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Charles Maxwell

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  1. As I cleared out of Med Bay, my still-in-place headset crackled to life with the voice of Major Hayes. "Control to Eden," Hayes called out. "Control, this is Eden," I replied. "Forgive me, but why are we still observing TACCOM protocols? The operation is concluded, with Alpha team safely back at our FBO." "Because you're not going to be out there alone for long. Short range sensors have picked up an incoming Capellan DropShip. They've apparently been hanging out in the planet's magnetosphere and have begun their descent. We estimate that they are going to be making planetfall at or near the wreck site. Any remnants of your team still on site need to get out of the wreck and off the planet immediately." "Understood," I replied. "I'll saddle up and take a lance in to pick up Dutch and Kai's team personally." "Not you, Eden. You’ll be meeting an Eagle fighter with a rumble seat ready for you outside the Tana. You're going to bring the package up to the Mendacius without further delay," Hayes answered. "But those are my people - " I protested. "That's an order, Eden. We're pulling you and the package out. No more delays. Meet the fighter outside in five minutes," the Major insisted. "Copy, Control," I sighed. "I'll see it done."
  2. "Eden to Republic - come in, Republic." A long hiss of static met my reply. "Eden to Control - do you have eyes on Republic?" "Affirmative, Eden," Captain Donovan replied. "Stand by. We're running analysis on them now." A loud thunk caught my attention. I glanced to my left to see Nathan Schmidt rapidly depositing gear into a knapsack held open by Steve Jenkins. Behind the pair, Sergeant Miles checked on Bishop, who was slumped forward, held upright by the frame of his power armor. Looking toward our infantry escort, I was met with a sea of haggard faces. Our team had managed to hold it together long enough to retrieve the objective and overcome multiple unexpected contingencies, but after a week of unrelenting stress, battle, and situationally-induced paranoia, they were exhausted. I was looking forward to getting them home. "Control to Eden - we've been able to raise the Republic," Donovan's voice crackled, interrupting my train of thought. "They were rebooting their comm unit. Nice work. I'm patching you through now." A brief chirp signaled the attachment of the Republic's carrier frequency to the communications channel. "Republic to Eden - there's a whole mess of people up here who want to thank you and Mister Schmidt for your timely intervention," Major Hayes' voice announced, a smile evident in his tone. "Thank you, Major," I replied, "but I didn't have much of a hand in it. Your Lieutenant Weyland and Nathan Schmidt are due the credit." "Eden - did you say 'Lieutenant Weyland?'" Hayes asked, incredulously. "Affirmative. It would seem that reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated," I responded, paraphrasing an ancient Earth novelist, "although he's in pretty bad shape." "Considering what we saw on the BattleROMs, I'm not at all surprised," the Major answered. "Well, it would seem that he's reappeared just in time. The Mendacius received a cable that we've been meaning to relay to you." "Go ahead," I acknowledged. "It would seem that our CEO, William Kauffman, has gone missing. He failed to make a rendezvous with the Lyran representatives at Thorin. Search and rescue was unsuccessful at locating him. His belongings were still in his room. Surveillance videos showed him entering the Glendale Nature Preserve on a walk, and then an unidentified VTOL blazing out of the woods shortly thereafter. His scarf and a number of personal effects were found in a stream about a kilometer into the forest, indicating a struggle. Our working theory at this time is that he's been abducted," Hayes explained. I listened in stunned silence. "My condolences. I'm assuming that means we're out of time," I responded. "Provided that you've retrieved the objective, that would be preferable," the Major confirmed. "We have," I answered. "We're packing up now. Bravo team diverted to chase down some Nighthawk power armor that we'd gotten a lead on. We haven't heard from them recently, but the wreck might be interfering with our low-gain radios." "We'll see if the Mendacius can get them on the horn," Hayes acknowledged. "We'll let you know if there are any problems. Nice work on your part. I want you to get Alpha team out and back to the Tana. Our planetary drives are offline, so we can't land at the moment. We'll work on that issue. In the interim, once both teams are aboard, Tana will dust off and transport you and any assets that were left behind by our...unscheduled departure...to a rendezvous with the Mendacius to transfer the package. Following that, our convoy will transit to the system jump point, during which time, we'll bring you and your crew back aboard the Republic." "Sounds like a plan," I replied. "Oh, and Captain," Hayes added, "keep Nathan Schmidt away from the package. While I appreciate his tenacity and assistance in this matter, I'm not prepared to give him regular access to our compartmentalized data." "Understood. Eden out." Turning back toward the group, I found the team packed up and awaiting orders. "Nice work, everyone. Let's go home." ***
  3. Bishop and Nathan busied themselves with the system infiltration, while I keyed open a channel to Bravo Team, the impromptu callsign we'd given to Dutch and Kai's expedition deeper into the wreck to retrieve the power armor units. "Eden to Bravo Team - the mission clock's not got much to left. How's it looking down there?" A quiet hiss of static met my reply. A feeling of dread began to build. "Eden to Control - are you in communication with Bravo Team?" I asked, switching my channel over to the Mendacius. "Negative, Eden," Captain Donovan replied, "they advised that they were moving into a shielded section of the wreck. Between that and the apparent depth at which it's buried, we lost VHF comms with them." "Understood," I replied. "We have the objective. We're just waiting for Bishop and Nathan to get that uplink offline. Once we've done so, we're going to be bugging out of here." I glanced over at Bishop, who appeared to be deeply engaged in the process of breaching the system, while Nathan observed. "Give us a heads up if you need us to make a detour to find Bravo Team on the way out. Otherwise, please have a transport ready to grab us in twenty minutes."
