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Elsewhere aboard the Hurry Up Bessie...

The deck gave a lurch as our freighter plied down through the atmosphere on a steady, if slightly graceless descent from the heavens. Spheroid vessels were intended to be superlative spaceships first and mediocre aircraft second. A distant second. And that was definitely the case here. Not that I figured it as a problem. It was just the truth of the universe... you couldn't have perfection, which the Hurry Up Bessie very nearly was in terms of being a merchant vessel, without having some flaws elsewhere. I grabbed hold of my bunk rail as the ship heaved again right as I was dumping into my duffel bag a stack of datacubes, storage drives, and MYRIAD other software programs designed to help facilitate illicit entry into just about anything I wanted. Technically, everyone was supposed to take a seat during Landing for safety reasons, but this wasn't my first rodeo. Not by a long shot. And anyway, I figured if I sprained an arm or broke a bone or something, the nanites would just fix me back up. It was weird thinking about that. And still unsettling, since we had yet to successfully breach their programs. But nevertheless, I wanted to be locked and loaded the moment we hit the ground, and where is other people might be filling up their carryalls with guns, knives, and explosives, my weapons were of the digital kind. It was the one skill I had that I felt could be reliable in any place at any time. I also grabbed a pile of BattleMech training material that I'd accumulated about LAMs over the course of the last few months. I had managed to get my 'Heavy' rating and 'Amateur AeroSpace' certification over the previous few months, but all of that was due to extensive training in the simulator and following written courses of study. I had ever gotten to do a practical application give an hour constant time in transit. I knew that the real deal was likely to be very different.

As I tossed a bunch of clothes into my bag, the comm unit on the wall let out a sudden chip. I balanced my way over to it and hit the button to talk, noting that the transmission was coming in from outside of the vessel

"Rebus." I answered.

"Rebus, this is Archangel." an artificially-filtered and disguised voice responded. " I have your vessel on my track now. What is your ETA to the spaceport?"

I glanced at my watch. "About 5 minutes." 

"Good. You'll be pleased to know that you haven't aroused any suspicion down here on the surface yet. Will you still be able to make the rendezvous?" Archangel replied. 

"I'm not sure. We apparently are in business right from the moment we step off the ship. It's going to be tight. Any chance you could meet us at Neurohack? I hear it's some kind of bar over on the west side." I explained. 

"I don't normally make house calls to do this sort of thing. But you're long way from home. I'll see what I can do. Signal me when you get there." came the reply.

"How will I recognize you or even find you when I'm there?" I asked in confusion. 

"You won't." Archangel replied. "I'll find you."

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I did a yelling barf into the wishing well pond in the Hydroponics Bay and then I stared, sometimes cross eyed as the fish inside the pond swam up and ate my chunks of barf. It had been a long and hard five months since the Vega Space Station, when I had accidentally got high on the Borax laundry detergent, it had did something to my brain and now my brain was slightly fried and sometimes I would have flashbacks and blackouts. Also occasionally it would make me get really sick to my stomach although I wasn't sure if that was on account of the borax on or account of the other things that I was doing to make up for the juicing I could not do well I was in space. I was stressed out because I was not in my right mind and it was making me see and do things, sometimes I saw Jingles everywhere, other times I thought I was back on Archimedes / Kuuxu and I didn't know what was real. Captain Maxwell had tried to keep everybody sharp by giving them Tate home tests, but I could not do the tests, I just gave them to different people on the crew and paid them with cash money to take my tests for me, and then I would usually pass. Nobody had knew what I was dealing with, since we were on our shifts on a shift that wasn't going anywhere except on the Dropship, I could sit there and pretend to fly and nobody knew the difference. In my off time I mostly sat in my quarters with different things that make you high that you can find under the kitchen counter and dirty magazines, there wasn't much else to do in space, in space they can't even hear you scream. Now we were finally at Oberon, the pirate world, and I had to get it together and not be juicing. I had been off the juice for like 2 days and it was making me sick from the detox. When I wasn't throwing up in the fountain in the garden I was having explosive diarrhea on every toilet in the ship. And sometimes I also was feeling like I had Uncontrolled pee. It made me feel dishonorable. But I knew that if I was going to get through this I had to be Brave. I knew that everybody on the ship was cheering for me. So I got up and I wiped the barf off my chin with my sleeve and I told the fish, don't wait up for me, it's going to be a while, and then I went and got my bag out of my room. Then I went to the bridge and walked in and saw Captain Maxwell. "SERGEANT STEVE JENKINS REPORTING FOR DUTY, READY TO GO SIR!!" I screamed, right as I did, I let out a deadly lethal awful fart and I hoped that nobody would smell or notice it, because I would be embarrassed. Was I ready for this mission??? 

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Oberon VI - Oberon Confederation
On final approach to Port Royal
October 3, 3029 - 2200 hours (local time)
____________________________________

It had been a long journey on the way to Oberon VI, a little over 6 months since we left Sheratan and travelled half way across the Sphere, but I was well used to that, being a mercenary you get used to spending an exorbitant amount of time "in transit" going from one job to the next. Doesn't make it seem any shorter though and this particular trip was longer than most, even with our week long stop over in Vega. Nevertheless we had arrived and were currently enroute to Port Royal, the spaceport we were designated to arrive at according to our contract with the Crayven Corporation. When we first arrived in system we received a priority communication from whom I assumed must have been our Interstellar Expeditions contact, however I wasn't present for the call itself. I found out afterwards that we were instructed to dress as civilians and check into a specific hotel in the city before heading to the transhumanist dive bar Neur0hack! while our BattleMechs and equipment were discretely shipped via rail to our area of operations on the planet. So far so good, everything appeared to be matching up with the mission brief, which is always nice, and while I was itching to get back into the cockpit of my Merlin after so long I knew we had to wait and I was content with knowing that it wouldn't be long before I was back inside that comfortable cabin with 60 tons of ferro-steel war machine just waiting to do my bidding.

