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William Kauffman

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  1. On the opposite side of the Capellans... Gunfire. Screams. Explosions. The rumble of heavy machinery. I looked toward Steve Jenkins, who'd sealed himself into his spacesuit as the weightless environment around us became thick with fertilizer, and toggled on the short-range communications channel. "Mister Jenkins, it sounds like things have taken an unexpected turn in the corridor. This would appear to be our opportunity," I radioed. "Alright," Steve replied. "Tell me what to do." "We need to do three things in quick succession. First, we need to get into the laboratory and purge the fertilizer out of the interior. Then, we need to open the cargo bay door." "And finally?" Steve asked as I led him into the portable facility. "And finally, as soon as we have an indication that they've started to come inside, we need to arm one of those flashbangs of yours, open the hatch, throw it out there, and then close the hatch again as quickly as possible. It won't do to blow ourselves up in the process," I advised, looking around for an atmosphere regulator station. "Tell me again how you know how to do all this stuff?" Steve asked, positioning himself at the control panel where he'd earlier impersonated the late Doctor Wen. "What exactly is it you do for a living?" I chuckled. "We're a dynamics company. We have our hands in everything from aerospace to microwave ovens. You could say that science is the backbone of what we do." "Yeah, you just don't strike me as the 'blowing shit up' type, no offense," Steve observed. "I kinda figured that knowledge had to have been coming from a different place." "None taken at all, Mister Jenkins. I'm sure you're right; I'm something of an ideas man," I replied. "Ah ha! Here's the valve. I'm purging the atmosphere in here now." I gave the laboratory's atmosphere regulator a solid tug, noting with dismay the amount of struggle I encountered trying to complete such a simple mechanical task. Fortunately, I was able to convince the lever to move to the 'purge' position, and I heard a loud, steady hiss as the air inside the laboratory was drawn out. Once the 'VAC' light illuminated on the panel, I moved the valve to the 'tank' position, allowing the structure to fill with uncontaminated air from its attached oxygen tanks. "Wait, you're putting air back in here? I thought we were purging everything," Steve observed. "Quite right, but it would do no good for us to have an explosive compression the moment we opened a hatch, so I'm re-pressurizing the lab with oxygen from the attached tankage. That way, our own atmosphere is equalized with that of the freighter's, but without the fertilizer. "Ohhh..." Steve nodded. The 'COMP' light illuminated green on the regulator, and I engaged the system's internal reclamation cycle. "I believe we're ready," I advised, moving to stand alongside Jenkins. "Go ahead and raise the door." Steve paused, taking a moment to study the console. Then, with a flourish, he made several uncertain yet bold button presses. A klaxon sounded off in the cargo bay, and the door rumbled open. A wash of blue smoke rolled into the chamber, mixing with the almost fully-liquid atmosphere in a strange display of long, twisting tendrils that looked as though an artist had dropped blobs of ink into a plate of oil. As I predicted, a number of soldiers began backing into the bay, reacting with surprise as they were met with a solid wall of foul-smelling liquid fertilizer. "Now, Mister Jenkins!" I exclaimed. Quickly, Steve dove from his chair and threw open the laboratory's overhead hatch, lobbing the flashbang toward the soldiers and then slamming the hatch. Seconds later, a tremendous detonation ensued. The laboratory was nearly torn from its deck anchors by the force of the blast, and alarm klaxons wailed as the freighter's onboard systems registered the explosion. I turned toward Steve. "Quickly," I advised. "We need to make a break for it before they're able to regain their senses." Steve nodded, drawing a long sword from its sheath. "You should probably get your gun out," he advised. I withdrew the handgun from my spacesuit's holster, examining it for a moment. "How many shots has it got?" I asked. "I reloaded it before I gave it to you, so it should have thirteen. Twelve in the magazine and one in the chamber. Take your finger off the trigger until you're ready to fire," Jenkins instructed, pushing out through the laboratory's hatch into the smoke-filled cargo bay. As I followed behind, I could see that the fertilizer explosion had done its job - surfaces throughout the hold were melted and scorched, and the overhead lights were burned out, leaving us bathed in darkness, save for the illumination that spilled in from the corridor. As we made our way toward the cargo bay door, I could see that the Capellans were fully engaged with an opposing force in the corridor. It appeared that two security robots had gone mad and had turned their guns on the soldiers, who were attempting to mount a defense while simultaneously trying to activate their own automatons, one of which had been blown clean apart by what looked like an internal explosion. "There's quite a few soldiers out there," I whispered across the channel. "Five in the middle, three dead, two hiding behind the left support pillar, and two behind the right. That's nine, and I don't know what became of the troops that were caught in the blast." Suddenly, unexpectedly, I heard a shout behind us, and I instinctively pushed off the deck and tumbled unceremoniously behind a cargo container. As I regained my position, I saw that Steve Jenkins had been beset upon by two very angry, very blasted-looking Capellans. One of the soldiers had completely lost the front half of his armor and uniform shirt, his helmet misshapen and damaged. The other appeared to have fared better, with only half of his tunic missing. Before Steve had a chance to react, the Capellans seized him, one holding a knife to his throat while the other pulled off his spacesuit's helmet. Hearing the shouts, a third Capellan broke away from the formation of troops and began making his way into the cargo bay. "God...damnit!" I exclaimed. I could hear the fear in my own voice. Steve glanced in my direction wild-eyed, no doubt perceiving that he was likely about to be executed by the soldiers. I watched in horror as the third of the contingent, a Lieutenant by the looks of it, approached, shouting commands in Chinese as the subordinates stripped away Steve's loadout of weapons. I looked around, desperate for a chance to notify someone of what was happening so that Steve could be saved. But there was no one else present. It was only me, and if I didn't intervene, the life of the man who'd just saved me would be unceremoniously ended. I was about to do something very, very stupid. But I knew I had to act. Throwing caution to the wind, I tore off my helmet, and dove over the cargo container, screaming bloody murder in an attempt to shock the Capellan troops into redirecting their attention. Simultaneously, with a fleeting thought I activated my entire suite of implants mid-dive, connecting to the mainframe of the Hurry Up Bessie, whose encryption I'd managed to bypass several days ago during a moment of consciousness by compromising a user profile with a low-security password. The world slowed to a crawl, and I took a head count. True to my estimation, there were twelve infantrymen almost on top of us. I didn't have a shooting solution on most of them. However, the Lieutenant and his subordinates were another story. As I sailed through the air, I drew the weapon provided by Steve, aimed it squarely at the Lieutenant, and squeezed off three rounds in his direction. Then, I twisted twisted toward the opposite facing to fire off another three at the soldier holding a knife to Steve's throat. A warning indicator flashed in my field of view, indicating an impending overload of my implants. As normal time rushed back into focus, the two soldiers were cut down by the volleys I'd loosed at them, all six bullets hitting their marks as intended. The final soldier stared in shock as I tumbled to the deck next to Jenkins, shoving him out of harm's way and pressing the handgun into his grip so that he could regain control of the situation. As Steve took the remaining soldier to task, I lay against the deck, perilously close to a shutdown of my nervous system, trying to regain control of my synapses. I hoped that there wouldn't be another opportunity to test just how hard I could push my augments on this outing...