  4. While Nathan consulted with Bishop about his infiltration tools, I climbed back over to the server rack where I'd left the transfer drive. As I did so, Sergeant Miles joined me. "How do you suppose we'll know if this thing is actually transferring any data?" Miles asked. "Well, last time the computer spoke to me," I admitted, "though this time, that doesn't seem to be the case. Hello? Is anyone there?" I asked the room, half-jokingly. "I admit, that's one thing we haven't tried much," the Sergeant chuckled. No sooner had the words escaped his mouth than I heard the sound of multiple server racks in the room cycling their fans in sequence. "Whoa," I quipped, "that's a bit of a departure from creepy voice clips." "No kidding," Miles answered. "I'm not sure what it meant." Glancing down at the server rack, I noticed that the bank of ports around the receptacle to which I'd attached the hard drive had engaged in an unusual flashing of their connection lights, despite the fact that there was nothing attached to the interfaces. In the midst of the flashing, the transfer drive's activity light began glowing solidly. "It's doing the same thing as what I saw on the bridge. I'm pretty sure that the transfer is underway, though I'm less sure of what we're getting," I observed. "You've been to the bridge? Then you must know the layout of the ship," a voice called out. Turning toward its source, I realized that the speaker was the captured salvager. "There's not a lot left of the bridge, Mister - what was your name?" I asked. "Hohiro," the man replied. "Can I ask, what did you see?" "There was a razor beast and bad architecture," I deadpanned. "I've seen a lot of things. Nothing I'd describe as a razor beast," Hohiro replied. "Ask Corporal Clemmons about that," Sergeant Miles retorted. "Clemmons, are you an animal lover?" "No, sir," Clemmons laughed. "Especially not after that incident." "Is there something else you're after?" Hohiro pressed, "or was the computer the objective all along?" "Our objective is our own. Just be glad that you're alive," I responded. "Yes, but if it's the suits you're after, I can show you where they are, in exchange for my freedom," the man continued. I raised an eyebrow toward Sergeant Miles. "Think he's telling the truth?" I asked. "I'd say it's less than a fifty-fifty chance. I'm gonna go with 30% truth, 70% 'hoping to lead us to a gruesome death.'" Miles answered. "That's kind of what I thought. Clemmons, see if you can get Hohiro here on the horn with Dutch and - what was his name - Kai, right? Let him share his information with them, but ask them to compare it to what we know of the wreck. If it seems to line up, we can consider a trade. Otherwise - Hohrio can continue to be our VIP guest through the remainder of this operation. "Aye, sir," Clemmons replied. I turned back to the server rack. As I did so, Sergeant Miles pointed at the hard drive. "Seems the computer wants to go with you," he observed. "You mind explaining to me how you knew that?" I asked, surprised. "I've been staring at those lights, and they follow a pattern," Miles explained. "Short blink, short blink, short blink, long blink, long blink, long blink, short blink, short blink, short blink, over and over. It's an ancient communication technique called 'Morse code.' It translates to 'SOS,' which I'm sure you know the meaning behind." "You just might earn your cut after all," I nodded, impressed. As I did so, the blink pattern changed again, this time, to a flurry of varying light pulses. "Uh - is it still talking?" I asked. Miles stared at the pattern for a moment, eventually nodding his head. "Yeah. I think it means 'NOW I AM HOME.' Not sure what that's referring to," Miles responded. Before I could speculate further, the sequencing lights and the transfer unit immediately shut off, replaced by single, solid green indicator on the console beside the hard drive cable. "I'm cautiously optimistic that it means we're nearly done here," I smiled. "Maxwell to Control - I believe we've secured the package. We're taking care of the secondary objective now."
