Like an unsung melody
The truth is waiting there for you to find it
It's not a blight, but a remedy
A clear reminder of how it began
Deep inside your memory
Turned away as you struggled to find it
You heard the call as you walked away
A voice of calm from within the silence
And for what seemed an eternity
You're waiting, hoping it would call out again
You heard the shadow reckoning
Then your fears seemed to keep you blinded
You held your guard as you walked away
When you think all is forsaken
Listen to me now (all is not forsaken)
You need never feel broken again
Sometimes darkness can show you the light
The Light, Disturbed
The prince walked between buildings familiar to him from his younger days, ghosts of his past academia greeting him. And yet there was something subtly wrong, glimpses of collegiate constructions that were not, had never been, part of the military academy he remembered.
Pausing at a fountain he found himself facing another man across the splashing water. Broad shoulders filled a dark-green uniform tunic well, the gleaming half-breastplate Sunburst vest marking it as that of the Armed Forces of the Federated Suns' full dress uniform. The single epaulette held the silver sunbursts that marked the wearer as a Field Marshal. The same rank the prince wore.
But the prince knew all the Field Marshals of his army – not the most stringent of tests of memory – and this redheaded man, though he held himself with the presence of one who had earned such rank – was not one of them.
Who are you?
But he did not ask that. "Did you study here?"
"I did." The redheaded man rose and walked around the fountain. "So did my brother. And you?"
"Yes. My father and his brother, my cousin and now my own son."
A smile from the other man. "A family tradition."
"It's begun to be one." And perhaps a symptom of problems – there was an alternative, after all.
"There are worse traditions." A hand was offered to the prince. "Many happy memories of this place. Before… well."
The prince accepted the hand. "Yes." Before Joseph died and Uncle Richard declared me his heir. Innocent days without the weight of responsibility on my shoulders.
There were lines around the blue eyes of the field marshal and unfeigned sympathy. Some instinct for men told the prince that the uniform was no deceit.
"Walk with me?" he offered. "This isn't quite as I remember it."
"That must be disconcerting. By all means. To Mount Davion?"
"Yes." My family's home. Quite a walk but – the prince looked up at the sky. Blue and clear, a lovely summer day – one of the merits of Avalon City over some of the other great capitals of the Inner Sphere. Why the Steiners had chosen their frigid home or the Camerons the rain-soaked Pacific coast had never made sense to the prince. Mount Davion overlooked the vast and fertile plains that had been the foundation stone of the first colony here and enjoyed the fine weather that made the world a breadbasket.
As they walked, he saw new anomalies. Tall, elegantly sculpted buildings in a style he didn't quite recognise. As if someone had expanded the academy greatly but the brief glimpses of students he saw weren't wearing the uniforms of cadets. "That's what I mean, where did that come from?"
The redhead followed his finger. "The College of Chemistry?" he asked.
A shake of his head as frustration rose. "If that's what you call it."
"Well that's what it is." A crease of a smile. "I should know."
"Why would a military academy have a full college of chemistry?"
He saw understanding dawn – and recognition. "Ah. It's a little after your time, your highness."
"After my time? I may have graduated but I'm not that far away." He pointed ahead to their destination. "I've looked at this view a thousand times and I think I'd notice additions like this."
His companion paused and then sighed. "I'm not sure that I'm the one to explain this, but it's a very long time since you've looked down on NAMA from Castle Davion."
"Don't talk to me in riddles, Marshal. I have enough of those to wrestle with."
"I'm aware that you did, but that's over now." The redhead looked older for a moment – hair leached of colour by years of responsibility. "Your time has gone and now you haunt my dream for some reason."
"What are you talking about?" And now he asked: "Who are you?"
"I am your descendant, sir. And I am First Prince of the Federated Suns." They were clear of the buildings now, entering a park that stretched between the New Avalon Military Academy and the outskirts of Avalon City. "You've been dead for more than two hundred and fifty years."
What was the prince to say to that? The words had conviction but they didn't resonate with him. "I don't believe that."
He got a shrug. "I can understand that." A laugh. "I wouldn't, in your shoes."
"This is just a dream."
"Yes. And I'll wake soon and have to deal with Liao's ploy. It's a good one. The boy's more dangerous than I thought." He brightened. "My son should arrive tomorrow though."
