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James Hayes

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  1. Approximately twenty minutes later... "Control to Rebus," I radioed to Nathan, using one of the limited, short-range, handheld VHF radios we had in our inventory for extreme contingencies such as that which we were facing. "Go ahead, Major, I read you," Nathan replied, cocooned deep within the drop pod, the cargo bay in which it sat still fully pressurized. I couldn't believe the near-lunacy of what were were about to attempt. The malware had put us on an orbit that paralleled the crash site, though at a significantly higher altitude, and had commandeered every communication system aboard the Republic to maintain a tight-beam downlink to a base station somewhere within the wreck of the Takashima. The receiver, in turn, continuously streamed data back to the malware aboard our vessel, which included, it would seem, redundant copies of the infection. In response, our plan to resolve the issue called for us to explosively decompress one of our cargo bays and jettison a space-suited IT specialist overboard in a drop pod intended for a BattleMech. Provided he didn't get incinerated by initial re-entry, and provided that he could successfully paraglide to the wreck site after breaking the sound barrier with his own body, Schmidt would then touch down and use a radio direction finder to locate the source of the signal. In other words, the plan was insane. But it was the best we had. "How are you holding up in there?" I asked, peering through the heavily-reinforced glass window that separated the cargo bay from its observation booth. "About as good as you'd imagine being sealed up in a ceramic egg while wearing an astronaut suit and a probation monitoring anklet all at the same time could make you feel. After that impressive speech I gave you, was the monitoring unit really necessary?" Nathan quipped. "It's just a precaution," I smiled, wryly. Alyssa Chase chuckled and shook her head. "Alright, let's get this show on the road," I continued. "This is not going to be a gentle departure by any measure, so I'm gonna let you count it down. We'll hit the button when you say go." "Awesome, at least that way, I'll have some idea of when I'm going to crap my pants, rather than being taken completely by surprise," the Lyran joked. "Leave the pants-shitting to Mister Jenkins," I replied. "Speaking of which, where the hell did he end up...?" "What's that, Major?" Schmidt asked. "Never mind, it's not important. We're ready on this side. Begin countdown at your discretion," I responded. There came a moment's pause, presumably while Nathan readied himself for the impending chaos. "Ready op," the Lyran's voice replied. "Begin the sequence. Ten...nine...eight...seven..." I hovered my hand over the large, red button on the console labeled 'EMERG JETTISON.' "...six...five...four..." My eyes narrowed as I mentally prepared myself to either send a young man to the planet's surface, or to an agonizing death on the way. "...three...two...one. NOW!" Schmidt exclaimed. "Godspeed, Nathan," I whispered, slamming my palm down on the trigger. The Republic jolted noticeably under a tremendous explosion of exiting atmosphere as the bay's door was blown outward, and the pod, carrying its human cargo, was ripped from the deck and catapulted out into the vacuum of space.
  2. Elsewhere... C.S.V. Republic Low orbit Nirasaki, Draconis Combine February 7, 3029 ___________________________ "Amazing work, Mister Schmidt," I sighed, the tension easing as the Lyran and I registered the successful transition of the Republic into an interstellar flight configuration. "I'll remember you said that," Schmidt replied, his fingers clicking across the keypad of the noteputer. "We're still under thrust. By the looks of it, this thing is trying to put us into a stable orbit. I have no idea why." "Maybe we can use that to our advantage," I answered. "Now that we're not under immediate threat of falling out of the sky, we can turn out attention toward making sure we don't leave this system." "I don't think we stand a chance of getting control of the engines," Nathan retorted. "We didn't even technically get control of the ship just now. We just got lucky that the virus apparently has a fear of drowning." "I get that," I interrupted, stopping Nathan's rant. "But I'm not talking about trying to get control of anything. I'm talking about going down to the engine room and physically disconnecting the drives." "Well, I don't see any reason why we wouldn't be able to do that," Nathan agreed, "especially since the virus doesn't seem to care about any security systems that don't directly protect its program. But then, what's gonna keep us from falling into the atmosphere and getting incinerated when we inevitably start losing altitude?" "We'll only take the interplanetary engines offline. We'll keep the thrusters and RCS online. I feel pretty confident that the virus doesn't want to burn up any more than we do," I explained. "Come on, let's get down there." "I don't know the first thing about engines," Nathan deadpanned. "Well, I guess that means that today, you get to learn," I replied. ### A short while later... With the help of the engineering crew and Nathan Schmidt, we'd been able to make short work of disconnecting the fuel lines which fed the Republic's massive fusion drives. As we'd predicted, the malware made no attempts to stop us; instead, it seemed confused as to the sudden unavailability of the ship's interplanetary engines, attempting to fire them periodically, but having no success in doing so. As a result, the program simply used the vessel's thrusters at regular intervals to keep the ship on a stable altitude and trajectory. "Well, that was fun," I chuckled, wiping grease from my hands and tossing the rag across the zero-gravity environment of the engine bay. Nathan plucked it out of the air, using it to scrub at a spot on his flight suit while casting me a skeptical glance. "I guess," he answered. "Well, if turning wrenches doesn't do it for you, maybe there's something else we can busy you with," a new voice quipped. Floating down the ladder of the bay toward us was Alyssa Chase. "Miss Chase, nice of you to join us. What exactly did you have in mind for Mister Schmidt here?" I inquired. "Sorry for not calling ahead, Major," Alyssa replied. "The comms are still hosed. The bridge crew passed me your summary of the situation with the computers. As I understand it, you're going to have to take the core offline to get the virus extricated." "Yes, that's pretty much accurate, and purging all the malware is going to need to happen quick enough that we can fire the system back up afterward with enough altitude left that we can maintain it with just the thrusters," I agreed. "I'm essentially planning to try to pull off what we did on the Half Moon." Chase nodded. "While that did work, it took you a while - no offense, of course. I'm just a little concerned that you might come in right against the wire if you go at it alone this time." "What'd you have in mind?" I asked, raising an eyebrow. "Well, if Nathan and I assist you, we can get it done three times as fast, and guarantee that we'll have breathing room on the other side," Chase explained. "That sounds like an excellent plan," I nodded. "Mister Schmidt, feel up to more some authorized systems intrusion?"
