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I looked over at Steve who had come into the room late and looking like he was buzzing on some kind of psychotropic drug. Squinting at him, I realized, in astonishment, that he'd somehow managed to come into the chamber with his pants on backwards and his shoes on the wrong feet. As we waited for the presentation to get started, I leaned down and whispered at him, "Hey, Steve, what in the heck did you do? You were away from us for all of like 5 minutes."

Steve opened his eyes wide and then narrowed them, as though the question had come across comically and as though Steve had to process whatever it was he was going to reply with.

"Well..." said Steve. "I met these hacker kids at the bar and they were with The Scene. We chatted and I wanted to know what they did in their free time. And they said PARTY BAG, and I said ok, and I ate a bunch of Party Bag, and the next thing I knew my Abilities ramped up to 10 and I could see the whole universe and I saw my Ancestors too, it was crazy insane!"

"You did PARTY BAG?" I asked. "You do know that fad is just a bunch of random-ass drugs that whoever has laying around put in a bag that you grab random handfuls of, right? Who knows what hallucinogens you have in your system now, and we're supposed to be working!"

"Ohhhh." said Steve. Suddenly, he turned around and started horking into a mesh wastebasket that he had nearby. I looked toward Charles with concern.

"If we're supposed to see any action after this meeting, we might be down a man." I observed.

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I slumped down in the tiny patch of shade at the base of a boulder, and held my jacket over my head to keep the sun off. I’d gave up on wearing the helmet and clipped it on my belt instead a ways back

Black Canyon Oberon VI - Oberon Confederation October 7, 3029 ____________________________________ "Orpheus-1 to Orpheus-2 and Orpheus-5 - it looks like we've got some double trouble up ahe

PART DEUX....  "Well I DON'T want to get Fines and low credit scores for doing Atrocities like ripping out teeth, go ahead and do what you need to do Steve, just don't melt his brain." Said CPT M

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I glanced at Steve, noting that Alyssa's assessment seemed to be more correct than I would've liked to believe.

"He does seem a bit more - addled - than is the baseline for him," I nodded, replying in a low voice so that no one else could hear me. "Fortunately, we've got Doc Aldon back at the hotel; he might be able to hit him with some Narcan or what have you to get him through this thing."

"Fair enough, but really, at what point are we going to - "

Alyssa's sentence was cut off by Lisa, our Interstellar Expeditions contact, clearing her throat. I turned my attention to the desk.

"Thank you all for coming. I apologize for the cloak-and-dagger nature of this meeting. Our client certainly knew how to pick the artifact at the greatest risk of piracy - and as a result, we needed to take some extenuating measures to ensure the security of the objective's information."

"Do you always operate out of the basement of a nightclub? This is a bit of a downgrade from the last time you and I crossed paths," Bishop quipped. Lisa cast him a disdainful glance.

"As you've probably guessed, Mister Weyland and I have a preexisting business relationship - but for the rest of you - I'm Lisa Rensselaer, a senior field agent for Interstellar Expeditions. My responsibility is to serve as an advance intelligence asset for objects of interest - I deploy to the operational theater ahead of the main expeditionary force, scout it out, and make a note of any threats, complexities, and assorted other nuances that may have an impact on the recovery of the objective. I also hold sensitive mission intelligence that we might not want to transmit over the grid out of concern for espionage. Needless to say, this place meets both criteria," the agent explained. "And we have some additional concerns. I'll take it from the top."

I looked toward Alyssa.

"This should be good," I whispered.

"Three days from now, we're sending you north of the city to a region known as "Black Canyon." We'll be setting up a staging area approximately 4 kilometers from a deep river gorge, within which is a cave that contains the artifact. The objective is simple: make your way to the cave, retrieve the artifact, bring it back to me for validation, and then return it to New Earth for transfer to Interstellar Expeditions representatives. Well - it would be simple - but there are complications," Lisa explained.

"I figured you didn't call us all the way out here with enough firepower to level a city just to do a milk run," I agreed.

"Quite right. Several, to be exact," Lisa nodded. "One: the inherent risk of piracy. You're on Oberon VI. I don't think I need to waste a lot of time explaining to you what that means. Every convoy is at potential risk of predation. While King Grimm makes a point of trying to run a legitimate government, we can't simply send a Condor in and hope that it'll make it back without incident. The cities are certainly better-policed than the countryside, but not by much. Given that the Nickel's Boys have laid claim to most of that area, we really don't want to spin the wheel and try our luck on that front."