  5. "Yes sir, I do. But the radio direction finder doesn't get any more accurate than this room. So we need to figure out a more finite way to find the source. Do you have any ideas?" Nathan raised an eyebrow at me, arms crossed over his torso, head to one side. It was the expression of someone on the verge of indifference brought on by one bad situation after another. "Actually, I think I do. Today might be our lucky day," I replied. "That'd certainly be a first," Schmidt chuckled. "The dice haven't exactly been rolling in our favor so far." "You've gotta look at it from a glass-half-full perspective," I answered back. "You're no longer in a prison cell, right? That's a net gain in fortune. Now - back to the subject at hand - all we need to do is find the working terminal in this room - or whatever it is we're here to find. I would bet you that wherever - and whatever - it is, it's got some connection to the signal broadcast. And I think I know how to accomplish finding it." I glanced toward Bishop, who'd just finished assisting Steve Jenkins back to his feet after the MechWarrior had attempted a stupifying and near-fatal swan dive into the chamber from the roof. "Lieutenant Weyland," I began, as Jenkins saluted me haphazardly, "am I correct in thinking that you've got some high-end homing equipment in that suit?" "That is...correct," Bishop replied, vacantly. "Excellent. Do me a favor, see if you can get a bead on the source of this signal," I explained, passing the rangefinder to him for context. "The gear's not precise enough to narrow it down more granularly than this room." Weyland looked at the device for a moment. Then, wordlessly, he handed the unit back to me, and started walking, raising a pointed index finger as he did so. "There," the Lieutenant announced in a monotone. As I looked in the direction indicated by Bishop, I saw a series of faintly flashing server lights, blinking in perfect sequence, seemingly pointing me toward one of the racks along the back quarter of the room. "Nice work," I advised the Lieutenant. Moving slowly toward the endpoint indicated by the lights, I motioned for Nathan to follow. Climbing down a series of server row cabinets, we found ourselves before a single powered terminal, with a keyboard, trackball, and a slowly flashing data port receptacle in prominent sight. The computer itself was displaying a message in lime green font: COMM TERMINAL 57 - SYSTEM LOCKED - CONTACT YOUR ADMINISTRATOR FOR ASSISTANCE. The data port pulsed more quickly as we approached. "Alright, let's divide and conquer on this thing," I advised. "Nathan, since you know what's going on with that signal, I'll entrust you to breach the terminal. Here, take my Apple-Churchill kit for now. Meanwhile, I'm gonna plug into that data port and see if our anonymous benefactor actually has something in store for us. Sound good?"
  6. Meanwhile... D.C.S. Takashima Black Eclipse discovery site Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki February 7, 3029 ___________________________ I glanced back and forth between Nathan and Bishop. Though the Lieutenant hadn't made any more menacing moves to suggest that he intended to kill the Lyran, he also hadn't set him down yet. Instead, Bishop stood, frozen, holding the young man aloft, presumably glaring at him deeply, though I couldn't be sure what was actually transpiring behind his mask. "Is my client okay?" a distant voice asked. I glanced toward the 'ceiling,' noting that Steve Jenkins was again peering down toward us. "Your what?" I asked, baffled. "My client. I'm his Legal Representation," Steve responded, proudly. I cast Jenkins a confused expression. "You're a MechWarrior - how - and why - are you...you know what, we can talk about this later. See if you can find a way to get down here; you're gonna die of exposure out there," I replied, looking back at Weyland. The towering, power-armored man gave no indication that he was even cognizant of my presence. Slowly, I reached out, and placed my hand on his raised forearm, gently pressing down. Bishop's head turned toward me, his grip on Nathan relaxing slightly and lowering the Lyran to the ground. As the man's feet touched the deck, the Lieutenant snapped his gaze back toward Schmidt again, holding him firmly for another fleeting moment before depositing him unceremoniously on the ground. Nathan stumbled momentarily, regaining his balance and looking toward me. "Thank you, uh, Captain - Maxwell?" he asked, reading the name tape on my combat suit. "That's correct, Mister Schmidt. Welcome to the Takashima," I answered. I cast Bishop another glance. "I get the sense you and this guy know each other."
  7. "STOP!" I cried out, taking hold of the edge of one of the computer racks within reach and using it to perform a controlled fall into the closest row of server cabinets. Training my MP-20s flashlight on the figure that Bishop held aloft, I advanced forward, recognizing the general facial characteristics and physical appearance of his captive from a briefing photo I'd seen during our initial mission debrief several days ago. It was Nathan Schmidt. As I drew nearer to Bishop, I could hear the Lieutenant's heavy, enraged breathing hissing from within the wolf helmet, his shoulders rising and falling as he stared, frozen, at Schmidt, an occasional snarl escaping his lips. The tension radiating from the armored man was palpable. It was as though an avalanche was being held back by a single stone, behind which was an orgy of violence and carnage waiting to be unleashed at the slightest provocation. There was something deeply unsettled about the condition in which Bishop Weyland had been returned to us. What happened to you? I wondered to myself as I, cautiously, drew alongside the Lieutenant. "Thank you, Bishop. You can set him down. That's Nathan Schmidt. As I understand it, you two have some...passing familiarity...with one another. He's here to help us, or so I'm told." Bishop looked toward me, the wolf's eyes alight with an infrared glow. Then, he turned back toward Nathan, who hung helplessly in the air. As I waited pensively to see if my words would break through the Lieutenant's primal fury, I heard a distant voice wafting from far above. "Hi, Captain Maxwell! Everyone looks like ants from up here!" It was Steve Jenkins, apparently unharmed. "That's...very good, Steve."
