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Chapter 7 - Fortunes of War[]

Galaport, Galatea
The Lyran Commonwealth
September 21st, 3024

Kit felt acutely out of place on the Rochlitz’s bridge. Part of the reason for that, she decided, was that she was a person with aptitude for technology who now found herself surrounded by a great deal of it she did not understand. She could guess what some of the controls and display screens on the DropShip’s semicircular command deck did from their broad similarity to similar components in a 'Mech cockpit, but for the most part she was out of her element.

Another reason for her sense of discomfort was that although she had traveled in DropShips many times she had never set foot on a DropShip’s command deck. Those spaces were reserved for those in command. And now, for the first time in her life, Kit was in command, at least in a sense. De facto leader of a mercenary unit… or what pathetic fragment was left of it.

Kit and Keith Pascoe were the only members of Task Force Talon that had made it off of Konstance. For much of the time Kit was conscious during the two and a half days it took the Rochlitz to reach the Lyran JumpShip waiting at a pirate jump point, a blinding neurohelmet feedback headache had made action or even clear thought impossible. For almost a week after, as they journeyed back into Steiner space, she had been in a state of shock. She had rarely left the cabin which she had shared with Stef Keely and two of the Talons’ other female MechWarriors on the journey out.

It was the feeling of emptiness in what had once been a cramped space that had eventually made it unbearable for Kit to hide in the cabin any longer. It was the feeling of emptiness inside her that had made her start the morbid work of settling the affairs of the dead mercenary unit.

It took three weeks for the JumpShip to make its way from Konstance to the Galatea system, and twelve days after that for the Rochlitz to burn in from the zenith jump point to make landfall at Galaport. Kit had spent much of that time in the quarters Commander Toszka had used, going through Task Force Talon’s records. The ones on the unit’s finances made for a brief, bleak read. The Talons had gone into substantial debt to even partially make up their losses after their last contract. It had not only been for a lack of technical staff that the mercenaries were struggling to keep all their machines functional as Toszka had led Kit to believe - they could barely afford parts.

When Toszka had told Kit that their earnings from the Konstance contract would put their financial worries to rest though, it appeared that she had been entirely truthful. The payout offered by the Lyran Commonwealth had been eye-poppingly large, enough to pay off the unit’s debts and give them at least a couple months of runway to find another contract. For the Talons, the mission to Konstance had been make-or-break, and it had ended up breaking them.

Besides financials, Toszka had kept personnel records on all of the Talons’ MechWarriors and techs. Kit was surprised to discover that the mercenary commander had even conducted at least cursory background checks on all of her people. A couple of the Talons MechWarriors had been orphans, like Kit. None had spouses or children, but most had at least a couple of living next of kin, usually in Marik space. It was partially because there was one else left to do it that Kit had begun composing messages to the dead mercenaries’ families. Pascoe only loudly announced to anyone who would listen that he intended to find a new unit to sign on with as soon as they got back to Galatea. Experienced techs were always in demand. If Pascoe was at all distressed by the Talons’ annihilation, he gave no outward sign of it, although Kit tried to allow for the possibility that refusing to acknowledge a loss was the older tech’s own way of processing it.

Writing letters also helped to fill the time. The first one had actually taken her the better part of three days. How was she supposed to draw upon a few weeks of working with a group of people to write something that would be meaningful to those who had known and loved them for years or even a lifetime? The later letters were easier, partially because they were for the Talons Kit had known less well and partially because she found that her compositions started to become depressingly formulaic.

The final letter Kit had finished only hours before the Rochlitz had made its descent into Galatea’s atmosphere.

Diana Toszka was a fine MechWarrior. More importantly, she was a true leader. She was a constant encouragement and inspiration to those under her command even in the most difficult of circumstances. She saw the potential in people and recognized their accomplishments. Though as a mercenary she did not hold allegiance to a state or a cause, her loyalty to those who served under her was unshakeable.To save one of their lives, she sacrificed her own. She will forever remain an example to those who knew her.

