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Tell The World That We Tried

- Chapter 3

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Hoff, Federated Suns

“Purpose of your visit?”

“Business; Mercenary recruitment and hiring.”

“Ah, anything to declare?”

“We had our equipment checked in orbit, so. Itemized list… and affidavit.”

“...Okay, these seem to be in order. Length of your visit?”

“Six months to a year, probably. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“Ah, I can give you a temporary pass, but…”

“I’ll need to confirm it with a higher office for a stay that long. How long will I have?”

“Thirty local days.”

“That’s plenty of time, don’t worry.”

“How many in your party?”

“Right now, four. Overall, three hundred and two adults, seventeen ages zero to twelve, fourteen ages thirteen to seventeen.”


“I was figuring to take care of the full numbers with the long-term visas; four for a trip to go do that will be plenty.”

“All right! In that case, here you are, and welcome to the Hoff!”

I thanked the customs girl as politely as I could, but all I could think was, ‘The Hoff? Oh, Jesus X Christ on a crutch, FASA.’

Meeting with Light Horse[]


Canon treated the Dragoons’ rating system and role as a mercenary clearing house as a new thing, but it turns out that Comstar had always had a bit of competition from all the major mercenary units. The Robes had the final contract enforcement and payment side of things sewn up as far as the units went, but the hiring of individual mercenaries and support specialists wasn’t something that the Mercenary Review Board had any real ‘in’ to affect. When Comstar had tried to run the old Mercenary’s Guild out of business, about seventy years before, they’d done a good job of smashing the Guild’s ability to exert any influence on the hiring of merc units… But they hadn’t been able to dislodge the Guild from its role as an interface and regulator between individual mercenaries and their units.

In short, the Mercenary’s Guild was our trade union.

Combine that with the gathering of private subcontractors, wannabes, and predatory camp followers that inevitably entailed wherever the big gorilla units settled with the fact that anyone who managed to impress them was likely set, and most ‘local mercenary guild hiring halls’ were actually temporary stops around the landholds and long-term contract sites of the major mercenary outfits.

The Wolf's Dragoons certainly qualified, and so did McCarron’s Armored Cavalry, but on Hoff, it was the Eridani Light Horse. There are two things it’s important to know about the ELH.

They are not, actually, delusional.
They like to act like they are.

The deliberately cultivated illusion that the ELH were members of a military that had been defunct for, at this point, centuries wasn’t something even they actually believed to be literally true. No more than the handful of frothing lunatics to be found in any organization their size actually expected the Star League Defense Force to actually return and link up with them seamlessly after having just stepped out for a bit.

What they did have, though, and the SLDF act was a vital part of it, was a consciousness of the Light Horse as a thing, as a tribe or the proverbial ‘band of brothers’. That esprit de corps and the traditions that were woven into it at every level had as much to do with the ELH’s success and endurance as any amount of hardware or military skill…

And that success was absolutely something to take seriously, no matter how threadbare some of its starting assumptions had become.

So, when the Light Horse rep I was meeting with asked if I was interested in contracting with the SLDF (which, again, extinct aside from Little Nicky’s bloodsport cultists, and he didn’t know they existed), I played along.

“If the SLDF needs to contract security or supplemental forces, I’d certainly be interested.” I said, “But at the moment, I’m expecting most of our work to be done for the member states.”

More background? More background.

The era I was in was characterized by a vicious, ongoing feud and struggle for dominance between the five nations, and their ruling noble houses, that had survived the fall of the Star League. At its height, the Star League had encompassed pretty much every known human settlement, sorting existing ‘member states’ into three ranks. At the top, the Terran Hegemony, of which the League as a whole was a de-facto empire. In the middle, bought off, the other five Great Houses of the Inner Sphere, whose descendants were still fighting over the corpse. At the bottom, blatantly exploited and for the most part not involved willingly, were the Periphery nations, like my own native Outworlds Alliance.

When the Star League fell, taking the majority of the SLDF with it, the Terran Hegemony, with its ruling house recently extinct and no independent army aside from the SLDF, had been dismembered between the other Great Houses - the Successor States.

That owed as much to the fact that the SLDF’s commanding general had taken every follower he could off into deep space in history’s most elaborate murder-suicide attempt rather than stick around to get involved in, or for that matter try to stop, the incipient power struggle as it did to anything else, of course.

The Eridani Light Horse, then the Star League Defense Force’s 3rd Regimental Combat Team, had stayed. Over the decades, they’d evolved an elaborate legal fiction that their mercenary contracts were merely temporary billeting and support agreements between the ‘SLDF’ and the ‘loyal member states of the Star League’.

“At the moment,” I continued, “BMSS has a good deal of capital and hardware, mostly from salvage and other windfalls, but we’re a long way from being able to field our full intended complement in personnel. Our CFO is currently negotiating a base site on Daniels-”

The larger and less hospitable of Hoff’s two major continents had some fairly nice bits and decent sized cities thereon, but for the most part the interior was one big desert. Renting a hundred or so square miles to stomp-and-or-roar around in during training had proved surprisingly cheap.

“-and we’ve leased an office in Snapperville to handle hiring and the like through.”

“And you’d like me to clear through your hiring agent’s Guild Certification.” the rep said. He didn’t look more than Older-Me’s age, which given the Major’s insignia he was wearing, was impressive. So was the colossal burn scar that vanished under his eyepatch and explained why he wasn’t in a combat arm any more.

