Sooner or Later


Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, who'll come a'waltzing Matilda with me...

Red Drake whistled to himself as his UrbanMech ambled through the spaceport city that was the center of civilization on Renfro. It was just a routine walkabout, helping the locals' morale by being a visible presence. Red wasn't known for being the most thoughtful member of the Concrete Dragons; after all, one doesn't get known for brains by being from the Outback, with 140 kilos of farm-built muscle. But Renfro reminded Red a lot of his old homestead, and he was probably the happiest of the Dragons to be on this backwater planet. So he went out of his way with these patrols, trying to make the locals feel better about the tense situation. And as he stopped, bent his UrbanMech and waved to a woman wheeling a baby carriage, Red hoped inside that he wouldn't be letting them down later on.


Back at the Dragons' spaceport hangar home, Ian Sandoval was running through the diagnostics on his newly repaired Valkyrie. He had to admit, the Dragons' techs were good; he hadn't thought they'd be able to finish the job with the Concrete Dragons' limited resources. Using metal machined from that Hatchetman to make the new joint, had been...Ian stopped as a vision of the Hatchetman's late pilot crossed his thoughts, then took a deep breath and pushed her face almost angrily aside. Now was not the time, especially for those kind of memories. With that, Ian walked his Mech out of the hangar, accelerating across the hardpack as he tested the leg's strength with increasing speed and tightening turns. Finally, as the Valk was circling at full speed, it was time for the ultimate test. Ian's feet slammed their pedals to the floor, and the Valk soared into the air. He let it arch high and long, to the full 150-meter range, then came down. He set his jaw in anticipation, resisted the urge to close his eyes as the ground came up to meet his 30-ton war machine. And then a cloud of dust rose, as the Valk landed with a solid WHUMP. The Valk's gyro whined as its legs flexed deep to absorb the impact, held firm, and then automatically straightened to the Valk's full height.

Ian's grin was interrupted by a beep from the comm system. "Practicing for the showjumping circuit, Ian?" Brian Hasek was standing in the hangar door, watching the Valkyrie go through its paces. "We can set up some fences and obstacles if you like."

Ian waved to the young Lieutenant. "Just kicking the tires. Your techs did a fine job." He dashed the Valkyrie across the spaceport hardpack one last time, and skidded to a halt in front of the hangar.

"Of course they did," Brian came back. "They're used to working with the March Militia's limited resources. For them, improvisation is business as usual."

"They should serve you well, then." Ian parked the Valkyrie back in the hangar, and climbed down from the cockpit. He looked his machine over once again, and for the first time, really noticed the urban camo and crushing claw logo that was the Concrete Dragons' scheme.

Brian smiled slightly as he read Ian's mind. "Better than a skull and crossbones, isn't it?"

Ian hesitated before answering. Then finally, firmly, he said, "Yes." He shook himself. "Yes, it is, actually." He looked at Brian. "What's next?"

Brian folded his arms. "Well, essentially, we're waiting. Everything's been set in motion. We just have to see how the pirates react now, if they'll follow our plan. If they don't, we're back to square one."

"And if they do?"

Something in Brian's eyes, or was it in his tone of voice, actually made Ian cringe slightly. "Then our duty will be done." Then Brian seemed to relax, and grinned. "And hopefully, we'll have something better than secondhand UrbanMechs to drive." He looked around and sighed. "Come on," he said finally. "I think you and I need to get some things settled."

Ian fidgeted. "What things?"

"The past," Brian said simply as he walked towards his office. "You and I have a history, Ian. And I know us both well enough that if we let it simmer, it'll just bother us at the wrong time...a time that could be coming very soon." He stopped, then turned and looked at Ian. "So you and I are going to go behind a closed door, and take off our ranks. Then we're going to sit down with a bottle of whiskey between us, and we're going to get the air clear if it takes all bloody night to do it."

Ian hesitated, and Brian cocked an eyebrow over his grin. "That's an order."

Ian tried so hard, but couldn't hold back the laughter. He had tears in his eyes as he slapped Brian on the back and they walked towards his office. "Yes, SIR!"


Angel Fairchild awoke in the middle of the early morning dark with an uneasy feeling. As the only woman in the Concrete Dragons, she was privileged by default to have private quarters. Not that she would have minded sharing the mens' bunk rooms, but her petite, athletic "presence" would have been a big distraction for them. So she lay alone in the dark, listening like a cat for what had awoken her. Reflexively, her hand felt the auto-pistol hanging in its holster by the bed. Then she heard the distant siren, and was instantly moving. She pulled on her pilot's suit without bothering with all the "extra layers"...there wasn't time, and besides, she stayed cooler going commando anyway.

Henry opened the door, and got one really good look at Angel as she zipped up. The older veteran gave no reaction at all; "Showtime," was all he said. Angel grinned a little to herself; Henry was her favorite Dragon to tease, simply because it was such a challenge.

"I heard the siren," Angel said. "What's going on?" She grabbed her gunbelt, strapping it on as they ran for the hangar. She could hear the sounds of Mech engines starting, and other people running and talking at various volumes. Things were clearly developing at a much faster than expected pace.

"Pirates are inbound," Henry said. "Brian's got the brief, such as it is." He paused long enough to light a fresh cigar. "Gonna be a busy night."

The two of them rushed into Brian's office, where he was just hanging up the phone. Red was already there, and Ian came in slightly slower behind Angel and Henry. Outside, the Dragons' techs were running around, starting the Mechs and checking them over. Brian looked around, took a breath, then started the brief as he laid out a map.

"The plan is in motion, but sooner than expected; the pirates decided to drop by a little early. They were spotted on reentry, and it looks like they're coming our way. I can't give you much more than that right now. I just talked with the militia, they're setting up as we speak." He pointed at the map. "They are sending out skirmishers around the perimeter, but are holding back most of their force until they know where the pirates are coming from." He looked around seriously. "Until we see otherwise about the pirates' objectives, our job is to defend this spaceport. We expect this to be their primary target. Understood?"

Amid the chorus of assent, Henry popped a question. "Is our support in place?"

Brian grinned. "Yes."

The other three Dragons looked confused. Angel piped up. "Support from the militia?"

Brian's grin got wider. "And how." He paused, then continued. "Sorry about keeping the secret, but we felt it was necessary. The militia pulled back and centralized some of their support after the last attack. We've got a Thumper battery set up in the cover of
Town Park; if needs be, those guns can hit anywhere in the city. Here at the spaceport, we've got the key points fortified with infantry, and a lance of LRM carriers hidden in the motor pool."

Red let out a low whistle. "Sneaky."

Ian was laughing as shook his head in disbelief. "Brian, I never thought you'd have tricks like that in you."

Angel smiled, and walked over to where Brian was leaning over the map. "Sure, he's got tricks like that." She leaned over the desk to eye level with Brian. "After all, they don't call the Davions foxes for nothing." And she gave him a soft kiss on the cheek and a wink.

Red looked insulted. "Where's mine?"

"Right here," Angel stood on her tiptoes to reach him with her mouth. Henry got a kiss too. She got around to Ian last, who looked utterly shocked. She took hold of his arms with her hands, looking him right in the eyes. "I do this before every battle. If we're gonna die, it's better not to go out wondering, ya know?" The kiss on his lips was gentle and firm, and she gave him a genuine smile. "Welcome to the Dragons."

There was a moment of awkward silence, then Ian finally just stammered, "Thanks."

With that, the little ritual was over. "Mount up," Brian said, and the Dragons ran for their Mechs.

Outside, the lights of the pirate dropships slowly descended over the spaceport's field...