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The Universe, 3028

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The Inner Sphere is a region of interstellar space surrounding Earth to a radius of roughly 450 - 550 light-years, generally demarcated by the outer borders of the "Great Houses." Within this region of about 2 million stars, there are approximately 2000 inhabited planets. Beyond the Inner Sphere is the Periphery.

While a variety of smaller states have come and gone, the Inner Sphere has historically been dominated by five 'Great Houses' who rule over their separate dominions: House Davion (Federated Suns), House Liao (Capellan Confederation), House Marik (Free Worlds League), House Steiner (Lyran Commonwealth), and House Kurita (Draconis Combine). The leader of each Great House claims to be the rightful successor to the rule of the Star League, and so the nations the Houses rules over are known as the Successor States.

The space surrounding the Inner Sphere contains a number of independent nations, known collectively as the Periphery. The largest of these nations (the Outworlds Alliance, Taurian Concordat, Magistracy of Canopus, and Rim Worlds Republic) predate the Star League and rival the Successor States themselves in size, but are vastly inferior economically and militarily. More moderately sized nations, such as the Marian Hegemony or Bandit Kingdoms, also lie near the Inner Sphere. The Periphery contains countless other independent nations, many consisting of a single star system each and rarely playing a significant role in Inner Sphere politics. The mostly uncharted space beyond the nearby Periphery states is known as the Deep Periphery and contains numerous pirate havens and lost Star League colonies.

From the farthest reaches of outworlds to the heart of the Inner Sphere, this is the place to stake your claim in the universe!

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Gellen's Heights, Sheratan
Capellan Confederation
46.5 light-years from Terra
October 11, 3028
___________________________

A streak of cerulean blue sliced across the canopy of my CPLT-1 Catapult, leaving scorched, black tendrils seared into its ferroglass  as an aggressor CLNT-2-3U Clint BattleMech rose into view. I breathed a relieved sigh - not at the sight of the Clint, mind you - that was a bad thing - but rather, at the notion that my protective shell had held. I'd much prefer to spend a bit of time buffing out surface wounds than be turned into a human plasma globe, doing an electric boogie on the battlefield while my opponent laughed at my expense.

I shoved the Catapult's throttle to full and twisted its torso hard into a flanking maneuver. The Clint was far faster and more agile than I was, but my Catapult had, in addition to a significant weight and armor advantage, the distinct benefit of two Holly LRM-15 launchers, which could fire and forget a total compliment of thirty self-guided miniature rockets at any target...as long as their handler could get a target lock first. That's where I came in.

"Come on, stop squirming!" I yelled at the Clint, chasing its nimble form with my targeting reticle as the small 'Mech bobbed and weaved, lobbing emerald-green laser pot shots at my Catapult, most of which flew wide, though a scant few found their mark, slowly eroding away armor where they landed. I squeezed off several concentrated blasts from my medium laser suite, entangling the Clint's legs in the process, causing it to stumble and pivot wildly as its pilot fought to maintain stability. This momentary loss of control provided the window of opportunity I needed; the Clint's trajectory evened out enough that the LRM targeting system was able to acquire a positive lock. Without hesitation, I mashed the master fire control button for the ballistics tubes, and felt the Catapult give a subtle lurch as nearly three dozen projectiles exited their launchers simultaneously and corkscrewed toward the Clint. Its hapless pilot swerved wildly from left to right in a desperate attempt to break the missiles' locks, but fortune was not on his side. The rockets found their mark, overwhelming the Clint like a swarm of angry bees and pounding it relentlessly. As dumb luck would have it, the majority of the missiles struck the Clint's especially-vulnerable rear panel, shearing away the protective armor which stood between the outside world and the BattleMech's reactor core. Without a moment's hesitation, I took full advantage of the situation and delivered a crippling blast of laser fire directly into the breach, tearing through the reactor casing. A thunderous rumble, accompanied by the sound of ferrosteel being wrought apart, heralded the demise of the Clint as it was engulfed in a blinding white light and consumed by an uncontrolled fusion explosion.

"Don't you get tired of losing, Hastings?" I taunted, keying open a channel to the enemy commander and chuckling as I watched the Clint continue to detonate, setting several nearby structures alight as its flaming components rained down from the sky. In a comical turn of events, one particularly large piece of wreckage landed on a nearby chemical tank, inciting it to immediately explode, the resulting shockwave sending what was left of the Clint tumbling into the air, causing it to rag-doll wildly as it descended back down to the ground.

"I suppose you simply have an excellent degree of talent," came the reply. "I don't normally fare this badly."

"I have my moments," I responded back, exhaling on my fingernails and then rubbing them on my jacket.

"I just bet you do." A hint of exasperation clouded Hastings' voice. "Care to up the ante?"

