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Tell The World That We Tried

- Chapter 7
[]


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AND IF YOU TRY TO TAKE IT HOME...


The Mad Talks of Reality[]

Saint Cabrini - Fianna, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


I didn’t pay any attention to my own voice coming out of the speakers; I knew more or less what I’d said - plus or minus the vagaries of phrasing and the fact that I’d been under enough neuroshock to count as concussed. Helm, New Dallas, a detour into the FedCom alliance, and on and on to other threats and opportunities in the wildest verbal ride I’d had in a while, much less said.

I was watching my people.

Dimitri Raven had heard the entire thing before, since he’d been there when his subordinate had found what I expected to be my last words; he was listening intently, taking notes without looking at the sheet of paper under his hand. I was pretty sure that he’d already decided that my insanity was worth taking seriously. By background, he was from the other side of the border in this very area - he’d lost his established position at a university on Stewart for some reason that I’d never gotten clear on, and spent the thirty years from 2986 to now knocking about as a fusion engine specialist. Younger-Me’s Fusion Reaction Dynamics 201 course at the University of Alpheratz had used a book he’d written before his exile as its textbook. In a rational universe, he’d have stayed as an academic rather than ending up running tech support for a mercenary outfit.

Trigger Shao - her real name was Risha, but nobody called her that - had just been an Loggermech technician before she signed on with us, but she’d seen much more of the elephant than anybody in a support job ever should. The selfsame technician who’d found the file, she was squirming and jittering with eagerness, obviously taken by the potential vistas my ‘last speech’ had opened up.

Io Sasagawa, the oldest and most experienced combat commander we had, wasn’t rolling her eyes, but it was very clear that she thought she was being made the victim of a prank. That could be bad; whatever happened we’d need aerospace cover, and losing her would put a big hole in our squadrons.

Lira Suzuki, our tank commander, was… staring at me, looking pissed off. Oh-kaaay. Unlike Sasagawa, I did have other immediate options for her role - several of her company commanders were old merc hands, and at least one had run a tank battalion before - but I’d miss her. She, Rosenkreutz, and the recently late Toshi Hannah had been the very first three people from the unit I’d met.

Finally, sitting next to me with her hands cupped around one of mine, and looking almost like she was about to cry, the retired Champion of Solaris, Sophitia Braun. She was tall, and athletic, and utterly gorgeous from ruby-crowned head to ticklish toes.

I might have been in love. Possibly.

When the recording ended, Suzuki was the first to speak. “When, if ever, were you planning to tell us about this?”

“Thirty-twenty-three,” I said, which made her and the others blink. “All else equal, I am, or would be, expecting the FedSuns and Lyrans to sign a full treaty of alliance sometime in twenty-two, but I don’t know the exact date. That’d also give me more time to do research and convince myself I’m not crazy, which I admit I’ve wondered.”

Doctor Raven hmmed thoughtfully, tugging at the white hair that fluffed, Einstein-like, around his bald spot. “You said you’d checked Helm in the recording?” he said.

“As far as I could remotely.” I said. “Helm, New Dallas, Axylus - all of those exist and match what I… Call it ‘remember’ of them. On Galatea, I was able to pick up an Atlas of the Star League that had fairly high-detail maps of all member worlds. Depressing reading, but I was able to compare it to a modern map and the Vermillion River does exactly the act it should if I’m right.”

“The security chip is… plausible,” Doctor Raven said. “I’m not a civil engineer or geologist, but the cave system sounds like it could be, too.” He thought for a couple seconds, then added, “and, I’m fairly sure, you’re quite sane. I’ve taught enough lunatics to know, after all.”

Sasagawa let out all the breath and dudgeon she’d been holding onto in a rush. “You’re really not joking.” she said.

“I’m really not joking,” I said.

“She’s not crazy, either.” Sophitia said.

“Not just crazy.” I said before I could think better of it.

She put one finger to my lips. “Hush,” she said, and looked at Sasagawa. “Remember when they found the Star League bunker a couple of weeks ago?” she asked. “Ash knew what it was the instant she got a call about it.”

“...Huh, that would count, wouldn’t it?” I mused.

“Did you forget?” Suzuki asked, sounding horrified.

“Look,” I said defensively, “it’s been a really fucking shitty week, all right?”

“...Merde.” Sasagawa closed her eyes for a couple of seconds, then opened them. “All right. Pops-”

Doctor Raven straightened.

“-Can you vouch for your tech?”

He frowned at her with the full weight of his great-grandparently authority. “What do you mean, ‘vouch for’?” he asked, while Trigger looked offended.

“Guarantee that she’s not working as a spy or otherwise agent of one of a national government or other outside group.” was the flat reply.

He snorted. “She’s been here longer than I have,” he said, “but I’ve seen no sign of it and I’d be surprised.”

“Good,” she said, and let out a slow sigh. “That means I’m the only listener who knows at this point.”

Uh, what? “Uh, what?”

Sasagawa read the expressions everyone else in the room was wearing. “I was about ready to retire for real, so Outworlds Alliance Intelligence asked me to sign on with you and… Make sure that you stayed friendly to the Alliance.”

She sighed. “Unfortunately, certain political authorities had other plans and wouldn’t listen to the professionals.”