As far as Kit could tell from the records, Commander Toszka had no living relatives. Kit had written the message anyway, without really knowing why. As the rumble of the Rochlitz’s engines subsided beneath her on the landing pad, Kit had read through the messages once more and almost deleted the one for Toszka before saving it as a personal file. She had been about to leave her cabin and head for the ComStar HPG station in the city with the other letters, wondering if she even had the C-bills to cover the cost of sending them. Then Captain Hahn’s voice through the ship’s public address system had suddenly summoned her to the bridge.

The final and most important reason why Kit felt out of place in the nerve center of the Rochlitz’s command and control was that Captain Hahn and the ship’s crew clearly did not appreciate her being there. Neither Hahn nor anyone else even acknowledged her arrival as she entered the bridge.

During the journey back from Combine space, the DropShip captain had been almost cordial to Keith Pascoe, who seemed to have already come to regard the Talons and his employment with them as a thing of the past. But since he had found out that Kit had taken upon herself some of the responsibility of closing the Talons’ books, Hahn had barely tried to conceal his distaste on the rare occasions he interacted with her. Having narrowly escaped destruction or capture on Konstance, Hahn seemed to be harassed by a paranoid anxiety of some other impending disaster. It appeared as if Hahn believed the Talons were cursed, and since Kit was the only one who still considered herself in some sense a member of the Talons or cared to remember the unit had existed, Kit herself was bad luck. Therefore Hahn’s ship would only be safe again when he had thrown her out onto the tarmac of Galaport.

Kit glared at the back of Hahn’s head where he sat in the captain’s chair on a platform elevated a half step above the rest of the bridge deck. ******’s going to make me walk around and stand there like I report to him. Kit made a point of leaning back against a bank of gauges and screens used to monitor the state of the DropShip’s engines and crossed her arms before she spoke. “You called me up here?”

Hahn finally brought himself to look at her, and she was gratified by the man’s noticeable flicker of irritation at her casual posture and lack of his respect for his bridge. “Got a Lyran mercenary liaison on the line.” he said. “She wants a report on the mission she hired your outfit for. I told her your CO and XO didn’t come back. She asked to talk to whoever was left in charge.” Hahn paused to look Kit up and down as if re-assessing her in hopes of finding something he had overlooked before. “Seems like you’re in charge of what’s left.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of a crew station on the bridge’s right wing.

Kit seated herself in front of what she took to be a holo-display projector used for short-range communications. Hahn rose from his seat and stalked off the bridge, muttering to himself: “...never doing taxi service for any cloak-and-dagger Steiner military shit again.” Kit glanced around. The few other crewmen scattered about the Rochlitz’s bridge were apparently occupied in finishing various post-landing checklists and continued to ignore her.

Kit touched a blinking button on the scratched surface of the comms console. In front of her a holographic image of a woman in the uniform of the Lyran Commonwealth Armed Forces snapped into existence. The woman had a classic “Steiner” look to her, if a bit too old and too severe in her expression to make good material for a recruiting poster. Her blonde hair was close-cropped and her blue eyes were piercing even through the washed-out image of the holo-projection. Upon seeing Kit she flashed a ready smile that disappeared just as readily, like smiling was on a checklist that she completed perfunctorily.

“I am Hauptmann Arabelle Leitner of the LCAF’s mercenary liaison corps,” the woman announced with businesslike cordiality. “To whom am I speaking?”

Kit blinked and suddenly felt embarrassed by her messy ponytail and rumpled coveralls now that she found herself confronted with this picture of polished military professionalism. She had never interacted with a member of a Great House military before, she realized… aside from her grandfather, if his position with the Outpost militia training cadre even counted. “Kit Söderlund,” she answered. “'Mech technician with…” She suddenly had to swallow a lump in her throat. “With Task Force Talon.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, uh, technician Söderlund,” Leitner said, seeming to trip over Söderlund’s lack of a formal rank. Kit guessed the woman had either not been a mercenary liaison for long or spent most of her time dealing with much larger and more well-to-do units. “I was the one who negotiated your unit’s contract with Commander Toskza.”

