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Tell The World That We Tried

- Chapter 5
[]


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WITH FINGERS WALK THE DARKNESS DOWN...


New Contract, New Headaches[]

Fianna, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


In the end, I was confident that Captain Gars would see the funny side of things, but ‘in the end’ was not ‘now’. Once we had him and the hot potato he represented safely handed over to the Davion regulars - who had their own words to say about his inspection tour, once they got over their shock - I took our pay and the last handful of recruits from Hoff and booked it to Galatea, safely out of the Federated Suns.

Three months aboard ship to get there was more than enough time to start going stir-crazy, but between organizing a couple of tournaments - sim pod deathmatches, martial arts, cards, anything that would kill time and distract people really - and the fine old military traditions of ‘voluntary’ makework and cross-training, there had been no cases of actual Space Crazy. I’d gotten to hand out trophies for the tournaments, but sadly I’d been just as banned from the kickboxing brackets as Sophitia had been from the sim pods...

I got horrified looks every time I said it, but I was pretty sure that the traveling-from-place-to-place part of the job was my favorite part of being a mercenary. Nothing to do but read, practice, and try to work out after the fact where I’d gone from ‘dating, probably’ to ‘live-in girlfriend’.

In contrast to the relaxed pace of travel, landing on Galatea itself had been two months of trying to be ten places at once in the middle of the proverbial zucking foo. As much as I’d hated the hassle, it had been good to us as far as recruitment went. The permanent pool of people and specialists at the Mercenary’s Star was night and day compared to the ones that had set up shop on Hoff. We’d gotten enough MechWarriors to fill in both of our remaining companies - two with their own rides, a Thunderbolt and a Panther, of all things, bringing our unused reserve up to a full lance - and Lira had managed to assemble enough armor crewmen to bring the rest of our Puma Assault Tanks out of storage.

Speaking of which, I really would love to read the original design documents on those things. Flank-mounted LRMs? The heck?

Anyway. I hadn’t had any luck finding an engineer qualified to do the planning side of major refit work, so for now we were stuck with more-or-less stock hardware. I had the best of the people we did have headscratching their way through trying to rearrange the Puma’s missiles, but at this rate it’d be years before they got anywhere. I - and more importantly, our Puma crews - would just have to live with the screwball launchers.

After a week or so of exactly the same (bad) news as far as artillerists were concerned, I’d gone out and dropped more money than I was really comfortable with on outright hiring a smaller merc unit that specialized in artillery - and had the six track-mounted Thumpers to prove it - to turn a selection of gormless farmboys reckless enough to consider infantry and wiser and more nervous drivers from our motor pools into a trained artillery battalion.

Well. ‘Trained’. They were green as hell, but better than nothing.

Anyway. About the time our artillery crews could officially hit the broad side of a map grid, the House Steiner hiring rep dropped by - and we had a contract.

It was even a short trip. Four jumps and we were landing and moving into our new garrison digs around the middle of August, 3016.

Our charge was an agricultural world, one of several in the area whose products fed through the two jumps to the industrial hellhole of Hesperus II. The fact that Hesperus was the largest single producer of BattleMechs in the Inner Sphere - quite possibly in all of human space, depending on just what unknown numbers the Clan worlds could turn out - made the sites that kept its miners and factory workers fed of not-insignificant strategic importance themselves. Besides that, it was also on one of the secondary invasion routes to the forge-world, which was a second count of reasons for the Commonwealth to keep the place well secured.

The original settlement of the place had been direct from Terra. The starting population had been about equal parts conflict refugees fleeing fighting in Africa’s Congo Basin, and climate refugees from the lower parts of the Mississippi river valley in North America whose homes had been wiped away by rising sea levels. In the more relaxed climate of the day, the two populations had merged without enough trouble to register on the history books, setting up agriculture of imported and native species, light mining, and industry suitable for both.

Unfortunately, they hadn’t set up things like microchip factories, and the Outer Reaches Rebellion and later collapse of Terran Alliance interstellar influence had left the planet high and dry with a rapidly crashing quality of life. Corporate speculators from Skye, when they came sniffing around, had bought up much of the planet’s land and industry for pennies on the dollar and set themselves up as what rapidly evolved from de-facto to de-jure nobility, and shifted things around to suit themselves - even to the point of changing the system’s name from Abri to the current Fianna.

Despite that, French was the local language, Roman Catholicism the cult of choice, and the local liturgical calendar said that this time, Lent started in September.

Given all the Louisianan settlers going into the planet’s makeup, and the fact that a full half of the planet’s population lived in the capital city, that meant that the Tuesday before - this Tuesday - was a hell of a bash.

The nobility had always looked a bit cockeyed at that fact, so over the centuries, the ceremonial organizers of the Carneval had come to be known as The Secret Masters. They stepped out of their ordinary lives in the season ahead of the bash - about five standard months, given the long local year - to put on distinctive black butterfly masks and get everything squared away and planned out. These days, their identities were hardly actually secret, anymore than the thousands of staff members and volunteers who actually carried out the preparations were disguised by their little black domino masks - but it was as much part of the pageantry as the music, floats, and beads.

