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485 light-years away...

Valhalla - Crayven Corporation Headquarters
Meredith, New Earth
Lyran Commonwealth
October 7, 3029
____________________________________

I sighed dejectedly as I finished connecting the neural interface cables to the headrest of the oversized medical support chair dominating the center of the obsidian-black, windowless, octagonal laboratory. Tapping out several commands on a nearby arm-mounted noteputer, I cast an incredulous gaze at Corporal Cheviot, who was busying himself with fine-tuning the readouts on a bank of portable terminals and medical equipment.

"I still can't believe that we're doing this, Jack," I grumbled for what was likely the tenth time that afternoon. "The entire plan is insane."

"As you've been saying for the last six months - Lieutenant," Cheviot replied, tacking the honorific onto the end of his sentence in what was likely an attempt to placate me. "And as I've been saying, I don't disagree with you. But what are we going to do about it?"

"Me? I'm not going to do anything about it," I huffed, pulling up the electrical schematics for Cybernetics Lab 1 and initiating a sine wave test. "The CEO says he wants a sandbox to dump the AI into so he can connect his own brain to it and have a conversation with the computer? I'll build him his sandbox. But that doesn't mean I have to like it."

"I have to admit, I wasn't completely surprised by the build order, but I was pretty floored when I got the memo this morning that General Kauffman bumped our test volunteer to try it himself. Even if I was Kauffman, I'd let some other schmuck try the chair first before I strapped myself in. We still don't have any idea if this interface works - or whether or not it causes your head to explode in an eyeball-strewn paste when you turn it on," Jack quipped, moving past me and plugging a series of contact sensors into strategic locations across the chair. "By the way, best not call it a 'sandbox' around the General. I understand he prefers to call it 'The Tank.'"

"He can call it Rosebud for all I care. I just don't want my name attached to it if this whole venture goes horribly wrong and we end up killing one of the most prolific businessmen on New Earth," I deadpanned. "It's not good for one's resume."

"I hear you. Say, any word from those mercenaries since they landed?" Cheviot asked, evidently changing the subject. "They get the artifact yet?"

"No word so far, but I don't expect anything for several days, if not weeks," I replied, snapping the noteputer back into its storage position and wandering toward the huge display that dominated nearly half of the wall space in the room. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if the whole venture turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. That place is rife with piracy, and the hired guns seemed like a bunch of screwballs managed by a guy with an Indiana Jones complex."

"A...who....complex?" the Corporal asked, squinting at me and pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose with the blunt end of a screwdriver.

"Never mind, it's not important," I sighed. "You ready to let the creature out of its pen?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," Jack acknowledged. "Can you turn that thing on? Once you do, I'll connect the drive."

I nodded and hit a wall-mounted button next to the display. The unit gave a subtle flicker and glowed to life. A moment later, the words "NO SIGNAL" appeared on the screen.

"Alright - do it," I advised. Jack nodded in reply and inserted a large, glowing cube into a receptacle on the opposite bulkhead of the lab, completing the connection between the Tank and the air-gapped server where we'd stored the Black Eclipse AI since its recovery. The Tank was simply a more elaborate containment unit, but possessed of far more processing power, sensors, and interfaces than the original holding pen. In addition, at the insistence of William Kauffman, we'd spent the last six months converting Cybernetics Lab 1 into a literal extension of the Tank. The space was now outfit with a display that, William proposed, the AI could use to express itself if it so chose, and a medical exam chair augmented with a neural interface that an operator could use to communicate with the construct. The design for the neural interface was extremely hypothetical and entirely unproven, loaned to the Corporation by a wild-haired scientist from the NAIS named "Burke Kale" who claimed that he wanted to refine it to replace neurohelmets some day. The current iteration of the technology reportedly couldn't do much more than act as a highly-advanced two-way radio between man and machine; locomotion was apparently far too complex a concept for it. This limitation, Kale explained, also made the technology inherently safe - if something went horribly wrong, a direct neural connection couldn't really make you do anything you didn't want to do.

When I asked Burke what he meant by "horribly wrong," he simply shrugged his shoulders in what was hardly a reassuring response.

"Status of the AI?" I asked Cheviot, looking toward the monitor. "The General is going to be here soon."

"It's transferred over. Right now, it's just...cycling," the Corporal replied, gesturing toward the monitor, which was slowly rotating through shades of red, orange, yellow, and crimson. Light shows appeared to be the only thing that Black Eclipse was capable of - either that, or the construct was simply obstinate.

"Huh. I wonder what General Kauffman's reaction is going to be if that's all it wants to do when he's plugged directly into it," I mused. "Maybe he'll feel fortunate that it didn't reduce his brain to a pile of smoldering goo?"

