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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 ahead. We need to take out this redoubt so we can get past, but we also need to deal with the Super Griffin 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?"

Captain Maxwell's Atlas did indeed look like a 'mech version of swiss cheese, the battle with the equally massive Annihilator had left several gaping holes in the war machine's armour which would take days to repair in a full mech bay. We were able to salvage the behemoth's AC/20 with some ingenuity and assistance from Nicholas' Phoenix Hawk LAM but there was little we could do to repair the armour in the field. Thankfully both Schuster's LAM and my own Merlin came out of the initial fight relatively undamaged, relative being the key word, neither of us had gaping holes in our armour, yet.

"Copy that Orpheus-1, is that really a Super Griffin? I've only heard rumours of it back in Davion space, I'd love to know how these pirates got hold of a prototype. Hell I'd love to take this one off their hands," I replied over the comms as my own targeting systems confirmed the unit IDs.

"Feel free to ask them Orpheus-2, but it doesn't look like they're in the mood to talk," chuckled Charles.

"Well then I guess I'll just have to liberate this one the old fashioned way," I responded as I toggled my weapons systems back to the ready, the barrels of the energy weapons beginning to glow slightly as their capacitors charged.

"Just bring him down quickly, we'll worry about salvage later, provided we're all still in one piece."

"Roger that sir, Orpheus-2 moving to engage."

"Orpheus-2 to Orpheus-5, I'll take the Super Griffin if you can grab the Crossbow. I've fought them before, if you get within the LRMs 180m min range they're almost useless. That PPC generates too much heat to be used regularly and its armour is pretty light."

I pushed the throttle forward and drove the Merlin into run pulling ahead of our wounded Atlas and closing the distance with the closer of our two opponents, the Super Griffin. The Super Griffin was a reworked 'mech based on the original Griffin, rather than being a traditional variant the 'mech was actual a complete redesign modeled to look like the original. The 'mech was the result of the fabled "Project Phoenix" that took place in the early 3020's, an in-depth research project undertaken by House Davion in an attempt to create brand new 'mech designs. The project itself was arguably a failure as the only apparent results were the attack by the Draconis Combine that ended the project and the supposed production of a few prototypes. Everything was rumoured to have been destroyed but, as typical, that was only the partial truth. The presence of the Super Griffin in front of me bore witness to that. The redesigned 'mech, now weighing 60 tons, was meant to be a testing platform for several new experimental technologies, most notably so called improved jump jets and double strength heat sinks. The later of which were believed to be equivalent to the Star League era LosTech Double Heat Sinks but somehow still the same size and weight of a standard heat sink, I found that claim hard to believe but I was curious to find out for myself if possible.

I initiated combat with the Super Griffin as soon as I was within range with my PPC and the azure lightning ripped across the open terrain to strike the equal tonnage 'mech in it's right arm. A small rain of 5 LRMs followed close beyond splashing across the enemy's right torso and causing minor damage. The pirate reaction was quick, if poorly aimed, and he returned fire with his own larger flight of 10 LRMs and a matching PPC blast but both salvos went wide. The Super Griffin quickly throttled up and moved to intercept me before I could reach the redoubt, which I willingly obliged by breaking off left and beginning to circle around him. The enemy pilot seemed to be favouring his left side and from what I could see, and the estimated damaged readouts I got from the battle computer, it appeared his 'mech had seen combat prior to our engagement like the others, most likely from the day before with whatever this 'Irian' business was.

As we circled closer we entered within range of each other for our medium lasers and our two 'mechs exchanged spears of coherent light with each other, my own 'mech firing twin emerald beams while the enemy only had a single. Following immediately on the laser salvo another brace of missiles and PPC fire ignited the narrowing gap between us, leaving smoky contrails and streams of ionized atmosphere hanging in the air as evidence of our passing. The Super Griffin again missed with his PPC but the missiles struck home all across my Merlin's torso, the impacts and resulting detonations echoing hollowly within the 'mech and the cockpit itself. My own fire was slightly more accurate scoring a direct hit to the Super Griffin's center torso with both my PPC and LRM 5, the molten armour cracking under the impacts and showering the immediate area in shrapnel as nearly a full ton of ablative armour shattered into pieces. I was caught off guard a moment later when the pirate ignited his 'mechs jump jets much further away than I would have anticipated and launched the 60 ton in a highly arced trajectory through the sky. I was further surprised again as the Super Griffin was not only able to clear my 'mech the considerable initial distance but it appears to do so with ease. The large rocket pack looking jump jets on the Super Griffin's back were clearly improved over standard models which lent some credence to the rumours about the double strength heat sinks as well. As the enemy sailed overhead of me on twin jets of fire I ignited my own jump jets in an effort to prevent the pirate from getting behind me, the extra mobility of the jump jets allowing me to take my forward momentum and strafe sideways and to the back while simultaneously turning to face where the Super Griffin was touching down a mere 80m away.

Being just under the minimum range for the PPC, and well beneath the minimum for the LRMs, the Super Griffin only had its single medium laser and small laser that it could fire on me, in return I was able to unleash both of my own medium lasers as well as the twin MGs, still setup for rapid-fire. The enemy fire went wide, the ruby red small laser scraping across my Merlin's right arm, while my own shots struck the enemy's legs and several machine gun rounds punched deep into the weakened center torso. Sparks could be seen within the 'mech's torso and it stumbled drunkenly to the side as the pilot fought valiantly to keep it upright and surprisingly succeeded, its engine or gyro having taken a critical hit. I continued my 'mech's backwards momentum as the pirate ignited his jump jets again and flew out wide circling to my right again while trying to create more distance. He fired his full weapons suite as he went but every shot missed, if only barely, as he focused more on keeping the Super Griffin upright with its damaged gyro. I missed as well with my first medium laser but the second and the LRM 5 that followed, once we cleared the minimum range, hit their marks savaging the enemy's right side. The pirate managed to keep the 'mech upright as he landed but it stumbled trying to keep its balance and stood motionless for a few seconds after it recovered, a short period of time but all that I needed to line up a shot with my PPC. The arc of high energy lightning streaked through the air almost faster than the eye could follow and impacted the Super Griffin center mass, the high energy particle beam super-heated what little armour remained on the 60 ton war machine's center torso before vapourizing it in an instant, the excess energy racing inside the vulnerable internal structure of the 'mech arcing between components and destroying vital equipment. Another internal explosion twisted the Super Griffin's torso sideways as the pirate attempted to return fire but only managed to strike my 'mech's right leg with its single medium laser. A few seconds later and the 60 ton 'mech tried to take a step towards my Merlin and promptly fell flat on its face, its gyro completely destroyed according to my damage readout.