"I mean it's my dream." The prince paused and examined a monument he didn't recognise – a dog and a child; the former wounded but somehow still game, the child huddled behind the faithful hound. What could that signify? "I must have eaten something rotten to be dreaming this though."
"Now you're going to hurt my feelings." The twinkle in the blue eyes suggested otherwise but he sobered and bowed his head slightly to the monument as they passed it.
"Something from these centuries you claim have passed? This -" He squinted at the inscription, which they weren't quite close enough to read easily. "- Silver Eagle?"
"The ship carrying my wife – wife to be, back then. Patrick Kell saved her, along with many others."
The prince paused, thinking of his own wife. "Worth a monument, then." Was this some hint that she was in danger? No, that was ridiculous. Sometimes a dream was just a dream.
"I'd agree." The smile that quirked at the corners of the other prince's lips faded. "He was a good man. Like too many, he died before his time."
"Don't they all?" They walked together in companionable silence, the lush parklands a mix of familiar and unfamiliar to the prince. In over two centuries, he supposed that the trees would have aged and in some cases have died and been replaced. Monuments to the Star League still stood but there were others amid them.
History, to the prince, was something that stretched behind him like a heavy, constraining cloak. He'd considered once or twice that he might someday be part of the same weight upon his son's shoulders.
I am not dead, but one day I will be. And if this is not my future then there will be a future, my legacy added to those who came before and those who follow me.
Have I done anything that will be remembered? Not so much, he admitted to himself. Perhaps that is best though. Alexander was the greatest of our line, but his reign spanned dark and terrible days. I can live without that legendary status if my people are spared such suffering.
Though the palace reared up from the heights of Mount Davion, a fairy-tale castle, its roots dug deep and there was an entrance at the edge of the park.
The arching gates seemed to ripple as he looked at them. "I think I'm about to wake up."
"One of us is." The redhead turned his head and looked back across the park.
"There's no going back."
"I know." He extended his hand again to the prince and they shook hands again. "If it's me that's the dream, then give 'em hell back in the 28th century."
"And if it's me, good luck with the Liao." The prince hesitated, the warm hand in his and didn't release it immediately. "Supposing you are the future, my future… any advice?"
Blue eyes narrowed. "Depends how old you are, I suppose." The prince got a sense of wheels turning rapidly behind that thoughtful look. "Kill Amaris."
His hand was empty, the gate rippling again.
Without thinking, the prince stepped forwards –
Avalon City, New Avalon
Crucis March, Federated Suns
5 May 2760
John Davion jerked awake, head pounding. Beside him, Edwina stirred and the First Prince forced himself to relax rather than wake her.
The dream… it seemed vivid in his mind, as few were. Arching his neck he could make out the clock on the far side of the bed – early in the morning. Earlier than he had wanted to rise, but too late for there to be chance of much more sleep.
Muffling a groan of resentment, he dropped a kiss on his wife's brow and then wormed his way out of her arms, slipping a pillow into her arms as she reached out to reclaim him. Ah, the ruler of four hundred worlds is so easily replaced, he thought wryly as Edwina settled back into her slumber. So much for hubris.
Padding barefoot across the room he took a dressing gown from the back of the door and opened it carefully, closing it behind him with care. When he'd first taken office he'd found out that his uncle stationed a servant in the windowless antechamber while he slept, standing ready to provide for anything that might be needed through the night.
That had been a little more attendance than John thought necessary. He could use the phone here to call in one of the night staff if necessary, and the door should ensure he didn't wake Edwina. It only took him a moment to order an early breakfast and despite the temptation to sink into the room's armchair and worry about whatever duties awaited him today, he instead opened the door to the en suite bathroom.
A start on the morning's ablutions completed and his dark hair dampened and combed back into order, John returned at a knock on the door. A small trolley laden with tantalizingly covered dishes had been brought up, and most tempting of all, a steaming carafe of fresh coffee.
He'd just turned back from closing the door when he saw he wasn't alone in the room.
Red hair, fading to white at the temples. Bemused blue eyes. The uniform of a Field Marshal.
And sweeping one hand back and forth through the breakfast trolley, the material object posing no barrier at all to him.