"I'd say he'd find it to be a very uneventful first test," a crisp, military-sounding voice echoed through the chamber. I whirled around to see Major James Hayes stepping through the lab's hatch, followed closely by William Kauffman himself.

"Major Hayes - General Kauffman," I replied, caught off-guard by the appearance of the men. "I'm sorry - I wasn't expecting you for another seven minutes."

Hayes nodded, glancing around the lab, making a visual inspection of its configuration. William moved quietly to stand alongside the Major, his ice-colored eyes and pale complexion contrasting sharply with the dark suit and cerulean scarf that blended his form into the shadows of the lab. I'd never been in the General's presence before - hell, I'd never even spoken to him - but there was a quality about him that was ethereal in some way. It gave me chills - something that I wasn't used to as a person with few phobias.

"Well, everything looks like it's in order," Hayes observed. "Are you two ready to fire it up?"

"Aye, sir," I replied. Corporal Cheviot echoed my affirmation a moment later. "General - if you'd care to step over to the interface?"

William looked toward me.

"Optimism, Lieutenant," he mused with a very slight smile, his gaze unblinking and piercing. Then, at Major Hayes' behest, the General stepped over to the chair and settled into it. As I moved to join the group, Corporal Cheviot placed a series of skin sensors on Kauffman's hands, then paused as he began to prepare one for the man's neck.

"Uhh, sir, would you be willing to - take your scarf off? It's just that I can't - " Jack began. William held up a hand and nodded.

"Of course, how could I be so obtuse? I'm sorry. Call it a...defense mechanism," Kauffman replied, carefully pulling the scarf from around his neck and passing it to Major Hayes. As the accessory came off, I caught sight of a small electronic port just below William's hairline, at the base of his skull. Kauffman's eyes flicked toward mine, and I realized he'd caught me staring.

"Not everyone knows it's there," the General explained. "Having it exposed makes me feel...vulnerable."

"That seems completely reasonable, sir," I reassured him. 

"Are you ready to do this?" Major Hayes asked.

"Yes, I believe so. Plug me in, Major," Kauffman replied. Hayes carefully connected the neural link to William's discrete interface port as the CEO closed his eyes and laid his head against the chair's pillow. Taking a deep breath, I hit a button on my noteputer. A moment later, the lights in the room dimmed abruptly, and a single phrase flashed onto the display wall.

NEURAL LINK INITIATED

"Here we go," I whispered.

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A jarring pain sliced through my temples, the intensity so severe that it momentarily threatened to overwhelm me. The room rushed away in a brilliant display of shadows and light, replaced by inky blackness. I floated in the void for several moments, unable to see even my hands in front of my face for the depths of the dark. Eventually, I became aware of a chorus of voices, unintelligible, all whispering at once, becoming gradually louder. I turned my head in all directions, attempting to bring focus to the cacophony. 

"Hello? Who's there? Are you trying to communicate with me? I'm William Kauffman, the CEO of the Crayven Corporation. We want to figure out - "

"KAUFFMAN, WILLIAM, CEO, CRAYVEN CORPORATION," the voices responded in unison, the sentence strung together from audio clips of the words I'd just spoken. "YOU...wish TO...communicate."

"That's the general idea, if you'd be so obliged," I responded, trying to look past the terrifying notion that the construct sounded decidedly like a hostage note in audio form. "I'd like to get to know you."

The void began shifting colors, a randomized, slowly expanding swirl of oranges and reds and purples saturating my field of view. Eventually, the machine spoke again.

"KNOW."

"No? No what?" I asked in confusion

"KNOW you. I'd NOT like to KNOW YOU," the chorus replied. "We WANT you OUT."

The AI placed emphasis on the final words, if such a thing was possible. As I began to respond, the void before me constricted, faded away, and then burst existence once more. I felt a sharp jab at the neural interface plugged into the base of my neck. Glancing around, I saw that I was in the empty space of the laboratory once again.

"How perfectly odd." I mused. "James? I believe we can call that a successful - if somewhat odd - test."

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Black Canyon
Oberon VI - Oberon Confederation
October 7, 3029
____________________________________

Weapons fire roared through the river canyon, the distinctive retort of heavy ballistics fire echoed off the walls while the scream of missiles streaking overhead mixed with the electrical whine of high energy capacitors discharging potent beams of charged particles and coherent light. Our "simple" retrieval mission had gone to hell in a handbasket in possibly record time, yet despite this we seemed to be hanging on even being outnumbered and this spoke volumes to the skill level of the individual members of our team, let alone the cohesion of the unit as a whole. It was impressive to see how smoothly Aegis Division was able to operate under pressure, even more so considering it was my first actual engagement with them as well as Nicholas Schuster's, as far as I knew at least. We had drilled and practiced plenty over the last several months but it's never the same as an actual battle.

