AN: This story got chewed on a little bat by 's formatting issues, but nothing too bad. Also, it was posted on the Spacebattles Creative Writing forums first, an excellent place to go for sci-fi/fantasy fanfiction, and some original stuff too.

System Beta Cassiopeiae (Common usage: Caph)

Planet Caph.

March 12th, 2842.

City of Aswan, Planetary Capital.

New Caph Institute of Technology, Experimental Computing Building.

Cameron panted as he stared wide-eyed at the corpse in front of him. Well, half a corpse, really, the bottom half was missing. A part of his mind insisted that he should tease his sister about misplacing important things like, you know, your legs, and a mad giggle escaped him. It didn't stop the other parts of his mind that were in a continued meltdown.

It was supposed to be a party. A celebration of the new beginning to Caph's prosperity, the recovery of an intact research core from before the Rim World Republic, and then the Great Houses, had gutted Caph's industrial and research facilities, not to mention two of her three primary landmasses. Angie had invited him along, as a little last social time together before he enlisted with the FedSun army, now that he had finished his Bachelor's, and he just hadn't had it in him to refuse, even if it meant being surrounded by eggheads all night.

Now most everyone was dead, and judging by the continued gunfire and occasional grenade detonation, death was stalking the rest. And stalking them in the uniforms of the Capellan Confederation's Maskirovka Elite Strike Teams. Cameron was no slouch with a gun himself, and had done some basic studies of infantry tactics in preparation for heading off to join the AFFS, but even the basics was more than enough to tell him that he was completely screwed.

He had no gun, or really any form of weapon at all, campus security and the small detachment of soldiers sent by the local garrison were either not present or already dead, and the tight quarters and clear lines of fire through the university hallways made attempting to flee suicide. He couldn't even try jumping out a window, as they were reinforced and bulletproof.

He laughed again; just enough security to trap him, not enough to make him safe.

His thoughts were still failing to distract him from his sister's corpse, however. Cameron had never seen death before, and his mind simply was not ready to accept Angie's death; she was only ten years older than him, twenty-eight, and just recently married, she had no business being dead.

The first tears began to break free and run down his cheeks, and Cameron reached his large hand out to close his sister's eyes, then closed his own, weeping silently.

Time uncertain passed, Cameron too lost in shock and grief to keep track, leaning back limply against one of the banks of computer that populated the server room he and Angie had intended to hide in. He ignored the gunshots, shouts, screams, even the anguished wailing from outside.

It was only when a sobbing girl burst into the room that he was snapped out of his reverie, eyes opening as the girl entered the room. He made no other move, and the girl, who looked to be about twelve years old, paid him no attention, frantically looking around the room for a place to hide. Glancing down at himself, Cameron realized that he was rather thoroughly soaked in his sister's blood, and probably looked to be a corpse himself.

The girl was not fast enough, not that the room had a particular large number of relevant hiding places, as a pair of men followed her into the room.

"Hold her," The shorter of the pair growled in a Lyran accent, "And be quick about it."

"I know, I know," The taller of the two grumbled, revealing a slight Kentaran accent, storming across the room towards the girl, who had collapsed into a mass of incoherent sobs, "Self-righteous prick, Word-of-Blake, this, Word-of-Blake that. I don't see why we can't have a little bit of fun with them before we kill them."

For the first time since the gunfire had begun nearly an hour earlier, Cameron's mind went completely still. Three facts immediately came to the forefront of his mind with perfect clarity. First, there was no way a Fedsun and Lyran native would be paired together within the Maskirovka, even on the miniscule odds the organization employed extra-nationals. Second, it made little sense for a Maskirovka unit to conduct a raid in uniform on foreign soil. Third, the two men in the room with him had just announced their intentions to gang-rape a twelve year old girl.

His moment of clear thought was interrupted by the sound of cloth tearing, and he turned his attention outward, to see one of the two 'Maskirovka' pinning the girl face down on the ground, his knees on the back, while the other finished tearing away her underwear.

White hot rage burned within every sliver of Cameron's being, and he silently rose to his feet. Standing seven feet and two inches tall, soaked with blade eyes wide with searing rage, Cameron would have been a terrifying sight to behold, but the men before him were busy.

Cameron decided to get their attention.

Striding silently up behind the shorter man, who was busy unbuckling his belt, Cameron reached out and grabbed him, one hand around the back of his neck, the other wrapped around his forehead.

Then he pushed with one hand, and pulled with the other, and the man's neck snapped.

The second man, no stranger to the sound of a human neck snapping, leapt to his feet, twisting in mid-air to face the impending threat, only to be caught in mid air by Cameron, the much larger man's hands going around the operative's throat. Reacting swiftly, the man grabbed at Cameron's hands, kicking out at the Caph-native's legs as he tried to break Cameron's grip, but then he caught sight of the massive man's eyes, and froze.

Rage beyond words gazed at the would-be rapist through Cameron's eyes, rage so intense, so all-encompassing that the man felt that he was being held by a mere conduit of a greater force, a primal consciousness of anger that went beyond what was possible for mere men.

