The Turn-S: A Phantom Mech Story (relayed by Bartleby Chun)
A steady breeze blows across the desert where your caravan has set up camp for the night. It's a refreshing change from the heat of the day, and you look up miserably at miserably at your Nine-Ball as you regret opting to spend your meager guard pay on a new sensor suite rather than getting your air conditioner fixed.
Yours isn't the only hulking mech sitting on the sand. Most of you had powered down after sweeping the area for pirates, leaving only a skeleton force patrolling the perimeter of the camp. There was hardly any uniformity among their form or load-out, there wasn't much of that ever unless you worked for the Peacekeepers or were a corporate foot soldier, and much the same could be said for their pilots. But as said pilots file past you toward the land ship from a bite to eat before guard shifts began you notice something. Someone off to the side of camp, an extension cord running down from the cockpit of his mech to a griddle he had set down on the sand. The straggler.
They had spotted him earlier that day, tromping across the desert in a beaten up old turtle mech. The thing looked like it had seen a lifetime of service, its body a patchwork of old damage that had been repaired, then broken, then repaired again ad nauseam until you had to wonder if any of the original machine was still a part of it. He had hailed the captain of the land ship as soon as he had come into view, requesting permission to join the caravan. Thinking he was a pirate (or worse, a leech), the captain had told him to be on his way. But the man was a persuasive and determined haggler, and managed to convince the captain to allow him to trail along behind so that, if he died, they would at least be able to give him a decent burial.
You had found that odd but, seeing the pilot himself, you understood. He was ancient, looking at least as old as his machine. His skin was tanned the deep shade of brown of someone who had worked outside all his life, his bald head and arms riddled with liver spots, and his white beard trailed all the way to the ground though that was because he was hunched over. Yet despite his age he had the aura of a young man, moving slowly but determinedly down the rope ladder from his cockpit, clutching a cooler between his teeth and holding a few provisions under both arms. As he makes it down and deposits his load beside the griddle you reflect that maybe the aura comes from the fact that he's wearing the loudest shirt you have ever seen, a button up splattered with no less than four clashing colors.
As the man pulls a strip of meat for a packed in the cooler and lays it to sizzle on the griddle you take a deep smell and decide that the tasteless nutrient gruel they serve you in the land ship mess hall isn't worth abandoning the cool night air and walk up to greet the old timer.
He looks up and smiles as you approach. He has laughing eyes and is missing two of his front teeth. "Hey there." He says, laying another strip of bacon down to cook.
You go to introduce yourself, but before you can even get started the he's already digging through the cooler. He pulls out a pair of beers and tosses one to you without saying a word. You catch it clumsily and the old man laughs. "Yeah, I know the only reason one of you would come over to see me is to bum some real food or tell me to piss off. I hope that at least bought me enough time to finish my supper."
You plop yourself down across from him and inform him that, ever if you were here to get rid of him, this would have bought him twenty minutes. He reaches across to you and shakes your hand, introducing himself as Bartleby Chun, Junk Hunter.
"It's horrible what they feed you kids nowadays. At least back in my day we got some real meat to go with our slop. Cheap bastards don't even give you that anymore. That's why I work for myself." Chun informs you as he lays another slab of meat down to cook.
You ask if that means he runs around solo in that busted old mech, and the man leans forward and says with mock seriousness. "Hey, don't go making light of Old Bert. He may have his glory years behind him, but he's still got more than enough dakka to deal with any dirty pirate that crosses my path."
You look back up at the old turtle, spying the battery of slug throwers spaced around its head and the huge cannon strapped to its back. You believe him. After all, you don't get to be this old in this business by not being good. You ask how long he's had it and Chun grins.
"Ahhhh, Bert was my first. He's been with me most of my life. We have an understanding, me and him. We keep each other alive." He looks out over your shoulder, at the line of mechs sitting behind you. "What about you, which one of them is yours."
You point out your Nine-Ball with pride, and the old mans face falls. His eyes narrow, and he asks you quietly, "How long have you had that?"
You answer truthfully, that you've only been piloting the Nine Ball for a few weeks after losing your Wulgusk in a pirate raid outside of Dune City. You had considered it a stroke of good fortune to find such a high spec machine at such a low price. Honestly you thought you were being cheated at first, but you'd gone over the Nine Ball with a fine tooth comb and found nothing wrong. It had been a great deal.
Chun just shakes his head. "Once reach New Haven, get rid of that mech. Sell it for scrap, blow it up, anything. I know a mechanic who can set you up with a good deal on some slightly used M-3s, he owes me a favor, but you shouldn't be piloting that thing.