The visitor to last night's dream gave him a rueful look. "I suppose," he said mildly, "That this shows which of us is real."
John's first impulse was to the door but he halted, hand still short of the knob. "What… is this a hologram? Some prank by Joshua? Or Mark?"
"I rather doubt it." The redhead turned and pressed his hand to the door of the bathroom. "Huh." The hand – and forearm – penetrated the door up to the elbow. "If that's not material then how am I even standing on anything?"
"You can't be here."
His… guest looked up. "It doesn't make sense to me either." He tried to open the door and failed. "Ah, a little help?"
"Well if I am a hologram, then the light wouldn't penetrate the door. On the other hand, if we can see my arm on the other side."
"Very scientific." But John went to the bathroom door and pulled it open. They both looked, the redhead having to lean, and saw the hand and sleeve extending through it and moving freely. "Well that settles it."
"I'm still dreaming." John went back to the trolley and poured himself some coffee. "At least I'm dreaming of good coffee."
"Could I beg a cup?"
"Can you even drink it, o nameless figment of my imagination?"
"I have a name." The man tried – and failed – to lift a second mug from the trolley. "Dammit. That's cruel. I can smell that coffee."
"What is it then?" John pulled the trolley over to his chair. Dream or not, he was hungry. The first plate had sausages and scrambled eggs, just the way he liked them.
"Hanse Davion. First Prince of the Federated Suns, Duke of New Avalon and so forth."
"Ah!" John pointed at him with a fork. "That was a slip – the First Prince heads the Crucis March but Duke of New Avalon is a courtesy title of the First Star Lord's heir."
"So it was – in your day."
"My delusion has an aggravated sense of grandeur."
Hanse shrugged. "Are you sure you're dreaming? Give yourself a pinch."
John chewed on some sausage. "If I am dreaming, I'll enjoy my breakfast first." He refilled his mug, giving Hanse a sly look.
The other man gave him a patient look. "What, you expect me to pout like a child? Yes, I'd like to have some coffee. It seems I can't. It's not the fall of the Star League."
"Yes…" The prince scratched at his chin, still wearing the night's stubble. Then he pinched his lower lip between finger and thumb. The pain wasn't great but it was real.
Not a dream. He swallowed. Madness?
"A madman would not question what he was seeing," Hanse offered in reassurance.
"This may be just another day for you -"
"It's really not," the other man answered in a lowered voice.
"- but it's a bit outside my experience. Do you know what happens to rulers who talk to people that aren't there? And if you're not a figment of my imagination why did you know what I was thinking there?"
"You weren't exactly being subtle about pinching yourself and going wide-eyed in worry." Hanse walked into the bathroom.
"What are you doing?"
"Call of supernature."
"No, I'm just looking out the window."
"It's frosted. You won't see anything."
"I can if I put my head through it. Not much of a view though."
"Well since no one expected a ghost to be looking out, I suppose the architect wasn't concerned about you looking out into…" John tailed off, thinking what would be visible from there. "The back of the administrative wing."
"Fair point." Hanse returned. "You could at least offer me a chair."
John arched an eyebrow. "Feel free to pull one up."
The older man – by appearances, at any rate – scowled and then laughed. "Well, I'd not take it any better I suppose. Do you mind if I at least ask the date?"
"Fifth of May," John replied between two forkfuls of egg. He added more pepper to what remained on the plate and then thought to add. "2760. What was it for you?"
"3052, the sixteenth of June. Well, maybe seventeenth. I think I saw my son for a moment – I'd fallen asleep in my chair before." Hanse shook his head. "It's a bit confused…"
John watched him thinking. "So you're dead?"
"I assume so." Hanse rubbed his face. "Excuse me, I do need to sit down. I'll be back."
"Wait!" John called as Hanse stepped towards the bedroom door. "My wife's asleep there," he hissed. "Go down the hall. There's a lounge two doors down."
"Thanks." Hanse turned and departed through the door to the corridor.
As soon as he was out of sight, John dropped his fork and buried his face in his hands. "Oh hell. What am I going to do now? I can't be haunted. I have work to do!"