  3. C.S.V. Republic Aegis Division staging site 3.2 kilometers from D.C.S. Takashima Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki February 7, 3029 ___________________________ My headset elicited deafening squelches and crackles as very nearly every department on the OPCOMM channel simultaneously attempted to sound the alarm about the Republic's unexpected liftoff. The vessel shuddered and listed noticeably, causing Schmidt and I to instinctively grab for the handrails built into the consoles around us. Steve Jenkins, meanwhile, simply screamed. "Clear this channel!" I barked into my headset, keying my priority override toggle. "Hayes to bridge - what in the hell is happening up there?" "I have no idea, sir!" a voice responded. "We didn't do anything - the drives were cold and locked down, and then, on their own, they lit up!" "Goddamnit," I hissed. "Alright, what is our status? Can you abort the liftoff and get us back on the ground?" "We haven't got flight control, sir, and we have a more immediate problem," the bridge replied. "What in Blake's name could be more immediately pressing than involuntary liftoff?" I answered back, nearly yelling to be heard over the scream of the Republic's drives operating at what felt like full output. "Our bay doors are all open, interconnects between the decks aren't sealed, and we're not pressurized, sir - we're going to start losing atmo real soon if we can't get control of the situation." "How long have we got?" I asked, glancing toward Schmidt, who was still clinging to the sides of his terminal, a wild-eyed expression of concern on his face. "We're going to be in orbit in eight minutes, Major, but I anticipate we're going to be unconscious in a little over five," came the chilling reply. "I'll call you back in four," I answered. "In the mean time, keep trying to regain control. Hayes out." I wrestled my way toward Schmidt. "Have you got any idea what caused this?" I shouted, my words almost completely drowned out by the rattles, groans, and creaks of 3,000 tons of DropShip hurtling into orbit. "Quite obviously malware!" Schmidt exclaimed back, gesturing at the compromised computer displays that surrounded us. "I think it's some kind of fractal code virus with adaptive behavior that was able to worm its way around the security protocols and get onto the mainframe! I'd be impressed if our lives weren't literally at its mercy!" "I didn't follow most of that, but I'll take your word for it!" I nodded. "Can you shut it down - or at least get the ship into flight configuration? Even in the atmosphere, flying with all of the holds open is a recipe for disaster!" "Oh, now you trust me?" Schmidt glared. "I have to! If I don't, we all die!"
  4. Meanwhile... C.S.V. Republic Aegis Division staging site 3.2 kilometers from D.C.S. Takashima Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki February 7, 3029 ___________________________ Steve Jenkins suddenly lunged from his chair and, without comment, went running out of the Combat Information Center, hands clenched firmly on his backside. As the hatch slammed in his wake, I looked incredulously toward Schmidt. "What the hell do you suppose that was all about?" I asked, raising an eyebrow. "Don't ask me, I haven't figured that guy out yet," Nathan replied, dryly. "Anyway, we have bigger problems than that." The young Lyran pointed at the display of the noteputer. "Oh?" I asked, moving to look over Schmidt's shoulder. "Yeah. So after your linguistics guy plugged in the translation matrix, I was able to start combing through these files. And, well - I think that what we've got here is a honeypot," Nathan explained. "A 'honeypot?'" I asked. "Yeah," came the reply. "Whatever wrote to this drive filled it with lots of plausible-looking but mostly useless data." "How can you be sure?" I answered back. "There appears to be legible information in the stuff you're pulling up now." "Legible, yes, but it's all nonsense so far," Schmidt fired back, exasperation in his tone. "There's a file labeled as plans for LosTech weaponry that's actually a soup recipe. Here are some spaceship schematics that, on closer inspection, are physically impossible. That sort of thing." "Alright, I catch your drift," I nodded. "Keep looking. We did turn up useful intelligence from this drive previously. I don't want to throw in the towel just yet." "Major," Nathan replied, "it would be helpful if you'd tell me what it was you found before, so that I have some idea of what I'm looking for now." "Keep looking," I deadpanned. "If I think that information becomes relevant, I'll be sure to let you know." Schmidt sighed and turned back toward the computer terminal. A moment later, the door to the Combat Information Center was thrown open, and Steve Jenkins returned. I couldn't be sure, but it looked like the man was soaking wet, his crushed velvet, aubergine-colored suit drenched in brown-tinted water, shoes making loud squishing noises as he approached our station. "Mister Jenkins - what happened?" I asked, noting the smell of sewage beginning to waft from Steve's general direction. "There had been a problem with the bathroom I had used," Jenkins deadpanned. "But I'm back and I have to sit down and talk with the spirits now." Oh god, the smell... "Fine, whatever," I coughed, doing my best to keep from gagging as the pungent odor of whatever ritual sacrifice Steve had carried out in the bathroom registered in my nostrils. I didn't know what sort of health issues the man was afflicted with, but whatever he'd done reeked of the urine of Satan after a heavy portion of asparagus. While Jenkins settled back into his chair, I briskly made my way to the opposite side of the room to clear my sinuses and check in with Sabre team. "Sabre team, report st - " I began. "What in the holy goddamn?" Charles Maxwell's voice cried out in my headset, cutting off my words. "Sabre team - report status!" I exclaimed. A barrage of gunfire met my reply.