Lieutenant Jaeger raised his hand.

"Excuse me for asking - but who are the "Nickel's Boys?"

Our host gave a disgusted huff. "They're a pirate brigand who raided the cities of New Davies and Bainbridge on Gibbs last year, killing more than two thousand civilians in one of the worst atrocities of this era. I'm surprised you haven't heard about it. I guess word travels slowly."

"Humor me," Jaeger responded.

"Alright," Lisa sighed. "On August 24, 3029, the Nickel's Boys used some of their BattleMechs to distract the New Davies city police and militia while the rest of the band looted every bank and repository in town. On the way out of the city, the 'Mechs walked through three hospitals and one school. In Bainbridge, the pirates tried a new tactic. Instead of cowing the police and militia with their 'Mechs, they detoured around the city and destroyed the electrical junctions at the fusion plants that supplied the city with electrical power. They then proceeded to the food storage facilities and set them on fire, which drew most of the emergency responders away from the city itself. At that point, they were able to loot with impunity, and did so."

"Blake be damned," Orlex replied. "And they're here, on Oberon VI?"

"Indeed they are. That entire area is under their control. As you can imagine, they're at the top of more than a few law enforcement agencies' hit lists, and they withdrew to Black Canyon with their ill-gotten gains. They currently stand between us and the objective," Agent Rensselaer confirmed.

"And your team didn't think it was prudent to include that in the advance briefing?" Bishop asked. "I mean, General Kauffman had that detail figured out in spite of the terse details, but if he hadn't, you could well have been sending us into a meat grinder."

"As you said - General Kauffman is a deceptively clever man. I had little doubt that he'd be able to read between the lines of our initial intelligence. We didn't want to explicitly call it out due to concerns that it might tip them off," the agent retorted.

"Deceptively? Look, I don't know what your angle is here, but you need us. Not the other way around. Keep the professional insults to a minimum," Weyland replied.

"I suggest we all try to keep our focus on the matter at hand," I interjected. "Ms. Rensselaer, what kind of an OpFor are we looking at? We were sent with a reasonably formidable - if somewhat eclectic - lance of BattleMechs, but it's just the one, so we're not exactly equipped for an all-out war."

"The Nickel's Boys, like most pirate commands, rely heavily on BattleMechs with energy loadouts due to lack of resupply on raids. We have seen Flashman, Crab, and Commando BattleMechs operating in the Black Canyon area," Lisa explained.

"But...?" I asked. "You don't send an Atlas in to clear out scout 'Mechs."

"But," the agent sighed, "the only way to the objective from the staging area is through Campesino Pass, which we have reason to believe is being held by a patrol consisting of a Rifleman, JaegerMech, a Dervish, and a Blackjack. Beyond the objective's location is a Nickel's Boys stronghold, so it's not entirely surprising that they'd have a high degree of security operating in the area."

"Fantastic," I muttered, drumming my fingers on top of one of the ancient computer units. "Any other assets that you're certain might be operating in the area?"

"Certain? No," Lisa responded.

"Alright, well, be that as it may, I want a complete list of every armored unit you've seen or think you've seen deployed in the Black Canyon area. Can one of these museum pieces do that?" I asked in exasperation, gesturing at the eclectic collection of old computer hardware.

"Give me a moment," Agent Rensselaer replied, tapping a few commands into the console before here. A few seconds later, a line printer chattered off a printed copy of an asset list. Lisa handed the inventory to Bishop, who glanced at it with a perturbed expression and then passed it to me.

"Stinger, Wasp, Commando, Panther, Griffin, Shadow Hawk, Wolverine, Quickdraw, Ostol, Ostroc, Crusader," I read aloud. "I don't suppose you happen to know the loadouts of any of these 'Mechs?"

"No. We're archeologists, Captain, not mercenaries. That's why we hired you," Lisa responded. "What I can tell you is that the Nickel's Boys typically acquire their hardware from the black market and other pirate groups. They also steal them directly from military units and supply depots. Sometimes, they can acquire assets legitimately - with the right contacts and enough funds anything can be bought. We've gotten reports that they receive assets from nobles or Great Houses in exchange for services rendered, such as raids, kidnapping, murder, and so forth. And let's not forget our friendly neighborhood telephone company, ComStar, who is more than happy to sell or give equipment to pirates if it furthers their plans."