“All five of them,” I agreed, and suppressed a smile at his faint boggle. The certification fees were one of the major direct moneymakers the guild used to finance its own operation as a separate entity from ComStar’s bonding commission, and very few new merc outfits bothered to acquire more than one. For good reason. This conversation was going to cost me something like half-a-million C-Bills.

Fortunately, renewals would be cheaper.

“Do you have the relevant Guild Identification Numbers?” he asked politely.

I popped the briefcase I’d borrowed from Phil Poisson, our CFO, open and started pulling out file folders. The three on the top of the pile went over first. “Ludovic Clair, Lira Suzuki, and Moses Rosenkreutz should be in the Guild’s files already,” I said, “But I myself, and Io Sasagawa-” the last two folders, “-won’t be as yet.”

He gave me a quick grin. “Even better,” he said, riffling quickly through the papers. “MechWarrior, tanker, Jump Infantry, command, and… yes, fighter pilot. Mostly fairly junior for your positions-”

“Me in particular.” I agreed wryly.

He ignored the comment discreetly. “But solid records for their level of experience - and Sasagawa looks like a real jewel.”

“She’s been a lifesaver,” I agreed. “I’ve given some thought to putting her in command, running the unit as, umn, an owner-ranker, but decided against it.”

He blinked. “I’ve heard of one or two operations that did that,” he admitted. “Seems to depend on the personalities, even more than usual.”

“You need exactly the right people on both sides to avoid tangling the chain of command,” I guessed-and-or-agreed, “Yeah. And my last try at a, a mentor-partner didn’t turn out well.”

“Sounds like a story.”

“You could say. Turns out he was a pirate plant that happened to have a legit Comstar resume.” Nothing about why I’d expect Comstar to back pirates. “The boarding operations were a mess.”

My nightmares hadn’t exactly stopped so much as subsided to part of the background of my new life, like periods.

That got me a second look over, with less attention to my lips and bustline and more to my eyes. “I’m told they usually are.” he said, with noticeably more respect.

I smudged for a second, to let him know I’d caught him doing the reevaluation, then let him off the hook with, “That’s where we captured the Leopard, Buccaneer, and one of our Merchants JumpShips. We dropped the prisoners that surrendered on terms on Melcher, and maybe one in ten of their prisoners decided to stick with us rather than staying in the Alliance.”

“Why Melcher?”

“No death sentence.” I said. “Mandatory life for piracy, sure, but no death sentence on the planet at all.”

“Ah. A pity, but if you’d given your word, I suppose the best option.”

A pity that they hadn’t all been killed, Christ, future of the eighties, go fuck yourself. I couldn’t even argue that they wouldn’t have deserved it, but… What a filthy business.

I did my best to keep that off my face as he plowed through what looked like the rest of the paperwork. “The ones that didn’t have terms stayed in the Alliance, too.” I said. “Anyway. Check good for the fees?”

He blinked at me. “‘Check good’?” he repeated.

“Will you take payment by check, or should I arrange a Comstar draft?” I said, reminding myself not to be impatient with the man.

“Oh. Yes, a check is fine. If it bounces…” He trailed off and shrugged, then smiled with a hint of threat in it. “I imagine you’ll have larger problems than your recruiting.”

“Like Comstar making off with seven years’ operating budget.” I agreed, and laughed at his expression.

Recruitment and a Champion[]

Of course we didn’t just have an enormous pile of C-Bills sitting in a bank account somewhere. Or rather, we did, but only about six months’ worth. The rest had been put to work, and frankly if Phil’s ex-wife hadn’t been such a colossal bitch, I’d’ve been inclined to send her a Christmas card for setting me up to snag such an experienced money-man.

With interstellar markets and travel times for even information being what they were, finding good investments was more art than science, and while Phillip Poisson was certainly an artist, he was artist who was used to working in the medium of the Outworlds Alliance’s economy, not the Draconis March, so for the most part we’d gone for low-risk investments like bonds.

Bonds are nice and simple, but between the numbers involved, and the rest of the money that wasn’t ‘the most part’, that still left plenty of paperwork. I was relying heavily on Phil’s judgement and experience, but I wanted, needed to understand what he was doing and if possible, why.

Then, there was all the paper trail to keep track of everything the unit consumed even just sitting in one place - water supplies and food, welding wire and solder, laundry detergent and dish soap, the list didn’t stop going on and on.

So, I was spending most of my desk time in the recruiting office reading reports and inventories - or resting my eyes from them. That didn’t help when I was on the other side of the planet, of course, but it made climbing onto the Leopard I’d named Norway’s Greatest Son for the flight from our reservation on the far side of the planet to the spaceport at Snapperville to take my shift at the office something of a relief.

The rotation I and the other ‘recruiters’ had set up had basically two of us in Snapperville at any given point - one running ‘office hours’ and the other out and gladhanding their way through the bars and watering holes. The weekly flight to the reservation would take one of us out of town and bring a replacement in, letting everybody involved spend three weeks out of five with our people, training, working together, and the rest.

This was necessary, of course, because, one, the interdependent and deadly-dangerous nature of mercenary work meant that signing with a unit was a big risk and people liked to have a measure of their commanders first, two, a lot of mercs just didn’t think in terms of ‘application forms at a business address’ and a lot of support types, like medical personnel, didn’t think any other way, and three, because the Guild bylaws about who was even allowed to perform contract negotiations were ridiculously strict.

