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Fortunes of War (Chapter Cover) v1

Chapter 12 - Fortunes of War[]

The Crater
Near Galatea City
The Lyran Commonwealth
November 8th, 3024

Kit cursed herself in three languages as she tried to blink away the sweat that ran down her forehead into her eyes. With so much money going into maintaining her 'Mech, acquiring a new neurohelmet - one that actually fit - had never seemed like a high-priority investment. She had settled for trying to adjust and replace the padding to get a tighter fit, marginally improving the all-important neurotransmitter contacts at her temples but making the damned thing even hotter and more uncomfortable than before.

So for what seemed like the hundredth time in the ten minutes since she had stepped the Vindicator into the confines of The Crater, she tried to blink away the sweat running into her eyes, and now when she blinked she found she had to fight an urge to simply keep her eyes closed and pass out. Her head ached. She had not slept the night before after the altercation with the masked men and her talk with Smythe, and she figured there was a reasonable chance she had a concussion.

So she blinked, and cursed, and flexed her sweaty hands on the joysticks in an effort to relax her white-knuckled grip, and forced herself to focus as she scanned the hellscape of The Crater for a sign of where Laurent and his Enforcer might be lurking.

The Crater came by its name honestly. It was an irregular pit in the desert, a little less than 1.5 kilometers wide at its widest point, marking the crash site of a DropShip that had suffered a catastrophic engine failure on approach to Galaport a decade or two before Kit was born. After any really valuable salvage had been removed, thousands of tons of wreckage had been left behind and some enterprising individual who Kit figured would have gotten along with Titus Covelli just fine had purchased the site and set about turning it into a new venue for gladiatorial BattleMech combat.

The Crater had quickly become a favorite of fight fans. The chunks of DropShip wreckage, some almost as high as the tallest 'Mechs, provided cover and played havoc with some sensor types such as magres, turning duels in The Crater into a suspenseful game of cat and mouse. Maintenance required was minimal, since everything hit by stray weapons fire was already wrecked. Sometimes parts of 'Mechs too damaged to be worth retrieving were simply left behind; once Kit had caught herself trying to identify what type of 'Mech a decaying lower arm section she passed by came from before reminding herself that she could ill afford such distractions as long as Terry Laurent was somewhere nearby stalking her.

Over the years support facilities had been constructed around The Crater’s rim - hangars for the combatant 'Mechs, but also concessions, outdoor grandstands with three-story high holoscreens playing live feed of the matches from circling camera drones, and air-conditioned indoor accommodations for better-paying spectators. Everything fight fans needed to have a good time, assuming they could put it out of their minds that their day’s entertainment was taking place in what was essentially a sort of graveyard, which most of them apparently could. The crew of an average civilian DropShip, from what Kit knew, usually numbered in the dozens. Although MechWarriors dying in gladiatorial matches on Galatea wasn’t common, strictly speaking, Kit guessed that the casualties over the years of The Crater’s use as an arena had probably equaled the crash’s death toll.

And now, if Smitty was right, Terry Laurent was trying to add her to that number.

Is this a better or worse place to die than the outskirts of a ghost city on Konstance? Kit wondered. Is dying like this more or less pointless than dying as bait for some Lyran officer’s trap?

So far, the spectators were hardly getting their money’s worth. In the ten minutes since the start of the match, she had seen Laurent’s Enforcer just once. She had tried to stick close to the outer edges of the arena, sometimes climbing the Vindicator as much as halfway up the banked crater rim to try to get a better view over the scattered wreckage. The respective weapon loadouts of the two 'Mechs gave the advantage to her Vindicator in a stand-off fight, but the Enforcer would be much more formidable if it could close in on her. Unfortunately for her, the dynamics of The Crater favored in-fighters. The abundance of “natural” cover allowed few opportunities for long range shots and provided plenty of protection for a smart MechWarrior to slowly close the distance to an opponent.

Five minutes into the match, as the Vindicator’s spade-like feet scrabbled for purchase on the embankment, she had spotted the Enforcer stepping slowly out from behind what she took to be part of one of the DropShip’s cargo loading ramps driven into the desert like a blade, five hundred meters away. She fired a snap-shot from her PPC, too quickly, and it went wide. Her long-range missile salvo peppered the legs of her foe’s 'Mech without coming close to penetrating the armor. The Enforcer drew up as its pilot found the source of the attack, then backpedaled smoothly out of view again.

Five more more minutes of slowly working her way clockwise around the crater rim brought no further sightings of her opponent and so she warily steered the Vindicator deeper into the debris field, blinking and cursing. Then suddenly the feeling of sweat steadily dripping down the back of her neck was replaced by an unaccountable tingling sensation, like a shiver. She let off the foot pedals and the Vindicator lurched to a halt.

Roughly two hundred fifty meters ahead was a mountain of mangled scrap, four stories high. Too regular to be the random result of the DropShip crash, it had clearly been bulldozed into a pile deliberately in the course of “maintenance” to add intrigue to the cat-and-mouse game of combat in The Crater. Kit switched one of her cockpit display screens over to the seismic scanner. A line of dim red pulses marked the footsteps of her opponent’s 'Mech as it reached the base of the scrapheap on the opposite side from her and then came to a halt.

