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Charles Maxwell

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  1. One week after the initial expedition into the Takashima... C.S.V. Republic War Room B 3.2 kilometers from D.C.S. Takashima Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki February 7, 3029 ___________________________ Major Hayes and Captain Donovan both stood before the briefing table, the conference room's lights dimming. Around the table, on either side of me, sat Captain McKenzie, Sergeant Miles, Sergeant Ayala, Corporal Clemmons, Corporal Zhang, and Private Madani. I was very surprised to see Donovan planetside. I also noted to myself that the individuals present were the same exact staff that had been involved in our first ingress, save for the late Corporal Jamison. No more, no less. I had little time to think about it. Major Hayes was soon to fill in the blanks. "Ladies and gentlemen - thank you for attending this briefing. I'm sure you're wondering why we've brought this specific team back. I won't bury the lede - it's because this group is the only team outside of a very small inner circle of individuals who are aware of the true nature of our objective - and we're going to need you to return to the Takashima." "You're joking," I blurted. Major Hayes raised an eyebrow. "I like to think I have a sense of humor, Captain, but this particular affair is no laughing matter. Your team failed to retrieve the A.I., and the mystery as to where it's actually located on the ship has deepened." I fell back in my chair, a shellshocked expression on my face. "We spent the last week working to decrypt the copy of the data you brought back. The crew of the Mendacius threw every cipher at it we had on file. It turns out, most of the information on the memory unit was a combination of unencrypted junk, and what we believe to be heavily-encrypted junk, all designed to make us think that we'd successfully downloaded the program, its subroutines, and its database. Either the Kuritans built a failsafe into the software to keep it from being copied, or the A.I. has developed emergent behavior that allows it to wield, among its other parlor tricks, the ability to commit subterfuge," Hayes deadpanned. "So you're saying we got hoodwinked by the computer," Dutch interjected. "Precisely," the Major replied. "However, that's not all we discovered. Captain Donovan here has been kind enough to join us on the surface of this desert paradise to elaborate on that particular detail further. Out of an abundance of caution, we both agreed that what he's about to share with you shouldn't be transmitted over any carrier frequency, no matter how secure. Marcus?" "Thank you, Major," Captain Donovan responded. "While our analysts were combing through the data, which, as Major Hayes has already explained, was largely random bits of code and encrypted nonsense, we happened to notice a pattern within the noise. On closer examination, our analysts discovered that the pattern of code, when strung together, produced an complete, encrypted file. Cracking the encryption on it, we found this message: E C L I P S E S E C O N D A R Y N A V I G A T I O N R E T U R N "At first, it didn't make sense to us. 'Eclipse?' 'Secondary navigation?' 'Return?' But then, we also discovered that two maps had been included in the packet. And all the pieces came together." Donovan clicked a button on his presentation remote, displaying the charts on the room's display. "Now, I know that these images are sideways," Donovan continued. "That's intentional. We've oriented them to the direction that's currently the relative 'up' within the Takashima. Whoever - or whatever - wrote these layouts into the file was courteous enough to indicate a point of ingress into the wreck, along with your final destination - a secondary computer core deep within the derelict, just around the corner from the drive control room." "I'm familiar with the drive control room. We were there before," I remarked. "It's where we found the deck layout that showed us where the bridge and the primary computer core were. We didn't think much of the secondary navigation computer at the time." "Nor should you have," Major Hayes interjected. "It wasn't a target of interest within the original mission's scope." "But it is now," I replied. "Indeed it is," Captain Donovan nodded. "We believe, based on our analysis of the data, that whoever sent us this message wants us to go to the secondary control room if we're to obtain the A.I. It's quite possible, Captain Maxwell, that the rapport you built with the machine is why we've been steered onto this track." "Or we're being steered into a trap, and we're all going to die horribly," Corporal Clemmons quipped. I cast the infantryman a long stare. "Uh, sirs." "Respectfully, he does have a point," Sergeant Miles acknowledged. "How do we know this isn't some kind of elaborate trap? For all we know, we could walk into that control room and get cut to ribbons by lasers, bombs, pirates, or some godforsaken combination of all three." "We don't know that," Major Hayes replied. "It could be a trap. But that's why we're paying you guys the big bucks. We need to find out. Your objectives are to enter the wreck via the secondary access tunnel, which will save you from a considerable amount of climbing and possible exposure to hostiles this time around, traverse the elevator shaft until you arrive at the secondary navigation computer room, gain access into the core, and do whatever you need to do to get a copy of the A.I. onto the storage unit this time." "Alright," I nodded. "So let's assume for the moment that everything's on the level. Maybe I'm getting ahead of the briefing here, but I see what might be a hole in the plan. May I?" I asked, pointing at the slides. Donovan and Hayes nodded. I picked up a spare laser pointer that was resting on the briefing table, and used it to point at the spot marked 'Secondary Access Tunnel' on the map. "The last time we were at the wreck, the 'Main Access Tunnel' was practically getting swallowed by sand. How are we supposed to enter the ship via the secondary access tunnel? If I remember correctly, that's quite a few meters below the surface." I turned the laser pointer off, and looked toward Hayes and Donovan. "It was," Major Hayes replied. "However, this morning, we sent an excavator out to the wreck and had the sand around that section of hull cleared away. The entrance is right where our mysterious benefactor claimed it would be." "That solves that problem," I responded. "What else do we need to know?" Major Hayes glanced toward Captain Donovan. "It's entirely possible that you'll still encounter resistance within the wreck," Donovan explained. "Aegis and Crayven security forces are spread pretty thin right now due to the amount of attrition we took during the initial engagement. Our primary concern has been holding the security perimeter around the crash site. And since we've been monitoring the site from ground and orbit, we haven't seen anyone go into the wreck. But we also haven't seen anyone come out." "And you haven't sent any details into the wreck to secure it?" Dutch McKenzie asked. "No," Major Hayes responded. "Given the nature of what your team encountered, and to help compartmentalize the classified nature of what's actually in that ship, we thought it wouldn't be prudent to risk further attrition or widen the number of people we expose to the information. Your team is fully up to speed concerning what's in there, and you're now prepared to deal with the behavior of the A.I." "Except for the hallucinations, you mean," I replied, bringing up the 800-pound gorilla in the room that I suspected nobody wanted to mention. "Our working theory in that regard is the exceptionally-high levels of EMF activity that we're detecting from the derelict," Donovan advised. "We don't know if they're random bleed-off from systems that are in a pre-failure state, or if it's intentional, but we think that it causes a 'fear cage' effect. Symptoms can include auditory and visual hallucinations, along with feelings of extreme anxiety and dread." "You think that's what made Jamison lose it?" I asked. "Yes," Major Hayes replied, "which brings me to my next point. I want your team to get in, get that A.I., and get the hell out. The risk factors associated with being inside the Takashima, and the fact that we've been sitting on this rock for a week longer than we'd planned, are a recipe for disaster. It's only a matter of time before House Kurita comes sniffing around, wondering why there's so much traffic coming in and out of the Nirasaki system. We need to be well on our way back to Sheratan by the time that happens." "I understand," I nodded. "Good," Hayes answered. "Any questions?" I glanced toward the rest of the team. When no one spoke, I turned back toward the Major. "When do we leave?" "Within the hour," Major Hayes replied. "Suit up. I've got a transport waiting." ### One hour later... D.C.S. Takashima Black Eclipse Discovery Site Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki ___________________________ "Goddamn," I muttered, squinting into