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Tales of the Black Cats - Continuing Ed (Cover)
Tales of the Black Kats: Continuing Education
Author Middcore
Series Name Black Kats Khronicles
Alternate Universe Name
Year Written October 12th, 2021
Story Era Succession War Era


A story featuring the mercenary company, the Black Kats written by Middecore. The company has taken on contract train soldiers in the Free Worlds League's MechWarrior school, Hero Training Institute. This is a side story, set after the events of the Fortunes of War.

Chapter 1[]

Maxwell, The Free Worlds League

Kit Söderlund, CO of the Black Kats mercenary unit, guest Instructor Lieutenant at the Hero Training Institute for the duration of the semester, was suddenly aware that it had been a solid decade since she had been in any kind of classroom. Her parents’ deaths on Galatea when she was fifteen had brought an end to her formal civilian education. From then on she had fully devoted herself to the study of maintaining and repairing BattleMechs, and, under her grandfather’s reluctant tutelage, preparing to hopefully someday pilot one.

Kit had made her dream come true, though it had been a winding and painful path to get there: she was a MechWarrior, in fact she was the leader of her own mercenary unit, although it was a unit with a grand total with a grand total of four BattleMechs in its TO&E. And all of that had brought her here, back to a classroom. Although come to think of it, she observed, I’m pretty sure the civilian secondary schools on Galatea were nicer than this.

Of course, the Hero Training Institute was not known for investing heavily in its facilities - or in much of anything else, really, except for marketing. HTI’s advertising was omnipresent throughout the Inner Sphere, and it worked, because HTI offered those who lacked the skills or connections to get into any other academy a chance at becoming a BattleMech pilot - as long as they had the C-Bills to cover the steep tuition. Kit surveyed the faces filling the stuffy, run-down lecture hall. Who wanted to be a ‘Mech jock? Some of the “cadets” looked like they were hardly old enough to be out of secondary education themselves. Others were older than Kit’s twenty-five years, some significantly so. What walks of life had they come from before blowing their savings on a dream of starting a new career as a MechWarrior with middle age already approaching, she wondered?

Standing in front of the cadets triggered the fight-or-flight response she always had when she found herself the center of attention. A portion of the students looked like they had already pre-emptively tuned her out. Others regarded her with skepticism bordering on outright hostility. A few gazed at her with rapt attention, eager to hear what she had to say. Kit found they were the ones who made her most anxious. Of course, their eagerness might only be because they thought they were about to hear a hair-raising bloody battlefield tale. The cadets’ regular classroom instructor, a harassed-looking man with thinning hair who claimed to have done a stint in the Regulan Hussars, had given the class basically the version of Kit’s history that had briefly made her the #1 curiosity of Galatea’s hiring halls: the tech who had ended up in a ‘Mech cockpit by happenstance and come back as the only survivor of a mercenary outfit on a doomed mission in hostile space. And why shouldn’t he? It was what had gotten her and her tiny, fledgling mercenary unit their jobs as “guest instructors” at HTI for this semester, after all - just the type of holovid-ready story that would appeal to the clientele HTI targeted.

Well, if that’s what they want to hear, she thought to herself, they’re going to be disappointed. There was nothing to be learned by dwelling on the deaths. She had done it enough to know.

She swallowed her nervousness and began. “You may have heard somewhere that the best combat techniques are taught by survivors. Maybe you’ve even heard it from other instructors. I’m here to tell you that’s bullshit.”

In her peripheral version she thought she saw the Regulan instructor wince.

“Before I ever piloted a BattleMech, I learned that who lives and who dies on a battlefield often doesn’t have much to do with who’s the toughest, most skilled fighter.” And the man who taught me that, she remembered, thought the Hero Training Institute was a bad joke. She shook the memory off and continued. “Lots of MechWarriors who were better than me died the day I survived. Hell, they might all have been better than me. I don’t have any advanced maneuvers or tricky tactics.” She could feel the Regulan man’s alarmed glare burning against her cheek.

