"

John turned his head and glared at Stephen, who just smiled as he held the humidor out. The deep, mellow scent of the tobacco wafted out from the open box, and John reached out, took a cigar, and clipped the end. Stephen kept smiling as he set down the humidor and struck a match, holding it to the end of cigar as John pulled in his breath, three short pulls, and then a deep inhalation. As the smoke of the cigar hit his lungs, John felt his head swim for a moment, leaving him feeling heady and relaxed. He exhaled.

"An excellent cigar, indeed, Director-General. Are you not smoking?"

"Actually, Prince John, I don't smoke myself. I like the smell, but actually smoking one? Never acquired the taste. I keep these, however, for people—such as yourself—who do enjoy an occasional smoke."

John nodded as he took another long drag, then washed it down with a sip of his wine. "It is out of the question, Director-General. Those worlds are ours now—no one else has claim upon them."

Stephen set down the humidor and walked behind his desk. Opening a drawer, he extracted a data-chip and slid it across the desk to John. John placed his hand upon and lifted an eyebrow at Stephen.

"It's yours, Prince John. Complete schematics for the ground-based portion of the Hegemony Space Defense System—including automated fire-control computers, weapons installations, and the latest generation of fusion power plants."

"And for this, I must agree to your proposal?"

"No," Stephen said, shaking his head. "That disk belongs to you regardless of your decision on this issue, Prince John. First Lord Jonathon made a promise—I am fulfilling that promise. With the sole exception of the mobile automated units, the M-5 Drones, the Caspers. When we finish liberating the Hegemony those units will be destroyed, along with the data banks containing their plans. As we have learned to our regret, they can be turned against us, and I will correct that error as First Lord."

John looked at the disk. It was what he and his predecessors—and every other Lord of the Council—had demanded from the Cameron's for nearly fifty years.

"You don't understand negotiation; do you, Director-General?"

Stephen shrugged and pointed at the disk. "That is not for negotiation. That is to ensure the word of a Cameron is once again held to the highest of standards."

Stephen walked back over to the chair set near the fireplace, sat, and lifted his wine glass again. He took a sip and then said, "I need this from you, John."

John crossed the room to his own chair opposite Stephen and sat himself, frowning. "I can't, Stephen. Damn it man, the Capellan March will crucify me if I try."

"Even if I have a way for you to present this as the will of the people of those worlds, John? I've seen the economic reports from that region. You are losing money on those worlds every single day. Fifteen times in the past century the Federated Suns has had to request SLDF assistance to put down riots. What if I told you, John, there was a way out of this; a way, that makes you look—to your people and to history—as the greatest proponent of the democratic system you claim to cherish in the history of the Federated Suns?"

"If you can do that—if you can guarantee that—then I will consider it, Stephen."

Stephen smiled and took a sip of his wine. And he told John Davion his plan.

John sat back before the roaring fire, and took a gulp of his own wine. It could work—he would make it work. They would make it work.

"If, IF, she agrees, then yes."

"Good, John. And the rest?"

John squirmed in his seat. This man was relentless! "The First Lord has never before appointed a new Lord of any state, even a Territorial State, you know that."

"There's never been a set of circumstances like this before, you know THAT. You can't deny he has served the Star League—not just the Hegemony—well for nearly forty years, John."

"No, he has paid his dues, and he is neither a weak man, nor a vile one. And you are right—no Amaris should ever rule there again. Fine, Stephen, fine, I will support you in this 'quest' to make General Kerensky the new Lord of this Rim Worlds Protectorate."

"And the elevation of the Territorial States to fully member status, John?"

Damn the man! If there was any other legitimate candidate—but there wasn't. And he was right, John knew deep down. He had seen the reports on just how sharply the corporations—even his own corporations—and the bureaucracy were gouging the people there. It would only lead to more unrest, more violence, another Reunification War.

John sighed, then nodded his head. "Yes, I will support you on that as well, Stephen."

"Thank you, John. This is the right thing to do, you know."

"Perhaps it is, Stephen. Now, do you want to know if I am voting to confirm you?"

"Well, if I have upset you enough with my proposals, then you can seat me as Director-General, but deny me the Throne as First Lord. We might have to select a new First Lord. But, I should warn you, sir that I intend to place these other proposals on the table first, after I am seated as Director-General. So, Kerensky, Centrella, Avellar, and Calderon will have a vote on my confirmation, John. Ten members of the council—six votes required to seat a First Lord. Minoru will vote to confirm me—he has already declared that. I will vote for myself, of course, unless the Council deems it to be conflict of interest—in which case only five votes will be needed for a majority. Kerensky will vote to confirm as well. That leaves you, Steiner, Marik, Liao, and the three from the Periphery. How do you think that vote will go, John?"

John Davion shook his head and chuckled. "You have upset me—my stomach at least. I will vote to confirm you, Stephen. You've got a pair of big brass ones, you know." He lifted the cigar and took another deep pull, the tobacco settling his nervous middle nicely.

"So my wife tells me, John," as he raised his glass in salute. He stopped and leaned over, opening a drawer on the table next to his chair. He extracted a case and smiling tossed it across to John.

"And what, pray tell, is THIS surprise?"

"A gift to the people of the Federated Suns from a grateful First Lord—for your decision to come to our assistance against Amaris, not for your vote. I believe you have wanted information on our latest BattleMech technology. That is not the latest advances by far, but it covers advanced systems that have not to date been released to the Great Houses by the SLDF. Another promise my family made—and forgot to keep."

John looked first at the case holding the priceless data, and then at the other disk holding the secrets of the SDS. "You know, Stephen, you could have bought my vote two hours ago by giving me this then."

"I will not be elected by a bribe, John. Those two data-files were yours the moment you entered this room—regardless of your decision for the Council meeting on Friday."

John Davion nodded. I could do worse than to follow this man, he thought. And he lifted his glass, taking another sip.

Chapter Thirty Six

November 4, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

"All I've heard so far, boy, is just more honey-coated platitudes and empty promises. I suppose that you will send Kerensky and his jack-booted thugs to our worlds to force us back into the line you want us to toe when this mess with Amaris is done."

Nicoletta Calderon, Protector of the Taurian Concordat glared at Stephen from her chair next to the roaring fireplace. Stephen looked down, trying hard to keep rein on his temper. Four hours in the room with this stubborn, paranoid old lady had seriously given his patience a test.

"No, Nicoletta, I won't," he said as looked her in the eyes. "If the Concordat really, truly wants to leave, I won't spill your blood—and my soldier's blood—in order to keep you. But before you do that, just for a moment, ma'am, think about the consequences."

He stood and began to pace near the bay windows overlooking the gardens below, frosted with ice, as the snow fell out of the dark sky. "Right now, you have enough spare parts to keep the fusion generators running for another six months, perhaps a year. And it is the same with the water purification plants. What happens, Nicoletta, to your people after that? What happens on worlds that rely on that technology for clean drinking water, for water for agriculture, for the power to heat and cool their homes? What happens to your people when the machines fail?"

