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Tell The World That We Tried

- Chapter 9
[]


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SALVATION SAT AND CROSSED HERSELF...


Long Distant Debriefing with the Archon[]

HPG Station - Helm, Free Worlds League, 3016


When the console went off, I powered the tablet I’d been reading from down and hit the accept key in a hurry. It said more than enough about the call I was expecting that signing over the advance all five HPG stations needed for a real-time link across the two hundred light years to Tharkad had been the easy part.

Five minutes of time from someone the Archon of the Lyran Commonwealth both saw regularly and trusted absolutely was a lot harder to come by than simple money, at least when you had as much of the latter as I did these days.

Funny how strange that still felt.

I recognized the face that appeared on the screen in front of me, once Comstar’s damned comet was gone; I’d half expected to.

Female, attractive, blonde and blue eyed in the best ‘Aryan’ way… The classic Steiner look. That didn’t surprise.

The fact that I was speaking to a preteen girl, on the other hand, did.

“I am the Landgraefin von Bremen, Melissa Steiner. The Archon has asked me to collect your report on the-” her eyes flicked down, resting on whatever notes she’d taken ahead of time for too little of a space to actually be reading, but enough for a reminder. “-raid on Helm.”

Her intense determination to get the task she’d been trusted with exactly right was obvious.

So this was the girl who’d grow up to be the heart of the Federated Commonwealth

I nodded. “The raid has been as successful as any of us hoped. We were able to locate the cache without difficulty and have recovered just under a thousand fusion-powered combat units of SLDF origin, a substantial store of infantry arms likewise, and one hundred and fifty thousand tons of assorted spares and supplies.”

Her eyes got really big, and she glanced off to one side of the pickup - stared nervously at whoever she was seeing for a couple of seconds - then took an obvious bracing breath and said, “Captain, inform Mother’s detail that she will need to take this call personally.”

Melissa looked back at me. “Are you able to hold?” she asked.

Involuntarily, I glanced at the charge ticker spooling up, and only barely managed not to wince. “I can hold.” I confirmed.

After about twenty seconds of staring at each other in silence, she said, “Umm…”

“Yes?” I asked.

“The doctors tell me I can’t use Neurohelmets,” she said. “That I’ll never be able to fight and protect the Commonwealth. But wouldn’t Star League helmets be able to read my mind anyway?”

I doubted it. “It depends on why you can’t use standard ones.” I said. “Some of the disorders that cause low compatibility can be overcome that way - and others can’t. And others don’t actually stop you from using one, but mean you get hurt a lot worse by things like ammo explosions. Those are already bad enough, trust me!” I added, with feeling.

“Oh,” she said, looking disappointed.

“None of that, though, means you won’t be able to fight,” I said. “If you wanted to have skills you’d have use for even after you were, Archon, you could go into infantry, and aim for the same diplomatic protection classes your bodyguards have had - learn how their job works, so you can make it easier for them and take care of yourself if something goes wrong.

“If you wanted to make sure that all the mech-driving snobs in your nobility respected you anyway, you could go into armor service. Any Mechwarrior that tells you they don’t respect a well-applied heavy or assault tank is either a liar or a rookie with a fifty-fifty chance of living long enough to learn better.

“And if you wanted to practice your people and leadership skills as well as fighting, you could go into dropship operations, and aim to serve on or command an Avenger or Achilles - assault DropShips.”

She brightened, and I found myself smiling back, before a slender adult hand wearing three different glittery rings laid on her shoulder for a moment.

A blur of motion that the camera had trouble resolving followed, and then I was looking at a twenty-years-older version of Melissa’s face.

A very kind twenty years, good grief.

“Your highness,” I said, bowing my head.

“Colonel,” Katrina Steiner replied. “A thousand battlemechs?”

“Three hundred and fifty one, fifty-nine of them SLDF Royals. A little under four hundred and seventy fusion tanks, and a hundred and seventy aerospace fighters, ratios ditto. And spares to run all of them for decades, or refit a substantial fraction of the LCAF, a hundred and fifty thousand tons in total,” I reported. “Additionally, we recovered data that seem to include functional guides to recreating Star League terraforming systems. A Loki operative attempted to divert those and several other high-urgency items to that organization’s private use; we estimate that all resulting damage will be recoverable, but the timescale is hard to predict at this point.”

She took that all on board in barely a second or two. “I haven’t been briefed. What share does your contract include?”

“One dozen ‘first option’ selections, provision of modern production combat units at a one-to-one ratio for royal units of equivalent type, role, and mass, and a one-to-three ratio for all others,” I said. “Plus the standard assessed-value finders fees for Lostech components and equipment.”

Another split-second of consideration, her eyes boring into my face. I tried not to sweat too much. “You’ve already optioned the terraforming data.” she said.

“Yes, Ma’am.” I confirmed.