Then Cameron squeezed, crushing the man's throat easily, and hurled him aside negligently. The now-dying man tumbled across the floor, coughing and spitting blood as he tried desperately to draw breath that would no longer come, coming to a painful stop up against the corridor wall outside of the server room.

He lay there, gagging and clawing at his throat, until a pair of combat boots stopped directly in front of him, he looked up, and found his Captain's face scowling down at him.

"You never could keep it in your pants, could you, Deitrich?"

Dietrich attempted to gurgle a response, but was cut off by his Captain shooting him in the face with his shredder pistol. Scowling in disgust, the man turned to look into the server room, where he saw Cameron wrapping his shirt around the girl's waist, before turning to face the Captain.

"Thank you," The Captain said, nodding respectfully at Cameron, "For removing these scum from my command. They never understood that our work is an unfortunately necessary evil."

Cameron stood, cradling the still-sobbing girl in his arms like a baby, and just stared at the man.

The Captain sighed.

"I regret the necessity of your death," He said, "But I can at least grant you a swift and painless one. May you find the Peace of Blake in death, as you could not in life."

With that, he touched the server room's door control, and it slid shut. A moment later Cameron heard a sizzling sound, as something from the outside, though he was not certain what, spot-welded the door shut.

He stood there, silently, for long moments, motionless save for gently rocking the crying girl in his arms. After a few seconds, she latched onto him, her small arms not capable of wrapping fully around his torso, but making a good try of it, and cried quietly into his chest.

"A bomb," He abruptly said, "Leave the bodies with the uniforms, make it look like a failed attempt to cover it up, while destroying any chance of useful data surviving."

His eyes narrowed and he turned to stare at the banks of servers. Servers which were repurposed computers pulled from destroyed battlemechs, their casings designed to protect their contents from the rigors of battle. Gently setting the girl down on one of the chairs in the room, then carefully but firmly prying her arms loose, Cameron swiftly strode over to the room's utility closet, opened it, and retrieved a tool kit.

A mechanical engineer by both natural inclination and education, it took him less than a minute to remove the top from one of the server banks, and then sixteen seconds to tear out the contents via brute force. He then quickly strode across the room, and picked up the girl, then slipped her into the gutted server housing. Taking a moment to survey the surrounding room, he then surveyed the room swiftly, and spotted a portable memory module on the desk intended for the network admin's use in the server room.

Forcing aside the assault his emotions attempted upon him, he quickly looted his sister's corpse for her personal notepad, and paged through it as he returned to the desk, and the terminal it was attached to, looking for his sister's access codes. Quickly logging onto the system and accessing the downloaded contents of the recovered research core, plugging the portable memory storage into the terminal as he did so. The module had enough capacity for perhaps one and a half percent of the research data contained within, and, as he mentally counted down the time it would take for the strike team to evacuate to a safe distance from the building, he tried to choose what files to save.

The aspiring soldier within him screamed at him to retrieve Battlemech schematics, alloy formulas, or weapon designs, but the bloody notepad in front of him spurred him to look at his elder sister's corpse.

Angie had been a doctor, a geneticist as well as a general physician, and had intended to, and Cameron fully believed she would, develop treatments for a number of congenital defects that caused stillbirth and blue-births. After a long, pained moment of contemplation, Cameron crammed the memory module with as much genetic research data as he could, then retrieved it, and returned to his improvised bomb shelter, feeling the pressure of time bearing down on him.

Examining the hollowed server housing and the still-crying girl within it, Cameron decided the current protections were insufficient, and ripped several other server housings from their surroundings, laying them on their sides in a carefully arranged pattern. In two and a half minutes he moved fourteen server housings, making a box-formation on the floor with his chosen one in the middle on its side, three covering the bottom of it, and three near the top. Carefully lifting the limp girl within, he eased himself inside, wrapping himself around her as he did so, then reached out with one massive arm, and dragged the other three server units as close to the top of his as he could, before sliding the top of the casing into place again, and quickly mooring it in place as best he could from the inside.

Then, slipping the memory module into the girl's lap and wrapping himself around her for optimum protective ability. Finally, there was nothing more to do but wait.

After a long moment, he started softly singing a lullaby his sister had taught him to the girl he held.

He reached the third verse before the explosives detonated.


The Experimental Computing Building exploded in a massive fireball, sending shards of concrete and glass scything across the campus and shrieking into the air. The explosives, set into the building's basement, and at the core of every level, reduced the building, quite literally, to a crater. Debris falling across the campus and the surrounding city would cause more than a score of additional casualties, and it would take firefighters most the rest of the night to catch and put out all the spot-fires the explosion ignited.

In one of the landscaped ponds near the wreckage of the building, a trail of bubbles leaking to the surface abruptly gave way to an enormous man emerging from the pond, a trembling girl clutched in his grasp. He carefully surveyed the damage campus around him, sorting out his location with only minor difficulty, then strode purposefully towards the parking lot where he had left his groundcar.


