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Fortunes of War (Chapter Cover) v1

Chapter 1 - Fortunes of War[]

The Lyran Commonwealth
July 1st, 3024

From the perspective of a passenger on one of the DropShips approaching it, Galaport resembled nothing so much as a giant, sprawling game of tic-tac-toe. The vast sea of ferrocrete that defined the boundaries of Galatea’s primary spaceport was crise-crossed at right angles by runways for aerodyne DropShips to take off and land. Scattered around and in between the runways were designated spaces for spheroid  DropShip types that made their descents and departures vertically - some of them raised circular pads surrounded by support vehicles and auxiliary power units, others simple “scorch spots." little more than large X’s constantly being repainted over the charred paving.

At one edge of the ferrocrete sea, closest to Galatea City proper, stood the spaceport’s control tower and its passenger terminal. Encircling the spaceport on all other sides was a maze of featureless, flat-sided buildings, some almost as great in size as the DropShips coming and going from the spaceport itself. A few of these were used for maintenance of visiting ships and the vehicles used to support them. Others were used for the temporary storage of cargo being imported to Galatea from elsewhere in the Lyran Commonwealth. The great majority of them, however, were used in support of Galatea’s primary export: mercenary units.

Some of these structures, rented out by more wheel-heeled merc outfits, contained fully equipped BattleMech repair facilities rivaling those used by Great House mercenaries. Others were little more than converted warehouses used to get 'Mechs and the technicians piecing them back together out of the heat and weather, with spartan office spaces in their top stories once used by industrial foremen and now used by mercenary officers to conduct business.

In one such office in one such warehouse hangar, Katryna “Kit” Söderlund, junior 'Mech tech for Pressler’s Privateers, sat slumped in a chair, arms crossed over her chest and fixing Captain Charlie Pressler with a sullen stare. Pressler sat with his elbows resting on the battered desk, running his fingers through his slicked-back hair in obvious frustration. Finally he stopped, folded his hands, and fixed his gaze on his tech.

“So here’s the situation." Pressler began. “We’re two weeks from shipping out on a contract, and now the Leftenant of my fire support lance can’t pilot a 'Mech, because he’s got a broken wrist.” Pressler paused dramatically, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands behind his head. “Now I’ve already heard Leftenant Laurent’s version of how that happened. Let’s hear yours.”

Pressler’s words hung in the stuffy air of the cramped office. Kit considered her response carefully. “Leftenant Laurent and I were on the repair gantry. I was showing him what I had done to try to smooth out the autocannon ammunition feed problem on his Enforcer, even though I keep telling him that problem’s never been solved in two hundred fifty years of production.” Pressler made a get to the point gesture which made it clear he had not called her into the office to discuss the idiosyncrasies of different BattleMech types. “Laurent lost his balance and took a fall off the gantry." Kit continued. “There’s not much else to say.” No point in telling Pressler I shoved Laurent when he grabbed my ass, Kit thought to herself.

“Uh huh." replied Pressler flatly. He stared at Kit long enough that she wondered if he could see the sweat starting to form on her forehead. “Laurent says he fell because he was pushed. By you. Anything to say about that?” Getting no reply from the 'Mech tech, Pressler went on. “Laurent was lucky to only have a busted arm. People have died falling from that height, you know. Now I’m not saying that’s what you had in mind… but be honest with me. Did you and Laurent have words about something besides his ammo feed?”

Seconds passed as Kit tried to think of a response that would make a difference. Suddenly the silence in the office was broken by the door being flung open almost hard enough to break it off its rusty hinges.

“This is bullshit, Charlie!” Sergeant Cedric Smythe’s twanging voice, typical to natives of the Federated Suns’ “outback” worlds, filled the room. “Bull SHIT.” The big, bearded MechWarrior burst into the room and stood with his hands on the back of the chair next to the one Kit sat in, fixing a gimlet eye on Pressler, who heaved a sigh and met his stare.

“What’s bullshit, Smitty?” Pressler said, with an air of imposed-upon patience.

“Bullshit is you calling the kid here out on the carpet over what happened with Laurent." Sergeant Smythe said, waving his index finger at the Privateers’ CO.

“I keep telling you, my name’s Kit, not ‘kid’." Söderlund interjected, but both men ignored her.

“You know and I know that Laurent’s been harassing her for months." Smythe continued. “Been… been makin’ remarks and tryin’ to feel her up.”

Pressler’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know any such thing." he said, “But what I’m hearing from you sounds a lot like slander of a superior officer.”