“What price were you intending to set?”

“My plan was to offer you a partnership,” I said, forcibly ignoring the butterflies making an assault on my esophagus from below. “Combining assets - the files and other items, and House Steiner’s resources - to create a corporation capable of redeveloping and redeploying terraforming systems.”

This time she thought longer. “The ratios will need negotiation,” she said. “But in principle, we have an agreement.”

Katrina paused, eyes narrow, as a thought occurred to her. “You’re being deliberately cryptic about those ‘high urgency items’.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I said. “My faith in ComStar’s neutrality and discreet integrity would fit on the bridge of the galaxy’s smallest violin.”

That actually got a thawing, a snort of amusement. “Wise, but for a short secure transmission, I’ll take the risk. Tell me.”

“The SLDF garrison of Helm didn’t have a copy of the Prometheus Database, but they tried to create the next best thing.” I said, rather than wasting time hedging. “A deliberately selected guide to recreating as much of the League’s - and Hegemony’s - technical capabilities as possible, in the assumption that most of those would be lost. The terraforming data is a printout from that library core.”

This time I got actual shock out of her. “Loki damaged that?”

“The original core media is recoverable, with proper techniques, and we had made full copies using backup cores stored in the cache.” I said. “The only reader included is probably not repairable, though we’ve preserved everything that was left. Cache codebreakers have gained us access to the agent’s logs, and the intention seems to have been to use the deadman switch that went off as leverage and blackmail rather than ever actually deploying it.”

“What model of reader and core?” she asked.

“The cores are listed as ‘Alexandria 7 compatible’,” I said. “The reader was an Apple Haruspex 3.”

Katrina took longer to think than I’d seen her do so far, then focused on me again. “You had the Fianna garrison?”

I nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“All right. We’ll dissolve that-”

“No objections,” I added quietly.

“-and move you to Solaris officially. Garrison assistance, and training cadre to raise new regiments from the cached hardware.”

“As soon as possible, given the kind of attention we’ll be attracting.” I said.

“Exactly. Generalmajor Lewiston, from the 32nd, will provide a cryptographic pad for your full report.”

“Already written,” I confirmed.

“Good,” Katrina said. “I’ll be arriving by command circuit. We can discuss further details then.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I agreed.

She gave me just a hint of a smile. “And in public, we’ll need to work on your etiquette.”

Etiquette? ...Oh. Craaaap.

“Yes, Your Highness.” I said.


Meeting Mother[]

Solaris City - Solaris VII, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


Sophitia had had to talk me into the day’s trip, but not very hard. We’d spent the morning reasonably pleasantly ensconced in talking to one the dozens of private garages and specialist battlemech boutiques that were forever going into and out of business in Solaris City. She’d wanted to see about having Aspis and No. 2 refitted with some of the great mass of tech pulled from Mount Nagayan - and I’d suggested the so-called Steely Doll Custom Outfitters because they were one of the only custom shops that advertised their willingness to work on aerospace fighters and combat vehicles.

Finally, our Pumas would have sanely arranged missile launchers!

But there was only so much of that that we could draw things out for, and eventually we were, at her request, steering our security cavalcade - as ridiculous as it made me feel to ride through city streets in a ten ton APC, there was no denying I had more than enough personal enemies these days to warrant it - away from the broad mech-safe streets of Silesia and into narrower, slower ones. Despite the closer quarters, the area, if anything, became more affluent.

The narrow, wall-to-wall townhouses had elegant facades and neatly manicured front gardens (not British-garden lawns, garden-gardens - mostly in a kind of Japanese style), and even in the grim decay of early-thirty-first-century Solaris, it was obvious that their owners were doing well for themselves.

Eventually, three quarters of the way down one street, Sophitia leaned forward and asked the driver to stop.

“...Soph?” I asked quietly. Her expression, staring at the house we’d stopped in front of, was… alarming.

“...I wasn’t expecting Mama to be home.” she admitted; I realized that she was looking as much at the ostentatiously expensive sedan in front of the house as at the building itself.

“...Oh.” I said, feeling like an idiot for how long it had taken me to figure out what the problem and context were.

I reached up and squeezed her shoulder. “What do you want to do?” I asked softly.

She took a breath, a little ragged but not actually about to cry. “I think I have to go inside and see her.” she admitted.

From the way her face looked, I thought that that was a terrible idea, but I didn’t say so, since she’d pretty clearly made up her mind on the matter. “All right,” I said. “Let’s go, then.”

She gave me a startled look. “You don’t have to-”

“You’re shaking and closer to crying than I’ve ever seen you,” I said. “I am not leaving you to do this alone.”

We argued a little more, but eventually the two of us were walking up to the front door; I was a half step behind her, mostly so that she wouldn’t see the worried look I was still giving her. Needless to say, I was not filled with warm and fuzzy feelings about her happy homecoming.