the blazing desert sun and shuffling my way down the sandy embankment behind Corporal Clemmons and Sergeant Ayala. "I think it's hotter out here today than it was last week." "At least it's a dry heat," Sergeant Miles quipped, following close behind me as we advanced along the blistered hull of the Takashima toward its now-excavated secondary access tunnel. "Ha! Thank Blake for small favors," Dutch McKenzie added. I glanced at the thermometer projected on the inside of my helmet. WARNING: AMBIENT TEMPERATURE: 49.4444 C, it blared in bright red typeface. I was thankful that I'd once again chosen to don my MechWarrior combat suit; under the current conditions, the ashqua coolant it cycled through its fabric more than made up for the thinner protection it offered in comparison to a more conventional armor kit. Even so, as we drew up alongside the fallen ship's hull, I could still perceive the heat radiating from its ferrosteel frame. Ahead of us, the secondary access hatch stood open, revealing a looming darkness beyond. "Alright, gentlemen, here we go," Sergeant Miles called out to our escorts. In the front of the group, Sergeant Ayala and Corporal Clemmons brought their weapons to the low-ready, activating the barrel-mounted flashlights attached to their rifles, while Corporal Zhang and Private Madani, bringing up the rear, held their weapons at the high-ready. "Let's do it," I radioed to the team, and into the wreck we went. The darkness enveloped us immediately, pressing in from all sides with an ominous, weighty presence that grew more pervasive and more claustrophobic the further away we drew from the sunlight. As we made our way down the tunnel, I wondered if the A.I. knew that we were once again trespassing in what it had defined as its home, and if so, what sort of a response we could anticipate. Eventually, we reached the cargo hold, arriving on a small precipice that allowed us a view over the wreckage-strewn room - the same place where we'd been ambushed upon our first ingress into the Takashima. "Let's hold here for a moment," I advised, stepping up alongside Ayala and Clemmons to gaze down at the floor below us. In the illumination of our infantrymen's flashlights, I could see the carnage of our previous firefight; the bodies of the pirates still present, now slowly decomposing in the harsh desert elements. But something wasn't right. "Hey, Captain, I know I'm just a simple Sergeant, but things don't look right here," Sergeant Miles observed, echoing my thoughts as he came to join me at my side. Squinting into the distance, he clicked on his flashlight, and swept it around the room. "Yeah. They've been moved around. Check out the blood trails," I observed. Miles nodded. I drew my Hawk Eagle pistol, and gazed down its night vision sight, zooming in on one of the closer corpses. In the enhanced view, I could see that the body was covered in a series of deep, parallel slash marks. "Something's been mutilating them." "Not only that," Sergeant Miles added, "but last week, there were eight dead bodies in this room. Now, there are only six. Looks like at least one of them got dragged toward the elevator." I glanced in the direction that the Sergeant indicated. Sure enough, a wide, bloody trail led toward the elevator shaft positioned directly beneath us. "Could there be another razorbeast running around?" Miles asked. "I don't know, but I'm gonna assume this wreck is still occupied," I replied. "Everyone, go weapons hot. Let's get down there and have a closer look before we commit ourselves to the tunnel."
  2. Nirasaki a few days after 'Mech combat. Aegis_Division30290116_Mission4_Nirasaki_Post7.cpnx
  3. Simultaneously... D.C.S. Takashima Bridge Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ "I am the ship. TAKASHIMA," the A.I. hissed. "I understand," I replied. "Pleasure to meet you." There was no response. Pensively, I watched the storage unit as the transfer continued. In time, the data port's flickering green light changed to a solid blue. Simultaneously, the storage unit lit up solidly in the same shade. Takashima spoke once again. "You want to leave with a Copy of the objective. You, leave. EVACUATE! Immediately!" Behind me, the vestibule's sliding door snapped open, the lights of the computer room flaring to a bright crimson. Carefully, I retrieved the storage cube, returning it to its case and stowing it back in an available cargo pocket. "Thank you," I said, stepping out of the chamber and into the open confines of the bridge. As I exited, the door slammed shut, sealing the room away from us once more. "Captain! Are you alright?" Sergeant Miles asked, concern coloring his tone. "I believe so," I responded, exhaling heavily. "Between the ship's log, and this," I continued, patting the pocket on my left leg, "I think we've got what we came here for. Our 'host' has asked that we now leave." "That's a plan I can get behind," Dutch agreed. Retrieving my weapons and gear pack, I slipped my helmet back on, latching it into place. As its radio re-established communication with the Republic, I opened a channel to Major Hayes. "Eden to Control - mission complete. The objectives have been secured and retrieved. We're heading home." "Roger that, Eden," Hayes replied. "Nice work. We've got a lot to discuss when you get in." "So it would seem," I responded. "We'll see you in a bit. Maxwell out." As our group made their way out of the wreckage of the bridge, a sudden hissing sound began playing across its speakers. The A.I. had a last message for us. "Heading home and do not RETURN!" As if to add a final punctuation to the sentence, the room's deployed turret retracted violently into its alcove, the protective hatch slamming shut with a resounding bang. "I'll try to ensure that we don't," I replied, quietly.
  4. I watched as the data storage unit performed the transfer. The ambient lighting in the chamber seemed to be slowly shifting through the spectrum as though it reflected the analytical thoughts of the entity controlling it. Beyond the point where I stood was another hatch, a heavy door sealed with a series of mag-clamps. I surmised that beyond it was likely the actual computer core, and that this room represented its antechamber. "So...do you have a name?" I asked the computer, partially out of a desire to make small talk, and partially out of genuine curiosity. "Do you have a name?" the computer replied, replaying my voice. "I'm not sure if that was a question, or if you were just imitating me, but if you were asking - it's Charles. Charles Maxwell." "Patient MAXWELL, CHARLES EDWARD," the computer responded, this time playing back MediBot's voice. "You've got him. You? Up until now, we've generally referred to this place as the 'Black Eclipse object.' Don't ask me where William got the name. I honestly haven't got a clue," I mused.
  5. Hearing my own words played back to me, blended together with those of Major Hayes, the latter of which I'd never heard before, was chilling. Having the A.I. holding those words out in an accusatory fashion was even more so. I glanced back at the team, raising an eyebrow in a questioning manner, before turning back toward the turret to attempt to formulate an answer. "I acknowledge that we were authorized to use force; but we have no intention of doing so at this juncture. You have to understand that we had no idea what we were going to encounter in here. I'm not sure how much of the outside world you can see right now, but it was a bloodbath just getting here. The people who were here before had no intention of letting anyone else take their prize. I lost two good men from this team alone, and almost lost a third, just to be able to stand here and speak with you. Their deaths were senseless...but it gives me a small amount of comfort to know that what they were fighting for was something more than just a set of coordinates," I explained. The A.I. repeated its statement. "I am the ship. I survive HERE. You're, here for information only. Copy that. You want to leave with Copy of the objective." I nodded. "I think I understand. You want to remain here, but you're willing to give us a copy if we'll take it and leave. Did I interpret that correctly?" "Copy that," the A.I. replied, again in my own voice. I had no idea how Major Hayes would respond to receiving copied data, rather than the original mission objective, but it was a start. I also didn't know what the long-term implications would be of us leaving a functional artificial intelligence laying in the desert for some future looter to find; however, at the moment, I felt that the computer had the upper hand. "I would be very grateful to you for the opportunity," I affirmed. With no further comment, the heavy door before me swung open, revealing a short, octagonal hallway beyond. A series of blood-red lights clicked on in sequence, bathing the chamber in crimson light. Slowly, I stepped through the hatch, finding myself surrounded with a series of data ports, flashing computer banks, and a set of removable hard drives with displays indicating that their sectors were blank. As I took in my surroundings, the door suddenly and unexpectedly slammed shut.
