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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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With a mighty push, the Tana rose from its ferrocrete landing berth, plumes of smoke rolling past the flight station's spherical viewports as the vessel broke free of Sheratan's gravity. The inertia of the ship's movement pushed me back against my jumpseat, and the outline of the Gellen's Heights spaceport quickly rolled into view as the planet fell away beneath us. Moments later, the deafening roar of the vessel's engines was accompanied by a low 'boom' reverberating through the ship's hull, an indication that we'd broken through the sound barrier.

"Charles sure doesn't waste any time on the throttle, does he?" I yelled over the cacophony to my seat-mate, a goateed fellow with a dark complexion.

"Time is money!" the man replied, his gravelly baritone complimenting his tough-guy appearance.

Tendrils of flame whipped past my field of view, and I gripped the carton of my Bountiful Burger tightly as I watched the gradient of the horizon transitioning from pale blue to inky-black. My stomach gave a lurch as the ship doubled-down on its acceleration, the g-forces of escape velocity increasing to a nearly-unbearable level.

"Is it always like this?" I asked.

"No - not always," the man replied. "Sometimes we fly harder!"

Abruptly, and before I had a chance to formulate a response, the roar of the Tana's engines ceased. I suddenly found myself weightless; floating against the harness that, moments before, I'd barely needed. Through the viewport, I could see a spectacular field of stars - one which, disconcertingly, was beginning to spin in a clockwise direction. As I watched, the Tana lurched again, and the stars began to move downward, gravity overtaking us again.

"That's - uh - that's - " I stammered, pointing at the view.

"We're flying nose-down," my seat-mate laughed. "It's the only way these little aerodyne DropShips can maintain gravity. The thrust is coming from the ship's belly."

"I'd heard of this, but I've never experienced it!" I exclaimed. "Seeing the stars go the wrong way is weird."

"You get used to it," the man chuckled. "Welcome aboard, by the way. I'm Marius Lennox - Charles' IT guy and occasional gun-for-hire. You got a name?"

"Jackson. Jackson McKenna," I responded, extending a handshake. "I'm hitching a ride out to Outreach. You could say I'm a gun-for-hire too. Sometimes. Sorta."

"Free agent, huh?" Marius nodded. "Nice. I do this job because it keeps me out of worse trouble."

A chime echoed through the crew compartment, and an indicator light near its entrance flickered from red to green.

"Anyway - we just broke orbit - it'll be a couple of days out to the JumpShip. Feel free to get settled in. Give a shout if you need anything while you're with us," Marius continued, unbuckling his seat harness. "I'm going up to the bridge for a bit. Maybe I'll run into you later."

"What should I do?" I asked, the sudden realization hitting me that I had nothing to do and nowhere to be.

"I dunno - we've got some games in the mess hall and a pretty good support rig down in the 'Mech Bay if you need to do any system work. Otherwise - relax!"

Easier said than done... I thought to myself. Glancing down at the now-cold Bountiful Burger I held in my hands, I reasoned that having my first meal in nearly twelve hours was as good a starting point as any.

Unstrapping my seatbelt, I pulled myself to my feet and took a few steps forward. My stride felt noticeably lighter; Charles apparently favored a level of gravity slightly less than Sheratan's. As I made my way down the ship's corridor, I was stopped in my tracks by the sudden appearance of a tall figure sliding down an access ladder from the upper compartment, landing boots-first with a loud thunk on the corridor's deckplates. It was Commander Maxwell.

"Hey there," Charles greeted me, smoothing out the wrinkles in his flight suit as he approached me. "Looks like you survived liftoff."

"It was a little different than how it usually goes on a civilian transport, but, yeah," I nodded. Holding up the Bountiful Burger package, I added, "I was gonna go eat this thing."

"If that's what floats your boat," Charles acknowledged, "though if you can hold out for a bit longer, Dexter and Chef were going to collaborate on some kind of shepherd's pie recipe that he picked up at the Stewart Inn on Solaris. You're welcome to join us."

"That guy cooks?" I blurted, the imagery of Dexter fussing over a meal's presentation standing in stark contrast to the hot-headed zealot I'd seen in the mess hall earlier.

"Dexter is full of surprises," the commander chuckled.

"Actually, all of you seem to be," I replied. "You're not what I would have expected mercenaries to be like."

"I try to keep us away from the stereotypes," Charles responded. "This galaxy has enough incivility as it is. One of the reasons I brought the unit back from the Periphery."

"I know you said that it was the same as any other place," I began as we rounded the corner into the mess hall, "but seriously, how come you came back? The Inner Sphere is pretty crowded. I'd have thought you stood to make better money out where there are fewer resources."

"It's a really complicated subject," Charles replied, leaning against a bulkhead as I went through the motions of stuffing the Bountiful Burger carton into a nearby matter recycler. "The easiest way to summarize it is that as fucked up as things can get around here, the Periphery is worse. Far worse. Have you studied history at all?"

"Yeah, why do you ask?"

"Well, in many areas, the Periphery states haven't made significant cultural strides since the Amaris Civil War. There's a bloodbath available for taking on nearly every planet. The political infighting is insane."

"That sounds like good money for a mercenary," I answered, surprised at Charles' response. "Why wouldn't you stick with it?"

"Because that's all there is out there," Charles sighed, "and frankly, there's more to life than 'get rich until you get shot.' At least, that's what I believed, and what the folks on this ship believed. So we split up the company. Those who wanted to stay behind did so; the rest of us headed into the Inner Sphere with this DropShip, four 'Mechs, and enough capital to start a new outfit."

"You mean that this is your entire company?" I balked.

"For the moment, yeah. We're looking at an old military base outside of Gellen's Heights that we can re-purpose as a headquarters. The rest of our assets stayed behind with the group that split off from us in the Periphery. In the very immediate term, though, this ship is home."

"That's hardcore," I replied.

"It keeps us in a ready state, I suppose," Charles laughed. "Speaking of readiness - that 'Mech of yours represents one quarter of the available defenses on this ship at the moment. How combat ready is it?"

"Um..." I stammered. "I've never used it."

"If that's so, after lunch," Charles replied, "we're going to solve that problem."

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The rec area of the mess hall felt warm and welcoming, outfit with a ratty sofa and two worn but comfortable chairs set before a large trivid holoscreen. Commander Maxwell took place of prominence, his lanky form sprawled out horizontally on the couch, arm draped casually along its headrest, while I found an accommodating spot in one of the armchairs. Nearby, a trio of Maxwell's crew huddled around a table bedecked with colored hexagons laid out like a map, atop which sat stacks of paper with charts and numbers on them, along with eight tiny metal BattleMechs. The occasional clatter of dice rolling on the table was punctuated with jovial and raucous outbursts from the crew as the game took what seemed to be an endless series of exciting twists and turns. The atmosphere was upbeat and soothing.

"I meant what I said, Charles. This isn't like the typical mercenary unit I'm used to seeing," I observed.

"Define 'typical mercenary unit,'" Charles replied with a hint of amusement in his tone.