Even the revelers wore masks, though theirs were brilliantly colored and patterned, whether they were hand-made feather and fabric art pieces or cheap molded plastic on elastic strings. They filled most of the massive city’s streets, teeming under the glass skyscrapers and the wrought-iron balconies of the apartment blocks, throwing confetti and flowers down into the canals that had replaced shifting delta streams.

Here and there along the railings that protected most of the drunks from falling in, fully uniformed police officers (in little black masks) waited to intercept the determinedly stupid from doing a header into the inevitably filthy water, or worse, into the little boats of the Pirate Bands, poling their splendidly dressed way along in the wake of their Champions, the equally-decorated Industrialmechs that bore great carved and woven banners emblazoned with the ‘secret’ symbols of the city’s various neighborhoods.

At the height of the Star League, hundreds of different Bands had clashed for glory, honor, and the sheer fun of it, competing to use their punting poles to knock away their rivals’ banners, and driven a rich tourism industry.

The long decline of the Succession Wars had taken a toll; fewer industrialmechs were around, fewer owners were willing to risk damage when parts were so rare and so dear… And the pilots for them could be rarer still. I’d learned all this when one of the Secret Masters dropped a ‘whisper’ in my ear, wondering if one of my pilots would be willing to moonlight piloting a Champion.

I ducked Marauder No. 2 under a bridge and straightened on the far side, wading forward with a deliberate shuffle at a fraction of top speed. It’s hard to get a BattleMech to actually dance. Balance, grace, timing - you have to be pretty damned good to get them all going in sync rather than fighting the gyro the whole way, and being honest, I wasn’t just not good, I was a pretty shit pilot.

On the other hand, the funky chicken was a pretty shit dance, so I was able to make it almost look deliberate as I moseyed down the canal with hips wobbling and elbows flapping. The massive crest of blazing iridescent polymer ‘plumes’ I’d had the sniggering techs install over the black-and-royal-blue parade paint wobbled drunkenly, well out of time with my miserable attempt at a boogie.

The crowds, equally drunk, cheered, which just showed that it was about time the bartenders cut them off.

The Captain, perched in a web of safety lines on the armor outside my opened cockpit, pointed at the rival crew’s mech coming around the corner ahead of us. “There she is!” he said, and called down to the crews in the boats, “Hey, get ready!”

The Crew that the Secret Masters had matched the Centurion in front of us held the neighborhood around the main police academy - a training ground - and the decorators that they’d introduced to the regiment’s bemused but increasingly enthusiastic techs had blended the white and gold the department used with the brown, gold, and scarlet that same machine had carried into Solaris’s arenas, just like the flashing patterns of reflective ‘beads’ fixed in mosaic along the visible armor panels of the torso showed scenes of hard practice and the triumph it brought.

Scattered reflectors in the black sections of my own armor made that into a starfield that the otherwise ridiculous plumes surrounded like a corona, and a progression of battles and flying DropShips marched up the blue bend that crossed the torso - ‘war among the stars’, as the designer who’d set it up had put it. I couldn’t deny that it fit with being the neighborhood around the garrison base.

I took my hands off the controls for a moment as I stood still so that the Captain could call the ritual challenges - and trash talk - across to his opposite number. My schoolgirl French had been improving since we got the contract, both by study and practice, but I was still well short of being able to make heads or tails of Creolized local dialect in full flower - and with the need to both manage relatively complex movements and avoid swamping or stepping on the nearby boats, my fingers were starting to cramp.

I finished popping the last joint just about the time the two Captains wrapped up their call-and-response, and muttered “Hang on,” to mine as the next phase of the festivities started up. By tradition, the two Champions were supposed to make some series of flashy and distinctive movements, showing off and pretending to psyche each other out before the boatmen and their poles ventured onto the attack. They couldn’t interfere with each other, to keep casualties down, and there were pretty strict limits on how much we pilots could try to protect our banners, so this exchange was our moment.

As expected of our opponent, the showing off was spectacular. She picked long banner pole up and spun it around like a majorette leading a marching band, the flag fluttering and popping with the speed of motion, once or twice letting go of the thing entirely to send it spinning into the air to catch again on the way down. I wasn’t sure how impressive it would’ve been considered at person-scale, but in a battlemech it was ‘fuck me running’ territory.

Even if Marauder No. 2 had had, y’know, hands, there was no way I could ever have matched it.

Fortunately, I knew a secret that I could exploit mercilessly.

I flipped a direct audio channel open and said, “Hriiiiii… Wheep wheep wheep!”

Tilting the ‘mech’s torso forward almost enough to dip the cockpit into the water flared the crest of ‘feathers’ almost vertically, into a broad fan of color, while short, bobbing steps forward in time with the ‘wheeps’ looked, with the feet underwater, almost like quick hops. Two more repetitions, and then I changed it up, leaning back closer to true and lifting both arms as high as I could, with the elbows rotated, properly revealing the shockingly bright blue ‘feathers’ along their undersides.