Setting his plate aside he poured himself another mug of coffee and added two sugars. He had a feeling he'd need the energy. Setting it aside he opened the door for the trolley to be collected. "Did someone go past here?" he asked the guard.
"No sir." the man replied in surprise.
"I thought I heard something. I must not be fully awake yet," John excused. He glanced at the carafe on the trolley. "If you want some of the coffee before it's taken away, go right ahead."
"Thank you sir, but I'm on duty." Which meant needing both hands unobstructed in case assassins – or almost worse, the media – had somehow managed to penetrate all the other layers of security around the royal quarters.
"And even the First Prince can't excuse you?"
"Respectfully, your highness, have you met my sergeant?"
John chuckled. "You make a fair point, Corporal. Sorry for putting temptation in your way."
Leaving the door open, John picked up the phone and called for his valet. A shave and getting fully dressed might help him get past the literal and metaphorical headache of having a self-proclaimed future descendant turn up as a… ghost?
A ghost who apparently had issues with House Liao and House Amaris. Well, neither represented John's closest friends by any stretch of the imagination.
Hanse was sitting in one of the lounge armchairs when John entered. Although he was facing the balcony door that looked out into the gardens around the Hall of State, his eyes seemed to be focused on something else – something far away.
Looking him over, John saw he wore the same uniform that he had in last night's dream. A Field Marshal's, which suggested that the man was upholding the informal custom of a First Prince not wearing the additional sword on his sunburst that marked him as the supreme commander of the AFFS. He also saw Mechwarrior's spurs that he hadn't noticed earlier. Still, he'd have been surprised by anything else.
"I don't have long," he advised quietly. "If you're who you say you are, you know how much time my duties take up. And I can't speak to you when anyone else is around."
Hanse nodded. "I need some time anyway, to process."
"I suppose you do." Being dead, John thought, must be a shock to the system. "If you want to talk about it, sometime, I'll make the time."
"Family should look out for each other. Even if we're generations removed."
The other man nodded. "And you'll have questions as well."
"I don't know. It's not as if I have precedent for what to do in this situation. It's never happened before."
"Perhaps it happens all the time and people just never talk about it, not wanting to be locked up as a danger to themselves."
John considered and then snorted. "I can understand the sentiment, but if more people had… advice from the future, the universe might make more sense."
"It might at that." Hanse sighed. "And yes, I understand you're busy." He grasped the arms of the chair and began to push himself upright only to freeze. "Wait!"
Turning back from the door, the First Prince looked back questioningly.
"May 2760… is Warex Liao dead?"
"Yes… First of the month. I just sent condolences to his daughter." He grimaced at the thought – Warex was no friend to the Federated Suns but the new Chancellor, Barbara Liao, had lost her father on her birthday. At twenty-nine she was only a few years older than John had been when he took office.
Hanse looked grim. "And it's the fifth, four days later. You need to send word to Demeter."
"Demeter? Why, what are you expecting?" John called to mind what he knew of the world – at the head of a salient into Capellan space it was a valuable hub of trade and industry. Before the Star League the region had been hotly contested for years but that was long ago.
"On 5 May – today! – the 'Mech factory there is nuked by terrorists," Hanse told him urgently. "If you send an HPG message then perhaps it can be stopped."
John paled. "Who? Why?"
"I don't recall exactly – some pro-Capellan group. Chesterton… Liberation Brigade? Something like that." He shook his head. "I don't know if they have official sanction or not but it hardly matters with all the raiding going on."
He wasn't wrong, the younger man had to admit. Banditry had been on the rise for years despite the best efforts of the SLDF and although everyone involved covered their tracks it was an open secret that some pirate groups were backed – or even set up covertly – by the House Lords so they could deniably test the defences of their rivals. "You're sure?"
"It was something of a high point – or low point perhaps – in the violence during Richard Cameron's regency." Hanse shook his head. "A sign of things to come."
"I don't have any evidence to back this up…" John said out loud. "I'll order… an unscheduled alert drill. Bring all the forces in the region to standby and secure critical facilities. The Regent will give me hell, but if we find the bomb that should satisfy him."
He opened the door and was surprised to see Edwina facing him, her hand raised to knock.
His wife leaned in to kiss his cheek. "I didn't want to interrupt your meeting, but I'm leaving now."