  5. Meanwhile, in the Combat Information Center... "Med Bay to Hayes," my comm unit crackled. As I watched the feeds from inside the Takashima play out across several equally-sized squares on the war room's monitors, I tapped my headset's microphone key to respond to the transmission. "This is Hayes - go ahead." "He's clean, Major, and cleared for duty," the voice on the other end of the line answered. 'Very good; have him brought him up," I responded. "Aye, sir," the voice of the medical orderly replied. "Does that mean I can get dressed now?" I heard Schmidt ask as the line went dead. Shaking my head, I turned my attention back to the ingress team, who had made a rather gory and unsettling find upon their return to the wreck. Keying back into Sabre team's audio feed, I heard a conversation playing out that sent chills down my spine. "Hey, Captain - this is not animals. Something's not right here," Sergeant Miles was observing. "One body is dragged off and stashed in a corner; the rest of the bodies look like they were dragged into the elevator shaft." "I absolutely concur," Captain Maxwell replied. "Our mission brief about this planet indicated that the razorbeast was the worst thing we could encounter here, and this looks like a substantially larger amount of damage" "Animals don't play with their food; they consume it," Miles added. "What've you got, gentlemen?" I asked, leaning forward and squinting at the feed. "This," Captain Maxwell answered, pushing his helmet-mounted video camera toward one of the corpses. In the illumination of the MechWarrior's flashlight, several deep, parallel cuts glistened. "Could there be some other type of animal running around?" Corporal Clemmons inquired. "It's definitely a possibility, I suppose," another voice answered. "No," I interjected. "Those cuts aren't consistent with what you would expect from a knife, and they're larger than even what the indigenous species can cause." "Yeah, it's definitely not an animal," Sergeant Miles affirmed. "Get me some close-ups of those cuts," I advised, "and we can run them through the database on the Mendacius. See if there's any kind of known match." "Thank you, sir," Maxwell replied. "We'll send you some images now." As I continued to watch the video stream, I noticed that the team was debating whether or not to enter the elevator shaft into which the trails of gore led. "It's too bad we don't have an ultrasonic detector," Maxwell observed. "It'd definitely help us to ascertain our odds of getting mauled by going in there." Abruptly, something appeared to catch Sergeant Miles' attention, and the team began creeping into the shaft behind him. Just then, the hatch to the Combat Information Center clanked open behind me. I turned to see Nathan Schmidt, dressed in a Crayven Corporation jumpsuit bereft of insignia or identifying marks, flanked by a corporate security officer and...Steve Jenkins. "MechWarrior Jenkins - what are you doing here?" I asked, caught off-guard by the additional visitor. "He insisted on accompanying the prisoner, sir," the security officer explained. "I'm his LEGAL REPRESENTATION," Steve beamed, grinning maniacally over his neck brace. "I'm here to make sure he doesn't get asked any Incriminating Facts." "Uh, I'm not sure what that means," I responded, hesitantly, "but far be it for me to stand in the way of due process. Just don't touch anything, and forget any information you see in here." "Don't worry!" Steve exclaimed. "I've already forgotten like half the things I did today." "Good, good," I replied, warily. "If you and Mister Schmidt will join me over here," I continued, gesturing at an empty command station directly beside my own, "I'll explain the work we need done."