“BULLSHIT!” Kit wondered if Smythe’s outburst was loud enough to draw glances from the other techs and MechWarriors working in the hangar below. “Don’t try that hardass military discipline stuff with me, Charlie." said Smythe. “I’ve known you too long to buy it and I know that ain’t the kind of outfit you run. Hell, if it were you wouldn’t have guys like Terry Laurent around.”

Pressler brought his hands down on the desk with a reverberating slap. “Terry Laurent is in this unit because he’s a damn good MechWarrior who brought his own ride with him!” he yelled. “You’re in this unit because I have known you for too long, Smitty.” Then, as his temper subsided, Pressler added as if in apology: “And because you’re a good MechWarrior too.”

Kit watched Smythe for any sign of offense at his commanding officer bringing up the fact he had joined the unit Dispossessed - without a BattleMech of his own. Smythe’s face showed only the barest flicker of pain before he launched back into his tirade. “And Söderlund is a damn good tech!” he shot back at Pressler. “She’s been doing half the stuff our quote-unquote chief tech hasn’t been doing because he spends half his time drunk.”

Pressler rubbed his temples with his thumbs. “Rickover likes a drink. That doesn’t make him a drunk.”

“No, he’s a drunk." Kit said. “I should know.” I’ve spent enough time around an alcoholic up close to tell what one looks like. Smythe’s voice shook her out of her memories and she found that he and Pressler seemed determined to have their argument about her without acknowledging her presence.

“What I’m sayin’ is, we need her." Smythe said, his tone dropping from the outraged twang to something lower and more imploring.

“Please stop talking about me like I’m not here." Kit said. Neither man gave any sign of hearing her.

“I need the leader of my fire lance in a cockpit, Sarge!” Pressler shot back. “Who am I going to put in Laurent’s Enforcer when we ship out?”

“There’s always me." Kit quipped.

Finally Pressler seemed to notice she was still in the room, and he didn’t seem pleased to make the discovery. “And you’re going to command the fire support lance too, I suppose?” he asked.

“I’m not saying that." Kit protested, holding up her hands defensively. “Wilkins is the lance number two, of course he should lead while Laurent is… out.” Kit leaned forward in her chair, giving Pressler a pleading look. “It’s not a tough contract, Captain. All we’re going to do is run through some training exercises to whip the planetary militia into shape, right? Give me a chance. You’ve seen my performance readouts from the sims.”

Pressler rolled his eyes. “Arcade pods don’t count.”

“Real sim time is hard to come by." Kit snapped. “And expensive. I only go to the arcades when I don’t have any other choice.”

Pressler turned back to look at Smythe, jabbing a finger at Kit. “You’re right, Smitty, this outfit does need good techs." he said, his voice rising in anger. “What it doesn’t need is techs with delusions of grandeur who think they can cause problems for me and get me to reward them for it by letting them play at being a real 'Mech jock!” Pressler punctuated his scream by grabbing a handful of supply manifest printouts from the top of the desk and throwing them into the air. The papers floated to the floor like leaves scattered in the wake of a storm.

Smythe made calming gestures with his hands. “Look, Charlie…”

“Don’t ‘Charlie’ me, Sarge!” Pressler bellowed, rising from his chair. The two men stared each other down, the accumulated frustrations of years of friendship crackling in the air between them.

The tense silence was broken when Kit suddenly rose from her seat, sending it sliding back against the office wall. “Don’t even bother, Smitty." she said. “You heard the Captain. This unit doesn’t need me. I’m out.”

Kit brushed past Smitty, pushed open the door to the office stomped down the metal stairs to the hangar floor. Head down, face hot with anger and shame, she almost crashed into Terry Laurent waiting at the bottom of the staircase.

Terry Laurent had recruiting poster good looks, two meters of perfect, patriotic Davion boy. He wore a tank top that showed off his well-muscled physique, although the effect was somewhat spoiled by the cast which covered most of his lower right arm. “Slow down there, kitten." Laurent said, blocking her attempt to squeeze past. “You didn’t want to get this close to me before.”

“****** off, Terry." she snarled.

“Where to, wannabe?” he sneered. “Going to keep crippling people until the Captain’s got no choice but to give you a shot? How does it feel to know a real MechWarrior is better with one hand than you’ll ever be with two?”

“One hand is enough for what you’re really best at, Terry.” Kit seized Laurent’s cast-covered lower arm and slammed it viciously against the steel railing. The MechWarrior howled in pain and she pushed past him towards the open 'Mech bay doors. “Don’t think about me when you do it.”