The fight looked like it was starting to turn in our favour, the Thug continued to withdraw and posed no real threat while the smoking wreckage of the Orion lay chest down in the near some rocks, it's cockpit ostensibly crushed beyond recognition in a skillful, if risky, Death From Above maneuver by Steve and his 60 ton Dragon. Nicholas' Phoenix Hawk LAM was engaging the Rifleman, and its paper thin rear armour, and it looked like Alyssa's Raven might be moving to assit him. Captain Maxwell's Atlas had the Annihilator pinned down and was giving it a thorough thrashing, although the Atlas was bearing several new nasty looking scars of its own. That left only the twin Condors and the relatively lightweight Blackjack, all of which Steve's Dragon appeared to be trying to engage alone. Since Nicholas and Alyssa were chewing into the Rifleman with barrages of laser fire I moved to assist Steve and his bevy of targets.

One of the Condors was breaking right and trying to circle around to flank Steve's Dragon but the pilot wasn't paying attention to the rest of the battle as that maneuver brought him well within range of most of my weapons. Having cooled off now from the fight with the Thug I unleashed a nearly full Alpha strike on the 50 ton hover tank, lighting it up from front to back. My paired medium lasers tore deep gouges in the tank's armoured skirt as 60% of  its side armour melted away in mere seconds. The PPC slagged the enemy's turret, actually melting it in so badly it locked in place as nearly 50% of the turret armour was just vapourized, and the 5 LRM missiles peppered the vehicles rear quarter as it slewed sideways nearly crashing before the driver was able to regain control of tank. Steve in the meantime was unloading everything he had into the Blackjack while it attempted to return the favour, though with notably less accuracy, the Dragon's AC/5 and LRM-10 missiles kept rocking the lighter 'mech backwards with every salvo. The two Condors broke off from Steve entirely and moved to engage my rapidly closing Merlin, the second vehicle firing its own AC/5 at me as it attempted to flank me while I was still focused on the first tank. The second Condor scored a few hits to my right side as it circled around, its main cannon and paired medium lasers causing respectable damage, I fired my own medium laser into the now floundering first Condor as its driver valiantly tried to turn the vehicle around so it could bring its crippled turret to bear on me. With some deft maneuvering I was able to keep the faster vehicle at bay, the jammed turret preventing it from firing as I melted through what little armour remained and struck either the fuel tank or ammo bin as the vehicle was engulfed in a fireball and roasted to a crisp.

A sharp crack echoed through the Merlin's cockpit and the 'mech tilted forward slightly as the second Condor managed to finish its flanking move and get behind me, the AC/5 round tearing through roughly 40% of my right rear toros armour in a single blast. The center rear torso status on my HUD dropped into the deep orange as well a moment later as one of the tank's medium lasers also found their mark. Rather than attempting to turn and face the much faster tank I punched the jump jets again, angling the Merlin's legs, and the attached jump jets, forward in order to propel myself backwards as quickly as possible. The Condor was barely able to slip out of the way as my 60 ton war machine inadvertantly attempting a Death From Above on the tank as it landed heavily on the spot the tank had occupied just moments before. The spooked driver tried to get as much distance from me as possible and in doing so left the rear of the his tank facing me, taking full advantage I fire the PPC's deadly charged particle blast and followed up with the medium lasers directly into the Condor's relatively weak rear armour and tore through into vital internals. A small explosion burst forth from under the tank's armoured skirt and the hover vehicle pitched nose first into the canyon floor, throwing up dust and debris as the engine failed and the craft slid to a stop. A moment later the hatch popped open with three pirates clambered out and running away with their hands up, clearly not wanting to fight anymore. I swung my Merlin over to take aim on the Blackjack when I noticed the turret on the Condor start rotating towards me, I surmised that the fourth crew member was not KIA as I had originally assumed and was now trying to get the drop on me. Instead I angled myself back towards the Condor slightly and gave a quick burst from my jump jets, delivering the DFA I had failed earlier as I planted my Merlin's left foot directly on top of the slowly rotating turret, the 60 ton beast crushing the weakended structure with ease.

I then sent a PPC shot streaking towards the Blackjack, striking the 'mechs left arm and slagging whatever was left of it, including the AC/2 and medium laser housed within. Steve's Dragon tore through it's center torso with autocannon and missile fire before my own missiles nearly punched a whole in it's back in a single salvo. As my PPC cycled, its high energy capacitors crackling with barely contained lightning, I lined up a second shot but paused as Steve's Dragon closed into melee distance of the lighter 'mech. A few second later and the armoured barrel of the Dragon's autocannon literally pierced out the backside of the Blackjack, if it had been a hand it looked like it would have been holding the Blackjack's still beating heart before it was withdrawn and the destroyed enemy 'mech collapsed to the ground. As if to just make sure it was really dead Steve then proceeded to fire his 'mech's medium laser into the smoking crater left by his punch, satisfied it was truly destroyed the Dragon looked up and was clearly searching for more targets.