I muted my microphone and then laughed incredulously. Hastings apparently had more money than sense. The lance he'd chosen to field had been one of the most ineptly-built things that I'd ever seen; in short order, he'd thrown at me, and promptly lost, a Condor tank, three VTOLs, and the aforementioned Clint. I had no idea why the guy was spending his tonnage this way, but I wasn't about to burst his bubble by cluing him in to just how badly he was being beaten.

"I mean, if you really don't need the money," I chuckled, "I'll be happy to re-home it for you. What'd you have in mind?"

"Five hundred thousand," Hastings shot back. "Winner take all."

The words hung in the air, punctuated by the hiss of the open communications channel.

"You're joking," I finally responded. "You do know that there's no way you're leaving with a payout, right?"

"I like spending money," Hastings replied. "aside from which, you clearly have no chance of losing, do you?"

It was apparent that this man was mentally ill. But I didn't want to hurt his feelings by telling him so.

"Let's dance," I hissed, and drove my Catapult up over the nearby berm that separated his drop zone from mine.

As I came down the ridge, silence reigned supreme. Then, a blip appeared on my radar, a scant 3 kilometers out, slowly closing on my position. It was accompanied by no other signatures.

"Hastings," I quipped, "I think we've established that solo combat is really not your strong area."

There came no reply. I felt bad for my taunt. He had been taking a beating, and he was probably just humiliated at this point.

As I drew nearer to his radar signature, I slowed my Catapult to a steady lope, and amplified the external view it projected in my neurohelmet to focus on the distant treeline from which Hastings would soon emerge. 

At first, I saw nothing.

But then, I saw the trees falling. One by one they toppled, sending flocks of birds and clouds of debris skyward as something huge pushed them over like twigs. A cold sweat began to form on my brow, and I white-knuckled the pilot's controls of my Catapult as its targeting computer blared a threat analysis at me.

95 T ASSAULT

"Oh, shit," I blurted, slamming the Catapult's throttle into a hard run at the exact moment that a Nightstar Prime exploded out of the forest, charging toward me at an impressive 54 KPH. The ferrosteel of my Catapult screamed in protest and the 'Mech itself was nearly smashed to the ground as dual gauss rounds found their marks on its left flank. I was in trouble.

"Okay, Hastings, I admit I hadn't counted on this," I called out, twisting my war machine's torso as far to the left as it could turn. "And I really hate to scratch that beautiful paint job," I continued, unleashing a blistering volley of concentrated laser fire and missiles in the Nightstar's direction, "but I need the money."

"Then come and take it from me!" Hastings retorted. I noted with grim resignation that this was going to be a difficult fight. The Nightstar had taken the pounding I'd delivered to it like a pro; only a negligible amount of its armor had burned away when the alpha strike I'd delivered landed true. My only hope was to get into his rear arc and stay there.

I pushed the Catapult as hard as I could, attempting to run a wide circle around the Nightstar. But Hastings' aim was deadly. Round after round of PPC, gauss, and laser fire smashed into my beleaguered BattleMech, and in short order, the majority of my combat systems were on the verge of collapse. Though I managed to land a few respectable blows on the Nightstar, I was significantly outclassed, and Hastings seemed to know it.

"Do you like the taste of your own boot, son?" my opponent taunted, "because you certainly put it deep into that mouth of yours!"

"I don't back down from a fight, Hastings!" I shot back.

"And that, my friend, will be your undoing," Hastings growled, sending chills down my spine. Before I had the chance to respond, a tremendous impact threw my Catapult off-balance, sending sixty-five tons of man and machine crashing to the ground.

Hastings had rammed me.

"You fight dirty."

"I know," the voice on the radio crackled. Then, I heard the discharge of a gauss rifle, and my cockpit was set ablaze as the Catapult's missile racks detonated...

___________________________

With a jingle, the door to the Boring Pig swung open, and a trio of yardsmen stepped through, brushing the rain off of their jackets and ambling past my table to join a knot of off-duty police officers at the bar.  I could hear Jimmy, the bartender, shooting the breeze with them and refilling their drinks as I removed my virtual reality helmet.

Slowly, my eyes readjusted to the lower ambient light. A thin fog of cigarette smoke blanketed the ceiling of the dimly-lit pub, and the crack of billiards, along with the murmur of patrons, filled the air. The walls of the tavern, plastered with various photographs, trophies, and want-ads, and bedecked with holoscreens blaring various forms of programming, came into focus. 

A number of burly-looking shipyard workers leaned on a jukebox, sipping the local brew and laughing raucously at the antics of one of their colleagues. And across from me sat Hastings, smirking broadly.

"Better luck next time. I take cash or credit. Which form of payment do you prefer?"

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I stared blankly at Hastings, who leaned forward from the shadows of the over-sized armchair which enveloped him, the low lighting of the pub catching the leather of his jacket and causing it to iridesce slightly, like a snakeskin. The faint red glow of his augmented reality glasses, over which he now glared at me, only added to the sinister appearance. The quiet roar of a Solaris VII dueling match, being broadcast from a bank of holoscreens over the bar, punctuated the silence.

