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The Universe, 3029

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A blaze of coherent energy rocketed through the open door of the cargo bay and cored into the aft wall, in an instant sending molten steel slagging down the bulkhead as alarms wailed. I stared wild-eyed at Major Hayes while, behind us, out in the void, blue PPC bolts impacted the Hurry Up Bessie, slowly causing its each of aft weapons to explode in blossoms of orange flame in between recharges that felt like they lasted an eternity.

"Go! Go! Go!" Major Hayes' voice crackled in my helmet as the bay's drop light cycled to green and the Major himself flagged his arms at the exit. I took a deep breath and nodded, and then, feeling the Mendacius' gravity slip away as it drew to a halt and began applying reverse thrust to hold the freighter in place, I pushed off the deck and sailed through the open bay doors, into the stars. Glancing behind me, I saw Major Hayes, Captain Maxwell, Lieutenant Weyland, and Private Jenkins also taking flight, each of them assuming a different posture as they acclimated to the new process for the first time outside of the simulator.

"Blade your bodies, guys...pretend you're diving down through the water. Arms at your sides. Hold onto those jump pack controls." I transmitted. There was no sarcasm in my voice, no cockiness, no arrogance. I knew that I had to keep it on the level and be a leader, even though I didn't hold any kind of rank and I was basically an inmate out on parole. Their lives, my life, and William's life depended on it. As I saw my charges start to fall into a more uniform formation, I glanced up. The prominent nose of the Mendacius loomed over us, its PPC projector glowing with a built-up charge, the ship oozing a sleek corporate look even in its disguise as a cruise liner. Looking down, I saw the Hurry Up Bessie, and the difference was stark. The hull of the ship looked worn and weathered. A large dent,  looking for all the world like an impact crater from a cartoon, sat between Cargo Bay 2 and Cargo Bay 3. Someone had evidently painted horsehoe marks across the dent in an attempt at humor. Glancing toward the ship's registry, I noticed that the name of the ship was also hand-lettered on instead of being professionally applied. Flanking the name, in peeling line art, was a large, cartoony drawing of a mule. A series of fires burned where the ship's aft weapons mounts had been, now obliterated by the Mendacius.

"Alpha-4 to Alpha-1...I think you're right. These people aren't military. This ship looks like it's being run on a shoestring budget by a bunch of civilians." I radioed to Major Hayes.

"Which begs the question, what is the deal with that military transponder signal?" Captain Maxwell added.

"We'll find out soon enough." Major Hayes answered. "The readings from Cargo Bay 1 are really interesting. A lot of activity in there. Remember, we're going to be doing most of this extraction in zero gravity, so whatever's happening, you'll need to keep your bearings."

"Oh, joy." Lieutenant Weyland quipped. Before he released the key on his microphone, I swore that I heard a noise somewhere in between a belch and a dry heave. I hoped he wasn't getting spacesick. That would be awful.

"Alright, Alpha-4, take us down." the Major ordered. Looking ahead, I saw that we were almost directly overhead the Cargo Bay 2 airlock. I angled my body down slightly, and fired the thrusters on my spacesuit.

"Go time, Alpha lance! Light the rockets!" I called out as immediately, I felt a jolt as the thrust propelled me forward at what felt like an unbelievable speed. The distance to target counted down from 800 meters rapidly and the airlock grew in size as it approached. The stars passed in a blur, and at 200 meters, I fired the retro thrusters to slow my approach, coming up on the airlock at no faster than a brisk walk. I let the momentum carry me in, sticking first my feet, then my arms out to stop me as I landed softly against the Hurry Up Bessie's hull. I quickly grabbed a mag clamp from my spacesuit pocket and latched it against the hull to create a handhold, and then turned around to watch the rest of the team as they flew in, bacckdropped by the monolithic hull of the Mendacius....