  6. "...you have some degree of talent, to put it mildly, with computer systems," I continued, pursuing the matter gently. "And we have a drive that contains - or seems to contain - encrypted data that we cannot bust - not even with our most powerful algorithms." Nathan shrugged. "Maybe your most powerful just isn't good enough. Or your team is too inexperienced. You can only expect so much from a bunch of hired guns." I scowled. "Son, we have a fully-operational Bug-eye in orbit with a mainframe solely dedicated to busting through any encryption that we throw at it, crewed by the best analysts that money can buy. It's not for lack of trying, I can assure you that." "Alright, so why do you think I'd be any more successful?" the Lyran asked. "Because I was aboard the Half Moon when you sliced through its security systems like they didn't exist. I know you got a full copy of the Black Eclipse memo, turned our own countermeasures against us, and escaped in a fighter that was locked down before we even fully understood what hit us. If you are capable of doing something like that to the flagship of our fleet, than I have no doubt in my mind that you can get through a single file," I deadpanned. Nathan looked like he was giving the matter some thought. "Alright," he finally replied. "But what's in it for me?" "You get to come out of this cell," I answered. "And maybe, just maybe, we reduce the charges against you." Nathan laughed incredulously. "You're going to have to do better than that, Major." "Get me my data, and we'll talk," I replied. After several moments' pause, Schmidt nodded his head. "Alright, fine. Where do we start?" "Med Bay. We get you a clean bill of health, and a change of clothes. Then we get you to work." ### I arrived in Med Bay to find it abuzz with activity, the wounded we'd accumulated over the last week still in various stages of recovery. The Aegis Division mercenary known as 'Jenkins' was also present, wearing an outlandishly oversized neck brace and sporting a forehead bruise that looked for all the world like the typeface on our holding cell doors, though I could not make out what it said. I shook my head incredulously at the sight. As the majority of the human medical staff appeared to be preoccupied, I walked over to MediBot, and brought it out of standby. "Patient: HAYES, JAMES R. What are your symptoms?" the robot prompted. "MediBot, we've been over this: I'm only a 'patient' when I'm admitted here. Otherwise, I'm 'Major' Hayes. Got it?" I asked. The automaton simply blinked a series of status indicators in reply. "Okay, look, I need you to do a quick check-up on Mister Schmidt here," I requested. "Standard panel, no viruses, no broken bones, no malnutrition - that sort of thing. And NO SURGERY. I need him cleared for light clerical duty. Do you understand?" "Affirmative," MediBot replied. "Good. One more thing - if he tries to discuss anything with you apart from his medical condition, or request any kind of system access to you, or even looks funny at any of the electronic devices in this bay, I want you to sedate him and notify one of the medical staff immediately. Got it?" I glanced at Schmidt. "Nothing personal, of course," I smiled.
  7. Meanwhile... C.S.V. Republic Aegis Division staging site 3.2 kilometers from D.C.S. Takashima Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki February 7, 3029 ___________________________ For a week, Schmidt had mostly been kept in the prison cell. We'd questioned him a few times, whereupon he largely confirmed things that we already knew. We had yet to learn key things - what he had actually done with the information that he stole, what his final intended destination was going to be if he'd succeeded in retrieving the A.I., and, most frustrating of all, who he was working for. He wasn't openly combative or confrontational; he simply remained silent when questions were asked of him. I was leery of using forceful questioning tactics, such as truth serums or 'enhanced interrogation techniques;' Lyran intelligence agents were known for being both difficult to forcibly extract information from, and also loaded with certain failsafes if it seemed like the situation was too dire to continue resisting. So instead, I decided to opt for a different tactic: cooperation. As Sabre team once again deployed to the Takashima, I made a brief detour to the brig on my way to the Combat Information Center. Peering through the cell door, I saw Schmidt laying down, covers pulled over his head, trying to block out the overhead lights. After a moment's pause, I knocked gently on the glass. Schmidt's head poked above the blankets, squinting at me. "Yeah?" he asked. "Want to get out of this cell?" I replied. "For more questioning? No thanks," Schmidt glowered. "Not for questioning. I have a project for you - if you're interested," I answered.
  8. Simultaneously... C.S.V. Republic Aegis Division staging site 3.2 kilometers from D.C.S. Takashima Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ "Are you seeing this, Major?" Marcus Donovan's voice crackled in my headset. "Affirmative. It would appear that the security of the objective's been compromised," I murmured into my headset quietly. "Lock the doors up there. We're doing the same down here." "Copy that," Donovan replied. "Hayes to Captain McKenzie," I continued. "Go ahead," Dutch replied. "I know that Captain Maxwell can't hear me right now, so I want you to relay this message to the entire team for me: you are bound by non-disclosure agreement to not discuss what you're seeing right now - or anything that you've learned about this objective - with anyone that I don't explicitly authorize. Your mission parameters remain unchanged. You are to retrieve that objective and return it intact to the Republic. Understood?" "Understood, sir," McKenzie answered. "Good. One other thing: you're authorized to use force if you have to. I hope it doesn't come to that, given that this thing is still running pretty hot, but the option is open if you need to take it." I responded. "Roger that. We'll give a shout if it doesn't look like we're getting anywhere with 'diplomacy,' if that term even applies to computers," Dutch affirmed. "Good deal. Hayes out."