"You sharked me, Javier" I sighed, not sure of what else to say.

I'd become acquainted with Hastings several months ago. He was an occasional presence at the Boring Pig, frequently challenging whatever patrons were present to various bets. His fixation was virtual BattleMech bouts, though he wasn't very good at them. I'd gone up against him several times, beating him regularly, each time walking away with a handsome take. But he never seemed to mind; his braggadocio was outclassed only by the size of his wallet.

Clearly, his amateur skill level had been a ruse.

"You played a fool's gambit," Hastings replied, smugly, running his fingers over his head, tracing paths through a shock of inky-black hair. "And you got a fool's reward for your efforts. Now. Pay up."

"Yeah," I answered, at length. "About that. There's a small...logistical complication."

As though the weather was reading the mood of the room, a boom of thunder rumbled in the distance. Raindrops began to pelt the tavern's windows.

"What sort of 'logistical complication?' You're legally obligated to pay me, Jackson! This match was recorded! The gambling commission -"

"...doesn't need to get involved here," I interjected. "I didn't say that I don't have the money."

"What are you saying?" Hastings hissed.

"I'm saying...I don't have it all in my account. Some of it is - future equity."

"Exactly how much of this wager is represented by 'future' equity?"

I swallowed hard. "Most of it...?" I eventually responded, meekly.

"Are you telling me that you made a wager you didn't intend to make good on?" Hastings roared, leaping from his seat and slamming his hands down on the table. Concerned, several of the off-duty cops glanced in our direction. I quickly cast them an 'everything's fine' wave and a smile. Gambling debts were a civil matter; unless Hastings stuck a knife in me or something, there was really nothing that they could do.

"Do you have any idea," Hastings growled, "how long that's going to take you to repay?"

"Well, I - "

"Fifty-five years, Jackson. At your salary, practically half a lifetime."

"That's a really long time."

"No shit."

Another clap of thunder, this time much closer, rattled the windows of the tavern.

"So - uh - what do we do now? Is this the part where the thugs come in and threaten to break my kneecaps?"

"Nothing so mundane, Jackson. That's not how the real world works." Hastings leaned back in his chair, a smug, satisfied grin replacing his former visage of rage. "There's a perfectly legitimate avenue we can follow for a situation like this."

"Oh, good," I sighed. "I did not want this to end on a bad note."

"Of course not," came the reply. "No, we can simply table the debt for now, at a perfectly reasonable 27% APR. Then, once you assume I've forgotten about it, you skip town, I send a mercenary unit to retrieve you, I sue you in civil court to recover your debt, plus interest, plus attorney's fees, plus mercenary's fees, and then I garnish your wages forever."

"Is there an...Option B?" I gulped.

"Option B: you do a job for me."

I raised an eyebrow, questioningly. "A job?"

"A job," Hastings nodded. "And then you're off the hook."

I furrowed my brow. It sounded too good to be true.

"Tell me more."

"Not here. Let's go for a ride."

---

The limousine bounced and trundled along the pothole-ridden avenue that was Harbor Avenue, tracing its way along the waterfront and past rows and rows of warehouses, among which heavy IndustrialMechs loomed as they ferried cargo to and from the seaport. I could only imagine how the machines were handling in this weather - my full-time job involved driving an SC Powerman HaulerMech at the Gellen's Heights spaceport, and when the tarmac got wet, things could get...messy. Schlepping cargo around wasn't glamorous, but it paid the bills, and allowed me to occasionally lose at gambling.

"Exactly how do you afford all of this, Javier?" I marveled, gesturing around at the lavish interior of the upscale sedan.

"I'm in the business of procuring rare and difficult to obtain goods, amongst other undertakings." Hastings, seated facing me, smirked as he pulled a datapad from a fingerprint-locked compartment, and pushed it into my hands. "And by undertakings," he added, "I'm speaking in the literal and figurative sense."

"That was kind of a crappy play on words," I replied, "but I get your meaning. You assassinate people."

"That's such a dirty word, Jackson. Didn't your parents teach you not to judge?"

"Don't get me started on them."

"Fair enough."

I glanced over the readout that Hastings had provided. There wasn't much to go on - mostly hastily-written notes about something called a 'Prometheus Database,' political mumbo-jumbo about the First Star League, and a footnote about how Hastings believed a copy of the database was buried in some ruins somewhere called Gan Singh.

"I don't understand," I finally replied, returning the data pad. "What does all of this have to do with me?"

"You're going to go get it for me."

"Get what"

"The database," Hastings replied, matter-of-factly. "You're going to hot-drop into the Tharylan jungle on the continent of Pandora, make your way to the indicated coordinates, retrieve the database, and then head to the DropPort at Myros for extraction. You'll be provided with a suitable vehicle and equipment to complete the operation. A local mercenary unit will ferry you and your vehicle to Outreach, where you'll pick up the rest of the gear and continue on to Gan - Jackson! Are you listening to anything that I'm saying?"

