Arcology of Aurora
Planet Botany Bay, Coreward Periphery
December 11, 2999 AD
A young-looking man in the cobolt-and-silver of Colonial Service Command looked over the twenty-one men and women in the conference room. They were space-faring Thirteens, the survivors of the pirate band called Frankenstein's Monsters. Some of them were fresh out of the Life Center, easy to tell by the jump-suits.
He touched a signal and a loud tone got everyone's attention.
"I am Captain Omega of the Colonial Service, and I have been ordered to be your monitor for the duration of your parole. Those of you captured by the Botaneans have received trials, and those of your comrades who had been identified as having committed notable crimes have been executed. Those of you remaining, under the legal provision called 'Reasonable Doubt', have been granted 'parole'. The ones captured by Kobolian civilians ... well, we have little provision for this sort of matter under the Law of the Colonies, so we followed the lead of our comrades. Questions?"
A man stood up. "I'm Carlos Ratliff, formerlu captain of the JumpShip Nightmare. I've been appointed spokesman for Fr- for our group. I was wondering exactly what our legal status was."
"You are on parole. You have no restrictions in mixing with society, save that you will not be allowed ownership of weapons or access to military facilities. And since you are not citizens, you will not have voting rights. You should know that for the United Colonies, the concept of parole for pirates and prisoners of war is highly experimental. Your survival is in doubt if your pledge of parole is broken, and if this experiment fails it will be unlikely if we ever grant such parole to enemy combatants again. Not that this was ever a problem before, but some of our older veterans have expressed a dislike of killing humans."
Captain Ratliff continued, "As we're not prisoners, we won't be fed or housed?"
"Right now less than sixteen percent of the Aurora arcology is inhabited, and almost all of it is habitable but unclaimed. I think you'll have little trouble finding quarters. There is a food ration system for those with no income. Not luxurious, but I can tell you from experience that on the third day without eating you suddenly become very open about what constitutes tasty. As for earning a living, that's your problem."
"Well ... we've seen your technology. I don't see what we can offer."
"The planetary economy is expanding rapidly, so there's a labor shortage in almost every sector. But you all have knowledge of the realm of the Thirteenth Tribe - the customs of the Inner Sphere and it's various sub-nations. Some of you have knowledge of technology or other skills. That knowledge is your key to a better life, to earning the trust of those whom you have wronged, of attaining full freedom." He looked over the assembled parolees, his gaze lingering over those who seemed more hostile. "Just be warned - the sale of mercenary services is outlawed in the United Colonies. Only the Quorum - the government - is empowered to hire mercenaries, and then only under the most stringent of restrictions."
Ratliff nodded. "Well, that puts a crimp in some of our employment prospects." That got a chuckle. "But speaking of employment ... what about my ship?"
Another man stood up using a cane to balance hmself - Captain Maruyama of the DropShip Gargoyle. "I was wondering the same thing. I heard that the Gargoyle was being salvaged."
"Your starship is being studied. And the Celestra crew is making a fortune charging engineers for access. And yes, your DropShip is being studied. If you two wish to contribute to the study of your vessels, I'm sure you could negotiate a consultant's contract."
A third voice asked, "What about signing up with your military?"
Omega frowned. "I'm not certain about policy on that. You should know that there is a mandatory twenty-year service for volunteers, and the average life expectancy in the Colonial Service is four years for front-line combatants, and ten years for others. I personally have been in the Service for forty-one years, I've served in twenty major fleet actions, been wounded in battle ten times, and have outlived everyone who went through officers' training with me. And I have what you might call a 'rear echelon' posting. Those hoping for an easy life in the Service will be disappointed."
That got silence and respect from the mercenaries, along with one whisper of "Damn".
Questions were asked and answered, civilian com-bracelets were handed out, and as the meeting broke up, Ratliff and Maruyama wandered off together.
"So," Ratliff asked, "What do you think of this?"
"A pretty sweet deal, considering the alternative is an airlock and the Galactic Mystery Tour."
"Not that! I mean this whole 'Thirteen Tribes of Kobol' crap." They had read the orientation materials and some among the Monsters had studied available Kobolian historical records.
Maruyama shrugged. "You saw all those ships in space. You were on one."
"Yeah, I know. I can't figure out a reason why anyone would pull a con like that."