  2. Simultaneously... "Yeah, we're trapped, the only way out is all the guys at the door, unless you can turn invisible that doesn't seem like it's good idea," Steve lamented. Mister Jenkins' radio shenanigans had been both bold and creative, I had to give him credit for that. Unfortunately, the unexpected twist introduced by Doctor Tao relegated creativity to a solid back burner position. It now seemed that boldness was the order of the hour. "Let's have a look around, shall we?" I asked. Jenkins nodded in reply. Together, we made our way out of the pod and into the cargo bay. I was thankful that we were currently operating in a weightless environment. Even under the lightweight locomotion of mag boots alone, I could feel significant atrophy in my muscles, no doubt brought on as a result of having spent what I could only presume were months on end laying prone, strapped to a table, fading in and out of some kind of stasis as Doctor Wen and Doctor Tao attempted an electronic lobotomization of my brain. It seemed decidedly certain that when gravity was finally restored, I would be unable to walk for some time. The cargo bay was a large, vaulted compartment, stacked high on four sides with containers of all shapes and sizes. In the center of the space was the portable laboratory, a long, windowless, rectangular enclosure that, save for a bevy of antennas and receiver dishes on its roof, looked for all the world like a shipping container. A gridlike system of lights was inset into the ceiling, blazing brightly and casting stark white light into every corner of the space. A large, single hydraulic door, emblazoned with the word 'ATMOSPHERE,' was inset into the far wall of the room, next to which was a wash of gore and blood that I presumed to be the late Doctor Wen. On the opposite side of the hold was a larger set of doors, trimmed with black and yellow warning tape, bearing signage that read 'VACUUM.' I gazed toward the ceiling, studying the myriad utility pipes that snaked behind the lighting grid. My eyes traced across an open hatchway in the ceiling; presumably the one through which Steve Jenkins had entered. A small, almost imperceptible shape to the left of it caught my notice. With a subtle thought, I zoomed my vision in on the shape. As my eyes re-focused, I could see that it was a fire suppression nozzle of some kind. "Mister Jenkins - I'd like to take a look at the safety equipment in this bay. Care to join me?" ### Steve and I floated next to the sprinkler head as I examined it, attempting to ascertain whether or not it was pressurized or connected to an alarm system. I saw no evidence of an electronic hookup - by all appearances, the device was an old-style, temperature-activated unit. But I couldn't tell what it contained. There was only one way to know. "Mister Jenkins - I'm afraid I'm in less than ideal physical condition at the moment. Would you be able to forcibly remove the head from this sprinkler?" I asked. "Incidentally - do be careful. I'm not sure what's going to come out of it."
  3. Meanwhile... "What are you doing? Get back out there and defend the hall - wait, who are you?" Doctor Wen's voice cried out. The sound of a large blade being drawn from a sheath cut through the laboratory. "Weren't you a lady a minute before?" a higher-pitched, unfamiliar voice asked in a puzzled tone. I raised an eyebrow in equal confusion at the absurdity of the question. "NEVER MIND ABOUT THAT!" Doctor Wen shouted back. Then, a primal scream, followed by the unmistakable sounds of physical combat, pierced the darkness. I flinched against the table's straps, startled by the sudden commotion, although I'd known that something was amiss as soon as the freighter I was aboard had come under attack, our forward momentum unexpectedly stopping, as though we'd been grappled. Now, it seemed we'd been boarded - at least, according to the announcements that the frenzied crew periodically shouted over the vessel's decrepit public address system. And within the last few minutes, the Capellans in the lab had also flown into a panic, shuffling about with great haste, barking what I could only assume were Chinese-spoken orders at the guards stationed outside the laboratory, and intermittently reminding me to stay put on pain of punishment, as though it were possible for me to do anything but lay in place, as I had been indefinitely, helpless to do anything but watch. When the EMP device detonated - I was certain that it was an EMP device, as the entirety of my physical augments were, in an instant, violently and painfully knocked offline - and the world was plunged into black, I suspected that the boarding party must be close. Still, the nature of the melee that was now erupting just a short distance away was unexpected. A loud crash reverberated off the side of the pod, followed by what I was certain was vomiting. A litany of punches and pummeling ensued, punctuated by the blast of a handgun going off, the round striking a computer within the laboratory. Blake's blood, they're close... I thought to myself, trying to formulate some kind of a plan to defend myself, though in my restrained state, there weren't many options for doing so. A sudden explosion thundered through the modular building's frame, accompanied by a heavy smell of cordite. A deadly silence ensured, broken moments later by the voice I'd heard previously. As it called out again, I realized that this time, it was much closer. "HELLO? IS ANYBODY IN HERE?" the speaker asked. After a moment's hesitation, I replied. "Please help me, I'm over here," I answered quietly. I still wasn't sure who or what was present. The EMP effect had done more than simply turn out the lights. My vision, being almost fully bionic, was without function. I was, at least for the moment, blind. After a long pause, the speaker made his presence known again. This time, he was at my bedside. "Are you William Kauffman? I'm Steve Jenkins, and I'm here to save you," he announced, enthusiasm and a smile in his voice. In an instant, my spirits rose. The man's name was familiar from a roster I'd reviewed on Sheratan months ago - Jenkins was a MechWarrior in the employ of Aegis Division. "You've found him, Mister Jenkins - and it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance," I whispered, my voice hoarse from lack of use and what I could only assume was a combination of malnutrition, atrophy, and dehydration. "I was hopeful that the Crayven Corporation would be able to find me. Have you come alone?" Before the MechWarrior could reply, I heard the room's overhead lights begin to buzz. Myriad computers throughout the laboratory roared back to life. "Uh oh, there isn't much time, you better get up fast and put on this space suit," Steve pleaded. I couldn't help but chuckle with amusement. "I would be happy to accommodate your request," I answered, "but for the fact that I am completely restrained - and blind as well. I'll need your assistance to get free. Are you able to cut away the straps holding me to the table?" Steve paused for a moment. "Well," he finally replied, "I'll see what I can do!" Seconds later, I felt a large knife sawing at the restraints. Over the course of the next several minutes, one strap after another popped free. At nearly the exact moment the last encumbrance fell away, my vision gradually began to return as the EMP effect wore off. Slowly...painfully...I sat up, focusing my eyes on my rescuer. Youthful in appearance, he was of average height, bedecked in a Crayven Corporation spacesuit, a tousled head of dark-colored hair beneath his helmet, and a manic grin stretching across his freckle-bedecked complexion from cheek to cheek. Across his back was slung a very prominent sword, and in his outstretched hand he held an emergency vac suit. "Oh, there you are," I mused. Jenkins nodded approvingly. "You got un-blind?" Steve asked with bewilderment. "Yes, I have augmented vision," I replied, "and in the wake of the electromagnetic pulse earlier, I became temporarily impaired. But it seems that the issue is passing quickly, which is good. I'd hate to try to change into one of these spacesuits by myself otherwise." With that, I stepped into the spacesuit, pulling it up and over my tattered dress shirt and slacks, zipping it at the front. "Tell me, how did you get here? Does the return trip involve a hostile atmosphere?" "You could say that," Steve quipped. "But right now, there are a bunch of guards and robots right outside the door, and I'm going to need your creativity so that I can get you out of here." "I'm very grateful that you came to my aid, and if I can help us both safely escape, I will," I nodded. "What did you have in mind?"
  4. Simultaneously... I wasn't sure how long I'd been in their custody. The last date I remembered was January 31, 3029. It was the date that a group of masked figures, who I'd later learn were agents of the Capellan Confederation's Maskirovka intelligence agency, descended from the shadows, incapacitated me, and carried me off of Thorin. I'd spent what I could only assume were the ensuing days and weeks in and out of consciousness, the Capellans sedating me and waking me at their whim. During my moments of lucidity, I'd been poked, prodded, interrogated, and tormented. At first, they hadn't asked me any questions. Instead, they'd begun by sending agonizing electrical currents through my body to detect my bio-mechanical augments. Then, they'd attempted to circumvent the security on the devices and use the implants as a direct neural interface to my brain. After that, torture. It was only when all of these measures failed that they'd started talking. I learned that the Maskirovka were desperate to extract information from me related to Project: Black Eclipse. Their questions ran the gamut from wanting to know what was we were seeking, where we were sending our expeditionary forces, and how we'd come to learn of a rumored lost AI in their space. They never volunteered how they'd learned of our project in the first place. None of their tactics had been particularly fruitful - or at least, none of the tactics that I'd remembered, given that drugs had occasionally been fielded in the process. The facility in which I was being held looked no more sizable than a large cargo container - in fact, I was almost certain that it had been constructed in exactly that manner. The far end of the container, where I was being kept, was partitioned off as an examination room, devoid of anything but an exam table, a litany of surveillance gear, and, in place of prominence, a Neural Interrogation Computer. From the tantalizing few glimpses that I was afforded as guards came and went, it appeared that the rest of the structure was set up as some kind of mobile field base, to include crew bunks and data processing units. I speculated that I'd been repeatedly moved from vessel to vessel, probably to throw off any individuals who might be pursuing the Capellans in the hopes of effecting my rescue, or who might want to take me for their own means. I was now the CEO of the most profitable startup on the Terran stock exchange, leading a company flush with cash and known for its secrets; tempting traits in a prisoner for anyone engaged in a life of piracy. One day tended to be extremely similar to the next. The agents would come, attempt science on my implants, try to interrogate me, and then leave, anesthetizing me via an IV drip that also seemed to be a nutrient feed. But today was proving to be different. Today, the vessel I was aboard gave a violent lurch as it was racked with explosions as the gravity quickly fell away. Sirens blared, muffled announcements echoed through the ship's decks, and the Capellans seemed to be in a panic. Because today, someone had apparently decided to shake up the routine. Here's hoping that the enemy of my enemy is my friend...