“But you all paid a lot of money to come here and listen to me talk, apparently." she went on, “And I’m getting paid… well, not nearly that much money to come here and talk to you.” This got a smattering of laughter from the room. Not the worst start. “So here’s what I’ve got. There’s three things I learned from that day when I lived and a lot of others didn’t, and from what I’ve been through since then, that I think might possibly be useful to you someday. Call them the three rules.”

She noticed that some of the hostile-looking trainees now actually seemed to be showing sparks of interest. She took a deep breath and plowed ahead. “The first one is: don’t quit. It’s a cliche but I’m telling you just the same. Nobody plans on quitting. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a quitter.” She looked around the met room and met the gaze of a female trainee who was older than her by a solid decade. “A lot of you wouldn’t be here if you were the type who gave up easily.”

“Commanders, employers, they’ll write you off, give up on you. If you give up on yourself, you’re done. And the man or woman who fights next to you needs to know you’re not going to quit on them, either.” She took a deep breath. “I’m only here talking to you today because of some brave people who didn’t give up on me, even when it would have been a lot easier.”

“The second rule is don’t fight fair. Maybe some of you got here still thinking being a MechWarrior is like being a knight in ten meter tall shining armor. Actually, I think HTI might have used that one on an ad poster.” A few more snickers from around the room. “Well, it’s nothing like that.”

“The fact is, every one of you sitting here is probably already starting at an unfair advantage. What happens the day you come up against somebody who trained at the Nagelring? Or Albion? Or AMI? Or some little lord who’s been driving daddy’s ‘Mech around since the moment he was old enough they didn’t have to worry about him shitting on the seat?” She shook her head. “Face it, you’re the underdog. So get used to the idea of fighting like it. You look for the shortcut, the dirty trick, the low blow. Basically every fight that I’ve won was because I ‘cheated.’” Kit reflected on her short, sordid career on Galatea’s BattleMech gladiator circuit. The cadets would never know just how true that statement was.

“Last rule is this: don’t miss your chance. Whether it’s for a cause or just for credits, there’s a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ in military life. And for sure there are times in combat when waiting the other guy out is the right play. But being passive will get you killed. The wrong decision is usually better than no decision at all. Get off your ass and do something. You wait for things to happen to you, they’re probably going to be bad things. A lot of other shit had to happen after… but I’m here talking to you today because I saw I could take a chance or wait to die, and so…” She shrugged. “I took my chance.”

Kit looked around the lecture hall and tried to assess what impact her words had made. There were troubled expressions on the faces of some of the trainees who had seemed most eager when she started. But even the most unengaged now looked like they had paid attention. She exhaled in relief. I guess that’s about all I can hope for.

“That’s all I’ve got for you.” she said, glancing at the clock on the wall. “So at this point I can try to answer questions… or as far as I’m concerned you can all do whatever the hell you want for the rest of the hour.”

Chapter 2[]

Kit muttered curses in three languages. Her shoulders slumped. I’ve made a terrible mistake, she mocked herself. I should have told them to quit. This is hopeless. She ran her hands through her hair in vexation, finding that the bun she was experimenting with in an effort to project more of the buttoned-down military bearing she imagined a MechWarrior academy instructor should project was coming apart again. Now coppery strands were hanging loose around her ears and forehead, all the more irritating because of Maxwell’s tropical humidity and the fact that none of HTI’s ramshackle facilities seemed to have climate control that functioned properly.

She was seated in a cramped control room overlooking a room about the size of a typical secondary school gymnasium. Most of the floor space was taken up by a company’s worth of BattleMech simulator pods, black ovoids arranged in two parallel rows of six. They were the only simulators HTI possessed, and three of them had been unusable ever since Kit had arrived at the academy for maintenance reasons. Kit had heard that the Inner Sphere’s major military academies had enough simpods to run training scenarios pitting entire battalions against each other. Kit was currently observing a holographic projection of a simulated skirmish between two lances of cadets.

At least, it was supposed to have been a lance-on-lance battle, but one of the ill-maintained pods had abruptly ceased to function even before the first exchange of fire, leaving a frustrated cadet sitting in the dark. There was a storm of protests and appeals from the remainder of the now-shorthanded Blue Team, but Instructor Captain Lobenhofer, the slab of old soldier sitting in the control room next to Kit, was unsympathetic. “Consider it a twist in the scenario." he growled. “Adapt and overcome.”