  8. D.C.S. Takashima Black Eclipse discovery site Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki February 7, 3029 ___________________________ "...Rebus to Sabre team - request permission to link up with you. I'm here to help." I glanced quizzically at Sergeant Miles. "Who?" I asked. Miles shook his head. "Rebus, your ident is not recognized. Please ad - " "It's Nathan Schmidt, Captain Maxwell," Marcus Donovan's voice interjected in my headset. "I don't know why he's down there with you, but I can confirm that the Mendacius did observe his disembarkation from the Republic with an asset locating beacon on his person. We have not been able to raise the Republic to obtain the particulars, but what I can tell you is that only the command crew of that ship could have tagged him and outfit him with the equipment he used to get to the planet." "Look, I know it appears suspect," Nathan's voice replied, "but I'm actually here to resolve the issue with the communications blackout. Major Hayes sent me. The signal is coming from the wreck on a carrier that can't be broken from the Republic. And I'm pretty sure I can locate it. I volunteered to do this, sirs. If this were an attempt at subterfuge, I wouldn't be calling you now. Private Jenkins is also here with me." I raised an eyebrow. "Jenkins? What's he got to do with any of this? You know what - never mind. Where is 'here?'" "Well, I"m not exactly sure," Schmidt answered. "I'm outside the hull - somewhere. The radio direction finder is pointing me to a spot 243 meters dead ahead from my current location, so I'm going to go in that direction. I'll read off the coordinates when I get there." "Alright, we're going to continue on our our current trajectory - to the secondary computer core. I presume you know why we're here. Once we've retrieved the asset, we'll figure out how to rendezvous with you to look into the matter of this signal. And - Nathan - don't try anything cheeky," I acknowledged. "Steve, if you can hear me, keep an eye on him." "Aye aye, Cap'n Crunch!" Steve responded, gleefully. I shook my head. Looking toward our prisoner, I tossed a pair of restraint cuffs to Corporal Clemmons. "Here, put these on him." Sergeant Miles narrowed his eyes at the salvager. "Hey partner, if you wanna run, he enjoys fast food," he growled, pointing at Bishop. "Alright," I chuckled, "let's move out." ### As luck would have it, the intel about the location of the navigation computer had been dead on. Whoever the mysterious benefactor of the encrypted maps had been, they clearly wanted us to find it. Just off the corridor from the site where we'd exited the elevator stood another set of clamshell doors, partially ajar, allowing visibility down into the room beyond. And what a place it was - brimming from wall to wall with banks and banks of computer equipment, bisected by two long rows of server racks. It was obviously intended as a nexus of processing power. "Bingo, gentlemen. I believe this is what we were looking for," I observed. "Now, the question is, just how full of traps and ambushes is this place gonna be?" Suddenly, I felt a large form brush past me. It was Bishop's Nighthawk power armor, in which the Lieutenant headed straight to the clamshell doors, grabbing them between two powerful fists, and forcing them apart. "There's no prey present," Bishop deadpanned. "I guess that's one way to clear a room," I mused. "Is your friend alright?" the salvager called out from his position at the rear of the group. "It'll come back to him," Sergeant Miles quipped. "Now, to the matter of getting down there without stepping on anything that's going to break," I added, observing that chamber was now oriented downward in such a way that the far wall was the 'floor,' and the floor itself had become a wall, "I don't know exactly what it is that we're looking for, so - " I was suddenly interrupted by a deafening crash; the sound of an extremely heavy metal object descending into the chamber and crashing into a bank of computers reverberating in my ears. A tremendous amount of dust and smoke rose from the impact site; as it cleared, I saw a black-suited figure in the midst of the wreckage, attempting to stand up. The rev of actuators drew my attention away from the carnage and toward Bishop, who, in an astonishing display of physical agility that very nearly defied physics, had pushed his Nighthawk power armor into a full run, leaping from the clamshell doors and landing precariously on the millimeters-thin frame of one of the server racks that ran the length of the room. With total abandon, Bishop charged toward the intruder, a laser sight trained with deadly precision on their center of mass...