Seriously, the hell, guys? I felt kind of lucky I was even allowed to have a specialist present. Did you want people getting cheated?

Anyway. Before I got sidetracked: I was in the recruitment office, waiting to see if anybody would bite and killing time with paperwork when, to give in to the inner Noir Detective, she walked in.

She was tall and made it look great; movie-star face, swimsuit-model figure, nice muscles, and the proverbial legs that went all the way up. Low boots with heels, spandex pants with warning stripes up the side of one leg, jean jacket over what I suspected was an off-the-shoulder blouse thing, brilliant red hair pushed back by a headband that screamed MechWarrior’.

Future of the eighties, thank you.

“Hello,” I said, fairly gently given the awkward nervousness in her face. “Are you here to apply as a mercenary[?”

“Ah, yes,” she said, holding out a data chip and a sheaf of hardcopy. I stood up and leaned forward to take it, smiling internally as her eyes flicked down away from my face for a split second - I hadn’t bothered to button my dress shirt all the way.


I slid the chip into a reader and skimmed over the resume; Sophitia Braun, Solaris native, proficiency testing certs for BattleMech operation, which usually meant learned-at-a-parent’s-knee. That was usually neutral; unofficial instruction was more likely to miss a usually-basic bit of background or theory, but what it did teach ended up known cold. One hitch with a company-scale unit that I’d heard through the grapevine had dissolved a week or so back, diced up between their creditors. And…

I stopped, staring at the entry.

Looked up at her.

She blinked back, mostly innocent with a hint of playful smug.

I set the reader on the desk, got up. “Would you like any coffee?” I asked, walking around the side and out towards the reception area.

“Ah, no, I’m okay,” she demurred, confidence dissolving into a hint of worry.

I came back a moment later with no coffee, holding one of the magazines that all waiting rooms seemed to accrete without trying.

Sat down, opened it, flipped through. I thought I remembered that this one had had…

Yep. Listing of Solaris champions, including headshots.

And there she was.

“Huh,” I said.

I set the magazine aside and went back to the chipreader, finishing my pass through the resume.

“You have a family ‘mech?” I asked, and hid a squirt of amusement at her nonplussed blink.

“Ah… Yes,” she said. “Aspis has been in our family since 2849. My mother started training me to pilot him when I was five.”

“It doesn’t say here what type?” I prompted gently.

She blushed brilliantly, but seemed pleased. Aw, cute. “Oh! Sorry. Aspis is a Centurion. A modified Dash-A-L variant, with jump jets, a hand fitted to the right arm, and a sword.”

I blinked. “A sword.” I repeated.

“Yes,” she confirmed. “It’s actually pretty easy to take off limbs with it. Torso mounted weapons are harder, you have to hit the muzzle with the tip exactly right and not as they’re firing… Um. It works!”

The last was almost defensive.

“I believe you,” I said.

The universe, on the other hand, I was less sure about. I kept going, “We operate a number of Centurions ourselves, though they’re all standard Dash-A models. Overall, I wouldn’t anticipate any trouble fitting you in on that score… What made you decide to leave Solaris? You were clearly doing well there.”

She gave me an incredulous look, then laughed. “I guess you don’t follow Solaris news?” she said.

I shrugged. “I’m from the Outworlds. Even if I’m a MechWarrior myself, we don’t get much news from the Commonwealth, much less Solaris.”

“Well, two things happened,” she said. “I found out that my stable had been giving me only a quarter of the standard contract-”

Despite myself, I winced.

“-and three of the arena managers blacklisted me after…” She stopped, hesitated, then braced herself and finished, with a hint of a blush, “after my ex-girlfriend decided to publish some photos she’d taken as revenge.”

One of the aspects where the ‘future of the eighties’ bit showed itself most clearly in the thirty-teens was in LGBT rights. Bluntly, they weren’t there. Homosexuality existed, even homosexual communities, but they confined themselves to narrow underground niches of society and experience - and if they, we, tried to leave those niches. The consequences could range from uncomfortable through professionally crippling - as Sophitia had found - to personally lethal.

Arguably, trans people were better off - Canopian and Terran medical tech could do a safer and more complete job of any transition than 20th Century doctors had been able to pull off, leaving less chance of being discovered after the fact - but even that was very much a case of it being wise to make a complete break.

“Bastards,” I said mildly, and had to smile at her relieved look. “That won’t be a problem with us.” I added, and sighed internally at the realization that yeah, I’d already decided to accept her application. Not that there would have been that much doubt, I mean, Champion of Solaris, but I knew that that wasn’t why.

And no, it wasn’t because of my powerful and deep seated yearning to tap that.

I mean, that was there, but it wasn’t why either.

No, this was the impulse that made you pick up an abandoned puppy and take it home for a bath and some of your leftover hamburger. She was adorable.

“If anybody does try and make an issue out of it, just let me know - but I wouldn’t expect it. We’ve got a few other people who are out, and if there’s been any trouble, it’s kept too quiet for me to find even when I was looking for it.”

I tabbed through her resume for a moment. “So, you signed with Aaronson’s Angels off of Solaris?” At the fifteen-hundred C-bills a week of a rated-regular MechWarrior, not the three-times-that premium her Solaris title should have guaranteed her. I scribbled, ‘Have Phil give this girl negotiating lessons’ in the margin of my paperwork.

