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Charles Maxwell

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Charles Maxwell last won the day on October 12

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  1. I hated being outnumbered and outgunned. Although the arsenal of weapons carried between Hayes, Weyland, Harlow, Jenkins, and myself provided ample firepower to quell most of the situations we could expect to encounter aboard the freighter at this point, the fact of the matter was, we weren't doing anything that a squad of Capellan soldiers couldn't just as easily handle with far more brutal efficiency than our ragtag group of mismatched and under-qualified commandos could hope to muster. CCAF troops were trained to be cold, calculating, killing machines - infantry in the purest sense - and while I had no doubt that Steve and Nathan were exactly that when behind the controls of BattleMechs, their training as infantrymen was only designed as a fallback in case things went horribly wrong with their war machines. Even I wasn't the young buck I had once been - while I could certainly still hold my own in a brawl, I much preferred the safety and security of being behind the controls of a hundred tons' worth of ferrosteel and high-caliber weaponry to the near-naked feeling of wearing only a combat spacesuit for protection and hoping that the frame of the security robot I was covering behind would prove adequate against any hostile fire I might encounter. The troops we were now facing aboard the Hurry Up Bessie were dropping like flies. Their security robots had been the first to fall. Bereft of the ability to even disengage the safeties on their weapons while facing targets that, to them, registered as friendly, they were quickly cut apart by the combined-arms barrage we threw at them. The infantry holding down the corridor were swiftly felled after that, though they'd managed to inflict a fair amount of damage on the robot I piloted; one of its two machine guns had been wrought free from its mount, and a series of well-placed shots into its left tread had restricted its locomotion. I also bore the scars of several close calls - in addition to the demise of my helmet, I had two nasty flesh wounds on my left bicep from bullets that narrowly missed me, as well as innumerable other cuts and scrapes from shrapnel and various other projectiles. As I strafed the surviving Capellans with the security robot's remaining cannon, I saw Major Hayes ascend the ramp to the cargo hold. Somehow, in the midst of the unfolding mayhem, he'd managed to break through the enemy lines and cross the antechamber with Nathan Schmidt still on his shoulder, taking out a pair of hostile soldiers with nothing more than an oversized hunting knife in the process. A few moments later, as Hayes reached Jenkins and Kauffman, an infantryman attempted to ambush the Major from behind, only to end up being suddenly and unexpectedly shot to death by an abruptly-awake Nathan. The explosion of violence created a distraction for the remaining entrenched forces - one that Bishop and I used to our advantage, taking out the final Capellans just as my security robot's ammunition ran out. A single straggler managed to avoid the final firestorm, but didn't surrender. As he continued to open fire on us, I quickly drew my laser rifle, shoved its output to the maximum setting, and fired off a single burst directly into the soldier's center of mass. The Capellan dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes, a smoldering hole cored in his chest. I quickly disembarked the robot and floated toward the fallen guard, muttering a halfhearted platitude at his corpse before reaching down and snatching a herbal cigarette from his uniform pocket. It was no Arturo Fuente Opus X, but it smoked. And that's all I gave a crap about at the moment. I plucked his lighter - a heavy, quality construct engraved with the emblem of House Liao - from his shirt pocket, and used it to set the cigarette alight. Inhaling deeply, an intoxicating mix of vapors raced through my respiratory system. I closed my eyes, holding my breath for several seconds, exhaling a blossom of smoke at length as a familiar calm came across my body. I felt my muscles relax, my posture straighten, and a surge of energy as my brain released massive amounts of dopamine into my nervous system. After a moment, I turned toward Bishop and Nikki. "Nice work, both of you. I think it's safe to say that we're rid of our Capellan problem," I smiled grimly. Without replying, the Skinwalker made a pained face and reached down to a sealed pouch on his hip, pulling out a small auto-injector filled with a neon blue fluid. Thumbing the cap off, the Lieutenant plunged the syringe deep into exposed traps at the base of his neck. Closing his eyes, he paused as the concoction took effect. In seconds, it appeared that his energy returned and the pain melted away; Weyland transitioning from deeply concerned and strung out to relaxed and clearheaded. Tossing the auto-injector on a pile of dead soldiers, the hulking veteran turned back toward me, his eyes locking with mine momentarily, carrying with them an expression of guilt. Before I could offer a reply, Harlow spoke. "Not exactly all of the Capellan problems are solved, Captain Maxwell," Harlow advised. "Doctors Wen and Tao are still unaccounted-for. I'm not entirely sure whose side they're on, but they could prove...problematic...if they're still at large and my suspicions are correct." "Damn. One problem runs straight into the next," I replied. I took a long drag from the cigar before tossing the unfinished remains in the direction of the carnage we'd wrought. The cigar somersaulted through the zero-g environment, colliding with several bulkheads and giving off a cascade of sparks. I exhaled heavily, sending smoke rings wafting lazily across the expanse, and shouldered my laser rifle. "Where might they be?"
  2. Simultaneously... A flurry of concerned and frenzied shouts, in a language unfamiliar to me, echoed through the corridor as the pressure door slowly rose. I steeled myself, attempting as best I could to shield my physical profile behind the frame of the security robot. Based on our previous encounter with the Capellans, I knew that this time, there would be no talking. No negotiation. There would be only violence. With my free hand, I released the safety on the cover device I'd had cooking in the palm of my hand, casting it forward forcibly with an underhand throw. The grenade tumbled end-over-end in the weightless environment, beginning to discharge thick clouds of deep blue, cordite-scented smoke as it spiraled toward the Capellans, filling the compartment with a heavy, ominous haze. The status indicator to the right of the emergency bulkhad winked from a ruby red to a golden yellow, an indication that the door had reached the halfway mark. "That's it, Captain! Let's do this!" Bishop called out. "Wait!" I exclaimed. "We don't know who's in that crowd. We can't fire indiscriminately until we know for sure that Jenkins and Kauffman aren't being held by them." "With all due respect, sir, if we don't shoot first - " Bishop replied. "Just give me three seconds. That's all I need. Three seconds," I answered, pulling my Hawk Eagle from its holster and quickly bracing it on the security robot's shoulder. Staring down the handgun's sights, I toggled on the night vision mode, the view through the crosshairs flaring into an overexposed green. The enhanced optics allowed me to see through the smoke, providing a thermal image of the opposing force. I was looking for anyone not kitted out up to their eyeballs in combat gear. "Three!" Lieutenant Weyland exclaimed. I strained to see underneath the elevating bulkhead. I saw treads - three sets of them - and seven - make that eight - pairs of feet, more than we'd been led to believe would be there. The treads were obviously security robots. The footwear, and the equipment above it, didn't match anything in our inventory, but I had to be sure. "Two!" Bishop announced. The bulkhead rose past the three-quarters mark. The enemy OpFor came into full view. An octuple force of Capellan soliders, outfit in combat helmets, body armor, and bedecked with weapons that looked like they were decidedly unsafe to operate aboard a spacecraft came into view. I frantically scanned the crowd. No sign of Jenkins or Kauffman. "One!" Weyland cried out. "Hit it," I confirmed. The scream of our commandeered security robots' four machine guns filled the corridor as the bulkhead tucked into the ceiling with a thunderous rumble, the lift indicator flashing to green, casting an eerie pall through the thickening blue smoke. A mass of targeting lasers lanced out from the positions of the entrenched Capellans as they attempted to sight their assailants, a crescendo of weapons fire and muzzle flashes answering our attack, sending myriad bullets from mistargeted shots pingponging off the ship's bulkheads. I pushed the security robot steadily forward, making every effort to attack the Capellans' war machines first, unconvinced that they wouldn't find a way to override the automatons' failsafes and turn them on us. As I did so, a sudden glancing blow from a laser rifle shot cored into the left side of my helmet, splitting it open, narrowly missing my head, and filling the inside of the protective gear with the overpowering smell of burning plastics and components. "Flyboy! Are you alright?" a voice cried out. It was Captain Harlow, advancing toward my position, her words punctuated by a resounding 'boom' of her handgun sending a high-caliber round downrange and the resultant scream of a Capellan receiving it. "Just peachy," I replied, tearing my helmet off and casting it aside. "I think I lost a few hairs off the side of my head, that's all." "Good. I mean, I wouldn't want you to die before I had the chance to send you the bill for the damages," Nikki answered back sarcastically. "It's wonderful to know that you care," I chuckled, regaining control of my security robot's guns and sweeping them across the chest of the nearest Capellan automaton. The shots must have hit something critical - perhaps an ammo bin - for the next thing I knew, triple blossoms of flame erupted from the head and arms of the machine, blowing its center of mass apart and sending several Capellan soldiers diving for cover. At the same time, three more men were cut down as Bishop's robot found its mark in the crowd. We'd drawn first blood. The fight was on.
