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Gellen's Heights spaceport
Gellen's Heights, Sheratan III
March 11, 3029

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The light afternoon showers had transitioned to a steadier and heavier downpour as I slogged my way on foot out of Berth 59, away from the Half Moon, and down the access road toward Berth 23 where the Hurry Up Bessie had made port. The umbrella I carried did little to keep the rain off me, and in a few minutes, I was thoroughly soaked. 

Great... I thought. As if showing up to a job interview with two major powers trying to arrest me wasn't bad enough... 

Mercifully, a few minutes later, I came across a spaceport shuttle stop, where an oblong bus shaped like a hot dog bun was taking on passengers. After paying the overpriced fare, I was able to sit down and attempt to wring the water out of my clothes and hair while the spaceport infrastructure whisked past. 

I wonder how that Jackson kid is getting on.... I thought to myself, remembering that the pilot had mentioned having a gig as a cargo handler here. I bet he can at least walk into a bar without seeing his face plastered on wanted ads all over the place. 

 I didn't dare go much further beyond the spaceport to find out. Even riding on the tram was making me paranoid. I didn't know what kind of facial recognition technology they might be running.

Eventually, the shuttle lurched to a stop outside Terminal 2 without incident. I quickly disembarked and walked along the outside pedestrian breezeway until I found Berth 23. There, situated within, was the Hurry Up Bessie, much larger and more battered in appearance than I remembered from the spacewalk, and still bearing the scars of her engagement with the Mendacius

I made my way toward the ship, noticing that the cargo doors were all closed and no open passenger gantry was to be seen. 

Huh, that's weird. I thought. Maybe nobody's home. 

Just then, a battered old pickup truck came rumbling into the berth with a cattle trailer attached to its hitch. The truck passed me and drove toward the freighter. I eyed it for a few seconds, and then warily started walking toward the shio, hoping that whoever had just pulled in was crew and not looking to collect on my arrest...

 

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RE DUX

MEANWHILE........

At Lockupuncture INC

The Rickshaw rolled up on the LOCKUPUNCTURE store on Cheetara Street about 45 minutes after we had left the Old As Dirt Antique and Book Store. It had took us so long because the Rikshaw guy had had a hard time going up the bridge in the rain and with lots of cars going by him at a billion miles an hour. And honking their horns, one dude threw a burger and it busted all over him and got Lettuce and Secret Sauce in his hair and then when he Yelled at the dude about it he threw a Watermelon Milkshake too so now the Rickshaw guy had burger mess all over him and Watermelon milkshake. He dumped the Rickshaw down on the ground in front of Lockupuncture which Smashed my gooch and made me yell. 

"OW I ALREADY GOT WHIPPED IN MY GENITALIA 3 TIMES TODAY AND 1 WAS AN ACTUAL BULL WHIP YOU NEED TO BE MORE CAREFUL HOW YOU PUT DOWN THE CART!!" I screamed 

"OH SO SORRY!! ' The guy said. "Maybe next timea YOU drive the rickshaw!!" 

Then he got out an entire pack of cigarettes and started smoking the whole thing at once, I made a face and said "Never mind that!!! How much do I owe you?" 

The Rickshaw driver smashed a whole bunch of buttons on a calculator and then looked at me and said "25 C-Bills." 

"25 C-BILLS To drag a cart over a bridge??? I DON'T think so!!" I shouted back. 

"PLUS TIP!! I HAVE MCWENDYKING BURGER IN MY CLOTHES NOW TOO!!" He answered me sternly. 

"OK fine, but this is highway robbery, I won't use your company again!" Then I gave him the payment and I went inside the shop.

"Hello?? Jimmy Eaton???" I yelled as I looked around the shop, it was a pretty regular job with a workbench in the middle that had all kinds of Grips and power tools and Things for breaking locks.

"Steve Jenkins oh my GOD is that you??" Said Jimmy, he popped up from behind the counter with a giant lock in his hand that he was trying to force open with a crowbar.

"Yeah it's me, we know each other because were in the same unit back on Archimedes!!" I Said. Jimmy grinned at me and we high fived. Outside the shop I heard a terrible Crash and a dude screaming that he had ran his car into a Rickshaw, I hoped the Rickshaw guy was OK after he had caused that wreck. 

" What do you need Steve? "Jimmy asked. "I need you to open THIS!!" I Said and then I SLAMMED The Book down on the counter. Jimmy looked at it and then his face twisted up and he started getting this screaming face and then a dim yell started coming out that got louder and louder and louder and louder until it was a full scream at the top of his lungs. Jimmy fell backwards a bunch and then tripped and flipped over the back of the counter and was still Screaming, then he got up and in could see he WA still yelling with all kinds of snot coming out of his nose and his face was red from Screaming. 

"What is it what's wrong, Jimmy??" Yelled 

Then Jimmy stopped screaming. "I thought I saw a Spider." He said. "I'm OK now, let's open that Book." 

20 MINUTES LATER 

Jimmy's Table Saw ripped off the lock like nobody's business, then after the leftover metal on The Book cooled down, Jimmy handed me The Book of the Dead. "OK Steve, since you're a Celebrity you should get to open it first." 