"Uhh, setting aside my confusion about why you would pick me to do something like this, there's several flaws in that plan. While you were talking, I looked up 'Gan Singh' on the HPGweb, and that's like thirty-odd days from here by JumpShip. I don't have that much vacation banked. My job isn't going to allow it."

"As of this moment, your previous employment is ended," Hastings smirked.

"WHAT?"

"What other excuses can I help dismantle for you?"

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Corner of Prosperity Avenue and Commerce Boulevard
Gellen's Heights, Sheratan
October 11, 3028
___________________________

The car cast a torrent of rainwater skyward, as it carved a path through several inches of standing water, before coming to a rest curbside. We'd stopped on the outskirts of an old, decrepit industrial park, flanked on either side by ramshackle warehouses that stretched as far as the eye could see.

"So let me get this straight," I began, the empty spaces between my words punctuated by the squeak of the windshield wipers and the patter of the receding rain. "You want me - me - to take a ride out to some jungle planet, get thrown out of an aircraft, land in the woods, find a computer whatchamacallit, collect it, and bring it back to you."

"That's the general idea."

"But that's crazy!" I exclaimed. "Why me? Why not some slightly-more-qualified schmuck?"

"Two reasons," Hastings responded. "One: you owe me. And two: you're expendable." The last words dripped with venom.

"And if I refuse?"

"Fifty-five years."

Hastings had me dead-to-rights, and he knew it.

"Fine. What's the worst that could happen? I'll make the most of this."

"Good," Hastings replied. "Now, go home. Get some rest. You leave in the morning."

"WHAT?" I cried out. "But my half of the rent's not even paid! Do you have any idea how pissed off my roommate's going to be?"

My words were met with an impassive stare.

"And by the way, how am I supposed to 'go home?' This isn't even my neighborhood!"

"I would certainly hope not. This place is a total shithole. You're here to look after your ride."

"I don't understand three-quarters of the things you say to me," I retorted. In response, Hastings tossed a key fob at me, and gestured toward the car door.

"Out."

Reluctantly, I stepped out into the still-drizzling rain. Immediately, the limousine tore off into the night, leaving me alone in a sea of broken, run-down tenements and seedy-looking shops. I glanced down at the key fob in my hand. It bore little identification, save for tag which read, E47

"Pleasure to meet you," I muttered at the key, while taking in my surroundings. The sweeping cityscapes of the more privileged districts had given way to industry and blight, and the meticulously paved and finely manicured boulevards had deteriorated into a rough mixture of gravel and broken ferrocrete. Alleys led off in all directions, holding dark promise of lethal peril. Not exactly the kind of place you'd ever want to take a date.

"E47."

For several minutes, I wandered aimlessly. Hastings hadn't left me much to go on. I made my way down a service road, slogging toward a larger cluster of warehouses around which there appeared to be some degree of activity taking place. One of them caught my eye. Near it, I noticed a large, flatbed truck, emblazoned with a bright yellow shield, which itself was bedecked with a crest of olive branches and what appeared to be an illustration of a dagger. I could just make out the shadows of several individuals coming and going, while another maintained a station close to the truck.

That's one I haven't seen before...

The logo screamed 'military,' but it wasn't one I'd encountered in the past. Driving a CargoMech all day at what was literally the only spaceport on the planet meant that I got to get a good look at the various insignia that came and went, and after a while, I'd become pretty proficient at identifying who was a local and who wasn't. Whoever these people were, they weren't from around here. 

But, I thought, maybe they're friendly, and can at least give me some directions.

Brushing the rain off my jacket as best as I could, and shoving my sopping wet hair into something resembling a part, I strode toward the warehouse. As I got closer, I noticed a tall, athletic-looking man, decked out in a red and black flight jacket, leaning against the outside of the building, seemingly oblivious to the rain.

"Excuse me, sir!" I called out. The stranger glanced up at me, casting an analytical gaze from tired-looking, yet fierce sapphire eyes.

"Yeah?" came the reply as I splashed toward him.

"I'm Jackson McKenna! Pleased to make your acquaintance!"

"You haven't met me yet, but okay," the man responded, wryly, cocking his head slightly. The light of the warehouse accented salt-and-pepper streaks of grey in his hair, betraying his otherwise twentysomething appearance.

"You have a name, too, right? Or are you one of those spooky Blanks that keep popping up on the news? You know, the ones that live out in the fringes and snatch people when -"

The stranger held up a hand to stop me. Between two of his fingers sat a cigar, perfectly balanced.

"Oh my god. Is that an Arturo Fuente Opus X?"

"You have an incredibly good eye for cigars, Mister McKenna," the stranger replied.