  3. Approximately twenty minutes later... "Well, this would have been a goddamned fair sight easier if our electronics whiz kid wasn't KO'd, but I think we're ready," Bishop announced, slamming the rear access panels of the two still-serviceable security robots. "Here, Cap. This one's yours. Go easy on the controls. It's basically held together with chewing gum and duct tape, neither of which is a metaphor." I nodded, taking one of the two data pads from Bishop. A tendril of cables snaked from its input port, entering the back of the armored platform in a spider web of connections. "How is he, Major?" I asked, glancing toward Hayes, who knelt beside Nathan Schmidt, resting a gentle hand on his prone body to keep him from drifting away in the weightlessness. "Well, he hasn't gotten any worse -- if anything, it seems like his vitals are on the rise. It's the damndest thing. I can't explain it. It's honestly the only reason I haven't called down a medevac yet," the Major replied. "He's still out cold, though, and he feels like he has a high-grade fever, which doesn't make any sense." "Alright - when we go in, I think you should hang back and let me and Bishop go into this meat grinder...er...into this engagement first," I recommended. "That doesn't feel right," the Major replied. "I think I ought to secure Nathan and be on the front line with the two of you. I can't hang behind cover while you're getting shot at." "We're going to need Captain Harlow up with us to override the door, and her crew needs someone to look after them. I suspect that the Capellans are not going to discriminate when they figure out that the crew is no longer on their side," I explained. "You're making one hell of an assumption about whose side we're on, flyboy," Nikki interjected. "So far, both you and the Capellans have taken shots at us." "Point taken, and I'd consider it a kindness if you'd wait to pass judgement on us until we can get you into Cargo Bay One," I chuckled. "In fact, I was about to recommend that the Major take point to cover your crew and Nathan while we're making the frontal assault." "That I can do," Major Hayes nodded. "But I need you to know that when we get to Kauffman, assuming that he's in there, I may have to switch out with one of you guys depending on what condition he's in." "What do you mean?" I asked. Hayes looked slightly aloof as he considered his answer. "William's very selective in whom he places absolute trust," Hayes began, "and for reasons I still can't fully explain, he's identified me as that individual. I'm the only one who knows the full extent of his augmentation and his medical needs. And depending on what they've done to him, I may need to intervene before we can move him." I raised an eyebrow. "You're a doctor?" "No, I'm a soldier. I just happen to know a few parlor tricks when it comes to science and medicine. Enough to satisfy my boss, evidently," the Major answered. "And hopefully enough to help Nathan pull through until we can get the hell out of here. To be honest with you, I'm surprised that we haven't seen hide nor hair of the Capellans since we came back over here." "They can't do much with a blast door in their way," Harlow advised. "I'd be content to leave them there, too, except for the small detail of your man being in there." "Two of our men, actually," I clarified. "We sent Private Jenkins up through the air duct earlier to take out the network repeaters between our location and Cargo Bay One, and then infiltrate it to see if he could locate William. We haven't heard from him, and we can't raise him on the radio, but presumably, he succeeded in both destroying the access points and reaching the cargo bay. The robots suddenly got a lot less accurate with their marksmanship, and he pulled the pin on the EMP device." "He tore up my repeaters?" James, one of the freighter's crew, asked with horror. "That would seem to be the case," Major Hayes offered. "And you are?" James asked. "Hayes, James Hayes, Crayven Corporation," the Major answered. "Oh my god. We have the same first name," James abruptly gushed. "It's like we're the same person." Major Hayes looked quizzically at James for a moment, fumbling for a response. "Not...exactly?" "In that case, I'm sending you the bill for that repair, too," Nikki answered, pointing at the Major. "Because this James doesn't have any money." "Only because you refuse to give me a raise!" James exclaimed. Suddenly, the gravelly baritone of Bishop Weyland interrupted the conversation. "With all due respect, I don't mean to get in the way of anyone's bonding, but we should probably get these things into position and get this party started before the Capellans get the drop on us," the Lieutenant advised. "Assuming you're ready to move out, sir." I nodded. "Agreed. Let's roll." ### Driving the robots down the hall with jury-rigged datapads had proven more challenging than I'd assumed. Bereft of CPUs, the robots were unwieldy and tended to navigate unpredictably, their motivators and balance units no longer communicating with each other. I silently hoped that we'd have better results with the guns when the time came. I rolled my automaton into place directly against the blast door as Bishop did the same. Behind us, Nikki Harlow took up position at an override console tucked behind a sliding utility door built into the ship's bulkhead. Flanking her were Major Hayes, James, and Colleen, taking a defensive posture around Nathan. "You ladies and gents ready?" I asked, arming the robot's weapons. I heard a flurry of weapons being drawn and chambered in response. "We're ready," Major Hayes replied. "Alright," I nodded. "Captain Harlow - if you would, please do your thing."
  4. Elsewhere... "You know, your antics are going to cost me a shit load of money," Captain Harlow grumbled as she, Bishop, and I moved down the corridor toward Cargo Bay One, weapons at the ready. Behind us, Major Hayes ferried an unconscious Nathan Schmidt in his arms as the other two civilians, a man named 'James' and a woman named 'Colleen,' brought up the rear. "You'd rather get paid for delivering an abductee into the hands of the Capellans than take the moral high ground?" I asked, my gaze locked straight ahead, senses on high alert. "I'm not talking about that," the captain answered. "In case you hadn't noticed, we've got a cargo bay full of livestock. I was scheduled to unload it at the planet along with the abductee." "Well," I countered, "you still might make that rendezvous." "In case you hadn't noticed," Nikki repeated, "I also now have a cargo bay full of dead government-issue Capellans. I don't think I'm getting paid." We rounded a Y-shaped junction, sweeping and clearing all three points of the intersection before continuing down one of its arteries. "Well, maybe the Crayven Corporation would be willing to cover some of your expenses in appreciation for aiding in the rescue," I speculated. "I wouldn't count on it," Harlow responded, dubiously. "I've seen the pay for humanitarian aid contracts. Peanuts. No one's going to be paying a king's ransom for someone who got snatched up for organ harvesting or whatever." "He's not just any abductee," I explained. "He's William Kauffman, the Crayven Corporation's founder and CEO." "Oh," the captain replied. "Well, in that case..." The distant sound of voices and machinery caught my ear. Simultaneously, Bishop drew to an abrupt halt, silently raising his hand to stop the group. "Captain Maxwell; Captain...uhh - " Bishop began. "Just call me Nikki," Harlow replied. "Nikki - do you hear that?" the Lieutenant asked. Nikki and I nodded quietly in reply. "Do you have crew in any of these sections?" I asked. "Not at the moment," Nikki answered with concern. "This corridor leads directly to Cargo Bay One. That intersection we just crossed through leads to the crew quarters, the mess hall, and the bridge. The Capellans have kept a detachment in rotation in the cargo bay throughout the trip, but I would have expected them to be out here, what with all the commotion you people have been causing. And something else seems off..." Without further comment, Harlow pressed forward with us in tow, leading us down the passageway until we reached a closed hatch. There, she slowly teased the door open, weapon raised in preparation for an ambush, leaning forward to peer into the low light beyond. "Goddamn it..." Nikki whispered. "What is it?" Bishop asked. "They've dropped the emergency bulkhead, and they've got their troops on the other side. We're not getting through this way," Captain Harlow explained. "They're planning something." "What makes you say that?" Major Hayes interjected. "I've had Doctor Wen and Doctor Tao onboard long enough to come to know two things about them. One: they're a couple of assholes," Nikki retorted, dryly. "And two?" I asked. "They're definitely not to be trusted." the captain continued. "Alright," Major Hayes nodded, "I'm open to suggestions. Bishop, you're our strategic operations man. I can only assume those gears in your head are already turning. How do we get past a blast door fortified by - how many Capellans are on board, Captain Harlow?" "I'm estimating they're down to six or seven out of the twenty on board. They've also maintained a number of security robots. I can't be sure, but I think they have eight total of those, divided into two lances. You guys wiped out about half of them." "...fortified by four security robots and seven soldiers with just our group and no backup?" the Major continued. "Well, we could probably just order the bridge to lift the blast door and let us get massacred," I replied with a chuckle. Hayes raised an eyebrow. "Mr. Weyland? Captain Harlow? Thoughts?" the Major asked.