The door opened only a few seconds after ringing the doorbell. Obviously, Mrs Braun had spotted the not-quite-actually-a-tank parked in front of her door.

She was about the same height as her daughter, with the same brilliant green eyes but black hair, the latter now graying. Less shapely, and even in her youth she’d have been heavier set; middle age had only emphasized that, though she was fit enough in the goes-to-the-gym-every-week way. The scar from the neurohelmet backlash that Sophitia had once mentioned as ending her mechwarrior career was easy to pick out, an old burn that covered her left eye in a star-shaped blotch from nose to ear, under a large patch, with her left arm covered by sleeve and glove in a way that whispered ‘prosthetic’ to me.

She blinked at us for a second, then focused on her daughter. “Sophitia! Where have you been, young lady? What were you thinking, running off in that ridiculous fashion? I know I raised you better than that.”

Well, I’d intended to try and be neutral about the woman, but that settled my initial impression as some fairly serious dislike. Watching Soph fold in on herself under that ‘oh so concerned’ tongue lashing made me want to kick the woman somewhere she wasn’t using, like her heart.

“Soph and I have become fairly close,” I said, to provide a distraction. “So, I thought I should meet her mother, you know?”

“...And you are?” Mrs Braun asked me.

“Asha Blackwing, your daughter’s girlfriend.” I answered brightly, trying to keep the number of teeth showing in my grin under control.

I watched her eyes rake up and down the length of me, taking in the leather jacket, the t-shirt silkscreened with the logo of my favorite restaurant on Fianna, the baggy jeans, the sneakers.

Her eyes narrowed and she turned back to Sophitia. “Young lady, what did I tell you about gold diggers? This pretending-to-love-girls phase is one thing, but you should know better than to give those sorts ways to take advantage of you.”

...Seriously?

Seriously?

While I was busy trying to decide whether to correct her or just laugh at her, Sophitia was actually getting angry. “Mama,” she said, “Colonel Blackwing owns my mercenary regiment! If anyone’s gold-digging, it’s me. Especially after-”

She cut herself off.

Her mother’s expression was a flare of chagrin, humiliation, and anger. I could feel Sophitia flinch a little next to me. The older woman’s face started to morph into a well-acted bit of grief. “Sophitia, you still think that of me? I’m your mother-”

I turned my back on her and leaned up so that I could whisper in Soph’s ear. “Let’s just go,” I suggested. “Maybe we can track down your dad?”

For a couple of seconds, I wasn’t sure what she was about to do, but eventually my girlfriend sighed. “You’re right,” she agreed, and hang the circumstances, I threw a hug around her as her eyes started to water.

“Goodbye, Mama.”

And we left.

Soph leaned forward to poke her head into the drivers’ compartment of the APC, then sat down and started crying on my shoulder.

“...I’m sorry,” I said, once she’d calmed down enough to register more than soothing noises.

“It’s not your fault,” she said, still sounding a little choked. “She just… Why? I never even really cared, I’d’ve given it to her, why lie and steal from me?”

Because she was an abusive, greedy, narcissistically selfish bitch, I thought to myself, but I hugged the girl that waste of a woman had hurt tighter and admitted, “...I wish I had something to say that’d make you feel better.”

“...I love you,” she whispered.

Oh.

Yeah, that I could do. “I love you, too.” I promised.


Meeting Dear old Dad[]

Slums of Solaris City - Solaris VII, Lyran Commonwealth, 3016


I caught the pickpocket’s hand by the wrist before her fingers could close and twisted. She yelped and recoiled away from the hold, instinctively curling to protect her elbow from the stress I was putting on it, and it was simplicity itself to collect her other arm and pin it while she wasn’t paying attention. “Let’s not.” I said pleasantly.

She looked over her shoulder at me, terrified eyes wide in a dusky face that had obviously not been getting enough to eat for a long time.

Next to me, Sophitia sighed. “We’re looking for Boxer Braun.” she told the girl I was holding, who might have been fifteen. Maybe. “Is he still around here?”

That gave our visitor an angle, and convinced her to stop struggling. “Yeah, he’s still got the back corner behind…” As she turned to look at Sophitia - she had to twist a bit, but I let her - I heard her voice go from calculating to awed. “...wait, you’re - the Invincible Sword?”

Soph winced. “Please don’t call me that,” she requested.

Given the starstruck awe, I felt safe letting go and stepping back. Aside from rubbing her wrist, the pickpocket didn’t even seem to notice. “Yes, Champion,” she said. “I, um… Let me show you, it’s this way.”

The slum we were in was dank and dirty, the streets between the dingy brick buildings scattered with trash. I was sure that it smelled as inoffensive as it did only because of the rain, which had picked up again.