Tilting the torso as far to the right as it would go went with “Bzaww bzaww…”

Bob. “Wark!”

Tilt to the left. “Bzaww bzaww…”

Bob. “Wark!”

And so on in that vein.

The Centurion was paralyzed, trembling a wobbling in its tracks as the intelligence controlling it checked out into a place of aching ribs and oxygen debt, barely able to keep her 'mech on its feet much less attempt to protect her banner.

Success.


Interview with a Mercenary Commander[]


“I enjoy nature videos,” I explained to the reporter and his camera crew later, still wearing my little black domino mask. “Documentaries on wildlife, that kind of thing. It’s a way to kill off-time when you’re in transit, and you can never have too many of those. Those vid-makers tend to like to check in on how Terran birds of paradise are doing on any planet they’ve been imported to, because birds are always cute and their courtship displays make good footage. So, that’s how I knew that I could disable my opponent with laughter, because a certain pilot who looks suspiciously like Sophitia Braun thinks that birds of paradise are the funniest thing in the universe.”

I paused for comic effect, then sighed. “It was a clever plan, so of course it turned out to be useless and we lost anyway. Ah, well, I got to make her laugh at least.”

He gave me an uncomfortable look, then tried to prompt, “That’s a surprisingly frank way of putting it.”

“I refuse to be ashamed of being in love, any more than I’m willing to be ashamed of having grey eyes,” I said flatly. “Anybody who wants to claim it’s a moral failure, or some kind of sickness, is wrong, and probably needs to pick some real problems in their own lives to worry about, instead of mine.”

“Um,” Wide, nervous eyes.

I deliberately relaxed and sat back in my Interview Chair, smiling. Threatening the man, while personally satisfying, would break the impression I was after. “Hey, is, ‘Why become a mercenary’ on your question list there?”

Easing off got his aplomb back. “No, but I’d like to hear it,” he said, with a smile that probably had thousands of local teeny-boppers go pitter-pat.

Only about ten percent of my mind needed reminding that I was in a relationship.

“There are basically three kinds of people who become mercenaries,” I explained. “The first kind are the ones who’ve been raised to it, who inherit a tradition along with the weapons and mechs - for them, it’s the only life they know, just as much as any backwoods farmer. The second kind, they’re the ones that earn those protest placards outside our gate - there’s enough people in the worlds that there’s always somebody who just plain likes fighting and killing, and channeling and regulating that into military work isn’t the worst response by a long shot.”

We’d had a pretty regular crowd stationing themselves outside our base, mostly without incident. Especially after I managed to get in touch with enough off-duty police to explain why it was a bad idea for everybody to have them right up against the gates.

“The third kind are the ones who are desperate,” I finished seriously. “Who absolutely need the cash, or to have a hard-forged tribe at their back. People like me,” I admitted. “There are ‘Dykes Die’ and fag-bashing signs in next to the pacifists out there, and if it was just me walking out those gates, I’d be lucky if it was just a beating or rotten fruit and not a nice spot of gangrape.”

The camera guy’s fingers were white-knuckled on the grips of his machine, but he held the lens steady while my interviewer fought to avoid meeting my eyes.

“But, my point is,” I continued, “it’s not ‘just me’, it’s me and all my friends.” I gestured around the office, metaphorically taking in the entire compound and all of my people in it. “And we’re the ones with the tanks and BattleMechs, so the only ‘defenders of decency’ you see on the picket line are the ones who are actually brave, rather than just looking for an acceptable target to abuse to feel better about themselves. The only people who could make something of it have all got much bigger concerns than my private life.”

“People like Duke MacLaine?” the interviewer prompted.

“Or Comstar’s Mercenary Review Board, or LCAF - Uh, Lyran Commonwealth Armed Forces, obviously - Command or any of its opposite numbers in other states.” I agreed. “Comstar’s stock in trade is neutrality and impartiality as much as it is communications; they can’t afford to be perceived to care about anything. The national militarizes, meanwhile, are too busy fighting each other or trying to discharge their other responsibilities to consider their employees’ sex lives in any terms other than ‘does this open a vulnerability?’ - and my being out of the closet means no, it doesn’t. What’s SAFE going to do, threaten to expose me as a -” I pitched my voice into abject horror “-depraved bisexual?” Back to scorn. “Please.”

“If they don’t care about that, what do they care about?” he asked, and gestured out the picture window that let my office overlook what was probably the quietest open space in the city today. “What made Tharkad decide that you were what they were looking for our world?”

I held up three fingers on one hand, then folded them down one by one. “First,” I said, “Size. Fianna is too populated and significant to trust to just a company, but isn’t one of the key strategic points that can justify the commitment of a full regiment. Closer to the latter than the former, given the role your exports play in feeding Hesperus and its mining worlds, right? So, a mech battalion with organic support is about right.”

“‘Organic’?” he asked.