  5. Bursts of gunfire, intermingled with the frenzied shouts of the Capellans, echoed through the cavernous corridor of the freighter as Major Hayes, Lieutenant Weyland, and I attempted to press forward into its smoke-filled shadowy depths. A distant series of thunderous footsteps and the heavy clang of an emergency bulkhead closing reverberated through the air, causing me to instinctively clench tighter onto the handholds of my laser rifle. "Sounds like the party's still in full swing." I muttered, clinging tightly to the corridor's inner wall as Hayes and I drew nearer to the warehouse's main storeroom. The Major nodded, brandishing his rifle and pushing its power level up, peering down its scope at the embattled end of the hall. "Stun's not cutting the mustard with these guys. Go hot if you need to, but watch your aim around the civilians," Hayes radioed. "Acknowledged," I replied. "Alpha-2 to Alpha-3 and Alpha-4, are you direct on that traffic?" "Alpha-3, acknowledged," Bishop replied. A heavy blast of machine gun fire and the thunderous detonation of a security robot exploding punctuated his words. "Much better," the Lieutenant added. "Alpha-4, do you copy?" I repeated. There came no reply from Nathan Schmidt. "Alpha units; anyone got eyes on Alpha-4?" I asked. I made my way to crouch alongside Bishop. Though my view was partially obstructed by several massive shipping crates parked along lengths of the passageway, combined with heavy clouds of smoke from the incendiary devices being thrown by both sides of the conflict, there was no question as to the lethal nature of the force we were facing. At least six Capellans remained in plain sight, along with their two surviving robotic guards, which squared with the number of confirmed hits we'd made thus far. The automatons showed signs of extensive damage, heavily ravaged in what had to have been a previous engagement. Further back in the formation, I could make out the silhouettes of several other individuals who didn't seem to be carrying themselves with a military bearing; likely the civilian compliment of the squad. They seemed to be fortified behind an oversized air recirculator, slinging sporadic barrages of weapons fire from their location. "Alpha-1, I have a head count; there's three civilians, six Capellans, and two robots. No sign of Alpha- " I began. Suddenly, my eyes caught sight of Schmidt, descending from the ceiling along a bulkhead in the zero-gravity environment, perilously close to the front line. "Alpha-1, I see him!" I called out. "Alpha-2 to Alpha-4, what are you doing? You're a wide open target at that distance. Fall back. I repeat: fall back." My words caught in my throat as I watched Nathan, apparently oblivious to the situation, push off the bulkhead and drop to the corridor floor behind the air recirculator. "Goddamn it," I hissed. I dialed in the zoom of my rifle's scope, attempting to track the situation as best as I could from my entrenched position. As I watched, one of the robots pivoted aggressively to face the location where Nathan had fallen. Simultaneously, a civilian raised a firearm, pointing it at something outside of my view. "Alpha-1, I'm pretty sure they've got Alpha-4. I saw him come off the ceiling and fall behind the OpFor's position. I have no idea what he was doing. Looks like they may have just noticed. I'm going to try to get a bead on the tangoes behind that HVAC unit and stun them." "Copy that, I'll do the same," Major Hayes replied. I leveled my rifle's crosshairs on the head of the woman brandishing her firearm. Taking a deep breath, I wrapped my finger around the weapon's trigger, and began to pull. A tremendous boom exploded through the corridor as I did so, the laser rifle's shot flying wide as I reacted with surprise to the unexpected sound. Then, I saw it. Nathan Schmidt's body tumbled through the weightless environment, a continuous spurt of blood following in his wake, crimson orbs of plasma ejecting from his chest and slowly dissipating outward in all directions. My eyes followed the horrific scene as the young man's form collided gracelessly with the bulkhead opposite the fortified civilians and slowly drifted toward the floor. "Alpha-2 to Alpha-1: Alpha-4 is down! I repeat - Alpha-4 is down!" I called out. "GSW, center of mass, unsure of his status, but there's a lot of blood. We need to - " Without warning, the lights in the corridor flickered and then went out. Darkness crashed down around us like a heavy, stifling blanket. My spacesuit's life support systems, onboard electronics, and communications became unresponsive. The small status indicators and power light built into the laser rifle cradled in my hands faded to black. A momentary silence fell across the corridor. What the hell? I thought to myself. A quick check of my gear revealed that every piece of electronic equipment on my person was dead. Somebody must have dumped one hell of an EMP device, I concluded. Cautiously, I disengaged my helmet's seal. A rush of smoky air assaulted my senses, mixed with the smell of spent gunpowder. A cacophony of confused shouts echoed from the enemy position; whatever had just taken place apparently was unplanned by both sides. I wasn't sure where Major Hayes or Lieutenant Weyland were relative to my own position, nor did I dare call out to them for fear of exposing us. Instead, I quickly pulled myself laterally along the deck, trying to get to what I believed to be Schmidt's last position. As I did so, an abrupt, thunderous, relentless barrage of high-caliber gunfire exploded from behind me, molten-hot rounds whipping through the air to impact soft targets on the far end of the corridor with a series of wet thuds. I twisted my head toward the source of the assault; in the darkness, I could just make out Bishop Weyland's form powering fearlessly forward, storming the momentarily distracted Capellans and their disabled robots, the Lieutenant's face cast in haunting shadows by the muzzle flashes of his own weapon. Apparently undeterred by the blackout, Weyland was now capitalizing on the tactical advantage to whittle down our adversaries with deadly precision. With the entire OpFor momentarily preoccupied, I knew that this was my opportunity to get to Nathan. Shouldering my now-useless laser rifle, I unholstered my hip-mounted Hawk Eagle pistol nd pushed off the deck, sailing through the air at a steep angle toward the ceiling, attempting as best I could to clear any obstacles I couldn't see. As I felt my helmet scrape against the ceiling, I pushed off again, gliding downward to land with a thunk on the deck grating below. With my mag boots disabled, I hooked my toes against a elevated metal plate I felt protruding from the floor, and cautiously rose to a standing position, squinting into the pitch black. Just then, the lights surged back to life, and I heard the loud chambering of a weapon behind me. I whirled around, instinctively brandishing my Hawk Eagle at the source of the noise. I found myself staring down the barrel of a high-caliber pistol being wielded by one of the civilians, who started at me with seething anger as my own sidearm hung perilously close to her face. Behind her lingered two other frightened-looking crew, who gazed in horror at a sea of mutilated Capellan corpses that drifted listlessly through the void. "We're not here to harm you or your crew," I slowly explained, my tone measured and calm. "We're just here to get our man back." "Go ahead and take him. He's not good for much now," the woman responded, gesturing with her firearm at the lifeless body of Nathan Schmidt, who lay against a cargo container. "We'll take him, too," I nodded. "But that's not what I meant." "Why the fuck did you board my ship?" the woman replied. My eyes quickly traced across her flight suit. Four rattily-woven stars held place of prominence over a name tape that read 'Harlow.' "Captain...Harlow? This is your ship?" I asked, cautiously. "Last time I checked, unless you're laying a claim to it, in which case, you're going to have to bring more men," Harlow snarled. "No, ma'am," I answered, "Captain Charles Maxwell. Crayven Corporation," I continued, worried that identifying myself as a mercenary would only stoke the civilians' fears of piracy. "The Capellans abducted one of our people, and we believe that he's being held in your cargo bay," I continued. "He's not a prisoner, and he's done nothing wrong." A brief look of concern flashed across Captain Harlow's face before it was replaced with a practiced scowl once again. "Uh huh. Everyone's innocent, depending on which side of any number of these godforsaken wars you're on. You better cut to the chase, flyboy, because the rest of these guys will be down here shortly." The Captain gestured broadly at the sea of bodies for emphasis. "For us, the war's long done. We're just folk trying to earn a living. If you'd like, we can continue posturing at each other out here. There's a lot of fine ways to die. But I'd prefer to avoid making that decision for the man being held down in your cargo bay right now who doesn't get a say in any of this," I deadpanned. "James, are you aware of the Capellans declaring any living cargo, prisoner or otherwise?" Harlow asked, glancing over her shoulder at a crewmember momentarily. "No, ma'am," James replied. Harlow turned back toward me, lowering her weapon. "Show me," she growled, pointing toward signage that read 'TO CARGO BAY 1.'
  6. Major Hayes hung, inverted, from above the cargo bay hatch's frame, his mag boots anchoring him to the bulkhead, and his shoulder wedged against a nearby pipe to hold him in place as he painstakingly maneuvered a wire camera through the crack at the top of the slightly-ajar door. Each movement was slow and precise; accidentally striking anything with the camera, or moving the unit too quickly, would immediately reveal the surveillance device and the presence of our team. Bishop Weyland, Steve Jenkins, Nathan Schmidt, and I clustered around the doorway, our weapons at the ready. We looked a little worse for the wear - one of my mag boots was destroyed, Weyland's armor was covered in blast damage, and the glass of Nathan's helmet was completely obliterated. Only the Major and, - improbably - Steve Jenkins appeared to be unscathed. As I glanced at Nathan, I noticed that the myriad ribbon cuts he'd received from the flechettes of helmet glass striking his face were no longer present. Damn peculiar, I thought to myself. I really wonder what we're dealing with in Nathan. "Alright, gents, we're receiving telemetry from the camera," Hayes reported, quietly. "There's four of them coming down the hallway. Three Capellans and a civilian. The civilian is armed with some sort of long gun. In fact, she appears to be the same person that Donovan had on the horn earlier when we first hooked them - 'Nikki Harlow,' if memory serves." "Oh, joy," Bishop quipped. "Only three soldiers?" I asked. "That's odd. You'd think they'd be flooding this end of the ship with all the guns that they can afford to spare. Hu swore that there were another 15 on board. You sure it's not more than that?" "Yes," Hayes answered. "Only three. Stay sharp," the Major advised as he executed a graceful backflip off of the wall and landed on the deck in the middle of our formation, his mag boots thunking loudly as they adhered to the floor. "If it is just these Capellans plus Harlow, we should be able to neutralize the hostiles quickly. And even if they are pulling reinforcements from somewhere, three fewer guns shooting at us is still three fewer guns. Let's blitz them quickly. Ready?" A flurry of acknowledgements crackled through my headset as the Major gave the go-code. "Call your targets and shooting solutions. Let's move!" Major Hayes threw the hatchway door open and hurled a flashbang grenade looted off of one of the fallen in Cargo Bay 2. As it exploded, our team dove into the corridor and opened fire. It was at that moment that I realized that the three Capellans, plus Harlow, were not alone. Rotating into view behind the defenders were a trio of security robots nearly identical to those kept aboard the Crayven Corporation's Half Moon. In other words, heavily armed, fully autonomous, and seeking targets to destroy. "Alpha team! Take cov - " Hayes's voice crackled, the second half of his message completely drowned out by the roar of weapons fire as both sides engaged at once...