  9. C.S.V. Republic Aegis Division staging site 3.2 kilometers from D.C.S. Takashima Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ As Nathan dissolved into near-hysterics, I switched off the monitor and ejected the LegalROM, handing it back to Christopher Drake. "Satisfied?" I asked, pivoting in my chair to face the man. "He's waived legal counsel, at least, for the time being," Chris replied, sliding the ROM cartridge back into its sleeve and holding it thoughtfully in his hands. "Aside from the data you mentioned earlier, is there any other advisement I can give you?" "Yes," I nodded. "If you have the bandwidth, anything you can research about what would render a confession inadmissible in a Sheratan court of law would be helpful." "You'll have it first thing tomorrow morning," the adjutant confirmed. "I suggest you let Mister Schmidt settle in for now and get as much sleep as he needs. An exhausted prisoner, despite what you might think, makes for a lousy source of reliable information." "I was paying attention in the interrogation class; I remember," I chuckled. "Alright, thank you. I'll have him taken back to the brig for now. Send the information to my attention when you've got it. I'm going to head back to the CIC and see where we stand with the penetration of the derelict and the salvage operations. Captain Donovan is probably wondering where the hell I've been for so long." "Well, I appreciate you being personally-invested in this particular detainee," Chris nodded. "He's high-risk and the only source of information about what he did with the data after he stole it from the Half Moon. Definitely someone that warrants command-level oversight." "I do what I can," I responded. "Thanks, Chris. Let me know if you need anything else from me." ### The CIC was abuzz with activity as I stepped across its threshold into the confined space. Walking over to the battlefield commander's station, I slipped my headset on, nodding an affirmation to the deck officer that he was relieved. "Angel One, this is Heavy One, checking in," I radioed to the Mendacius. "About time - sir," Captain Donovan joked. "I was beginning to worry that Schmidt had done you in." "No such luck today," I quipped. "Alright, what're we dealing with? Give me the lay of the land. "Well, Sabre team is down a man. We don't know why, but Corporal Jamison wigged out in one of the wreck's hangar bays, fired a bunch of rounds at the walls while screaming a bunch of crazy talk, and then detonated his entire explosives rig in an single go. Maxwell mentioned that he thought there might be some kind of psychotropic characteristic to the place, though we're not really sure what that might be. I suppose that goes without saying, given what we witnessed earlier with the dead body and the writing on the walls," the Captain reported. "Holy shit," I cursed. "Is everyone else okay?" "Mentally, they're shaken, but physically, they're fine. They arrived at the bridge a short while ago and they're climbing up into it now. Your timing was good. They're about to crack open the core, I believe," Donovan responded. "Alright. Thanks for minding the store for me while I was away. I'll take point from here, if you have no objections," I acknowledged. "Please do. We'll continue to transmit sitrep data and run interference from up here," the Captain replied. "Much obliged," I answered back. Taking in a general overview of the salvager compound, I noted that most of its occupiers had finished withdrawing, reducing the need for us to continue to maintain an overwhelming presence on the field. The armor lances, coupled with the ECM abilities that Dexter Friedman's Raven afforded us, would be more than adequate to provide an ongoing detail in the short term. "Control to all Aegis Division BattleMech units - nice job today. You have the green signal to stand down and come on home. That goes for everyone except you, Abaddon - I need your specialized services on station there at the Takashima until Captain Maxwell and team make their exit," I transmitted. "Armor lances, continue to provide a security detail at your respective stations until further notice." A number of acknowledgements crackled in from the various surviving 'Mech and tank units still in the field. The recall orders having been given, I turned my attention to our ingress team aboard the Takashima. "Control to Sabre team - how are you progressing, gentlemen?"
  10. Hey, gang! Earlier today, @Agent Nathan Schmidt raised the flag on an interesting technical issue that some of you may have encountered. Thanks to his help in troubleshooting the problem, I was able to figure out the cause, and also, a workaround, in case any of you happen to run into the issue later on. Nathan was running into an error message that read, "We're sorry, but a temporary technical error occurred which means we cannot display this site right now," when trying to submit a post. When he sent me his post, I ran into the same issue at first, but then, when I attempted the workaround I'm about to describe, the post went through. Nathan's post contained source formatting from the editor he'd used to write it, and, for whatever reason, the editor here did not like something about it. However, when you paste text into the Post or Reply windows, you may have noticed that the following little hyperlink comes up: 'Paste as plain text instead' will remove all of the source formatting from something you've pasted, and convert all of the fonts to a forum-friendly format. I used that option on Nathan's post, and it went through successfully. Feel free to give this method a try if you run into any issues with submitting content, and as always, don't hesitate to give a shout here or on the Discord if you have any challenges with which we can lend a hand.
