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The Universe, 3029

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C.S.V. Republic
Aegis Division staging site
3.2 kilometers from D.C.S. Takashima
Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki
January 31, 3029
___________________________

A wave of vomit torrented into the holding cell, made even more pronounced by the food slot slamming shut on it as I scrambled backwards to get out of the way of the assault. As the rancid mix of all kinds of liquor and food chunks spilled down, around, and in front of the door, I heard a weird, constipated-like and muffled screaming and yelling. I looked toward the food slot and saw a pair of lips mashed in between the slot door and its frame, and they were wiggling around like their owner was trying to talk.

"HEEPP MUH MUH LIPSH UR STHUCK IN TEH FOOH SLOH." the lips said. Slowly, carefully, trying to avoid all the barf, I got closer to the cell door and looked over it. The guy who called himself 'Jenkins' was contorted over sideways with his face up against the cell door. He apparently had trapped his lips in the food slot door, though I couldn't comprehend how that could have happened. I kneeled down and pushed on the food slot door.

"AAAAUGH!" the lips screamed. "THAATH HURTH."

"Yeah, I bet it does, you're not supposed to slam your mouth in a door." I said. "It feels like the door is jammed."

"YOUTH GOTTHA DO THOMETHING TO HEHP MEH." said the mouth. "ANYTHING."

"Anything?" I asked.

"ANYTHING." came the reply.

"Ok, this is probably going to hurt a lot, but, here goes." I said, turning sideways and drawing one of my legs back.

"NO WATH WAITH WHAT ARE YOU GONFA DO?" the mouth begged.

I delivered a really high-powered kick directly into the tray slot door which caused it to blow open, unfortunately smashing Steve in the face as it released his lips. Jenkins screamed bloody murder and fell into the floor, writhing around in pain. From my vantage point, it looked like his lips were pretty seriously swollen, and he had the words 'Foodservice Slot' reverse-imprinted as a bruise on his forehead.

"Sorry about that." I said. "It couldn't be helped."

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"Takashima, again?" the voice in Dutch's head thought...

"Didn't we just pull that weed out?"

"Apparently it grew back... sigh..."

"Well, this time we plan to go in ready... or so I thought"... , Dutch Smiled.

 

D.C.S. Takashima
Ships Interior
Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki
January 31, 3029

... Deep inside the bowels of the Black Eclipse we go in...

But the voice in my head just kept saying: "try not to stick to the walls..."

I try not to let it bother me... but its not my fault, why does it have to be called "the

bowels of a ship anyways?".

 

D.C.S. Takashima
Deeper in the Takashima's Interior
Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki
January 31, 3029

Captain Maxwell, "So who brought the ladder?"

"Damm", Dutch thought. Turning to get the ladder, "I'm on it Charles."

'.. and here I pride myself for having the right tools for the right occasion...

... at least I brought the right hand-cannon for the job, Dutch thought.' as he tapped

his trusty sidearm "Dirty Harry".

 

 

 

 

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One week after the initial expedition into the Takashima...

C.S.V. Republic
War Room B
3.2 kilometers from D.C.S. Takashima
Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki
February 7, 3029
___________________________

Major Hayes and Captain Donovan both stood before the briefing table, the conference room's lights dimming. Around the table, on either side of me, sat Captain McKenzie, Sergeant Miles, Sergeant Ayala, Corporal Clemmons, Corporal Zhang, and Private Madani. I was very surprised to see Donovan planetside. I also noted to myself that the individuals present were the same exact staff that had been involved in our first ingress, save for the late Corporal Jamison. No more, no less.

I had little time to think about it. Major Hayes was soon to fill in the blanks.

"Ladies and gentlemen - thank you for attending this briefing. I'm sure you're wondering why we've brought this specific team back. I won't bury the lede - it's because this group is the only team outside of a very small inner circle of individuals who are aware of the true nature of our objective - and we're going to need you to return to the Takashima."

"You're joking," I blurted.

Major Hayes raised an eyebrow.