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I flew through the darkness screaming at the top of my lungs because the Space Jump was terrifying and also because I could Not control the suit right, it had been so long since I trained with the Duke back on Kentares. Now I was flip flipping through the space vacuum between the MENDACIUS and the freighter. My stomach felt real awful and I was dizzy, either on account of the bad Physics or because of the plate of Voodoo and chilli cheese burrito. Either way I was in a bad shape and fading fast...  

"Guys I don't think I have control" I yelled. But the other guys just kept on flying through Space. "Seriously guys I think I'm gonna vom if I can't fly straight, I can't figure out how to do it, every time I push a button I spin around more!" 

"Steve, quit messing around, do it just like you learned in the simulaid!" 

"Come on, Steve, you're going to get us all killed if you don't get down here!" 

"Steve, it's up to you you have to use your skills to complete the Mission!" 

"AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!" I Screamed from the stress and I hit all the buttons on my suit controls at the same time, the suit's rocket motor Transmission made a bunch of groin grabbing noises as it shifted into all the gears at the same time and fire spread out of every direction nozzle at the same time.

"AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!" I Screamed again as I flipped head over heels over and over like I was doing some of Demonic high speed Cartwheel of Death. My scream went on for an eternal period of time and the stars turned into a blur warp zone while I accelerated up to the speed of light on my out of control space suit rocket. I barfed from the G-force and saw it slosh inside my helmet and started to black out when... 

I... 

HIT... 

THE... 

DECK.

I hit so hard upside down that the puke in my helmet blew back and sprayed all over my face. I Screamed in pain and fear and on account of being grossed out. Then I looked around and saw Nathan Schmidt standing near By in his own space suit. 

"Alpha 5 to Alpha 1,I landed. Is there anything I should do now??" 

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Below and a good distance before me,  I watched as Nathan Schmidt gracefully touched down on the hull of the Hurry Up Bessie, dropping into position outside of Cargo Bay 2's airlock and anchoring himself with a practiced flourish. Just ahead of me, Major Hayes bladed his body and activated his booster pack, descending down toward our landing objective with Lieutenant Weyland following. I was moments away from activating my own booster when, abruptly, I heard a long, drawn-out scream, intermingled with sporadic gagging sounds, cutting across the communication channel. I turned my head just in time to see Steve Jenkins go flipping past me head over heels, his jet pack firing at a full burn.

"AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" Steve shrieked, rocketing downward in an out-of-control, wild trajectory that caused his arms and legs to splay out in four directions, as though the MechWarrior were doing a deranged series of cartwheels toward the freighter.

"Steve! Remember your training!" I shouted into the comm unit, gradually pushing the throttle on my spacesuit up to try to overtake Jenkins and render whatever aid I could. The MechWarrior met my reply with a loud, guttural vomiting. I pushed forward faster, and I was nearly atop Steve's position when, without warning, Jenkins somehow managed to also activate the emergency rockets on his pack. In the blink of an eye, Steve roared away from my reach and went spinning off into the distance, descending at a harrowing speed until he collided with the hull of the freighter with a sickening impact, audible across the comm channel, sending him bouncing across the hull of the freighter, finally tumbling to a stop against the threshold of the airlock.

"Private Jenkins!" I called out on the comm, maneuvering into a high-speed descent toward the Hurry Up Bessie. The hull raced up on me at a blinding pace, and I quickly extended my feet out in front of me in anticipation of my landing, as Schmidt had taught us. A quick toggle of a thumb switch saw the magnetized surfaces of my boots activate, and seconds later, with a pronounced 'thump,' my feet hit the deck. I sprinted the last few meters toward Jenkins, who lay, inverted and with his arms and legs thrown out to the sides, against Cargo Bay 2's outer bulkhead, his boots magnetized to the steel above his head.

As I approached, I heard a faint crackle on the comm unit, followed by the voice of Steve.

"...urgh...there's puke on my face...Alpha-5 to Alpha-1, I landed. Is there anything I should do now?" the MechWarrior groaned.