I nodded, my mouth running unmonitored while most of my attention span flailed like a panicked muppet. “Hence us getting run out of town. But now - if Helm pans out, or New Dallas - we’re talking literal fate-of-civilization shit.”

Sasagawa nodded, and when she looked up from the table in front of her to meet my eyes, her expression was agonized. “And if I take it home…”

“If we’re lucky, Davion invades.” I said flatly, both points of view snapping back together in my head as her torment acted like a bucket of cold water dumped over my figurative head. “Takes the core to New Avalon publicly and with fanfare, and everyone except him forgets where it came from. Twenty years down the line, he throws the Alliance some bones out of a sense of honor.

“More likely, Davion and Kurita run into each other on Alpheratz and burn the place to the ground fighting while Comstar sneaks in, destroys the core, and murders hope. Again.

“Bad luck, Kurita invades and enslaves the entire Alliance as collateral damage to taking the core to Luthien, where Comstar destroys it and makes the entire business pointless.

“Worst-case, Comstar glasses Alpheratz to be sure they killed the core.”

“Um,” Trigger burst out, “why are we assuming that ComStar - an organization created to preserve civilization - is going to want to suppress a Star League core at all?”

“Leaving aside visions,” I said, “because their cult is heavy on the notion that they’re chosen to be the one true resurrectors of civilization. That every other power is corrupt, and so on and so on. Also, the more technology that only they have access to, the more powerful they are. Especially if the core has HPG tech in it. Their endgame is Terra, untouched, having her will with three thousand helpless worlds that can barely remember how to make steam engines.”

Now at least half the table was looking at me like I was crazy.

There was silence for a second.

“Actually, that explains a lot.” Doctor Raven mused. “There’s… something of an open secret in academia that publishing too successfully can be more literally lethal than not publishing at all. Rumors, stories, friends of friends - mostly. I always counted myself lucky just to be blacklisted. The leading theory was that all of the Successor States were doing it… but the pattern was more consistent than would fit with it being different agencies, like it was one actor.

“Comstar would fit the scope of organization that would be needed.”

“...So, Steiner, then.” Sasagawa said.

“I don’t get it,” Trigger said, “Why jump straight to the Lyrans?”

“Who else?” I asked. “Marik’s security is run by SAFE - they can’t protect it. The Combine would turn it into Boot On Face Forever. Confederation would be marginal as a platform for curing Lostech - and make no mistake that that’s what we’re talking about here - and is run by a lunatic. Concordat, ditto. Magistracy, only a little bigger than the Alliance. Comstar, hard no. That leaves the Lyrans or the FedRats… And after the whole Captain Gars fiasco…”

“I thought you said there wouldn’t be trouble with that.” Sophitia said, poking me in the cheek.

I tilted my head away. “I did. I still think that. Turning an incognito muckety-muck back over to his bodyguards was the right thing to do, even with him having got literally sat on in the process. He knows that and so do all his people. But it’d be awkward enough to make Steiner a better choice. Particularly the Steiner we’ve actually got.”

“I… wait, wait, stop, go back.” Suzuki burst out, and waved first at me and then at Sasagawa. “You’ve been lying to us and she’s a traitor and you were supposed to be better than this! You’re my Lady, but…”

For a couple of seconds, I could only stare at her, then I sighed. “Think of it in terms of opsec,” I said. “And add in the fact that I’m still not sure I’m not crazy. And I’ll panic about the Major later, when I’m alone. I was always sure we’d have spies. Right now I’m just relieved that we’re so far short of the worst-case.”

Sasagawa snorted.

“...Did you think that you couldn’t trust me?” Suzuki asked, looking down at her lap in a way that made me want to hug her and promise it would all be all right.

“I thought I could trust you, yes,” I said gently. “But the stakes were too high for me to count on ‘thought’, y’know?”

“She didn’t tell me, either.” Sophitia pointed out, then smiled reassuringly when I gave her a worried look.

“So, what. We just forget all this for another six years?” Suzuki asked bitterly.

“No,” I said. “My running my idiot mouth at Kerensky means we can’t do that. The Dragoons still have at least one report to make to their real masters before they’re cut off entirely, and what I said then is more than enough to blow them. Either the Friday reference or the crack about Alexander Kerensky would have been enough to worry them; both together will mean they know I know rather than just suspecting.”

I’d mentioned the Clans in that recording. All of them knew what that meant.

“...I remember how, on Far Traders, Pilot McAllis turned out to be an Outworlds Intelligence plant.” Trigger said slowly, naming a long-running Alpheratzi soap opera set aboard a deep periphery trade JumpShips. “Is that an actual thing?”

“Usually not with outright agents,” Sasagawa said. “More often, OAI will simply pay the ship a retainer to… keep their eyes open.”

The tech was looking more enthusiastic, now, and the rest of us, me included, were giving her considering looks. “Keep going...” Sophitia encouraged.

“You said the…Clans, were about a thousand light years away, too. But Far Traders go out further than that, right?”

“There’s supposedly a trickle of trade and contact even today, yeah.” I agreed.

“...Wait,” Sasagawa said in tones of dawning realization.

“So, if we claim somehow that we got the knowledge from Outworlds Intelligence…” Trigger went on.

“Then the Dragoons don’t look any closer at us.” I finished.

“How do we tell them that without being too obvious about it?” Suzuki asked, still grumpy.