"Alright, noted," I responded. "Anything else we should know?"

"The objective is located within burial lands considered sacred by the local Navajo tribe. Try not to rile them up," Rensselaer replied, tersely.

"I'll fill you in on the locals later, Captain," Bishop added. "General Kauffman did some pretty decent research on that front."

"I'm counting on it," I responded. "Alright, so what's the deployment plan?"

"Three days from now, at 4:00 AM local time," Lisa explained, "you'll report to the roof of the Bournemouth Financial tower. A VTOL will airlift you to the operational theater. Your BattleMechs and support hardware will be staged on a small island at the bottom of Black Canyon."

A topographical map of the canyon flashed into existence on the old CRT display behind Lisa. "There's plenty of cover, with a river flowing through and wooded shores on either side. From there, you'll push forward into Campesino Pass, put down any resistance you encounter, retrieve the asset, and return to the staging site. We'll airlift you back out and drop you off directly at Port Royal, where I'll meet you at your DropShip to authenticate the artifact. From there, you'll be able to dust off as soon as your hardware is returned to you."

I studied the map in silence for a few moments. "I don't love the idea of operating in a canyon. There's a lot of risk of attacks from above. What support is going to be available to us?"

"You're it, Captain. Whatever you brought with you is what you've got," the agent responded. I glanced at Nikki.

"Any chance you can keep your fighters on standby and spare Nathan for LAM duty?"

"Fine, but you're covering any repairs or losses," Captain Harlow replied.

"In the interim, while you're here on the planet, I expect you to keep your activities curtailed to within your hotel except at night. We want to minimize how much attention you draw as obvious outsiders," Lisa concluded. "Are there any other questions?"

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Neur0hack!
Oberon VI - Oberon Confederation
October 4, 3029
____________________________________

As Lisa Rensselaer described the situation we would be walking into in the forthcoming days I spoke up and asked about a pirate group I had previously only heard about once or twice in passing, a group which apparently viewed innocent civilians as acceptable losses or more likely as free targets from the sounds of their recent activities. I would have no qualms about taking them down on the battlefield. As the briefing continued it became clear that there was probably more than just a professional history between Lieutenant Bishop and Ms. Rensselaer, regardless of whether it was a romantic one or not, but the Captain once again deftly was able to guide the conversation back into friendly waters and kept things civil.

"But...?" Maxwell asked a moment later while discussing potential OpFor, "You don't send an Atlas in to clear out scout 'Mechs."

"Unless you're a Lyran," I said to no one in particular under my breath. I thought I heard a muffled chuckle but I couldn't be sure.

"But," the agent sighed, unclear if she heard me or was just sighing in response to the Captain, "the only way to the objective from the staging area is through Campesino Pass, which we have reason to believe is being held by a patrol consisting of a Rifleman, a JaegerMech, a Dervish, and a Blackjack. Beyond the objective's location is a Nickel's Boys stronghold, so it's not entirely surprising that they'd have a high degree of security operating in the area."

Damn, I thought to myself, it's not the worst lance we could have come up against but it was definitely on the heavier end of the spectrum we could expect to handle without serious concern. Unfortunately the list of potential threats that was read off shortly after only served to heighten my apprehension. While there was nothing in particular that could directly threaten the power of the Atlas we had on loan, the same could not be said about my Merlin or Jenkins' Dragon. Several of the 'mechs mentioned were of equivalent weight, or greater, and could also match or even surpass our own firepower. While not fond of the idea of operating in a canyon, it may actually help us as much as it limits us this time around. Once again Captain Maxwell was on top of things and requested Captain Nikki to keep her dropship's fighter escorts available for us as well as using Nathan Schmidt to pilot a rather unique BattleMech called a LAM, or Land-Air-Mech. The design was actually very old and virtually LosTech on the modern battlefield but it was essentially a unique hybrid of a BattleMech and Aerospace Fighter, while not truly as effective as either one in their designated roles the LAM's versatility allowed it to fill whichever role was needed at the time and gave tactical options to a wise commander that would otherwise be impossible. The fact that Schmidt had been doing extensive training for just such a role during our transit to Oberon was likely not a coincidence and I had a feeling that Captain Maxwell had been planning this all along.