So I took The Book and opened it. The pages were super old and smelled like ass. They had lots of Egyptian writing that I couldn't Read and weird burn marks all around the edges. I turned one page and a bunch of mysterious Sand started running out of the pages, I didn't know where it was coming from. Then I turned another page and all of a Sudden the room got really dark and a bunch of fire started shooting out of the pages!! I Screamed and turned the page again. This one didn't do anything at first but then the room started shaking!! It shook harder and harder and harder and then I started hearing what sounded like a million buzzing bugs coming at me, then the booj surged and all of a sudden a Huge Plague of Locusts started shooting out of the pages filling up the shop with more and more and more locusts!!! The buzzing got SOOOOOO Loud that my ears were bleeding and Jimmy was speaking in tongues!!! 

" What do we do???"  I screamed as I waved my arms around and smashed as many of the locusts as I could into gross yellow and green piles of guts.

"I DON'T KNOW!!!" Jimmy Sobbed. "I DONT WANT TO BE A MUMMY!!" 

"WAIT, I KNOW!!" I Yelled. "JUUUUUUUUUMAAAAAAAAANNNNNNJIIIII!!" 

Then I slammed The Book and all of the locusts suddenly died and exploded into a billion bug parts all over the shop!! 

"Oh my god, what was that??" Said Jimmy. 

"Locusts." I I said. "Thanks for picking the Lock. Now I can go fulfill my Destiny!! 

Before Jimmy could say anything else I was out the door and waved down a cab back to Site 187, I had to learn how to work The Book before I could use it to save  humanity, and my time was running OUT!! 

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I parked at the end of the cargo ramp leading to the bay that held the cattle; I’d signed a contract to deliver the hogs to the Bacon-o-Rama and left them the “sample” I’d brought with me, but I still had the bull and two heifers in the trailer.

I got out of the truck, and then noticed Nathan coming toward me, carrying an umbrella and wearing a soaking wet jumpsuit.

“Hi, thanks for coming out,” I said. “Looks like you hit some weather?”

“You could say that,” Nathan said.

“One sec.” I opened up the passenger door and rummaged through the junk back there, looking for a towel. I found it under the seat, and tried to shake most of the chicken feathers off it before offering it to Nathan. He gave the towel a look, but then accepted it.

“Would you be willing to help me out with something?” I asked. “I’d meant to take care of it before you arrived, but I forgot to account for how city people drive like maniacs whenever there’s a trailer on the road, and wound up running late.”

“Sure, what is it?”

I opened the back of the trailer, and the smell of very, very fresh manure filled the air. “Oh crap, not again.” I looked over my shoulder, intending to tell Nathan to stand back, but he’d already figured that out and was covering his nose and mouth for good measure. I quickly led the two cows out of the trailer, then shut the bottom half of the door to keep the bull in while still allowing some ventilation.

I wiped my feet on the concrete floor, trying to get rid of as much of the liquidy bull-droppings as I could, and then joined Nathan safely outside of the blast radius. “Sorry about that,” I said. “I was meeting a potential buyer for the herd, and then the bull ate Steve’s phone, and I guess it’s still being affected by the medication he used to get the phone back out again.”

“I should have guessed,” Nathan said. “That is exactly the sort of thing that happens when Steve is around.”

“This is usual for him?”

“Pretty much,” Nathan said. “Did the incident also involve bees, or pyrotechnics?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Thankfully, no. His friend did make a pretty big mess with a tow truck, though. Anyway, I think I’ll leave the bull where he is for now, rather than have to clean up the same mess in two places, but I was hoping you could help me put the cows away. Sometimes they spook a little going through the airlock, so it’s good to have an extra set of hands.” I held out the rope attached to one cow’s halter for Nathan to take.

“Yeah… sure.” Nathan picked up the rope. “Is animal handling going to be a regular part of this job?”

I headed up the ramp, with Nathan and the cows following behind. “Not normally - Colleen and I usually take care of this stuff, but she’s knocked off for the day. We all fill in for each other now and then, though.” The metal ramp rang under the cows’ hooves with a tone like a low church bell. “Most of your work would be repairing the electrical and computer systems on the ship. The goal is to get her space worthy again as soon as possible, and then fix the non-essential systems while underway. You’d be working with Gretchen, the chief engineer, and James, her assistant. They’re more on the mechanical side of things, though - you’d be our only computer specialist.” We arrived at the airlock and I keyed in my access code. “This is the part where the cows might spook. Don’t act nervous, that just scares them more - just be ready to hang on to that rope.”

I pressed the button to open the door. Clanging noises came from inside, and the ramp under our feet rumbled. The cows froze, but didn’t run. Then both the inner and outer airlock doors rolled open together, revealing the dimly lit cargo bay stacked full of livestock containment units.