"I like to think I have a sense of humor, Captain, but this particular affair is no laughing matter. Your team failed to retrieve the A.I., and the mystery as to where it's actually located on the ship has deepened."

I fell back in my chair, a shellshocked expression on my face.

"We spent the last week working to decrypt the copy of the data you brought back. The crew of the Mendacius threw every cipher at it we had on file. It turns out, most of the information on the memory unit was a combination of unencrypted junk, and what we believe to be heavily-encrypted junk, all designed to make us think that we'd successfully downloaded the program, its subroutines, and its database. Either the Kuritans built a failsafe into the software to keep it from being copied, or the A.I. has developed emergent behavior that allows it to wield, among its other parlor tricks, the ability to commit subterfuge," Hayes deadpanned.

"So you're saying we got hoodwinked by the computer," Dutch interjected.

"Precisely," the Major replied. "However, that's not all we discovered. Captain Donovan here has been kind enough to join us on the surface of this desert paradise to elaborate on that particular detail further. Out of an abundance of caution, we both agreed that what he's about to share with you shouldn't be transmitted over any carrier frequency, no matter how secure. Marcus?"

"Thank you, Major," Captain Donovan responded. "While our analysts were combing through the data, which, as Major Hayes has already explained, was largely random bits of code and encrypted nonsense, we happened to notice a pattern within the noise. On closer examination, our analysts discovered that the pattern of code, when strung together, produced an complete, encrypted file. Cracking the encryption on it, we found this message:

E C L I P S E

S E C O N D A R Y  N A V I G A T I O N

R E T U R N

"At first, it didn't make sense to us. 'Eclipse?' 'Secondary navigation?' 'Return?' But then, we also discovered that two maps had been included in the packet. And all the pieces came together."

Donovan clicked a button on his presentation remote, displaying the charts on the room's display.

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"Now, I know that these images are sideways," Donovan continued. "That's intentional. We've oriented them to the direction that's currently the relative 'up' within the Takashima. Whoever - or whatever - wrote these layouts into the file was courteous enough to indicate a point of ingress into the wreck, along with your final destination - a secondary computer core deep within the derelict, just around the corner from the drive control room."

"I'm familiar with the drive control room. We were there before," I remarked. "It's where we found the deck layout that showed us where the bridge and the primary computer core were. We didn't think much of the secondary navigation computer at the time."

"Nor should you have," Major Hayes interjected. "It wasn't a target of interest within the original mission's scope."

"But it is now," I replied.

"Indeed it is," Captain Donovan nodded. "We believe, based on our analysis of the data, that whoever sent us this message wants us to go to the secondary control room if we're to obtain the A.I. It's quite possible, Captain Maxwell, that the rapport you built with the machine is why we've been steered onto this track."

"Or we're being steered into a trap, and we're all going to die horribly," Corporal Clemmons quipped. I cast the infantryman a long stare. "Uh, sirs."

"Respectfully, he does have a point," Sergeant Miles acknowledged. "How do we know this isn't some kind of elaborate trap? For all we know, we could walk into that control room and get cut to ribbons by lasers, bombs, pirates, or some godforsaken combination of all three."

"We don't know that," Major Hayes replied. "It could be a trap. But that's why we're paying you guys the big bucks. We need to find out. Your objectives are to enter the wreck via the secondary access tunnel, which will save you from a considerable amount of climbing and possible exposure to hostiles this time around, traverse the elevator shaft until you arrive at the secondary navigation computer room, gain access into the core, and do whatever you need to do to get a copy of the A.I. onto the storage unit this time."

"Alright," I nodded. "So let's assume for the moment that everything's on the level. Maybe I'm getting ahead of the briefing here, but I see what might be a hole in the plan. May I?" I asked, pointing at the slides.

Donovan and Hayes nodded. I picked up a spare laser pointer that was resting on the briefing table, and used it to point at the spot marked 'Secondary Access Tunnel' on the map.