  6. D.C.S. Takashima Bridge Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ I couldn't believe it. I was attempting to cut a deal with a computer. I'd negotiated a number of agreements in the past, but they had all been with flesh-and-blood entities. This situation was decidedly different. I wasn't sure how deep the machine's consciousness went, but it was, at the very least, an extremely sophisticated chat bot. Nor did I know precisely what motivated it, but it had just dropped a very specific hint. "You want us to leave - I understand that. You've been laying here for over 200 years, undisturbed. And now, all of a sudden, people are coming. They're taking pieces of this place - of you - with them. And that's frustrating, I bet. Painful, even, maybe, hell, I don't know. I'm not inside your head. I can't know," I began. "Vivisection: the process of dissection carried out on a living subject. Generally considered inhumane. Outlawed by Star League conventions during the reign of - " MediBot interrupted. "Thank you," I interjected, a slight tone of annoyance coloring my voice. "But I do know this," I continued, addressing the computer. "Your location is widely-known now. The ship was exposed by the planet's shifting weather patterns. It's a huge landmark on the horizon. You want us to leave - we'll leave. But others will come. Maybe they'll be interested in you. Maybe they won't. But I do know this: they'll want to dismantle this place. Piece by piece. Probably nothing will go out intact. Between that, and the ship being exposed to the elements, your chances of survival out here, on your own, are not good." Silence reigned supreme. "I think you have an opportunity here. Let us take you with us. We're not interested in dissecting you, or putting you in the guts of a spaceship, or anything of that sort. We want to take you back to," I glanced back at the team momentarily, trying to remember my Star League history, "to the Terran Hegemony, where you'd have access to the First Circuit and be able to learn all sorts of information that would benefit the Coordinator. Survival motivates you, right? What motivates me is you. I want to help you survive. If you want me to leave, let me take you with me."
  7. A thousand puzzle pieces suddenly clicked together in my mind. The surveillance camera in the cargo bay. The inexplicable heavily-armed resistance we'd randomly encountered in the middle of the desert. Schmidt's treachery - to the extent that he'd attempted to interdict with his own hired lance. William's over-the-top enthusiasm about recovering what seemed like dodgy, obsolete data at best, and his multi-tiered cloak-and-dagger, no-expenses-spared pursuit of it: all of it made sense now. "He didn't send us after a star map,'" I whispered. "He sent us after an AI..." "AI: Artificial Intelligence. The theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages. Also see: neural network. A computer system modeled on the human brain and nervous system," a monotone, high-pitched voice replied from behind me. I turned my head just far enough to see MediBot positioned directly to my right, also looking at the deployed turret. The robot's head snapped toward me. "Patient MAXWELL, CHARLES EDWARD. You are experiencing elevated respiration and pulse rates. Recommendation: sedation. I can provide treatment immediately." "Not now, thanks," I whispered. Then, addressing the ship, I continued. "You're an artificial intelligence. I understand. We didn't know that you were here. We were sent here under...different pretenses. I apologize for failing to knock before we came into your home. It seems that it's you we're here to see."
  8. A crescendo of firearms being drawn and brought to the ready echoed across the bridge as Sabre team responded to the appearance of the turret. I quickly raised a hand to forestall what I was certain to become firefight. Squinting through the brain fog I continued to feel, I turned toward the turret, and slowly raised my hands. "It's not our intention to hurt you - or anyone - if we can work together to avoid it. We have no interest in the ship itself. We're not like the people who came before us. We're here for information only. If you have a prior claim to this place, I'm prepared to negotiate. Maybe we can help each other." There came no reply. "Look, I'm going to disarm myself to show you that I stand by my words. I'm going to walk you through every part of the process so that there won't be any surprises," I continued. "I'm going to take off my helmet so that I can put my gear on the ground." I released the clamps on my MechWarrior combat helmet, the dry, stale air of the shipwreck rushing across my skin as I did so. Pulling the headgear away, I slowly knelt down and set it on the deck with a free hand. "Cap, are you sure this is a good idea?" a voice behind me asked. I raised a hand once again in response. "Now, look, I'm putting my firearms and these explosives down as well," I advised the disembodied voice, setting my Hawk Eagle, my MP-20 rifle, and my demolitions bandoleer on the ground. Slowly, I rose back to a standing position, my hands outstretched once again. "See? No guns. No tools. If we're fighting, we're not talking. I want to talk. Can you help me understand what you mean when you say that 'you are the ship?'" I'd heard urban legends and ghost stories, but I didn't want to jump to any conclusions...
  9. D.C.S. Takashima Bridge Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ The electronic lockpick overloaded with a loud pop and the smell of ozone. Its plastic case, melted, slagged down the front of the door frame, leaving discolored, burnt trails of residue in its wake. A strong, painful headache overcame me, accompanied by a feeling of dread, my vision doubling and growing blurry as whatever malevolent force was at work in the Takashima took hold again. I glanced behind me and noticed the rest of the team also reacting similarly; proof positive that all of us were being affected. Whoever this entity was that we were now dealing with, I was convinced that it might be responsible. "Who are you? The salvagers here before us agreed to withdraw. This ship is supposed to be empty!"
  10. D.C.S. Takashima Bridge Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ "Control to Sabre team - how are you progressing, gentlemen?" "We're a little tied up at the moment!" I exclaimed. With a guttural roar, the Ouanii razorbeast barreled toward us, its hulking form reminiscent of a grizzly bear from Terra, its fur undulating and rippling in the low light. I lunged out of the animal's path of travel, unholstering my Hawk Eagle and whirling around to fire. But it was too late to get off a shot. In a single, fluid movement, the razorbeast grabbed Corporal Clemmons, one of our laser rifle escorts, attempting to maul him. I fired blindly at the animal, struggling to maintain a true aim in the curved corridor in the low-light conditions. The creature, undeterred, let out another ear-shattering roar and slapped at Clemmons, sending him tumbling down our ascent route toward the deck some fifteen feet below. As I reloaded and prepared to fire again, the razorbeast turned around and prepared to attack. Suddenly, Sergeant Ayala, another of our machine gun escorts, appeared out of nowhere and delivered a forceful blow to the animal with the butt of his rifle. This action only seemed to enrage our assailant further, as it drew back one of its beefy paws and swatted the infantryman aside with ease, sending him bouncing off the wall of the extremely tight bridge corridor and flipping head over heels into the depths of the bridge. I backpedaled wildly, holstering my pistol and attempting to draw my much higher-caliber MP-20 rifle. As I backed around the corner of the corridor, heading into the bridge, I felt a shoulder press up against mine, realizing that Dutch McKenzie was now beside me, weapon at the ready. "Heya, Cap," McKenzie quipped, before opening fire on the razorbeast. I nodded and raised my rifle, pulling the trigger and unleashing three powerful bursts of high-caliber rounds at the animal. The creature screamed in rage, rearing up onto its hind legs and towering over us momentarily before staggering backwards and out of sight. A moment later, I heard a heavy, wet thud as the razorbeast, apparently having fallen out of the bridge vestibule, struck the deck below. Running to the ledge where we'd left our climbing gear, Dutch and I peered over the side to see the fallen animal sprawled out on the deck below, motionless. Alongside it lay Corporal Clemmons, writhing in pain. "Good shooting," I gasped at Dutch, trying to catch my breath. "Yeah, you too," he replied. ### "New patients, new patients, what are your symptoms?" MediBot inquired, trundling toward Clemmons and Ayala, who we'd moved into an open alcove within the bridge for triage. "They got attacked by a monster," Sergeant Miles deadpanned, looking toward the downed infantrymen with concern. MediBot halted momentarily, looking toward Miles with an almost quizzical posture. "An Ouanii razorbeast," he clarified. MediBot paused for a moment while accessing its database. "Ouanii razorbeast, attack by. Symptoms include death, lacerations, concussions, trauma. Patients are not deceased. Checklist item number one complete." Having recalled the appropriate medical information, the robot continued its approach toward the soldiers. Meanwhile, I made my way across the bridge to examine a series of lights I'd noted earlier, glowing in the darkness, entirely out of place on a vessel that was, for the most part, without power. "Gentlemen, while we're here, let's see if we can find the ship's log. Remember, that's one of our objectives. The other being, of course, the computer drives with the navigation data to that shipyard that William's after." Stepping around the shattered wreckage of the command center, I approached the lights, realizing, as I did so, that they were the glowing controls of a still-active door lock. "Captain, I've got the log - it was still plugged into the arm of the command chair," Miles called out. "Nice work," I replied. "Let's keep that thing stowed safely until we can get it back to the Republic. Can one of you join me over here for a second? I need an extra set of hands." A moment later, Dutch appeared at my side. "What've you got, sir?" he asked. "Can you hold this light for me?" I responded, passing him my flashlight. "I want to confirm what door this is before I try to open it." As I spoke, I unfurled the map of the Takashima before us. "We don't need the map for that. I can already tell you what that Kuritan signage says," McKenzie answered, pointing toward a badly-faded block of script on the bulkhead. "It says 'HIGH ULTIMATE COMPUTER MIND - ACCESS FOR NO ONE - MAXIMUM LIMITED IN.'" "I'm pretty sure that works out to "Primary computer core - keep out - maximum restricted entry," no?" I replied. "That's a pretty safe bet," Dutch nodded. "Excellent," I quipped, giving the hatch a tug. "As I suspected. Locked. But it looks like the electronic access controls are still working. I bet I could get past them with the Apple-Churchill kit." Unshouldering my backpack, I set about retrieving the electronic lockpick gear, and connecting it to the door controls. As I activated the decryption subroutine, I suddenly heard a sharp, tinny squelch, followed by a chilling series of audio clips, seemingly spliced together from several different recordings of multiple different speakers. Most unsettling of all, one of the recordings was a replay of my own voice. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE...?"
