Galatea, Lyran Commonwealth
23 May 3038
The Karakum Basin Proving Grounds were located over two hundred kilometres east of Galatean City, and were one of several areas where mercenaries could go to test weapons and-or engage in wargames and military exercises. A unit had to book in advance (or have connections to get a slot at the last minute) and of course there were the inevitable fees, but most mercs found the cost to be more than worth it. There's only so much you can do in a simulator. There's no substitute for the real world.
Alexandra was still looking for a contract, so she decided to make the most of things and reserved time at the base so her unit could get some practical experience working together. The fact that it would be a chance at desert warfare was a bonus since no-one in the group had done it before. Everyone's BattleMechs had been repainted in desert camouflage and they'd attended a Karakum Base lecture on desert survival in case they somehow got stranded out in the Basin outside their rides. Desert survival kits had been placed in all their cockpits.
Hangar Four was a typical BattleMech hangar, made of ferrocrete and reinforced steel, dwarfing the humans inside it. BattleMechs averaged ten meters in height; the support beams of the building's roof were ten meters higher than that. The titanic hangar doors were open, letting in daylight and the desert wind, but could be closed in minutes to seal the place against sandstorms. Everyone was thankful to be in the shaded and much cooler interior; outside the air near the ground shimmered in the heat.
Alexandra adjusted her singlet and body-hugging shorts (both in desert tan) and then tied her pale golden hair in a ponytail. She pulled on her cooling vest and started fastening it up while looking around at her pilots who were making similar preparations. The weapons of a BattleMech produced a tremendous amount of heat, and even with the 'Mech's heat sinks working at full capacity the inside of the cockpit could get very hot indeed in the middle of combat. To counter this, MechWarriors wear very little: a singlet, tank top or t-shirt sometimes even bare-chested a pair of shorts and a pair of rugged combat boots. Alexandra had heard stories of some pilots wearing sandals, but she couldn't believe them. Many also wore bandanas to keep sweat out of their eyes. Over the minimal amount of clothing went a cooling vest. This was covered in tubing that constantly had coolant fluid running though it (the same fluid found in heat sinks) that kept a warrior from overheating.
To pilot a BattleMech required not only skill, training, and plenty of guts, but a neurohelmet. The standard neurohelmet was a heavy, bulky affair that rested on a pilot's shoulders and was wired into the cockpit controls. Some helmets came with their own padded shoulder mounts; others connected to the shoulder pads of a cooling vest. The helmets were heavy because they had to be durable enough to withstand combat. The much lighter ones worn by AgroMech and IndustrialMech drivers could be used, but in combat you'd be gambling with the risk of head trauma.
Or you could be a lucky son of a bitch like Garadun and own a neurohelmet equal to those worn in the days of the Star League. Vintage helmets could be found, but they were exceedingly rare and most MechWarriors never parted with them; not for any amount of money. The exception was the Com Guards, the military branch of ComStar. ComStar had access to vast amounts of lostech, including neurohelmets, and their pilots wore Star League-style helmets that were no bigger than a motorcycle helmet but had far superior neuroreceptors, as well as providing full protection from injury.
Garadun had never been a member of ComStar or the Com Guards. But his father, ah, his father on the other hand, worked at an Earth-based firm that manufactured military-grade BattleMech and aerospace fighter simulators for the Com Guards. Given the nature of their product the company of course had plenty of neurohelmets on site. And like any equipment in any company on any world, stuff breaks. It wears out. It gets misplaced or lost or accidentally thrown away. As the time-honoured saying goes, shit happens.
When he finished his internship with Chameleon Stables, Garadun sent a message to his parents telling them the news, that he was going to be a Solaris gladiator. His father wasn't thrilled with his career choice, not by a long shot, but Garadun was his son and like any proper father he wanted the best for him.
Frank Morr had been with the company for almost thirty years and had a lot of influence; he wasn't an executive, but was a ranking engineer who commanded a great deal of respect. So it wasn't difficult for him to get his hands on a pair of neurohelmets and have them written off as "damaged beyond repair" and send them to his son. Not only the helmets, but Frank also sent him something equally rare: a Com Guard cooling suit. Like the ones worn by the SLDF, the suit was the same as any pilot's jumpsuit; except that it was made from ballistic cloth and fitted with very slim yet incredibly efficient coolant tubing that cooled the entire body, not only the torso. It was lightweight, comfortable, and could stop a rifle calibre round.
Garadun had been overwhelmed by his father's gift. He honoured the generous act by one of his own and gave the second neurohelmet to Cera, his very best friend. There still weren't the proper words to express her gratitude. Apart from her BattleMech the helmet was the most treasured thing she owned. Possibly even more. Shinigami, however much she loved it, could be replaced. The neurohelmet couldn't.