A sudden lurch sideways as the Spheroid vessel combated the planet's atmosphere brought me out of my momentary daydream and I looked over the gear I had stashed by the door to my cabin before grabbing a few hours of sleep on our approach to the planet. Dressing as a civilian precluded the use of my usual assortment of armour and weapons that I would typically wear/bring with me on an infantry based mission, however this was meant to just be meeting our contact no actual combat so it wasn't a big deal. On the plus side the fact that it was a Transhumanist bar we were meeting at meant that there was no need to disguise my prosthetics, and more importantly Bishop's augments. The two of us might actually blend in more with that particular crowd than the rest of the crew. With that being the case I opted to wear a concealed flak vest disguised as an old green military jacket with the sleeves torn off matched with a pair of military style black cargo pants specially modified to allow easy access to my prosthetic right leg's hidden cargo unit. I planned to carry my Serrek 7875D pistol in a hip holster if we were allowed to bring a sidearm, if not I was going to store it in my leg with a quickdraw holster, and either way I would still have the hidden laser in my left arm if things went awry. I was going for the look of hired muscle on a typical merchant crew and figured the black and green colour scheme along with the military-styled civilian wear would do the trick. An olive drab canvas and leather satchel/messenger bag completed the look and served to contain whatever odds and ends I ended up thinking we might need while at the bar meeting our contact. Currently it housed my basic field kit, minus the sleeping bag, a medipack, a field communicator, a solar recharger, an assortment of power packs and an Engineer's portable console.

Judging from the glow of artificial lights that seemed to be reflecting from clouds in the planet's lower atmosphere we were getting close to Port Royal and the start of the main portion of our mission. I had no idea what to expect with the occult nature of the object we were meant to retrieve, I didn't believe in that sort of thing personally but had learned over the years that some people do and to a staggering degree at times. Irregardless of whether the object itself was "real" in that regard or not, the people that believed it was would be unpredictable at best and probably outright hostile if they caught wind of what we were up to. Best to try and do this one as covertly as possible, of course it always helps if you can bring along enough firepower to accomplish the job anyways when the shit inevitably hits the fan. 

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Previously...

Ozymandias Station
Vega System, Draconis Combine
June 3, 3029
__________________________________

The monolithic hull of the old Newgrange-class Yardship was a static background in this specific portion of space, the 2.6km long vessel was positioned well away from the system's gravity well near the Zenith jump point, its engines long since idle. At one point in time the vessel had been classified as a Warship due to its compact KF-drive, despite never being meant to face actual combat, instead the ship was built to be able to service other similarly large capital class vessels during the Star League era, a class of vessel that was essentially extinct in modern times due to the series of Succession Wars. Instead at some indeterminate point in time someone decided to park this monstrously large vessel near the jumppoint in the Vega system, whether it was intentional or due to a KF-drive failure was lost to time and frankly didn't matter. The ship had become a waystation of sorts, acting as an alternative stop to the literal months long trip to and from the planet and in this role it had succeeded immensely. With being outside the gravity well of the local star and never needing to actually move the main drive engines of the ship had been dormant for likely decades if not centuries, instead the relatively small thrusters were the only operational drives on the ship and even they were sporadic at best since station keeping wasn't needed. Away from the eternally busy and hectic front of the ship, where the ship berths, repair facilities, and small craft docks were located, the ship was silent and dark. 

Against this silent, stark background a small flutter of movement could be seen today if an observer was in just the right spot, with the light of the Vega star blocked out and a strong enough magnification. The barely visible humanoid silhouette was only identifiable when it passed near one of the rarely functioning running lights on the vessel's dark side, or when the short burst of exhaust from a Null-G pack activating caught the limited light and sparkled momentarily. From a distance there was no possible way to identify the figure moving along the vessel's hull and even up close there were no identifying markings on the spacesuit and backpack.

Sierra slowly drifted through the void approaching the location given to her from the "Fixer" aboard the station early today, she had arrived in system earlier and had gone aboard the station in search of information regarding the Hurry Up Bessie. While aboard she had managed to find out that a Mule-class dropship under the name of Hurry Up Bessie had docked for some short repairs and presumably shore leave for the crew while their jumpship was recharging. While trying to gather any information she could about the crew of the dropship she came across a man named Miguel who called himself a kuromaku or "Fixer", someone who arranged for certain jobs to get completed aboard the station that were of a somewhat questionable nature and who also had ties to the local Yakuza clans. Sierra wasn't looking for work and couldn't care less about the nature of the work but her skills were useful and so her and Miguel managed to come to an agreement. She would do one "simple" job, they never were simple of course, and in exchange Miguel would provide her with detailed information regarding the Bessie's crew and their activities aboard the Ozymandias Station. The job, as it turned out, was to retrieve an "asset" from a rival Gumi (a Yakuza clan), the "asset" of course was actually a person who just happened to be the son of a local Koman (an Advisor within the Yakuza clan's inner circle) and also a Wakashu (Yakuza junior officer) himself. Sierra did not want any further details as she did not care and most definitely did not want to get any more wrapped up with the Yakuza than absolutely necessary.

"I've reached the entrance," I radioed to Link on the secure military comm built into the spacesuit, "I'll contact you once I'm inside and ready to proceed."

"Roger that," was his only reply, we wanted to keep transmissions to a minimum to help avoid detection.