“Mm,” she agreed. “Our first contract was to raid across the Draconis Combine border, five worlds, one after the other, but… We didn’t have our own JumpShip or dropships, and we had three different hired ships back out or charge ‘surcharges’ to pull us off the planets we were attacking. The Federated Suns didn’t go through with the penalty clause for taking longer than agreed to do the raids, since the company had done a good-faith best, but… Between one thing and another, even with everybody in the company taking a pay cut,” Ah, that explained that, “we just couldn’t make it work. I’ve been trying to make my last week’s five hundred stretch since then, but…”

She trailed off, and I sighed. No, they really had been cheating her. “Okay,” I said, “let me get this out…”

I walked around the front of the desk and leaned over her shoulder while I spread one of our contracts out in front of her, laying out obligations, benefits, and so on.

When I glanced over at her, I found her watching my face, looking… tolerantly amused. “I can read a contract.” she told me.

Her eyes were intensely green.

I couldn’t help drawing a breath in between my teeth, though I couldn’t tell you what I was bracing myself for. “Yeah,” I said, “but…”

I reached down and flipped to the next page of the contract. “This bit is a standard pay scale, set by the Mercenary’s Guild and Comstar’s Mercenary Review Board, and, yeah, fifteen hundred a month is the basic rate for a MechWarrior… Before skill, rank, and experience modifiers.”

I could see her eyes move to follow my finger to the table - and then down slightly as she read the other entries. “...Oh,” she said. “So that’s why Captain Aaronson looked so upset when I talked to him about joining everyone else in the pay hold.”

“Yeah,” I said, as gently as I could. The fact that she’d apparently had to raise that additional cut herself made me think a little better of the man. Not well, but better. “You were already doing him a huge favor.”

She let out a little huff of breath. “Thank you for being nice about it,” she said.

“Yeah, well, what was I gonna do? Not tell you? I’m not a bitch.” I said, straightening up and heading back to my seat.

“It’d be good for you,” she pointed out, giving me a look like I was some kind of hero or something.

“Yeah, until word got out I was running scams, or you realized and went for a better offer,” I said uncomfortably. “It’s just money. I can afford that.”

She giggled, which I’d’ve found much more thrilling if I hadn’t been busy squirming. Compliments on my figure? Younger-me taught me how to handle that. Being looked up to for basic human decency? Neither side had any tool in the box for that kind of awkwardness. “So, do you have any other advice for me?”

I struggled for a moment, but there was never any real doubt. “Yeah,” I said, sighing a little, and pointed at the contract in front of her. “Don’t sign that.”

Beat, for comic effect. “Well, not right away, anyway,” I added, once she’d had time to blink and start to process. “Keep that, and get a contract copy for every other unit on-planet, then sit down and compare them to decide what you want to do. Shop around, don’t just go for the first offer. Hell, play us off against each other - see if you can get a little bit of bidding war going.”

Sophitia stared at me for a couple of seconds, then picked the contract up and tucked it into her folder. “Will it bother you if that means I don’t decide to join your unit?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Not as much as getting you on false pretenses would’ve.” I said, and extended my hand to shake hers as we both stood. “Trust is too important in the field.”

“Thank you for the advice.” she told me, with a smile that launched another flight of butterflies through my tummy. “I’ll certainly be back when I’ve made my decision, whatever it is.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” I said, smiling back like a dope, and, all credit to younger-me for the courage for it, added as she reached the door, “After all, even a ‘no’ means I have a chance to ask you out.”

She glanced at me over her shoulder, blushing a little. “We’ll see...” she said, and closed the door behind her.

I sat down to hyperventilate a bit.


Training Grounds,Snapperville Continent - Hoff, Federated Suns

The chunk of land we’d leased as a base was smack in the middle of a single desert the size of Europe; a thousand miles or so to the east, monsoon rains pulled in by summer heat faded it into a broad seasonal grassland, but to the west a major mountain range kept the matching moisture from that side along the coast. What little moisture reached this far inland, or flowed through passes to fall on the near side of the continental divide, had wound itself into a long, twisting, mostly seasonal river system, gradually carving a viciously dissected canyon system straight through the desert.

The canyon bottoms were full of local plants that might as well have been cactus, eagerly feuding with invasive Terran mesquite and sheltering a variety of things that scurried, scratched, bit, or stung. The native rodent-equivalents had venomous barbs at the end of their tails, and they weren’t shy about using them, or about singing at the top of their tiny little lungs like so many frogs.

I wasn’t sure which original Hoffian settler had christened the critters ‘mouspions’, but it was apt.
The uplands between the canyons had smaller, thornier cacti and grasses you could have shaved with in between the primary crop of rocks, but were home to a different species of mouspion, which was both better at avoiding people and less confrontational when cornered, so I’d taken our landlord’s advice and had our camp built on the high ground.

And there was a good bit of it. Planning ahead for the trip to New Dallas and the inevitable time grubbing around in the ruins there, I’d sprung for proper sealed prefabs with full environmental plants. If need be, we could have set up on Hoff’s moon in full vacuum, and they were more than up to keeping the AC on during the midday heat.

The buildings whose functions couldn’t be fit inside a collapsible box, like mech repair gantries, were cheap steel tubing and concrete under corrugated metal skins, and it hadn’t taken long for my people to decide that most work that had to take place in them would be scheduled during the night.