"The last time we were at the wreck, the 'Main Access Tunnel' was practically getting swallowed by sand. How are we supposed to enter the ship via the secondary access tunnel? If I remember correctly, that's quite a few meters below the surface." I turned the laser pointer off, and looked toward Hayes and Donovan.

"It was," Major Hayes replied. "However, this morning, we sent an excavator out to the wreck and had the sand around that section of hull cleared away. The entrance is right where our mysterious benefactor claimed it would be."

"That solves that problem," I responded. "What else do we need to know?"

Major Hayes glanced toward Captain Donovan.

"It's entirely possible that you'll still encounter resistance within the wreck," Donovan explained. "Aegis and Crayven security forces are spread pretty thin right now due to the amount of attrition we took during the initial engagement. Our primary concern has been holding the security perimeter around the crash site. And since we've been monitoring the site from ground and orbit, we haven't seen anyone go into the wreck. But we also haven't seen anyone come out."

"And you haven't sent any details into the wreck to secure it?" Dutch McKenzie asked.

"No," Major Hayes responded. "Given the nature of what your team encountered, and to help compartmentalize the classified nature of what's actually in that ship, we thought it wouldn't be prudent to risk further attrition or widen the number of people we expose to the information. Your team is fully up to speed concerning what's in there, and you're now prepared to deal with the behavior of the A.I."

"Except for the hallucinations, you mean," I replied, bringing up the 800-pound gorilla in the room that I suspected nobody wanted to mention.

"Our working theory in that regard is the exceptionally-high levels of EMF activity that we're detecting from the derelict," Donovan advised. "We don't know if they're random bleed-off from systems that are in a pre-failure state, or if it's intentional, but we think that it causes a 'fear cage' effect. Symptoms can include auditory and visual hallucinations, along with feelings of extreme anxiety and dread."

"You think that's what made Jamison lose it?" I asked.

"Yes," Major Hayes replied, "which brings me to my next point. I want your team to get in, get that A.I., and get the hell out. The risk factors associated with being inside the Takashima, and the fact that we've been sitting on this rock for a week longer than we'd planned, are a recipe for disaster. It's only a matter of time before House Kurita comes sniffing around, wondering why there's so much traffic coming in and out of the Nirasaki system. We need to be well on our way back to Sheratan by the time that happens."

"I understand," I nodded.

"Good," Hayes answered. "Any questions?"

I glanced toward the rest of the team. When no one spoke, I turned back toward the Major.

"When do we leave?"

"Within the hour," Major Hayes replied. "Suit up. I've got a transport waiting."

###

One hour later...

D.C.S. Takashima
Black Eclipse Discovery Site
Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki
___________________________

"Goddamn," I muttered, squinting into the blazing desert sun and shuffling my way down the sandy embankment behind Corporal Clemmons and Sergeant Ayala. "I think it's hotter out here today than it was last week."

"At least it's a dry heat," Sergeant Miles quipped, following close behind me as we advanced along the blistered hull of the Takashima toward its now-excavated secondary access tunnel.

"Ha! Thank Blake for small favors," Dutch McKenzie added.

I glanced at the thermometer projected on the inside of my helmet. WARNING: AMBIENT TEMPERATURE: 49.4444 C, it blared in bright red typeface. I was thankful that I'd once again chosen to don my MechWarrior combat suit; under the current conditions, the ashqua coolant it cycled through its fabric more than made up for the thinner protection it offered in comparison to a more conventional armor kit. Even so, as we drew up alongside the fallen ship's hull, I could still perceive the heat radiating from its ferrosteel frame. Ahead of us, the secondary access hatch stood open, revealing a looming darkness beyond.

"Alright, gentlemen, here we go," Sergeant Miles called out to our escorts. In the front of the group, Sergeant Ayala and Corporal Clemmons brought their weapons to the low-ready, activating the barrel-mounted flashlights attached to their rifles, while Corporal Zhang and Private Madani, bringing up the rear, held their weapons at the high-ready.