Using the suit's own thrusters combined with the Null-G pack I slowed my approach and landed feet first against the outer hull of the Ozymandias station, the magnetic clamps activating and holding me fast as my inertia, combined with the weight of the backpack on the suit, forced me forward and a little off balance before all my momentum was arrested. Leaning forward in the zero-G environment I grabbed hold of a handrail located beside the maintenance airlock before disengaging the maglocks on my boots and re-orientating myself to match the airlock's orientation. Reaching out with my other hand I grabbed hold of the twist style lever to open the airlock and twisted it counter-clockwise as I thought, Let's hope this works, or else this little spacewalk will have been for nothing.

It took a moment, just long enough for me to begin doubting before a red light above the lever began blinking, a few seconds later it turned solid green and the outer airlock door opened with a silent hiss, a few flakes of frozen atmosphere blowing gently out of the now fully depressured airlock. Using another set of well placed handles I pulled myself inside the airlock and engaged the magnetic clamps on the floor before twisting another oversized lever, clockwise this time, and turning to watch the outer doors seal and then seeing more frozen atmosphere, or maybe it was dust this time, blowing out of ductwork along the ceiling as fans worked to repressurize that airlock. A light above the inner door turned green but the door didn't open and I began looking around for another handle or switch that I might need to operate but found nothing.

"Well this is just great," I said to no-one but myself, smacking my gloved hand against the door in a futile attempt to make it work.

A moment later and the door hissed open, this time I could actually hear it since there was now an atmosphere, but it stopped just a few inches open and seemed to be stuck again. Just as I was about to start cursing a metal prybar slipped between the doors and began working back and forth, the doors slowly gave another inch or two before snapping open fully with a bang. Standing on the other side of the doors was young man of clearly Asian descent wearing a faded brownish-purple pair of coveralls complete with an insignia on the left collar showing a magenta coloured kanji on a dark green background indicating he was a Naval crew Private.

"You must be Blaze," he said in passable English before dropping the crowbar down by his side and gesturing with his free hand, "Come, we must be quick. Only 10 mins til next crew."

I stepped through the airlock and the young man rotated a lever on this side of the door and the airlock attempted to close, after a swift boot from the private the door closed and he quickly crouched down and opened up an access panel below the lever and tinkered with some stuff inside. The LCD panel on beside the door switched to a "maintenance" mode screen then turned off and the light above the door turned to an amber tinted orange, the technician stood up and replaced the panel before turning back to me.

"I am Sora, I am told to assist you Blaze," Sora said with a smile, holding out his hand.

"Nice to meet you Sora," I reply through the spacesuit's external speaker while somewhat awkwardly shaking his hand with my still gloved hand.

"We must hurry, come we find better spot to get you undressed," he said while moving to walk down a small corridor to my left.

"Ok, but it would be much easier to move without the suit on," I replied as I moved to follow him, disengaging my maglocks to allow slightly faster movement in the still Zero-G environment.

"No, no time, new crew on their way and we can't be seen here," was all he said as he slipped into the narrow corridor, his mag boots clunking lightly as he went.

Well, let's hope I don't get stuck, I thought as I floated into the corridor following Sora. The suit was cumbersome in confined spaces but absolutely vital to spending any length of time in the cold vacuum of space, inside the space station however it only proved to be an encumbrance. We floated through the corridor for a short distance, thankfully I only got hung up once when I drifted too close to the ceiling and the backpack hit an overhead pipe. We then moved into a normal sized corridor and made our way down it and then into a storage cubicle that was mostly empty and provided a surprising amount of room.

"Ok, we are safe here, you can get out of the suit now," said Sora nodding after closing the storage room's door.

"Alright, I might need a hand here if you expect me to be quick about this," I replied as I turned my back towards him and unclipped my helmet, removing it and placing it floating in the air a foot or so away.

"Sure, what you need?" Sora asked.

"Give me a sec here and I'll get your help taking off the chest piece here," I answered as I pulled my hands out of the gloves and then the sleeves of the cumbersome suit, reaching inside the find the seals and fasteners that would allow me to separate the chest section from the legs.

Unclipping the locks I was able to rotate the chest portion of the spacesuit, including the large backpack, to the left several inches to disengage the seals and allowing the two pieces to separate, talking over my shoulder I said to Sora, "Alright, now take hold of it by the backpack and just lift straight up. It should move easily and come right off."

I felt Sora start lifting and was easily able to slide out of the top portion of the suit, and as Sora finished removing the upper suit and turned to place it safely off to the side I pushed the legs down and quickly slipped out of the lower portion, floating freely in the zero-G. I then removed the hooded portion of the undersuit and let my red hair out, it spreading out in a wild mess with the lack of gravity to help control it.

"Oh that is much better," I said aloud as I ran my hands through my hair in an attempt to corral the wild locks into something more manageable.

"Oh umm.., uh- uh, I am sorry," stammered Sora from behind me, "I did not realize... ummm."

"Huh?" I said as I turned to see what the man was stumbling about trying to say, "What is it?"

Sora stood looking like a mix of dumbfounded and terrified as his cheeks flushed red looking at me before he started looking side to side frantically like he was looking for a place to hide before finally managed to stammer out, "The-they did not tell me you we-were a w-woman."

I finished rotating to face the young man and placed my hands on my hips before glaring at him, "Is that a problem!?"

"No, no, not at all. Just uh, I-I didn't realize how little would be worn inside the space suit," he said managing to mostly get command of his voice again.

"What? I am completely covered, you never seen an undersuit before?" I asked a little surprised by his reaction, I was wearing a skin tight black undersuit that hugged every curve and while it kept everything covered it left little to the imagination.

"Ours are not usually so form-fitting, more generic and usable by different people," Sora replied, his eyes still darting side to side like he couldn't decide where to look, although every so often they would steal longer and longer glances at my ample curves only modestly contained within the jet black undersuit.

"Ah, well if it makes you uncomfortable you can turn around," I suggested with a shrug as I floated over to upper portion of the spacesuit and rotated it so I could access the backpack.