"How about 'how they would' instead? They patched me up after my DropShip crashed - I saw my own liver and was on my feet a few days later. I don't think any Inner Sphere hospital could do as good a job, and not as quick. So they aren't fakes, they're real ... well, not aliens, but whatever. What's the real problem?"
"Aside from being captured by a group of civilian techies?"
Mauryama snickered. "I won't tell if you won't."
Ratliff made a vulgar gesture. "I guess it's ... all our lives it's been Draks and Commies and Fedrats and Cappies and Free-Leakers and neo-barbs. And our illustrious free-living selves, of course."
"Now we're all lumped together in a pot labeled 'Thirteenth Tribe'. I find it vaguely insulting."
Maruyama smiled at that. "Yeah, I know. My father was a Draconis merchant, my mother was from the Suns, and they spent as much time insulting each other's homelands as they did anything else. I don't think they'd like some Kobolian to come along and say 'you all look alike to me'."
They both laughed at the thought.
"Besides," Maruyama said, "If they're telling the truth about all those aliens ..." He left that statement unfinished. He didn't need to finish it.
The concept of implacable alien monsters dedicated to the destruction of mankind sounded like the stuff of ground-hugger science fiction. But the United Colonies had been completely open about their history. They had incomparable power, the ability to take anything, and said they were refugees. There was no logical reason to say that unless it were true - logical behavior would be to hide their weaknesses.
Ratliff asked, "You know any troublemaking sorts?"
"Any stupid enough to do something serious?"
"I don't think so - but it won't hurt to ride them."
"Good. Make sure they stay quiet."
Mercenaries and pirates and other professional violence-dealers did not truly believe in ideologies or creeds or the bonds of patriotism. They believed in practicality and the application of direct solutions to problems - preferably preceded by energy weapon fire to penetrate armor.
If there truly were monsters among the stars, then the politics of the Inner Sphere, all the fire and pathos of the past couple of centuries, was meaningless. The only practical response would be a united front, closing ranks against the enemy, gathering all the resources possible for an aggressive defense.
And who else could be trusted with violence except experienced professionals?
Arcology of Singh
Planet Botany Bay, Coreward Periphery
December 11, 2999 AD
The office was once important. The man in it was once important.
The open door showed the two stencils clearly - 'Peace Party Headquarters' and 'Nathan Jarmen - Party Chief.'
The lone resident of the office raised a glass of something full of alcohol and horrid chemicals. "Here's to Nathan Jarmen!" he proclaimed. "Long may I reign! Come on, all you ghosts! Let's celebrate! The party petty-cash accounts are empty! And the slush funds will be gone in a month! What's not to celebrate?! WHEE!!"
The office was almost empty enough to echo.
"It had been so simple in the past," he said to the empty room, pouring more noxious booze. "A bit of fear-mongering, a few empty promises, and the proles would do anything. Sure, the pirates came by every few years, but as long as they left a few fear-paralyzed proles behind, who cared? It wasn't like they took important people like politicians or the rich. We had better-hidden shelters.
"It was almost automated - the pirates would invade, the public would cry a bit, recriminations of unpreparedness would be slung around, vague grandiose plans would be announced, and in a few months everything would settle down." He sighed and gulped down the booze. "A few more raids, and the Peace Party could have moved into power permanently, done away with elections, and lived like kings by supplying the pirates with a few proles."
Jarmen threw his empty glass against a wall. "It's these aliens! The damned Alien Gypsies spoiled everything!"
Last month, the Kobolians had swooped out of space, brought industries, cheap electricity, new technology, and hope to the world. It had happened so fast that the Peace Party barely had a chance to develop a position concerning them. It had been agreed by the Smoke-Filled Room to play up the 'alien invader' and 'foreign exploiter' angle, make them objects of mistrust, and blunt their ability to shake up the status quo. They didn't need alien gypsies telling them how to live! Of course, things happened so fast after they came with the rebuilding and new industries that there was no way they could build up any sort of political momentum.
Then the Kobolians had the gall to destroy the pirates! No one had really expected that. A few die-hard Peace Party hacks tried to play up 'our noble soldiers killed by Kobolian military adventurism', but the proles were having none of it. The old status quo was gone, the Bebee was not helpless, and the people had both pride and power and they liked it. As far as the average man-on-the-street was concerned, the Kobolians were the blessing of God, Jesus, and Altjira, Admiral Adama walked on water, and the Galactica's shadow could cure crippled children.