Perhaps to their credit, Blue Team wasn’t giving up, and the plan they had come up with showed at least some ability for creative tactical thinking. Unfortunately, it was also idiotic. Even Kit, who knew her training under her grandfather’s instruction had been long on “stick and pedal” ‘Mech-handling skills and somewhat short on strategy, could see that much. Kit knew ‘Mechs, knew what different types were good at and what they weren’t good at, and Blue Team was utterly wasting the assets remaining to them.

Warhammer - Repair Bay

Warhammer BattleMech in a Mech Bay.

Of the three Blue ‘Mechs left, the heaviest and most powerful was a Warhammer. The other pair were medium types with mostly short-ranged weapons, a Phoenix Hawk and a Hunchback. The cadet in the pod which had malfunctioned had been piloting a simulated Trebuchet, and so Blue Team had lost their long-range fire support. The environment for the exercise had undulating foothills at either boundary of the battlefield, with a flat plain in between. To do any damage, Blue Team’s pair of medium ‘Mechs would have to get across the expanse.

The solution to the problem Blue Team had devised was to advance across the plain in single file, with their Warhammer in the lead and the Phoenix Hawk and Hunchback following close behind, apparently hoping to let the heavy ‘Mech absorb the brunt of Red Team’s fire until the two mediums could get into effective range. Unfortunately this required the Warhammer to close to a range less than optimal for its own weapons loadout, and the Warhammer’s armor protection was really not sufficient for the seventy-ton machine to simply be used as a shield. The only factors giving Blue Team’s plan a chance of success were the poor quality of Red Team’s gunnery and the fact the Reds had made a bizarre tactical decision of their own by hiding their Dervish in the hills to lob indirect salvos of LRMs relying on spotting from the other Red ‘Mechs. They even found the best way to miss with guided weapons, Kit mused.

The Blues’ Warhammer was still in the fight but mauled by the time it made it across the plain and the Phoenix Hawk and Hunchback broke out of its shadow and charged. Besides the Dervish trying so hard to be a non-factor in the battle, the Red Team lance consisted of a Thunderbolt, a Hermes II, and a Centurion. They started to focus their fire on the Blue Hunchback in a sensible effort to down it before it could bring its massive autocannon into play. Kit watched on the holo as the Hunchback staggered under the Reds’ barrage and responded with an autocannon shot at the edge of the weapon’s range which missed the enemy Centurion cleanly. The Hunchback made it another hundred meters, continuing to lose armor. Then the cadet piloting it, apparently lacking confidence in his ability to fire on the move, brought the ‘Mech to a halt and planted his feet to line up a shot. The AC/20 thundered and the Centurion reeled under the impact of the high-caliber rounds, a moment before the Reds’ concentrated fire found the shells still in the Hunchback’s magazines and turned the ‘Mech into a fireball on the tri-vid feed that lit up the control room. Kit could hear the cadet’s angry curses as his simpod popped open below.

Hunchback (MechCommander)

Hunchback Medium BattleMech

The trainee in the simulated Warhammer was clearly determined to play a greater role in the battle than just serving as a seventy-ton shield and was blazing away with her entire arsenal. The Red Thunderbolt was shedding armor by the ton, but it had plenty to spare, and the Blue trainee was completely disregarding her heat scale. The Warhammer’s movements grew sluggish and Kit knew that vents inside the simulator pod would be punishing the Whammy pilot for her recklessness by pumping in hot air. Defiant, she put another salvo into the Thunderbolt. The Warhammer plodded to a halt, then a load of short-range missile warheads in its right torso cooked off from the heat, destroying half the ‘Mech. The Thunderbolt’s return fire saw to the other half.

Thunderbolt (In Combat by meltdonw14)

Battle scarred Thunderbolt

So that made it a four on one fight. No, Kit corrected herself as she touched controls to adjust her view of the exercise, Three on one. Although she hadn’t seen how he’d done it while she was watching the two heavy 'Mechs slug it out, the cadet in the Phoenix Hawk had somehow taken down the Red Hermes II.