"Yes, umm, I may do that," he replied half turning, though out of the corner of my eye I still caught him looking my way.

Shaking my head slightly, and momentarily regretting it as my hair went all wild again, I opened the backpack and began removing my gear that I needed for this mission. A leather jacket and matched pants, designed to blend in with most civilian wear with a plain black base and crimson red highlights, however this particular set of clothes had a ballistic weave fiber throughout it and concealed compartments with ablative plates in it to provide protection from small arms fire nearly equivalent to a standard Ablative/Flak armour suit. Next up was a special body harness I had designed that was meant to fit underneath the jacket and provide both attachment points for various tools and weapons, including a thigh holster, as well as provide a secure means of using a zipline or grappler. A pair of lightweight combat boots with light duty maglocks followed as well as a pair of gloves that provided limited protection but maintained full dexterity and tactile touch. That was the last of the clothing articles that I had brought and I proceeded to put them on before moving on to my weapons and tools, first sliding into the snug leather pants, keeping the undersuit on in case I needed to don the spacesuit quickly, the feat somewhat difficult due to the lack of gravity and attempting not to go tumbling into poor Sora. With the pants on I slipped into custom harness, buckling it around both thighs, ensuring a snug but not too tight fit, as well as around my waist and then over both shoulders before finally securing the integrated thigh holster on my right leg. The jacket slipped on much easier but still held tight to my body, especially when done up, and the thin armour plates were slightly more visible due to the undersuit, although it just looked like a padded jacket and not actual armour. Slipping on the lightweight combat rated magboots I engaged the maglocks and set my feet on the floor, finally having a stable platform to collect the remainder of my gear. I slipped on the combat gloves and proceeded to dig through the remainder of the packframe still attached to the space suit's chest section. I retrieved my Tech Bow, a collapsible compound bow fitted with night vision sight and capable of firing lethal arrows at up to 160m, as well as a magnetic back quiver containing a variety of different arrows. I placed them off to the side and left them floating there while I retrieved my sidearm, a Nakjima laser pistol, and slid it into the thigh holster along with a spare power pack. I then collected a variety of other equipment, including throwing knives, stun grenades, a vibroblade, sonic stunner, and a case containing a bullpup style tranq rifle complete with telescopic scope and 30 rounds of fast acting high dosage sedative darts.

I finished securing everything to my person; the collapsed bow at the small of my back with the quiver above it, vibroblade on my left hip, throwing knives within easy reach hidden throughout the jacket and harness, and the sonic stunner and stun grenades secured in pouches at my waist. Turning to face Sora once more as I slid a 10-round mag into the Tranq rifle, the 2 spares also stored in a hip pouch, I was greeted with a different flabbergasted look on his face.

"What is it this time?" I queried, mildly amused.

"Just wow, remind me never to piss you off," he said as he came to himself, "that took like barely 5 mins and now you look ready to take on the entire Yakuza or something."

"Maybe I am," I said flatly as I leveled the tranq rifle at the young man, his faced went white as he stared at me his mouth slowly moving but no sound coming out, "I'm kidding Sora, relax."

"U-uh-mmm, ok, y-yeah sorry," he stammered out as his eyes slowly dilated back to a normal size, "You know, you're really hot but you're also kinda scary, and I have no idea what I'm supposed to do about that."

"Cute," I said, genuinely amused by the apparent innocence of the young man, "You can start with showing me how to get on the Grav deck, far as I know that's all the Kuromaku said you needed to do."

"Right, yes the Grav decks. It's just down the corridor," Sora began as we made our way back out of the storage room, gesturing as we walked, "a little over 200m that way is the normal entrance to Grav deck 2, also known as Shukuhaku shisetsu or Sleep Lodging, I was told you can't go in through the front so I'm taking you to a maintenance entrance, a back door of sorts, it's just over here. Once inside you'll have to wait for the light as the capsule matches speed with the grav deck, once the light is green you can open the door not before."

"Alright, thanks Sora, you've been a great help," I said as I climbed into the maintenance capsule and braced myself for the acceleration.

As the door closed with Sierra inside the maintenance capsule the light beside the door turned yellow as the small chamber accelerated away from the stationary part of the ship as it worked to line up with the rotating grav deck. Once the light was yellow and Sora was sure that Sierra was gone he pulled out a small communicator and without a single tremor in his voice he said, "Alright, she's in."

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Oberon VI - Oberon Confederation

On final approach to Port Royal

October 3, 3029 - 2200 hours (local time)

____________________________________

Bishop sat quietly in the darkness of his cabin. The inky blackness was strangely comforting to his mind has the DropShip descended to towards the waiting planet. Truth be told he always got nervous during a drop even after several 100 drops... most of them in combat. It was out of his control, his life depended on the Captain and the ships system a thought that never sat well with him. 

Opening his eyes the room looked like a water color painting of oranges, yellows, blues and green in his left eye. He found himself using his thermal imager most of the time, it reminded him of his time spent in the Nighthawk Suit. He liked being able to see in complete darkness, and see how people body temperature change based on there mood. His right eye, a laser range finder was also a nice addition, especially now since he reworked all his weapon to work in conjunction with it. 

Instinctually he reached up to his shoulder holster, lightly touching the massive Marik issued revolver that hung there. The Lemison Combat Revolver was ancient for the current time and out of vogue. The dual barrel, eight shot weapon was a beast and extremely deadly. It was a heavy caliber pistol with a over and under barrel, the second barrel housed a single shot 51mm shotgun round. Most people could handle the recoil or the weapons overall weight. Weyland no longer had that problem with his augmented body. Before the surgery he could handle the weapon ok, now it had become part of him.  He even went as far as to add an infrared laser and tactical light to it. 

