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Charles Maxwell

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  1. En route to Plutus Docks Haven, Twycross Lyran Commonwealth December 12, 3029 _______________________________________________ "You might want to fire up the Raven or something depending on how long you think it's going to take to dust off!" Nick was calling for a BattleMech. The turn of events our operation had taken was unbelievable. What started out as a simple grab-and-dash had now evidently escalated into a situation that had a Lyran military officer requesting activation of the heaviest form of armored cavalry available to human beings. It was certainly not the twist I'd expected when I rolled out of bed this morning. "What's your situation, Rebus?" I asked, motioning for Bishop to lay on the gas. The Lieutenant nodded and shoved the Hover APC's throttle to full, causing the transport to tilt forward as its propulsion fans churned out their maximum thrust. "Uhhh, it's an armored bus with a shit-ton of guns, a Jeep with an SRM-2 and some other weapons, looked like a SAW and maybe a flamer, and a Humvee with an autocannon and I don't know what else," Nick replied breathlessly. In the background, I could hear Steve screaming and what sounded like the howls of an angry primate. "They got us multiple times; some glass breaches and probably a dozen or more hull punctures, but we're out ahead of them for the moment. I don't think they're giving up this chase, though, and I'm worried about what might happen if they get a bead on us when we're going wheels-up, to say nothing of what they'd likely do if they caught us on the ground." "Understood, how far out are you?" I asked. "We're just over 2.4 kilometers from the spaceport; you?" Schuster asked. I looked at the nav computer. "1.7 kilometers," I responded. "Just a short distance ahead of you. We're not much better in a fight than your Swiftwind is, and we're heavy with cargo and personnel ourselves. Stay on course for the spaceport; we'll board ahead of you and have the ship ready for dustoff." "Roger that, sir, we're coming in hot!" Schuster exclaimed. "Eden to Control," I continued. To my surprise, the voice of Nikki Harlow responded. "This is Control; what kind of a shitshow are you bringing my way, Captain?" "We may have stirred up a hornet's nest and need you to be ready to shove off as soon as the Swiftwind is in the cargo bay," I answered, climbing up into the APC's turret and dropping awkwardly into the gunner's chair as the G-forces of our frantic flight across the desert pushed me around. Pulling the targeting scope down over my eyes, I began scanning the landscape behind us. "So your fiancée told me, right before she started disrobing on my bridge and then ran to the cargo bay without as much as logging off her terminal. She's lucky I like her," Harlow deadpanned. "Disrobe - wait a sec, is she piloting the Raven?" I asked. The APC gave a sudden, jarring lurch as it began skipping across the uneven terrain that comprised the final stretch of land between the town and the spaceport. "Well, yes, given that you all went off on an ill-advised joyride and Jenkins is presumably getting his face kicked in at the moment, we were decidedly short of 'Mech jocks." Nikki responded. "Patch me through to her, please," I answered, staring with concern at a large cloud of dust that had begun billowing at the distant horizon off our stern and which now seemed to be drawing closer. The comm channel chirped and the sound of shuffling noises filled my headset's speakers. A moment later, I heard Alyssa's muffled voice. "...no Blake-damned time to wait for you to get the cooling vest circulator back online, I'll just take her out the way she is! Here, take this, I guess I won't be needing it!" Another shuffling noise ensued, this time the characteristic sound of fabric being pulled over a microphone, followed by a loud "thwop" of someone presumably catching Chase's cooling vest. I cleared my throat to try to get Alyssa's attention. "Radar, this is Eden, everything ok?" I asked. "Eden? Sorry about that, I was having a difference of opinion with one of our 'Mech techs - seems that going out into the desert heat in a BattleMech cockpit without a cooling vest on a 52-degree Celsius day is considered a "bad idea." He seemed genuinely shocked at my intent to go through with it anyway. Well, either that, or the fact that I showed up in the cargo bay in my bare essentials in anticipation of such a problem. Never can tell with these kids." "If this were any other time, I'd have any number of witty replies to that," I chuckled grimly. "As it stands, I'll just say thank you. I don't know how much of Nick's traffic you caught, but we're seriously outgunned and coming in hot, and there is a distinct threat to flight operations." "I copied, sounds like we've got the war wagon and its two bastardized friends coming to the party. Nothing I can't handle. You just get yourself in safely." Alyssa paused for a moment. In the background of the transmission, I heard the unmistakable sounds of a BattleMech's computer system powering up. "We'll do our best. Be prepared to bail out of the world the moment Rebus is on deck in Cargo Bay One. You may need to stay at the controls of the Raven until we're in orbit to keep it from getting thrown around the hangar; I don't think we're going to have time to get the vehicles or the 'Mech locked down once they're inside." "I'll be sure to keep Dexter's toy nice and shiny," Alyssa responded. "See you shortly." ### A few minutes later... Plutus Docks Haven, Twycross Lyran Commonwealth December 12, 3029 _______________________________________________ As we drew near to the spaceport, I watched clouds of dust and sand billowing from the underside of the Hurry Up Bessie, the ship's engines alight and poised to push us away from the surface of Twycross at a moment's notice. Clambering down from the turret into the passenger compartment, I looked toward our unexpected passenger. "Now, listen, I understand this whole thing has been a barrel of laughs for you up to this point - " "Oy!" Clare interrupted. "Don't take that tone with me, I'm still holding the cards here, remember?" the woman replied with indignation. I took a deep breath, choosing to ignore the interjection. "...but when we get on board, I would consider it a kindness if you'd follow our lead until we're safely out of the world. If your friends, or whoever they are, manage to land a rocket or some other Blake-forsaken thing in our drive units or in an open cargo bay while we're lifting off, your free trip off this rock is going to be a lot shorter than you'd hoped." "Ok, fine, but you mean to tell me that a bunch of thugs in used vehicles with guns strapped to their hoods can't stand up to some chick driving a 'Mech around in her underwear with no cooling system?" Claire grinned. "What kind of an outfit is this?" A sudden explosion off the port side of the APC threw me violently off balance. As I struggled to regain my footing, Bishop called out the sitrep as though he'd been reading my mind. "That was definitely an SRM, Captain, and it was too close for my comfort. I think they've made us," Weyland growled as he turned the Hover APC onto the spaceport's tarmac. I pulled myself back up into the turret and grabbed the scope. My heart sank as I saw three eclectic, heavily-armed vehicles, one of which was a former school bus, bearing down on us. Just ahead of the marauders was Nick Schuster's Swiftwind, moving like a bat out of hell across the desert sands toward us. "Alyssa, where's that Raven?" I pressed, looking frantically in all directions for some sign of the friendly BattleMech. Just then, I saw the enormous biped stomping directly toward us, its sleek, birdlike form unmistakable in the afternoon haze. "I'm here, Eden; I'll cover you while you and Rebus get your teams and vehicles aboard. Wish me luck."