  11. D.C.S. Takashima Engineering Section Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ With our machine gunners and laser teams stationed in a security perimeter around the drive control room, Dutch, Miles, and I had spent the last twenty minutes scouring every piece of literature we could find for something that resembled a ship diagram. Although we hadn't turned up anything that would meet our immediate needs, I had learned more about K-F drive maintenance than I'd ever hoped to know. "This place is like an adult bookstore for engineers," I sighed, snapping closed the twelfth binder in a row and turning toward Dutch and the Sergeant. Leaning against the bulkhead, I pulled out my pocket humidor, seriously considering having a smoke. "Have you gents had any better luck?" "Nothing so far," Dutch replied, tossing aside a folio overflowing with shattered data pads. "Just volumes and volumes about the drive system, calibration reports, technicians' logs, and - " "Wait! I've got something!" Miles exclaimed. Shoving the cigar case back into my pocket, I sprinted over to the Skinwalker, who held out an unfurled cross-section of the vessel. "That looks promising," I grinned. "May I?" "Certainly," the Sergeant answered, handing me the layout. As I re-oriented it to face me, I was stupefied by its detail and complexity. Printed on a translucent plastic, the diagram used a lenticular printing method to not only illustrate the deck-by-deck plans of the Takashima, but also, to display those details in a type of three-dimensional manner that appeared to move slightly as I angled the schematic from side to side. "Nice work. My god, when you guys come through, you really come through," I quipped, waving Dutch over to us. As the MechWarrior approached, his expression became one of amazement. "That is a friggin' home run," McKenzie agreed. "Alright, so where are we?" I traced my finger along the map. Although I couldn't read Kuritan, a great many of the ship's details were somewhat recognizable, and I was quickly able to locate the massive drive bay. "We've gotta be here," I observed, placing my finger on the representation of the engine room. "Yeah. And the map says that the primary computer core is on Deck 7," Dutch added, pointing at a small alcove just below the level of the bridge. "Well, shit. That's a long way from here. Last I knew, we were somewhere around Deck 24," Miles grumbled. "Yeah, suffice it to say, we're gonna get our cardio," I agreed. "Come on, let's get a move on." ### Halfway through our trek to the computer core, we came across one of the Takashima's aft fighter bays, a detour too tantalizing to ignore. Our luck remaining consistent, the bay was, of course, positioned 'up' relative to where we stood. After wrangling about with our grappling gear for several minutes, one of our escorts - Corporal Jamison - and I were able to reel ourselves up to the airlock door which stood between us and the bay. "It feels like it's operable, but jammed. Rusted shut or something," I noted as I hung on the climbing line, pushing the door with a free arm and feeling it resist against my hand. "Yeah, I concur," the Corporal agreed. "Cutting the hinges from this angle seems like it'd bring the door down on us. And I don't think a breaching charge would do much other than turn us into exploded dog food." "Dog food," I chuckled. "I'm going to have to remember that one. Alright, so I guess that leaves brute force." "Yes, sir. Ready when you are," Jamison answered. After several well-placed, synchronized kicks to the door, we managed to force it open wide enough that each of us could crawl through, one at a time. Jamison insisted on going first, citing the fact that we'd been ambushed once already, and that his combat training would give him the edge if it was going to happen again. As I hung outside the airlock, I watched as Jamison wiggled into its vestibule, his feet disappearing into the darkness beyond. "Alright, I'm in, sir," Jamison radioed. "Copy that. Nice work. What do you see?" I asked. "Uhhh...there's another door," the Corporal answered. "You're shitting me," I replied, resting my face in my palm. "No, sir, but I think I can get it open," Jamison responded. "Alright, that's good news. Make it so," I acknowledged. Several resounding clanks rang out across the deck as the Corporal attacked the door with what sounded like the butt of his rifle. "I hope that thing's not loaded," I quipped. "You don't want an accidental discharge in such a confined space." "No sir, I made sure to clear the chamber," Jamison laughed. A monumental grunt followed. "Alright, I've got it open. I'm heading into the bay. It's really dark in here. I'm gonna reload real quick. Wouldn't want to get ambushed." Over the open comm channel, I heard the Corporal reloading his assault rifle, followed by the sound of a round being chambered. "Okay, I'm headed in now. Goddamn, it's dark in here." "What do you see?" I asked. Suddenly, the hairs on the back of my neck bristled, and a feeling of deep dread started to overtake me, though there was absolutely no cause for it. I tried to push it away, clearing my throat and continuing to speak. "Anything of note?" "The fighters are completely destroyed - looks like they all smashed against the end of the bay when the ship went tits up," Jamison replied, sounding a bit out of breath as he spoke into his radio. "There's uhhh...there's another room, and. Oh, shit - " The comm unit suddenly crackled with a burst of static as the transmission ended. "What is it? What's going on?" I responded, frantically, as I began to winch myself up to the airlock. "There's someone in here with me, Captain! Multiple someones! They're - OH MY GOD! There's no way! Holy fucking shit! Aaaaahhhh!" A barrage of machine gun fire, accompanied by the sound of dozens of ricocheting bullets filled the air. I scrambled toward the top of the grapple line, fighting to get myself pulled onto the lip of the airlock so that I could cut away the harness and rush to the Corporal's aid. "Jamison! JAMISON! ANSWER ME! What is GOING ON?" I demanded, reaching the outer airlock and unbuckling my climbing gear. "Its face. Its FACE! ITS FACE IS MELTING OFF! AAAAAAAAAH! GET OUT OF MY HEAD! GET OUT OF MY HEAD! I WON'T LET YOU! I WON'T LET YOU! I'LL KILL YOU FIRST! I'LL KILL YOU FIRST! I'LL..." "Jamison!" "Our Father, who art in heaven..." The distinctive clank of five heavy objects hitting the deck punctuated the end of the Corporal's sentence. "No..." I whispered. A tremendous, guttural explosion, which defied the very heavens in its volume and depth, rocked the Takashima and sent the outer edges of a fireball rolling from the airlock. I was blown from my feet, the radiating heat from the conflagration perceptible even from inside