The holster that the weapon sat in was actually a combat harness system that he had made that held spar speed reloads, shot shells, pouches and carabiner clip point for other items that all could be concealed under a heavy trench coat. He could carry an SMG, or M42B (reconfigured as a carbine) or even a sawed of combat shotgun if he wanted too. The leather trench coat and his massive size made it easy to carry bigger weapons hidden from prying eyes. The coat itself had laser and small caliber ballistic panels sowed in to proved some protecting against small arms. 

The ship shook violently for several seconds, as it punched through the upper atmospheres turbulence. A minor aching pain flowed through Bishops joints. Doc Aldon’s unique rehab was amazing and helped the Skinwalker,  not only physically but mentally. Bishop was able to control the Beast that lurked down deep inside. He had actually come to mutual understanding with it... or himself.  He was at peace with himself, he was genetically predisposed for violence he now knew that and new how to control it... he thought. 

Captain Maxwell and Lieutenant Jaeger had also played significant rolls in his recovery. The sparing duels with Maxwell had been largely one sided, in favor of the Skinwalker. Mostly Bishop learned how to control his augments and how to use them to his advantage. He was yet to truly use them to their maximum ability, but that would come soon enough. Truth be told the Captain problem made out in the deal. He had become an exceptional fighter but most of all he became aware of how important the psychological part of combat was.... the aggressive forward think part. The thought less and responded to his animal instincts more. 

Jaeger and Bishop had spent many long hours quietly talking about how to use his arguments in a more finesse way. As well as coaching Bishop on what to expect along the way in his learning. The was no question in Bishop’s mind that the man possessed a tremendous amount of knowledge of the sphere and life as a combat infantryman. 

A chime dinged over head, landing in ten minutes. Bishop unbuckled from his harness and zipped up its heavy combat boots and checked himself over. For this part of the mission he wore heavy dark brown canvas cargo pants and a form fitting black long sleeved shirt and rigger’s web belt. He also checked his coat that carried hidden pouches that contained, comms unit, personal beacon, small tactical first aid kit and a bottle of pain pills for his headaches.  He felt ready and excited for the mission to start. 

 

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A short while later...

Oberon VI - Oberon Confederation
Port Royal
October 3, 3029 - 2235 hours local time
____________________________________

The jet-engine whine of the Hurry Up Bessie's drives winding down punctuated the heavy thunk of the vessel lurching to a stop against the ferrocrete of the Port Royal spaceport. I stood in Cargo Bay One, which had effectively become our mobile base of operations, my rucksack slung over a shoulder, dressed to the nines in an eclectic wardrobe that I'd been assured was "Oberon couture" by our local expert, Nikki Harlow. Alongside me stood Lieutenants Weyland and Jaeger, Sergeant Jenkins - who looked like death warmed over following what he'd described as an evening of "too many Alcohol Drinks," and Doc Aldon. The sight of our group being clad in approximations of foreign civilian attire was jarring to me - the majority of our group was normally given over to, at most, what I'd describe as "military casual," and to witness otherwise was a novel change.

"Alright, ladies and gentlemen - welcome to Port Royal," Captain Harlow's voice crackled over the bay's P.A. system. "We're on a tight timeline, so I'm going to keep this brief. Bay crews: prepare for immediate offload. Orpheus lance: lock and load - you're disembarking in sixty seconds. I need you clear of the bay so that we can get your hardware moved off the ship and over to the logistics contact. James and Gretchen - hold down the fort until I get back."

The P.A. system disconnected with a loud click. I looked toward Bishop, Orlex, and Steve.

"You gents ready?" I asked. "Remember the game plan."

"Copy that; I'm ready," Bishop replied. "I'm looking forward to testing out these upgrades."

"Just keep the demon eyes to a minimum with the civilians," I chuckled. "Orlex?"

"Yes sir - minimum interaction with the locals until we've made our rendezvous, stick to the cover story," Jaeger responded.

"Bitchin'," I nodded. "And Sergeant Jenkins, that story is...?" Steve looked at me, wide-eyed, before letting out a long, vomity-belch.

"I think I puked a little," Jenkins answered, sheepishly.

"We're a merchant crew picking up a hundred gross of self-sealing stem bolts for Stormvanger Heavy Industries," a voice called out from across the bay. I turned my head to see Nathan Schmidt, accompanied by Alyssa Chase and Nikki Harlow, making his way toward us.

"Hey, hey, the gang's all here," I quipped. "Alright, if you all are ready to do this..."

###

A few minutes later, our eclectic group, having passed through what was possibly the most lenient customs inspection I'd ever experienced, stood in the warm night air attempting to flag down a cab. All around us, a skyline of densely packed skyscrapers, corporate logos lighting the night sky, proclaimed ownership over the city below. The dark, neon-trimmed monoliths rose toward the heavens and cut angular swaths of darkness against the mottled purples of the clear night, the cluster of signs splashing a shimmer of colored light at my feet in a cluster of puddles left behind by a recent rainfall. The buzz and din of this organic, breathing city, far larger and more urbanized than Gellen's Heights met my ears, mingled with the heavy noise of vehicle traffic and strains of various genres of music lilting on the evening breeze.

A large, midnight-black SUV lurched up to the curb, the letters 'TAXI' stenciled on its door. A passenger-side window rolled down, revealing the silhouette of the vehicle's driver within.

"You need a ride?" a man's voice called out. "Your bags ride for free. For a group as big as yours, I'll cut you a deal on the mileage, too."

"Yeah, we could use a lift - " I began, taking a step forward. Suddenly, Nikki stuck out her arm, halting my advance.

"Not this one," she whispered, pointing to another large vehicle several car lengths away and taking hold of one of my arms, leading me in the indicated direction. "That one, over there."

"Sure, no problem," I responded, a hint of confusion in my tone. As soon as we were out of earshot of the black SUV's driver, the Captain looked toward me. "That wasn't a real taxi."

