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Title: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 07 April 2021, 08:32:32
The surface of Christiania II was a barren wasteland, a vast landscape of dead ground. It had once been a beautiful world, as its hosts of withered trees and dried riverbeds could attest, but now all signs of life had long since disappeared. What had once been a fertile field of golden barley was now a dusty expanse of sun-choked soil, driven by the ever-present winds into a howling storm of scouring brown clouds. The land was scarred with craters and wide ditches where the horrible bombardments of war had ravaged the earth, and every few miles the crumbling remains of buildings stood like grave markers. The devastation was pervasive, but neither the dismal scenery nor the relentless gale could slow the progress of the pair of warriors who marched across the crust of the broken world.

Star Colonel Horace Conners braced himself, forcing his way through the driving wind as he wiped his goggles clean for what felt like the millionth time. He and his aide had been on the march for nearly five hours, and the grueling pace had begun to affect the middle-aged commander. Coming to the surface personally had been unnecessary, but he had insisted, wishing to see the world from his years of research firsthand. Now he wished he had stayed aboard his ship. The atmosphere of Christiania II had been depleted, letting stellar radiation through that made instruments unreliable. The only way to find the location described in the texts was via landmarks, and most of them had disappeared during the years of orbital bombardment this planet had suffered. Conners groaned silently to himself. His back ached immensely, an ailment that had begun to afflict him regularly, but he refused to show any signs of how much it bothered him. Such displays were a sign of weakness, and a Clan warrior never showed weakness. He quietly followed after Damian, the soft-spoken soldier who carried the navigational equipment. Damian's gazed shifted constantly, flicking from a datapad in his hands to the horizon and back again as he consulted his charts.

"What is our position?" asked Conners.

"94.738 by 165.334," he replied, his gentle voice barely audible above the wind. He then turned back toward Conners and smiled reassuringly. "We are less than a kilometer southeast of the target area. We will arrive shortly."

"Neg," said Conners. He pulled a set of binos from his belt and began to scan the horizon. "The ground is almost completely flat ahead," he said. "There will be nothing to see. It will be buried, just as the texts describe."

Damian nodded. "Precise coordinates were not provided," he said. "Our search shall encompass a nearly ten square kilometer area. Whatever the Founder buried here, he wished it to remain hidden. May I ask a question, quiaff?"

Conners glanced at Damian. The soldier was still young, gifted but inexperienced. Always eager to learn, he had a habit of driving hardened warriors crazy with his constant inquiries. Conners didn't find the young man annoying, but rather enjoyed his energy and enthusiasm. He nodded and said, "What is on your mind?"

"If the Founder always intended for us to return, why did he take such lengths to inhibit us? Could he not have left us more precise instructions?"

"The answer lies all around you," Conners replied. He waved a hand, indicating the wasteland around them. "When the Founder's men left this world it was lush, verdant, teeming with life. Look at it now. See how the savages of the Inner Sphere destroyed it all with their stubbornness and greed. They do not fight like you and I, Damian. They do not understand the tragedy of war, the wastefulness of their ways. To us, violence is a tool of precision, a finely honed blade for use only where it is needed. To the barbarians it is a blunt object, to be hurled about as carelessly as one might a stone. The innocent, the weak, and the helpless all suffer as powerful men treat war as a plaything. Imagine what these people would do had they ever found the words of Kerensky, what terrible deeds they would use his weapons to commit. No, the Founder in his infinite wisdom concealed these items, ensuring that only those with the strength of mind to understand his words could find what he had left behind. Far better that we struggle a little than millions die from a weapon that should have remained hidden."

Damian cast his gaze around him, then pulled the goggles and mask from his face, revealing a pair of vibrant green eyes. He wiped at his cheek with the back of his hand as he contemplated Conners's words. After several moments he replied, "It is a wonder that anything remains after so many years of needless bloodshed. Is there any hope for them, quiaff?"

"There is," said Conners. "But first they must be brought in line, their minds turned to our way of thinking. Only through subjugation can we save them from themselves."

"Subjugation?" Damian echoed. "What of our agreement? The Clans vowed to cease their invasion. We cannot break that oath."

"We will not have to," said Conners. "A treaty binds in both directions. The Inner Sphere will not sit idly by as we convert our holdings. One day they will violate the truce in a vain attempt to reclaim what we have rightfully conquered. When that day comes, they shall be met with untold retribution, and this time we will not be so easily goaded into staying our hand. What we find here will be one step among many, Damian, a vital part of a greater whole. This world will grant us power the likes of which no one has wielded in over two hundred years." He smiled beneath his face covering. "Place the beacon. We will begin our excavations immediately."

Damian saluted, then removed his pack. Unzipping the primary compartment, he removed a large transmitter and placed it on the ground. After a moment of twisting dials and pressing switches a light on its side began to pulse rythmycally. Damian drew himself up and addressed the star colonel. "It is done," he said.

Conners nodded his approval, then cast his gaze upward, searching for signs of their dropship. After a few moments he caught a glimpse of the engines burning somewhere above the swirling clouds of sand. The ship descended cautiously, following the beacon as the irradiated plains and storms wreaked havoc on its instruments. Conners watched them approach with satisfaction. Soon he would be aboard and the excavation crews would begin their work. Once their task was complete he would be a hero, worthy even of a place in the Remembrance. Now it was only a matter of time.

What Star Colonel Conners didn't know was that his men weren't the only ones to pick up the beacon's signal. Somewhere in a high orbit, far above the surface, a small craft caught the transmission. A moment later it turned, as if it had been awaiting this very sign, and flew away into the deep void of space.

-

The day began with the ringing of a bell. Eddie's Electronics had an old, metal instrument that dangled just above the front door of the storefront, an ironically low-tech device for a place that prided itself on its inventory of cutting-edge consumer goods. The bell rang when Eddie opened the store, and it would continue to ring each time a customer entered. It was a pleasant sound, and Eddie had always held a fondness for the traditions and mannerisms of ancient Terra. While his shelves were stocked with the most innovative gadgets the Inner Sphere could offer, his windows were made of genuine glass, his register was an antique with physical keys and a mechanical calculator, and even the music that played over his old stereo system was from a bygone era. The store was located in one of Lothan's oldest buildings, a structure that had been constructed when the planet had first been colonized centuries before. It had been in Eddie's family for generations, and he ran his business with pride. It was a time capsule, a place that never changed despite the upheaval of the times. It had weathered decades of occupation by House Steiner and Kurita alike, and even now it carried on. Every day began with the ringing of the bell, a subtle reminder that life carried on as it always had, no matter whose banner flew over the Citadel.

The little bell chimed again, but this time Eddie didn't find the sound pleasing. It heralded the arrival of three men, one tall and commanding and the other two muscle-bound giants. Star Captain Albrecht Radick marched directly to the counter, leaving his two elementals to stand guard by the door. They placed themselves directly before it, turning away the only other customer as he tried to exit. The man quietly withdrew to the corner of the store, keeping his head down as he pretended to examine the merchandise. Radick placed a hand on the counter, scowling at Eddie as he slammed a small, rectangular polymer box down on its surface.

"Eddie Jorgensen," he snarled in a low voice.

Eddie met his gaze, his blood frozen as the captain stared into his eyes. He struggled to keep his voice steady as he replied. "Can I help you, sir?"

Radick ignored the question. "What sort of business do you purport to run here, freebirth?" he asked.

Eddie took a moment before responding, unsure of what answer the Clanner was after. "...This is an electronics store," he said. "It... says that on the sign, right?"

Radick's eyes narrowed. "You insult my intelligence."

"No, no!" said Eddie, raising his hands to placate him. "I'm just not sure what you're asking. Tell me what you need, and I'll see if I can make it happen for you."

One of the elementals took a step forward. "This one's speech is vulgar. Shall I teach him to speak properly, quiaff?"

"Neg, that will not be necessary," Radick replied, leaning over the counter until his nose was a hair's breadth away from Eddie's. His tone was icy as he continued. "Perhaps you require a reminder, Eddie Jorgensen. I passed through your..." He paused as he scanned the room, wrinkling his nose as he spat out the next word. "...establishment... two days ago. You recall, quiaff?"

"Y-yes," said Eddie, stepping back from the star captain's glare. "I remember. You bought a laserdisc recorder and a box of discs, said you wanted to record audio reports or something."

Radick smiled venomously. "You remember. Good. Then perhaps you can explain this." He lifted his hand off of the box he had placed on the counter, revealing the remains of the recorder. It was in shambles, a jumble of shattered components, as if someone had taken it apart and tried to shove the parts back into place with brute force. "What do you make of that?"