“We do make it obvious.” Trigger said.

“Sense is something you’re currently not making,” Suzuki said.

“They know that we know. It’ll make sense to them that we’re trying to not get a couple of regiments dropped in to wipe us out, or whatever, right?” Trigger said. “‘We heard from Outworlds Intelligence who heard via far traders’ won’t be anything they can check, but it’ll make sense to them.”

Sasagawa smiled. “...You’ve given me an idea on how to keep them too busy to worry about us.”


Heat Conversation with a Dangerous Woman[]

Boende Restaurant, City of Saint Cabrini - Fianna, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


“By all accounts the jambalaya here is excellent,” I said, trying to seem less nervous than I was as the tall woman meeting me in the little Boende restaurant settled into the other chair in the little side room both of our security detachments had cleared side-by-side. “I was thinking of trying it myself.”

“Cut the bullshit.” Natasha Kerensky said, and sat down.

It was interesting to watch that process; it was obvious that her mood made her want to just flop dramatically… But she never took her eyes off of me, or let herself go off balance.

I couldn’t have told you exactly why, but I got the impression she was afraid.

I let myself smile a little wider. I didn’t have any illusions that her being frightened of me made me safer - she was very definitely the kind of person whose instinctive response to fear was to attack - but it made me feel better about my own worries. “Outworlds Alliance Intelligence has more respect for SAFE than your people do.”

That got a momentary flash of confusion, chained to shock, chained to chagrin. As the Inner Sphere’s intelligence services went, the Free Worlds League’s SAFE - not an acronym, they just spelled their name in BOMBASTIC ALL CAPS - were barely even the also-rans. Anybody with any real talent in intel work in the FWL eventually ended up doing internal security amidst the bucket of crabs rather than facing their talents outwards.

Getting coup’d by them was grounds for shame and humiliation, and Kerensky clearly wasn’t above feeling some sympathetic embarrassment on behalf of Wolfnet. “Fine,” she said eventually. “What are you planning to do about it?”

“Nothing,” I said. “That’s all over my pay grade, I’ll be having enough flak aimed my way for going on a neuroshocked word-vomit in the first place.”

She snorted. “Fine,” she said again. “What else do you know?”

“What’s that information worth to you?” I asked.

“Your life.” she said.

“Be serious.” I chided.

“I’m sure you have something in mind. Spit it out.”

I hmm’d for a second. “One of the more interesting tidbits mentioned was ‘omnitechnology’.”

“You savar- RRRGH!” Kerensky started to say, bounding up out of her seat and starting to reach for me. “You cannot be serious!”

“More significant than we thought, then.” I mused out loud, calculating and emptying my mind to react when she came close enough.

She read the stillness and pulled back. A pity; breaking her neck would have made it hard to sleep, but solved many problems.

“...You’re still fishing.” she said.

“Just like you are,” I replied. “But seriously. Deliberately releasing information means I need to have something to show my superiors.”

She settled back into her seat, thinking hard for a moment. “I’ll need to talk to Colonel Wolf,” she said. “But… There should be SLDF caches in or near Outworlds space.”

“Worth it, in principle.” I said. “Assuming that none of them have been found and raided in the meantime.”

A quick grimace looked odd on her lovely, predatory face. “We’ll see.” she repeated, then paused as the inobtrusive muzak from the room’s hidden speaker system (no audio pickups, we’d checked) cut off with a blaring warning tone.

<{“Attention! attention!”}> the recording said. <{“A state of emergency is now in effect in Saint Cabrini and surrounding areas, because of: civil unrest.”}>

It started to repeat in French, but I stood up and stopped paying attention. “Obviously, I have a flight to catch.” I told Kerensky. “By all means, mail your boss, see if he likes that angle or has something else in mind. I’d love a way out of this crunch I’m in right now. We can set up a meet whenever you hear back.”

“Sure,” she said, sounding too distracted to be as sarcastic as she’d intended. “I will let you know.”

Your contractions are slipping, Tasha, I thought.

I headed out of the restaurant, collecting all of my bodyguards but the one who stayed put to settle with the management, and pulled out my comlink.

Whatever was happening in Saint Cabrini, the way she’d reacted told me she expected it to have something to do with her - which meant that somewhere in the muck, I could expect to find Jason MacLaine.


Riots and Mechs in the Streets[]

Streets of City of Saint Cabrini - Fianna, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


It turned out that the trouble started with a very clever reporter, who managed to piece together what the plan had been… and then scoop it right onto the nightly news.

The entire story was there, starting seemingly irrelevantly with the kerfluffle about the appointment of my sort-of-ally Wilhemina Codrescue as the head of Saint Cabrini’s police force. There’d been three candidates; one a very conventional bland middle-management type, who the Mayor and city government liked, another whose main qualification was doing whatever MacLaine told him to do, and Codrescue herself, a career police hardass from the poorest and most brutally violent of the massive city’s plentiful rough neighborhoods.

The Duke had pushed his candidate so openly, and so tactlessly, that the Mayor and Municipal Council had been moved to favor the option he liked least - and he’d publicly called Codrescue ‘gutter scum’ on at least one occasion before then.

As far as that went, it was all public knowledge. But the reporter had found copies of the secret communications where he reached out to the Free Worlds League and offered to defect… with all of Fianna in tow… as long as he had full autonomy to deal with his proles.

