The poker game with McFinney had ended, and Cranston Snord found himself the owner of a Union dropship, five fighters, and five battlemechs. But only one of the fighters was functional, and three of the 'mechs were little more than wreckage. He'd spent the last of his cash sending away most of the creditors that he'd inherited along with McFinney's machines, but it wasn't enough. McFinney had owed huge amounts to House Marik, and Janos was calling in those debts.
Janos was calling in all such debts, trying to use them to accumulate expendable mechwarriors to defend against the pressures the Davions were applying, and he had no qualms about reducing mercenary units to little more than House units in all but name. Snord had heard it called the "Company Store" syndrome, and with his interest in history, he was one of the few who knew where the term had come from. And the units Janos was collecting were units that he'd then expend freely, keeping his more loyal Free Worlder mechwarriors to protect his back.
Though Snord could understand that - Mariks weren't quite as bad as the Liao family when it came to sharp knives and unprotected backs, but they were bad enough.
Any surviving merc units would then be not-so-gently pressured into accepting a Marik collar around their necks, with Janos holding their financial leash. That wasn't acceptable. Not to Snord, and not to Jamie Wolf.
He'd sent out messages for spare parts, making certain to obscure the sources as Colonel Wolf had ordered, and the first of the Dispossessed techs and mechwarriors would show up tomorrow morning. With a little luck on his side, he should be able to get the Union into a decent state of repair.
Three of the fighters would have to be scrapped to repair the other two. As for the 'mechs, one would have to be sold for operational cash after it was repaired. That would give him two fighters, three mechs and a dropship. Not exactly a force that would have the Inner Sphere quaking in its boots (though a few Periphery worlds might shudder slightly), but it was a start.
"You are Cranston Snord, owner and leaders of Snord's Irregulars and current holder of the instruments of debt previously belonging to one Melvin McFinney?"
Snord looked up tiredly. "I am. And you're another of his creditors, I take it?"
"No, Captain Snord. I am Jared Broker, and I have a deal for you."
Cranston felt a bit more interest, and some amusement at what was obviously as false a name as his own. "And what would this deal be, Mr. Broker? Remembering, of course, that I'm still busy repairing my dropship as well as my 'mechs."
"Ten percent of your debt to House Marik, paid immediately. With the possibility of paying it in full, without any combat missions on your part."
Cranston smiled. "And what would I have to do? Re-found the Star League? Search for the missing heirs to House Cameron? Wait, I know! You want me to find General Kerensky." He burst out laughing.
The gray-haired man shook his head. "No, Captain Snord. I want you to do something much harder than that. I want two things. An oath from you, and something else that you'll learn of after you swear that oath."
Quiet alarms went off in Cranston's head. "Tell me what the oath might be, and I'll tell you if I'm willing to swear it, Mr. Broker."
"Simply this. I want a second meeting with you. I will give you certain information, information that might cause you to feel the urge to attack and restrain me, Captain Snord. The oath I want from you is that you will do no such thing. You are free to take whatever action against me - once I leave the meeting. Not before. If you wish to kill me to keep certain secrets, you will wait until after I've left. In return for that oath, after it is given but before the meeting takes place, I will pay ten percent of your debt to House Marik. If, after the meeting, you are still willing to listen to me, I'll pay another ten percent of that debt in return for your escorting me to another meeting, an escort I believe you'll be quite interested in carrying out."
The alarms inside his head grew shriller. "And why would I be wanting to kill you, Mr. Broker?"
Broker smiled. "If I told you why you'd want to kill me, you might try to kill me right here on the spot, Captain Snord. And while death can be such a little thing, dying would certainly interfere with being able to carry out my duties. I'm quite certain that a man like yourself can understand duty."
"How do I know I'm not walking into an ambush, Mr. Broker?"
The gray man smiled again. "The same way I know that I won't be walking into your ambush, Captain Snord. Like myself, you'll have to take a chance."
Cranston had checked and double-checked. Whoever Mr. Broker was, and whomever he was fronting for, he wasn't lying about the cash. Ten percent of his total debt to House Marik had been placed in escrow with Comstar. All he was required to do was submit a statement from Mr. Broker that the meeting had taken place, and the escrow agency would authorize immediate release of the funds to the Mariks.
It was made even more attractive by the fact that Broker had paid that extra amount to have the escrow payment insured by Comstar. If Janos and his flunkies tried to claim non-payment and still seize his assets, Comstar would, albeit with some reluctance, be required to blacklist Janos. Comstar's reputation would be on the line, and through them, House Marik's.
A pleasant thought, that.
Snord made up his mind. While he was bound by oaths to himself (and in that most secret of corners in his mind, to the Clans), there was nothing he could think of that would prevent him from making an oath to give a man an honest head start. It really wasn't that much different from hegira. He could live with that.
Bob's Bar wasn't the cleanest bar on Crossing, nor did it have the widest selection of liquor, the best food, or the most melodious music. But it did have something that many mercs valued highly.
Its owner paid close attention to privacy. VERY close attention, with the bar being swept for bugs once a day, and he invested in the best jamming equipment currently available outside of military/government circles. If you wanted privacy, Bob's Bar was one of the best places to find it.
The regulars often wondered what Bob had done in the past to warrant such paranoia, or if it even was warranted to begin with, but that didn't change the fact that people who wanted to make quiet deals willingly put up with the sub-par food and drinks in return for the security.
Snord looked across the table at Mr. Broker and smiled. Part of the agreement was that he could bring one man, while Broker would bring no one, so Terry Malvinson was by his side, heavily armed and ready for some sort of trap.
"So, what is this mysterious information you have for us, Mr. Broker? Information that will supposedly make me want to kill you on sight. breaking all the traditions of safe passage and honor?"
The gray man leaned forward slightly.
"How's the weather back on Strana Mechty?"
The gun filled Terry's hand so fast, only the surveillance cameras caught it clearly.
"So this is what I can expect from your people, Snord? From you? Oaths that are as worthless as those of Stefan Amaris?"
That name drew an almost microscopic flinch from both men. "I-" started Malvinson, only to clamp his jaws shut, the muscles tight and strained with the effort. But his pistol never wavered.
"You're no Amaris? He couldn't keep his oaths either. But perhaps you have conflicting oaths, Mr. Malvinson. If so, you'd best decide which ones you'll honor and which you won't." The gray man turned his attention back to Snord, seemingly indifferent to the handgun aimed at his chest. "Well, Captain Snord? You've earned ten percent of your debt to Marik, simply by listening to me. Would you like to try for twenty?"
Cranston looked at the man, examining his face, trying to judge him by the way he held his eyes. "You wanted me to escort you to another meeting. Where, and with whom?"
A thin, unsettling smile cut across Broker's face. "I was thinking of a face to face meeting with Colonel Wolf. As fate would have it, my people and I share an enemy in common with him. We'd like to make him an offer regarding them, and see what he thinks of it." The smile grew a millimeter wider. "There's little in this universe quite so satisfying as getting one's vengeance and making a profit while doing so. Making a profit from your enemy's corpse? Best of all."
The two mercenaries had nothing to say. What rational merc could argue with that philosophy?
Snord and Malvinson had returned to the Union dropship they'd claimed from McFinney. He'd lived aboard to save the cost of a hotel room, and Cranston didn't see any reason to abandon the practice. Snord waved his subordinate towards the rec room.
"Do you want to talk about it, Terry?"
"I'm obsessed, not stupid, Terry. Broker mentioned ... that place ... and you were less than a heartbeat away from shooting him. Then his comment about you choosing between oaths." Snord frowned. "I don't know how he got the information he has, but from what he said and your reactions to it, you have orders, orders I didn't give you. Orders from Jaime?"
Malvinson's expression hardened, but he refused to look away. Snord nodded.
"Let me guess - we come across any 'leaks' about certain information, it's your job to plug them up. Even if that leak happens to be me."
Terry's eyes widened slightly, and he winced. "How?"
"I am eccentric, Terry, not blind. If I were in Jaime's position, I would have given the same orders. I expected him to give that order. I simply didn't know who he'd given it to."
Malvinson sighed. "You know I'll have to report to Colonel Wolf, and he'll simply give the same orders to someone else. Someone you won't see coming."
"I know. I'd expect nothing less of him, Terry. I'd do the same. The mission comes first. Now, enough about that for now. I want to hear your thoughts on our mysterious Mr. Broker."
"He didn't flinch. Looked at my Thornhill and didn't care. I think I could have shot him and he wouldn't have even made a sound." Terry's expression was thoughtful. "I can think of certain people who would have been happy to see how he performed in training."