Garadun and Cera were together at the same bench getting prepped. Cera's cooling vest was also an advanced model; not nearly as good as Garadun's jumpsuit, but one that had been designed for the elite MechWarriors of Solaris. It had cost a ridiculous amount of money, but hey, you get what you pay for. The Fusiliers looked at the neurohelmets on their bench with no small amount of envy, to say nothing of the cooling suit Garadun had on. A name tape reading MORR was on the left breast; on the right he still had his Chameleon Stables patch. In addition, both warriors had sidearms slung on their hips: Cera her sleek and deadly laser, Garadun his big heavy auto pistol.
Alexandra watched the pair curiously. Normally they were always joking around, having fun. Yet now they were much more subdued. Not in bad spirits, but getting ready with quiet professionalism; checking each other's gear, talking softly in short sentences. They had their "games faces" on as Garadun put it. It wasn't simply the parameters of today's exercise. Alexandra knew she was seeing them in battle mode. Cera had drawn her silky brown-black hair tight against her skull in a slim ponytail, and Garadun had his hair freshly cut. Like many 'Mech jocks he normally kept his extremely short for better neuro reception (and for the simple benefit of low maintenance). In his case a zero setting on the hair trimmer; just a fuzz. Cut that short it was difficult to notice the ever-increasing grey in his dark brown hair.
"All right, everyone, your attention please," said Alexandra, raising her voice, and she was glad to see her warriors give her their full attention.
"First of all, I'd like to say how happy I am that in a little while the Fighting Fusiliers will begin their very first live training exercise," she said and everyone burst into sudden applause, hooting and cheering and whistling. Alexandra couldn't stop the smile that spread across her beautiful face.
"Fusiliers Forever!" Ian cried, throwing his fists above his head. Sayuki whooped and yelled something in Japanese Alexandra didn't understand, but she got the sentiment.
"Thank you, Ian. Thanks, everyone," she said and took a breath. "All right. Today's first exercise. As you know, our energy weapons have been powered down to a fraction of their strength and our BattleMechs have been equipped with sensors to record hits. Your computers will analyse any strikes and log and assess 'damage.' If the computer thinks something should stop working, it will shut down that piece of equipment. For those of us with missile systems"
"Which is everyone except me, Marie and Sun-Lao," Garadun interjected.
"Yes, thank you
those systems will be firing special non-explosive rounds that will bounce harmlessly off armour to provide extra realism."
"That's fantastic," said Laura with a big grin.
"Those equipped with autocannons will be firing paint rounds. Red for Cera, blue for Garadun, violet for Sayuki and green for Sun-Lao."
"Nice," said Sun-Lao, nodding happily.
"It would have been less expensive and simpler to just go with targeting lasers and computers, but I wanted to make our first exercise as close to real combat as possible."
Marie held up her hand. "What is the exercise, exactly?"
"I have two planned for today," Alexandra replied, which got everyone's interest. "The first scenario will be a hunt-and-evade mission; one I worked out with Garadun and Cera, our most experienced members."
Everyone looked at them and Cera beamed, her eyes alight with mischief.
"They'll head out into the Basin and go to ground. Our task will be to find them. They will do their best to evade us. We, the hunters, will split into two lances of three. Blue team will be myself, Sun-Lao and Marie. Red team will be Ian, Sayuki and Laura."
Laura put up her hand. "What happens when we find them? Is this"
"If you find us," Garadun corrected.
"Is this just hide and seek?"
"No. If you find them, you'll engage and attempt to 'destroy' them," said Alexandra.
"Oh man, we're dead," Ian muttered, putting his hand over his eyes.
Sun-Lao looked at him. "Why's that?"
"Because these two nutjobs have been blowing 'up Mechs on Solaris for four years, that's why," Ian explained, gesturing. "As a team."
Sun-Lao, Laura and Marie turned their heads to look at their new colleagues with a mix of curiosity, respect and wariness. Cera gave them a cheesy grin.
"If they aren't found within the defined area in three hours, we rendezvous back here. There'll be a prize for the team who finds them first," Alexandra added.
"What about us?" Garadun asked.
"I don't understand."
"What if we find you? Ambush you and take you out."
"Do we get the prize then?" said Cera eagerly.
"Your goal is supposed to be one of evasion."
The two partners shared a look that held a lot of meaning, at least for them. Alexandra had a sneaking suspicion they were up to something. They often were.