"Ugh, I couldn't get the memory of them out of my brain if I tried!" I exclaimed. "This one time, at the spaceport, I accidentally left a pallet of them too close to a VTOL, and what I didn't know at the time was that a mechanic was on board and about to do an engine test. The blast from the engine lit the pallet on fire, and the cigars went up in the smelliest, grossest conflagration I have ever -"

"Got it." With a single, deft gesture, my new acquaintance extinguished the cigar on the steel wall of the warehouse, and transferred the remnant to his jacket pocket. "Charles Maxwell, Aegis Division," he continued, extending a handshake.

"Pleased to meet you. Oh! Sorry about the keys!" I exclaimed, mortified, as I realized that I'd inadvertently taken hold of Charles' hand with them firmly-entrenched in my palm.

"E47," Charles mused, glancing at the keys, and then back toward the roof-line of the building. There, looming over us, was an enormous 'E47,' painted in peeling, white paint. "Is that your ride in there?"

"Uhhhh," I stammered, "maybe?"

"Hrm. Hopefully, you're not looking to get into any scrapes in that thing."

It was at that moment that I began to wonder just how much weirder today was going to get.

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Warehouse E47
Gellen's Heights, Sheratan
October 11, 3028
___________________________

"Well, uh, planning to drive it? Probably? Most likely? But get in a fight? I certainly hope not. I mean, fighting's less than optimal - right?"

I cast a glance at McKenna which carried with it a glare that could melt ferrosteel.

"I'm not the smartest man in the universe," I began, "but from my perspective, anyone who tools around in a 50-ton war machine isn't exactly screaming "let's do hugging." But what do I know?"

"Everyone is being super-confusing today," McKenna replied plaintively. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about this thing," I retorted, guiding the clearly-out-of-his-depth man around the terminus of the warehouse's winding entryway and into its main bay. There, towering over us, stood an aged CN9-Centurion, its rust-brown armor riddled with the scars of countless engagements, unit markings worn beyond recognition, and several highly-questionable welds crisscrossing more than a few of its critical structural members. The BattleMech, being half-covered in a gigantic tarp, actually presented the appearance of some monstrously-sized, becloaked Centurion of the ancient Roman Empire, standing silent vigil against a marauding army which would likely never come.

The sound of a loud exhale broke my momentary trance, and I looked over to see an aghast Jackson slowly pushing his eyeglasses up the bridge of his nose.

"Holy Blake! That's...that's the real thing! It's beautiful!" With an exuberant yell, the man who was, apparently, my client, dashed toward the Centurion, trotting a long circle around the war machine to examine it from all sides. "Oh man, I figured you were setting me up with, like, I don't know, a Jeep or something, but this," he enthused, striding back toward me excitedly, "this is way, way better."

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," I chuckled. "I guess as long as you feel confident, and you're a good enough pilot to be able to dodge the worst of the nasty stuff - you do know how to drive one of these things, right?"

"I mean, I've got the basics down."

Jackson's reply did not inspire confidence. "Where'd you learn?"

"At the Boring Pig."

"The Boring P- the bar? You learned how to drive a BattleMech at a bar?"

"Well, yeah. That's where all the best video games are. Which reminds me - where do you fit into all of this?"

The sound of my forehead smashing into the palm of my hand echoed off of the walls of the warehouse.

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Warehouse E47
Gellen's Heights, Sheratan
October 11, 3028
___________________________

"Your boss hired us to transport you, and this thing," Charles replied, jabbing a thumb in the direction of the Centurion, "to Outreach. Where you end up after that is not within the parameters of our contract."

"My boss? Ms. Latoya, at the spaceport? Or do you mean Hastings? Because he's not my...ohhhh boy..."

The realization slowly dawned on me. "I guess he is my boss now, isn't he?" 

"Suffice it to say," came the reply, "Ms. Latoya didn't come up in the conversation. Though I am beginning to wonder where, exactly, you enter the equation."

"Well, in a nutshell..."

8 minutes later...

"...and that's when I stumbled into you!" I concluded, ending my tale of bravado and misfortune with gusto. Charles stared blankly at me. Behind us, the Centurion roared to life, its fusion reactor settling into a low, jet-engine whine as one of the cargo handlers began preparing to move it to the flatbed which waited outside.

"Okay then," he answered. "Remind me never to gamble on this planet."

"I mean, you look like you could probably hold your own, even on the losing end of a bet," I answered, optimistically. "You're military - or para-military. Am I right?"

Charles let out a sigh. "I'm a gun for hire. So are these guys and gals," he continued, gesturing at the crew working on the Centurion. "We spent four years running operations out in the Periphery. Mostly did work for House Arano. Eventually, we decided we'd had enough of the frontier and elected to head coreward again. We ended up here after I got a lead on some decent property outside of town where we could set up shop."

"You're from the Periphery? Oh my god, what's that like?" I couldn't help but ask. The Outworlds were a place of myth and legend to many denizens of the Inner Sphere, myself included.

"It's far, Jackson. Far away. Other than that, it's the same shit; just different scenery."

"Oh," I responded, dejected. "That's disappointing."

