As much as he enjoyed the attention, it meant little to him. A reputation on the periphery was meaningless if he couldn't translate it into political currency back home. That was the entire reason he'd come all the way out here - to make a name for himself and his unit.
After the last battle, Julien had circulated the vids of the Draconis Combine salvage teams collecting the Dogs of War mechs, and despite the Dog press agent's denials ("It is our policy to neither confirm nor deny rumors concerning our contracts") everyone now knew who had hired the infamous mercenary company. This exposure may have even impressed the diplomats more than the victories.
The cost, however, was that the Dogs had been able to regain most of their salvage, and Ms. Morris had informed him that they'd managed to repair two of their mechs, and had hidden them in the hills just outside the capitol. Julien knew that he must make sure the Rangers finished the job, or else he might be blamed for allowing so many wanted men to escape with their weapons.
But there were rumors circulating among the pilots. One bar near the spaceport had become a sort of gathering place for mechwarriors of the houses and mercenaries, and the word there was that the newly promoted Dogs of War lance leader intended to challenge Lt. Brice (who had led the Rangers on the field) to single combat. A desperate move, appropriate considering the Dogs' desperate situation.
The Dogs of War lance was done, and they knew it. Their commander's Grasshopper had been decapitated by Marissa Howard-Davion's Stalker, but had been otherwise mostly intact, and therefore easy to repair. They'd also managed to get their light Commando up and running, but these two mechs could not hope to win against Lt. Brice's repaired Grasshopper, and Marissa's barely scratched Stalker. Especially not with Sgt. Howard's Stuka spacecraft lending air support. No, the only ones who could hope to gain something from accepting a duel would be the Dogs, and he wasn't prepared to give them an inch.
"Lt. Brice, this is Captain Laval," he said over the Comm, "We have intel that suggests the new lance commander of the Dogs is likely to challenge you to single combat. Your orders are to maintain radio silence and not respond. You will not accept the challenge, understood?"
"Yes sir," Brice said, without feeling.
"The Dogs have proven themselves dishonorable time and time again. You don't owe them the courtesy of a duel."
"Yes sir," he said again.
Brice led what remained of his lance forward to find the enemy, while Sgt. Howard circled above.
"I have visual on one Dogs of War mech... looks like the Commando. Moving to engage."
"A hit," Howard radioed back, "but it's still standing. Another pass or two aught to do it."
Brice's radio crackled. A dull, robotic voice addressed the Ranger's commander.
"This is Dogs of War Battlemech Command. I challenge the 1st Argyle Rangers Commander to single combat. Grasshopper to Grasshopper."
"This is Lt. Brice of the 1st Argyle Rangers. Identify yourself. I won't even consider a challenge unless I know my opponent's name."
"Lieutenant, what are you doing?" Marissa said on a private channel, "The Captain said no contact."
Brice ignored her. When the enemy's voice responded, it sounded almost human. The pilot had turned off the voice modulator that all of the Dogs of War mechs used.
"My name is Lt. Straken. Do you accept the challenge?"
"I accept your challenge, Straken."
"Lieutenant... Jeremy, what are you doing? Julien will have you demoted for this," Marissa said.
"Only if I lose," Brice said, "It's done Marissa. Let me finish this. You and Sgt. Howard stay out of it."
Marissa screamed in frustration inside her mech. She would never disobey her commanding officer, but she felt like she was betraying Julien by allowing Brice to accept the challenge. The three of them had been in the academy together, equals. Even when, two years ago, they'd received their commissions and Julien had taken his family's hereditary command over the Rangers, it hadn't felt like much had changed. Perhaps things had changed more than she'd thought...
The enemy Commando mech stuck close to the steep hill, trying to hide from the Stuka...
But there was no hiding from Sgt. Howard.
"A glancing blow this time. Coming around for another pass."
The enemy Grasshopper took position behind a hill and both mechs began their duel with an ineffectual exchange of LRM fire.
Following orders, Marissa climbed the hill, looking to position herself between the Commando and the Grasshopper. If anything happened to Jeremy in this duel, she wanted to make sure that this Lt. Straken wouldn't live long enough to gain anything by it.