I pushed the Merlin forward cautiously, not trusting the pirate was out of the fight just because his 'mech couldn't stand, I'd seen too many desperate and foolhardy MechWarriors in my day that would still try fighting even in a downed 'mech. As though in response the Super Griffin lifted itself up on its left arm and aimed the PPC in its right arm at me and fired, the short distance meant the he had to disable the PPC's field inhibitor and the feedback was just as destructive to the pirate's 'mech as my own. The blast struck me in the left torso, melted dangerous amounts of armour as alarm klaxons blared inside the cockpit while his feedback overloaded the Super Griffin's PPC capacitors and melted the weapon's electrical coils. The shorted out circuitry exploded as dangerous levels of energy flowed backwards through the weapon, violently tearing it apart before arcs of energy lashed out fusing internals within the damaged arm and rendering the weapon, and the arm itself for that matter, inoperable. In retaliation I opened fire with a full barrage of my close range weapons, the medium lasers coring into the torso while the high caliber machine gun rounds shattered components within the downed 'mech's left leg, actually severing the hip actuator and separating the Super Griffin's leg from its body. This final blow was enough to drive the pirate to try and eject from the down 'mech, which was never a good idea, reinforced by the fact that the pirate was now in two separate pieces and spread across the ravine courtesy of an ill placed rock outcrop and some small trees.

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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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The Crossbow came out of nowhere, blue lightning exploding from its gun port and laser fire flashing as it came at me. I pushed my 'Mech in hard reverse, fighting to keep control as it reeled under the impact of a brutal PPC blast to its center torso. I returned fire with everything that the Phoenix Hawk LAM could bring to bear, watching liquefied armor slag off the pirate's avatar as it jockeyed for a better position. I snapped off another round of combined-arms fire, smashing into its heavily armed hide with as much fury as I could render. Statistically speaking, I was outmatched, but I was not about to let the other pilot know that. I switched into AirMech mode, taking advantage of a lull in the crossfire to trigger the transformation sequence and lunge into the air, strafing the Crossbow with a wildly-frantic spread of laser and machine gun fire. Most of the shots landed, but some found their mark, one of them, remarkably, smashing a hole in the Crossbow's cockpit canopy. How I managed to score a critical hit midair, I didn't know, but I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. As I landed behind the monstrosity, I opened fire again, strafing the pounding the Crossbow's rear armor with ballistic rounds. The Crossbow pilot wheeled around, lighting my 'Mech up with blue energy. As my onboard systems flickered and failed under the EMP effect, I grabbed hold of a nearby tree with my manipulator arms and uprooted it. The Crossbow pilot charged at me, and I swung the tree up at it, smashing it under the chin with the timber, literally breaking the tree off in the process. The Crossbow blasted me again, my transformation system failing spectacularly and locking me in AirMech mode. 

"Goddammit!" I yelled, swinging my LAM around. I swung a hard punch at the Crossbow, hitting it as hard as I could in melee mode. A bunch of armor ripped off, exposing a vulnerable section of the hostile pirate's internals. Quickly, I pushed backwards and lit up the wound, pouring as much weapons fire into it as I could. Bit by bit the Crossbow hit me, whittling me down further and further. We were, on paper, just about evenly matched, nut the bigger guns of the Crossbow proved to be the advantage. As the pirate kept coming at me, I realized that I had one, terribly destructive ace up my sleeve. I backed off a bit, and allowed the Crossbow to start coming at me, and as he did so, I reacted. I fired my jump jets, and soared straight at the Crossbow. I smashed into it with the full weight of my 'Mech, pinning it against the canyon wall and breaking its hip connections under my weight like a crushed marionette even as I was thrown against my harness straps. The Crossbow sank to the ground, out of the fight. 

"Orpheus-5 to Orpheus-1...tango down." I gasped, trying to regain my wits as I took stock of what was left of my Mech.

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Black Canyon
Oberon VI - Oberon Confederation
October 7, 3029
Approximately 40 minutes later
____________________________________

With the redoubt's primary defenders crushed, the Atlas' mighty AC/20 had made short work of the scattered ground personnel and lightly-armored sentries that remained. As the SRM emplacement exploded behind us in a spectacular blossom of flame, taking out several of the hardened structure's fuel tanks in the process, our 'Mechs stomped their way along the canyon. The war machines cast large waves across the riverbed as we waded toward our objective, backdropped by a cloudless blue sky framed by towering sandstone-colored walls. Our convoy encountered no other resistance, a fact that didn't escape me.

"Where do you suppose they all are, Bishop?" I quipped as the Atlas lumbered toward its destination.

"I don't know, sir, but I don't like the sound of it," the Lieutenant intoned, fiddling with the BattleMech's targeting systems, presumably ensuring that whatever weaponry we had left would still be available at a moment's notice.

"What do you suppose they meant by 'Irian?'" I quipped, steering the Atlas around an exceptionally-large outcropping of rocks that appeared midstream. Though the walking tank could probably withstand a direct collision with a pile of boulders, I wasn't going to take any chances.

"Your guess is as good as mine, sir," Weyland replied, his tone detached, an undercurrent of distraction evident in his delivery. The hairs on the back of my neck immediately stood up.

"What is it you're not telling me, Lieutenant?" I asked, watching as a tan-colored natural bridge passed overhead. The Skinwalker cleared his throat uncomfortably.

"It's probably nothing, sir. I don't want to give you bad intel."

"Well, anything can be nothing, but nothing also could be something," I replied. "Speak up. What're you thinking?"

"Well, sir," Bishop began, "it's just that it seems like a helluva wild coincidence that Lisa used to cut contracts with Irian, and now, of all places, we've run into some pirate out in the sticks that not only thought he was attacked by them, but may have also legitimately believed that we were associated with them."

I nodded.

"Go on," I replied. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying, sir, that I think this mission may have been compromised, and I'm worried that the mole might have been the person who's supposed to be coordinating this whole goddamned shindig."

"Noted," I responded. "That's the kind of nothing that might be something. Circumstantial? Sure. But it gives me chills. So, valuable nonetheless. I appreciate your willingness to level with me, Bishop. This is good stuff."

"You got it, sir. Just promise that I get to grease whatever bastards sold us out if my theory turns out to be correct," Weyland snarled.

"I promise that you'll get to have a good time," I chuckled.

The navigation computer gave a loud chirp, indicating our arrival at the designated waypoint. I drew the Atlas alongside the nearest canyon wall and swept my targeting reticle around. Puzzled, I opened an all-call channel to the lance.

"The nav computer says we're here, but I literally don't see anything that screams "objective." You folks have eyes on any objects of interest?" I asked. On my last words, Alyssa's Raven suddenly darted out in front of the formation.

"Scanning," she replied, the birdlike 'Mech's torso sweeping from side to side. "I don't see anyth - wait - stand by."

The diminutive BattleMech crept in a slow circle, eventually striding cautiously toward the near canyon wall. "I've got something. Half a meter in front of me. There's a cave entrance here, but it looks like it's been deliberately blocked by a bunch of boulders. There's a....well, from my ground-penetrating radar unit, it looks like...a really heavy metal door beyond. Not electronic. It looks like one of those old bank vault doors.. It's been blown in."

"Well, that's certainly not a good sign," I deadpanned. "Think you can clear the boulders with whatever lasers you've got left?"

"I probably could, but I might trigger a collapse of the canyon wall above, which wouldn't ultimately help us achieve what we're going for," Chase answered. "I think our best bet is to move the rocks manually."

"No problem, I got that," Bishop interjected. I cast the Lieutenant a concerned glance.