“Commander Toszka is dead,” Kit said, then felt foolish for saying it. Surely the Lyran officer knew this already?

“Ah, yes, Captain Hahn informed me,” said Leitner. Kit thought she might have seen the Lyran officer wince but she couldn’t be sure. “Are you Task Force Talon’s designated representative in the absence of the senior officers?”

Kit blinked again. “Don’t know if I’ve been designated,” she said. “But I don’t think anybody else would want the job.”

Leitner half-smiled. “That will do for our purposes. I’ve contacted you to conclude the LCAF’s business with your unit.”

“What do you want, a debriefing?” Kit said. “We landed outside the city. We started broadcasting the rendezvous signal. Got no response, no sign of life. We started searching block by block. Found a Commando I guess was one of yours.” The image of the Steiner MechWarrior’s corpse lying in the canal sprang to mind unbidden and she remembered when she thought it would be the worst thing she saw on the mission to Konstance. “The pilot was dead.”

Leitner’s face showed regret. Or perhaps she was just making a show of regret. Kit couldn’t tell which. “Were you by chance able to recover his remains?”

Kit shook her head. They’ll stay on Konstance. Along with Diana Toszka’s, and those of eight of her people.

“Unfortunate but understandable,” Leitner said. “When Konstance returns to rightful Lyran rule, the MechWarrior and the rest of his unit will be honored appropriately.”

Kit nodded. “Hauptmann, we recovered memory files from his 'Mech. Looking for any Intel that might be saved in them, the intel you wanted. There’s nothing. The mission was a failure. We didn’t bring any of your team back, and we didn’t get any useful data.”

“That is also unfortunate,” Leitner said. “but it does not mean that your unit’s mission was a failure.”

Kit stared at the Lyran officer in silence. It suddenly occurred to her that in spite of the fact the Talons’ employers must have known days ago that the Rochlitz had arrived back at Galatea, nobody had contacted the ship for a report. “Hauptmann Leitner?” she managed.

Leitner gave her another flash of that practiced smile. “Your confusion is understandable, Miss Söderlund.” she said. The Steiner officer had apparently found Kit’s lack of military rank irritating enough that she had decided to simply address her as she would a civilian instead. “Part of the reason why I’ve contacted you is to provide information about the nature of your mission which military secrecy prevented me from giving Commander Toszka before your departure. With Commander Toszka gone, I believe that explanation is owed to you.”

The DropShip bridge seemed to tilt beneath Kit’s seat. Is she asking me if I want her to explain why my unit had to die?

Leitner continued without waiting for a response. “Recovering the stay-behind team, or any intelligence they had been able to gather, was only one of the Lyran command’s objectives in contracting Task Force Talon.” she said. “There was a secondary objective as well. And as often turns out to be the case in the fog of war, the relative importance of primary and secondary objectives… shifts, or looks different in the post-operation analysis.”

“Hauptmann Leitner,” Kit said, “I’ve never been in one of the House armies. But my understanding is that primary objective, secondary objective, whatever ****** objective, it’s standard practice to brief the troops on what all of their objectives are before the mission so they know what the hell they’re being sent out to die for.” She found she was learning forward, closer to Leitner’s image in the holographic projection. She found her cheeks were hot and she was surprised at the flint in her voice.

“Ideally that is the case,” Leitner responded smoothly. “As I said before, sometimes considerations of operational secrecy mean there are things you cannot tell your own troops.” Let alone mercenaries, Kit thought, adding what Leitner was too professionally polite to say. When Kit only glared at her through the holo-projection, the Lyran officer went on. “The LCAF’s other objective in dispatching your unit to Konstance was to draw out the Combine garrison in preparation for a raid by our own troops against the Kurita bases in the planet’s polar region.”

Kit found the deck was tilting again despite the Rochlitz being safely settled on the ferrocrete of the spaceport. She gripped the edge of the holo station to be sure he wouldn’t fall out of her chair. “How would we draw them out?” she asked. “They weren’t supposed to know we were even there.”