“Permanently attached and included,” I expanded. “Second, and the other primary one, is that our experience level is right. We’ve seen enough action to know that we won’t dissolve at the first sight of an actual enemy, so we can be trusted with serious second-line work rather than just bean-counting, but we’re also not an experienced veteran outfit that would be better used in raiding or offensive action.

“Third, a relatively minor factor, we did our recruiting in either the Outworlds, the Federated Suns, or on Galatea. We only have a handful of people who were born in the Free Worlds League, none of them with what you’d call strong ties of loyalty there - and most of the more local competitors have had more, mmm, cross pollination. There’s no guarantees, of course, but it’s unlikely that the League has any agents to spy on us.”

“Do you think that Tharkad expects us to be attacked?”

“I don’t think they do,” I said. “Like, call it a one in three chance of an attack - but the amount of certainty they can put that down with is plus-or-minus thirty percent. If it does happen, probably we’ll only see a raid aimed at shutting down the spaceport, like the one I gather happened in 2980.”

“That took five years to rebuild from.” he said, looking horrified. “Why would they want to cut off our imports like that?”

“Local or standard?” I asked interestingly. Fianna’s local year was about twenty-seven standard months; it orbited well out from a hot white star.

“Local, of course.” was the answer.

“Weird to think about that being a real length of time; Alpheratz’s local year is only three months,” I mused, then shook the thought off. “But no, more seriously, the League doesn’t care in the slightest about your ability to import things. They care about your exports. Flour, dried meats & fruits, nutrient supplements - one way or another, Fianna supplies something like eight different planets with at least some of those things. Without that, food needs to be imported from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, probably a number of jumps away, or there’d be major famines. Jumpships carrying Mammoths full of food can’t be used for military operations, which’d make things completely worth it from the League’s perspective.”

“How do you plan to stop them?”

“That,” I said flatly, “I can’t tell you. If we do get a League raid, every clue I drop to the watcher I’m sure SAFE has tuned in to your broadcast is another risk to my people’s lives and your world’s safety - the better they can predict us, the better they can counter us. I will say that unless they decide to commit an entire regiment to the job, they’ll find the price higher than I expect them to be willing to pay.”

“Is that your mission, then? Making sure our planet is safe? Or just Tharkad’s investments? There’s been no sign of going after the raiders on Nouveau Congo.”

That seemed rather loaded to me. But… “For the FWL force, we can push them off the continent and offworld at any time; any one of my battalions would outweigh and outnumber them handily, but the Duke doesn’t agree and won’t authorize it.” I shrugged. “Meanwhile, as far as defensive objectives go, we have an entire list, explicitly in our contract,” I said. “Most of it’s minutia and legalese, but the long and short is that we’re here to protect the lives and property of Lyran citizens, and everything else flows from that. We’re under Duke MacLaine’s orders because that reinforces law and order; we’re to protect the starport because of the role it plays in supporting millions of other lives; we’re to keep enemy forces out of the city because of the risk of casualties and property damage… et cetera, et cetera,” I said, making the requisite ‘roll on’ hand gesture.

The reporter looked puzzled. “How does lending your BattleMechs out as Mardi Gras Champions help that?” he asked.

“Well, besides helping hone their skills, and keeping them from getting so bored they lose their ability to react and adapt,” I said, “it helps break the image of our being nothing but the ‘Grim Merchants of Death’. It draws us out of this compound and out into the city, in people’s minds if not so much in fact, and puts a human face on things. The difference between ‘visitors’ and ‘intruders’, if you like - and the novelty value draws a lot of interviews just like this one, which double down on that effect.”

“That doesn’t seem very compatible with your only needing to worry about Tharkad’s opinion of you.” he pointed out challengingly.

“Every time those crowds of morons outside the gate pysche themselves up, they push a little closer,” I explained. “And military bases of all kinds are off limits for good reasons. I don’t have… discretion… about that. LCAF regs, the Duke’s orders, and our own experience… If the protest groups try and get close enough to rush the gate, for whatever reason, we won’t have any choice but to keep them out by ‘any and all means necessary’.

“That’d be an escalation with risks I’d rather avoid, because if these so-called pacifist idiots break out the cobblestones and Molotovs…” I trailed off and sighed. “Anything at all that takes the wind out of their sails before that point is worth trying.”

“...You’d shoot at protesters?” he asked in horror.

“Our contract defines rules of engagement for given, um, tension levels. At the one we’re at, we’re expected to act like we’re expecting suicide bombs,” I said grimly. “If an idiot decides to act like one of them in front of our guards, it doesn’t matter that we know the difference between a threat and a protest. We’re in breach if we don’t react. I’m about at the point of blocking out a couple days of my schedule to just sit in the PPSC-” given that the city of Saint Cabrini represented fifteen of Fianna’s hundred million people, the local police department had more officers than I had men by about an order of magnitude. No matter what the actual firepower difference was like “-station foyer until someone gets frustrated enough to admit they have time for me.”

“You haven’t been able to make an appointment?”

