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Chapter 9 - Fortunes of War[]

Galaport, Galatea
The Lyran Commonwealth
October 1th, 3024

If the Flush was the archetypal Galatea dive bar, not much different from dozens of others half-hidden in the back streets of the Mercenary’s Star, then surely Firebase was their showy, solitary spiritual antithesis. At least, Kit hoped it was solitary. She was suddenly struck by the idea that there might actually be a chain of such establishments catering to those obsessed with all things ‘Mechs and mercs on wealthy worlds across the Inner Sphere. A truly unsettling thought.

Firebase was divided into two halves. The lower half was a nightclub, lit within by garish neon and lit without by elaborate holographics emulating the explosions and tracer streams of a battlefield. The other half, a bar and lounge, was styled to look like an oversized military garrison sentry tower, requiring the clientele to take a brief elevator ride up to enjoy the view out over one of Galatea City’s main plazas.

It was in this upper portion that Kit found herself now, thankful that the lounge was mostly empty in the mid afternoon but once again feeling painfully out of place. The decor of Firebase incorporated artwork “inspired” by (but legally distinct) the insignias of various well-known mercenary units, the walls were festooned with posters promoting duels between the arena champions of Galatea and Solaris. In her years in the actual mercenary business, Kit had never heard of an actual ‘Mech jock ever coming to the place, at least at the level of the trade she units she had worked for operated at. This was a hangout for tourists, well-to-do hangers-on at the periphery of the mercenary trade, and wannabes. Kit had scrutinized the menu and ordered the cheapest beer on the menu, Timbiqui Dark (which was still marked up to about twice what she was used to paying for a drink) and it had been delivered by a waitress with dyed red hair who looked like she was trying to cosplay Natasha Kerensky, lacking only Wolf’s Dragoons insignia.

Dieter Garner, on the other hand, gave the impression of an idle nobleman about to go exotic game hunting on a nature preserve world at the edge of the Periphery. Garner was in his early to mid thirties, had light brown hair, a well-groomed beard and mustache, and wore a khaki jacket with faux-military epaulette tab details on the shoulders. Garner worked for Salvage, a mercenary magazine best known for its first-hand battlefield accounts, the more sensational and bloody the better. As Garner swirled his drink and regarded her, Kit felt only slightly more at ease than when she had been under the guns of the Kurita Marauder.

Best foot forward, she told herself. “Mr. Garner, thanks for making time for me.” She hoped it wasn’t too obvious that her smile was forced. “Titus Covelli said the two of you go back some time.”

“Thank you for agreeing to meet." the journalist said, “But please, Mr. Garner is what my editor calls me when I’m behind on a deadline. Dieter is fine.” He took a sip of his drink. “And I’m not just doing this as a favor to Titus. An exclusive with the ‘lone survivor’ everyone is talking about will have a lot of appeal for our readership.”

Well, at least the Talons’ annihilation will let you move some copies of your magazine, Kit thought to herself bitterly. Silver linings.

“Tell me what happened on Konstance." Garner said. “Nothing held back.”

“Nothing held back? I was part of a unit the Lyrans used as bait. We got set up. Can you print that, Mr.-... I mean, Dieter?”

The reporter laughed and took another sip of his drink. “I assure you, Kit… can I call you Kit? We would never compromise our integrity to appease the powers that be. Our readers wouldn’t stand for it. Galatea may be Lyran space." he said, gesturing towards the windows overlooking the plaza, “but this is a world for warriors, and at Salvage we pride ourselves on giving warriors a platform to speak in their own words.” Garner’s assurances did nothing to make Kit feel more confident about the interview. “Warriors” wasn’t a category she was at all sure yet she deserved to be considered part of. “But let’s go deeper, Kit." Garner continued. “You deployed on that contract as a tech. How did you come back in a cockpit?”

Kit gave him a weak smile. “I ask myself that question every day, Dieter.” His stare told her he was looking for a more substantive explanation. She took a deep breath and a sip of her beer before going on. “I was in the cockpit of one of our… one of the Talons’ ‘Mechs trying to recover some recon data when the Combine hit us. Another Talons MechWarrior and our CO covered me so I could get to our DropShip. So I could complete the mission."

"And was it worth it?" Garner asked.

Kit stared at him. "Of course it wasn't. Like I told you, the whole mission was a ruse. The Lyrans played us as much as they played the Combine." Kit paused and with an effort controlled the anger rising within her. "The data we brought back was worthless."

Garner nodded, scribbled something in a notebook. "Nevertheless, your comrades and your CO believed in the mission enough to sacrifice themselves for it. And the side effect of that is you came back alive." He finished his scribbling and looked her in the eye. "Do you think you deserve it?"

The journo's words felt like a surprise attack, like being back on Konstance, and they cut all the deeper because they directly and succinctly asked the same question she spent every day trying not to ask herself.

"What kind of question is that… Mr. Garner?" she murmured.

He glanced out at the plaza view, and Kit thought she detected a hint of a smirk on his face. "It's the type of question a lot of our readers will be asking when they hear your story, to be frank," he replied. "I don't doubt you mourn your comrades. But this is a business where people die all the time, and a world full of 'Mech jocks with more experience than you who, I don't mind saying, would stick a knife in their best buddies' backs to be in your position. So…" He quirked an eyebrow and spread his hands, prompting her.