As Kit now focused on the Hawk, it leaped in behind the Thunderbolt with its jump jets, slashing at the stocky heavy ‘Mech’s back with the array of lasers built into its arms. The Thunderbolt started to make a painfully slow, shuffling turn to confront its enemy. Plant your foot! Kit mentally implored the cadet. You have to cut the throttle to zero and plant your foot!

The Hawk carved through the Thunderbolt’s flank with another trident of laser beams. The Thunderbolt swayed drunkenly, then toppled onto its back, and a data feed on the console in front of Kit in the control room told her that the heavy ‘Mech’s gyro had been destroyed. The Phoenix Hawk seemed to regard its fallen foe contemptuously, then took a step closer and fired again, this time directly into the fallen T-Bolt’s cockpit. Status indicators on Kit’s console tagged the Red heavy as officially “destroyed." although it had effectively been out of the fight as soon as it lost its gyro. “Förbannat!” she cursed aloud. Was that necessary? Some sort of pre-existing grudge, maybe?

The Phoenix Hawk paid for its gratuitous cheap shot by absorbing a salvo from the Dervish, which had apparently finally decided to get involved in the fight, and the Red Centurion was approaching fast. The Hawk pilot fired his jump jets… and the holo froze, the Phoenix Hawk hanging suspended in mid air.

Centurion (Winter Forest - Farseen Version)

Centurion Medium 'Mech

“The exercise is over." Lobenhofer barked. “everyone out of the pods, now!” The more senior instructor’s Teutonic features had turned an incandescent shade of pink below his graying blond crew cut. Kit trailed behind him as he stomped down the stairs from the control room to the simulator hall floor where the seven cadets were standing around the pods, shifting uneasily on their feet in shorts, T-shirts, and cooling vests. Some shot accusatory looks at each other, but one - the Phoenix Hawk pilot - stared straight ahead, his face an unreadable mask. Kit recognized him as one of the more hostile faces at the start of her classroom lecture a few days before.

“Tanner!” Lobenhofer shouted. The Phoenix Hawk pilot’s face flinched just a hair and Kit gathered Tanner was the cadet’s name. “We have things to discuss. Everyone else, out! We’ll try to pull some lessons out of this shit show later.” Six of the cadets filed out of the hall, leaving Tanner, Lobenhofer, and Kit standing in silence.

When the older instructor finally spoke it was in a low rumble. “Do you want to tell me what the hell I just saw?”

“I don’t know what you mean, sir.”

“You know exactly what I mean!” Lobenhofer roared. “Why did you fire into Stepnik’s cockpit when he was already out of the fight?”

“It was only a simulation." Tanner replied, then added through gritted teeth: “Sir.”

“Maybe you’ve misunderstood the point of these simulations.” Lobenhofer growled. “You train the way you fight!” Kit thought she saw Tanner’s lip quirk in a hint of a sneer as Lobenhofer recited the ancient military maxim. “You don’t shoot a MechWarrior once his ‘Mech is disabled or he’s given himself up!”

“Why not?” Tanner screamed back in Lobenhofer’s face loud enough that Kit recoiled in surprise, but she was more startled by the look on the cadet’s face. Where before there had been only sullen indifference, there was now rage, a wildness in the eyes. “You want me to treat these mock battles like the real thing? In a real fight, why should someone who was trying to kill you five seconds before get a pass just because he wasn’t good enough to get the job done? Why should he get to say ‘You got me, I’m done’ and then walk away still breathing?”

Lobenhofer absorbed the cadet’s tirade without flinching, but he was turning a deeper shade of purple. Kit was startled again when Tanner suddenly pointed a finger at her. “We all listened to her tell us that the idea of knightly, honorable combat is a bunch of bullshit!”

Lobenhofer’s head swiveled on his thick neck in Kit’s direction, as if the senior instructor had suddenly remembered she was there, and he and the cadet stared at her. She swallowed. “There may not be knights in armor, but there’s still right and wrong.” she managed. “If you were the one on the losing side, in the knocked out ‘Mech… you wouldn’t want it to happen to you.”

