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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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