"Well, looks like you broke it," said Eddie. "Would you like to buy another one?"

Radick sharply threw back his head and laughed, making Eddie jump. His loud voice boomed through the shop, lasting for several seconds before he stopped himself short and glared even harder. "You have a lot of nerve, freebirth. I will grant you that. First you sell me a defective product, then you try to profit off of me for a second time." His hand lashed out, catching Eddie's shirt collar. Radick hauled him across the countertop with surprising strength and speed, then pressed their foreheads together, forcing him to make eye contact. "Now you listen to me, Eddie Jorgensen," he snarled. "My predecessors were far too kind to you freebirths. They let you run wild, swindling and backstabbing the esteemed men and women of Clan Wolf, but this sort of rebellious attitude will cease as long as I am in command here. I know you sold me a broken device on purpose. It is your quiet form of protest, your own private little insurgency, and it ends today. Your people are conquered, Eddie Jorgensen, and you will accept it."

He snapped his fingers, and one of the elementals moved to his side. The giant took a holovid player off the shelf and held it in his massive hands, then without so much as a squint to show any sign of exertion he snapped it in two. He carelessly let the pieces fall to the floor, then took a mobile transmitter from the wall and broke it over his knee.

"Stop it!" Eddie begged, flailing in Radick's iron grip. "What do you want from me?"

"What do I want?" Radick echoed. "I want an end to your pitiful little displays of 'patriotism.' I want every last freebirth to know that they are subjugated, and that I will not be as tolerant of their actions as those who came before me. You will all learn your place, and you will-"

"Excuse me."

Radick whirled around to fix his gaze on the man who had interrupted him. The stranger had moved away from the corner and now stood a few feet from the counter, a case of U batteries in his hand.

"How dare you interrupt!" Radick exclaimed.

The man smiled innocently and held up the batteries. "I'm ready to check out. Do you think you could hold off on jackbooting the cashier for a minute?"

Radick dropped Eddie to the floor, then took a menacing step toward the stranger. "Are you daft?" he asked. "Surely you must know who I am. I will not endure such disrespect!"

"Star Captain Albrecht Radick, right?" he replied. "New boss in town, commander of the local cluster?"

Radick froze, his anger giving way to confusion as he tried to understand his lack of fear. "Aff..." he said slowly.

The man nodded. "Yeah. Look, I've seen all this before. You're, what, the tenth man to have this post since the invasion? Must be tough. I hear the position is cursed. Everyone who had it before you died, you know." He glanced down at the floor. "You alright down there, Eddie?"

"I am not like the other men," Radick began, sneering.

"Oh, I don't doubt it," the man interrupted calmly. "If you were anywhere near as qualified as they were, the Clan would've put you in charge first, not waited until after nine other attempts." He glanced at the remains of the recorder and nodded again. "Ah, I see your problem there. Looks like somebody dropped it and tried to fix it themselves. You know there's a warranty, right? If you'd just brought it back Eddie could've replaced it for free, but tinkering with the thing voids it."

The elemental moved like lightning, his massive hands snatching the man's shoulders and lifting him off his feet. Radick sneered as he circled him, like a leopard examining his next meal. "You will show me proper deference, freebirth," he said. "What is your name?"

"Muldoon," the stranger replied with a pained smile. "Caspian Muldoon." He looked at the elemental holding him and raised an eyebrow. "And what's your name, big fella? Kujo? Rover? King Kong?"

"Be silent!" growled the giant before turning his head to look at Radick. "He uses his tongue with such impudence. I wish to remove it before he abuses it further."

Radick held up a hand, silencing his bodyguard. He stepped in close, staring deep into Caspian's face. "You intrigue me, Muldoon," he said. "You refuse to fear me. Why is that?"

"Can't be afraid of a dead man walking," Caspian replied. "There's rumors floating around that the Mages have marked you for death. If they're true, then you're living on borrowed time, my friend."

"The Mages?" said Radick, his smile widening into a sickening grin. "I do not fear terrorists. They wouldn't dare lay a hand on me."

Caspian chuckled, wincing as the elemental's fingers dug deep into his skin. "Funny," he said. "I hear that's exactly what the last nine star captains said. Well, good luck catching them before they get to you. The last one made it a whole week. Tell me, Star Captain, how long do you think you'll last?"

"Drop him!" Radick barked. His bodyguard obeyed, and Caspian fell to the floor in a graceless heap. Radick took hold of his shirt and hauled him into a seated position, then slapped him fiercely with the back of his hand. "Listen to me, Muldoon, if that is indeed your true name. I suggest that you go and speak with whoever is telling you these 'rumors.' I want the Mages to know that the more they struggle, the harder life will become for their people. I will be neither as lenient nor as merciful as those who came before me. I will crush any resistance beneath my heel! You will learn to respect me, as will everyone else in this city of primitives!"

"Wait!" Eddie pulled himself up onto his feet, his hands raised. "I'll replace your recorder, free of charge! That's what you wanted, wasn't it? There's no need for any of this. Take it!"

Radick grinned in triumph as he dropped Caspian back onto the floor. "You see, Muldoon?" he said. "Things become so much easier when you cooperate with us. Jorgensen understands this. You could learn much from him." He turned to Eddie and nodded. "A replacement will suffice. Have it delivered to my office by 1700 hours. Turin, Jabesh, we are finished here. Come along." The three men left the shop, their exit confirmed by the ringing of the bell.

Caspian pulled himself up, nursing his swollen jaw. Eddie came to his side, helping him stand. "Are you alright?" he asked.

Caspian scowled at him. "You shouldn't have caved to him like that."

"You saw those monsters that were with him," Eddie protested. "They would've snapped you in half!"

Caspian shook his head. "Clanners don't kill civilians. It goes against their code of honor."

Eddie shook his head. "You've got some serious balls, mister. I've never seen anyone with enough guts to bring up Mage Squadron in front of a star captain. Is it true they've marked him?"

"How should I know?" Caspian replied with a wink. "I'm just an average man looking to buy some batteries. I don't know what Mage Squadron is planning. All I know that in about ten seconds Radick is going to be getting into his car with his two elemental bodyguards. I hear accidents are on the rise right now. He should have them drive carefully."

The second he finished his sentence there was a sudden burst of flame in the street. An explosion rocked the store, rattling the window panes. Eddie looked outside to see a burning tire roll lazily past the door. His eyes went wide and he looked back at Caspian. "W-was that...?" he stammered

Caspian smiled, seemingly oblivious to what had just happened. He simply placed the item in his hand on the counter and said, "How much for this here pack of U batteries, Eddie?"
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
Post by: Brother Jim on 07 April 2021, 17:37:24
Tracking.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
Post by: Middcore on 07 April 2021, 22:48:33
Interested.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
Post by: ThePW on 07 April 2021, 23:11:43
Helm. Station keeping.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
Post by: snakespinner on 08 April 2021, 01:25:09
Interesting. :thumbsup:
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
Post by: Artifex on 08 April 2021, 16:45:41
I wonder how much Wolf Watch is rotating at the moment, seeing as there just went the tenth Star Captain in his position as steward of a planet for Clan Wolf ...
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
Post by: Ttw1 on 09 April 2021, 02:24:15
I was gonna embed some IRA music to go with the car bombing, but you can't embed yt videos, so I'll just link them instead.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kINLxNxTMJ0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7woEXovruc
Title: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 12 April 2021, 07:46:08
Conners sat with his hands folded neatly on the surface of his desk, patiently waiting for Oberth to complete his report. Oberth was a merchant, not a warrior, and his entire demeanor showed that he was perfectly suited to the role. He had a habit of smiling, regardless of whether or not one was justified. His figure was clean-cut and handsome, yet noticeably artificial. Conners had never liked him. The way his eyes moved about a little too quickly, how he maintained an unnervingly cheery tone at all times, and the flashy nature of his dress irritated the star colonel. Even so, he knew better than to antagonize Oberth. The merchant was in charge of Lothan's finances and trade, and he held the keys to the banks. Their profitable relationship with the neighboring Clan Ghost Bear was owed almost exclusively to his skills of negotiation.

"There is no reason to be concerned," Oberth was saying. "I can assure you that the situation is well in hand. Our income from last month's lucrative exchange with Clan Smoke Jaguar has dwarfed any losses incurred by the activities of Mage Squadron. They are insignificant, Star Colonel, nothing more than a minor annoyance."

"Perhaps to the Merchant Caste," replied Conners. "But the Mages have never been interested in your sphere of influence. I, on the other hand, have lost ten star captains to this world, and not in an honorable battle but as victims of sabotage and assassination. When Boris Kerensky was killed two years ago I instructed you and his replacement to bring Mage Squadron to justice. That task has not been completed. Do you mean to tell me that the reason for your failure is nothing more than apathy?"