"Let's do it," I radioed to the team, and into the wreck we went. The darkness enveloped us immediately, pressing in from all sides with an ominous, weighty presence that grew more pervasive and more claustrophobic the further away we drew from the sunlight. As we made our way down the tunnel, I wondered if the A.I. knew that we were once again trespassing in what it had defined as its home, and if so, what sort of a response we could anticipate.

Eventually, we reached the cargo hold, arriving on a small precipice that allowed us a view over the wreckage-strewn room - the same place where we'd been ambushed upon our first ingress into the Takashima.

"Let's hold here for a moment," I advised, stepping up alongside Ayala and Clemmons to gaze down at the floor below us. In the illumination of our infantrymen's flashlights, I could see the carnage of our previous firefight; the bodies of the pirates still present, now slowly decomposing in the harsh desert elements. But something wasn't right.

"Hey, Captain, I know I'm just a simple Sergeant, but things don't look right here," Sergeant Miles observed, echoing my thoughts as he came to join me at my side. Squinting into the distance, he clicked on his flashlight, and swept it around the room.

"Yeah. They've been moved around. Check out the blood trails," I observed. Miles nodded. I drew my Hawk Eagle pistol, and gazed down its night vision sight, zooming in on one of the closer corpses. In the enhanced view, I could see that the body was covered in a series of deep, parallel slash marks. "Something's been mutilating them."

"Not only that," Sergeant Miles added, "but last week, there were eight dead bodies in this room. Now, there are only six. Looks like at least one of them got dragged toward the elevator."

I glanced in the direction that the Sergeant indicated. Sure enough, a wide, bloody trail led toward the elevator shaft positioned directly beneath us.

"Could there be another razorbeast running around?" Miles asked.

"I don't know, but I'm gonna assume this wreck is still occupied," I replied. "Everyone, go weapons hot. Let's get down there and have a closer look before we commit ourselves to the tunnel."

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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.

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"Not for questioning. I have a project for you - if you're interested."

I sat up, pivoting to face the cell door. I wasn't sure what it was that the major had up his sleeve. But after a week of being in a cell most hours of the day, I was willing to give it a shot. If for no other reason than to get a change of scenery.

"Alright, I'm game." I said. "Exactly what did you have in mind?" 

I got off the bunk, and walked over to the cell door. The Major looked at me, then popped the door. 

"It still smells like vomit in here." I added. "Just so you know."

"I'm a big boy. I can handle gross smells." said the Major. "Here's what I had in mind..."

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"...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.

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I was sitting on the cot and hitting on the hot nurses while they looked at my Injuries. Since a week ago when I had met the war criminal and he had got my mouth unstuck from the Prison Cell door I had had to wear a neck brace and a back support on account of the Injuries I had happen. Also I had to use a Bed Pan at night but nobody knew why, one of the Doctors thinks maybe there was some kind of weird space worm inside the food I had ate. 

"Hey baby, my name is Steve Jenkins and I'm a tanker, also I drive a Mech." I said to the Crayven Corp nurse that walked by. She looked at me and giggled. "I have a ton of C-BILLS saved up and I need to blow them on somebody, how about it's you?" The Nurse giggled again, I could tell she liked my Technique. "I'm pretty popular with the Ladies on this ship but you caught my attention right now." I also said. 

All of a sudden a Huge military major came busting into the Med Bay with the war criminal, I think his name was Nate, and looked around for a doctor. Then he went over to Medi BOT and started ordering a bunch of tests. After that he left and banged the door closed. 

"I have to go attend to some Business Matters, I'm also a really successful businessman." I said. "I'll see you later for a date." Then I got off the bed and walked over to Nate and Medi BOT. 

"ATTENTION. ATTENTION. NOW MEDICALLING. PLEASE STAND BACK." Said the robot. "Relax." I said. "I just want to see what you're doing." Then the Robot made lights at me and Nate opened up his mouth in talking movements. 

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Posted (edited)

I looked back and forth between Jenkins and the robot. I was slightly unnerved by both of them.

"Uh...hi, guys. What's the plan here? And, um, hi, Steve, how's your head?" 