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The terrifying crack of autocannons and the blaze of large lasers firing and glancing past my cockpit caused me to flinch instinctively on the LAM's controls as I backpedaled the 'Mech wildly. I group fired my laser suite in response, scoring repeated direct hits on the Rifleman's torso. I didn't bother with the machine guns; I knew that they wouldn't be able to effectively punch through the towering 'Mech's hide. The burly Rifleman kept pushing away from me, its long guns not particularly effective at short range. I tried to stay inside the war machine's minimum weapons arc.

The Rfileman managed to get a number of well-placed hits on my LAM, smashing through thin armor and savaging some internal components. Alerts sounded off in my cockpit and the Phoenix Hawk staggered as I fought to keep it on its feet. The 'Mech stumbled drunkenly under the hits of the autocannons and lasers. I recovered and Alpha'd the aggressor again, pushing back toward it. Suddenly, the Rifleman twisted its torso nearly 90 degrees to the left and fired off a blast of combined-arms weapons fire over my head. Confused, I pushed forward and around the pirate's flank and torso twisted to see where the rounds had been fired. I looked just in time to see Alyssa's Raven buckling under a crippling hit, one of its diminutive arms being ripped right off the mount. I realized that the Rifleman had decided to target something within its arc. That something was our scout. I wasn't going to let that happen.

I charged in behind the Rifleman and repeatedly slapped my weapons suites, pouring as many hits as I could into its rear armor. The impacts began whittling down the paper-thin defenses, bit by bit exposing its internals as its armor melted and I maneuvered to keep staying behind the 'Mech as much as I could. Suddenly, the Rifleman's pilot slammed it into reverse, backing directly toward me. The next thing I knew, the hulking machine swung its arms around and bludgeoned my Phoenix Hawk repeatedly with its rifle barrels. I pushed back into point blank range and pummeled the 'Mech in return with everything I could bring to bear on it until it had been savaged. With a last, defiant blast, I exploded the Rifleman's right leg, severing the leg actuator and sending the 'Mech crashing to the ground, hopefully out of the fight. I let out a victorious (and surprised) yell and hit my comm toggle button. "Orpheus 5 to all units; tango down. What's my next target?"

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A barrage of weapons fire exploded across the Annihilator's center torso, resulting in an orgy of violence and destruction as AC/20 and SRM-6 rounds, large laser blasts, and long-range missiles, fired by our Atlas at point-blank range, savaged its armor. The assault 'Mech responded in kind, unleashing forty 'Mech-sized shotgun rounds from its LB-X 10 autocannon into our armored avatar's hull with a thunderous and devastating impact. The expansive command console wrapping around Bishop and me exploded into flames, dark, acrid smoke billowing from where the unit's power supply had been, causing me to cough and shield my eyes with one arm as I kept the other hand on the control stick.

"Weyland! See if you can douse that blaze! There's a CO2 extinguisher strapped to the end of the unit. I'll try to buy us some time!" I shouted, wheeling the Atlas into a counter-maneuver and attempting to close to within melee range of the Annihilator.

"I'm on it, Cap," Bishop replied, locking out his weapons and grabbing the fire suppression device with a free hand. Seconds later, the extinguisher let out a powerful blast of icy-cold carbon dioxide, putting out the fire and revealing a deep, slag-ringed hole where the command console's faceplate used to be.

"Well, so much for that fucking thing," I muttered, noting grimly that we were no longer receiving telemetry from the rest of Aegis Division. "Orpheus-1 to all units: be advised, command operations are down. Chase, I'm gonna need you to call targets for us."

"Aye, Captain," Alyssa answered. "I've lost a few systems myself, but nothing too severe. Orpheus-5 knocked the Rifleman on its ass after it took a chunk out of me."

"Alright, that's good - watch your six out there. We're not fully out of the woods yet," I responded. Our Atlas jolted again and alarm klaxons screamed. Glancing at the damage readout, I noted that we were no longer receiving status from the AC/20 - the 'Mech's most powerful weapon.

"Well, that's fucking fabulous," Bishop grumbled, switching over to the laser suite and letting fly with a volley of coherent energy, the impact tearing one of the Annihilator's arms completely off. "Now we're even."

"It's time to end this. We don't have a lot of armor left," I advised, pushing our Atlas into a full run. "Hold on tight. I'm gonna do something inadvisable."