"Ah..." Oberth nervously ran a hand through his hair. "Neg, of course not, Star Colonel. Rest assured, we have made every effort to apprehend these insurgents. However, they have proven difficult to find. They hide among the populace, using civilians as camouflage. Once they strike, they disappear without a trace. They have struck nearly every city on the planet. One day they will ambush a patrol in Fradvisk, the next they destroy a warehouse in Yamaruk, on the other side of the world. We assume that they are based somewhere in orbit, yet we have been unable to determine how they are moving between there and the surface without being detected."

"And so my men continue to die honorless deaths at their hands," said Conners. "I am responsible for this sector of Clan Wolf's holdings. I have met with success at every turn except here. Lothan is the ever-present thorn in my side. Perhaps I have taken the wrong approach to removing it. I believe it is time to take more direct control over the situation." He motioned to Damian, who had been standing dutifully by his side. "I am placing my protegè in charge of Lothan. He will direct all operations there under my direct supervision."

Oberth's cheery facade cracked for a moment. "Sir... Are you in earnest? Would it not be wiser to send someone more... qualified?"

Conners's eyes narrowed. "Do you question my judgement, Oberth?"

"Neg, Star Colonel," Oberth sputtered. "I am certain that he is quite skilled, but surely a situation such as Lothan requires an officer with more experience."

"Damian is young, this is true," said Conners. "But he will do his duty. As for his experience, well..." he smiled humorlessly. "I challenge you to tell me what advantages Albrecht Radick's experience lended him. I have tried and failed to gain control of this world through conventional means. I must now consider other options." He turned to Damian. "What say you?"

"I will do as you wish," Damian replied.

"And how do you propose to solve the problem of Mage Squadron?" asked Oberth, his tone betraying a hint of disdain. "Tighter sanctions, more security checkpoints, the usual?"

"I hardly think those approaches have been successful," said Damian in his characteristically gentle voice. "The Mages clearly have the support of the populace. That is their one true advantage, their hiding place. If we take it away from them, they will be exposed. The more we tighten our grip on Lothan, the more the people will lend their aid to the insurgents." He glanced at Conners and smiled. "We must turn them to our way of thinking, show them the benefits of Clan rule in practical terms, in ways that affect their everyday lives. We will be their source of safety, stability, and comfort. Mage Squadron will be the sowers of chaos, disruptors and terrorists. If we can achieve that, the people will become our weapon."

"And you think they will be so easily swayed?" Oberth scoffed.

"People are fickle, Oberth," Damian replied. "There is nothing more predictable in the annals of history than the desires of a population. Grant them food and shelter and they will follow your every command without question. The empires of ancient Terra understood this fact. I intend to demonstrate that Clan Wolf does as well."

-

"What the hell were you thinking, Caspian?"

Caspian glanced up from the half-loaded pistol magazine in his lap as Amberly Grimmsdottir stormed into the galley of the Björngröng. Amberly was a woman with a reserved appearance and her face rarely changed expressions, but Caspian could tell by the way her brow furrowed slightly and her hazel eyes burned through him that she was furious. He braced himself, leaning back in his seat as he awaited her scolding tirade. The rest of the crew quietly carried on with their meals, keeping their heads low to avoid the incoming fire.

"You walked right up to the star captain, made a big scene, and even gave him your actual name?" Amberly continued. "Are you trying to get yourself killed? Do you have any idea what could've happened?"

Caspian set his magazine on the table and crossed his arms, pursing his lips as he replied, "What are you on about, Lieutenant? You needed a distraction and I gave you one. I think that deserves a little gratitude, and I've yet to hear you say 'thank you.'"

"I'll thank you if you stop putting everyone's lives at risk with your overdramatic stunts!" Amberly shot back. "Christ, Caspian, you used your actual name! What if the bomb hadn't killed him, or one of his elementals had survived the blast?"

"Oh, please," Caspian snorted. "Our identity isn't exactly a secret, Amberly. We're on wanted posters everywhere from here to Susquehanna. If they haven't figured out who we are by now, then we haven't been making a big enough impression. One simple glance at the duty rosters the 2nd Kavallerie left behind would put them in the ballpark. Besides, if any of them had survived I would've just shot them in the head anyway."

"Then you're lucky he didn't recognize your name," said Amberly. "If he'd decided to arrest you, you'd have been sitting in the car when the bomb went off." She flopped heavily into the seat across from him, resting her forehead in her hand as her tone softened slightly. "You're going to be the death of me, sir. You know that, right? Can't you be even a little careful? Maybe put your ego aside for five minutes and just let an operation play out like it's supposed to?"

Caspian looked into her eyes for a few moments, but dropped his gaze as he felt his ears begin to burn. She was right, as usual. He sighed heavily and returned to loading his magazine, avoiding eye contact. "I'm sorry," he said meekly. "It's just... He was strongarming a local, throwing his weight around. You know how much that pisses me off. It's what I hate the most about the Clanners, the way they all act so high and mighty, like they're somehow better than us. I let my temper get the better of me."

Amberly shook her head and reached out across the table, taking hold of his wrist and getting him to look at her. "I know. Just... try and break the habit, alright, Captain? I don't want to have to try and fill your boots." She smiled with one corner of her mouth. "How's the jaw?"

Caspian returned the smile, relieved to see her anger fading. He had known Amberly since before the Clans invaded. She had been part of his scout lance back when they served in the Kungsarmè only a few years prior. She was careful, methodical, and practical, the perfect second in command to balance his impulsive bravado. Forming Mage Squadron from the survivors of the 2nd Kavallerie had been his idea, but she had done most of the logistical work to turn his plan into a reality. While their differences often caused them to butt heads, Caspian valued her opinion and always felt guilty when he upset her. "It's nothing," he said. "I'm pretty sure you've hit me harder than that at least twice by now. Any word from Jacob?"

Amberly nodded, releasing his arm. "He's docking with us now, actually. We should have his report within the hour."

Caspian raised an eyebrow. "You mean he's back already? He's supposed to be on extended recon, not due back for another week at least. Something must've gone wrong."

"Either that or he found something big," said Amberly. "He didn't sound distressed when he radioed in. I'll bet he's got one hell of a report to make."

"That'd make this a pretty productive day," said Caspian. "One star captain, two elementals, and whatever Jacob's got for us."

"Hmm..." Amberly grunted, clearly unimpressed.

Caspian's eyes narrowed. "What? I said I was sorry."

"No, it's not that," she said. "It's just... That was the tenth one we've killed."

"I know," Caspian replied, flashing a grin at her. "At this rate, we'll burn through the Clan's entire command structure by next year."

"But they keep replacing them," Amberly pointed out. "And the delay between them has gotten smaller each time, and every single one is harder on the civvies than the last. We've been at this for years at this point, Caspian. We've ambushed patrols, sabotaged 'mechs, assassinated commanders, and every time they just keep coming back."

"Amberly," Caspian leaned across the table, his voice dropping in volume. "You're thinking like a soldier. We aren't in the 2nd Kavallerie anymore, and this isn't a war like we're used to. Killing them all isn't our goal. We're fighting so that the people still have hope, to show them that they don't need to bend the knee to anyone. One day we'll grow big enough to make a real impact, but until then we just need to make life hell for the wolves, and you've been doing a fantastic job of that."

"But the people are losing hope," Amberly protested. "Every time we kill a wolf the Clan comes down harder on the civilians. They've got less rights now than they had three years ago, and it's not because of the Invasion."

"That's not our fault," Caspian countered. "If Clan Wolf wants to act like a bunch of tyrants, that's on them. Maybe it's not such a bad thing. Maybe it shows people the Clan's true colors."

"I don't want to argue with you about it, Caspian," said Amberly. "I just... wanted you to think about it. Maybe it's time for us to change tactics."

Caspian hesitated, then slowly nodded his head. "Maybe," he said. "It's not a good idea to get too predictable, anyway. Even the Clanners can get smart after a while. Did you have anything in mind?"

"We need the people to be on our side," said Amberly. "If we lose their support, we lose everything. We need to show them that we're fighting to help them, not make their lives harder. We've been killing wolves left, right, and center, but your average shop owner doesn't give a damn about those kinds of statistics. So long as they're getting their share of creature comforts, they're not too worried about who's in charge. Now, recently Clan Wolf has been getting on everyone's bad side with the new tax rates and quotas, not to mention the upheaval they caused when they took us off the c-bill and replaced it with KE. Money's been getting tight for a lot of people now that there's new management in charge of the economy. I say we give them a refund."