It wasn't until the next morning, when Cameron woke the girl sleeping on his couch with breakfast, that she spoke.

"Why?" She asked, desperate need to know mixed with pain in her eyes.

"I don't know," Cameron said bleakly, "But I intend to find out."


The next day, Cameron visited the Comstar compound on Caph, to enquire about joining the organization.


System Beta Cassiopeiae (Common usage: Caph)

Planet Caph.

October 7th, 2847.

City of Aswan, Planetary Capital.

Residence of Cameron Ivo and Amanda Dennings.

"How long?" Amanda asked, staring up at Cameron with wide, pleading eyes.

Cameron shifted uncomfortably. The girl, now sixteen years old, knew that it was hard for him to deny her what she asked when she displayed emotional vulnerability around him. That he knew she knew, did little to blunt the effectiveness of such tactics.

"I'm not sure," He said, looking away uncomfortably, "I'm not technically proficient enough to rise further through the regular ranks, and I'm more likely to find out what we want to know by joining ROM anyways."

Amanda scowled and looked away.

"I told them I wanted to wait until you started college," Cameron said, "Otherwise I would have had to go four months ago."

"If you'd told me that," Amanda said bitterly, "I wouldn't have pushed myself so hard to graduate early."

"And if you'd been graduating only one year early, or not at all," Cameron replied calmly, "It would have been leave immediately, or not at all."

Amanda scowled, still not looking at Cameron, and hunched in on herself. Cameron's heart bled for her, as it had so many times before, and he gently reached out and picked her up, sitting down and placing her in his lap as he had so many times over the last five and a half years. Just like she had the night they had met, she latched onto him, though this time her arms were long enough to wrap around his torso, and she held tightly to him.

"You need to learn how to function without me around to protect you," He said gently, but she just shivered, and clutched him all the tighter, "I've not been around you every hour of every day since you were thirteen anyways."

"There's a lot of difference between you being at work the next district over," Amanda whispered tearfully, "And being fifty-four light years away at Terra. That's nine days away with a command circuit, at high-G burn, and three weeks without."

Cameron sighed silently. One of the problems with playing adopted big-brother/guardian to a genius, was the genius knowing so damn much.

"I know," He said eventually, "But this opportunity will not come again, and there is almost certainly no other way."

She heard the finality in his voice, and then the tears began.

"I'll miss you," She whispered quietly into his chest.

"I'll miss you too," He said quietly, losing a few tears himself.

They fell asleep on the couch together, Cameron still holding Amanda in his lap, something that had not happened since she was fourteen, when her night terrors had finally subsided.

When she woke the next day, he was gone.


Sol System.

Planet Terra.

November 28th, 2847.

Comstar ROM training facility, Australia.

"Now," The officer charged with training the most recent set of recruits said, "Which of you think you can best me? Weekend pass to Sydney for anyone who can."

Purpose, Cameron thought while the other trainees looked at the unconscious trainee the man had just bested, finding nothing desirable in a weekend pass, but in the officer's arrogance, he saw an opportunity.

"Sir," He called, stepping forward from the line of trainees, "Could I get a weekend of personal training from you instead?"

The officer laughed.

"Sure, big kid," The officer said, "Hell, if you can beat me, I'll train you every weekend for the next month."

Cameron nodded, stepping forward to meet the man.

Three minutes later, he had six broken ribs, victory over the officer, and the beginnings of a reputation within the Academy that would only grow over his six months there.


Sydney, Australia,

May 23rd, 2848.

Cameron's eyes opened. Six months ago, he was sufficiently skilled to make a competent soldier, but would never have been aware enough of his surroundings to have roused now. It was dark in his room, utterly dark, and deliberately so; in the absolute dark, night vision would reveal no more than his own eyes, and infrared lacked the detail to show that his eyes had opened, the only sign of wakefulness he had given.

Now, it was simply a question as to whether his senses, or the intruder's stealth, was more keen. The slightest whisper of movement sounded beside Cameron's bed, and his senses were proven the more keen.

A single fist lashed out at the intruder, but a single fist from Cameron was generally more than enough, and this case proved to be no exception. As the intruder bumbled across Cameron's modest hotel room, Cameron bolted out of bed, sweeping up his side arm and slipping on his infrared goggles.

His sidearm, a conventional slug-thrower loaded with AP rounds, cocked with a readily-recognizeable metallic click, and he held it steadily on the intruder.

"Why are you here?" He demanded.

"Lieutenant Lara Fetladral," The woman said, "Rho Branch, here for recruitment purposes."

"Do you start all your recruitment bids by creeping up on the potential in the night?" Cameron said.

"Yes," Fetladral said simply, "SOP in Rho Branch. We only take the best, and from this class, that's you. And now you've started to pass our tests."

Cameron didn't know if Rho branch handled the sort of operations he wanted to know about, but he doubted the other branches were as demanding, and there was only one way for him to find out.

After he affirmed that Fetladral's story was legit, of course.


System Beta Cassiopeiae (Common usage: Caph)

Planet Caph.