In as many words.

Whether sincerely or more likely just looking to stir trouble in the Commonwealth’s house, Marik had agreed. More letters laid out the plan - to bring in mercenaries associated with, publicly linked to, House Steiner… and then provoke them into some kind of action that would turn public opinion sufficiently against Tharkad for the planet as a whole to accept the change of allegiance. The astroturfing I’d noticed months before had been preparing the way for it, and the assassination MacLaine had ordered had come after he concluded that I was too calm and cautious to be led into the kind of actions he needed.

Once ‘Tharkad’s Dogs’ had ‘gone wild’, the Duke would ‘plea’ for help in ‘restoring order’... And the Black Widows would sweep in and smash them in Marik’s name, leading to a ‘grateful’ switch of allegiance…

At which point MacLaine would be free to start cracking down on all the myriad commoners who’d been so tasteless as to not worship and grovel before his will, but it’d be moot, because I’d be dead.

That was the plan. Instead, thanks to it all coming out, the people of Fianna were ripshit pissed at the fact that their lives had been the coin of their Duke’s treacherous game. The crowds weren’t yet actually rioting in the streets, but there were many signs and much shouting already, and a few burning effigies. A high priority HPG relay from Tharkad showed Fianna’s representative on the Commonwealth’s Estates General forgetting himself and swearing in shock, and there were ‘unsubstantiated reports’ of a Command Circuit being assembled.

Civilian economics dictated that space travel was divided between FTL JumpShipss and the slower-than-light DropShips that they carried on external docking collars. ‘Combat JumpShipss’ - WarShips - had been a hybrid between the two, combining a DropShip’s acceleration and armament and a JumpShips’s, well, jump drive.

The thing was, a DropShip was under no physical obligation to stay with the same JumpShips; they could easily hitch a ride on whichever jumper was headed their way. Using the faster-still Hyperpulse Generator communication network that Comstar had salvaged from the wreck of the Star League, it was possible to assemble a pony express relay of JumpShipss, waiting for a particular DropShip to arrive and be passed on, like a rider changing horses or a baton being passed. The fact that usually only governments had the power to compel such a thing - to command it - had given the practice the name of ‘Command Circuit’.

They weren’t common. Committing a dozen of the three-thousand or so JumpShipss still in existence to wait around like that was expensive on more levels than just the monetary. But with things blowing up, I had every expectation that the personal representative House Steiner had to have sent in response to my earlier reports was being rushed the rest of the way, delayed only by the need to go through docking and undocking in each system.

So, that was the good news. It was pretty certain that the cavalry was already riding to the rescue.

The bad news was that until that House Steiner rep could arrive and preempt Duke MacLaine’s orders, any deviation on our part would still be a full contract break. If His Grace The Asshole decided to make big trouble, I’d have a pretty fine line to walk.

As though summoned by the malignant will of Murphy himself, the full console on my desk bleeped and spat out a printed form - orders, with full recognition codes, to deploy my BattleMechs and clear Le Rue Grand Ouest, the riverside street that fronted most of Saint Cabrini’s most expensive and respected cultural real estate, of all ‘rioters and subversives’ by any and all means necessary.

I picked up my phone and called down to the mechbays to let them know to get Crusher, Inc, Deus Volt, Alley Cat, Buzz Bomb, and Gnat of the Obnoxious woken up and ready to roll with tear gas loads - and after a split second’s waffling, to add my own Marauder No. 2 to the list. Thunderbolt 5S, Crusader 3R, Panther 9R, and both of our Wasps - aside from the Battlemasters, which were by now permanently assigned to the gas bunker and so out of reach, they were the only mechs we had with SRM launchers to deploy standard tear gas rounds.

Atlas (HBS PC Version)

Atlas Assault 'Mech

Setsuka Carter’s Atlas, but, as cute and pleasant as she was in ordinary life, if she hadn’t had mercenary work to direct and regulate her idea of ‘fun’, I suspected she’d have ended up a serial killer. I really did not want her in a position where the only restraint against firing into a crowd of thousands was her good judgement. She’d try, but the odds of her guessing right were all wrong for the stakes.

After that, an intercom announcement let everybody else know to go to alert status in case things broke loose, and sent the combat personnel to their mounts.

Against a real opponent, Number Two would not have been combat ready. Rebuilding the mech’s left torso and reattaching the blown-off arm was a procedure that would take a couple of months, and it had only been a week or two - but bolting an armor frame over the gaping wound could and had been done, since Battlemech compartmentalization meant that the rebuilding didn’t need to be done in situ. But the machine could still move as well as ever, and I owed it to the people we were… probably going to kill… to be there and bear witness to what was being done under my authority.

God, future of the eighties, go fuck yourself. I couldn’t wait to get to Helm and New Dallas, and hopefully retire, or at least go legit.

Anyway. The six of us on riot duty - quote, unquote - left the base behind and splashed into the shallows of the river rather than trying to make our way through the streets. Once we were out of reach of most things underfoot I used my com systems to make an urgent call.

<<“Codrescue. Go.”>> was the answer on the line.

“Blackwing here,” I said into my neurohelmet’s mike. “Has MacLaine warned you about his latest brainstorm?”