  2. Meanwhile... Looter Warehouse, Haven Twycross - Lyran Commonwealth December 12, 3029 _______________________________________________ "Really?" Claire began, her voice brimming with enthusiasm. "He is a big one, I wouldn't mind going a round or two with him." Bishop raised an incredulous eyebrow. "But, later," the woman continued, her voice becoming serious once again. "We have business to discuss first." The sound of boots crunching on broken pavement drew my attention toward the hole in the wall of the warehouse, where I spotted Nick Schuster slowly making his way toward us. "Oh, hi, Blondie, I'm assuming you came to bargain, too? Or are you looking for another brick to the head?" Claire enthused. Nick cast our assailant a resentful glare, rubbing a swollen cheek and glancing back and forth between me and Lieutenant Jaeger. "Easy, ma'am, he's just getting out of the open. I don't think you can fault him for that," I explained. Turning back toward Claire, I continued. "Speaking of getting out of the open, I have a feeling that we're all on a relatively abbreviated timetable now." "You're not kidding, Captain," Alyssa's voice suddenly crackled in my headset. "I managed to break into the local comms, and I'm detecting a police response - or what passes for one - headed in your direction. They're coming from the underground, so I wouldn't rely on keeping an ear out for sirens as your bug out signal. There's also a local militia team reporting that they're rolling a 'technical' from the train station, which is about eight minutes from your current position." "A 'technical?'" I asked. "An improvised fighting vehicle," Nick interjected, walking over to us and hurling another glower at Claire. "In the LCAF, we called them non-standard tactical vehicles, or NSTVs." "Oooh! Are the local yokels coming over to play? I wonder which one they'll be driving? There's that shitty pickup truck with the AC/20 in the bed and the machine guns on the hood, or there's the battle bus," Claire remarked with a gleam in her eye. "That one's badass." "Control, did you get all that?" I asked, tapping my headset to activate its external speaker. Even by way of editorializing, our new acquaintance was unintentionally giving us valuable tactical information. "You're on broadcast now, by the way." "I got it," Alyssa replied. "Judging by the way they're talking, I'm going to speculate that what they're bringing is the 'battle bus.' Do you want me to put a bird up to confirm?" "Do it," I responded. "We have the package - most of it, anyway - and we're going to need exit advisement. No sense in being subtle at this point - the cat's out of the bag now anyway. Just make sure the drone's not covered in Crayven Corporation branding. We'll never heard the end of that." "Roger that, Eden. We'll have wheels up shortly. Get ready to clear out of there." "Acknowledged," I answered. "I like her," Claire sighed with a toothy, wild-eyed grin. "She sounds like one of those nerdy people that can also probably kick someone's ass. Anyway, you better get to negotiating. If the battle bus gets here before we have an arrangement, all bets are off." I looked toward Lieutenant Jaeger, who responded with a defeated shrug. Claire was well aware that she had me over a barrel, and it was pissing me off. We didn't have time to simply take her into custody and interrogate her until she gave us Octavia's location, and leaving the Baroness behind wasn't an option - as much as some on the crew might regard that as an improvement. I was going to have to go along with the woman's demands, whether I liked it or not, and deal with the long-term implications before we got off the ground. "It seems your timing is impeccable," I replied. "What are your terms?" "I thought you'd come around," Claire grinned. "I'm a simple businesswoman. You guarantee me passage off this planet, and I'll hand over your Baroness." "That's it? So all we need to do is get you into orbit and then we can put you overboard in a life boat?" I replied curtly, gesturing to Bishop and Nick to ready the APC for departure. "Oh, no, I need to go somewhere. Your Baroness said you're headed for the Sarna March. I think I want to go there." Claire answered, watching as Lieutenant Weyland and Schuster turned the APC around and prepared its weapons. The heavy drone of a large internal combustion engine began drawing near. We had only seconds left. "How do you know we won't just leave you by the side of the road the minute you hand over Octavia?" I asked. "Because," the woman smirked, "I don't think you want Irian Technologies hunting you and the...what did you call it? The 'Crayfish Corporation?'" "Crayven Corporation," I clarified. "...hunting you and the Crayven Corporation to the ends of the universe for stealing a bunch of their stuff. I've put measures in place to ensure that the word gets out even in the event of my untimely demise. Just meet my terms, Captain, and this will all blow over. I'm just asking for a ride." I cast Claire a resigned frown. "How can I turn down an offer with such favorable terms as 'getting my associate back' 'not getting the crew massacred by a lynch mob,' and 'not being exterminated by a major cartel?'" "I knew you'd come around, Captain Maxwell. You seem like you've got a good head on your shoulders. It makes sense to want to keep it attached," the woman grinned, bounding toward the APC. Bishop let out a cautionary yell. I motioned for him to let Claire board the vehicle and keyed my headset with an exasperated sigh. "Eden to Control," I radioed. "Go ahead." "We're evac'ing now. Once that bird is up, I need a tactical sitrep and direct safe route to the spaceport. Alert Captain Harlow to have the ship on hot standby to get out of the world as soon as we're aboard. Recovery of Exile is in progress. We are coming in plus one," I advised, moving toward the APC with Lieutenant Jaeger. "Plus one?" Chase responded. "Do you need a detail on standby for your arrival?" "Negative," I replied, stepping into the artificial illumination of the armored vehicle's crew bay. "I'll explain everything when we get there. Is Dionysus back from his....whatever it is?" "Not yet," Alyssa answered. "Do you want me to recall him?" "If he's busy throwing punches, I doubt he has his comm unit. Go ahead and roll the Swift Wind to the 'Dust Up Dome' to retrieve him," I advised. "We can do that, but we're not going to have much time to search for him based on what I'm seeing with the tac situation," Chase responded. "Any chance you can get someone over there to find him ahead of extraction?" "I'll do it," Schuster volunteered. "The arena's only a few blocks away. We shouldn't risk taking the APC there, but I'm pretty sure I can get across town without being noticed." "Good man," I nodded, unlatching a laser rifle from the APC's compartment wall and passing it to Nick. "Approved. Be safe out there." "You got it," Schuster acknowledged, bounding out of the APC and into the street. "Control, Rebus has the extraction prep in process. We're departing the warehouse to retrieve Exile now. Have that exit route ready for us." With that, the Hover APC gave a bone-jarring lurch as it screamed out into the alley in a desperate flight to recover Octavia before it was too late.
  3. No sooner had I dropped the goon that I assumed would be the worst opponent of the moment than bursts of gunfire, intermingled with the frenzied shouts of even more startled marauders, echoed through the cavernous warehouse that was now quote bereft of a door. I looked toward Lieutenant Jaeger and keyed my headset. "Shit," I began, raising my rifle again, "there's more coming." "Sir, with all due respect, we've got an offer on our hands that seems to lend itself to retreat. Should we consider it? There's two - maybe four if that one's keeping her word - of us, and I don't know how many of them," Orlex replied. A heavy-caliber round zinged past my head, exploding on the brick behind me and causing me to instinctively grip my combat shotgun tighter. "And get shot in the back while we leave? I'm afraid that it seems the party's still in full swing." I muttered, clinging tightly to the alley's inner wall as Jaeger and I drew nearer to the warehouse's entrance. "And anyway, our stuff is right there. We should at least give it a shot." The Lieutenant nodded silently, brandishing his firearm and peering through the destroyed doors leading into the embattled bay. "Oh, this is bad," Orlex observed. "There are several positions they've got fortified. I count at least three more guys in there. But, I think I've got an idea." Pointing at a large, two-way mirror in the northwest corner of the bay, he leaned toward me. "We might be able to use that to our advantage. See if you can make it to whatever's on the other side of that window. I'm going to try to get into the warehouse and draw their fire." "Roger that. Good luck," I responded. Several more thunderous bursts of weapons fire rumbled through the facility as I barreled into the warehouse, sprinting down the building's inner wall, following it until it terminated at a heavy, wooden door, adorned with faux gold lettering reading 'Management.' I jiggled the handle, finding the door secured. Time for some serious property damage… Setting my rifle's mode selector to 'burst,' I took several steps backward and fired a volley of armor-piercing rounds into the door's locking mechanism. With a crack, the frame fractured, and a swift kick later, the door was open. As the unmistakable scream of an automatic weapon firing filled the air, I dove forward, throwing a rolling chair aside as I took cover behind a heavy oak desk. As I took in my surroundings, the large two-way mirror above the desk exploded inward, showering the office with dagger-shaped shards of broken glass. Several high-caliber rounds embedded themselves in the opposite wall, punching a hole through a poster promoting 'unity' in an ironic twist of fate. A hulking figure in a flak vest stood looking into the office, smoke rising from his assault rifle. "All right, Jaeger. What's my next move?" "I'm tangling with the sniper out here and his friend. See if you can't get the attention of the other one." "That shouldn't be too hard." I muttered, popping up from behind the desk, simultaneously leveling my combat shotgun's sights on my assailant's head and pulling the trigger. Three armor-piercing rounds exited the chamber, corkscrewing through the air and smashing through the man's helmet. A wash of blood and gore sprayed from its faceplate as the commando dropped like a sack of potatoes, landing on the floor with a horrific crunch that almost certainly heralded the breaking of bones. Astonished, I keyed my mic. "That was easy." The comm channel hissed as though a reply were imminent. Before my earpiece had time to transmit the response, the air was filled with a new sound - the unmistakable whoosh of an artillery round firing, followed by a thunderous explosion and the accompanying shriek of a metalwall collapsing. The office wall before me disintegrated into a cascade of plaster and structural members, affording me a view of the warehouse proper beyond. There, I bore witness to two surviving combatants, who stared out at the menacing visage of a Hover APC slowly moving into the building, its weapon ports glowing. The commandos immediately opened fire on the vehicle, their weapon volleys barely scratching its massive frame. The APC paused for a moment, in what could almost have passed as an incredulous stance, before delivering two debilitating alpha strikes, incinerating both men in a massive volley of hellish weapons fire. Several crates were set ablaze as the smoke cleared, casting a eerie pall across the APC's visage. I cautiously climbed through the office's window, dropping down onto the warehouse floor, and made my way toward the vehicle as its hatch swung open. "Thanks for the assist!" I called out, not entirely certain whether the new arrival was one of our own or yet another rouge element. "Don't mention it," a familiar, gruff voice replied. "I'm supposed to keep you safe. Wouldn't look good if I had to tell the General I failed at something so simple." As the final words echoed off the walls of the warehouse, Bishop Weyland popped into view. I sighed a heavy breath of relief. "Now, how long do we have to grab and go before the next wave of baddies hits us?" the hulking man asked, dropping to the dirt floor of the expansive facility. "If history's any indication, we're probably good for about ten more minutes before this place is swarming with looters, cops, or both."