"With what?" asked Caspian. "We aren't exactly rolling in Kerenskies ourselves."

"All the financial records on Lothan are stored at the Lothan Capital Trust building in Vaskr City. I've got a childhood friend who used to work there before the war. Now she tells me that Clan Wolf is using its database to manage their capital, including the taxes they've been taking from the people. If we break in there and put Lars to work, he could set the network to return the money to its rightful owners, then scuttle the entire system, rendering it useless to the Clan."

"Hit the wolves in their pocketbook," Caspian mused, a smile playing about his lips. "I like it. I get the feeling they care about their money a hell of a lot more than their warriors. How do we get in?"

"I'm still working out the details," Amberly replied. "I'm glad you like the idea, though. I wasn't sure how you'd respond to a plan that didn't involve killing Clanners."

Caspian winked at her as he lounged back in his chair. "You think I'm some kind of bloodthirsty monster, do you?"

Amberly allowed a slight grin as she replied, "I don't think. I know you are."

At that moment a young man with vibrant golden hair and wild blue eyes rushed into the galley, a massive grin plastered on his face. He ran to Caspian's table and gave a quick red-faced salute to him and Amberly. The youth's name was Timothy Ederic, one of Mage Squadron's newest recruits. Caspian had always found young people irritating, but there was something infectious about Timothy's bottomless well of energy. He looked about ready to burst with excitement as he awaited acknowledgement. Caspian waited a brief second longer before returning the salute.

"What is it, Private?" he asked.

"Captain!" Timothy nodded toward Amberly but noticeably avoided eye contact. "Lieutenant. Jacob's back aboard. He sent me to come and get you."

"Did he say why he's back so early?" asked Amberly.

Timothy glanced at her, then let his gaze swiftly drop down to his feet. He shuffled nervously in his boots as he replied. "Uh... N-no, ma'am. Should I have asked him that?"

Caspian chuckled as he rose from his seat and slapped a hand on Timothy's shoulder. "Relax, Private. We're officers, not rattlesnakes. We don't bite. Where's Jacob now?"

"He's in the mechbay," said Timothy. "I can take you to him if-"

"We know our way around our own ship, Timothy," said Amberly, patiently. She saw his crestfallen expression then added, "Tell you what, Hugo will probably want to hear what Jacob has to say. Why don't you go get him? It'd save me a lot of time."

Instantly Timothy's face lit up, and he finally worked up the courage to make eye contact. He threw her a hearty salute and nearly bolted from the galley. Caspian shook his head as he watched the young man practically sprint away into the corridors. "Off like a shot," he said. "I've seen gauss rifle slugs that didn't move that fast."

Amberly grunted in agreement as they left the galley side by side. "Wonder where he stores all that energy," she said. "Is it something in the food, or are his bones just coiled up like springs?"

Caspian nudged Amberly's arm with his elbow. "He's just highly motivated, wants to impress you. I've seen that look in the eye a thousand times. The boy's sweet on you."

Amberly snorted. "You're seeing things, Muldoon. I'm almost old enough to be his mother. Hell, I found grey hairs when I showered this morning. There's girls his age around here, most of them prettier than I ever was."

"Maybe you've got something they don't," Caspian suggested.

"Yeah, like what?"

He shrugged and shot her a joking grin. "How should I know? You annoy the hell out of me. Maybe he's just turned on by women with wrinkles."

Amberly grimaced and punched his arm, though not hard enough to cause any real pain. "If you weren't my superior officer, I'd shoot you for that," she said. "Let's just find out what's got Jacob all excited."
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
Post by: ckosacranoid on 12 April 2021, 14:23:59
Good story Idea so far. But can I suggest that you post all your chapters in the same tread instead of new posts. That way people can follow the story if they find it and can just move chapter to chapter. As a new chapter just add it as a new post to the tread.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 12 April 2021, 15:18:09
Good story Idea so far. But can I suggest that you post all your chapters in the same tread instead of new posts. That way people can follow the story if they find it and can just move chapter to chapter. As a new chapter just add it as a new post to the tread.

Good idea. I'm new to this kind of website. Thanks for bearing with me.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 12 April 2021, 15:19:12
hmm
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
Post by: cklammer on 13 April 2021, 10:10:00
Good idea. I'm new to this kind of website. Thanks for bearing with me.

 The moderators have pinned a thread on this subject in this fan fiction subforum - just for yourself: https://bg.battletech.com/forums/fan-fiction/splitting-and-merging-of-fanfic-threads/ (https://bg.battletech.com/forums/fan-fiction/splitting-and-merging-of-fanfic-threads/)

 Don't hesitate to ask - everybody is really friendly and supportive here.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 13 April 2021, 18:47:43
The moderators have pinned a thread on this subject in this fan fiction subforum - just for yourself: https://bg.battletech.com/forums/fan-fiction/splitting-and-merging-of-fanfic-threads/ (https://bg.battletech.com/forums/fan-fiction/splitting-and-merging-of-fanfic-threads/)

 Don't hesitate to ask - everybody is really friendly and supportive here.

I followed the link, but there are no instructions on how to do it.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
Post by: Middcore on 14 April 2021, 10:45:27
I followed the link, but there are no instructions on how to do it.

You can't do it. Only mods can split and merge threads. I would suggest sending Trace Coburn a PM.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
Post by: cklammer on 14 April 2021, 13:20:58
You can't do it. Only mods can split and merge threads. I would suggest sending Trace Coburn a PM.

You can send a PM to the mod "Trace Coburn" via the menu: Select "My Messages" in the Menu bar ("Home" ... in the upper left corner below the huge word "Battletech") and the choose "Send A Message".

Put "Trace Coburn" as the addressee and then state your request.

Hoping I have not offended you by assuming wrongly ...

Edit: Maybe we do not need the last six replies in the merged thread (including this one) ... :-)
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
Post by: Middcore on 28 April 2021, 22:29:51
Is there going to be more to this?
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 29 April 2021, 12:47:16
Yes, as soon as I get the threads merged.
Title: Re: A twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 01 May 2021, 19:50:45
Damian stepped into his new office and took a moment to examine his surroundings. It had once been a beautiful place, filled with ornate furniture and decorative knick-knacks, model ships and other such useless items. It had belonged to the planetary governor during the days of the Rasalhague Republic, but now it was a center for Clan operations on Lothan. The furniture, decorations, everything that didn't serve an immediate practical purpose had been removed by the star captains, leaving the space feeling cold and empty. Damian stepped up to his desk, a wide and imposing piece built from the dark wood of polished Lothanian pine. The chair was covered in thick velvet cushions and featured a reclining backrest, a function that, while of little use to Damian, nonetheless pleasantly surprised him. He took his seat and let out a breath, drumming his fingers idly on the desk's surface. He did not truly start work until the following day, but he had been eager to see his workplace ahead of time. It was after hours now, and the sun had set an hour previously. Even so, the view outside the office's vast window was impressive. The skyline of Fradvisk was aglow with illuminated windows and neon signs, all the colors of the rainbow blending together in a visual cacophony. Damian spun his chair around to admire the scenery, but only a moment later he heard the sound of the door being opened behind him. He turned to see who had entered, and was confronted with a fetching young woman clad in a simple business suit. She strode across the dimly lit room quickly, not seeming to notice Damian as she moved to the eastern wall and the small wooden cabinet that rested there. She produced a small slip of paper from her blazer and set it on top, then turned toward the desk. Seeing Damian her eyes went wide and she gasped, a hand flying to her chest as she staggered back.

"Oh my god..." she said. "You scared me."

"My apologies," said Damian. "I thought everyone had gone home for the evening."

"Everyone with half a brain already has," she replied. "Who are you? What are you doing in here? The office hours are posted outside."

"I am Damian," he said, rising from his chair. "You must be Alice Jurgen, my new secretary." He smiled cordially. "Or perhaps, more accurately, you are the original secretary and I am your newest boss. I understand you have been working here since before the occupation."

Alice blinked in surprise, then took a tentative step backward, almost cowering. "I'm sorry," she said. "I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow, sir. I... I thought you were..."

Damian raised a reassuring hand. "I am not offended," he said, his gentle voice washing over her like a soft breeze. "You are correct. I have arrived a day early. I would not expect you to be prepared for my arrival. That is why I let myself in." He turned and looked out the window once again. "I wanted to see the city, take in the nighttime scenery. I rarely spend time in urbanized places."

Alice slowly crept up beside him, cautiously watching his every move as if she expected him to suddenly lunge for her throat. "Is there anything you need, sir?" she asked after a moment.