“Nope,” I confirmed. “but showing up in person worked to get our water hookups turned on. We didn’t bother with power, we just tucked a spare mech away in a corner with jumper cables.”

Not literally jumper cables, of course, the kind of wiring you needed to drain a base’s worth of power out of the Nissan 200 fusion engine in one of our spare Centurions was thicker than my arms, but enh, close enough.

I had to laugh at his expression. “Yeah, I know how that sounds,” I said, “but we have them in reserve for other reasons, so it only makes sense to get more uses out of them.”

“Put that way, I suppose it does. Going back a little… You said you were from… Alpheratz?”

“Capital planet of the Outworlds Alliance,” I confirmed. “K-class star, and the orbit’s kind of wobbly, so it tends to be blazing hot for about two weeks, warm for a week before and after, then cool the other two months. A lot of terran animal life does OK, and some kinds of plants, but the native ecosystem is still alive and well. Population-wise, you’ve got a big divide between Omniss, who are usually living in the countryside and pointedly not sending back their census returns even if they pay taxes, and the city folks like me who don’t have any religious objections to high technology. My father, who I inherited the unit from, was the landholder to one of the continents on Ramora, another OWA world - but that went to the legitimate sibling.”

“What do you think of Fianna, in comparison?”

“Is it always so hot here?” I whined.


Problems with the Locals[]

Fianna, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


The head of the Prefecture of Saint Cabrini Police Force - Préfecture de police de Saint Cabrini - was an older woman about my own less-than-imposing height and maybe two-and-a-half times my weight. Watching her step around her desk to extend her hand to shake, the martial arts computer at the back of my brain that Younger-Me had programmed estimated that only about a third of that difference was fat.

“Not the usual reaction to my weight,” she said, her grin obvious given the 70% cocoa skin tone that was normal on this planet. “I don’t see many people who decide to be more polite.”

“An actual fight would be hard to guess without knowing how fast you are,” I said, and accepted the waved offer of a seat in front of her desk. “But if you got your hands on me, you’d crush me like a grape.”

She laughed and dropped into her chair with a thump. “Probably not. I was always more comfortable with a bean gun than in a brawl, but it’s good to know I’ve managed to keep in shape.”

We were both being modest, and within her own competitive weight class - meant most literally - her lack of reach would have been a disadvantage… But I genuinely would rather not have gotten in a fight with the woman, and not just for situational reasons.

“I’d say so,” I agreed, and laughed. “I’ve been learning how hard it is to manage with my paperwork, I can’t imagine yours.”

She rolled her eyes. “You would have to remind me,” she grumbled humorously, then sobered and straightened in her seat. “On the record, you’re here to request crowd control officers be stationed around Camp Robichaux, to keep the demonstrations from pushing in on your security perimeter.”

“That’s correct,” I said. “I don’t know if you saw the interview I gave Channel 3, but my contract explicitly puts security posture and rules of engagement under Duke MacLiane’s control, and I have written orders requiring lethal force be applied before permitting intrusion - and prohibiting sending my infantry out with bayonets or clubs to clear things that way.”

She nodded. “You’ll have your people. Judging by the size of crowd you’ve been seeing, we’ll start you with half a dozen during the day and two during night hours, and we can work up from there if things get more serious. I’ve been required by the Duke to ‘respect your commitment to protect your people’, so I can’t ask anything about your own arrangements, you understand.”

“Outside of the base proper, I’m allowed to follow your lead,” I said, and spread both of my hands, palm up. “You’ve got the crowd specialists, you’ve got the experience. I have, at best, some people that have been ordered to disperse outright riots in BattleMechs once or twice. I’ve got a container of tear gas rounds for standard SRM launchers on order from Hesperus, and some firefighting gear with hoses, but my people are soldiers, not cops. I figure that we can pass your people on site some of our headsets or com frequencies if they want to ask for our help for one reason or another, but ideally, I’d really like if that never came up. If there’s something you need from me that can make that less likely, let me know.”

She winced, and nodded. “Having open communication lines is better than not.” she agreed. “We have a packet we have for event planners who expect to need police crowd control. I’ll have Susie-” her secretary, I guessed “-find a couple of copies for you when we’re done here.”

Not waiting for me to agree, she reached down and hit a control out of sight on the bottom of her desk.

When she looked back up at me, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I got the impression that the warmly humorous woman I’d been speaking to a moment before was a mask that had been put on by an unyielding icon of will and iron. The real Wilhemina Codrescue was the woman I was talking to now, not the tool she used to handle the political parts of her job.

“Off the record,” she said, and even her voice was different, harsher, “Somebody’s fucking with both of us.”

I sat up and paid attention. “Like how three quarters of the crowds I’m getting are astroturf, not real protesters?”

She gave me an odd look. “What in the world is ‘astroturf’?”

“Plastic fake grass for sports arenas,” I said. “In this case, a metaphor, as opposed to an actual grass-roots movement. Most of the ones that we’ve been seeing who were actually angry are the gay-bashers; the ‘murderers go home’ crowd stick too closely to the script, and my more experienced people say they’ve got the wrong feel to be genuinely pissed.”