I took the second cow’s lead rope back from Nathan, and ushered both animals back to their stalls. Conveniently, they had both come from stalls in the ground level of a unit right by the airlock; neither Colleen nor I actually knew much about what made one cow more expensive than another, and Gretchen had more important things to worry about right now, so we’d just grabbed the animals nearest the door and hoped for the best. A normal job for us would only involve moving animals from one planet to another, so livestock appraisal wasn’t a skill we’d needed.

Nathan and I left the bay and stepped out into the cargo section’s hallway, which was even dimmer than the cargo bay. I turned on a flashlight, and headed for the one elevator that still worked reliably. “So, I’m curious - why are you looking for new work? You seemed to have a good thing going with your previous team.”

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Ok, no problem" said Bishop. With that, he went into the CEO's office and I took the lift out to the landing pad.

As Bishop entered the General’s office, Kauffman greater him with a warm smile. 

“Come Lieutenant, have a set” said Kauffman as he motioned to one of the large ornate seats in front of his desk. 

The large mercenary took he’s seat, slightly in comfortable with how welcoming the seat was to his body. Bishop had spent so much of his life sitting on military bench seats in the back of Vtols or tanks that luxurious comforts made him feel out of place. 

Kauffman reached down behind his decks and pulled a bottle of Marik 40 from one of the desks many drawers. 

“If I remember correctly Lieutenant... you have a taste for scotch, correct?” Asked the CEO

Bishop nodded 

“Yes sir, but I don’t believe I’ve ever had Marik 40.... Little bit outside what I can afford. 

The corporate executive produced a light blue whisky class with a gold inlay of a oriental dragon standing guard over a castle. 

“I’m not to much of a scotch drinker myself. I must admit it a bit harsh for my taste. But I do appreciate the mastery of the spirt” Kauffman smiled as filled the glass halfway. Then dropped in four frosted salt and pepper colored whiskey stones. 

The smooth charred oak and peat moss sent filled Bishops acute senses.  Kauffman gracefully slid the glass to Bishop’s welcoming hand. As the Skinwalker savored his fist sip the CEO poured a glass of fine red wine into a ruby red stained glass goblet. Both men sat in silence sipping their drinks. 

“So Bishop.... what can I do for” said Kauffman breaking the silence. 

Bishop, thought carefully about his next words,

“Sir, Crayven fills a special roll in the Sphere now. You have played your cards right and built a Corporation that provides a service that few can or will attempt. I’m no business man sir, but I’ve been in this business for sometime now and I for see the Company making allot of C-bills being a currier service. Something other major Interstellars, Great House and Periphery  States will buy into. Brilliant idea.” Bishop paused to take a sip. 

“Now, as your Strategic Operations manager I feel I should warn you about what this means out in the field. Everyone of them... the Interstellar Corporations, Houses and others will be doing everything they can to intercept what we are carrying. They are going to send there best teams, spies and monsters to take what we have. These people can’t be paid off, reasoned with, negotiated with. They will kill everyone and anything that gets in their way.  Captain Maxwell and his team are good people... honest and caring, things hard to find in this galaxy. I fear they will be in extreme danger if you keep them on and don’t protect them” Bishop said as he starred into his drink. 

Kauffman was silent for a moment in deep thought. 

“You where one of them... weren’t you Bishop. The Skinwalkers are the monsters Irain would send in to do the things you speak of” Kauffman asked in a sad tone. 

Bishop’s eyes snapped up and locked with Kauffman’s.  

“Yes, we would come in mist, in the darkest of hours. When we were done... none survived.” Said Bishop dead panned. The memories flooded back into his mind, the beast growled softly excitement.

“What do you suggest then?” Asked Kauffman, his voice was steady but Bishop caught the faint sent of the fear pheromone. 

“A business deal sir. In order to protect your people from monsters you’ll need one of your own to hunt them” answered Bishop as he took another sip of scotch. 

Kauffman’s eyes lit up, at his words. The man was a true businessman. This was his element and he clearly enjoyed it. 

“You have my interest Lieutenant” said Kauffman. 

“Weaponize me sir” said Bishop. 

“What does that mean Lieutenant?” Asked Kauffman. 

“I’m asking for your help sir.....I am no longer as good as I once was. I’m older and physically damaged, getting slower. I think military prosthetics will make me better, stronger and faster. Legs, arms and eyes...I’ll be able to be that monster you’ll need. I also want access that  nighthawk suit.... it was a gift to me. I know it needs some work to make it safe again...I get that. It’s going to help protect your assets, actually all of it is. I’m willing to pay for all this, I’m ok if you want garnish my pay or renegotiate my contract to insure all of its payed back. I’ll do an extended contact to ensure my debts is payed up. Think of it as an investment”. Bishop couldn’t help but smile at that last part. 

Kauffman leaned back in his chair, his face heavy with thought. 

 

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The soft strains of Debussy's Arabesque enveloped the executive cabin in an embrace of delicate piano pieces and luminously colored orchestral tapestries as I contemplated Bishop's plea. The gentle, steady hiss of the afternoon rain falling against the Half Moon's hull added a soothing, poignant backdrop of organic white noise that I'd desperately missed during my nearly three months in captivity, having spent the majority of the time adrift in the vacuum of space, plying the desolate barrens between the stars.

