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Author Topic: A Twist of the Knife  (Read 4781 times)

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #30 on: 22 July 2021, 04:14:24 »
Caspian walked the line of mechwarriors assembled before him, nine talented soldiers who stood at varying degrees of attention as he inspected their kit. Everyone was clad in the traditional pilots' garb, a cooling vest and very little else. 'Mech cockpits we're always hot, even in a frigid tundra, and they were about to set down on a sun-scorched rock with a diminished atmosphere. It would be more than hot; it would be dangerously irradiated with UV light. Without a solid means of keeping cool, the pilots would likely die from heat exhaustion. Of course Bjorn and Halver Halverson would be safe, comfortably seated in their Packrat scout vehicle, a machine that was blessed with an air conditioner. They were dressed more comfortably than the others, wearing matching sets of worn-out fatigues.

Alpha Lance was Caspian's command lance, consisting of himself, Amberly, and two younger pilots from the old 2nd Kavallerie. Jenna Takahashi was a short, redheaded woman with a face full of freckles and blue eyes full of dynamite. Like most light 'mech pilots she was sharp, brash, reflexive, and a touch mad, but she could run circles around many other pilots, and she'd been the champion of the simulators for three years running. Not even Caspian had ever managed to best her in a straight fight. Beside her was Kyle Kendricksen, a wiry nineteen year old boy. His head was completely hairless to allow his neurohelmet to contact his scalp directly, and no one had ever seen what his hair actually looked like. He had an odd quirk of shaving everything, even his eyebrows, which had led to the creation of a betting pool on what color it might be. At present the pool was nearly at ten thousand C-bills, but Kyle had yet to reveal the truth.

The second lance was led by Sullivan Chu. Sullivan was one of the few non-Rasalhague squadron members, a former mercenary born in the Capellan Confederation. He was also one of the oldest, having recently turned fifty years old. He was a man of few words, always standing tall with his arms folded across his chest and with a hint of a smile hovering over his face. He had a strong, fatherly presence that had earned him respect from the men of the squadron and the admiration of a few women. To his right stood Sandy Donelly, a hard-faced woman in her mid forties. Her short, raven hair was streaked with grey, a shade that matched her eyes. Sandy was partially blind in both eyes, and relied on a dubiously enhanced neurohelmet to see her surroundings in the field. A sonar array was mounted on her locust's shoulder, which she claimed allowed her to see her targets plainly. Her aim suggested otherwise, but she had an uncanny ability to spot distant foes before anyone else, which had earned her the nickname "Radar," a name that she bore with pride. Beside her was Olga Malinkov, who stood with one leg raised, her foot resting on a nearby rolling stool. She kept one hip thrust outward and her back arched, a position that looked as uncomfortable as it did suggestive. It was typical behavior. Olga was a notorious flirt, always looking for a thrill wherever she could find one, and she had the appearance to back up her confidence. She was fit and slender, with dark red hair that she kept longer than was typical for a 'mech pilot. Even in battle she wore makeup and crimson lipstick, though exactly who she was looking to impress was anyone's guess. Her incessant teasing and innuendos made her difficult to work with, but she was a skilled shot with long-range cannons and her maneuvering skills had taken many opponents by surprise.

Lastly was the Halverson brothers. Bjorn and Halver were a package deal. It was almost unheard of to see one without the other, though they barely looked related at all. Bjorn was large, broad-shouldered, and shockingly blonde with arms muscles that bulged out to an almost comical degree. He had been a bodybuilder before the war, and had been mildly famous in Fradvisk as a local weight lifting champion. He had a physique that nearly rivaled a Clan Elemental, and even Hugo looked small beside him. He was smiling as Caspian passed him, as he usually did. He never went anywhere without a grin on his face, and his gentle mannerisms and pleasant demeanor were infectious. Halver was only a little over five feet tall, and was far less bulky. He was as thin as a rail, with dark hair and eyes that were nearly jet black. His gaze was always darting around from one thing to the next, as if trying to see everything at once. He was sharp and quick-witted, able to process complex equations in his head almost instantly. He'd been dubbed a human computer, but he was more than just a walking calculator. His reflexes were legendary, and while a small brain tumor kept him from effectively using a neurohelmet, he was a natural choice to drive the Packrat. The brother's were polar opposites, and yet they never seemed to be apart. Some jokingly whispered that they even shared the same bed, which gave rise to the rumor that Bjorn often used Halver as a teddy bear.

Caspian nodded with satisfaction as he finished inspecting his soldiers. "Right," he said. "Here's the situation. We're currently orbiting Christiania II. I'm not going to sugarcoat it; this place is a miserable wasteland, and we're going to be stuck in it for quite a while. Our first objective is recon. We need to know exactly what the wolves are doing here. That means we've got to get up close and personal. Obviously we can't just drop in on their doormat and ask to be invited in, so we're taking the long way around. In order to avoid their scanners, we'll be dropping on the far side of the planet and hoofing it the rest of the way. We will not be getting a resupply, as landing the dropship anywhere but the dark side risks giving away our position. You know what that means; use missiles and ballistic weapons sparingly. The ammo you take is the ammo you've got."

"It's a long walk," Amberly added. "We'll be marching for two weeks before we reach the target area. Contact with the dropship will be nearly impossible due to the radiation and storms on the surface. The conditions will scramble your sensors as well. Expect ghost signals on the radar. Don't get separated from your lance, or we might never find you again. Short-range comms are likely to be the only ones that work out there."

"Sullivan, you're going to be carrying the emergency beacon," Caspian continued. "If we run into any serious trouble, its signal should be strong enough to reach the Björngröng. Make sure it stays intact, because it's our only way off this rock once our mission's complete."

Sullivan nodded. "Understood."

"The planet's hot as hell during the day," said Amberly. "But that's not the case during the night. Without an effective ozone layer it can't hold in the heat at night, so the temperature drops well into the negatives. Keep arctic gear stashed under your seats just in case."

Olga grinned, flashing a set of bedroom eyes at Caspian as she stretched her arms over her head in an attempt to look sensual. "I'll pack an extra bedroll," she said. "In case the captain gets a little too cold in the night."

Caspian returned the grin. "That's thoughtful of you," he said. "But if I ever get cold enough that I have to start bunking with you I'll just stand under one of my 'mech's flamers instead. They'll warm me up faster and I'll be a lot less likely to end up with some kind of disease."

The mechwarriors all laughed and Olga pouted for a moment, but joined in the laughter a second later. Kyle raised a hand and said, "What about provisions? That's a long time to go without resupply, and we can't live off the land either."

"Bjorn and Halver will carry the rations," said Amberly. "Caspian's modified one of his flamer's fuel tanks to hold drinking water. As long as we're careful we'll have more than enough."

Mary nodded her head and flashed a broken grin. "Well, I'm sold," she said. "Who's ready to drop?"

"Just point me in the Clanners' general direction," Jenna replied with a wicked grin. "Sounds to me like the planet's infested, and I'm looking to do some pest control."

"Just stay sharp," said Caspian. "Remember, recon is priority one. There'll be time for smashing heads once we know exactly what we're facing. For now we're blind, so don't go shooting anything that moves unless I give the order. Got it?"

"Got it," everyone chorused.

Caspian threw them a salute and smiled. "Right, then. Gentlemen, mount up and give 'em hell!"

-

The night was unusually warm. The winds had died down as the sun set, and the chill of the evening had failed to set in. The skies were completely clear, giving Timothy an unimpeded view of the sky. The stars swirled above him like a dance of magical beacons, flickering mystically as the atmosphere filtered their light. He looked at one of the brightest, a star named "Aleph-19." It was an astronomical oddity, a star that didn't truly exist. Timothy remembered reading the history of the star, how explorers had jumped to its position only to find the space completely empty. The star had gone supernova over a million years ago, but because of the speed its light traveled through the universe, its brilliant explosion wouldn't be visible from Lothan for another four million years. It was dead, and yet it continued to shine. The only reason anyone knew it was gone was because humans had learned how to outrun light itself, the fastest material in existence.

Aleph-19 was a part of the local culture, a favorite sermon illustration for preachers all across Lothan. To them it symbolized the light of Christ, the power of Thor, or whatever other deity they happened to worship. It was the go-to source of inspiration for Lothanian poetry and battle hymns, appearing in ballads as a representation of one's legacy. It was used at funerals to symbolize the memories of deceased loved ones that carried on even after death. As Timothy stared up at the star he couldn't help but feel a sense of comfort and security, despite the action that awaited them tomorrow.

Gordon's eyes were also cast upward, taking in the sights as he strummed away on his guitar. He had been singing old soldiers' songs for about an hour, ranging from rowdy marching tunes to sorrowful melodies about homesickness and death. Currently he was singing one of the latter.

"All quiet along the Havrodskr tonight, except here and there a stray picket
Is shot as he walks on his beat to and fro by a Lyran man hid in the thicket.
'Tis nothing a private or two now and then, no account in the news of the battle.
Not an officer lost only one of the men moaning out, all alone, a death rattle.
All quiet along the Havrodskr tonight!"

Gordon carried on with his song until Ashley came up behind him and slapped his back. He missed a chord and the tune stopped sharply. Ashley flopped gracelessly beside him and gave his arm a shove.

"I feel like I'm at a damn funeral," she said. "Play something that doesn't make me want to jump off the waterfall, will ya?"

Gordon scowled at her, but shrugged his shoulders and began a new song, one with a driving beat meant to keep soldiers in step on the march. It was yet another ancient song from the bygone days of small terrestrial armies, and its performance was a well-established tradition. It had always been a favorite of the Kungsarmè, and Gordon sang it with great enthusiasm.

"Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
And we'll all stay free!

Praise the Lord and swing into position!
Can't afford to be a politician!
Praise the Lord, we're all between perdition
And the deep blue sea!

Yes, the sky pilot said it, you gotta give him credit.
For a son of a gun of a gunner was he
Shouting,
'Praise the Lord, we're on a mighty mission!
All aboard, we ain't a-goin' fishin'.
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
And we'll all stay free!'

Praise the Lord
And pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord
And pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord
And pass the ammunition!
And we'll all stay free!"

Timothy stretched his arms and rolled over onto his side, smiling and content. He barely noticed Lars moving to sit beside him. Lars collapsed into a heap of a sitting position, limbs splayed in all directions. He threw his arms over his head and groaned, then sank down until he was lying supine. Timothy watched his chest rise and fall as his breathing slowed, and for a moment he thought he noticed something odd about it. There was a strange contour to it, an abnormality, perhaps a birth defect of some kind, or the aftermath of an old injury. He couldn't put his finger on exactly what, but the way he breathed didn't look natural. Lars caught him staring and rolled into his side to face him.

"Something wrong?" he asked.

"N-no," said Timothy, quickly flipping himself back to stare at the sky again.

For several moments they were both silent, and the relaxing atmosphere grew suddenly uncomfortable and awkward. The tension finally broke when Lars cleared his throat and pointed upward.

"That star there, the blue one just to the left of Aleph-19? That's Christiania," he said. "I looked it up on the star charts this morning."

Timothy strained his eyes. "I can't see it," he said.

Lars chuckled and shook his head. "Must be my lenses," he said. They filter out some of Aleph-19's light, so it doesn't block out the ones around it."

Timothy paused for a moment and raised an eyebrow. "So you mean you're effectively wearing sunglasses. At night."

"That's not the only setting," Lars replied. "I've got the option for an EM view as well. Makes it easy to spot access terminals and underground conduits."

"Isn't it... hard to breathe in that thing?" asked Timothy.

Lars shrugged. "Sometimes. When it's as important as it is, I don't really tend to notice the uncomfortable parts."

"Oh..." Timothy went quiet, unsure of what to say next. They were quiet for a minute more until Lars began to sing softly to himself.

"Stars, in your multitudes, scarce to be counted, filling the darkness with order and light.
You are the sentinels, silent and sure, keeping watch in the night.
Keeping watch in the night!"

Timothy smiled. "That's pretty," he said. "I haven't heard that song before."

"I'm not surprised," said Lars. "It's a little obscure. There was a place where I grew up, a theater that would perform ancient plays and musicals. My favorite show was called 'Les Miserables.'"

"The name sounds Davion," said Timothy.

"Oh, it's far older than that," Lars replied, visibly excited as he rolled over to look at Timothy. "It's from Terra, based on a book from the 19th century."

"Huh," said Timothy. "A book about what?"

"The title loosely translates to 'The Miserable Ones,'" said Lars. "It's about a former convict named Jean Valjean and his journey to redeem himself while avoiding the clutches of Inspector Javert, who's been hunting him for decades."

"I didn't know you were into the arts," said Timothy.

"Are you kidding?" Lars clapped his hands together, beaming even through his visor. "Music, novels, holovids, I love them all!"

Timothy returned the smile. "You've seen 'The Great Coup,' then?"

Lars nodded. "First use of a full-size battlemech in a film? Of course I've seen it! You know it's still the highest budget holovid ever made, even four hundred years later?"

"The longest, too," said Timothy. "Sixteen hours, altogether. My classmates and I used to spend Friday nights watching the whole thing. We'd start after dinner and finish around lunchtime on Saturday."

"What about 'The Fall of Kerensky?' Did you see that one?" asked Lars.

"Yeah! The one where his fleet jumps into a star!" said Timothy.

"Too bad it was historical fiction," said Lars. "We'd be a lot better off now if that's what had actually happened."

"Yeah..." Timothy sighed and rubbed his forehead. "I've always wondered how such a great man could create something so... evil... as the Clans."

"Maybe he didn't," said Lars. "Good men are rare. Maybe he built his perfect society after all, and then it fell apart once he was gone. Shoes like his would be pretty hard to fill. Evil men are everywhere, and it only takes a few to destroy what one good man built."

Timothy frowned. "I don't think most people are evil," said Timothy.

Lars scoffed. "You've never even left the Lothan system," Lars replied. "You haven't seen people like I have. Everyone's got some evil in them, even those you trust. I've seen well-groomed men and women with power, prestige, good family names, and sound reputations act like animals when given the chance. Trust me, there are worse people in the universe than Clanners."

"Is that what you think of us?" asked Timothy. "Are we all evil to you?"

Lars hesitated. The question had been genuine, and Timothy's expression showed more curiosity than wounded pride. After a moment Lars answered.

"No. That's not quite what I meant."

"Well, what did you mean, then?"

Lars sighed, then reached out and ruffled Timothy's hair. "Let me put it to you this way, kid. Your group is the closest thing to good people I've ever seen."