Damian glanced at her, noticing a strange look in her eyes. There was fear, but also a defiant anger in her gaze. He could feel hatred radiating out from her, and she stood more confidently than before with her shoulders squared and head held high. In the glow of the city lights he noticed something about her face. Her glasses, a pair of smart oval lenses, were bent at an odd angle and one of her cheeks appeared swollen. His easy smile faded and he clasped his hands behind his back. "You have been injured," he said.

Alice turned, scowling at the floor as she tried to hide the bruise on her face. "It's nothing," she said.

Damian approached her slowly. Her stance widened, as if expecting an attack, but she didn't shy away from him. He came close enough to touch her, and he let a hand hover just above her cheek. "Star Captain Radick did this to you, quiaff?" he asked.

"It's nothing," Alice repeated, her voice more firm than before. When Damian said nothing she continued. "He wanted me to speak properly, ordered me to stop using contractions and words from my native tongue."

"Obviously you did not comply," Damian observed. "You still speak as you please."

"I'm not about to change how I talk just because some high and mighty officer tells me to," said Alice. "Radick didn't own me, as much as he wanted to. Nobody owns me." She closed her eyes and flinched, as if bracing for another strike.

Damian surprised her by turning away and walking toward the window, nodding his understanding. "Your people are defiant, Miss Jurgen," he said, his voice devoid of any trace of anger. "Even in defeat you refuse to cooperate with your betters."

"You're not our betters," said Alice icily. "Rasalhague has been conquered before. We sit between two of the most powerful Houses in the Inner Sphere. We've been invaded time and again by people with bigger wallets and armies. My grandparents died under the Draconis Combine. Their parents were killed by the Federated Commonwealth. My own parents died when your people invaded. As far as the people of Rasalhague are concerned, you're nothing special. You're just the latest in a long line of greed-riddled empires looking to subjugate us."

Damian leaned heavily against the window sill, staring out at the skyline. "You speak boldly," he said. "Words such as those could earn you a place in a reeducation program. Did you know that?"

"Of course I do," she replied. "And if I said those words under House Kurita's rule, I'd be executed. It doesn't matter how hard you try to crush us. We've faced worse in the past and come out with our freedom intact."

"Dance clubs..." Damian whispered idly.

Alice blinked, caught off guard by his non sequitur. "I'm sorry?"

"Dance clubs," Damian repeated, still staring out the window. "I see advertisements for them in so many of these cities. I have often considered visiting one, just to satisfy my curiosity." He glanced at Alice, an easy smile creeping across his face. "Where I come from we do not have such things, places where the castes may mingle together. Your cities fascinate me. So many people from so many different walks of life all thrown together in a chaotic dance of commerce and culture. Our Founder would have seen such a system as wastefully self-destructive, and yet you have lived under it for centuries. I wish to see it all, to understand it, but..." He chuckled to himself as his gaze fell to his feet. "I must admit that the prospect of venturing out into it all is daunting. I know almost nothing about your customs. It is often said that Clan warriors have no fear, but it is not entirely true. There is one thing we fear, and that is humiliation. I am afraid that if I go out there I will only make a fool of myself."

Alice eyed him cautiously, but the venom in her gaze began to subside as she moved to his side. "I thought you saw us all as barbarians," she said. "I didn't think you'd be interested in knowing our customs."

"We have been raised to believe all others to be inferior," Damian agreed. "But a society that cannot learn is a society that fails. Clan Wolf did not come here simply to crush your people, Miss Jurgen. We came to teach you our ways, to work together toward saving the Inner Sphere from its endless wars. Those that came before me tried to teach this lesson through force, but you are a testament to their failure. I believe that if we come to understand one another, we may find common ground on which to build a better, brighter Rasalhague. The first step, of course, is to understand your people. I wish to know their desires, their concerns, that I may better serve them."

"That... sounds good. Admirable, even," said Alice.

"Our people need not be enemies," said Damian. "Soon I will make my intentions clear to the people. You will see that I am not the cruel subjugator you expect me to be."

"I never said what I expected of you, sir," Alice replied.

"Call me Damian," he said with a smile. "I have no titles, and such formalities are irrelevant to my needs. I will be relying upon you heavily, Miss Jurgen. I wish to build genuine trust with the citizens of Lothan and your insight will be invaluable. Can I depend on you?"

Alice nodded. "I'll do what I can," she said. "Is there anything you need before I lock up for the night?"

"Neg," Damian replied. "However, when you come in tomorrow I will require some information. I need reports on all the known members of Mage Squadron, estimates of their current strength, and anything else that might grant me a better understanding of them. I will be arriving two hours later than you, if my memory is correct. I expect the reports to be ready by then." He sank comfortably into his chair and smiled at her. "Tasks in this office will be completed in a timely manner. However, if for some reason you require more time, simply inform me. I will assume that you have a reason for the delay. There is nothing to gain by beating my subordinates, and any such behavior among my staff will be dealt with swiftly and severely. We will be working together, and so a cordial relationship will maximize our efficacy."

"Of course," said Alice. She bowed her head, and for a moment Damian caught a glimpse of a genuine smile on her face. She stepped away from the window and walked toward the door. Once there she opened it and began to pass through.

"Miss Jurgen?" Damian called after her.

"Yes?" she said, pausing in the doorway.

"I would like the native staff to know something," he said. "I understand that my predecessors have been harsh on them, but it is my intention to make life here as pleasant as possible. Will you see that my sentiments are relayed to your colleagues?"

"I'll tell them," Alice replied.

Damian nodded in satisfaction. "I sincerely hope that you will come to enjoy working for me, Miss Jurgen."

"So do I," she responded. "Goodnight, Damian." With that she disappeared through the door, closing it silently behind her.

Damian allowed her a few minutes before rising from his chair. He stretched his muscles and realized how tired he felt. The trip had taken more of his energy than he had thought. He made his way to the door, satisfied that his workplace was in order. Tomorrow he would begin his task of subjugating Lothan, putting his ideas into practice. The responsibility was immense, as was the pressure, but he knew that Conners wouldn't have placed him in command if he didn't have confidence in his abilities. He would succeed, no matter the cost.

-

Jacob was an odd-looking man. He was short for a Rasalhague native, barely over five feet tall, and he was thin as a rail. Had it not been for his thick beard and head of gray hair one could have mistaken him for an older child. Even so he carried himself with his head held as high as he could manage, knowing that his size was what allowed him to fit so comfortably in an aerotech cockpit. He was far and away the best pilot in Mage Squadron, having served with distinction during the Ronin War. He was the man Caspian sent on the most dangerous and difficult missions, and he had yet to fail an objective. He stood leaning against the fuselage of his craft, watching as his wife, Greta, inspected the fighter. Greta was a large, broad-shouldered woman with dark skin and a shaved head, making her nearly as strange in appearance as her husband. She towered over him, never seemed to smile, and rarely spoke beyond the occasional grunt, and Jacob adored her more than life itself.

Jacob smiled and leaned over, gently running his palm against her back. "What's the verdict?" he asked. "Is it still flyable?"

"No thanks to your piloting," Greta replied. "Christ, Jacob, you're rough on the rigging. I've never seen thrusters so close to burning out. Another ten minutes and you'd have stranded yourself."

Jacob winked at her. "Good thing I got back when I did, then. Can you fix it?"

Greta snorted. "I can fix anything, sweetheart. You know that. Now shut up and let me work."

Before she could react Jacob kissed her cheek, a feat which required him to stand on tiptoe. "Don't work too hard," he cautioned. "I haven't seen you in weeks, and I want you to have some energy left for tonight."

Greta stopped working for a moment and stared at him, her expression completely neutral. Her reply was as dry and deadpan as her face. "That goes for you too, Jake," she said. "You owe me one hell of a night, and I'm not going to let you fall asleep on me like last time." After a brief pause she allowed the faintest hint of a smile to slip across her features as she added softly, "I love you. It's good to have you back."

"Love you too," said Jacob. "It's good to be back." He turned away just in time to see Caspian and Amberly approaching from across the hangar. He straightened himself and adjusted his flight jacket, then strutted his way over to meet them. As he drew near he threw up a hand in greeting.

Caspian returned the gesture with a smile. "Welcome home, Jacob!" he called over the noise of repair tools and automated maintenance units. "You're back early. Everything alright?"

"Better than alright," Jacob replied. He grinned as he looked back and forth between his two commanders. "I got some solid intel on what the Wolves have been up to. Where's Hugo? He'll want to hear this."

"I sent Timothy to get him," said Amberly. "He should be here any minute."

"Well, I'll start explaining then," said Jacob. "So, Captain, know anything about Christiania?"