Major Hayes and Lieutenant Weyland came to stand alongside me, their incredulous expressions visible even through the smoked glass of their spacesuit helmets. Nathan Schmidt made his way over to Steve and stood before him, head tilted down, and his hands on his hips in a comical pose that made it appear as though the Lyran was staring down at Jenkins with disapproval.

"Well, since the gang's all here, I'd say...let's form up and prepare for entry," Major Hayes replied. "Assuming that you can still walk, Private Jenkins?"

Steve slowly staggered to his feet, giving a jaunty thumbs-up and a manic grin through the vomit-smeared glass of his helmet.

"Good," the Major remarked. "Alright then, Mister Schmidt. If you'd be so kind, please go ahead and facilitate us entrance. Alpha team - go weapons ready."

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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...

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"There's something coming out of the airlock," Gretchen said, squinting at her terminal. 

Nikki pulled up the aft camera's feed on her screen and zoomed in on the group of dark objects. "Are those body bags?"

Gretchen recoiled from her terminal. "You decompressed a morgue! And if it shares atmosphere from the rest of the ship…" 

"They might not be dead - they're evenly spaced, almost in formation. Well, aside from the one on the left that's flipping around like a dead fish." 

"So it's a boarding party?" 

"Looks like it - one of them grabbed the hull somehow. Weird way to board, though." Nikki pressed a button on her headset and addressed the ship. "Attention all hands. Arm yourselves, we're being boarded."

She crossed the room and punched a code into a number pad on the wall. The adjacent panel popped open, revealing a rack of pistols inside a compartment. "They're jumping across from the other vessel, about five of them, and it looks like they're trying to enter near-"

Nikki squinted at Gretchen's terminal several feet away. Gretchen whispered "bay two". 

"Near cargo bay two. Intentions are still unclear, but they're not friendly. Gretchen has the bridge, I'll meet you all at bay two. Stay safe everyone." Nikki checked the safeties on two pistols and put them in her jacket pockets, in case she crossed paths with any unarmed crew members on her way aft. She kept the third, and held out the fourth to Gretchen. Gretchen didn't take it. Nikki waited.

"I can't," Gretchen said. 

"It's not hard. Flip this," Nikki tapped the safety, "point it at a pirate, and pull the trigger."

"Nikki, I mean it. I don't shoot people."

Nikki sighed. "Fine. Use it as a paperweight or something. Whether you pull the trigger is between you and God, but I'd be a shit captain and a worse friend if I didn't give you the option."

Gretchen reluctantly took the gun and set it at the far end of her terminal's desk. 

"Thank you," Nikki said, and headed out the door. 

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"Alright then, Mister Schmidt. If you'd be so kind, please go ahead and facilitate us entrance. Alpha team - go weapons ready." Major Hayes commanded. 

"On it." I replied, quickly turning toward the airlock door and examining the security countermeasures in place. They were rudimentary and straightforward. A password keypad and an access badge reader. 

Fooling the system into thinking I had an access badge was actually going to be harder than brute-forcing the keypad, so I went with the latter. Unspooling a small length of data cable from my wrist-mounted computer, I managed to fumble it into the keypad's data port after several tried with my clumsy gloved hand. Then, I fired up a small proxy application which would give a rotating hardware address and a random time delay to every request I made to the keypad. That would prevent the system monitor from figuring out that there was a brute force attack in progress and shutting me out. With those measures in place I launched the attack. 

At first nothing happened, the numbers and letters just spun on my display. I could hear the sound of my own breathing in my helmet coming in heavy inhalations and exhalations as I watched. Eventually, one character at a time appeared and then turned green in the capture box. After what seemed like forever, a fully realized password was there:

BZ2VH

I quickly keyed it in, and after watching the airlock cycling its pressure down, the airlock door itself swung open with a surprising amount of force and a bang, I jumped back at the display before realizing that the decompression timing was simply acting up and released the door ahead of when it's atmosphere had finished venting. A typical thing to have happen on old and not so well maintenenced systems. 