Tanner sneered. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to make sure I’m not on the losing side.” Without waiting for a response from her or Lobenhofer, he stalked out of the hall.

Chapter 3[]

The morning had been going so well.

There had been several reasons Kit had been feeling good. First and foremost, she was back in the cockpit of her Vindicator. Piloting a BattleMech - really piloting it, not just shuffling it around a hangar for maintenance, after so many years of dreaming and striving - always brought her satisfaction.

Second, there was the view. Kit had Scandinavian-Terran blood and her upbringing had been on a boreal world far off in Kurita space, and neither agreed with Maxwell’s tropical climate, but she had to admit the planet was beautiful. From HTI’s proving grounds, one of the few flat spaces of any kind on the continent not devoted to farming, you could see picturesque mountain vistas in every direction. Kit was not much for scenery - her brain was more wired to see the genius and unique beauty of mechanical things - but she would have had to be a machine herself not to appreciate what Maxwell had to offer.

Third, there was the company. There were five BattleMechs out on the range this afternoon besides Kit’s Vindicator. Four of them were piloted by trainees getting in some of the precious little real cockpit time that HTI offered students in the handful of ancient ‘Mechs the academy owned. The other was an Enforcer piloted by Ehud “Lefty” Maier, a member of the Black Kats, Kit’s own mercenary unit. Kit didn’t know Maier well yet. She wasn’t sure anyone had ever known the man well. He was from Robinson in the Federated Suns, had served in the Davion military, was vague about the circumstances of his discharge, was quiet except for a habit of occasionally quoting snippets from the Torah that neither Kit nor anyone else except Maier himself usually understood. He was also not, as far as Kit had been able to tell, left-handed or even ambidextrous, which made the nickname he insisted on an oddity. But Kit’s XO, Cedric Smythe, a veteran Davion MechWarrior himself, had surveyed old contacts and given Maier his approval, and that was good enough for Kit. Aside from the fact that it seemed like easy money, this was the main reason Kit had taken the contract with HTI to begin with: when she and the rest of her lance weren’t busy being “guest instructors." they would hopefully have an opportunity to discreetly train together themselves. Kit knew there were areas where she was deficient, and even sitting in on the substandard formal training at HTI offered was better than no formal training at all. Plus, the Enforcer that Maier was piloting had once belonged to a man who hated Kit and made a pretty good effort at murdering her, and she had taken the ‘Mech from him. Seeing it trailing in her wake now, bringing up the rear of the column of trainees brought a smile to her face.

Enforcer (MWO Version)

Enforcer Medium 'Mech

The four cadets were all piloting Chameleons, fifty ton medium ‘Mechs specifically designed centuries ago as training hacks. Kit had read that at humanity’s technological peak during the days of the Star League, there had been models of the Chameleon which could be fitted with bolt-on armor pieces and special electronic spoofers to masquerade as other ‘Mech types for exercises, giving the Chameleon its name, but if there was any academy in the Inner Sphere that still possessed such technology, HTI certainly did not. It was all they could do to keep their Chameleons minimally functional. Kit had taken to filling her spare time, which she had plenty of, by helping out in the repair bays. Many of HTI’s techs - like many of HTI’s instructors - took an approach to their work Kit could only describe as half-assed, but she had struck up a friendship with one young man named Norris who seemed to share her passion for taking things apart and making them work better. As Kit had watched the trainees make their way around the firing range, she noted that the hitch in the gait of one Chameleon piloted by Cadet Devin Tanner had almost disappeared after Kit and Norris had overhauled its hip actuator.

Seeing Tanner’s name on the roster for the exercise had given her pause after his outburst in the simulator run a couple of weeks before, but he had given Kit no reason to complain. His gunnery was even a noticeable notch above the other three trainees, although the Chameleons were only equipped with lasers and short-range machine guns which were pretty much point and shoot.

But now Kit looked at the contrail arcing down over the mountaintops to the east of the firing range and she could feel her good mood starting to slip away.