Caspian frowned, trying to think back to his days at the academy. The name sounded familiar, like a system some professor had rambled about for an hour while speaking with a hypnotic monotone. Details gradually came to him, but they were vague and incomplete. "Not a whole lot," he replied. "Wasn't much there, as I recall. The system's only inhabitable planet got bombarded to hell in the last big war. Nothing but a rock now. That the place?"

Jacob nodded excitedly. "That's the place. I was listening to comms traffic with my frequency scanner when I picked up a Clan transmission. Those encryption keys you picked up from our raid on Fort Jarkov last year work perfectly, by the way. The transmissions said that our local Star Colonel was making a trip out to Christiania II. Our jumpship guy got me there using an old pirate point that just about tore the ship in half, but I made it there in one piece. I waited in orbit with the scanner while the wolves sent a dropship to the surface. Five hours later I hear a signal, then the next thing I know dozens of dropships are all heading down to the surface, converging on a set of coordinates." He waved a datachip in front of Caspian's face before tossing it to him. "These coordinates here, to be exact."

"Jacob!" called a voice from across the hangar. Hugo Spiegel marched his way across the deck, his giant muscle-bound form rattling the steel plating beneath his feet with every step. He wore a massive grin on his face as he approached his old friend. He gave a quick salute to Caspian and Amberly before scooping Jacob off his feet and wrapping him in a bone-splitting bear hug. "You're not dead!" he bellowed. "Just when I thought I was finally rid of you!"

"Good to see you too, Hugo," Jacob wheezed as his lungs were compressed in Hugo's embrace. "Argh! Put me down before you break my damn spine, you numbskull!"

Hugo obeyed, but not before slapping Jacob's back hard enough to send him stumbling. Amberly smiled knowingly at Caspian, enjoying the comical reunion, but found that he wasn't even watching. He was staring straight ahead, arms folded with one hand stroking at his chin. She knew the look all too well; he was starting to form an idea. She placed a hand on his shoulder, shaking him out of his trance. "Hey, boss," she said. "You still in there?"

"Yeah," Caspian replied. "It just doesn't make any sense. Why would Clan Wolf send so many troops to Christiania? There's nothing there worth conquering."

"Christiania?" Hugo echoed. "It's just an irradiated husk. Barely even rates as a planet anymore. You telling me there's Clanners there?"

"Yep," said Jacob, "and I think I know why. The transmissions kept referring to something called 'The Founder's Gift' located on Christiania II. I wasn't sure what they meant, but I do know what was on the dropships. Our Port Authority contact got me a copy of their manifest. Those dropships were loaded with excavators and engineers. Either they're planning on building a highway or-"

"They're digging for something," Amberly finished. "Something Kerensky left behind for them to find."

Caspian continued stroking his chin as a smile began to form on his face. "Losttech," he said. "It's gotta be. Something even the Clans don't have."

Jacob grinned. "So what do you think, Boss? Worth coming home early?"

Caspian nodded. "Definitely."

Hugo pounded a fist into his palm. "Sounds like we're taking a trip," he said. "I'll get the troops practicing with radiation suits, make sure they're ready to operate in the climate. Whatever the wolves are after down there, I'll make sure we snag it first."

"First I need you to put a team together," said Amberly. "We've got a raid to carry out before we go anywhere. Right, Captain?"

"Right," Caspian replied. "We're going to be hitting the Lothan Capital Trust building. I want you to get your best troops together for this one, Hugo. Bring Lars with you and get him into the network. He'll do the rest. Once that's done I want you to stay on Lothan, keep hitting the wolves like we usually do while we head for Christiania."

Hugo frowned, a hurt expression forming on his face. "You... don't want me to come with you?" he asked.

Caspian shook his head. "If we don't keep striking at the wolves here then they'll know something's up. They might change their encryption codes or tighten security around Christiania. Your team will be operating without our direct support for a while, and I need somebody I can depend on to lead the men here. There's nobody the boys trust to lead them more than you, and you've never failed any assignment I've given you. Besides, we can't abandon the people. Lothan needs you here."

Hugo sighed deeply, rubbing the back of his head. "Shame to miss the big show, but you're right. Someone's gotta hold down the fort. Alright, I've got a few people in mind for the job. I'll get it done. When do we leave?"

"As soon as you and your team are briefed," Amberly replied. "Our sources say that our new planetary overseer starts work tomorrow. I want him to wake up knowing exactly who he's dealing with."
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: mikecj on 02 May 2021, 10:36:09
Very promising so far.  Thanks for sharing.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 02 May 2021, 12:58:03
Very promising so far.  Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for reading. This has been fun to work on so far.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Elmoth on 02 May 2021, 17:57:35
Tagged. Let's see what the fuss on Christiania is about
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: DOC_Agren on 04 May 2021, 15:05:17
One Ping Only

Intersting read so far
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 04 May 2021, 16:03:20
One Ping Only

Intersting read so far

I understood that reference.  8)
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 05 May 2021, 06:20:43
Caspian hummed softly to himself as he walked the corridors of the Björngröng. He was making his way to the hangar to brief Hugo's team for their upcoming mission, and found himself to be in an unusually good mood. Joviality was a precious resource, one that had been scarce ever since the Clans invaded, and so he was determined to savor any amount of it he could find. He was lost in the tune of a ballad, an ancient song about a woman named Lorena. It was a pleasant melody, though like many ancient love songs the lyrics carried a hint of tragedy, and so Caspian had decided to hum the tune rather than sing the words. His quiet walk was interrupted when Timothy came barreling out of his quarters barely a foot away, crashing against the bullhead in his haste. His arms were loaded with tactical vests and a stack of laser pistols which fell across the deck as he impacted the wall. Caspian bent down to help Timothy collect his load.

"That's a lot of gear," he said. "You'll break your spine carrying all this weight."

Timothy grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, Captain. Sergeant Spiegel asked me to grab these. I'd been cleaning the kit, and he wanted them for the mission." His grin widened as he added, "He selected me to come along this time. Even issued me a rifle."

Caspian raised an eyebrow. "He did, huh? Well, I suppose it's a simple enough job for your first op." He helped himself to half of Timothy's load and straightened himself up. "Keep your head down and do whatever Hugo says. You should be fine."

"Yes, sir!" Timothy replied. He walked alongside Caspian as he continued down the corridor, keeping pace. For a few seconds they said nothing, but after a moment of silence Timothy cleared his throat. "Uh, Captain," he said. "Can I ask you something... personal?"

Caspian glanced sideways at him. "Something on your mind?"

"Well..." Timothy hesitated as he searched for the right words. "You've known Lt. Grimmsdottir for a long time, right?"

Caspian smiled as he realized where the conversation was headed. "We've been working together for years," he replied.

"So you know her pretty well, then," Timothy continued. His face turned bright red, and he broke eye contact, staring at the deck as he carried on walking. "Do you know... what she likes?"

"What she likes?" Caspian echoed. "Grimm likes a lot of things. You'll need to be a little more specific."

"Well, I got a little extra pocket money," said Timothy. "And we're going to be spending some time in the city, so... I just thought I might... you know..." He coughed and mumbled, "I thought I might buy her something."

Caspian gently slapped his shoulder. "Relax, Timothy. I know how you feel about the lieutenant. You don't have to be embarrassed."

Timothy winced. "Is it that obvious?"

Caspian nodded. "It always is at your age," he said. "But we've all been there. Now let's see..." He stopped walking for a moment and leaned against the bulkhead, eyes fixed on the ceiling as he thought. "Well... if I recall correctly back when we were still the 2nd Kavallerie she might have mentioned that she enjoys strawberries. Though I don't know where you'd find any on Lothan these days. Maybe one of the wolf places would have some, if you can stomach giving them your money."

Timothy contemplated for a moment, then said, "I normally wouldn't give a Clanner anything, but..." He smiled as his gaze fell to his feet once again. "It wouldn't be the first time I've felt foolish because of her. You think she'd smile if I gave her some?"

"I think she would," Caspian replied.

Timothy nodded decisively. "Then it's worth it."

Caspian resumed walking and Timothy followed after him. "So what's got you all hot under the collar for the lieutenant?" asked Caspian. "Isn't she a little old for you?"

"You mean you don't know?" asked Timothy.

Caspian shrugged. "I've never really thought of her that way," he said.

"Not even a little?" Timothy pressed.

"Let me tell you something," said Caspian. "When you're an officer you wield a lot of power. I give the word and people obey. They do whatever I tell them to, even if I order them to do something that could get them killed. Now, if I have that kind of power and I decide that I find one of my subordinates attractive, what might I be tempted to do?"