She gave a thoughtful grunt of understanding. “Yes, exactly. I had ‘carefully anonymous’ orders from Skellig Palace to keep my people away from Camp Robichaux no matter what happened, and specifications on how I had to phrase any press releases that boiled down to pouring gasoline on the fire.”

Ohhhh fuck. “Somebody’s trying to create an incident,” I said. “But they have to keep appearances, hence why my giving that interview was enough to force them at least a little bit off your back.”

“Somebody senior enough in the Ducal government to send from the Palace’s own hardware without any worry about covering their tracks.” she confirmed, and the hairs standing up on the back of my neck tried to reach escape velocity.

“Lovely.” I said.

She snorted. “Until I can track who this is down and pin them under every charge I can find, watch your back.” she told me. “We don’t know what they actually want, or what other resources they have to get it.”

I nodded. “I have a couple more ideas about pushing back against the smear campaign, at least,” I said.

“Legal, I hope.

“Immaculately.”


Negotiations and Unpleasant Discovery[]

City of Saint Cabrini - Fianna, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


“Okay, I can admit it,” I said gracefully. “You were right and I was wrong. I’m enjoying the hell out of it.”

Sophitia looked pardonably smug. “I told you. Immortal Warrior might be ridiculous, but it’s well plotted and written.”

I laughed. “I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s fun stupid, at least. Where do you want to add it to the rotation?”

We were sitting at an outside table at a little cafe in the shopping district slash park at the southeast end of Finger Island.

Saint Cabrini had been built, like New Orleans, in the delta of the main river draining an agriculture-heavy continent. Fianna had four, two island and two isthmus-linked, and three quarters of the largest and most temperate of them was the same watershed. It was one of the reasons the place was such an agricultural success - not only did it have a lot of good farmland spread between two continents, but most of that farmland could ship its produce by river to just two central collection points, Saint Cabrini and Saint Isidore. Once the food had been processed, dried, and compressed there, a simple water link brought anything headed offworld to the spaceport at Saint Cabrini.

Un-like New Orleans, Saint Cabrini had been designed to rest well above the waterline of most storm surges, built on stilts and pilings and dredged-and-packed artificial islands by planners who’d consciously created old-feeling districts on the more outlying ones, only four or five stories and faced in brick and stone, with wrought-iron balconies and all the rest you’d expect.

Since the river flowed northwest to southeast, and since Finger Island extended further out from the rest of the delta than most of the others, we had a great view over the water at the mouth of the river and the two skyscraper-filled islands that framed it.

Sophitia hmm’d thoughtfully. “Well, I have to admit that I haven’t been enjoying Last Court as much as I thought I would,” she said, and I nodded. Last Court was set amid the ‘hostage court’ among the noble prisoners of the Amaris Empire, most of whom had ended up murdered or executed, and its writers had pulled no punches.

“Sounds like a plan,” I said, not without relief as much as I tried to hide it. I didn’t have the same kind of problems with depression that Older-Me had, but ‘catharsis’ still wasn’t my first reaction to that kind of program.

She giggled. Well, I knew I wasn’t a good actress.

I saw the cafe’s host come out onto the rear patio with a man and a woman in business dress in tow. “Looks like it’s showtime.” I said, and she twisted in her seat to watch them come.

Lord, I loved to watch that woman move.

I stood up and extended a hand to shake as the other half of the lunch meeting joined us. “Monsieur Savimbi, Madame Ingles. Thanks for agreeing to meet us.”

He shook my hand firmly; she seemed worried about cooties. Both of them were a shade or two paler than the usual local dark skin tone, both probably somewhere in their sixties. “Our pleasure,” Savimbi said in a reedy voice. “I’ve been impressed with your interviews. Usually, military commanders seem stiff and awkward, but you’ve been smooth enough to seem practiced, and communicated some fairly complex points quite clearly.”

“If nothing else,” Ingles said, “I’m curious why you’d bring both of us along for your date.” She didn’t quite spit the word, and I got the distinct impression that Savimbi very much wished he was close enough to step on her toes.

I smiled with many teeth. “Well, why don’t you sit down and we can get our orders out of the way, and then I’ll explain?”

There was a tense near-silence as the waitress came by to get their drink orders. I tried to get things flowing by asking questions about the food - the menu was very local, and all in French - and Savimbi probably would have cooperated if Ingles hadn’t been glaring daggers at all of us. It would have been easier if she didn’t need to be present, but…

“Now that that’s out of the way,” I said eventually, “I can stop being coy about things. Madame Ingles, you’re the President and main business mind of the smallest of the three Trivision production studios operating on Fianna. Monsieur Savimbi directs almost all of your programs and handles most of the production side. You’re currently producing two separate Trivid series, both technically intensive and quite expensive. One is doing well enough to stay in the black, and the other…”

Savimbi sighed. “Has proven to be a mistake.”

Ingles was watching me carefully, and with a bit less disdain now that we were on business.