Minakshi James - as our middle-school aged guide introduced herself - led us through the streets and into an alley, with only a few nervous looks at the security teams that had appeared the instant Soph wasn’t trying to coax some of the local color into talking to her. A wood and polymer crate behind a dumpster was still labeled CONTENTS FUSION HEAT SINK STANDARD (1), and a limp hand, rather dirty, lay poking out of the sheet hung across the open end.

Sophitia stopped dead, staring in horror. I stepped forward and checked it out, rain pattering off the poncho I’d thrown on instead of my jacket.

“Still breathing,” I reported, seeing the big man’s rag covered chest move. He’d been handsome, once, and if his box and clothes and person weren’t clean, they were closer to it than I’d expected from the situation and the grime worked into his fingers. A smell like cheap chicken ramen, and the literally pinprick dilation of his irises when I checked his eyes…

Soph had come closer while I looked her father over. “He’ll be fine,” I reported. “Just on a sadalaka dose.”

Sadalaka, named by its Bangladeshi discoverer for the white halo effect it introduced into a user’s vision right before consciousness went pif, was a widely spread street drug. The shrub it came from grew easily in a houseplant pot, and it wasn’t difficult to refine, so the price was usually pretty low. Younger-me had hated the aftertaste it left lingering on the tongue, but a lot of her ‘friends’ in the college set had been big fans.

“His lips are closed again, so he should wake up in a few minutes,” I added, standing and stepping back.

Under her umbrella, Sophitia looked sad again, but she laughed and pushed me away when I went to give her a hug. “You’re soaking wet,” she pointed out.

“So?” I teased.

Sophitia had just about talked herself into borrowing a couple of the troopers who were playing guard to get him into the APC when her father woke up on his own, starting in place and groping around for the empty water bottle that had been laying on the other side of his crate. I remembered that the final comedown from sadalaka tended to hit with a jolt of adrenaline and a desperate need for hydration.

He didn’t realize that he wasn’t alone until he’d drained the few drops that were in there and started looking around - then his expression flipped to delight. “Pumpkin?” he asked, and started to get up.

I got under his elbow so that when the lag time caught up and the dizziness hit, I could keep him on his feet. Fortunately, since Sophitia all but panicked when he started to fall again.

“Don’t worry, this is normal, too,” I reassured her.

“What do you mean normal!” she blurted.

“Always takes a couple minutes t’ stand after waking up off the Halo,” her father mumbled. “Shoulda remembered that…” He shifted a bit and squinted down at me. “...You a doctor?”

“On Alpheratz we always called it Shatterglow,” I said. “But I hated that manky aftertaste too much. I liked thionite better. Hi, I’m Asha, the new girlfriend.”

“...Could never afford that.” he said, probably about the drug, and then straightened, managing to keep on balance this time. I stepped away, and he held a hand out. “Sorry. Manners. Ramin Braun, drunken bum.”

In spite of the warning signs, I liked him. I shook. “Asha Blackwing, mercenary colonel. Is the sweetheart who’s about to hit me on the head allowed to buy you lunch like any other family member?”

Sophitia blushed. “Ash!” she protested.

He chuckled darkly. “I’d snort up any kind of bank account, but food I’ll just eat. I’d love to catch up… It’s good to see you again, Pumpkin.”

Sophitia wibbled for a moment, then pounced, throwing her arms around him in a hug. “Missed you, Papa,” she said.

“...Shit, what about your clothes?!” he blurted, though he didn’t let that stop him from returning the hug.

“We’ve got laundry at home,” I said.

“Clothes don’t matter,” she added fiercely, and despite the defeat, I could see him smiling.


By the standards of homeless vagrants, Boxer Braun - the nickname came from the punch-heavy style he’d used when Aspis was his rather than his daughter’s, as a young Mechwarrior in Solaris’s arenas, rather than his current choice of shelters - was comfortable, even prosperous. He’d found a low-end Mechwarrior’s gym that was willing to put up with his irregular scheduling ability and habit of turning up two or more sheets to the wind, so he had money coming in and access to showers, and the remnants of his younger self’s charisma had brokered a deal between his ‘boss’ and the local community, legal and otherwise - Boxer used the gym’s four ancient simulators to give basic lessons to local children, and the kids’ parents, including the resident ‘legitimate businessmen’, made sure that the gym didn’t have to worry about most of the endemic breakage and theft of the neighborhood.

Minakshi the pickpocket had known where to find him because she was one of the more talented and dedicated of those disciples, and while she and Sophitia were over by the dessert bar, I glanced across the table at him. “How much of teaching Soph was you, and how much was her mother?”

He swirled his coffee around. “Call it half and half?” he said. “Actually piloting, yeah, that was more me, but practice and discipline was Clarice’s part, and…”

“Soph wouldn’t be where she is without both,.” I finished.