Jarman's e-mail account was filled with resignation notices. In November, the membership rolls of the Peace Party showed two hundred thousand dues-paying members - almost half the voting population. Now, one month later there were only one hundred twenty members left.
And the Peace Party, which had argued against military spending and advocated peaceful solutions for two centuries, had all the political clout of a dead fish. It was hard to convince people that their way of life had to be protected when they were suddenly prosperous and powerful. There were no longer any contributions to pay expenses, nor businesses willing to give expensive 'gifts' to sway a parliamentary vote. Not that they could - there was only one loyal Peace Party member left in Parliament.
Nathan Jarman was, officially, a legal consultant. In actuality, he had been a political deal-maker. And now his political clout - his stock-in-trade - was gone. It was ironic that the Peace Party had argued against unemployment subsidies as being an unnecessary drain on public funds; now Nathan Jarman was close to needing them himself. And he was one of the tiny tiny number that could be unemployed, as Kobolian industrial expansion was creating jobs faster than they could be filled.
"Damn you, Frankenstein!" he yelled at the empty office. "You could have just killed that bastard when you had him!"
And in a bitter, drunken mind, dark plans formed ... images of explosions and dreams of screaming began to simmer ...
Orbital Space, Planet Apollo, Apollo System
Trellshire Province, Lyran Commonwealth
December 11, 2999 A.D.
The Union DropShip Battler was the property of the mercenary band called Fredrick's Fusiliers. The Fusiliers were not a prestigious or famous company, but did have the reputation of fulfilling contracts in a business-like fashion. They were currently under contract to the Duke of Apollo as half of planetary security. Garrison work was not exciting, but after the Fusiliers got ripped a new one in the last Draconis offensive, they needed the opportunity to rest and rebuild.
The Fusiliers and the Green Division, the other mercenary company, took turns patrolling space. It was in the contract but was, frankly, a ridiculous duty. Radar could pick out something before an actual ship could. In any case, Apollo was too deep inside Lyran space for Periphery pirates to casually raid, and both companies together didn't amount to a full battalion, so there wasn't much they could do to repel a Combine invasion. But if one disregarded that, it was a good job.
"What is it?"
"The Streak's back!"
Dave went to the monitor controls. The Streak was the popular name for the unidentified thing that zipped through the system five days ago. It had moved at almost the speed of light, leaving behind itself a trail of ionized matter with spectrographic readings that placed it's elements outside the periodic table. It's journey began and ended at a pesudo-point, a useless eccentricity of hyperspace physics.
Normally such a thing would be just an amusing novelty. But it arrived on the heels of news of the Fomalhaut Disaster, a bizarre phenomenon that destroyed more JumpShips than had been lost at once since the First Succession War. Despite the fact that there was over five hundred light-years between Fomalhaut and Apollo, there was still the nagging fear that it could happen again - especially since no one understood why it happened in the first place.
"I still think it's an alien," Dave said.
"Your head's been boiled. It's a natural phenomenon."
"Come on, Greig. A natural phenomenon that's never been seen in over a thousand years of space travel? Now it shows up twice in a week?"
Greig gestured to encompass the universe. "This is space, pudding-head. Big-ass eternal void and all that. What's a thousand years to the stars?"
"A damn long time."
Greig tossed over a microphone. "Well, since it's an alien, why don't you ask the Triple-Breasted Whore from Eroticon Six for a date? You couldn't be any more unlucky than you are with the local talent."
With a chuckle, Dave switched on the transmitter. "Hey fast lady! Next time you're through here, look me up for a wild time! Name's Greig!"
Greig swatted him with a log book. "You shek!"
City of Eleazor, Planet Apollo, Apollo System
Trellshire Province, Lyran Commonwealth
December 11, 2999 A.D.
A sharp whistle, and the crew of the Boomerang Fish assembled in the salon.
Apollo explained, "Another Starchaser just went through the system. The first one trashed it's engines, but the Admiral felt this was important enough to risk another one. In the aftermath of the pirate invasion, the Quorum has decided to accelerate Fleet construction. The Warriors are needed back on Botany Bay to train new recruits. So we're to speed up the local mission." He grinned. "Then we return in six quatrons with a capital ship, a fighter squadron, and a thousand Marines and blow the pogees out of this pesthole."
