Galatea, Lyran Commonwealth
1 June 3038
The Fusiliers combat exercises at the Karakum Basin Proving Grounds had been called off and rescheduled, to no-one's surprise. The duel may have been legal but a man had still died. Enemy or not, only the most callous of individuals could witness such a violent death and brush it off as nothing. Nobody was in the mood for training. They returned to the city and tried to put the day's events behind them.
Everyone had been enormously relieved and grateful and happy that Garadun had survived, not able to fully relax until his Hunchback had marched back into the hangar and powered down. Cera greeted him with a long, tight hug, followed by the rest of their friends. Alexandra hugged him almost as long as Cera did, so relieved was she that he hadn't gotten himself killed. Garadun wasn't proud that he'd killed another human being. But he was content with the fact that one of his enemies was dead and therefore no longer a threat him or those he loved. And as far as he was concerned, to be totally honest, one less mindless bigot in the universe could only be a good thing.
One fact which had struck the rest of the Fusiliers, when they had time to think about it later, was that during the entire duel the Hunchback hadn't been hit even once. Not once. His opponent had been a capable marksman but Garadun had used distance, terrain, cunning and skilled manoeuvring to keep his 'Mech out of harm's way; and then time his assault to bring himself into point-blank range and blow the Awesome to bits. It was the kind of thing that really made a person think.
The rescheduled wargames took place the following week. As previously planned they started with the "hide and seek" scenario. A bit to Alexandra's surprise, Garadun and Cera actually kept to the parameters and didn't try to ambush their hunters. They went to ground and disappeared. Nobody found them. When asked how they evaded the search they simply replied, "You wanted us to hide. We hid."
The lance versus lance drills were exciting and a very good learning experience for everyone. By the end of the day every ‘Mech was splattered with the colourful effects of the water-soluble paint rounds from Cera, Garadun, Sayuki and Sun-Lao’s autocannons. Cera and Garadun proved to be as dangerous as Ian had warned. They were skilled and aggressive; not stupid but also not afraid of mixing it up. Cera’s beloved Shinigami was as dreaded as Garadun’s Hunchback (if not more) because it also sported a Tomodzuru Type 20 autocannon instead of the usual KaliYama Class 10 autocannon. And while the right arm of normal Orions ended in the long barrel of an Irian Weapons Works medium laser, Cera had had hers modified. The right arm of Shinigami ended in a proper forearm with an articulated hand. She had a medium laser mounted on the outside of the forearm. The left arm ended in an I.W.W. SRM-4 launcher like other Orions, and a Delta Dart LRM-10 rack in the left torso for long-range firepower. At 75 tons her Orion was the heaviest ‘Mech in the unit.
Sun-Lao proved to be a lethal opponent as well. He was a skilled pilot and a good marksman, and his vintage Rifleman was just plain scary. It could fire all its weapons in a single volley (at a nice safe distance) and have virtually no heat build-up thanks to its double heat sinks, and its 11.5 tons of armour kept it in the fight a long time.
Bad Dog No Biscuits was yet another tough 'Mech. Thanks to the weight saved by having an extra-light engine, it also carried 11.5 tons of armour. It was fast, jump capable, and armed with a pair of Federated 10-Shot LRM missile systems. For in-fighting it had two ChisComp 39 medium lasers in each arm, having gotten rid of the two SRM-2 packs the 55-ton Dervish normally came with. Ian was as good as any of his lancemates and was working hard to improve.
Laura was in the same league as Ian and Sun-Lao, equally talented and determined, and her Griffin was a solid, all-around BattleMech. It was the House Steiner model and had undergone even further modification thanks to Jimmy. It now had a CASE system to protect the ammo for its Delta Dart LRM-10 launcher (sacrificing the centre torso jump jet for the added weight) and sported two additional tons of armour. There was a pistol-style Sunglow Type 2 large laser held it its right hand and a Diverse Optics Type 18 medium laser built into the centre torso.
Alexandra, Sayuki and Marie were the least accurate shots in the company, but that would improve in time. They were decent pilots though, and no-one could accuse them of lacking enthusiasm. Sayuki in particular had guts, in contrast to her normally sweet, feminine outward image. You couldn't lack sand if you fought in the arenas of Solaris. She was determined to honour the chance her oyabun and Garadun had given her, and to be a warrior her friends could rely on.