Boxer looked up and our eyes met; without either of us saying it, I could tell that he’d realized I was considering making him a job offer.

I didn’t follow up on it right away. “How good is the kid?” I asked instead.

“Right now? Not so much. Good reflexes, good instincts, but she needs practice. About what you’d expect at her age,” he said instantly. “Get her into a good stable, she’ll go places, but that’ll be ten years down the line.”

“Has she got her heart set on the games?”

He set his coffee cup down. “Thinking of signing her as a merc?”

“A long-lead-time investment,” I admitted. “Longer than I actually have plans for my people as a whole, probably. Things are up in the air at the moment. But whichever way they come down, we’ll have a use for mechwarriors, and - well, almost all the options will be better for her than here.”

“Almost?”

“One in a hundred chance we end up outlawed and blackballed because of somebody else’s framejob,” I said.

“...You’re banking on me having a conscience about my kids, huh?”

“You couldn’t have raised the daughter you did if you didn’t.”

He stared down at his coffee, and his expression was tormented enough to make me want to look away, though I didn’t. “You don’t know who you’re talkin’ to,” he said.

“A low-end has-been that hasn’t been in a real mech in fifteen years,” I answered. “And hasn’t been sober for more than a day at a time in twenty.”

Boxer Braun’s head snapped up, chapped lips skinning back from stained teeth. I smiled prettily. “Also, a top tier trainer that I can snatch up for cheap. We’ve got a couple of jump infantry vets who took what’d otherwise be retirement injuries on Helm and Fianna, I figure I’ll assign one as your secretary and have him make sure you’re sober during duty hours.”

He stared at me for a moment, the settled back in his seat. “Just duty hours?” he said.

“I’m hoping having something productive to do will help you stop self-destructing, but that’s the girlfriend thinking about the effects on your daughter. The Colonel isn’t your keeper.”

Neither of us had noticed Sophitia returning. She dropped her sundae bowl sloppily on the table and leaned down to throw her arms around his shoulders again. “Please, Papa?” she begged.

Faced with his daughter’s puppy dog eyes, he caved instantly.


Defending a Maiden's Honor[]

Solaris City's Silesia district - Solaris VII, Lyran Commonwealth


The last Old Home Visit that Sophitia wanted to do now that we were in Solaris City ended up being the most trouble.

I’d been wrung out by a full day of wrangling stablemasters and all the other fucking bullshit that came with trying to accomplish things in Solaris VII’s fucked up moronic morass of extraterritoriality and feuding rivalries, so the only thing I’d had to say when she said she knew a place to get dinner nearby was, “Sure, sounds great.”

I managed to get led past both the unmarked exterior and the downstairs nightclub before I realized just where she’d taken me. I won’t even claim it was me being tired; I just didn’t consider the possibility until the door guy guarding the upstairs said, “Miss Braun, let me speak for everyone here when I say that it’s lovely to see you again. Welcome back to Valhalla.”

She actually dimpled at him. “Thank you, Roger. Do you know if Manuel is working tonight? I wasn’t in any shape to thank him properly the last time we spoke, and I wanted to be sure to do that.”

“I believe that he is,” Roger said, smiling more broadly than I thought was customary for him, before turning slightly apologetic. “It will take some time to clear your booth, I’m afraid-”

Reading between the lines, they’d reassigned it since she was offworld and not expected to return.

“-but tonight has been fairly slow, so we can seat you at the table immediately - or simply your lovely guest, if you’d rather speak with Manuel immediately.”

She looked a little torn, so I grinned. “I’ll be fine.” I told her.

Roger gestured calmly towards a staff door when Soph eventually nodded. “I believe you know the way,” he said, which I was pretty sure was a major gesture of trust and approval.

When she’d gone, he turned to me and gestured through the door, labeled Valgrind. “Right this way, Miss…?”

“Colonel Asha Blackwing,” I said, and I could see the relay click closed behind his eyes as he placed my name.

He bowed deeply and led the way.

...The Valhalla Club was a barn.

No, literally, it looked like an actual barn I remembered from Older-Me’s time in summer camp. I mean, I don’t imagine that actual Norse halls were that different in layout, but from what I knew about them I figured that the level of decoration went well beyond the splintery condition of the walls here.

Seriously, I didn’t want to lean against any of that. Fortunately the floors and furniture were to a - less thematic - standard. And one closer to what actual period craftsmen would have aimed for and achieved with their hand tools, aside from the lack of decorative hand-carving.

Also historically inaccurate were the uniforms of the waitstaff. Dirndl were German, not Scandinavian! And the real ones didn’t have that much cleavage, either, though obviously that irritated me less
.

But still. It felt pretty farby.

The food, though, looked good. The largest single chunk I saw in the occupied table slots as I was led further and further down was ‘bar food’, well fried and starchy and appetizing, but I also saw everything from an Indian platter with naan to escargot and back. I was impressed by the Shieldhall’s kitchen if not their decor.