Mobile Field Base (MechWarrior 3 Version)2

Mobile Field Base / Repair Vehicle

At some point, I wanted to come up with some kind of self-portable equivalent of the Mobile Field Bases] I remembered from the MechWarrior games, but they didn’t exist in 3015. As far as I could tell, there was no technical reason they couldn’t - I’d mathed out all the individual bits that’d need to go into one, since they were for the most part the same as the ones that’d go into a carry cubicle on a dropship, plus some odds and ends - but if the notion had occurred to anyone, it hadn’t survived the Succession Wars.

For the time being, though, that was in the future.

Along with the actual base, we’d used our access to fusion engines and heavy equipment to hack some rough-and-ready roads into place between the camp, the nearest town, and the local airfield that we’d all but taken over with our DropShips. Then added some more wherever the landlord and local government asked; it was a good way to build goodwill and cut down on our rent payments. We didn’t have the right grading equipment to finish them off, but this far into the boonies, most vehicles the locals used didn’t need that kind of fine care - and for the ones that did, having the main cuts made for them made things a lot easier on the local road crews.

All that, and the pay and supply runs dropped into the local economy, had built up more than enough goodwill for me to dragoon the local law enforcement and handful of retirees with military experience into showing a succession of my people every blind turn, box canyon, and other ambush spot in our entire reservation, while we set up target cutouts and sensors to go with a dozen different computer models of the entire area, all ready to randomize with each other and feed into training scenarios.

The Davion rep that had dropped by to check things out had been working very hard not to make any impressed or interested noises. So I figured that the locals would have a more official training base moving in when we left. More power to ‘em; I’d already dropped a copy of our combined database of the targets in the files of the civil planning commission. I probably could’ve sold it, but enh, I’ll take the goodwill, instead.

The training cycle put most of the exercises on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with analysis and repair work on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and leave, shopping, and the weekly round trip to Snapperville on Sunday. It’d quickly become a tradition for the returning recruiter to go out with whoever they’d brought back during the Monday exercises, half for the hazing value, half for evaluation, and half to ease both sides (back) into the routine.

Naturally, the betting pools were fiercest on Mondays, and today, I was looking forward to being completely outclassed and humiliated.

“OK, try Datachannel B now.” I said into my neurohelmet’s microphone. I counted myself lucky that most of our gear was from the Second Succession War, and that that meant that the pickups that lined the helmet were light enough for it to feel more like a heavy-duty motorcycle helmet than the monstrous diving-helmet things that passed for modern production.

<<“...Handshake confirmed.”>> Sophitia’s voice replied, and I could see Aspis mime a thumbs up out of my cockpit windows.

“Ohkay,” I said, grinning. While the mechanical bits of her family ‘mech were better tuned than even our factory-fresh Centurions, the computer systems were a lot dodgier, and it had taken nearly an hour of massaging to get to this stage - convincing them to admit they were talking to the central computer system in the HQ truck. “Now we flip to training mode, and hit ‘remote accept’, then confirm.”

<<“Training… remote… Yes, I have it.”>> she read back, more slowly. <<“Downloading?”>>

Now that the tech problem was solved, I leaned back in my seat and stretched, enjoying the physical sensation and the usual narcissistic rush that came from knowing what any onlooker would have made of the sight. “Yeah,” I confirmed, once I was sure I wasn’t going to groan into the mike. “HQ has a whole plan for waypoints, targets, and the lot made up for us, and they’ve batched it all together in one file for our computers to throw at us in the field. Now that we’ve got Aspis talking to the main node, it’s sucking that down by radio, confirming it, and tucking it away, which takes a bit.”

<<“Why not just load the file in the mech bay?”>> she asked.

“Mostly because a lot of the time the planned runs change depending on what we turn out to need to practice more of, so we’d end up doing downloaded ones anyway.” I said. “Also, this way nobody in the field can cheat and read ahead rather than taking things cold.”

Hallelujah for universal Star League technical standards.

<<“Joker, King,”>> came over the radio. <<“We’re showing it working on our end, too. Figure ten minutes for the whole thing and a full crosscheck.”>>

The unit’s radio callsigns were assigned in a pattern. Each company of line forces got a combination of a phonetic alphabet letter and a card suit; spades for aerospace, clubs for Battlemechs, diamonds for armor, and hearts for infantry. Rear-line elements were face cards; Queen for medical, Jack for technical, and King for administrative and (most often), the actual HQ truck that was responsible for coordinating everything.

The artillery section, once we got it manned, would be the Dealer, and the command lance, in play but not tied down to any of the basic units, was Joker.

“We’ve got a short bit at the start,” Lu Clair went on, “so while that’s running, Nutcracker. Why don’t you take your pass through, and we’ll let the Champ catch up?”

‘Champion’ as Sophitia’s personal nickname had probably been inevitable, but I could’ve done without the reminder of that confrontation with Rakis for mine. Still, the fact that you couldn’t pick those yourself was part of the point, and I knew it could have been a lot worse.

Also, I’d been able to shortstop the techs’ attempt to make my noseart into a pair of split-open walnuts by improvising a version of one of my favorite meme images, which made it easier to be philosophical. (The impressive part had been the fact that somebody had actually cared enough to spend money on having Comstar search their databanks for the origin of the connection between a picture of a bird and the phrase ‘I’d sell you to Satan for one corn chip’.)