“I’m asking for your help, sir. I am no longer as good as I once was. I’m older and physically damaged," Bishop began, looking down at his hands momentarily, then returning his gaze to me with a frustrated expression. "Getting slower. I think military prosthetics will make me better, stronger and faster. Legs, arms and eyes. I’ll be able to be that monster you’ll need."

The Lieutenant took a long sip of his drink. I could tell from experience that he was carefully considering his next set of words, arranging them in advance out of either tact, hesitation, or a combination of both. I hadn't known Weyland very long, but I considered myself to be a good judge of character. Whatever was coming next in his train of thought was profoundly personal and meaningful. I remained silent, setting my wine glass aside and leaning forward on my desk, listening intently.

"I also want access to that Nighthawk suit. It was a gift to me. I know it needs some work to make it safe again. I get that. It’s going to help protect your assets - actually - all of it is. I’m willing to pay for all this, I’m ok if you want to garnish my pay or renegotiate my contract to ensure all of it's payed back. I’ll do an extended contact to ensure my debt is paid up," Bishop explained. Then, with a smile, he added, "Think of it as an investment."

The Half Moon, perceptive creature that it was, shifted the cabin's music to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. I smiled wryly at Bishop's choice of words. He'd wielded the language of the corporate world masterfully.

"Mister Weyland, you certainly know how to make a business case. I needn't explain that augmentation isn't an inexpensive undertaking, nor is it something particularly amicable to a case of buyer's remorse. As a certain physician of mine once put it, there's no going back. Once you've been augmented, the cybernetics are yours to keep. You can't get a refund if you decide you don't like the new look."

"I've given it a lot of thought, sir. Augmentation and the suit are the only way that I can see myself being able to continue contributing to your objectives in the manner that you'll need me to." Weyland replied, an undercurrent of concern beginning to seep in around the edges of his otherwise-stoic façade.

I felt for Bishop. The darkness of the slow, steady march of mortality weighed heavily on my mind as well. It was a concern to which I had dedicated substantial resources and capital of my own.

"I want to express my gratitude to you for sharing this information with me, Mister Weyland. And it would be hypocritical of me to question your sincerity or judgement. I know exactly how you feel. The allure of transhumanism as a gateway to immortality found me nearly fifteen years ago. Though, in my case, the endeavor began as a somewhat more...proactive...undertaking," I chuckled. 

"Sir...how many do you have? If you don't mind me asking," Bishop replied.

"Six," I replied. "One more than my last surgeon recommended."

The Lieutenant let out a low whistle. "That's a lot of hardware. Enhanced eyes, right? Telescopic?"

"Among other things," I smiled.

"I've always wanted to ask you that," Weyland grinned. "I bet you get some mileage out of those."

"The downside is the never-ending infusion of painkillers every six hours. One of many reasons that I was grateful to be largely unconscious during my captivity." 

"The suit had a way of doing the same thing," Bishop remarked.

"Yes," I nodded, "I am aware. And far be it for me to withhold your property from you, but I do hope you'll take every precaution before attempting to use the Nighthawk again. Mister Schmidt's desire to stop it from harming you further is not misplaced, and it would be truly unfortunate if something were to happen to you that jeopardized your career as a result of not heeding those warnings. I encourage you to take him up on his offer."

"You're okay with me working with Nathan Schmidt? Even after what happened here?" Weyland asked incredulously.

"It's your judgement I trust, Lieutenant, not his. If you consider him a valuable consulting resource, I'll allow it, with the proviso that you'll be accountable for his actions." I confirmed. "Sometimes, dealing in shades of gray can be very profitable. I'll be most curious to learn what the two of you turn up. The Crayven Corporation may stand to benefit from the knowledge gained by an informed deep-dive into the workings of that machine."

"Thank you, sir." Bishop replied.

"Certainly. I'll release the suit into your custody with one caveat - any diagnostics you do on the machine need to take place with a standalone computer unit. I don't want whatever's on board that hardware to make the jump into our network - nor do I wish to have Mister Schmidt attempting to do the same. And I'd like to request that you share your findings with Major Hayes. He has an uncanny ability to spot practical and marketable details in the most mundane data. That's why he's my head of Research and Development."

"Thank you, sir. You have my word," the Lieutenant nodded enthusiastically.

I retrieved my data pad and keyed in an access code.

"As to the matter of the augmentations - what you're asking me to bankroll is extremely risky, costly, and time-intensive from a recovery perspective. It's not something I take lightly. Now that we have shareholders, the business justification for both the procedure and the recovery must be absolutely clear-cut," I explained. A look of quiet resignation crossed Bishop's face.

"Fortunately for both of us, the stars have aligned in your favor. How does six months of paid recovery time sound to you?" I asked, taking a sip of the crimson wine as I read over the intelligence briefing on the tablet.

"Sir?" Weyland replied.

"As I mentioned in my email to you, Interstellar Expeditions has greenlit our mutually-beneficial arrangement. And you know that I'd like you to be the integrated command liaison for the operation. Your familiarity with our employer and the way that they are accustomed to doing business with Irian Technologies is exactly why I hired you. You're ideally-suited for this operation in a way no one else on my staff could be."