  11. Simultaneously... C.S.V. Republic Aegis Division staging site 3.2 kilometers from D.C.S. Takashima Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ The situation was deteriorating rapidly. Although we were inflicting significant attrition on the salvagers, they were doing the same to us, mounting a surprisingly coordinated defense of the wreck in spite of the fact that, as near as we could tell, none of the parties present were affiliated with one another. The entire militia was a loose band of organizations that'd apparently agreed to some kind of mutual partnership terms concerning salvage operations, and they were now holding their own against our security forces. In addition to keeping us engaged, the pirates had also completely obliterated a lance from the Black Phalanx mercenary company, which was a turn of events I could never have expected. We were now down to a King Crab, an Orion, a Longbow, a Marauder, a Phoenix Hawk LAM that we'd brought out of reserve, and a handful of tanks. Our Catapult and Awesome were, for the moment, out of commission, along with several vehicles that had been permanently destroyed, while our Dragon and Raven were pulling sentry duty to ensure that no further goons entered the Takashima. Although seven BattleMechs and an armor lance, on paper, sounded like a respectable fighting force, the area we were tasked with controlling was enormous, and its occupiers spirited and well-armed. I knew it wouldn't take much to shift the balance of power into the favor of either side. As I analyzed the tactical situation, my comm unit crackled to life with the voice of Captain Donovan. "Major Hayes, we've got a development happening here that you might want to be aware of," Donovan advised. "Go ahead, Captain - what've you got?" I replied, pivoting to the screens displaying intelligence feeds from the Mendacius. "Well, sir, we've been pretty successful in intercepting the various comm feeds flying around between the assorted salvage parties, and it sounds like their confidence is starting to erode. There's a lot of chatter about how much attrition they're willing to take. Keep in mind, we're not dealing with a single, gigantic army. Everybody down there's a free agent, and some have a lot more to lose than others. We may have an opportunity to shatter their cohesiveness by offering them a chance to stand down now," the Captain advised. "I know we think we're getting hit hard, but that's nothing compared to the mindset of guys who are potentially losing a third or more of their assets every time we blow one of their machines to bits." I nodded. "That's brilliant, Marcus, thank you. It's worth a shot. Let me see what I can do. Control out." "Mendacius out." Quickly, I made my way over to the comms station. "Mister Cheviot, give me a wide-band, high-power open channel to the entire theatre. Use an uplink to the dish on the Mendacius to drown out everything but Aegis Division traffic. I want everyone out there to hear me," I instructed. "Aye, sir," the comm officer replied. "Channel coming up now. You are live and direct." I tapped my headset to unmute its microphone. Then, I began to speak, my words slow and deliberate. "Occupying forces: this is Major James Hayes of the Aegis Division mercenary unit. Cease your attacks on our security forces, and we will allow you to withdraw from the wreck site with your remaining assets intact. I understand that many of you are here with your entire livelihoods on the line. Some of you may have already incurred incalculable losses as a result of this engagement. Disengage now and you may leave this area with your equipment and belongings. You will not be harmed. You may stage yourselves 2.5 kilometers outside of the planetary perimeter wall so that any orbiting vehicles you may have in-system can come and collect you without being detected by the sensor net. Your reply is required within the next sixty seconds. If we do not receive an answer, we will assume that you have declined our offer." I cut the channel, and waited, watching the mission clock slowly tick up. "Think they'll take the offer, sir?" Captain Donovan asked. "I have no idea. We're thirty seconds in so far," I replied. Soon, the mission clock had ticked past the fifty-three second mark, with no reply to our missive. But then, just five seconds before the prescribed cutoff, a static-laden, feedback-wrought radio transmission hissed over the speakers. "We accept your terms."
  12. Simultaneously... C.S.V. Republic Aegis Division staging site 3.2 kilometers from D.C.S. Takashima Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ The CIC was in a state of near-pandemonium as combat operations played out in three theaters across the wreck site, backdropped by scrambled support and recovery initiatives. I glanced back and forth between the grainy video feeds of the brutal firefight playing out aboard the Takashima and the drone footage of the carnage unfolding within the squatters' compound. As Charles Maxwell delivered a play-by-play of the engagement with the hostiles, a second priority message flashed onto my screen from Alyssa Chase. Leaving the radio transmission from within the hulk playing in my right ear, I toggled over to the incoming message from Chase in my left headset. "Control. Go." "Control, this is Radar," Chase advised. "Be advised, I have Nathan Schmidt in my custody." "You have Schmidt? Where?" I asked, incredulously. "He's restrained in the rumble seat. He surrendered himself to me a moment ago. Hostiles in this area are neutralized. Please advise what my next maneuvers should be." I flashed an incredulous look. Schmidt was not a variable for which we'd planned. After a moment, I spoke. "Acknowledged, Radar. Nice work. Anvil and Hammer lances could use some help. Move to reinforce, but play it safe - if you start getting banged up too badly, I want you to withdraw before you have to bail out. Schmidt is a piece of intel that I didn't expect we'd have - I want him back here alive." "Rogter that, Control. Moving to assist," Chase replied. I quickly toggled my comm feed back over to the besieged ingress team in time to pick up audio of Maxwell and Miles putting down the last of the hostiles. As silence overtook the feed, I keyed the communications mic open. "Sabre Lead - advise status. Is everybody in one piece down there?"