“Sure, what the hell.” I agreed, and started redoing my seat restraints. Most MechWarriors apparently didn’t bother strapping in properly, not least because the usual standards of dress in the profession - I was wearing a sports bra with mesh sections for better breathability and a pair of bike shorts that would’ve worked just as well in a bikini, to go with my cooling jacket and neurohelmet - tended to leave a lot of room for chafing. I, on the other hand, spent an uncommon amount of time falling down, and had invested in padded strap-covers for the worst trouble spots. “Let’s see if we get a pratfall for the collection today.”

The file-listing we’d used to identify the mechs for pilot assignment seemed to have become permanent in my case, but from the glassy-smooth purr as Marauder No. 2 shifted into motion and across the training course’s starting line, the ‘mech didn’t mind.

This time, the tech crew had set the run up with two targets right out the gate, appearing almost before the destination waypoint. I settled the sights onto the further of the two, about the edge between short and long range down the valley, and checked down to one-quarter speed before I let one of the PPCs loose.

Even at low power, the flash and crash of manmade lightning got a reaction out of the local wildlife; the usual territory-calls coming in through the outside pickups went silent, and there was a splashing commotion from the muddy stream winding down the mostly-dry riverbed as several of the crocodilians basking there decided they wanted the water’s cover right now, thank you.

All that was fairly usual; also as usual, I’d missed the shot.

That was why I’d slowed, though. The more stable firing platform meant that the follow-up autocannon burst did go on target, one paint-loaded practice round spraying across dirt a few meters from the smoldering scar the missed PPC shot had left, but the other two dousing the metal tank cutout in vivid blaze-orange goo.

That done, I throttled back up to a dead run to make up the lost time and charged into shorter range of the nearer target. This one I hit on the first try, which was rare enough to leave me feeling a little pleased with myself as I wiped away the little sweat that was escaping my headband.

There wasn’t time for anything more like proper celebration; the sensor system threw up an alert as I crossed whatever its programmed plan had for a marker line, simulating reactor activations, one in front and one behind.

Throttle down, swerve left, arms decoupled… I acquired the trailing target and fired a ranging shot from that laser; it was barely in range and the jitter from running slashed the aim point crazily all around the target. That was all right. A split-second more to settle the solution and estimate the lead, and I put the same arm’s PPC bolt… well, a couple meters to the right of the bullseye, but the important part was that it was still in the good-hit zone.

I swerved back to the right, torso twisting at the same time to bring the other arm to bear dead ahead and fire - the target was too distant for a laser, this time.

The PPC shot missed.

I kept turning; the left arm came on target first, but I held fire. Core temperature was still way too high; feeding the other PPC would have spiked it right into the danger zone, and…

The turning of my Marauder’s upper body on the waist ring brought the target into the relatively limited tracking range of the autocannon. Despite appearances, it wasn’t quite fixed in its emplacement on the upper right glacis - it had a few degrees of tracking ability, mostly for fine adjustments. I let it center in its zone, then fired again, and hissed in irritation.

The three-shot burst had fallen short, raking through the dirt and battered brush in front of the target.

I glanced at the heat gauge. Technically, it’d be safe… but training was supposed to be about good practice, and I wanted my good practice to be sustainable fire. I waited, made myself wait, until the bar passed the marker and I let the other PPC speak.

This time it was a hit.

My turn had put me into dry bed of the river, a clear expanse of sand and dried mud around a snaking sluggish creek; I stuck with that course, following it around the bend in the valley and up to the next waypoint.

Five more targets appeared one-by-one, and went down in seven shots over the course of a couple of kilometers.

The last waypoint brought me cresting up over the top of an earth dam - they’d said it was rated to take the weight of any of our mechs, but I joggled the throttle to step over it rather than on it anyway - and into the flood control lake beyond, right at the edge of our reservation.

Then, <{squeep-squeep-squeep-squeep}>, four more targets came up, two on either side of the lake.

“Oh, you fuckers,” I said to the absent and invisible techs who’d programmed the course, and turned towards the nearer pair, unloading both PPCs one after the other, then the autocannon at the one I’d missed… and one of the lasers as that missed, too.

The heat alarm was one I went out of my way to avoid hearing, but it was shrieking just like I couldn’t tell I’d been dumped a couple of feet from a twenty-foot tall bonfire.

More importantly, though, turning to face one pair of targets had given the other ones clear ‘shots’ at my rear armor, and I knew that I had seconds at best before my score started assessing the consequences.

So, I crossed my fingers, spread the Marauder’s arms wide… and tilted the machine all the way back to the balance point… and then a little further. The balance alarm blatted harshly, but seventy-five tons of armor and electronics keeled over into the water with what had to be the biggest splash this little retention pond had ever seen, a commotion made even bigger as the mech’s clublike arms ‘slapped’ at the water to slow the fall.

The impact at the end was still enough to drive the breath out of me, but when my eyes uncrossed, I was staring up through my canopy at a meter or so of muddy water and the clear sky beyond.

Most Class Twenty Autocannon fired 165mm shells, but at the angle the targets would be ‘firing’ at me at, even those would just skip off the surface. I was safe… though so were they.

Controls from SEMIAUTO to NEUROASSIST, local scan from COMPOSITE to SONAR, and…

Carefully, I rolled the mech over from its back to its front, without more than a flash of paint showing above the surface for a split second, then did a painfully slow crab-crawl a couple hundred meters to the side, making sure each foot and stub wrist was fully set and moving only one limb at a time. Besides keeping myself from an embarrassingly unplanned tumble, doing it that way meant that the surface of the water stayed undisturbed by currents, turbulence, and eddies that any notional enemy might use to track my position.