  5. Elsewhere... Oberon Confederation, 3015 "Forgive me for being paranoid," the tall, powerfully built goon who guarded the entrance to the royal treasurer's office began, motioning for me to turn my back toward me so that he could check for any unseen weapons, "but if you know anything about us, you'll know that we've had a rather tough time." "I understand," I replied. "What've you got under the coat?" the guard asked. Slowly, I reached one hand down to pull my longcoat aside. A compact laser pistol sat strapped to my hip. "Nothing else?" "No," I replied. The towering fellow raised an eyebrow at me. "You planning on trying anything funny with the treasurer if I let you in?" "No, I swear to you I'm not. I'm just here, at the instruction of His Excellency, to collect my payment," I replied. "People do get paid on your world, right?" The guard looked unconvinced, but eventually relented. With a heavy sigh, he lowered his weapon, and grunted at me, making an 'I've got my eyes on you' gesture as he keyed open the door to the treasurer's office. Quickly, I stepped over the threshold and into the ornate space. Standing before me was a small but orderly desk, flanked on either side by bookcases containing tattered volumes from innumerable different eras. At the desk itself sat the treasurer. "Hello ," the man, an older fellow, with dozens of battle scars, announced with little inflection n his voice. "What do you need?" "My name's William Kauffman. I've completed the work on your battleship, and now, if it's not too much trouble, I'd like to be paid," I explained. "Certainly," the treasurer said. "There's just one small detail we need to work out." "And that is...?" I asked, beginning to feel a general uneasiness working its way into my psyche.The behavior of the treasurer was highly irregular from that I'd become accustomed to from the agents of the bandit kingdom. "We need to ensure that you'll adhere to our non-disclosure agreement," the treasurer replied. Without warning, several armed officers strode into the treasurer's office. "This escalated quickly," I observed. As one of the soldiers looked toward me, I squinted at the details of a small tattoo, barely visible above his shirt line that he wore. What it revealed was chilling. Wait a second, I thought to myself, these guys are... ### Somewhere in the Inner Sphere, 3029 A sudden, burning pain flowing through my veins tore me from my flashback, casting me into the waking world once more. REBOOTING - REBOOTING - REBOOTING - REBOOTING - REBOOTING Assisted Targeting System v. 1.25 [INITIALIZED] Empathy Synthesizer v. 1.07 [INITIALIZED] Optics Enhancer v. 3.54 [INITIALIZED] Reflex Booster v. 6.0 [INITIALIZED] Logic Co-Processor v. 3.14159265 [INITIALIZED] CommMod v. 0.04b. . .INITIALIZATION FAILED All functioning systems nominal. Auxiliary power at 35%. Adrenal infusion detected. Bio-recharge in progress. Consciousness exploded into existence around me, coalescing as a grainy, black-and-white image which quickly burst into a vibrant, technicolor reality, air rushing into my beleaguered lungs and a sudden, overwhelming dread of imminent peril overtaking my consciousness. "...Maskirovka!" I attempted to sit upright as the flashback rushed away, only to feel chains restraining my arms, legs, and torso. I looked around, but saw only dimly-lit medical equipment. As awareness returned to my body and mind, fragments of where I'd previously been - a vastly deep forest, replete with wildlife - raced into my head. That place certainly didn't appear to be where I was now. "Mister Kauffman, how nice of you to join us," came a voice, piped through overhead speakers. "Shall we begin?" "Who are you? What is this place...?" Before I could reply, my body was violently savaged by thousands of volts of electricity, causing me to writhe in pain as my muscles spasmed and my breath caught in my chest...
  6. Oberon Confederation, 3015 King Hendrik Grimm III floated in the near-weightless environment of the drop shuttle as it slowly and deliberately made a final approach toward the labyrinthine scaffold in geosynchronous orbit of Oberon IV's night side. I watched over the shoulder of my decadently-dressed host, squinting to make out what, exactly, it was that the regent wanted to show me - he'd been outlandishly evasive about the subject, while simultaneously barely able to contain his enthusiasm about whatever it was. "I must say, Your Majesty," I began attempting small talk, "'secret space stations were not on my shortlist of possible scenarios I anticipated encountering on this trip. What is all of this for?" Hendrik hesitated with anticipation, as though he were waiting for just the right moment to speak. At length, he gestured toward a large, ominous silhouette within the scaffold, which began to resolve into a cohesive form as we drew nearer. "That," the king announced dramatically, "is what." "Blake's blood..." I whispered as I beheld the scene. There, before us, growing larger as we approached, was the unmistakable form of a Samarkand Block I-class WarShip, its looming, battered hull showing the scars of multiple engagements and several centuries worth of neglect. Though in a significant state of disrepair, I knew from my history books that this type of vessel made for a formidable aerospace carrier, troop transport, orbit-to-surface fire support platform, and escort ship, and it was now in the hands of a bandit kingdom. "You like the art, right?" Hendrik chuckled, elbowing me in the ribs and cackling as he produced a can of tobacco chew. "Like what art, Your Highness?" I asked, barely masking the total confusion in my voice. "The nose art, William! I designed it myself," the king enthused, gesturing along the length of the vessel as it came into view. It was only then that I realized that the entire flank of the cruiser had been painted to resemble a giant phallus. "Oh god," I whispered. "Fuckin' the enemy, man! That's how we roll!" Hendrik exclaimed. "Can you please give me some context for what all of this is about?" I implored, as the regent engaged in a series of mocking pelvic thrusts. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," Hendrik acknowledged. "So we found this ship adrift near the Kuritan border during a raid last month. We were able to tow it back here and board it. The crew had been dead for eons. Apparently, their life support system failed, and their lives were soon to do the same thing. There's fighters in the bays, munitions on board, and likely much lost information locked within its computers that could make anyone rich." "And you'd like to salvage as much as you can from the ship, correct?" I inquired. "SALVAGE it?" Hendrik responded with disbelief. "NO - I want you to help us get this vessel back online so that we can begin to use it to assert and defend ourselves! This ship is a veritable Swiss Army knife of tactical options, and I intend to use it. Your expertise in these matters is why you are here." "All right," I responded, at length. "Let's start with a basic survey." And I hope to Blake that this work is done and behind me before you go and start terrorizing your neighbors... I thought to myself.