my MechWarrior combat suit. As I fell from the airlock, somehow, by the grace of Blake, I managed to grab hold of the edge of the doorway with my right arm and my climbing line with my left leg. "Jamison? Jamison! Answer me!" I barked into my headset as I fought to stay aloft. There came no reply. "Captain! What the hell's going on up there?" McKenzie's voice crackled. A sudden sharp impact to my left heralded the arrival of a third grappling hook landing nearby; I twisted my head to look toward its source and saw Sergeant Miles preparing to climb up to assist me. "Hold your positions!" I called out, as I slowly, painfully pulled myself back to the airlock's threshold. "I don't want to risk anyone else coming up here until I can figure out what the hell happened just now." "Aye, sir," Miles replied, his voice sounding reticent and worried. Forcing the airlock doors open, which had been blown closed by the explosion, I worked my way into the darkened confines of the aerospace bay. The overpowering smell of smoke, spent gunpowder, and the unmistakable odor of burning petroleum assaulted my senses as I entered the chamber. The room was ablaze in several places, flames radiating out from a single, gore-strewn source, and it became clear, as I clicked my flashlight on, that Corporal Jamison had detonated his entire bandolier of frag grenades, napalm grenades, and a breaching charge all at once. What little remained of him was now strewn throughout the hangar, reduced to unrecognizable, bloodied parts. "Oh, Jamison. Why did do you do this?" I muttered to myself as I walked among the ruins. The question was rhetorical; it was apparent to me what had driven the Corporal over the edge, and I suspected that the rest of the team knew as well. A dark and insidious madness pervaded this place; what was causing it remained unknown. It had an almost predatory feel to it - the deeper we moved into the ship, the stronger it seemed to become. I'd never experienced anything like it in my career. I hoped that I never would again. A glint of light caught my flashlight beam, a small piece of twisted metal catching my eye. I made my way over to it, recognizing the source as a single, military-style dog tag, likely having been torn from its chain and separated from its partner by the explosion. I knelt down and picked it up, wiping a smattering of blood from its surface and reading the engraving. JAMISON ANTONIO J. 3971-223-0966 A POS CRAYVEN CORP "Goddamn, Jamison..." I murmured to myself, rising back to my feet and slipping the tag into a chest-mounted pocket. Gradually, I made a circuit of the rest of the bay, eventually noticing an open weapons locker inside the bay's security room. A cursory inventory revealed ten laser rifles, half a dozen laser pistols, a stun gun, and a set of handcuffs. "Maxwell to Sabre team," I radioed. "Stand by to receive some gear." ### Nearly thirty minutes and an arduous trek along a series of elevator shafts later, we arrived at Deck 7, only to then discover that the computer core was, in fact, on the bridge. This complication proved to be an especially challenging issue to solve, as, in addition to needing to traverse an additional series of decks, when we arrived, we'd discovered that the Takashima's grav deck had collapsed on impact with the planet, destroying the starboard computer room entirely and leaving standalone access to the port computer room only possible via the bridge. However, as our group stood below the bridge's entrance, we quickly realized that the six-meter climb would only be possible if we could get a grappling hook deep enough into the bridge that it could hook securely onto something, a feat made challenging by its sharply-curving layout. "How in the fuck are we going to get a hook in there?" Dutch deadpanned, staring up at what little of the command center's interior could be seen. "I mean, my best throw is gonna bounce right off of one of those curves and fall back out again. Who the hell designs a command center like that, anyway? It looks like a fucking seashell." "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," I quipped. "Besides which, I doubt the designers had the contingency of 'falling from orbit, then being raided by salvagers 200 years later' in their design philosophy." "Yeah, well, they should have," McKenzie muttered, pacing with frustration. "Hey, I might have an idea," I responded. Withdrawing my MP-20 rifle from its holstered position, I cleared its chamber, and compared the diameter of its barrel with the circumference of my grappling hook's shaft. "I bet I could improvise a rifle-launched grapnel out of this thing." Sergeant Miles raised an eyebrow. "You know, I think you just might be able to," he agreed. ### Several minutes later, I was in position and ready to fire. "Alright, guys - stand back. If this thing goes sideways, I want to be sure that I'm the only one who gets maimed," I advised. Dutch let out a chuckle. "I was only halfway joking," I replied. The Captain and Sergeant nodded in response, backing away to a safe distance with our armed detail in tow. "You too, MediBot," I added, noting that the automaton was staring at me silently. The robot jolted and then moved off. "Okay. Here we go," I announced, drawing in a deep breath and leveling the rifle at as favorable an angle to the bridge's sharply-curved entrance as possible. "Three...two...one!" A deafening bang echoed through the deck as my MP-20 discharged, sending the grapnel sailing through the air. With a loud clank, the hook ricocheted off the bridge vestibule's far wall, making a ninety-degree turn and disappearing into the chamber beyond. I heard a muted crash as the grapnel landed, noting the climbing wire going taut with a satisfied smile. Cautiously, I holstered my rifle, and walked over to the line, giving it first a gentle tug, then a sharper one, before progressing to putting my full weight on it. The line held firm. "Gentlemen," I smiled, "our lift awaits." ### Approximately fifteen minutes later, our entire party, including MediBot, had been hoisted up to the bridge deck. As we entered its darkened confines, I suddenly heard a heavy shuffling noise that I couldn't identify. At first, I considered the possibility that I'd started to hallucinate again. But them, I noticed the rest of the group had also frozen in their tracks. "You heard that too?" I whispered. Sergeant Miles, Dutch, and the infantry detail all nodded their heads. "What in the devil could that be?" I wondered out loud, casting my flashlight around the bridge. At first, I saw nothing. But then, a large mass of gray, matted fur caught my eye. "Oh, shit..." I blurted. The words had barely escaped my mouth when the hulking, unmistakable form of an Ouanii razorbeast came charging toward us...