Timothy batted his hand away. "But you still don't trust us," he pointed out. "I mean, for fitte's sake, I don't even know what your voice sounds like. You keep everything hidden away all the time, won't let us be your friends. You think everyone is out to get you, even us  Isn't there anyone in this galaxy you trust besides yourself?"

Lars rolled onto his back and folded his hands over his chest. "Don't take it personally, Tim," he said.

"How the hell else am I supposed to take it?" Timothy demanded.

"There's a lot you don't know about me," said Lars. "I'm not normal, Tim. If you knew what I've been keeping hidden-"

"Nothing would change!" Timothy interrupted. "I don't know what kind of monsters you've dealt with in the past, Lars, but we're not like them. You're one of us, and we don't sell out our own."

"One of you?" Lars shook his head slowly. "I wish that was true. Really. But I'm not a part of your little family. I make them all uncomfortable."

"Maybe if you took your mask off once in a while that'd change," Timothy suggested.

Lars chuckled. "No. No, that wouldn't help. Trust me."

Timothy sighed. "Alright, fine. I don't want to argue with you. Forget I said anything. Why don't you tell me more about that musical, the one based on that old book?"

Lars glanced at Timothy. He had expected him to look frustrated, but the youth was smiling warmly. It was as if he had truly put the argument behind him. Lars wondered how he could bounce so effortlessly from one subject to the next. Perhaps it was that boundless energy of his, the constant running around, that made him so interesting to talk to. Lars gazed into his eyes, and found himself oddly captivated. The way the starlight reflected off of them was so vibrant, so full of life, much like Timothy himself. Lars found himself smiling back, and he rubbed the back of his head.

"Well," he said, "the book was written by Victor Hugo in 1862. I've never read it myself. It's been out of print for centuries, and physical copies are all that's left. You're only going to find one at some fancy auction somewhere selling for an archon's ransom. Either that or some old lady's attic sale, if you're lucky."

"They don't have a digital copy?" asked Timothy. "Nobody ever scanned it into the Comstar archives?"

"I can't read digital books," said Lars. "It just doesn't feel right. Besides, access to the Comstar archives is far too expensive for me. Anyway, the musical came out in 1980. I've got the soundtrack on laserdisc back on the Björngröng. When they get back I'll play it for you. It was a big hit, and it's been translated into dozens of languages..."

Lars continued to ramble, facts tumbling out of him as he enthusiastically explained the core plot and trivia of Les Miserables. All the while Timothy kept smiling, slowly nodding his head as he hung on every word. Gordon and Ashley watched them from the campfire, glancing at each other.

"They seem to be getting along," said Ashley.

"That's putting it lightly," said Gordon. "You know what that is, there? That's a friendship being forged. Like it or not, Lars is attached to the kid now."

Ashley stretched her arms over her head and yawned. "Long as it keeps that techno-creep out of my hair, I'm happy," she said.

Gordon shrugged and set his guitar aside, then slid down to the ground and closed his eyes. "Rest up, Ashley," he said. "We've got a big day tomorrow."
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #31 on: 29 July 2021, 05:20:19 »
Timothy patiently walked up and down Ultra-Mart's hardware aisle, pretending to intently study the merchandise. He paced back and forth, waiting for his contact with a box of strawberries tucked under his arm. He was supposed to be meeting a man named Roger Grossman, Mage Squadron's contact inside the Citadel. He had the floor plans, security patrols, and daily itinerary of whoever was in charge, all information they would need for their attack that evening. The meeting was meant to take place at 09:19, but Timothy had arrived a little early to pick up the berries. They were grossly expensive, as they had to imported from offworld, but he'd determined to purchase them anyway. It would be the last of his spending money, but to him it was worth it.

"Hey there," said a friendly voice behind him. "Heard you're about to head out on another fishing trip."

Timothy turned to face the speaker, a middle-aged man with short, dark grey hair and a thick set of glasses, and smiled. The phrase was a code, a challenge awaiting a countersign. Timothy gave the predetermined response. "Yeah. I found the perfect spot a couple days ago, right under this giant spruce tree."

Roger nodded his head slowly. "Hoping to catch the big one?" he asked.

More code. The "big one" referred to the current governor. "Catching" was a broad term for assassination, sabotage, or any other sort of attack on the Clan.

"That's the plan," said Timothy. "You've worked those waters before. Know any other good places?"

Roger grinned. "I can point it all out on a map if you like." He discreetly passed a laserdisc to Timothy, who pocketed it before anyone could see. "Well, I won't hold you up. Let me know if you have any luck."

"Will do," Timothy replied. "Take care of yourself, Rog."

Roger waved, then turned away to continue his "shopping." Timothy began to make his way toward the counter, taking his time to look over the other bits of merchandise to defuse any suspicion. He passed by the electronics section, the frozen groceries, and the men's clothing before he reached the front end of the store and stopped short. Beside him was a bookcase, filled to the brim with old, ratty books. It was a strange feature of this particular store, a place where people would leave their unwanted books behind for the store to sell at a discount. It was mostly loaded with cheap paperback novels, adorned with exaggerated art of muscle-bound men and voluptuous women in revealing outfits, promising content filled with passionate romance and other such works of smut. But dotted here and there among the trashy novels was the occasional hardcover copy of Sherlock Holmes, Crystal Maginot, or Tales of Terra: Volume 3. Normally Timothy would simply walk past the shelves without a glance, but this time something caught his eye, a glimmer of golden print on one of the bindings. He focused on the source, and found a plain, black, hardcover book without the usual plastic sleeve. Stamped on the spine in gold leaf was a title that made Timothy's heart stop. He blinked once then read it again, barely able to believe his eyes. The words "Les Miserables" stared back at him in gilded letters. Someone had left a rare, out of print book on the shelf, probably a new homeowner desperately looking to clear away attic space.

His hands shook as he slowly pulled the book free, and he groaned as he saw the price tag. It wasn't expensive, but combined with the box of strawberries it was more than he could afford. He held the two items out in front of him, weighing his options. He thought about Amberly and felt his cheeks begin to burn, but as his thoughts turned to Lars and his rare outburst of giddy excitement, he felt a strange compulsion to see it again. Lars was closed off, secluded, and yet underneath the enigmatic facade Timothy had sensed a person much like himself. Perhaps this would finally begin to convince him to let the mask slip, even if just for a moment. Still Timothy clung to the strawberries, desperate to do something for the lieutenant. The chance to see her smile at him made him feel warm all over, and he didn't want to lose the opportunity.

When he finally exited the store, Ashley was waiting for him outside. Timothy had placed his purchase in his backpack, and he joined her with a satisfied smile on his face.

Ashley nodded to him as she stood up from the bench she had been lounging on. "You get it?" she asked.

"Got it," said Timothy. "Let's get back to the others."

Ashley grinned. "Going to be a busy evening, Tim. You up for it?"

"Yeah," Timothy replied, a newfound determination on his face. "Yeah, I think I am."

-

The work day was nearly over. As Damian made his way across the enclosed footbridge he sighed and folded his hands behind his back. It was the early evening, when the sun began to drift over the horizon and give way to night time. The neon lights of the city were beginning to activate one by one, and for around an hour the sky would be an awe-inspiring display of color as the manmade lights mingled with the radiant sunset. The sight had often taken Damian's breath away. He stood in the center of the walkway, taking it all in and enjoying the view.

Alice cleared her throat beside him. "Was there anything else you needed today?" she asked.

Damian raised an eyebrow at her. "Do you have plans for the evening, Miss Jurgen?"

"W-what?" Alice blinked and took a small step back. "No... I wasn't looking to leave early. I just wondered what you wanted done next."

"No plans at all?" Damian pressed, his expression unreadable.

Alice shrank away even more, her mind scrambling to find what he was driving at. "No," she said. "I don't really go out in the evenings anymore. Not since..." Her voice trailed off.

"The Invasion?" asked Damian.

Alice nodded. "I usually go straight home after work now," she said. "The city just doesn't feel the same anymore. The bars and clubs aren't full of friends enjoying the night. Everyone seems to be drowning their misery. It's depressing."

"Ah." Damian hesitated, and as he turned back to face her Alice was surprised to see that his eyes were fixed to the floor. He spoke haltingly as he avoided eye contact, and for the first time his cold confidence seemed to have deserted him. "Well, you see... it is just that... I..."

Alice couldn't believe her eyes. Damian was shuffling his feet and was totally unable to look her in the eye. His face had turned red as he struggled to say what was on his mind. He looked like a nervous schoolboy. She remembered what he had said to her days before, about how the only thing a Clan warrior feared was humiliation. She took a step forward and gave him a reassuring smile. "Yes?" she urged.

Damian took a deep breath, then let it all out at once as he finally forced out the words. "I was thinking that tonight would be an opportunity to see the city," he said. "I want to meet the people, understand more of their culture. I... had hoped that you might..." He cleared his throat. "But of course if you would rather go straight home, I would not wish to impose. I just thought... since you know the area better than I... Besides that, I would..." His voice got drastically quieter as he mumbled, "enjoy your company."

"Are you asking me out?" asked Alice.

"No!" Damian replied, a bit too quickly. "I mean, perhaps. I am not familiar with the practice of asking one out. Is it... customary?"

Alice laughed. It was a new side of Damian, a more vulnerable and personal aspect of his character that she found fascinating. She moved to his side and nudged his arm. "An evening in the city would be just fine," she said. "I know a few places you might enjoy. We could..." She cut herself off as she caught a glimpse of movement outside the window. She looked out into the failing light to see a small battlemech, a Fireball, sprinting across the highway. It leaped into the road, weaving its way through the cars as it rapidly approached. It stopped suddenly and planted its feet. Two missiles shot out from its arm, leaving twin trails of white smoke behind them.

Something primal awoke inside Alice. Without a thought and with strength she didn't know she had, she grabbed Damian and threw him to the floor. Damian gasped in surprise as he fell, only to wheeze as she threw herself on top of him, using her body as a shield. The missiles impacted a second later, and terrible heat washed over them as the entire bridge shuddered beneath them. The entire structure swayed, and for a moment she feared it would collapse, but the central support pillar that rose through the middle of the bridge kept it upright.

Damian responded instantly. He rolled out from under Alice and drew a pistol from inside his jacket. He sprang onto his haunches with a cat-like motion. His hand closed around Alice's arm and he pulled her behind the pillar and took stock of his surroundings. The end of the bridge had disappeared, and the cold autumn wind now blew freely through a massive gash in the causeway. With their route cut off, Damian turned his attention to the other end of the structure. The walkway was still intact, but as he considered sprinting to the door it opened, and a pair of guards rushed in. They closed the door behind them and slammed the locking bar closed. One of the turned to Damian and waved him back.

"Take cover!" he cried. "The Mages are right behind us!"

No sooner had he finished speaking than the steel door began to glow bright orange. A second later it melted away, and a beam of blinding red light burst through. The beam hit the soldier, and his body evaporated with a gut-wrenching sizzle, leaving nothing but a pile of smoldering clothes and burned flesh. Behind the door stood Hugo, holding his laser over his shoulder. Damian had just enough time to duck behind the pillar as Timothy and Ashley rushed through the breach, sweeping the area with gunfire. The remaining guard dropped to his stomach to avoid the fire and drove them back with a volley of his own. Damian covered him with his pistol as he fell back to the column and joined Damian in the limited cover.

Alice sat with her back against the structure, hands clamped over her ears. Mage Squadron took cover in the doorway, firing through the opening. Hugo fired a few shots at the concrete support, then shouted over his shoulder.

"Timothy! Hit them with a grenade!"

"Wait!" shouted Ashley. "They've got a civilian with them!"

"Dammit!" Hugo shot his rifle through the opening again and winced as a bullet snapped by his head. "Right. I'll suppress them. You three push up!" He slapped a fresh magazine into his weapon and nodded. "On three. One. Two. Three!" He turned and opened up on the support, blasting indiscriminately away as Timothy, Lars, and Ashley all rushed into the causeway. One by one they fired and advanced, keeping the Clanners pinned down as they slowly began to draw closer.

The guard leaned around the corner to return fire only to catch a round to the throat. He collapsed as a second round hit him in the chest. Alice cried out as his body landed beside her. "Oh my god!" she cried. "They're going to kill us!"

Damian's hand found her shoulder and she looked up to see him smiling. He pulled a small handheld radio from his belt and shook his head. "The attack is sooner than expected, but nonetheless I have prepared." He pressed the speech key and said, "Move in."

For a moment nothing happened, then suddenly there was a rush of heated air as a star of elementals descended from the rooftop of the Citadel. Three broke formation, going after the 'mech. The other two landed on the destroyed section of the causeway. The Mages scattered, falling back toward the doorway. The elementals began to fire on them, spitting deadly anti-personnel rounds after the fleeing soldiers. Lars was flung to one side as a round hit him in the leg. Timothy stopped to help him up, and Ashley sprinted back through the door. Hugo shouted a warning, then shouldered his laser and fired. The beam arced its way into the chest of one of the massive warriors. It burned the steel for a moment before punching through, charring the soldier inside. The monster collapsed with a crash, but the other continued onward unphazed.

"Gordon!" shouted Hugo over the radio. "Put some fire on the causeway, now!"

"Negative!" Gordon called back. "I've been engaged! These guys are swarming me!"

Hugo glanced out the window. Gordon was visibly struggling. The tiny Fireball wasn't much larger than the Elementals themselves, and three of them were attacking him from every angle. The armored soldiers leaped in crazy arcs, dodging his fire. He managed to catch one by swinging his arm, but the other two latched onto the 'mech's back and began ripping it apart with their mechanized claws. Hugo cursed under his breath as he turned his gaze back to the hallway. Timothy had his arms around Lars as he tried to drag him back toward the doorway. The Elemental had a clear shot, but wasn't taking it. It simply continued to march forward like a malevolent force of nature. Hugo knew it was over. His laser was depleted, and Gordon was moments away from being ripped out of his 'mech. Without the Fireball they didn't have the firepower to take down the monster in the hallway. One of their men was down, and another would be soon if nothing was done. Every moment they stayed gave the local garrison time to respond as well. Soon they would be trapped. He cursed again and keyed his radio.

"Everyone, fall back! Abort mission! We've been set up!"

"Copy that." Gordon managed to grab one of the elementals off his back and slam him down into the pavement. The other still clung to his back, but he threw the Fireball against the building. The move smashed the rear armor, but also forced the Elemental to let go. He sprinted away from the road and into the alleyways, running for the safety of the forest.

Timothy shouted, "Lars is hurt bad! I can't carry him!"