  7. Oberon Confederation, 3015 The office's space heater made a dull tick-tick-ticking as its heating coils glowed brightly in the dim light of a single, 40-watt lightbulb dangling haphazardly from a desk lamp. I sat, arms folded in my lap, gazing across a sprawling oak table at King Hendrik Grimm III, the leader of the pirate kingdom known as the Oberon Confederation. I was very surprised by the run-down conditions of his office. It was hardly what I'd envisioned when I'd thought of the domicile of a head of state. "After a long journey, we're finally face-to-face," I eventually offered. "I'm honored to be here. And I'll cut right to the chase - I was very surprised to receive an invitation to travel halfway across the galaxy to meet with you. And also a bit confused. What service can I possibly offer to someone of such an...illustrious station?" Hendrik leaned back in his chair and appeared to consider the question carefully. I knew that the man was attempting to take legitimate charge of his society. Where Grimm's grandfather had founded the state as a mockery of a government, and his father had simply continued the family business of brutality, King Hendrik III took the duties of his office much more seriously. He'd slowly changed the social and political reality of the Oberon Confederation and attempted, largely successfully, to turn his realm into an increasingly stable and diversified state, securing trade deals with the Draconis Combine and the Lyran Commonwealth. He'd even managed to land a cash grant from the latter. I'd been contacted, out of the blue, by an associate of his, promising a large financial return for aerospace engineering services, but upon landing on Oberon VI, it was apparent to me that there were likely little or no aerospace manufacturing facilities present, and no shipyards to be seen. I wanted to understand why I'd been called here. However, it now seemed that Hendrik was more intent on extricating additional information from me than on being helpful. "Do you ever just look around and wonder just what in the fuck it is you're really living for?" he finally asked, bluntly. I was taken aback by the sudden use of coarse language - up till now, the king had come off as well-spoken and reserved. But now, the man's eyes burnt with a fire and an intensity I'd not yet borne witness to. "Look at this cesspool of a world our people live in. The majority of us are barely eking out an existence; scrounging for food, for a single clean drop of water, for the very barest of essentials needed to make it through a single, wretched day. And for what? When we finally lie our weary bodies down to rest at night, what have we accomplished? What have we to look forward to? Nothing but the dark promise of having to repeat it all over again. And even surviving the cruel darkness of night is hardly a guarantee, what with the lawless denizens of the twilight hour marauding through the streets, preying on the weak and the defenseless." I nodded, unwittingly becoming captivated by Hendrik's charismatic tone. "And what have we done to deserve such a purgatory of an existence, hmm? Nothing! We have inherited it. The sins of our fathers have transcended generations to ensure humanity never forgets its barbarism - that it never forgets the heinous acts which brought it to its knees - even though the children of Earth who walk the blistered soil of the Periphery are in no way accountable for the crimes of a people who are now little more than dust, blowing in the wind. And yet, there are those among us who would return us to that time - who would force humanity to repeat its mistakes in utter defiance of lessons learned. People like House Davion. People like the corrupted bastardization of a once-noble organization calling itself ComStar. People like the Lyrans...who cost me, and so many beloved people before me, more than you could ever comprehend." "What are you hoping to achieve?" I asked, quietly. The man was beginning to sound a bit like an overzealous freedom fighter. "The only thing I want is a better life. Something not so base as the tribal existence forced upon us by the few despots holding all the cards. I want people to be able to sleep at night without worrying about the bogeyman tearing through the walls of their shacks and carrying them off into the darkness. I want the homesteaders who've poured decades of back-breaking labor into their farms to have the peace of mind of knowing that their labor of love isn't going to be snatched from them by greedy politicians or drug-addled looters. I want people to be able to look at me and say, "he is my protector."" "So you're looking for an arms deal. Of sorts." "I am a warlord, Mister Kauffman. I make Mister Scary disappear, through whatever means necessary. I come from a line of people whose noble lineage includes being abandoned by the very people who were sworn to protect them. Ever since that time, I've made it my personal mission to ensure that no one has to experience what we went through again. I'd like to ask your help in furthering my mission to defend my kingdom. We've come into possession of the means to do so, but we need a neutral individual, with loyalties to no other than himself, to assist us in getting the project off the ground. In return, I can promise you an influx of personal wealth, access to LosTech, and a sense of purpose. Three things you are clearly looking for." I couldn't believe it. Hendrik had me pegged. "Alright," I began. "Color me intrigued. What did you have in mind?"
  8. Elsewhere... The monorail tore into the station, its arrival whipping up a whirlwind of loose debris littering the train platform. As it rumbled to a stop, its boarding doors slid open in unison, an electronic voice announcing the name of the stop and the local time. A throng of passengers disembarked as I waited my turn to board. Although I had visited the New Avalon Institute of Science many times in the past, this would be my first time visiting as a test subject. I had recently volunteered to undergo a procedure by which a wireless communications unit would actually be implanted directly into a human brain, wired to the neural pathways that were responsible for hearing and perception in the same way a normal set of human eyes and ears would be. This wasn't a revolutionary process in its own right - similar technology was available to select individuals from intelligence agencies throughout the Inner Sphere - but this would be the first time an upgraded version of the unit, designed to interface with computer systems, would be tested on a live human subject. I was nervous, yet excited. I'd received my first implant - an auditory system - just two months ago, in preparation for an upcoming expedition to the Periphery. I'd been so thrilled with the results of the system that, when I'd heard quiet rumblings that a volunteer was being sought as a guinea pig for the prototype comm package, I'd jumped at the opportunity. The idea of being able to communicate with select machines using only one's mental abilities was tantalizing. I stepped onto the train, and suddenly... *flash* ...found myself standing in an operating theater, the room bathed in a clean white light. A trio of nurses escorted me over to an operating table, while a stalwart doctor hovered in the background, preparing to carry out the ministrations involved in the neurosurgery. "Alright, Mister Kauffman - now, lie back on the table, nice and easy - that's right - good. Now, remember, you're going to be awake for this procedure, but you won't feel a thing, because we're going to give you a local anesthetic. We want to be sure we can talk to you while we're calibrating the interface. Do you have any questions before we begin?" "No, I'm ready," I answered, unable to shake my head, as it was already securely fastened in a medical brace. "Alright, now, you might feel just a little pressure. We're going to make the incision..." The whine of a very high-powered drill cut through the air, and I instinctively squinted as I felt a very dull pressure against my skull. My eyes finally relaxed and opened, tracing along the outlines of hundreds of cracks in... *flash* ...the war-torn ceiling of an Outworlds medical clinic. "Mister Kauffman, I'm really not sure about this," Doctor Morales complained, rolling her chair up alongside the bed as she consulted a data pad displaying a real-time feed of my neural augments. "You already have three implants - including one I've never seen before - I just don't know if your body can handle the stress of having a fourth added to the mix. There's already more metal and silicon in your head than in some robots - and that's not an exaggeration." "I understand, Doctor," I answered, a small smile crossing my face, "but with the three that are in there, my old eyes just can't keep up. You'd actually be helping me by going ahead with the optics enhancement." "That's questionable logic, at best," Morales grumbled, rolling out of my field of view again. The sound of her clipboard clattering onto a spare exam table echoed off the concrete building's aging walls. "Yes, it's going to help you see better, and yes, it's going to help your other already-augmented senses function in better harmony with each other, but you're going to be taxing your body's endurance. And there's no going back on this one, William, you have to understand that. Once I've augmented you, the cybernetics are going to be yours to keep. I don't have the technology to put things back the way they were if you decide you don't like the new look." "I understand, and I'm willing to take that risk," I answered, after some thought. "I'll be careful." "Fine," the doctor sighed. "Be sure that you are extremely careful. Especially around electromagnetic interference. Most implants and most electronics can reboot themselves after being subjected to a pulse wave, and the body can adjust to their absence until they come back online, but in your case, with four power-hungry augments fully integrated into your body's central nervous system - frankly speaking, I'm not sure what would happen to your biological components if everything shut down. You might go into shock." "Let's pray we never have to find out," I smiled. "This is the last one, William. Understood?" "Understood."