Laurent’s expletive-laden reply was partially drowned out by the sound of the repair equipment inside the 'Mech bar as Kit stalked out onto the sun-baked pavement.

“Kid, hold on." he called. “Think about what you’re doin’.”

She spun on her heel to face Smythe, fists on her hips, bringing him up short. “I have thought about it." she said. “I’ve thought about it a lot longer than a minute.” She turned away from him again and was silent. Smythe slowly walked up beside her and stood with his hands in his pockets, staring down at the tarmac.

“Sarge, I’ve been with the Privateers for four years now." Kit said finally, watching the blurry heat rising from the DropShip runways in the distance. “And there’s two people in this unit who ever gave a damn about me. One of them is you. You’ve always been decent to me. The other one is Laurent, and it’s only because he wants to get in my pants.” Kit waved an arm at the 'Mech bay behind them. “To the rest of them I’ll always just be a ‘Drac.’” Kit was shocked at the sound of her own voice, realizing how obvious the pain in it was, and she was ashamed. She joined Smythe in looking down at the ground.

The two stood for several moments in silence broken only by the clanging and grinding of 'Mech maintenance going on in the hangar behind them before Smythe spoke. “Hell, kid, you know I’m just a big friendly Outback hick." he offered with a wry smile. “The rest of them… you gotta understand…” he trailed off.

“I understand, Smitty." Kit said quietly. Most of the Privateers’ personnel had come from the Federated Suns. For centuries the Federated Suns, under the rule of House Davion, had fought the Draconis Combine under the rule of House Kurita on the battlefields of the Succession Wars. Any member of the Privateers who hadn’t personally lost a friend or a family member to the Combine almost certainly knew someone who had. Doesn’t matter I’m not ethnically Japanese, or that I haven’t been to the Combine since I was a child, Kit thought. She had called Galatea home since she was nine years old, when her parents had come to the mercenary hiring hall world so her father, a former Combine military 'Mech technician, could find opportunities that the Kurita military could not or would not afford a native of the Scandanavian-influenced Rasalhague province. But for many FedSuns natives… A blue-eyed Drac is still a Drac. Or so she had heard one Privateers MechWarrior put it, not realizing she was within earshot.

Kit pushed the memory down and turned to face Smythe, putting on a cheerful face. “But all that’s personal. My reasons for leaving are professional. I’ve got a better offer.”

“You’re signing on somewhere else?” Smythe asked, his voice betraying his surprise.

Kit nodded. “Task Force Talon.”

Smythe’s brow furrowed. “Think I’ve heard of ‘em. Supposed to be a solid outfit. Heard they came back pretty shot up after their last contract along the League’s border with Liao, though.”

“They did." Kit said. “That’s why they need good techs. Their commander says she’s got a lead on a contract that’ll put them on solid footing again. And after that’s done she says she’ll give me a shot in one of their Wasps that needs a new pilot... if I can help them put it back together.” Kit looked away. “Plus, most of their people are from Marik space, so… to them having a ‘Drac’ in the unit isn’t such a big deal.”

Smythe nodded along with her, but couldn’t hide the concern on his face. Still, he reached out and clapped her on the shoulder. “Well hell, kid, that sounds great. Big loss for us, but I can’t blame you for makin’ the decision you are.”

Kit forced a smile. “Thanks, Smitty. I’m going to miss you.” She took his hand and shook it, then turned to walk away. After a few steps she turned back and saw Smythe still staring after her.

“Hey Sarge." she said. “You know my reasons for leaving. Why do you stay?”

Smythe mopped the sweat from his shaved head, then ran his hand through his beard. “Well, kid." he said, “You know me and Charlie go back a ways. And they keep me in a cockpit.” Smythe piloted a Valkyrie as the second-in-command of the Privateers’ scout lance. On Galatea, a MechWarrior with his own machine could almost always find a place in a unit, but competition for the empty seats in units with more 'Mechs than pilots to operate them was fierce. Few MechWarriors would give up a decent situation like Smythe had to voluntarily join the ranks of the Dispossessed.

Kit nodded, then turned to leave again. “Hey kid… good luck." she heard Smythe call. She glanced back at him with a smile and a wave, then walked away. She did not hear Smythe walk away in the other direction. Perhaps he was watching her leave, or perhaps his footsteps were merely drowned out by the echoing din from the 'Mech bay.

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