"You know. Rough-and-tumble. Grizzled and battle-hardened. Ex-cons turning over a new leaf. Tattooed space jocks with more ammunition than - "

"I get the picture," Charles interjected. "You watch too many tri-vids. The real world is a far more diverse - and far more colorful - place. And as I said, this unit tries to hold onto the few shreds of civility that our line of work offers us. Now, if I could break into the field that your friend Hastings is in - "

"Hastings isn't my friend," I interrupted. Charles cast me a quizzical glance.

"Right, I forgot. You just like to make dangerous bets with even more dangerous people. At any rate, do you know what Hastings' hobby is? When he's not doing his day job as a Revenue Agency director?"

"I know he hangs out in bars and blows his income on stupid bets," I replied.

"You really don't know? He's an armchair archaeologist. Belongs to a group of loosely-affiliated businessmen with disposable incomes called 'Interstellar Expeditions,'" Charles answered. "Their hobbies range from searching for extraterrestrial intelligence to investigating conspiracy theories and even, occasionally, doing some legitimate historical research. Why do you think he's got you chasing some Star League relic off in the backwoods of some random jungle planet?"

"The thought had occurred to me that he just might be trying to get me killed," I deadpanned.

"Could be, but I think not. Ever since the discovery of the Helm Memory Core, groups like IE have been clamoring for a piece of the proverbial pie. There is a lot of money to be made in LosTech - if you can get your hands on it before the ComStar Explorer Corps does. I suspect your wager made you a pawn in a very real excursion backed by the idle wealthy. For whatever reason, Hastings wanted to keep his hands clean - and maintain a modicum of plausible deniability - as pertains to this particular outing. Even I didn't know why we were transporting you until you filled in the missing pieces back on Sheratan. We just got a contract from him to haul you from Point A to Point B, no questions asked. Given that he paid the typical asking rate for a full MRBC engagement contract, I figured that there was more to this milk run than met the eye."

Charles' words were far from reassuring. "How far in over my head do you think I might be?"

"It's hard to say," Charles answered, leaning forward and pulling a cigar from a pocket humidor. Flicking its ignition patch, he leaned back and relaxed in its resulting aromatic haze. "We didn't run an intel job on your ultimate destination. But I'm damned curious - and a fair amount of that interest is motivated by the fact that for some reason, I like you, and I'd rather you didn't go off and get yourself killed."

"Thanks," I replied, "I do prefer to be alive."

"As do we all. But I digress. One thing you can be certain of - if Interstellar Expeditions has gotten wind of some untapped cache, you can rest assured that ComStar - and ROM, by extension - know about it too. I hope you're prepared for some nasty negotiations if you arrive at the site at the same time that they do."

"You're kidding me," I blurted out. "I'm competing with ComStar here?"

"I didn't say that you were for sure," came the reply. "But you'd better be prepared for the contingency."

"Come with me," I offered. "With this ship, and your 'Mechs, and those guys over there," I added, pointing to the contingent of MechWarriors who had begun to file into the mess hall, "the odds would be far better than if -"

"Oh, no, no no," Charles replied, holding up a hand. "I can't afford to get us blown out of the sky right now. This DropShip and the assets aboard it are all we've got at the moment. I do not want to be on the receiving end of a ROM WarShip. As I said - Interstellar Expeditions is a rich man's game."

"Fine, I get it," I sighed, hanging my head. "Could you at least give me some pointers?"

"That, I can do," the commander smiled. "But let's eat first."

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30 minutes later...

Lunch had been a whirlwind of frenetic energy, gregarious conversation, and astoundingly-good food for DropShip fare. Charles Maxwell was definitely an outlier as I'd come to understand mercenaries. While his crew was comprised of a mashup of misfits from all sorts of different backgrounds, it was clear to me that his personnel vetting process seemed to largely weed out the characters of ill repute that frequented many hiring halls. Instead, the vibe that his crew gave off was almost one of family - their personalities were warm, their conversation engaging and cerebral, the mutual respect and camaraderie they held for one another apparent. Not what I'd typically seen at the spaceport on Sheratan, nor in most tri-vids I'd watched. In the movies, mercenaries were frequently portrayed as larger-than-life 'Mech jocks with itchy trigger fingers and a fixation on profit. At the spaceport, the mercenaries I'd seen were more reserved, but still held a modicum of the rough-and-tumble depicted in the movies. By comparison, Maxwell's crew seemed almost better-suited to exploration and adventure than running security details and holding battle lines. I could only imagine what sort of contracts he must chase.

"Here we are, Mister McKenna," Charles announced as we walked into the cramped but serviceable bay which held the Centurion issued to me by Hastings. The mottled browns and grays of the leviathan machine's armor glinted in the artificial illumination of its work gantry, and a dim, orange glow of instrumentation radiated from the confines of its cockpit, which stood open to receive me. "You ready to do some systems tests?"

I gazed at the machine with trepidation. Though I'd spent countless hours driving a civilian 'Mech at the spaceport, and countless more playing out simulated battles at holo arcades, I'd never actually set foot in a real BattleMech.

"Well, I..."

The sudden, sharp scratch of a cigar's ignition patch being struck interrupted my train of thought. The heavy smell of cherry-laden tobacco wafted through the air. I turned to see Charles leaning against a bulkhead, slowly exhaling a long plume of smoke, balancing the lit stogie in one hand and a neurohelmet in the other.

"You know, those things could kill you," I blurted out, gesturing at the cigar.

"So could one of these, if it's not calibrated right," Charles replied, tossing the neurohelmet in my direction. Awkwardly, I grabbed it, fumbling it several times while somehow managing to avoid dropping it. "You don't have any inner ear problems or brain damage, right?"

"None as far as I'm aware?" I replied, questioningly.

"Good - that could really mess stuff up for you," the commander replied. "Ok, hop on up there. Marius should be along in just a minute to help get you dialed in. I'm going to go over to the bay on the other side of the hall. Once you're set up, we'll run through a couple of combat drills."

"How...?" I asked, confused. Normally, combat exercises had to be run in a dedicated simulator. The Tana didn't seem spacious enough to carry much in the way of simulation equipment. If there was any on board, I hadn't seen it.

"It pays to have an I.T. guy and reformed hacker on your crew," Charles laughed as the man I'd met earlier on our ascent out of the spaceport entered the bay. "How's it going, Marius? I was just about to tell our passenger about our training setup."

"Ah, yeah," Marius replied. "Some of the folks were getting a little stir-crazy on our way back from the Periphery. We took two simulation pods with us when we headed out, but we didn't have a lot of room to set them up with all the other gear we were carrying. Commander Walsh came up with the idea to fire them up in the cargo bay anyway, and I plugged them into the network on the Tana. Then, after some creative code work, I was able to get the maintenance computers to act as nodes and relay the data to and from the BattleMechs in each hangar, complete with simulated video feeds in their cockpits. So now we have four really expensive battle pods that no one has to climb over all kinds of cargo and other random shit to get at."

"That's amazing," I marveled.

"Ain't nothing, really," Marius laughed. "Just a side project. Climb on into your Centurion and I'll show you how it works."

"I'll leave you fellas to it," Charles smiled, clapping the technician on the shoulder and making his way out into the corridor while Marius and I climbed aboard a nearby lift.

"So, what's your story? How'd you get hooked up with Aegis Division?" I asked.

The lift gave a lurch as it carried us into the air. "Well...best I start from the beginning," Marius laughed. "I grew up on Hachiman in the Draconis Combine. Ever heard of it?"