Juliet pondered for a moment. "I like the sound of that."
Apollo grinned. "I'm so glad you approve. We're speeding up everything, and we've also received orders. There will be some changes to the last stage battle plan ..."
Brie of Sagittaron had a terrible secret.
She crept out in the dark of night because of this terrible secret, seeking the persons who could help assuage the unholy hunger.
The cloaked Colonial Warrior sped through the rain-damp streets across the Portside neighborhood to the place where her addiction could be fed ...
The Chocolatier de la Bierre.
She came in and put the paper currency down on the counter. "Another two orders of chocolate-covered cherries, please."
The smirking counter-woman measured out the candies. "Don't have these where you come from?"
"No. They knew about chocolate on Botany Bay, but only because it was mentioned in old books. I never heard of the stuff before I came here."
"The experts talk about interstellar trade in terms of technology or money or resources. If they looked at the chocolate trade, maybe they would learn something about human civilization." She finished packing the candies and handed over the box, then counted out the change.
"I'll be back for a big order before we leave," Brie said.
"No chocolatiers on your world? Let me know when you're accepting immigrants, so I can get rich addicting you folks and ruining your children's health."
As Brie set out back into the night, she passed near a lit courtyard. There seemed to be a meeting taking place, complete with catchy music. A young man with pamphlets came up. "Greetings, Brother! Has the One Star shone in your life?" She turned to face him, and he laughed in embarrassment. "Sorry, I meant sister! Cloaks aren't exactly the most gender-identifying garb."
"It's all right." She noticed the pamphlet and got a bit of a surprise. On the top of the pamphlet was a circle containing a diamond - the emblem of the Lords of Kobol. "Um, what is that symbol?"
"It is the emblem of the One Star. The Prophet Simon Kroeger saw it in a vision - a glowing Star of Truth in a black void, around which a lone world circled, the true home of the Human Soul -"
"The planet Kobol - where Life began. It orbits a megastar in a paramagnetic black void about two thousand light-years from here toward anti-spinward. And here I thought you Thirteens had forgotten about it."
The young man seemed taken aback. "And - and how do you know about it?"
"I was there a couple of Earth-years ago. Rather arid, but livable. The ruined cities were magnificent."
"Uh - would you like to speak to our Star-Gazer?"
City of Eleazor, Planet Apollo, Apollo System
Trellshire Province, Lyran Commonwealth
December 12, 2999 A.D.
Mariposa means 'butterfly' in the Spanish tongue of Earth. The Monarch is the largest aerodyne DropShip class ever built by Earth-descended humans. The juxtaposition of the two was the private joke of a long-dead ship-namer.
Her owner had in the Mariposa an abundance of useless riches. The Monarch-class vessel had a decent cargo capacity for a privately-owned ship. But the Trellshire Province was one of the poorest regions of the Lyran Commonwealth. The Mariposa was frequently forced to ship at only half or even a quarter capacity due to a lack of need for a big ship, and no mercenaries wanted to hire an unarmed DropShip. It couldn't have transported mercenaries anyhow, as Monarchs lacked Mech bays. At this point in the Lyran-Draconis hostilities, there was little civilian traffic between the two powers that could otherwise compensate for the poverty of the region.
The portable putting green spread beneath the great ship's wing kept the Ship's Master busy when he wasn't grubbing for work. The sun had just lit up the back of the cloud layer while he took out a bag of clubs, set out a tee, and prepared a ball. As he addressed the ball, a voice asked, "What the heck are you doing?"
The Ship's Master turned and noticed a dark-skinned man in an archaic-looking suit. "This, mysterious stranger, is part of the Game of Golf, the Ancient Sport of Kings since it's origins on Mother Terra."
The man gave a smirk. "I know some folks who will give you an argument on that 'Mother Terra' bit. Name's Doctor Lou Zealand. I'm looking for the business manager of this thing."
"That would be me - Ship's Master and Owner Luis Goro. And this 'thing' is the good ship Mariposa, Tauran registry."
"Tauran? From what I understand of interstellar maps, Commander Goro, that's a long way from here."
"The traditional title is 'Captain'. And the Tauran Concordiat is not at war with anyone in the immediate vicinity. If we did business over that way, we would have Canopan registry. I've even got a set of papers saying we're a Terran Hegemony ship, just in case it ever comes up. Whatever gets us on the do-not-shoot list."