"Let him go, kid!" called Ashley. "You can't do anything for him now! Get out of there before that thing slags you!"

"Knulla det!" Timothy swore in reply. He turned to face the Elemental, standing defiantly between it and his wounded friend. He brought up his rifle, and with a defiant scream he emptied the magazine into its armor. The rounds deflected harmlessly, but for a moment the beast stopped advancing. It stared at Timothy, as if confused by his futile attack. Timothy reached for a new magazine, but he never got there. The missile pod on the Elemental's shoulder arced out toward the doorway, slamming into the wall. The blast blew away the siding, exposing the enclosed end of the bridge to the open air. A hot gust of terrible wind caught Timothy as the shockwave impacted him, lifting him and Lars and sending them both careening out into space. They plummeted from the bridge toward the canal below, then disappeared beneath its surface. The last thing Timothy heard before the water swallowed him was Ashley screaming his name.
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

ThePW

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #32 on: 29 July 2021, 21:49:20 »
Ballsy. I thought for a second that the Book was itself a plant with something transmitting for a later pacification of the Mages at home base...

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #33 on: 17 August 2021, 16:38:26 »
Christiania II was every bit as barren and desolate as the records had described. The visibility was remarkably poor, as the loose dust was constantly forming clouds of driving sand that obscured the view. Beyond one hundred meters there was nothing but a wall of airborne debris. Mage Squadron moved in a loose column formation, never leaving visual range. It was far too easy to get lost in the featureless hellscape, and so the 'mechs almost seemed to huddle together as they trudged eternally onward. Sweat poured down Caspian's body as he drummed his fingers on his armrest. He had set his Firestarter to a low speed, and now he simply sat back and let it make its own way forward, occasionally correcting its course to avoid unsteady ground and the occasional boulder. He took his canteen and forced himself to take only a small sip. They had brought more than enough water for the mission, assuming that everything went according to plan. Even so, he didn't like the idea of wasting it. They were marching blindly into what was effectively enemy territory, and there was no telling what could go wrong.

Caspian let the canteen dangle from its hanging place, just above his head, then sank back into the worn cushions of his control couch. They had been walking for three days so far, and it had been one of the most miserable campaigns he had ever been a part of. He had spent the night shivering on the floor of his cockpit, curled up in a sleeping bag that only kept out some of the cold. His teeth had chattered relentlessly, and his sleep had been inconsistent at best. It had nearly been enough to drive him to accept Olga's previous offer, if only for the warmth another body would provide. He thought back to his academy days, back when he had been a younger and more handsome man, back before the trauma of the Clan Invasion had killed what remained of his charm. Caspian hadn't been incredibly popular, but he'd had a couple girlfriends during his time there. He remembered the cold Lothanian winter nights he had spent with a girl resting her head on his chest, her golden blonde hair tickling his skin as it drifted loosely across him. He could still hear the soft breathing, her gentle voice wishing him a good night, could feel the warmth of her presence and the stirring in his chest as he met her gaze. Edith had been her name, a starry-eyed idealist with a gorgeous smile and the kindest of hearts, and she had kept him warm through many cold and sleepless nights. Caspian sighed to himself as he glanced down at the sleeping bag neatly tucked away beneath his control panel. Tonight would be just as cold as the one before, and once again he would need to face it alone. The thought had made him feel irritated before, but after reminiscing he felt a new sense of dread overtake him. It didn't have to be this way, he reminded himself unbidden. Had things gone differently he very well could have been spending the night in the comforting embrace of a lover. Instead, any chance of a pleasant, quiet life had been crushed when the wolves invaded. Caspian had heard the story from her lancemates, how Edith's Centurion had gone critical, the victim of a Thor's merciless onslaught. She hadn't ejected, staying in her 'mech long enough to fire one last autocannon shell at her enemy. She had died to take that shot, but had probably lived just long enough to see it miss the target before her battlemech exploded, leaving little behind. Like so many others in the Kungsarmè, she had died for nothing, sacrificing herself for the freedom of Rasalhague, an independence that itself was killed less than a week later.

A blip on the radar display snapped Caspian back to reality. Ghost signals had been popping up ever since they had touched down as the solar radiation played hell with the 'mechs' sensors, but this one was different. It was stronger, more persistent. Caspian checked the computer's analysis log for an evaluation. The sensors had detected a solid, stationary object less than seventy meters ahead, most likely another stony formation of some kind, but the computer had listed the contact as a deactivated battlemech. As Caspian squinted at his display, another signal appeared beside it, then another, then another.

"Contact sighted!" said Sandy over the comms, her voice distorted by the pervasive interference. "Inactive 'mech at eight o'clock!"

"What model?" asked Caspian.

Sandy hesitated. "Unknown, Captain," she said. "It's... unusually shaped."

"Contact at eleven o'clock!" said Sullivan. "Inactive 'mech. Unknown type."

Caspian brought his Firestarter to a halt as an ominous, shadowy shape began to emerge from the dust cloud in front of him. It looked like a battlemech, frozen in time as it bent precariously forward. The armor was strange, almost flowing behind it like petrified water, as if it had been melted and blown away by some incredible force. Caspian inched his 'mech closer. Even as it came into focus the extensive damage made it difficult to identify, but he eventually recognized it as the wreckage of a Warhammer, a powerful heavy battlemech with a reputation for dependability and strength. As he examined the ruined machine he heard Jenna's voice over the radio.

"I've got a dead Stalker in front of me and a Wolverine on my left. What happened to them?"

Amberly brought her Puma alongside Caspian's Firestarter and turned her torso to look at him, tilting in an almost human manner as she examined the wreck of the Warhammer. "They look almost like they were... nuked," she said. "It looks like something from the Tintavel Memorial."

"It's a graveyard," said Caspian. "An old battlefield from the Succession War."

"My god..." said Olga breathlessly. "There's even more over here, entire lances of dead 'mechs."

"Captain!" called Halver. "You need to see this."

Caspian turned to the side and walked his way over to the Packrat. The vehicle was perched along the edge of a ridge, where the plateau they stood on dropped into a valley down below. Caspian felt his breath catch in his throat as he neared the edge and looked down upon a haunting scene. Here the dust wasn't as thick, and he could see much farther than he had been able to up above. Over half a mile of ground stretched before him, completely covered in dead machines. 'Mechs, tanks, hovercraft, APCs, VTOLs, crashed aerotech fighters, and mobile artillery pieces were all lying in similar states of disrepair. The nuclear hellfire had permanently frozen them in place, melting joints and treads. The 'mechs were eternally caught in their final moments, suspended in time. Nearby an Axeman had been caught mid-swing, its weapon descending upon a Hunchback, whose pilot had raised the left arm in a futile attempt to deflect the strike. Beyond them a Phoenix Hawk had fallen and was struggling to right itself. Further out a Battlemaster had just finished stamping its footpad down onto a transport truck, crushing the vehicle under its weight. Similar scenes had been captured by the nuclear flash all across the field, and as far as the eye could see there was nothing but utter destruction. Caspian was silent for a long time, unable to find the words to express how he felt. It was eerie and beautiful all at once, like a painting of Hell. Sullivan moved to Caspian's side and whistled. Amberly approached from behind, gasping as she saw the morbid spectacle.

"För fan i helvete..." she said. "It makes Kandalaksha look like a Sunday afternoon picnic. So this is what the Succession Wars were like."

"So many dead," said Sandy. "There's probably more corpses in that field than in the whole of the Ronin War."

"And it's just one field on one planet," Sullivan agreed. "Battles like these were fought all across the Inner Sphere."

"No wonder Kerensky abandoned us," said Jenna. She turned her Commando toward the others. "We're not going to make it, are we? People, I mean. With battles like this, one day we'll drive ourselves to extinction."

"Easy there, kid," said Sullivan. "We aren't dead yet, so don't go planning the funeral. The wars were terrible, but we didn't wipe ourselves out. We're still living on, stronger than ever before. The wars didn't end us, Jenna. They made us better. Isn't that right, Captain?"

Caspian said nothing. Instead he quietly nudged his battlemech forward, carefully making his way down the incline. The Firestarter resisted his touch. While it was most likely a quirk of the balancing system and the rough terrain, to Caspian it almost felt hesitant, as if it too was unnerved by the sight of the mechanical graveyard. As he reached the bottom he cast a glance over the 'mech's shoulder. The others were beginning to follow, cautiously stepping down the unsteady ground. Sandy's Locust stumbled for a moment as the rock gave way, but she managed to keep her machine upright long enough to awkwardly run down to the flatter ground at the bottom of the ridge. Sullivan didn't bother with the slope, instead opting to fire his Griffin's jump jets and leap down to the bottom. Olga followed his example with her Stinger, landing with less grace but more style, letting one footpad touch down before the other in a dramatic fashion. The Packrat chose a zig-zag path, eventually falling back into formation. With the lances gathered, Caspian continued onward, weaving his way through the ancient battlefield.

For a long time everyone was quiet. No one seemed to have anything worth saying, and breaking the silence in a place filled with so many dead felt taboo, the kind of thing that would earn you a curse from the angry spirits that may still inhabit the frozen crypt. The battlefield seemed to stretch on forever, and Caspian noticed a strange sound from beneath his 'mech. With every step he could feel a slight give in the pedals and hear a crackling noise ring out. It felt almost like walking on ice. He looked down at the ground and saw it breaking beneath him like glass, then realized that it was exactly that. The sand had melted from the intense heat of the atomic weaponry, giving the desert an odd, refractive quality. He trudged on, trying to focus on his radar. He activated a filter to remove the scores of hits from the dead machines, and set it to scan for active threats only. The screen cleared, save for the usual ghost traces.

Suddenly Sandy called out. "I've got movement at nine o'clock!"

"I got nothing," said Sullivan. "You sure?"

"It's right over..." Sandy hesitated. "I... I thought for sure..."

"Don't do that to me," said Bjorn. "I nearly had a heart attack. Thought I saw one of these old hulks moving for a second."

"Probably just the wind pushing components around," said Sullivan. "Everyone relax."

"No, I'm positive!" Sandy insisted. "I saw a Raven moving around out there!"

"The dust's probably messing with your sensors, Radar," said Olga. "There's nothing out here. Just a bunch of expensive gravestones."

"I've got a heat sig at three o'clock," said Amberly. "Over by that Myrmidon. It's... gone? What the hell?"

"Would you guys knock it off?" asked Jenna. "You're all giving me the creeps. Captain, recommend we take a detour."

"Where?" asked Caspian. "This mess probably goes around for miles. If you want to get out of it, the quickest way is to plow straight through."

"I didn't sign up to get cursed by ghosts," she said. "We need to get out of here."

"I've got a bad feeling," Sandy agreed. "Something's not right."

She wasn't wrong. The atmosphere had certainly changed. A general feeling of unease had settled over Caspian, the sensation of eyes hidden in the shadows, watching him. He scanned around, but couldn't get a solid fix on anything out of place. He thought he saw a shape moving behind the leg of a Thunderbolt, but it could easily have been a trick of the light. He thought he saw a glint of reflected sunlight, but its source was just a glassy rock on his left. The ghost contacts on his radar began to multiply, ranging from heavy 'mechs to infantry. The display showed dozens of signatures, but he still couldn't spot anything outside his cockpit. He tried to target one of the signals to find it with his HUD, but even as he reach for the switch the contact vanished, only to be replaced by two more a second later.

"Contact!" cried Amberly, making them all jump. "Unknown Raven coming in fast!"

Caspian began to turn toward her, but just as he did he spotted movement by one of the slagged tanks. A squad of infantry appeared from behind the vehicle, each one aiming an anti-mech rocket at him. He froze, knowing that he wouldn't be able to engage them without taking significant damage. He trained his flamers on them but held his fire, and they did the same.

"Infantry on my six!" shouted Kyle. "Anti-mech weapons!"

"I've got two heavy tanks on my back!" called Olga.

"My god... The dead Atlas in front of me... It's moving," gasped Jenna.

"We're surrounded!" said Sullivan. "It's an ambush! Open fire!"

"Belay that!" Caspian barked. There was silence for a moment as he scanned around him. More infantry was beginning to emerge from the wreckage, strange people covered from head to toe in off-white robes. A nearby Atlas that had previously appeared dormant had suddenly come to life, its torso twisting to cover the two lances with its weapons. It moved slowly, looking like a wraith with its black, melted armor that clung to it like fabric. The "eyes" that normally denoted the location of the pilot glowed bright red, giving it the appearance of a demon. Smaller 'mechs stepped out from behind it, two Locusts, a Flea, and a Spider. A Jenner emerged from behind a ruined Annihilator along with another Raven. Mage Squadron had been completely encircled, and yet everything was quiet. "They aren't shooting," said Caspian. "Why aren't they shooting?"

"Because they're fools!" exclaimed Jenna. "Let me wipe them out, Captain!"

"Negative!" Caspian snapped. "Everyone hold your fire. If they wanted us dead they'd have already killed us by now."

"If they decide to change they're minds we won't stand much of a chance," said Amberly. "Not with all those guns pointed at us."

"What's the play, then, Boss?" asked Sullivan. "I'd love to have a tea party with them, but I left my favorite pair of bunny slippers on the ship."

Caspian ignored the jab. "We wait and see what they want."

"We don't even know who these people are," said Kyle. "Maybe they're friendly."

"Who the hell could they even be?" asked Sandy. "This planet's supposed to be deserted."

"Um... Captain, that Raven..." said Olga.

Caspian twisted his torso to the left until he could see the indicated 'mech. He stared at it hard, looking for any marking or signs of heraldry. He found one proudly emblazoned on its side. He gritted his teeth as he saw it, the star that had haunted his every waking moment for the past five years. It was a simple astral design, with one of its rays extended far to the right. He let out a snarl as he said, "Clanners."

-

Damian emerged from behind the pillar and took stock of his surroundings. Mage Squadron was gone. They had fled only moments after the Elemental had sent two of their men screaming into the canal. Now the local garrison had arrived, missing the insurgents by mere seconds as they rushed in from their outpost in the center of the city. It had taken them less than five minutes to arrive, but the fight had been over in three. It was one of the Mages' traits that frustrated the Clan soldiers more than any other. They could appear almost anywhere and disappear just as suddenly, making them frustrating opponents. The Clan's warrior caste lived by a strict code of conduct, rules by which battles were to be fought, but Mage Squadron refused to fight on even terms. Instead they delivered daggers in the dark, slitting the throats of sleeping men or slaughtering patrols with explosive traps. It was intensely dishonorable, not even worthy of being called "warfare." The way of the Clan was for the weak to defer to the strong, not continue to struggle. Damian remembered a parable he had been taught as a child, a story about a bear and a mouse. The bear had caught the mouse in its claws, hoping to keep it as a pet, but the mouse had flailed so hard in its grip, gnawing and biting at the invincible bear, that it died from exhaustion. The moral was simple. Those who are beaten should not resist, because for all its savagery the mouse could only hurt itself.