Brice meanwhile made his way around the hill, breaking the sight-line and forcing the enemy mech to come closer.
Marissa stood between then, exposing her mech to the Grasshopper's guns, trying to tempt him into a shot.
"Come on and shoot at me, you damned merc scum," she thought, willing him to break the rules of the duel. He didn't take the bait.
"That one got him," Howard called out over the comm. The Commando was rocked by numerous hits...
...Followed by a secondary explosion as the mech's missiles ignited inside their bins. The auto-eject system engaged, sending the pilot clear. He was too far from the Rangers to hope to catch him, so the rest of the unit put him far from their mind. Sgt. Howard gained altitude and began slow circles over the battlefield, now watching the duel.
Along with everyone else, it turned out.
"Lieutenant," Howard said into the comm, "I don't mean to distract you but I'm detecting an orbital satellite relaying vid of the battle back to Placidia. Probably the Dogs doing."
"Understood, Sergeant," Brice said, his voice betraying the strain of his concentration.
The Grasshoppers moved cautiously, each taking cover, and Marissa position herself between them, hoping that a stray shot might connect with her mech instead of Brice's, but the mercenary was too good a shot.
"Marissa, get out of there, that's an order," Brice barked out on the comm. Reluctantly, she followed his orders and stepped back up on the hill.
The enemy grasshopper broke cover and moved forward. Both mechs fired everything they had in a continuous pattern, whittling down each other's armor bit by bit.
A large laser finally broke through the armor on Brice's left torso, forcing him to turn his mech to the side to limit any further hits, all while continuing to fire.
In an effort to distract the enemy pilot, Marissa locked all of her weapons onto the enemy Grasshopper's rear. She grinned a little through grit teeth as she imagined all the alarms that must be sounding in his cockpit.
Brice broke cover in a rush, racing around the side of the enemy Grasshopper, and twisting his torso to fire as he went. Yet while both mechs had taken extensive damage, neither seemed to be able to pull ahead.
Perhaps worried about the target locks and the equally fast mech before him, Straken pulled back, firing all the while.
Brice moved at an angle, twisting the mech's torso to fire at the enemy, while Marissa moved in to point blank range behind him, still locking her weapons onto his back.
Both Grasshoppers opened up for the last time, and both connected catastrophically. The enemy Grasshopper saw lasers tear through its center torso, utterly destroying the fusion engine.
The pilot, jostled by the hit, was still able to eject, but not until he was already on the ground. The cockpit shot out and into a copse of trees. The branches caught his parachute, stopping his momentum suddenly, and slamming him into a tree. He hung limp in his ejection seat, alive but unconscious.
But at almost the same moment, Brice felt his mech give way beneath him as the enemy lasers cut into his gyro systems, setting the mech into an uncontrolled fall. Brice smashed his head against the back of his seat as he fell. He blacked out only for a moment, and as he shook his head and looked at the instruments, he realized that he'd somehow won anyway.
"Captain Laval, this is Lt. Brice," he called out groggily, "All enemy mechs destroyed. Better yet, we have the enemy commander ready for you to pick up. Requesting transport helicopters for the prisoner and recovery trucks for my Grasshopper. It won't be walking home today."
After a long silence came the Captain's terse response: "Acknowledged."
Brice knew he'd been watching the duel like everyone else via the satellite uplink. He also knew Julien well enough to know that there would be no immediate consequences for disobeying orders. If anything, the dramatic duel at the end of the conference cemented the reputation of the 1st Argyle Ranger, and thereby that of Julien Laval. Especially with what could be expected to be a very public trial of Lt. Straken back on New Avalon. If he was a Dogs officer, it was a fair bet that there was at least one death sentence waiting for him back in the FedSuns. Further, the display of overwhelming military force had help tip the conference in the favor of the Federated Suns, allowing them to establish a permanent embassy and trade mission in the Oberon Confederation. Any disciplinary action now would cast a shadow over all of that.
But Jeremy also knew that his good friend Julien wouldn't forget this for a long, long time.
"Good work Rangers," the Captain said at last, "Time to go home."