"I appreciate that, General," Bishop responded. "Although I'm not too sure about the 'people management' side of things. I'm more of a front-line guy myself."

"That won't be an issue. I intend to approach Aegis Division to round out the roster. You and Captain Maxwell have an excellent rapport. I have no doubt that he'll trust your lead," I explained.

"That's good, one less thing to worry about," the Lieutenant agreed. "But you said...six months? Of paid downtime? Where are we going?"

"The Oberon Confederation. I believe that checks the boxes you mentioned about an "extended contract," "spies," and "monsters," does it not?" I chuckled. Bishop nodded.

"The artifact is alleged to be on Oberon IV itself. I didn't want to send those details to you over the wire. Too many spies right here at home to risk it, not to mention the rampant piracy that King Hendrik Grimm seems to be all to happy to continue allowing on his borders. At least - that's how it was the last time I was there," I remarked.

"You traveled to the Oberon Confederation yourself?" Weyland asked.

"Yes - I have what you might call a "prior history" with King Hendrik Grimm III - I did some...consultation work for him while I was in the Outworlds obtaining some of my augments. He's a reasonably friendly man, but I fear he's definitely not to be trusted. I don't know who he's really working with at the moment, nor do I know his motivations. I do know this - his regime poses a significant threat to the successful recovery of the artifact. They're looking for any technology they can get their hands on with a focus on weaponizing it," I elaborated. "As is every pirate brigand within two jumps of the planet."

Bishop leaned his forearms on his shins and looked like the tactical gears in his head were turning. He appeared to relax noticeably. Incredibly, the mental image of a perilous situation seemed to relax the man.

"Care to hear the mission intel?" I smiled.

"Please," Bishop replied, as I poured us both another round of drinks.

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Meanwhile, aboard the Hurry Up Bessie...

“So, I’m curious - why are you looking for new work? You seemed to have a good thing going with your previous team.”

I felt a flush of stress and embarrassment wash over me as Nikki landed the million C-Bill question. Even though I anticipated it would be coming, when it finally did, I still felt like a deer in the headlights. The elevator arrived and its doors flung open way faster than they probably should have. Then the elevator dinged. I was pretty sure those two things are supposed to happen in the opposite order. We stepped inside. The lift looked old with some of its buttons replaced with clear bottle caps that had letters written on them. Nikki pressed the cap with a "T" written on it.

"Well. I used to be an agent for the Lyran Intelligence Corps. I specialized in cyber warfare. I had been doing that job for about two years. What's T stand for?" I asked.

"Trunk. The equipment trunk deck is where most of the damage is. It's utility stuff. I thought you might want to go in that way instead of going in the way that Steve did." Nikki said. "Anyway, you were saying?"

"The government and the Crayven Corporation had been getting pretty cozy, including sharing intelligence information, and my CO and I were on one of the company's DropShips when I came across some information about an AI that they were planning to recover without including the Lyrans. So I told my CO, and he was pretty upset that I had gone looking somewhere that I shouldn't have been. He told me not to act on it further. But a Star League era AI could be a major advantage to a nation in a war situation like we are with the Draconis Combine, and I felt like I had to act on it. I couldn't understand my CO's response to it, and I considered that he might have been compromised. So I sorta...downloaded the data, borrowed one of Crayven's fighters, and disabled their DropShip so that I could get away and meet up with an LIC intelligence cell."

The lift lurched to a stop and we got out. "Wow, just that, huh?" Nikki asked.

"No, there's more. After I met up with the LIC group I took a lance of mercenaries to Nirasaki to try to get the AI first and ended up facing the Crayven Corporation and Aegis Division in combat. They ended up taking out my Mech and I surrendered to them. I ended up in one of their holding cells." I continued.

"But now you were fighting alongside them and you seem to be one of their crew.....?" Nikki asked.

"It's complicated. A bunch of things happened after that, but long story short, I ended up having an attack of the conscience and realizing how stupid and brash my decision was, and when Crayven and Aegis needed help, I was there for them, to the point that I was willing to lay down my life to help them out. Including getting shot nearly to death on a freighter full of cows. And ultimately they dropped the charges against me and gave me a ride back to Sheratan. I even got paid, though not much." I said.

"You don't work for them now though? It sounds like they would have hired you. You must have done some awesome work to even get them to drop charges against you." Nikki commented.

"It's complicated. They dropped the charges but I'm still wanted by the Lyran military for what I did....what I hear is that they've brought me up on insubordination and desertion charges at a minimum. It sounds like the Capellans are maybe looking for me too, I'm not sure why. But I'm wanted by two major powers. And that makes me a liability in Crayven's eyes." I sighed. "So I'm a free man but I'm not."

"What about Aegis Division?" Nikki asked as we walked into an equipment room with a big hatch that led down into an IT crawlspace.