With radar and the like shut off, and the reactor’s heat blurred under the cool - well, lukewarm - water, and the surface of the water to act like a thermocline and bounce scans as neatly as shells, nobody without sim telemetry would have any way of knowing where I’d pop up again.

Keeping my own sonar scan going let me watch the lakebottom to make sure I had enough depth to hide in, and eventually, I’d reached the spot I’d picked and tucked the legs forward, folded double under the flattened main torso and only barely submerged.

Then I flipped controls and scans back to combat presets, stood up, and opened the throttle. Laser shots as I stood both missed, but the follow-up - autocannon and PPC - both hit, letting me finally turn to wade up into the last checkpoint.

When I flipped the radio back on, Ludovic Clair was laughing his ass off at me. “What the hell was that, Boss?” he asked around the giggles.

“A brilliant strategy, more or less.” I defended.

He just laughed harder, and from the sound of the background noise coming over his pickup, he wasn’t the only one.

I blew a raspberry into my mike, then said, “So, are we ready to see the Champion’s run? I’m curious.”

“Give us another minute to laugh at you, maybe?”

“I will be timing you.” I told him sourly, which of course only got more laughter.

Despite the larking about, they got Sophitia started in good time, and the contrast was as dramatic as could’ve been wished. I hadn’t seen this run’s video of me, but I’d seen other recordings, taken from the camera clusters we’d installed at the tops of the mesas. I kind of lumbered around mechanically, like wide-load truck.

Centurion (Davion Guard scheme by Blue)

Centurion Medium 'Mech

Even just getting from Point A to Point B, Sophitia made her Centurion look graceful, and when the targets started popping up, she whirled from side to side around her base vector without even slowing down, beams stabbing out at seeming random - and never missing. Twenty-five ton advantage or not, it was blatantly obvious that if I’d tried to fight her, she’d have taken me apart with barely a scratch.

Certainly she took the course apart that easily. She jet-hopped easily over the dam in less than half the time I’d needed; she hadn’t slowed down from a dead run the entire time. I watched through my cockpit windows as she splashed through the holding pond, churned water light with even more mud in her wake, and could see her mech stiffen as she saw the last four targets come up as a group.

Sophitia launched herself into the air on roaring jump jets, spinning in flight. The right arm threw out, tracking the flare of a large laser across one target, followed a second later by both medium lasers, fore and aft, firing in unison and hitting opposite targets - both near an ML’s maximum effective focus distance! - in practically the same instant.

“Oh, now you’re just showing off,” I grumbled, smiling, even as a flight of LRMs roared out near the top of her jump and arced smokily down towards the last target. Most would miss, the practice rockets didn’t have combat grade electronics any more than they had standard propellants or warheads, but it was obvious the salvo was on-target enough to count.

Sophitia ‘oof’ed over the line as she splashed down again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she claimed, but there was a smile in her voice. As her mech walked into the final marker area, Clair came on the line.

<<“Sophitia Braun, one hundred percent hit rate. Looks like we’ll have to do more to challenge you. Asha Blackwing, fifty-six percent hit rate, up two full points from your last first day back. Unfortunately…”>>

“Not enough to save me buying the beer tonight.” I finished, still in good cheer. It was pretty rare that I didn’t end up paying that penalty, so I’d decided to get used to it.

All in all, life wasn’t bad.

Now this[]

I was in my (air conditioned) office on the base when five people walked in through the open door.

Lira Suzuki, Moses Rosenkreutz, and Ludovic Clair were more or less a set, though they didn’t look it. All of them were nineteen, formally Captains, and in command of one of the unit’s ground-force sub-units.

Lira was from Dieron, originally, before her father had signed on with mine so his family could escape the Combine’s notoriously ruthless internal security apparatus - for something he had done, she’d implied. She was even shorter than my own five foot two and looked about four years younger than she was. ‘Not disappointing Little Sister’ was kind of an odd way to run a tank battalion, but she’d been making it work.

Moses was the son of a merc family who’d ended up in infantry when he discovered he couldn’t use a neurohelmet; he was also short, maybe five four in thick-soled boots, and had compensated by developing a set of muscles a Bollywood star would have envied to go with the kind of absolute lack of self-preservation that would have a honey badger edging away nervously. He didn’t command his people so much as drag them in his wake, and we’d had a couple of quiet conversations - the first of them his idea - about chains of command for when those habits caught up to him.

Lu was from the far end of the Outworlds, and he’d sold his family’s land and gone for soldier after pirates killed his family - to learn what he needed to take revenge, originally, though the Second Air Wing had caught up with the dropship of the band responsible before he had a chance. The unit he’d found to learn from had been desperate enough to sign him as a trainee at thirteen, so he was actually the second most experienced member of our command team, assuming you didn’t count the transport commanders.

Which, well, they didn’t, so, good enough.

The last of my unit commanders had taken our aerospace crews well in hand after holding a wing-level command in the Outworlds Alliance Military Command, which by most lights made her the only one of us actually qualified for her job. Io Sasagawa had come as a package deal with her daughter Callisto, but she’d have been worth it even if the kid had been incompetent rather than just green. She’d figured that mercenary work offered a better future for her daughter than a lifetime defending a state that had been slowly but inevitably circling the drain for centuries, and the fact that she was probably right was about as sad a commentary on the state of the universe as could be made.