"OK, Major. We're in. The lead is yours." I advised. 

Edited by Nathan Schmidt
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Previously...

Aboard derelict Pentagon-class Dropship 
In orbit around GJ 3634c dwarf planet
Pokhara System, Kurita space near Davion border
February 18, 3029
____________________________________

The faint whine of a high energy electrical discharge could almost be heard a moment before the heavy blast door began to glow, faintly at first, but then slowly getting brighter in short pulses as though being heated intermittently from the other side. A short number of pulses later and the center of the door was glowing white hot and rivulets of molten ferrosteel were running down the inside, a final pulse of white hot heat and a large section of the middle of the door seemed to heave inward as the metal began to flow like a liquid and separated from the cooler edges of the blast door. As the molten ferrosteel cooled rapidly it created a pile of slag the obscured close to half of the 1.5m (5') diameter hole that now existed in the blast door, although it did not actually block the hole itself. Through the inky blackness now visible on the other side the glowing barrel of a support laser could be seen as it slowly radiated heat into the cold vacuum of space that permeated almost the entire ship. Several beams of light from various flashlights danced across the still cooling edges of the hole, the now red hot glow of the metal almost obscured under the intensity of the lights. The thudding of footsteps could be felt, if not heard, through the vibrations of the deck indicating that whatever had just melted through the blast door was of a formidable size, had anyone alive been on the inside of the room they very likely would have been fearing for the lives at this moment. As it was, there was nothing but another pair of skeletons in this room, yet more victims of what was most likely the rapid decompression of the ship and subsequent failure of the life support systems after it suffered catastrophic damage in what appeared to be a single blow. The once formidable 4,000 tonne dropship was laid low by a singular unlucky strike from what had to be Capital-class weaponry which had pierced it's port side and ripped a gash through the entire vessel from bow to stern. 

I manouevered the Golem exoskeleton up to the hole blasted into the armoury door and bent over to look inside, the close proximity blocking most of the light from my shoulder mounted spotlight and prevented me from seeing anything useful inside. I had gotten pretty good at melting through the blast doors using the Support Laser underslung on the right arm of the exoskeleton, the doors were actually designed to withstand some serious firepower and through a bit of trial and error I had worked out that with proper timing I could melt through the door with around 5 shots without completely destroying the door, and whatever happened to lay beyond it. I got a fair amount of flak when the first door they had me try shooting through melted like butter and the final shot went straight through it and destroyed anything worth salvaging in the room behind it. After a few more mishaps I could now reliably melt the door enough to force their way in, if not outright enter through the hole, and it was much faster than trying to cut through the door with a cutting torch. With the power still out throughout 80% of the ship this was the easiest way to get through the myriad of blast doors that were all closed on the derelict vessel.

"Well you got through this one nicely Orlex," said Vincent as he slid up next to me, his own light splashing across the opening, "Let's see what we've got."

I reached out and grabbed his shoulder with my left hand as he began to try and move into the open hole, "What gives Orlex?"

"Take your light off the hole and look again," I replied, "didn't think you'd want to roast yourself just yet."

He moved his light away from the hole he was about to enter and took in a deep breath as he saw the metal was still glowing red hot without the bright flashlight on it, "Umm, yeah. Thanks. I'll just take a peak through the hole then."

"He's always in a rush this one," said Bill as he glided up behind Vincent and planted the magnetic boots of his Engineering spacesuit firmly on the deck, "someone always has to look out for him it seems."