<<“Merde. No. What is it?”>>

I’d kept the printout with me; I read it out, then added, <<“Please tell me you have a way to keep this from being a massacre.”>>

There was a muted-phone-line silence on the other end for several seconds, before she came back. “No, nothing.” she said. “No water cannons, no irritants, no sonics. I can call up my off-duty people to try to clear the crowd that way, but that won’t meet the time limit. Blackwing, you can’t do this.”

She wasn’t speaking in a legal or practical sense and we both knew it.

“If I don’t, he’ll be able to screw all my people, and fucking Comstar will back him to the hilt. I’ve checked.,” I said.

<<“Blackwing, there are tens of thousands of people there. If you fire into the crowd…”>>

“Panic will kill more people than the guns will.” I finished. “Look, I’ve brought my SRM mechs and we’ve got tear gas loaded. Literally the only idea I’ve got is to order people home and try a warning shot or two first, and that won’t be enough.”

<<“A cheap ‘mech loudspeaker won’t make you heard over that crowd in the first place. You’ll need a real public address system, and the only vertol-mounted one I have is downchecked because my fucking budget wasn’t enough to keep it up.”>>

“...Hang on a sec…” That didn’t sound right. A mental cue flippd up a display of the relevant page of the MAD-3R’s original manual, and, yeah. “I think that must be a Lostech thing,” I said. “‘Cause Number Two is a first run Marauder, MAD-3R Second War vintage, and we only pulled her out of the original production wrapping last year. Max decibel rating on the external speakers, a hundred and forty.”

There was a sound of smacking flesh, clearly audible through the line even over the sloshing as we waded through the shoals between Camp Robichaux and the main river - a fist landing in the opposite palm, I’d bet. <<“Then I do have an answer for you. Let me get my people to dig up a sonic deterrence pattern. Can you generate infrasonics or ultrasonics?”>>

I checked. “Yes, but not by much for either.”

<<“We won’t need much. Stay on this line.”>>

“Will do. I’ll have mine send out the rest of our Marauders - and check the maxes on our other mechs.”

Technically, waiting for the additional units to come up was a delay that I would have to defend before the inevitable ‘I’m going to screw you just because I can’ contract court, but it was one I was pretty sure I could win - and anyway, it was an excuse to put off… that.

In the end, we had twenty three BattleMechs lined up; eighteen almost even with the side of the grand avenue, separated from each other by a few hundred feet each, and five more - the five I’d originally intended to bring out - in deeper water behind. The Public Address systems build into the dozen or so Centurions couldn’t go quite as loud as the larger Marauders’, but the frequency range was actually larger.

Despite her complaining, Codrescue did have equipment on her TOE for doing what we were about to kludge up properly; we were getting our instructions from the specialists she’d had frantically trying to fix it, and they’d written the specs that our mechs’ battle computers had turned into a (potential) synchronized sonic assault.

“All right, everybody,” I said into my neurohelmet’s pickup, the letters PA glowing from my console. I hadn’t raised my voice, but I could hear it echo back through the almost-noiseproof mass of my cockpit, blurred by the differing travel time from the mechs to either side of me as their speakers repeated my words in lightspeed unison. The crowd flinched, practically every individual figure cringing under the impact of loudness, and the front edges receded from the railings that seperated road from steep narrow riverbank. <<“This is all a bit silly, don’t you think?”>>

I flipped into NEUROASSIST mode and took direct control of Marauder No. 2’s remaining arm for a moment, gesturing broadly up and down the great processional way. ((“Angry as you are, and angry as you’ve got a right to be, taking it out here won’t do any practical good. The man you want is hiding in his palace behind all his guards, he’s not even in Saint Cabrini. He knows, and you know, and I know that there’s a reckoning already on its way from Tharkad - and if we want something that matters to happen before then, it’s not going to be from a mob or a riot, it’s going to be your planetary legislature remembering they’ve got at least one collective pair and having him arrested.”))

((“Being here-”)) another wave. ((“-is a waste of time. Go home. Write a letter to your representative, call their office. Let them know that you, their constituents, expect them to show a bit of backbone and a sense of justice. Have dinner with your family, and wait to see what happens - the wheels of justice grind more slowly than any of us would like, but they grind exceedingly fine, and they never stop to rest.”))

((“Nothing decisive is going to happen today… And if, when it does happen, the guilty go free, you can decide what to do then, with a plan and careful thinking, not just a rush of emotion.”))

((“Go home.”)) I repeated. ((“You’re blocking traffic, and emergency services can’t get through. Go home.”))

The crowd hesitated, and I saw streams of people start feeding into the side streets and two subway stations when I zoomed in on them.

I turned my mike off and sighed in relief. We could wait until the crowd stopped thinning - if it did - and turn the sonics on then, but it looked like the worst was over.


Incoming Orders of a Traitor[]

Camp Robichaux - Fianna, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


“We have a problem.” were Codrescue’s first words to me when I picked up the phone.

I looked longingly at Sophitia and the candlelit dinner we’d been about to share. “Of course we do,” I sighed. “What is it?”

“We made arrests after the ‘demonstration’. Standard procedure, round up the most energetic troublemakers and give them a couple days in the drunk tank to cool down. We took so many we had to pass overflow to the long-term prison system… I just got word that all of them have already been run through ‘fair and legal trials’-” she sneered the words in a tone I was very happy wasn’t directed at me. “-and are scheduled for execution.”