Seriously. Future of the eighties, go fuck yourself.

The final member of the little group had, when Lu signed off on his recruitment papers, actually asked to avoid an officer position and just remain a line MechWarrior. Despite the liver spots, wrinkles, and enormous bald spot, Malin Reyes was physically fit enough to stand up to the rigors of BattleMech operations, and there was nothing wrong with his mind.

I looked from one to the other to the next as Lu and Moses set down the folding chairs they’d brought in, and the other three occupied the mismatched chairs in front of my desk. “Why do I feel like I’m about to be hit with an intervention?” I asked, trying for ‘light’ to cover the instinctive nervousness.

“It’s not that bad,” Sasagawa said uncomfortably, then visibly braced herself before she said, “We wanted to talk to you about Braun.”

“...Was I not supposed to hire a Solaris Champion, or something?” I asked defensively.

“No!” she denied, then sighed and scrubbed a hand wearily over her face; it was weird to see her professional control fray. “K’so… I don’t know how to explain this.”

Reyes cleared his throat. “Fact is,” he said, “Major and the Captains are mostly here to back me up.”

Oh. That probably meant… “So this is an ‘experienced noncom’ counseling session. OK; what have I missed?”

He chuckled, his few remaining teeth showing in a grin. “So far, you’re doin’ pretty all right.” he said. “Idea is to keep it that way.”

I nodded. “Yeah. All right. Lay it on me.”

Reyes nodded. “‘Kay. First thing, we noticed you bein’ careful ‘bout havin’ good reasons for how you do your Coloneling around Soph; helps you like to explain things to start with. Keep payin’ attention and you should be all right there. Second, though…”

His good cheer sobered. “Some folks in the unit, they ain’t so happy ‘bout workin’ with, or for, a swish.”

It took me a moment to parse the slang. “People’ve been trying to wipe out homo cooties for three thousand years” I said, “and it hasn’t slowed it down that I know of.”

I only realized I was angry after I heard my own voice; I took a breath to calm down. “Anyway, though, I have been thinking about that,” I said. “Admittedly, my first impulse is tough shit and they know where the fucking door is, but I had a thought… The Light Horse, the other units on planet, I imagine they’ve got at least a few people whose closet doors broke for one reason or another - and turned into ‘problem cases’ because of it. I’ve been wondering if we might use that to set up swaps for whoever’s decided they just can’t live without veto rights on somebody else’s love life.”

Lira and Lu both looked uncomfortable at best, but Moses looked… thoughtful. Sasagawa was giving me a stare like she’d never seen me before, and Reyes grinned again.

“That’s not a bad idea,” he said. “I’ve got some old cronies I can put the word out onto the grapevine through, if you like?”

“That’d be a help,” I agreed, and glanced at the others. “I’ll need you guys to put together a list of candidates, OK?”

Sasagawa glanced at the younger trio and nodded. “We’ll have them for you,” she said. “Though… I think there’s a chance that dealing with things this way will raise issues with men who would be able to deal with one or two homosexual comrades, but be concerned by increasing numbers.”

I shrugged. “Eventually, we’ll reach an equilibrium point. I’m hoping that having that list will serve as a release valve to buy time until we do.”

She nodded. “If we put it right, I think we can count on that.” she said.

I rapped my knuckles on my desk - which was really just a tabletop set on top of a couple of file cabinets. “Good,” I said. “Questions, comments, concerns?” That was my usual way of starting to wrap up a meeting.

“Idle curiosity,” Reyes said. “If you was thinkin’ ‘bout this on your own, why not raise it ahead a’ time?”

I grinned at him. “Because most of our people would get screwy ideas about authority chains. I’ve only known you for about two months, and Sasagawa’s spent her entire career in regular military where the only advice about in-unit relationships is ‘Don’t’.”

Sasagawa herself laughed. “Not quite that bad, but… Yeah, that makes sense.”

I made a shooing gesture. “OK, then, there’s nothing left but my raging girlcrush, and frankly, that’s nobody’s business but hers and mine, and I know we’ve all got paperwork.”

“I don’t.” Reyes pointed out.

“I can fix that for you if you like.” I offered, as sweetly as I could, but he was already on his way out the door, and did nothing but speed up at the sound of my voice.

New Years Surprise[]

I had to be amused that, between one thing and another, it turned out to be exactly one day short of a year after I became me, out of the merger of Younger-Me and Older-Me, before I went out to join an actual party for the first time since everything changed.

But on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 3015, I could finally break that streak and let my figurative hair down. (My literal hair was swept up around a black-laquered stick pin into a bun that looked casual and artless and had actually taken a paid specialist an hour to get right, and it had been worth every penny.)

I was young, rich, and - without false modesty - good looking, and I’d arrived at the party on the arm of a girl I was coming more and more to genuinely like.

I never uttered the dread words, never taunted Murphy’s ghost or the malicious fates, but apparently they’d been listening for the opportunity, and their revenge for offering it arrived as a wave of urgent com calls, beeping their way through the guest list of the Mercenary Commanders’ Ball.

I pulled out my own noisemaker and read the text on its little pager display. [{JUMPSHIP ARRIVED NADIR POINT MONOLITH CLASS NO CIVILIAN SCHEDULED LIKELY COMBINE INVASION!}]

...Well, fuck.

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