"So can I. And we're likely thinking of the same people. Whom we'd better stop thinking of, if we don't want to slip up," nodded Cranston. "Now's the important question. Do I take him up on his request?"
"Do we have any choice, Captain? If he does have information about our backers, Colonel Wolf is going to want to know, and he'll want to know before the supply run takes place."
"Good point, Terry." Snord thought about it for a moment, then laughed. "And we'll get paid twice. Do this right, and we'll walk away owing the Mariks nothing, and we'll do so without anyone knowing the truth of how we did it. Even 'back home', that will go down in history."
"Heh. I hadn't thought about that. Do you believe he has the supplies he's offered us?"
"He invited us to examine the samples he brought with him. And even from a distance, the Mule he arrived on looked to be in pretty good repair."
"You think he owns it, sir?" queried Malvinson.
"I think either he or his backers own it, Terry. And if I'm right..." Cranston shrugged. "If I'm right, there's someone out there with a big grudge and an even bigger checkbook. I looked in on the escrow payment that he made to the Marik factor. Since I'm one of the involved parties, the bankers allowed me to see some of the details. Mr. Broker's account was backed by gold. A lot of gold. There are some planets in the Inner Sphere that don't have that much gold to their name."
"That's dangerous, sir. HE'S dangerous."
"You're right. It's dangerous. And that means there's profit in it for us. After all, we're mercenaries, Terry. And as long as Mr. Broker's people keep to the contract and are willing to pay, we're willing to fight his battles for him."
"Yes, sir. I only hope we won't end up regretting this."
"Agreed, Terry. We're getting up early tomorrow to take a look at Mr. Broker's 'supplies'. We'll do it just as soon as Shorty arrives. I want his expert opinion on this. Now, go get some sleep."
Samuel "Shorty" Sneede was in technician's heaven. The three cargo bays of the Mule were crammed full of fresh parts. Fresh. As in newly made, not battlefield salvage that was centuries old and had been scavenged several times over. He looked at the manifest in his hand. There were sixty freezers! Not a scratch, not a dent, not a scuff. Not mere 'sinks, but genuine double heat sinks, ready to be installed in a 'mech. Kerensky, what they were worth! If other merc companies knew they were here, there'd be a small war on the landing pad to take this dropship and its contents. Even some of the smaller Houses would be tempted.
He'd asked for, and received, permission to take a crowbar and open several of the crates to check the contents. That's when he began to feel a vague sense of unease. Everything was new.
The freezers all had serial numbers dating from the Star League. Even their markings and lables were exactly what they should have been - if they had been aboard one of General Kerensky's supply ships during the Amaris Coup. Yet they were clearly new manufacture, and they weren't cheap copies. From what he could tell with just his eyes and his skills, these freezers were the real deal.
So why go to the trouble of engraving false serial numbers and pasting fake company lables on them?
He asked Broker if he could examine the 'mechs listed on the manifest, and was led to another hold. Just as listed, there were two Chameleons, two Thunderbolts, and a pair of Banshee's.
"I can understand the Thunderbolts, but why the Banshees? The PPC is okay, but no backup aside from a popgun and a small laser? They're worthless."
Broker grinned. "Perhaps you should check the weapons loadout, Mr. Sneede." He tossed Shorty a technician's override card, one that would allow him to power up the 'mech for systems tests without enabling the weapons or powering the myomers. "Have fun, Mr. Sneede."
Shorty frowned, but climbed up into the cockpit of the first Banshee and fired her up. Flipping through the weapons displays, he noticed something odd - no readout for the class 5 autocannon. He looked closer. What the hell? he thought, there's no autocannon here. He paused, then flipped back a few screens, comparing readouts. Someone had replaced the autocannon and its ammo with a pair of large lasers. But that shouldn't work, that would be at least a ton overweight and it would overheat like crazy...
Then it hit him. He checked the engine POST screen. Fifteen heat sinks instead of the standard sixteen. And all of them freezers.
Crap. This thing's a trap - for the guy on the other side of the cockpit! thought Shorty. Standard means of handling a Banshee was to get in under the minimum range of the autocannon and the PPC, but still stay arm's length away. If it couldn't make physical attacks and you were in too close for the two main weapons, all the Banshee had left was a puny small laser. That might give infantry and vehicles some grief, but for most 'mechs, all it would do is ruin their paint job. Then you picked the Banshee apart a bit at a time. But this one? This 'mech was going to be a nasty surprise for the first 'mechwarrior who tried to deal with it 'by the book'. Two large lasers were enough to give anyone a bad day.
He thought about it some more, then shut the Banshee down, heading over to one of the Chameleons. But he was already certain of what he'd find. A Chameleon was easily as fast as a Wasp or a Stinger, and had far superior weapons with twice the armor of the lighter scout 'mechs. People laughed at them only because they shut down so easily when a 'mechwarrior got careless and overloaded his ten single heatsinks. You shut yourself down with a heat overload on the battlefield, and you died. That's why Chameleons were used as academy trainers - they did such a good job of teaching a rookie the importance of heat management.
Shorty didn't think that these two 'mechs would have that problem.
Cranston had to hear about this, ASAP.
The Mule dropship was in excellent shape. Snord would almost have thought it newly built. Whoever had restored it had apparently done so from the ground up, with meticulous care. The usual miasma of age and disrepair that permeated most ships simply wasn't there. The rec room looked as if it had taken directly from a photo spread in Better Jump and Dropships magazine.
The coffee was exquisite, with just a tiny hint of chocolate, and no bitterness whatsoever. Cranston set the mug down on the table, and nodded to his host.
"What do you want in return for the 'mechs?"
Broker smiled. "You're creating a unit of your own. Recruiting among the Dispossessed. But some of them won't be quite what you need, given your private agenda, Captain Snord. Some of them will be trustworthy, skilled, but not quite what your Irregulars need." He sipped at his own drink. "These six 'mechs are yours in return for doing a bit of recruiting for my organization. The Dispossessed you cannot make use of, send to me. For every trustworthy Dispossessed mechwarrior you can send to me, I will send you a 'mech. No lostech mechs, perhaps, but still useful. That will be in addition to as many spare freezers as you require."
"You have that many 'mechs to spare?"
"Enough to equip at least a brigade, Captain Snord."
"I'm curious. Exactly what organization would that be, Mr. Broker?"
"My backers are interested in creating a security firm. Units that will defend a paying customer, but who will not accept 'objective raids'. We disapprove of them. In order to provide security for our customers, we will require mechwarriors who will stand behind their contractual obligations. Honorable people who are desperate for a second chance, who won't go back on their word when the situation is dire."
Cranston nodded. "But you evade the question. What firm is this?"
"A touch, Captain Snord, a palpable touch. However, you're correct. I work for a business called Executive Outcomes. We are primarily interested in eliminating piracy in any form, as well as assisting small nations with their self-defense."
"I've never heard of such a firm before."
"I would be surprised if you had, Captain."
Cranston waited, but it was clear no further information would be forthcoming along that particular line of inquiry. He tried another.
"And your insistence on a meeting with Colonel Wolf?"
"I have information he needs. He has information I need. And I would prefer an amicable working relationship between the Dragoons and Executive Outcomes. At the very least, I seek to avoid conflict between the Dragoons and my organization." Broker's eyes twinkled. "There's someone else we'd much prefer to have at the other end of our weapons, and it's so much easier to arrange that if you're not involved in a two-front war."
"I dislike being played, Mr. Broker. And being used to play someone else is worse."
"True, Captain. But then, you haven't signed anything yet, have you? I'm willing to agree to disclosing certain facts before you sign. But only after I meet with Colonel Wolf. I understand that while Gamma and Delta regiments are currently engaged in punitive raids against pirate holdings in the Tortuga Dominions, the colonel is at Ft. Jaime on New Valencia."
"New Valencia is several jumps away. That will take time, unless you can set up a command circuit of jumpships."
"I have something better, Captain. I've added a little walking around money to our previous agreement so you won't be wanting for the little things. The cash is waiting for you at the local ComStar office. See to your people. Repair your dropship. Then, when you're done, come see me again. We have a quick trip to take, before you begin your first contract." Broker laughed. "I'll enjoy the expression on your face. It never fails to amuse me to see how people can miss perfectly simple answers to incredibly obvious problems, preferring to accept overly complicated solutions, solutions tending more to Rube Goldberg complexity than to common sense."
The 'mechs and fighters were repaired, and his Union was in operational shape. It wasn't as polished at it could be, but Snord felt he could trust it in a combat drop. Making it look pretty could wait.
