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Fortunes of War (Chapter Cover) v1

Chapter 2 - Fortunes of War[]

The Draconis Combine
August 16, 3024

The fifty ton 'Mech Recovery Vehicle inched through a ninety-degree turn at an intersection designed for vehicles half its size at best, then slowly accelerated down the empty street of what had once been Konstantinople, Konstance’s capital city. There had been a downpour of acid-tinged rain the night before, and steam rose from the pockmarked pavement beneath the MRV’s tires.

The MRV somewhat resembled a civilian tow truck or flatbed hauler, scaled up to massive size. A relatively tiny cab sat atop an ancient, enormous internal combustion engine. Coupled behind it was a trailer with a gigantic winch and an angled deck on which a disabled BattleMech could be laid for hauling away.

Kit tried to contain her excitement. She was almost bouncing in the passenger seat of the MRV, even without the effects of the street’s many potholes that the rig was too ponderous to swerve around and which all its eighteen wheels struggled to absorb. Next to her in the driver’s seat, Keith Pascoe was a spiritual opposite to Kit’s nervous energy. He sat slumped back, a study in lethargy, driving the massive MRV with one hand, mopping his brow with the other, and muttering occasional complaints about the climate which Kit mostly tuned out. Now she became dimly aware he was looking at her, meaning he had apparently said something for which he actually seemed to be expecting a response. She glanced back across the cab to meet his gaze. “Sorry, what?”

“I asked what you keep looking around so much for." Pascoe said. “You expecting to pick out a specific address?” He mopped his forehead, then sponged the sweat off his hand on the steering wheel. “****** this heat.”

“You could roll the windows down and get some breeze." she suggested.

Pascoe snorted. “Nothing doing. Look at the state of this place, I’m not putting my faith in the Combine keeping the CO2 scrubbers maintained when they haven’t maintained anything else.”

The MRV rumbled over a gash in the pavement two meters wide, forcing Kit to use one hand to steady herself against the passenger side door. “They have to keep the scrubbers working to support the parts of the planet people still live on." she pointed out . “And it’s the same atmosphere you’re breathing either way, it’s not like this cab is airtight.” She smirked at him. “You’d think a 'Mech technician would understand at least a little of this science stuff.”

Pascoe offered no response except a dismissive wave of his hand and Kit turned her attention back out the window again. She had meant the remark good-naturedly but couldn’t tell if Pascoe had taken it that way. After working with the older tech for only a few weeks, since she had joined the support staff for the mercenary unit that called themselves Task Force Talon, she didn’t have a read on him yet.
A minute later Kit’s fears she had offended Pascoe dissipated when he spoke again. “But you didn’t answer me before: what’s got you so excited?”

“Sterns and Keely said they found a 'Mech." Kit answered.

“And you think it might give us what we’re looking for?” Pascoe asked.

“Well, sure, there’s that." Kit said. “But they didn’t say what type it was… so I’m… just interested to find out." she finished, with an embarrassed shrug.

Pascoe snorted again. “Well that’s just adorable." he said. “After twenty years with my head up a 'Mech’s ass, let me tell you the novelty begins to wear off.” The end of Pascoe’s comment was almost drowned out by the creaking of the MRV’s brakes as they approached another intersection and Pascoe temporarily put both hands on the wheel to haul the rig through another turn. “But." he went on, “If whatever 'Mech Sterns and Keely found gives us a clue where these Lyran spooks we’re supposed to find are, and gets us off this sweatbox faster, then it’ll be the most beautiful damn BattleMech I’ve ever seen.”

The MRV’s transmission growled alarmingly beneath them as Pascoe accelerated back to the fastest speed he could manage on the too-narrow city street, then subsided. “Anyway." Pascoe continued once he could be heard without needing to shout, “We’re know soon. About six more blocks straight ahead if I’m reading these old maps right.”

Kit found herself leaning forward in her seat as if the few inches could actually help her see their destination quicker. All she actually saw in the distance was what appeared to be a strange break in the lines of multi-story buildings on either side of the street the MRV was travelling down.

“Shit." exclaimed Pascoe suddenly. Kit had to throw out her hands to catch herself on the dashboard as the other tech stomped on the brake pedal. The hulking MRV rig groaned to an abrupt stop less than thirty meters from the sloped bank of a man-made canal. Kit shot Pascoe a quizzical look. “Alright, so, not quite six blocks." he said sheepishly. “I did say ‘if’ I was reading the map right.”