Damian came out if his musings as a flicker of movement caught his eye. Near where the Elemental stood was the tear in the wall, the one his missile had created. The steel there jutted out with a hundred jagged edges, and it bloom outward almost like a kind of metal flower. On one of these protrusions there fluttered a scrap of paper, crackling in the evening breeze as it dangled. Damian reached out toward it, teetering on the brink for a moment before he snatched it away and shrank back to safety. He brought the slip closer and strained his eyes to read it in the failing light. The item had belonged to one of Mage Squadron's men, one of the two who had been blown off the bridge. It was a receipt from the local Ultra-Mart, complete with a transaction number. The customer had paid for his purchase with a bank card, a perfectly normal means of paying, but one that left a paper trail to follow. Damian smiled to himself as he slipped it into his pocket, knowing that he had just struck gold.

Alice moved slowly beside him, still visibly shaken. She hugged herself, shivering both from nerves and from the cold.

"Are you alright?" asked Damian.

Alice didn't reply. Instead she stared out into the darkness of the night, trying to draw warmth through what remained of her suit jacket. She had kept her hair tied back, but during the fight it had come loose. Damian had never seen her with her hair down before, and the way it blew gracefully around her face was almost mesmerizing. She looked past him, as if not even noticing where she stood. Damian removed his own jacket, trying his best not to grimace as the cold hit his body, then draped the garment around her shoulders. Alice blinked and glanced at him, as if just now realizing that he was there. She smiled weakly and pulled the jacket tighter around her.

"Thank you," she said. She glanced at her feet and added sheepishly, "I guess this spoils our evening plans, doesn't it?"

"It would appear so," Damian replied. He smiled at her, holding in a shiver as the wind began to take its toll. "We should go inside, I think. Our part in this has ended." He started to walk away, but when Alice didn't follow he stopped. "Miss Jurgen?"

Alice swayed for a moment, suddenly unsteady on her feet, but she caught herself and smiled weakly. "I must still be in shock," she said. "I'm not cut out for combat."

"You have the reflexes of a warrior," said Damian. "Do not be ashamed of your fear. It is something even the most battle-hardened feel. I had wondered why-"

He cut himself off as Alice suddenly slumped against him, leaning heavily on his chest. For a moment he was frozen, unsure of how to handle the contact. Then she began to slip and he realized that she had gone completely limp. He put his arms around her and held her upright. As his hand moved behind her back he felt something odd beneath his jacket. He reached under the fabric and felt something hot, thick, and wet seep through his fingers. His eyes went wide. Like any soldier, he knew all too well what now covered his hands. Blood.

Alice's vision began to fade as Damian struggled with her weight. She willed herself to stand, but her body refused to obey her. Darkness began to overtake her senses as she watched Damian call out to his Elemental. She felt the sensation of being lifted as the massive warrior cradled her in his arms with a surprisingly delicate touch. She felt safe, protected, almost happy. Then everything went black.

When she awoke it was with the morning sun showering her face. She winced as it burned her eyes, letting them slowly adjust to the light. After a minute of pained grimacing she could make out her surroundings. She was lying in a hospital bed. The sunlight was pouring through a window on her left. At the foot of her bed stood a pair of men, their faces still blurry and their voices muddled by her obscured senses. One of them was Damian, she was certain. The way he stood with his arms crossed and his feet spread smacked of his calm confidence. The other man was far more animated, arms flapping about as he ranted about something Alice couldn't make out. They appeared to be locked in some kind of argument. Gradually her faculties returned to her, and soon she could begin to make out some of the words, and she caught snippets of the conversation.

"...our duty!" shouted the man. "You must... There is too much risk in... Will not allow...!"

"Must?" Damian replied. "Did I hear you issue me ...? You forget... Conners has granted... The choice to... my decision."

The man seethed, jabbing a finger at Damian. "You may be the Star Colonel's protege, but I am not yours to order around! If you wish to continue on your present course, then you will do so without my support."

"You would defy your orders?" asked Damian.

"As you have defied our very way of life? Yes, I would," the man replied calmly. "My men die by the score, and while their blood cries out from the soil you waste time consorting with freeborn women! Your policies here have been nothing short of chalcas! If Conners learned of your actions your authority would be stripped from you in an instant."

"I have done only what I judged to be right," said Damian calmly. "If you wish to report my behavior to the star colonel, you may do so. However, if you do, know that I will also mention your insubordination in my own reports. We will see who Conners decides to take at his word."

The other man stormed out of the room with a dismissive wave of his hand. Damian watched him go, shoulders slumping, then turned to Alice. Noticing that she was awake he seemed to perk up, and he moved to the side and took a seat beside the bed. Now she could see his face more plainly, and she saw his relieved smile as he leaned forward in his chair, elbows resting on his knees.

"What happened?" asked Alice.

"You took shrapnel to the back," said Damian. "They say you lost quite a bit of blood, but otherwise you do not seem to be seriously damaged."

"I... don't remember getting hit," said Alice.

"It was probably when you threw me beneath yourself," Damian replied. "When the first missiles hit you took some of the blast protecting me." He frowned with mock severity. "That was a very brave and foolish thing to do, Miss Jurgen."

Alice laughed dryly, only to cough as her dry throat began to irritate her. "I guess I'm just tired of having my bosses die on me," she wheezed. "Is there any water? I'm so thirsty..."

Damian rose up and disappeared around the corner of the room. A moment later he returned with a paper cup cradled in his hands. He passed it to Alice, and for a moment her fingers brushed his. She felt his rough, thick skin. His hands were cold and coarse, almost stony, the hands of a warrior. As she took the cup from him she wondered how many lives he had ended with them. She had spent so much time with him in the quiet safety of the office that it was easy to forget that he was a soldier, had always been a soldier. But no amount of kind words or gentle speech could cover the icy calculation in his eyes, the quick precision of his touch, or the way his muscles always seemed to be under some kind of tension like a coiled spring. He was smiling at her now, a warm and friendly expression, but she could only think of the confident sneer he had given her only a short time ago as he sprung his trap. Mage Squadron had been outplayed and their troops had been driven back. The thrill of besting an enemy in combat had invigorated Damian, and for just a moment his mask had slipped, revealing the bloodlust that lurked beneath the surface. It terrified Alice, and yet she also found the aura of danger that surrounded him strangely alluring. He was larger than life, an improbable man unlike any she had ever met. She feared him, but she was also drawn to him, like a moth fluttering around an irresistible flame. Too close and it would burn her, but even so she couldn't help but stray ever closer.

"I was beginning to think that you despised me," Damian said, suddenly. "You see me as a tyrant, a manifestation of the men who have oppressed your people, yet you risked your life to protect me. I would like to know why."

Alice shrugged. "I don't want anyone to die," she said. "Not even the Clanners. I'm tired of all the killing. And besides, I don't despise you." She dropped her gaze and said softly, "I never have."

Damian turned away, folding his hands behind his back as he gazed out the window. "You have my thanks," he said. "Your actions may have saved my life."

"I didn't do much," Alice replied. When Damian declined to say anything further she cleared her throat. "Who was that just now, the one you were talking to?"

Damian's shoulders visibly slumped, and he suddenly took on an exhausted appearance. "That..." he sighed. "...was Star Captain Terence Kerensky. He directs the troops on Lothan under my command."

"He seemed upset about something," said Alice. "Is everything alright?"

"With Terence nothing is alright," Damian replied. "My... softer approach to governance has caused no shortage of annoyance among my peers. They see my strategy as admitting defeat, conceding ground, and showing weakness. As for what was bothering him on this particular morning, well... I may have postponed our weekly meeting. Terence is not a man who likes being slighted, and when he learned that I had focused my attention on your recovery, well... Let us just say that he does not see you as worthy to inconvenience him."

"You changed your itinerary?" Alice was shocked, and her voice made it obvious as she gasped her words rather than spoke them. He had worked meticulously on his work day plans, finely tuning each detail for maximum efficiency. It was not something he would simply cast aside on a whim.

Damian nodded. "Honor compelled me to do so," he said. "You were wounded protecting me, and so it was only proper that I ensure your safety and recovery in return."

"How long have you been here?" asked Alice.

"Two days," Damian replied. "Ever since you were carried here. I determined to remain here until you regained consciousness."

"Two days?" Alice shook her head. She looked around the hospital room and saw nothing but her own bed and a metal folding chair in the corner. "Where did you even sleep?"

"On the floor."

The way he said it was so casual, so matter-of-fact, as if nothing could have been more mundane. The absurdity of it hit Alice, and she began to laugh, picturing the absurd image of the planetary governor lying on the cold tile floor, arms folded and a stern expression on his face. Damian tilted his head, puzzled.

"What is so funny?"

"You're a very strange person, Damian," Alice managed between bursts of laughter. "I don't understand you at all, you know that?"

He smiled at her, and once again she felt her heart miss a beat. "Well, if it is any consolation, I rarely understand myself either." He raised an index finger and said, "I have seen to it that you are not seriously injured. Now that you are conscious again, I must return to my duties." He pulled a slip of paper from his pocket, the receipt he had collected on the night of the attack, then replaced it. "However, I do not plan on leaving you entirely alone." He snapped his fingers and a woman walked into the room. Of course, calling her a woman was an understatement. She was massive, standing nearly seven feet tall. Her muscles bulged out from her entire body, giving her an almost alien appearance. Alice had never seen an Elemental outside of its armor before, at least not up close, and she tried to keep her jaw from falling open in amazement at the Amazonian wonder standing before her. Damian waved a hand in front of the Elemental and said, "This is Manon. She is the one who carried you here when we discovered your wound. If you require anything at all, you need only ask her. She will see to your recovery."

Manon bowed her head respectfully as Damian quietly slipped out of the room, leaving them alone together. For several moments they said nothing, staring awkwardly at one another. Alice took in her wide, dominating frame. Manon had a seemingly impossible physique, with broad shoulders and musculature that defied explanation. Alice knew the stories, the rumors about the drugs and genetic conditioning that were used to create the Elementals, but she had never truly believed them until now. Despite her fearsome appearance, however, Manon carried herself with a surprising amount of grace. She stood dutifully at attention, but the harsh angles of a masculine stance were absent. Her figure was firm, but also elegant and feminine. She smiled at Alice, catching her off guard.

"How are you feeling?" she asked, her voice oddly light and gentle.

"I'm alright," Alice replied.

Manon nodded. "Good. You were in a bad way after the attack. I had feared that I would prove too slow to save you. Thank the Founder that I was wrong." Her smiled broadened, and she moved to from the foot of the bed to its side. "Can I get you anything? The hospital's cafeteria staff make a delightful dish known as a 'pancake.' I would be more than happy to fetch one for you."

Alice returned the smile as the awkward tension shattered like glass around her. "You know what?" she said. "I am pretty hungry. A pancake would be perfect right about now."

"Very well," said Manon. "I will return shortly." She bowed, then turned to leave. As she neared the door she stopped and glanced back at Alice. "I have heard it said that you despise our Clan," she said flatly. "Perhaps I can change your mind."

"I didn't..." Alice began.

Manon cut her off with a wink. "I will go a step beyond my duties and locate the fluid known as 'maple syrup.' I have found that its savory taste can even make a Jade Falcon behave in an agreeable manner." With that she disappeared, leaving Alice alone with her thoughts.
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #34 on: 24 August 2021, 18:57:33 »
Timothy's mind raced as the dark, freezing waters of the Havrodskr enveloped him, forcing its way into his nose and down his throat. His limbs flailed uselessly in every direction. Panic consumed his every thought as he tumbled his way down the river. The rushing current of the canal had thrown him into the raging river, and now he was being flung about like a plaything. He could see nothing but the swirling motion of the water, a nauseating spiral that made him feel sick. He had no sense of direction, and the darkness of the night sky did nothing to help him orient himself. His lungs ached as he desperately struggled to hold in air, and the icy fear that gripped him was absolute. He was going to die here, the one place where the idea terrified him. He had no fear of being torn apart by bullets, melted by lasers, or disintegrated by explosives, but the very idea of slipping quietly away beneath the river, cold, alone, and in the dark, terrified him. The abyss around him seemed infinite, though he knew it was barely deeper than his standing height. His back was thrown against the riverbed, tearing a fresh gash in his side as he was dragged along the edge coarse of a rock. What little air he had left was knocked out of him, and he clawed at the water as he tried to fight his way upward. Now that he knew where the bottom was, his panicked struggling at last had a direction. His head broke the surface, and he had just enough time to gulp down a fresh breath before the current pulled him under again.

The river continued to pull him relentlessly along, throwing him against the ground again and again. Timothy fought his way to the surface, but each time he could only take in enough air to sustain himself. He began to feel delirious as he was dragged under for what felt like the hundredth time. He had achieved a strange kind of equilibrium, able to keep himself both alive and conscious as the water did everything in its power to end him. For just a moment he became lucid enough to look around him. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and now he could see the land rushing by him at blinding speed. Up ahead of him he caught a glimpse of a shadowy form floating passively in the current. Lars was clearly unconscious, arms and legs limply fluttering behind him as he drifted downstream. He may have already been dead. Something inside Timothy abruptly snapped into place as he saw his friend, and furious determination settled over him. He was not going to die in a godsforsaken river. He refused to let it happen. With a newfound strength he began to swim with the river rather than fight it, pushing himself through the water until he reached Lars's senseless body. He threw his arms around him and kicked his legs downward, driving himself up to the surface. This time when he reached the air he continued his kicking, forcing himself to stay above the current. His legs burned from the exertion, but he ignored the pain as he searched for something, anything to grab onto. Up ahead he saw it, a place where a willow tree had crawled toward the edge of the water and let its roots dangle in the open air.

Timothy reached out and snatched the largest one he could see, and his shoulder nearly dislocated as he snapped to a halt. The rough and jagged roots dug into his hand, tearing apart his skin. He gasped with pain, nearly losing consciousness as the agony stabbed at him, but he managed to keep his hold. Then, with the kind of strength only desperation and adrenaline can provide he slowly pulled himself free of the water and planted his feet on the side of the riverbank, hauling Lars along behind him. A minute later he was on the dry ground, his entire body quivering from the fear and the exertion. He fell onto his hands and knees and threw up on the grass, no longer able to control himself. He tried to stand, but a strange weight on his back threw him off balance and he collapsed onto his face. Confused, he pulled at his shoulders and found that his backpack had somehow managed to stay strapped to his body during the ordeal. He tore it free and hurled it aside, then crawled over to Lars's side.