September 15th, 2848.

City of Aswan, Planetary Capital.

New Caph Institute of Technology, Amanda Denning's Dorm room.

Amanda put the letter down, and couldn't decide whether to smile or cry. It was the sixth she'd received from Cameron since he left, and after working through the obtusely complicated cipher she'd made him memorize before he left, it revealed things she wasn't sure if she was happy about or not at this point.

Cameron was right, Comstar was actively repressing the redevelopment of technology, and actively seeking to keep the various Great Houses from recovering caches of Star League technology. He hadn't seen any records of past missions, and being who he was, he wouldn't rest until he had confirmed for certain if it had been a ROM mission or not, but it was more than enough to convince Amanda.

Now she just needed to decide what to do about it.


System Al Na'ir

Planet Al Na'ir

February 6th, 2849.

City of Homai-Zaki, Planetary Capital.

Just outside of 8th Dieron Regulars garrison base.

Cameron stared through the shaded window at the military installation across the street. This would be it, his first operation as part of the successor directives to 'Holy Shroud.' There were few such operations carried out, compared to the initial spree years ago, but Cameron's drive to draw attention to himself had backfired, and now he was expected to take part in it himself.

Doing what was necessary was hard, but Cameron knew he couldn't bring down all of the Blakist fanatics by spoiling a single operation; he needed to go deeper, learn more than what he knew.

Hardening his heart, Cameron checked his weapon one last time, then fell in with his team.


System Beta Cassiopeiae (Common usage: Caph)

Planet Caph.

April 3rd, 2851.

City of Aswan, Planetary Capital.

New Caph Institute of Technology, Amanda Denning's Dorm room.

Cameron knocked on the door, and waited. He heard brief movement inside, before Amanda opened the door.

For a moment, she just stared at him, expression unreadable. Then she leapt at him, wrapping her arms and legs around him as she held him in a desperate embrace.

"Missed you," She mumbled into his chest.

"Ah," He said, rather startled by how much less of a child she looked after four years, "I missed you too."

"Now," She said, tugging on him, "Let's go sit down and you can tell me all about what you've learned."


Amanda was beyond shocked. What Cameron had just told her was completely at odds with the man she had known since she was eleven years old. Could four years away really change him so much?

"Why?" She eventually asked.

"Two reasons," Cameron said gruffly, "First. Because even if I took out the entire ROM team, and alerted the local Combine authorities, Comstar would still have been able to control the information, and I know they had a backup team somewhere on planet, which would have completed the op after killing me. Second, because in order to defeat Comstar as a whole, more is needed. Much more, first amongst all, the ability to function independently of their communication grid."

"You still killed innocent people," Amanda said quietly.

"Yes," Cameron said gruffly, "I could argue they're soldiers, but as they are not in a declared war against Comstar, that makes no ethical difference. And I'll be doing it again. It'll be at least five years before I can climb the ranks enough to be taken off of field operations. I will stop this crusade of Comstar's, but it will be a long and bloody process. I have a plan, one that I would like your help with, but it will not come to fruition in either of our lifetimes."

He paused for a moment, and when he continued, even looking away from him, Amanda could sense the painful tension in his voice.

"If you want no part of it, if you wish for me to no longer be a part of your life, I understand."

Amanda spent just over fifteen minutes trying to decide what to do, which, for someone with her IQ, was a very long time. Eventually, she found that her personal loyalty to Cameron could look past even this.

"Promise me one thing," She said softly, "That you will never, ever rape, that you will never take pleasure in killing."

"I have already made that promise to myself," Cameron said gravely, "You can consider it made to yourself as well."

Amanda spun in place, the crossed her dorm room and planted herself in Cameron's lap again, holding herself to him as she had so many times before.

"Tell me then," She said, "How I can help this plan of yours."

"It starts with this," Cameron said gravely, holding up a small device Amanda was unfamiliar with, "This data module contains a copy of everything we took from Al Na'ir. It's mostly just metallurgical analysis of armor on a pre-Amaris SLDF prototype Aerospace fighter, but it's a start."


System Beta Cassiopeiae (Common usage: Caph)

Planet Caph.

July 7th, 2856.

City of Aswan, Planetary Capital.

Duke's Palace.

"Hello, Miss Dennings," Duke Peter Gustafson said, gesturing for her to sit on the far side of his massive desk, "It's nice to finally meet you."

"I'm honored, Duke Gustafson," Amanda said, "Most don't pay attention to researchers as young as me."

"Even in its prime," Gustafson replied, "Most of Caph's bright minds were finishing their first PhD at twenty-five, not their third."

"My mother did," Amanda said very quietly, and that killed conversation very quickly.

Even the Duke's bodyguards looked uncomfortable. It was some time before the Duke broke the silence.

"I assume there was a reason you sought to replace Jones as my science advisor when he retired?" Gustafson said, "And it wasn't what the tabloids were suggesting?"