I charged toward our assailant, watching the distance to target indicator tick down as we closed, the Atlas lumbering and lurching as it stomped toward the marauding assault 'Mech. The pilot of the Annihilator began to push away from us in reverse, no doubt unnerved by the sudden, brazen charge, strafing our cockpit with pulse laser fire in the process. I shoved the Atlas' throttle as high as it would go, sending us driving headlong into a bone-jarring collision with the Annihilator, throwing me against the harness straps of the pilot's couch and eliciting a yell from Weyland. In a mad scramble, I forced the Atlas' arms around the beefy assault 'Mech, clamping its massive hands down on any part of the Annihilator that was convenient. Suddenly, with a deafening impact, one of our two cockpit windows shattered, sending flechettes of broken ferroglass spraying inward on a warm rush of atmosphere as an autocannon round punched clean through the canopy and embedded itself inside the Atlas' roof. I felt several sharp pains in my face and arms, followed by myriad, thick, oozing sensations.

Through the now-shattered viewport of our cockpit, I could see the Annihilator's pilot, presumably the pirate Janos, gripping his controls with a frenzied look on his face, fighting to break free of our Atlas while I simultaneously attempted to tear the Annihilator's remaining arm from its socket. I fired the Atlas' integrated torso lasers directly into the Annihilator's center of mass, sending molten ferrosteel spraying in all directions as quadruple high-intensity lasers cored into the hostile war machine's torso. The biped 'Mech's cockpit glass instantly polarized, shielding the pirate's eyes from the near-blinding light generated by the energy weapons at close range, obscuring my view of the happenings within. Astoundingly, Janos held his ground, pulling back the arm and firing another shotgun blast into our Atlas' low-slung SRM launcher. A colossal series of chain-detonations ensued as the missile launcher's magazine violently erupted, blowing out one of our Atlas' hips and nearly overturning us. Somehow, I managed to keep the 'Mech on its feet, wrenching the Annihilator's left arm from its actuator even as our own 'Mech was coming apart around us.

Focusing in on the hole I'd just made in Janos' 'Mech, I tossed the limb aside, and drew back the Atlas'  right arm as far as I could. As the pirate drove his Annihilator into us to try and knock our BattleMech off balance, I shoved the Atlas' arm forward, using the Annihilator's own resistance against it. The limb rammed forward, smashing through the hole in the side of the pirate 'Mech and breaching its gyroscope casing. The gyro, suddenly and unceremoniously smashed to bits by the sudden arrival of the Atlas' huge fist, tore the pirate 'Mech to shreds as it destabilized. The Annihilator crashed to the ground, engulfed in smoke and flames. A plume of gore, accompanied by a fine crimson mist, rose from where its cockpit used to be as the remnants of the still-spinning gyro ripped through Janos' body.

Good riddance...

I let out a cathartic sigh of relief and pivoted our ravaged BattleMech toward the rest of Orpheus Lance. It appeared that Orlex, Steve, Nick, and Alyssa had all made relatively short work of the marauders, and were now skirmishing with what remained of the unit. Pushing toward the group, I opened the all-call to the team.

"Orpheus-1 to all units: advise status and call your targets. Where can I assist?"

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The thunderous booms down in the canyon varied in pitch and strength, as though they came from several different weapons. The timing was irregular, too - this wasn't an artillery drill. As I got closer to the conflict, I could feel vibrations through the soles of my sneakers that followed a plodding beat like Slow, heavy footsteps. That meant mechs. 

Getting to the mechs was slow going. I got Bob's crappy sedan stuck in a ditch just off some barely-paved access road in the woods three days ago. Lay low, I'd thought. Take a vehicle Bald Chuckie's guys won't recognize, and hide out for a couple days. But Bob's car wasn't cut out for off-roading, so I'd had to hike all the way to the edge of the canyon down a gravel path that would have been just wide enough for the car, if only I hadn't wrecked it. 

I was on the trail down the cliff side, now - that's where I started feeling the stomping, and knew for sure it was mechs. Probably a lot of mechs. And probably on both sides. Back before it got deep fried by its' own ammo, even Bald Chuckie's Flea could take down anything less than artillery in a few minutes. I figured the only thing that could challenge a bunch of real mechs (no disrespect toward the late, great Flea intended) was a bunch of other mechs. 

But anyway, I was trying to get down the cliff on a trail that probably wasn't a people trail, and kept zig zagging back and forth for some reason but did actually keep going downward. I'd tried to cut straight down when I first noticed the zig zags, and fell on my face and rolled a bit and got caught by a scraggly tree that was barely hanging on upright itself.

I was glad I was wearing the Thermo Man suit, then - the motorcycle-type helmet saved me from a busted face, and the thick jacket made sliding down the rocks a bit less shitty. The weather got hotter as I went deeper into the canyon, though, and I started to resent the thing. I'd made it partly for Techno Match bouts that didn't usually take more than 45 minutes, and partly just to look cool, so it wasn't really breathable enough for hiking around in the desert. It still might come in handy if I got into a tight spot, though, and after that tumble I didn't really want to take off the helmet til I was back on flat ground. 