"Here's the only answer I can give you, Dieter," she said, so quietly that the reporter was forced to lean across the table to hear her even in the mostly empty lounge. "One, I didn't ask anybody to do what they did for me. They did it because they were professionals, and because they were good people. Two, the first… warrior… I ever knew was my grandfather, and one of the first lessons he ever taught me was that on a battlefield, who lives and who dies doesn't have much to do with things like ‘deserve.’"

Garner nodded absently, writing in his notepad. “Let’s talk a bit more about your background." he said. “Where are you from, originally?”

Kit exhaled. Part of her welcomed what seemed to be the reporter trying to guide the interview to less fraught territory, another part told her she should stay on guard. “I grew up on Outpost." she said. “Not that far from Rasalhague.”

“In the Combine.”

“Yes." Kit said, “But I haven’t been to Kurita space in a long time… Konstance aside. I came to Galatea before my tenth birthday.”

“And what brought you to ‘the Mercenary’s Star’?” Garner asked.

Kit knew at this point that she had been right not to let herself relax. “My father was a ‘Mech tech too. He figured there was no better world in the Inner Sphere to find demand for his skills.” Dieter raised his eyebrows again and Kit mentally cursed herself for ever letting Covelli talk her into doing this. “Long story short, my father was a much better tech than he was a businessman.”

“Ah, yes, this isn’t the first time the name Soderlund has been in the news here on Galatea.” Garner flipped to another page in his notebook. “Soderlund Technical, Armament, and Reengineering Services… S.T.A.R.S. If nothing else, your father was good at catchy branding.” He chuckled and smiled at her as if he expected her to join him. “I found the blurb in the Galatea City Dispatch from 3015: ‘Two Dead In Fire at Freelance Repair Firm.’ By that point I believe the company was already on the verge of bankruptcy. The circumstances of the blaze were never satisfactorily explained?”

Kit’s stomach twisted and ached like it was trying to gnaw a whole in itself. She was shocked how much the memories hurt. Talking about Konstance and the Talons had been unexpectedly easier, by comparison. That was a pain she was still living with every day. Talking about her parents was like having an old wound ripped open to leave her bleeding out on the floor.

“Never satisfactorily enough for the insurance to pay out." she forced out. She took a long draught of her beer. “Creditors took any assets that could be salvaged.”

“And at that point." Garner said, “You were… sixteen?”

She shook her head slowly. “Still fifteen.”

The reporter scribbled in his notebook, took in the view of the crowded streets below, but Kit suspected he was just waiting the minimum interval he felt decency required before his next question. But the pause only gave Kit more time for dread. “What happened then?”

“My grandfather came." Kit said, slowly. “At first the plan was I would go back to Outpost with him.” The voice was recognizable as her own, but it was as though she was listening to someone else saying the words while she was somewhere far away. “He was shocked when I said I wanted to stay on Galatea. I told him there was nothing for me on Outpost, that Galatea was my best shot of becoming a MechWarrior, like him.” The words were pouring out of her faster now. “He told me I could join the planetary training cadre back home… he was an instructor. I said we both knew the chances of me ever getting a billet in a regiment that were slim to none, and anyway I didn’t want to serve a realm that had cast him aside.”

“So your grandfather was a Kurita MechWarrior?” Garner interrupted.

Kit nodded. “Was. But everything changed after the Coordinator was assassinated by the Tyr in 3004. Everyone in the DCMS with Rasalhague heritage was under suspicion. It didn’t matter how faithfully or how well they’d served. When I was a child, I never thought about why my grandfather was only leading a training cadre on a backwater world. But by the time I saw him again, I was old enough to figure out what they’d done to him.” The unfairness of it, the disrespect Samuel had suffered, still smarted in the recounting, so many years later.

“Anyway." she continued, “Somehow I convinced him to stay here with me. I started looking for work as an apprentice tech, and he said he would do what he could to train me. The idea was he would try to hire himself out as a trainer to merc units here, too. But…” Kit said with a sigh, “it turned out nobody had much use for a gray old MechWarrior with lots of lessons to teach no ‘Mech of his own… let alone one who’s a Drac.” She spat the last word out like a curse. One more humiliation, she reflected. The anger faded, and there was only the sound of her own voice coming once again from far away. “I convinced him to stay…”

Jävlar! She cursed herself. Why am I telling him all of this? When was the last time I told anyone about this? Why is he even asking? “Why are you asking me these things, Mr. Garner?” she demanded. “It has nothing to do with Konstance. Did Covelli ask you to put all this in your story?”

Garner closed his notebook. “Not all of this will necessarily make it into my story. Titus gave me some background information, that’s true. He has good sources in this city, better than ours in some ways.” He leaned back in his chair and finished his drink. “Given us some good scoops in the past, like this one. But the thing about Titus is, he always has his own agenda.”

“I already figured that out." Kit said wryly. “But if that was supposed to be advice, I appreciate it, I guess.”

“Well, let me drop my detached journalistic objectivity and give you some more advice, if you don’t mind." Garner said, standing up. “Figure out what your agenda is, for the future. A ‘Mech cockpit is no place to be fighting the demons of your past.”

Kit laughed in spite of herself. “That’s not a bad turn of phrase, Dieter. I can see why you became a writer.”

The journalist gave her a nod. “I wish you all the best of luck… and we at Salvage will be watching.”

He turned and walked off, disappearing into a gaggle of tourist types that had just emerged from the elevator as the Firebase lounge started to fill up in the late afternoon. A holoscreen over the bar had been tuned to the pre-event hype show for the evening’s arena matches. Outside the crowds on the plaza were increasing in size. Kit was left alone, staring out over the world where her family had known so much heartbreak, and wondering what it still had in store for her.

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