I raised an eyebrow. "What was it, then?"

"Cutpursers. They're all over the place here," Harlow explained.

"Cutpursers?" I asked, incredulously. "What the hell does that mean?"

"Local jargon for people who rob you blind and then leave your body rotting in a ditch somewhere," Nikki deadpanned, casting a suspicious gaze back at the vehicle which still stood curbside.

"How'd you know?" I asked.

"No medallion on the hood. Beyond that, cab drivers here aren't desperate for fares. They don't give a shit if you ride with them or not. In this city, they're at a premium."

"Well - good save," I nodded. "Thanks."

"Don't let the friendly, over-the-top personalities here fool you," Harlow replied. "This place is basically still a thinly-veiled pirate state. Organized crime masquerading as government. 'I'm gonna call the cops' doesn't carry as much weight as it does back on your home turf."

"Noted," I replied. "Glad to have you along as our guide."

###

The mini-bus wound its way through the city, the ferrocrete landscape morphing from neon paradise into a vast, chaotic steel jungle, shanties and slums growing like fungus off the sides of once clean and gleaming skyscrapers. The towers, clustered together, played host to a myriad tangle of precarious hanging walkways, sprouting from the structures and running overhead in all directions like vines in a forest. A cluster of rusted ducts and pipes crawled across formerly-shining windows, providing improvised utility service to the denizens of the sprawl. The once-pristine city, now unmanaged and growing organically, showed clear signs of decay due to what was likely mismanagement and lack of regulation. It appeared that, with no one overseeing the infrastructure, those who lived within were using their own means to maintain it, building and expanding as needed - sometimes dangerously.

In short order, the vehicle pulled up in front of a run-down low-rise wedged between two massive tenements, its garish signage flickering the word "LuxConoTel" erratically in the twilight. I glanced toward Bishop.

"This place? Seriously?" I asked half-jokingly.

"I checked the coordinates three times. This is it," Bishop replied.

"Look at it this way; it runs counter to our usual profile," Alyssa added.

"I don't know, you still look a little too classy," I chided.

"In this outfit?" Chase replied, letting out an incredulous laugh. "To even get it on required way more naked contortion in front of a mirror than I'm accustomed to. I think I'll fit in fine."

"I did naked contortions in front of a mirror once," Steve Jenkins chimed in ."It was after, on accident, I sat on a..."

"TMI, Steve," Orlex deadpanned. "TMI."

###

A few minutes later, our room keys were passed to us through a bank teller drawer by a disillusioned front desk clerk fortified behind bulletproof glass.

"Alright, everyone - welcome to paradise," I quipped, handing out the access cards to the group. "Those of you coming to Neurohack, meet back here in the lobby in 15 minutes. And, uh...keep an eye out. For bedbugs."

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Oberon VI - Oberon Confederation
Port Royal
October 3, 3029
____________________________________

It was getting close to midnight local time and we had just received our room keys from Captain Maxwell, the typical magnetized digital access cards although I had half expected an actual physical key giving the "curb appeal" this particular lodging presented. I had stayed in some dives on some questionable backwater worlds in my days abroad and while this place didn't quite measure up to those particular places it was certainly no high-class luxury hotel either, or even middle of the road comfort inn for that matter. However the place had a certain charm to it, they always did in some strange way, like it could be equally at home with a white collar suit looking for some discretionary "fun" on the side, or have a triple homicide in the room next door. Oddly enough that kind of made it the perfect place for us to stay, we weren't high class enough to stand out nor were we eclectic or garish enough to draw undue attention.

Bishop's shear bulk drew looks but nothing that lasted long enough to be more than idle curiosity, besides his heavy trench coat prevented anyone from seeing any of the more interesting things about the man. Jenkins was somewhat surprisingly calm at the moment, or perhaps subdued was a better term, the man seemed to be struggling with some issues lately but he appeared to be coping for the time being. I know I had been drawing a few looks myself with my prosthetic on display in the adhoc vest I was wearing, the dull metallic sheen reflecting poorly under the substandard lighting. I was far from the only one with a prosthetic in the area though, I had counted at least three others in this block alone on our way to our accommodations, although mine was clearly a cut above those I had seen so far. The Captain and Nathan probably drew the least attention, mostly because neither had anything outwards that immediately caught the eye and both were appropriately dressed to blend into the generic crowd. Both Alyssa and Nikki were similarly dressed in modest attire that fit in well but both were also attractive women in their own right and so drew attention regardless. As a whole though I didn't feel like our group had drawn any unwanted attention as of yet, and the fact that Bishop, with inarguably the keenest senses of the group now, was still relaxed, or as relaxed as the man got out in the field, meant we were likely in the clear.

"Alright, everyone - welcome to paradise," Maxwell quipped, as he finished handing out the access cards to the group. "Those of you coming to Neurohack, meet back here in the lobby in 15 minutes. And, uh...keep an eye out. For bedbugs."

I chuckled as I turned and headed towards my assigned room, the Captain's humour had grown on me over the last several months spent aboard the dropship, or rather I had gotten a better appreciation for it, more of a dry humour as opposed to Jenkin's more slapstick style of humour. I was also fully aware of the veiled message in that comment as well; we needed to keep our edge, we weren't in hostile territory so to speak but it also wasn't friendly. We'd spent a lot of time in transit, in what essentially amounted to "down time" and not everyone could just flip a switch so to speak and immediately be back in a combat ready mode. It was subtle reminder, but a necessary one.

My room was almost exactly what I was expecting from a run-down back alley motel that advertised "luxury without having to sell a limb", the bed was hard and worn out, the frame looked like it may have been nice in it's day but it had seen a few too many uses. The sheets were a darker slate grey colour, a good choice if one wanted to hide some milder stains, I shuddered involuntarily as I quickly turned my mind away from what might have caused such stains. The rest of the room was spartan, a single small desk with a worn out office chair sat against the opposite wall and a very old looking wingback chair with a tall standing lamp were the only other furnishings in the room. The bathroom was passably clean, although the shower had a particular mold looking stain that appeared to growing between the tiles in the back corner and I hoped I would not have a need to actually use those facilities during our brief stay.