"That is something we will have to work out for ourselves. You don't control those plants anyway—Amaris does. Taurians have suffered before; we can work through hard times again."

Stephen stopped and looked at her—the blunt words were belied by the concern for her people in her eyes. She was worried. Good, it was a lever for him to use.

"Minoru and I have spoken about this problem, Nicoletta. Right now, he is constructing a dozen factories in the Combine to produce those parts—I ordered the SLDF to give him the schematics two months ago. We might, MIGHT, be able to produce enough spare parts in time. And I will give you those same schematics, Nicoletta, to take back to the Concordat with you."

She jerked as he said that. "In exchange for us staying in the League?"

"No. I am not going to let millions of people die or be forced to relocate because we are having a dispute. When you leave here tonight, a data-disk containing those schematics is yours to take with you."

She squirmed slightly in her seat, picked up her glass of hot tea, and took a sip. She placed the cup back on the table, and stared up at him. "Sit down, longshanks; I'm getting a crick in my neck."

Stephen smiled and walked back to his chair and sat down. "Better?"

"Much. You will just give me that technology?"

"Yes. And, if you agree to stay, you WILL have a vote on the Council, the same as the six Great Houses of the Inner Sphere."

"Our grievances with you, they go far beyond not having a vote on the High Council."

"Yes, Nicoletta, they do. They go back to when Ian Cameron choose to force you into the League—and Centrella and Avellar and Amaris. They continued when we used you like serfs and not free people. They kept building when incompetent fools like Richard laid tax burdens on you that any free people would revolt over."

"Yes. So why, now, should we listen to you?"

"The first action I will take as First Lord, Nicoletta is to rescind Richard's taxation edicts. The High Council never approved them, so I don't need their votes to revoke them. That policy ends immediately. If—IF—you and the others accept full member status, then your taxes will drop even more, to the same level paid by the other six Houses. You won't have to hide behind a thin veil of 'separatists' to maintain your armed forces. You will have the right—under the law—to build and maintain an army—and a fleet—within the overall guidelines set by the League. The same guidelines the other Houses have to abide by."

Nicoletta grinned, "Not saying I had anything to do with raising the forces the New Vandenberg patriots fielded, but if I did, why can't I do that again?"

"It took you the better part of fifty years to raise that force, Nicoletta, working clandestinely and hoping you weren't noticed before you were ready. You lost more than nine-tenths of it in eighteen months of combat, along with the men and women you trained and provided as manpower. And this time, you'll have to do it when power is failing on two dozen worlds and three score more run out of drinking water."

"Give me a chance, Nicoletta, to make amends for what we have done in the past. If you are not satisfied with my conduct in five years, in ten years, then go your own way. But don't make your people suffer because you hate the League."

She snorted. "In five years, in ten years, you will have crushed Amaris. You could be singing a different tune then. How do I trust your word, the word of a Cameron?"

Stephen nodded and held up a data-disk he pulled from his pocket. "Upon this disk, Nicoletta are the schematics for the facilities that manufacture the spare parts I spoke about earlier. Also included are the complete plans for the ground-based facilities of our Space Defense Systems, along with the advanced weapon systems, computers, electronics, and power generators that make it work." He sat the disk on the low table between and slid it across to her.

"It's yours. No strings attached. Now, it will take you ten years or more to construct the factories to build the weapons and computers and sensors on that disk. Probably more like twenty—starting as far behind as you are. But it's yours."

The Protector reached and picked up the disk—the priceless disk, filled with salvation for her people, perhaps. Then she cast a venomous look back at Stephen. "Why shouldn't I just take this and trust our people to use it to survive? Why should I—or any Taurian—care what happens to the rest of you?"

"Because, Nicoletta, in part you are as responsible for this mess as Stefan Amaris and Richard Cameron. I have copies of reports showing the encrypted transmissions between you and Amaris, Nicoletta. He helped you build those divisions on New Vandenberg and the other worlds that revolted—and even demanded that you send the survivors to him on Terra after the Coup."

She flinched at that bald statement, but Stephen pressed relentless on. "You refused, and even advised him to end this, and for that reason, Nicoletta, I will not release those documents; not until long after you and I both are dead and buried. But you knew his plan to was send as much of the Regular Army and the Fleet out of the Hegemony as possible. You knew his ambitions, and the blood that he has spilled is on your hands as well."

"I didn't know how far he would go. Damn it, I thought that he would use the opportunity to put Richard even further in his debt, and just manipulate the boy, not slaughter him and his entire family!"

"You knew how unstable he was, Nicoletta. Did you know that he betrayed your Taurian Freedom Army to General Kerensky?"

She sat bolt upright. "He WHAT?"

Stephen nodded. "He told Kerensky their location and strength, which is how the SLDF was able to find and destroy them. He manipulated us all, Nicoletta. He has slaughtered millions, destroyed an entire world and every living creature upon it. And he could do that because you helped."

"You can't blame this on me. I couldn't have known . . . "

"No, he used everyone, Nicoletta. But are you going to let him still use you? Or will you help make amends for your part in this tragedy?"

"What do you mean?"

"As a full member nation, the Taurian Concordat can set its own governmental policies. The bureaucracy will have no more power over you to set prices and determine what you produce. The Hegemony is going to need significant help in rebuilding following all this—Taurian companies will be selling more than ever and shipping material to the core. Material we will be paying for, at fair market cost. This will be a boom time for the Taurian economy, Nicoletta, and your people will be more successful than any point since the Reunification War."

"The coming years will be a time of prosperity such as the Concordat has seen only in the years just after its founding. The bureaucracies will be GONE, Nicoletta. No League administrator to approve your governmental decisions, no troops—unless you request them—will be stationed in the Concordat, no more planned economies. I intend to make a fresh start, and give your people—and the Canopians and the Out Worlders—the same opportunities every one else has had; to stand and succeed on your own two feet."

She began shaking her head, and Stephen pressed onward. "And you might well be the Protector to bring the Pleiades back into the Concordat."

Nicoletta froze and stared at him, eyes dancing with hope? Rage? Despair? Stephen wasn't certain, exactly. "Explain," she said in a cold, flat voice.

"Part of the problem the Concordat has had with the League and the Federated Suns was the worlds absorbed by the Federated Suns after the Reunification War—with the complicity and approval of First Lord Ian. That thorn has festered for almost two centuries, and if we don't resolve it, eventually it will lead to war between you and them—and me, depending on who starts it."

"Yesterday I spoke with John Davion, Nicoletta, in this very room. Those worlds are a constant drain on his economy and his military, what with the troops he has to keep stationed there to keep the population under control. I proposed that we hold a plebiscite on all those occupied worlds, to determine which House the citizens of each world want to live under. The Taurian Concordat or the Federated Suns."

"He agreed?" she asked in a desperate whisper.

"Provisionally, depending on if you do. What I proposed is this. John will withdraw his troops by the end of next year. They will be replaced by Star League forces to ensure the peace. Both you and John will be able to send delegations to every world—save only Malagrotta. In order to save face, he has to keep that world where the war began—where you started it."