"I think it's probably too soon for them. Only fairly recently, I was shooting at them." I replied. "Plus I don't know whether or not Captain Maxwell hires people with active international warrants. And to be honest, I'm not sure if you do, either. I really need the work. I learned from my mistake. In so many ways. But did I pretty much just blow this interview?"

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Meanwhile...

Four more whiskey stones clinked into a fresh glass. Outside the Half Moon, a low clap of thunder boomed.

"We've been contracted to find a doll," I began, passing the glass to Bishop. The Lieutenant raised an eyebrow.

"A doll." Bishop replied, taking a sip of the drink. I refreshed my own beverage and then moved to lean against a front corner of my desk.

"You seem surprised, Mister Weyland," I replied with a laugh. "You of all people should understand how eccentric Interstellar Expeditions clients can be. Why, most recently, I understand that they dropped 300 tons of armor onto Scheat to retrieve an unopened pack of Bazooka Joe for Baroness Earwig."

"She always did know how to throw a party," Bishop chuckled. "No, I'm not surprised. I just think it's the first time I've put my life on the line for this particular category of artifact."

"This particular category of artifact is a bit less garden-variety than you'd imagine," I explained, recalling an image of the objective onto my data pad and passing the unit to the Lieutenant. Weyland squinted at the image and then shuddered.

"Ok, that's kinda creepy looking. Let me guess. It has a history to match," Bishop quipped.

"Quite right. You're looking at 'Robert,' an allegedly-haunted doll from the early twentieth century. It allegedly has a long and morose history of tormenting the living. The doll was something of a cause de celebre in paranormal circles. Even contemporary accounts credit 'Robert' with hallucinations, spirit visions, and the occasional metaphysical act. And for that notoriety, someone has requested his presence in their personal collection," I explained.

"I feel obligated to ask," Weyland responded, passing the data pad back to me, "we got any indication that any of those stories are true? Not that I believe that the doll's doing anything, but who knows what kinds of weirdos something like this might attract? It might have some folks acting as self-proclaimed 'avatars' on its behalf. Guys like the 'One Star Faith,' for example."

"I'm not aware of any intelligence chatter that would lead me to think that you're likely to be chased by religious zealots on this one, Lieutenant, but there is some concern about what you may find when you get to your destination," I advised, taking another sip of wine and setting aside the data pad.

"Oh? What's the scuttlebutt?" Bishop asked.

"About three centuries ago, during the Amaris Coup, there existed a group of refugees who traced their lineage to native North Americans belonging to the Navajo nation. They left Terra to escape Amaris' persecution, traveling to the Outworlds in search of a place to resettle and protect their cultural heritage. They ultimately found Oberon IV, establishing a small community to the north of Black Canyon. They kept to themselves, avoiding contact with the rest of the Inner Sphere and preferring to remain deeply insular. Even when others began to settle on the planet, they maintained their doctrine of silence and separation. When the Grimm regency established their seat of government on Oberon IV, they also largely ignored the Navajo expatriates. And as a result, the descendants of those Navajo settlers have endured - or so it's thought. They're still occasionally sighted outside of Black Canyon, but they refuse contact with any outsiders."

"And you think they might have an interest in this 'Robert' thing?" the Lieutenant asked.

"It's a distinct possibility. Interstellar Expeditions didn't want to give me the exact location of the artifact, but by extrapolating certain information and using context clues from my conversations with their representatives, I believe that, at a minimum, we're looking at a retrieval on potentially sacred land - or..." I replied.

"...or we're about to lift something that means something to them and potentially provoke an incident." Weyland replied. I nodded.

"Got it," the Lieutenant continued. "The one thing that doesn't sit right with me is, why would they want Robert hanging around? That's a great way to attract a chindi."

"A chindi?" I asked. Bishop had me intrigued.

"Yeah. According to tradition, a chindi's the ghost left behind after a person dies. It exits the body with the dying person's last breath. The Navajo believe that the chindi is a...container...of sorts. It holds everything that was bad about the person. The residue that they couldn't bring into universal harmony. When someone dies in the Navajo community, their possessions are often destroyed. Contact with bodies is avoided. The chindi lingers around those things," Weyland explained. I raised an eyebrow.

"Go on," I prompted.

"If a person dies indoors, that building is believed to be inhabited by the chindi and is abandoned. After death, the deceased's name is never spoken out of fear that the chindi will hear it, come and make someone sick, or kill them outright. The Navajo take this stuff seriously, sir," Bishop concluded. "So what I can't reconcile is why they'd want anything to do with a doll that belonged to a dead guy, haunted or otherwise."

"Very intriguing, Lieutenant," I replied. "That being the case, while you unravel the mystery, I suspect that a proactive tactful approach with the locals may be in order. Your cultural insight is impressive."

"Ah, I know a thing or two," Bishop chuckled, taking another sip of his drink. I returned the gesture with an impromptu air toast.

"There is another concern. Our intelligence reports indicate heightened activity on and around Oberon IV by the Nickel's Boys and the Belt Pirates. Less-reliable rumors also place ComStar in the system, but we can't verify the information. Regardless, this mission could be a potential mine field. One that should be navigated carefully, given the desire for secrecy and surgical precision," I advised.