I stored my extra clothes and excess gear quickly, after first actually checking for signs of bed bugs along the mattress and other furnishings, before spending the next couple minutes doing a cursory sweep of the room for any obvious bugs of the clandestine sort. I had no reason to suspect anyone would be spying on us but it didn't hurt to be cautious, especially given the potentially sensitive nature of our mission with certain locals. Finding nothing of note I checked over my gear that I would be bringing to the bar itself. I decided I'd risk bringing the Serrek 7875D in the hip holster, it was as discrete as an open holster could be but it didn't hide anything. I figured if they were going to be checking for weapons I might as well have something they could find.

With my main sidearm carried in its standard holster that meant my prosthetic leg's cargo unit was empty, instead of taking up space with an unneeded quickdraw holster I removed it and was able to safely store two small lightweight hold-out pistols, one gyrojet and one needler type, along with a single knuckle-duster style mini stunstick. The compartment was very tightly packed but it closed and I could withdraw the items through the modified cargo pocket in my pants without too much trouble. In the military jacket turned vest I stored the usual 4 spare mags for the Serrek, 3 with regular rounds and 1 with incendiary rounds, while a 5th mag with 16 regular rounds was loaded into the gun itself. I also stored my noteputer, military grade communicator and a compad in other pouches built into the garment along with a multitude of high capacity military grade micro power packs meant for the integral laser in my arm but stored in a way to appear used for other generic electronics.

With my gear checked and ready to go I locked up my room and made my way back towards the lobby to meet with the others.

Edited by Orlex Jaeger
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MEANWHILE... 

I Trudged up the stairs of the smashed Hotel room to my Room on account of the Elevator was broken. Then I did my Key in the door and I went inside. There was a stained nasty mattress with a fridge and a dim light bulb in the room with a Dead hooker on the Mattress. I threw my stuff on the Floor and dumped the dead hooker out the Window before going in to the bathroom and taking a dump in the toilet that had not been flushing for years. After I had did that I Filled a bucket of water up and Then then poured it down the Commode to make it flush with dead tree leaves to manage the smell. I heard the gentle sound of turds and water Hitting the pavement in the street below, and someone yelling. They must have been glad to get the water, even if it was dirty. Oberon was in a Harsh time. 

I wiped my hands on the Wall and I went back into the bedroom/living room/kitchen area and put a can of pork n beans and a pot of cram in the microwave to cook. While they cooked I read The articles in a copy of PornoMax Galaxy. Once the can of beans blew up in the Microwave I knew the cram was done and I pulled the beans out the Microwave and took a spoon and scooped out the flaming Beans and debris from the microwave and threw them out the window down into the street below. There was more yelling, and I felt glad that I could help people. I dumped the Cram into a cup with the leftover beans to make a Meal that kind of looked like pork and beans.Then I sat down with my spork and the magazine and the cup and took a bite. The beans and cram tasted like smoke and chemicals, and it made me think about my old unit.....

After I was done I threw everything Out the window and shot a Rat to death that had came into my Hotel Room. Then I went back downstairs to the Lobby and waited for the team....... 

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"Alright, so it looks like you and me are rooming together." Doc Mallory observed, handing me a room key. I looked at the keys and then glanced at Nikki. 

"We're doubled up?" I asked. "Jenkins got his own room." 

"Would you rather room with Jenkins?" Captain Harlow frowned.

"No, that's okay." I backpedaled. Nikki nodded. "That's what I thought." she laughed. "See you in 15."

Mal and I rode the urine-scented elevator up to the 13th floor, listening to its tinny muzak as the floor indicator dinged off. Eventually, I spoke. 

"I don't know how I feel about a hotel with a 13th floor. Call me superstitious, but don't developers typically omit floor 13 because it's bad luck?" 

Mal laughed. "If it's true, its oddly specific bad luck. I've never been on a spaceship or a space station that had any problems that I was aware of on account of having a level 13. I mean, I was once in a running gun battle that involved the 13th floor of a bombed-out building during my time in the AFFS, but that had more to do with the fact that we had chased the insurgents from the 15th floor first."

"Holy shit, I bet that's not what you thought you'd end up doing when you graduated from medical school." I exclaimed. 

"Who says I ever went to medical school?" the Doc quipped. I looked at him, confused. 

"I'm kidding. The AFFS doesn't hand you 20 guys to look after without giving you a crash course in how to not maim them any worse than the bad guys plan to do. I knew what I was getting into." Mallory replied. 

"Wow. And you went for that MOS anyway." I marveled. "The things you must have seen." 

"It was a good learning experience." Mal answered. "After my last tour was done, I decided to strike out on my own and try to go private practice. That didn't take off so much, mainly because I don't actually have an M.D. after my name, so I decided to become a freelancer. And that's how I ended up hitching a ride with you fine folks."

"Well, I'm sure we are all glad to have you here. It's a nice change from a rotating inventory of temporary doctors and slightly deranged medical robots." I commented as the elevator doors rumbled open. "I'm sorry that your role on this mission is probably going to be kind of boring." 

"Boring with a paycheck is actually going to be a nice change of pace for once. Getting to mostly hang out in a hotel room will give me a chance to catch up on my research and keep working on your little mystery." the Doc smiled. I nodded. 

"I appreciate it." I nodded, clicking my key in the lock. The hotel room door swung open and we stepped over the threshold. Turning on the light, we were greeted by a room with two queen beds and decor that was 30 years out of date. The room smelled of cigarette smoke and mildew. There were a couple of weird stains on the carpet, along with a velvet Elvis painting hung on the walls between the beds. 