I shook my head 'no.' "I don't know too much about the Combine," I replied.

The lift lurched to a stop. Across from us, the cockpit of the Centurion loomed. A pool of blue-orange light spilled across its pilot's chair, making it look like some kind of ethereal throne as we approached.

"Anyway, my folks were I.T. executives; I guess you could say that computers were my playground as a kid. I even ended up going to school at a technology academy. Did pretty good there. At least, until one of my professors found out I was using the skills I was learning to run a side job as what you could call an....information broker. Have a seat here," Marius continued, ducking through the hatch in the side of the Centurion's head and gesturing at its pilot's chair. "No need to put on the cooling vest - we're not gonna run any simulations with actual heat."

"That's good to know," I laughed, nervously. Turning around, I eased myself into the pilot's seat. It felt worn and battered, yet comfortable. I could only imagine the number of adventures it had carried its previous occupants on.

"So anyway, I left the academy on...less than amicable terms, even though they couldn't prove I did anything actually illegal. I managed to get a job at Victory Industries. Tried to keep my record clean. If information on a salvage breakthrough leaked, well, there was no evidence that it was my fault. Except - one record I'd cleaned up managed to come to the attention of the Internal Security Force, who considered that evidence enough. Hit that button over there." Marius pointed to a glowing red button on the pilot's console marked 'RDY.' Cautiously, I pressed it with a single finger. In an instant, the instrumentation panels which wrapped around the Centurion's cockpit flickered to life, transitioning from dim hues of blue and orange to vibrant greens and yellows. A myriad of system test chirps and beeps soon followed, accompanied by the whir of a computer's drives spinning up.

"Alright, now, plug that thing's cables into the receptacle over your head," Marius continued, pointing at the neurohemet I still carried. "After ISF caught me, I needed to get out of town and I needed to become a new man. Literally. I burned through a bunch of connections to cover my tracks and make it out to the Periphery. At that point, I decided - for my own health - to retire from information brokering. As I said before, I took this gig because it keeps me out of worse trouble."

"So you're a technician - not a pilot?" I asked, plugging the nerohelmet's cables into their jacks with a solid 'click.'

"Little bit of both. Charles has been letting me apprentice with Dexter - you met him, right? Kinda crazy Lyran who calls himself 'Abaddon?' Anyway, I've been learning the ropes a bit here and there - though honestly, Charles mostly leverages my...information acquisition...abilities. Go ahead and pop that helmet on. I'm gonna go down to the workstation. We'll fire up your diagnostic interpretation computer and get you calibrated."

Nodding, I slipped the helmet onto my head and pulled its visor down into my field of view. Its heavy tint darkened my surroundings. A blinking green cursor flickered to life, followed by a scroll of system startup output.

"Diagnostic mode enabled. All systems set to passive mode. Reactor offline. Sensors online. Weapons systems online. All functioning systems - nominal," a soft, artificial voice reported. A wire-frame representation of the Centurion appeared, overlaid by HUD data showing the status of each of its critical components.

"Okay, Jackson!" Marius' voice boomed over the 'Mech bay' s P.A. system. "I've got all of your systems in simulation mode. I'm gonna load up a training program. We'll use that to get you and your 'Mech better acquainted. You ready?"

I took a deep breath.

"Let's do it," I replied.

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DropShip Tana
En route to Sheratan Jump Point
October 12, 3028
___________________________

A series of perpendicular green lines exploded outward from the center of my visual field, racing toward the horizon and tracing the shapes of trees, hills, roadways, rocky outcroppings, and two low-rise commercial buildings into existence in every direction. A firestorm of colors and textures soon followed, cascading across the digital world and filling the landscape with rich detail as the sky faded to a pastel blue, punctuated at intervals by fluffy blue clouds. Utopian and tranquil, the setting betrayed the purpose of the simulation in a deceptively-calming manner.

"Welcome to Marius Township, Jackson," crackled the voice of Charles Maxwell in an unexpected stereo resonance. I jumped, startled - I'd never heard a transmission over an actual combat neurohelmet before, and the audio fidelity was much crisper and realistic than I'd been expecting - not at all like the simulator on Sheratan. Switching the Centurion's transmitter to 'VOX,' I spoke a reply into my headset's microphone.

"'Marius Township'? He named the simulation after himself?"

"Yes, 'he' did," came the reply - except it wasn't spoken by Charles. It was Marius himself, who I'd forgotten was monitoring the simulation. I blushed with embarrassment. "The way I look at it, the rules aren't any different than they were back in the Ancient West - you build the town, you get the naming rights."

"The man's got a point, you know," Charles replied, his voice tinged with amusement. "Marius' electronic proving ground is quite a technological marvel, and it's shown itself to be really useful on many an occasion. Let's get you dialed in, shall we?"

"Roger that," I answered.

"Jackson, I'm gonna release your gyro lock, okay? Let's get you and the Centurion on the same page and make sure you can keep your balance."

I gripped the arms of my command chair. "Okay - go ahead."

A series of quiet pops and hisses reverberated through the cockpit. Suddenly, the Centurion slumped forward, lurching forcefully against its support straps. A sea of slightly-pixelated grass surged into my field of view.

"Whoa! Holy crap!" I exclaimed.

"Relax, Jackson - I've got you," Marius responded, calmly. "Your neurohelmet is way out of calibration. If you'd tried to use it like this, you probably would have gotten about two steps out of the gantry before falling over. Let me see if I can get it dialed back for you. This might tingle a little bit."

"What are you going to - oh, wow," I stammered, my vision growing momentarily blurry and my head feeling swimmy. 

"Take it easy. I'm re-calibrating the interface to align with your neural patterns. Headaches and visual aberrations are par for the course. Hang tight a second. It's gonna pass."

As the last of Marius' words reached my ears, the world snapped back into sharp focus, and the Centurion slowly righted itself. The line of the simulated horizon rose into view, a flock of digital birds rising into the sky beyond a nearby treeline.

"How's that feel?" Marius inquired.

"That's a lot better," I exhaled, releasing a breath I hadn't even realized I was holding.

"Good. Initial calibration checks out. Let's do some extended evaluation. Go ahead and push the throttle forward, and see if you can get to the top of this ridge over here."

A neon-yellow nav point winked into existence a short distance away at the apex of a low-slung grassy outcropping.

"Easy peasy!" I exclaimed, pushing the Centurion's throttle up to full. Much to my surprise, the BattleMech heaved drunkenly into a sloppy, staggering run - not at all what I'd expected.

"Whoa! Marius! I think something's wrong."

"Slow it down, tiger. This isn't a video game. The 'Mech you're driving is actually taking neural feedback from your brain and translating it into its own sense of balance. You ever drive one of these things before?"

"In real life? I drove cargo loaders at a spaceport."

"Okay, that's not exactly the same thing," Marius laughed. "This is a much more intricate piece of machinery designed to literally be a walking, running, fighting avatar of you. It's going to take more than just a couple of minutes and some button-mashing to get a neural map of that extent established. Go ahead and take the throttle down to one quarter."

