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D.C.S. Takashima
Bridge
Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki
January 31, 3029
___________________________

"Control to Sabre team - how are you progressing, gentlemen?"

"We're a little tied up at the moment!" I exclaimed. With a guttural roar, the Ouanii razorbeast barreled toward us, its hulking form reminiscent of a grizzly bear from Terra, its fur undulating and rippling in the low light. I lunged out of the animal's path of travel, unholstering my Hawk Eagle and whirling around to fire. But it was too late to get off a shot. In a single, fluid movement, the razorbeast grabbed Corporal Clemmons, one of our laser rifle escorts, attempting to maul him. I fired blindly at the animal, struggling to maintain a true aim in the curved corridor in the low-light conditions. The creature, undeterred, let out another ear-shattering roar and slapped at Clemmons, sending him tumbling down our ascent route toward the deck some fifteen feet below. As I reloaded and prepared to fire again, the razorbeast turned around and prepared to attack. Suddenly, Sergeant Ayala, another of our machine gun escorts, appeared out of nowhere and delivered a forceful blow to the animal with the butt of his rifle. This action only seemed to enrage our assailant further, as it drew back one of its beefy paws and swatted the infantryman aside with ease, sending him bouncing off the wall of the extremely tight bridge corridor and flipping head over heels into the depths of the bridge. I backpedaled wildly,  holstering my pistol and attempting to draw my much higher-caliber MP-20 rifle.

As I backed around the corner of the corridor, heading into the bridge, I felt a shoulder press up against mine, realizing that Dutch McKenzie was now beside me, weapon at the ready.

"Heya, Cap," McKenzie quipped, before opening fire on the razorbeast. I nodded and raised my rifle, pulling the trigger and unleashing three powerful bursts of high-caliber rounds at the animal. The creature screamed in rage, rearing up onto its hind legs and towering over us momentarily before staggering backwards and out of sight. A moment later, I heard a heavy, wet thud as the razorbeast, apparently having fallen out of the bridge vestibule, struck the deck below.

Running to the ledge where we'd left our climbing gear, Dutch and I peered over the side to see the fallen animal sprawled out on the deck below, motionless. Alongside it lay Corporal Clemmons, writhing in pain.

"Good shooting," I gasped at Dutch, trying to catch my breath.

"Yeah, you too," he replied.

###

"New patients, new patients, what are your symptoms?" MediBot inquired, trundling toward Clemmons and Ayala, who we'd moved into an open alcove within the bridge for triage.

"They got attacked by a monster," Sergeant Miles deadpanned, looking toward the downed infantrymen with concern. MediBot halted momentarily, looking toward Miles with an almost quizzical posture. "An Ouanii razorbeast," he clarified.

MediBot paused for a moment while accessing its database. "Ouanii razorbeast, attack by. Symptoms include death, lacerations, concussions, trauma. Patients are not deceased. Checklist item number one complete." Having recalled the appropriate medical information, the robot continued its approach toward the soldiers. Meanwhile, I made my way across the bridge to examine a series of lights I'd noted earlier, glowing in the darkness, entirely out of place on a vessel that was, for the most part, without power.

"Gentlemen, while we're here, let's see if we can find the ship's log. Remember, that's one of our objectives. The other being, of course, the computer drives with the navigation data to that shipyard that William's after."

Stepping around the shattered wreckage of the command center, I approached the lights, realizing, as I did so, that they were the glowing controls of a still-active door lock.

"Captain, I've got the log - it was still plugged into the arm of the command chair," Miles called out.

"Nice work," I replied. "Let's keep that thing stowed safely until we can get it back to the Republic. Can one of you join me over here for a second? I need an extra set of hands."

A moment later, Dutch appeared at my side.

"What've you got, sir?" he asked.

"Can you hold this light for me?" I responded, passing him my flashlight. "I want to confirm what door this is before I try to open it." As I spoke, I unfurled the map of the Takashima before us.