  4. "Your friend is dea-- scratch that, just KO'd. Head harder than the brick wall it seems. You the ship that just landed?" I felt a chill go down my spine at the words. Delivered with a spiteful, spittle-laced brogue, there was no hint at all that this person - whoever she might have been - was bluffing. We'd switched vehicles at the spaceport before driving into town, and I now I gazed up into the driver's compartment of the Hover APC toward Bishop, who narrowed his eyes with fury. "Give me a bag of guns and ten minutes. I'll have her back on board," Weyland hissed, a bloodthirsty vengeance in his tone. Lieutenant Jaeger, listening intently to the radio traffic beside me, cast me a worried glance. "I don't like the idea of sending anyone into a civilian center with guns blazing. Collateral damage aside, we have no idea what kind of a powder keg this town might be." I nodded in reply before addressing the unknown speaker again. "Tell us where you're at and we'll pick her up. No questions, no retribution." There came only a momentary pause before the speaker replied. "Mhm, no. I want off this Blake-forsaken planet. Either we both go or neither of us do. You have ten minutes to decide." The comm unit emitted a double chirp, indicating that the channel had been manually closed. I punched another button on the comm unit, opening an encrypted channel to Warrant Officer Chase. "Control, I don't know how much of that you heard, but I'm hoping you can get me a triangulation." "I got most of it, and I'm working on it now," Alyssa replied. "The headset is still kicking out a homing signal, but between the atmosphere causing all kinds of signal bounce and the layout of this town being so cluttered and disjointed, I'm only going to be able to get you the general location. I'm afraid a specific street isn't in the cards." "General location is better than nothing so long as we can have it quickly," I acknowledged. Even though the abductor claimed she wanted to deal, there was nothing stopping her from relocating somewhere that would be more advantageous to her and less so for us. While we waited, I looked to Orlex and Nick. "Options?" I asked. "If you're asking me whether or not I can hack this person's brain and get Octavia back, I'm afraid that's even outside of my abilities," Schuster replied. "I'm going to defer to him." "Alright, fair enough. Lieutenant Jaeger?" "There's something off about all of this," Orlex responded. "The minute Octavia steps off the transport to start asking around about the cargo, she gets yanked by one of the locals? That hardly seems random. Someone's been watching us; whether or not they're directly associated with the people who took the shipment is incidental. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there's a good chance they know more about us than we do about them. That makes a recovery operation inordinately more dangerous than it normally would be." "Alright, so we can't roll knee deep with people, but we also can't take the chance of simply saying, 'ok, fine, you want a taxi ride, come on over' and then jump whoever this is when they show up," I agreed. "So that leaves a precision operation." "Provided that Chase can get us a location, I think that'd be the best option," Jaeger offered. "You, me, and Nick go in, since we've got the most ground experience out of this immediate group other than Bishop, who we need here to facilitate a tactical escape if things go south. We get a lay of the land, and then we effect an evac the same way we'd do with an extraction raid." I nodded grimly. "I can get behind that. I hate that this is falling on us in broad daylight. I can't think of a worse setup for covert ops." The comm unit chirped again. I glanced at its display before replying. M.V. Hurry Up Bessie - ENCRYPTED CHANNEL "Eden here. I hope you have some good news for us, Control." "Yes and no," Chase answered. "The good news is, I've triangulated the signal to that large warehouse complex three streets over, beside the water tower. If you look out a window right now, you'll just be able to see its tin roof." I maneuvered to one of the Hover APC's portholes. Glancing out into the glare of day, my eyes traced across the skyline until a dingy, rusted, battered silo with innumerable graffiti marks came into view. Just below it was the long expanse of an old, dilapidated warehouse. "I see it," I confirmed. "Good. Now, here's the bad news - that warehouse also seems to fit the bill for a likely receiver of the alert tripped off at the salvage site. That's an indication that whoever this abductor is, she's likely not acting alone, and that you may be up against some stiff resistance, given how hard they managed to hit with a booby trap alone," Chase explained. "Lovely," I grumbled. "And you're saying that she's inside that warehouse?" "I don't think so - not yet, anyway. The location seems to be resolving to an alleyway on the building's south side - more or less. If you want, I can send a drone up to try and get a better look," Alyssa replied. "I've got a feeling that will attract more attention than we can presently afford," I answered. "Go ahead and get one on ready status, but don't go wings up until or unless we request it. What we could use your help with is keeping this hostage-taker busy when she calls back on the team comm. Tell her we're willing to negotiate, but drag out the details about where she's going, what she's bringing with her, where we can meet her, what kind of guarantees we have - anything you can think of to keep her talking. Meanwhile, we'll try to roll in from either end of that alley and assess the actual situation." "You got it," Chase confirmed. "I'll do what I can." "Meanwhile, I want the three of you," I continued, pointing to Levi, Mallory, and Bishop, "to be on hot standby to receive injured and clear us out of here." Levi's eyes widened. "Hopefully, that won't be necessary, but it's always better to be prepared," Doc reassured the man. "Indeed. Lieutenant Jaeger and Sergeant Schuster - let's roll out," I nodded. "Let's see if we can get the Baroness back in one piece - and perhaps our cargo while we're at it."
  5. I stepped into the Goblin tank and pulled off my helmet, shaking the sand out of my hair as I did so. No sooner had I done so than Octavia Incendio was standing before me, an expression of fiery wrath on her countenance. "Next time you think you might be running the risk of reducing us all to hamburger meat, Captain, I would appreciate being forewarned," the Baroness seethed. "Traipsing inside that container after its tampering was apparent was a completely foolish maneuver and could have seriously jeopardized our mission. That the SRM charges were facing the wrong way was our only saving grace." "Thanks, Baroness - your concern for me is touching," I deadpanned, eliciting a confused expression from Octavia. Before she had a chance to formulate a response, the comm unit in the crew compartment crackled to life. "Don't be too hard on him, Octavia," Alyssa's voice interjected. "I was just on the radio with Schuster, and if they hadn't gotten a look at that transmitter, we might have been hosed. But since they did, I was able to pull a sensor replay from the drone. And it picked up a high-band RF burst coming from the container, directed back at Haven, just moments before the detonation. I can't tell you where the receiving station is, but based on the relatively low power of the signal, I would think that someone would need to have line-of-sight on the transmitter. And that suggests a tower somewhere." Incendio glared at the wall unit for a moment before returning her gaze to me. "Do you have any leads, Chase?" the Baroness asked, eyes locked with mine. "No, I'm afraid I haven't had the opportunity to ask the locals for a tour of their evil underground," Alyssa responded. Octavia rolled her eyes. "Fortunately, I've come to learn that the criminal network is fundamentally of a similar character no matter where it exists in the universe," she began before whirling on her heel to face the driver's compartment. "Bishop! Take us back into town!" "Captain?" Weyland asked as he slowly leaned out of the driver's seat, twisting around to look toward me with a mixture of agitation and bewilderment. "If you would be so kind, Lieutenant," I replied, casting a 'mind your manners' glance at the Baroness before returning to the task of evicting the Spindrift Desert from my attire. "Aye, sir. I'll rally the troops and roll us out." Fifteen minutes later, our convoy was tracing a long, winding line across the umber expanse, plying across the sun-blasted sea of sand toward the town we'd left behind only hours before...
  6. Somewhere in the Spindrift Desert Twycross - Lyran Commonwealth December 12, 3029 _______________________________________________ Several long, tedious hours passed as we listened to the sound of debris pelting our Goblin tank, angry winds howling relentlessly around its angular frame, backdropped by intermittent garbled weather updates coming in from Alyssa Chase, most of which repeated the same information we already knew: that we were in the thick of it. By the grace of Blake, we'd managed to arrive at the container with our Hover APC escort intact, and in a harrowing, probably foolhardy maneuver, I'd donned a rebreather and ventured outside the Goblin in the midst of the maelstrom to attach a pair of chains between the two craft, hoping to further anchor the hovercraft and increase its chances of riding out the tempest in one piece. Now, what felt like an eternity thereafter, the winds were subsiding just as daylight - and with it, the unrelenting heat of the desert - began to spill over the horizon. I stepped into the Goblin's cockpit just as Bishop was activating a device to clear several centimeters of sand from the tank's narrow windscreen, revealing the landscape beyond. "Rise and shine, ladies and gentlemen," Alyssa's voice crackled on the radio, the signal strong and clear for the first time since we'd been caught in the apocalyptic conditions. "The front has broken and the scope is clear. I'll have an eye in the sky over your location in about ten minutes to monitor the perimeter if you want to start suiting up." "Best news I've heard all day, Control," I replied. "We'll get moving. Let us know when you're on station, and we'll commence 'Operation Pop-A-Lock." "Will do," Alyssa chuckled, closing the channel. I gazed through the Goblin's windshield, looking out over the ochre expanse before us. We'd landed nearly on top of the cargo container. Though half-buried by the sandstorm and rather heavily dented from both a low-altitude drop and a subsequent collision with our own tank, the unit looked relatively intact. Provided that we could avoid any unexpected plot twists, I estimated that we'd have a reasonably uneventful time recovering the contents. As Bishop set about arming the tank's defensive systems and relocating into the turret gunner's seat, I maneuvered back into the passenger compartment. "Alright, remember: this is going to be a quick smash-and-grab. Baroness Incendio and Lieutenant Weyland will keep an eye out for hostiles and coordinate fire support with the Hover APC as needed," I began. "Oh...joy..." Octavia remarked, glancing up at the hulking infantryman in the turret, who appeared to ignore the comment. "...while Nick and Levi assess the condition of the lockout device on the container and get us access to the unit. Lieutenant Jaeger and I will coordinate the recovery team from the APC and provide fire support if we have an incident. Warrant Officer Chase has a drone up and is monitoring the perimeter from above. Everyone clear on their roles?" I