  7. "Wǒ shì bùduì fùzé rén hú yīng yī. Kǎ pèilán liánbāng wǔzhuāng bùduì. Nín jiāng qūfú yú wǒmen de chāo qiáng huǒlì, bìng zhǔnbèi qǐqiú dà fǎguān liánmǐn," the soldier hissed at me. "Translation, please?" I asked, glancing at Private Jenkins. "I am Assistant Force Leader Hu Yingyi. Capellan Confederation Armed Forces. You will surrender yourself to our superior firepower and prepare to beg the Chancellor for mercy," Steve replied. I raised an eyebrow, impressed at the speed and coherence of his translation. "Your superior firepower?" Hayes asked. "Maybe I'm missing something, but from where I'm standing, four of your battle buddies have been reduced to dog food, and you're currently shackled to the side of a swine cage. Where exactly is the rest of this overwhelming force?" "Zài zhèxiē qiángbì wàimiàn. Wǒmen yǒu shíwǔ gèrén. Nǐmen jǐ gè?" Hu replied. "Do we really have to keep doing this translation song and dance?" the Major asked. "In case you weren't keeping track, the translations are only going in one direction. We're speaking to you in English. Tell me what you said. Or we're leaving you here with the hogs." The soldier stared defiantly at Hayes. "They'll be out of their cages. And they look pissed off," I added. "He'll do it. He's crazy," Steve added, pointing at me and making loopy fingers at the sides of his head. Hu let out a defeated sigh. "I said, my force is outside these walls. There are fifteen still of us. How many of you?" the Capellan clarified. "Five," Major Hayes responded matter-of-factly. "Five?" the captive asked, mockingly. "You would defeat us with five soldiers?" "We'd defeat you with one soldier," a gravelly voice snarled. The sound of a large pair of grav boots clunking against the deck drew my attention. It was Bishop Weyland, flanked by Nathan Schmidt. The Lieutenant's armor was covered in blast marks, several of its panels reduced to slag. "He's crazy too," Steve quipped, jabbing a thumb toward the Lieutenant. "Certifiably," Schmidt added. "Look at all that damage. Just imagine how bad the other guy must look right now." Bishop simply glared at the Capellan, who recoiled instinctively. "Cargo bay door's secured, sir," Weyland advised, looking toward Major Hayes. "We have...one casualty. She'll need medical attention." The Major looked crestfallen. "A non-com?" "Negative. Crew. But she'll live. From what I can tell, we're dealing with two different groups of people. There's the crew - and then there are these guys. I don't know what their relationship is, except that neither of them want us here." "May I?" I asked, looking toward Major Hayes, who nodded obligingly in return. "Alright, Mister Hu," I growled, moving to stand over the soldier. "You've exhausted your quota of bullshit. It's time for some answers. Nathan?" Schmidt stepped toward me and withdrew a syringe from a small, hip mounted pocket. "Truth serum?" Hu laughed. "You would waste valuable tactical time injecting me with truth serum in the hopes that I would have the information you seek and that I would cooperate?" "What? No," I replied, dismissively, taking the syringe and kneeling down menacingly next to the soldier. "See, here's the deal. Major Hayes over there works for a respectable corporation. They don't like to get sued, so maybe they'd go for some humane tactic like truth serum. But me, Nate - he's this guy next to me - and Steve over there - we're just hired guns from the Outworlds. Here to help stir shit up. Appendix E of the Ares Convention doesn't mean jack to us. We run hard and play harder. And sometimes we like to combine work and play. Like when useless people piss us off. People like you." Hu eyed the syringe. "There's nothing in there," the soldier concluded, "except water." With a flourish, I flicked the side of the instrument with my thumb and forefinger. A small capsule held in the fluid suspended within fractured, turning the liquid a dark crimson. "Try again," I replied. "Ever see what happens to someone when you shoot them up with K-Z, LD-512, and X-Quick all at the same time?" "No," Hu replied. "Me either," I grinned. "I'm dying to find out. I fucking love science. Sorry in advance if your heart blows up." Before the soldier had time to react, I injected the entire syringe into his right bicep with a single, fluid motion. "You crazy wángbā dàn! My brothers will avenge my murder!" Hu howled, beads of perspiration covering his face, his eyes wild. "Start talking, and maybe they won't have to," I hissed, leaning toward the Capellan. "What are you saying?" Hu pleaded. "What, you need a translator now? Steve, get over here!" I barked. "No, I mean, what are you going to do? If I tell you what you want to know?" the soldier implored. "Nathan's got Narcan in his kit. I can reverse the drugs if your answers are entertaining enough," I replied. "Let's see how much zest for life you actually have. Major! Lieutenant!" I called out, waving Weyland and Hayes over. "Hu here wants to play. You get the first round of questions," I advised. The Major looked toward Bishop. "What's the force composition on this ship?" Weyland demanded. "Who are we up against?" Hu bit his lip, no doubt realizing that if he answered truthfully, his career in the CCAF was likely over. "Come on, big man, you don't have very long before your brain starts to liquefy," I warned. "If you want to play ball, now's the time." The soldier squinted his eyes shut, rocking back and forth as an anguished, fraught expression crossed his face. If his hands hadn't been tied, I had no doubt that Hu would have been in a fetal position as he hyperventilated and bit his lip. "Aiiiiiiiiiiie! Wǒ de zǔxiān de xiōngdì jiěmèi, mǔqīn hé fùqīn, qǐng yuánliàng wǒ! Liào zǒnglǐ, duì wǒ guòqù de shì wéixiào, jiǎnqīng nǐ de fènnù!" the Capellan shouted. "Translation?" Hayes asked, looking to Steve as the soldier dissolved into tears. Steve furrowed his brow. "Uhhh...he was talking really fast. Something about asking his ancestors and Chancellor Liao for forgiveness, then a whole thing about how he did good stuff and hoping it spares him from somebody's wrath, and also some things about - " "I get the picture, thanks," the Major responded. "Look, Hu, if you don't start talking, I have a feeling Captain Maxwell there is going to let you have a personal audience with your ancestors to ask them for forgiveness." "Okay, okay," the soldier answered through heavy sobs, a long string of snot trailing away from his nose in zero gravity. "We are a Capellan logistics team transporting goods for humanitarian aid to Epsilon Eridani IV. We hired this transport to avoid worrying the people on the world about the intentions of their new government. We are bringing them food, clothing, this livestock, and medicine. The Chancellor wanted the military to take the assignment to show that the Capellan Confederation is benevolent to the colonies it administers. Please, believe me, we meant you no harm! I don't know why you even boarded us! The crew is not even Capellan - they are five, maybe ten civilians, honest people, trying to make a living!" Major Hayes raised an eyebrow. Suddenly, Nathan stepped forward and kneeled down to look Hu directly in the eyes. "I hate liars," Nathan deadpanned. "Captain Maxwell, the Maskirovka doesn't hand out blankets and baby food. And if they did, the Zang shu jian branch of the Chancellor's Hand certainly wouldn't be the unit doing it. See this guy's fancy patch? They're the 'Chancellor's Sword.' They conduct a variety of "black ops" missions in foreign territories, including sabotage, psychological warfare, and assassination. Some Sword agents are former criminals who have been recruited into the agency, but many simply have the 'ethical flexibility' necessary to conduct their missions. Clearly, Mister Hu's ethics are 'flexible,' because I'd wager that a hundred percent of what he just told you is bullshit." I cast the soldier a disappointed stare. "Okay. We're done here," I deadpanned, rising to my feet and beginning to walk away. "Wait! I'll talk! I'll talk..." Hu sobbed. I slowly performed an about-face. "Last chance." "Your man is correct. We are Maskirovka. We are escorting two scientists and a...laboratory...to Epsilon Eridani IV. We did hire this transport to avoid suspicion. I am one of twenty - now fifteen - escorts for the laboratory. The freighter's crew does not know what we are carrying, and the truth is, neither do I. We are not permitted within the laboratory. Only Doctor Tao and Doctor Wen go inside," the Capellan confessed. "You must have some idea of what's inside. House Liao doesn't deploy Maskirovka blindly," I replied. "I know only what I am told, but I have not seen it with my own eyes," Hu sniffled. "And what have you been told? Come on, Hu! You're sixty seconds away from a brain aneurysm!" I shouted. "I don't want to die!" the soldier shrieked, nearly convulsing with terror. "Then tell me what you know!" I roared. "We are told that they have a man - a blond man with advanced technology - whose mind contains information about a weapon that the Chancellor believes could tip the war of succession in the favor of House Liao. And the doctors are under orders to extract that information, while we are to protect their mission at any cost," Hu answered, his voice a combination of panic and resignation. "And that man is inside the laboratory?" I demanded. The soldier nodded. "In Cargo Bay One?" I clarified. Hu nodded again. "And your forces are ...?" "Throughout the ship. Most likely well-entrenched between here and Cargo Bay One at this point. A detail of five is at the laboratory at all times," Hu explained. "All of them specialized infantry, like me." I nodded to Hayes, Weyland, and the rest of the team. "Thanks, Yingyi. You've been real helpful," I replied, clapping the soldier on his forearm. "Say hi to your ancestors for me." "Wait - what? I thought...we had a deal! You can't leave me here to die! I don't want to die!" Hu screamed as, together, Hayes, Schmidt, Jenkins, Weyland, and I walked away toward the cargo bay door, Hu's shouts echoing off the walls of the chamber and fading into the background din of the animal cries and howls that resonated throughout the space. As we neared the exit, Major Hayes cast me a concerned look. "You didn't really give him lethal drugs, did you?" "Of course not," I chuckled. "That'd be fucked up." "What was in that syringe, then?" Hayes asked, worriedly. I tipped my head toward Nathan. "Colon Blow." Schmidt replied, matter-of-factly. "In case you haven't seen the TV commercials, it's a powerful laxative. Side effects include anxiety, paranoia, and fear of impending doom. His heart's not going to blow out, and he's going to live, but the seat of his pants will probably never be the same. What an embarrassing way to be found by your battle buddies. I bet the Capellans have a special level of dishonor for 'shitting your pants and spilling all the secrets.'" "Jesus Christ," Hayes answered, relieved. "You gents really had me going there for a bit." "It's what we do," I chuckled. "Come on. Let's get Bishop's assailant some medical attention and get the hell out of here."