Nicoletta started to reply, but Stephen raised his hand and continued. "It happened over two centuries ago, Nicoletta. And you only get THIS offer tonight, so listen to the rest. Star League envoys will observe the voting on each world to ensure that it is a fair election. So will a five-person board; two members chosen by you, two by John, and one by me."

"The elections will take place on November 1, 2773, six years from now."

"SIX YEARS!?!" Nicoletta shouted as she stood. "I knew you couldn't be trusted . . . "

"DAMN IT TO HELL, Nicoletta, will you just sit down and listen?" He forced himself to calm down and continued in much calmer voice. "For the love of God, woman, you have got to be the most paranoid, stubborn, mule-head person in the entirety of the cosmos! SIX YEARS, Nicoletta. That's a gift, as you will understand when you think about it. You have six years to send your people to every world, to hold town-hall meetings and have debates. To convince the people of these worlds that the Concordat, not the Suns, is their future. To earn their vote, damn it. And in six years, when that vote is taken, I will enforce the results. If you play this right, Nicoletta, in six short years, the Pleiades will once more be part of the Concordat—as will thirty more worlds you once possessed. Is the chance at doing THAT—without a war—worth staying in the League for a few more years, Nicoletta?"

She sat back in her chair, and lifted her cup of tea, and sat it back down again. "I need a drink; something strong."

Stephen rose and walked over to the cabinet on one wall, and reached for a bottle, but stopped. Another label caught his eye, and he grinned. He took the second bottle and grabbed a glass as he turned back to Nicoletta, "Ice?"

She shook her head, "Neat."

Stephen walked back over and poured her a double-shot of Ishtaran brandy. Nicoletta raised the glass and drank half in a single gulp. She smiled. "Good stuff. Don't tell my staff; they worry too damn much about me."

"Not a word from these lips, Nicoletta."

"As I said the other night, you have a sense of humor and a backbone of iron. You also have the balls of the Bull himself, it seems. Fine, you've got your six years. Let me see what you can do. And if you make me the Protector who brings the Pleiades back to the fold, then boy, I will give you my word, there will be no further talk of Taurian independence in your lifetime."

"Fair enough, Nicoletta, fair enough."

"Why are you doing this, Director-General? No one in your family has given a single good God-damn about my people since Marantha surrendered. So why?"

"My family has not always stood on principle. Their goals were lofty and high-minded, but their methods? They have been politicians, and their standards and their principles flexed according to the situation. In the end, my family even sacrificed the appearance of principles in exchange for the illusion of power. I am not my family. I will stand for what I believe in, even if doing so costs me everything. In the end, Nicoletta, to answer your question, I am doing this, because it is the right thing to do. And it is long past time for my family to make good on the promises of the past, the consequences be damned."

She shook her head. The man before was a good man—an idealist, at heart; one who actually acted on what he believed was right and true instead of just talking about it. And because of that idealism, she wouldn't put money on how long he would live, not in the snake pit called the High Council. Then again, she thought, I'm not sure I would put money on any of the others if they really oppose him—or attack someone or something he cares about. She smiled. The odds were long, but HER family included some high-stakes gamblers of their own. The smile broadened into a grin, as she lifted the glass and threw back the remaining slug.

"What the hell, boy; let's roll the dice. Maybe we won't crap out after all."

Chapter Thirty Seven

November 5, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Hiroyoshi waited patiently on the steps of Branson House for the vehicle bearing the Captain-General to shut down. One hour ago, his DropShip had landed at McMurtree and off-loaded the vehicle, racing to this location under escort. It was more than a bit unusual that they had not yet spoken with the Captain-General himself—all communications had been routed through Master of Arms Raoul Malach; who, if Hiroyoshi understood correctly, was both the personal guardian and nearest companion of the Captain-General. The fact that no one on Asta had spoken with or seen Kenyon Marik had caused Hiroyoshi's finely-tuned instincts to twitch; so now he waited here, in the falling snow, with his best men standing by—just in case.

The vehicle shut down, and the passenger door on the forward compartment opened. Raoul Malach stepped out and scanned the area before he opened the passenger compartment hatch. Hiroyoshi recognized a kindred spirit and wondered yet again if the two would have a chance to spar. The House of Marik did not award the title of Master of Arms lightly; no, that honor had to be earned. From the way Malach stood, from the way he took in his surroundings—but did not let his eyes fixate on any one thing—Hiroyoshi knew that this was a very dangerous man. It would be interesting, he thought as the compartment hatch finished cycling open and a man stepped clear.

That man was not Kenyon Marik.

Kenyon was in his mid-thirties, a vigorous man, and Hiroyoshi had studied the holographic imagery intensely over the past few days. The man standing there, wearing the insignia of the Captain-General on his Free Worlds uniform was much older, in his seventies at least. Thin, wiry, and tall, he was still fit, but his hair was white with age, and brown spots marked his hands.

"All posts stand by, that is not, repeat NOT, Kenyon Marik."

Hiroyoshi took four steps forward and bowed, careful to keep Malach in the corner of his eye. "Good afternoon, gentleman. What is the meaning of this?"

The old man beamed at Hiroyoshi. "Good afternoon, Tai-sa. The meaning I will discuss with the First Lord; it is not a matter for casual conversation in the open."

Hiroyoshi took stock of the man wearing insignia that belonged to another. "No, perhaps it is not, sir. But until I am satisfied, you will not be admitted into the presence of Lord Cameron."

Malach bristled, and the old man waved him still. "Easy, Raoul, easy. He does not realize our ways, our customs. Tai-sa, I am Philip Marik, brother to Ewan, who was both Kenyon's father and the previous Captain-General of the Free Worlds League. I am here to represent the Free Worlds for the reason that my nephew is dead. I am now the Marik, for as long as I may yet live."

"We received no such word in advance, Captain-General," Hiroyoshi said, his mind racing through the possibilities.

"I thought it best not to advertise the event quite yet, Tai-sa. You are free to check us for weapons. Raoul, of course, is armed—as am I—but we will surrender those weapons to you for our meeting with your Lord Cameron and the General Kerensky."

Hiroyoshi nodded sharply to two of his men, who stepped forward and thoroughly searched the old man and the Master of Arms—with respect, but quite thoroughly. Both men wore a holstered semi-automatic pistol, in the traditional 9mm caliber that stretched back to the days when the Marik ruled a small state in the Balkans on Terra, before man had discovered the secrets of crossing the interstellar void. His people took the two handguns—and their spare magazines—and the senior nodded at Hiroyoshi. They were clean.

"Very well, Captain-General, if you will accompany me, I will take you to where you might explain—in detail—exactly what has happened in the Free Worlds to my Lord Cameron. This way, please." Hiroyoshi said as he extended his arm towards the doors.

Philip Marik—the Marik, Captain-General of the Free Worlds League—merely smiled again and started up the stairs, Raoul and Hiroyoshi trailing behind.