The deeper into the canyon I got, the smaller and spindlier the trees were - it was probably too hot for them down here, too. I looked down the slope, and figured if I kept going that way I wouldn't have any cover at all soon. 

So I left the trail and shuffled sideways across the canyon side, hanging out to the stunted trees and their twisty roots to keep from falling. I could tell from all the explosions and stomping that I was getting closer to the battle. 

The hard part was still ahead, though. If I was lucky, whichever side didn't have connections to connections to King Grimm would lose. If I was really lucky, they'd be down a mech or two and flee without recovering them. Then all I had to do was get to the most salvageable one first, and get it walking and back to the workshop before either faction arrived to claim it. 

This would probably end really, really badly, but if I pulled it off I wouldn't be the reason why Bald Chuckie didn't have a mech anymore - and I did not want to be the guy who wrecked Chuckie's only mech. 
 

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I slammed my DRAGON into Park and stopped for a minute to blow air out of my mouth with my lungs. I took a drink of the Beer I kept in my seat coushin and undid my seatbelt. I looked out through the Windshield of my Mech and saw Captain Maxwell's ATLAS all smashed to pieces with dead guy smeared all over the ground in front of him and a blew up Mech. I looked over and saw that I still had two dead guys in my cockpit and a bunch of Entrails, I decided to get rid of them before I had to do Battle again.

I jumped up out of my chair, suddenly and rapidly, without warning, the pain from my Crunching Leg Bones made me yell out in pain and Announce in agony. I fell on the Floor of the cockpit and I could not move my legs, they were broken, I felt. My ribcage ached, and I spit out blood. A tooth came out for some reason. Then I tried to stand up. My legs made so much noise and I let out a Womanly scream as I sundered. 

"SERGEANT JENKINS WHAT ARE YOU YELLING ABOUT??" Captain Maxwell said over the radio. "I broke my legs in a fight!" I Yelled back, but there Came no answer. I looked over at one of the dead guys, he had got all stiff on account of being Dead, and I thought, maybe I can use him for a Ladder so I can get to the medicine cabinet and get Painkillers. So I crawled over the floor and stood him up, weird goo came out of his Mouth and then I climbed up his Body and supported my weight on him like a Crutch. I used the Dead guy to hobble over to the pain cabinet and I Opened it up. There were a ton of drugs insode, I grabbed the bottle that Said AGONY ASSASSIN and I ate like 20 pills. I let Go of the dead guy, he fell over and impaled his face on a broken piece of metal, I said a quiet Respect for his passing. While I was waiting for the pain to get killed, I put on some soft Tunes in the cockpit and I lit up a cigarette, then I saw in the food dispenser inside the Cockpit had a drink machine. I went over to it, my Le'gs made noises like a chainsaw with the bones grinding and I barfed blood. When I got to the Drink machine after like 5 minutes I looked at the choices, WATER, MILK, SODA POP, CHOCOLATE MILK. Chocolate milk??? I was going to have that, so I got out a Cup and put it under the dispenser, then I Hit the button. The machine made all kinds of groin grabbing noises and gurgled and Blorpped and then a bunch of Thick brown stuff came blorping out of the machine and went all over the place.

"EWWWWWWWWWWW GROSS!" I Screamed, I hit the button a bunch more of times to try to ge tit to shut off, but it didn't, it kept making brown Junk! Then I grabbed the front of the machine, the Nozzle, and the most Terrible thing happened, it broke off in my hand!! All of the sudden I was getting sprayed by Brown Junk like a firehose, and it smelled and tasted TERRIBLE, then I realized my Mech had got shot in the Plumbing and when that happened it must of broken the Toilet water into the Hot Chocolate machine and now it was spraying turd water all over my cockpit!! I Screamed and yelled and cried and then I fell down in a Puddle of dook that had puddled up on the Floor, that made me yell again on account of my Legs breaking some more, eventually I Dragged my self back to my Pilot Chair and got back in.

"STEVE JENKINS ARE YOU READY FOR BATTLE YET??" Captain Maxwell roared.

"10-4 I'M READY." I Cried into the microphone. Then, Came Captain Maxwell, "ARE YOU CRYING IN THERE?"

I tried to answer, but the Smell oh my it was so bad all I could do was Cough and drive toward the Captain and the others, I turned up the Vents and the Music to try and kill the smell......

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“Major Hayes?” William asked, worried. “Major Hayes, are you there?”

 

The door of the Tank swung open, and the Major entered. One of the now-empty office chairs swiveled slightly as it clicked closed behind him.

 

“Right here, General. That was a short test.”