"We don't need the map for that. I can already tell you what that Kuritan signage says," McKenzie answered, pointing toward a badly-faded block of script on the bulkhead. "It says 'HIGH ULTIMATE COMPUTER MIND - ACCESS FOR NO ONE - MAXIMUM LIMITED IN.'"

"I'm pretty sure that works out to "Primary computer core - keep out - maximum restricted entry," no?" I replied.

"That's a pretty safe bet," Dutch nodded.

"Excellent," I quipped, giving the hatch a tug. "As I suspected. Locked. But it looks like the electronic access controls are still working. I bet I could get past them with the Apple-Churchill kit."

Unshouldering my backpack, I set about retrieving the electronic lockpick gear, and connecting it to the door controls. As I activated the decryption subroutine, I suddenly heard a sharp, tinny squelch, followed by a chilling series of audio clips, seemingly spliced together from several different recordings of multiple different speakers. Most unsettling of all, one of the recordings was a replay of my own voice.

"WHAT
ARE
YOU
DOING
HERE...?"

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I banged and stomped my Dragon into the hangar of the REPUBLIC. It had been a long and Difficult Battle, but we were heroes. We had won the war and now it was time to Celebrate by drinking booze and talking to beautiful women. I climbed out of my Mech and down to the ground, a Technician ran up to me and saluted. "SIR! What services does your Mech need??" 

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I was in my AgroMech defending the vegetable stand when all hell broke loose. These was a massive explosion, and at least a cubic acre of smoke rose into the sky. Then, flames burst from all sides of the facility. Another explosion. This time, the burn flew out all sides of the facility. I had to run.

I decided to hold my ground, half a block away. Flames can't go more than 100 feet, right?

Wrong.

My mech was picked up and threw like a grain of sand in a small child's hand. The moving scorch threw my cockpi-first into a local skyscaper. I crashed through layers of cement and steel, and landed in what used to be a hotel lobby. All that remained now was a few dead visitors, broken chairs, pissed off behind-the-countermen, and screaming visitors. I hastily clicked open the cockpit. It was jammed. I gambled to use the eject seat. Jammed. I was now stuck in a lobby in which I had gashed my way through 4 inches of metal and concrete. Smoke entered my entry hole, and people who remained in the room began choking. I could not do anything now.

*END FLASHBACK*

I came out of the flashback with all the hot water run out and cold water spraying on my junk. I hollered in pain and got out of the shower, then I went to the ship's bar after I had gotten changed into my off duty clothes to get wrecked. 

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There was a pause, and then the man at the door responded. "I could ask you the same question."

Another series of spliced together voices, including some that were panicked and shouting, played over the speaker.

"You

DO

not

be

LONG

here.

THIS

is my

home

this is

ME."

A pulse of electricity surged through the door, and the circuit that powered the lights on the opposite wall. The bulbs strobed, and the odd device connected to the lock sparked.

"GET THAT you all OUT OF THE SHIP!"

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D.C.S. Takashima
Bridge
Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki
January 31, 3029
___________________________

The electronic lockpick overloaded with a loud pop and the smell of ozone. Its plastic case, melted, slagged down the front of the door frame, leaving discolored, burnt trails of residue in its wake. A strong, painful headache overcame me, accompanied by a feeling of dread, my vision doubling and growing blurry as whatever malevolent force was at work in the Takashima took hold again.

I glanced behind me and noticed the rest of the team also reacting similarly; proof positive that all of us were being affected. Whoever this entity was that we were now dealing with, I was convinced that it might be responsible.

"Who are you? The salvagers here before us agreed to withdraw. This ship is supposed to be empty!"

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Additional voice clips were played over the speaker in response, using the intruder's own voice where possible.

"I

am

this ship. you? withdraw. you?

MUST EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY."

A panel in the wall creaked open, revealing a gun turret. The turret turned to point at the intruder's head.