"People can be very consistent," Charles grumbled. "Anyway, we need to get out of here. We shove off bright and early tomorrow. Berth 183, at the spaceport. 0600. I presume we'll see you there."

"0600? Oh my god. That's...only a few hours from now. I still have to go home and pack, and leave a note for my roommate, and figure out what to do about the fish while I'm away, and - it's gonna take me at least twenty minutes to walk from here."

"Where do you live?" Charles asked.

"Central District, near the river. Why?" I asked, steeling myself for whatever kind of weird twist fate had in store for me next.

"Come on, we'll give you a lift."

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Regency Estates
Gellen's Heights, Sharatan - Central District
October 12, 3028
___________________________

The heavy recovery vehicle rumbled to a stop outside of the low-rise tenement where I shared an apartment with my roommate, Jasper. As awesome as it felt to show up riding shotgun in an admittedly bad-ass mercenary rig, I was hopeful that Jasper might not notice me getting out of a truck laden with a huge war machine; I preferred to avoid as many awkward questions at this moment as I could.

"Thanks for the lift, Charles! And, it was really nice to meet you, Alexander. I hope your falcon feels better soon."

"Thanks, kid," the Davion pilot, who went by the callsign 'Traveler,' replied.

The truck gave a low groan and eased away from the curb, rumbling slowly off into the gloom of the night. As I found myself alone again, the actual magnitude of the situation I'd managed to get myself into - the stupid, cocky bet I'd made - and the absolutely terrifying whirlwind of weird that resulted from my cosmically-bad decision - finally began to sink in.

Tomorrow, I was going to ship off-world with a bunch of soldiers-for-hire, make a transfer at the mercenary hub of the galaxy, then get carried to some planet I'd never heard of, where I'd be dropped from orbit into a jungle in a BattleMech, after which I had to find a data core which may or may not exist. Then, I had to figure out how the hell to get back to Sheratan to deliver the thing to Hastings. I had a feeling that, at minimum, what I was about to do was illegal. The fact that I was being asked to do it in a BattleMech also meant that there was a chance that it would be fatal.

And all for what...?

"So that my life can go back to being a normal level of screwed-up," I mumbled to no one in particular, as I climbed the stairway of the tenement. My life was hardly one of riches and fame, but at least it wasn't one of eternal destitution and being chased around by the mob - or whoever it was that Hastings ran with. And that, at least, was something.

I pressed the palm of my hand on my apartment's door lock. The panel glowed momentarily, after which, a loud clack echoed through the hallway as the mechanism disengaged. I pushed the door open, and stepped inside. The living room was dark, save for the glow of the television, which had evidently been left on, and which was now displaying some sort of inane cartoon programming on mute. I ignored it, shrugging my coat off and onto the sofa while simultaneously dropping my satchel on the floor.

Shuffling toward my quarters, I glanced in the direction of Jasper's room. It, too, was dark; its door stood slightly ajar, an indication that he wasn't home. I breathed a sigh of relief. Leaving him on the hook for the rent, as I was now condemned to do, was going to be a lot easier in the form of a hastily-scribbled note which I'd probably cram into the mail nook as I raced out the door in the morning.

As I entered my bedroom, I was greeted by the familiar sight of my tropical aquarium, the fish that occupied it meandering lazily in and out of the coral caves that I'd spent countless hours tending to get just right. I wandered over to the tank, gazing into its depths, envious of the simple, blissfully-ignorant life that its inhabitants lived.

"Any of you guys want to trade responsibilities with me for a while?"

There came no reply.

"Yeah. Didn't think so. I don't blame you."

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Gellen's Heights Spaceport
Gellen's Heights, Sheratan - Northwest District
October 12, 3028
___________________________

A Leopard-class DropShip screamed overhead, angling into a long, low loop as it swept around the perimeter  of the spaceport before easing onto a nearby ferrocrete landing pad. Its white and blue hull livery, emblazoned with the same mercenary insignia I'd seen on Charles' recovery vehicle, made a truly impressive sight as it glistened in the morning sun. A myriad of ground support trucks, some of them undoubtedly being driven by my now-former coworkers, roared past me, swarming the spacecraft to refuel and resupply it as I slowly made my way on foot toward the vessel. I could have elected to take a shuttle out to the landing pad, but I really hadn't felt like risking running into any of my supervisors or colleagues and the awkward questions they would inevitably end up asking. It'd been awkward enough running into my roommate on the way out of my apartment and trying to explain away the backpack, duffle bag, and bandolier of camping equipment I was carrying as standard fare for a trip to the grocery store. I was pretty sure he hadn't actually bought my story; the fifty-six phone calls from him that I ended up sending straight to voicemail shortly thereafter were an indication he'd found the hastily-scribbled note I'd left, explaining my unexpected need to go off-world, furnishing an apology for being unable to pay the rent, and pleading that he'd look after my fish while I was gone.