*****************************************************

"Kenyon Marik is DEAD? In the name of God, how?" asked Kerensky, after having met the two men with Stephen. Philip Marik sat comfortably in his chair, Raoul on station behind him, as Hiroyoshi and Gerald were behind Stephen. Two more of Hiroyoshi's detail—Thom Pappas and Jarl Halvin—stood just inside the doors, behind Raoul. Hiroyoshi took no more chances with Stephen's safety and this whole event had him on edge.

"Suicide, General Kerensky. That is how it shall be reported at least."

Stephen slowly nodded, and gestured for Philip Marik to continue.

"You must understand, gentlemen, that what I tell you is not for public dissemination. It began six weeks ago, when Sienna Stewart called for a vote of No Confidence in Kenyon on the floor of Parliament. . ."

September 17, 2767

Marik Estates

Aquilia Continent, Atreus

Free Worlds League

". . . I have delayed the vote as long as I can. It will take place in two days." Thomas Marik said; his flat voice revealing the exhaustion and strain the crisis had placed upon him.

"And the results?" asked Marissa Marik, Thomas and Kenyon's second cousin, through their now-deceased grand-Uncle Vladimir.

Thomas shook his head. "Kenyon has called in every favor any MP owes him. He has also used the files SAFE provided to blackmail another fifty. But right now, the MPs are so evenly split; no one knows for certain just how the vote will turn out. It will only require a majority plus one to carry the vote for Sienna."

Philip Marik, eldest of all fourteen living adults of the Bloodline—twelve of whom sat alongside him in this room—eldest surviving scion of the House of Marik and Uncle to Kenyon and Thomas, frowned. "That is not their task, to gather the dirty little secrets of the men and women elected to Parliament. SAFE should be watching our neighbors, especially our newest neighbor. That one is unbalanced, and no one can predict the behavior of such a person."

Thomas sighed. "No, Uncle, it has not been, in the past that is. Now? Now, it is their primary task—other than monitoring what the SLDF and General Kerensky is planning. Kenyon has ordered General Walthus to prepare to arrest and hold in custody any Minister of Parliament that he suspects will vote against him—on charges of treason in a time of crisis."

Francis Marik-Carlyle, a rather more distant cousin who married years before, but still retained her Marik name, twitched at that. "He's planning to arrest Ministers of PARLIAMENT?"

Thomas just nodded, as he took a sip of beer from the ceramic bottle he held in one hand.

"Has he gone mad?" asked Vassily, Philip's own grandson, just appointed to his first command less than a year before. This was the first time he had been included in a meeting of the Bloodline; the first time he had been considered an adult in the eyes of the Family.

"No. Not mad, Vassily, obsessed, perhaps might be a better word for the Captain-General's recent action." Philip looked down at his hands, spotted with age, but still strong enough to grip a pistol—or a sword.

Thomas spoke up once more, his voice bleak, "He has specifically ordered General Walthus to personally ensure the arrest of Sienna Stewart. He has plans for a public trail regarding her acts of treason—the evidence has already been fabricated that she has been in contact with General Kerensky. And," he paused, taking another sip of beer, "and he will demand the public execution of her once she is found guilty. Sending a message is how he put it."

Silence filled the room. Sienna was the leader of the opposition—with the Dutchy of Oriente fully backing her. While the Stewart Commonality might be small—despite the five regiments of 'Mechs it fielded—Oriente was one of the Crown Jewels of the Free Worlds. It was a rich and powerful province, more so than any other, save the Marik Commonwealth itself. Neither Regulus nor Andurien possessed so many regiments of 'Mechs, armor, and infantry as Oriente. They also built and maintained almost one-third of the Free Worlds Navy. And not even the Marik Commonwealth possessed as many factories and production facilities as did Oriente. Arresting Sienna—charging her with treason—that move could very well bring civil war to the Free Worlds, IF Oriente took offense. Executing her would guarantee that. No one in the room could draw a breath—civil war was at their doorstop once again. No one that is, until Philip broke the silence.

"You all know the rules here: one family, one blood, one responsibility. Is our Captain-General worthy of his post?"

Someone drew in a quick gasp of air. Philip scowled. "What did you think we gathered for? To talk as though we were Liao? To wring our hands as though we were Steiner? We are MARIK. And we take care of our own—always, for good or ill. Vassily, what do you say?"

The young man squared his shoulders. "It is a mistake not to support the Star League, even more so to fail to act out of pique for a vendetta over a decade old. That, however, is the decision of the Captain-General. But this matter with Parliament—he has gone too far. No, he is no longer worthy."

"Thomas?"

"Uncle, he is my brother," Thomas pleaded.

"Do your duty to the Blood, Thomas Albert Marik, third of our line that bear that name."

He dropped his head. "I will follow him as long as he is Captain-General; one family, one blood. But he is endangering the Free Worlds. No."

One by one, Philip questioned the others. When he added his own no to the count, it was unanimous. He stood, feeling more than his normal strength flow through his body; he felt purpose.

"It will be done, then. So say we all."

A chorus of voices answered him. "So say we all."

*****************************************************

Kenyon Marik looked up from the stack of papers on his desk as Raoul Malach announced Philip's presence. Raoul admitted the old man into Kenyon's private study then withdrew, closing the doors behind him. The Captain-General frowned. "Good evening, Uncle. What brings you out on such a stormy night?"

The heavy rain impacted on the windows of the Captain-General's mountain villa—fortress was the word his guests used. The sudden storm had blown in during the afternoon, and the single road to the summit was treacherous in such conditions.

Philip crossed the office to stand before Kenyon's desk and laid a single black rose upon the surface, thorns still attached to the broken stem.

Kenyon's jaw dropped and he drew in a gasp of breath. Then he stood and glared at Philip. "No, I reject this."

"You endanger the Free Worlds, Kenyon, you endanger the Bloodline. All adults of the lineage have spoken—save you."

"I AM CAPTAIN-GENERAL," Kenyon thundered. "I will have you killed slowly, Philip, and all those who voted for this."

"Even Thomas, Kenyon?"

Kenyon stopped. Thomas? Thomas had voted for this?

Philip nodded. "Yes, he did, Kenyon. Step aside, for reasons of health; I have been assured that the vote in Parliament will not be carried out if you do. But the Family will not allow you to destroy all we have worked to achieve in this place."

"NEVER," Kenyon hissed and stabbed the button that would call Raoul.

"I knew you were a fool, Kenyon, but I never thought you a coward until now," Philip said sadly.

The doors opened and Raoul entered. "Yes, my Lord, you summoned me?"

"Arrest this doddering old fool, Raoul, for treason. At once!"

Raoul looked at the stoic face of Philip, then turned back to look at the flushed face of Kenyon. Then he saw the rose. His gaze locked on the slowly decaying flower; still fragrant, but already dead, despite the beauty it possessed. His head snapped back around to Philip, who merely nodded.

"Master of Arms, do your duty; to the family, to the blood. Farewell, Kenyon, it is a pity that you choose this path for yourself." Philip turned and exited the room, closing the doors behind him, while Kenyon cursed both him and Raoul. Finally, Raoul turned back to Kenyon.