  9. Elsewhere... Persephone Forest Glendale Nature Preserve Olympus, Thorin January 31, 3029 ___________________________ My hiking boots thudded softly on the mossy path that wound through the towering, ancient forests of Thorin's northern continent, while the gentle trills and chirps of bird song wafted through the spring air. As I made my way through a section of undergrowth that was thick in ferns and other palm-shaped foliage, I glanced up at the thick overstory that blanketed the woodlands from over a hundred meters above, taking in the rays of golden sunlight that filtered down through the crowns of the trees to spill puddles of warm daylight onto the mottled green and brown hues of the floor below. I took a deep breath, letting a slow, satisfied exhale escape my lips as I simply immersed myself in the natural beauty of the place. It was far removed from the urban megalopolis of New York, where I'd been present up until a few days ago, ushering in the new year as a distinguished guest at the Terran Stock Exchange, where I'd had the distinct pleasure of ringing the opening bell on the first trading day of the year, availing purchases of Crayven Corporation stock to the market for the first time since the rebirth of the company. Our initial public offering had been fantastically successful - within a matter of days, the value of shares in the Crayven Corporation had surged by 212%, rendering our organization flush with new capital by the end of the first week of the year. Following a brief stay on Terra to sightsee and make new business contacts, I'd traveled to Thorin, where I met with a Hauptmann General, and his council, who were principally-responsible for overseeing LIC operations in the Sarna March and its outlying regions. They'd been deeply disturbed by the actions of Schmidt, emphasizing that the operation was not authorized by the Commonwealth. After a profuse apology on behalf of the Lyran government, along with the promise of a full investigation, he'd also reimbursed us for the cost of repairs to the Half Moon, including the replacement of the Slayer with which Nathan had absconded. Though I no longer believed the Lyran Commonwealth to have been responsible for the actions of their operative, in light of the events transpired, I'd subsequently made the decision to institute a company policy forbidding outside intelligence agents from having physical access to sensitive corporate facilities without a thorough background check in advance. Even in the absence of Schmidt's treachery, the policy seemed rational. Finding myself with a brief respite after my meetings, I'd decided to spend today taking a solitary walk in the nearby Persephone forest, which I'd been told was breathtaking example of the immense woodlands for which the world was known. Tomorrow, I'd be traveling to a secretive shipyard in orbit of the world's moon, where I'd conduct an inspection of the Excalibur-class DropShip which the Commonwealth had promised us in exchange for intelligence about our archaeological expeditions. As I rounded a bend in the woodland path, a small creek, bisected by a series of five stepping stones, came into view. The sounds of wildlife were more robust here, with the croaking of frogs, melodies of birdsong, and the rustles, pops, and cracks of various animals moving about the tree trunks especially vibrant. I smiled at the pastoral scene, pausing for a moment to snap a photograph of it, before making my way toward the stepping stones and climbing atop the first one. The water rushed past below, and as I gazed down into it, I could see several small schools of fish undulating past. Performing a short jump onto the second stone, my footsteps echoed in an unusual way, almost as though I heard them twice - once at my present location, and once where I'd just been. Amused by the effect, I stepped forcefully onto the third stone to try to replicate it. To my surprise, the echo which ensued wasn't my footsteps at all - it was the heavy, forceful sound of someone else's footfalls, and as I turned toward its source, I suddenly found myself being thrown violently into the water, a heavy body atop me, pushing my face halfway below the surface of the creek. I thrashed and fought against my assailant, who grabbed a fistful of my sweater and shirt's fabric to haul me out of the water, a booted foot pressed into the backs of my knees to prevent me from standing properly. I twisted against the attacker's grip, hearing my sweater tear in the process, and I was able to turn far enough around to see the individual momentarily - a dark-clad figure in a jet-black biker's helmet of some kind, accompanied by a second individual, similarly-dressed, who stood further back on the shore. "Who are you - what do you want?" I gasped. In response, the person who'd grabbed me drew back a gloved hand, in which was clenched a stun stick. Before I could react, the stick was driven forcefully into the center of my chest, and the world went black...
  10. ____________________________ - Incoming Coded Message -- Command Instruction Follows - - Decode Omega Protocol - ZuluKappa27black: 23rd - - Disseminate by need only - ____________________________ Operation Codename: Black Eclipse Planet: Nirasaki (Draconis Combine) Terrain: Desert Time: Day Mission Type: Objective Raid Payment: 4,210,223.82 C-Bills Salvage Rights: 90% Support Rights: Battle/Full Command Rights: Integrated OVERVIEW: The Crayven Corporation has contracted with Aegis Division and the Skinwalkers to retrieve an object of interest from the wreck of a Star League-era WarShip on the surface of Nirasaki. This exercise will be a combined-arms operation which will be executed in three phases. We expect to encounter extreme resistance on our way to the objective. MISSION BRIEFING: In 2766, Nirasaki Computers Collective, in a partnership with New Age Computers and Maltex, achieved a technological breakthrough: an artificial neural network that was capable of independent thought, communication, and decision-making. Just prior to the outbreak of the Amaris Civil War, the Collective partnered with the DCMS, in a highly-classified venture, to load the neural network into the mainframe of one of their obsolete Cruiser-class WarShips to test the technology under load as a real-world proof of concept. The ship chosen to be the testbed was the D.C.S. Takashima. Regrettably, due to some manner of systems failure onboard - some say it was the out-of-date shipboard technology, others say sabotage, and some even cast blame on the A.I. itself - the Takashima fell from orbit shortly after the program was installed and activated. The ship was rumored to have crashed in one of the equatorial regions of Nirasaki. However, the outbreak of the Amaris Civil War would see the staff of Nirasaki Computers Collective rounded up and taken to Terra, and Nirasaki itself ravaged by the armies of the Rim Worlds Republic. Consequently, a salvage of the vessel was never attempted, and the Takashima was lost to history. In November 3028, the crew of the C.S.V. Mendacius located the wreck of the D.C.S. Takashima on the surface of Nirasaki in the Great Banded Desert, in an inhospitable, isolated region known as the Sabireta Expanse. The site is infested with raiders and looters, who don't know what's actually inside the vessel, but who have fortified the place and have begun to part the ship out for scrap and weapons. To make matters worse, we've gotten word that the Capellans have been sniffing around the border near Nirasaki, so it's possible that they're undertaking a parallel venture. To get to the planet, we plan to exploit a sensor gap in the planetary defense network and insert our forces onto the planet unseen. The C.S.V. Republic, one of our Union-class transports, will make planetfall with the M.V. Tana several kilometres outside of a fortified encampment that the local looters have set up to defend the wreck site. Meanwhile, the C.S.V. Mendacius, in the disguise of a passenger liner, will provide real-time intelligence and telemetry of the operational area from orbit. Once we're on the planet, our objectives will be to eliminate the OpFor and fortify the wreck of the Takashima against incursions while a recovery team penetrates the wreck, neutralizes any hostiles that may be occupying it, and recovers the hard drives from the ship's computer core and the vessel's logs from its bridge. The recovery team will then need to be evacuated from the operational area to the C.S.V. Tana, which will transport the recovered assets to the Mendacius for containment and return to New Earth. The OpFor for this exercise is unknown. The crew of the Mendacius has observed a ragtag, eclectic, and ever-changing grab bag of military hardware; everything from cobbled-together vehicles carrying naval weaponry to the odd Mackie BattleMech. We believe there to be fifty to seventy-five individuals on the site at any given time, to say nothing of how many more may be inside the wreck, so we'll have to treat this as an assault on a fortified installation. In addition to the hostiles at the site, we'll be battling sandy terrain, high temperatures, and potential sandstorms. Good luck. OBJECTIVES: Primary I. Defeat hostile OpFor blocking access to the Takashima II. Secure the wreck site and hold it against aggressors while recovery team makes entry into it III. Neutralize OpFor occupying the interior of the Takashima IV. Recover Takashima computer drives V. Recover Takashima ship's log VI. Evacuate to the Tana and Republic VII. Safely deliver the recovered assets to the Mendacius VIII. The Mendacius must depart Nirasaki intact Secondary I. Eliminate all hostiles in the operational theater to permit salvage operations FRIENDLY FORCE COMPOSITION: HAMMER LANCE: Lieutenant Mara Walsh (KGC-0000 King Crab) Sergeant Alyssa Chase (ON1-K Orion) Lieutenant Marius Lennox (CPLT-C1 Catapult) Corporal Steve Jenkins (DRG-1N Dragon) ANVIL LANCE: Captain Dutch McKenzie (AWS-8Q-OB1 Awesome) Lieutenant Alexander Blackwood (LGB-6Q Longbow) Contract pilot (MAD-3D Marauder) Dexter Friedman (RVN-1X Raven) SABRE LANCE: Commanded by Lieutenant Bishop Weyland 2x Drillson Heavy Hover Tank 1x Condor Heavy Hover Tank 1x Maxim APC + infantry squad + Captain Charles Maxwell VULCAN LANCE: Commanded by Lieutenant