"Gladly," I answered, easing back on the stick. The Centurion's movement evened out, and I found myself moving at a steady trot toward the grassy mesa. As I drew nearer to it, I could see a very gently-sloping path winding toward the top of the escarpment. Gingerly, I pushed my feet against the BattleMech's steering pedals, guiding the 50-ton war machine into a gradual yaw to the right.

"That's good, that's good," the voice in my helmet observed. "You didn't fall down. The steering's taking a liking to you. Go ahead and take it up to half throttle, and see if you can get up the hill."

"Alright," I affirmed. Pushing the throttle forward until I felt it click at the halfway mark, I noted the Centurion's performance changing.

"Marius, it's getting a bit rougher. I still have the stick just fine, but it feels twitchy."

"Nice catch, Jackson. You're a quick study. Yeah, there's a bit of a deviation. I'll get it smoothed out. Keep the throttle there until you get to the top of the hill. When you reach the overlook, stop the 'Mech."

"You got it." 

I stomped the Centurion up the hillside, observing with amazement how easily the machine negotiated uneven footing and loose earth. Unlike the flat, unrealistic movement of the BattleMechs in video games, there was an almost organic quality to the way that the Centurion moved. Though I white-knuckled its controls, I could sense that the machine was actually taking its cues from my mind to maintain its footing and bearing - something even the cargo haulers weren't particularly known to be able to do in more than the most primitive way. Despite being battered and worn out, my new ride retained an incredible elegance and sophistication.

Reaching the top of the ridge, I gently pulled the throttle down, and took in the scenery as the Centurion lumbered to a halt. Stretching out before me was a lush, green valley, bisected by a glistening,  azure-blue river. A road comprised of freshly-laid tarmac wound off into the distance, disappearing into a tree line flanked by a gray, concrete office building nearly identical to the one just a stone's throw from my current location.

"Locomotion's looking good, Jackson. You ready to add some basic weapons tests to the mix?"

"Oh yeah," I grinned. "That's my favorite part."

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"Alright, Jackson," Marius' voice crackled, "I'm turning weapon control over to you. Just like your real-world ride, the simulation of your Centurion carries two Medium Lasers, an Autocannon/10, and an LRM-10 launcher. You're going to be most effective at short and medium range, but for the purposes of this exercise, I want you to make it a point to try to hit from all ranges. In addition to helping you get better-acquainted with this 'Mech, doing so will also help me get your brain's execution of combat maneuvers and targeting behavior mapped."

"Ok. Should I just, uh, blow up anything to start with?" I asked, as a targeting reticle flickered to life on my display.

"I mean, you could, but wouldn't you rather spar with something capable of fighting back?" interjected the voice of Commander Maxwell, accompanied by a powerful background roar. As I attempted to formulate an answer, a blue and white Catapult rose terrifyingly into view from behind the nearer of the two office buildings, lances of emerald energy beams exploding from its gun ports and arcing past my Centurion's canopy as the 65-ton war machine landed with a heavy thud on the low-rise's roof.

"Holy shit!" I exclaimed, wheeling my BattleMech around and forcing it into a full back down the hill, attempting to put as much distance between it and my adversary as possible. Despite the Centurion quickly accelerating to its maximum speed of 64.8 KPH as it descended from the mesa, I noticed that the radar blip representing Charles' war machine didn't seem to be getting any further away. Toggling my BattleMech's rear camera on, I was greeted by the sight of the Catapult charging after me.

"How did you - "

"Jump jets," Charles' voice replied. "They don't just go up and down. Best not to forget that."

"I don't think you need to worry about that!" I replied. "But, you're not flying now. How the hell are you keeping up with me? I have the weight advantage."

"Not all things are created equal," came the reply. "The stock configuration of this thing is actually pretty evenly-matched with your Centurion. Be glad I didn't bring out the King Crab."

"Well, let's hope that balance of power extends to weapons!" I exclaimed. Yanking down on the throttle, I brought the Centurion to a jarring halt while simultaneously whipping it into a 180-degree turn. As Charles' lumbering, birdlike 'Mech advanced toward me, I snapped off a combined-arms blast of autocannon and laser fire directly into the Catapult's center of mass. Much to my surprise, the weapons fire found its mark, a line of smoking pock-marks tracing their way across Charles' cockpit, accompanied by glowing, orange rivulets of armor slagging away.

"Woohoo! Who's yo daddy?" I cheered, pumping a victorious fist in the air.

"Nice shooting, hotshot," my adversary chuckled. "Let's see if that good fortune holds."

The Catapult lunged into the air again, riding on a plume of smoke and flame as it soared over me, coming to land with an earth-shaking impact off my left flank. A series of heavy impacts heralded the shriek of warning klaxons and flashing damage indicators as Charles' salvo of quad laser fire savaged the Centurion's left arm and torso.

"Holy Jehoshaphat, you hit hard," I grumbled. Swinging the 'Mech around to face my assailant, I brought its autocannon to bear, squeezing off another devastating volley of ballistic rounds. A cascade of sparks burst from the Catapult's nose as Charles backpedaled rapidly, increasing the distance between our two armored combatants.

"That neurohelmet seems to be calibrating well at close range," Charles remarked. "Let's see how it performs once we open things up a bit."

"Exactly what did you have in mind?"

A series of flashes burst from the missile racks attached to the Catapult's shoulders.

"Oh, hell," I sighed.

Thirty long-range missiles corkscrewed across the battlefield, smashing into and around my unfortunate Centurion like a swarm of angry bees. Damage indicators wailed, and my 'Mech's structural diagram was bathed in red as the warheads tore past its armor and savaged multiple structural members. I returned fire with my LRM-10 suite, watching in disappointment as the volley collided haphazardly with a stand of trees behind which Charles had taken cover, setting the foliage alight. More emerald laser fire spat out from behind the greenery, failing to land true and glancing harmlessly past my Centurion.

"Seems I've got you pinned!" I laughed, pushing my BattleMech's throttle forward and sprinting toward the burning trees. As I rounded the end of the grove and moved to draw a bead on the trapped Catapult, I found that my quarry was missing.

"You've gotta start thinking three-dimensionally, Jackson. It's going to mean the difference between life and death sooner than you realize."

"What? Where are you? Oh crap," I blurted out as my eyes scanned upward. There, atop the roof of the tower opposite where we'd begun the engagement, was Charles' Catapult, looming over me. Seconds later, a blossom of flame and explosions engulfed my field of view as the BattleMech delivered a final, devastating alpha strike directly into my Centurion's torso.

I let out a defeated sigh as the screen of my neurohelmet went dark, replaced with flashing red text which read, "SIMULATION COMPLETE - BATTLEMECH INOPERATIVE."

"Three dimensions is a lot to keep track of," I muttered. "I'm pretty sure I'm having a hard enough time keeping track of just one."

"Don't worry about it," Charles laughed. "We have fourteen days to solve that problem."

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Two weeks later...

October 24, 3028
DropShip Tana
On final approach to Outreach
___________________________

Two weeks of time had gone by in an instant. Charles, making good on his word, had partnered me with BattleMech-certified members of his crew at every opportunity, both in the simulator and out, to try to sharpen my mettle and prepare me for the very insane adventure which lay ahead. Consequently, I'd been able to get an up-close-and-personal look at the cross-section of people in his employ, and they were quite a colorful bunch.