Kit considered her options. She knew Laurent’s position, and he didn’t necessarily know hers, which gave her the tactical initiative. However, Laurent’s 'Mech would have the advantage if she tried to rush him down. So flush him out? Kit depressed the firing button on top of her left joystick and lobbed a salvo of LRM’s over the debris pile at the approximate position where the seismic scanner showed Laurent had halted. If he moved, her scanner would tell her which way around the mountain he was going, right or left, and she would be able to line up a shot.

Her missiles arced over the obstacle out of sight. An immense cloud of smoke and dust rose from behind the scrap pile, followed a moment later by the Enforcer. Rather than go right or left around the pile, Laurent had chosen a third, highly risky option: leaping on top of the unsteady conglomeration of scrap to take the fight to her. The Enforcer was firing almost before it touched down, and if the need to steady the 'Mech’s balance on top of the shifting scrapheap gave Laurent any difficulty in aiming, it didn’t show from the results. The Enforcer’s heavy autocannon shells slammed into the Vindicator’s chest, while its large laser melted away half a ton of armor along the left flank of Kit’s 'Mech.

The azure bolt of Kit’s PPC blast flashed out where the sapphire after-image of the laser beam had just faded away, scoring a grazing hit on the Enforcer’s shoulder. The emerald pulse of her medium laser slashed across the Enforcer’s waist. The fifty-ton 'Mech seemed to pause, then once again reversed out of sight back down the other side of the scrapheap.

Kit scowled in confusion. The damage to Laurent’s 'Mech was superficial, so why would he disengage? Is he surprised my PPC still works? Was he in on the sabotage attempt?

There was no way to determine an answer, so she concluded further thought on the question was wasted. If Laurent was fighting cautiously, maybe it was time for her to press the attack. She pushed the Vindicator into a jog and then fired her own jump jets, coming to rest on top of the scrap mountain in the same place Laurent’s 'Mech had been before. From the elevated vantage point, she tried to locate her adversary.

There was a metallic groan beneath the Vindicator’s feet, then a rumble. There was ample time for Kit’s mind to identify the mistake she had made, not nearly enough for her to take any action that would help her avoid the consequences. Already strained by the weight of Laurent’s ‘Mech, the junk pile shifted precariously. Kit fought to maintain the Vindicator’s equilibrium, then her head throbbed and a wave of vertigo washed over her and that fight was lost. An avalanche of loose debris rolled down the side of the scrapheap, carrying the Vindicator with it. The extent of Kit’s control over the 'Mech was choosing whether she wanted the machine to topple forward or back, and having already been inside the Vindicator’s cockpit for one head-first impact, the choice was obvious. The forty-five ton 'Mech made the slide on its back and came to rest supine on the desert floor.

The positive side of Kit’s choice was that she remained conscious. The negative side was that she was fully conscious to reproach herself for her error. Stupid, stupid, stupid! She slowly levered the Vindicator upright. A warning light informed her that one of the Vindicator’s back-mounted jump jets was inoperative, probably fouled with debris. Head down in the cockpit, inventorying the Vindicator’s systems for further damage, she wasn’t entirely sure which direction the shot came from when another autocannon burst struck the Vindicator in the chest.

Larger, brighter warning lights, accompanied by a strident alarm klaxon, informed her of possible damage to her 'Mech’s reactor core shielding. She frantically searched for the Enforcer but it was nowhere to be seen. I’m fighting the way he wants me to fight, she thought to herself. This hide and seek shit up close is going to get me killed. Need to head back to the rim, open up the distance again.

She threw the Vindicator into a sixty kilometer per hour run, zig-zagging between burnt-out DropShip components towards the sloped embankment of the crater edge. Her high speed would make it easy for Laurent to track her on his seismic scanners, but if he pursued his heavier 'Mech’s own footfalls would make it impossible to get a bearing.

The Vindicator weaved around two of the wrecked DropShip’s main thrust nozzles and there was a clear path to the crater rim before her, no more than two hundred meters away. Her plan, such as it was, was going to work: she could get breathing room for long enough to think of a new plan. Then there was a resounding clang, and the Vindicator pitched forward onto its knees, the barrel of the right arm PPC digging a furrow in the floor of the crater.

A schematic diagram of the Vindicator on one of Kit’s secondary cockpit displays showed a breach of the armor on the machine’s back. Another insistent klaxon warned of what she already knew, which was that the 'Mech’s gyroscopes had been damaged. At the edges of her 360 degree view strip, the Enforcer stepped into view, its autocannon barrel still smoking from the shot that had crippled her.

Kit worked the controls frantically, trying to hold back panic. The Vindicator unsteadily stood upright again. She pivoted the 'Mech to face her opponent, too quickly, and was forced to drop to one knee again. The Enforcer approached at a walk, its gait almost leisurely, but still faster than what her machine was probably capable of now. Its right arm autocannon and left arm heavy laser were trained on her but not firing.