asked. "Good. Let's be quick but thorough. Oh - and stay hydrated. It might still feel cool out there now, but it's going to heat up quickly. There are water packs in the cooler by the door. Make sure you grab one when you gear up. Any questions?" Silence and determined expressions met my reply. "Excellent. Get suited up and ready to roll in ten minutes. The sooner we can get this done, the better." ### Approximately ten minutes later... The rear door of the APC crashed to the sandy surface with a loud, undulating bang. A whirlwind of heavy, hot air rushed in, almost immediately tripping the cooling system in the MechWarrior combat suit I wore beneath my duster. Drawing my M42B rifle, I strode down the ramp, the visor on my helmet instantly polarizing against the glare of daylight as my boots crunched on the desert powder. Far overhead, I heard the distant whine of a drone engine, the aircraft much too small to be made out with the human eye. "Eden, I've got sights on you. I have to say, your combination of biker helmet, hand cannon, and Wild West duster is pretty badass," Chase quipped in my earpiece. "Very funny," I laughed. "Let's just be sure you bring all those fancy cameras back in one piece." "Don't worry, I'll make sure that Regent's high-end whirlybird gets repacked the way we found it," Alyssa replied. "You just be safe down there. I'll let you know if anything pops on my scope." "Copy that, much appreciated," I acknowledged, shuffling through ankle-high sand toward the cargo container. Seeing that Nick and Levi were already at its doors, I waved to Lieutenant Jaeger. "Looks like we're about to crack this thing. Want to get the APC crew rolling?" I radioed. "You got it, Captain, Mallory just wrapped the safety brief. I'll bring them over," Orlex responded. "Sounds good. I'm going to go see if our locksmiths need any help," I acknowledged, trudging past the sand-covered Goblin and drawing up on the cache, its reinforced structure gleaming a dingy white in the arid sunshine. Nick stood before the unit's heavy doors, clutching a digital handlink wired to the crate's locking mechanism, while Levi looked on through his Thermo Man helmet. "How's it looking?" I asked. Schuster shook his head. "Not good. I don't know if it was the fall from low orbit, the garbage weather, or something else, but this lock is not responding. I can't even get an ACK signal from its microprocessor," the Lyran answered, frustration evident in his tone. "This was supposed to be a simple hack - well - as simple as busting anything with an Irian lock on it can be." "Damn," I replied, eyeing the very sturdy rods that prevented unauthorized entry into the container. "We're gonna be here for a long time if we have to cut our way in." "You're telling me," Nick grumbled. "According to the stock plans I could find about this type of shipping container, there are sixteen rods made out of Durallex Special Heavy composite situated around a central drum holding this door closed. It's the same stuff they use to make BattleMech armor. Shock absorbers on all sides of the crate prevent the locking mechanism from being bashed in and further protect the cargo inside from bumps, spills, and the occasional drop from orbit. In a pinch, we could probably have Bishop use the Goblin to shoot the door in, but that would run a serious risk of blowing up the stuff inside." "So our choices are either to get that lock working or pitch some tents and take shifts cutting," I editorialized. "Great. Let me get Weyland on the horn." I keyed my helmet radio. "Eden to Predator. You got any tricks for getting past Irian-manufactured locks?" "Usually I use high explosives," Bishop responded. "As much fun as that would be, it's not our top option," I explained. "Got anything else? This container's giving us fits." "Going around the lock's probably going to be your better option. You want me to come down there and try to tear the door off its hinges?" Weyland answered. "No," I replied. "Why not?" Bishop retorted. "Because I'd never forgive myself if you ended up tearing your own arms out of the sockets in the process. I'll call you back," I replied, keying the channel closed with a sigh, and turning toward Nick and Levi. "Let me know when we need to get the torches out. Seems we're fresh out of options." "Perhaps we're not, Captain," Levi offered. "Nick got the cover off the locking mechanism, and I've been looking at it in MicroMode." "I'm sorry, did you say 'MicroMode?'" I asked, holstering my rifle and leaning in closer to see what the two men were scrutinizing. "Oh, yeah," Levi replied, "it's a special helmet filter I created that lets me see things close up, like a microscope. I use it to work on my costume's circuits." "Got it. I'm guessing you found something?" I answered. Levi nodded. "Yeah. The mainboard in the lock's been tampered with. Like someone overloaded it deliberately. It's been subjected to way more current than it can handle. One of the resistors is blown out, but I think I can do a spot weld with my laser. It'll probably fry out again pretty quickly, but it might be enough to at least get us inside." A feeling of concern washed over me. "I don't like the idea that someone's already been here messing with the shipment. Have you gents got any way to see what we can expect on the other side of that door?" Nick shook his head. "No. The unit's computer is totally offline and the cargo container is shielded. We would need equipment similar to what they had on the Mendacious to penetrate it." "Alright, I understand. Good find, Levi. Do what you need to do to get it operational. One shot's better than none," I nodded. Just then, Lieutenant Jaeger arrived at my side. "What's going on?" Orlex asked. "There's circumstantial evidence to suggest that someone's been here before us. The locking mechanism's shot. Levi's going to try to patch around it and get us in," I explained. "Alright, I'll have the APC crew on standby," the Lieutenant answered. "Have them go weapons hot. I want to be sure we're ready for any potential contingencies," I added. Jaeger flashed a thumbs-up and headed over to the assembled recovery team. Meanwhile, I watched as Levi dropped to his knees and drew close to the lock. Steadying himself against the cargo container, a tiny coherent energy beam lanced out from the right side of his helmet and made contact with the circuit board for a fraction of a second. A small wisp of smoke rose from the repair site. "Blow on it," Levi said, gesturing to Nick. The Lyran pushed his sunglasses above his forehead and bent down to blow gently at the improvised weld. "Perfect, thanks. Try it now." Nick rose to his feet, dropping the shades back onto the bridge of his nose and consulting his keypad. "It keeps fritzing out. Can you jiggle the case a little bit? Maybe there's a loose wire somewhere," Schuster requested. Levi gave the mechanism a few gentle taps. "OK - it's online!" Nick announced, keying in a rapid-fire series of commands. Then, taking a deep breath, the Sergeant punched a final button on the pad. "Here goes nothing." A loud whine shrieked from within the cargo container, followed by a deep, reverberating rumble. Four heavy bangs followed as the quadruple arrays of locking pins retracted toward the central drum. A final series of twin pops indicated that the unit was now open. No sooner had the procedure finished than a small burst of flame erupted from the locking mechanism as it spontaneously combusted, a stream of melted plastic running down the front of the cargo container. "I can't believe that worked!" Schuster exclaimed, high-fiving Levi. "Nice job!" I agreed, gesturing to Lieutenant Jaeger, who jogged up alongside me to take in the scene. Unholstering my rifle, I approached the container in tandem with Orlex. Making eye contact with the Lieutenant, I silently counted off three fingers. Then, we swung the door open forcibly, flooding the unit with light. As I raised my weapon, preparing for the inevitable ambush, I was instead met with a far more horrific sight. The shipment was missing.
  7. Thanks for the heads up! We should probably wrap our current Op soon and get everybody home. We can slow things down a bit to keep pace with the situation on your work front.
  8. Nephthys desert Plutus Docks, Haven Twycross - Lyran Commonwealth December 11, 3029 _______________________________________________ The desert storm surged and banged against the hull of the Goblin tank, its unforgiving winds lashing and biting at its hull as though nature itself were trying to drive her way through the ferrosteel hide to ravage the creatures of flesh within. I glanced at Bishop as the unrelenting blast of desert sand raced across our transport's viewport, convinced that this was the only reasonable course of action we had left. "Far be it for me to argue with you, sir," Bishop glowered, staring out into the wastes with a crushed spirit. "I probably could have picked the track back up." "Likely so," I nodded, "and I have full faith in your abilities. This is just - " A colossal bang outside the Goblin interrupted my thoughts. "...the time for immediacy," I continued, watching as a vehicle-sized chunk of earth ricocheted its way off the tank's tiny viewport and disappeared into the whirling maelstrom beyond. I tapped the headset that rested on my ear. "Eden to Control - what's the sitrep on this weather?" "Control to Eden...global we *shzzttt* eports that you ha *szhhhtt* -expected advance of Diab*shzzt* unprecedented weather front *shzzzzzzt* I think you picked a really unf *shzzzzzzzt* be in the desert, recommend you return to..." Alyssa's voice was suddenly and unceremoniously cut off by an unprecedented bang usually reserved for the most hostile of combat zones. The Goblin lurched severely before settling back down on its tracks. I looked furtively toward Levi as he clambered toward the cockpit. "Reporting as ordered...sirs?" the young man asked, attempting to assume a position of salute. "At ease, Levi," I chuckled, attempting, as best I could, to suppress the concern in my voice. "You're here because we need your help." "But you guys are the big bad mercenaries - I didn't even think I'd be on this mission! I couldn't have imagined - " Levi began. I raised a hand, forestalling further protests. "Whatever you think you were capable of, rest assured, we believe you've surpassed that," I responded, trying to cut to the chase. "And right now, we need you to be Thermo Man." Levi looked at me with incredulity. "Alright, I'll set aside the fact that Thermo Man is a fictional character for the moment. What do you need?" "Our sensors are shot in this storm. The amount of garbage flying around outside has rendered us effectively blind, and we can't maintain an uplink to the Hurry Up Bessie. We need you to use the enhanced vision system you built into Thermo Man's helmet to guide us the rest of the way to the target. We're reliant on you to keep us from being dead in the water." I watched as Levi went through several permutations of shock, denial, and then acceptance. "What do you need me to do?" he asked. I gestured, with a flourish, at the relentless sandstorm as I yielded my seat. "Slide in here," I continued, pointing at the co-pilot's chair, "and help Bishop get us through this shit. You can do it." Levi eased into the chair, casting me a doubtful glance before looking over at a glowering Lieutenant Weyland, who leaned defeatedly against the tank's controls and stared icy daggers at the storm lashing away at us. After a moment's pause, Levi looked back at me with an expression of determination. "Attaboy," I nodded, before stepping back into the passenger compartment. "You can do this."