Once he'd decided to take Broker up on the offer, all of the supplies were moved over to the Union, along with the spare mechs. Those alone had given his recruiting efforts a huge boost, with the Dispossessed and those 'mechwarriors simply looking to upgrade their ride all arriving on his doorstep, accompanied by a horde of mechwarrior wannabe's who had hundreds of hours on simulators along with farm boys who thought being able to run the family AgroMech made them a 'mechwarrior.
All in all, it was an embarrassment of riches, as recruitment went.
Actually, given some of the wannabes, sometimes it was just outright embarrassment.
Somehow, word had leaked that a mysterious backer was "...giving away free battlemechs!" While most people refused to believe something that sounded too good to be true, there were enough who were desperate enough to believe anything, if it came with a paycheck attached. And now that Cranston was meeting his payroll, that was good enough for those who were down on their luck and had nowhere else to go.
He'd already found two professional 'mech jocks - one who was dodging child support payments from the Trinity planets in the Free Worlds League, the other with a half-wrecked Urbanmech and no cash to pay for its repair. He assigned one of the Thunderbolts to the Urbanmech jock, Edvard Lytton and told him that as part of his contract, he could either have his Urbanmech restored, or take one of the Chameleons in exchange, once his contract was over. The other pilot, John Jakes, had previous experience with assault mechs, so Cranston assigned him to one of the Banshees.
He'd assembled the rest of his team, and he'd delayed as long as he could. Now it was time to see Mr. Broker again.
No matter how much his pride grumbled about it.
As he'd half expected, Broker informed him that there was a Tramp-class jumpship already in orbit, waiting to take them to New Valencia. The otherwise tight-lipped factor wore a tiny smile at Snord's impatience to see exactly how they were to arrive there to the schedule Broker had set.
Docking with the Lysander Spooner didn't help any. The crew of the jumpship was unfailingly polite, and about as talkative as a block of solid granite. Snord did note that the Tramp did appear to be equipped with lithium-fusion batteries. Perhaps that was how Broker expected to speed up the journey? But LF batteries were only good for one extra jump. Sixty light years maximum, if you pre-calculated your jumps accurately enough. Then you'd have to take the minimum 150 hours to recharge. Neither the jump engines nor the batteries would tolerate anything faster. At least, not gracefully. You might do otherwise in an emergency, but you'd pay for it in the end. History was full of ships that made the jump, and never came back out. Cranston still remembered the tales from his childhood about the Manassas and its crew.
And if you believed some of the stories you'd hear in portside bars, those ships were the lucky ones.
He shook his head, trying to purge the shadows of disquiet from his mind. It wouldn't do to brood on the hazards of jump space when they were less than an hour away from Crossing's zenith jump point.
All three of the Spooner's docking collars were occupied. Maybe he'd find some useful information looking around those areas.
Terry and the others who'd come with Cranston from the Clans were trying to get something, anything, from the crew of the Spooner, but weren't getting much of anywhere with the tightlipped jumpship crew. Then the ten-minute jump warning sounded, and everyone not a member of the crew headed for their bumks to strap in.
Malvinson had never taken jumps casually. The leap into and out of hyperspace didn't bother him so much as the feeling of being out of control of the situation. He hated that. It was a feeling that mechwarriors were prone to, by profession.
The warning light went red, quickly followed by the unmistakable sensation of a jump. Terry was aware that the ship had LF batteries, so the fact that the light remained red didn't surprise him, and the second jump didn't catch him unaware.
The shock of a third jump did.
Shorty Sneede was a veteran, uninclined to panic no matter how serious the situation. The shudder of a third jump, followed closely by a fourth, made him wish he was. Running around in a circle, screaming and shouting, wasn't very helpful, but it did have a certain sort of attraction at times like this. A few minutes later, the light went green and he quickly unstrapped himself, heading to Snord's cabin. They had to find out just what the hell had just happened, and how. Right now.
Broker's cabin was too small to hold all of the Irregulars. So Cranston and Shorty faced the man while the rest of the Irregulars stood in the corridor outside. Snord kept it blunt. He left the hatch open so his team could hear.
Broker didn't bother denying he understood what Cranston was asking. He turned slightly, the magnetic soles of his shoes clacking quietly. He held out a small model of a Behemoth class dropship.
"Dropships are interesting things, Mr. Snord. When you get right down to it, when you strip them of their fusion engines, fuel tanks, life support and controls, they're actually little more than a large container. Cargo carriers. What, exactly, can they carry? Please, tell me."
Snord gave the factor a strange look. "Anything. Men, material, anything at all. Cargo is cargo."
Realization exploded in Cranston's mind like an overloaded PPC. "The other two dropships on the docking collars. They're not dropships. They're batteries," he said in a wondering tone. "You've hollowed them out and filled them with lithium-fusion batteries."
Broker nodded. "Very good, Captain. It's actually somewhat more complex than that, but you have the basic concept quite accurately."
"But that only gets you..." Cranston ran the numbers in his head. One charge in the jump drive itself. One charge in the onboard LF batteries. Assume one charge each for the two.. what to call them, battery pods? .. docked to the jumpship. "... four jumps. It should still take you at least 150 hours to recharge the drive for another jump, and even longer to recharge the additional batteries."
"Quite right. Which is why we aren't going to recharge them." Broker touched the key of the intercom. "Report, Captain."
A slightly tinny-sounding voice answered from the other end of the connection. "The Pyotr Kropotkin is here on schedule, sir. We're ready to proceed with battery exchange."
"Then carry on, Captain. Advise me when it's completed. We have curious guests who'd like a briefing."
"I expect they would, sir." The voice on the other end chuckled slightly, then the connection terminated. Broker turned back towards Cranston.
"That, Mr. Snord, is one of the more useful attributes of a dropship. They can be docked and undocked."
Cranston nodded, just as Shorty cleared his throat.
"You're leaving the discharged batteries behind, and picking up fresh, pre-charged ones. If - if you could do that at every jump point, the only limit to your speed would be the time it takes for the jump drive to cool properly. You could cross the Inner Sphere in days!"
"Why, yes, I suppose you could, Mr. Sneede. What a useful idea. I should bring it to the attention of my backers with the utmost urgency, I suppose," Broker replied in an innocent tone of voice. Shorty flushed with embarrassment at having proclaimed the utterly obvious to everyone. Broker waved it off.
"You needn't feel foolish, Mr. Sneede. Remember, the first Kearny-Fuchida drive was invented nearly one thousand years ago, and lithium fusion batteries during the Star League era. Yet in all those centuries, no one has thought to design a battery that's modular? If you're a fool, Mr. Sneede, so are billions of other men and women over a thousand years. You're in the best of company."
After being told that they'd be holding position for one day to allow the jump drive to cool, the Irregulars returned to their Union, gathering in the rec deck.
"Does anyone else feel mentally overloaded?" asked the usually quiet Shalimar Windall.
"I do," answered John Malvinson, Terry's brother. "But Broker had a point. If we're fools for missing the idea of modular batteries, so is the rest of the Inner Sphere. We've got a lot of company, there."
Terry passed around bulbs of hot coffee and whisky to all present. "Point taken. But more important, what happens when - not if - the idea spreads to the Successor States? You increase the range of a jump ship, you increase its ability to make war. That's WHY the Terran Alliance surrendered all of their colonies more than one jump away from Earth itself, back in 2242 CE. The delay in turnaround time crippled their ability to respond to a rebellion quickly enough to suppress it."
That caused everyone in the room to go silent for a long moment.
"Crap's going to hit the fan pretty soon," Shorty noted. "Plenty of planets where they use battery powered cars, and the owners simply swap exhausted batteries for fresh ones. They'll have the people who understand the business framework to make something like that work reliably. Once it starts to spread, it'll spread fast."
"There's nothing we can do about that, Shorty." Cranston's voice was matter-of-factual. "Our job is to see to it that Colonel Wolf gets all the information he need on the Inner Sphere. And I think all the info we can get on Mr. Broker and this 'Executive Outcomes' that he's working for. Everything else is out of our hands. If we can't take it down with a battlemech, or smuggle it out of a collection, it's not our problem to worry about."
"I guess so, Skipper. But that doesn't make it any easier to live with."
"Can't be helped, Shorty. We'll just have to keep our eyes and ears open, and give Jamie all the info we can. For now, that's all we can do." Cranston grinned. "And if Broker is dealing fairly with us, we'll come out of this with enough cash and 'mechs to fit up two companies or more. So there is a good side to this after all."
"I'll be able to afford that collection of 21st century baseball cards," John said. "I can live with that."
"That's it, boys, look on the bright side of things," Snord chuckled.
Most of the Irregulars were eating, and waiting for the next round of jump drive warning klaxons. Of the two new men, Lytton was applying his patent cure for jump nausea, a bottle of grain alcohol - a belief that Shorty shared, much to Snord's amusement. Jakes wasn't eating at all. He'd informed his new commander that he tended to vomit after a jump unless he kept his stomach empty. A sensible precaution, that.