  8. A deathly silence fell across the cargo bay, save for the braying of livestock, as Bishop felled another Capellan soldier. I refrained from calling out for a status check, not wanting to risk exposing the positions of Alpha team to any hostiles still remaining. "This is Alpha three.... prey has been neutralized.... request permission to move to the breached cargo bay door and secure? Over," Lieutenant Weyland advised, his voice a deadly, gravely calm. "Permission granted, Alpha three. Nice work," Major Hayes responded in a quiet, alert tone. In the background, I could hear his mag boots moving quickly and purposefully. "Alpha two, I'm closing on your position. Mendacius is monitoring the thermals in this compartment and reports that we have scratched four hostiles. I have a tag on the last tango and am en route to you. Do you have eyes on the mark?" Major Hayes' voice crackled. "Negative," I replied, my voice barely above a whisper as I perched atop the stack of livestock cages in a prone position, staring down the barrel of my laser rifle's night vision scope. "I can't make out anything with all the hogs in here. The optics on this weapon don't differentiate between people and pigs. I was tracking him, but I lost him just a few moments ago as he moved behind Pen 2 over there." "Pen 2?" Hayes asked, a note of concern in his tone. "Affirmative, Major, but that was a short while ago. About three minutes," I replied. "Captain, I need you to very slowly, without giving away what you're doing, perform a perimeter check of the pen you're on top of right now. The waypoint I'm headed toward is almost exactly where you are. Our target is no longer at Pen 2," Hayes answered, his words sending a chill down my spine. "I'll be there in about ten seconds, but I think this guy has already arrived." "Roger that," I whispered, slowly lowering my rifle and moving gradually to a crouched position. As I eased to my feet, I pivoted gingerly, cautiously twisting my torso to effect an about-face without attracting attention. Squinting, I peered into the darkened expanse that ran the length of the tower. At first, I saw nothing. But then, I became perceptive of a subtle movement, three-quarters of the way past the enormous feed and water dispenser, gradually drawing closer to me. "Alpha one," I whispered, "is that you up here with me?" "Negative, Captain - I'm at the bottom of the tower. Headed your way," Major Hayes responded. "In that case, I think I've got eyes on your bogey," I replied. With nowhere to take cover, I knew that, in the event of a firefight, the winner would likely come down to whoever managed to draw first. "Say again, Alpha two?" Hayes asked. "There's something crawling toward me on top of the - " Without warning, an abrupt crack of gunfire and the blinding flash of a rifle muzzle cut across the hold. My left boot exploded in a burst of sparks and smoke under the impact of a high-caliber round, the hit knocking me from my feet and setting me adrift, slowly spiraling away from the cargo stack. Quickly, I raised my rifle, twisted back toward the shooter, and opened fire with a wide sweep of laser shots. All of the rounds flew wide, my aim thrown off by my weightless and moving state. "Alpha two to Alpha one - I've engaged the target! Be advised, my mag boot got hit and I've been knocked off the platform. I'm still tracking the bogey and attempting to engage!" I shouted into my comm unit. "Copy that, Captain - Alpha four and Alpha five, move to reinforce Alpha two; Alpha one to Control, I need waypoints for Alphas four and five; Alpha three, let's get the hold secured on the double!" Hayes replied, breathlessly, the exertions in his voice sounding as though he was climbing. Another barrage of rifle fire erupted from the tower, several of the rounds passing so close to my helmet that I could hear them. This guy's getting dialed in, I thought to myself. The next shots probably aren't going to miss... As I attempted, desperately, to level my aim again, I saw a sudden flurry of red, coherent energy beams streak across the top of the pen, one of which appeared to strike my assailant, a splash of dissipating electroplasma writhing across the figure's shoulder. "Looks like you found yourself a Capellan, Alpha two. Hope you don't mind me being a third wheel here." It was Major Hayes. "Not at all, Major. I'll see what I can do to provide an assist," I replied, feeling my back unexpectedly bump against the ceiling. With my drifting now stabilized, I raised the laser rifle's scope to my eye, and set about focusing its crosshairs in on the attacker. In the thermal vision, I could see Major Hayes drawing steadily closer to the Capellan, round after round of energy lances striking the man, but none bypassing his armor to effect a stun. The retort of an assault weapon soon followed, orange-hot rounds being flung with abandon back at Hayes. The Major struck back, spraying such a dense concentration of energy output at the Capellan that his laser rifle's barrel registered as white hot in my thermal vision. Suddenly, the Capellan lunged toward Hayes, the Major backing away, apparently unable to fire what was almost certainly an overheated weapon at this point. I drew in a deep breath and led my target, firing a single shot that was intended to strike the attacker in his skull. Unfortunately, the Capellan abruptly changed direction as he closed in on the Major, perhaps perceptive of the fact that he was now outnumbered two to one. I fired again, the round, for a second time, failing to find its mark. The soldier, drawing within striking distance of Hayes, swung his bayoneted firearm at the Major as I attempted, again unsuccessfully, to land an effective stun shot. "Goddamn it... I muttered. Then, I remembered my booster pack. Bracing my rifle against my right forearm, I pushed off the wall with my boots and triggered the thrusters inset into the rear of my spacesuit's shoulder blades. The reactant nozzles fired with a dull roar and a jolt, and in less than a second, I found myself careening straight toward the Capellan, closing with him at a blinding pace. Quickly, I gripped the barrel of my laser rifle in my right hand and its stock in the other, creating what was effectively a cross-handed battering ram, holding it out before me and using it to strike the soldier in the head with my full inertia and a spectacular crack as I plowed directly into him, sending both of us tumbling across the livestock tower. I managed to keep a grip on the Capellan's armor long enough to lock one of my mag boots to the deck and stop my momentum. As the dazed assailant attempted wildly to process what had just occurred, while simultaneously flailing as he tried to ascertain whether he should bring his rifle to bear on me or Major Hayes, I shouldered my own laser weapon and pulled the trigger, the shot coring into the side of the Capellan's head, instantaneously knocking him unconscious as his face and hair were momentarily enveloped in tendrils of orange-red energy. The soldier's body sagged over, his mag boots keeping him anchored to the deck as I carefully moved toward him. "Nice shootin', Tex," Major Hayes quipped. Keeping my rifle trained on the fallen Capellan, I reached down and grabbed the soldier's assault weapon, noticing the approach of the Major as I did so. "Thanks, nice of you to stop by," I chuckled, nodding to Hayes as he came to stand alongside me. "I couldn't let you have all the fun, though." "Of course not," the Major laughed. "Come on, let's get this guy secured before he wakes up. I have questions for him."