I nodded sympathetically. “Meanwhile, I have what might delicately be called a public relations problem. Demonstrators, slanted news stories… Everywhere I turn there’s something calculated to make my people look worse and offend all our neighbors. I need some way to lower those tensions. Counter-propaganda.”

“Which you want us to make for you,” Ingles said. She still looked like she was sucking on a lemon, but the other half of her expression was thoughtful. “You want, what, a new show glorifying the noble mercenary lifestyle?”

I shook my head. “No need to go that far. I was thinking of a documentary series, a look at the day-to-day lives of my people, interviews about where they’re from and what their lives were like…”

Savimbi was nodding. “Less expensive without the need for technical effects or detailed sets and costuming, quicker to shoot…”

Sophitia cleared her throat. “I have a list of people in the regiment with interesting stories,” she said. “I haven’t been able to convince all of them to share, some of these are difficult personal memories, but you should have enough to make at least a good start.”

Savimbi paused and looked at her intensely for a moment, then waved in my direction. “You coached her interviews, didn’t you?” he said, smiling.

Sophitia blushed. “I had to go through a lot of my own.” she admitted. “So, I had a good idea how to prepare.”

“She was a lifesaver,” I said. “And she’s done ten times as much publicity work as anybody else in the unit, so, she’d be your point of contact.”

“I presume that you don’t expect us to work for free?” Ingles said, giving Savimbi a quelling look.

“Of course not.” I said. “This is an investment in not having my people saddled with an atrocity, after all.”

“Well, we were thinking in terms of forty-five minute episodes.” Sophitia said. The standard hour-long programming block came with commercial breaks, of course. The exact proportion varied depending on the planet - on Fianna, it was three to one. “The Fianna standard season is sixteen episodes? What would your initial quote be?”

“One hundred thousand C-Bills, for the lot.” Ingles said, almost triumphantly.

Savimbi sat up straighter. Most of the Battletech game material gave prices in the thousands or millions of C-Bills, routinely - which obscured the real-life reality that one C-Bill was actually a pretty hefty amount of money, to a degree that occasionally made me reconsider my choice to stay in the merc business. “Sixty-two hundred C-Bills an episode for a documentary?” He caught himself and shook the shock off.

"That will work." Sophitia smiled at the way both of them blinked in surprise. “It’s… not all that much, compared to the Blackwings budget.”

A part of me still twitched to hear the unit called that, but I had to admit that the mixed emotions chasing across Ingles’ face were amusing.

“If it does what we need, and as long as that budget is spent effectively, we can live with the costs,” she went on. “And Monsieur Savimbi’s reputation is a large part of why we picked your studio to approach first.”

“So, you put up the working cash, we put up the production team and materials, and afterwards… what?” Ingles asked.

“What about creative control?” Savimbi asked.

Sophitia smiled at him. “We’ll rely on you, Monsieur Savimbi.”

I - figuratively - bit my tongue. This was something she knew better than me; all I knew about television production I’d learned from TV itself, and the time she’d spent studying under Phil Poisson, our CFO meant that the Soph of today was very much not the teen prodigy who’d been brutally taken advantage of by her stable managers and first mercenary commander.

She went on, “The work we’ve done on our own, ahead of time, has been assuming that each episode would look at a different part of the base and the unit, probably following them through a day and adding in interviews, but that’s not something we’re hard-set on if you have an idea that might work better.”

Ingles looked like she was coming around to the idea. “Do you have a particular timeslot in mind for airing?”

Sophitia shook her head. “No, not really.” she admitted. “Not past ‘good enough for the exposure we need’, anyway. Unless you mean in terms of air date? That we’d like as soon as reasonably possible. The longer our demonstrators-”

Or the conspirator driving them.

“-have, the more chance of the trouble we’re trying to stop.”

“No, she meant time and day of the week,” Savimbi said. “With the budget you’ve agreed to, we can get an excellent one - prime viewing hours, probably even a peak day.”

A thought occurred to Ingles, and she asked, “So, aside from the business side of things, is there a particular lifestyle you’d like this to support?” The distasteful twist to her mouth and voice made it clear what she meant by ‘lifestyle’, even if she didn’t actually wave at the homosexual couple she was sharing a lunch with. From the way she jolted and glared at Savimbi, I figured he’d kicked her under the table right after.

I leaned forward and started to say, “We’re not-”

Sophitia interrupted me with a squeeze on the hand, and when I glanced at her she was giving me her ‘I’ve got this’ look.

I huffed and sat back. “Sorry.” I told her.

She gave me the smile that never failed to make my heart do the proverbial pitter-pat, then turned back to Ingles with a rather different smile that I’d never seen her make before. “We have no intention of doing any editorializing in either direction,” she said.

Ingles flinched back like she’d discovered she was sitting across from a cobra.

Savimbi was made of stronger stuff. “Would you prefer to avoid the subject entirely?”

She shook her head. “No,” she said. “Relationships are part of life in the unit, and a factor in why some of us joined. But they should be treated in the same terms as any other factor - or, for that matter, any other relationship.”