Cranston, however, was dealing with the traditional bane of all military commanders throughout space and time.
It's a pity, he thought to himself. It's a pity I can't travel back in time to kill the canister-born scum who invented triple carbon-copies. If I could do that, I could die a happy man.
A tap at the hatch made his raise his eyes from the savashi paperwork to see Windall standing in the corridor.
Windall's face looked grim, thought it was hard to tell through his habitually silent, stoic expression. Cranston waved him to a seat.
"What's bothering you, Shal?"
"We're being used," frowned Windall.
"That's what mercenaries are for, Shal. We get paid to do other people's dirty work."
"We are not really mercenaries. And Broker knows it. He knows too much."
"And you think we should kill him."
"While we're on his jumpship, Shal?"
"There is that."
"There's nothing we can do about it at the moment," sighed Cranston. "A good commander knows when to lead, when to follow, and when to get the hell out of the way of incoming fire." That got an almost-smirk from Windall. Almost. "Whether we like it or not, this is one problem that's best shuffled higher up the chain of command, Shal. That means Colonel Wolf. And perhaps..." He waved his hand in an odd gesture. Even aboard their own dropship, you could never be certain someone might overhear you. It was too great a risk to speak the name of Kerlin Ward aloud. "Besides, there's something else you should consider."
"How does he know what he knows, Shal? Where did his information come from? Do we have a leak? Do the Dragoons have a leak? And if so, where is it? We need to know that before we can even begin to think about dealing with Broker. It does us no good if his source, whatever it may be, simply continues to inform others. To cut down a tree, you have to strike at the roots, not the branches."
"I don't like it."
"I'm not terribly fond of it myself, Shal. But at the moment, there's little we can do, except be patient and see our mysterious factor to his meeting with Colonel Wolf. After that, all bets are off."
"I suppose that will have to do."
"In the meantime, I want you to start noting down everything you see on the Spooner, however unimportant it may seem at the time. On paper, no noteputers. Get everyone else to do the same. The Colonel will expect a full report for us." Snord paused for a moment, then continued. "And make certain it's damned well hidden. I know Broker expects us to spy on him, but we don't have to hand him confirmation of that on a silver platter."
That wrung a smile from the dour Windall.
The klaxons wailed, and Cranston prepared for what he assumed would be another damned double jump. He wasn't as bad off as Jakes, but a jump still made him a little greenish, and two in short succession would only made it worse.
Of course, once the jumps were finished, he'd be facing Jaime again, and that was enough to give a person a nervous stomach all by itself. Jaime Wolf might be a young man, but he had that command presence. If Jaime and his brother hadn't been freebirth, Cranston thought, they'd probably be among Clan Wolf's ristars right now. And the Clans would likely be the better for it. Pity.
But wasn't this entire mission an example of that? Freeborn, desperate for a chance, and pulling off a mission one hell of a lot more effectively than any Trueborn?
There were going to be a lot of angry, humiliated faces at the Grand Council a few years from now.
And there went the klaxons. Ten minutes to the first jump. In an hour or two, they'd be in New Valencia space, headed towards planetfall.
Would Colonel Wolf believe any of his story? He was living it, and he didn't believe it.
He finished strapping down, and settled into the embrace of the memory foam. There was nothing left to do but wait. And that's what soldiers did best.
"Who ARE these people?"
Jaime Wolf wasn't a man who displayed anger openly. He didn't scream at his subordinates like some commanders did, thinking that it made them seem more martial. But he was angry now. Despite that, the irony of his question didn't escape him, and a tiny corner of his mind insisted on being amused by it. He waved a hand at the papers covering his desk.
"I have a dozen reports here, and aside from those sent by Captain Snord, they all say the same thing. Absolutely nothing. Why is that?"
The few members of Intelser who had come to the Inner Sphere with the Dragoons stood before him with shamed faces, as did the members of the newly formed Wolfnet. Major Margret Tulliver stepped forward.
"Executive Operations does not appear to exist inside the Inner Sphere except as a number of front offices and a large cash reserve, sir. An extremely large cash reserve. Impossibly large." She held up a fiche. "I received this just before this meeting. It's a portion of an intercepted conversation from inside the offices of Hottinger & Cie, Banquiers Privés, Geneva, Terra. One of our informants learned we were asking about this company, and rushed the information to us." Her lips twisted slightly. "For the usual price, of course." She put the fiche in a reader, displaying it on the room's main screen. "Please pardon the errors in translation, Colonel, Swiss German tends to vary somewhat from its mother tongue, and our informant was quoting one side of a conversation from memory."
"Yes it could be a problem." —...— "I think a good one... maybe. Well you see, I just got the latest deposit numbers for the bank, and... see for yourself." —...— "Yes that is accurate. I ran the numbers enough times before coming to you." —...— "Welll, with that much gold moving around I decided to check the banks it was routed from all across the Inner Sphere, and these deposits could not be accounted for out of their standard reserves." —...— "No. This is too obvious for any of the Great Houses' black operations. Plus they don't need to try and hide something like this. Mining it would at least have made the news somewhere." —...— "I know. But given that every trace dead-ends with some minor precious metals dealer walking into a bank somewhere in the Inner Sphere with a comparatively small deposit of gold, they really don't have to care about being back-tracked. It's not until those small deposits all started heading for the same bank that anyone would notice." —...— "I honestly don't know. All I can say is to be glad that whoever this Broker guy is chose our bank to end up depositing five thousand TONS of gold into."
Colonel Wolf examined the transcript closely. "If I remember my Inner Sphere history correctly, the Swiss will want someone's head over a leak like this. Literally."
Major Tulliver nodded. "Yes, sir. Our informant is requesting that as part of their payment, they and their family are to be extracted from Terra and taken on as dependants of the Dragoons."
Wolf thought that over for a moment. "Get them to a safe house as soon as possible. If this information proves accurate, bring them in to the Dragoons and try to find a place for the entire family." He sighed. "I have a meeting scheduled with Mr. Broker in slightly over 72 hours from now, and he appears to have more information about the Dragoons than I do about him, Major. I do not like being in that position. I would prefer that to change for the better. Am I making myself clear?"
Major Tulliver braced. "Sir, yes Sir!"
The Colonel sighed. "I'm not angry with you, Major. I'm angry with the situation. Not that my anger is doing anything helpful at the moment. Find me what information you can as fast as you can. I'd prefer not to have to deal with this man when I have nothing on my side to deal with."
"Understood, sir. With your permission?"
"Dismissed," nodded Wolf.
Once Tulliver left, Jaime reached for the intercom. "Joshua, do you have a moment? I need some insight."
"I'll be right over."
A few minutes later, Joshua Wolf entered the office. "What can I do for you, big brother?"
"Look at this, and tell me what you think," Jaime said, waving at the papers on his desk.
Joshua gave the desk a quick glance and smirked. "I think you have a very messy desk."
"Very funny, little brother," Jaime said dryly. "Now sit down and start reading."
Joshua laughed and complied.
Fifteen minutes later, he hmm'ed thoughtfully. "This Broker - or at least the power behind him - isn't from anywhere in the Inner Sphere."
"How did you get that from this mess?"
"If there's anything to this report from the Terran bank, that's simply too much gold. Five thousand tons? An average world might produce twenty-five hundred metric tons in one year. So this is a sizable portion of someone's gold reserves. Even one of the Successor States would be happy to get their hands on this much gold." He did some figures in his head. "Assume... oh... 200 worlds to a Successor state, just for argument's sake. And every one of them producing 2500 tons of gold each year, which is statistically improbable, by the way. Then this would be one half of one percent of their annual gold mining output. It sounds small when it's put that way, but that's a significant figure for a private individual. It could be used to finance a great deal."
"Such as a new, combined-arms equipped, private security company?" Jaime snarked.
"Such as that," agreed Joshua, grinning.
"So it's unlikely that it's an Inner Sphere power that's backing him, moving that much gold around would attract too much notice. Come to think of it, it did attract someone's notice. Ours. But I digress. It can't be the Inner Sphere. It's even more unlikely that it's a Periphery power. If they had that much gold, they'd have been raided blind and staggery by now and the raiders would have bragged about it until their tongues fell out. Which means it's a previously unknown power. One either very well hidden, or well outside known space, or both." Joshua grimaced. "I think a new player's just entered the game, brother. One who's either been stockpiling gold for quite some time, or they've hit a motherload and gone on a spending spree."
Jaime threw his hands up. "Now, see? If I have someone as smart as you on my side, why do I keep Wolfnet around?"