First Lieutenant Mara Walsh, nicknamed 'Foxglove' on the field, was the initial acquaintance I'd made aboard the Tana, and was Aegis Division's executive officer. A Taurian by nationality, she shared a common background with Charles in that she'd originally been born into a gentry family. However, she'd left that life after finding it to be unfulfilling, and struck out on her own to put her formal schooling in engineering design to good use with Longwood's Bluecoats, a Taurian mercenary unit. While with the unit, Walsh apprenticed as a MechWarrior, and she ultimately became a free agent after buying out her retiring master's BattleMech, an ON1-K Orion named 'Perses.' Later in her career, during a stopover on New Vandenburg, she accepted a contract to fill a temporary vacancy on Aegis Division's roster when Charles was injured and unable to carry out field command responsibilities. Upon his recovery, Charles was so impressed with her ability to quickly step in and lead in his stead that he'd offered her a full-time position as the unit's second-in-command - an offer which she'd accepted.

Lieutenant Alexander Blackwood - who went by 'Traveler' as his callsign, was a hard-luck case who Charles had run across while perusing the black market on Mechdur. The story went that Charles had purchased a set of old-school Magna 400P medium pulse lasers from Alexander - at an exorbitant price - and wanted to install them on his personal CPLT-C1 Catapult, 'Tyche'. But apparently, when Charles' MechTech did so, one of the lasers kept blowing out its focusing lens, and the other wouldn't fire at all. On returning to the market to try to convince the merchant to take the units back for credit, Charles was instead won over by Alexander's confidence that he could troubleshoot the issue. Accompanying Charles back to the Tana Alexander not only successfully resolved the firing issues with both lasers, but also was able to improve Tyche's overall targeting profile, demonstrating the BattleMech's new abilities with exceptional marksmanship. Charles learned that Alexander was an experienced, dispossessed MechWarrior - an expatriate from the Armed Forces of the Federated Suns, no less - who had turned to arms sales in the Periphery to try to make enough money to help support his extended family in the Inner Sphere. As Charles had recently acquired a KGC-0000 King Crab, Tyche was without a regular pilot, and a disciplined marksman seemed to be an excellent fit to pilot the fire support 'Mech in his stead. Charles thus extended an offer of employment to Alexander - under the condition that he protect Tyche zealously. Alexander was quite happy to accept the terms of hire and leave behind a life of feast-or-famine for a steady paycheck, and very quickly proved his worth to the unit.

"And then there was me," a sudden, brisk German accent interjected. I glanced up from my journal to see Dexter Friedman peering over my shoulder, squinting at my narrative.

Oh, yes...Dexter...

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"Yeah, Dexter. I definitely couldn't forget about you."

"Dankeschon, Jackson," the MechWarrior grinned - creepily - before wandering off.

I sat, flipping my stylus around in my fingers for several long moments, trying to center my thoughts. I had to admit that, of Charles' MechWarriors, Warrant Officer Dexter 'Abaddon' Friedman was the person about whom I knew the least. He originally hailed from the Lyran Commonwealth and was the unit's lead electronic warfare specialist. Incredibly, he was also a former ComStar Adept, who, despite his near-fanatical reverence for Jerome Blake, quite literally walked off the job with one of ComStar's RVN-1X Ravens during a training exercise. How he actually managed to get to the Periphery without being immediately apprehended by ROM agents or glassed into nonexistence by a ComStar WarShip was a total unknown, but somehow, after fleeing to the travel hub on Rollis, he ended up in a bar on Laconis, drowning his sorrows in alcohol and rambling about the teachings of Blake to everyone within earshot. As it so happened, one of those people within earshot was Charles Maxwell - who had been largely ignoring him - at least, until Dexter made a passing remark about the Raven being the only thing left to his name. At that point, I'm told, Charles interjected with, simply, "I'm sorry, did you say you were looking for a job?" The rest, as they say, was history.

Dexter's personality could best be described as...unpredictable. He had a tendency to fluctuate wildly between friendliness, intense irritability, and cold detachment. I learned very quickly that a particularly sensitive topic was his Raven, call-signed 'Aether.' He had an incredibly deep reverence for the machine, considering it to be an actual instrument of the divine, and was sincerely-entrenched in the belief that, without performing specific rituals before powering up the BattleMech, it would simply not function correctly. And he was a fantastic pilot. In my training sessions with him, I'd been amazed at the efficacy with which he was able to use his Raven not only as an ECM platform and versatile scout, but also as a weapon of direct engagement. And he just never seemed to get hit - by anything. Outside of the cockpit, the man was also an electronics genius, understanding technology better than seemingly anyone else aboard the Tana. Given the veritable Swiss Army Knife of talents that Dexter seemed to possess, I could definitely understand why Charles was willing to put up with the man's eccentricities. Marius, who'd been apprenticing under Dexter, and was himself something of a technological whizkid, was thus an ideal student.

There was one other person aboard the Tana who I'd seen in passing - someone by the callsign of 'Radar,' but she kept very much to herself and seemed to stay isolated on the bridge. I didn't know too much about her. What I knew came from bits and pieces I'd picked up from others. 

'Radar' was more formally known as Warrant Officer Alyssa Chase. 30 years old, she was also a former ComStar Acolyte. Rumor had it that she'd been exiled (and nearly executed) by ComStar for assisting Dexter with his theft of the Raven from the Order. While in hiding on Smithon, Taurians struck the planet as part of the larger House Arano crisis. Aegis Division was called in as one of the mercenary units responsible for defending the world while its civilians escaped. During the evacuation, Alyssa was spotted amongst the fleeing citizenry by Dexter, who directed her to the staging area for Aegis Division's DropShip. Knowing that Alyssa was not safe anywhere from the reaches of ROM, Dexter convinced Charles Maxwell to allow her to become a permanent attach� to the mercenary unit. She now apparently provides intelligence-gathering and technology-consulting services, and serves as a relief pilot for the unit's scouts.

A sudden chime interrupted my train of thought.

"Now hear this - now hear this - we are making planetfall in ten minutes. Secure all loose gear and assume your landing stations. We are beginning our descent."

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ELSEWHERE.....
SOLARIS 7
MAP: Ishiyama
 
A bunch of flashes of light bursted by the windsdhield of my Thug BattleMech as I charged at the opponent in the area. He was in a Rampage BattleMech that was loaded with all kinds of crazy weapons, and right now, they were all bursting at me.
 
"Steven Jenkins, I will cremate you!" he screamed over the comms at me. The pilot was Nakagang Tai Chi, a Mechwarrior that was notorious in Kurita because he was a dirty player. I ran my Mech into a full bore to come right at him and unleashed my PPCs right into the Rampage's chest. Sharp bolts of lightning flew everywhere as the Mech's armor was sundered to pieces where the PPCs had hit.
 
"You won't get a chance!" I yelled back. "I'm undefeated in this arena and I'm not about to let a dishonorable pig like you get the high ground!" I screamed, and at the same time shooting double SRMs at his Mech. I drove my Mech forward over a ridge and suddenly found myself slipping down the other side. The crowd roared and cheered at me as I regained my pilot controls and started pushing back up the hill.
 
"Now I have you in my grip!" Nagakang cackled. His breath was so bad I could almost smell it over the radio as he intoned. I started shooting back at him, but I had faltered too late...millions of rounds of leathal death were flying at me from his arsenal of weapons now bringing target on me.
 