He pounced, with all the speed and training given the chosen Master of Arms of the House of Marik. One hand stabbed Kenyon in the throat, causing him to sputter and cough, silencing his stream of invectives. The other grabbed the back of Kenyon's neck and forced him into his chair, behind the desk. Even as Kenyon struggled to recover from the blow to his throat—a blow that would leave no mark—Raoul drew Kenyon's pistol and placed it upon the desk. Grabbing the former Captain-General's free hand, he placed it on the weapon, and flicked the safety off.

Kenyon began to struggle, but still couldn't speak as Raoul raised the Captain-General's right hand, clutching the pistol, but Raoul's finger lay upon the trigger. A foul stench hit Raoul's nose as Kenyon's bladder released and a stream of urine poured onto the carpet.

"Hush, my Lord, shhhh. I promise it will be quick. Hush now, Kenyon, of the House of Marik."

Placing the weapon—with Kenyon's own hand still wrapped around it—against Kenyon's right temple, Raoul pulled the trigger. As the pistol barked, Kenyon collapsed on the desk, blood pouring from the head wound. Raoul stepped back and turned his radio on.

"Come quick, the Captain-General just shot himself!"

September 18, 2767

House of Government, Atreus City

Aquilia Continent, Atreus

Free Worlds League

Sienna Stewart looked up in shock as Philip Marik told her the news.

"DEAD? He killed himself?"

"Yes, Minister Stewart. Apparently, he possessed some mental imbalance, and the strain of your call for his removal proved too much. My nephew took his own life last night."

She sat back. No, not Kenyon. He was far too ambitious to take his own life—her own staff had warned of rumors that he was preparing to have MPs arrested before the vote. No, he had not killed himself. Twice before in Free Worlds history a Captain-General had mysteriously died in office, this now made three.

"I suppose the autopsy will confirm it was suicide, Philip?"

"But of course, Minister. What else could it have been? He was alone in his office, when the Master of Arms found him after escorting me out. If I had only stayed, then perhaps this tragedy would not have occurred."

Sienna nodded. "And I suppose it is just a coincidence that General Walthus died last evening in a vehicular accident?"

"Did he? Strange, I had not heard of that."

She stared at Philip, but his face could have been carved of stone. Shaking her head, she returned to business. "It seems Parliament must select a new Captain-General, then."

"Yes, Minister. The Family has selected these four as the most promising of candidates," he said as he handed here a sheet of paper. All four of the names listed were young—but each a tested and proven officer, capable of leading men and the vast Free Worlds League.

Sienna considered the list, then set it down. "There is one name missing that I intend to submit to Parliament."

"And who would that be, Minister?"

"Yours, Philip."

"You jest, Minister. I will turn 79 next month; my sons are dead, my grandson is barely out of the academy."

"And you are most honorable Marik I know, Philip. Captain-General, I should say. How will you deal with General Kerensky, Stephen Cameron, and the Amaris Crisis?"

He smiled, "If you really intend to force this upon me, Minister, then I suppose I should leave for the meeting of the High Council on Asta. Time presses onward, you know."

Philip rose and then stopped. "Do not yet spread the news via the HPG stations, Sienna. Give me time to get to Asta." And time for men loyal to the Family to remove those who would use Kenyon's death as an excuse for a coup.

"You are not going to tell me are you?"

"Let's just say, I am not governed by my passions as was Kenyon, Sienna. What I decide will be in the best interest of the Free Worlds. If you don't like that, then don't put my name before Parliament."

*****************************************************

The vote the next day was a landslide—523 Ministers of Parliament approved awarding the Captain-Generalacy to Philip Marik, only 77 were opposed.

November 5, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

". . . and that, gentlemen, is how I came to be Captain-General, and then to arrive here. Of course, for public discourse, Kenyon was overstressed, and took his own life due to the strain of events. I will deny any other tale, as you know."

Stephen and Aleksandyr just looked at each other, then turned their heads back to Philip. Stephen asked, "And tomorrow? How do you plan to proceed, tomorrow?"

Philip Marik, the Marik, Captain-General of the Free Worlds League just smiled. "Tomorrow will come soon enough, Director-General Cameron. Let's just wait and see."

Chapter Thirty Eight

November 6, 2767

Chamber of the High Council of the Star League

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

"This is Brian Hopkins, with a special report for Interstellar News Network, reporting from Asta, in the Terran Hegemony. Behind me is an exact duplicate of the Chamber of the High Council, the meeting place of the Lords of the Star League, in the Court of the Star League, on Terra itself. For the past two months, the people and government of Asta have worked to complete this facility—identical down to the smallest detail to the original on occupied Terra. At this moment, the Chamber lies empty, but in two hours time, the Lords of the League will convene. This will be the first Council meeting since the Amaris Coup took place over ten months ago."

"In this meeting, our sources tell us, the High Council will consider Stephen Cameron's claim to the position of First Lord—and determine what action, if any, they are to take against Stefan Amaris. Assembled outside the Chamber are thousands of people—citizens of Asta, soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Combine, members of the Star League Defense Forces—all of whom are waiting for the first proclamations as to whether or not we have a new First Lord. Stay tuned to your local INN station for the best coverage of this historical event, the first meeting of the High Council since the Coup."

"Brian Hopkins, reporting for INN, from Asta."

*****************************************************

The Chamber was round and topped by a dome. Around the outer wall stood sixteen SLDF soldiers—newly sworn into the Black Watch regiment by General Kerensky himself yesterday. These sixteen—gunslinger's all—would form the new core of the Regiment as the SLDF rebuilt that body. In front of the sixteen, an elevated bench, shaped like an open horseshoe circled around the room. At that bench were ten desks and ten chairs, one for each of the Council Lords; on each desk rested a computer terminal and screen. Facing the open end of the bench was a pair of double doors, leading into a corridor connecting the entrance to the Chamber to the entrance to the building in which it was housed. Anterooms and private offices—and a security office—branched off that main corridor, the entry hall of the Chamber.

Inside, the lighting was muted, soft and dim. The interior of the dome overhead contained a fresco showing the entire Star League—individual systems denoted with a colored jewel-cut glass, with every house in a different shade. Reflections from the lights below made the glass inserts twinkle like stars in the heavens. In the very center of the room, between the arms of the horseshoe—directly below the gem that represented Terra on the fresco above—the Cameron Star, the symbol of the League, was carved into the floor where supplicants came to petition the Council; where witnesses were summoned to give testimony to the Lords of the League.

Stephen sat in the chair which had—in the original Chamber, on Terra—been traditionally assigned to the First Lord. To his right sat John Davion, then Nicoletta Calderon, Barbara Liao, and Janina Centrella. To his left were Minoru Kurita, Allyce Avellar, Robert Steiner, an empty chair for the Rim Worlds Republic, and Philip Marik. Robert Steiner, the last Lord to arrive, was just now taking his chair. For this session of the High Council, the Rim Worlds would not have a representative—at least, not yet, Stephen thought. He could feel the tension in the room, palatable to everyone, for the rules had changed and no one knew how exactly they would continue on.