Timothy paused. "Umm... Order her to... Uh..."

"Exactly," Caspian replied. "My subordinates trust me with their lives, and that's a sacred trust that's all too easy to abuse. So I trained myself to ignore that little voice in my head, as well as the one under my belt buckle. Amberly is a close friend and one hell of an officer, possibly the best lancemate I've ever had, but I see her as a soldier, not as a woman. You understand?"

"I think so," Timothy replied. "But... you do call her 'Grimm.' I always thought that since you use pet names that you might've... maybe a long time ago..."

"Those are nicknames, not pet names," said Caspian. "Not the same thing."

"Well..." Timothy sighed. "You're probably right about her being too old for me, anyway. I don't have a whole lot to offer at my age, but... I can't help it. She's always been nice to me. She's one of the few people here who doesn't shout at me when I mess something up, which I do a lot. It's just like... when I'm around here I feel happy, confident in myself, y'know? I never feel that way around any of the girls my age. Girls are always laughing at me, saying things behind my back. They make me feel like I need to constantly look over my shoulder."

Caspian nodded in understanding. "When I was your age I felt the same way," he said. "The girls at school always teased me. I was cross-eyed and short for my age, and I couldn't get a date to save my life. But there was one lady I always felt comfortable around. She was the local librarian, fresh out of university, and she helped tutor me when I was struggling with my reading skills. She had long, dark hair, a set of dark brown eyes that would just grab hold of you and wouldn't let you go, magnified by a set of glasses that made her look sophisticated. Her smile would make my heart freeze, and she was always kind to me, even when nobody else would be. There were just two small problems. First, I was sixteen and second, she was married."

"Ouch..." said Timothy. "That must've made things awkward. What did you do?"

"Brought her flowers once a week," Caspian replied. He laughed and rubbed at his forehead. "Ah, it all seems so foolish in retrospect, but at the time I was so hopeful that it would lead to something. It never did, of course, but I tried anyway. One day she sat me down and told me something that I'll never forget. She said that she was flattered, but that I was too young and I needed to move on. She said that some day I'd be a fine man, and that soon all those girls that laughed at me would grow up and mature, just like the boys would. She told me not to give up, even if things looked hopeless. At first I was crushed, but she was right. All those girls did eventually grow up. I even became close with a few of them." He sighed. "If not for the war I might've even married one of them. Anyway, my point is that you shouldn't feel too bad if she isn't interested."

"Yeah..." Timothy replied, sounding unconvinced.

Caspian laid a hand on his shoulder. "You're a good kid, Timothy," he said. "Maybe the girls don't see it yet, but once the pretty boys all walk off with someone new under their arms, they'll start looking for someone they can trust. You just need a little patience."

"So you're saying I should forget the strawberries?" asked Timothy.

"I didn't say that," Caspian replied with a grin. "If nothing else it'll put her in a good mood, and she's a lot easier for me to handle when she's smiling."

-

The nighttime wind of Lothan was always cold, even in the summer. The daytime had been warm and pleasant, but the moment the sun slipped over the horizon the world was plunged into icy darkness. Timothy gritted his teeth as the breeze passed effortlessly through his flak jacket. He had been born and raised on Lothan and was no stranger to the cold, but as he climbed his way up the side of the Lothan Capital Trust building he began to feel it in his fingers. The rope was getting harder to grip. He thought about setting his belt harness and taking a moment to flex them, but he knew that doing so would slow the others climbing behind him. He could hear the soft grunting of Ashley Gorrick beneath him and she seemed to be gaining on him. Timothy set his jaw and climbed doggedly onward, not wanting to be outdone when he felt a hand on his boot. He glanced down to see Ashley staring up at him.

"Slow done, Timothy," she said. "We've left the others behind. Rest a second and let them catch up."

Timothy stretched his back and looked beyond her. The rest of the team was nearly a dozen meters below them, struggling to match their pace. "I thought they were right behind me," said Timothy. "I didn't want to hold them up."

"Hugo sent me to catch you," said Ashley. "Had a hell of a time doing it. Where do you get all that energy?"

Timothy grinned sheepishly. "Breakfast cereal," he replied. "That's my secret."

Ashley chuckled softly and patted his calf. "I know you're eager to prove yourself, kid," she said. "But take it easy, alright? Nobody needs to be a hero tonight."

They waited for a few minutes until the rest of the team reached them, then once Hugo gave them the signal they continued upwards, eventually reaching the roof. Timothy was the first to leave the rope, and he stepped onto the flat surface, unslinging his rifle and scanning for targets. As expected the rooftop was clear, so he stepped to the side, took a knee, and watched the others clamber over the edge one by one.

Ashley was first to join him. In the moonlight her black suit made her look wraithlike, almost ethereal. Her short golden hair was tucked neatly beneath a dark skull cap, and her face had been painted deep gray. She nodded to Timothy as she knelt beside him, and he noticed a shaking in her hands. Ashley was an experienced soldier, despite being less than three years older than Timothy. She had been in combat since her early teens, working as a mercenary for her father's company, a business that had ended when the Clans wiped out their unit. Her shaking didn't come from fear but from permanent nerve damage. A laser had pierced her armored vehicle, setting off a crate of ammunition set beside her. The scars from the explosion still marked her face, most noticeably with a nasty gash that crossed both of her strikingly green eyes. Her hands shook constantly, but she had learned to compensate for the shuddering with years of practice. Despite the handicap she was one of the best marksmen in Mage Squadron.

Hugo came after her, cutting an intimidating figure in his form-fitting body armor. Being the largest man in the squad, he carried the heavy weapon, an oversized laser rifle he had dubbed "Wolfsbane." It was the result of a year's worth of tinkering and dangerous experimentation, a mech-scale laser that they had trimmed down to be man-portable. Hugo had built it specifically for killing Elementals, and he had already claimed four kills with it. He kept the device strapped to his back in a special harness designed to make carrying the incredible weight feasible. Even with the assistance it was still remarkably heavy, and no one other than Hugo could even begin to lift it.

After Hugo came Gordon Jarkov, a quiet dark-skinned man in his mid fifties. Gordon had been in the Kungsarmè Special Forces before the Invasion, and he was the most experienced in this kind of warfare out of the group. He was a man of few words and an icy outward appearance, though only when on an assignment. Off duty he was known as amicable, or even charming. At the moment, however, he was completely focused on the task ahead. He had a job to do, and there was no room for idle chatter.

The last to come off the rope was Lars. Lars was a strange person by any metric. He had a unique gift that was rare in the Inner Sphere; he was a computer expert. He claimed that he was able to make a machine do almost anything he desired, and on many occasions he had done things that seemed impossible. He had been the one who had decrypted Clan Wolf's transmissions before Mage Squadron secured their own set of keys. He had often slipped into battlemechs during the night to plant a small string of code into their onboard computers, causing them to overheat their reactors when activated or to fire all their weapons without any input from the pilot. Lars's skills were impressive, but his behaviors were beyond eccentric. First of all, Lars was almost certainly not his real name. He refused to show his face, keeping it hidden behind a bullet-resistant ceramic mask that completely covered his features. His voice was always filtered through a vocalizer set in the mask, distorting it into a digital, almost robotic tone. Speaking with Lars would often set one's teeth on edge. His appearance combined with his voice made conversations alien and uncomfortable, but he always insisted that his identity needed to remain a secret in order to protect him from being exploited by one of the Great Houses. He would never say which House was after him or why, and he refused to give any details of his personal life. Even his reasons for joining Mage Squadron were vague and mysterious. He hadn't been recruited like the others. He had simply appeared one day, turned off the Björngröng's engines with a snap of his fingers, and asked for a job. Caspian had hired him on the spot, much to Amberly's dismay.

Ashley moved toward a nearby skylight, carefully peering through it. She motioned for the others to join her, then set down her pack and withdrew a small laser cutter and a liquid nitrogen spray can. With four slow, smooth motions she moved the can along the edge of the window pane, coating the edges with the fluid. Ice formed on the window, freezing the glass in place and locking down the pressure sensors that surrounded the window. With the security measure taken care of Ashley stuck a suction cup hand to the glass and cut a wide circle in the center of the pane with the laser, just big enough for Hugo to squeeze through. Timothy took hold of the handle, gently pulling it free as Ashley finished her work.

Gordon dropped through the hole first, falling three meters to the floor below. Hugo went next, then Lars and Timothy. Ashley followed after, bringing the piece of glass with her. Once she was through she climbed on Hugo's shoulders, applied a superadhesive to the disc, and returned it to its original place before the ice melted and reactivated the pressure sensors.