  9. I wrinkled my nose, even though, sealed in an armored spacesuit, I couldn't actually smell the animal leavings that floated aloft before us - a fact about which I was immeasurably grateful. "Oh, I recognize this!" the voice of Private Steve Jenkins suddenly blared in my headset. "Their rotovator must have broken! Back on the farm on Ninja Planet - " "I catch your drift, Private Jenkins," Major Hayes interjected. "Let's keep this channel open for urgent matters." "I think that there's plenty of matter here, Major! If you catch my drift!" Jenkins replied, gleefully. "Steve - that's enough. Save the comedy routine for later," I advised. I glanced toward the MechWarrior, who threw me a thumbs-up. "Alright, people - let's move through here carefully. There's a lot of blind spots in this cargo bay, let alone floating biohazards. Keep sharp," Hayes instructed, readying his weapon and moving forward cautiously. Raising my laser rifle, I moved alongside him, my eyes sweeping from side to side, taking in the chamber. The cargo bay was immense, the livestock crates stacked in six massive cube-shaped pens that ran the length of the bay. Each pen was four cages wide by four cages high, with sixteen cages on each face, centered around a gigantic communal feed and water dispenser inset into the center of each of the pens. Flanking the livestock cages were assorted crates of a vast array of shapes and sizes, some wrapped in cargo netting, others festooned with myriad shipping labels, and still others taking odd shapes that hinted tantalizingly at the cargo contained within them. Overhead, a dim array of low-power sodium bulbs cast circular pools of golden light onto the cargo bay floor, the only interruptions in the otherwise uniform shadows that shrouded the room. It was the perfect place for an ambush. As our party of five advanced down the center of the hold, our mag boots thunking against the deck plates, a scene of surreal horror flanked us on either side. The pens were a hive of frenetic, feral activity. Bereft of gravity, the hogs were suspended in the air within their cages, flailing their limbs, curling their lips, their mouths agape and tongues undulating as they bellowed and squealed with confusion. The overhead lights illuminated their eyes with demonic flashes as the hogs thrashed their heads. It was unnerving and distracting; if someone were laying in wait for us, the mayhem in the pens would provide the perfect distraction. A sudden, sharp squelch, followed by a tinny loudspeaker announcement, suddenly cut through the hold. "Attention all decks - security teams are responding to C2. If your name tag doesn't say "Ānquán," get the hell out of the way and report to your shelter stations," a husky, accented, female voice called out. "C2 - 'Cargo Bay 2?'" I called out over our team channel. "I think that's a safe - " Major Hayes began. Suddenly, without warning, the Major's words were cut off as the cargo hold's inner door burst open and a flashbang grenade, accompanied by a smoke bomb, exploded with terrific force directly in our path, overwhelming my vision and leaving me dazed and confused as I dove to my left, firing my laser rifle blindly in the direction of the attack. The hogs bellowed and roared, banging at their enclosures as the loud reports of rifle and laser fire echoed through the bay. "Take cover!" I shouted into my comm unit, struggling to see anything through the thick smoke that now rolled like a heavy fog throughout the hold. Taking stock of my surroundings, I realized that the upper levels of the animal cages rose above the blinding white wall swirling around me, but there was no obvious way to climb them. Unless... I thought to myself, sprinting toward the nearest enclosure. As I approached, an enormous boar smashed its tucks into the bars of its cage, roaring at me as it bared its teeth. After a moment's pause, I reached down and toggled my boots' adhesion setting to twice Earth's gravity. Then, staring at the creature, and with great effort, I ran directly at the cages, planting my feet on their bars as I reached them, eliciting yet another roar and angry outburst from the animal as I ran directly up the face of its cage and continued up the stack, taking advantage of the weightless environment of the cargo hold to use the pens as another horizontal surface. Reaching the top of the stack, I re-oriented myself atop the cages, kneeling into a defensive stance. From what I could see, Alpha team had scattered throughout the bay, and each member of the squad was individually engaged with one of the hostiles that had breached the doorway. I quickly located one of the aggressors, zooming in on the figure with the scope of my rifle. In the low light, the lime-green of the combatant's uniform insignia was still easily discernible. "Maxwell to Alpha team - these guys are Capellan Confederation Armed Forces! I count five of them, and somehow, I don't think 'nonlethal' is in their vocabulary!"
  10. Below and a good distance before me, I watched as Nathan Schmidt gracefully touched down on the hull of the Hurry Up Bessie, dropping into position outside of Cargo Bay 2's airlock and anchoring himself with a practiced flourish. Just ahead of me, Major Hayes bladed his body and activated his booster pack, descending down toward our landing objective with Lieutenant Weyland following. I was moments away from activating my own booster when, abruptly, I heard a long, drawn-out scream, intermingled with sporadic gagging sounds, cutting across the communication channel. I turned my head just in time to see Steve Jenkins go flipping past me head over heels, his jet pack firing at a full burn. "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" Steve shrieked, rocketing downward in an out-of-control, wild trajectory that caused his arms and legs to splay out in four directions, as though the MechWarrior were doing a deranged series of cartwheels toward the freighter. "Steve! Remember your training!" I shouted into the comm unit, gradually pushing the throttle on my spacesuit up to try to overtake Jenkins and render whatever aid I could. The MechWarrior met my reply with a loud, guttural vomiting. I pushed forward faster, and I was nearly atop Steve's position when, without warning, Jenkins somehow managed to also activate the emergency rockets on his pack. In the blink of an eye, Steve roared away from my reach and went spinning off into the distance, descending at a harrowing speed until he collided with the hull of the freighter with a sickening impact, audible across the comm channel, sending him bouncing across the hull of the freighter, finally tumbling to a stop against the threshold of the airlock. "Private Jenkins!" I called out on the comm, maneuvering into a high-speed descent toward the Hurry Up Bessie. The hull raced up on me at a blinding pace, and I quickly extended my feet out in front of me in anticipation of my landing, as Schmidt had taught us. A quick toggle of a thumb switch saw the magnetized surfaces of my boots activate, and seconds later, with a pronounced 'thump,' my feet hit the deck. I sprinted the last few meters toward Jenkins, who lay, inverted and with his arms and legs thrown out to the sides, against Cargo Bay 2's outer bulkhead, his boots magnetized to the steel above his head. As I approached, I heard a faint crackle on the comm unit, followed by the voice of Steve. "...urgh...there's puke on my face...Alpha-5 to Alpha-1, I landed. Is there anything I should do now?" the MechWarrior groaned. Major Hayes and Lieutenant Weyland came to stand alongside me, their incredulous expressions visible even through the smoked glass of their spacesuit helmets. Nathan Schmidt made his way over to Steve and stood before him, head tilted down, and his hands on his hips in a comical pose that made it appear as though the Lyran was staring down at Jenkins with disapproval. "Well, since the gang's all here, I'd say...let's form up and prepare for entry," Major Hayes replied. "Assuming that you can still walk, Private Jenkins?" Steve slowly staggered to his feet, giving a jaunty thumbs-up and a manic grin through the vomit-smeared glass of his helmet. "Good," the Major remarked. "Alright then, Mister Schmidt. If you'd be so kind, please go ahead and facilitate us entrance. Alpha team - go weapons ready."
  11. "No, really, I'm fine." Nathan said, clamping a free hand down on the cut. "Watch this..." Suddenly, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I felt as though I was being watched. I turned to see Bishop gazing intently at Nathan, so focused on the Lyran's injury that he leaned forward, his pupils dilating visibly. "We're good!" Nathan called out to the Skinwalker, quickly turning his back toward the man while clasping my arm to turn me about as well. "What are you doing?" I whispered. "Just...watch," the young man replied. Slowly, Schmidt unclenched his wounded hand. While just moments ago, the cut had bled freely, a dry clot now ran the length of the injury. "Okay, that's impressive - what'd you do, squeeze a styptic stick or something when I wasn't looking?" I asked. "No - just - keep watching," Nathan answered. I stared at the cut, not sure what I was looking for. "Did you mess up your hand?" an unexpected voice interjected. It was Major Hayes, standing before us with a pair of laser rifles. "It's just a light cut, Major," Nathan responded. "Barely broke the surface. I'll be fine. It was worth it. I got Captain Maxwell's comm unit turned around." The Major nodded. "Alright - if you're sure it's not going to mess you up over there..." "I'm certain, Major," Schmidt answered. "Good, because you gents are going to need both hands to operate these," Hayes answered, handing each of us a Magna Laser Rifle and bandoleers of energy cells. I took the weapon in my hands and looked it over. A series of Japanese characters, engraved into the weapon's stock, caught my eye. "What does this say? Anything important that I should know?" I asked. "It says 'D.C.S. Takashima.' We haven't had the opportunity to file those marks off yet. What you need to know is this," Hayes replied, reaching over and setting the weapon's beam focus to a wide spread and the output level to '2.' "This is essentially the 'stun' setting - or at least, as close to one as a Kuritan weapon can achieve. It'll probably still singe someone's eyebrows off, but other than that, they'll be dazed but unharmed. I want you to keep the power level there unless you have a significant reason to change it. More on that in a moment. Any other questions?" I glanced toward Nathan, who shook his head. "No, Major, I think we're all set. Point and click; don't change the power setting. Pretty straightforward," I replied. "Good. And you - " Hayes, continued, looking toward Schmidt. "I know, I know, you don't have to say it. Don't kill any of the good guys, either. I swear, you can trust me," Nathan sighed. "That's not what I was going to say. May I finish?" Hayes replied in a faux-irritated tone. Schmidt recoiled slightly in surprise, nodding. "I was going to say no funny business with the electronics. I know how much you like to tinker. That rifle had better not come back playing the goddamn Battle Hymn of the MechWarrior or something," Hayes deadpanned, clapping the Lyran on the shoulder before making his way toward Private Jenkins to continue the weapon distribution. "You know, I like that guy," Nathan smiled. "Also, look." The Lyran extended his injured hand. To my disbelief, the angry, crimson wound had reduced in size to a hairline scab, fresh, pink skin now largely present where the knife had cut its path. "How in the hell did you do that?" I hissed. "I haven't a clue," Nathan replied, quietly. "This is the second time my body seems to have just - regenerated from an injury. I have a thought. I think something happened to me on the Takashima. In the server room, I felt something - " Nathan's explanation was cut off by a loud whistle from Major Hayes, who gestured for the extraction team to join him at the near end of the bay, in front of the cargo doors. "I guess it's time," Schmidt commented. "I'll fill you in later. Suffice it to say - I seem to be a fast healer." "I look forward to that conversation," I answered. Together, Schmidt and I made our way toward the assembled group, joining Bishop Weyland and Steve Jenkins in a semicircle before the Major. "Alright, gentlemen, listen up. We're almost in range of the freighter. Let's do a quick review of our to-do list - what I'm calling 'Operation: King's Bounty.' When we've arrived on target, Captain Donovan's going to use the Mendacius' grapnel launchers to take the Hurry Up Bessie into tow and bring it to within 500 meters of our bow. Simultaneously, tactical will take out the freighter's aft weapons. While that's happening, this bay will decompress. Once the Bessie is pacified, that green light over our heads will turn on, and the cargo doors will open. We'll have thirty seconds to exit the bay and get across to the upper hull of the Capellan DropShip. We'll exit the bay in a wedge formation with Nathan Schmidt on point, as he's the most experienced flyer out of the five of us. Use your booster packs as judiciously as possible to get across to the upper airlock marked 'Cargo Bay 2.' Once we've landed, Mr. Schmidt will override the electronic lockout to get us inside. Once we've breached the vessel, we need to make our way to the main cargo bay - Cargo Bay 1 - where we have reason to believe that William Kauffman is being held. That's going to be directly 'beneath' Cargo Bay 2 and Cargo Bay 3 relative to the position where we're entering on the top of the ship. We will have to traverse two corridors, connected by an elevator, to get there," Hayes began. "Now - it's highly likely that we're going to meet some resistance from the freighter's crew. We're detecting roughly 26 life signs on the ship. As much as possible, I want this team to try to preserve every one of those lives unless you have no other alternative but to use deadly force. We believe that these are civilians we're dealing with, which lends the possibility that they have no idea what kind of a situation they're caught up in. Keep in mind that your responsibility to protect life extends to mitigating damage to the vessel as well. The weapons I've issued you are set to an output level that should achieve both outcomes. Lieutenant Weyland, as I see you've already made...substantial preparations...for the boarding action, I'll trust you to use appropriate discretion with your loadout," the Major continued. Bishop nodded, silently. "Once we've located our missing executive, Private Jenkins, who's been issued a backpack containing an emergency vac kit, will have the responsibility of assisting Kauffman into his spacesuit. We'll then withdraw from the freighter and jump back to the Mendacius. Callsigns for this operation are as follows: Alpha-1: me. Alpha-2: Captain Maxwell. Alpha-3: Lieutenant Weyland. Alpha-4: Nathan Schmidt. Alpha-5: Private Jenkins. Any questions?" Hayes asked. The collective group remained silent. "Alright. This is an off-the-record extraction that never happened. You will not speak of it. If asked by any entity outside the Crayven Corporation, you will deny any knowledge of William Kauffman having ever been missing. Our job is of a singular scope: to bring him home," the Major concluded. "Failure is not an option." The low roar of weapons fire reverberated through the Mendacius' hull. "It sounds like we've made contact. Form up. And godspeed."