Lars wasn't moving, not even breathing. He simply laid there like a corpse, blood still pouring out of his leg wound. Timothy stopped, unsure of what to do. He'd been trained in first aid just like every other member of Mage Squadron, but with his mind still reeling from the adrenaline he couldn't bring himself to focus. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths, as Hugo had taught him. Gradually the shaking in his hands began to diminish, and he was able to remember the first step of first aid. Stop the bleeding. Timothy snapped into action, unbuckling Lars's belt and wrapping it tightly around his thigh to act as a tourniquet. He pulled his own shirt over his head and wrapped it firmly around the injury, then put pressure on the site until the blood stopped flowing. After that the second step came back to him. Check for a pulse. He reached out and touched Lars's neck, catching a weak, thready pulse. Lars was alive, but that would quickly change if he didn't get air. Timothy began to pull on the zipper of Lars's jacket as he struggled to pull it off. The tight fabric clung to his chest, which would make breathing difficult. Getting it out of the way was vital. Finally, after failing to handle the zipper with his shivering fingers he simply took the garment in his hands and ripped it open. He tore the jacket free and tossed it aside, and when he turned back to Lars he nearly recoiled with shock as he found himself confronted by a pair of breasts. With the jacket now absent Timothy had an unimpeded view of Lars's upper body, as nothing remained of the clothing but a form-fitting black tank top. Timothy saw smooth, elegant curves and two shapely mounds that made him freeze, unable to process what he was seeing. His mouth fell open and for a moment he couldn't bring himself to move. Lars wasn't a man at all. He never had been. Timothy stared down at his... her? chest and noted the lack of movement. With a gasp he remembered that Lars was still drowning, and he forced the conflicted feelings out of his mind.

Lars still wore the mask over her face, and Timothy remembered their discussion about the device and how it impeded her breathing. It would also need to be removed if he was going to have any chance of reviving her. He fumbled with it for a moment, trying to find the release for the strap that held it in place. He found where the strap clipped in, but there was no catch there to press, only a flat piece of shiny plastic. As his finger brushed it, it lit up with a yellow light, which then turned red a moment later. Timothy blinked in confusion and touched it again. Again the plastic returned a yellow glow, then a red one, clearly a rejection message of some kind. Timothy thought for a second before it came to him. The device was scanning his fingerprint. It had to be. Timothy reached down and took one of Lars's hands and pressed her thumb against the catch. The reader gave a green light, and the strapped popped away with a gentle click. The mask came away in his grip, and Timothy stared down at what it revealed. He had often wondered what Lars looked like beneath the mask. He had pictured someone young, perhaps thirty or so, with a strong jaw and shifting eyes. He certainly had not expected the freckled face of a young woman or the head of shoulder-length raven hair that he was now facing. There was a strange, otherworldly quality to Lars's, but Timothy couldn't quite bring himself to understand why it seemed so odd to him. Then he noticed the ears. The mask had wrapped around Lars's entire head, and now that it was gone Timothy found a pair of pointed ears poking out from the sides of her face, like an elf from the ancient Terran fantasy books. She was beautiful in a strange, alien sort of way, and she didn't look like any other human Timothy had ever seen.

With a violent shake of his head Timothy determined to ignore these details and focus on getting her breathing again. There would be time for a mental breakdown later. He turned her onto her side then pressed his hands on her abdomen, forcing her lungs to constrict. Lars made a sickening belch as water flowed freely out of her mouth and nose. She sputtered, but didn't otherwise react. Timothy repeated this a few more times until the water stopped, then rolled her onto her back once again. He hovered over her, feeling strange for a moment as he hesitated. He knew what he had to do next. The water was gone, and now she needed air. Breathing for her would be simple. It was a maneuver he had practiced on training dummies on numerous occasions, but now that he had to do it on a living person, particularly one that had just vomited unfiltered river water, he didn't feel quite as prepared. Finally with a self-assuring nod he pressed his mouth against hers and firmly exhaled into her throat. He watched her chest rise, pulled back and let it deflate, then blew into her mouth again. He continued to force air into her lungs for what felt like an hour. By the time she gasped her first breath without his help, he was nearly ready to pass out. His head pounded and his chest ached, but he smiled as Lars pulled herself upright, coughing and gagging but very much alive.

Lars wiped at her face as she regained her senses. After a moment of massaging her forehead she stopped. Her eyes flew open, revealing a pair of strikingly green irises. A panicked expression took over and she stared at Timothy, who was lounging against a nearby rock as he tried to regain his breath.

"My mask!" she gasped. "You took off my mask!"

"You drowned," wheezed Timothy. "I had to take it off to resuscitate you."

"Where is it?!" Her voice was nearly hysterical. She fell onto her hands and knees, scrambling in the dirt as she searched for the device, only to collapse onto her face as her injured leg gave out under her. Timothy helped her move back to a seated position, then held the mask out to her, and she snatched it from him. She looked relieved at first, but her expression quickly turned to one of despair as she examined it. "No! No, no, no, no! It's been waterlogged and smashed! It's... It's..." She let it fall from her fingers to the ground where it landed with a dull thud. "It's useless..." Lars slumped down against a nearby tree stump and buried her face in her hands. "Damn! Dammit all!" she groaned.

Timothy said nothing for nearly a full minute, unsure of what to say. After a while he muttered, "I'm sorry."

Lars's gaze snapped up to him, and she glared with a ferocity that made him shrink back. "You're sorry?" she echoed. "You're sorry?! You have no idea what you just did, what they'll do to me now!"

"Whatever it is, it's better than being dead," Timothy shot back. "Which is what you'd be now if I hadn't pulled you out of that river."

"Better than being dead?" Lars snorted. "Shows what you know."

"Yeah, I guess it does." Timothy rose to his feet, red-faced fury washing over him like a firestorm. His words poured out of him without any thought. "How am I supposed to know anything, Lars? You've kept it all a secret! Ten minutes ago I thought my friend was about to die. Now I'm standing here with a completely different person! I've gone from being friends with a weird but likeable computer geek to getting yelled at by some woman because I had the audacity to save her life. I've never known less than I do right now! Who the hell even are you?" He hesitated, then pointed at her ears. "What the hell are you?"

Lars suddenly stared down at the ground, pressing her ears against her head with her finger to hide them under her hair. "I'm human," she said quietly. "I know I don't look like it. I look like a... well I don't really know what I look like."

Her tone had been noticeably softer, almost apologetic, and Timothy started to regret snapping at her. "I didn't mean it as an insult," he said, then added with a bashful smile, "You're actually... really pretty."

"Of course I am," Lars groaned. "I was built to be. From the ground up. I was grown in a tube, Tim. Bioengineers picked out all the most attractive genes and stitched me together out of them. Then they grafted a couple extra bits onto me to make me more exotic." She let go of her ears, allowing them to stand out again. "You wanted to know where I'm from? I'm a working girl from Canopus. I was created for the sole purpose of pleasuring wealthy clients and satisfying whatever deviant fantasy they could come up with." She buried her face in her hands again, looking incredibly tired as she sank down further against the ground.

Timothy moved closer and sat down beside her. He considered putting a comforting arm around her, but thought better of it and folded his hands in his lap. "You mean you've spent your whole life as a... um..."

"A whore," Lars finished. "Yeah, I have."

"You're whole life?"

Lars looked sideways at him. "You can be so naive sometimes, you know that, Tim? Yes, I spent my whole life from the time I could walk doing that. Everyone's got their dirty little secret desires, and for some of the wealthy elite that fetish is little girls with pointy ears."

"That's disgusting!" Timothy exclaimed. "That kind of thing's illegal here. How do they get away with that?"

"It's illegal in most places," said Lars. "That's why people come out to Canopus, to get away from all those pesky little things like laws and morality. For the right price, you can have whatever you want, and since everyone likes having their little haven of sin, the Great Houses don't make too big of a fuss over it. What happens in Canopus stays in Canopus."

"But growing entire humans just to work as prostitutes?" Timothy shook his head. "That can't be allowed."

"It can when the people who enforce the rules are your best customers," Lars replied. "I've serviced nobles, attorneys, merchants, human rights activists, even one of the Great Houses' royal family once. If anyone starts kicking up too much of a fuss, the Magistracy has two approaches; they silence you if you're small enough, and if you're too big to brush aside they give you a free pass to enjoy their services. Everyone takes the offer in the end."

Timothy exhaled sharply, his eyes wide. "So if that's what you've always done, how did you learn to use computers like you do?"

"When I was thirteen I was assigned to a traveling pleasure circus," said Lars. "We hopped around from place to place, stopping to make some money off the locals who couldn't make the trip to Canopus themselves for one reason or another. One day we swung through New Avalon, and some rich professor bought me from my handler. I have no idea what he paid for me, but it's not that uncommon. Girls go missing from the circuses all the time, and for the handlers the only thing they love more than getting laid is money. The professor was a lecturer at some fancy school there called NAIS. Big place with lots of security. Only important and super rich people get to go there. He had to bribe a lot of people to smuggle me in. He taught computer science and his big kink was that he really, really wanted to shag his students. So he dressed me up like one, had me sit through his lectures with the others, then brought me back to his office where we'd play out his little game. I spent two whole years there. I don't think he ever bothered to consider that I might actually be learning anything."

"Why didn't you run away?" asked Timothy. "I'm sure the circus had security, but the professor would've had to keep you a secret. If you ran he couldn't stop you."

"Where would I go?" Lars replied. "I didn't even learn how to read until I got to the circus. I didn't have any skills, any way of surviving once I escaped. I'd end up homeless and starving. At least the professor fed me. No, I waited until I had learned everything I could about computers and coding. I stole textbooks, snuck into the labs, spent hours practicing my skills by hacking their security systems so I could move freely without tripping any alarms. I even stole my mask from the Institute, some kind of military prototype. Then when I thought I was ready I stabbed the professor in his sleep and ran away. I slept my way onto a jumpship and wound up in Rasalhague just in time for the Clans to invade."

"Then you came to us to find a job and a place to hide," said Timothy.

Lars nodded. "I'd managed to stay hidden pretty well, up until now."

"But why?" asked Timothy. "We still would've taken you in, even if you'd just showed up as yourself."

"Tim, look at me!" said Lars, pointing at her face. "There's nobody in the entire Inner Sphere that looks like this except the freak shows they make in Canopus. One look and anyone would know that I'm a girl on the run, someone who's desperate. Every time it's the same story. They agree to keep their mouths shut and not sell me back to my handlers, and in exchange I spread my legs for them whenever they ask for it. As Ellie the runaway prostitute I was powerless. But as Lars the hacking genius?" She stared wistfully at the mask lying on the ground nearby and sighed. "As him I could do anything. Didn't have to constantly check over my shoulder or worry about having to let some slimy, disgusting ship captain use me like a toy. I could finally go wherever I wanted, put the past behind me." She cut herself off as she sneezed, suddenly feeling the cold of the night against her body. She was still drenched, covered in wet clothes that clung to her in the worst places possible. She began to shiver, and Timothy stood up.

"I've still got the laser pistol in my pack," he said. "I'll get a fire going for us."

As he walked over to retrieve the weapon from his pack, Lars frowned at him. "So what's your price, then?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Your price," Lars repeated. "To keep you quiet. I know you want it, so let's just get it over with." She took the hem of her tank top and started to lift it, slowly revealing herself. Timothy spun away and waved his arms.

"Cut it out!" he said. "What's wrong with you? I don't want any of that!"

"Sure you do," said Lars. "You're a man. It's always what you're after. You've got a chance to do whatever you want, and you expect me to believe that you're going to pass it up? You know what I am, what I can do."

"I don't care what you are," said Timothy. "I'm not one of your clients, Lars! How many times have I got to tell you that we aren't monsters?" He turned to face her, and saw that she had let her clothes cover her body again. She was staring at him, an expression of pure confusion on her face. Timothy came closer and crouched in front of her, meeting her gaze as he put his hands on her shoulders. "Whatever you were before, you're a Mage now. You're family, and we don't sell each other out. I'm not going to tell anybody what you just told me, and you're just going to have to trust me."

"I don't trust anyone," said Lars. "I can't trust anyone. You know that."

Timothy shook his head. "I'm going to teach you how, then." He sat back and held out his hand toward her. "Friends?"

Lars hesitated, then reached out and accepted the handshake. She didn't reply, but managed a weak smile. Timothy nodded and smiled, then went back to his pack.

"Right. Let's get that fire going. In the morning I'll climb one of these trees and figure out where we are."

-

Lars woke herself up before the morning sun had begun to creep over the horizon. She had made sure to rouse herself while Timothy was still asleep. He was dozing peacefully nearby, lying near the warmth of the fire. He stirred a little as she struggled to rise to her feet, but didn't wake. Lars took a shaky step, grimacing as the pain stabbed at her. The bullet had shot clean through her leg, doing little serious damage but making it incredibly agonizing to walk. She stopped where she was and looked down at Timothy, now situated less than a meter away. He was lying on his side, curled up in a fetal position to hold in warmth, with his arms folded across his body. His hair caught the morning breeze, rustling gently and flickering over his face. He looked so innocent and childlike, and it made her feel even worse for what she was about to do.

She didn't want things to be this way. Timothy was one of the only people who had ever shown her any real kindness. She'd been treated well in the past. Some clients preferred things to be gentle, and had been polite and considerate. But with them there were always strings attached, something they were looking to get out of her. With Timothy, the kindness seemed to be pure, completely for its own sake, nothing more than a piece of his being. Lars had never met anyone like that before, someone who simply put others before himself. Her years of abuse had given her a cynical view of the world, a deeply-held conviction that everyone in the universe was out for their own interests alone. She had seen many supposed altruists stoop to satisfy their basest desires the moment they were given a chance. Some of the people most vocal about the abuses in the Magistracy became some of the most loyal customers, and many times they had proven to be the most twisted and cruel clients Lars had ever had to service. No one in the galaxy was truly selfless. There was always a catch, a price on their morality. Even a priest could be seduced if you wore the right outfit.