"In the interim, while you're here on the planet, I expect you to keep your activities curtailed to within your hotel except at night. We want to minimize how much attention you draw as obvious outsiders," Lisa concluded. "Are there any other questions?"

"And here I thought we looked good," I blurted out before thinking about it, the look Lisa shot at me made me instantly regret my decision but I stuck to it all the same.

"It's not your appearance that is the problem Lieutenant," Lisa deadpanned as she leaned forward on the desk, hands steepled before her, "yes you can dress as locals, hell you can even talk like one but you're still going to stand out here. None of you are pirates, or criminals, or true outcasts, and even those of you that actually hail from the Periphery still come from legitimate nations however minor."

Lisa looked us all over before deciding she wanted to make a point and continuing, "Orlex, you for example nailed the look of a veteran gun for hire, you've got the look and manner of proper hired muscle but you still carry yourself with too much dignity to truly fit in here. Ms. Chase here definitely fills the role of eye candy quite well and while she would blend right in upstairs, any real local could see she hasn't seen the inside of many bed chambers, let alone a back alley street and the true rough side of the image she is portraying. Captain Harlow on the other hand looks exactly like who she is, a merchant Captain with her own vessel, that would be great if we weren't in the middle of pirate territory. Captain Maxwell, you might actually be the closest fit in your outfit, you look like a man that could and has made those hard decisions that most men never face and even fewer talk about. Yet still there is something about you that exhibits hope, something that has died a slow agonizing death here a long time ago. Though to be fair Grimm is doing his best to bring it back. Mister Weyland, I'm not going to go into details, you know how I see you and even your new upgrades doesn't change that much. The old you could easily disappear into the shadows here never to be seen unless you wanted it, I have no doubt that you still could maybe even more so now. But you also don't have to, any man worth his salt should know better than to mess with you, but that gear you're packing screams Corpo now and anyone that gets a good look at you is likely to remember that kind of tech."

Satisfied that she made it abundantly clear why we needed to remain as anonymous as possible Lisa leaned back in her chair and opened her hands wide again, "Discretion is the better part of valor ladies and gentleman, I can't stress that enough. Any further questions?"

I sat quietly and looked sideways towards Bishop, he shot me a quick half grin and a raised eyebrow in a knowing look, apparently Lisa either had extremely extensive intel on our unit, which was entirely possible given IE's profile, or was incredibly perceptive or perhaps a mix of both. Either way she wasn't going to take any shit from us and she clearly knew her job and took a certain pride in it, I was glad she was on our side at least.

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MEANWHILE... 

I Sat and listened to the briefing, it sounded like we were going in a suicide mission into the canyon to wipe out some terrible pirates, it made me think of a long ago time back on Kuuzu when I I had did sentry duty outside the farm... 

*FLASHBACK*

I am 18 years old and I am at the controls of our family BattleMech, which is a Cattlemaster 2000, usually it has A shock pole for driving Herds and a chainsaw arm for helping butcher meat Out in the field. It is my turn to do sentry duty and I am standing around waiting for something to happen which it never does on account of our farm world being a backyard dust bowl. I sat alone in the mech, and watched a holo-vid. I had caught a fever, and I was sick, A swell of acid Rumbled around in my esophagus, warning me of an approaching barf.

I leaned my Head down, and after 3 minutes of warm bile, I wiped my mouth with a napkin, and returned to my movie.

"Man, this sucks." The sickle voice echoed around the cockpit. Complete silence.

"Well, hello, Mister Jenkins! How are you?"

"Oh, I'm fine. Back at you, Jenkins !"

"Whoo!"

"Echo!"

Just then, Jimmy Eaton's voice came on the radio.

"Steve? Is that you? Why are you making so much racket?"

"Sorry man, just trying to break the silence."

"Steve, i'm going to park my Mech and study. Please don't Bother me."

I vomited, then the mighty rumble of a DropShip's engine shook the farm. "What the hell??" I Yelled. 

A huge explosion rocked my CattleMaster, I took a hard left, and fired my Fusion Lasers used for meat Butchering at a weakened Forester. The battle was intense. Jimmy and I stayed together.