"Oh shit, you gotta protect me, I'm a sitting duck if I - " my words to the referee were cut off as the bombarding of the Rampage made landfall on my Thug. I watched as my cockpit disintegrated and caught on Fire around me. My pants were lit ablaze as the cockpit exploded everywhere and my Mech became a dumb wreck on legs. I yanked hard on the ejection handle to bail out, but the knob ripped off in my hands!
 
"BALL DAMN IT!" I screamed in rage, cursing at my ancestors. As I bent over to try to manually release the ejection, the rockets suddenly lit off and my Ejection Seat went flipping into the air with me attached, whipping wildly everywhere as it flew uncontrolled over the audience!
 
"AGGGHGGGHHGGHHHHHHH!" I screamed as my stomach turned into knots and the blur of the arena flipping past looked like one of those ancient magic Eye posters from primitive Earth. Suddenly, I saw a wall coming up on me and as it got to inches away, my Mind went to another place...
 
<FLASHBACK>
 
I am on Archimedes. My Sensei is there...Sensei Ronald, an ancient man of Wisdom, before me, telling me of the ancient arts.
 
"Steven Jenkins, you are here to learn the ancient Archimedian arts of combat. Only the chosen are allowed to know that which dwells within. Are you ready for your Mind to be entered?"
"Yes." I said, deeply. "My life was created to know the techniques of combat. I can know no other."
 
"Then we will begin." he said. Sensei Ronald approached me and put a Guiding Hand on my forehead. Then he began a deep humming. A humming which grew and deepened as the room turned white, and then...can't remember...
 
<FLASH>
 
I was back on Solaris 7, flying through the air strapped to an ejection seat that was about to smash into a wall. And then it did. It impacted so hard that the ejection seat smashed into a billion pieces that rained down and mutilated innocents in the audence, and I fell into the lap of a huge guy who had a tub of popcorn and a chilli cheese dog that went all over me as I landed on it. The man swore angry words at me and dumped his beer on me as he pushed me to the ground, which at least put out the fire that used to be my pants. I covered my exposed and wounded body in shame as I sobbed into the concrete at the dishonor of my loss. Then the voice of Duncan Fisher came on the PA system.
 
"STEVE JENKINS HAS LOST TO NAGAKAI TAI CHI. WE HAVE A NEW CHAMPION. STEVEN JENKINS WILL CLEAN OUT HIS LOCKER AND EXIT THE ARENA."
 
What was I going to do now????
 
"You spilled my food, asshole." the fat man said, and then poured another beer on my head.
Edited by Charles Maxwell
Mass font cleanup following an issue with the forum skin.

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We're not doing colors anymore?

I wandered down the streets of SOLARIS7 sobbing tears in rain. I'd seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannh�user Gate. All those things were made nothing by the rendering of my mech and a crash into the wall of the Arena map. I screamed into the Night as I walked. All I had were my burned up shorts with chili sauce spilled on the crotch and my gym bag. My mech had got so blew up that there wasn't even anything left worth salvaging. I just left it all to some obnoxious junk Trader who gave me a bunch of C-Bills and nothing else. How could I be a Successful Businessman if I invented didn't even have enough money to buy a new mech???

I had to go to the bathroom really bad. I had been holding it since my ejection seat accident and now my bladder felt like it was going to burst. Because I had lost the match I could not use the bathroom at the arena. Because I had been banned from the locker room for not being the champion anymore. But luckily I saw a porta potty coming up on the sidewalk. I banged on the door and hollered to see if anybody was inside it. But all I heard was my own voice in the rain. So I went inside. It was dark and peaceful even though it smelled like turd, probably because it hasn't been emptied out in a while. I sat alone in there, alone, with my thoughts and also the flies, I guess. As I sat there getting relieved, I suddenly saw a poster on the inside wall of the porta potty. It said MERCENARIES WANTED - - - ALL SKILL LEVELS ALL EQUIPMENT PROVIDED - - - OUTREACH. I couldn't believe my good fate. A minute ago I was so lost about where to go but now I knew that there was a second chance, if I could only reach it...

I had to get to Outreach!!

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Harlech Interplanetary DropPort
Harlech, Romulus
Outreach
October 24, 3029
_____________________________

With a gentle 'whump,' the DropShip Tana eased onto its ferrocrete landing pad, the roar of its drive engines transitioning from a guttural roar to a slowly-fading whine. I slowly unbuckled my seat harness and rose to my feet, glancing at my seatmate, Alexander Blackwood, as I did so.

"So, I guess this is it, huh?" I asked, not sure how to broach the subject of disembarking.

"Ayuh," Blackwood replied with a sideways grin. "This is the big boy planet."

"'Big boy planet?'" I asked, raising an eyebrow. The terminology was unfamiliar to me.

"Outreach is the mercenary hub of the Inner Sphere. I'm sure you know that. It's also home to all kinds of corporate interests, social hubs, and of course, the Outreach Hiring Hall. This is where you want to come to cut your teeth and get yourself fully-immersed in the gun-for-hire culture. It's a big place - you know where you're going from here?"

"I'm supposed to meet the Black Phalanx Company's DropShip Estoc here tomorrow. That's all I know."

Blackwood nodded. "Alright, then. Well, there's a bunch of places you can stay over on Lakefront Drive. And if you get a wild hair and want to see the sights that this place has to offer, go up to the Hiring Hall on Cameron Road. It'll blow your mind."

"Hey, thanks, Alex. It's been great travelling with you guys," I smiled, shaking his hand as we made our way to the airlock.

"Yeah, it's been fun having you aboard, too. Good luck with everything," the MechWarrior replied. "Don't get yourself killed or anything."

"I'll try my best," I replied, with a measure more of confidence than I actually had. With a friendly wave, I made my way down the boarding gantry into the Outreach twilight. In the dusky sky, a myriad of twinkling lights passed overhead as various craft made their way to and from the surface, while others transited between the spaceport and the city, which glistened in the distance. All around me swirled the frenzied activities of a major travel hub - cargo loaders came and went, spacecraft landed and departed, and support vehicles swarmed across the tarmac like dispersed herds of animals migrating in all directions. In the center of it all, at the bottom of the boarding ramp, was Captain Maxwell.

"Came to make sure I got off the ship without wrecking anything?" I joked. Maxwell turned toward me and chuckled.

"Nah, I forgave you for the food slot incident," Charles laughed. "I'm just here for the fresh air. Well, as fresh as the pollution-laden air of a mostly urban planet can get."

I nodded, heaving my duffel bag over a shoulder.

"I want to thank you for all the training and stuff you gave me while I was on board, Charles. It really might mean the difference between me making it out of this and not."

"Don't mention it," Maxwell replied, nonchalantly. "I'm sure my staff benefited from being able to train you as well."

I nodded. "If nothing else, it gave me a boost of confidence that I think I really needed."

"Hold onto that feeling," Charles replied. “Get up every morning and tell yourself, "‘I can do this.""

"Sometimes, things are easier to believe before I'm up and moving, though," I laughed, half-jokingly.

"Bull shit," Charles answered, bluntly. "A great woman once said, "Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” You can accomplish anything you put your mind to. I know you can. I did it. So can you."