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A crescendo of firearms being drawn and brought to the ready echoed across the bridge as Sabre team responded to the appearance of the turret. I quickly raised a hand to forestall what I was certain to become firefight. Squinting through the brain fog I continued to feel, I turned toward the turret, and slowly raised my hands.

"It's not our intention to hurt you - or anyone - if we can work together to avoid it. We have no interest in the ship itself. We're not like the people who came before us. We're here for information only.  If you have a prior claim to this place, I'm prepared to negotiate. Maybe we can help each other."

There came no reply.

"Look, I'm going to disarm myself to show you that I stand by my words. I'm going to walk you through every part of the process so that there won't be any surprises," I continued. "I'm going to take off my helmet so that I can put my gear on the ground."

I released the clamps on my MechWarrior combat helmet, the dry, stale air of the shipwreck rushing across my skin as I did so. Pulling the headgear away, I slowly knelt down and set it on the deck with a free hand.

"Cap, are you sure this is a good idea?" a voice behind me asked. I raised a hand once again in response.

"Now, look, I'm putting my firearms and these explosives down as well," I advised the disembodied voice, setting my Hawk Eagle, my MP-20 rifle, and my demolitions bandoleer on the ground. Slowly, I rose back to a standing position, my hands outstretched once again.

"See? No guns. No tools. If we're fighting, we're not talking. I want to talk. Can you help me understand what you mean when you say that 'you are the ship?'"

I'd heard urban legends and ghost stories, but I didn't want to jump to any conclusions...

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A thousand puzzle pieces suddenly clicked together in my mind. The surveillance camera in the cargo bay. The inexplicable heavily-armed resistance we'd randomly encountered in the middle of the desert. Schmidt's treachery - to the extent that he'd attempted to interdict with his own hired lance. William's over-the-top enthusiasm about recovering what seemed like dodgy, obsolete data at best, and his multi-tiered cloak-and-dagger, no-expenses-spared pursuit of it: all of it made sense now.

"He didn't send us after a star map,'" I whispered. "He sent us after an AI..."

"AI: Artificial Intelligence. The theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages. Also see: neural network. A computer system modeled on the human brain and nervous system," a monotone, high-pitched voice replied from behind me. I turned my head just far enough to see MediBot positioned directly to my right, also looking at the deployed turret. The robot's head snapped toward me.

"Patient MAXWELL, CHARLES EDWARD. You are experiencing elevated respiration and pulse rates. Recommendation: sedation. I can provide treatment immediately."

"Not now, thanks," I whispered. Then, addressing the ship, I continued. "You're an artificial intelligence. I understand. We didn't know that you were here. We were sent here under...different pretenses. I apologize for failing to knock before we came into your home. It seems that it's you we're here to see."

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Simultaneously...

C.S.V. Republic
Aegis Division staging site
3.2 kilometers from D.C.S. Takashima
Great Banded Desert, Nirasaki
January 31, 3029
___________________________

"Are you seeing this, Major?" Marcus Donovan's voice crackled in my headset.

"Affirmative. It would appear that the security of the objective's been compromised," I murmured into my headset quietly. "Lock the doors up there. We're doing the same down here."

"Copy that," Donovan replied.

"Hayes to Captain McKenzie," I continued.

"Go ahead," Dutch replied.

"I know that Captain Maxwell can't hear me right now, so I want you to relay this message to the entire team for me: you are bound by non-disclosure agreement to not discuss what you're seeing right now - or anything that you've learned about this objective - with anyone that I don't explicitly authorize. Your mission parameters remain unchanged. You are to retrieve that objective and return it intact to the Republic. Understood?"

"Understood, sir," McKenzie answered.

"Good. One other thing: you're authorized to use force if you have to. I hope it doesn't come to that, given that this thing is still running pretty hot, but the option is open if you need to take it." I responded.

"Roger that. We'll give a shout if it doesn't look like we're getting anywhere with 'diplomacy,' if that term even applies to computers," Dutch affirmed.

"Good deal. Hayes out."

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