I was caught off guard focusing my attention to my battle buddies stuggling with some 'mechs. Bad choice. I took a PPC to the foot, and toppled over. Shit!. Not good. At least 20 missles of Different sizes hit my 'mech all over while the stabalisers worked. I finnaly came up. Limping.

"Right leg destroied. Reverse disabled. Warning, armor approaching critical." 

I fire the crap out of all my weapons. My heat was close. My mech Had no armor above orange. I was in trouble. I took beating from Almost every remaning 'mech. Jesus Christ!

"Warning. Heat exceeding critical level. Danger. Right arm Destroied. Auminition depleted. Amunition depleted. Warning. Jets destroied. Warning. Heat level critical. Shutting down... WARNING. All armor critical. Eject. Eject. Eject immediatly.

"Stay safe, Jimmy. I'll see if I can return to the farm. Good luck. It's been a pleasure working with you. Let's hope... (Static)

That was the last thing I said...

*END FLASHBACK*

I suddenly came back to, and I heard Lisa ask... 

"Are there any other questions?"

I realized that I had missed the whole briefing, which made me feel Dishonorably sick to my stomach. I Ripped open the drawer to one of the file cabinets and barfed violently into it, after I saw some of the party pills come out I closed the drawer and wiped snot off my face before I Pushed my free (but vomit covered) hand through my hair I raised my hand and asked a question. 

"Sir what are our Assignments going to be on this Op?" 

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"Sir what are our Assignments going to be on this Op?" Steve Jenkins asked, ending his sentence with an extended hybrid of a belch and a gag.

"Single lance," I replied. "Nothing fancy. We're going to keep a tight formation, concentrate any fire on hostiles, get to the objective, and get out. Same as previously discussed: Lieutenant Weyland and I will take point in the AS7-D-DC Atlas. Lieutenant Jaeger will be in his MLN-1J Merlin. Warrant Officer Chase will be piloting the RVN-1XL-DC Raven, you'll be driving the DRG-1N Dragon, and Nathan's going to be at the controls of the Phoenix Hawk LAM. Captain Harlow is going to be on standby with aerospace interdiction at the Hurry Up Bessie."

"Aye aye, Captain!" Steve exclaimed, resuming his glazed-over expression.

"Are there any other questions?" I asked.

"Captain, I'm assuming you'll be able to get Mister Schmidt up to speed, considering he...doesn't seem to be here?" Lisa asked.

"Yeah - shouldn't be an issue," I responded.

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Oberon VI - Oberon Confederation

October 4, 3029

____________________________________

Bishop had to fight the beast with all his might. His hatred for Lisa was hotter then any star in the system. She was egotistical and arrogant... borderline sociopath. He wasn’t surprised at her leaving at crucial Intel till the last minute. That was her style... a style that got people killed. I.E. always played the “we are just archaeologist and discovers”, the reality was they were just as bad as any of the Corporations. Sometimes worst do to their instability.... no one was really in fucking charge. It was just a bunch of click like groups fighting over tech. 

Bishop caught a sent in the air.... fear pheromone, Liza was playing tough with her words but she was spooked by something, or she was hiding something. During her briefing he caught her stealing glances at him. IE and Irian and a long a gory history. IE payed Irian for the use of the Skinwalker in some rather controversial operations. Liza was lair, IE had in fact multiple Merc units on retainer for their operations. But when the time came for black ops IE ordered up the Skinwalkers. Operations like assassinations, kidding with ransoms, hostile take over and raids. The dirty part was.... most of it was on there own people fighting over dig site control and politics. Irain got the money and a percentage of the salvage, if there was some. She was the liaison between the Walker and IE, so he had worked allot with her. 

Liza was responsible for selling out the unit on Operation Silent Night. It was a tactical recovery of a dig site manager who had gotten himself in debt with a hardcore crime syndicate... Jade Dragons. The manger also happens to be her younger brother. The mission was simple, insert in recover her brother and send a message to the area crime bosses and pirates. IE employees where not to be fucked with. Bishop and two grunt platoons went in with a company of mixed armor and medium Mechs.... and two nighthawk suits. Four hours later the brother was safe and every member of the Jade Dragons were killed, skinned and hung on a pike. Their HQ was leveled. The authorities on Gatatea never solved the case of the Massacre in the Mist. Months later information was leaked the IE may have been responsible. So, to shift public attention IE leaked some of the missions done by the Skinwalkers.  Soon after they were under investigation for war crimes. 