"The Nickel's Boys. Those guys are some sick motherfuckers," Weyland murmured. "If you need a business justification for weaponizing one of your guys, those fools are cause enough."

"Indeed. And as you astutely pointed out, the more prevalent our profile becomes, the more of those types will be trying to get in our way. Which is why, Bishop, when you hunt, I'd like you to try to collect identifying information about these people. IDs, electronics, wallets, personal effects - things that can tell us who they are and who they're working for. It's not enough to simply kill. It's necessary to track the evil to its source and smite it. That is the role I intend to play if this organization or its assets become endangered."

Weyland cast me an incredulous look.

"Sir, I don't believe I've ever heard you put it quite like that."

"Was I believable?" I asked.

"Oh, yes." Bishop agreed.

"Excellent. And on the subject of commanding this operation? Ensuring that all the bases are covered and bringing both the artifact and the people back home?" 

"You want me to look after the Aegis Division folks, make sure that nobody tries to snuff them, and then get the contact and objective back to you." Bishop replied. "I can do that."

"Excellent. My plan is to have you and the team underway in the next thirty days, providing that Captain Maxwell is agreeable to such an extended contract," I smiled. "Now...what questions can I answer for you? Do you have a list of your desired augments available? Assuming that we approve the project, I have contacts along the way who can help facilitate that process in a more discreet way than augmentation clinics closer to home," I added.

As Bishop considered his reply, the sound of the rain fell away, as though the elements were reflecting the mood in the room.

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"What about Aegis Division?" I asked as Nathan and I walked into the storage room where we kept the two forklifts - one working, and one for parts - and assorted other pieces of machinery. The emergency lighting wasn’t quite up to snuff, so I got out the tiny, super-bright flashlight I’d taken to carrying ever since the ship’s electronics got fried.

"I think it's probably too soon for them," Nathan answered. "Only fairly recently, I was shooting at them. Plus I don't know whether or not Captain Maxwell hires people with active international warrants. And to be honest, I'm not sure if you do, either. I really need the work. I learned from my mistake. In so many ways. But did I pretty much just blow this interview?"

I set down the flashlight and switched it to “lantern” mode, and used my keychain to remove the bolts from an access hatch set into the floor. Gretchen and I had only secured three of the bolts last time we looked inside, and left the others taped to the panel, so it didn’t take long. “Ordinarily, I’d consider saying yes to that,” I said. “But under these circumstances -” I lifted up the panel and slid it out of the way, revealing a cavity full of electronics in various states of destruction. Some circuits had been fortunate enough to blow their fuses, while others’ components were blackened and half-melted. Even after a week, the smell of burning plastic remained strong.

Nathan gave a low whistle.

“There’s a bunch of areas that need fixing, but this is one of the worst ones. To be honest, I don’t know what half these wires go to. Gretchen’s best guess is that most of it has to do with house systems in and above cargo bay one, since those things are completely busted - lights, ventilation fans, doors, outlets, that sort of thing. The automated systems on some of the livestock containment units in bay two broke too, but that’s less of an issue since they belonged to the Capellan company we were delivering for, and that bridge is thoroughly burned. The bigger problem is that just about everything that has any complexity to it is having intermittent failures, or running but behaving strangely. You saw how the good elevator is behaving, and sensors and navigation are even worse. We tested the autopilot for about five minutes on our way in from the jump point, and our flight path was more of a flight scribble.”

“That sounds like a computer problem, then,” Nathan said. “Either one of the devices that handles the sensor and flight data got damaged, or the microprocessors inside the components did - maybe even both. What’s your timeline on getting back in the air?”

“I’ve got no clue how long this will take to fix,” I said. “Luckily or unluckily, we don’t have any work lined up right now. If you’re hired, I’d want you to estimate a schedule in the first week or so, so that I can try to line up some jobs for us. Does that seem reasonable? And I guess I should also ask, is this stuff even in your wheelhouse? I’m not sure how much overlap there is between LIC secret agent stuff and fixing a fried Mule.”

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Meanwhile.....

 

“Excellent. My plan is to have you and the team underway in the next thirty days, providing that Captain Maxwell is agreeable to such an extended contract," I smiled. "Now...what questions can I answer for you? Do you have a list of your desired augments available? Assuming that we approve the project, I have contacts along the way who can help facilitate that process in a more discreet way than augmentation clinics closer to home,"

Bishop wondered deep in thought with what Kauffman said. A thirty day turnaround was incredibly fast, especially after their back to back missions. Personally it didn’t bother him, the Skinwalker was used to a high operational typo. His concern was with Captain Maxwell and his team and weather they had the staying power to keep sharp. They had no choice really, if they stayed on. 

Kauffman’s warning also echoed in his mind, if he took this step... there would be no turning back. The reality was, Bishop would more then likely going to become a permanent employee of the corporation. They would be no jumping ship or free agent options for him. This was it, all or nothing.  Strangely, a feeling of calmness swept over his mind and soul. He was tired of running from his past, tired of trying to hide who he was. Finally, he had a fighting chance to break from the darkness of Irain and the Skinwalkers. 