An M-3!? Why would you ever go back to something that crappy? What was this old guy trying to pull?
"Hey now, calm down, calm down." Chun says, putting his hands up. "I'm not trying to play you or anything. Hell, I'll buy that thing off you for twice what you payed for it so long as it means you ain't piloting it?"
What sense does that make? Did the Nine-Ball have some hidden function he didn't know about? What makes it so valuable?
"It ain't a valuable machine kid." He says, looking you square in the eye. "The Nine-Ball's are a cursed series."
You quirk an eyebrow at that. Chun sighs.
"The Nine-Balls weren't the Nine-Balls originally. That's not even the mechs proper name, it's called a KT-12. But back during the great war they were called the Six Ba'al, because there were six of them and they brought destruction wherever they went. They were a terror unit, sent deep behind enemy lines to commit atrocities in civilian centers. Read up on your history and you'll see their fingerprints on things like the massacre a Yin Valley and the dead city of Meredeth. They might even be the ones that snuck the nuke into Terrault Harbor. When they were dug up no one wanted to buy them, so the junker that did it repainted them and flipped the logos upside down. But they're still the Six Ba'al's, you can't change somethings nature with a coat of paint. Their guns go off randomly into your own people. They fall over and crush mechanics. And if you don't sate their bloodlust, they'll get you killed a find someone who will."
He scoops up the meat from the griddle, placing it on a bun he'd pulled from the cooler while telling the story. He adds a layer of a leafy vegetable, some sort of sauce from a jar, and some pickles before handing it to you.
"It's an evil fucking machine." He says as he goes to make his own.
You almost choke on your sandwich, and ask the old man if he seriously believes all that "machine spirit" hoodoo. They were just legends, like phantom mechs or lost colonies.
"I've been with Bert too long, and I've seen too many things, to doubt that there's something in them beyond what we do. Use the same mech long enough, and you'll see it to."
You ask what sort of things. Even if you didn't believe in them, a good story was a way to pass the time on guard duty. A good Phantom Mech could even get you free drinks in most places.
Chun finally cracks open his beer, taking a long draw from it before continuing. "What I'm about to tell you is gods honest truth. It was forty-five years ago, back when me and Bert were new hand in the junker business..."
Re: The Turn-S: A Phantom Mech Story (relayed by Bartleby Chun)
I'd inherited the old boy from my father, Mad Jack Chun, who'd inherited him from from grandfather, who'd inherited him from my great-grandmother, and so on and so forth through the years. Point is, Bert was probably old when he stepped off the assembly line. Most we can figure he was a mobile command center from the war, with all sorts of comfortable rooms and sensor equipment officers could use to survey the battlefield. Over the years that junk got stolen, destroyed, or sold off, until eventually Bert was used for cargo hauling years after the war ended. My father had the bright idea to set aside some space for ammo, and put a big old honking cannon on Bert's back to turn him into a support craft so he could head out with pro Junk hunters out into the pirate controlled badlands. Carry supplies, ammo, and whatever booty they looted while being able to bring down the thunder where needed. That's the configuration I'd got the boy in and, seeing how my pops made an honest living doing that, I figured "why fix what ain't broke?" and headed out that way myself, looking to strike gold in the mountain cycles.
I was around 23, 24 at the time and fell in with a pair of sisters named Margaret and Henrietta Stone, mostly because Margaret's own mech, an old retrofitted Lyger personnel carrier that had been doing my job, had been blown to hell in a previous shootout. I rode with them for a few months before parting ways when Margaret's machine was repaired. Still it got me their number, and half a year later they called me up to talk about a big score.
They'ed found a mountain cycle up near one of those hardy little badlands mining settlements by the name of Olesh. The Miners had uncovered it while digging for coal, and it was a beaut. There were talk that you couldn't see the end of it it went so deep, and the equipment just at the entrance was enough, apiece, to feed an entire family for the rest of their lives. But they can't get all the material out of there. It's either too heavy, to hard too transport, or too deep in. They won't go very deep into the place on account of mountain cycles having automated defenses they can't get past. So Henry figures, we're the close to Olesh. If we go in there, Henry can tear up the defenses and me and Margaret will be able to carry out the choice bits of pre-war tech. I might even get a proper machine to replace poor old and busted Bert, which I was seriously considering at the time.
The three of us shook on it right then and there, and we rolled out into the badlands to be the first to Olesh.