“Jesus,” I said. “The entire city’ll explode.”

“It’s already started. I got a call on my private line from somebody claiming to be a representative of the Fianna Revolutionary Army, asking me to keep my people out of the way while he and his moved on Skellig Palace.”

“A tragedy of the worst kind,” I said, watching Sophitia put out the candles. “But I won’t have that luxury.”

“No. He’ll order you to save his worthless ass. My caller said his people had been supplied by Marik - including weapons.”

“I know I’m not in a safe line of work,” I said. “But thanks for the warning. I’ll get us moving, ready outside the city.”

“...Good luck, Blackwing.”

“You, too, Codrescue.”

My mood was grim enough that the sight of Sophitia changing into her piloting gear wasn’t even a proper distraction. “Bad news?” she asked me once I’d hung up.

“His Grace the Traitor is about to execute a bunch of the demonstrators from the day before yesterday.” I answered, making for my own cabinet and gear.

“Scheisse,” she said, literally the first time I’d hear her swear under any provocation.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Worse, looks like Marik wasn’t ready to count on just outrage to get the mess they needed - they’ve armed a quote-unquote ‘Fianna Revolutionary Army’.”

“How much of an army is it?”


Dealing with the Rebel Army[]

Blackwing's Office, Camp Robichaux - Fianna, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


“Best estimate is six regiments of mechanized infantry, with a battalion of armed IndustrialMechs in support,” Sasagawa reported. “It’s a real backwoods crew, too - they’re mounted on Hiluxes.”

“Toyota’s out of business.” I said automatically.

“What?”

“Manufacturer of the original Hilux pickup truck. Combine that with the cropdusters you chased off… That’s actually not a bad force for starting with nothing but small arms and civilian gear.”

“None of us up here have proper recon cameras-” Sasagawa and the rest of the air element were orbiting at fifteen thousand meters altitude, well above the reach of most AA systems “-but looking at the low passes, they’ve got manpack weapons hardmounted on the hiluxes.”

“If we get close enough, they could do some real damage,” I agreed. “I didn’t intend to, but I’ll keep it in mind.”

“You can’t expect to talk them into going home.” she said.

“I’ll try, but no,” I said. “But one great big soft target like that is perfect for Alevito’s people.” Lona Alevito - a thin, even boney woman with a nervous demeanor and a ballistics computer in her head - had ended up commanding our artillery battalion.

“...You’re probably right. That will be a mess.”

“If they don’t just shatter. We’ll deal,” I said. “But best of all if we can somehow spin it out until Tharkad’s rep gets here and makes the entire thing moot.”

“Are you really that sure that one is coming?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m sure. I’m less certain about when, but there’s no chance at all of nothing happening. The more I can prolong things, the better the chances they’ll show up.”


Negoiations with the Enemy[]

Cafe, City of Saint Cabrini - Fianna, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


“Why even care about the shape of the table?” asked the man on the other end of the small round table we’d flown in from one of Saint Cabrini’s cafes. He was middle aged, which probably meant early fifties on Fianna, and had shaved off what little silvering hair hadn’t fallen out of his bald spot. The muscles and overalls suggested that, in civilian life, he’d been a farmer, even with the spare tire softening his outline.

“I don’t,” I said. “but it prolongs things without anyone dying. In meaning that there’s more chance for one or another of the several different sets of people with the authority to order His Lamentable Grace clapped in irons to either arrive or get their ovaries to drop.”

He snorted in amusement. “If I thought it would be that easy, I wouldn’t be here.” he said. “Anyway. For my sins, I’m the ‘general’ of our little insurgent group, the Just Word. Jean-Luc Nguesso.”

“Colonel Asha Blackwing,” I said. “Contracted garrison for Fianna. I hope I can convince you, though, that it’s the best chance you’ll get.”

“I’m surprised you’re willing to give up your secrets.” Nguesso said.

“None of this is anything you shouldn’t have known already.” I replied. “You don’t have any air defense, either airborne or triple-A. You’ve massed your forces in place for a set-piece battle. You don’t have any artillery for counter-battery. You do have mech forces, of a sort, but we both know what will happen if they end up committed, right? A bit of armor damage and at most one or two repairable losses on my side, and…”

His expression twitched. So that was how it was.

“If you were going to count on commando teams,” I said, “you’d have been better off not exposing the rest where I could find it. I do have air cover, armed for strafing, and my tech people know how to mix gasoline and styrofoam, and we have plenty of drop tanks to convert.”

A thousand years later and both of those had perpetuated themselves across the universe.

“It’s not proper Inferno gel, but the difference isn’t one that will matter to you. We have artillery to back that up, more, I think, than any of your Marik advisors or veterans will have seen in one place before.”

“We are not with Marik!” he snapped.

“No, you’re their catspaws,” I replied. “You didn’t get those SRM packs or twelve-sevens out of arsenals here on Fianna, or any other Lyran world. They supplied you to make sure they had enough opposition in place to make the mess their plan needed.”

“And because of that, you want to let Jumped-Up Jason bury all the shit he’s dived into? Let him-”

“Let him try,” I said - sneered, really, then grinned nastily. “Wanna know a secret?”