"Because I can't be everywhere at once?"
"There is that."
"And of course, with my roguish good looks, I make us both look good."
Jaime rolled his eyes. "Go on, go impress someone else with them. I'm immune."
"I'll do that," Joshua chuckled. "I hope I helped."
"You did. At least I won't look totally in the dark when Broker arrives. Thank you."
"Anytime, big brother."
It felt strange to be returning to the Dragoons like this, Cranston thought. Sent off in (official) disgrace for being a looter, and now returning with a command of his own. Snord wasn't unfamiliar with the burden of command, but there were still moments when the realization that, should a problem occur, he was the final link in the chain of command still felt heavy. He shrugged it off. You knew the job was a pain in the ass when you took it, he thought to himself, so it's too late to bitch about it now.
Still, if he was going to do this, he was going to do it right. All of his Irregulars 'mechs were visibly well maintained, his people well-groomed and obviously cared for, and while the Union was clearly war-worn, it was just as clearly well-maintained. (And hadn't THAT cost a pretty penny from the money he'd obtained from Broker... getting rush service that was also of the highest quality wasn't cheap.)
The new 'mechs drove the point further home. Shorty had gone over them like a man obsessed. They appeared to be brand-new, just off the factory floor. The question was, what factory? As with the freezers, all the serial numbers and makers' marks dated from the era of the Star League. Yet they clearly weren't that old. Shorty had suspected a trap, yet dig as he could, he couldn't find any traps in the mechs.
It didn't mean he'd stop looking though. Sneede had vowed that once this meeting was over, he was going to hire an entire stable of techs to go over them for clues, now that Cranston had the visible means of support to afford to do so.
And that was something else that helped. Whoever Broker was, he apparently didn't give a damn about who tried to dig about in his past. Colonel Wolf had to be careful - the connection between the Irregulars and the Dragoons had to be buried deep. But Mr. Broker and his outfit didn't seem to care.
The level of confidence that implied was disturbing. Of course, the fact that no one seemed to be able to FIND anything about his past probably helped bolster that confidence.
As did the thought of someone or something able to build entire 'mechs, yet willing to fake their origin. Normally, only Successor States could do that, and even then, only with difficulty.
Well, them - and the Clans.
Definitely something that needed reporting to Colonel Wolf.
"Welcome to Fort Jamie, Mr. Broker."
"Thank you, Major Wolf. May I inquire as to when Colonel Wolf will be available for talks?"
"In about two hours, sir. He thought you might prefer the opportunity to freshen up a bit after all that time in transit. If so, we've arranged quarters here on base for you."
Broker nodded politely. "Thank you, Major, I believe I would."
"Then please follow me, sir. My aid will see to your luggage." Joshua Wolf waved the older man to the waiting command car. "Are there any amenities we can provide?"
The two men climbed into the ground car while Wolf's aid loaded up Broker's luggage. "Would it be possible for me to get something to eat? I realize it's only mid-morning, but I'm afraid my biological clock is a bit off.
Joshua nodded. "The Colonel was made aware of the time difference between New Valencia and Crossing, sir. He's ordered a light luncheon laid on to start the meeting, if you'd like. Or some small snacks can be made available if you'd prefer."
"The luncheon sounds delightful, Major. Please give the Colonel my compliments and inform him I'd be more than happy to begin the meeting with a light meal. Will his staff be there?"
"Myself and a few others, sir. Along with his bodyguards. I'm sure you understand the necessity."
"I do," nodded Broker. "Given the business we're in, I'd be shocked to see otherwise."
"Will you need any of your staff, sir? Arrangements can be made, if required."
"No, Major. I believe I have all the information I need."
"It sounds like it could be an interesting meeting, sir."
"Yes, Major Wolf, I expect it will be."
Broker looked up from the menu with an amused expression on his face.
"Hungarian Tomato Vodka soup? Miso Saki Shrimp? Where did your chef study, Colonel? The Ecole de Gastronomie Ritz-Escoffier? Or with ComStar's ROM? A better pair of tension-breaking, tongue-loosening dishes I haven't seen."
Colonel Wolf chuckled at the man's light-hearted tone. "I fear my personal cook has the occasional daydream of someday becoming a daring, professional intelligence agent. But he doesn't allow it to interfere with his work, and he is really quite skilled."
Broker tasted the tomato soup. "Excellent. Far be it from me to stand between a man and his dreams, but I suspect that his path to personal fame lies in the kitchen, not the interrogation room." That got a light laugh from the rest of the room.
When the dishes were cleared, cigars and snifters of brandy were passed around. "At the risk of being blunt, Mr. Broker, you've paid an exceptionally large sum to arrange this meeting between us. So, might I ask the purpose of it?"
"Thank you Colonel. Simply put, Executive Outcomes doesn't want to come to blows with your Dragoons unnecessarily. Most of the contract talks we're currently engaged in are on worlds in the Periphery, but you have taken at least one objective raid outside the Inner Sphere in the name of piracy suppression. You may, in the future, be called upon to raid a world we've contracted to protect. If it ever comes to that, we'd prefer to negotiate first. It's less costly, most of the time."
"That's quite acceptable, Mr. Broker, but there's a question we'd need to have answered first."
"And that would be?"
The elder of the two Wolf brothers leaned forward intently. "Who are you, and how do you know of us, Mr. Broker? That, I'm afraid, is the deal-breaking question."
"Who are you? What do you want? Interesting questions both of them, Colonel Wolf. Dangerous questions with dangerous answers. Are you certain they're ones you wish to hear?"
"If we're to conduct business, Mr. Broker, then I'm afraid I must insist."
"Very well then," nodded Broker. He swirled the brandy in his snifter, then straightened in his seat. "A promise made is a debt unpaid, Colonel Wolf. And debts are sacred among my people. My word is my bond. And my word is that what I tell you now is truth as I know it. I cannot tell you everything now, but what I can, will be fact. Take that for what you will." He reached into his pocket, removing a heavy gold coin, laying it on the table in front of him, sliding it in Wolf's direction. "Fifty grams of 99.99 fine gold. An ancient tradition among my people. If you will accept it?"
Jaime picked up the coin, looking at it curiously. The face carried a starburst inside of the Greek letter omega. Turning it over revealed the same two symbols. "And this is?"
"My surety, Colonel."
Wolf rubbed the coin between his fingers, and acting in an impulse he couldn't quite identify, slipped it into his pocket. "The answers, Mr. Broker?"
"Who are you. What do you want. How do we know about you. They all have the same answer, Colonel." Broker sighed. "My people left the Inner Sphere centuries ago. We shook the dust of the Terran Hegemony from our cloaks, and never looked back. We didn't need the Known Worlds - please note the capitals there - and we didn't want them. We built a new society, one closer to our hearts desire. And we did it because of Ian Cameron."
"The founder of the Star League?" asked Joshua Wolf.
"Yes. We didn't trust James McKenna, we certainly didn't trust Ian Cameron, and we made preparations. By the time Amaris arrived, we'd long since left. We'd been preparing since before the Pollux Proclamation."
"That was in 2575. Over four centuries ago," pointed out Joshua.
Jared shrugged. "To us, Ian Cameron's dream, the dream he'd inherited from McKenna, was our nightmare. Cameron said it himself." There was quiet anger in his eyes as he quoted. "There is no good reason for the intransigence of the people who will not recognize the greater good of laying down their independence for the sake of joining our League. There is no good reason for people to insist on resisting the superior wisdom of those who have come before them into the fold, not is there reason for them to seek their own lonely course far from the centers of culture and civilization."
"He wouldn't rest until all humanity was united under one banner - his. As for the few who valued independence over safety, to hell with them. It was, after all, for their own good. Or so he claimed."
The Dragoons stirred, uncomfortable. Even to them, perhaps especially to them, this bordered on heresy.
"We began our plans when McKenna overthrew the Alliance, working quietly. We began to leave human space when Cameron gave the orders to subjugate the Periphery realms. We cut ourselves off entirely when an agent in the Rim Worlds Republic warned us of Stephan Amaris' intended coup. And we never intended to return."
"But you have returned," pointed out Jaime gravely. "Why?"
"Have you ever heard of the jumpship TAS Liberator, Colonel?"
Wolf strained his memory, but couldn't recall a ship of that name. The prefix indicated it belonged to the old Terran Alliance, but that was all he could bring to mind. Major Tulliver's eyes widened, though. He looked over at her. "Major?"
"The Liberator was a colony ship lost in mid-jump, sir. A first generation colony ship with several hundred colonists, lost in 2128 CE. Twelve years after the colonizing of New Earth." Tulliver's hobby was the history of early interstellar flight. She'd committed the names of the first wave of colony ships to memory.