But Timothy had forced Lars to question her beliefs. He had befriended her when everyone else kept her at a distance, fought to protect her when others tried to leave her behind, and had nearly lost his life trying to save hers. She remembered how he had stood over her, facing down an Elemental singlehanded. The sheer terror in his eyes had been plain to see, but even so he'd refused to leave her behind, foolishly defying an order and fighting a battle he knew he couldn't win. Despite all of that risk, the only thing he seemed to want in return was companionship. Not the fleeting, pleasurable kind that Lars had grown used to giving, but true, respectful friendship. She had offered him something most men would have gladly payed thousands of C-bills to get: the chance to do as he pleased with an experienced Canopian escort, and yet he had turned her down without hesitation. It wasn't from a lack of desire. She had seen the redness of his face, the awkward way of standing that always betrayed an aroused man. But despite his obvious desire he had still chosen to see her as an equal, not as an object to be used and discarded.

Lars crouched beside him, gently pulling his pack away from him. Her hand slipped inside as she sought out the laser pistol it contained. She didn't want to kill Timothy, not after everything he had done for her, but she didn't have any other choice. He had seen her face, knew where she came from. Letting him live was too risky. Sure, he might be kind and gentlemanly now, but what about in a week? Would he feel the same way when he'd had time to consider what he'd been missing out on? Eventually he would give in, and he would either use her like everyone else had, or he would sell her to the next pleasure circus to pass by. Lars couldn't let that happen. She couldn't bear the thought of someone she'd come so close to trusting betraying her, and so she had decided not to give him the chance. It would be simply, almost too easy. A simple pull of the trigger and he would be a memory. If she managed to fix her mask she could slip back into Mage Squadron as if nothing had happened, tell them that he hadn't survived the fall. They would believe her without a second thought. After all, they knew Timothy was terrified of water. It would be effortless to convince them that he had simply panicked and drowned.

The very thought of it made her feel sick. She'd only killed one other man in his sleep, the man who had kept her as a pet and used her body whenever he wanted. She had murdered him while he couldn't defend himself, the easiest way to end a life. Killing Timothy the same way felt wrong, as if it somehow equated him with the evil man from the Institute. Then to go back and lie to everyone, to people who had enjoyed his presence just as much as she had, made her heart nearly burst with guilt. The Mages were a family, and she didn't want to go back and tell them that their favorite little brother was dead, not when they could have just as easily had him back alive if not for her. Her hands shook as she tried to find the pistol. She began to dig faster now, desperate to get it over with so that she could stop thinking about it. She pulled the other items out and tossed them aside, hoping to find the weapon more quickly.

One of the items she cast aside was a book.

Lars froze, her fingers having just closed around the grip of the laser pistol, and slowly turned her head. The book sat on the ground, its damp pages fluttering quietly in the breeze. She thought she had seen its cover for a moment and recognized the title, but it was impossible. It couldn't be. Fingers trembling, she lifted it off the ground and turned it over. The golden letters of "Les Miserables" glittered back at her in the flickering fire light. Her entire body began to tremble like a leaf, tears welled up in her eyes, and the pistol slipped out of her grip, clattering loudly as it struck the ground.

Timothy woke to the sound of the weapon falling, followed by sobbing. In an instant he was on his feet, eyes wide as he saw Lars sitting in front of him, the book cradled in her lap and face buried in her hands as she wept bitterly. Her shoulders were shaking, heaving up and down as she gasped for air between strangled sobs. Timothy was at a loss. He'd never seen anyone cry like that before, had never witnessed someone completely lose control of themselves.

"Are you alright?" he asked.

Lars looked up at him, her face stained with tears. She managed to regain control of herself just long enough to ask, "Tim... was this for me?"

Timothy nodded, slowly. "I found it yesterday, just before we started the attack. I thought about how much you wanted to find a copy, so I figured I'd buy it for you. Is... is something wrong with it? Did I screw up again?"

Lars hugged the book against her chest, a smile creeping its way across her lips. "No," she said. "No, you didn't. It's just... the kindest thing anyone's ever done for me."

Timothy blushed and rubbed the back of his head, his gaze falling to his feet. "I'm... glad you like it."

Suddenly Lars jumped up and lunged at Timothy, throwing her arms around him and squeezing him so hard that she nearly sent them both tumbling to the ground. Timothy wavered, unsteady on his feet, but after a moment he returned the embrace. Lars buried her face in his chest, and he let a hand brush gently across her back. Never before had she felt so warm in anyone's arms. For the first time in her life she felt truly safe, and with a teary-eyed grin she looked up at him and said, "I trust you, Tim."
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

ThePW

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #35 on: 25 August 2021, 00:11:24 »
*claps* That is a major change in tact.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #36 on: 03 September 2021, 16:08:26 »
Caspian held his control sticks with a white-knuckled grip, sweat pouring down his body as he waited for something to happen. His fingers hovered over his weapon triggers, and once again he debated what to do. The men in front of him could be dealt with easily. A simple blast of his flamers would reduce them to ash in an instant, but there were dozens more to replace them, not to mention the lances of battlemechs. Mage Squadron was outnumbered and surrounded. Each of their pilots was an exceptional warrior, but their chief advantage had always been speed and surprise, two things which they now severely lacked. Caspian toggled his drone camera, and the small device detached from his 'mech's back, hovering back a few meters. It was designed to give the pilot a third-person view of his machine, a way to gain a better view of his surroundings than he could see through his cockpit glass. Caspian turned the drone to look at the Atlas and felt a chill run down his spine.

The machine seemed to leer at him, eyes glowing wickedly in the darkness like some primal entity. Taking a closer look, Caspian could see that its legs were completely fused to the ground, its footpads having melted into useless heaps of slag. The upper body was still very much intact, however, and the weapons mounted on its body were pristine, as if they had been mounted there recently.

"They still aren't moving," said Amberly. "What's their deal?"

"I don't know," Caspian replied. "Clearly they don't want us to go by them."

"They don't want us to leave either," Sullivan observed. "I don't get it. Why box us in if they aren't going to kill us?"

"They want information," said Sandy. "The Kuritans used to do the same thing back when I was a girl. They'd take you alive so they could beat a story out of you later. Bet they're fixing to flay us alive."

"Not helping," said Halver. "I like my skin where it is, thanks."

"Hang on," said Amberly. "I see movement on the Atlas's shoulder."

Caspian watched as the forward hatch of the battlemech opened and a small figure in white robes emerged, a portable radio held in his hand. The general channel burst with static for a moment, then began to buzz with the stranger's words.

"Unidentified battlemechs, you tread upon holy ground," said a commanding voice. "Identify yourselves and state your intentions."

Caspian brought up his targeting reticle and placed it squarely on the figure, then transmitted his reply. "This is Captain Caspian Muldoon, commander of Mage Squadron. Our intentions are to pass through this area."

"What is your destination?" asked the voice.

"That information is classified. First I want to know who you people are," said Caspian. "We thought this area would be deserted. To which Clan do you belong?"

"Clan?" echoed the man. "We know nothing of any Clans. I am Reverend Ezekiel Jonas of the 391st Royal Battlemech Brigade. This ground is part of the sacred realm of Star League. If you do not provide your destination, we will assume that your intent is hostile."

"Doesn't sound like he's interested in chit-chat, boss," said Sullivan. "Better tell him what he wants to hear."

"Our destination is a set of coordinates on the far side of the planet," said Caspian. "Our enemies have taken a position there. Our intent is to drive them off this world before they find whatever they're searching for."

There was a pause, and a moment of tense silence descended over the scene. After a minute Jonas responded. "Colonel Carter wishes to speak with you," he said. "Dismount your battlemechs and leave all weapons behind."

"Screw that!" said Jenna. "Captain, we need to make a run for it, now!"

"And go where?" asked Caspian. "We aren't in a position to negotiate. If we run, they'll kill at least half of us and the mission will fail. If we go with them there's a chance that we can still complete our objective." He keyed his mic and said, "What guarantee do we have that we will not be killed the moment we leave our machines?"

"I give you my sacred word," Jonas replied. "You and your soldiers will not be harmed. If the Colonel decides that you are not a threat, then your weapons will be returned to you. For now, she wishes to speak with you, an action that she would find most difficult if you were dead."

"My lieutenant and I will go with you," said Caspian. "My soldiers will remain in their battlemechs. No offense, Reverend, but I don't know your colonel or what she'll decide, and I won't be caught flatfooted if she decides that she wants us dead."

"Your concern is understandable, if unwarranted," said Jonas. "Very well. But if any of your troops behaves in an aggressive manner we will not hesitate to cut them down."

"Sir, with all due respect, what the hell are you thinking?" asked Sandy. "If you want my opinion-"

"I don't remember asking for it," Caspian replied sharply. "Amberly and I are going to talk to this Colonel of theirs, and I want all of you on alert until I say otherwise. Nobody do anything stupid, but if anyone out there so much as twitches in a way that looks threatening you blow them straight to the hells. Make sure they remember us for at least a century. Everyone understand?"

"Yes, sir," they replied.

The trip down from the Firestarter's cockpit was intensely uncomfortable. The battlemech's fusion engine was still active, and the cable that suspended the mounting stirrup was hot to the touch. As Caspian lowered himself to the ground he grit his teeth, feeling the heated steel burn his palm and fingers. The cable's descent was always slow, but now it felt almost eternal. When he finally reached the ground the air wasn't much better. Even with nearly all of his skin exposed he could still feel the sweat clinging to his body. Two men approached him, each clad in the same off-white robes. Their faces were completely covered by a scarf and a pair of tinted goggles, making them look almost inhuman. One of them held out a bundle of fabric, most likely another robe like his own.

"Put this on," he said. "The sun will burn your skin in minutes."

The other pointed his rifle at Caspian and added, "Please."

Caspian obeyed, quickly throwing the garment over his shoulders. The cloak draped over his body, covering him all the way to his feet. A hood settled around his head, and he found himself suddenly feeling relieved. Despite the extra weight, the fabric breathed quite nicely and kept the murderous sunlight off of his skin. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Amberly receiving similar treatment from another pair of soldiers. He watched as she donned the robe, and felt a pang of some unexpected emotion as her long, slender legs disappeared beneath the fabric. Disappointment? He shook his head and scolded himself. There was no time for that kind of thinking now. Any half decent commander wouldn't let himself be distracted by his second in command while guns were aimed at his chest. He made a mental note to beat himself up about it later, then nodded to the pair of men before him.

"We're ready," he said.

"Then you will follow us," said the first man.

"Please," added the other, with a threatening wave of his weapon.

Caspian and Amberly were led away from the battlemechs, passing between the legs of the Atlas. Behind the 'mech an armored vehicle sat idling. The two commanders were firmly pushed inside, and the door closed behind them. They had just enough time to sit down before the vehicle started moving. For a moment they said nothing, awkwardly staring at one another. After a minute Caspian cleared his throat.

"You alright?"

"Thirsty," Amberly replied. "Other than that I'm fine. You?"

Caspian heaved a sigh and rubbed at his head. "I just walked my entire force into an ambush. How do you think I'm doing?"

Amberly reached out and placed a hand on his knee. "Hey, don't start with that," she said. "You kept them alive. That's more than some commanders could pull off, given the circumstances."

"For now," Caspian replied. "Question is, can I keep them that way?"

Amberly shot him a light smile and gave his knee a reassuring squeeze. "One crisis at a time, Caspian."

He leaned back in his seat and stared blankly at the ceiling, his brow furrowing. "391st Royal Battlemech Brigade..." he mumbled absently. "Does that name ring any bells?"

"The guy with the radio mentioned Star League," said Amberly. "Back in the old days there were some regiments in the SLDF with the 'Royal' monicker. Units from Terra would be given that title."

"SLDF?" Caspian shook his head. "That can't be... They fell apart during the First Succession War."

"Or they left with Kerensky and disappeared," said Amberly. "We don't know what happened to a lot of them. Maybe one wound up out here. It would explain the star insignia on the battlemechs."

"Somebody would have noticed," said Caspian. "Something on this world was important enough to warrant a nuclear holocaust. If there was a Star League force here when the Houses were fighting over it, there'd be a record somewhere, wouldn't there?"

"There's barely any records of this planet as it is," said Amberly with a shrug. "It's never been particularly significant. It's just in a convenient location for a base. That's what the fighting was mostly about, capturing a strong staging point for future attacks. Apparently the position was so good that both sides were willing to destroy it rather than see it fall into enemy hands."

"At least these people don't just shoot outsiders on sight," said Caspian. "I'm hoping that means they can be reasoned with."

"We'll know more once we reach the Colonel, whoever she is," Amberly replied. She abruptly smiled and reached out, adjusting Caspian's robe. "Your collar's all messed up. Hold still. Can't go negotiating with crazed gunmen while looking like a slob." She shifted the fabric around for a few moments until she sat back and gave a satisfied nod.

Caspian shot her a nervous smile. "How do I look?" he asked.

Amberly winked. "As dashing and handsome as someone in clothes like that can," she replied.

"Good. Maybe I can lay a little charm down on this colonel," said Caspian, returning the wink.

"I wouldn't hold my breath," said Amberly. "You're still dressed like a melted marshmallow."

The vehicle abruptly came to a halt, nearly throwing them against the forward bulkhead. Caspian grunted.

"Well, wherever they're taking us, it looks like we're there."

The door opened a moment later. Caspian felt hands grab his shoulders, pull him through the opening, and slide all around his body. He felt his laser pistol leave the holster on his upper thigh, then a shove on his back. He was thrust against the side of the vehicle and a canvas bag was slipped over his head. He tried to protest, but a strike to the backs of his legs made him fall to his knees. A feminine cry of pain from nearby told him that Amberly was receiving similar treatment. Caspian reached for the bag, but hands latched onto his arms, forcing them behind his back as restraints were latched onto his wrists. His captors lifted him onto his feet and marched him ahead. He stumbled and fell onto his face, only to be lifted and pushed again. The ground was hard and cold, not like the sand they had walked through before. New noises came to him, the sound of machinery and power tools. The rumbling and whirring Echoed in his ears, as if he stood in a large, open space. He walked onward, prodded by a bayonet in the small of his back. The path twisted around him as he was forced to turn corners, run into walls, and weave through corridors. After what felt like an eternity he was told to halt, then given another strike to force him to kneel.

He growled and said, "When I find out who's been hitting me this whole time, I'm going to break his ****** fingers!"

"What is the meaning of this, Reverend?" demanded a female voice. "Why are these people bound?"

"Colonel..." replied Jonas. "The apostates have been captured and await your judgement, as you instructed."

"I gave no such instruction," said the Colonel. "Release them at once!"

"Colonel?"

"Are you gone deaf, Reverend? Must I repeat every order I give you until your feeble mind can understand it? Release them!"