“But it’s not any other relationship.” Ingles said.

“Isn’t it?” Sophitia asked sweetly.

Savimbi kicked his boss again and said, “So, in terms of narrating and presenting things, would you be willing to take a personal role, Mademoiselle Braun? Your name would add a significant interest factor.”

And thereby, contribute to the success of both the program and our goal.

“I’m willing,” Sophitia said, which got a startled look from me, given how little she cared for crowds and fannish gushing, “but I’d assumed that the main language of the program would be local French, with translation for interviews. And my French is… very basic.”

Savimbi looked thoughtful, doing sums in his head, then nodded. “If we also film five-minute adapter blocks to go with each episode, perhaps some kind of comic relief, then we can fit it to the standard fifty-minute Comstar program block, for offworld syndication. The news channels settled on one translator for dubbing your interviews, and we can get ahold of her fairly easily. If we produce two audio tracks at the same time, one in English, and one in French, it won’t run our costs up noticeably and will make reselling the series relatively easy.”

Sophitia sighed and nodded, looking like she was sitting down to a full meal of seriously overcooked brussels sprouts. “That will work.” she said.

For the record, of the two of us, I was the one that liked brussels sprouts in the first place.

“What subjects were you thinking of for the individual episodes?” Savimbi asked, digging around in his jacket until he came out with a pad of notepaper.

“Medical, food services, site security, administration, supply, individual episodes for motor pool, Aerospace Fighter & BattleMech repair, base maintenance, communications. Additionally, Battlemech, Armor, infantry, artillery, Aerospace, and Dropship operations.” she reeled off without a pause for breath.

I was impressed; I couldn’t have done the full list without thinking about it mid-stream.

Savimbi’s pen was flashing across his pad. “I don’t know enough to say whether all of those have enough material to make an interesting episode,” he admitted, “but it sounds like a good place to start. Have you given any consideration to examining your Jumpship crews?”

“We did,” Sophitia said, “but the trouble there is that there’s no real difference between mercenary and normal JumpShip ops. If anything, commercial JumpShips are boarded or attacked more often - and anyway ours are operating as commercial carriers while we’re on contract.”

The lightweight dress shirt and pants I was wearing did have pockets; I’d insisted on it when I was buying them. When my com went off, its buzzing was against my hip. I got up, leaning to whisper in Sophitia’s ear, on the way even as it buzzed a second time. “Comcall,” I whispered. “You got this?”

She turned and gave me a confident smile. “I do,” she said.

“Knock ‘em dead.” I said, and hurried off, pulling the infernal device out and clicking it on before it could buzz a fourth time.

“Hello?” I said.

<<“Blackwing. Chief Codrescue here. I need a favor.”>> The career policewoman’s voice was terse, tense, and, under the iron control… concerned.

I headed for the restroom sign. “What do you need?”

“I need a heavy element to back up one of my security cordons. A repair crew uncovered a Star League bunker.”

The Star League Defense Force had been notorious for digging hidden bunkers and storage caches everywhere it went, and stuffing them full of all the military hardware its planners had thought they could ever need. Even today, there was at least one find a year on the order of a lance or so of Griffins or a dozen extended-range lasers. The SLDF had been the largest, best funded military organization in history, and I swear to God something like half of their procurement budget had ended up tucked away in an infinite variety of holes in the ground against the proverbial rainy day, like some kind of sympathetic magic totem against the dreaded phantom of a budget cut.

And come to that, the big prize on Helm was still in the future.

“I can get you that,” I said. “What’s in the hole this time?”

<<“A refinery, it looks like. Mostly automated, tanks full of… something. Chem hazard markings, security clearances. ‘Compound G-3’, whatever that is.”>>

G-3, G-3… Oh, right, the bell that rang was from Gundam’s Universal Century timeline, the gas that Zeon had used to wipe out the Earth Federation’s spaceside populations. Some kind of combination corrosive and nerve agent.

...Which, thinking about it, I wouldn’t put past FASA or whoever as being a reference. Certainly Gundam was old enough.

That niggling detail tilted, slid, and clicked into place in my head, clearing the nagging feeling that I was missing something that had been bothering me practically since I landed on the planet.

Fianna...

Star League bunker...

Gas...

Redjack Ryan.

“Motherfucker,” I said. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”

Fortunately, I could usually think while swearing. “Okay. Okay,” I said. “Right, I’ll make a call and have my people scramble… Umm. Three companies, one each mech, tank, and infantry? The first for intimidation and proactives, the other two for actual security? Can you get an escort cordon to the base to lead my people there?”

<<“You’ve heard of G-3.”>>

“I’ve heard of a gas codenamed that,” I said. “I don’t know that it’s the same one. If it is, fuck, how much is there?”

“At least forty thousand liters, probably twice that.”

I could feel my flesh crawl. “If those spill, probably the entire city dies.” I said, feeling the banal whisper of half-forgotten sourcebooks in the back of my mind.


...MIND IS ON THE MIDNIGHT...​


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