I was seated just one seat down from the end of the bench - with apologies from the staffer Roger had assigned to place me - and offered a drink and a chance to order.

Unsurprisingly, there was no mention of menus or prices; my request for the best local beer they had and a blooming onion to share were met with ready nods and a promise that they’d be right out.

The throne at the end of the long table was occupied, by a looming meat wall of a man, muscled like a dedicated gym rat and with the aggressive buzz cut of one, too. If he couldn’t have made two of me, I’d be shocked - but in contrast to the bruiser’s build and beetling Neanderthal brow, his eyes were sharp and intelligent. When he leaned forward, his accent was pure upper-class Steiner, close enough to the same I’d heard from the Steiner the previous week that I couldn’t tell the difference.

“It’s nice to meet you, Colonel Blackwing.” he said, extending a hand.

I met it and shook; fortunately, he wasn’t a knuckle-crusher, at least with a girl my size. I also put on my best sheepish smile. “Likewise, though I have to open with a confession.”

“Oh?” he asked curiously.

“I have no idea who you are,” I said, and explained as we both recovered our hands. “I don’t follow the games ordinarily, and, while I’ve had Valhalla’s precedence rules explained, I’ve been too busy since arriving on Solaris to hear any of the names.”

The flicker of irritation that crossed his face was gone fast enough that he probably thought he’d hidden it, but the laugh that followed seemed genuine enough. “That’s fair,” he allowed. “Gray Noton.”

I blinked, and covered the meta reaction with a carefully measured dose of truth. “Oh. In that case, I have heard of you, just without realizing you’d reached the title. Nice to meet you, too, Mister Noton, and congratulations.”

He seemed pleased. “Thank you,” he said. “It’s not easy to stay on top… Or to get ahead. Though you seem to have done well enough at that, yourself.”

“I was lucky enough to be the first person to put all the right pieces together, anyway,” I allowed. “After that, it was just a matter of getting cover for the drop, doing the raid, and running like we stole something.”

“If the cache had waited two centuries already, why bring in Steiner, rather than just gathering what you needed to capture it all for yourself?” Noton asked. He didn’t say or openly imply that that’s what he would have done, but I heard it anyway.

“First, since there were enough records to guess the cache’s contents to an order of magnitude, at least. I knew I’d need a lot more transport than I had. Hiring all of it on my own would have wiped out my cash reserves and left us more vulnerable than I’d like.

“Second, while I don’t say that Great Houses always remember those that do them favors, it’s usually worthwhile to do one a solid, and some of the things I want are better paid in that kind of coin than in Battlemechs.”

My onion and beer - the latter turned out to be something unfamiliar, and at the expression I made on tasting it, Noton laughed. “It’s actually not made with Terran yeast,” he said. “The native equivalent isn’t much like yeast biologically, but it’ll still make alcohol, so…”

“Huh,” I said, and had another sip. “Yeah, okay, that’s interesting. Nice.”

“So, what do you need that takes political influence and a Solaris Champion?” he asked as I ate the first leaf of onion. “I mean, she might not be quite as good as I am, but Braun’s skills in a mech are a rare grade. Though I suppose depending how hard you found her appetites to deal with…”

There went any improvement in my mood. “‘Appetites’?” I asked, not without irony.

He picked up on the delicate ground, which wasn’t surprising. Noton wasn’t that sort of fool. “Not just her orientation,” he backpedaled. “But her habits in picking partners…” A pause while I stared at him in confusion. He shook his head. “It was quite the story when it came out. She’d been preying on hundreds of her fans, luring them in and taking shameless advantage of them.”

I couldn’t help it. I laughed. “I’m sorry, have you met her?” I asked incredulously.

“In passing. She manages facades with the best of them, I grant you-”

Sophitia’s voice interrupted us. “Or at least I managed to avoid spreading sewer-press gossip like a bored Hausfrau.”

There was an ugly light of triumph in Noton’s eye as he came to his feet. Soph was a tall woman, but his bulk made her look as petite as I was, and slimmer. “I don’t have to take that from someone only one step above a rapist, or the big-titted bimbo leading her around by the cunt.”

“And I don’t have to take that from a man one step lower than a cockroach,” she said, and then added, “and, while it would be funny to watch Ash break both your legs, I’d rather take out the garbage myself. Pick your Arena, Noton.”

He had an ugly smile; he’d obviously been hoping for just that kind of challenge. “The Coliseum,” he replied, and twisted the knife by adding, “Since you’re between agents, I’ll make the arrangements. Fill out your will, Braun.”

And he turned and stalked out, while Sophitia glared after him, eyes snapping like some kind of magic green fire.

“Sit down?” I suggested lightly. “I got you an onion.”