Irian Intel division found out that it was Liza who leaked the information. So, in retaliation, a hit team was formed to send a message as well. The mission was canceled.... the corporate counsel of Seven voted the mission as a “No go”. No explanation was given. 

Bishop quietly listen to the Captain and Orlex talk back and forth. They were sharp and tactically on point with there assessments. The contact was set by the General and Bishop had to go along with it.....this was about company. He had his orders and he would follow them to the letter. Recover the assets, recover Intel on competitors and watch over the Team. He would set aside his personal feels... for now. 

Orlex caught Bishop’s eye... he gave a concerned look. Bishop smiled, he knew what Orlex was thinking.

Liza concluded “Are there any other question?” 

Bishop leaned in close to Orlex 

“Welcome to Corporate war my friend” 

Orlex nodded, with a concerned look. 

Bishop brought his red glowing eyes up and locked them on to Liza’s. The message was clear “ We come in darkest of night.... we come in the mist... we are the Skinwalkers”.... Bishop watched as her heat signature rise. The smell of fear in the air. They had some unfinished business to deal after the mission. 

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Elsewhere in Neur0hack!... 

I yelled in surprise and a bit of pain as Archangel's mad contraption used what I could only assume was a pair of low grade lasers on my finger tips. I couldn't actually see what was happening since my hands were inside the makeshift procedure box, but I got the drift. A second later, a timer dinged, and I pulled my hands out to see my finger tips had all been rendered completely smooth, with neither a whirl nor a whorl to be found. 

"Holy shit..." I exhaled as Archangel came over and sprayed anti-burn treatment on my hands while I nodding satisfactorily. "I've got no fingerprints!" 

"That's the point," said Archangel. "The lasers are set to a certain modulation that causes a brief phasing of energy. Calibrated correctly, you can scramble DNA and stuff. Pretty cool, huh?" 

"I...think? Am I gonna get cancer or something?" I asked. 

"Probably, but not from anything I've done. It'll likely be old age or some stupid thing like dying from an atomic wedgie after falling down the stairs and hooking your waistband on the banister," she replied. 

"As for your optics, I'd get some chameleon contact lenses or something to change the color. 

"OK, got it. What else?" I asked.

" Well, you tell me," Archangel said. "Who  are you? What's your background?" 

After a careful pause, I replied. 

"I'm Nathan Sch -" 

"BZZZZT! Incorrect!" Archangel exclaimed. "Try again. From the top." 

Buying a new identity was hard. Putting it on permanently was even harder.

 "I am 22 years old. Born 18 March 3,009 to Dimitri and Victoria, in Dusseldorf, Germany. I led a healthy childhood and a middle-class upbringing.

"I used to attend Sandhurst Military College in Berkshire, England..." Archangel shooshed me again. 

"And your name?" she asked. 

"And my name is...Nicholas Hans Schuster." I replied, saying the name for the first time. It fit well. 

Edited by Nathan Schmidt
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Simultaneously...

"Alright, if there are no further questions, this briefing is adjourned," Lisa Rensselaer announced, closing her electronic folio. As the cadre rose to their feet, I glanced toward Bishop Weyland, who was in the process of making steely eye contact with the agent.

"I think the two of them might have some kind of history," Alyssa remarked, coming to stand alongside me.

"What gave you that impression? The fact that their relationship can be described as adversarial at best, or that if Weyland's eyes could shoot lasers, she'd have a smoldering hole in the middle of her forehead by now?" I quipped.

"Call it a little bit of both," Chase replied. "And be glad he didn't opt for that upgrade. What do you suppose the history is?"

"I bet they had SEX," Jenkins speculated, loudly. Orlex and Rensselaer both cast fleeting gazes my way. I exchanged a mortified stare in reply.

"What? It's true! This one time, I came home to find my brother Mikey doing sex on the - "

"Okay, that's more than enough, Steve. Why don't you go hit the bar or something? My treat," I replied, pressing a credit tube into Jenkins' palm and showing him toward the door. As I ushered him out, he nearly collided with Nathan Schmidt, who was on his way into the chamber.

"Oh! Captain Maxwell - I'm glad that I found you. I'm sorry for missing the briefing," Nathan began. "I got delayed a little bit longer than I expected."