The two techs’ attention was drawn outside the vehicle by a crackle of static from the handheld radio laying between their seats. “About time you got here." said a female voice, the radio’s tinny quality not entirely able to strip away its cheerful tone. “I was starting to think about getting out and working on my tan.”

Grabbing the radio, Kit opened the passenger door, clambered down the first few rungs of the ladder on the side of the MRV’s cab, then jumped the last six feet to the ground. Pulling on a short brimmed cap to shield her eyes from the oppressive sun, Kit walked around the front of the MRV and found the reason the two techs had been called into the heart of the abandoned city.

A hundred meters away, where the canal began to curve away between buildings out of sight, stood three BattleMechs. Kit recognized two of them, a Hermes II and a Vindicator painted gunmetal gray with faded purple and yellow accents, as belonging to Stef Keely and Brent Sterns, respectively. Together, the two MechWarriors and their mounts constituted Task Force Talon’s abbreviated recon lance. Keely raised the Hermes II’s arm in greeting.

The third BattleMech, which stood behind Keely and Sterns’s mounts facing the canal, was a Commando - a type not in the Talons TO&E. It was painted in a greenish-gray and tan camouflage pattern which seemed designed to fit the environment of the abandoned desert capital. Kit suppressed a sigh. She had cherished a secret hope that 'Mech from a covert House Steiner force operating on an enemy-held planet might be one of the recently introduced Hatchetman types she had heard about. For Kit, who had literally been raised around the walking war machines, a chance to see one of the first entirely new 'Mech types produced in the Inner Sphere in centuries would have been thrilling.

Commando (MWO Style by Ra-ul)

Commando Light 'Mech

Still, the Commando was a fine machine in its own right, and long a staple of the Lyran armed forces. And if gets us off this planet and gets us paid, Kit thought to herself as she mopped the sweat off her forehead, then like Pascoe said, a Commando is just fine.

Kit raised the walkie and held the transmit button. “So is that thing from the Lyran stay-behind force we’re supposed to find?”

“That’s the only thing we can figure." Keely’s voice came back. “No markings on it, but there’s no reason for a Combine 'Mech to be out here by itself.”

“Why is it here by itself?” Kit asked.

“Maybe all that’s left?” Keely responded. “Maybe the Combine found the rest of the force but this guy got lucky.”

“For a while, anyway." Sterns broke in. The Vindicator pilot’s sarcastic tone was jarring after Keely’s irrepressible cheerfulness.

“What do you mean?” Kit asked with a frown. “Where’s the Lyran pilot, anyway?”

“Come see for yourself." Sterns responded, rotating the Vindicator’s torso and seeming to gesture vaguely towards the canal with the 'Mech’s left arm.

With an annoyed sigh, Kit started walking the hundred meters that separated her from the three 'Mechs. The sweltering sun and obscene humidity made her feel more like she had walked a kilometer by the time she arrived at the feet of the Hermes II and Vindicator.

“So what am I supposed to see?” Kit demanded, peering upwards through the sun at the faceplate of the Vindicator. No response came through the radio of the Vindicator’s external speakers. Sterns merely gestured in the direction of the canal with his 'Mech’s left arm again. Kit walked around the Vindicator to the edge of the artificial riverbank and looked over.

The canal’s depth was a fraction of what it had been during the days the city had been populated, and the water was murky from the acidic rainfall. At the edge of the water, facedown, lay a human form, clad in the boots, shorts, and T-shirt that was the de facto cockpit uniform of MechWarriors. The 'Mech jock lay prone and motionless, the fouled canal water lapping against his face. A chill ran through Kit in spite of the oppressive heat. “Hell." she breathed.

The radio crackled to life again. For once, Keely’s tone approached somber. “We figure he probably got out of the Commando to try to get water from the canal, run it through a portable filter. If he’s been here since the Combine took the world back, he’s probably run out of whatever supply he had a long time ago.”

Kit wrenched her eyes off the dead MechWarrior and started looking for what had killed him. A few meters to her left, there was a chunk missing from the edge of the concrete embankment, ten or twelve inches wide. Looking back down into the canal, Kit saw where the matching chunk had rolled down into the water near the dead 'Mech pilot. In her mind’s eye she could clearly picture what had happened.  He stepped on the cracked spot and that chunk broke off beneath him. He hit his head falling, slid partway down the bank unconscious and… drowned in a few inches of water. Kit shook her head at the sheer randomness of the man’s demise. A trained MechWarrior, probably a very good one even if he was chosen for such a dangerous covert mission. And to die like this…

“Like we said." came Sterns’ voice from the radio. “This guy was lucky… for a while.”

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