  13. C.S.V. Republic Aegis Division staging site 3.2 kilometers from D.C.S. Takashima Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ "Mantis is down!" Marcus Donovan's voice crackled in my headset, a priority telemetry feed from the Mendacius exploding onto the Combat Information Center's massive display wall. "I see it, Captain," I replied, dismissing the flurry of alert boxes warning of loss of telemetry from Tyche. "Control to Mantis - do you copy?" A burst of static hissed across the CIC's speakers. "O'Neil, see if you can boost the gain on that signal!" I exclaimed, worried that the MechWarrior may already have been getting overwhelmed by the ground forces that had penned him in. Fortunately, moments later, Lennox's transmission began to resolve into a coherent message. "...its to Control - do you read me? Mantis to Control!" "We read you, Mantis - what is your situation? Are you able to bail out?" I replied. "She went down on her belly; I'm pretty sure I can eject safely, but Major, I really don't wanna leave the Captain's 'Mech to these assholes," Marius answered. I grimaced. "I appreciate your dedication, Mister Lennox, but eye in the sky shows me that they're already trying to cut through the hatch. Frankly, I don't give a damn about Captain Maxwell's priceless family heirloom right now; I want you back alive. I'm ordering you to eject. We'll get Charles some new toys later on if we have to." "Aye sir - I'm ejecting!" The end of Marius' sentence was punctuated by the detonation of emergency bolts blowing the top of the Catapult's hull away and the whoosh of the ejection seat's rockets firing. "Track that pod!" I exclaimed. "I want a fast-mover out there to pick him up as soon as you've got a fix on his location. Between the heat and the locals, he's not gonna last long out there." "You got it, sir," Sergeant Martinez replied. "Donovan, we're not faring particularly well at the moment," I continued, switching my comm unit over to a private channel with the Mendacius. "We've lost a BattleMech and two Condor crews, including Weyland. I hope we can turn the tide here, or at the very least, get Maxwell and his team into the objective and back out again as quickly as possible."
  14. C.S.V. Republic Aegis Division staging site 3.2 kilometers from D.C.S. Takashima Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki January 31, 3029 ___________________________ I stood before a sweeping set of displays in the Republic's Combat Information Center, watching live drone video feeds of the engagement at the artifact site, while simultaneously scanning incoming secondary data about the tactical situation - everything from fuel levels to force compositions and weather reports. All of it was relevant - the balance of power in a military engagement could be shifted by the most innocuous variable, and so it paid to have as complete a picture as possible of what those fringe situations were likely to be. It would so happen that Alexander Blackwood and Marius Lennox were about to pass me a major variable. As I watched the garrison wall buckle and then fail completely under the combined-arms assault of Hammer and Anvil lances, my sitrep board lit up with a new incoming telemetry report from the field. Glancing at it, I keyed open a comm channel to its originator. "Alright, Traveler, what am I looking at here?" "We've got four new bogies out here, Major," Blackwood began, his voice sounding filtered and tinny as the combination of active ECM and Nirasaki's atmosphere played havoc with the transmission. "A MAD-4A Marauder II, a TDR-5S Thunderbolt, an HBK-4N Hunchback, and a JR7-D Jenner. They're up in the compound and getting pounded on by the locals. None of them are broadcasting IFF of any kind. We're reading them on sensors only." "That's damn peculiar. We'll analyze now and advise further," I replied, pivoting to one of our Unmanned Aerial Vehicle operators. "Martinez, I need an eye in the sky on an incoming lance. I'm sending you the coordinates." "Aye, Major," Martinez replied. "Unit 47-Delta is inbound." Nodding to the pilot, I brought up the feed from the drone. As it swept over the sandy battlefield, I briefly saw an exchange of muzzle flashes between the lances commanded by Captain Maxwell and Lieutenant Weyland as they engaged with the pirate armor units. Then, the aircraft banked sharply to the left, affording me a view of the smoldering crater where a section of the barrier wall once stood, the void now filled with brawling, bipedal war machines which were shooting, punching, and charging one another as one side tried to breach the security perimeter, while the other side fought to keep them out. The camera feed twitched erratically as Martinez tracked, and then locked on to, the lance of interest. As the camera feed zoomed in, I could see a Marauder, painted in dark grays and browns, grappling with a Wolverine. To its right flank, a Thunderbolt, in a similar camouflage scheme, was taking shots at a BattleMaster that seemed to have the upper hand in the fight. "Martinez, hold on that Thunderbolt and pull it in as tight as you can," I requested, my attention glued to the feed. "Coming in now," Martinez answered. As the image pulled in, my eyes widened. I've seen this 'Mech before...but where? Through the grainy feed, I could just make out a mottled black-and-white insignia on the 'Mech's flank. But the image fidelity was far too low for me to be able to discern its details. "Martinez, I need you to get me closer to the Thunderbolt. I need an ident on the unit insignia," I advised. "I'll get you as close as I can, sir," the pilot acknowledged. The video feed dipped downward momentarily as the drone accelerated and descended. We were now significantly closer to the action, and plumes of smoke occasionally obscured the video feed. As the drone's operator brought it around for another pass on the Thunderbolt's flank, the 'Mech's badge rolled into view - a stylized, flaming DropShip, pointed toward the ground, illustrated above an inverted chevron. "Ho-ly shit..." I exclaimed. "That's Black Phalanx. The same unit - and, if I'm not mistaken, the same Thunderbolt - that we encountered at Gan Singh." I quickly typed out an emergency action message to all Aegis Division units in the operating theater, advising of the situation, before opening the general comms channel once again. "Black Phalanx mercenary unit - you are illegally interfering in a salvage operation by Aegis Division. State your intentions," I transmitted. There came no reply. "Black Phalanx mercenary unit - you are illegally interfering in a salvage operation. State your intentions," I repeated. "If you do not reply, we will consider you hostile." "Major, I don't think that whether we reply or not makes much of a difference," a youthful, yet cold and detached voice answered. The hairs on the back of my neck bristled. "Schmidt?" I replied, incredulously. "Yes, Major. Unfortunately, our business here is mutually-exclusive. First to the wreck is all that matters."