"It's not a meeting, and you're welcome to join me for anything," John assured her.
"Oh, I thought I heard you talking to someone?" Edwina glanced in and John had to hide a twitch as she looked right at Hanse, but her eyes scanned past the redhead without seeming to notice him at all.
"Just to myself. Rehearsing a little before I speak to the High Command."
"Is there trouble? I know you woke early…"
He shook his head. "No new messages, I just didn't sleep well."
"You could have woken me."
He forced himself to laugh a little. "But you looked so peaceful."
"If only we all were." She smiled impishly and kissed him on the other cheek. "Anyway, I have the Equestrian Show to attend and you've the High Command so I suppose we've both got horses asses to attend to today. I'll expect to see you at dinner?"
"No change to plans for that," John reassured her. "Joshua and Mark still have leave to join us – unless they did something irresponsible since yesterday."
"I wouldn't put it past those two."
John almost started as he saw Hanse entering the command centre. Buried deep beneath the mountains of which Mount Davion was only the easternmost, the AFFS command centre was as secure as it could possibly be. Seeing someone who shouldn't be there – although in a Field Marshal's uniform he fit in perfectly – wasn't an everyday occurrence.
"Is something wrong?" asked Colonel Michael Stopec from his seat at John's right hand.
Realising he'd broken off, John turned back to the question at hand. "The change of Chancellor is exactly why I've ordered a full alert of our forces around Chesterton, General Dixon. It's the perfect excuse for anyone acting at the moment – even if we proved that orders for an attack had come from Sian, they can claim there was a 'misunderstanding' caused by turnover of personnel as Barbara Liao takes over from her father's old guard. She could even scapegoat some courtier she wants rid of."
Gabriel Dixon frowned and twisted on his moustache. "What a twisted motive. I don't envy you and MilInt getting inside of their heads."
"Hopefully nothing actually happens, but I don't feel it's a chance that can be taken. And Chesterton's our most likely flashpoint."
That got nods around the table. John saw Hanse looking at the displays on the wall, constantly updating data on the strength and dispositions of the AFFS. Since Simon Cameron's untimely death nine years before, the Star League Council had taken the opportunity to repeal the arms limitations that kept their individual military strength in check. Since then, troop numbers in service had risen sharply. While still nothing approaching the vast size of the Star League Defense Forces, the Federated Suns had doubled the regiments in active service and brought more than a score of warships out of mothballs to match their understanding of what the Capellans and Draconians had stationed on their borders.
"Do you want to review contingencies for moving reinforcements to the region if needed?" asked Dixon.
"I'm confident you have that in hand." John already had the data on hand though – Dixon would be taking the lead if that were the case, leading a regiment of BattleMechs from the Avalon Hussars as well as a dozen conventional regiments to reinforce threatened worlds, taking over the local regiments. It could place him in charge of the equivalent of almost a short corps of troops.
"We could always add the Fourth," Stopec rumbled. "That would give the reinforcement teeth."
On paper, the Colonel was outranked by everyone else in the room. Command of only a single regiment of the Davion Guards was far from the responsibilities that others wielded – but as the Prince's Champion he was also John's deputy for military affairs. He could have asked for the rank of Marshal or even Field Marshal and been given it without question – but Stopec loved his regiment and his only request when John offered him the job was that he be allowed to remain in command of the Dragon's Bane.
John saw General Dixon clenching his fists at the prospect of being superseded. "No Michael. We shouldn't commit all our reserves and I want you with the primary response if the Combine try anything. They're still the larger threat."
Stopec subsided and the discussion moved on to more mundane matters – training budgets, personnel choices for the many roles that needed to be filled in order to continue administering a military force spread across hundreds of light years. John allowed his attention to drift, watching Hanse who seemed to be examining every display in detail.
I wonder what he makes of it. Is the AFFS still so large or have things settled down? Then again, after two and a half centuries some of this may seem laughably antiquated to him.
Then an intake of air from beside John dragged his attention back and he saw Stopec's eyes – golden cybernetics after he'd been blinded by environmental damage to his 'Mech in the Martial Olympiad – had snapped the central holo-display, where the tabulated data had been replaced by a glowing sword and sunburst highlighted in amber. An urgent operational message.