Nguesso started to swell up angrily, then paused and gave me a considering look. “It’s one MacLaine won’t like.” he said.

“He really won’t. When I took this contract, I was provided with three one-megabyte one-time-pads, to use to code high-priority and secret communications. I’ve used all of them reporting on that asshole… And the last one, right after I got back from Noveau Congo, was a copy of a short conversation between the two Marik-contracted merc commanders that we recorded after we cracked their comms. Discussing, as it happens, the fact that MacLaine himself had ordered them to kill me.” I smiled and spread my hands in a gallic shrug. “While I don’t doubt that pissing me off personally is something the your Central Command is willing to risk if they saw a profit in it, I don’t think that they’ll be pleased at his dicking around with a contracted garrison like that, even before anything else.”

“So… what, we just sit here? I call all our operations off and wait?” He was still disgusted, but coming around.

I sighed. “That depends,” I said. “I’d originally planned just that. Yeah, but that was before I knew for sure that you had infiltrators or had gotten a good enough look at your gear to be sure that you’d been supplied out of Marik armories.”

“We didn’t bring our trainers along, give me some credit.” he said.

“Training insurgents is one of the classic uses for spec ops teams,” I said. “knowing for sure that there’s something like that on the planet has me thinking of all the other ways this situation could be escalated without either of us moving. We’ve already seen what they can do with strategic leaks - or lies.”

His expression flipped between exhaustion and angry scowl a couple of times, then he finally settled on the former and sighed. “I’ll need to talk to my people,” he said.

“I figured,” I said. “Same time tomorrow? I don’t think the Mariks’ll move in the first day.”


The next day, though, ended up being discussion about something else entirely, setting up for the day after.

“What is this fils de putain doing here?” Nguesso snarled as the holocom came online.

“Trying to save my son’s inheritance,” replied His Grace the Duke of Fianna, Jason Ngao MacLaine, from inside the tank. A couple shades paler than his opposite number and slimmer and less muscular, he was turned out in impeccable Tharkad fashion despite its unsuitability for the local climate. He sounded tired, and his eyes if not the rest of him looked it. “Sit down, General. I know when to quit - but that still leaves you with a problem.”

Nguesso sat. “I hope you don’t expect either of us to weep for you,” he said.

“Hardly. But my stupidity-” MacLaine’s voice was harsh, “-has let SAFE seed agents all through my palace. I, if no one else, know that I gave no orders to move against the demonstrations, or to give any special treatment one way or the other to those arrested during them. As long as there’s no evidence of conspiracy, Archon Katrina is unlikely to attaint my son - but Marik’s agents will plant that evidence if they can.”

“They’re after the biggest clusterfuck they can manufacture, a distraction and drain on the Commonwealth as a whole.” I said.

“What do you want from me, then?” Nguesso asked.

MacLaine waved at one side of his display, the side I was sitting towards. “Surrender to her...” he said.

I blinked. “Hey what?”

“Definitionally, you’re rebels,” MacLaine said bluntly. “I can’t change that, it’s by Tharkad’s rules. Probably, if you’re still in the field in two weeks, Archon Katrina’s representative will pardon you.”

“Two weeks?” I asked.

“The command circuit will finish tomorrow morning,” he said. “But I would be very surprised to see pardons handed out from a dropship in transit.”

Merry Christmas, I thought, since that would put the rep’s landing on December 26.

“So could you,” Nguesso said.

“Would you take it from me?” MacLaine asked rhetorically. “But in the long run, you’d be more likely to be attainted by my word than helped. If you surrendered to the Ducal Guard-”

All seven battlemechs and two infantry companies of it.

“-I could order you held awaiting trial, but as we just discussed, that would be no guarantee. Blackwing’s plan to simply stall would work on its own, but-”

“Every plan gets fucked up as soon as the enemy arrives,” I quoted. “That’s why he’s called the enemy.”

MacLaine had fought as a mechwarrior when he was younger. He smirked. “Quite. Marik’s input on the matter can’t be predicted. We’re all safer if this is settled.”

Nguesso snorted. “And how is surrendering to her different from that? We’d still be prisoners held in the same prisons.”

“Not,” MacLaine answered, “if she signs you on.”

I did a quick mental estimate of the payroll costs that would imply and winced.

“You’ve lost me,” the rebel general said, looking puzzled.

“There’s a clause in my contract that lets me recruit from captured enemy combatants. It’s meant for things like hiring mechwarriors away from other merc units that were just on the other side, and if I tried to recruit somebody who’d just been, say, a DCMS regular I’d need to talk pretty fast… But the language doesn’t specify. In this case, we could probably get away with it,” I explained, starting slowly as I turned the option over in my head.

“You didn’t look like you liked the idea.” he noted.

“I don’t like what it’s going to do to my budget,” I said. “But it solves most of our problems.”

“Or, at least, lets us delay them for two weeks.” he finished.

Nguesso thought for several seconds.

“Fine,” he said, and stood. “Let me go make the arrangements.”

He didn’t look at MacLaine on his way out of the tent.

“Camp Robichaux won’t have the space for all of his people.” MacLaine said to me, not acknowledging the snub. Honestly, I thought he’d expected something along those lines. “Give me a moment and I’ll set up a conference call to one of the Ducal Land Reserves where we can put together a camp.”

“Verified communications,” I said. “Go ahead.”