Bishop Weyland 1x Drillson Heavy Hover Tank 2x Condor Heavy Hover Tank 1x Maxim APC + infantry squad HEPHAESTUS DETACHMENT: 1x Kestrel VTOL 1x Heavy BattleMech Recovery Vehicle HOSTILE FORCE COMPOSITION: UNKNOWN Planet Details: Nirasaki Star Type: G1V Position in System: 1 Number of Moons: 2 (Nagano, Okinawa) Days to Jump Point: 17 Surface Gravity: 1.10 Atmospheric Pressure: Standard (Breathable) Equatorial Temperature: 37°C Surface Water: 57% Highest Native Life: Mammals Capital: Elusian Population: 2,108,000,000 OVERVIEW: Nirasaki has two continents: Kalifax and Ouanii. Nirasaki's original government structure was nearly unique in the Inner Sphere. Based on the idealist's belief that everyone could live in harmony without a dedicated police force or government, the original colony grouped itself into a series of small communes that were originally going to trade with each other. The problems in this system became clear shortly thereafter, as settlers forced to use a barter system limited economic opportunities with other worlds and infighting among settlers undermined group efforts. Eventually a modest planetary government formed from a coalition of communes on the two largest continents. One of their greatest achievements was the implementation of a basic economy for the world based on "work credits" and a consistent means of valuing goods and services. The coalition government enjoyed strong support from the population as its power was so limited. Based on democratic ideas, the planetary government required only a simple majority for issues that affected interplanetary trade or a large planetary region. It also contained an emergency powers clause for defense against external threats. Other than these efforts and responsibilities, the coalition government had absolutely no power of any sort. This lax form of government kept the power in the hands of the people, and even under the Terran Hegemony the world was left to its own devices. Nirasaki was one of the worlds which had been abandoned by the Terran Alliance following the Outer Reaches Rebellion and the Demarcation Declaration of 2242, but Nirasaki was incorporated into the Terran Hegemony within a century, becoming one of the worlds within the Lone Star Province. During the Star League era several companies attempted to take advantage of the perceived lack of central authority on Nirasaki, but the Nirasakians' insistence on using the work credits system made it nearly impossible for these corporations to succeed. The only notable exception was Nirasaki Computers Collective (NCC), a company organized as a part of the existing Blue Heron Collective. Being familiar with the existing work credit economy and based on Nirasaki, NCC quickly gained a reputation for high-quality computer products. NCC's work was so highly regarded that their programmers created the software used in the Star League's Space Defense Systems. Although the NCC and its programmers were obliterated during the Amaris Civil War, the factories are now owned by Blue Heron Computers. After the fall of the Star League, Nirasaki was claimed by the Draconis Combine. After centuries of being exposed to the Dragon's idea of planetary government and administration, Nirasaki's central government has expanded its power somewhat, overseeing a planetary police force and a militia. ATTACHMENT Audio Recording Speaker: Kauffman, W. Subject: Cruiser-class diagram, D.C.S. Takashima Beginning playback... "Please excuse the dated nature of this image. We pulled it from an SLDF training deck that we found in an archive. We believe, based on our analysis of the crash site and through extrapolation from this diagram, that the bridge is in the area marked by the number 1 on the slide. Entry into the ship will most likely be best-achieved through one of the two cargo hold doors - marked as 2 and 4 on the diagram - or via the landing bay, marked as 3. The ship crashed on its port side, so the orientation of everything in the craft will be offset by ninety degrees from the relative 'down' position. The bridge is also completely submerged in the sand; currently, only entry point 4 is exposed, and that is how the squatters are accessing at least a portion of the vessel." - TRANSMISSION ENDS - ____________________________ Sender: Major James Hayes Encryption Priority: HIGH HPG Relay 163NR95-SIGMA-1849 Received: OP Comp. 2027 Standard Terran Time ____________________________ Operation Black Eclipse - Contract.xlsm BattleTech 1646 - Living Legends, Star League.pdf
  11. Outside of the refrigerator, elsewhere on Sheratan... "ComStar? How could you possibly know that?" Jackson asked. "The sequence of events, and the hilariously-unlikely cause of death," I replied. "Consider: we recovered the artifact on November 11. Coincidentally, we ran into ComStar that same day, and they desperately - aggressively, even - wanted the technology you recovered from the cache. It ended up costing them a 'Mech and a pilot. We transmitted a report about our success back to the corporate headquarters on New Earth later that day. I would expect that ComStar picked up that report when it bounced through the HPG network. Given that they lost contact with the pilot who was supposed to recover the tech, it stands to reason that the next place they would check for information concerning the recovery would be the recipient's end. And ComStar is notorious for 'disappearing' the subjects of their investigations in absurd and often suspect ways. Ergo, ComStar is our likely culprit." "Well, what does it all mean, then?" Jackson asked, in a near panic. "I don't want to get disappeared!" "The way I look at it," I answered, "you're released from your debt, and free to do with the technology as you choose. Though, I wouldn't recommend holding on to it, given the circumstances." "Heck no," Jackson answered. "I'm gonna chuck this thing into the first dumpster I come across." The young man looked down at the memory core in his hands with disgust. "I can't believe this. All of that work, and I've got nothing to show for it. I'm worse off now than I was before I left Sheratan in the beginning." "I don't believe that's so," I replied. "Come on, let's go back to the car. I have a proposal for you." ### I sat, gazing at Jackson, as the sedan made its way back out of the Ivory District, my fingers steepled before me, as I contemplated the offer. The youth looked truly dejected, and I felt a certain obligation to him to reimburse him for the amount of credibility his foray on Gan Singh would earn us with Interstellar Expeditions. Aside from that, it would do no good to have him get assassinated by ComStar. He was, after all, to be our poster child for success. "What was it that Hastings was holding your freedom ransom for again? 500,000 C-Bills?" I inquired. "Yeah," Jackson responded in a sad tone. "Well, then. I'd like to make you whole," I answered. "The Crayven Corporation would like to purchase the ownership and intellectual rights to the Gan Singh memory core from you for 500,000 C-Bills, to be transferred to your account immediately upon acceptance of the offer. In addition," I added, as Jackson's mouth fell agape, "I would like to extend to you an offer of pro bono legal intercession to transfer formal ownership of the deceased Javier Hastings' Centurion, which he left in your possession, to you, so that you can start your career anew." Jackson McKenna stared at me in silent disbelief for a full minute. The next thing I knew, he lunged across the cabin of the car to throw his arms around me in an embrace. ### _____________________________________________________________________________ C R A Y V E N C O R P O R A T I O N Executive Summary - CLASSIFICATION TACIT WHITE: INTERNAL USE ONLY - 16 DECEMBER 3028 _____________________________________________________________________________ CITADEL team - This summary is to provide a status update concerning operations in the region of the Sarna March and the go-to-market strategy for our initial public offering and our proposal to Interstellar Expeditions, targeted for delivery in Q1 3029. Project Black Eclipse is a go. The combined Aegis Division, Crayven Corporation, and Irian assets, operating under the umbrella title of 'Aegis Division,' are staging for deployment from Sheratan to Nirasaki. OPCOM will be the responsibility of Major James Hayes; MIOC will be aboard the Mendacius and directed by Captain Marcus Donovan. First Lieutenant Mara Walsh will serve as Company Commander of the BattleMech assets, while Captain Charles Maxwell and Lieutenant Bishop Weyland command the armor and infantry teams. Penetration of the wreck will be performed by a seven-man squad consisting of Charles Maxwell, Bishop Weyland, and a fire team selected by Weyland. Upon retrieval, the asset of interest is to be removed to the Mendacius for extraction from the Nirasaki system and returned to New Earth for containment and processing. I have dispatched the Mendacius to Nirasaki today, and I have been emphatic in my requirement to Major Hayes that the Aegis Division assets be off-world and in transit to Nirasaki no later than 31 December. I am taking my leave of Sheratan today, accompanied by Hauptmann Albrecht, who has remained in seclusion since our arrival on the planet. My destination is Terra; as you are aware, our initial public offering (IPO) will be on 1 January 3029. I have been invited to ring the bell at the opening of the Terran Stock Exchange to mark the occasion. After I have done so, I will travel to Oneiroi Station, a classified facility in orbit of Thorin. There, I will be meeting with representatives of the Lyran government to discuss the scandal involving their intelligence agent, and to inspect an Excalibur-class vessel they have proposed to convey to the Crayven Corporation in exchange for certain intelligence-sharing arrangements. Once I have concluded my business at Thorin, I will make my return to New Earth to prepare for our proposal to Interstellar Expeditions, our proof-of-concept exercise on Gan Singh having been a success. Attached to this message, you will find the BattleROMs and intelligence recordings of the Gan Singh mission. Please have Productions cut together a demo reel for my approval, and send the first cut to me via HPG at their earliest convenience. I commend the leadership team on an excellent 3028. I look forward to the year ahead. Cordially, William Kauffman _____________________________________________________________________________ End Summary Sender: W. Kauffman Encryption Priority: ULTRA HPG Relay 53EL05-KAPPA-1482 Xmit: MSG Comp. 2233 Standard Terran Time _____________________________________________________________________________