  9. D.C.S. Takashima Black Eclipse discovery site Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki February 7, 3029 ___________________________ I stood in awe as Tikashi - 'Kai,' he said he went by - finished recounting the tale of how he'd come to be on Nirasaki, the treasures he thought lurked deep within the depths of the Takashima, and the unfortunate twist of fate that led to his capture at virtually the same time we'd made planetfall on the world. It was truly a stunning series of events, and it had taken Kai several minutes to lay out all of the details. As he finished, I silently contemplated how to respond. "Well, I must say, that is quite a sequence of events. I'm glad that we were able to intervene when we did. We were supposed to have dusted off by now. But an unfortunate contingency led to us having to come back here to retrieve what we assumed we'd recovered the first time," I commented. "Unfortunate for you, perhaps, but certainly not for me," Kai observed. "Indeed not. Providence did seem to work in a very serendipitous way this time. But," I continued, "we're on a really tight schedule. It's only a matter of time before the Kuritans come sniffing around, trying to figure out why there's so much traffic coming in and out of the Nirasaki system. And I want to be out of the world by the time that happens." "As I mentioned, I have a lead on a cache of Nighthawk power armor somewhere here in the wreck," Kai answered. "Are you sure you can't be persuaded to join me? It would be a lot easier to haul one of those units out with an extra set of hands. If I'm right, there's enough on board to make it worth your while. I'll cut you in." Sergeant Miles raised an eyebrow. "Sir - a moment alone, please?" the Skinwalker asked. "Certainly," I acknowledged. Stepping away from the group with the Sergeant, I lowered my voice. "What's up?" "Maybe this isn't my place - but I'd be remiss to not bring it up. I'm not sure how Major Hayes or Captain Donovan would feel about some third party salvaging our wreck," Miles explained. "We had this kind of thing come up from time to time with Irian. It often went badly." I nodded, considering the advice. "True. But, we didn't come here for Nighthawks, nor did we have any intention of salvaging anything other than the A.I. and any objects of opportunity. The way I look at it, if he leads us to a bonus, we come out ahead. Good call. I'll give Donovan a shout." Keying my headset, I opened a channel to the Mendacius. "Eden to Control - I have a situation requiring your advisement." "Go ahead, Eden," Marcus Donovan's voice responded. "Were you direct on the conversation that just took place with Kai?" I asked. "Affirmative. Frankly, I don't care what Kai takes from the wreck as long as it's not the A.I. That's our primary objective, and we don't have time to haggle over contracts and finder's fees. If he can legitimately lead you to any extra salvage and it can be recovered without compromising the mission - or the mission clock, which is still running by the way - then you are authorized to attempt a recovery. If he wants to take one for himself, so be it," Donovan replied. "Just get that A.I. and get back to the Tana as fast as you can. Radio us if you end up needing a salvage rig for the suits." "Copy that, Control. Eden out." I glanced toward Miles. "We're greenlit." The Sergeant nodded silently, and we made our way back over to the group. "All right, Mister Hideo - I think we can help you out. Lieutenant Weyland, Sergeant Miles, Sergeant Ayala, Corporal Clemmons, and I will continue toward the primary objective. We'll take this guy here with us in case he's feeling generous and would like to let us know about any other contingencies we might encounter along the way," I explained, gesturing toward the captive salvager. "Captain McKenzie, please take the rest of the squad and accompany Kai to wherever it is he thinks that the Nighthawk cache might be found. If you find anything, call the Mendacius for a salvage rig immediately. Note that we have a hard extract time of two hours from now. If you haven't found anything within the next sixty minutes, I want you to start planning your exit strategy. Understood?" Dutch nodded. "You got it." "Excellent. Alright, ladies and gentlemen," I replied. "We've got our objectives. Let's get this thing done."
  10. D.C.S. Takashima Black Eclipse discovery site Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki February 7, 3029 ___________________________ The salvager let out an ear-splitting scream as Bishop's claws sank into his shoulder. “He’s hungry....and likes to play with his food... you might want to remember how to disarm the bomb now... it might save your life," Sergeant Miles hissed. In response, the captive nodded his head frantically, biting his lip as he fought against the pain. Miles nodded to Bishop, who retracted the claws in a single, sudden movement that elicited another yelp from the salvager. The man sagged to his knees, grabbing at his shoulder in agony momentarily, before using his free hand to undo the buckle on a device fastened around his wrist. Without speaking, the pirate passed the unit Dutch McKenzie, who examined it with curiosity before handing it to me, pointing at a small toggle switch hidden under a cover on the unit's face. "That remote disarms or detonates the bomb," he gasped, still holding his shoulder. I examined the unit, which began beeping slowly. "It's beeping. Why is it beeping?" I asked sharply, my stress level rising as the beeping grew faster. At the same time, the collar on Tikashi Hideo's neck started to beep more frantically. The salvager didn't answer. "Show me how to keep this guy from losing his head or you're going to lose yours!" I demanded. "Okay, alright, you...uh...uh...you push the switch. Uh, left or, uh, right. One of those two directions," our captive offered. "Right. Throw the switch right." I waved Tikashi closer, motioning for him to stand beside the salvager. "You want to double-check your math before I throw the switch?" I asked as Tikashi drew to a stop inches from the man. "Left! I meant left!" the pirate shrieked. "That's what I thought," I muttered, throwing the switch to the left. The collar let out three short chirps and deactivated. "Now. Take it off," Bishop suddenly growled, grabbing the salvager and walking him toward Tikashi. Without saying a word, the man began the process of detaching the device. In short order, the collar gave a heavy clank and detached from its resting place around the prisoner's neck, quickly being confiscated by Sergeant Miles. "Thank you," Tikashi sighed, rubbing at his neck. "Don't mention it," I nodded. "Miles, make sure that thing never gets used on anyone again. "With pleasure, sir," the Sergeant answered. "Now that the unpleasant business is out of the way - I'm Charles Maxwell, commanding officer of the Aegis Division mercenary unit. Tell me, Tikashi - if you're not with this lot," I began, gesturing in the direction of our captive, "what brings you here?"