The wargames had been two days ago and it was now the start of June. Alexandra was meeting with a prospective employer at the Schwarzwaldstube, one of the city's most exclusive restaurants; it featured traditional German cuisine. Ian and Sayuki were off on a romantic date, something couples did on a Friday night. The rest of the Fusiliers had gone to the Black Jade Palace for dinner (the dumplings were said to be the best in the city) and they were planning to hit a nightclub afterwards.
That left Cera on her own. She'd had a stomach ache in the afternoon, so she turned down the invitation to join her friends at the Capellan restaurant. As wonderful as her suite at the Galatean Interstellar Hotel was, she was still alone and bored. She watched the vid for a while but it didn't help. Then the room's visphone rang. When she answered it there was no visual, only audio.
"Hey, Cera, it's me. You feeling any better? "
"Yeah, I'm better now. Thanks," she said, smiling. It was Garadun. He had this thing about never using the holoscreen on a visphone. "I thought you'd gone out with the others to that Capellan place."
"Nah. Food's okay, but I wasn't in the mood for a nightclub. You know me."
"Yeah, I know."
"Up for a bite to eat in the L&D? "
"I could manage something light," she said. "Fifteen minutes?"
"I'll come get you," he said and rang off.
There were a great number of women who required a lot more time than fifteen minutes to get ready for dinner in a posh restaurant, but Cera Kuroda wasn't one of them. Unless she was trying to impress some girl she was on a date with (or some other special occasion) she never bothered getting dolled up. Not to mention it was Garadun she was dining with. He never cared one way or the other; although he always insisted she was beautiful all the time, whatever she wore, and always complimented her when she wore something a bit dressier than usual. She checked the peephole when he knocked to be sure it was him, and then opened the door.
"Hi. Ready?" he asked.
They got some looks in the elevator ride down from hotel guests who were far better dressed and far richer than either of them. Given that this was a normal day they wore normal clothes; which for them meant comfortable. Their attire was good enough to get them into the restaurant, but only just. Cera knew that Garadun, despite hotel regs, had his holdout pistol hidden on him somewhere. Unless forced not to, he always went armed. Always.
After seven weeks of them living in the hotel, Ellsworth Astor, the maître d' of the Lion and Dragon Steakhouse, knew the pair well. It was his job to be gracious and courteous and get along with the guests, but these two were always a pleasure to deal with. They never made a fuss, were never rude to the staff, were good tippers, and were nice and quiet and polite.
"Good evening, Miss Kuroda, Mr Morr. Your usual table?"
"If it's available, please," said Garadun.
"Right this way," said Astor and led them through the restaurant to a quiet corner that offered a good view of the rest of the room. They sat in their usual chairs with their backs to the wall; the latter was an ingrained habit. He passed them menus.
"Would you care for something to drink?"
"Nice big glass of orange juice for me, please," said Garadun without an ounce of shame. One thing he loved about the Lion and Dragon was that they had classic Terran food, including real orange juice.
"I'll just have some water, please," said Cera. "Wasn't feeling well today."
"I'm very sorry to hear that, Miss," said Astor sincerely and left them to their privacy. A waiter came by a few minutes later with their drinks.
"Any idea what you want?" Garadun asked, looking at the menu. The prices were outrageous. Meals were charged to their rooms and Alexandra was covering everything, but it still irked him that a simple onion soup cost 14 kroner.
"Maybe just a salad," she said with a sigh.
"You sure you're okay, sweetie?"
"I'm fine," she said, smiling gently. "I like it here."
"Yeah, me too." The Lion and Dragon was very old-fashioned with imported real wood furnishings and wall panelling, fine carpets and brass and marble. It was quiet and refined and dignified. When they were finally ready to order, Cera had a green salad and Garadun a beef filet mignon in peppercorn sauce. His steak cost 53 kroner and it was the least expensive one on the menu.
They both left generous tips and then made their way back up to Garadun's suite. As they came in they were greeted by excited miaows when Wasp and Stinger came running out of the bedroom and across the floor, curling around their daddy's legs and pawing at him. He picked them up and they miaowed their high-pitched kitten cries and purred their little hearts out. He stroked and kissed them, then set them down.