The two engineers were like brothers and over the past week had grown accustomed to working with me and the Golem exoskeleton that we were prototyping, with me being the guinea pig pilot. Despite the Grail Lords being a highly trained DMI special forces squad that I was unwillingly assigned to, with the sole purpose of testing a prototype combat exoskeleton, and my initial misgivings of the unit as whole, there was a few individuals on the team that I actually got along with and that even seemed to appreciate my presence. The only reason I was the test pilot was because my younger brother was a relatively high ranking DMI operative with MI4 and was in joint command of the team that was assigned to test the prototype in the field, well that and the fact that none of the actual DMI operatives on the team had any interest in piloting what they referred to as the Iron Coffin. It had been just over a week since we initially boarded the derelict Pentagon-class dropship that was discovered on the border of Davion and Kurita space and in that time we had managed to setup a fully functioning base in one of the still intact engineering stations and began the rather arduous task of salvaging Star League era tech and equipment. We had found a cache of Mauser 960 pulse lasers in one of the armouries we had previously breached, thankfully without destroying the door or the rooms contents, and while most had succumbed to the centuries of neglect floating derelict in space there were several that were salvageable and even a few that were still functional, once powered with a proper battery. We had even managed to retrieve a pair of Gauss rifles and a few dozen rounds of ammunition from an unsecured cargo hold and there were at least 3 more Gauss rifles installed in salvageable weapons bays on the ship, those would have to wait for the salvage team though, we weren't about to mess with them and risk breaking such valuable equipment. The salvage team themselves had arrived a couple days earlier and were still getting themselves situated and preparing to start full scale salvage operations on the vessel itself. They planned on stripping everything they could from the vessel, right down the double heat sinks and even the reactor if they could manage it. The ship would never be operational again though so the hope of flying it away from the moon and back into Davion space was nothing but a dream now.

"Should be cool enough now Vincent," said Bill as he indicated the metal had cooled off enough to safely touch, "still pretty hot, but at least it won't melt our suits now."

"Very funny Bill, I seem to recall you almost tore open your own suit trying to squeeze into the breach where we found the Mausers," responded Vincent as he moved to slide through the ample opening.

"I never said I was perfect, but at least that would have been easily fixed. Can't really unmelt a spacesuit now can you?"

A grumble was Vincent's only reply as he disappeared into the darkness of the armoury, Bill followed him into the void a moment later. Unable to fit into the current hole due the bulk of the Golem I tried to position myself so I could both shine my shoulder mounted spotlight through the hole and see into it as well, after a few moments of shifting around I found a good spot and was able to watch as Bill and Vincent took an inventory of the armoury and found a few useful items.

"Nice, is that a working MCES (Marine Combat Environment Suit) Vincent?"

"I think so, hard to tell for sure but it was sealed in the locker and everything looks intact. Look there's more of them here too."

"Wow, I've got another two over here, they're missing pieces though, I think the weapons cabinet has some pulse lasers in it."

"Find some good stuff in there guys?" I queried over the comms, the vacuum made regular communication useless.

"Looks like it Orlex, at least a few working Marine Combat suits and some pulse lasers. We'll catalog it and come back later to collect them, we still have two more rooms to clear this shift," replied Vincent.

"Sounds good, I'm going to get started on opening this corridor door, according to the map our next target room is a storage compartment down that hallway."

I moved away from the breached armoury door and set about using the cutting torch mounted on the Golem's left arm to begin cutting through the standard door that was blocking our path, no need to use the support laser on this door as a few well placed cuts would allow me to brute force the doors open with relative ease.

11 days later...

Aboard Black OPs DMI DroST IVc-class Dropship Gorgon
Zenith Jump Point, rendezvous with Lithe Fox jumpship
Addicks System, Davion Space
March 1, 3029
____________________________________

The Gorgon deftly spun around and drifted slowly towards the Scout-class jumpship's singular docking collar, the dull thunk of the vessel's mating and securing their connection reverberating through the hull, before the Lithe Fox's KF-drive started to spin up. A few short minutes later and there was nothing but the momentary afterglow as the paired vessels disappeared in a wink as the KF field coalesced. Nearly 20 light years away, in the Errai system, the same paired vessels emerged from nothingness in a brilliant flash of EM and IR interference that could be mistaken for nothing except a jumpship emergence. Wasting no time the 2,500 tonne Gorgon disconnected from the docking collar on the jumpship and broke away at a steady 1G burn towards the third planet in the seven planet system, not unusual for a cargo hauler which the Gorgon was currently masquerading as. The local government had no idea that the ship was actually carrying a team of highly trained DMI operatives with the sole mission of targeting and disrupting or eliminating Maskirovka elements known to exist on the Davion controlled world.