The bag left Caspian's head, and he blinked as harsh artificial light flooded his eyes. He was kneeling on a cold, deep blue tile floor. The room he found himself in was massive, its walls lined with gothic columns, each bearing an old, faded banner of the Great Houses and Periphery States. Padded theater seats extended one either side of a central aisle, leading to a raised dais. It was some sort of large conference room, but the lectern on the stage had been removed and replaced with a battlemech's control couch. A small, young woman had risen from this seat and was making her way down the aisle to where Caspian and Amberly sat side by side. The woman was clad in a dress uniform that was clearly several sizes too big for her, despite the obvious alterations it had received. She was hardly a woman at all, given the youth in her face. Caspian guessed that she was fourteen at the oldest. She drew close to him just as the restraints on his wrist were loosed, and she took his hands in hers before touching her forehead against them, a gesture that clearly reinforced the apologetic look in her eyes. She helped pull Caspian to his feet, then glared at the guards flanking him and Amberly.

"Leave us," she said sharply.

"Colonel, these people-" Jonas began.

"Are our guests," the girl cut him off. "And if you make me repeat an order one more time I'll have you lashed. You're dismissed, Reverend."

The soldiers saluted glumly and retreated, closing the large pair of oak doors behind them. Caspian raised an eyebrow.

"You're the Colonel?" he asked.

"I am," she replied. "Colonel Elizabeth Carter. I must apologize on behalf of Reverend Jonas. He is many things: confidant, regent, friend, devoted man of faith. However, one thing he is not is tactful. I hope he hasn't injured you."

"Just our pride," said Amberly, rubbing at her wrists.

"I fear that we may have given you a poor first impression," said Elizabeth. "There are those among us who would rather kill outsiders on sight. If not for our current predicament, there may have been bloodshed. I thank the General that no lives have been lost."

"I'm guessing you don't like to advertise your existence," said Caspian. "We thought this whole planet was deserted."

"You are perceptive," said Elizabeth with a smile. "Yes, it is by design. The 391st is on a sacred mission, one that requires secrecy."

"There's something here you're protecting," said Caspian, understanding dawning in his eyes. "The Clanners are here looking for losttech. That means there's an old Star League cache here. You're standing guard over it."

The Colonel nodded. "The invaders dropped on our world and began tearing apart the soil, claiming to be the followers of the General, but they know nothing of his will. They must be driven off this world."

"So why haven't you beaten them back?" asked Caspian. "They didn't bring a large force with them."

"I'm afraid that will require some explanation," said Elizabeth. "Please, take a seat near the dais." She waved to indicate the rows of chairs, then walked down the aisle to take her place on the stage. Caspian and Amberly followed her, sitting down in the front row. The Colonel reclined casually in her seat, crossing her legs and folding her hands. The image of someone so childlike sitting in such a position was almost comical.

"With all due respect," said Amberly. "You seem rather young to be in command of an SLDF brigade."

"I inherited the position from my husband," Elizabeth said. "Sadly, he was killed a month ago during a raid on the Clan. Now the task of eliminating them falls to me."

"So your rank is hereditary?" asked Caspian.

Elizabeth nodded. "The blood of the Colonel runs in my veins, and so I have taken the mantle until my son comes of age."

Amberly's eyes went wide but she said nothing, choosing to let the Colonel continue.

"The 391st was destined to leave the Inner Sphere during the Great Exodus," she explained. "However, the General was worried. Buried in a cache on this world was a technology of such deadly potential that leaving it to the whims of the Inner Sphere would surely result in disaster. The world was too far from the Exodus's path for it to be secured, and so the General asked for volunteers to go and protect the relic from those who would abuse its power. Our ancestors gave themselves over to the operation, and we have stood guard here ever since."

"And yet you invite us in with open arms," said Caspian.

"It is not typical behavior," Elizabeth agreed. "Nor is it entirely logical. Indeed, there are many who think my actions are reckless and potentially dangerous. However, our present circumstances have forced my hand. This Clan Wolf, as they call themselves, bear weapons that we simply cannot match."

"I know what you mean," said Caspian. "The wolves invaded our homeworld five years ago, attacking us without warning. Our regiment was a light reconnaissance unit, and we didn't have the strength to hold them back. They massacred us. Now they rule over our home like they've always owned it."

"Yet you continue to fight them?" asked the Colonel.

Caspian nodded. "Our regiment fled the system. We haven't heard from them since. Those of us who were left behind have been fighting them ever since, striking them whenever and wherever we can."

"We came here because we intercepted one of their messages," said Amberly. "They mentioned that Kerensky had left something behind on this world, and that they were looking for it."

"We don't know what they're after exactly," said Caspian. "But if the wolves want it, then we want to make sure they don't get it." He smiled. "It looks like we both want the same thing, Colonel."

Elizabeth returned the smile. "I had hoped it would be so. Reverend Jonas assumed that you would be yet another group of people determined to take our relic away from us, but I reasoned that a group like Clan Wolf would create enemies wherever it went. I am glad to see that I was correct. We lack the resources to make a proper assault on their position. What you saw outside is the bulk of our fighting force. Most of our firepower is in stationary positions, such as our partially restored Atlas. Alone, these are insufficient. However, with two additional lances we may stand a chance."

"What about this relic of yours?" asked Amberly. "If it's so powerful, why not use it?"

"Our ancestors did once," Elizabeth replied. "You have witnessed its power firsthand. You saw the dead machines all around us. All of those battlemechs, tanks, aircraft, and the scores of infantry that fought alongside them were wiped out in an instant when the relic was used. Many of our own perished in the flames as well, and we have taken a vow only to use it if all other methods have failed. To even suggest its use is almost heretical."

"So that's what the relic is?" said Amberly. "It's just nukes? Those were a dime a dozen when Kerensky left. Why would he need these ones kept safe?"

"You wish to know the nature of the relic?" asked Elizabeth. "Come. I will show you."

-

Elizabeth led Amberly and Caspian down what felt like an endless series of lifts, descending deeper and deeper underground. Total darkness hovered around the edge of their electric lights and flashlight beams, threatening to swallow them up. The air was cold and stale, filled with the smell of oil and hydraulic fluid. As they descended the final elevator the Colonel began to speak.

"Long ago the Great Houses landed their forces on Christiania II, seeking to claim the relic as their own. The General had taken great care to destroy the records of what the Star League had built here, but not even he could erase everything. They came not knowing what they sought, only that it would grant them power over all the others if they could lay claim to it. At first our ancestors did nothing, simply letting them tear each other apart as they fought for dominance, but the fighting spread ever closer to the relic's hiding place. In time, they were forced to move the relic here, leaving its original site empty. They hoped that the Great Houses, having fought and bled so viciously, would despair and abandon the world upon finding the cache empty. But instead they were made furious, and vented their frustrations on one another all the more. On top of all this, someone had made a critical error, leaving behind evidence that pointed them toward this place. They descended upon us like ravenous vultures, and we deployed all our forces to hold them back. The battle outside was utter chaos. Battle lines dissolved, tactics were abandoned, and soon every man and woman was fighting their own, isolated war. The losses were tremendous. Wave after wave of Successor militaries crashed against our walls and against each other in a battle that raged for days on end. Mercenaries joined the fray, further adding to the absolute confusion. When it became clear that victory was impossible, our Colonel made the fateful decision to use the relic."

The elevator finally reached the bottom, grinding to a halt as its ancient pulleys and gears groaned in protest. Beyond the small illuminated square of the lift there was nothing but a black void. Elizabeth stepped out into it, pointing her flashlight straight ahead. Caspian and Amberly followed close behind her. After a moment she reached a wall, then followed it until a switch appeared out of the gloom. The Colonel pushed the lever upward, and a series of floodlights burst to life with a crash. Caspian shielded his eyes against the harsh light, and as his vision slowly adjusted his breath left him and his jaw fell open. Standing before them was the largest battlemech he had ever seen, an absolute monstrosity of a machine. It stood at nearly twice the size of a Dire Wolf, despite its odd, hunched design. Its footpads were incredibly wide, its legs thicker than a Terran redwood tree. It had ship-scale missile tubes in place of arms, and four impossibly massive cannons extending from its shoulders. Lasers peeked out from its torsos, along with sponson-mounted machine guns dotted all across its body. But what caught Caspian's attention even more than the 'mech itself was the loading rack behind it. It extended upward until it disappeared into the darkness above. The entire structure was loaded with missiles, each one emblazoned with the three triangles that denoted a radioactive payload.

"My god..." Amberly gasped.

"This is the largest remaining store of nuclear weapons in the Inner Sphere," said Elizabeth. "It extends all the way to the surface."

"Incredible," said Caspian. "I had no idea Star League had so many."

"In the final days of the Great Betrayal and the war against the Usurper Amaris, the General was forced to consider many options and contingencies," said Elizabeth. "The campaign in the Terran Hegemony had turned into a slaughter, and many feared that the SLDF lacked the naval power to make the final assault once the SDS network was breached. If Kerensky lost too many ships in the initial assault, he would lack the capital weaponry needed to support his ground troops for the invasion. In the event that the battle for Terra began to go against them, an old concept was revisited and developed into a functional prototype." She waved a hand at the battlemech. "They called it 'Project Apocalypse,' a battle machine that could stride across a world and reduce entire armies to dust with the press of a switch. They sought to take the power of a warship and bring it down to ground level. The Apocalypse is armed with four heavy artillery pieces and six warhead missile tubes. These are capable of firing nuclear missiles both directly and vertically, with an effective range of over a thousand kilometers each, allowing it to strike cities and fortifications from half a continent away. Two lances of Rifleman battlemechs served as its anti-air defense system, as well as a screen against enemy battlemechs. The project reached prototype phase, but was ultimately scrapped. The war ended before it was complete, and the machine was deemed too impractical and expensive, given that its role could just as easily be filled by an existing warship. Without a reason for it to be built, the relic was placed in storage and hidden away, along with all the warheads that had been produced for it. The more detailed records were erased prior to the Exodus, but a few vague mentions still remained in other project files and debriefings."

"And your ancestors actually used it?"

"They had no choice," said Elizabeth. "The Great Houses had nearly breached our defenses, and we could not allow the weapon to fall into their hands. The Star League had found the Apocalypse too difficult to mass produce, and not worth the expense or effort in a world dominated by warships. But the Wars destroyed nearly all of those vessels, and the Successor States would have given anything to have a taste of that kind of power. Had they taken it for themselves, the results would have truly earned the relic its name.

"The Colonel marched the Apocalypse onto the field and fired three warheads, less than a quarter of the machine's total carrying capacity. You have seen the results for yourselves. The Great Houses lost nearly all of their forces in the blast, and having taken such disastrous losses they withdrew. But before they fled they bombarded the entire planet from orbit in order to deny the weapon to their rivals. While we survived the barrage deep in this chamber, Christiania II is now the dead world you have seen on the surface."

Caspian spoke slowly, his gaze fixed on the spectacle before him. "Colonel..." he said. "If I were you, I'd prepare your soldiers for defense."

"Defense?" There was a hint of amusement in her voice. "Captain Muldoon, we are always prepared for defense."

"Not against the Clans," Caspian replied. "You haven't fought them like we have. If what we saw topside really is all that remains of your forces, then you won't stand a chance against them in an assault even with our help."

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "You confuse me," she said. "Did you not come here to fight them?"

"We came here to stop them," said Amberly. "That's not quite the same thing. Our plan was to let them finish their dig, then either steal or destroy whatever they found before it could be used."

"Your brigade's presence threw a spanner in that particular plan," said Caspian. "Obviously the Apocalypse isn't something we want to steal, now that we know what it is, and we can't destroy it either. But we still need to ensure that the Clanners don't get hold of it."

"Then what do you propose as an alternative strategy?" asked the Colonel.

"You let us train your soldiers on how to fight the Clan, teach them their strengths and weaknesses," Caspian replied. "Sooner or later the wolves will reach their destination. If their information comes from the SLDF, then they must still be searching for the original location, the one your ancestors emptied. They believe that everything Kerensky left behind is their divine birthright, and once they see that someone's already taken it, they won't be too pleased about it. They'll tear this planet apart looking for it, and you can bet that the first place they'll turn is here."

Amberly shuddered. "And if they get hold of something like this..."

Caspian nodded. "The entire Inner Sphere is at risk. When they come for you, and they will, you'll need to be ready for them, or else we risk losing everything to their conquest."

Elizabeth took a step back, a hint of fear on her face. "Are their forces really so powerful?"

"They are," Amberly assured her. "But they aren't invincible. We can teach you how to beat them."

"We've been fighting them for five years," said Caspian. "They have definite weaknesses if you know how to exploit them. My mechwarriors are some of the best, and we can keep the Clan off your back until you're ready."

"And how will you do that?" asked Elizabeth. "If I'm not mistaken, they are focused entirely on finding the relic."

"Not for long," said Caspian, a sly grin slithering over his lips. "Trust me. That's Star Colonel Conners out there. Once he sees that Mage Squadron's found his secret operation, he'll lose his cool. We've had a few run-ins in the past. For us this is more than just another operation. It's personal."
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

ThePW

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #37 on: 04 September 2021, 10:40:02 »
Statsplease. Statsplease. Statsplease. Statsplease. Statsplease. Statsplease

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DOC_Agren

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #38 on: 05 September 2021, 18:55:54 »
So we are talking that built this??
Robotech Destroid Monster or MAC II

If so be just like Kerensky to leave something like this behind if he could not take it with him, and convince a group of his most loyal followers to go sit on it until we come back.

I fear they have become the "Lost Knights of Kerensky" operating from this bunker/monastery with the aging Royal Steads slowly dying after all these years.  If they survive this, someone who cares might want to let it be known to Brotherhood of Randis, they at least could help this people on the terms they would understand.
"For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast, And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed:And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill, And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!"

ThePW

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Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #40 on: 08 September 2021, 16:43:08 »
So we are talking that built this??
Robotech Destroid Monster or MAC II

If so be just like Kerensky to leave something like this behind if he could not take it with him, and convince a group of his most loyal followers to go sit on it until we come back.

I fear they have become the "Lost Knights of Kerensky" operating from this bunker/monastery with the aging Royal Steads slowly dying after all these years.  If they survive this, someone who cares might want to let it be known to Brotherhood of Randis, they at least could help this people on the terms they would understand.

That is exactly what I had in mind when I described the Apocalypse. Glad you got the reference!
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #41 on: 08 September 2021, 16:43:53 »
Terrence Kerensky was furious yet again. It was hardly a surprised. As he stormed into Damian's office the young governor regarded him with a brief glance up from the map spread out before him. Terrence slammed a fist down on his desk.