"Hey, check it out, a basket of cologne!" Mallory yelled from the bathroom. "In case you want to marinate and impress the ladies." I rolled my eyes and tossed my gear bag onto one of the beds.

"Yeah, because ladies are SO into guys that are wanted by three nations and are living under a purchased identity." I deadpanned, grabbing a large bundle of cash from my duffel and sticking a small, hold-out pistol in the back waistband of my cargo pants. Then, I slipped on a pair of night-vision eyeglasses that Captain Maxwell had given me that were apparently a prototype gift from William Kauffman. Tapping the temple, a portable OS splashed across the display, giving me a series of options ranging from facial recognition to targeting protocols. Mallory walked into the room from the bathroom, and a targeting reticle automatically started tracking him. I turned the glasses off. 

"Yeah, about that, kid..." Mallory continued. "...be careful, OK? Call me and let me know that it went alright. Don't get yourself killed or something."

"I'll do my best. Thanks for keeping it a secret." I responded. 

"No problem. Just...don't make me regret it." Mal nodded.

Twelve minutes and fifty-three seconds later, according to my eyeglasses, I was back in the lobby, waiting for the rest of the group.....

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I got off the gross-smelling elevator on the twelfth floor, and was greeted by a five-way intersection of hallways. The three on the right side of the elevator vestibule had the same green fish-scale patterned wallpaper and chaotically patterned carpet I’d seen in one of the hallways leading away from the lobby. One of those halls went around a sharp corner as though it went behind the elevator, one went straight out to the right, and one went straight ahead. Then there was a stretch of blank wall of about the width of a smallish room, a strange abstract pillar set against the wall as though it might be covering up some architectural mistake, and then two more hallways on the left that had a dingier style of ugly carpet and walls sponge-painted in a mix of baby blue, lavender and yellow - although some of the yellow might have been cigarette smoke.

 

There were signs indicating which room numbers could be found in which hallways, but it wasn’t a unified system. The blue sponge-painted hallways’ signs were mismatched from the green wallpaper hallways’ signs, and more importantly, seemed to be using completely different numbering schemes - signs on green walls had ranges like 1223 - 1249, and signs on blue walls omitted the floor number and had ranges like 30 - 70. I decided to give 30 - 70 a try, and if my 1260 key card didn’t work, I’d turn back and see if that number appeared in the other numbering scheme anywhere.

 

As I continued down the hallway, the place’s musty smell got noticeably worse, and I noticed there were fewer and fewer working light fixtures. The atmosphere shifted from dingy-bad to dangerous-bad, and I mentally rehearsed which pockets of my cargo pants had my pistol and decoy wallet.

 

Up ahead I heard a clatter and an awful squelching sound. I froze. There were footsteps, and then a janitor’s cart wheeled out the open door of one of the rooms, followed by the completely ordinary looking janitor.

 

“Sorry to scare you, miss. Looking for something?”

 

I took a deep breath, and then asked if he knew where I could find room 1260.

 

“Oh, that’s in the old wing,” he said.

 

“There’s an older wing than this?”

 

“If you go back the way you came, that will put you back on the twelfth floor of the original hotel. This here is the eleventh floor of the Lay-Z-Daze Inn - you were lucky enough to miss all the sledge-hammering they did to connect the buildings together, but we’re still working on getting it presentable.”

 

“Oh - well that’s a relief. Thanks for the directions.”

 

I speed-walked back the way I’d come and navigated the maze of numbered signs to room 1260. Inside, it was a pretty typical level of weird for a cheap hotel room - gum-stained carpet, mismatched wallpaper, trippy painting of a giant neon green orchid flower hovering over the desert hanging on the wall across from the bed. I tossed my duffel bag onto the bed, and quickly checked over the room - sturdy front door, no extra doors to other rooms, all windows locked. Not nearly as secure as Bessie, but about as good as a hotel room on Oberon could get.

 

Then I took a moment to verify the other part of my security - making sure my appearance wouldn’t draw the wrong kind of attention. I felt stupid, worrying this much about how I looked, but being a woman traveling on Oberon was dangerous enough, and I didn’t want to take on any more risk by making it easy to guess my medical history. No one had given me trouble about it in years, other than the occasional ‘sir’ over audio channels, but that didn’t mean they didn’t know, it just meant they weren’t assholes.

 

The cargo pants were doing their job - they made my hips look a little bigger, and generally covered up my figure. My leather jacket made my shoulders look a bit less obvious, and hid my blue-white-pink chicory flower tattoo - it was subtle, really subtle, but folks in the transhumanist scene would know that the colors were associated with having changed one's gender. I’d chosen a low-cut top to go with the rest, to make it look like I wasn’t trying to hide anything. 

 

While tidying up my lockers on Bessie I’d found some of my LED jewelry from back when I kept up with The Scene, which wouldn’t affect my personal security in any way, but seemed fitting for a visit to a transhumanist hangout. I also wore the boots containing the computer that drove the smaller gadgets - on display under a patch of transparent vinyl on the left ankle, because it looked kind of cool, and because I’d been too self-conscious back then to wear anything with thick enough soles to hide all the electronics. My height was going to stick out no matter what, but my shy high school self’s taste in shoes was helpful for not making it worse.

 

Hopefully, this would be my last gig in pirate territory, and the last time I’d have to worry about this crap as a matter of safety rather than vanity. Runs through this awful stretch of space paid off the mortgage on Bessie, but now that I didn’t have an absurd interest rate hanging over me anymore, it just wasn’t worth the stress.

 

I sighed, double-checked the contents of my pockets, and then locked the door behind me and headed to the lobby to meet the others.

Edited by Nikki Harlow
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