"I like that philosophy," Dr Zealand agreed. "You are a wise man. Just the sort of man we'd like to hire."
"Well now, we're busy you know. A ship like this is always in high demand."
"The dockmaster we bribed say you're on the edge of using up all your pre-paid docking fees."
"And you're hoping to use that rather unkind fact to get a discount?"
"Not at all. We just want to make sure you're ready to leave on our schedule."
The club went back into the bag. "So, Doctor - what's the cargo and destination?"
"Cargo's a secret. Destination is Botany Bay in the United Colonies."
"Oho!" Goro said while getting a pair of folding chairs. "So you're with the mysterious new Periphery nation we've been hearing all sorts of idiotic rumors about." He unfolded a chair and gestured to it. "Have a seat, Doctor. I have to tell you right now that I don't like the notion of secret cargo."
"We will pay a retaining fee of fifty thousand ComStar Bills over and above cargo rates. Plus free docking at Botany Bay."
"I love secret cargoes. I live for them!"
Blake Memorial Gardens, ComStar Compound
Hilton Head, North America, Terra
December 12. 2999 A.D.
"The Peace of Blake be upon you, Julia ffoulks."
"And upon you, Primus," she said. "I am pleased that you could speak to me on such short notice."
"How could I resist such an unusual invitation? It's not everyday that I get a message inserted into my scrambled eggs."
The Precentor Martial chuckled. "A trifle theatrical, I admit. But ordinary lines of communication are ... suspect. Especially where the Precentor ROM is concerned."
"Really. I take it that Brother Iblis has been making inroads into your baliwick again?"
"No. This is something more ..."
Julia ffoulks explained her findings - the appearance and oddities of the United Colonies, the oddly convenient death of her agent inside ROM, the secret commands of William Iblis to assassinate the United Colonies mission to Apollo, his strange commands to the ECV Metropolis.
"So," Allen Rusenstein said. "You suspect that the Precentor ROM is seeking to use this new advanced Periphery power to leverage his position within ComStar? Even willing to risk a war with aliens?"
"At the very least," she agreed. "The accounts from Apollo and the Metropolis demonstrates that they have manned light fighters with a range comparable to DropShips and an acceleration orders of magnitude beyond any manned vessel that we had ever believed possible. These two facts alone indicate a military potential comparable to the ComGuard at least. Such a war could be quite destructive. If they have WarShips as capable as their light fighters, the resulting conflict could be comparable to the First Succession War. Add in the mysterious ship at Fomalhaut, and the consequences - "
"Terrifying," he agreed. "And I take it that you have taken precautions?"
"I intercepted and altered his orders to something more rational. Both the Apollo Station and the Metropolis are now commanded to try to learn about the United Colonies and make peaceful contact. It may be possible to bring them into our orbit."
"That is well. If they are more advanced than the Star League, then it would be up to us to warn them of the hazards of the Scavenger Lords. The last thing we would need is a quantum leap in the Successor States' abilities to kill each other. We've spent two centuries trying to reduce that ability." He seemed thoughtful. "On the other hand, a tangible boogeyman might help the Scavengers forget that they hate each other, unifying to fight off an alien menace. And of course, the only party that would be trustworthy to coordinate the defense would be ComStar ... "
"Primus ... " she said nervously.
"Don't worry, Julia. I have no intention of launching yet another war under the current circumstances. Besides, we don't know enough about the United Colonies to adequately ... shape them. Once we know each other better, they might find out that they have a friend in ComStar."
"The Wisdom of Blake is with you, Primus," Julia said reverently. "And should we keep the Precentor ROM informed?"
"I think he should be informed of what he wants to hear," the Primus said. "An Ultimate Priority notification of the United Colonies' expedition to Apollo having a fatal accident should make him happy."
"Excellent idea, Primus."
"Of course it is. I thought of it."
City of Eleazor, Planet Apollo, Apollo System
Trellshire Province, Lyran Commonwealth
December 14, 2999 A.D.
Adept-IV Harvey Dent and his three Acolytes pushed their carts of luggage and tools through the spaceport, looking for a particular berth. The Adept was excited to be working on such a unique mission for ROM and the Blessed Order. This was a chance to truly fulfill the Mission of the Order and bring these 'United Colonies' neo-barbarians back into ComStar's flock.