"Your belief in me means a lot," I replied. "I hope when this is all over we run into each other again."

"I'm sure we will, Jackson. I'm sure we will. Good luck, my friend," the commander smiled, clapping me on the shoulder before making his way up the Tana's gantryway. "Be excellent."

I watched as Charles disappeared into the DropShip, and then, at length, I turned to face the city. With the protective environment of Aegis Division and their DropShip no longer available to me, my situation somehow felt more primal, dangerous, and real than it it had up until this point.

With the safety net gone, it was time to see what I was made of.

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MEANWHILE...

After I had got done with my relief I flagged down a Taxi to take me to the SOLARIS7 space port. I didn't know how I was going to do it but I had to get to OUTREACH, that's where the poster said I could sign up to be a gun for hire. I had ripped the poster off the wall of the Porta potty and put it inside of my shorts pocket to keep it out of the rain. When the taxi pulled up I got in and unfolded the poster and put it in front of the driver's face. 

"I need you to take me wherever the fastest flight to here leaves from!" I Shouted in a commanding voice, I wasn't playing around because there was no time to lose. 

"AGGGGGGH GETTA THE PAPER OUTSIDEA MY FACE IT SMELLS LIKE PEE" the driver said loudly. "I TAKE YOU ONE PLACE, IT TO SPACE PORT, YOU ARE ON OWN AFTER." 

"OK fine" I said "But you better step on it" 

"I DRIVE FAST." Said the Cab driver. Suddenly he hit the gas so hard that the taxi's wheels lit on fire and left all kinds of fire behind us as we sped away. I screamed as the G-forces threw me into the back window and my face got smashed on the glass, while I was up there I saw the Porta potty knock over from the force of our drive off and it looked like it dumped everywhere, I was glad I had used it before it had had a problem. Maybe somebody would stand it back up, even though the toilet paper would be ruined now.

I climbed back down in my seat and held on while the cab driver drove like a racecar driver through the city. He must have been doing at least 80 MPH through traffic, all the cars around us whipped by like they weren't moving. Then the car driver put on some music. It was loud garbage that sounded like a bunch of drums and some yelling and stuff. I wondered if he was listen to what they called "pop" on ancient Earth. 

"Hey can you please turn this garbage noise off???" I asked yelling over the music. "It's annoying!!" 

"NO I NOT TURN MUSIC OFF FOR NO ONE!" the cab driver screamed me. 

"BUT IT'S AWFUL MUSIC THAT SOUNDS LIKE CRAP" I yelled at him.

"NO YOU ARE CRAP YOU NOT INSULT MY MUSICS!" The car driver yelled at me. 

"SPEAK THAT WAY TO ME AGAIN AND I'LL END YOU!" I hollered back. Then I reached into the front of the car and tried to grab the radio knob. Unfortunately the cab driver grabbed my arm and twisted it back!

"AAaaaiiiiie!" I shrieked as I pulled back against the driver to fight him. Just then I saw a divided highway coming up and we were coming up at it really fast. I grabbed the steering wheel and yanked it toward the divided highway to create a danger and distract the driver so he would let my arm go and let me cut the radio off. But then to my surprise he turned all the way around in his seat with his legs up in the air and stared at me with evil eyes made of fire. 

"NOW YOU'VE DONE IT" he growled in a voice like the devil. Then he threw his arms out to both sides and The next thing I knew there was a huge crash and I saw the air bags go off behind him in slow motion as I flew threw the windshield and everything faded to white.....

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Phil's Tavern
Harlech, Romulus
Outreach
October 24, 3028
_____________________________

The tram ride from the interplanetary DropPort, located in the Inland South district, to the sprawling Inland North had been uneventful and relaxing. Whisking through a forest of dense, urban towers and sprawling compounds in the Corinthian style, the People Mover Express had provided its passengers with a tour de force introduction to the city as it traced an impressive route past iconic locations I had, until now, only seen on television and in the movies. On our approach to the commercial district, the stark, white citadel that was the ComStar compound rose into view, flanked by the monolithic Harlech Hiring Hall, both glistening in the purple twilight as we continued past them and crossed the Garrett River into the hospitality ward of the city. Steel and glass towers began to give way to more modest structures; a smattering of hotels and restaurants, interspersed periodically with an assortment of tenements in various states of upkeep, presented a more modest contrast to the corporate excess of the central metropolis.

After disembarking from the tram, I found myself drawn to the sights and sounds of 'Phil's' - a relatively dark and somewhat run-down establishment outfit with a bar that looked like it once was a lunch counter, a ramshackle assortment of tables and chairs, a coin-op VR arcade, and a single, rather poorly-maintained television set, festooned with a series of hand-written dinner menus. At several tables, patrons were gambling, though it wasn't clear what the stakes were, or even the game. The din of music playing over decades-old speakers competed for dominance with the crash of breaking dishes, kitchen activity, and the general rowdy atmosphere of the establishment. 

It was my kind of place, and the frenetic energy was just enough to help me put aside - at least for the moment - the entire reason I was on Outreach. The glass of lukewarm cider perspiring in front of me sat at the center of my universe. It was, in the immediate sense, the best part of my truly messed-up existence.

The static of a radio turned between stations caught my ear, its white noise lulling me into a near trance-like state. Total relaxation began to work its way into my mind, transporting me away from the bar and its chaotic surroundings. Abstract thoughts began playing, like grainy recordings, in my mind's eye. A monotone voice from another place whispered in the background.

"I know that there has, as of late, been some question as to the motives behind our blessed matrimony. That Melissa and I, being joined in marriage, was orchestrated to create an unstoppable dominion of military might, and that our houses united not out of love, but out of convenience - out of a lust for conquest - and out of political machinations. My friends, I tell you now, nothing could be further from the truth. Melissa Steiner and I share a fiery kindredness of spirit - one that transcends politics; one that transcends territory; one that transcends the fabric of life itself. If the people have seen fit to bless our marriage with the greatest union the Inner Sphere has ever known, it is not my right, as a mere mortal, to question - "

"Can you believe that crock of shit?"

I was suddenly jolted from my trance by the slurring of a drunk, mixed with the putrid odor of halitosis. "Who the hell do those FedRat goons think they are? Swearin' in a new administration and sayin' we put 'em there?"

A long, vomitous belch followed the question.

"Fuuuck, we didn't even put the last one there!"

With a puzzled expression, I looked toward the uninvited visitor.

"What are you talking about?"

The drunk stared back incredulously.

"The radio, jackass! Shit, you've had way too much to drink."

I swallowed hard. "I, uh, I don't really follow politics."

"You mean to tell me that you don't know what's happening?" the drunk bellowed. "That you don't know how the Capellan Confederation, the Draconis Combine, and the Free Worlds League are being systematically savaged by these two power-drunken despots?" The final words showered me in a spray of saliva.

"What I mean to say is, I try not to get into messy conversations that can only end badly." I answered, as meekly as I could.

There was no booze-addled attempt at verbal intimidation. No territorial, ape-like shoving match. In reply, the drunk just swung.

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Simultaneously...

"Snord's Irregulars found it on Phecda in 3024."

The LCAF Hauptmann's words hung in the air, barely perceptible over the roar of the tavern ambiance which surrounded us.