"She's not lost, Major. The word 'lost' implies that no one knows where it is." Broker nodded towards her, a strange expression on his face.
"You've found her?" asked Tulliver, with the innocent wonder of a historian in her voice.
"Her, and several others, Major. Including one belonging to the Clans."
An astounded babble began to grow in the hall, rising in volume until Jaime Wolf cut it off with a sharp slash of one hand.
"And what might this 'Clan' ship be, Mr. Broker?"
"Please, Colonel. You've accepted my surety. Do me the honor of respecting it, sir, as I do you the honor of giving you the truth as I know it."
Wolf automatically began to deny all knowledge of the Clans, but the words died on his lips. Honor. He paused for a long moment, thoughtfully fingering the coin in his pocket. He came to a decision. "Please, sir, continue."
The unsettling expression on Broker's face remained there, but he continued on. "A ship belonging to the merchant caste of Clan Diamond Shark was found. There were, unfortunately, no survivors. But one of the merchants was apparently fascinated by history, and collected hardcopy works, works that survived even when the computer cores of the jumpship and its attached dropships were reduced to slag by power surges."
"And where exactly did she misjump to, Mr. Broker?"
"To within our borders, Colonel."
"And that would be where?"
Broker gave him a level, yet respectful gaze. "My word of honor, Colonel. And yours."
Jaime returned the look. "I understand. Perhaps under other circumstances?"
"And you were saying?"
"We were isolationist, Colonel. But we weren't blind. If one ship of the Clans could find us, albeit a ship of the dead, so could another."
"And you decided to act upon what you'd learned."
"What we learned was out of date. Stale intelligence is worthless intelligence. We knew we had to learn more. So, however reluctantly, we returned to the Inner Sphere. But there was a problem, Colonel." Broker paused to take a sip of his brandy. "We are Kyfhon. We will fight for what we believe in, but we will never be thieves."
The Dragoons noticed the odd term, but forbore to inquire, not wanting to interrupt the moment.
"Value given for value received, Colonel. As mercenaries, you can understand that."
"Yes, I can." Jaime thought about that for a moment. "An honest day's pay for an honest day's labor."
"Exactly, Colonel. We watch. We wait. We don't steal. What better way to do all three at the same time than to offer private security?"
"An excellent cover. That would work for the Inner Sphere. It wouldn't work for the Clans."
Jared held up a finger. "The Clans have a problem, sir. They are so busy watching each other, they fail to watch for outsiders." He looked at Tulliver pointedly. Her eyes filled with irritation, but she said nothing in reply. "The Chatterweb the Diamond Sharks set up is quite informative, if you only listen for it." That statement widened eyes throughout the room.
"Oh, they haven't betrayed the Clans. But your communication security isn't nearly as tight as you'd like to think, Major. The Kyfhon worlds have been listening in - oh, very carefully, mind you - for quite some time now. So we watch, and we wait. And should it come to blows, what better place to fight, than on someone else's property?"
Joshua spoke up. "You seem to believe we're serving the Clans, Mr. Broker. Aren't you concerned that anything you say here will be promptly reported to them?"
"I rather expect it will, Major Wolf. Actually, we hope it will. It serves two purposes. One is confidential. The other is... sentimental."
"Not everyone aboard the Diamond Shark ship died instantly, Major Wolf. Some survived, briefly. Unfortunately." The fey expression had returned to Jared's face. "I mean no insult by that. It's simply that there are far worse ways to die other than explosive decompression or asphyxiation. Things... happen... in jump space that no sane man should know about. I wish I did not." He took a deep breath. "As I said, there was at least one who survived for a short time. She left a message and a request. She asked that if the ship was ever found, that their bodies be returned to Clan Diamond Shark. The message she left saved many lives, Major. Far more than you could ever know. My people owe her. A debt unpaid is a promise made. Their bodies will be returned to the Clans, whatever the cost to us."
Broker sighed. "Who are we? We are Kyfhon. Militant isolationists reluctantly involving ourselves in affairs outside of our own, for our own survival. What do we want? We want to be left alone, by the Clans AND by the Inner Sphere. We're willing to fight for that. We're willing to die for that. We're willing to kill for that. Where are we? A good deal further than your jumpships can possibly reach, Colonel.
"And we're one other thing, Colonel Jaime Wolf of the Wolf's Dragoons. Perhaps the most important thing of all."
He lifted the brandy snifter and drained it in a single swallow, setting it gently to rest on the tabletop before he sent the room into an uproar with his next words.
"We never signed the Ares Accords."
It took several uncomfortably long moments for Colonel Wolf to quiet his people. Then he turned back to Broker. "That's an dangerous threat."
"It isn't a threat, Colonel. It's a statement of fact, not intent. Unlike the Inner Sphere, my people never went through an Interregnum. Our libraries and universities never burned. Our factories were never bombed into rubble. While progress slowed from time to time, it never stopped. And it certainly never went into reverse. We're as far ahead of the Clans as they are of the Inner Sphere. Further, perhaps. Depending on whose opinion you choose to accept."
"And leaving the Inner Sphere caused no interruption? I'd think that the process of settling a new world would cause difficulties," pointed out Joshua Wolf.
"We found a way around that, Major." Jared's lips quirked. "Something else we refused to share with the Star League. Mr. Ryan was helpful in that regard."
"Rudolf Ryan, of the Ryan Cartel?"
"Yes. He was one of us. But I digress. One of the founding principles of our people is 'An armed society is a polite society.' And by any measure, we are a very polite people, Major. Every individual among us goes about armed at all times. Armed people are free people, sir. And should the Clans enter our space, they'll learn some bitter lessons. Should they attempt to bypass our personal weapons by threatening the use of fusion devices or mass drivers, we'll retaliate with far more fearsome things." He paused for a moment, looking at his empty glass. "Trust me, sir. There are far more frightening things than a clean and painless death in the heart of a nuclear fireball. Some of them, we possess. We do not want to use them. But we will never serve the Clans. We are Kyfhon."
Colonel Wolf quirked an eyebrow. "You say you go about armed at all times, yet I see no sidearm..."
Jared laughed. "If I might borrow your aid-de-camp for a moment, Colonel? I promise I'll return him entirely unharmed."
Jaime nodded to the lieutenant. "Go ahead, Randal."
"Thank you," said Broker. He looked over to the lieutenant and indicated the coat-rack near the entrance. "Would you examine my fedora closely, young man?" The young officer looked at the factor, puzzled, but obeyed. "There's a thin plastic stiffener in the hatband. Fish it out, and undo the clip that's holding it under tension." The young man did so. "Now, grip it firmly by the textured end, and strike the other end sharply on any hard surface. Be careful. You'll understand in a second."
The young officer did so, and almost dropped it when the thin plastic strip suddenly writhed and changed shape in his hand, warming as it did so. In a fraction of a second, he was holding a small, yet still very lethal looking knife. "How?!"
"Phase-shifting polymer with molecular memory. The sudden kinetic shock causes it to 'remember' it's original shape. Now it'll have to be gently heated, then carefully pressed to return it to the shape of a hat stiffener." Broker grinned. He looked almost boyish for a moment. "You scanned me for weapons before I entered, gentlemen, but you scanned only for those weapons you're familiar with. Among my people, turning everyday items into weapons is considered high art, and the artists are greatly honored. Nearly everything I'm wearing is a weapon of some sort."
That statement caused the Colonel's bodyguards to shift closer to him, hovering around him tightly. Broker eyed their actions approvingly.
"Nicely professional, gentlemen. You'll need to be briefed on how to deal with some of the more esoteric weapons available to my people, but you're doing an excellent job of covering your principle."
The bodyguards wore stone faces, but there was still a faint air of embarrassment around them. Wolf chuckled. "No one is perfect, gentlemen. Not even the Dragoons. Stand easy. I don't think Mr. Broker poses a threat to me yet. Not as long as there's still a possibility of negotiating with us, correct?"
"Thank you, Colonel. And you're quite correct. So, will the Dragoons discuss terms with Executive Outcomes?"
"We will. Will the standard contract suffice, or will we need something more elaborate?"
"I don't believe there will be any need for complexities, Colonel. I can state our terms here, and Major Wolf can write them up in official language at his leisure. I know you're a man of your word. That's good enough for me."
"And what do you want from the Dragoons, sir?"
"Just this: should the Dragoons be hired for an 'objective raid' against a planet currently being secured by Executive Outcomes, they will request a parley with forces under EO command before attacking. If a compromise cannot be reached with EO and their employers during the parley, all parties involved will be allowed to leave, and the conflict will commence only after all parties have left the field. Is that acceptable to Wolf's Dragoons? It isn't all that dissimilar to the clause you insist upon concerning the use of the Dragoons against their previous employer, or the standard 'two week warning' in most mercenary contracts, and under most circumstances shouldn't be objectionable to your employers."