Did Leitner’s cheek twitch before she answered, or was it only a glitch in the projection? Kit couldn’t tell. “We believe the encrypted signal you broadcast ensured their response,” Leitner said.

Kit no longer saw the projection of Leitner. She slumped backwards in her chair, stared at the far bulkhead of the bridge. When she tried to speak, she found words were hard to form because her mouth had gone dry. “The signal…” she stammered. “It was a Kurita signal. We may as well have announced we were coming in advance.”

The projection of Leitner raised its hands defensively, the first time the Lyran officer had removed them from behind her back. “The code we gave you was a legitimate one used by LCAF covert teams prior to the Combine’s conquest of Konstance,” she said. “However, we had reason to believe that it had become known to Kurita forces. With no way to give the team on Konstance a new code, we decided to kill several birds with one stone: we would extract the team if possible, test whether the code had been compromised, and if it was, draw the Kurita forces out of position.”

Leitner clasped her hands behind her back again. “Six hours before your JumpShip arrived in the Konstance system, a battalion of the Twenty-Third Arcturan Guards arrived at another pirate point. Their DropShips concealed themselves behind one of the world’s moons. Guards reconnaissance fighters detected Combine DropShips making a sub-orbital hop towards Konstantinople, doubtless concealed from you by the planet’s storms. Then we knew the Kuritans had taken the-...” Leitner caught herself and flicked on her regretful face for a moment before continuing. “We knew they had fallen for our trap. The Guards were hitting the Combine bases on the polar continent at the same time you were lifting off. They encountered little resistance.”

The image of Hautpmann Leitner blurred. Kit wanted to put a fist through it, but she found she couldn’t move because her whole body had gone numb. Then she remembered that it was a holographic projection and punching it wouldn’t even bring her the satisfaction of breaking something, or the catharsis of pain in her hand.

Somewhere far away through the roaring in her ears the Lyran officer was still talking. “Miss Söderlund? Miss Söderlund?”

Kit blinked and the image snapped back into focus. Leitner looked pleased to have her attention again, as pleased as she seemed capable of looking in any case. “What this means for your unit is that as far as the LCAF is concerned, your mission was a success. And because the Commonwealth was built on a foundation of fair and honest business dealings, and because we value our relationships with our mercenary partners, that means that your unit is entitled to the amount stipulated in your contract. It has been deposited in full to the account specified by Commander Toszka before your departure.”

Several seconds passed as Kit re-taught herself how to breathe.

“Hauptmann Leitner,” she gasped. “The account Commander Toszka gave you… I’ve been going through her records trying to tie up the unit’s affairs, and…”

“And in the course of searching the late Commander’s records, have you found her copy of Task Force Talon’s charter with ComStar’s Mercenary Review Board?” Leitner’s tone had gone from professional to clipped. Having delivered her good news, the Lyran officer now seemed to find talking with Kit any further an imposition on her time.

“Yes,” Kit stammered.

“Take that copy to one of the Review Board offices and they should be able to help you gain access to the account,” Leitner said with an air of exaggerated patience, as though she were indulging the questions of a child. “Of course, any creditors the unit may have had will have a claim against the funds. The remaining amount would be divided among any members of Task Force Talon still on the unit roster at the time the funds are released. In the unlikely event any other survivors of the unit come forward to make a claim in the future… well, that bridge can be crossed, as they say, when we come to it.”

Kit looked up from the projection. The deck had cleared except for herself and a couple of crewmen who seemed to be monitoring the final post-landing cooldown of the Rochlitz’s engines. “Did you require any further clarifications, Miss Söderlund?” Leitner was asking. Kit ignored her.

“Hey,” she called to the pair of bridge crewmen. “Hey, you two over there.”

One of them turned to look at her with annoyance. “What do you need?” he asked. “Projector acting up?”

Kit shook her head. “Did Keith Pascoe leave the ship yet?”