"No harm done - you weren't officially on the billet anyway," I answered, clapping the young man on the shoulder and gesturing for him to join us in the briefing room. "How'd it go?"

"It went really well," Nathan replied in a low tone. Then, wordlessly, he handed me an electronic passport. Inquisitively, I touched its screen. The device lit up with the biographical information about SCHUSTER, NICHOLAS H. The official photograph accompanying the bio was Nathan's own headshot. I let out a low whistle.

"Wow - the deluxe package, I take it? You must have been stashing your pennies for a while," I remarked.

"Every last one for the past six months, more or less," Nathan nodded. Alyssa glanced over my shoulder.

"Is it a recycled identity? I mean, who's the corpse?" Alyssa asked. The Lyran shook his head.

"Nobody. It's a legit new identity. Not pre-owned. I didn't want to risk some malevolent former owner deciding that they wanted to claim it back. Or said former owner's crimes and bad debts following me," Nathan explained.

"And you got verification that the citizen ID works?" I asked.

"Yeah. I don't know how she did it, but I'm in the index. Best part about it is that it came with new fingerprints," Schmidt replied, holding up ten bandaged fingers. "Sorta."

"Does your boss know about all of this? Should we start using your new name?" I asked. Just then, Captain Harlow sauntered over.

"Well, that briefing was a thrill ride. Do you guys ever take normal jobs?" Nikki asked. Before I had a chance to formulate a smarmy reply, the Captain looked to Nathan.

"Mister Schmidt - these guys want to borrow you to fly that LAM of theirs. Feel up to a challenge?"

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"Uh, yes, Captain...Captain Harlow, I mean." I stammered. "I'd love the opportunity to run the LAM through its paces. I haven't had the opportunity to drive it in real live."

"You're not filling me with confidence, Schuster." said Nikki. I startled at the use of my new last name. "Well, if you've got a new identity, the time is now for us to start using it." Nikki added. "This is Nick Schuster!" she announced to the cadre in the room. "In case any of you were confused." A handful of acknowledgements flurried in.

"There, that band-aid has been ripped off," she continued. "Now, back to what I was saying: you're not instilling a lot of confidence in me."

"I feel fine about doing it, I've been doing 6 months of practicals in the simulator, as you know." I explained. "I think I'll be fine."

"You think?" Nikki asked.

"I know," I responded. "I can do it, for sure. I won't get killed or mess up their mech."

"I have faith in him." said Captain Maxwell. Nikki nodded in response. "Alright. Go get 'em, tiger."

"Thank you so much, Captain. Captains," I clarified. "Sorry. I didn't mean to suggest that you didn't offer me an opportunity, Captain Maxwell."

"No offense taken." Maxwell replied. "Keep brushing up on those practicals, you're going to need them."

"I will." I nodded.

"Dismissed." said Maxwell. I offered a salute and then wandered across the briefing room to find Bishop.

"Hey, Lieutenant." I began. "Seems I'm going to be your wingman on this one. Any advice on running with Aegis Division I should know about?"

The Lieutenant and I chatted as we made our way up to the awaiting taxi and off into the night, returning to the hotel with the crew. In a few short days, it would be time for me to put my knowledge and skills to the test.....

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Three days later...

Black Canyon
Oberon VI - Oberon Confederation
October 7, 3029

____________________________________

As our chopper thundered inbound, the staging island emerged from the mist like a sprawling, dark shape in the midst of twin waterways, golden sunlight spilling over the horizon and casing long shadows across its surface. Even from our current altitude, I could make out the distinctive shapes of our Atlas, Merlin, Dragon, Shadow Hawk LAM, and Raven BattleMechs aligned in a row on the remote spit of land, like a phalanx of legionnaires preparing to face an invading army.

"Ladies and gentlemen...we've arrived," I murmured into my headset, drawing a series of intrigued glances toward the chopper's windows. "According to the Interstellar Expeditions folks, our hardware should be in turn-key condition. That being said, make sure you give your rides a final check once we're on the ground."

"What a perfect day to get shot at," Bishop mused. "Conditions look like they're mild and clear. Good way to kick off your AeroJock career, Schmidt - I mean - Schuster. Sorry."

"No worries, thanks, Lieutenant," Nick replied with a chuckle.