The Grail Lords had finished their part in the salvage operation of what was supposed to have been a Star League era warship, but instead was a Rim Worlds Alliance Pentagon-class assault dropship, nearly two weeks ago. They had secured the vessel within Kurita space and had started the salvage operation, ensuring everything was safe before the actual salvage team was brought in for the heavy lifting. Afterwards the Grail Lords had returned to Addicks for their debrief and were reassigned to assist in the Errai system. The recent turmoil caused by the ongoing Fourth Succession War had allowed House Liao to get a foothold in the Errai system in the form of several Maskirovka teams, the DMI knew of their actions and had confirmed their presence but didn't know just how many, or few, actual Maskirovka teams there were. The enemy intelligence teams were promoting terrorist actions across the planet and appeared to be trying to upset the somewhat delicate balance of power that the current mob bosses had. The planet, Errai II, was in Davion ruled space and had a Davion approved government but it was so deeply embedded with corruption that it was really the criminal underworld that ruled most of the planet, at least as far as the locals were concerned. The system itself still provided goods and services the rest of Davion space and complied with all the necessary laws on paper so outwardly it seemed like just another industrial hub in the great Federated Suns machine, but anyone who visited one of the major cities could see the influence of the planet's seedy underworld.

"...our part will consist of rooting out these undesirable elements when they are discovered and eliminating them as deemed fit. Most of the team will not be involved with the undercover work and will instead form one of the quick response strike teams. Orlex, that includes you, you'll be pleased to learn that while you are still primarily our Golem pilot for the foreseeable future, you've been granted permission to use your Merlin BattleMech on this mission should the situation warrant it, we've taken the liberty of painting it in the local militia colours already. We also have access to a small selection of 'mechs from the local garrison should we have need of them. We'll be based on Errai III, posing as a cargo hauler on temporary hire while one of the regulars is in dry dock for some maintenance, that means we'll be making regular runs to Errai II to keep up appearances so don't expect alot of down time on this one. Finally, there's been hints that it might not just be Maskirovka down there, undoubtedly there's the local organized crime groups but they'll mostly play ball with us, at least until we get rid of the other troublemakers. There's nothing concrete but some individuals believe the ISF or another Kurita unit may also be involved, as always keep your heads on a swivel, it's not the first time we've been in the viper's den."

Captain Leena finished the mission brief without pausing for questions, her and her team had been working together so long she knew they didn't have any. It was a straight-forward mission, as far as intelligence operations go, and everyone had already gone through the full mission brief we received the night before. The few questions I might have had probably wouldn't have gotten a straight answer anyways and since I was low man on the totem pole I already had all the information I was privy to. As it was, I was glad to be given a chance to pilot Bastion, my 60-ton Merlin, again, even if it was just a remote chance, I was much more comfortable piloting it over the comparatively miniscule half ton Golem exoskeleton. Although the time spent with the Golem aboard the derelict Pentagon dropship during the salvage operation had caused me develop a certain appreciation for it.

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The door opened with a puff of air, on instinct Bishop shifted the mass MG42B into the ready position. With his new animal like eyes he peered into the blood red air lock. Most soldiers would have activated a weapon light or helmet light... but he could see into the dark. 

With a short step he glided past his pack mates keeping his weapon at the ready. Like the angel of death he silently drifted into the old room. 

The dark room was industrial in nature, cold and sterile. To his left where spar EVA suits hanging on the wall. 

“Room clear....pressure door on the other side... I suggest we breach and clear” Bishop growled. 