"I'm a little bit worried about your degree of healing up to this point," I responded. "I know it's been a while, but are you sure you're up to the task of Incredible Hulking a bunch of stupidly-large rocks out of our way?"

"No," Weyland clarified, "but I'm willing to give it my best shot. Worse case scenario is that one of these damned myomer upgrades fails and I end up in excruciating pain until we get home."

"And what's plan B?" I asked.

"Plan "B" is we ask the other bionic man - Orlex Jaeger - if he can lend a metaphorical and literal hand," Bishop answered.

"Let's start with plan "B" and work our way back to plan "A" if necessary," I replied, navigating the Atlas into a crouch and powering down its engine. "Orpheus-1 to Orpheus-2. Can you go boots on the ground and meet Lieutenant Weyland and I on the surface next to my 'Mech? I'll explain when we get there. Bring your excursion gear."

"Aye, sir," Orlex Jaeger replied. "Up and moving."

###

A warm breeze whipped through the canyon as Lieutenant Jaeger ambled toward me, a rucksack slung over his shoulders and weapon at the ready. I smiled and gestured jokingly toward Bishop.

"Thanks for joining us, Orlex," I chuckled. "I can't let this guy have all the fun."

"I'll second that, Captain," Jaeger laughed. "What've you got?"

"This," I replied, gesturing toward a blasted hole in the canyon face that was now solidly full of hastily-arranged boulders. "I have a sinking feeling that someone got here ahead of us, but we need to confirm. To do that, we've gotta get these rocks out of the way. Alyssa advises that we can't do so safely at the 'Mech level without possibly triggering a landslide. So I'm hoping that you, with your high-speed augments, might have something a little more surgical that we can take advantage of to clear the path. Obviously, Bishop's got the raw muscles, but I suspect that, to do it safely, this is a job for two."

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

"Thanks for joining us, Orlex," chuckled Maxwell as I approached, "I can't let this guy have all the fun."

"I'll second that, Captain," I replied, "What've you got?"

"This," said Maxwell as he waved his hand towards the canyon wall and a now obvious hole that had been roughly filled in with random boulders, "I have a sinking feeling that someone got here ahead of us, but we need to confirm. To do that, we've gotta get these rocks out of the way. Alyssa advises that we can't do so safely at the 'Mech level without possibly triggering a landslide. So I'm hoping that you, with your high-speed augments, might have something a little more surgical that we can take advantage of to clear the path. Obviously, Bishop's got the raw muscles, but I suspect that, to do it safely, this is a job for two."

"Hmm," I pondered aloud as I looked over the hastily piled rocks, the entranceway that they were currently blocking was cleverly hidden in the cliff face itself in such a manner that it could only be seen when up close and from a narrow viewing angle. If you didn't know it was there, or didn't have something fancy like the Raven's impressive electronics suite, you were likely to miss it entirely. The pile of rubble and rocks were clearly placed intentionally but without enough care to prevent a careful observer from noticing them and thereby defeating the natural camouflage of the original entrance.

"From here it looks like we should be able to selectively remove several of the boulders without destabilizing the entire thing but we'll need a closer inspection to be sure. I've got some gear in my bag that should help with that particular problem but I think we're still going to need some considerable strength to get this done," I said as Bishop walked up beside me, the hulking presence of the man undeniable and strangely both terrifying and encouraging in equal measure.

"Good thing we've got our own Juggernaut here," I chuckled as I reached up and clapped Weyland on the shoulder, the man responded with a good natured grunt, "Immovable object, say hello to Unstoppable Force."

"Captain," I continued as Bishop and I approached the boulders, "I've got a holomap in my bag here, along with a custom set of remote drones that can map the interior of that tunnel for us. Could prove invaluable when determining which rocks are safe to move. I'd also like to link in a radar feed from Alyssa's Raven if we can, I've got an Engineering Console back in my 'mech that should help with the interface, I imagine Alyssa can work out the software side of things."

About 15 mins later...

"That should do it Orlex," came Alyssa's voice over the local comms, "you should be receiving telemetry now."

"Roger that Alyssa, looks like it's working," I replied as the holomap came to life displaying the ground penetrating radar scans from the Raven overlaid on top of the standard holographic map of the canyon we had acquired for the mission, "Thanks for the help."

"Captain, once the drones are online we should have a better idea of what is inside that tunnel, their cameras should help us spot any potential booby traps that were left by whoever placed these rocks. In the meantime Bishop and I are going to climb up and see if we can find or make a suitable opening to insert the drones."

"Sounds good Orlex, be careful up there, those rocks don't look very stable."

"I'm hoping they aren't sir, it'll make our job a little easier."

Bishop and I climbed up top and found what appeared to be a small opening leading deeper into the pile, it was just large enough to fit my prosthetic arm inside up to the shoulder and as I reached around inside I couldn't feel anything blocking further travel into the tunnel. Deciding it was as good a place as any I activated and sent in one of the small drones I was carrying, the custom drone was built like a miniature VTOL with quad rotors that used minimal power to keep the lightweight automated drone airborne. It was just small enough to enter the hole we had found and I had to rely on its programming to avoid it crashing. The drone was designed solely to map out whatever environment it was in and relay its camera feed back to a controller currently tied into the holomap in Captain Maxwell's hands.

"Drone's active sir," I called back to the Captain.

"I've got it Jaeger," answered Maxwell, "looks like it managed to find a way in, holomap is updating with new mapping data as we speak."

"Excellent, Bishop and I are going to start clearing some of these smaller rocks away. If Alyssa's radar or the drone pickup any instability it should highlight it on the holomap and allow us to avoid a complete collapse. That's the idea at least, we'll see how it turns out."

The tunnel itself appeared to be roughly 2.5m(8') in diameter, easily large enough for two men to walk side by side inside it but not much more. Bishop and I worked in tandem to pry loose several of the smaller boulders near the top of the tunnel, using leverage and positioning I was able to use my own augments to free most of the targeted rocks while Bishop was able to use his highly enhanced strength to either direct the freed rocks where we wanted or to keep other rocks in place as we moved the ones we wanted in order to prevent a snowball effect that could result in the total collapse of the tunnel. A few of the larger rocks required the extra brute force that Bishop offered but we were able to work within what we both felt were safe limits for the man, although he did appear to be straining himself significantly a few times I don't believe he injured himself, though he wouldn't have admitted or shown it if he had. A few times we had to stop and reassess our work as instabilities showed up after we had gotten deeper into the boulders, but overall we managed to avoid any significant cave-ins or collapses. It quickly became apparent that several of the rocks blocking the entrance were actually from the surrounding tunnel itself, explosives must have been used to strategically collapse the entrance and then extra rocks and boulders moved into place to help seal everything. While this did increase the inherent risk of the tunnel itself collapsing if we made a wrong move, it didn't deter us from clearing out a large enough hole for our purposes.