He had been briefed that these were not true neo-barbarians, but Ricardo was born on Luthien to a wealthy aristocratic family. While he no longer served the Dragon, he couldn't help but think of everywhere else as 'less civilized', and the Periphery as 'not civilized'. A bad habit, but one he recognized and took steps to minimize.
At the designated berth, Dent loked with curiosity at the three ships. He couldn't understand how they could have flown under power (fast,too, according to the records) for several days and not required refueling. He noted a rather attractive young blonde woman who was dressed in what he had been briefed was the uniform of the Colonial Service, aiding a scruffy man in loading large boxes into the blocky gray ship (the Boomerang Fish, he recalled).
He cleared his throat. "The Peace of Blake be upon you," he said solemnly. "I and my assistants have been sent by the Precentor Apollo to accompany you to Botany Bay and help repair your HPG system."
"Oh! Yes! That ComStar priest. I was told to expect you. I'm Lieutenant Brie, this is Linten. You two should have a lot to talk about - he's a priest, too. Well, you can load up, Gilmesh will help you stow your grip. Make it march, we're on slide time - twenty centons to launch."
As the Acolytes carried their cases into the shuttle, he asked Linten, "'Priest'?"
"Not as such. I'm a junior astrologer with the One-Star Faith."
"I see." Dent had little personal opinion of the One-Stars, as they were just another superstition to him. Some of the more hot-headed among Blake's Own tended to decry them as pagans and heretics of the worst sort, but he hadn't heard anything reliably negative about them. "And you have an interest here?" He allowed his gaze to follow Lieutenant Brie.
Linten allowed the unspoken lewdness to pass without remark. "Our Star-Gazer says that the United Colonies know much about the stars beyond the Deep Periphery, that Brie has seen worlds that are unknown to even the Star League! Our quest for the One-Star may be finished soon with their lore. We're even sending a Star-Gazer to Botany Bay to consult their starcharts!"
"On this ship?"
"Oh no! They rented out a cargo hauler for some big shipment - the Mariposa, that big aerodyne Dropper that's been sitting out there for two months? It's going with us on their JumpShip. We managed to club together funds for a passenger ticket."
Dent knew that the United Colonies delegation had not made any bulk purchases - unless one counted the numerous boxes of chocolates that Lieutenant Brie was loading. He couldn't figure out what they had that would require a Monarch's nine hundred tons of cargo capacity. Unless they wanted the Monarch itself - it wasn't a great craft, but the design might be worth studying to someone unfamiliar with it. "And how did your sect discover the United Colonies had this lore?"
"Well, it was a dark and stormy night ..."
The Contract Auctions were the monthly highlight of the local business calendar. Depending on the stellar traffic, auctions could do hundreds of millions of bills worth of business. These auctions usually determined the availability of labor for the next business cycle. And there was always the possibility of a technician or scholar from a distant world ending up on the block, which had it's own special effects on the economy.
The customers were of two types - the grim businessmen in their gray suits, and the wealthy who dressed in bright fabrics and usually had companions. The businessmen treated the auction like a business meeting, while the rich treated it like some sort of entertainment. The businessmen would acquire specific types of people for specific needs, and then work them until they were crippled. The rich would have other requirements, because what they wanted were living toys. Which had the worse fate was a matter of opinion.
Starbuck and Juliet came out in a high-quality rented vehicle in order to look as inconspicuous as possible. The foreign visitors were already a matter of gossip, so just showing up wouldn't cause too many eyebrows to go up, but showing up in uniform or battlegear would. So Starbuck had a new suit, custom-made along Caprican lines - loose fit, complementary earth tones, draping layers, boots and a cape. Juliet's garb was from Botany Bay - the 'little black dress' that had survived centuries of fashion shifts, with thigh-high boots and the latest Botany Bay fashion fad, a short black cape based on Kobolian styles. The capes proved to be a good idea, as the damp fall of Apollo tended to be chilly by their standards.
Starbuck gave the UrbanMech a hard stare, sizing it up. It looked formidable, standing ten meters tall. He recalled the one in the Botany Bay news broadcast one-shotting a landram. "Looks impressive."
"Forget that noise, sugar-tush," Juliet whispered. "I'm the military expert. I spent most of my time on this swamp doing research into Inner Sphere military tech - and I looked up this one in particular. The base model's designed for urban warfare, navigating between buildings and such. But the normal one has barely enough firepower to defend itself. This one has less. It's something of a joke in local MechWarrior circles, in fact."