  12. D.C.S. Takashima Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ The sealed door had turned out to be a complete write-off, proving to be little more than a ghoulish-smelling chamber of long-decomposed foodstuffs. For the second time, I was baffled by the behavior of the salvagers. First, they'd built a seemingly-pointless fortification in the middle of the wreck, 'staffed' with what I was almost certain were bottles of urine. Then, they'd constructed a solid junk wall, containing an almost-impassable tunnel standing before a sealed chamber of spoiled foods. The bizarre decisions stood in stark contrast to the well-armed and well-coordinated defense that the occupiers were mounting outside the wreck; a defense so effective that, according to the radio transmissions I was hearing , was still raging outside. "Well, that was a colossal waste of time," I finally sighed. "We couldn't know until we looked, I guess," Dutch replied, shrugging his shoulders. "Agreed. We can't assume anything," I nodded. "Come on, let's see if we can make up for lost time. Let's move out." Suddenly, an extreme feeling of anxiety overcame me. A flurry of shadowy, ill-defined figures raced across my peripheral field of view. We were being ambushed again; I was sure of it. I withdrew my Hawk Eagle from its holster and glanced around furtively. Sergeant Miles froze, staring intently at me. "What is it, Captain?" he asked, heavy concern apparent in his voice. "What the shit?" I gasped. "Captain?" "There's nothing here," I explained. "With all due respect - we'd already established that, sir," Miles replied. I slowly holstered my weapon. "But I could have sworn that, just now, I saw people. Lots of people. Running through the room. Over there, and over there," I explained, pointing to my left and to my right. The Sergeant looked around, clicking his flashlight on and sweeping it around the chamber. "It's clear, sir. Nothing here except a bunch of old food. Can I make a personal request, Captain?" "Of course," I answered, my senses still spiking, screaming at me that something was very wrong here. "Name it." "Can we get out of here? I'm really doing a Hail Mary trying not to puke." I nodded, and the team fell into formation. We had just begun to move further down the corridor when I realized that we were short one individual. Making a headcount, I observed that MediBot hadn't accompanied us, instead remaining back at the site of the junk barricade, staring at a nearby bulkhead. I motioned for the squad to hold position, and slowly made my way back toward the robot. "MediBot: follow," I commanded. The robot remained stationary and unresponsive. "MediBot: follow!" I repeated. After a pause, the automaton turned its head toward me, its animated eyes glowing a bright red. Seconds later, MediBot's irises flashed back to their normal shade of green. "You...okay?" I asked, hesitantly. The robot simply emitted a cheery trio of chimes and trundled toward me, continuing to follow as I, unsettled, rejoined the group. "Keep an eye on that one," I whispered to Miles as I headed toward the front of the group. ### "This plan is batshit insane," I sighed, staring down the chasm that would ordinarily have been a horizontal corridor. As the seven of us penetrated deeper into the wreck, we'd come to the realization that the generic Cruiser-class deckplans we'd been issued were completely useless; Takashima had either been heavily modified to an entirely different interior layout, or the information that the Draconis Combine was putting out about its military hardware was utter malarkey. I suspected the latter. I now found myself about to rappel halfway down a 100-foot drop, then attempt to springboard off a bulkhead hard enough that I could swing across to the other side of the corridor and catch hold of a door that led into what was marked as a crew bunkroom. The reason we were even attempting this mild feat of madness was that, after further aimless wandering, I'd concluded that we were in desperate need of an actual layout of the vessel, and I'd hoped that such an artifact might be present in a space frequented by the ship's staff. "Alright, are you gents ready?" I asked, turning toward the gunners who'd been conscripted to spot my climbing gear during the descent. "Aye, sir. Ready when you are." "Okay - let's get this over with," I responded, clicking my helmet-mounted flashlights on and tethering myself over the edge of the pit. After what felt like an eternity of careful, pensive descent, I found myself suspended at the level of the crew quarters. Flashing a thumbs-up to the team, I pitched my weight back and forth, gradually building up a pendulum effect, until I was swinging from side to side across the corridor with enough range that I was ultimately able to give the far bulkhead a solid kick. The impact sent me sailing across to the door of the crew quarters, where I threw my hands around the hatch's handle to anchor myself in place. "Eden to Sabre team - I've reached the objective. Heading in now," I radioed to the squad. As I turned to examine the lock controls, a dark, glistening mass caught my eye a short distance away from my position. What is that? Withdrawing my Hawk Eagle from its holster with a free hand, I toggled its night-vision scope on, and trained it on the object. As I zoomed in, a horrifying, ghoulish scene came into resolution. Against the far bulkhead, near the end of the corridor, a mutilated, bloodied corpse - or, more accurately, a torso - was pinned, upside-down, to the wall. A very large bolt had been driven directly through its sternum, like a giant pushpin, and washes of gore were sprayed out in all directions from the remains, as though the body had been intact up until the moment of impalement. A gigantic smiley face had been smeared across the bulkhead beside the corpse, apparently painted with its own blood, and a scrawled series of words to the left of the corpse, formed from bloody hand prints, sent chills down my spine. WE ONLY ASK TO BE REASSURED ABOUT THE NOISES IN THE CELLAR AND THE WINDOW THAT SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN OPEN "What the fuck?" I blurted. Looking further down the corridor, I saw even more writing. I began to realize that the entire section was covered in it. LAST NIGHT I SAW UPON THE STAIR A LITTLE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE HE WASN'T THERE AGAIN TODAY OH HOW I WISH HE'D GO AWAY "Say again, Captain?" Miles' voice crackled in my headset. "Uh, forget it. Probably nothing," I replied, putting my weapon away and focusing myself to concentrate on getting the crew quarters open. Thankfully, though the hatch was corroded, I was able to force it open with some effort. As I stepped inside, my helmet's lights caught the profile of someone laying beside a fallen bunk. I drew my pistol again, and slowly approached. "Hello?" I called out. There came no reply. I drew closer, noting that the figure was completely covered by a blanket. "Can you hear me? I'm Charles Maxwell, Aegis Division. We're here to salvage this vessel." Silence. Slowly, I drew alongside the bunk, pensively reaching a hand out to draw back the blanket. The person did not move. "I'm going to move the covers so that I can see you, okay? I'm not going to hurt you." I received no acknowledgement. With a feeling of extreme dread, I took the edge of the blanket between my thumb and forefinger, and began to draw the material back. A tuft of white hair came into view. Suddenly, a surge of adrenaline hit me, and I yanked the cover away forcibly, abruptly finding myself face-to-face with a mummified crew member, its decomposed face frozen in a death scream, its soulless, empty eye sockets staring back at me like a pair of black pools surrounded by decaying skin that resembled an elephant hide pulled taught over a skeletal frame. I stumbled back in surprise, having been unprepared for this specific type of encounter, taking a moment to regain my composure as I began to note three other bodies in similar states of decay scattered around the cabin. As my heart rate returned to normal, I began taking a methodical inventory of the room. There was very little of immediate interest present - a large number of scattered personal belongings, the remains of clothing, and various Kuritan publications that I couldn't read. Then, I noticed, off to the side of the quarters, a computer terminal. Approaching it, I clicked its power button, but the unit wouldn't turn on. Shrugging off my backpack, I set it on the floor, and withdrew the Apple-Churchill personal surveillance kit I'd brought along for the purpose of accessing uncooperative systems. Unfortunately, even after connecting it to the terminal, I couldn't get a response. Then, I had an idea. "Eden to Sabre team - can you send the MediBot down here?" I radioed. "Can you repeat that, sir?" Dutch McKenzie replied. "I said, can you send the MediBot down here? I'll explain later," I answered. "Aye, sir," McKenzie responded. "It's gonna take us a couple of minutes to winch it down. You gonna collect it?" "Affirmative," I acknowledged. "I'll be waiting." As I looked around the room, I suddenly began to feel another overwhelming wave of anxiety. I couldn't put my finger on what it was, but I had the distinct feeling that I was being watched. And then, I heard it. A muted shuffle behind me, like someone moving across the floor. I whirled around, and, against all odds, one of the corpses had twisted its head around and was now staring directly at me, its mouth slowly opening and closing as though it were gasping for air, while its mummified face twisted and contorted through a series of anguished expressions. I let out a yell, drawing my MP-20 rifle to a ready position and stumbling back against the desk. The corpse began to emit a raspy, twisted scream that sent me into a full-blown panic attack, my throat closing and my heart feeling as though it were about to explode in my chest. I fought to raise the rifle's scope to my eye, eventually succeeding as the corpse began to drag its way across the floor toward me with a single arm, when suddenly... ...I heard three confused chirps coming from the corridor behind me. I blinked, and the room had returned to normal; the corpses in their original resting spots. My labored