Captain Maxwell continued to watch the various data feeds overlaid on the holomap carefully as we made slow but steady progress into the tunnel, keeping to the top half of the tunnel to limit the risk of collapse even further. Around 45 minutes later Bishop and I had managed to clear a hole through the rubble and rocks large enough that Bishop, the largest of our group, could crawl through on his hands and knees without scrapping the edges. The man looked relieved to be finished with the manual labour, though not due to exhaustion or any aversion to the work itself, more like he almost hungered to slip into the darkness of the cave and explore. Every so often I caught an almost animalistic look in his eyes as he peered into widening gap we were making, an odd observation since I knew he had cybernetic eyes now and you wouldn't think those characteristics could still be portrayed by them.

"I'm going in, we don't know what we'll find and I am best suited for any initial contact," stated Bishop as we finished clearing the hole large enough for him to fit through unimpeded.

I opened my mouth to state that we had the drone inside already and the likelihood of any enemy contact was almost non-existent but stopped and thought better of it as it would likely fall on deaf ears and allowing Bishop to go in first was both logical and harmless, besides I wouldn't have been able to stop the man anyways. Bishop quietly slipped inside the hole, the fluidity of his movement unnerving as he seemingly glided into the darkness despite his bulk. I barely heard the man scramble down the rocks inside the cave tunnel and thought I heard the faint sound of foot steps on what must have been the blasted in steel vault door before silence reigned.

"Captain Maxwell, Bishop has taken point and moved into the tunnel to secure it for us, the entrance appears to be stable and I believe we're ready to proceed," I said over the local comm.

"Copy that Orlex, great work. Bishop, no need to secure more than the immediate entrance just yet, the hunt will come later."

An unusually drawn out silence followed before Bishop's deep gruff voice came over the comms, "Aye sir. Entrance is secured, no sign of traps or recent traffic. Sir, I am concerned though, there was clearly lots of activity here not long ago, our objective may be compromised, we should move quickly."

"I have the same concerns Lieutenant Weyland, we will be joining you shortly. If the objective has been compromised we will deal with it, rushing into a possible ambush won't help us currently."

"Copy that sir, I will see you shortly," replied Bishop.

A few short minutes later and the rest of the team that was entering the cave was assembled with Captain Maxwell and myself on top of the pile of rocks where we had cleared an entrance. With the extra bulk of the Engineering Console and tie-ins to the Raven's systems removed from the holomap, and the unnecessary gear stowed back inside my Merlin, I crawled through the entrance and slid down the semi loose rocks to the cave tunnel floor with the holomap in hand. Lowering the holomap, its low glow doing nothing against the darkness of the tunnel, the angle of the hole preventing any direct sunlight from outside from entering.

A strong hand landed firmly on my shoulder, before a surprisingly quiet voice whispered in Bishop's gruff tone, "You should put that away, it'll only ruin your night vision."

I jumped involuntarily as Bishop surprised me, I had no idea he had been standing that close and I quickly stowed the holomap, cutting out the limited light it had provided, which Bishop had correctly stated would only ruin what limited night vision I possessed with my biological eyes. I did however have an IR and Nightvision scanner built into the visor of my combat helmet to help compensate and I slid that visor down now and activated the Nightvision mode.

"Blake damnit Bishop, you spooked me. You're like a damned ghost in the darkness," I chuckled as I collected myself and looked around before finally spotting the man standing off to the side far enough away to question if he had actually been beside me a moment ago.

"That's the idea Jaeger," Bishop replied with a grin as the others made their way into the tunnel as well.

A few minutes later and the team was assembled, night vision goggles of one form or another were activated for everyone who wasn't augmented like Bishop and with weapons ready we advanced further into the tunnel unsure of exactly what we would find.

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Black Canyon

Oberon VI - Oberon Confederation

October 7, 3029

____________________________________

Bishop and Orlex worked in unison clearing a safe entrance into the cave. Orlex was an old soul.... and Bishop respected that. Thought out the process the Mercenary coached Weyland on the use of his augments. Encourage him yet, quietly giving him pointers. 

“Bishop, the thing you have to remember, these arguments can also kill if you don’t control them. They can out perform your organic body....when that happens you can break bones and tear muscle. Anything organic wasn’t meant to do the things your augments can do. Only, in the most dire situations should you ever fully push your self to the max”  Orlex spoke as they worked. 

Thought-out the laboring Bishop asked questions and Orlex answered them openly and honestly.  Some of them he didn’t fully know because he had never had the same amount of argumentation done. The truth of the matter was Bishop had to play it safe and learn quickly. A sneaking thought moved into his mind... maybe he shouldn’t have come...maybe he was pushing himself to much. The beast hissed, at the thought, it hungered for battle, the hunt and the kill. 

As the opening grew bigger, the monster stirred more... it was restless. The cave called to Bishop, beckoning for him to enter. All monsters loved caves... it was their birth place and place of safety.  There were moments when the large Mercenary stopped working, a trance like state coming over him as he stared into the black maw of the cave. Then, they passed as quickly as came. Weyland felt Orlex’s gazes without looking... the man knew... something was calling Bishop. 

Time was lost to the Skinwalker, when he came to he was there in the darkness of the cave alone, A strange blanket of calmness covered him. With three rapid blink his thermal imaging displayed the cave in exploded in brilliant bright blues, oranges and reds, he saw everything in complete darkness. The beast growled, urging him forward.... no he thought, snapping the invisible chain back in mind. The Beast responded, almost lashing out in his mind, but obeyed it’s handler. 

Exhaling slowly the Lieutenant centered his mind. Studying the cave, he observed the smoothness of the rock and gently downward sloping of the floor. There was a light dust that cover the floor, he also caught a disturbance in the dusty. Instinctively he breathed in sharply, in the dry air he caught the sent, pheromone particles.. human...fear.. sweat...weapon grease.  Something else, something familiar with the sent...it was an old smell that triggered in his mind.... Irain. 

The Skinwalker keyed the command net, “Entrance is secured, no sign of traps or recent traffic. Sir, I am concerned though, there was clearly lots of activity here not long ago, our objective may be compromised, we should move quickly." He whispered. 

"I have the same concerns Lieutenant Weyland, we will be joining you shortly. If the objective has been compromised we will deal with it, rushing into a possible ambush won't help us currently."

"Copy that sir, I will see you shortly," replied Bishop.  The Beast growled again in his mind. 

By the time the team assembled at the entrance of the cave Bishop had fined gearing up. The content of the duffel bag he had brought was now covering his body. Ballistic plate amor, combat harness with spare equipment tightly covered his massive frame. His large Marik revolver hung from his thigh holster. Snapping the last bit of gear on he was now ready.... the massive multi barreled support machine gun hung from it harness limply. With his custom made ammo backpack and ammunition feed line Bishop carried well over a 120 pound of war fighting gear. 

Yet, with all this gear he felt as though it was light as a feather.  His augmented clearly doing what he had imagined they would do.  Like a monstrous hungry creature he stood in the shadows waiting for his team. 

Orlex was the first to enter, he was completely oblivious to the Leviathan laying in waiting just a few feet away.  The warrior brought up his holomap, he was studying the tunnels terrain. 

Silently the Skinwalker moved close to him, placing a hand on his warrior brothers shoulder. 

“You should put that away, it'll only ruin your night vision." Said Bishop. 

Orlex instinctually jumped.

“Blake damnit Bishop, you spooked me. You're like a damned ghost in the darkness," Orlex whispered. 