"What sort of joke?"
Juliet explained, "The story is that the original owner had some hair-brained theory of battle and bankrupted his family to get this mech. He went to the planet Solaris to compete in the gladiator bouts there, put his theory to the test, and ended up on his ass. They still show clips of the match in a holovid series called 'How To Not Fight A Mech'. He could barely afford the ticket home and drank himself to death. The current pilot's his grandson, he's never actually fired any of the weapons that anyone knows. By MechWarrior standards, he might be able to steal candy from a sleeping baby. The Exchange pays him to look menacing."
"He could still kill people, though. Especially if he doesn't know what he's doing. Have to watch for him if things go off-scale."
At the main gate, most of the visitors handed over their admittance passes and went through the scanner portals. A few handed over invitations and went through a separate VIP entrance.
Starbuck handed over a bundle of IOUs and commented, "Thanks, Joe. Pleasure doing business with you." The security guard tried to look professional as he slipped the IOUs into his pocket. Juliet gave him a wave as they walked through the VIP entrance.
Inside the walled compound was the canopied courtyard where the actual auction would take place. The other part of the visible security, the modified BigBear IndustrialMech, stood in one corner of the courtyard, ready to spray anaesthetics over the entire enclosure in case of a slave revolt - er, 'disgruntled contractee incident'. The crowd milled around, socializing and looking over holo-displays of the merchandise.
Juliet asked Starbuck, "You sure about this?"
"What's the matter? You're a veteran, you've seen the gorgon."
"In a fighter! Fighter jocks aren't Warriors! You guys would be called 'special forces' in the Inner Sphere. Or 'royal elite units'. Believe it or not, I'm worried about being shot!"
"So am I. There's an old proverb - 'the only Warriors who aren't scared of battle are the insane and the dead'. It's normal."
"You could have gotten Brie to do this. Or Gilmesh."
"Brie's been military only two yahren - less than you. She hasn't had any ground experience either. And Gilmesh would look awful in that dress. He hasn't got the hips for it." He pulled her over to one group clustered around a display. "Look at this."
'This' was one of the product holodisplays - one that showed what could have been an ethnic Canceran, or an Earth oriental. His body was covered with scars. The display was giving a sales pitch ...
'- iginally a field clearer in a jungle environment, he originally proved to be a discipline problem. However, after suitable remedial treatment, this contractee has proven to be rather docile -'
Juliet clutched his arm. "Okay. I'm back to being angry."
"Good. Hold on to that. But keep your head clear. Just like in the cockpit."
Starbuck gave her a reassuring smile. Of course he knew from experience that battle plans never match battles. He was sure that there were security precautions that Joe or the People's Independence Committee didn't know and thus couldn't tell them - assuming what they knew was accurate. But he wasn't about to mention that to Juliet, who had never been in a ground action worse than a barroom brawl. He needed her confident and clear-headed.
One of the Eleazor Police Corps patrol cars was drifting past the Spaceport. Police Patrollers Tuesday and Weld were in a sour mood. The Police Corps always got calls about contractees disappearing - no surprise there - but today there was a bumper crop of them. If they weren't all scattered around, it might almost look like a slave revolt - that is, a disgruntled contractee incident. And that would involve calling out the Militia and maybe even those damned mercs of the Duke's, which was just plain trouble.
What annoyed Tuesday and Weld was that whenever there was anything about contractees, the Spaceport district was put on alert. This prevented them from patrolling their favorite district, the Daybird Cafe, which gave doughnut discounts to police officers who ignored certain ignorable things. It was ridiculous to think of a contractee making his way offworld anyway.
Officer Tuesday was scanning the rather large number of missing contractees on the sheets and comented, "Hey, have you noticed this?"
"Look at the pictures."
Weld looked over the pictures. "All seem to be ethnic ... something. Kinda looks like my sister's husband - he's from Hot Springs. But different."
"That argues a conspiracy of neo-barbs. Probably some weird religious cult."
"You and your alien religious cults! Is this going to be like your suspected Draconian vampire cult that got you suspended for three months without pay after you cuffed the Duke's cousin?"
"There was a cover-up!"
"Your mother dropped you on your head when you - hold on ..."