He turned his head to look at Liao and nodded; she inclined her head in response, and pressed a key set before her on her desk at the bench. A bell chimed throughout the Chamber; once, twice, and then a third time, echoing throughout the dome.

"My fellow Lords, we are assembled today in session to conduct the business of the Star League," she intoned in the ritual opening. "This session of the High Council is now convened. Guards of the Black Watch, seal the doors, and let pass no one, save only those whom the Council summons forth."

Two of the sixteen guards briskly stepped to the doors, closed them, and sealed the Chamber. Turning back towards the Council, they took station, one to each side of the entry.

Liao pressed her key again, and the chimes sounded once, twice, three times more. "The session has begun. Let no one disturb these proceedings. As the first act of business, we must acknowledge our new members. Minoru Kurita is taking for the first time today the seat of the Council Lord for the Draconis Combine, as is Philip Marik for the Free Worlds League, and Stephen Cameron for the Terran Hegemony. I move that we seat them by acclaim and welcome them to our Council. How say you, my Lords?"

Davion spoke. "I second the motion, Lord Liao. Is there debate?" he asked, looking at Steiner, the only other member of the High Council who had previously sat in session prior to the Coup.

Grimacing, but recognizing that his opposition would gain little and cost much at this point, Steiner said, "Without objection."

The three Lords-in-name of the Periphery remained silent, for they had no vote at this table. While they could participate in debate, both Calderon and Centrella could count votes easily enough (neither were sure that Avellar could count, period); they knew that all three would be seated, so why bother to speak up, when there was none to listen?

"The motion is carried then; welcome to all who take a seat today for the first time at the High Council of the Star League," said Liao. A light on her screen lit up, indicating that Kurita wished to speak.

"We recognize Lord Kurita. The floor is yours."

"Thank you, Lord Liao. You all know why we are gathered here today. The First Lord has fallen, and his successor must be chosen. Sitting with us now, upon this Council, is the sole surviving adult heir of the ruling bloodline of the Cameron family. In accordance with the League Accords, I therefore call for this body to confirm Stephen Cameron as First Lord of the Star League."

"We do not know for a fact, Lord Kurita that he is the sole surviving adult heir of the family," Steiner said. "There may be other survivors on Terra itself—electing a new First Lord is premature at this time. This Council should wait, until General Kerensky completes his campaign, and we can confirm there are no others to assume the position."

"A specious argument, Lord Steiner," replied Davion. "It might well be a decade or more before the campaign concludes—do you mean to suggest that we go for ten years without confirming a man that is of the ruling family, that is of age, and that is qualified for the post?"

"I merely suggest that we, the High Council, use caution at this time. It would be embarrassing to confirm this man as First Lord, only to find a closer successor to the throne alive and well on Terra after its liberation. Do you not agree, Lord Marik?"

"I do not, Lord Steiner. Why delay? The man is qualified, he is here, and he had proven himself as a leader—something Richard never did."

"Quite right, Lord Marik," answered Liao. "Lord Cameron, have you any objections to taking the position of First Lord?"

"No, Lord Liao, but first I would like to place on the table . . . "

"Pardon me, Lord Cameron," Steiner said, smiling. "This body had rules. And one rule we have is that we must consider any motion put forward before moving on a different tack. Regretfully, I find that you inexperience in the conduct of the High Council is already proving my point at your lack of qualifications."

Calderon stirred. "Lord Steiner, the rule of which you speak does bind this Council. That did not prevent this body from considering a resolution two years ago that you put forward—while debating another issue. The High Council can consider any motion it wishes; after all it determines for itself what rules shall and shall not bind it."

Steiner sneered. "I thank Lord Calderon for her unwarranted advice. But the Council as a whole set aside the rule upon that occasion. I have not heard the Council do so today."

"Perhaps it should, Lord Steiner. I would like to hear the proposal Lord Cameron was placing before this body, as would I believe any Council Lord with more than two active brain cells." Calderon replied sharply.

Steiner opened his mouth to reply, his face flushed, but Liao cut them both off. "Lord Steiner, Lord Calderon, the Council will not tolerate such behavior. Shall we hear the proposals, then, before deciding to proceed?"

A chorus of voices answered. With the exception of Steiner, all wanted to hear. "Proceed then, Lord Cameron."

"Thank you Lord Liao. You have all heard the speech I gave after the Liberation of Asta, when I assumed the post of Director-General of the Hegemony. You all know my position on the Periphery States. I place before this Council a resolution calling upon this body to immediately and irrevocably award full Member State status to the Magistracy of Canopus, the Outworlds Alliance, and the Taurian Concordat, with all of the rights and responsibilities thereof."

"Lord Cameron, I appreciate how you are trying to manipulate this body," Steiner replied. "Quite well done. At the moment, it will take three of the five of us to confirm you as First Lord. You—as the subject of the vote—cannot vote yourself. However, if we seat these three that will change to five of eight—and I must presume that you have made deals with them in advance for their support. Lord Liao, I must regretfully suggest that the Council place this motion on hold until we conclude the business of confirming Lord Cameron as the new First Lord—or not."

Marik looked up from his seat. "I cannot support such an ambitious proposal, nor can the Free Worlds. I also say we settle this business of selecting a First Lord before moving on to the debate on this issue."

Liao nodded her head. "It takes a two-thirds majority of the Council to waive the rules. Two are opposed. Another nay will prevent the rule from being waived. That nay is mine, Lord Cameron. The Council will abide by the rules that govern it. Your request to consider this motion before the vote to confirm your position as First Lord is declined. We have a motion before us to confirm Lord Stephen Cameron as the next First Lord. Is there debate?"

For several minutes chatter continued around the room. And then a vote was called. After Davion, Kurita, and Liao voted to confirm Stephen, neither Marik nor Steiner voted nay, though Robert did abstain.

"Lord Cameron, please take your place among us as the First Lord of the Star League. Long may you reign, with wisdom may you rule, with compassion may you comfort your peoples."

"Thank you, Lord Liao. I would like to return to the resolution I attempted to bring before the table—the question of the three Periphery States sitting on this Council with us today. Is there debate, my Lords?"

Steiner snarled. "There is most certainly debate, First Lord. This entire idea and proposal is preposterous. We had to conquer these barbarians—and now you want to reward them with full member status? Poppycock! Rubbish! All of you know just how much of your revenue comes from the Periphery. Will you just give that up? Will you give up your power on this Council—as one vote of six, to become one vote of NINE? If this is the type of ideas we can expect from the new First Lord, perhaps we should avoid meeting for a good long time."

"I do not hold quite the venom that my fellow Lord, Lord Steiner, does for your proposal, Lord Cameron," Marik said. "However, I must consider what is best for the Free Worlds League. How will this affect our economies? Canopus has a history as a mercantile power—if the restrictions placed upon it are lifted, will it adversely affect my people? No, Lord Cameron, in the interests of the Free Worlds, I cannot support this."