Amanda snorted at that. She was no vid star as far as looks went, but like most every young woman in her mid twenties, she was attractive. After smiling for a moment, she closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, there was an intensity to them that had not been apparent before.

"I sent you a package when our visit was scheduled," Amanda said, "I assume your security screeners have looked it over?"

"Yes," Gustafson said, retrieving a small electronic device from a drawer in his desk, "They tell me it's a bug-sweeper, and quite an effective one too."

"Please use it before I say anything more," Amanda said, at this point only half-surprising the Duke, who activated the device, and let it run its automated sweep.

Once it had finished, and chirped a negative response, he simply looked at Amanda, raising an eyebrow.

"That device," Amanda said, "Originally belonged to Comstar's ROM, Rho division. I got it from a contact I have within the organization. Rho division was also the organization responsible for the attack on NCIT that killed my mother, father, and dozens of the other brightest minds on Caph."

It took a moment for the Duke to formulate a response to that.

"It's something of a matter of public record," Gustafson said, "That the Maskirovka was responsible for that attack, though the Capellans, of course, deny involvement."

"According to that same record," Amanda said, staring the Duke forcefully in the eye, "That I was left at home from the party that night, down with a cold. Both are equally true."

The Duke leaned back in his chair, not breaking eye contact with the considerably younger woman in front of him.

"That's quite the accusation," He said, "But what possible motive would Comstar have for attacking a civilian research institution?"

"Their motivation," Amanda said harshly, "I am uncertain of. What I do know is that Rho division has been engaging in a systematic repression of both the recovery, and re-development, of what is becoming known as Lostech within the Inner Sphere. They began with a five-year campaign called 'Holy Shroud' in 2838, which ended thirteen years ago. They've been carrying around smaller-scale specific operations ever since, using intelligence gleaned from supposedly secure HPG transmissions to locate and respond swiftly to discoveries ever since. My contact in Rho is still trying to track down the full details."

The Duke was silent for several long minutes before speaking again.

"Do you have any proof of this?"

"Yes," Amanda said, withdrawing seven portable data modules from an interior pocket in her jacket, and placing them on the desk, "My contact has been involved in seven such raids so far as part of Rho team, and each of these modules contains copies of the data first stolen, then destroyed, on those raids. Every major nation except for the Free Worlds League was hit in the raids my contact was personally involved in, and the Magistracy of Canopus was the most recent target hit. The modules contain the data, as well as list where they were stolen from, when, and the conditions and cover stories surrounding them as appropriate."

Silence passed for some time again before the Duke spoke.

"I hope you don't take it as an encroachment on your new appointment if I call Jones in to have a look at these with me?" The Duke said.

"Of course not," Amanda replied, "All I ask is that you don't connect those modules to any networked computers, ROM's E-war capabilities are prodigious."

"We can do that," The Duke said, nodding, "I'll have one of my men see you to your new quarters. I'll send for Jones immediately, in the meantime, please remain on the palace grounds."

"Yes, milord," Amanda said as she stood, recognizing the dismissal for what it was, then bowed before leaving.


July 12th, Duke's Palace.

This time, the Duke was standing when Amanda was ushered into his office, and his gaze was more considering than welcoming.

"Your story was confirmed at every level we were capable of investigating it at," He said without preamble, "I assume Cameron Ivo is your contact within ROM?"

Amanda nodded.

"Well then," The Duke said, "I am convinced your story is true. You're my science advisor, so tell me, what do we do with our scientific endeavours if Comstar is intent on violently suppressing our research?"

"Cameron has a plan," Amanda said, "One that has a great deal of detail needing to be filled in during the later stages, but is beautifully simplistic in the short run, insofar as the next two decades is the short run. The problem with trying to defeat Comstar, is its stranglehold on interstellar communications, and the utter ruthlessness it has already shown it is willing to act with. Even if we could convince Prince Davion of the truth about Comstar, Comstar would use a mass attack on its compounds within Suns territory to incite the other successor states against us for violating Comstar's precious 'neutrality.' Even if loyalists managed to seize most of the HPG stations on Suns worlds, we would never get them all intact, and Comstar would know which worlds were out of contact, and let our foes know.

"If we wish to break Comstar's power, we need to break its stranglehold on interstellar communications first. And for that, we'll use Comstar's so-called neutrality, and their ambitions to destroy the tech-base of the successor states, against them."

"I'm listening," The Duke said, sitting down as he gestured for her to do likewise.

"It starts," Amanda said, "With a political movement…"


Sol System.

Planet Terra.

June 29th, 2860.

Sydney, Australia.

Cameron stood silently in his new office. It had taken him eleven years of field operations to earn this promotion, and he was deeply, deeply glad, in ways that he would never show while on Terra, to no longer be in the position to pull the trigger himself. Of course, he would still be giving the orders that led to those deaths, but at the least, in operations planning, he could lead things more towards unobtrusive infiltration and sabotage, rather than crude smash-and-grab tactics.