It was a DropShip, that much was clear. No civilian atmospheric craft left such a large trail. In the weeks since she’d arrived on Maxwell, though, she had never seen any DropShips descending in that direction. Maxwell’s main spaceport, at the capital city of Romanici, was to the southwest of HTI, and the usual traffic pattern carried arrivals nowhere near the eastern peaks.

Of course, she reflected, an attacking force might not be inclined to follow the usual traffic pattern. On the other hand, was there even any room to set down a DropShip to the east if someone wanted to? Kit had found no reason to study a planetary atlas enough to say. Unless they were headed right for the firing range…?

From what Kit knew of Maxwell’s history, the planet had basically never been attacked, at least not in several generations. It had been spared the horrors of the Succession Wars and even pirates had mostly ignored the world despite its position on the Free Worlds League’s Periphery rim, probably because it had no valuable exports to steal. As Kit understood it the most notable thing Maxwell had ever exported (apart from HTI’s half-trained MechWarriors) was famous League politicians. Nevertheless, for some reason Kit assumed she just didn’t have enough formal military strategic training to understand, Maxwell was currently the home base for a veteran FWLM unit, the Second Fusiliers of Oriente.

Kit ordered the column to a halt and switched to the comm frequency for the firing range’s control. “Control, this is Instructor Lieutenant Söderlund. Do you read?”

Silence. Kit tried again and received more silence in response. This by itself was not a cause for alarm, in fact Kit half expected it. Instructor Lieutenant Hutchison was in charge of the range today, and aside from a Scottish accent that Kit strongly suspected was faked to support the woman’s claims about having once been in the Northwind Highlanders, Hutchison’s defining trait was disappearing when she was supposed to be on duty somewhere.

Kit tried once more. “Control, this is Söderlund. Do we have any info on a DropShip coming down over the mountains east of the firing range?” Still no reply.

Kit licked her lips, watched the contrail showing the DropShip’s steady descent, made a decision. To hell with this. She switched back over to the comms frequency for her lance of trainees. “Time to pack it in for the day, people." she said. “Form up behind Instructor Maier and head back to the barn.”

Cadets Almbaugh, Singh, and Clarke chorused acknowledgments and started to turn their Chameleons toward home. Cadet Tanner…

“What?” Tanner exclaimed. “Why?”

Not now, you little… Kit suppressed the curse and forced a patient tone into her voice as she replied. “Because there’s a DropShip that looks like it’s coming down in the foothills to the east of us." she explained, “I don’t know if there’s supposed to be.”

The volume of Tanner’s voice in Kit’s ear made it obvious he was not convinced by this explanation. “But we’re the closest!” he argued. “We should go… you know, check things out!”

You have got be screwing with me, Kit thought. “Listen, Tanner, they’re paying me to bring you four back alive, and bring your ‘Mechs back in one piece, not necessarily in that order of importance. We are not this planet’s garrison. The Fusiliers can deal with this, if there’s anything to deal with. That’s what they’re here for.”

“****** that!” Tanner yelled. “We’ve got fully powered lasers and almost full MG magazines. Didn’t you tell us not to miss our chance?” Kit watched in disbelief as Tanner’s Chameleon lurched into motion and started to walk past her, heading east. She froze, her mind racing. When she had taken this contract, the idea of a mutiny by a glory-hunting cadet had never entered her mind. What could she do?

There was a roar as Maier’s Enforcer leaped skywards with its jump jets. It soared over the column and twisted in mid air to land directly in front of Tanner’s Chameleon, which came to an abrupt, startled halt. Maier brought the heavy autocannon barrel that replaced the Enforcer’s right arm from the elbow down into line with the trainee’s cockpit. “Lieutenant Söderlund has given an order." Maier said, his voice almost placid but with an undercurrent that made the hair on the back of Kit’s neck stand up. “We will RTB.”

“Jävlar!” Kit breathed. Was this really happening?

Hoping her voice projected calm she did not feel, she activated her mic again. “Nobody is going to be… a malfing hero today. Is that understood?”