As I neared the DropShip, the doors to its cargo bays began to rise. Within, I could see the looming profiles of multiple BattleMechs as I made my way up the winding gantry of the landing pad; a CPLT-C1 Catapult, a KGC-000 King Crab, a ON1-K Orion, and an RVN-1X Raven. I let out an impressed whistle. Charles Maxwell certainly knew how to move. 

"Glad to see that you made it," a crisp voice with a slight Canadian inflection called out. I turned to see Charles himself emerging from the vessel's boarding gantry, slipping on a pair of mirrored sunglasses to block out the tarmac's glare. "I would have hated to leave with your Centurion aboard and no one to pilot it."

"I almost didn't make it," I responded, breathlessly, dumping my duffle bag on the ground as I reached Charles. "The weight of all this gear nearly did me in."

"You pack heavy for a short trip," Charles quipped.

"Considering I have no idea what I'm about to get myself into," I replied, "I figured it'd be best to prepare for anything."

"Fair enough."

"Speaking of packing," I continued, "where is the Centurion going to ride? I count only four 'Mech bays on this ship, and all of them are full."

"Aether here pulled the short straw on this trip," Charles answered, gesturing at the birdlike Raven. "We're going to swap her out for your 'Mech and dust off right after. Speaking of which, you got a callsign for that thing that we can enter on our manifest?"

"I'm not really sure," I answered. "The Centurion and I only just met. I hadn't asked for its name yet."

"That's a relief. When we fired it up, the onboard computer said 'Boogerface.' I just assumed you had a fucked up sense of humor," Charles chuckled.

"That would be the sense of humor of my 'benefactor,' Javier Hastings."

"Ah ha. Well - provided that you don't want to keep it, our MechTech should be able to get that changed."

"Thanks, I appreciate it. I, uh, might have a couple of other questions for you later on," I added, not fully ready to admit that changing my BattleMech's callsign was the least of what I didn't know.

"No problem," Charles replied, gazing at the Raven as it took several lumbering steps out of its bay. "I'll be in and out until we take off. In the mean time, feel free to go aboard and make yourself at home. My XO, Mara Walsh, will show you the facilities."

"Sounds like a plan," I answered, hefting the duffel bag back over my shoulder. "Let me know if I can lend a hand with anything."

Taking a long, last gaze at the Gellen's Heights skyline, I turned toward the DropShip, and strode into its darkened hold. As my feet crossed onto the grated deckplates, I found myself in an alien world, though I hadn't even left Sheratan yet.

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DropShip Tana
Gellen's Heights, Sheratan - Northwest District
October 12, 3028
___________________________

"What's your assessment, Chief?" the tall, sandy-haired woman inquired, her Irish brogue echoing down the dimly-lit corridor of the DropShip.

"Believe it or not, they're not as bad as they look. The Hunchback's going to take a bit less work, but the Jenner got literally blown apart. I reckon we can get them both operational. Might take a while, though," a heavyset man in MechTech coveralls replied.

"Anything left behind by the pilots?"

"Nothing whole."

"Ugh. Sorry for giving you that job. Dirty work, I know."

"Yeah, Commander. But on the bright side, we got ourselves a couple of new 'Mechs to play with that didn't cost us much. And, hell, we might even have some place to store them, eventually."

"We'd better. Or they're going to end up getting stripped bare by scavengers."

"Again," the MechTech added, chuckling. Turning to leave, he cast a glance in my direction. "Welcome aboard, stranger. Ever see the aftermath of an autocannon round punching through cockpit glass?"

"Uhh...no?" I replied, raising an eyebrow.

"Stop by the cargo hold if you wanna see," the technician replied, enthusiastically. "It's gnarly."

"For god's sake, stop messing with the kid," the commander interjected, turning to me. "I'm Mara Walsh, XO of this operation. You're the other half of our milk run to Outreach, I take it."

"That's what I'm told," I answered.

"Excellent. Then, once we've got your Centurion aboard, we'll be off. Let me show you around the Tana."

Several minutes later...

"...and this will be your berth for the trip," Walsh concluded, ushering me into a cramped bunk room and pointing to an upper-level alcove, equipped with a mattress, pillows, blankets, and a curtain for privacy. "You're welcome to make full use of the mess hall and showers. Access to the cargo hold and the bridge are restricted to crew. If you want to visit your BattleMech in the bay, let one of us know, and we'll escort you down there. Any questions?"

"Yeah - about how long is it going to take us to get to Outreach?"

"I'm told this run is going to take fourteen days. Four days out to the JumpShip from Sheratan, and then seven days recharge at Epsilon Eridani. Then, once we get to Outreach, three days from the JumpShip to the planet."

"Two weeks," I gasped. "What am I going to do for two weeks?"

Commander Walsh raised an eyebrow. "Be careful what you wish for. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to get this boat ready for dust off."