  9. Plutus Docks - Haven colony Twycross - Lyran Commonwealth December 10, 3029 _______________________________________________ A cold, dusty wind roared into the depths of Cargo Bay One as the ship's massive door rumbled aside, revealing the skyline of the Haven colony - a jumble of dark, angular silhouettes with a smattering of dimly-lit windows, contrasted against the deep indigo of the desert's twilight sky. I shivered, pulling the heavy brown fabric of my longcoat closed and popping its collar, the smell of woodsmoke making my senses tingle as I descended the Hurry Up Bessie's cargo ramp onto the sand-covered landing pad. "I forgot how cold the desert gets at night," I remarked, gazing up at the starry evening expanse, noting the stark absence of aircraft typical of most spaceports. Lieutenant Jaeger nodded, pulling on a pair of gloves while Captain Harlow pulled on a sharp-looking woolen cap. "This place is a ghost town, too," Orlex added, glancing around at the deserted expanse of Plutus Docks. "I hope it's at least got a minimal amount of security." "I told James to sit on a bench inside the cargo bay with a laser rifle," Nikki replied. "He can't shoot to save his life, but at least there's a chance he'll scare off any intruders with his wildly haphazard aim." "I'm all for small victories when we can score them," I answered, stepping over several large chunks of broken ferrocrete as we made our way across the deserted tarmac toward the dockmaster's office. The Hurry Up Bessie was the only vessel on the pad, looking even larger than it usually did in the absence of other craft, utility vehicles, or personnel. Scattered throughout the landing zone were the remains of various decrepit support vehicles that had once serviced the port. A fuel truck, bereft of wheels, lay corroded and useless on a nearby siding, while a cargo transporter had apparently been abandoned in place and stripped of its parts in an area marked "Small Craft Staging." Further away, the dilapidated skeleton of what had, long ago, been a hangar building now sat corroding away, its loose beams and neglected roof materials clattering in the wind. The dockmaster's office itself was a pathetic affair - a single-level shack, built out of a patchwork of various salvaged metals and starship components, bearing a hand-pointed sign on its facade that read "PLUTUS DOCKS ADMINISTRATION: ALL VISITORS MUST REPORT." A smaller placard beneath the sign read, "NO TRESPASSING - SOLICITORS WILL BE RIDDEN OUT OF TOWN ON A RAIL." "That's an oddly-specific threat," I mused, gesturing at the smaller sign. "Creative, though." "Speaking of creative, would you look at that!" Lieutenant Jaeger exclaimed, pointing skyward toward the only structure taller than the dockmaster's office itself. Rising from just beyond the perimeter of the spaceport was a tall tower half-covered by a large tarp and bedecked haphazardly with several strings of incandescent lights. As we drew nearer to it, I realized that the 'tower' was in fact a Stinger BattleMech, long ago repurposed from a war machine and now serving as a power source for an eclectic marketplace that had formed at its feet. The ancient machine looked like an ancient soldier standing eternal watch over the bazaars, food stands, and games of chance as gregarious voices and the tinny sounds of concertina music echoed off of its rusted frame. A faint, flickering light twinkled from its cockpit - someone was burning a candle. "That is creative," I agreed as Nikki held up her comm unit to take a picture. "No one's going to believe me otherwise," Captain Harlow chuckled, pressing the shutter and saving the image. "Send me a copy of that, will ya?" I asked. Nikki nodded and slipped the phone back in her pocket as we reached the administrative office. Lieutenant Jaeger, slightly ahead of us, pulled on the handle of the building's screen door, only to realize that it was locked. "Well, so much for a warm welcome. You'd think a harbormaster would at least step outside to mind his facilities while a supposedly out-of-control ship is trying to make port," I observed. "Should I hit the buzzer?" Orlex asked, looking back toward me. "Might as well," I replied, "though I'm pretty certain he knows we're here already." Jaeger pressed a small, glowing button to the right of the door frame. A raspy, mechanical clanging sounded off from deep within the shack, followed shortly thereafter by a crash of furniture and the sound of booted feet thunking toward us. A moment later, the inner door to the shack was thrown open, and a short, balding, rotund man with an unkempt beard and wild hair stood before us. "What do you need?" he asked. "We're from the Hurry Up Bessie," Harlow explained. "The ship that called ahead for an emergency landing?" "Yeah. I know," the harbormaster replied in a thick brogue, craning his neck to look past us at our vessel. "What in Blake's name is all that shite your people are unloadin'? You're only here for a day or two." I cast a look back toward the landing pad, seeing the marker lights of our Goblin tank and Hover APC descending the cargo ramp. "We had to get some assets out of the way so that Captain Harlow's team can work on the thruster problem," I bluffed. "In the mean time, our crew is going to run some maneuvers out in the desert. We've been in space for quite a while, and now seems like a good time to stretch our legs and break in the gear." "Yeah, well, I don't care what you do so long as you pay the port fee and you're out of here in two days. Ship like yours is going to attract attention," the man answered. "How much do we owe you?" Nikki asked. "Twenty-five thousand C-Bills. Cash or charge," the harbormaster replied. "Twenty-five thousand C-Bills? That's half the cost of the JumpShip fare from Maxie's Planet to here! You don't even have maintenance facilities!" Captain Harlow exclaimed. "You don't like it? You can get off my pad or I can impound your vessel. Beggars can't be choosers, Missy," the rotund fellow proclaimed. Nikki glared at me. I reluctantly withdrew my credit tube and passed it over to the dockmaster, who unlatched the screen door just long enough to snatch it away from me and insert it into a point of sale machine. A few minutes later, Captain Harlow had signed the requisite paperwork, and we were on our way back to the Hurry Up Bessie. "Not the warmest welcoming committee, to be certain," I quipped. "Jaeger, let's try to get rolling as soon as possible. If he's any indication of what the locals are like around here, the more we can get done under the cover of darkness, the better. I'm going aboard the Goblin to spin up the homing navigation now. One less thing we'll need to do." "Aye, Captain, I'll see if I can round up Bishop and the others and meet you there shortly," the Lieutenant nodded. "I'll mind the store," Nikki added. "The last thing we need is anyone else ripping us off." "Agreed. At the first sign of trouble, have Chase get us on the horn." At that, the three of us parted ways to set the covert recovery in motion.
  10. C.V. Hurry Up Bessie, Mule-class Dropship Twycross III orbit Twycross - Lyran Commonwealth December 10, 3029 _______________________________________________ The parched landscape of Twycross III rolled past beneath us, a blistered, fractured expanse of mottled brown and orange hues. Large, umber-tinted clouds - sandstorms hundreds of kilometers wide - swirled across its face, blotting out vast tracts of the barren expanses below where a quarter of a billion colonists resided. Azure rivulets of greenish-tinged water wound and twisted their way across the continent, making the journey from the inland sea of Doken toward the Great Gash in the Windbreak mountains. As we crossed over the Plain of Curtains, an enormous, angry red cyclone came into view. The raging, tempestuous, whirling funnel of dust and debris was known as the Diabolis, a permanent sandstorm that wrought endless destruction with its 350 kilometer-per-hour winds. "Why do we always end up in the desert?" Bishop Weyland grumbled as the ferocious maelstrom overtook the viewscreen. "Just once, just once, I'd like to go blow shit up on a tropical paradise planet. Someplace with a nice beach and a conveniently-located Tiki bar." "Well, I heard that the spaceport at Camora has an indoor ski slope," Nikki chuckled, punching a couple of buttons on the arm of her command chair. A wireframe approach path appeared as an overlay on the viewer, with flashing animated arrows indicating our landing trajectory. "And I believe there's a Polynesian bar on the main concourse." "I don't suppose that thing is pointing toward Camora?" Bishop asked, gesturing at the homing device I held in my hands. "Decidedly not, unfortunately," I replied. "We're getting the same track we've been following for the last day - a few kilometers outside of Haven, just like we thought." "Damn," Weyland sighed. "Guess I'll go get my sand fatigues out. Again." "Sorry about that, Bishop," Orlex quipped, eliciting a frustrated growl from the Lieutenant as he stomped off the bridge. As he departed, Octavia stepped up alongside me, watching the main screen as wind-carved rocks and baked slabs of coppery clay passed beneath us. "Far be it for me to tell you how to do your job, Captain Harlow," the Baroness began, "but have we given any thought to our cover story? I don't think I need to explain that the unscheduled landing of an enormous Mule at the single berth in this backwater town is going to be something of a spectacle. Are we just going to knock?" Nikki pivoted in the captain's chair to face Incendio. "I've got this handled," Harlow responded. "The cover story is that we've lost half of our reaction control thrusters and need a place to set down so we can get them back online. Our engineer thinks it's an annoying but simple repair that should only take a day or two. Definitely a fix to be done on the ground. Not safe to try to maintain an orbit without them." "Hmph. Creative, so long as they don't actually insist on helping us," the Baroness replied. "And the reason we'll be unloading a tank and an APC is...?" "Training exercise," I offered. "We've been overhauling the Goblin and want to run some maneuvers outside of town to test systems that we can't operate onboard a spacecraft." "You certainly seem to have thought of everything," Octavia acknowledged. "Let's just hope we don't get scrutinized too closely." "Well, that's where Chase comes in," I added, gesturing toward the far corner of the bridge, where Alyssa was busy improvising a Command Information Center for the operation. "While they're watching us, she'll be watching them." "Trying to, anyway," Alyssa replied. "Subject to how cooperative the weather and the local telecommunications infrastructure wants to be." "If nothing else, when the bullets start flying, we'll be able to run faster," Nicholas Schuster joked, raising his head up from a pit at the front of the bridge where he'd been performing a repair job. "I heard that the gravity is a little less than on Terra." "That also means that my martial arts will be better!" Jenkins exclaimed, turning around in his seat and beaming at the gathered crew. "Thank Blake for small blessings," Nikki deadpanned. "Gretchen, go ahead and get the Haven spaceport on the horn." "Aye, Captain," the officer replied. "Channel open." "Plutus Docks, this is MV Hurry Up Bessie, we have a pan-pan situation and need safe harbor, over," Harlow began. Following a long hiss of static, we received a gravelly, ornery-sounding response. "Plutus Docks to Bessie, you're not on my schedule," a man replied, his tone clouded with irritation. "It's highly irregular for unscheduled ships to put in at my pad. Why aren't you landing at Hawkroost?" "Because," Nikki explained, "Graf Lehmann-Möller really doesn't like unscheduled ships with half their maneuvering thrusters offline crashing into the Duke of Trell's capital city. There's too much urban sprawl for us to effect a safe landing there. Your port doesn't have that problem." Several metallic clanks and the sound of a chair being pushed across a hard surface met Nikki's reply. Eventually, the man spoke again. "Alright, you can bring her down. But there's a fee. And I haven't swept the pad. Don't need to do that for another 18 days." "Your hospitality is appreciated," Harlow answered. "We'll see you shortly." Cutting the channel, the Captain looked toward me. "Nicely done," I remarked. "Thank you," Nikki replied with a grin. "Not my first rodeo. Helm, take us down!"