Edited by Nathan Schmidt
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MediBot turned. "Patient Jenkins, do you require medical assistance?" it asked, pulling out a syringe from one of the compartments on its' body. Its' blue-white eyes seemed to glow brighter for a moment. 

"What even is that stuff?!" patient Jenkins exclaimed. "I just got done getting medicalized, you don't need to stab me with more drugs!" 

MediBot put away the syringe, made three descending beeps and turned back to Patient Schmidt. It opened a different compartment and attached a blood pressure cuff to its' hand. "Sit still, Patient Schmidt" MediBot said while wrapping the pressure cuff around the patient's arm. 

"Well my head Really hurt after you kicked my lips out of the Food Door," patient Jenkins said, "but the nurse gave me some really good medicine, so I feel fine now, except that I can't move my head and I need to use a bed pan for some reason. How about you? I thought you were supposed to be in jail for War Crimes and stuff." 

MediBot put away the pressure cuff, and used a sensor in it's hand to measure Patient Schmidt's pulse.

"I guess they needed me for the chain gang," Patient Schmidt said. "Something about encrypted data. I figured I haven't got much to loose." 

"Speaking of computer crimes, I bet you need legal representation!" Patient Jenkins said, enthusiastically leaning down to put his face level with the seated Patient Schmidt's. "I happen to be a Celebrity Attorney back on Sheratan." The bruise on Patient Jenkins's forehead definitely included an imprint of letters. Meanwhile, MediBot pressed its' sensor probe against various spots on Patient Schmidt's back. 

"I'll, uh, need to think about that," Patient Schmidt said. 

It was time to perform oral examination. Patient Jenkins was in the way of Patient Schmidt's mouth. MediBot shoved Patient Jenkins out of the way with its' hand. 

"Hey, what was that for?" Patient Jenkins shouted. 

"I must examine Patient Schmidt," MediBot said. Patient Schmidt opened his mouth to say something, and MediBot put its' sensor probe inside. 

"You've gotta be careful with this thing, Nate," Patient Jenkins said. "On the way to Nirasaki it chased me all over the ship and locked me in a fridge on account of my Cholesterol." 

"Patient Schmidt," MediBot said. "Speaking of computer crimes. Consider the data that is unexamined by the sun." MediBot put its probe further inside the patient's mouth, and the patient made an odd sound. MediBot said "congratulations, you have an above average number of teeth." 

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One week after the initial expedition into the Takashima...
D.C.S. Takashima wreckage 
Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki
February 7, 3029
___________________________

Sergeant Miles sauntered over to the elevator shaft and squatted down onto his haunches, cradling his massive combat shotgun. The Classically trained reconnaissance scout caste a tired but investigative eye at his environment. The Skinwalker had become strangely weary at the new development with the bodies.  In the darkest corners on his mind he recognized the human carnage strewn about him. The names, Mother.... Jaco, crawled out of dark recesses of his mind like a hungry beast. This was something they would do... however Miles wasn’t aware of a parallel clandestine operation by Irian or the Skinwalkers, so the scene was eerily puzzling to the Sergeant. 

Miles’s eyes searched the cloaking shadows of the elevator shaft for possible clues.  The shaft was ancient by now, covered in dust, old grease and spattering of blood. It was obvious from the smeared grease and disturbed dust that something was using the shaft. The questions that plagued the Sergeant’s mind was... what was is it? And why was it using the shaft. 

“Talk to me Sergeant, what is it?”

The Skinwalker jumped at Captain Maxwell’s voice. Miles returned to to staring down into the elevator shaft

In a soft distant whisper the Sergeant said,

“Animals don’t butcher or play with their food sir...they also don’t attempt to evade detection by leaving no sign as to where they went...” the Skinwalker stopped in mid sentence. 

Miles sensed silent movement just beyond the furthest reaches of his weapon’s light...

“If we go in there... the Skinwalker pointed the barrel of his combat shotgun into the abyss....We are not going to be alone”

 

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