  12. Seven days later... C.S.V. Mendacius System jump point Epsilon Eridani IV March 3, 3029 ___________________________ I white-knuckled the armrests of the bridge's jump seat as, with a roar, the Mendacius exited transit space, the surveillance vessel's compact K-F drives emitting a high-pitched whine while bleeding excess energy from their capacitors. Half a second later, the feed on a nearby display showed the Invader-class JumpShip Ingress flaring into existence, carrying with it the Republic and the Tana, a mere 28 kilometers away. Tension filled the bridge as Captain Donovan ordered radio silence, glancing at a tactical feed while listening intently to an ear monitor. "I'm not hearing any chatter on the open bands," Donovan eventually reported. "I'm pretty sure our slight offset with their jump timing didn't get noticed." Major Hayes nodded. "Let's push ahead, then." Captain Donovan gestured to the Mendacius' pilot, who nodded knowingly, easing the helm's throttle forward. A dull reverberation began to vibrate through the vessel's superstructure, gravity quickly overtaking its decks as the massive planetary drives screamed to life and accelerated the ship to nearly half its safe speed. "Mister O'Neil - go active sensors - let's find that DropShip. Throw everything you've got at it. It's a four day run to the planet from here under conventional drives; we need to know now just how much of a chase we're going to have to give," Major Hayes announced, looking toward the tactical display. "Aye, sir. Sitrep coming up," the sensor chief replied. A lime-green, three-dimensional grid splashed across the bridge's main viewscreen, a series of animated, sequentially-flashing boxes illustrating the range and interval of the Mendacius' scans. Overlaid on the grid, a red line extended away toward the planet, intersected periodically by hash marks indicating distance in units of time. "We're resolving multiple signatures," O'Neil reported. "I'm attempting to filter them to objects of interest so that we don't clutter up the display. There's a lot of debris between here and Epsilon Eridani - quite a few wrecks, some asteroids, and a few actual vessels here and there." "Do what you can," Captain Donovan advised. Suddenly, Nathan Schmidt, who was seated to my left, leaned toward me. "Is all that training still fresh on your mind, sir?" the Lyran whispered. "Why do you ask?" I replied. "Well, from what I can tell, these guys have no idea when and where we're gonna run up against the Capellans. Seems like we're taking a 'haul ass toward the planet and pray' approach," Nathan explained, "what with the running full bore off the jump point while scanning madly routine. If we actually had any intelligence about how far ahead these guys were, and what they were flying, I'm pretty sure we'd be taking a more measured approach." "Astute observations; you may be right," I nodded. "And to answer your question: yes, I do remember your guidance about how to fly a space suit." "Good, because we might find ourselves putting it to practical use at a moment's notice," Nathan answered, leaning back in his seat and cracking his chewing gum loudly. "Yeah, when someone finally questions why there's a cruise ship pulling one and a quarter Gs through a debris-strewn asteroid belt while pumping out scans across three dozen different frequencies," I quipped. Steve Jenkins, seated to my right, let out a snort. "We can just say we're on a booze cruise!" the MechWarrior exclaimed, several heads on the bridge turning toward us at the outburst. I buried my face in my hands. "Sir, I've got a contact!" O'Neil advised, highlighting the sensor trace on the bridge display. I rose from my seat and strode across the bridge to stand alongside Hayes and Donovan. "What've we got?" I asked. "It's a transport ship - the only one in the immediate area - and it's broadcasting Capellan IFF. About thirty minutes ahead of us, which is odd - that means that they couldn't have come into the system aboard our JumpShip, and the JumpShip prior to that arrived two days ago and is no longer on station at the arrival point," the sensor chief explained. "Okay, so it's a Capellan transport that maybe had engine difficulties or something - what makes you suspect that it's the one we're looking for?" Donovan asked, moving closer to the tactical display to scrutinize the sensor reading. "Because, sir, the Capellan military doesn't usually run Mules as combat craft," Ortiz answered. "A Mule broadcasting a CCAF frigate code on its transponder is nothing I've ever seen before. Whoever's running that ship doesn't want it messed with." "Our intel said we're looking for a Trojan," Major Hayes observed. "I could definitely see how someone could mistake a Mule for a Trojan if all they had to go on was a low-res visual and a falsified transponder code," I replied, "though the tonnage difference between a Trojan and a Mule is significant." "You sound like you're familiar with them," Hayes answered, turning to face me. "Very much so. My parents were merchants in the Periphery. I grew up on the trade routes between the Aurigan Coalition, the Taurian Concordat, and the Capellan Confederation. Your sensor chief is right, the transponder code doesn't make much sense." "What kind of armament can we expect?" the Major asked, raising an eyebrow. "That ship is over eleven thousand tons - double our own mass. If we're about to get a bloody nose, I want to know our odds." "Assuming it's a stock configuration?" I replied. "Moderate armor, an AC/5, two SRM-6 launchers on the sides, and a smattering of large, medium and small lasers covering the blind spots. A lot of Mules tend to run with a couple of those weapons on the fritz at any given time. The Mendacius is reasonably matched in terms of agility and firepower." "Sir, we don't necessarily have to engage in a firefight with them," Captain Donovan advised, moving to join us. "The Mendacius is outfit with a pair of grapnels. Assuming that this is our ship, if we can get in low, just above their engine ports, we could take out their rear-facing weapons with our PPC before they're in range to return fire, and then use the grapnel cannons to snare them and pull them within the boarding distance we'd planned for the extraction team." Major Hayes furrowed his brow, deep in thought. "We're taking a huge leap of faith making the assumption that this is our vessel. Our intelligence on the matter is sparse, at best," the Major grumbled. "With all due respect, sir, I think that's a risk we're going to have to take. If that is the ship, and William's aboard, this is our best chance," I countered. "I agree. 'Reasonable suspicion' seems to be the litmus test at the moment," Hayes acknowledged. "Set an intercept course. As soon as we're in range, start jamming them, but leave short range hailing available in case they want to talk to us. I don't want them to get off a call home, especially if it turns out we have a case of mistaken identity. Maxwell, Schmidt, Jenkins, and Weyland - suit up. You may be on deck shortly."