  15. Meanwhile... C.S.V. Republic Final approach to Nirasaki Draconis Combine January 30, 3029 ___________________________ Overhearing the banter between Maxwell and Weyland, I made my way across the bridge to the pair, a wry smile playing across my face as Bishop gestured disdainfully at the view on the bridge's sweeping status display. Though I hadn't known him very long, there was a certain charisma about Charles Maxwell that seemed to put everyone at ease. Though young in his years, the mercenary Captain had a worldliness about him that instilled in his personality a levelheadedness, experience, and degree of wisdom that allowed him to integrate in well with the crew. Above all else, he seemed to ascribe to an ethos of never taking himself too seriously, a trait I could appreciate. I suspected that the joviality, at least in part, was the coping mechanism of a haunted soul. Though he never spoke of it, the streaks of gray in Maxwell's hair, creases at the edges of his eyes, and the way that his smile often didn't reach quite as far as it should were indications of a man carrying a profound amount of history on his shoulders. "I couldn't help but overhear you gents dissecting Donovan's latest breakdown of the shitshow down on the surface," I chuckled, striding up alongside Charles and Bishop. "Mind a little input?" "Not at all," Charles replied, pivoting, along with Bishop, to face me. "What've you got?" "Well," I began, pulling up a tactical map on my personal datapad and putting the device in presentation mode, "my doodles aren't as pretty as William's, but bear with me." "This is the current situation down at the dig site. 'H' and 'A' represent the projected deployment locations of our 'Heavy' and 'Armor' brigades, respectively. 'Heavy' means Hammer and Anvil lances, while 'Armor' represents Sabre and Vulcan. You tracking me so far?" I asked. "Copy that," Bishop nodded. "Good. Now, up in zone 'A' is where the pirates seem to have the bulk of their heavy hardware - the BattleMechs and other gear that tends to ruin someone's day. Zone 'B' is where we're seeing a lot of armored cavalry activity - tanks, mobile HQs, and assorted harasser squads. The red crosses are the areas we're noticing the highest concentration of assets at any given time," I continued. "Alright, that makes sense," Maxwell agreed. "Now, my advice to you gents would be to do exactly as you've proposed. Take Heavy brigade up along the red route here and put a hole through the garrison wall where the X is. Hit their primary defenses hard and fast. That'll trigger an instinctive response from them to try to plug the hole and keep you out. Simultaneously, I propose that we take Armor brigade along the purple route, smash through the barrier at the indicated location, and sweep up through the eastern part of the site to the insertion location on the wreck. You'll attract the attention of their tanks in the process, but that'll draw them away from Heavy and make it easier for those guys to do their jobs keeping the worst of the mess away from you. Plus, our intel indicates their armor is going be outclassed by what you guys will be driving." "Speaking of which," Maxwell interjected, "is Donovan's list what we're reasonably expecting to encounter?" "For the most part," I nodded. "Based on activity we've observed over the last few days, I'm gonna call what I've got here the most authoritative list. Here, have a look." I punched a few buttons on the pad, bringing up an ordered shortlist of enemy assets. ________________________________________ TACTICAL ANALYSIS OPERATION: BLACK ECLIPSE FILTER MODE: ENEMY OPFOR ASSETS INTERNAL USE ONLY ________________________________________ 4x Harasser laser platform 3x Sabaku Kaze heavy scout hover tank 1x BLR-1G BattleMaster 1x WVR-6K Wolverine 1x CGR-1A1 Charger 1x SDR-5K Spider 2x MON-66 Mongoose 2x Shillelagh missile tank 2x SHD-2K Shadow Hawk 2x HSR-200-D Hussar 1x CRD-3K Crusader 2x Field Gunners (AC/2) 2x Foot Platoon (MG) 3x Mechanized Tracked Platoon (Laser) 2x Pirate Lady Death's 'Pacification' Squads 2x Mobile Headquarters 2x BC XV-M Buster HaulerMech Mod ________________________________________ END ANALYSIS ________________________________________ Bishop let out a low whistle. Maxwell furrowed his eyebrows. "Now, I know that's gonna be a lot of moving targets," I acknowledged. "What can I do from here to help you fellows out while you're down in the thick of this mess? Give me the details, and I'll get a crew briefing on the books so we all know what roles we need to play tomorrow."
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