"Okay, dinner," he said, smiling, and they kept miaowing as they scampered along at his feet to where their bowls were. He opened a foil packet of kitten chow and filled their food bowl. They dug in hungrily.
"Now that makes me feel better," said Cera adoringly as she flopped onto the sofa and watched the kittens eat.
"A great cure for what ails you," he agreed, smiling.
Garadun went and got a bottle of water and topped off their water bowl. He disappeared into the washroom and Cera could hear him cleaning out their litter box, flushing the contents down the toilet. He came back and sat with her. When the kittens had finally had their fill, they wiped their faces and then climbed onto his and Cera's laps, purring like fusion engines and eager for attention. They got plenty.
"Any idea when we'll find work?" Cera asked.
Garadun shook his head. "Hope it's soon. Having the whole company stay here is costing Alexandra a fortune. Then there's spaceport fees, maintenance, the wargames weren't exactly cheap
I know she wants the best for us, but in all honesty she's got to be more practical."
"I know, but what can we do? She's the commander."
"Yeah, but she's got to learn to be more
economical. Making sure we've got all the parts and equipment we need, that's fine. That makes sense and it's a good investment. But she shouldn't have us staying in luxury hotels and sending you girls on shopping sprees and all the rest of it. We're mercs, not some royal outing."
"Gar, it's her money."
"Which will run out if she keeps on like this," he argued. "And then where will we be? She's rich, okay. But she should be using that money as a cushion to fall back on in case things go sour. Not spending it needlessly."
Cera stroked Wasp and pursed her lips. "I see your point."
"The last thing we want, and I mean the absolute last thing we want, is to wind up on the company store," he said forcefully.
"The 'company store' is when a mercenary unit gets nailed by high repair costs. They take too much damage and can't afford to fix their 'Mechs. More and more of what should be profit instead goes to paying for maintenance and you get into a downward spiral. Next thing you know your House employer steps in to 'help out', but what's really going on is you getting deeper in debt with them. Before you know it you're in so deep that you gotta do whatever they say just to keep going. Which makes you House troops in all but name. It's happened to a lot of merc units."
Cera looked horrified.
"Gar, you've gotta talk to Alexandra. She listens to you."
"I've tried. She won't move us out of the hotel. Since we're already here, she thinks it'll make her look bad if we switch to a less expensive place."
"That's stupid. She's a great leader. She looks out for everybody."
"I know, I told her that. She's afraid of disappointing the unit."
"There's no way she can do that. We're almost like family now."
"Well, then you try talking to her," he suggested. "Maybe if she hears it from you as well, she'll change her mind."
"All right, I will. Tomorrow."
Cera gave him a sidelong glance. "So what about you two?"
"You and Alexandra. When you got back from your duel she was really glad to see you in one piece," Cera observed with a smirk. "She even kissed you."
"On the cheek," he said, giving her one of his looks. "There's nothing there."
"Are you sure?" she said gently, no longer teasing. "Alexandra does like you."
"As a friend, nothing more."
"Alexandra's great, and she's beautiful and everything, and god yes but no. Like all women it's just friends. And she's royalty. At some point she'll wanna continue the family line. You know I don't want nothing to do with kids."
Cera sighed. "What about Marie or Laura?"
"They might not be royals, but like Alexandra they're young and beautiful, and beautiful young women do not want guys like me, especially ones older than they are. I'm fifteen years older than Marie, seven for Laura. They want guys like Ian."
"Cera, please," he said and she could hear the weariness in his voice. The topic was beginning to get to him.
"Sorry," she said, and reached over and gave his hand a squeeze. The subject closed, he looked down and smiled at Stinger who'd rolled onto her back and was playing with his fingers. That level of cuteness helped chase away the blues.
The issue of continuing to stay at the expensive Galatean Interstellar Hotel was brought up by both Cera and Garadun the next day while having breakfast with Alexandra in her suite. The luxurious setting and overpriced room service meals were examples they used to make their arguments.
Alexandra was forced to accept that they had a point. She was also concerned about expenses but had felt trapped by her decision to stay at the Interstellar. They assured her that the Fusiliers wouldn't think any less of her if they moved to more economical accommodations. They were part of a mercenary unit, not tourists holidaying at some tropical resort. Only Ian had grown up with such opulence and he no longer cared, having chosen a different life for himself.