Cameron had made a point in specializing in Material Operations, rather than Personnel Disposal, and the level of performance he demanded of himself placed him so far above his contemporaries, that he had received the posting he preferred. Besides, in Material Operations, he would be expected to work with the hardware more, and it wouldn't be as surprising for him to go digging through the archives.

Now, he could find out not only what Comstar was doing now, but what they had been doing in the past, and see what kind of picture it painted for their intended future.


System Beta Cassiopeiae (Common usage: Caph)

Planet Caph.

August 19th , 2864.

City of Aswan, Planetary Capital.

Duke's Palace.

"I assume, Miss Dennings," The Duke said as Amanda joined his family at the dinner table, "That there was more than a mere social call to your circuitously delivered suggestion I invite you to dine with my family?"

"Yes," Amanda said, her voice bleak, "Comstar is already working to push the Great Houses into a Third Succession War."

The Duke, his wife, and their eldest child, the only who had reached the age of majority thus far, all became very still at this announcement. A long minute of pained silence passed, and the Duke was surprised at the depth of pain he saw in his young advisor's eyes.

"That," He eventually said, his tone grave, "Is a whole new level of moral corruption, especially considering you can still smell the gunpowder from the end of the second."

"Comstar would start a war across the entire Inner Sphere, just to satisfy their messianic delusions?" The Duke's daughter burst out.

"According to Cameron," Amanda said, her voice strained, "Yes, yes they would. We need to kick things into high gear."

The Duke stared at the meal in front of him, his appetite having abandoned him. His wife had worked on this meal too, rather than just leaving it to the Palace cooks.

"I'll light a fire under the Luddite's organizers," Gustafson said bleakly, "Something about taking the outbreak of peace as an opportunity to prevent the next war or somesuch."

"Do you think they'll succeed in starting another war?" The Duke's wife asked quietly.

"Comstar handles the diplomatic dispatches for everyone," Amanda said roughly, "Even if the planned peace talks do manage to get the Coordinator, the First Prince, the Captain General, the Archon, and the Chancellor all on the same planet to talk, Comstar will be handling the communications both before and after the meeting, and given their 'neutral' position, most likely be the 'mediators' for the talks as well."

The Duchess lowered her head, eyes closing. She looked a great deal older in that moment than she had when Amanda walked into the room.

"We need to do something to try to stop this," The Duke's daughter said desperately.

"Cameron is stationed on Terra," Amanda said, "The talks will probably take place there. If anyone can get through to the various heads of state, he can."

Another long, painful silence passed around the table, eventually broken by the Duke, showing the pragmatism that was central to Amanda's respect for her planet's nominal ruler.

"Well," He said, "War may, or may not come, but letting dinner get cold won't change that one way or another, and I never miss an opportunity to eat my wife's cooking pass me by. Let us eat."

And so they did, though conversation was somber for the rest of the night.


Sol System.

Planet Terra.

January 5th, 2865.

Hilton Head Island, North America

Cameron watched as the first of the Successor Lord's dropships lifted off. It came as no great surprise to him that Dainmar Liao had been the first to leave the peace talks, the Capellans had been developing a chip on their shoulder about being the 'smallest' of the successor houses ever since the Second Succession War began. Steiner and Davion were still talking, but it was doubtful anything meaningful would come of it, the two had never really been much at odds anyways, due to simple Stellar Cartography.

He wasn't sure if he had really hoped to find an opportunity to speak to any of the rulers when he took a week of leave to watch the talks, but some part of him must have, because it still hurt seeing that things had ultimately failed. So much for peace in his time.

Cameron Ivo was becoming tired of war.


Sol System.

Planet Terra.

October 6th, 2865.

Sydney, Australia.

"War is brewing, Ivo," Cameron's immediate superior said, glaring at the man, "Now is hardly the best time to take an extended leave."

More like war is being brewed, Cameron though, but gave no outward indication of his thoughts whatsoever.

"War is brewing," Cameron said, "And an old friend from my homeworld has asked me to come visit. She's an advisor to the Duke of Caph, are you familiar with the situation on my homeworld?"

"Peace protests have intensified," The officer grumbled, "Since the peace talks failed, the Luddites have started pushing for isolationist policies."

"Yes," Cameron said, "My friend wants someone she knows she can trust, who is a member of Comstar to help her convince the Duke to withdraw from the Federated Suns. He's on the verge of caving to the Luddites pressure, but needs a neutral party to guarantee he won't just have Michael Davion send occupying forces to take the world back, or one of the other scavenger lords sweeping the planet up."

That got his superior's attention, and the man spent a few moments in thoughtful silence.

"Leave is approved," The man said, "I'm taking this straight to Precentor ROM. This could turn into a wonderful propaganda tool, and the Primus will want to know if it succeeds."

"Yes sir," Cameron said, nodding respectfully to the man before leaving his office.

Inside, he wore a vicious smile.


System Beta Cassiopeiae (Common usage: Caph)

Planet Caph.

December 26th , 2865

City of Aswan, Planetary Capital.

Duke's Palace.

'Hello," Cameron said, stepping into the residential portion of the Palace, "How've-"

He was cut off by Amanda jumping him, wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his chest.