"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. "Freebirths are invading my barracks on your orders! My warriors cannot be quartered this way! This is nothing short of an insult to my command! I hereby challenge you to a trial of-"

"Calm yourself, Star Captain," said Damian firmly. "This outrage is needless. You know as well as I that Lothan has been wracked by the viruses we brought with us from the Core Worlds. The vaccines have been slow to arrive and the hospitals are overrun with patients." He handed Terrence a slip of paper. "I must apologize. Ordinarily I would have had my secretary deliver this to you, but she is indisposed. These are your relocation orders."

Terrence snatched the paper away from Damian and silently read its contents. His thick scowl slowly softened, and he glanced up at Damian. "You are moving my warriors here, to the citadel?"

"Security around this building must be strengthened, given the recent attack," Damian replied. "Your warriors have proven themselves to be the most capable under my command, and you the most skilled commander at my disposal. Therefore, the protection of my person and this facility will be your responsibility. Should you perform your duties well, I shall mention your capacity to the Star Colonel."

"I..." Terrence hesitated. "This is a tremendous amount of trust you have just placed in me."

"Indeed," said Damian. "But it is not misplaced. You have shown incredible stubbornness, this is true, but you have also shown me an intense loyalty to the Clan and its way of life. There is no one I would rather have protecting this place. Again, I apologize for what happened at the barracks. My intent was to inform you ahead of time. I have decided to use the barracks as temporary housing for patients that the hospitals cannot treat. Our medical staff will run a clinic there while your warriors are quartered here. I have had my staff prepare a series of rooms for use as quarters. I am certain that you will find them adequate."

Terrence raised an eyebrow, a smile almost daring to appear on his face. "You have given my binary a position of honor," he replied. "I had not expected this, not after our... disagreement."

"I did not come to Lothan to make enemies," said Damian. "We have enough of those already. I would have you on my side, if at all possible. Your skills will be invaluable in dealing with Mage Squadron once and for all."

Terrence stood a little taller, his chest visibly swelling. Damian returned the smile. Men like Terrence were prideful, often arrogant, but useful so long as their egos were stroked regularly. Terrence nodded his head slightly.

"I take it you have a strategy, then?" he said.

"I always have," Damian replied. "But now that your role in it has grown, I will tell you more. Mage Squadron has managed to evade capture for five long years, despite the best efforts of numerous star captains. This is because they have a deeply entrenched network of allies among the populace feeding them information and equipment while covering their tracks. They use these people as shields, knowing we will not harm them unless we have no other choice. Truly a coward's tactic, but not an invincible one. Their fate rests in the court of public opinion. Without the support of the common people, their capacity to wage war will disappear."

"And what do you intend to do about it?" asked Terrence.

"I intend to reveal Mage Squadron for the murderous scum that they are," Damian replied. "I will lay their sins bare before the public and let them decide for themselves."

"We have tried propaganda before," said Terrence. "The freebirths are resistant to words, no matter how true they may be."

"That is because they have been fed lies from the Great Houses for generations," said Damian. "Like a poison, the body eventually builds a resistance to lies over time. Rasalhague is not a place of blind trust. They require proof, firsthand experience. This is what I shall provide them. Our strategy is twofold. First, I have discovered Mage Squadron's contact within the Citadel. You will apprehend and question him. Second, take a look at this map." He spun the old, paper print around to face Terrence, then began pointing to locations on its surface. "This is the Havrodskr River. When the Mages attacked us, two of their men were cast into the river. Doubtless they are now making their way back on foot. I have calculated the most likely path, given the local terrain. You will place an outpost along this route, lightly manned."

"Capture them as they return," said Terrence with a nod. "Assuming they survived, of course."

"The locals are a hardy people," said Damian. "But you are not to capture them."

"Neg?" asked Terrence.

Damian shook his head and handed him a datapad. "Neg. You are to ensure that they find this. There is false intelligence on this pad that Mage Squadron will act upon. When they do, we will be waiting."

"An ambush?" Terrence frowned. "That is... dezgra."

"Mage Squadron itself is dezgra," said Damian. "We must not be afraid to wield the full might of our Clan against those who do not yet see the wisdom of our ways. The Founder understood this, even as he undertook Operation Klondike. We must face Mage Squadron on their own terms, best them at their own sport. Otherwise they will only continue to slip through our fingers."

"I understand," said Terrence. "Perhaps Conners's faith in you was not as misplaced as I thought."

Damian bowed his head respectfully. "Make the facade as convincing as you can, Star Captain. They must not suspect any hint of deception."

"It will be done," said Terrence. "With your permission, I will take my leave."

Damian nodded. "Permission granted. I leave the operation in your hands."

As Terrence left the room Damian turned and gazed out the window at the city, his hand slipping absently into his pocket to grasp the receipt there. He was closing in now. He could feel it. He had personally retrieved the security footage that showed Timothy's trip to the Ultra-Mart. He had stood in an aisle, spoken with one man, purchased a book, then left. Ordinarily the transaction would have been trivial, except that the man he had spoken to was a member of the Citadel's staff. His name was Roger Grossman, and Terrence Kerensky would soon have him in custody. The information he possessed would be invaluable, and he would make a perfect example for the rest of the public. Damian would make it clear that those who lived their lives decently and quietly would be rewarded, and those who gave aid to the terrorists would be punished. If all went well, public opinion would soon swing in his favor. All he needed to do now was wait and hope that his reading of Timothy was correct.

Timothy's file had said that he was young, an orphan whose parents had both died during the invasion. They had been civilians, but a stray missile had reduced them both to ashes as they tried to flee the city. Damian had felt deep regret while reading the file. Such deaths were needless, the very thing that the Clan's code of honor strove to eliminate, but the Kungsarmè had been stationed in the city, assuming that it was the Clan's objective. The fighting had been swift and bloody, and in the end the Rasalhague garrison had been driven out with little effort. But they had not been the only casualties. Stories like Timothy's were far too common, and many of Lothan's youth had been forced to grow up without their parents. Now Timothy was a young idealist with a burning hatred of Clan Wolf. Men like him tended to act without thinking, moving on instinct rather than reason. If he had survived his trip down the Havrodskr, he would be the perfect vector for the intel Damian planned to set before him. He would find the information, assume it was accurate, and not think twice about carrying it back to his comrades. It would mark Mage Squadron's first big mistake, and it was certain to cost them their support. Now it was time to sit back and await the results.

Damian leaned against the window sill, a smile creeping across his face. He felt a well if contented happiness well up from within. Conners would be please with him, Terrence had been appeased, and Mage Squadron would soon be out of the picture. He had an esteemed posting on a beautiful world and a lovely young woman as a near constant companion. It was all any man could ever desire. He would have preferred a combat role, a true warrior's posting, but he couldn't deny that his present position had its own advantages. All he needed to do was see this task through to the end. And after that? Things could only improve further.

-

Garrett scanned the treetops around him, then cast his gaze down to the ground. The Elemental snarled to himself as his scans revealed nothing. After hours of marching and jumping his way through the forests around Fradvisk he still couldn't detect a single trace of his prey. Elaine landed beside him, touching down gracefully as she completed her jump. Garret looked at her expectantly.

"Anything?"

"Neg," said Elaine. "The undergrowth is too thick. It interferes with my sensors."

"I have no shortage of contacts," said Hobart, who stood nearby with his weapons held ready. "The wildlife give off identical traces. Obscured by the brush, they are indistinguishable from a human."

"Keep searching," said Garrett. "The battlemech tracks lead in this direction. The Mages are close. I can feel them watching us."

"I wish they would come out and fight us," said Patrice, then added as she jumped in to join the rest of her point, "Their cowardice nauseates me. They hide away like cockroaches, scattering the moment a threat appears."

"Patience, sibkin," said Torrid as he emerged from a nearby thicket toward the rear. "We shall find them soon enough. They may be swift, but they cannot outrun a point of battle armor."

Garrett fired his jump jets and leaped into the air, the rest of his warriors following close behind him. As they landed he saw a heat signature behind one the trees beneath him. He ignored the trace. After all the false alarms he had seen throughout the evening, he had come to dismiss such signals as nothing more than local fauna. His attention returned to it swifty when a beam of burning red laser light shot past him, vaporizing the torso of Elaine as she flew beside him. She cried out, but only for a moment. Her armor, now flying without a mind to control its descent, spun out of control and slammed into the ground with shocking force. As the rest of the point landed they were already opening fire. The figure that had fired the shot had moved, however, and their attack was only rewarded by another shot from the undergrowth. Torrid fell as his entire left side melted away, howling with agonized rage.

Garrett saw the attacker now, a burly man with a laser weapon slung over his shoulder. This he cast aside, pulling a knife from his belt. Garrett blinked in disbelief. Did he intend to fight him in hand-to-hand combat? In the brief moment of distraction he almost didn't see the battlemech signature appear on his radar display. A reactor was powering up nearby. Garrett cursed and raised his arm to gun the man down and move on, but a missile came sailing by on his left, forcing him to jump away. As he did, Patrice followed, firing her heavy machine gun at the man with the laser, who had thrown himself to the ground to present a smaller target. Her rounds shredded the earth around him, and scored a grazing hit on his arm, but failed to hit anything vital.

Hobart had jumped in a different direction, searching for the source of the missile, only to leap straight into the path of a Fireball as it lunged out of the trees. Its arm lashed out and its hand actuator opened, then slammed shut around Hobart's helm, trapping him in its grip. Hobart fired his laser at the battlemech, trying to rip himself free with his claw, but even as he struggled the Fireball simply tightened its grip until the helmet gave way, crushing the Elemental's skull. The armor went limp, and the Fireball dropped it to the ground like an unwanted toy it had grown bored of playing with.

Garrett raised his arm and fired a blast from his small PPC, striking the 'mech dead center. It staggered from the blow, but planted its footpads and returned fire with a pair of missiles. Garrett completed his jump and immediately began another, this time flying left to avoid the incoming fire. Patrice tried to follow, but didn't have the distance required to make it. The missiles impacted her, damaging her armor and sending her tumbling off her feet. Garrett shot the Fireball again, this time catching its left arm. Shards of armor blew away as the weapon punched through, and the battlemech withdrew into the cover of the trees.

Patrice tried to rise, but even as she placed her arm beneath her a woman emerged from the bushes, a strange rod held in her hands. Patrice brought up her machine guns and fired a burst, but the woman had already charged in too close. The shots went wide, and the attacker thrust the rod into the armpit joint of the battle armor. Patrice groaned as an electric shock coursed through her body. Warnings and error messages flooded her HUD, and the armor suddenly became impossibly heavy as it lost power. Patrice couldn't move. She tried to restart the power armor, but it refused to accept her commands.

The woman crouched over her, an arrogant sneer on her face as she patted the armor's visor and said, "That's for Timothy. Sit tight, big fella. I'll be back." With that, she turned and disappeared back into the undergrowth.

Garrett threw himself at at the first man, swinging his steel-clad arm like a club. He brought the limb crashing down, and his target lifted a thick tree branch from the ground and held it like a staff. He tried to sweep the attack away, but the branch shattered in his hands. The strike landed on his left shoulder, and Garrett smiled to himself as he felt the bones break. The man fell onto his back, clutching his arm. Garrett raised a foot to crush him, but the man had enough sense left to roll out of the way. The Elemental's sensors chirped out a warning, and he jumped back as a burst of heavy machine gun fire tore through the space he had just occupied. The Fireball had reemerged from the trees, and it sprinted straight for him, blasting away with every weapon it had. Garrett fired his shoulder-mounted missiles at the machine, but its pilot seemed to expect the attack. It dashed to one side with a surprisingly human amount of grace and continued its charge unabated.

Garrett planted his feet, raised his PPC, and took aim for the Fireball's left knee. It was a nearly impossible shot, but decades of training and battle experience had made the action feel effortless. But just as he fired the Fireball leaped into the air, not on jump jets but with a mighty thrust of its legs. It bounded upward, jumping over the blast of supercharged particles, then slammed its footpads down into the ground less than a meter away from Garrett. The ground shook and he stumbled, and as he tried to jump to safety the battlemech swung its arm, catching him in the side and sending him careening into the trunk of a young oak tree. He fell to the ground, stunned. As the Fireball stood over him it raised its fists, preparing to bring them crashing down to finish the Elemental off he managed to raise his weapon in a final act of defiance, then the fists descended and his world went dark.

Gordon wiped his hand across his brow, briefly forgetting his motion tracking gloves. The Fireball mimicked his movement, nearly slapping its own cockpit. Gordon switched off the trace system and took a deep breath, then pulled the latch on the canopy and climbed out of his 'mech, hopping down to the ground. He fell to his knees as he felt suddenly dizzy. He pulled off the neurohelmet and tried to breathe slowly, suppressing the urge to vomit. The Fireball was a fast-moving machine, one that offered nearly unprecedented control, but the load on the pilot's balance centers was extraordinary. Leaving the 'mech too quickly after such exertion felt like slipping out of your own skin, and the disorientation of having to become reacquainted with one's own body could be overwhelming.

Ashley rushed to Gordon's side, kneeling by him and slipping an arm under his shoulders. Gordon shook his head and pushed her away. "Hugo," he croaked. "Help... Hugo..."

Ashley nodded and ran to where Hugo had fallen. He had managed to get back up on his feet, and he was now staggering toward her, one hand clinging to his arm that now dangled loosely from its socket. Ashley sat him down and took the injured limb in her hands. Hugo hissed and shut his eyes tight, then snarled as he bit down on his tongue.

"Argh! Dammit, don't touch it!" He gasped a few breaths as Ashley released him.

"That doesn't look good," she said.

"I think the whole joint is shattered," Hugo replied. "Don't think they'll be able to fix it this time. This arm's done."

"Damn," Ashley snarled. "That was way too close. If they send another squad of those things after us, I don't think we'll be able to stop them."

"We need to get moving," said Hugo. "They'll know where we are now that their troops have dropped out of contact. We'll have to get to the secondary base camp."

"That's over fifteen kilometers from here," said Ashley. "We'll never make it on foot."

"Then we'll have to ride the Fireball," said Hugo. "Get Gordon up. Let's make tracks, now. We can worry about the arm later."

"What about the Elemental I disabled?"

Hugo shrugged with his good shoulder. "Leave him there. At this point he'll just want us to kill him. It's a lot more painful for them if you let them live to get rescued by their comrades. Hurts their pride."
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

 

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