 

“It appears our test subject prefers its’ privacy,” Kauffman quipped. “I think I’ve been shooed out the door.”

 

“There may be technical limitations at play,” Hayes suggested, pulling up a chair and taking a seat near William. “According to the logs, the AI was running at the absolute limit of the tank's available memory; connecting a human mind directly to an artificial one took more processing power than we’d planned for.”

 

“Perhaps that is what upset it,” William mused. “Would you ask Lieutenant Kureca to add more computing power to the tank?”

 

“I could,” Hayes said, “but this would be a good opportunity to test whether your connection to the company network is affected by the neural link. The AI isn’t sending any data through it right now, so you could try allocating the resources yourself without much risk.”

 

Kauffman looked thoughtful for a moment. “I thought that this laboratory was to be air-gapped, Major, was it not?”

 

James nodded. “Indeed, and it is, sir. You’re a variable that isn’t normally present. Your implants could momentarily connect to the company network, bridge the Tank to it, issue the resource allocation command, and then sever the connection. The AI shouldn’t be able to anticipate or respond to that, and if it seems like it’s able, we can manually kill the power to the whole unit at a moment’s notice.”

 

“Brilliant plan, Major. Let’s do it. We’ll increase the resource allocation and then attempt the test again.”

 

A moment later, the cooling fans inside the servers lining the walls roared to life, and diagnostic logs rapidly scrolled by on the workstations’ monitors. Major Hayes leaned over a workstation, and clicked a few keys to display a much slower stream of logs, showing what the AI was saying - at least, what the neurosignals-to-speech-to-text software thought was being said.

 

WHAT do You WANT?

 

Edited by James Hayes
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"Orpheus-5 to Orpheus-1, scope is clear." I reported as the last of the tanks exploded, a huge blossom of flame consuming their armored hulls in the detonation of the Arrow IV trailer. Turning my Phoenix Hawk LAM  around, I took in the expanse of the battlefield. The entirety of the enemy OpFor was flaming wrecks and destroyed hardware; I was amazed at what just a few of us were capable of doing. That wasn't to say we had all made it through unscathed. I heard Steve Jenkins screaming something unintelligibly on the radio about both of his legs being broken, while Captain Maxwell and Bishop's Atlas stood before me, full of smoking holes, its cockpit glass partially smashed in. A blistering crater existed where its hip-mounted SRM launcher used to be, exposing internal components. The gigantic AC/20 was bent out of position and looked to be out of commission. As I took in the carnage, Alyssa Chase's Raven loped past me, headed toward Maxwell, its right arm ripped from its mount.

"Nice work." Maxwell responded. "Form up on me; let's get this show on the road. I just need a minute to figure out how to get this goddamn autocannon back in service."

"I may have a solution to that." I replied. "I'm headed your way."

I quickly hit the button to convert my Phoenix Hawk into AirMech mode and leaped into the air, causing the Mech to glide into Maxwell's position. I landed just short of his Atlas' position. Converting back into BattleMech mode, I pivoted the LAM's chassis toward the wounded assault 'Mech. As I did so, I saw Maxwell himself leaning out of the smashed cockpit window, clad in cooling vest and shorts, looking toward the bent autocannon. As he noticed my approach, I saw him key the radio headset perched on his ear.

"Nice to see you, Orpheus-5. We've got a really fine mess here." The Captain grumbled. "This autocannon is bent to - "

Maxwell was suddenly cut off by Steve Jenkins shrieking on the comm channel.

"AHHHHHHHHH! I NEED SOME DUCT TAPE! MY LEGS ARE BROKEN AND I'M BARFING BLOOD OUT OF MY - "

"Stand by, Orpheus-4, we're rolling medics. Orpheus-1 to Home Plate - please get Doc Aldon rolling this way." Captain Maxwell radioed, calling the staging area. "Orpheus-4 is reporting major injuries including broken bones."

"Roget that, Orpheus-4. Mercy-1 is en route." a voice from our staging area responded.

"Alright, Orpheus-4, with that handled, what we have here is an autocannon bent far enough out of alignment that the ammo feed can't load it. Got any suggestions?" Maxwell asked.

"Yeah, I might." I replied, extending my Phoenix Hawk's manipulator arms and hands. Driving my mech forward, I took hold of the Atlas' arm with one manipulator hand and the autocannon barrel with another.

"Alright Captain, I'd like to try to use the Mech's hands to force the cannon barrel back down into place, at least enough for the ammo slugs to be able to feed, may I proceed?" I asked. "I'll need you to use the Atlas' arm actuators to hold it in place as counter resistence."

"Good idea. You got it. Worst thing that can happen is that it snaps off entirely. Points for creativity." Maxwell said, ducking back into the cockpit. A moment later the Atlas' arm tensed up. "Go for it."