"Lord Marik, we can deal with economic disruptions," Stephen replied. "All of your states are strong, with vibrant economic systems. We do not have to fear admitting our cousins in the Periphery to the table. And of all those present, I would have thought that you would recognize the inequality of keeping perhaps a third of humanity as second-class citizens, Lord Marik."

"I do have some appreciation for your arguments, Lord Cameron. But I must first look to my own people, not the Canopians, not the Taurians, not the Outlanders. My own."

Davion spoke up; in a voice that was nearly a whisper. "What you ask us to do, Lord Cameron is hard; it is difficult. For too many years there has been distrust and hatred on both sides of the border between me and Lord Calderon. But, you are right on this issue. If we do not address it now, then when? When will we correct the errors of those who came before us? I will suffer politically at home for supporting this—but it is the right decision to make. My House stands with the First Lord on the issue."

"Hai, Lord Davion has spoken the truth on this matter. The Combine also stands with the First Lord," rumbled Kurita from his desk.

Liao looked up, her eyes twinkling. "My, three for, and two opposed. It requires four votes to pass, my Lords. It appears that I will be the tie-breaker in this matter."

She smiled at Stephen, and then turned her gaze to Marik and then to Steiner. "I cannot stand with you, Lord Steiner. The First Lord is correct on this issue. So speaks the Liao." She turned back to Stephen. "Your resolution passes, First Lord Cameron."

*****************************************************

The Council had taken a recess to cool heads. After Liao had supported him, Stephen rammed his repeal of Richard's taxation edicts down their throats—insisting that since the High Council never approved them, it did not take their approval to repeal them. Liao, Marik, and Steiner objected, demanding a vote on the issue. For the first time in history, the Magistracy of Canopus, the Outworlds Alliance, and the Taurian Concordat had cast their ballots on the issue. By a vote of five to four the taxation issue had been settled in the manner Stephen pushed for. Only Davion, Kurita and the three Periphery leaders had stood with him on the issue. But the vote passed and the taxation edicts were no more.

But the real kicker of the day—so far—had come when Stephen asked Steiner to read aloud the text of Resolution 288 to the High Council. That resolution had entitled the Great Houses to double the size of their military forces allowed under the Edict of 2650—to be paid for in taxes collected from the Territorial States. The wording of 288 specifically said 'Territorial States' and did not name the Periphery nations individually. Steiner had nearly lost it when Stephen informed the High Council that they had just awarded status as Member States to the three former Territorial States remaining on the High Council—so the Great Houses of the Inner Sphere would have to find other funds to spend on their own defense. Even Davion looked shocked at that, for he too had neglected to read the original resolution in advance.

Stephen drank a sip of coffee as he sat in the private office given to him here at the Chamber. When the session reconvened, he had to push the formation of the Rim Worlds Protectorate and the selection of General Kerensky as its leader through. He had to. But how? And could he get the support of the Free Worlds League in the campaign against Amaris? There had to be a way—but what was that path?

*****************************************************

The three chimes sounded again as the session reconvened. Stephen turned his head to look at each of the Council Lords in turn. "Very well, this session resumes. I have some final matters to present to the Council for consideration, and then the floor becomes open for any additional proposals."

"If you will turn your attention to the computer screens before you, you will find the text of the resolution I am proposing. You should have all received this last evening in your briefing packets, my Lords."

'Whereas, Stefan Amaris, leader of the Rim Worlds Republic, and Council Lord of that Territorial State, has, in defiance of the laws of the Star League, committed murder, treason, and armed insurrection against the League; whereas he has made unlawful war upon the citizens of the Terran Hegemony, a member state of the League; whereas he has taken as hostage citizens of Member States of the Star League possessing diplomatic credentials; therefore, let it be resolved by the High Council of the Star League, sitting in closed session, and presided over by the First Lord of the Star League, that, Stefan Amaris shall be stripped of his position upon the High Council; that, the Rim Worlds Republic shall be expelled as a Territorial State of the Star League; that the High Council shall direct the Defense Forces of the Star League to use whatever methods and forces are required to bring Stefan Amaris and all those who support him and his policies, in the Rim Worlds and elsewhere, wherever they may be found, to justice. Furthermore, let it be resolved that the former Territorial State of the Rim Worlds Republic shall be placed under the jurisdiction and authority of the Star League Defense Force until such time as a new government, agreeable to the Star League and approved by the High Council can be chosen and its petition for membership in the Star League approved.'

"There is no provision here for activating the sections of the Accords that would call upon the member states to provide aid and assistance to the SDLF for the duration of the crisis, First Lord," Marik stated, not even looking at his screen.

"No Lord Marik, there is not." Stephen paused and looked over all of the Lords of League. "I will not now, nor shall I ever, demand of any member state of the League that he take action to defend the League. I hope that you would all, as Lord Kurita and Lord Davion have already done, chose to do so on the merits of the issue. However, Lord Marik, I will not attempt to force you to do you."

"Lord Cameron, you have overstretched your authority here!" Steiner responded hotly. "First Lord or not, you do not have the power to unseat a member of this Council! And 'expel the Rim Worlds', the Accords do not allow anyone—not even the High Council to do that! This so-called resolution is a vast expansion of executive authority, and the Lyran Commonwealth will not support it!"

"What, Lord Steiner, are you worried he will unseat you next?" purred Calderon from across the bench.

"Damn you, you old witch! I should . . . ."

"YOU WILL BE SILENT!" Stephen thundered across the Council Chamber. "Lord Calderon, you have been warned once; do that again and I will censure you. Lord Steiner, if you can not act in a civil fashion, then you are free to depart these proceedings."

The Lords of the League looked slack-jawed at Stephen. No one, NO ONE, spoke to them in such a fashion.

Steiner stood. "I may just well do that, First Lord."

"Do that, Lord Steiner, and you will miss this vote. Guards of the Black Watch, unseal the doors for Lord Steiner if he feels the need to leave. Do not readmit him, however, if he does."

"You don't have the authority for that, First Lord, I am a member of this Council, and come and go as I wish."

"Try me, Lord Steiner. You will behave in civil manner in this Chamber, or we will do without your company."

Steiner sat, and Stephen nodded. "Guards, resume your stations. Is there further debate?"

Liao shook her head, "He is correct, First Lord. This action is unprecedented in over two hundred years of history."

"The times are unprecedented, Lord Liao."

Centrella spoke up. At twenty-two, she was the youngest member of the Council. "First Lord, what assurances do we have that this resolution cannot be used as precedent against any of us in the future—or our successors?"

"These are unique circumstances, Lord Centrella. For such a resolution to pass, it would require a Council Lord to make severe enemies of all the others at this table. But, let us treat this as an amendment to the Accords—which requires a 70% majority vote on the High Council. That would be seven votes to affirm out of the nine votes present."

All of the Lords looked at each other—having seven of their fellows so dramatically opposed to them was not outside the realm of possibility. Still, it could also be a useful tool to be threaten their fellow members should they become intransigent.