She sighed with relief when Tanner slowly turned his ‘Mech to fall into line behind the other cadets.

Chapter 4[]

Kit blew out a frustrated sigh. She leaned back against the railing of the repair gantry and mopped the sweat from her forehead, swiping again at loose strands of red-brown hair. She had always found fixing things therapeutic, but now she and Norris had done their work too well. The knee actuator of the Enforcer Maier piloted was functioning smoothly, for the first time since Kit herself had hatched a plan to sabotage it when she had taken the ‘Mech back on Galatea. And that left her with no immediate tasks to occupy her hands and her mind and work off her frustration with the morning’s events.

“You look like you could use one of these.”

Kit looked down to see the owner of the familiar voice that had called out to her. Cedric Smythe had a bottle of beer in each hand and a wry smile on his bearded face. Smythe had been piloting ‘Mechs longer than she had even been working on them. When chance had left her with ownership over a lance’s worth of them, and left Smythe with no ‘Mech of his own and no billet in a unit, she had asked him to be the executive officer of her fledgling mercenary outfit. She might be bringing the hardware, but she knew Smythe brought experience she would badly need to fall back on. “Ordinarily I might say it’s a little early…” he continued in his Davion “Outback” drawl.

“Ordinarily I might say something about drinking in a ‘Mech bay." she replied. “But… ****** it.” She climbed down the gantry and took one of the sweating bottles from Smythe’s hand.

For several moments they sipped in silence. Smythe glanced up at the Enforcer. The fifty ton ‘Mech was humanoid in shape, with a head reminiscent of an infantryman’s riot-control helmet. It had been hastily painted in a blue-gray, tan, and green camouflage appropriate to Maxwell’s terrain, and was adorned with both HTI’s grandiose coat of arms and the Black Kats’ simply-drawn feline crest. Like all of the other ‘Mechs in the hangar, it did not carry the Free Worlds League emblem. Despite being located in Marik space and paying some lip service to training the future defenders of the League, HTI attracted students from all over the Inner Sphere and even the Periphery, and its graduates would likewise probably join any faction or unit willing to give them a chance in a cockpit.

“Figured this is where I’d find you.” Smythe said. He looked up at the Enforcer. “Knee actuator still grinding?”

“Nope. Lefty said it’s flexing nice and smooth, sarge.”

“So that’s not what’s got you pissed.” Smythe rubbed his shaved head and looked down at the ferrocrete floor almost as if he was embarrassed. “Hutchison said something to me, about you gettin’ scared that transport was gonna crash on top of one of your kids and high-tailin’ it off the range.”

“They’re ‘kids’ now, sarge?” Kit said, forcing a smile. “What does that make me?” She sipped her beer and the smile gave way to a scowl. The mystery DropShip had turned out to be a false alarm, a civilian freighter gone off course with engine trouble. Of course, she hadn’t found this out until well after she had marched the four cadets back in from the firing range. She had already heard about it from several of her fellow instructors. Some of the ribbing was good-natured, some of it not. Kit didn’t respect most of the other HTI staff and didn’t care what they thought. That wasn’t what was bothering her.

“Something like that." she said. “What I’m pissed about is that one of the ‘kids’ wanted to go on a death-or-glory solo recon mission for what he thought could be an invading DropShip, and I didn’t know how to stop him. He only changed his mind because Maier was ready to put an autocannon slug through his cockpit.”

“Killin’ the boy does seem like a less-than-ideal way of protectin’ him from unknown dangers.” Smythe observed. “Wouldn’t have been your solution to the problem, if it had come down to it?”

“Hell, I guess I would have tried to blow the leg off his ‘Mech first before I aimed for the cockpit.” Kit said.

Smythe chuckled. “What’s this future holovid hero’s name?”

“Tanner. Same one I told you about from that sim battle, remember? Executed a pilot with a destroyed gyro and then went off in Lobenhofer’s face?” She took another heavy swig of her beer. “Blake’s blood, sarge, there’s something wrong with that kid! I can’t tell if he’s taking things too seriously or not seriously enough... if he really does have hero fantasies, or if he’s just bloodthirsty.”