Bishop’s helmet mic clicked..”negative Bishop... if we breach that door we will decompress the this deck... me might kill civilians” said the Major. 

The beast growled inside Bishop’s mind. 

“We will loose the element of surprise and the assault momentum... they be staging in the corridor” bishop argued. 

“Bishop... your vitals are unhealthy... just relax a little..remember, we are just retrieving the General” Captain Donovan’s responded over the command channel. His tone was one of concern. 

With a soft click, Bishops mag boots anchored him to the deck. Snapping his weapon the hulking mercenary stepped of to his right, he didn’t bother to hide his annoyed demeanor. He never let his eye off the pressure door. 

As his team members filled in the brooding Skinwalker felt a heavy gloves hand touch his shoulder. Then com channel clicked twice, suit to suit com channel.  With eyes still on the door...

“Easy partner... we’ll get the General. You got to do this smooth and bay the number.” Nathan said with a slow voice.” 

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The dull roar of oxygen entering the airlock rumbled through my helmet as the room around us equalized its atmosphere to the cargo hold beyond. I glanced toward Maxwell, Weyland, Schmidt, and Jenkins, noting their body language. Even from within their spacesuits, I could tell that they were tense. This sort of mission had the potential for an unbelievable amount of disaster. On an open battlefield, noncombatants were usually a rarity. In an urban environment - which at least some respectable commanders sill avoided in recognition of the Ares Conventions - it tended to be fairly easy to distinguish hostiles from civilians. But boarding a DropShip full of crew we'd never seen, comprised of passengers encompassing an untold number of backgrounds and professions, was a grab bag of possibilities. And the undeniable truth of the matter was, we didn't have a lot to go on. We simply knew that someone, somewhere, was probably holding our CEO hostage aboard this vessel, and those individuals would in all likelihood be hostile toward us. What that meant - whether we had a ship full of armed and angry people on the other side of the airlock waiting for us - or whether we had a compliant crew that would stand down when they realized that they'd been boarded - or maybe even something in between - was a game of Russian roulette about to be decided.

I'd been through enough training scenarios to know how quickly things could go wrong in a situation such as this one. And, though they came from a mix of different careers and proficiencies, I had a strong feeling that my brothers-in-arms now present shared my concerns. As the airlock finished pressurizing, and its status indicator flickered erratically to green, I keyed my comm unit to the team channel.

"Keep it cool and measured ,Alpha team. I know this is going to be a stressful one. Take a deep breath, and let's go in nice and easy. Key things to keep in mind - if they look scared and unarmed, don't shoot. If they're armed and not surrendering, and you feel that you have to shoot, try to go for something nonlethal. Understood?" I asked.

A series of affirmations, some sounding doubtful, met my reply.

"One other thing. I also don't expect you to refrain from deadly force if it's clear that your life is in immediate danger. My first responsibility is to your safety, so I want you to exercise good judgement and make the calls that you feel are most appropriate in the moment. If in doubt, there's no shame in calling your target for a second set of eyes. Let's go get William and get out of here."

Bringing my laser rifle to the ready, I slapped the door control for the inner airlock. The heavy steel door rumbled aside, revealing the expanse of the cargo bay beyond. A shrill, horrific cacaphony of squeals, screams, and bellows met my ears. As my eyes adjusted to the brighter lighting level, I saw, laid out before me, row after row of transport cages full of distraught, and occasionally angry, hogs. And manure. So much manure - much of it afloat in the weightless environment of the bay.

"What the fuck...?" I blurted.

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I wrinkled my nose, even though, sealed in an armored spacesuit, I couldn't actually smell the animal leavings that floated aloft before us - a fact about which I was immeasurably grateful.

"Oh, I recognize this!" the voice of Private Steve Jenkins suddenly blared in my headset. "Their rotovator must have broken! Back on the farm on Ninja Planet - "

"I catch your drift, Private Jenkins," Major Hayes interjected. "Let's keep this channel open for urgent matters."