"Missed you," She said desperately, her face pressed into the crook of his neck.

Cameron's mouth hung open, and incoherent sounds emerged from within. An amused chuckle broke him from his confusion, and Cameron looked past the woman he'd instinctively taken hold of, to see Duke Gustafson beaming at him. He began an attempted bow, but then aborted when the added weight of Amanda hanging onto his front nearly caused him to overbalance.

"Excuse me, Duke Gustafson," Cameron said, attempting to gently pry Amanda off of him, "But I seem to be somewhat impaired just now."

"Don't worry about it," The Duke said, "I've had more than enough time to become accustomed to Amanda's eccentricities," He paused a moment before continuing, "Though I've never seen her quite this exuberant."

"You've never seen me around Cameron, milord," Amanda said, "He's special."

"That," The Duke said, his tone much more serious, "I would have to agree with. Not many men have the sort of mettle and self-control required for the sort of deep-infiltration mission you've been on, and I know of no one who would engage in an entire such operation purely by himself, without the backing or support of a greater organization or government."

"Damn straight," Amanda said, then began to clamber up and around Cameron's much larger frame, until she had seated herself on his shoulders, something she hadn't done for twenty years.

"Now," She continued, and pointed past the Duke, deeper into the Palace, "We have a planning session to attend. Giddyap Cameron!"


For the members of the planetary government in attendance, the meeting had been rather surreal. Over the past nine years, they had come to know Amanda as an intense young woman who was, bluntly put more intelligent than any two of them put together, and let no one talk down to her.

Now, while still entirely on the ball regarding the business at hand, she seemed more like a giddy little girl, having immediately seated herself beside the bear of a man she introduced as Cameron Ivo, and promptly scooted her chair directly next to his so she could cuddle with the man. Amanda was all of five feet four inches tall, and was of the female body type that did not develop particularly heavily, but was also slow to show physical signs of age. Cameron was seven feet two inches tall, and a decade her senior, just beginning to gray around the fringes of his hair. Between her childish and affectionate body language, and the age disparity, it was only the utter lack of familial resemblance that kept them from looking like father and daughter.

For the women in particular, that lack of familial resemblance was quite a relief, as it was fairly obvious to the other women at the table that her affection for the older man was more than merely friendly.

"So in summary," The Duke's PR advisor said, "The apparent civil unrest is perceptibly intense enough to justify me attempting to pull Caph out, but, outside of the capital at least, mostly media exaggeration."

"And what about Comstar?" The Duke asked, turning to Cameron.

"Comstar wants this," Cameron said, deep voice rumbling in his chest an causing a faint smile on Amanda's face as she cuddled up against him, "Badly. I received a message from the Primus himself as I was heading out to the jump-point. They see it as potentially being a huge propaganda coup, and setting a first example for every other world in the Inner Sphere. It hasn't even occurred to them that we might be manipulating them to our own advantage."

"Megalomania is very blinding," Amanda put in darkly.

"Indeed," The Duke said, nodding, "Now all that remains is a matter of timing. When do we make our move?"

"Wait for opportunity to strike," Cameron said promptly, "It won't be long until the third Succession War starts, and the more spontaneous we seem, the less likely someone is to look more deeply at things. The only problem that leaves, is what to tell Prince Davion."

"Leave that to me," The Duke said, "He's my liege-lord, and it's my responsibility."


January 1st, 2866, early AM

Amanda Denning's quarters, Duke's Palace.

"You've done well," Cameron said, smiling as he surveyed Amanda's somewhat lavish quarters, "I'm glad to see your hard work has been well-rewarded."

Smiling brilliantly up at Cameron, Amanda tugged him across her living room, towards the couch, then pushed him down onto it, and placed herself in his lap, curling up like a satisfied cat. It was well past midnight, like every night since Cameron had arrived on world, briefing the Duke and his men on ROM's intelligence practices and presence on world having taken up all of his time, every day thus far. This was, in fact, the first night that Amanda had been busy longer than Cameron, but she had asked him to wait for her own unexpected meeting with the Duke to end, and then had led him off to see her personal quarters for the first time since he had arrived.

"I'm just glad you're finally home," Amanda said, reaching around behind the couch to retrieve a bottle and pair of shot glasses that had clearly been pre-prepared for this encounter, "It's been so long, and coded letters just aren't enough."

She handed him one of the glasses, then poured them both a shot of amber liquid, before setting the bottle aside and curling in closer to Cameron.

"I've missed you," She said quietly, sipping her shot.

"I've missed you too," Cameron said, hugging Amanda gently, then downing the shot in a single gulp.

With their comparative body-mass, it was about as intoxicating to him, as her sip had been for her. Minutes of companionable silence passed between the two of them, Amanda refilling his glass a few times as she gradually sipped through her own.

"I'm keeping you, this time," She eventually said.

"What?" Cameron asked, confused.

"I know about your plans," Amanda said, "And I'm vetoing them."

"What?" Cameron repeated, still not understanding.