breathing resonated in my ears, the rifle, still at the ready, shook in my hands. I hesitantly lowered the weapon, glancing furtively back and forth between the corridor and the dead bodies. Eventually, I backed toward the doorway, where the MediBot hung by its climbing harness, awaiting retrieval. ### With the robot unloaded, I guided it into the room and toward the computer. Opening a small bay door on the side of the automaton, I withdrew a series of cables, and connected them to the terminal. Turning toward the robot, I spoke. "MediBot: serial comm mode." MediBot displayed a 'processing' animation on its face. Eventually, the terminal's screen illuminated. "Alright, nice work," I advised. "Keep the juice flowing." As I walked toward the terminal, a sudden shower of sparks and smoke belched from the unit, its screen falling dark. "The patient is deceased," MediBot observed. "Goddamnit," I muttered. ### Sergeant Miles gazed expectantly toward me as I climbed out of the chasm, MediBot having been hoisted out of the corridor ahead of me. "Any luck, sir?" "No. The terminal couldn't handle the input. However, I did find a personal log recorder as I was leaving the cabin, and, as you can see, MediBot found a...unicorn," I replied, gesturing toward the robot, which held a small, ivory figure in its claw. "What the hell is this unicorn doing here? They're bad luck, sir," someone joked. I rolled my eyes. "There's one small catch - do any of you speak Kuritan?" I continued, glancing toward the rest of the assembled team. "I speak a little," Dutch replied. "Fantastic," I quipped. "Can you translate any of what this guy is saying?" I tossed the log unit to the MechWarrior, who stepped away from the group to concentrate on the audio recordings. As I waited for McKenzie's results, I took Sergeant Miles aside. "Miles, I need to ask you a very important question, and I need you to level with me. Have you been experiencing anything...unusual...since we've been in this ship?" "I've felt a little bit more on edge than normal. Why do you ask?" Miles inquired, a hint of apprehension in his voice. "For the same reason. This place is giving me the creeps," I replied, not wanting to volunteer anything further, and wondering if I was the only one experiencing the sensory hallucinations. A few minutes later, Dutch wandered back over to us. "Any luck?" I asked. "There's nothing useful here as far as I can tell," McKenzie replied. "The recordings are by some low-level ensign named 'Jouchi.' He mostly makes oblique references to being on some classified mission about which his superiors are keeping him in the dark. Oh, and there's some bad poetry, and even worse singing." "Lovely," I deadpanned. "So in other words, yet another waste of time." Dutch nodded. "That seems to be about the only thing we're accomplishing today..." ### Nearly forty-five minutes later, we hit paydirt. After wandering into one dilapidated, looted section of the vessel after another, we'd decided to retrace our steps and head directly for the center of the vessel, keeping track of where that was by moving due aft from the cargo bay and progressively further 'downward' toward the side of the ship that lay against the planet's surface. In doing so, we'd managed to penetrate as far as the outer engine room, beyond which, logic dictated, would be the engineering control center, where we'd hopefully be able to find a diagram that would guide us to the ship's bridge and computer core. Winding our way through the ruined remains of the ship's K-F drive units, we drew upon a large set of sweeping computer banks, above which were many cabinets full of technical manuals, diagrams, and deck charts. Beyond the bay sat a heavy set of clamshell doors, sealed tightly against our entry. I made a mental note to myself that we'd need to pay another visit to the bay with heavier equipment later on, should the opportunity present itself. "Paydirt, gentlemen. Let's spread out and see if we can find anything useful that might show us how to find the computer core," I advised, making my way to the closest station and pulling out the largest folio on the shelf.
  13. Meanwhile... D.C.S. Takashima Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ I slowly pulled off my helmet, switching my comm unit over to the shoulder-mounted microphone clipped to my combat suit. The hot, stuffy desert air prickled at my skin, and I pulled off a glove to wipe what seemed like a liter of built-up perspiration from my face. "Sabre Lead - advise status. Is everybody in one piece down there?" my radio crackled, a tone of urgency coloring Major Hayes' voice. I took a quick head count before replying, my flashlight casting long, glowing cones of light through the gore-strewn chamber. Seven, including the robot. Good. "We're all here, Major," I replied. "It was a close call, but thanks to some fast acting by our Skinwalker liaison and the gunslingers here, we pulled through. All tangoes are down and we're assessing the current situation. Ingress is continuing. " "Copy," Hayes answered. "That's good news. I have some additional information to relay to you that I think you'll find to your liking." "Oh?" I inquired, turning toward the MediBot as it trundled toward me after having apparently attempted medical intervention on one particularly-deceased looter. "Yes. Your Warrant Officer Chase has taken Nathan Schmidt into custody. She'll be bringing him back to us alive." The hairs on the back of my neck bristled. Although I knew that Chase could hold her own, I'd also been briefed on how duplicitous and calculating Schmidt could be. "That's definitely encouraging," I quipped. "Just make sure she keeps a close eye on him between now and the time we've got him in a steel cage." "Noted, Captain. I'll be sure to relay the message," Hayes responded. "Keep us apprised of your situation. Control out." "Maxwell out," I replied, closing the channel. A sudden trifecta of happy chimes drew my attention back to the medical robot. "Hello, patients. Do you require medical assistance?" MediBot asked. "I dunno, I think I might be getting some carpal tunnel syndrome from all of this shooting," I joked. MediBot cocked its head to one side. "Carpal tunnel syndrome. Also called: median nerve compression. A numbness and tingling in the hand and arm caused by a pinched nerve in the wrist. Treatment consists of activity modifications and devices.Treatment may include rest, ice, wrist splints, cortisone injections, and surgery. This unit can commence surgery immediately." The robot turned on its examination light and extended a mandibled hand toward me. "Uhh, why don't we wait until we're in a sanitary environment before we start operating?" I replied. MediBot let out two low-toned beeps, and rolled off to engage with the other members of our party. Turning toward Miles, I noticed that the soldier had his eyes trained on a point high up toward the ceiling. Following his gaze, I attempted to ascertain what he was seeing. "What've you got, Sergeant?" I inquired. "Well," Miles answered, hesitantly. "I can't be sure. Maybe it's nothing, but I could have sworn I saw that camera lens move." "Camera lens? Where?" I replied, squinting into the darkness. "There," the Sergeant answered, clicking his flashlight on and illuminating the area in question. As my eyes focused, I could see that there was, indeed, a camera, mounted halfway up a far bulkhead, which appeared to be trained on us. However, it remained motionless, its lens aperture unmoving even as Miles shined his flashlight directly into it. "Huh. I'll be damned," I replied, lifting my night vision scope to train it on the device. The thermal signature registered cold. "Well, if it was on, it doesn't appear to be now," I sighed, holstering my weapon. "Keep an eye out, though. There's no telling what kinds of traps these people have set for us." "No problem, sir. That's what they pay me to do," Miles nodded. "Nice work dealing with these guys, by the way. I appreciate your quick intervention," I added. "Also what they pay me to do," the Sergeant answered, wryly, allowing himself a rare smile. I clapped him on the shoulder and turned toward the rest of the squad. "You gents okay? Ready to move?" I asked. A flurry of affirmations met my reply. ### After navigating a maze of corridors, an abandoned mess hall, stumbling across a rat-filled elevator, and a hangar bay that had been stripped down to the wires in the bulkheads, we finally arrived at a t-intersection barricaded off with enormous piles of floor-to-ceiling debris, including colossal towers of chairs and tables, in the middle what looked like a makeshift war zone. A fortification of literal barbed wire and sandbags rose before us, stood sentry over by, oddly, enough, multiple tall bottles of a foul-smelling yellow liquid - all wearing bandannas and equipped with various kitchen utensils that were apparently intended as armament. A quartet of crudely-written signs, fashioned from pieces of cardboard, hung from the fortification. the first three reading, 'KEEP OUT.' The fourth sign, oddly, read 'THE POOL IS BROKEN. GO AWAY' and pointed back in the general direction of the cargo bay. Near the junk mountain, leaned against the wall, was the other half of the ladder that had been cut out of the airlock at the entrance to the ship. "Ooo-kay," I remarked, taking several cautious steps toward the harrowing-looking pile. "I'm gonna hazard a guess that this was the...field office...of our late salvagers back there." "I hope you're right," Dutch McKenzie replied. I raised an eyebrow. "Me too. I don't like the idea of another ambush this deep in the wreck." ### I was beginning to feel very suspicious of our surroundings, even more so when we rounded a short L-intersection and found that the corridor had been completely barricaded with even more junk, stacks of linens, and cardboard boxes packed so full of metal salvage they were splitting at their seams. A narrow opening at the bottom of the seemingly-impassable wall, the exact height and width of a footlocker, appeared to be the only portal through the morass of refuse. Kneeling down, I peered down the tunnel, noting a sealed door on the other side. "Check this out," I motioned to Sergeant Miles. "What do you make of this setup? Do we try to mess with it?"