“Ok, if we can, I would like Elective Myomer Implants. Full torso work over for reinforcement and a secondary power supple to lessen the bio-electric pull on me. I would also like to request cyber eye implants, one infrared and the other laser. I could care less about cosmetics, should be a savings there”. 

Kauffman picked up his datapad and began typing notes. 

Without looking up the CEO spoke

“Are you sure Bishop?”

“Without a doubt sir” said Bishop looking into glass. 

“Sir, who is going to know about this and how much do you want Captain Maxwell to know about my other assigned duties in regards to gathering Intel on our enemies?” 

Kauffman finished typing on his datapad then set it down on the desk. Leaning back into chair the CEO looked at Bishop over his wine glass. 

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MEANWHILE......

On the Bus we bounced all over the place as our bus driver hit every Pot Hole on Damnisha Street. Every time he hit a bump everyone flew up out of their seats and screamed at the same time. It was another normal City road. But it was making me feel really sick and I had to be on my A Game if I was going to figure out how to work The Book when I got back to Site 187. I would have to do something about the Driving."

"Hey driver!" I Yelled. "Can't you try not to hit all the Pot Holes?? You don't get bonus points for sinking the shots!!" 

The driver looked up in his backwards mirror and made a rage face at me. "My job is to drive this Bus! Your job is to sit and ride and be quiet!" Then the driver shifted the Bus into a bunch of bad gears to make the bus make a bunch of terrifying gear grinding noises. The engine slowed down and then made a bunch of groin-grabbing Noises and burped smoke before it sped back up. I went back to passengering and looked at the guy sitting across from me. He was dressed like a Circus Clown and was holding a red balloon. He had a sad look on his face. 

"Hello! I'm Steve Jenkins!" I said. 

"Hello." Said the clown. "I'm Meatloaf Johnson. I'm in the circus." 

"That's awesome, I like your costume, are you Supposed to be Ronald McDonald?" I Said 

"No I'm Jingles the Balloon Clown. I make Balloon Art." When he said that, the Bus hit another Pot Hole and Meatloaf flew up out of his seat And the balloon bashed against the ceiling and exploded. 4 pieces of confetti trinkled down. 

"What's that?" Meatloaf/Jingles asked and pointed at The Book. 

"It's the most Important book in the Universe. The book of the Dead. It can bring people back from the Dead. It also does other Magic tricks." I said. "Wow that's great." Said Meatloaf. "I bet I could make a bunch of money in the Circus with a Magic Book. Can you show me some of the tricks it does??" 

"Sure!!!" I Said, then I opened The Book to the Sand Page and I held The Book open in front of the floor while sand dumped out for 5 minutes to make a little pile on the floor. 

"THAT'S AMAZKING!! BUT how do I know you didn't have all that Sand in your sleeve???" 

"OK fine" I said, then I turned to the Fire Page and pointed The Book up and a huge jet of fire shot out and hit the Ceiling. A bunch of people Screamed. Meatloaf got out a Seltzer bottle and tried to put the Fire out with a tiny spray of water. 

"WHO THE HELL IS SMOKING ON MY BUS???" Yelled the driver. "NOBODY!!!" I Yelled. 

"That was pretty cool but how do I know that you don't have a Micro Fusion battery in there, you need to do a trick that's Impossible to hide inside a Book" Said Meatloaf. "OK like what?" I asked. 

"Make a big animal appear, then I know it's real" said Meatloaf. 

"I don't know How to do that yet" I said sadly. "The Book is all in Egyptian writing. But I'll try!!" I Said. Then I looked in the Index. There was a page that had a picture of a Snake. I turned to that page and a bunch of cobras suddenly came up out of the pages and Slithered everywhere on the Bus. A bunch ladies screamed and then the Cobras disappeared. 

"I didn't Get a good look at those" Said Meatloaf.

"OK let me try Something Else." I Said. Then I found a page that looked like a Buffalo. I knew what I could do, I would make a Buffalo go by outside!! I opened to the page and waited. All of the sudden I heard a huge CRASH in the bus bathroom and a Dude started yelling.

" WHAT THE HELL??" Meatloaf yelled. "I think somebody fell off the Toilet!!" 

"No I......." I started to say. Then a guy came SCREAMING out of the Bathroom with his pants down and running to the front of the Bus, then a Galax Beefalo came TEARING out of the bathroom with Toilet Paper around its horns and Blue Water on its fur and it went Roaring toward the panted guy. 

"OH NO!!!" I Screamed "JUMANJI!!" 

The next thing I Knew the Bus Driver hot a HUGE pot hole and the Beefalo got thew Sideways out of one of the Bus windows with a HUGE EXPLOSION of glass and landed in the Street where it ran away. 

"That was AMAZING!!!" Said Meatloaf 

"I Know right??" I said. 

"SITE 187!!!"The bus driver Bellowed. 

"This is my stop, nice to meet you Meatloaf!! Gotta go!!" Then I got off the bus and walked up to Site 187 in the Night.

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