She looked down at our appetizer, and let out a startled little laugh before she sat down.

The gazes of the rest of the club’s patrons didn’t ease up much with Noton gone, but there was enough of a gap around our seats that no one could overhear when she leaned close and said, “Ash… what he said…”

I fed her an onion petal. “I wouldn’t have figured that groupies were your type, but the rest of it is either nonsense or old news.”

Sophitia huffed while she chewed, then swallowed and admitted, “It… could be fun. But Jessica was the one who really enjoyed… finding new partners. And being in control.”

The same ex that had ultimately published photos taken during those liaisons… After Soph demonstrated that she wasn’t controlled. It painted an ugly picture. “Ahhh,” I said.

“The way she put things gave some of the arena managers the excuses they were looking for to ban me,” she added. “The same ones were always complaining about what an anticlimax I was to watch, saying I needed to make things flashier.”

“People weren’t watching you?” I asked, looking her over mostly as a joke.

She hit me in the arm. “Not like that… Besides, it was always the media that cared how I looked outside the cockpit, not the managers. They wanted sparks and carnage, not one-hit-kills.”

“...Okay, I’m following that.” I said slowly.

“Playing with other fighters would have been… disrespectful,” she added, then sighed. “And right as all this was going on, before I could fight it all back… I found out that Mama had been, well, embezzling when she said she was managing things for me.”

I remembered, all the way back on Hoff, a mention that she’d been earning a quarter the standard ratios for a Solaris Mechwarrior.

I gave her hand a squeeze. “I’m sorry,” I said, not for the first time.

Soph smiled at me. “You’ve got my Papa out of a gutter, Ash, and you actually did it with him going along with it. That’s more than I’d expect.”

I munched an onion petal. “Early days yet,” I said around it. “Don’t thank me until we know it’s working.”

“Even just getting him out of Solaris City will help,” she said, and ate some more onion while a waiter showed up with her own drink (looked like a Mai Tai?)... Then stopped and growled. “Rrrrgh… How dare he!”

“Umn?” I asked, sure I’d missed a logical connection somewhere.

“Noton. You’re the smartest person I know.”

“You badly underestimate Doctor Raven,” I said. After all, between me and the head tech, which of us had a doctorate to go with his sphere-wide rep and which of us hadn’t even managed to finish her degree? Well, technically older-me had, but that had taken an embarrassingly long time to manage. “And the lengths murderous assholes like that will go to to piss somebody off. Besides, I do have big tits, and ‘bimbo’ is the traditional slur that goes with that.”

Automatically, her eyes flicked down, and I laughed.

Soph hit me in the shoulder again. “You don’t have to be so smug about it!” she complained.

“I don’t have to, no…” I said, then blinked. “...Huh. I just realized.”

“Hmm?” she asked, tilting her head and smiling.

I pointed a finger at her nose and grinned. “You’re defending my honor.” I said.

She looked… bashful. “Is that bad?”

I’d never considered the possibility, really. At no point in any of my lives had I been in a position where the concept made much sense to me from either side, or where I’d ever have expected anyone to do so. Younger-me had grown up in a slum and evolved into a party girl, and older-me, well, enough said.

Thinking on it, though…

“No,” I said softly. “It’s not bad at all.”

“My pleasure, then.”


Sabotage[]


The next week and a half were busy enough that I didn’t have much time to worry about Noton or Sophitia’s fight with him. That was, for the most part, for the best. As much faith as I had in her abilities and skills, Gray Noton held the same high title, and in another world would have retained it for an unprecedented seven years. He was, bluntly, a dangerous motherfucker, and spending too much time remembering that fact would have seriously interfered with my sleep and equilibrium.

The downside of that inattention was that I forgot that he had a habit of cheating.

Sophitia called my com during one of my breaks. “Ash, there’s been a break in at the Steely Doll.”

“What’s been taken?” My first thought was that some intelligence agency had seen a chance to make off with some double heat sinks, which would be… annoying. And probably wouldn’t do much good, since from their perspective fitting one or two mechs with the things wasn’t a very significant value, and they wouldn’t have the tools or knowledge to reverse engineer the things properly.

“Nothing taken, but gasoline was poured into both of Aspis’s legs and set off; Mr. Stingray says it will take at least a week to replace everything that’s damaged, even if he pulls every worker he has off of his other projects. Three weeks if he doesn’t.”

Sophitia sounded devastated, which given how much Aspis was a part of her identity, didn’t surprise me much. More importantly, her match with Noton was at the end of the day, in about eight hours. But if I remembered right…

“Didn’t they say they had about three shifts left on Number Two?” I said. Once it had been shipped from Fianna, the Doll’s people had taken over Marauder No. 2’s rebuild with glee, given the chance to apply the only bits of advanced technology I had let stick to our fingers from Helm.