  12. C.S.V. Half Moon Gellen's Heights Spaceport Gellen's Heights, Sheratan December 11, 3028 - 0715 hours _______________________________ Golden sunlight poured in through the twin oblong portholes inset into the thick hide of the Union-class DropShip, casting twin columns of dust-saturated light into the stateroom which had been converted into a cramped but serviceable dual-purposed executive quarters and office space. I sat at my desk, staring at a pair of computer monitors. One interface displayed a continuous scroll of historical information about the Nirasaki Computers Collective - every public record, every employee file, and every bit of project information that had leaked into the public domain in the years following their dissolution. The other replayed a compilation of camera drone videos from the wreck site of the D.C.S. Takashima on a continuous loop. My eyes traced back and forth between the two feeds, trying to divine any bits of intelligence data that hadn't yet been learned from them in the hopes that I could glean additional insight into whatever it was that the organization had been hoping to achieve with their artificial intelligence research - and also, how far they'd gotten with those developments. After several minutes, I realized that I'd been staring into the electronic void without actually processing any information, and I squinted and rubbed at my eyes and temples to try to clear my head. A searing headache began to set in, and I noticed that my interface with the ship was degrading. Fatigue, it seemed, was beginning to win the fight against my physiology. Reaching into the topmost left desk drawer, I withdrew a vial of QwikStim, loaded it into an auto-injector, and dispensed the entire dose into my forearm. After about a minute's time, the pharmaceutical began to take hold, and I felt a clarity of mind and alertness return to my consciousness. No sooner had I done so than the comm unit on my desktop buzzed with a message from the bridge. "Kauffman here; go ahead," I answered. "General, I have Charles Maxwell on the line to speak with you; may I put him through?" the bridge officer asked. "Yes please do," I replied. "Aye, sir - he's coming through now." I heard a momentary blip in the connection as the call routed to my location. I waited for a moment, and then spoke. "This is William Kauffman." "Good morning, General Kauffman, it's Charles Maxwell," the speaker replied. "Charles, it's delightful to hear from you. What can I do for you?" I asked. "I apologize for disturbing you at this early hour, but I thought you'd like to know - after you sent the paperwork over, I discussed the Crayven Corporation contract with my senior staff late yesterday evening at dinner. It's a yes from them," Charles advised. "Nice to be doing business with you." "Wonderful," I smiled. "That's the first piece of good news I've had today. As soon as I have the report in hand from our Strategic Operations Manager, we'll advise you which of your assets we'll want to requisition. I'd ask that you and your team stay local in the interim; the FBO for this undertaking will be here, at the Gellen's Heights Spaceport. As you're already aware, the Crayven Corporation will be managing command rights for this deployment; Major Hayes will be your field command liaison." "Major Hayes? I'm sure he's great, but I guess I assumed that the plan was for you to attend?" "I'll be continuing on to the Commonwealth. I have some business to attend to with the Lyrans concerning the rogue LIC agent," I replied. "Nothing with which you need concern yourself." "Understood. Thank you again, General. I'll look forward to receiving the details of your report."
  13. December 6, 3028 C.S.V. Half Moon In transit to Sheratan _______________________ “That’s a fair question, Lieutenant,” I interjected as the discourse between Weyland and Chase - a small tiff over the ages-old debate about the superiority of 'Mech jocks versus infantry - started to become heated. "In truth, it was rather providential that we came across Jackson when we did." Bishop looked curious. "I happened to be on Galatea for a discrete meeting with Hauptmann Albrecht concerning the Lyran interest in our IPO - and the assets they were interested in contributing to our planned venture - when I quite unexpectedly ran into Mister McKenna in the midst of a bar fight. As it turned out, my intervention on his behalf would lead to us solving a logistical problem we were having with our Interstellar Expeditions proposal." "You broke up a bar fight?" Weyland asked, eagerly. "Yes, and I'm glad that I did. It turned out that Jackson had been on the losing end of a rather foolish gambling debt, and he was poised to ship out to Gan Singh the next morning to chase down unconfirmed rumors of a Star League cache as a means of repaying his creditor. He'd never piloted an actual BattleMech before, but he was expected to perform a hot-drop into the jungle, bushwhack his way to the site, get in, retrieve the object - whatever it was - and then get out before the local authorities caught him. His previous occupation, mind you, was as a cargo handler at the Gellen's Heights spaceport; his hobbies included video gaming and aquarium-tending," I continued. "Whoa. Sounds like someone was trying to get him killed," Bishop marveled. "The condition of the Centurion with which he'd been equipped, coupled with the mercenary outfit that was supposed to deliver him to Gan Singh, would certainly seem to support that theory," I nodded. "But, fortune having seen fit to compel our paths to cross, I saw an opportunity for the Crayven Corporation. Our proposal to Interstellar Expeditions, as you may recall, will be to provide pro bono transport and protection detail to sites of discovery, in exchange for a cut of the findings. But we didn't have a case study where we'd done that before - until we met Jackson. I realized that we would have the perfect model to show them if we could safely transport him to the planet, get him down to the site, guide him through a successful recovery process, and then get him back home unharmed. The fact that he was an entirely green pilot would only add to the credibility of our proposal." "And so that's what you did?" Weyland asked. "Precisely," I acknowledged. "We had the Half Moon on site, and his Centurion was scheduled to be transferred from the Aegis Division mercenaries to the Black Phalanx company the following day, so I simply bought out the second half of his contract. And then, a funny thing happened." "What was that?" "Captain Maxwell, from the aforementioned Aegis Division, contacted our duty officer to advise that he thought we might run into trouble with Black Phalanx on our way out to Gan Singh. He was so strong in his belief that he sent Alyssa Chase over to surreptitiously put a tracking device on their vessel - which was loaded with a remote Locura payload - and to act as an intelligence analyst and software operator during the mission. As it turned out," I mused, "Captain Maxwell's precognition proved accurate. Which is why, by the way, I consider him to be a potential valued operative for our Nirasaki endeavor." "That does help me pull the pieces together around some of what you said in our meeting," Weyland nodded. "So what's the plan for Jackson and his haul once we get to Sheratan?" "We'll make sure that Jackson is able to safely turn the object over to his employer, and from there, I'd like to make an offer to purchase it from its owner," I responded. "It contains some data of interest. And at that point, Jackson will part ways with us and we'll be in a good position to cut together our demo reel for Interstellar Expeditions. I'd very much value your insights into your prior experiences with them when that time comes." "You got it," Bishop replied. I glanced around the bridge, noting that a semblance of normalcy had, at length, returned to its environment. Rising to my feet, I attempted to button and smooth out what was left of my suit jacket. "It would appear that things are well under control here. I believe I should check in with the section chiefs to assess their status. In the interim, please feel free to avail yourself to anyone who might benefit from your areas of expertise. Oh, and Lieutenant - " "Yeah?" Weyland asked. "I owe you a debt of gratitude for your actions today," I added. "I think you'll fit in well here. Thank you." Bishop nodded an affirmation, and I took my leave of the bridge. ### 4 days later... Gellen's Heights Interplanetary Spaceport Gellen's Heights, Sheratan Capellan Confederation December 10, 3028 ___________________________ I felt the tension slowly falling away from my body in tandem with the winding down of the Half Moon's fusion drives as the ship eased onto the ferrocrete of the spaceport. It had been a trying four days - managing damage control, coordinating forensics investigations, and notifying the families of those who'd been lost. In addition to our own internal investigation, I was well aware that the authorities of Sheratan would be wanting a full report into the nature of the incident that had taken place in their space, and it had taken some incredibly-creative documentation to create a disposition that would satisfy their interests while protecting certain corporate secrets - such as Project Black Eclipse. Fortunately, by all appearances, we'd been successful in this regard, and it would now be a matter of turning the disclosure over to the local constabulary. "We're on the ground, General," Deck Officer Pearson reported. "Excellent," I replied, rising from the Captain's chair. Please secure from flight operations and stand down for repair, cargo transfer, and resupply. Inform all crew that they've got five days' leave to spend as they see fit; please set up a rotation for essential personnel so that everyone gets an equal amount of downtime." "Aye, sir."