“I’ve seen the type before.” Smythe said. Then, suddenly turning to stare at her: “Why did you want to be a MechWarrior?”

Kit was surprised, but she had known Smythe long enough to be confident there was a reason for the abrupt question. “I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t want to pilot a ‘Mech. My grandfather did, and I… idolized him, I guess.” She ran her hand through her hair and looked down. “Of course eventually, I saw the real man. Not a flawless hero. Not invulnerable. But by then he had given up everything for my sake. Any way you look at it, he’s the biggest reason I’m here today.”

Smythe nodded understandingly. “So you wanted to pilot a ‘Mech. And nobody who says they want to pilot a ‘Mech means industrial shit, loggers and loaders and so forth.” Smythe said. “So piloting a real ‘Mech means you end up shootin’ at somebody.” He looked her in the eye. “You ever want to kill anybody, though? I mean really wanted to? Wanted them dead?”

She took a sip and thought about that for a moment. “No, I can’t say I have. Not even Terry Laurent, and I’m sure he wanted to kill me.” Laurent was the previous owner of the Enforcer, a member of the mercenary unit where Smythe had been another pilot and Kit had been a tech. Their bad blood had culminated in a gladiatorial duel on Galatea where neither side had fought fairly.

Smythe grunted. “Well, for some, it’s different. Some people are just bloodthirsty. Armies have always recruited crazies, kid, that’s just a fact. In a modern military, a real one, with real training, the idea is to put limits around ‘em. Use their urges constructively, much as such a thing’s possible. Doesn’t always work…” Smythe trailed off and for a second he seemed to be somewhere else. “Anyway." he continued, “In merc outfits, or at places like this… you end up with more guys like Terry Laurent. Or like Tanner, maybe.” Smythe went about his own duties as a guest instructor at HTI professionally, and he understood why Kit had taken the contract, but it was clear he had a low opinion of the institution, and Kit couldn’t argue with what he said. A good percentage of the cadets who “graduated” from HTI would never be anything more than simply useless in a BattleMech, but the reality was that here and there the academy would fan the flames of some natural aptitude and set loose on the Inner Sphere a half-trained borderline psychopath willing to serve any cause that kept him or her at the controls of one of the greatest weapons of war humanity had ever devised.

“What about you, Smitty?” Kit asked, trying to distract herself from this depressing thought. “Why did you want to be a MechWarrior?”

He scratched his bald head and looked down at the floor again. “Aw, hell, kid. For me the military was just a ticket off a world they forgot to put on maps half the time. Knew I’d never be smart enough to by a flyboy, and bein’ a ‘Mech jock seemed less shitty than havin’ your boots in the mud.”

Kit laughed with him and then turned to gaze back up at ‘Mechs looming over them in the hangar, dimly remembering the first time as a child she had looked at a BattleMech in a hangar like this one, towering even higher above her tiny body. “What was it for my grandfather, I wonder? That made him want to do it, I mean?” She frowned when she realized she couldn’t remember ever discussing the topic with him. She knew she wanted to be a MechWarrior, and had never questioned why, so why had never thought to ask him such a question either. “He was in the Combine military for decades. He never went in much for all the samurai bullshit… but I know he did believe every soldier needed to serve some higher authority. To answer to somebody, not just themselves.” She sighed. “Which is why he didn’t think much of mercenaries. And I know from things he said when he saw HTI’s ads back on Galatea he thought this place was a scam.” She took another sip. Her bottle was almost empty and if she kept thinking like this, she was going to need another. “Guess I can’t say he’d be too proud.”

“Don’t get too down on yourself, kid.” Smythe said, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “Whatever the rest of the washouts out here say, in my book you did the right thing takin’ those cadets back to base.” He looked her in the eye. “‘Mech jock, flyboy, ground-pounder… House regiment or two-bit merc outfit, always take care of your people.”

Kit raised her bottle. “I’ll drink to that.”

That night, as Kit thought about their conversation while she lay trying to forget the day’s frustrations and fall asleep in her spartan quarters, she realized she had never asked Smythe if there was anyone he had ever wanted to kill.