Officer Tuesday looked over where his partner was looking. At one of the service gates to the spaceport were a half-dozen people - all of an unusual dark-skinned ethnicity. Tuesday began looking through the sheets. "I think I got what looks like a match on two of them."
"Good enough." Tuesday reached for the radio, but Weld stopped him. "I think catching a half-dozen escaped slaves by ourselves will make us look good to the brass. Pay-bonuses are due next month, you know."
The two police corpsmen got out of the patrol car and approached the small group. Tuesday had his riot gun handy and Weld began the standard speech; "You are now under the authority of law. Any resistance -"
A voice interrupted, "What is going on here?!"
The officers turned to the dark-skinned man in the old-fashioned suit. "You are interfering with police activity, sir. And who are you?"
"Doctor Madison Jeffries, with the Botany Bay Trade Delegation. What are you doing and why?"
"This is not your concern. These are -"
Jeffries interrupted; "- friends and relatives visiting their relations from the Old Country. And what's wrong with that?"
"There are laws concerning the movements of contractees without the permission of contract-holders. And there are laws about interfering with police corpsmen in their duty."
A large pale man in a brown jacket (with a large handgun) came out. "Is there a problem, Dr Jeffries?"
"These individuals seem to be bothering our ... visitors, Lieutenant Gilmesh."
The tall Kobolian nodded thoughtfully. "Well, can you hurry it up? Looks like a thunderstorm building."
The two cops looked at the cloud-covered sky. "What are you talking about -"
Long ago, on the Colony of Leo in the Cyrranus Cluster, the martial artists of that world developed the Art of the Gun to levels that had never been rivaled anywhere else. Ancient tales tell of pistol-saints who could shoot down the missiles that they themselves fired from the same pistol. Most of the Colony of Leo were not that good, but it was a truism that Leos could handle a pistol better than non-Leos. When the United Colonies formed, the Colonial Service Warrior Cadre took the best elements from the training of all the Colonial military elites and combined it into the Warrior training program. This included the pistol-skills taught to Leonine elite commandos.
Gilmesh's gun-hand - with elite training, combined with the standard Warrior's neural enhancement - blurred, and a sound that no one had ever heard on Apollo sounded.
The police cruiser exploded in a fireball.
The cops almost jumped out of their skin. They turned back, and Gilmesh's weapon was holstered. They couldn't be sure they had seen him move.
Tuesday pointed his riot-gun at Gilmesh. "Hands up! You're under arrest!"
"For what?" Dr Zealand asked. "Being nearby when your vehicle was struck by lightning?"
"What?! He shot our car!"
Weld put a hand on the riot-gun's barrel and pushed it down. "Stand down, Tuesday."
"But - but he -"
Weld pulled him close and hissed in his ear. "Either the car was struck by lightning, or we're going to try and take in - by ourselves - a gunfighter who is not only faster than anything I ever saw, but has a sidearm that can explode a car with one shot!"
Gilmesh shook his head. "Vehicle struck by lightning. Shame about that." His hand flexed near his blaster.
Tuesday reluctantly nodded. "Yeah - Act of God type stuff." He looked around, and noticed that the escaped slaves - that is, rogue contractees - were gone. "Where did they go?"
"Who?" Gilmesh looked around. "Don't see anyone. Anyway, shouldn't you contact your headquarters and get a new vehicle?"
Weld nodded. "Yes, we should. Thank you, sir."
Over at the Mariposa, another half-dozen Botanean escaped slaves boarded the DropShip, bring the total to seventy-seven. Adrienne kept track and greeted the people that she had helped notify of their new route home.
On the flight deck, Captain Goro had figured out what was going on several hours ago. He asked his First Mate, "What do you think, Hanna?"
She shrugged. "A cargo's a cargo. And it's not the first time we've transported something not entirely legal."
"What I'm worried about is 'will this annoy the Commies enough to sink us?'"
"I was thinking that, too. The Colonials say they'll provide cover."
"With two light fighters?" Hanna asked snidely. "How good do these United Colonies flyers think they are anyway?"
"Well, if we're lucky, we'll never find out." A chime sounded, and Goro checked the monitor. "Well-well, our paying passenger is checking in."
"That One-Star loony? Plus the people who are not escaping slaves? This is going to be one of those trips."
"I'll get the extra antacids."