“Maybe? Why?” I’d managed to get her mind off of the disaster in favor of curiosity, at least.

“Sounds like all-hands-on-deck is three times as fast for them, and we’ve got a bit over one shift to go… I come down and we get you a profile set on it, and you’re back in business,” I explained.

The com line was silent for an alarmingly long time before she said, sounding choked, “...Thank you.”

Sometimes, things are a bigger deal for the people you do them for than they are for you.

“It won’t be as easy as adapting to one of our Dash-As, but I figure the weight advantage will make up for it,” I said. “I’ll call Stingray once we’re done and let him know to get started.”

“I can do that,” she said. “And better right away. I love you, Ash.”

“Love you, too, Soph. See you soon.” I shut down the com and found a pair of famously blue eyes studying me thoughtfully.

“Your partner’s mech was sabotaged?” Katrina Steiner concluded. She hadn’t taken long to find out about the upcoming match once she’d arrived in all her pomp and glory.

“Yes, Your Highness,” I said. “A break in with incendiaries ruined the leg myomers.”

“Do you have any suspects?” she asked.

I didn’t ask how she’d figured that out; I was halfway to thinking that between the two of us, she was the one with precog or some form of ESP. “I have no evidence,” I said.

She smiled. “Which is not the same thing.”

“Which is not the same thing,” I agreed. “I’ll be very surprised if it following the back trail didn’t lead to Gray Noton eventually. Hunting for an advantage; from what I know of the man it’d be like his style. Hopefully we can make it backfire on him.”

“I’ll look forward to seeing it,” she said, and made a little shooing gesture. “In the meantime, you have a mech to work on, don’t you?”

I stood and bowed. “Thank you, Your Highness.”


PreGame Preperations and an Proposal[]



The Steiner Coliseum was full. Forty thousand souls filled the open stands under the orange light of the setting sun, and the roar and rumble of their voices as they waited was easily audible even here in the depths of the waiting mechbays.

Sophitia checked the feel of No. 2’s control grips under her hands. “Ready,” she said.

Even with her piloting gear providing a spectacular view, all I had the attention for was her face and my worries. I reached in and hit three different buttons on the upside-down cockpit console. <{“Guest Profile Active. Present guest identity.”}>

“Sophitia Braun.” she said.

<{“Guest identity confirmed. Primary passcode-”}> the computer’s monotone changed to an alarmingly vocaloid-ish singing. <{“Some legends are told…”}>

“Some turn to dust or to gold,” I finished.

<{“Primary passcode confirmed. Present secondary passcode.”}>

I freed a hand, kissed the tips of my first two fingers, and pressed them to Sophitia’s lips. “Break a leg.” I said, and scrambled back to the ground.

Behind me, there was a rush and whirr as the battlemech came to life, and the whine of the closing cockpit canopy.

I forced myself not to look back and hurried to the elevator.

A short ride and a shorter walk brought me to my booth. I settled into the prime seat and failed to Not Jitter through the announcements and other preliminaries.

“And now, to the north! In the sixty-ton RFL-3N Rifleman Legend-Killer! The defender, the reigning Champion of Solaris! Graaaaaay NO-ton!”

The named Rifleman stomped its way out of the far entrance, cannon arms already pointed, and the windows of the booth actually shivered slightly, rattling under the force of the cheers.

>>>“Then! To the south! In the seventy-five ton Marauder Number Two! The challenger, the previous Champion of Solaris! The Invincible Sword, Sophitia BRRAAAAAUUUUNNN!”<<<

I hadn’t thought that human throats could produce more noise than they had for Noton, but the crowd managed it as No. 2 thumped out of the gate below my feet and advanced slowly… then paused, and turned its back on Noton.

>>>“Before the match begins, Braun has some words she’d like to say.”<<< the announcer said, quieting the crowd… somewhat.

There was a click of changing audio channels, and I heard Sophitia’s voice coming from the kilometer-wide stadium’s immense public address system. “Thank you, everyone. Thank you, for your patience. But I’ve always been taught not to bring unfinished business into a match… and right now, there’s something I’ve been needing to do for a while, but never found the right moment… Or maybe I never found the courage. But now it’s too late to put it off any more, I have to know, before I can go forwards.”

The Coliseum’s booths had every luxury and convenience that could be imagined by their designers, and that included small dumbwaiters. The one for the booth I was in binged for attention and slid open, revealing a tiny square box on a white linen pillow.

A corner of my brain was aware that the Coliseum’s jumbotrons were showing a camera close up of my booth, of my face.

Most of my attention was on the ring, glittering diamonds fixed practically flush with a mirror-polished platinum band.

“Asha Blackwing,” Sophitia said, voice soft even through the thunder of the speakers. “Will you marry me?”


...AND CALLED THE DEVIL PARTNER...


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