"Any other questions?" Alexandra asked. "All right. Now then, once the exercise is finished and we've returned to base, everyone will have two hours to rest, shower, and have some lunch. Then we'll head back out for lance-to-lance combat, Command versus Battle. We may mix up the members of each lance. We'll see how it goes."
"How long will we be out there?" Sayuki asked.
"Well, I've booked our sector for the entire day, but"
"Why not make it a real competition?" The loud call echoed through the hangar and everyone turned to see a group of about a half-dozen soldiers walking towards them. They were clearly MechWarriors, wearing identical tan fatigues and white t-shirts. A couple of them had holstered sidearms. They were all men except for one woman with short-cropped auburn hair. She was as physically fit as her comrades.
"Excuse me, who are you?" Alexandra asked suspiciously. Behind her, Garadun and Cera stepped apart and casually unsnapped their holsters.
"Captain Mars Devries, Commander of Second Company, Kentares Legionnaires," said the leader of the group, a handsome black man with a shaved head. He gave her an open-handed salute. As the newcomers came closer, the Fusiliers could see a stylised "KL" logo over the Davion sun and sword on their t-shirts. All of them had spurs on their boots, the rowels blunted.
"Baroness Alexandra Grosvenor, Commander of the Fighting Fusiliers," she said, returning the salute. "What're you doing here, Captain? The Fusiliers have the Karakum Basin booked for today."
"The east sector, yes," he said. "Not the west."
"I see. And?"
"And since both our units are here," he said with a friendly wave of his arm, "perhaps you'd be interested in squaring off against one another? More challenging for everyone involved. My company against yours."
"Your full company versus my two lances?"
"That sounds fair," said Garadun, sarcastically.
"What's the matter, Morr? Not up for a fight with real warriors?"
Even in the middle of the desert you could feel the temperature drop. Stepping up beside Captain Devries from the back of his group was a sneering, swaggering soldier with short sandy hair, grey eyes and a long scar on the left side of his face, from just below his eye down to his chin. Cera grabbed Garadun's arm as he went for his gun, but her expression displayed an equal amount of loathing.
"Daniels," said Garadun, making the name a curse.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Cera demanded.
"See you still got your Combine whore with you," said Daniels, and in the space of a heartbeat Garadun and Cera had drawn their guns and had them aimed at Daniels, who ducked and started to go for his own weapon.
"Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" yelled Captain Devries, jumping between the combatants and waving his arms. Alexandra hurriedly tried to get her friends to lower their weapons, pulling on their arms.
"Garadun! Cera! What are you doing?"
"Call her that again, you scumbag!" Garadun yelled, still trying to get a clear line of sight. "Come on, you little shit! Gimme an effing excuse! Come on!"
"Drac lover," Daniels spat as his comrades held him. He glared at Sayuki. "Oh look, another Snake bitch. You doing that one, Morr, or she queer too?"
This time it was Sun-Lao and Laura holding back Ian to stop him from leaping across the intervening space and tearing Daniels' head off.
"I'll smash your bloody face in!" Ian bellowed.
"Oh yeah, pretty boy? Who you think you are, Drac lover?"
"Edward Ian Davion of Salem, that's who," said Alexandra, stepping in front of the struggling Ian. There were gasps from the Legionnaires.
"A Davion?" said Captain Devries in shock. "With a Drac?"
"Sayuki's my girlfriend. You got a problem with that, Devries?"
"Kentares Legionnaires," Garadun snarled. "Yeah, that figures. Draconis March. Who else would hire a mindless bigot like Daniels? 'Remember Kentares!' Stupid shits, the Massacre was three hundred years ago! But oh no, every single person in the Combine or of Japanese heritage anywhere in the galaxy is to blame, right? Forever and ever."
"Snake lover!" said Daniels and his comrades were now looking hostile as well.
"Is that true, Captain?" said Alexandra angrily.
"We'll never forget the Massacre, yes," said Devries, first staring coldly at Cera and Sayuki, and then at Ian with disapproval.
"You'd best go, Captain. Forget any joint exercise."
"Cowards," said Daniels. "Cowards and Drac lovers."
"Bring it, asshole," said Garadun, stepping forward. "Come on, you gutless punk. How 'bout we settle this once and for all? Right now. You and me."
"Gladly, you worthless Terran trash."
"Full-on live ammo, Daniels, just like on Solaris," Garadun added with an evil smile. "None of this paintball crap. You and me, a real duel."
"You got it, Morr," Daniels hissed. "You're dead meat."
Garadun stared at Captain Devries, and Devries actually took a step back when he saw the look in the man's eyes. He'd never seen anything like it before.
"Better find a replacement, Devries," said Garadun and holstered his pistol. "'Cause I'm gonna kill that little bastard."