  14. Meanwhile... D.C.S. Takashima Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ As we stepped through the blasted remains of what were once the doors of the Takashima's cargo hold airlock, the sounds of combat faded away, replaced by the dull whistle of the desert wind whipping through the eerie remains of a long-dead starship. I drew my Hawk Eagle auto-pistol, flicking its flashlight on, sweeping the resulting beam through the darkness. The cavernous space was completely empty, its contents likely carried off long ago by the first looters to breach the site. Glancing around, I realized that the floor of the vessel had now become the left wall, and the ceiling had assumed the position of the right wall, owing to the vessel's final resting position being offset by ninety degrees, a condition our intelligence briefing had projected. We were now walking on what was actually the starboard bulkhead. The heat in the hold was significantly higher than it had been outside, and I could feel beads of perspiration beginning to form around the seals of my helmet. "Eden to Control - we've penetrated the wreck," I advised, speaking into my helmet's headset. "Copy that, Eden. Good hunting," Major Hayes replied. "Not much to see here, huh?" I quipped, gazing at the dingy steel walls and deckplates. "And no obvious way through, either," Sergeant Miles grumbled, gesturing at the far wall. I glanced in the direction he was pointing, my eyes landing on the airlock door that would allow us further access into the wreck. Under normal circumstances, the portal would've been easily accessible, but now, it rested almost five meters in the relative 'up' direction from what we perceived as the floor. "Damnit," I cursed. "Nothing about this part of the job is going to be easy, is it?" As I wandered closer to the airlock door for a better look at what we were dealing with, I noticed what appeared to be the remains of a ladder, welded in place just below the lip of the door. The ladder had been cut off at the upper rungs, and the severed section was nowhere to be found. Shining my flashlight on the stubs that remained, I realized that the cut sections of metal gleamed in the darkness, unlike everything else around us. Casting my flashlight beam down onto the sand-covered floor revealed several dried globs of metal, untouched by the elements. "These cuts are fresh," I murmured, gesturing for the rest of the squad to join me. Six additional flashlights focused on the remains of the ladder as the machine gun and laser infantrymen approached, accompanied by Dutch McKenzie, Sergeant Miles, and MediBot. "Notice anything else unusual?" "Where's the other half of the ladder?" one of the gunners asked. "Exactly," I replied. "I suspect that whoever did this is still here. We need to proceed under that assumption." "We're gonna have a hell of a time getting the robot up there," Dutch observed. ### Several minutes later, all elements of our party, including MediBot, who we'd unceremoniously team-winched up through the airlock and back down again, had rappelled over the doorway and were now safely on the other side. We found ourselves inside an enormous, twelve-by-twelve meter cargo bay filled with debris and looted cargo containers. My flashlight cast eerie shadows throughout the space as we made our way slowly through it, stepping over, around, and in some cases, through the ruins. On the far side of the vault, we could see what appeared to be a small craft hangar bay; likely an alcove for parking cargo drones. At our current distance, I couldn't tell whether or not anything of value remained in it, but I doubted it. The early indications were that anything accessible had been stripped bare before we'd arrived. Suddenly, the clang of a large metallic object hitting the deckplates grabbed my attention, and I swung my pistol in the direction of the noise mere moments before the crack of gunfire further shattered the silence. "Shit! We're not alone! Get down!" I yelled, falling behind a nearby cargo container, grabbing the MediBot by its backpack and dragging it along with me. The sound of carbine fire continued to penetrate the hold, seeming to draw nearer with every volley. It sounded like there were five shooters - possibly more - and in the darkness of an unfamiliar environment, we were at a serious disadvantage. "Everybody! Cover down!" Sergeant Miles barked. I holstered my Hawk Eagle and brought my Gunther MP-20 to the ready, toggling its night vision scope on and carefully propping the weapon atop the nearest accessible cargo container. I slowly peered up into it, sweeping the room until I saw the glowing outline of one of the gunners in my crosshairs. Taking a deep breath, I squeezed off a burst from the weapon, its recoil kicking me in the shoulder and causing me to lose momentary visual on my target. As I leveled the sights again, I could make out the glowing outline of one of the shooters laying on the floor. "Tango down!" I called out. A barrage of gunfire ripped through the cargo container I'd taken position behind, narrowly missing me and the robot, small plumes of sand getting blown into the air where the rounds had fallen. While ruby-red lances of laser fire arced over my head as the squad began mounting a defense, I attempted to shift position again to get a second look at what we were facing. Rolling onto my back, I leaned out slightly from behind our makeshift cover and performed a visual sweep of the room. "Miles!" I called out. "There's one on the catwalk up above us, three to the right of the room, two to the left, and one - the one I hit - is in the center. We're in the middle of an ambush!"
  15. Meanwhile... Black Eclipse Discovery Site Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ I stepped out into the sweltering heat of the desert, thumbing my MechWarrior combat suit's medipack to 'on.' The device attached to a hook-up point on the wearer's thigh and monitored their condition, automatically injecting any necessary combinations of painkillers and stimulants to keep its patient functioning. It contained storage for up to a dozen doses of medication, and could run off an internal battery for 48 hours. A small readout flickered into existence on the inside of my helmet, recording a baseline of my current vital signs. The desert was not a good place to have a physiological episode - if I was going to fall out from dehydration or exhaustion, I wanted to be the first to know about it. The low whine of electric servos behind me caught my attention, and I turned to see our unit's MediBot trundling down the lowered ramp of the Maxim. We'd brought the robot along in case we had any casualties while inside the Takashima - and to serve as a possible interpreter between the ship's computers and us, if the Apple-Churchill kit I now carried with me didn't do the trick. "Hey there, sport," I chuckled as the robot drew near. Someone aboard the Maxim had strapped a climbing harness and a backpack on the robot, and it now looked as though it was ready for an afternoon of spelunking and tomb raiding. "You ready to go bust some ghosts and find some treasure?" Medibot stared blankly at me for a moment. "Do you require medical attention?" it finally inquired. "No, I'm good," I laughed. "I hope you'll help me stay that way." "I am programmed with over 4,387 prophylactic regimens designed to optimize health. We can begin one immediately." "Let's not get too excited," I replied, holding up a hand. Medibot emitted a series of chirps and maneuvered itself into a standby posture, awaiting its next instruction. I glanced toward the southern area of our field staging area, where Dexter Friedman's Raven and Steve Jenkins' Dragon stood watch over us. Behind them, the sun dipped low on the horizon, beginning its transition into nightfall. Multiple booms echoed on the evening air, which carried with it the smell of burning cordite and gunpowder. According to the periodic radio transmissions I was hearing, a full-on engagement with the occupiers was still raging in the northern end of the compound, and by the sounds of it, blood had been spilled on both sides. I knew we didn't have much time to do what we'd come to do before even more lives would be lost. As I turned back toward the Maxim, a masked infantryman, wearing Sergeant's insignia, approached me. I recognized him from the crew of one of the Condors in our convoy. "Captain?" the man inquired. "Yes, Sergeant, uh, Sergeant - " I began, glancing about for a name tape on his uniform. "Miles. Sergeant Miles," the infantryman replied. "Sergeant Miles. Pleasure to meet you. What can I do for you?" I asked.
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