  11. Elsewhere... D.C.S. Takashima Black Eclipse discovery site Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki February 7, 3029 ___________________________ The man with the bomb collar seemed completely unfazed by the series of events that had just transpired. Casually, he made his way toward Bishop, scrutinizing the soldier's Nighthawk power armor. "I'm impressed that you've refitted this the way you have, it's quite a bit different from the ones at NAIS," he remarked, studying the configuration. Bishop's eyes narrowed, following the motions of the man. "You're trained to use it, obviously," the stranger continued, gesturing at the mutilated remains of one of the salvagers. "Yes," Sergeant Miles replied, at length. "Irian has some of these suits, and we use them now and then for operations with the Skinwalkers." The young man nodded. "As it would so happen, I am certain that there are more suits of that type deeper in this ship. The people who have set up camp here don't seem to understand that there's more going on here than meets the eye. I can tell from the looks on your faces that you've seen some of it already." "Who are you, and what are you doing here?" Captain McKenzie interjected. The man bowed slightly. "My apologies. My name is Tikashi Hideo, I was captured and held in the room across the hallway, next to the drive controls. I was here to salvage, and I tricked the others into thinking I worked for the Combine." I balked at the man's reply. We'd been in the drive control room just days prior, creating a distinct possibility that we'd nearly crossed paths and didn't even know it. "Pleasure to meet you," I nodded. "And - forgive me, but it looks like you're still being held. Is that thing active?" I pointed at the bomb collar for emphasis. As I did so, it started to beep.
  12. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Apparently, neither could Marcus Donovan, who let out a long whisper and an expletive in my headset, a decidedly out-of-character move from a man I'd known to maintain a strict military bearing at all times. "Ho-ly shit," the Captain's voice crackled. "Bishop Weyland - back from the dead. How the hell did he manage that? I saw the BattleROM myself. There was nothing left of that tank." "I have no idea," I murmured, trying to afford the Mendacius' control center as clear a view of the battle armored soldier as I could without alarming him. "But he seems really spooked. And, frankly, doesn't look terribly healthy." "See if you can talk to him," Donovan ordered. "But listen, Charles, don't take any unnecessary risks. This mission is going sideways again." "Yeah, about that," I whispered, turning my head away from Weyland and Miles momentarily, "what's the situation with the Republic? Why can't we raise them?" "Major Hayes and Nathan Schmidt were trying to decrypt that drive you brought back - " "Schmidt?" I blurted. Miles cast me a glance. I held my hand up to forestall any questions. "What the devil was Schmidt doing mucking around in that archive?" "Major Hayes wanted to leverage his abilities, and what happened wasn't his fault. They found a program on the drive that looked promising. But when they tried to run it - in a sandboxed environment, mind you - it smashed through the security protocols and initiated the Republic's liftoff sequence. They weren't prepped for dustoff and were very nearly killed as the ship made orbit. We have since lost communication with them - first due to the ionic interference of their exit trajectory, and now, because they're in an orbit that's taken them onto the far side of the planet - but our telemetry confirms that they're in a stabilized orbit and appear to have gotten the ship into a pressurized flight configuration," Captain Donovan explained. "And before you ask - no, I don't know the status of any of your crew that you had onboard. They were all aboard at the time the ship pushed off, though. Those down on the planet aboard the Tana are fine." "I appreciate the update. Please keep us apprised. Are you moving to intercept the Republic?" I asked. "Not at this time. Our primary responsibility is to ensure you are able to complete your mission successfully. If we break geostationary orbit, we'll lose communication with you and we won't be able to continue surveillance of the discovery site. After you're safely extracted and aboard the Tana, we can attempt to aid the Republic," Donovan answered. "Understood," I replied. "If and when you are able to raise the Republic on the comms, please recommend to Major Hayes that he leverage Warrant Officer Alyssa Chase to help get the ship back online. She's cut from the same tech-savvy cloth that Mister Schmidt is. Marius Lennox, aboard the Tana, can also provide remote advisement." "I'll be sure the message gets through, Captain," Donovan confirmed. I looked back toward Miles and Weyland. Both men wore haunted expressions - Sergeant Miles looked as though he was seeing a ghost, while Bishop looked as though his soul had left his body, leaving behind a shattered shell held together by machinery and medicine. Cautiously, I approached the pair. As I did so, Weyland's head snapped toward me. Holding my ground, I maintained eye contact, stepping closer and closer. "Bishop - it's certainly good to see you," I began. "We thought we'd lost you." The soldier gazed at me with distant eyes. Eventually, he spoke, each word emerging slowly, deliberately, painfully. "No. I...returned to the pack." I nodded, deciding against any further sentimentality that I knew would make the man uncomfortable. "Well, if you feel up to it - fall in, solider. We could use your help." Weyland tipped his head curtly toward me, and stomped toward the rest of our group, his Nighthawk power armor making heavy mechanical noises as it thunked across the deckplates. I glanced toward Sergeant Miles. "I can't explain everything right now, sir," Miles offered, "but Bishop has come back. Mother was here." "What does that mean?" I asked. "As you know, we have a pact to retrieve any Skinwalker elders that fall. And...Mother did something with him," the Sergeant explained, sounding shaken. Before Miles could speculate further, another voice spoke up. "I suppose a thank you is in order." I turned my head toward the speaker. It was the man with the bomb collar.