"I think that there's plenty of matter here, Major! If you catch my drift!" Jenkins replied, gleefully.

"Steve - that's enough. Save the comedy routine for later," I advised. I glanced toward the MechWarrior, who threw me a thumbs-up.

"Alright, people - let's move through here carefully. There's a lot of blind spots in this cargo bay, let alone floating biohazards. Keep sharp," Hayes instructed, readying his weapon and moving forward cautiously. Raising my laser rifle, I moved alongside him, my eyes sweeping from side to side, taking in the chamber. The cargo bay was immense, the livestock crates stacked in six massive cube-shaped pens that ran the length of the bay. Each pen was four cages wide by four cages high, with sixteen cages on each face, centered around a gigantic communal feed and water dispenser inset into the center of each of the pens.

Flanking the livestock cages were assorted crates of a vast array of shapes and sizes, some wrapped in cargo netting, others festooned with myriad shipping labels, and still others taking odd shapes that hinted tantalizingly at the cargo contained within them. Overhead, a dim array of low-power sodium bulbs cast circular pools of golden light onto the cargo bay floor, the only interruptions in the otherwise uniform shadows that shrouded the room.

It was the perfect place for an ambush.

As our party of five advanced down the center of the hold, our mag boots thunking against the deck plates, a scene of surreal horror flanked us on either side. The pens were a hive of frenetic, feral activity. Bereft of gravity, the hogs were suspended in the air within their cages, flailing their limbs, curling their lips, their mouths agape and tongues undulating as they bellowed and squealed with confusion. The overhead lights illuminated their eyes with demonic flashes as the hogs thrashed their heads. It was unnerving and distracting; if someone were laying in wait for us, the mayhem in the pens would provide the perfect distraction.

A sudden, sharp squelch, followed by a tinny loudspeaker announcement, suddenly cut through the hold. "Attention all decks  - security teams are responding to C2. If your name tag doesn't say "Ānquán," get the hell out of the way and report to your shelter stations,"  a husky, accented, female voice called out.

"C2 - 'Cargo Bay 2?'" I called out over our team channel.

"I think that's a safe - " Major Hayes began. Suddenly, without warning, the Major's words were cut off as the cargo hold's inner door burst open and a flashbang grenade, accompanied by a smoke bomb, exploded with terrific force directly in our path, overwhelming my vision and leaving me dazed and confused as I dove to my left, firing my laser rifle blindly in the direction of the attack. The hogs bellowed and roared, banging at their enclosures as the loud reports of rifle and laser fire echoed through the bay.

"Take cover!" I shouted into my comm unit, struggling to see anything through the thick smoke that now rolled like a heavy fog throughout the hold. Taking stock of my surroundings, I realized that the upper levels of the animal cages rose above the blinding white wall swirling around me, but there was no obvious way to climb them. 

Unless... I thought to myself, sprinting toward the nearest enclosure. As I approached, an enormous boar smashed its tucks into the bars of its cage, roaring at me as it bared its teeth. After a moment's pause, I reached down and toggled my boots' adhesion setting to twice Earth's gravity. Then, staring at the creature, and with great effort, I ran directly at the cages, planting my feet on their bars as I reached them, eliciting yet another roar and angry outburst from the animal as I ran directly up the face of its cage and continued up the stack, taking advantage of the weightless environment of the cargo hold to use the pens as another horizontal surface.

Reaching the top of the stack, I re-oriented myself atop the cages, kneeling into a defensive stance. From what I could see, Alpha team had scattered throughout the bay, and each member of the squad was individually engaged with one of the hostiles that had breached the doorway. I quickly located one of the aggressors, zooming in on the figure with the scope of my rifle. In the low light, the lime-green of the combatant's uniform insignia was still easily discernible.

"Maxwell to Alpha team - these guys are Capellan Confederation Armed Forces! I count five of them, and somehow, I don't think 'nonlethal' is in their vocabulary!"

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