  14. "Last time I checked, you, this ship, and its crew are corporate assets. I’m not familiar with your ship, sir; if you would, I will follow you to the command center." I admired Bishop's tenacity and his dedication. The Half Moon, already an alien environment to him, had just morphed into a winding, potentially danger-ridden labyrinth which held dark promise of lethal peril; yet the man's first instinct, rather than to wait for orders, was to jump into action to protect me and to see to the well-being of the ship and crew. This type of loyalty was exactly the sort of psychological profile that I'd been looking for, and it seemed that I'd - for the moment, at least - hit a proverbial home run. "You're absolutely correct," I nodded. "I appreciate you maintaining a clarity of mind in this situation. Before we make our way to the bridge, though, there's one thing to note - just because the Half Moon is incapacitated does not mean that it's not active. This ship has been retrofit with internal security systems designed to deliver counter-insurgency measures in the event of a contingency. The systems are automated and have dedicated A.I. Ordinarily, I could shut them down directly via my implants or via a computer terminal. But, with both of those options tabled, we may find ourselves facing some obstacles." "What sort of obstacles would those be?" Bishop asked. I maneuvered us toward the central lift, which I hoped we could use to bypass the bulk of the trouble. "There are security robots - units we purchased from the Free Worlds League - which reside in wall alcoves on this deck and the two above us, two per deck.They don't seem to have activated in our present location, but I would not be surprised if they are making the rounds above us," I began. I mashed the lift's 'call' button and waited. At first, there was no discernible response from the elevator, prompting me to push the 'call' button several more times. It finally illuminated, and the numeric indicators above the unit's doors counted off the car's distance from our level. "I'm going to guess that security robots aren't the only thing employed?" Weyland inquired. "No," I began, squinting in the lift's general direction. It seemed to be moving faster than normal, and actually appeared to be gaining speed as it rose from the 'Mech bay toward us. Cautiously, I floated back a short distance from its doors, a measure which, in hindsight, probably saved my life. Mere seconds after I did so, the elevator shot through our deck's station at an incredible rate of speed, its doors opening to reveal the still-moving car continuing past and colliding with the top of the shaft two decks above. The impact destroyed the lift system, sending metal cables lashing out in all directions, and caused the car to rebound off the top of the shaft. In the sudden absence of its pulleys, the car, still moving under its own kinetic energy in the weightless environment, reversed direction and went hurtling back down the shaft, crashing into the deck six stories below with a terrific explosion of shattering components. Slowly, I approached the still-open doors of the elevator station, and glanced into them. The walls of the lift shaft were alight with malfunctioning supercapacitors, from which bolts of deep blue and ultra-white tendrils of electricity crawled. It slowly dawned on me that, had we boarded the lift, we would have been quite literally cooked alive. Fortune had spared us from an agonizing demise. I turned around, and was met with a shellshocked expression from Bishop. "This option appears to be out of service," I quipped, nonchalantly jabbing a thumb in the direction of the demolished elevator. "We'll need to take the ladders." "Fun. What can we expect from that avenue?" Bishop asked. I floated toward one of the ladderways, which had sealed itself shut with a small set of bulkhead doors. "We've got anti-personnel thresher cannons in the shafts. They use lasers instead of projectiles due to the enclosed spaces and sensitive nature of the equipment in the crawlways. They're sufficiently powered, however, to breach conventional body armor at close range. Some of them are also refit with flamers instead of energy weaponry." I keyed a release code into the faceplate of the control panel inset into the wall alongside the closed hatch and popped it off, revealing a manual override lever. With a forceful tug, I pulled the lever down, overriding the hatch and causing the doors to unseal. Several more pumps of the release handle moved the doors aside enough to allow a man to fit through their opening. "The robots also have access to the ladderways at their customary entry points on each deck, though of course, they can't actually use the ladders," I explained, pivoting back toward Bishop in the weightless environment. "How do you think this funhouse of security is going to react to us?" Bishop asked, giving his rifle another once-over. "Mister Weyland, with a virus such as the Locura loose on the ship, I honestly have no idea. My best guess is that we'll find everything has turned on us, as that's exactly what the virus is built to make its hosts do." "That being the case, I think I'd better go in first," Weyland replied. I nodded. "I'll remain close behind you, then."
  15. Simultaneously... I nodded in acknowledgement as the acrid smell of tobacco chew wafted through the air. "We're working with our extended intelligence network to see if we can obtain a deck schematic of the Cruiser-class. As you can imagine, obtaining anything from Kuritan archives that dates back over 200 years is...challenging. In the mean time, we can provide this..." I clicked a button on my handheld presenter. A new image flashed onto the board room's monitor. "Please excuse the dated nature of this image. We pulled it from an SLDF training deck that we found in an archive. We believe, based on our analysis of the crash site and through extrapolation from this diagram, that the bridge is in the area marked by the number 1 on the slide. Entry into the ship will most likely be best-achieved through one of the two cargo hold doors - marked as 2 and 4 on the diagram - or via the landing bay, marked as 3. The ship crashed on its port side, so the orientation of everything in the craft will be offset by ninety degrees from the relative 'down' position. The bridge is also completely submerged in the sand; currently, only entry point 4 is exposed, and that is how the squatters are accessing at least a portion of the vessel." Bishop raised an eyebrow and scratched at his temple as he scrutinized the image. "Now - onto the other concern you mentioned - the matter of our mole," I continued. "I've asked Captain Donovan to be primary on the investigation, along with his team of analysts, as he's both highly experienced in infiltration affairs and is a neutral party who was not aboard the Half Moon - nor anywhere in range - at the time of the breach. He'll be liaising with Major Hayes here to turn over any evidence his team finds for analysis. I'd also like you to work with Major Hayes - as the principal architect of our venture to the wreck site. I'd like you to prepare a proposed force composition, based on your seasoned insight into this sort of thing, as well as recommended attack vectors and a plan for breaching the wreck once reached. The Major will provide you with anything you need - intelligence, assets, information. We should have this plan in hand by the time we reach Sheratan so that I have a decent idea of what our shopping list looks like." "As far as your involvement with the mole - keep an eye out. If you see something, say something...to Major Hayes only. I want to be sure that we are keeping our communication as compartmentalized as possible - that way, if something gets out, we can skip trace it back to its source." Bishop nodded quietly. I'd dropped a huge responsibility on him, but I wanted to see how the man handled the pressure. I also truly did value his insight. Assault operations were something new to us, and I wasn't about to let my pride stand in the way of admitting what we didn't know. What was that expression again - measure twice, cut once? I turned toward Major Hayes. "Major - as I understand it, the C.S.V. Republic is en route to Sheratan at this time, in the employ of our apparent friend, Captain Maxwell. Please send a message to them for relay to the Tana, but use the Mendacius' transmitter. I don't want to take chances with our mole reading our outbound traffic. Advise the Captain that I'd like to meet with him once they make orbit. You're authorized discretionary spending to get it to them via HPG Class 1." "Consider it done, sir," Hayes replied. "Well, Mister Weyland," he continued, turning to face his new charge, "seems we'll be tag-teaming this one. Where would you like to start?"
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