“He came up here to sign his walking papers and transmit them to your Review Board right before that Steiner merc-wrangler called.” said the crewman. “Don’t know if he disembarked yet.”

Once again Kit became aware that Leitner was still talking. “Miss Söderlund? Before we conclude, I wanted to get to the matter of the salvage from the mission to Konstance. You mentioned you had recovered an LCAF BattleMech…”

Kit fixed her gaze back on the holo-projection floating above the console. “The contract doesn’t say anything about salvage. I’ve read it twice.”

Leitner looked like she had caught a whiff of an unpleasant odor, her first facial expression that appeared genuine. “Well, Miss Söderlund, if there was an oversight in the terms of the contract…”

Kit jabbed a finger at the Lyran officer’s image. “It wasn’t an oversight,” she said. “You didn’t think you needed to bother putting it in the contract because it didn’t matter, since none of us were supposed to come back.”

Leitner’s blue eyes narrowed. “Miss Söderlund, in the absence of any contractual language specifying otherwise, it will be the default position of the LCAF that the 'Mech is rightfully the property of our Quartermaster Corps. If you would like to make this a legal matter…”

Kit laughed in the woman’s holographic face. “Make it a legal matter, Hauptmann! Not enough you sucker a bunch of mercs into being bait for your trap, go ahead and sue them, too! Sue a bunch of dead people! Send a special forces team to repossess your 'Mech and see what kind of effect that has on your… what was it you said? Your valued relationships with your mercenary partners, once the story gets around the hiring halls!”

Leitner’s eyes flashed in anger. Her jaw worked back and forth and she started to speak, but Kit cut her off. “I don’t need any more clarifications, Hauptmann.” She slapped the button on the console and Leitner’s image disappeared as Kit bolted from the bridge.

She made her way down through the Rochlitz’s decks towards the 'Mech bay hold as fast as she could, twice nearly falling through hatches as she lost her footing on ladders. On the passenger quarters deck she almost ran into Keith Pascoe in a corridor, carrying his duffel bag. “What the hell, Söderlund? You look like you’ve got a Combine 'Mech lance on your tail again.” The older tech seemed to have meant this as an attempt at humor. “Say, I never asked what you’re going to do now…”

Kit shoved past him. “What I’m going to do now is get paid.”

“The hell are you talking about?” Pascoe exclaimed. “The contract was a failure.”

“Wrong,” Kit fired back. “We didn’t know what we really got hired to do. The contract was a success.”

Pascoe’s jaw dropped, followed by his duffel bag as he threw his hands in the air. “Holy shit! We get paid!”

“Wrong again, Pascoe!” Kit yelled at him. She gathered up the duffel from off the floor and hurled it at his chest, knocking him two steps backwards. “People on the Talons roster get paid. You signed yourself off the roster a good twenty minutes ago. You couldn’t wait to forget all about this outfit.” She saw joy turn to confusion and then anger on his face as she spun on her heel and continued down the corridor. “Don’t like it, get yourself a damn lawyer.”

Kit tore down several more decks, burst through the last door like an autocannon shot, and caught her momentum on the railing of a catwalk overlooking the Rochlitz’s 'Mech bay. Below her, their armored hides gleaming faintly under the floodlights, stood the Vindicator and Commando. Somewhere in storage on Galatea, she remembered, were a pair of dismantled Wasps. She leaned over the railing, breathing hard. Her head spun.

She had signed on with a down-on-their-luck merc unit as a junior tech hoping to get a shot in a 'Mech cockpit. Now she was the owner, as much as anybody could claim to be, of four 'Mechs. And the only price to be paid for it was the deaths of nine decent men and women who she had known for a few weeks and now would never see again. Most of them were dead because of Combine guns and Lyran duplicity. But one… one, at least, was inarguably dead because of her.

In her head she heard Commander Toszka’s voice: We’re not leaving anyone behind, not while there’s a chance. In her mind’s eye she saw the death’s head of the fallen Banshee. Kit covered her face with her hands and wept.

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