"And if they should?"
"Then you may freely delete that clause as you will, provided you inform us of having done so. That's all we ask of you. In return, we will inform you in advance of what worlds we are garrisoning, and maintain open lines of communication with the Dragoons at all times."
Colonel Wolf nodded thoughtfully. "Is there any sense of urgency?"
"No, sir. I am at your disposal for the next month, should it be required. My assistants and associates are fully capable of handling the routine affairs of EO."
"You're the head of the corporation?"
A fleeting look of anger crossed Broker's face. "Please, sir, I would kindly ask that you do NOT use the term 'corporation' when referring to Executive Outcomes."
"May I ask why not?" requested a curious Jaime Wolf.
"Corporations are creatures of the State, artificial constructs created by it and having several privileges that protect them from the pressures of a truly free market. Among these are that governments artificially and automatically limit corporate liability by fiat; and responsibility for errors is shifted over to a fictional entity."
"And if Executive Outcomes isn't an corporation, what is it?"
"We are a joint-stock company with all profits automatically reinvested to maximize operating capital - a deferred profit venture, if you will. 'Profit' can take forms other than monetary gain, you understand. Every member of EO assumes full responsibility for his or her actions. Though liabilities may be insured, if the individual so chooses."
"So if a mistake is made..."
"On our own heads, so be it."
"An excellent attitude to take, Mr. Broker. I could only wish more people would do so."
"Thank you, Colonel." Jared blinked. "Now, I suspect, you'll want to discuss what you've learned, and my circadian rhythm is quite thrown off by the journey here. If someone would show me the way back to my quarters, I'll rest while you talk."
Wolf gestured to his aid, who was still examining the polymer knife with fascination. "Randal will see to that, Mr. Broker. And thank you for the information."
"You hold my surety, Colonel. It was - and still is - a matter of honor." Broker bowed slightly. "Still, it was a pleasure speaking with you. I hope our negotiations will be successful."
Things had indeed gone well, Jaime thought. It had taken his brother and the Dragoons' civilian liaison section just under a week to write a contract that was satisfactory to both sides, and would (hopefully) be just as acceptable to any future employers of the Dragoons. Broker had made it clear that EO's forces would engage only in defensive actions in favor of their clients and their clients' property. They were also quite willing to engage in arbitration over what "defensive actions" might be defined as.
Broker had also offered support in the unlikely event that the Dragoons might need assistance at some time in the future. While Jaime hadn't taken him up on that yet, the fact that the Dragoons were dependant on a single, external supply for most of their 'mechs and advanced equipment was still at the forefront of his mind. Broker was still evasive about where his people resided, but he made it quite clear that his people were not merely socially independent from the Inner Sphere, but technologically autonomous as well, and willing to contract with anyone who they considered honorable.
It would be a tremendous weight off of his shoulders to have a secondary source of supplies, and Jaime knew it.
He still couldn't help but be somewhat suspicious of the unit's good fortune, though. Mercs who weren't paranoid tended to become dead mercs in very short order.
The official contract signing and escrow bonding between the Dragoons and EO would take place tonight at a more formal ceremony. And perhaps he might get a little more information out of Jared about these mysterious 'Kyfhons' and where they'd originated from. There were dozens of bizarre philosophical cults that had developed over the centuries since the Kearney-Fuchida jump drive had made extra-solar colonies possible. A man couldn't be too careful. And it privately amused Jaime to know that Broker agreed with him on that subject.
After all, Wolf knew all about keeping your homeworlds a secret. Though, apparently, not quite as secret as the Khans had hoped. A small and still somewhat resentful corner of his mind found that fact vastly amusing.
The contract signing went off without any problems and the dinner was excellent. Broker had praised the cook, much to the young man's embarrassment, and the after-dinner conversation at the reception looked to be quite interesting.
"If it wouldn't be considered prying, Mr. Broker, may I ask what contracts your company has currently?" inquired Joshua Wolf.
"No, it wouldn't, Major." Broker smiled and waited. The young officer groaned as he realized how neatly he'd set himself up for the old joke, then laughed.
"What contracts have you undertaken, sir?"
"New St. Andrews has requested aid as they suffer from pirate raids several times a year. We currently have one unit on the ground, and will use it to help train the Dispossessed that we intend to recruit from the Inner Sphere."
Colonel Wolf looked interested. "I would have thought that a single world that remote wouldn't be able to afford your services, Mr. Broker."
"Normally, no. You're quite right. But while they don't have cash assets, EO is willing to accept items in trade. In this case, New St. Andrews is offering extra-territoriality. A small coastal island of about thirteen hundred square kilometers will be ceded to us for so long as we remain to defend the planet against pirates and external threats. The first units have already begun to construct a base there, not dissimilar to Fort Jaime."
Colonel Wolf looked slightly embarrassed. "I tried to insist they name it something else-"
Jared laughed. "No need to apologize, Colonel. Although I do understand your feelings. I had to remind several of my employees of their contractual obligations to the company to keep them from naming the island 'Isla de Agente'." That got laughs from the Dragoons listening to the conversation. "I believe that, as of the last ballot, the winning suggestion was "Isla de Anarquista'."
"That's rather fitting," noted Major Tulliver.
Jared nodded. "I'm not quite certain as to why the personnel on the ground want to name it in old Spanish, but I suspect it's because of one of my junior officers. He's something of a fan of 20th century motion pictures, disaster movies in particular. Remind me before I leave, and I'll give you a copy of the recording I believe is responsible for his choice. You'll find it rather reminiscent of Hunter's Paradise - and you'll feel quite glad you're a 'mech pilot. Some of the creatures in it could give an Stinger or a Wasp a run for their money."
"That's hard to believe," said a young mech pilot.
"You've never been to that world," replied Broker. "According to records of the era, the creatures of Hunter's Paradise were so dangerous, Star League researchers were forced to resort to using battlemechs to study them, simply for safety's sake. But I believe I'm wandering off topic. The major asked what worlds we were dealing with." Broker paused for a moment to reach for a drink from a passing tray. "We've been approached by the Illyrian Palatinate and the Lothian League. They're interested in obtaining the services of several units." His previously genial smile turned cold. "I suspect they're concerned about the Circinus Federation, and justly so. If contract negotiations are successful, I believe we'll be dealing with President McIntyre's Black Warriors eventually. It will be interesting to see if they measure up to their reputation." He took a sip of his drink, then the warmth returned to his face as he continued. "Herotitus has also made quiet inquiries as to our availability. Again, we're willing to exchange defensive services in return for extra-territoriality."
"Not money or trade items?" asked Tulliver.
"Sometimes political legitimacy can be more valuable than cash, Major."
"Point taken," conceded the Wolfnet officer.
"We're also making arrangements for a large purchase from the Magistracy of Canopus. The Pike support tank is far more useful than the Houses of the Inner Sphere give it credit for. We intend to purchase several hundred of them."
The statement, and the matter-of-fact tone it was made in, caused every Dragoon that overheard it to wonder. A few, less controlled, nearly filled the air with their drinks. What sort of faction could afford to buy that many tanks, and pass it off as a "spur of the moment" purchase? Even the Dragoons would hesitate, somewhat.
Broker, meanwhile, grinned impishly. "We might even commission some orders from Blackwell Industries."
Colonel Wolf mulled that thought over for a moment, then nodded. "Under the right circumstances, such an order would be warmly welcomed."
"But how would you crew them?" asked Tulliver. "Do you have that many people available?"
"Ah, Major, that would be telling, wouldn't it?" chuckled Jared. "For what it's worth, however, anyone willing to sign a contract with Executive Outcomes may freely choose to accept a position in a tank crew as a means of working towards the eventual goal of obtaining a battlemech. We intend to make that quite clear in our recruiting statements."
"Many people won't be able to maintain a 'mech if they had one," she countered.
"Again, true, Major. But that too will be made clear in our statements. I suspect we'll enrage quite a few lawyers with our refusal to use fine print and dense verbiage, but we will make things clear well before anyone signs up. Additionally, individuals with a damaged 'family' mech can earn repairs, even reconstruction, of that 'mech by serving time as infantry or armor. Not everyone will succeed, nor will we guarantee success. We will guarantee only that they have the opportunity."
"Fair enough," she agreed. "You can't have it all. If you did, where would you put it?"
"Heh. A point to you, Major!"