But although Alexandra agreed with them, she said the move might not be needed. The meeting she'd had had been a positive one. The gentleman she'd spoken with was Sir Henry Albern, a representative of Duke Josef Sheridan, ruler of Kolovraty. The world was part of the Lyran Commonwealth and lay on the very edge of the realm's Periphery March, literally the last coreward system in the March. The planet had a small local militia but no other forces to defend it. It was as far from rival Successor States as you could hope for, but sitting as it did on the edge of known space with nothing but the wild Deep Periphery at its back made it a target for pirates.
There were LCAF troops (or mercenaries in House Steiner's employ) based at nearby systems, but by the time help arrived at least a month would have passed (at the earliest) and any raiders would be long gone and the damage done. The Duke wanted BattleMech forces for his world but his many appeals for help had been denied by the LCAF High Command. So he decided to hire some mercenaries himself and sent his aid, Sir Henry Albern, all the way to Galatea to find the support they needed.
Alexandra was very excited. The contract being offered was just the kind of thing she had been looking and hoping for: garrison duty with a good cause behind it. That it was in her own Lyran Commonwealth was a bonus. Yet she was still a businesswoman and hadn't agreed to anything yet. She'd taken a copy of the contract with her for her "legal people" to look over before she signed it.
Those people were of course Cera and Garadun. With their experience on Solaris they were the ones who'd be able to spot unwanted loopholes or provisions. She produced the contract and passed it over for scrutiny. Her friends examined it very carefully and with the guarded wariness acquired on the Game World, where money was everything.
"Pay's not bad," Garadun remarked.
"At least our salaries will finally be coming out of someone's else's pocket instead of Alexandra's," Cera added. "What's the support percentage?"
sixty percent. Gotta get that way higher."
Cera pointed. "Battle loss compensation is only twenty percent. No way."
"Yeah, that needs to increase big time," he agreed.
"There's transport compensation," Alexandra supplied and they looked at her. "The Duke is offering to pay twenty-seven percent of our DropShip's value as a flat fee to cover our travel expenses. And thirty percent of JumpShip transport costs. That's fifteen thousand kroner per jump to reach Kolovraty. Since I own our JumpShip, that's money going directly into the Fusiliers' coffers."
"That's not bad at all," said Cera.
Garadun nodded. "But get the DropShip fee bumped to an even thirty."
"And the support and battle loss have to be upped, a lot," Cera added, looking at Alexandra. "We shouldn't have to pay to fix our own 'Mechs while defending them."
Garadun scanned some more pages. "Salvage rights
"What's that mean?" Cera asked.
"That means whatever we defeat goes to the Duke and not us, and he pays us cash for the estimated value of the salvage."
"That's not so bad."
"Yeah, but if we defeat some choice 'Mech like a Victor or something, he gets it."
"Whaddaya mean, so? That's a sweet prize."
"After we're done with it? Besides, even if it's still fairly intact, you want some drek a pirate's been using? Who knows what might be wrong with it."
"Mmm, yeah, there's a point," he said, rubbing his chin. He flipped another page, his eyes searching. He stopped when he found what he was looking for.
"What's wrong?" Alexandra asked.
"Says here under the section concerning command rights of our mission, the Fusiliers will be assigned a liaison, an observer, who'll be there to assure that our 'employer's interests' are met. That means a bureaucrat in our face."
"Sir Henry assures me that I will have full authority to command the Fusiliers as I see fit," Alexandra explained. "The liaison won't be giving advice, only reporting back."
"Bloody bureaucrats," Garadun muttered.
"Sir Henry says that clause is non-negotiable," she told them. "I can live with it. If I can negotiate an increase in the compensation you mentioned, do you think the contract is a good one? It's for a year's garrison duty with an option to renew if we want."
Garadun took a breath and let it out slowly, then went over the contract again, page by page. He then passed it to Cera who also reviewed it. This took some time.
"I think we should take it," Cera announced at last. "After all, we are a new, untested unit and a small one at that, not even full company size. We can't be too picky. The pay and compensation are pretty fair if we get the increases we want."
Garadun handed over the papers. "Final decision is yours, Alexandra."
Alexandra sighed in relief. "I'll tell Sir Henry we accept."