  13. Some time later... C.S.V. Mendacius System jump point Caph February 24, 3029 _________________________________________ The white blaze of the interstellar jump effect faded away, replaced by an inky-blackness against which a distant blue and green world hung, suspended in the void. I gazed at the sight for several long moments before unbuckling my harness and pushing away from the porthole, slowly floating through the zero gravity of the steerage deck. "I heard they have dinosaurs down there," Alyssa Chase commented, trailing behind me as I soared up a nearby ladderway onto the Mendacius' main level. "Used to," I replied, turning to wait for my companion. "Used to?" Chase inquired, raising an eyebrow as she joined me, taking hold of my hand and giving a nearby bulkhead a shove with her foot, sending us both sailing down the corridor. "What happened?" "People happened. People with atomic bombs, in fact," I deadpanned, grabbing a handrail as we came up to a T-intersection, whipping us around its corner and down another short passageway. "You're kidding me. Humans wiped out dinosaurs?" Alyssa replied, maneuvering past me to press the door control for the mess hall as we neared it. "As far as anyone knows. Though, with two out of the three continents on Caph being so radioactive now that no one lives on them, it's anyone's guess what kind of grotesquely mutated horrors might still be stomping around out there," I speculated. "God, people suck," Alyssa grumbled, pushing off the deck and into the mess hall. I followed, nearly colliding with a free-floating slice of pizza which slowly rotated in the weightless environment, long tendrils of cheese swirling round its axis as myriad toppings gradually broke free and spun off into the dining area. "What the fuck?" I blurted, maneuvering past the wayward food article. As I passed it, entranced, I very nearly collided with Major Hayes. "Major! I apologize," I exclaimed. "I was - uh - distracted." "Yeah, me too," Hayes nodded. "Somebody threw up all over the goddamn ice cream machine." "Oh, that's terrible," I winced. "Just as well, I suppose. It's hard enough to keep fit in zero gravity without the calories," Hayes quipped. "How are you two holding up?" "Not too bad. Mulling over this morning's briefing. You have an extraction team in mind?" I asked. "He's going to volunteer," Alyssa interjected. I instinctively looked in her direction, caught off-guard by the comment. "I'm just giving you a hard time," Chase grinned, giving me a light elbow jab. Breaking form, I reached over and tousled the Lyran's hair, eliciting a series of swats on my wrist as I did so. "Well, I...do have some experience in that area," I replied, looking back toward Hayes, who smiled knowingly. "Is there anything you don't do?" the Major chuckled. "Look, I did read your file, and I'd been meaning to talk with you. You think you can learn the basics of space diving in under seven days? We didn't exactly come out here equipped for the kind of mission we're about to undertake." "I think with the right teacher, that's feasible," I replied. "Got anyone on board that fits the bill?" The Major crossed his arms and furrowed his brow. "Well, there are two people onboard who carry ratings in space dives." I nodded, raising an eyebrow. "I'm listening." "One of them is Private Jenkins," Hayes began, squinting and rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, "and the other is Nathan Schmidt." Alyssa dissolved into peals of laughter, quickly regaining her composure. "I'm sorry, Major, I didn't mean to..." "Laugh it up, I'll stick you on the team, too," Hayes deadpanned, a slight smile betraying his stern tone. Chase nodded and collected herself. "As I was saying - Private Jenkins and Nathan Schmidt. Now, I don't know if you have a preference, or what your relationship is with either of them, but as you probably know, Jenkins has a 'D' rating and certification from some place called the 'Camp Kentares HALO Heroes School of Airborne Battle.' The certificate is signed by Eric Dresari himself, which is both impressive and worrying all at the same time, when you consider that Dresari is one of the only Dukes I've ever heard of to do a stint in his own prison for snorting cocaine in a throne room," the Major explained. "I also don't know how many dives Steve's actually done. When I asked him if he could get me an extended qualification transcript, he said, and I quote, 'the school's fax machine is broken.'" "Okay, so we'll call Steve a solid 'maybe,'" I quipped. "And Nathan?" "Nathan has an 'A' rating from the Lyran Intelligence Corps. While I couldn't get his entire service record without arousing suspicion, it seems that he's done over twenty suborbital dives in active operational theaters, not counting the two he's done for us. It's my understanding that he's working on a instructor rating, though he hasn't completed it yet. He's also fully qualified in a combat spacesuit," Hayes answered, a hint of reservation in his tone. "Nathan seems like the obvious choice," I replied. "But I get the impression you're not sold on him, either." "I don't think I need to explain why," the Major answered. A series of soft chimes echoed through the mess hall, an indication that the Mendacius was beginning the process of deploying its jump sail. I gestured to Hayes and Alyssa, and the three of us made our way over to float before the large, aft-facing windows of the mess hall, affording us a view down the length of the ship's hull as the enormous, gossamer surface of the sail began to slowly emerge from its bay. At 800 meters, the sail of the Mendacius was on the smaller side, but nevertheless, at that scale, the polymers used in its construction were very thin and easily torn by micrometeorites, interstellar dust, and rough handling. As a result, it would take the crew anywhere from 1.5 to 3.5 hours to extend the device. "With all due respect, Major, it seemed to me like you'd regained some degree of trust in him - enlisting his help to back you and Alyssa with the Republic's computer issues, and giving him the subsequent assignment on Nirasaki," I observed. "As far as I've heard, he did alright." "The stakes feel higher this time," Hayes replied. "And when the stakes are high, I don't like being in the position of having to calculate the probability that the mission might go to shit because of an unpredictable element on my own team." "I get how you're feeling," I nodded. "I guess I'm just used to having to work with whoever - and whatever - gets thrown at me. The Periphery has a way of indoctrinating someone to that kind of lifestyle and giving you a sixth sense about how far you can trust a man. And from my perspective, if you don't mind me saying so, Major...Nathan is the type of risk I would probably take in this sort of a situation." "You haven't steered me wrong so far, Captain," Hayes nodded. "Fine. I'll defer to your judgement. This afternoon, I'll let Nathan know that he's on the mission, and that he's also your charge. Keep an eye on him. At the first sign of trouble, I want to know about it." "You got it," I agreed. "Oh, and one other thing," the Major added. "For the next seven days, he's your teacher."
  14. Seventeen days later... C.S.V. Mendacius System jump point Nirasaki system February 24, 3029 ___________________________ The holographic image of a distant Capellan star system dominated the center of the Mendacius' small but serviceable briefing room. I leaned back in my seat, adjusting its harness as the ship's thrust-induced microgravity bled away; an indication that we'd throttled down for our final approach to the waiting JumpShip. Of course, the Mendacius herself did not possess an actual means to dock with the JumpShip, for she had no need to do so. The Bug-Eye class of espionage vessel - to which the Mendaicus belonged - was equipped with its own ultra-compact K-F drive that could hurtle the tiny surveillance vessel across the cosmos with ease. The typical means by which the ship did so was to travel to a system's jump point, and then, while maintaining an absolute minimum safe separation of 28 kilometers from the much larger craft, perform a tandem jump in sync with an outgoing JumpShip. This tactic had the effect of masking the Mendacius' own jump signature, while making it appear that the smaller ship had simply departed aboard the JumpShip. In less than an hour, Marcus Donovan would be issuing orders to follow this exact course of action, our route not taking those of us aboard the Mendacius back to Sheratan, but instead, to the alien-looking, greenish-blue world now on the display before us. "Ladies and gentlemen," Donovan began, "our CEO, William Kauffman, is missing. And the corporate office believes that they've tracked down where his abductors are taking him." There came a low murmuring from the assembled cadre in the room. "The venue: Epsilon Eridani IV, a world now within the borders of a new nation-state that didn't exist when we embarked on Operation: Black Eclipse," Donovan continued. "While we were out of town, something unexpected took place within the Capellan Confederation. Colonel Pavel Ridzik, chief military advisor to Chancellor Maximillian Liao, and AFFS Lieutenant General Ardan Sortek, one of the movers and shakers in the Federated Suns' military, struck a deal to create a new nation out of disputed border worlds. They're calling it the 'Tikonov Free Republic.' The Republic was created by incorporating those worlds of the Tikonov Commonality that haven't already been conquered during the succession war that's now raging. Epsilon Eridani was one of the systems incorporated into the Republic. With the local laws up in the air following the changeover of planetary custodianship, and wrought with the turmoil of being caught up in constant territory disputes, the planet is a prime location for all manner of criminal enterprise." The screen zoomed in to show a crumbling, blistered city in the northern hemisphere. "Our intelligence analysts, after performing an exhaustive number of interviews, calling in favors, and doing no small amount of forensic reconstruction, believe that they've found our missing CEO. He's thought to be aboard a DropShip in transit to the Epsilon Eridani star system, where the Capellans intend to transfer him to a compound built out of a local jail in what used to be the planet's primary port - the city of Dori." I raised my hand. "Captain Maxwell?" Marcus Donovan asked. "Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here," I observed, "but this seems like a really off-the-wall place to disappear with a CEO that you've just snatched. How do we know that this location intel is good?" "You are a little ahead of yourself," Donovan chuckled, "but we were just coming to that point - the who and the why. I'll let Major Hayes answer those questions. Major?" Donovan tossed the presentation remote to Major Hayes, who made his way to the podium...
  15. I cast a glance at Donovan. "You guys need a couple of extra hands with that data core?" I asked. "I got to see the end product of what it contains in action down on the planet. Nathan here is pretty good with a keyboard." Marcus shook his head. "Not at this time. We have orders to limit access to the hardware once it has been safely secured. To that end, it will be held in the technology vault for further analysis during our return trip." "Got it," I nodded. "If your needs should change, let me know. Between this guy," I added, gesturing at Nathan, "Marius Rand, and Alyssa Chase, we've got quite a few technomancers at our disposal." "I'll be sure to keep that in mind." Captain Donovan responded, casting a side-eyed glare at the vomit-covered computer monitor that now floated freely in the weightless environment of the Mendacius as the ship adjusted its flight attitude. "For now, why don't you gents head down to the steerage deck and get settled in? We'll make sure that any other crew that may be coming over from the Tana find their way to you." Donovan's words were not a suggestion, but rather, an implicit order. "Getting settled in sounds like a fine idea," I agreed, deciding, for the moment, to placate the Captain. "Point us in the right direction, and we'll be on our way."
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