"And since then, the Commonwealth has actually recovered it?" I asked, incredulously.

"We have. Snord looted it, of course. Shortly thereafter, Archon Steiner had the  LCAF strip it of anything capable of benefiting the war effort. You knew all of this information already. What isn't commonly known - as it's not exactly a matter of public record - is that the LIC later burned it out of the ice, patched it up, and, somehow, got it off-world. The spaceframe is intact and the drives are functional."

I leaned forward in my chair. "Hauptmann - I have to ask - are you actually authorized to broker this deal?"

"Yes. The LIC heard about your operation and wants to bankroll it. Well, part of it, anyway - in exchange for first bid on certain technologies. You need a ship big enough to haul large-scale expeditions and defend itself; the Commonwealth needs a decisive edge. It seems like a natural fit. You'd be rich beyond the dreams of avarice."

"I'd like to see the ship myself," I answered, at length. "We're likely going to need to do quite a bit of work to get it back into service. But if the ROI seems worth it - "

My sentence was cut off by a sudden explosion of glassware and flatware, coupled with the distinctive sound of a heavy object crashing through an even heavier object, amid shouts of garbled obscenities.

"What the hell?" I blurted, instinctively rising from my chair and turning toward the source of the commotion. My eyes landed on a heavily-intoxicated patron who had fallen through the surface of a table after apparently attempting to throw a punch at its occupant. The bespectacled, lanky young man who I inferred had been the intended target of the attack was recoiled in self-defense, a mixture of shock and fear on his face.

"I'll beat your face in, you listless simpleton!" the drunk snarled, pulling himself out of the wreckage of the table and lurching toward his victim again.

"I still don't know what I did wrong!" the young man exclaimed, a crowd beginning to form around the pair.

"Oh, for god's sake. Hold this, please," I sighed, handing my compad to the Lyran military officer standing beside me.

"William, what are you doing? Your company is about to go IPO - "

"Yes, I know. I can't concentrate with this shit going on. I'll be right back."

With that, I muscled my way through the crowd, the brawl square in my sights. As I neared to within feet of the combatants, the drunk drew back his hand to strike again. The moment he swung, I grabbed his fist, twisting him around to face me, and eliciting a booze-laden exclamation of surprise in the process.

"Ow! Just who the fuck are you? Let go of my hand!"

"William Kauffman, CEO of the Crayven Corporation. And you're interfering with my business meeting."

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AT THE SAME TIME........

All kinds of white flashes and dark spots flew past my eyes as I flipped through the void. I screamed at the top of my lungs but there was no noise coming out. Where I was or if I was awake I did not know what it was it was, before I could figure it out I saw the ground coming up really fast and I hit. All of the consciousness flew back into my brain as my scream came back, starting from a quiet yell and Ramping up to the point that there was boogers  flying out of my nose and spit coming out of my mouth and my ears were ringing because of the loudness of the screaming. I stood up still screaming and as my screaming went away I saw that I was standing in a freezer room. One that I never had saw before.

I started to look around but I couldn't figure out how to get out. Then I realized there was something hanging off my forehead, and I reached up to find the most terrible thing, a pack of Burger pattys had froze to my forehead. I tried to pull the pattys off but they had stuck to my skin and the pulling made me yell even more. After 5 minutes of pulling I just decided to leave them there instead.

Then, I noticed the freezer door and I walked toawards it. Suddenly, I got really sick to my stomach and felt dizzy. I felt like I was going to barf. I grabbed a bag of hot dog buns and vommed hard into it so that it wouldn't get everywhere. The smell was so bad, like booze and bacon and dog food or something, I couldn't remember what I had ate. I put the twist tie back on the bag and put it back up on the shelf to killthe smell. Then I stumbled forward.

"The shit-?? Where am I?" I felt a paper cut happen near my junk. I looked down and saw the OUTREACH poster still in my waste band. Now I remember.... I thought. I have to get to OUTREACH! I shivered and realized I was Cold. I looked down and I didbt know where my shorts had went, maybe they snagged on something in the car wreck. Now all I had was my t-shirt and my Fruit of the Looms, if I didn't get out of the freezer soon I would get froze to death. But luckily I finally saw the fridge door, so I tried to open it. I couldn't get the door open. 

'HELP ME!" I started hollering. "LET ME OUT OF HERE!" I banged on the door as hard as I could. Every time I hit the door the hamburgers frozen to my head hit me in the face, which made my angrier and beat on the door harder. "LET ME OUT OF THE FREEZER! I AM GOING TO FREEZE!" I scremaed.

All of a sudden, the door fell off the hinges and fell out into the kitchen on the other side. I stumbled out of the Freezer into the kitchen. A bunch of guys stared at me as I walked out.

"DON'T LOOK AT ME!" I screamed and covered my shame with my hands. Nobody said anything so I kept walking. Then I walked into the dining area. It was jam full of people and noisy.

"Where am I?" I said out loud. 

"You're at Phil's Bar on OUTREACH you idiot!" the Bartender yelled. "Now are you going to buy something or not?"

"Outreach?!?!? That's impossible!! I was just on SOLARIS7!" I bellowed.

Suddenly a huge Bar fight broke out and a drunk guy started swinging on another guy. A third guy with blond hair and a suit walked into the fight and grabbed the first guy's fist. I had to break up the fight before it went out of control! I ran up to the blond guy and grabbed him by his free arm and started pulling it.

"You need to stop fighting! I Have to get directions to the Mercenary Job Hall! It looks like this!" I held up the poster from the Porta Potty.

"Get that out of my face, it smells like pee!" One of the men said.

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I ducked into the freezer, leaving the door open behind me - conserving electricity just wasn't a priority during the dinner rush. It was a wonder that we had a dinner rush, given what passed for "food" here.

I picked up a bag of "authentically meatilicious!" burgers from the back of the freezer, and a bulk pack of bacon from the shelf above the buns and rolls. I checked carefully to make sure the bacon was unopened - there were three mostly-empty packages, several discarded bacon strips, and a pair of white gym socks strewn around the floor nearby. Probably Phil Junior's doing - that boy's only skills seemed to be eating and slacking off.

I threw a couple bags of frozen corn on top of the pile of food I was carrying, and then bent down to grab a bag of "fresh n' ever frozen" chicken wings with my free hand. I saw that something with the consistency of chunky pea soup had splattered on my shoes - and Phil's doesn't serve pea soup.

I left the freezer, kicked the door shut behind me, and slammed the pile of frozen food product down on the counter by the girdle. "Alright, which one of you hid the fake vomit in the freezer?" I shouted.

There were some shrugs, and some looks, mostly directed at Junior, who was peering down at my shoe with great interest.

"Woah!" Junior exclaimed. "It's so realistic, it even smells like the real deal!"

I sighed. This was a kitchen that had built a soda stack behind the basement door, hid mayonnaise packets under all the rugs, and released termites into my file drawer. Authentic vomit in the freezer was entirely plausible.

This job had been wearing thin for a while, and in that moment, the last thread snapped.

"Well in that case," I said, and started untying my apron. "I hope someone comes forward, or at least cleans up this prank, before the health inspector shows up on Tuesday. Phillip, tell your father to find a new assistant manager. I quit." I pushed my apron into his hands, and left the kitchen.

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