Bishop glided back into darkness, Orlex seemed to have to search to see him, then found him using his helmet’s night vision. 

“That's the idea Jaeger,"  Bishop smiled. 

The rest of the team filed in..... the Beast grinned.... the hunt was going to begin. Thumbing a switch on the weapon’s firing grip, Bishop smile grew as the inferred laser beamed out and a soft electronic hum powered on.  Yes... the time for the hunt had begun. 

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Previously...

Oberon VI
Oberon System, Oberon Confederation
October 6, 3029
__________________________________

"Blaze, heads up I've got two bogeys closing in on your position fast, BRA [Bearing, Range, Altitude] 215 for 121km (75 miles), at 9000m (30,000'), Hot," Link said over the radio.

"Copy that, I see them, any ID on them?" I replied, I had been planet side for all of 10 minutes and already been picked up by someone, so much for a stealthy re-entry.

"Negative, they appear to be conventional fighters, small, system is guessing around 10 or 20 tons. Pulling up the Hi-Res imager now, should have and ident for shortly. Going from the radar though they'll be in weapons range in less than 2 minutes."

"Lovely, keep me informed. Might just be a random patrol, maybe they'll let me off with a warning," I said jokingly.

"Good luck with that girl, though if anyone could manage it, it would be you," chuckled Link.

I had hoped I would be able to search most of this area before running into a patrol from Port Royale, and ideally would have been able to locate my target before running afoul of any local authorities, however it seemed today was not my lucky day and I had two incoming bogeys that were likely a pair of conventional fighter craft out on a routine patrol. Of course there was also the possibility that my reentry had actually been detected and the two bogeys were in fact interceptors sent to bring me in, in which case my day was about to get much worse.

"Blaze, good news, I've got an ident on those bogeys. Two Angel Light Strike Fighters, look to be the Owl II variants, most likely just an unlikely routine patrol."

"Roger that, thanks Link. Better than interceptors I suppose," I replied as the new telemetry was fed to my combat systems from the Kirishima in orbit.

The Owl II Light Strike Fighter was a 10 ton conventional fighter armed with a medium laser and two small lasers. The fighter had pitiful armour, if you could even call a 1/2 ton for the entire craft 'armour', but it was incredibly fast and the craft relied solely on its speed to avoid danger. It was meant to be used as a fast recon unit and sometimes used to harass ground targets with lightning fast strikes. While not a real threat on their own, the two of them together could prove annoyingly troublesome with their speed and maneuverability should this encounter take a turn for the worse.

A short while later and the two craft had caught up to me with little difficulty and took up positions on my aft flanks to either side of my craft before opening a public channel on the comms, "Unidentified craft, you have entered restricted air space. You will reduce speed and change heading to bearing 195, we will escort you to Black Water Fort of the 13th Oberon Guards where you will be detained and questioned. Your refusal would be unwise."

"Pleasant bunch you are," I replied on the open channel, hoping to get a read on my unwanted escorts and see if I had any chance of talking my way out of this, "name's Blaze, I'm just passing through boys, didn't know this was restricted air space."

"Sure, and I'm Hendrick Grimm the first," replied a second voice scornfully.

The first voice spoke up again, "Sorry Blaze, but whether you knew or not doesn't change the rules. You made an unauthorized re-entry into restricted air space, until we can validate your ID and confirm which craft you came from we have to detain you. Now please, reduce speed and change your heading to 195."

"Sorry boys but I can't do that," I said as I continued flying straight ahead, in basically the opposite direction they were instructing me to go in.

"Blaze," cut in Link on a secure channel, "Black Water Fort is not an official militia base, nor is it listed among the Oberon Guards facilities. I also can't find any reference to the 13th Oberon Guards, at best these guys are unsanctioned militia and at worse outright pirates."

"Figures, well at least I won't feel bad when this goes south then," I replied on Link's channel, "keep on eye on the sky for me Link, I have feeling I'm about to get busy."

"This is your final warning Blaze, reduce speed immediately and change your heading or we will open fire. We are under orders to bring you in, one way or another," came the first man's voice again on the open channel, frustration and hostility clearly creeping into his tone.

"Think I'll pass this time, but thanks for the offer," I said as I cut the channel.

"Shit, we have a runner," came through just before the radio cut out.

Immediately I also cut the engines on my aerospace fighter and drove the flight stick forward, dipping the nose hard towards the ground, rolling the craft sideways and bleeding away altitude rapidly before punching the throttle and pulling back up to level flight but in the opposite direction and considerably lower in altitude. Having completed the Split S maneuver I throttled back up and began banking away from Port Royale in an effort to evade the two Light Strike Fighters. One of the Owl IIs followed suit and executed their own Split S to drop in back behind me while my radar showed the second Owl II broke off into a wide bank at our original altitude, assumedly moving to try and intercept me from above. Spears of emerald and ruby coherent light shot past my fighter on either side as the first enemy opened fire from behind me, switching my targeting systems I brought up my rear mounted medium laser and took a quick shot back at him. I also missed but the return fire caused him to fall back a little and gave me a little more space. Another set of energy spears pierced through the sky from above but also missed as the second Owl II used its significant speed to overtake me make a pass along my top side. I immediately recognized that I was easily outclassed in the open air, the Owl II was nearly twice as fast as my Lightning and while I could fly much higher than any conventional fighter was capable of I'd be leaving myself open the whole time I was climbing. Instead I dove further down towards the earth, if I could get low enough the need to monitor ground features and limited airspace would force the Owl IIs to slow down and if they didn't I could use their lack of mobility at high speeds to my own advantage. Nape of the Earth flying it was called, or just NOE, and it was arguably just as dangerous for myself as it was for the my opponents but I had the advantage of flying an aerospace fighter instead of a conventional fighter. While the conventional fighter was more efficient at atmospheric flying, they generally lacked VTOL or VSTOL capabilities and that limited their flight capabilities when the ground was so close. Their high speed also meant that while they could turn sharply and had tons of engine power available, their sheer momentum and speed meant they covered large distances very quickly which limited their mobility against a slower but more agile craft.