At John's nod – there was no one in the room not cleared for such (except Hanse, but John wasn't exactly in a position to shoo him away even if he was so inclined) – Stopec opened the communique.
The First Prince's guts clenched as he saw the message was from Demeter. Had his instructions even arrived there yet?
Sent in plain text, easier to encode, the message was stark. A nuclear device, somehow smuggled past all security checkpoints, had vaporised the core of Lycomb Technology's MechWorks on Demeter. More than a hundred personnel were dead or missing, easily twice that many had been wounded. Production was halted, naturally, and responsibility had been claimed already with messages to the local media from the Chesterton Liberation Battalion, a known group claiming that Demeter and the worlds around it were rightful property of the Capellan Confederation.
"God damn them!" Dixon's fist hit the table, it would have shaken something less solidly built. "You were right, sire. But a nuke? A filthy nuke!"
John swallowed and looked down the table to Thomas Green-Davion – the senior officer present in terms of experience in the Capellan March – and behind him at Hanse. "I find it hard to believe that a ragtag group of terrorists could have a nuclear device," he told them, forcing calm. "While I expect a full check by Military Intelligence, barring evidence to confirm otherwise we – I – must assume that it was provided by the Capellans."
"We can't let that stand, sir." Green-Davion straightened his uniform. "There are SLDF division both sides of the border, if we call for them to investigate."
"The way they did thirty years ago?" Opposite John's distant cousin, Dixon pushed his chair back. "They did nothing for years when Kurita was trying to force his filthy half-breed cousin onto our Prince's throne! We can't look to them for justice."
"I believe General Kerensky would like to, Gabriel." John raised his hand. "But he isn't First Lord – even as Regent, he can't over-ride the Star League Council if they tell him to back off. And the chances of getting four – or even three – votes in favour of such an intervention are slim. We will try, but get your regiments loaded for transit to…" He looked at a map display. "To Goshen. Expedite that."
"Not Demeter?" asked Stopec respectfully.
"Local forces can provide disaster relief at Goshen," the First Prince replied. "I'm not sending General Dixon's regiments for that."
Dixon leant forwards eagerly. "Then what are my orders, sire?"
"For now, just to redeploy to Goshen. By the time you're there, I'll have heard from the rest of the Council. And if we can't count on the SLDF for this, you'll have new instructions." John hadn't expected to be saying this when he woke up this morning. Not even when Hanse warned him, had this occurred to him, but he could feel the anger in the room and knew that it would be shared by the rest of the Suns.
They'd been attacked and would want revenge. It wasn't necessarily the right answer, he thought, but it was the only one his responsibilities allowed. The Federated Suns could not allow this to pass without response.
"In that case," he said steadily, "The instructions will be for punitive operations in the Capellan Confederation."
Sidebar: The Star League
"One species, one government."
By the late twenty-sixth century, all but a statistically insignificant percentage of humanity lived within one of ten great interstellar states. In the centre was House Cameron's Terran Hegemony, surrounded by the other five states of the Inner Sphere, in clockwise order: House Kurita's Draconis Combine, House Davion's Federated Suns, House Liao's Capellan Confederation, House Marik's Free Worlds League and House Steiner's Lyran Commonwealth. On the periphery of human space were four other realms: House Avellar's Outworlds Alliance, House Calderon's Taurian Concordat, House Centralla's Magistracy of Canopus and House Amaris' Rim Worlds Republic.
After more than a decade of diplomacy, Ian Cameron welded the six inner sphere states into the Star League, an alliance intended to put an end to the wars that had plagued the last two hundred years and to bring greater prosperity to all mankind. Three years later, with the four Periphery Realms showing no interest in joining the Star League (except Gregory Amaris, who was promptly confined on grounds of being both a power-mad dictator and a Terran shill) and a pronounced lack of the promised economic boom, the Star League informed the Periphery that they would join, or else.
The Reunification War lasted twenty years and was fought with unparalleled brutality, but it cemented the Star League as the united government of mankind and the four periphery states as conquered territories. Under the leadership of Ian Cameron and other foresightful leaders, a golden age of peace and prosperity dawned.
Almost two hundred years later, the future does not look so rosy...