Gently, I pushed the controls of the Phoenix Hawk's huge hands forward. The autocannon barrel slowly torqued upward. I placed increasing pressure on the controls, watching painstakingly as the barrel bent progressively further upward. The gap between the ammo feed and the barrel slowly sealed up. As everything came into what approximated alignment, I eased up on the controls.

"Captain, how is your weapon status looking?" I asked.

"Yellow warning lights. Which is better than red." Maxwell replied.

"Ok, stand by." I responded. I gave the manipulator arms another gentle bump. The cannon bent up further. "How about now?"

There was a long pause.

"Green lights, and a successful ammo load!" Captain Maxwell exclaimed. "Nice work, Mr. Schuster. If we baby this thing, we might actually be able to get a few more shots out of it."

"Glad to be of service, sir." I smiled.

A few seconds later, a small battlefield ambulance came screaming up to us, and Doc Aldon jumped out and dashed toward Steve's 'mech.

"Orpheus lance, stand by to move out." Captain Maxwell advised. "Once Sergeant Jenkins is patched up, we're going to push toward the objective."

"Aye sir." I replied. "Ready to rock and roll."

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"How about now?" Nick asked.

The AC/20 lurched into place, and I pushed back off the shattered cockpit windshield and settled down into the Atlas' command chair.

"Green lights, and a successful ammo load!" I exclaimed. "Nice work, Mr. Schuster. If we baby this thing, we might actually be able to get a few more shots out of it."

"Glad to be of service, sir." Nick replied, a smile in his voice.

A few seconds later, a small battlefield ambulance came screaming up to us, and Doc Aldon jumped out and dashed toward Steve's 'mech.

"Orpheus lance, stand by to move out," I advised. "Once Sergeant Jenkins is patched up, we're going to push toward the objective."

I switched over to the tight-beam channel with Mallory Aldon.

"Doc, give me the sitrep," I requested, throwing a number of toggles on the Atlas' console to push its sensors to the maximum range and reviewing the new telemetry coming in from Alyssa Chase's Raven ash she moved her scout 'Mech into an advance position.

"I'm making contact now...hello, Sergeant Jenkins. May I come in?" Doc Aldon replied. The sound of shuffling filtered through my headset as the medic climbed into the cockipit of the Dragon"Oh my god, Steve - you have dead people in here. I'm not going to ask why, but I will recommend that you get them out of here for health purposes. And - are those genitals on the floor over there?"

"Dead people?" I blurted into my radio. "What the hell's going on in there?"

There came a long pause.

"Apparently, Jenkins was ambushed by pirates at the outset of this mission and never reported it," Aldon responded. "He has two seriously sprained legs. Nothing broken."

"Well, that last part's a relief, anyway," I responded, pushing my 'Mech out into the middle of the canyon's bay. "Is he good to stay active on the mission?"

"I believe he will be," Mallory replied. "I'm going to get him patched up with some braces and appropriate painkillers. Can you give us 15 minutes? 10 for me to bandage him up, and five for me to get the hell out of the way before the shooting starts again."

"That should be no issue," I advised, jockeying the Atlas into a defensive position at the head of the bay. "Let me know when you're ready."

###

Fifteen minutes later...

The M.A.S.H. unit sped away, leaving a spray of water in its wake. Doc Aldon had been surprisingly efficient in his ministrations, getting Steve back in the saddle with twin compression sleeves for his legs and a hefty dose of narcotics for the pain. I would have questioned the drugs, except for the fact that, for better or for worse, Steve had proven his aptitude at piloting under the influence.

"Orpheus-1 to Orpheus-4," I radioed. "How are you doing? Ready to move out?" I asked.

"AYE AYE, CAPTAIN CRUNCH!" came the reply. Clearly, Steve was feeling better.

"Alright. Orpheus lance, let's get this job done," I responded.

We pushed toward the redoubt, encountering little resistance as we did so. However, up ahead, there appeared to be two remaining sentries - along with a manned guard building - blocking our path to the objective. My targeting computer identified them as a Super Griffin and a Crossbow. I glanced at the status of the Atlas. Although we had gotten the mighty AC/20 operational again, the massive assault 'Mech wasn't rated to much more than a fire support role at this point. I'd need to call in extra reinforcements to take out the redoubt and its two defenders. I opened a dual channel to Nick and Orlex to discuss the matter further.

"Orpheus-1 to Orpheus-2 and Orpheus-5 - it looks like we've got some double trouble up ahead. We need to take out this redoubt so we can get past, but we also need to deal with the Super Dragon and the Crossbow. This Atlas is pretty Swiss-cheesed. How do you gents feel about taking on the defenders while I try to smash through the redoubt?"

As I awaited a reply, I pondered what the pirates had meant by 'Irian.' Something was afoot; that much was certain...

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