One of the Owl IIs followed me down to NOE and took another shot at Raijin, striking my left wing with his small laser and causing minor damage while his medium laser shot high as I jigged sideways and down for a moment. I returned fire with my rear mounted medium laser and struck the 10 ton fighter in the nose, the virtually non-existent armour vapourizing in an instant and the coherent beam gouging into the surprisingly tough internals of the craft. Sparks and smoke showered and billowed out of the craft's nose cone indicating I struck something vital while my computer systems indicated I had hit the fighter's sensors. The HUD's 360 degree tracking system kept tabs on the other Owl II for me while I focused on the first one and brief warning tone indicated it was approaching for another run at me. This time I had a good read on his approach vector and knew exactly where he planned to pass over me, unfortunately for him I had a trick up my sleeve that the conventional fighter had no way to really counter. An emerald beam lanced out from the approaching light fighter, spearing uselessly out into the atmosphere as he tried to hit me again. A moment later twin ruby small lasers pierced through the space between us with better accuracy, both striking on my aft quarter and melting a small amount of armour there. As the enemy craft passed over top of me I pulled back hard on the control stick and fired the VSTOL thrusters at max, driving myself down into the seat as the aerospace fighter slowed immensely to a virtual stand still while I rotated around to follow the Owl II that had just flown over me. Punching the throttle to the max and engaging the afterburners while also returning the VSTOL thrusters to normal I took after the quickly retreating conventional fighter as fast as my craft could go. The targeting systems chimed a solid lead and I squeezed down the triggers on my forward energy weapons, twin emerald beams from the wing mounted medium lasers streaked through the air finding purchase in the very light fighter's aft and left wing. The armour barely even absorbing any of the energy from the lasers before failing and exposing the fighter craft's toughened internals to both the elements and the high energy laser beams momentarily chewing through it. Simultaneously the large laser in the Raijin's nose unleashed an azure beam of a noticeably thicker diameter to pierce deeply into the enemy's exposed rear, coring into the fuselage alongside the craft's engines and slagging something important as a large backfire could be seen erupting from the Owl's engines and it seemed to list slightly to the side before the pilot dropped even towards the earth and turned heading south, back towards where they originated from. My sensors were showing major internal damage to the craft with at least one of its lasers out of commission, it was impressive that the craft was even still in the air at this point.

During this engagement the first Owl that had been following me was completely unprepared for my sudden hover and turn causing him to way overshoot as he rocketed past us in an attempt to close in on my rear. With the other Owl retreating from the fight I returned my attention to the surviving aggressor and started into an Immelmann turn to regain some altitude and bring myself back into a fighting position against him. I misjudged the craft's speed once again though and he had already come about and launched a mildly successful strafing run against me midway through the Immelmann while my nose was essentially pointing straight up in the air and presenting him a nice wide target. The Owl's medium laser punched into my craft's nose melting a minor but noticeable amount of armour while the two small lasers struck open air on either side of me while I finished my maneuver. I banked hard to the left to bring myself back around and try and get a shot on the very fast enemy craft but once again his speed beat me out and he flanked me flying over my left side and landing a medium laser and small laser across my left wing this time. The enemy was refusing to fall in behind me again and his speed allowed him to keep strafing back and forth across me without giving me a chance to return fire, it would take a long while but he could eventually wear me down like this. Rather than continue to play his game I fired up the VSTOL thrusters again and just hovered in place, turning side to side as I watched his approach to keep him on my undamaged right side waiting until I could pull in behind as I did the other opponent. He seemed to be wise to the ploy and kept trying to turn to pass behind me now but I wasn't letting him and eventually he was too close to alter his course instead opening fire with all three lasers into my right flank. The twin small lasers struck my aft quarter again despite my best efforts but the medium laser carved a small gouge into my right wing as I had planned and was not concerning at the moment. Aware of my obvious attempt to repeat the same tactic I had just used on his buddy my opponent banked hard and accelerated quickly away from me as soon as he finished firing, his already considerable speed still causing him to traverse a relatively large distance before actually turning any significant amount. In that time I spun my own craft around and engaged the afterburners once again, shooting off after him as fast as my aerospace fighter would allow, again the Owl's extreme speed showing as the range indicator continued to climb even with pushing my own fighter to its limits. Out of range of my medium lasers, but still well within range of the large, I fired the powerful laser at the retreating fighter's aft but just narrowly missed, the beam close enough that the heat of the laser probably boiled the paint off the extremely thinly plated jet.

The Owl pilot continued trying to evade left and right but in keeping up his speed he didn't have the mobility he needed to shake me off his tail, a few more seconds though and it wouldn't matter as he could still simply outrun me. Not wanting to start this whole dance over again I took the opportunity to line another shot on the enemy as he seemed to give up evading and simply opted for more speed, the increased distance put him outside the range of even my large laser but I still one weapon that could literally reach out and touch him, or in the case reach out and smack him into yesterday, the Gauss Rifle. My favourite weapon and a real LosTech treat, the weapon was relatively well known within the Inner Sphere but it could no longer be manufactured due to the decline in technology throughout the Succession Wars. Thankfully the complex weapon's ammo was much more mundane and could be manufactured still on many industrialized worlds. While the weapon itself was composed of finely tuned capacitors, coils, electronics, and precision machining that we just couldn't reproduce currently, though not from lack of trying, the ammo itself was essentially just a magnetic slug, typically of some kind of ferrous metal but anything conductive would work, and machined within reasonable tolerances to fit inside the armature within the weapon's barrel. Sure modern ammo was inherently less accurate than Star League era ammo, simply because we lacked the precision machining capabilities to reproduce it, but it was still effective and just as damaging. Besides, I also happened to currently be the lucky owner of roughly 10 tons of authentic Star League ammo, 2 tons of which were currently loaded into the Raijin's Gauss Rifle. I fought the control stick slightly to try and hold the fighter as steady as possible as I lined up the long range shot on the quickly retreating form of the Owl II Light Strike Fighter, the targeting systems helping to compensate for atmospheric distortions and the relative motion between the two vessels, a monotone note rang out from the control board indicating a solid firing solution and I smoothly squeezed the trigger. The Lightning LTN-G15X bucked noticeably from the recoil as the electromagnetic rifle launched the projectile at hypersonic speeds, the round travelling so fast it superheated the air leaving a muzzle flash like explosion as it exited the barrel despite the lack of combustible propellant. The high speed slug tore through the atmosphere with such energy that it left a shockwave ripple behind it that could be seen as a smoking contrail lazily drifting away from its path, less than a second after firing the round struck the back of the left wing on the Owl II with such force it kicked the rear end of the fighter up in the air several feet to the point where the engines were now starting to drive the craft down towards the ground slightly. The almost non-existent armour didn't even have a chance to shatter as the round punched straight through it in milliseconds and tore deep into craft's internals, severing control lines and disabling everything on that side of the fighter. It was a true testament to the durability of Light Strike Fighter's airframe that the wing itself wasn't completely torn off by the overpowered round and the fact that the fighter was still airborne spoke volumes as to why the craft was so popular amongst militias.

The Owl II turned and continued travelling at max speed heading South and presumably going back to their base following the first Owl II that had retreated. Wanting to ensure the enemy units were indeed retreating and not just regrouping I attempted to follow but even damaged the smaller craft's extreme speed was more than my fighter could handle and I had no choice but to let them go. That being said I continued to watch them on my radar for as long as possible just to make sure.

"Link, you still tracking those bogeys? I've lost them off my scope," I said as I opened a channel with Link up in the dropship again.

"I am Blaze, they're still retreating with their tail between their legs, I don't think they'll be coming back anytime soon either. All the same, we should probably get out of the area as soon as we can," he can replied.

"I agree, you guys got anything worthwhile checking out for me yet?"

"I do actually, while you were busy playing with those little fighters, I was hard at work scanning the surroundings for any signs of 'mech activity. Low and behold I found some, possibly. Hard to really tell though, ... uh hold on one sec Blaze."