  13. Meanwhile... D.C.S. Takashima Black Eclipse discovery site Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki February 7, 3029 ___________________________ I scrambled up the telescoping ladder, emerging into the middle of a brawl unfolding between another pirate type and a scruffy, bedraggled-looking man who had some kind of heavy metal collar clamped tightly around his neck. In an odd twist, he was very successfully fending off his attacker with what looked like a high-end style of martial arts I'd never seen before. Simultaneously, another pair of salvagers barreled straight at us, weapons drawn, obviously ready for a fight. "Watch him!" I yelled to Private Ayani, pointing at the pirate who'd been stunned by Corporal Clemmons' laser blast. "Aye, sir," Ayani replied, leveling her machine gun on the fallen combatant. "Maxwell to Control!" I exclaimed, falling to one knee and raisingmy MP-20 at the incoming salvagers. My headset hissed static in reply. "Maxwell to Control!" I tried again, but received no response. "Goddamnit, why don't they answer?" "McKenzie to Control!" Dutch called out, being met with the same results. "I don't know, maybe we're too deep into the wreck or something," he commented. A hail of gunfire tore past our heads, and I dove for cover, returning fire at our attackers. "Everyone - watch your aims! That guy that the pirate's fighting - I think he's got a bomb collar on!" Abruptly, a loud metallic clanking began resounding down the hall, increasing in intensity as it drew closer and to our group. "What the hell is that?" Dutch wondered aloud, his voice tinged with concern. Before I could reply, the visual distortion that I'd seen before - an almost translucent 'shadow,' as it were - surged into existence, moving with blinding speed toward the pirate that was in the process of assaulting the man with the bomb collar. In a single, fluid motion, the pirate was lifted from the deck, hoisted nearly two meters into the air, screaming. The other two pirates who'd been attacking us froze, petrified, as the head of the salvager being held aloft abruptly and unceremoniously exploded in a horrific wash of gore and entrails. "Fucking shit!" Corporal Clemmons blurted. Wordlessly, the surviving pirates fled, their footsteps rapidly fading into the distance. The distortion stood still for a moment, before releasing the decapitated corpse onto the deck. I found myself torn between leveling my rifle on the distortion and attempting instead to communicate with it, unsure of its intentions. Suddenly, a hand reached out and gently pushed my weapon's barrel down. It was Sergeant Miles. "Wait," the Sergeant murmured, holstering his own weapon and producing some kind of necklace from his vest pocket. Slowly, the Skinwalker began making his way toward the distortion. "Miles, what are you doing?" I asked. The Sergeant simply held up a hand in reply. As he drew toward the anomaly, it unexpectedly resolved into a solid form - that of a Nighthawk battle armor. "Angel to Eden," my headset crackled. It was Captain Donovan. "Go ahead," I responded. "Two things, Captain - there's been an incident aboard the Republic. We're taking over as OPCOM for now," Donovan began. "Okay, that's a sudden turn of events. What's the second thing?" I asked. "The second order of business is that we have nothing on file that matches those claw marks," the Captain replied. "Don't worry about it," I answered. "I think we just found the source."