Kurita spoke. "That is acceptable."

Davion nodded, and slowly everyone else at the table did so—except Steiner and Avellar. "Lord Avellar, you object?"

"This resolution calls for WAR, Lord Cameron. I can not support it. Talking about your problems is always better than fighting. And this gives us no way to talk to Amaris and convince him to give you your worlds back."

"That is your right, Lord Avellar. Lord Steiner?"

"Do it, you seem to be doing everything else here today. But do it without my vote."

"Very well, are there any other objections to the resolution? No. It is recorded as High Council Resolution 347."

"There is one last matter to bring to the attention of the Council before we open the floor. I have here," and Stephen lifted several pages of paper, which he handed to a Guard of the Black Watch, who began passing them out of the Council Lords, "a communication from General Andrea Bates, commanding officer of the SLDFs 8th Field Army, and senior officer of the SLDF forces garrisoning the former Rim Worlds Republic. General Bates has been meeting with delegations of common citizens who wish to form a new government, the Rim Worlds Protectorate. None of the provisional members of that government were in the service of Amaris—many in fact were political prisoners held by the Amaris forces. In the opinion of the SLDF legal counsel on Apollo, this provisional body is sincere and the government structure is within the laws of Star League. He and General Bates have forwarded the proposal as well as the petition for this body to gain admittance to the Star League."

"You planned this in advance, didn't you, First Lord?" asked Steiner in a hot voice.

"Of course I did, Lord Steiner. You did say that wanted an effective and qualified First Lord earlier today, did you not? Be careful of what you wish for, you just might get it. Furthermore, my Lords, I propose that we seat a man of our choosing as the new leader—the Guardian—of this Rim Worlds Protectorate. A man whom all of us respect, a man who has served the Star League with honor and integrity across his entire life; a man this body has previously awarded with great power and responsibility, though he never held a seat on this Council in his own name. I propose that the High Council of the Star League award this to Commanding General Aleksandyr Kerensky, and make the Rim Worlds Protectorate the domain of him and his chosen successors; that we establish the House of Kerensky to replace utterly and completely the House of Amaris."

"It would be a fitting reward for his service," Liao mused.

Marik frowned, "But he is also Commanding General. Won't that interfere with his ability to lead the Rim?"

Stephen smiled across the chamber at Philip. "General Kerensky has given me his intention to retire to from SLDF in light of both this proposal and his injuries. I have accepted that request."

There was silence in the Chamber, except for a hurriedly stifled gasp from one of the Guards around the perimeter.

"General DeChevilier will assume the role of Commanding General of the SLDF upon his arrival at Asta. However, with the ongoing campaign against Amaris and the need to retake the Hegemony worlds by force, we find ourselves in somewhat of a quandary. The SLDF has an organizational structure and a chain of command. But we are not conducting this war alone—the Federated Suns and the Draconis Combine are both committing their troops for the duration, not to mention the many 'volunteers' from among Lord Liao's army and navy."

"I intend to form another body to coordinate this war—a Supreme Allied Headquarters that will direct the operations of the SLDF and all those who participate. The man we select to run this body must have the full confidence of this Council and the SLDF—and that man, my fellow Lords will be Aleksandyr Kerensky. Of course, he will need a Deputy Commander, as well as a staff, which I hope that your states can provide, alongside of officers from the SLDF."

"And this 'Supreme Allied Headquarters' will have officers from all participating member states, Lord Cameron?" asked Marik.

"Yes, Lord Marik, it will. In fact, given the schooling the Marik places upon his scions, I thought it appropriate to ask if you would appoint the Deputy Commander of the SAHQ, or to even serve in that position yourself, if you feel that would be best."

Marik drew in a deep breath, and then—reluctantly—shook his head. "No, as tempting as that is, war is a business for the young. I am honored by your consideration, however. If no one objects, I will appoint the Deputy Commander for you, Lord Cameron—when do you need his name?"

Stephen grinned—he had him! Marik would support this, if he had the chance to name Kerensky's second. "As soon as possible, and he needs to report to Asta immediately. There is an operation being planned, one that may greatly shorten the campaign needed to end this crisis."

"Indeed," Marik whispered as he sat back. "Very well, First Lord, the Rim is far from the Free Worlds, I approve of this."

"Lord Marik, I intend to bring the Rim Protectorate in as a Member State, you should know that before you vote."

"Lord Cameron, you have already brought the rest in; really, sir, what difference does one more make?"

By a vote of six to one (Steiner voting nay, and both Calderon and Avellar abstaining), the resolution passed.

November 7, 2767

Branson House, Hawkins

North Continent, Asta

Terran Hegemony

Stephen sat in his office, holding a glass of whiskey, as he looked at Minoru and Aleksandyr. "So Philip will not declare war, nor commit the federal forces of the Free Worlds, but he had released the provincial forces to do as they wish."

"That is correct, First Lord," answered Minoru. He took a sip of his own drink and then sat the cup on the table before him. "You should not have expected more, First Lord. The Mariks have always been cautious, but at least he will not hinder our war effort. The others have all departed to return home—except for John Davion, who is traveling with your XIV Corps to meet his own attack force for the assault to lift the siege against Carver V."

"The session went far better than I could have hoped, I suppose, Aleksandyr, Minoru."

"Yes it did, First Lord," said Lord Kerensky of the Rim Worlds Protectorate, as he sat down his—empty—vodka glass. "And very soon Aaron DeChevilier will arrive with the main body of the SLDF following. I have considered your suggestion carefully concerning our next target, and you may well be right in your analysis. As of today, my staff has begun preparations for operations plans for this assault. We have decided to call it Operation Ragnorak."

"This is the mysterious operation you two have been working upon?" Minoru asked. "What is your target?"

Aleksandyr refilled his glass, "Why, Terra itself. Terra itself."

Minoru considered the answer, and then sharply nodded his head in agreement.

Stephen turned his gaze to the dying embers of the fire from the last log in the fireplace. If we can take out Amaris, if we can get his people to surrender, if we have time, he thought, we might stop this avalanche from destroying us all.

"Gentlemen," he said, turning back to Aleksandyr and Minoru and raising his glass. "A toast; a toast to Victory."

Both men raised their own glasses in response.

November 7, 2767

LCS Tharkad

En route to Zenith Jump Point, Asta

Terran Hegemony

"It must appear to have been ordered by Amaris, not us, Erik."

"But of course, my Archon, it will not be traceable to us. I will set a team from Loki to work on that goal immediately."

Archon Robert Steiner smiled; a cold, cold smile at his old friend Erik Kiplinger. "That is good, Erik. Make sure they understand that he is the target—I don't want his family touched. We are not, after all, barbarians."

The head of the Lyran Intelligence Corps merely inclined his head to his Archon. Robert Steiner sat back in his comfortable chair and swirled the brandy in his glass. You have made the wrong man your enemy, Stephen Cameron, he thought.

To Be Continued in Book II—Blood and Steel