Anyway, he did that, and we brought Shipping Report and Cruel Sea down in a couple of nearby fallow fields to pick up the Word - which took several trips, given how many of them there were. One of Fianna’s longer-ranged interstellar exports was interstellar basic rations for the Commonwealth military - all one glorious German compound word that fell out of my head the instant I heard it.

The deal I worked out with Nguesso in the end didn’t pay his people the standard rates - his officers ended up getting about the basic infantry pay, and the ‘rank and file’ volunteers were getting by on about the same as agricultural day laborers, with the promise of upgrades to standard scales once the current contract was done. That was what most of them had already been making and, before the Special Inspector arrived and made the question moot, I’d expected to keep a regiment or so of them just based on that promise, including their ‘Mechwarriors’.

Though not their rides; those would be going straight back to the agricultural and industrial concerns they’d been variously stolen and ‘stolen’ from.

The Inspector, though, once he’d clapped MacLaine in irons (to the tune of much applause and celebration), made it clear as his second priority that, as much as he understood and accepted the choices they’d made, the act of rebellion made them not welcome on Fianna for the foreseeable future.

So I had six regiments of infantry now, which was a thing. It made it awkward to ask for a meeting about negotiating permission for a raid over the border, but I didn’t let that stop me.


“Asha Blackwing, no middle name. Born Famindas, Alpheratz, Outworlds Alliance, on December 30th, 2995. Illegitimate child of the late Count of Guanahani, Sieg Rostig, and one of the prostitutes of the Sleek Tiger Gentleman’s Club.”

The man reading this off of the file in front of him in this quiet office in the back corners of Skellig Palace looked like nothing at all, a bland blank spot as uninteresting as the beige walls around us. Since I was pretty sure that he was the Lyran Intelligence Corps rep for the cleanup mission, that made sense.

“Under Alpheratz law, a ‘Gentleman’s Club’ and a ‘Bawdy House’ are legally distinct things,” I said. “The former is explicitly exempt from normal public indecency rules, allowing all forms of erotic dance, but any form of physical contact between staff and customers remains restricted on the premises.”

I gave him a smile that was neither pleasant nor meant to be. “I’m aware that this isn’t a common set of definitions, which is the only reason the two of us don’t have a very serious and very personal problem.”

He blinked at me. “I’ll add a note to the file,” he said, and scribbled something before he turned the page. “Schooling, average grades. Slight hit moving to higher education, but nothing significant. Surprising, given the notes about your lifestyle. Scholarship from the school for their freestyle martial arts team, not paid by your father.”

He paused and met my eyes again. “Since you’re here - how common is that in the Outworlds?”

“Omniss philosophy is nominally pacifist,” I said, “but they make exceptions for immediate self-defense, and for the sort of martial arts styles that are primarily about spiritual self-cultivation. They disapprove of most competitive games, as well, which has ended up making martial arts competition essentially the national sport. Scholarships to fill collegiate teams are fairly common, yes.”

A longer note on the file. “Adding significance to your inclusion on a magazine listing of the ‘fifty most promising new drafts’, and the generous odds given for good performances on your part. Obviously, they didn’t know about the doping.”

I snorted. “I know for a fact that, out of more than seventy team members across all classes of competition at the University of Alpheratz, only two of us weren’t. There were separate slang terms for people who were actually trying to push it and for people who were just leveling the playing field - Candles and Lamps, like me.”

Another blink. “Following a considerable scandal when the appointed drug inspector attempted to extort sexual favors, you were expelled from both team and school, and spent several months indulging in high-risk lifestyles before inheriting the remains of your father’s mercenary unit, and a shipment of Second Succession War military hardware of Free Worlds League origin.”

Page turn. “Two successful combat engagements, one impromptu against a pirate band attempting to capture your equipment before it could be manned, and the other, more impressively, against the Third Sword of Light.”

I shrugged slightly. “I won’t claim that the Eridani Light Horse didn’t do most of the heavy lifting in that engagement, but we didn’t shame ourselves.”

“Something of an understatement. Following a thoroughly hushed incident in the aftermath of that-”

“If you don’t already know, you don’t need to.” I said.

For the first time, he looked annoyed. “It would be very helpful.” he hinted.

“It has nothing to do with the Lyran Commonwealth.” That was not, technically true - it revealed a couple of things that I thought Katrina Steiner would like to know - but the odds of them not getting filtered out on their way through LIC’s analysis machine were too low to risk the potential hassle of word getting back to Davion.

After a few seconds of hopeful waiting, he moved on. “After leaving Hoff, you moved to Galatea and finished recruiting to strength before taking the Fianna contract, and all it ended up involving.

“Also on Galatea, you purchased, personally, a number of research materials pertaining to Star League facilities and caches, as well as period maps of a number of worlds.

“Combined with your recent efforts to obtain short-term charter or lease contracts for both combat-deployment DropShip for your existing ground and aerospace elements, multiple Mammoth-class cargo DropShip, and JumpShips support… And with your request to discuss a raiding subcontract with my superior…”

Despite the obvious insincerity of the respectful reference, he kept his face impressively straight as he closed the folder, laced his fingers over top of it, and leaned forward.

“What do you think you’ve figured out about Helm that no one else has?”


...YOUR HANDS WILL TURN TO BUTTER...


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