  14. Meanwhile... D.C.S. Takashima Black Eclipse discovery site Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki February 7, 3029 ___________________________ I fired blindly into the crowd of marauding salvagers, my MP-20 eliciting loud barks of gunfire as I backed toward Sabre team, withdrawing under the partial cover that the elevator shaft afforded us. A hail of laser and conventional rounds blazed back and forth from our positions, the incoming shots flying wide due to our attackers' impaired line of sight. "Covering fire!" shouted Sergeant Miles. "See if you can draw some of their focus off the captain!" Concentrated barrages of combined-arms munitions spat forth from Sabre team's position as I fell into formation and leveled my sights on the bandaged attacker, who stood at the forefront of the group. My MP-20 barked again, slinging a volley of bullets directly into its target, sending the pirate tumbling backwards, critically hit. Simultaneously, a large, fast-moving blur, appearing only as a transparent visual distortion which loomed over the shaft, flashed past our attackers, momentarily knocking the remaining gunmen off-balance and allowing our team to score a handful of lucky shots. "What in the devil was that?" I exclaimed, hoping that I wasn't succumbing to hallucinations at a very inopportune moment. "I don't know, but I saw it too," Corporal Clemmons replied, as though he'd read my mind. A laser round cored into the deck at the corporal's feet, causing him to jump back momentarily before returning fire, stunning the shooter with a low-intensity laser blast. A single pirate remained, caught in the sights of Sergeant Miles' handgun. For a moment, I thought that the salvager had chosen to surrender, but then, I realized that it was Miles who had frozen. "Miles! What are you doing?" I yelled. The Skinwalker offered no response. As I raised my rifle to attempt to put down the last attacker, something unbelievable happened. Just as the pirate appeared ready to open fire on Miles, the 'shadow' reappeared...and tore the hapless salvager from his position, dragging him off, screaming, into the depths of the Takashima. "What the hell was that?" Dutch McKenzie, who'd evidently returned at some point during the combat, exclaimed. "I don't know," I replied, the sounds of combat continuing from outside of the elevator shaft, "but I expect we're about to find out. Let's get that ladder deployed now. We need to get up there and figure out who they're fighting if it's not us."
  15. Elsewhere... D.C.S. Takashima Black Eclipse discovery site Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki February 7, 3029 ___________________________ "Well, sir - I do have an idea - but I'm not sure how good it is, or how much you'll like it," Sergeant Miles began. "Talk to me, Sergeant - what've you got?" I asked, straining to support the weight of the man and all of his gear. "This may be a long shot," Miles continued, "but I think I can get the pins back into the grenades. Trick is going to be to grab the strings before the counter-weights fall once I do." "How certain are you?" I asked. "I'd say we have pretty good odds," the Sergeant answered. "I'll take 'pretty good' at this point. Make it so," I responded back, bracing myself against a section of the junk pile to afford Miles a steady platform from which to work. "Alright, Captain," Miles announced. "Don't sneeze." I instinctively held my breath as the man worked. I felt several slow, deliberate movements, followed by a rapid jolt. "Got it!" exclaimed the Sergeant. "Now, I've just gotta cut these lines, and not only will we be down one booby trap, but we'll also have gained two serviceable frag grenades." "Well done," I smiled. "That's the first good news I've heard today. You ready to come down?" "Just about," said Miles. "One second - and - done. Got 'em. Requesting to disembark, sir." "Permission granted," I chuckled, kneeling down far enough to allow the Sergeant to dismount from my shoulders. Turning around to face me, he held up the newly-acquired explosives, and I noted that one had a grinning face scrawled on it, while the other bore an illustrated skull and crossbones. "Nice work. Our occupiers have a fucked up sense of humor," I muttered. "See anything else while you were up there?" Sergeant Miles nodded. "Yes, sir. Those boards over the elevator shaft are screwed down. We're going to have to either figure out a way to bust through them or cut them free." "A laser rifle set on low ought to do it, right?" I asked. "Just hold down the trigger, and - bzzt?" "Yeah, I think so," the Sergeant agreed. "Corporal Clemmons!" I called out. "Can you join us over here?" "Here and moving, Captain!" Clemmons replied, sprinting over to us. "Yes, sir?" "Corporal, can you cut that...'bridge' away from over the elevator entrance? It's screwed down, preventing our egress," I explained. "Easily done, sir. You, uh, may want to stand back a bit, though. You too, Sergeant. I wouldn't want either of you to get hit with falling debris," Clemmons responded. "That's very considerate of you; thank you," I quipped. As Miles and I moved aside, the Corporal set his rifle to a low-intensity power level, took aim, and began slowly and deliberately cutting away at the obstruction. The smell of burning lumber wafted through the air as Clemmons worked. A moment later, the beams began to fall into the elevator shaft, followed by, quite unexpectedly, a noisy avalanche of empty beer cans and disused tins of Pork 'n Beans. "Hey! Did you hear that?" an unfamiliar voice called out from somewhere outside the shaft. Instinctively, I drew my MP-20 rifle, holding it at low ready. A cacophony of running footsteps soon followed, becoming louder as they neared. "Sabre team, prepare to engage!" I exclaimed. Abruptly, three disheveled, dirty, ragtag-looking strangers, bedecked in piecemeal armor and brandishing an eclectic variety of weapons appeared at the open elevator doors. One of the men wore heavy, bloodied bandages on his head, apparently having recently sustained some kind of serious injury. As they noticed our presence, they drew to a halt, eyes widening. "Oh, good, it's not the monster," one of them observed. "You're in our territory! Prepare to eat toilet!" another screamed, chambering a round into his weapon. "What in the holy goddamn?" I exclaimed, lunging for cover. Moments later, all hell broke loose.
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