"Speaking of - we need to give you a provisional field rank. Assuming you're okay with that," I replied.

"Well, I would normally defer to Nikki here, but since she's back at the Hurry Up Bessie on standby with the aerospace assets, I guess I'll make an executive decision and say I'm okay with that," Schuster answered.

"Brilliant - then for the moment, you've got the provisional field rank of Sergeant. Alyssa, can you make a note of that in the company roster?" I asked.

"Consider it done," Chase smiled. I was glad to see that the relationship between the two had warmed in the half a year that we'd been on deployment.

The aircraft circled the island in a wide, counter-clockwise loop, its pilot affording us a stunning aerial view of the landscape below as it descended. The brown-and-white stone walls of the canyon provided a dramatic backdrop to the concentrated stands of evergreen trees that jutted out at odd angles from the shores of the small oasis, making our war machines look absolutely miniscule in comparison. As the helicopter rotated on its axis, thundering over the spit of land and preparing to touch down, I gathered my gear bag and cast a grin at Orlex.

"This is where the fun begins," I chuckled. It had been some time since I'd been behind the controls of a BattleMech. I'd have been lying if a part of me didn't find the prospect of being back in the saddle thrilling.

With a thump, our VTOL eased down onto the earth, its twin-rotor engines wound down. A pair of technicians ran toward us, sliding parking blocks under the aircraft's wheels, attaching fuel lines, and dropping its staircase. I rose from my seat, smoothing the wrinkles from my flight suit and slinging my gear bag over my shoulder.

"Alright, gang - let's do this," I announced.

###

The AS7-D-DC Atlas towered before us, painted in the standard gray with minimalist safety-yellow highlights that I'd come to associate with the Crayven Corporation. In a departure from our typical joint exercises, however, I noted that General Kauffman had stripped the 100-ton leviathan of its typical winged insignia, and instead emblazoned it with the Aegis Division's logo and MRB license placard. Likewise, the Phoenix Hawk, Dragon, and Merlin bore no marks except those of our own association by which to identify them.

On the one hand, it meant that if our mission was successful, we got to take the credit for it. On the other hand, if we fucked things up, it meant that the Crayven Corporation had plausible deniability. I preferred the former outcome.

"Alright, so I'll be the first to admit, I haven't spent a lot of time in these things," Bishop observed, at length. "As long as all I gotta do is man the guns and be the spotter, I should be fine, but hopefully, you don't end up ask me to drive...sir."

"Don't worry yourself on that front, Lieutenant - even though this thing's got two cockpits, I plan to keep the flight controls in the front seat with me, assuming you've got no hang-ups about that," I laughed.

"No complaints here, Captain," Weyland replied.

"Alright, you feel up to the climb?" I asked, gesturing toward the escape ladder that hung from the Atlas' face and which, in the absence of a 'Mech bay's elevators, would allow us access to the steel avatar's control center.

"Yeah, I think I got this. After you, sir," the Lieutenant nodded.

###

Several minutes later, I found myself dropping into the dimly-illuminated cockpit of the corporate Atlas, its surroundings illuminated in the familiar dull crimson of a war machine at rest. Shrugging off the upper part of my flight suit, I slipped on the 'Mech's cooling vest and neurohelmet, and settled into its command chair. The ultra-pristine condition of the BattleMech stood in stark contrast to its nearly three-hundred-year-old age - the Crayven Corporation had restored it to such a superlative state that it even smelled new - with just a hint of sandalwood. I had to wonder if William Kauffman himself had fielded the machine for some unknown reason in the past.

As I eased into the pilot's station, the sophisticated war machine's onboard computer flickered to life.

"Mesomorphic scan complete. Recognize Maxwell, Charles E. Proceed with phase two of identification," the unit announced.

"Recognize Maxwell, Charles E.," I replied, throwing a series of toggles to activate the machine's integrated electronics and the neurohelmet interface. "To die, to sleep no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to."

"Identity confirmed," the computer replied.

"Initiate startup sequence."

"Startup sequence initiated," the computer confirmed, a low roar slowly building in the chamber behind the cockpit as the fires of the Atlas' fusion reactor blazed to life. "Reactor online. Sensors online. Weapons systems online. All functioning systems - nominal."

"Like riding a bike," I mused. "How're things looking back there, Weyland?"

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