  11. Later that day... C.V. Hurry Up Bessie, Mule-class Dropship Enroute to Twycross III Twycross - Lyran Commonwealth December 8, 3029 _______________________________________________ "...and that brings us back around to Scenario 2," Lieutenant Jaeger advised, pulling the corresponding infographic back up as he and I jointly addressed the gathered cadre we'd conscripted for our impending dash-and-grab. The low lights of the market display room was washed in shades of red and green as annotations splashed across animated representations of a Hover APC and a Goblin medium tank inching over sand dunes toward a large, rotating crosshair. "Our computer modeling indicates that this is the most likely situation to pan out given what we know about the locales and atmospheric conditions. Given the variables at play and the undue attention that deploying a suspiciously high-tech BattleMech would draw, no matter how much we rough it up ahead of time, we're moving forward with this action plan." Lieutenant Jaeger clicked a button on the presenter. A TO&E for the operation winked onto the screen. Team 1 Captain Maxwell - Eden - Goblin Sergeant Schuster - Rebus - Goblin Baroness Incendio - Exile - Goblin Team 2 Lieutenant Jager - Bastion - Goblin Lieutenant Weyland - Predator - Goblin Levi Wright - Thermo Man - Goblin Support & Medical Cadre - Hover APC Mallory Aldon - Doc - Hover APC OpCom Warrant Officer Chase - Radar - M.V. Hurry Up Bessie "As you can see, we're running a fairly lean operation on this one. Two vehicles should keep a pretty low profile, especially in the region we're expecting to drop into based on some initial chatter we've been able to round up thanks to the talents of Baroness Incendio," Orlex continued, nodding toward Octavia. "The command and tactical teams will operate from the Goblin tank piloted by Lieutenant Weyland. Technical assets, including our cargo handlers and medical support, will accompany us in the Hover APC. Dividing our teams between two vehicles will create less of an opportunity to experience a single point of failure, particularly in the case of an ambush. If the weather gets too dicey for the Hover APC to continue, we'll transfer its crew to the Goblin and continue on." A hand went up in the back of the briefing room. It was Doc Aldon. "Yes, Mallory?" Jaeger asked, looking inquisitively toward the medic. "Well, I hate to be the gloomy Gus here, but what if we get separated by one of those storms and can't get to you? Any place that has weather named after Satan himself is bound to be full of surprises," Aldon observed, squinting at the overview. "Are we gonna have...survival suits or something?" "If the worst happens, then we'd naturally want each crew to take whatever measures are necessary to shelter in place or get to a safe location. We'll outfit everybody with survival gear, yes, but let's operate under a doctrine of not getting separated. Especially in a place like this. That's a good segue, actually," Lieutenant Jaeger responded, passing me the remote. "Captain?" "Thank you, Mister Jaeger - nice work getting this intel pulled together in such a short timeline. OpCom will be provided by Alyssa Chase - she'll post here at the Hurry Up Bessie and provide mission control, real-time weather updates, and aerial surveillance courtesy of two heavy drone aircraft that our employer included in our care package 'just in case.' With an eye in the sky, we should have fairly ample advance warning if anything starts heading our way either from out in the desert - or from Haven." I clicked the presenter. The tactical overview wiped away, replaced by a slowly zooming in overview of a dilapidated, weather-worn town. "Ladies and gentlemen, the single point of interest in the southern hemisphere - at least, in the area where we suspect the cargo container ended up. The oldest part of the town is underground, built as a series of connected, weather-resistant vaults once the original colonists figured out that living on the surface is a bad option unless you like persistent sunburn and chronic exfoliation. For some reason, though, people kept moving here, and as the town grew, the vaults got built out. So, folks started building above ground - that's what you're seeing here, in the only picture I could find of Haven on a sunny day. The newest areas are those furthest from the center of town. They tend to be the least sheltered, and thus where the highest concentration of poverty and crime are. I guess it follows; people there have to deal with the wind ripping parts of their houses off all the time, and that doesn't do a lot for your pocketbook or the safety of your belongings." I hit the 'Advance' button on the remote again. The photograph switched to a satellite view. "Since we're not sure if Haven is our place - or where the shipment is relative to the town - I can only give you a general overview and plan of attack. As you can see, there's not much to this place - the 'residential and business' end of the town, such as it is, lies to the north, serviced by a rail depot that sees two trains a day. South of the train station is Plutus Docks, the only spaceport within almost 500 kilometers - though the term 'landing pad' better describes the facility. There's a refueling station and some basic service amenities. That's about it." "Plutus," Nick scoffed. "The goddess of profit." "The irony does not escape me," I agreed, pointing to a section of the map labeled 'The Dives.' "Remember I mentioned the end of town where peoples' houses get blown apart? That's this tent city affair down here. The reason things look so sparse is because Haven recently got blasted by one of the bigger storms on the planet, and it more or less scrubbed the end of town south of the spaceport clean off the map. The shanties haven't been rebuilt just yet. Some folks have decided to cut their losses and build new houses into the valley walls. Others have turned to squatting and scavenging to make ends meet. Crime and vagrancy are at an all-time high." "Oh, fun," Bishop quipped, crossing his arms and glowering at the map. "Indeed," I responded. "So let's talk about our ground plan. If this turns out to be our place, we're going to set down at Plutus Docks at night. Although any arrival of a big-ass cargo ship is going to attract attention here, at least at night, there will be fewer eyes on us. Once on the ground, we'll unload the expeditionary vehicles and try to get a fix on where the haul is. If we're lucky, it's out in the desert, and all we have to contend with is the weather. If we're not, and it's up in town, we're going to have to devise a strategy for retrieving it that doesn't involve us getting every gun, knife, and improvised bludgeoning device pointed in our direction. We are not authorized to be operating here, so MRB insurance isn't going to cover any ruckus we cause." "Do we have any idea what we're looking for?" Octavia asked. "Or are we just going to hand out fliers asking the locals if they've seen 'expensive metal box' wandering around?" I chuckled and clicked the remote again. "We have a rendering of the cargo container. Bear in mind, we didn't physically get ahold of it on Oberon, so we're working on the data that we were able to abscond with from the Irian facility. According to their database, this is what we're seeking." "Now, with that said," I continued, "even if it hasn't, by some miracle of Blake, been broken into, there's still the matter of locating it in a town presumably full of cargo containers. The two things it's got going for it are that it's a lot newer and more high-tech than what I observed in some of the other archival images of the town, such as this one..." "...and it's likely to be one of the few not opened or otherwise inhabited. I checked the port schedules, and it's been almost a month since the last major delivery to Plutus Docks. Therefore, we'll be working with a somewhat leaner field." Another hand went up. It was Levi Wright. "Mister Wright?" I asked. "Two questions, sir," Levi began, standing up and glancing around self-consciously. "One - I'm not totally clear how I fit into the mission profile, and two - is Sergeant Jenkins going to be joining us on this one?" "Good questions, all of which are general interest to the larger group. Please - have a seat," I nodded. "Lieutenant Weyland will be our driver and principal tactician on this recovery venture. Nick Schuster will provide technical expertise and help provide electronic countermeasures and ingress into any barrier systems, should it become necessary. Octavia Incendio has prior experience with some of the types of gangs we might encounter down on the surface and is also an accomplished profiler; we'll be relying on her to get a read of the folks we might encounter. Levi, we need your prowess with defeating conventional locks and overriding mechanical systems - ignitions, wheel immobilizers, that sort of thing. Lieutenant Jaeger and I will be coordinating ground operations and providing operational security - that means we're carrying big scary guns on this jaunt and trying to look intimidating. Mister Jenkins was given prior authorization for...shore leave...but we've tapped him to send us intelligence about the town, because he's apparently entered himself into a martial arts match there," I explained, casting an incredulous glance at Jaeger as I spoke the last words. "Alright. That's where we're at as of now," I concluded. "In the next day or so, we speculate that we'll be within transponder range of the cargo container. With any luck, it'll still be online and transmitting. We should have a better handle on what we can expect to encounter from there. Bear in mind, all plans are subject to change based on what we learn, so don't get too married to this plan. It's apt to change somewhat. Lieutenant Weyland will ensure you all have copies of his OpSec plan for the deployment at the end of this briefing. Are there any other questions?"