Even a quiet party could take some time to wind down, and it was late in the evening when Colonel Wolf retired to his personal quarters. He didn't head for his bed, though. Something was bothering him, a thought in the back of his mind, and he knew that if he couldn't bring it forward, he'd never get any restful sleep.
Often that was a gift. Tonight, it felt like a nuisance. A damned, frustrating nuisance.
Something Broker had said.
He'd given his surety that everything he'd said was the truth, though he refused to say everything. Sensible precaution. Jaime would have done the same thing. But there was something there... something he'd said... something in what he'd said...
Wolf moved over to his personal terminal, opened up several files and began to dig.
Something you refused to share with the Star League. Something that let you settle worlds without 'the usual difficulties'. Ryan's name had been mentioned. Wolf ran a search for every historical mention of the Ryan Ice Cartel and it's founder, Rudolph Ryan, only to see links to hundreds of megabytes of reference material appear on his screen. Irritating. If he couldn't somehow fine-tune his search, he'd be at the keyboard til sunrise.
Something you don't share. What sort of things do people refuse to share? Ryan was a businessman. What does a business refuse to share? They refuse to share trade secrets. Technological trade secrets in particular.
He refined his search, found a centuries-old video clip of Rudolf Ryan addressing a group of investors, and opened it. It showed the innovative businessman illustrating how his system would work to move entire ice asteroids from system to system.
Wolf finished listening to Ryan's speech, then closed the file. Moving slowly, carefully, methodically, he then proceeded to erase all traces of his search, even that he'd conducted a search at all.
After he was done, he reached for the small glass of whiskey sitting near the keyboard, only to notice the faint tremor in his hands.
Not surprising, he thought. Not surprising at all, when you've just learned of the existence of what might possibly be the greatest feat of macro-engineering in the entire history of the human race. What surprises me is that I'm not racing about the room screaming "Eureka!" at the top of my voice.
My God, if that's really how they did it... those magnificent bastards! If General Kerensky had only known. What he could have done with this... Wolf paused for a moment, and shook his head. But then, if the General had known, he'd likely have gone to war with them as well. They are separatists, isolationists.
He nodded in satisfaction. And that tells me who they probably are. Or probably were, that is. There's only one group in the Inner Sphere with access to that sort of technology, the resources to take proper advantage of it, and the political willpower to use it in that particular way. He thought of the Clans encountering these people, and laughed very quietly to himself. They've had nearly a thousand years to be apart from the rest of humanity, and they apparently like it that way. If the ilKhans choose to butt heads with them over their chosen lifestyle, I'd wager a Bloodname that these Kyfhons will come out the winners. And that's very likely to be exactly what Broker and his people want to happen.
He finished stripping off his uniform and prepared for bed. Now he could sleep and sleep well.
Tomorrow, it would be Broker receiving a knowing smirk as he embarked for Crossing. And that thought was quite pleasant for Jaime to dwell upon as he drifted off to sleep.
His dreams were filled with stars.
The jumpship Lysander Spooner was returning to Crossing far more slowly than it had left. When questioned, Broker had replied that now the contract with Wolf's Dragoons had been signed, there was nowhere near the initial urgency to the matter. Instead, the Spooner was making one jump a day, and allowing the drive to cool fully before making the next.
Snord had asked further about that, and Jared informed him that the current jump core of the Spooner was capable of six successive jumps without any cooling whatsoever before it would fail catastrophically.
The fact that Broker had used the word "current" made Snord wonder. Not that Cranston was fool enough to go prying around an active jump core. You couldn't pay him enough for that. No one could. Presumably, that was a good way to die. People presumed that instead of knowing it for certain, because in the few cases where someone was reported to have done that just before a jump was to take place, the jump ship never reappeared. Not in this reality, anyway...
So it wasn't at all hard to contain his curiosity. Wanting to stay alive was a pretty effective deterrent.
What really annoyed him was the knowing smile that had been on Colonel Wolf's face when they'd embarked on his Union for the trip back to the jump ship. It all but shouted "I know something you don't!", and if there was anything about Jaime Wolf that annoyed Snord, it was his habit of enjoying little secrets at the expense of his friends and associates. Cranston just knew that years from now, he'd discover what it was, and the Wolf brothers would manage to laugh their asses off. Worst of all, Cranston knew that however annoying the secret was, he'd also know that the brothers would be absolutely correct in having kept it from him at the time. Because they'd done it to him before, damn them.
There just weren't words in the English language for how frustrating that could be.
At the moment they were waiting for the arrival of another EO jumpship, the Peter LaNague, with a supply of freshly charged modular batteries. This time, they'd be allowed to see the delivery ship. On the way to New Valencia, the Spooner had rolled to block the view. Now, though, Broker was allowing them to see the incoming ship as a gesture of trust.
A distant sparkle through the porthole signaled her arrival, and the shimmering speck quickly grew. By the time it was recognizable as a spacecraft, eyes were widening all around.
"That's... impossible," said Sneede. "That's a Wagon Wheel!"
"It can't be," replied Windall. "The last of the Wagon Wheels were destroyed when the Tauran Concordat was crushed during the Reunification War, four hundred years ago."
"It's not a Wagon Wheel," Snord said authoritatively. "The proportions are wrong." He eyed the approaching ship closely. "Too many dropship collars on the grav decks. I can see at least four. The Wagon Wheel only had two."
"If it's symmetrical," pointed out Terry, "that means it has eight collars. Four on each grav deck. Damn. It's huge. At least twice the size of a Wheel. Maybe more."
Cranston took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "Ladies and gentlemen of the Irregulars, I have a suggestion, not an order."
"I suggest we go to our cabins, have some drinks, and forget we ever saw anything today. I suspect we'd find it much healthier for us in the long run."
The team thought about that for a bit, then they all quietly left the observation deck. They didn't look back.
Cranston had been politely informed that Broker would like to see him, informally, if Cranston could make the time for it. As the request was so polite, he'd offered to do it right away.
When he reached the man's cabin, he had to struggle to keep from bursting into raucous laughter. Jared's desk was as covered with papers as his own had been on the trip out from Crossing, and Broker was glaring at the mess as if trying to force it to spontaneously combust from sheer eye power alone. Schadenfreude alone made Cranston smirk widely. "Paperwork troubles?" he laughed.
Broker sighed. "Paperwork generated by stupid pirates, I'm afraid." He eyed Cranston thoughtfully. "Can you use a somewhat dented Leopard and a pair of medium mechs, all in need of repair?"
Snord blinked. "I'm sorry, what?" The strange statement, coming out of nowhere, had thrown him slightly.
"Stupid pirates, I'm afraid," grimaced Broker. "Apparently they heard that a construction battalion was on the ground at New St. Andrews, and thinking it was a ripe and easy target, made a run at it with a pair of Leopards and an odd assortment of junkyard 'mechs. I suppose they thought that a construction unit couldn't fight back." His grimace turned vicious. "Their error, though they didn't live long enough to realize that."
"I wouldn't have thought that a construction battalion could put up that much of a fight against eight 'mechs, even bandit mechs," said Cranston.
"They thought the same," noted Jared. He glared back down at the mess on his desk. "Where did I... there." He picked up one folder and read from it. "Of the eight 'mechs that participated in the attack, only two survived in any condition that could be called 'repairable', a Vindicator and a Dragon. You want them?"
Snord couldn't help but ask. "What happened to the other six?"
"The boys and girls in the SeaBees were a little irritated. By the time their commanders got them calmed down, there wasn't much left of the other six 'mechs but scrap suitable for blast furnace recycling, I'm afraid. As for the second Leopard, well, it had a traffic accident."
"It failed to observe the air traffic regulations over our base, and turned straight into a wall of LRMs. By my people's reckoning, that's a traffic accident."
"So, do you want the Vindicator and Dragon?" repeated Jared.
"I'd like them, but even after what you've paid me, and I know you've been more than generous, I don't think I can afford another two mechs, let alone a second dropship."
"Not cash, just trade. I'll let you have these two mechs in return for three Dispossessed recruits. The dropship will cost you the equivalent of a Leopard crew in Dispossessed, along with one favor to be called in later."
"Nothing I'd find morally objectionable, or that requires me to turn on my employer of the moment?"
"Well bargained and done, then."
After some further discussion of contractual points and how much a Dispossessed 'mech warrior might be worth in terms of military hardware, Snord left the cabin whistling cheerfully. When they reached Crossing, he'd have to look into that contract with House Marik to try and retake Rochelle from the Steiners.
He'd have to be careful, though. He didn't trust Janos as far as he could throw the man.
Still, he had his people, the gear to equip them, a (semi) trusted ally, freedom from debt (at the moment), and a bright future. Things were definitely looking up for Snord's Irregulars.