"I've been watching you," Amanda said, "Indirectly, I suppose, through your letters, but I've been watching you. You hate yourself."

Cameron said nothing in reply.

"You hate yourself for what you've done," She continued fatigue beginning to show in her voice, "You've killed people in cold blood, and you can't stand that, even if your purpose wouldn't let you stop."

She reached up and stroked his cheek.

"It wasn't hard to figure out what you were planning on doing, even if it was monumentally stupid."

"And what is that?" He asked tightly.

"You were going to go get yourself killed, of course," Amanda said, "Go back to ROM, 'snap,' and kill as many of the rest of Rho division as you could manage before they got you."

Cameron looked away, for some reason he was not entirely clear on, feeling ashamed.

"Don't worry," Amanda said sleepily, cuddling into him again, "I've taken care of it."

She yawned.

"Liao Jumpships arrived in system two hours ago, and began burning for Caph. The Duke is setting things in motion, and by the end of tomorrow, Caph will officially be a neutral world."

"But," Cameron began, fatigue slowing his own voice.

"Don't worry," Amanda said, even as her eyes began to close, "You'll be here, with me, until its all over."

Cameron tried to stand up, and rather abruptly found that the growing fatigue he'd been experiencing was not natural. He spent the rest of the time until he fell asleep staring in disbelief at Amanda, who had drugged him.


System Beta Cassiopeiae (Common usage: Caph)

Planet Caph.

January 12th , 2866

City of Aswan, Planetary Capital.

Comstar compound.

"It's all yours now," The tired-looking acolyte said, "What's left of it anyways, Precentor Caph."

Cameron felt beyond strange being addressed as 'Precentor.' It was a command title within Comstar, Precentors reported only to the First Circuit and the Primus, a title he had never wanted to carry.

Sensing his thoughts, Amanda tugged at his hand pointedly, and Cameron sighed, then addressed the Acolyte.

"Thank you, George," Cameron said, "I suppose I'll just have to get used to a more… sedate posting."

"Yes, Precentor," George said, looking at Amanda for a moment before returning his gaze to Cameron, "I suppose even spooks retire."

"He'd better," Amanda said pointedly, glaring up at Cameron, "He's not running off planet to get away from me anymore!"

The Acolyte snorted, desperately trying to contain both his laugh, and his grin, but only partially succeeding.

"You're dismissed, George," Cameron said with an air of aggravated patience.

"Of course, Precentor," George said, bowing slightly before leaving, with a single parting shot over his shoulder, "I'd hardly want to take your time from your wife."

Cameron turned to deny the man's claim that Amanda was his wife, but was cut off by Amanda climbing up his body to sit on his shoulders again. It both confused and warmed him that despite all the instincts for combat he'd developed and honed over the last two decades, his instinctive acceptance of Amanda's intimate familiarity with his body was unchanged.

"Well," Amanda said, once she was comfortably situated on his shoulders, with her arms resting on top of his head, "Now that you have your own domain, Lord Ivo-" Cameron could hear the smirk in her voice, "Who will be the lady of your realm?"

"It's not really mine yet," Cameron said after a moment, "Comstar's dropship doesn't lift for another six hours, and they won't be out of system for a week after that, not to-"

"Oh, be quiet," Amanda said playfully, bopping him on the head, "The Duke insisted that Comstar's remaining facilities be under the stewardship of a native, specifically you, it's yours."

Cameron said nothing in response; he knew a losing argument when he saw it.

"Besides," Amanda said, "You're missing the main point. I'm asking you to marry me."

Cameron started underneath her, and she giggled.

"Uh," Cameron said, half-stuttering as he looked up at her and she smiled impishly back down at him, "Doesn't the man usually ask the woman?"

"Yes," Amanda said, taking his head in her hands, then, in a feat of impressive flexibility, bending far enough forward to land an upside-down kiss on his lips, "But you hate yourself too much to do it anytime soon, and I'm thirty-five years old. I'll only be able to have your babies for a few more years, so we don't have any time to waste."

Cameron was reduced to stuttering incoherency by Amanda's words, jaw hanging as he stared up at the woman perched on him, who just giggled.


Sol System.

Planet Terra.

February 20th, 2866

Hilton Head Island, North America

"What is your final analysis on Caph?" The Primus asked.

"We left Cameron Ivo in charge of the HPG," Precentor ROM said, "The locals wanted him because he's a native. What they don't know, is that he served in Rho division of ROM."

The Primus laughed.


Same time, HPG compound, Caph.

"Alright," Amanda said, eyeing the guts of the Hyperpulse Generator, "Let's start pulling it apart, and see how it works."


New Avalon, undisclosed location, undisclosed time in 2868

"My men tell me you have a message for me," Michael Davion said, eyeing the unimposing man standing between a pair of guards in his office.

"Yes, milord," The man said, "I bear a message for you from Duke Gustafson, who sent me on the last non-Comstar dropship to leave the world. It concerns Comstar, and more specifically, the Rho division of their ROM organization…


End of Prologue.