  12. Doot doot... Doot doot... Doot doot... Nikki Harlow glanced at the incoming transmission readout on the arm of her captain's chair, then looked back at me with a dubious expression. "Think this one is for you Charles, assuming you're expecting a message from 'Privateer Courier Services'?" Nikki with a raised eyebrow. "Shit," I blurted. "I guess it worked." Orlex cast me an inquisitive glance. "Over here," I replied, gesturing toward a nearby comm station. Nikki nodded and flipped a couple of toggles, sending the call to the adjacent console. "All yours," Harlow advised. I sat down in the tattered, utilitarian bridge chair with its worn green upholstery and squealy swivel base. "Ready?" I asked Jaeger. The Lieutenant nodded, and I toggled the channel switch. "Hello, Mister Maxwell," the bearded, scruffy visage of the Belt Pirate who called himself 'Malice' began. "So you got yourself in trouble already. Well, I should have guessed." "Malice. Nice of you to reply. I was -" I replied. The pirate interrupted almost immediately, Glancing at the comms console, I realized that the call was pre-recorded. "First of all, I want you to understand that your favor is now repaid in full. Got that? No double dipping. You hit the button, you recorded a message, and you hit send. It's not my fault if you're not happy with whatever i say next. I don't write the rules. I just break all of them," Malice's recording continued. I looked over at Orlex incredulously. "Now. Your message was shit. Absolute horse shit," the pirate remarked. Jaeger looked puzzled. Malice reached out of frame, returning moments later with a huge beer stein. "Next time, include some fucking details," Malice growled, taking a guzzle from the beverage. "With that said, I'm not trying to get burned by sending love letters back and forth. Fortunately, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what you were trying to say with your bullshit euphemisms about tech support. I watch the news on Oberon. I know you hit Irian. It's a foregone conclusion that a shipment that goes missing at the exact same time from the exact same planet has got to smell like you. And a box full of LosTech? That gets noticed. Congratulations, subtle guys." The pirate raised a toast to the camera, indulging in a huge swig of the beer, trails of golden liquid running down his beard. As Malice wiped his mouth with a baggy sleeve, Orlex shrugged. "Speaking of which, what do you smell like? I bet it's lilac, with a hint of bergamot. Anyway," the pirate continued, "the assholes that hit your shipment are less talented than my crew and got noticed. So they shit their pants." Malice paused, casting a gigantic, toothy grin toward the camera before guzzling the last of his drink and throwing the container on the floor, punctuated with an earth-shattering belch. "And those dumb fucks - who I have been trying to stick it to for the longest time - tucked tail 'tween their legs and fled the system. You know what system I'm talking about. Southern hemisphere. Transponder code TC-154-L-58. Watch out for the storms." I frantically grabbed a data pad and made a notation of the frequency. "Oh, and two other things," Malice chuckled. "The locals don't want anything to do with you. And neither do I. My debt is paid. Thank you, Captain Maxwell." At that, the link went dead. I stared into the blackness of the computer display for several long moments. At length, I looked toward Orlex. "Do you suppose any of that was credible? Or do you think he's just fucking with us?" I asked. "All of our intelligence points here," Jaeger replied. "The missing piece was the frequency. I believe the real question is - to whom will that frequency really lead? Is he to be trusted?" I shook my head, reaching into my coat pocket and withdrawing a cigar. Removing its envelope, I examined its length, savoring the cherry aroma. "I suppose there's only one way to find out, as loath as I am to embrace it," I replied. "Yes, sir," Orlex acknowledged, hesitatingly. "I'll draw up a landing party." "Please do," I responded. "Bear in mind - we're going to have to handle this one on foot." The Lieutenant nodded. We both knew what Twycross had to offer. And none of it was good.
  13. C.V. Hurry Up Bessie Twycross system - Lyran Commonwealth December 1, 3029 _______________________________________________ I stared through the tiny porthole in the market display room's bulkhead, sub-consciously still checking myself to ensure that all of my limbs were intact after the gut-wrenching pirate jump that Nikki had managed to arrange for us. I didn't know how she'd done it - the only explanation she'd offered was that it "pays to know how to talk shop with merchants," and a day later, we transferred from the Invader-class JumpShip Wayward Dawn to the Scout-class JumpShip Renegade. Now, Maxie's World was in the rearview mirror and we were executing a 1.5 g burn toward Twycross, eleven days closer to the surface than we otherwise would've been. I felt both immeasurably grateful to Captain Harlow for her willingness to take such a harrowing risk and intense relief that it was over. As I watched the Renegade fall away, there came a metallic knock on the cabin's hatch. I turned to see Lieutenant Jaeger and Octavia Incendio - who I'd been advised preferred to be addressed by the honorific 'Baroness' - standing in the doorway. "Alright, the gang's all here," I began. The Baroness returned my greeting with a scowl. "'Gang' would just about be the perfect terminology to describe this crew," Octavia remarked. I raised an eyebrow. "Present company excluded, Baroness?" I asked, preferring to table the drive-by remark for now in the interest of time. "That remains to be seen," Incendio replied, an expression crossing her face suggesting that she registered the use of her title. "I have some results to share with you." "So I've been told," I nodded, leaning casually against a nearby console and gesturing toward the ramshackle assortment of chairs and tables in the empty space. "Please feel free to take a seat and relax. The crayon chair is almost big enough for adults. Stay away from the dinosaur one, though - it got the devil in it last time I tried to use it." "I prefer to stand," the Baroness replied sharply. I chuckled and nodded obligingly. "Fair enough. Let's cut to the chase, then. What've you discovered?" I asked. "Harold Jones does not exist," Octavia replied, point-blank. A look of surprise crossed Lieutenant Jaeger's countenance. "Do you mean that he's using an alias? Or that he doesn't exist - full stop?" Orlex asked. "He did exist," the Baroness continued, consulting her data pad. "From 2942 to 3019. He was a small-time archaeologist turned treasure hunter - or more precisely, a grave robber. His most notable accomplishment was early in his career, in 2967, when he burglarized the crypt of a noble family on Tau Ceti IV, making off with jewels valued at nearly a million C-Bills." "Tau Ceti IV - New Earth," I observed. Incendio nodded. "In the years following that particularly colorful heist, Jones made a living as a gray market trader buying and selling rare merchandise of various legalities. He had no major run-ins with the law that I can find recorded, nor did he contribute much to academia. In 3014, the MRB records him soliciting bids from mercenary units for an expedition of an unknown nature - to the Oberon Confederation." "That's quite a coincidence," Lieutenant Jaeger remarked. "Very much so," I added. "There's more," the Baroness interjected. "Please, continue," Orlex responded. "Between 3015 and 3019, public records from New Earth and the Terran Commodities Exchange show Harold Jones listed as a joint partner in 'Stormvanger Heavy Industries' - and the Crayven Corporation." As the last words left her mouth, Baroness Incendio locked eyes with me. "I believe you're familiar with the latter organization." "And the former," I acknowledged. "This ship is traveling under bogus paperwork from 'Stormvanger Heavy Industries.' A shell company of which William Kauffman seems particularly fond." "How deep does this rabbit hole go?" Jaeger asked. "Deeper still," Octavia advised. "In 3019, Harold Jones died in an apparent terrorist attack when - allegedly - agents of the Maskirovka detonated a bomb smuggled aboard a passenger tender at Rigil Kentarus. At the time, Jones was on a return flight from Formalhaut to New Earth. All records of him cease after that date." "Until March of this year, when he comes back from the grave just in time to hire Interstellar Expeditions for a treasure hunt out in the Periphery," I quipped, casting Orlex and Octavia a dubious expression. "Very nice work, Baroness." Incendio nodded curtly. I wandered toward the porthole and stared out into space for a moment before continuing. "Am I the only one here who thinks all of this seems like more than just a coincidence?"