With that, the commander took her leave, closing the bunk room's hatch behind her with a metallic 'thunk.' I glanced around at the accommodations. The dorm area was fairly spartan, equipped with a total of twelve bunks and a handful of wall-mounted lockers. I wandered around, trying to get a sense of who I'd be sharing the space with. By the looks of it, the ship's entire crew, whether front-line grunts or support personnel, had to cram themselves into this tiny space, bereft of viewports and recreational facilities. A wall-mounted chart of the ship indicated that Commander Maxwell's private quarters took up an area just large enough to accommodate a single bed and washbasin.

The walls of the bunk room were adorned with various posters, schedules, notices, and memos. More notably, a  number of heavy gear trunks, scattered throughout the space, and anchored securely to the deck, called out the names of the various MechWarriors assigned to them. I made a mental note that it would probably be a good idea to chat up a few of their owners during the passage. Their experience could mean the difference between me coming back home in one piece and me being discharged from my debt on account of being blown into a billion pieces on some far-flung world.

My stomach growled, interrupting my thoughts of death and dismemberment. 

"I wonder where someone can get a cheeseburger around here?" I asked the empty room.

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DropShip Tana
Gellen's Heights, Sheratan - Northwest District
October 12, 3028
___________________________

"Get me the QUARTERMASTER!" a dark-haired, pale-skinned fellow with fiery hazel eyes bellowed into a wall intercom as I entered the mess hall, his exclamation loud enough to be heard throughout the entire compartment

"You've got him. What do you want, Dexter?"

"What have you done?" Dexter demanded. "My 'Mech looks like some two-toned abomination that came out of a hangover from a three-day bender! I specifically requested you to paint the unit in Praxeti White!"

"I tried," the quartermaster's voice replied. "I could only get a small amount of Praxeti White, and even then from an alternate supplier, so it was fairly off. Most of it was Wraithbone, in fact, and I've been trying to mix the leftover paints to get the proper shade. I've done the best I could."

"And if Blake's holy hand should smite me dead for heresy?" the MechWarrior demanded.

"Then I'll finally be able to stop wasting time on your vanity projects!" came the reply. With a squelch, the intercom channel closed.

"Blake's blood!" the man exclaimed, whirling on his heel and storming toward the mess hall's exit. "My apologies," he added, noticing my arrival. "I am burdened with a complex dynamic as pertains to our engineer."

"You would think he'd know better than to mess with a former ComStar acolyte!" I exclaimed. "I've heard stories about you guys."

"How do you know of my background?" Dexter asked, raising an eyebrow.

"It's not exactly rocket science," I grinned. "I've seen enough movies to know that fanatical obsessions with painting things weirdly-specific shades of white, lots of references to Jerome Blake, warnings of hellfire and damnation - "

"Your point is taken," the man interrupted, holding up a hand to stop my explanation. "Do not brand me a former acolyte. My relationship with Blake is pure. My relationship with ComStar - less so. Thus the shift in the scope of my contributions to this mortal coil to...this place."

"Oh man, I totally get the whole 'complex relationships' thing," I gushed. "That's kinda how I ended up here too. Jackson McKenna, at your service."

"Dexter Friedman, MechWarrior, and acolyte of Blake," came the reply. "Though my colleagues call me 'Abaddon.'"

"'Destruction.' I dig it. My colleagues call me 'Jackson.' Or 'hey you.' Or, "what the hell are you doing, put that down, you aren't trained for that.""

"Are you...crew?" Dexter inquired, raising an eyebrow.

"Oh, no - I'm cargo," I laughed. "I'm getting off at Outreach."

"I see."

"Hey, where can someone get food around here?" I continued, changing the subject.

"The food slots along the far wall are what we've got," Dexter answered. "They're mostly stocked with Kuritan brands at the moment. We picked up a case of meals from the Tinned Splendors gourmet line on our way past the Draconis Combine. It's mostly nondescript fare, but there are some cans of Stomach's Joy mixed in here and there. Truly wretched stuff, although I hear that it can give you a feeling of well-being - almost a floating sensation - if you eat enough of it."

"You guys should really think about cutting over to the Happy Life Meals line instead," I quipped, trying to be helpful. "The quality varies wildly, but they're hard to beat in the cost department."

"Mmm, I'll keep that in mind," the man murmured. "If you'll excuse me, we're departing in five minutes. I need to get to my lift-off station. I suggest you do the same."

"Will do!" I replied. "Good to meet you."

Dexter nodded curtly and headed off into the nearby corridor. I made my way over to the food slots and examined their offerings. I soon found myself mashing the selector switch for Bountiful Burger. The machine rumbled and strained momentarily before dispensing a shrink-wrapped, pre-heated carton containing a soybean patty, sesame-seed bun, and two tiny condiment packets.

"You look like an excellent start to a nutrition-filled journey!" I exclaimed. The carton gave no reply. Before I had further opportunity to offer comment, the DropShip's intercom chimed with an announcement.

"All crew, prepare for departure. Assume lift-off stations. We are dusting off in five minutes."

"Crap," I grumbled. "I guess you and I'll have to get better-acquainted once we're in orbit."

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