“Wondering how I tracked you?” Laurent’s voice was distorted by the Enforcer’s external speakers, but his utter self-satisfaction came through clearly. “After that reactor hit, anybody who knew what to look for could have picked up your radiation signature a klick away.”

“Hello, Terry.” Kit replied through her own loudspeakers. If Laurent wanted to gloat, that was fine with her. Anything to buy time to think of a plan. What were her options? Her 'Mech was practically immobile. Her opponent was inside the minimum range for most of her weapons. “That was some nice shooting earlier,” she ventured. “No problems with your ammo feed today. Arm heal up nicely?.”

The distortion of Laurent’s laughter through the speakers made it sound otherworldly. “You think I’m still mad about that? Nah. I’m past it. The thing is… I just can’t stand wannabes.” Laurent brought his 'Mech to a stop seventy or eighty meters from her. “See, tracking your rad signature, that’s a trick you just don’t have the chance to learn in arcade sim pods,” he continued. “Staying on your tail… well, that took a real MechWarrior.”

Snarling, Kit slapped open the safety cover over a switch above her right armrest and flipped it, disengaging the field inhibitor for her PPC. She dropped her targeting reticle over the Enforcer and squeezed the triggers.

Her long-range missiles, too close to arm, ricocheted off the Enforcer with no more effect than pebbles of hail. The Vindicator’s cockpit filled with the hum of the head-mounted medium laser for an instant, before another warning light informed her that the weapon’s power linkage had failed while only doing superficial damage to the Enforcer. Her PPC bolt streaked high and wide over the Enforcer’s shoulder, her cockpit displays distorted with momentary static, and then there was yet another light to inform her that the PPC was out of operation as well.

Laurent’s laughter mixed cacophonously with the roaring in Kit’s ears. “Looks like your luck’s finally run out.” The Enforcer took a step closer. “I’m going to give you a chance to eject now,” Laurent said, “if only because you do have a cute ass.”

Kit raised the Vindicator’s left arm, carefully readjusted her aim, breathed a prayer. She had one last card to play in a close-up fight, although she knew using it meant she was probably already thoroughly ******.

A jet of superheated plasma from the Vindicator’s reactor spewed out of the flamer which she had spent the rest of the night fitting in place of the 'Mech’s left arm laser, licked up and down the Enforcer’s right leg until the armor plating glowed, then sputtered out.

There was a long moment of silence, then Laurent’s laughter was loud enough to echo through the crater.

“That’s your last effort?” The Enforcer’s arms dropped to its sides. There was smoke beginning to seep out from the glowing armored kneecap, but Laurent did not seem to notice. “You know, people paid to see this.” he said. “I think they deserve a little more for their money.” The space between the two 'Mechs filled with whirling dust as the Enforcer started to rise into the air. Laurent’s voice was now barely audible over the roar of the jump jets. “This one’s always a crowd-pleaser!”

Kit’s hands went slack on the controls. DFA? He’s insane! Laurent intended to use his jump jets to launch his machine into the air and drop it directly on top of hers, one of the riskiest tactics in 'Mech combat: the Death From Above. There was no way for her to fight back, no way to avoid the fifty-ton BattleMech that in a few seconds would crush her cockpit like an egg.

Images flashed in her mind’s eye. Justin Abbott’s immolation as he ejected from his Centurion, the Kurita Dragon collapsing to the plain as its cockpit was caved in by the fist of Diana Toszka’s Banshee, the Banshee’s death’s-head faceplate as it toppled just a few moments later.

Twenty meters into the air, the Enforcer’s knee blew apart as the modified satchel charge hidden inside it detonated. The leg flailed, its jump jet still firing at maximum thrust. The Enforcer careened out of control over the Vindicator’s left shoulder. It pirouetted in the air, slammed into the crater embankment, rolled, and lay motionless on its back.

Kit was suddenly aware she had been holding her breath. When she exhaled she was struck by another bout of vertigo. Her heart pounded. The sweat on her forehead and the back of her neck and her arms had gone cold. She barely held back a wave of nausea. If this was what victory felt like, it was different than what she had imagined.

But it feels a lot better than being dead.

Laurent had meant to kill her, had come into the arena this day meaning to do it, she was sure. She had been in a fight for her life, and she had won.

Carefully, carefully, she got the Vindicator back on two feet and coaxed the tottering machine up the crater rim, one step at a time, to where the Enforcer lay. The 'Mech still hadn’t moved, and Kit could see that its cockpit viewports were smashed. But with a crackle of static, its external loudspeakers came to life once more. “Bitch…” Laurent groaned. “You bitch.”

“Charming as ever, Terry.” Kit shuffled the Vindicator to a halt standing over her opponent’s crippled machine. “I hoped it wouldn’t have to be this way. I really did.”

“It’s not possible.” All the triumph in Laurent’s voice was gone now, replaced by raw pain and an almost childlike disbelief. “It’s not fair.”

“Somebody told me fighting fair is stupid.” She stared down at the Enforcer’s cracked faceplate and swung the muzzle of the Vindicator’s flamer directly in line with the cockpit. “You know Terry, to be honest, I’m not even sure if this thing’s got another shot in it. But how lucky are you feeling right now?”

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