  14. C.V. Hurry Up Bessie, Mule-class Dropship Maxie's Planet system jump point Maxie's Planet - Lyran Commonwealth November 28, 3029 _______________________________________________ As we'd suspected, the small device bequeathed to us by Malice back on Ozymandias Station had, in fact, turned out to be a transmitter. More specifically, it appeared to be an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) that was heavily customized to put out a powerful, repeating message of the sender's choosing, keyed to a specific, non-standard, tight-beam encrypted frequency that couldn't be changed. A small note inside the device's case specifically instructed us to add a payload, activate the unit, and then jettison it overboard - and admonished us to use ONLY IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. After mulling over the possibility that the recipient might not be Malice, much as we hoped it would be, I elected to keep the missive brief and to the point. With Alyssa's help, we set up the device in a hard drive caddy in Schuster's cabin. As the unit powered up, Chase cast me a wry grin. "Got your sea shanties ready? From what I can tell, you get one chance to record." I shook my head and laughed. "Yes, I'm ready to roll, but you don't want me trying a Belt Pirate impression, believe me." "I don't know,' Nick quipped. "I think I'd pay money to see that." "Hey now, watch your tone, Sergeant," I joked back. Schuster raised an eyebrow. "If I'm still on your command, how come I'm only getting a paycheck from Nikki?" the Lyran deadpanned. "Well, I - " Chase motioned for me to stop speaking as two lights - VOX and REC - illuminated on the EPIRB. I took that as my queue to start recording. "This is Charles Maxwell of Stormvanger Heavy Industries. We're in your neck of the woods and would like to catch up. We've got a package problem and hope you could provide us with technical assistance. Reply on the enclosed frequency. If this message is received after 30 November GST, direct reply traffic to the Twycross system. Out." I nodded to Alyssa to end the session. With a loud click, Chase disengaged the device, its lights going dark. "Alright," Nick announced. "That's it." "So, now what?" Alyssa asked. "We just...shoot it out an airlock or something?" "I have an easier way to do it," Schuster responded, grabbing the unit and floating up from his seat. "With your permission, Captain?" "By all means," I replied. "Lead the way." Nick floated toward his cabin door and wrenched it open. The three of us drifted out into the corridor, whereupon Schuster led us a dozen or so meters in the direction of the lifts. Just ahead of a nearby junction, he took hold of a handrail and oriented himself toward the deck, activating his mag shoes, which pulled him down to the metal grating with a loud clank. "We can do it here," Nick replied, pointing at a small hatch labeled "EMERGENCY WASTE JETTISON." I stared at the receptacle for a moment. "Okay, the 'emergency' and the 'jettison' I get, but I have questions when it comes to 'emergency waste." "The bigger question is why Steve never seems to be near one of these things during one of his episodes," Chase added. Nick let out a laugh and opened the hatch. "Okay, should I do it?" "Where is it going to end up? Directly outside the ship?" I asked. "More or less, unless it gets caught on a turd or something on the way down," Schuster nodded. It was my turn to raise an eyebrow. "I'm joking," Nick sighed. "Captain Harlow made me clean these things out back on Sheratan." "I'm sorry," I replied. "But now you get to reap the fruits of your labor. Go ahead and put it overboard." Schuster nodded and dropped the EPIRB into the bin, slamming the door closed behind it. Then, he held down a large red button to the right of the unit. Almost immediately, a low "thud" followed, and an indicator light next to the receptacle flickered to green. "That's it?" I asked. "That's it," Nick replied. "One pirate beacon down the crapper." "There is a certain poetry to this method of delivery," I quipped. "I guess that now, all that's left to do is wait." ### I stared at the photo of the balding, portly, mustachioed man on Nick's monitor as I floated in the weightless confines of the Lyran's cabin, the hard rock strains of Iron Shillelagh Live at Tharkad blasting in the background. At length, I looked over at Nick. "Harold Jones? No, never heard of him," I remarked, motioning for Schuster to take the music's volume down. As the thrashing electric guitars and guttural lyrics faded away, the young man shook his head. "Well, that makes two of us. All I can tell you is that he definitely is listed as the recipient on the manifest," Nick explained. "I mean, it's not like he has a common last name or anything. And I doubt he's that Wolf's Dragoons commander that got greased on Hesperus back in '19." "How did you fins this information? The chain of custody on the manifest ends with Interstellar Expeditions," I responded with confusion. "Well, yeah, from the outside looking in, that would definitely appear to be the case, but after getting nowhere with outside resources, I decided to turn my focus back to the metadata in our own documents. Turns out, whoever the paper-pusher at the Crayven Corporation is, they didn't fully sanitize the information before exporting it to the contract generator. And since we didn't take this job from the MRB, but rather, directly from William Kauffman's office, we got a copy of some of the source material," Schuster explained, pulling up the electronic portfolio for Operation: Gray Demon. With the tap of a button, a series of rapid-fire animations began splashing across the display, illustrating the data layers in the documents. The wireframe zoomed in on a specific article detailing handling protocols for "Catalog ID: IE-OBO-FE-01-3029," passing through the text on the page and revealing its code layer. Then, the animation parsed through the code in a three-dimensional flythrough, with markdown, tags, and object classes whipping by at tremendous speeds. Eventually, the virtual camera slowed, a rectangle of orange highlighting a specific commented-out note buried deep within the content. As the text drew nearer, Nick rotated it so that it was legible. "#buyerInfo conditions: 'DoNotPublish, Internal,' Value: 'Jones, Harold'." Schuster read out loud. "This field probably didn't get deleted because it's conditioned to be invisible to the user at the page level. The admin who put this contract together at Crayven likely wasn't a power user and so didn't think to check the page code itself. His copypasta job, however, picked it up and brought it over." "Great find," I nodded, clapping Nick on the shoulder. "Do we have anything else to go on that might at least tell us where to start looking for this guy?" "Circumstantial at best," the Lyran replied. "I mean, you're looking for a dude with a weird taste in collectibles and enough cash to finance a small military expedition out to Oberon and back, plus whatever premium Interstellar Expeditions charges as the facilitator and any fees that the Crayven Corporation might have assessed. Given that we're hauling the find all the way back to New Earth, that imeans he's located somewhere within a reasonable transit distance. I mean, why risk schlepping such a valuable item around more than you have to? A smart mission planner arranges the most direct route to the buyer's front door." "None of this exactly gives us his address, but it at least narrows the search grid a bit. What do you suggest as our next intelligence-gathering move?" I asked. "Well, banging around plugging terms like "HAROLD JONES VOODOO DOLL OUTREACH WEIRD TECH INTERSTELLAR EXPEDITIONS MILLIONS OF C-BILLS" into search engines is bound to get us noticed, so I think we might need to go old-school with this one and skip trace Mister Jones. Leave the artifact stuff out of it and just scope our snooping around to the man himself," Nick responded. "That sounds reasonable. Can you do it?" I asked. "I'm kinda tied up with...multiple converging deadlines," Schuster responded hesitantly, waving at the multiple computers churning away on decryption and artifact analysis projects. "But I'm pretty sure Octavia could handle it. If you're comfortable with letting her potentially get that close to the truth." "I'm sure she'd be game for it if we dangled a few extra C-Bills in front of her for incentive. She's been harping about getting additional payouts for the assist Scorched Earth gave us anyway. We'll just need to see to it that we carefully curate any intelligence we give her about Mister Jones first," I replied. "Go ahead and link up with Orlex; he's coordinating resources for these projects. I'll let him know what we've decided." "What about Bishop? Think he'd be able to shed some light on the matter?" Schuster asked. I froze momentarily before replying. "Let's continue to afford him plausible deniability for now. We'll cross that bridge if and when we get to it."
  15. "I also realize that bad intel or not it does not dismiss the increased risk incurred during our portion of our joint operation, and while I do apologize I also know that is not what you were looking for. I am open to discussion on that matter, provided the terms are reasonable, what did you have in mind?" I looked toward Octavia, who appeared to balk momentarily, as though an offer of compromise wasn't what she was expecting. But Jaeger's deflect had been masterful, and I certainly wasn't about to give up the ruse over a matter of C-Bills. However, that didn't seem to be what Octavia had in mind... "Well, Captain, as to the matter of financials, I am not the sole decision-marker in my organization; there are others with whom I need to consult. For better or for worse. For the moment, I would appreciate transparency regarding any residual loose ends that may need to be tied up as pertain to this contract. Like it or not, Scorched Earth has been dragged fully into this affair, and what affects you also affects us. Speaking of which, exactly what is it you're trying to do?" Incendio took a few steps toward the dais. I watched as Lieutenant Jaeger tensed visibly. "Well, as I mentioned, we're trying to work out where that shipment we sent offworld went, while simultaneously trying to figure out who the end recipient is for the artifact we were sent to pick up. As the situation has taken a bit of a turn, we've made the call to deliver directly to the end buyer rather than send the package on a circuitous route by dropping it off for handling through the Crayven Corporation, Interstellar Expeditions, and then to the purchaser. Fewer points of failure," I explained, feigning an air of nonchalant confidence. Octavia narrowed her eyes. "You're doing that in a disused bank vault? And your employer approved this change of plans?" "It's quieter in here. Most of the time," Alyssa snarked. "We're six months away by JumpShip. Nearly as far by conventional message, which we'd have to use to keep off of ComStar's radar. I made the call." I replied. The Baroness looked unconvinced. "Well, that being the case, the sooner we get the item delivered and this pseudo-state of mutiny behind us, the better," Octavia sighed. "How can I assist in...shepherding along...the process?" "I do actually have a task in mind that would be right up your alley," I responded, glancing toward Nathan and Alyssa. "Once these two have figured out who the buyer is, we need to ascertain where he or she is. The background I'm assuming you have in skip tracing could come in really handy." "What makes you assume I have any proficiency in that?" Incendio asked, raising an eyebrow. "Your MRB rating speaks for itself. I assumed that the person doing the analysis behind all of those extraction raids and bounty recoveries must have been you. I'm happy to redirect the credit where it's due, however," I smiled. "That won't be necessary; your assumption is correct," Octavia replied hastily. "Very well. Where should I begin?" "Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, Nick's gotta figure out who's buying. Then, we can talk about where that transaction's going down," I began. "And before that," Alyssa interjected, "we're needed in the mess hall. All of us." Jaeger cast Chase a surprised expression. Out of the corner of my eye, I could have sworn I saw Alyssa wink knowingly in return. ###
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