Puzzled slightly by Link's sudden pause I brought the Raijin around and continued on my original heading, resuming the search pattern I had started before getting engaged by the potential pirates. My fighter's limited radar could only scan a few kilometers at a time, especially when trying to detect ground units which may or may not be hidden. The Gaajain-class dropship on the other hand had a powerful look-down radar and Hi Res satellite imager that could scan hundreds of kilometers at a time and combined were capable of detecting any unit that did not have both an ECM suite and some form of visual camouflage. With most sophisticated ECM suites being LosTech, the limited ECM capabilities of most modern units meant that there was very little that could hide from the Kirishima's advanced sensors.

"Blaze, we've got a slight problem," radioed Link over the comm again, "We've got a wing of aerospace fighters approaching us from the planet and the Captain just informed us we are leaving orbit. Nothing to really worry about, and nothing you need to come help with. Apparently they detected our pirate jump and the local militia are not happy about it, go figure. The fighter wing is supposed to escort us away from the planet while the Captain discusses legal ramifications and negotiates our proper arrival. Unfortunately that means I can't provide you with any support until this gets straightened around ..., sorry."

"Of course, cause nothing on this mission can go right. No worries Link, nothing you can do about it. Are you sure you don't want me to come back up, what if things turn ugly up there like they did down here?" I queried.

"Captain says no need Blaze, we've got the DragonStar if things get dicey and he doesn't seem to think that your single fighter would make much difference against an entire wing of fighters. I kind of agree in that regard."

"Alright, make sure you call me if things look like they might go sideways. Are you going to be within comm range still?"

"Far as I know we should be, at least as long as we're on the same side of the planet anyways. Can't make any promises but if things go to shit I'll do my best to get a hold of you," replied Link, "Also, before we leave, I got some interesting readings from a canyon not far from you. Local maps list it as Black Canyon, I keep getting intermittent readings of what appears to be 'mech combat but nothing solid. Our current position prevents the Hi-Res Imager from getting a clear look at the canyon floor but the Look-Down Radar keeps returning sporadic hits that it reads as BattleMechs ranging from 30 to 100 tons, something keeps interfering with the signal though and its not the canyon walls. Might be worth checking it out."

"Copy that, thanks Link. Keep me informed how things are going up there."

"Will do Blaze."

I turned my fighter towards the canyon and accelerated up to max speed making good time as I slowly burned through my ship's limited fuel, with the dropship no longer in orbit I was essentially stranded planet side for the time being. While I still had plenty of fuel I currently had no means of refueling until the Kirishima returned, unless I went to the starport in Port Royale but I had a feeling I might not be welcome there currently. As I approached the canyon my radar began picking up the random signals that Link had mentioned, while my less sophisticated sensors couldn't resolve any details from this distance the regularity of the signals lent me to believe that something was generating them, whether it was actual BattleMechs or just something wanting to make it look like BattleMechs. Two minutes later I came across my answer as a full on brawl was evidently going on in the canyon below, it looked like two full companies of 'mechs were scrapping it out near a makeshift looking fortification set into the cliff face. On my initial pass I wasn't able to get any solid IDs on any of the 'mechs, some kind of electronic interference, perhaps one of the rare functional ECM suites that were still out there. The one company was clearly pirates, the brightly emblazoned 'mechs proudly displaying whichever pirate clan/group they belonged to but it wasn't one I recognized. The other group though bore no identifying marks that I could pick out, if they were there they were cleverly camouflaged into the paintjob and indecipherable from a distance. The general paintjobs all appeared to be black or shades of dark grey and they were quite a formidable group, lots of heavy and assault 'mechs it looked like. I made a wide bank and circled around for a second pass, as I approached one of the dark 'mechs went down in a blazing fireball and for a moment my targeting systems lit up with contacts, the system almost overloaded as it was flooded with nearly 24 solid hits and it attempted to ID them all. Several of the 'mechs were ID'd and the two sets of IFFs were identified as Nickel's Boys and Irian before all of the signals disappeared as suddenly as they showed up and were replaced with the ghost contacts and sporadic hits that I had been getting before. Apparently whatever type of ECM coverage they had down there had been re-established. A sudden klaxon warning echoed through the cockpit as the computer announced "Warning Missile Lock", flashing the same text across the HUD just to be sure I didn't miss it.

I pulled up violently but not before a stream of LRMs hammered into the undercarriage of my aerospace fighter from one or more BattleMechs on the ground, a pair of large lasers pierced through the sky dangerously close to either side of my canopy as I veered away trailing smoke and shattered armour from the sudden onslaught. Accelerating away I departed from the canyon as quickly as possible, once a safe distance away I would find a secluded area to land and go over the computer's sensor records to see if there was anything to indicate my target was amongst the 'mechs in the canyon, though I was currently doubting it, and also to check over what damage I had just received and if there were any field repairs I needed to do. Hopefully the damage was mostly superficial as with the Kirishima no longer in orbit I was very limited on what I could do for repairs if required.

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MEANWHILE.... Back at the Cave.....

I slid down the Escape Ladder of my Mech and hit the ground with my boots making a loud Cruch. I Screamed in pain because the crunch wasn't actually my Boots, it was my Shattered Legs making bone sounds and being sundered. The Doctor Aldon had gave me a powerful bunch of Combat Drugs including RAGE to keep the pain away and keep me going but I was still wounded from my Combat. As I walked toward Orlex and Bishop who were throwing rocks around to get the Cave opened I drank a bunch of Bone Knitter so that it would hopefully fix my bones. Meanwhile Alyssa's HUGE Raven stood over us swinging it's guns all over the place and doing Protective Detail. As I walked up Captain Maxwell looked up from his remote control drone. 

"Sergeant Jenkins where are your guns???" He asked, then I looked down in shame and realized that I had left my Guns back up inside my DRAGON, I turned Red and said "I'm sorry Captain Maxwell I let down the Unit and the Team, I won't let it happen again on my Honor.," 

Captain Maxwell made a face and then he said "Just don't let it happen again, now get up there and use your Martial Arts skills to thelp move those rocks." 

"Aye aye sir" I said, then I went up to Bishop and Orlex. Orlex was hsiung his robot arms to throw the rocks an amazing far distance while Bishop and his huge muscles also picked up other rocks and crushed them in between his hands. "Looks like you guys have this under control which is good on account of my legs are broken, I'll keep an eye out for bad guys." 

"What are you going to fight them with, you have no guns!!" Bishop said, then he smashed another rock into dust. "I'll use my Bushido Blad,e, I never go anywhere without it,." I pointed to my bladee in its holster, I couldn't get it out to make a point because if I did I would have to draw blood with it before I put it back away, and the only people around that I could stab were my teammates so that wouldn't work. 

Eventually Orlex and Bishop finished moving the rocks and behind it was a door that looked like it had got kicked in by a Mech, the cave inside was really dark. I started to look inside when all of a sudden the DRONE came screaming out of the cave and almost ripped my hair off, I screamed in Fear and got out my sais and threw them at the drone, but the blades missed and kicked off the Rock wall and made a bunch of sparks before one of them landed back on the ground and another one went in the Lake. I went and picked up my one Sai and put it away. "Quit screwing around Steve, we're going inside the cave!!" Captain Maxwell yelled, then I saw him and Nick going into the cave with Bishop and Orlex. Nick had all kinds of tech strapped on his head and Captain Maxwell had a flashlight out, I guessed we were doing this, I took a deep breath and went inside the cave, there were all kinds of bones and laughing skeleton skulls everywhere and it smelled moldy and like dead bodies. It was really dark, When we went deeper inside I started hearing what sounded like Laughing, it was getting closer and closer as we went down through the cave. All of the sudden the Laughing was right next to me and I turned and one of the skeletons was laughing for real, then the next thing I knew it's face had turned into Jingles and HE was laughing at me!! The rest of his body was a skeleton except for his head which was a clown with red hair and clown makeup on!! I Screamed at the top of my lungs and started yelling "OH SHIT Guys YOU GOTTA GET OVER HERE, I THINK THERE'S A -" 

But then all of a sudden, Jingles was gone and it was just a skeleton again, I got out my Bushido blade and waited for orders....... 

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Meanwhile, in town...

 

In for a penny,  in for a pound - or in this case,  Nickles. A gang of pirates that would have made Victarion grin at a chance to drink with.

 

"What about throwing his name out there? He brags about being well known in the pirate community," Luke pointed out. Dark circles were worse than the rest of ours combined, making his eyes look sunken in.  He didn't tell me the lengths he was going to help my PR on my planet,  to keep Victarion from running more than he already did,  and I didn't ask.  At some point the risk would outweigh the benefits of plausible deniability, but for now his brand of propaganda was too valuable.

 

"If by community,  you mean brothel." I twisted the urge to roll my eye,  if only to bore it into a stare in Luke's direction.

This bar was dingy enough that even Johnny looked too classy for the joint.  Despite being near a small opening that seemed the brain child of someone who had heard a secondhand story of what a window could be,  the air barely moved. The drinks themselves had a smoky aftertaste - even the water.

Johnny tapped the ash off his cigar, shaking his head at the two of us.  "I can count on one hand the number of times you two trying to be over hasn't nearly gotten us killed.  You don't need to drop names or form alliances." He squeezed a waitress's  behind as she walked by, and winked at her.  "What's so hard to understand about this? Find the bad guys,  beat their asses, get paid,  move on."

 

"Johnny, we--"

 

Johnny cut Luke off with an abrupt thwump of his glass on the table. "Don't encourage her.  We get through this without me getting a bullet in my ass then I'll play nice.  Until then don't complicate things.  See a pirate, shoot a pirate.  That's all."

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Nearby...

Black Canyon - Discovery Site - Oberon VI
Oberon System, Oberon Confederation
October 7, 3029
__________________________________

You could hear a pin drop as we moved into the cave, Bishop and Orlex in the lead with their enhanced abilities, me and Captain Maxwell immediately following, and Steve Jenkins, who had apparently forgot to bring any useful weapons or gear, safely at the back of the formation. The only sounds in the air were the crunch of our boots on the rocky ground and the soft ping of the Captain's handheld unit as it received telemetry from Chase's Raven. As we moved deeper into the structure, the infrared headset I wore slung over my left eye picked up what looked like smashed fragments of pottery, strange glyphs on the walls, and even, I thought, a bone here and there. 

Suddenly, Steve let out a bloodcurdling scream and drew an outlandishly long blade from his hip scabbard. "OH SHIT Guys YOU GOTTA GET OVER HERE, I THINK THERE'S A -"

"What the fuck?" Maxwell exclaimed, drawing his pistol as he and I both whirled toward the MechWarrior. There, Steve stood over a jumbled pile of human skeletal remains that had been unceremoniously swept from an alcove above them, a jumbled pile of grave goods scattered everywhere around them. 

"GUYS IT'S REALLY SCARY IT'S LAUGHING AT ME THE EVIL CLOWN OH GOD MAKE IT STOP WHY ARE THERE BONES" Steve rambled incoherently. I was about to say something when Bishop stepped in. 

"Because this is a burial site, genius, and you ought to start showing it a little respect." Bishop hissed. Steve immediately fell silent and took on a deer in the headlights look instead. Then, Maxwell turned toward Weyland. 

"What have you got Lieutenant?" 

"Sir, General Kauffman was right. This is definitely a ceremonial burial site...Navajo. Whoever came in here ahead of us desecrated the fuck out of it. We need to find what we're looking for and get out before either the locals or the...paranormal...decide they want revenge. Now, I'm not saying I'm superstitious, but I'm not keen on mowing down civilians and I've seen enough weird shit in my life to know better than to mess with graves most of the time."

Maxwell nodded. "Agreed. What are your senses telling you is the right direction to wherever they'd keep a "haunted" doll in a place like this?"

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"Well, if William was right about them revering it like some kind of idol, they're probably going to have it in the deepest chamber of this place," Bishop replied, glancing around and taking stock of his environment. I nodded, glancing at the tomographic mapper.

"Well, that's good news in this case, " I answered, turning the plotter around so that the rest of the team could see it. "These chambers aren't very deep. The deepest one is down the hall and around the corner a short distance. Let's go."

I was met with a flurry of acknowledgements. We headed as a collective group into the deepest cavern, winding our way down a short, back-and-forth serpentine tunnel that terminated in a large rockslide.

"Wait a minute, the plotter says - " I began, my words catching in my throat as I realized what likely had transpired. "Shit! I bet they barricaded this one with explosives."

"Well, that doesn't seem like a total blocker," Orlex responded. "Why don't we just clear the obstruction as we did a minute ago?"

"Because," I explained, "we don't actually know what's on the other side of that blockage. The ground-penetrating radar isn't powerful enough to give us a detailed or precise enough look into it, and I'm concerned that clearing rocks away could lead to a bigger problem that might compromise the objective."

"What if," Nick interjected, looking toward the top of the cave-in, "I were to get through that hole, up there? I might have to basically strip down to my cooling suit, but I bet I could make it."

I glanced in the direction in which Nick was pointing. There, at the very top of the landslide, was a small aperture, just big enough to fit the slender Lyran's frame - if he were to leave behind all of his gear. Looking back toward Nick, I raised an eyebrow.

"How do you plan to get down on the other side and to avert a further cave-in?" I asked.

"I'll go real slow and easy," Nick explained. "No heroics, no sudden moves. If I can get in there, I can ascertain in real time what you need to do to clear a path for everyone ese."

"Well, it's the best option we have, I suppose," I sighed. "The drone isn't accurate enough to fly through there without busting its propellers, and I'd rather have some idea of what we might encounter before our final objective. Alright, let's do it. Be careful." I admonished.

Nick nodded and set about divesting himself of his gear. Moments later, he had climbed the rock face with astonishing speed and precision. Sticking his head through the opening, he reported back to us.

"It's dark. Lots of shards of broken glass everywhere. Nice solid cave space on the far side. I think it would be safe for - "

At that instant, the rock face gave way, a small barrage of suddenly-moving rocks sweeping the Lyran into the chamber beyond. Nick let out a yell as he disappeared into the cascade, his words truncated as he was swept underneath the moving earth. The rocks quickly settled again with a sickening "boom," leaving no sounds of life beyond.

"Bishop! Orlex! I need your help now!" I exclaimed, running toward the pile, my heart in my throat as I surveyed for signs of life...

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