Hugo helped Ashley down to the floor and nodded in satisfaction. "Alright," he whispered. "Masks and suppressors on, everyone. Security's light, but stay quiet and check your corners. Gordon, take point. Timothy, cover the rear. Lars, stay close to Ashley."

Lars chuckled, an odd sound when filtered through his vocalizer. "Don't mind if I do," he said. He nudged Ashley. "That's an order I could get used to."

Ashley scowled at him as she pulled her balaclava over her face. "In your dreams, desk humper." she growled. "Keep your hands to yourself or I'll break your fingers."

The team carried on in silence, passing through the hallway and into the stairwell. They descended several flights until they reached the second floor, where the building's floor plans said the primary data server would be located. The second floor was wide and open with large windows and almost no cover. In the center was a massive tower of computer cases, cables, conduits, and flashing lights. The team moved toward it and was about halfway there when the sound of a door opening made them all freeze. Timothy had been watching their rear, and he saw an office door swing lazily ajar as a man in a security uniform walked through. He was whistling softly to himself as he strolled along the wall, shining a flashlight around as he checked the floor. The beam fell on Timothy and the guard had just enough time to stop whistling and reach for his gun before a bullet pierced his skull, dropping him to the floor in a heap. Timothy's hands began to shake as he realized what had happened.

Ashley patted his back. "Nice shot, kid. Grab his radio. Go."

Timothy shook himself and moved to the corpse. The guard's eyes were still open, staring at the ceiling. A look of surprise covered his face. Timothy felt a pang of nausea wash over him. He had never killed anyone before. He had fired automatically, without even blinking, and now the man was dead. It made him feel dirty, as if he'd just committed a heinous act and got away with it. He tried not to look at the man's face as he pulled his radio free from his belt and returned to the group.

Gordon took the radio from Timothy just as a voice came through its speaker. "Sierra three, report in," it said.

"Sierra three," Gordon replied. "All clear."

Satisfied that they hadn't been detected, Hugo led them to the data server. Lars went to work immediately, pulling a datapad from his pack and a bundle of cables. He connected the device to the server at three seemingly random points and began rapidly inputting a series of complicated commands. His fingers flew across the interface, and he nodded to Hugo.

"Five minutes," he said.

Hugo nodded in reply and turned to the others. "Take a knee, people. We're camping here for a bit."

Timothy knelt on the floor, feeling the soft carpet beneath him. He glanced over at the dead security guard, and absently wondered if the blood stain would ever come out of the floor. He shuddered as the image of the kill played over again and again in his mind. The sickness intensified and he doubled over for a second. A hand fell on his shoulder, and he straightened himself up as Ashley spoke.

"You alright, Tim?"

Timothy nodded. "Yeah, I just... I'm fine."

Ashley followed his gaze, saw what had him spooked, and patted his back. "Don't worry about it, kid. It gets easier the more you practice."

"Yeah," Timothy replied, feeling his gut clench even more at her words.

"Got it," said Lars as he swiftly unplugged his datapad from the server.

"Finished already?" asked Hugo.

Lars packed his equipment away, looking pleased with himself despite his face being covered. "I found the tax records and set up a program to reverse all those transactions and erase the ledgers," he said. "When Lothan wakes up tomorrow, she's going to have the biggest tax refund in Rasalhague history."

"Then let's not hang around," said Hugo. "Timothy, hide that body. That should buy us some time to exfil. Gordon, call it in. We'll meet the VTOL on the roof like we planned. Move out!"

Timothy obeyed, his stomach churning even more as he dragged the corpse into one of the offices and hid it beneath a desk. As he took hold of the wrists, he noticed that the body was still warm and nearly threw up. He emerged from the office and closed the door behind him, his face pale as he followed the others back into the stairwell.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 12 May 2021, 07:18:37
Damian stepped into his office with a contented sigh before making his way to his desk. He sat in his chair, folded his hands in his lap, and smiled to himself as he observed a stack of folders on the desktop, each one labelled "Mage" in perfect script. Alice had done as he had instructed. He picked up the topmost folder and began to read its contents. The file was on Caspian Muldoon, the suspected leader of Mage Squadron.

Before Damian could dive into the details there was a knock on his door. "Come in," he said.

Alice stepped in, her face white as a sheet. "I'm sorry," she said. "I know you didn't want to be disturbed this early, but there's an emergency."

Damian raised an eyebrow. "What has happened?"

"Mage Squadron attacked the Lothan Capital Trust last night," said Alice. "At least one security guard is dead."

Damian folded his hands thoughtfully, resting them on his lap. "Lothan Capital..." he said. "That is not a military facility. Are you certain it was Mage Squadron?"

"The security footage showed a group of masked soldiers wearing 2nd Kavallerie uniforms," Alice replied. "Security is fairly certain one of them was Hugo Spiegel."

Damian pulled a folder out of the stack on his desk, slowly flipping through the documents. After a moment he glanced up at Alice. "Lothan native," he said. "Kungsarmè Special Forces. He has a... distinctive appearance. It is unlikely that security is mistaken as to his identity." He set the folder down and frowned. "Lothan Capital is still privately owned. It does not match their modus operandi. What were they doing there?" His eyes went wide. "The taxes?"

Alice nodded. "They refunded everyone," she said. "Years' worth of tax money just got returned to the people. Even my bank account's been flooded. They emptied the treasury and locked it down. The entire system's unusable."

Damian leaned back in his chair, smiling to himself. "It would appear that they wish to welcome me to their home," he said. "Muldoon is more clever than I thought. This will have a heavy impact on our economy. He is no fool." He straightened himself. "But, then again, neither am I." He turned his gaze to Alice. A grin formed on his face that made her shiver. "Miss Jurgen, I have a task for you. We have contacts within the local news media, quiaff?"

"Yes," Alice replied. "Would you like me to put you in touch with them?"

"Aff," said Damian. "I wish to make an announcement to the people within an hour. Once that is done return to me and we will begin examining these files. Understood?"

Alice nodded. "I'll start right away," she said. She turned and walked briskly out the door.

Damian rose from his chair and turned to gaze out the window, folding his hands behind his back. "And so the game begins," he said to himself. "You are a worthy opponent, Muldoon. But you will soon see that I am not so easily bested as the men who preceded me. Let us see how you handle my announcement."

-

Caspian laid down on his bed, eagerly throwing his weight down on the mattress. It had been a long day of drills and inspections, and he was exhausted. In six hours he would have to get up and ready the Björngröng for docking with the jumpship, but until then he could rest. He closed his eyes, not bothering to undress as he began to drift away.

A knock on the door made him snarl. "Who is it?" he groaned.

"It's Grimm," said Amberly, her voice muffled through the steel bulkhead. "You sleeping?"

Caspian sighed. "No," he said. "Come in."

The door slid open and Amberly slipped quietly inside, closing it behind her. She moved toward the bed, holding out a hand to keep Caspian from standing. "I won't keep you awake long," she said. "I just wanted to ask you about the Puma modifications before you turned in."

"What about 'em?" asked Caspian. "Kicked my ass in the simulator just fine, didn't they? Or did you just come in here to gloat?"

"I don't gloat," said Amberly, crossing her arms. "You know that. I just wanted to know what you thought. We didn't have our usual debrief."

Caspian hesitated. "I lost my temper, didn't I?" He shook his head and rubbed his hair, looking embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to storm out."

Amberly waved the apology away. "You had a long day," she said. "I could tell. You weren't anywhere near as tough today as you usually are. Besides, ambushing you from under the lake was a cheap shot."

"You did a good job on the Puma," said Caspian. "That thing was a beast before we snagged it, and you've made it even scarier. I'm impressed. How hot does it run, though?"

"Very hot," Amberly replied. "Half the reason I chose the lake was because of the heat buildup. I had the water boiling after just a couple pulls."

"Might want to give up a laser or two for some heat sinks," said Caspian. "Lakes aren't always available. Can't have you exploding."

Amberly smiled. "So you do care," she said. "That's sweet of you."

Caspian snorted and winked at her. "What, you think I want to run this place myself? Who else do I delegate all my responsibilities to if you're dead?"

Amberly rolled her eyes. "Has anyone ever told you that you're just bursting with charm?" she asked.

Caspian thought a moment. "No. Can't say as they have."

"Good," said Amberly. "Because they would've been lying to you."

"Hmm." Caspian smiled, folding his hands behind his head and closing his eyes. "Was there anything else?" he asked.

"Just one," Amberly replied. "I'm worried about you."

"Woah, stop the presses," said Caspian sarcastically, eyes still closed. "This just in; water is wet, space is big, and Grimm is worried."

Amberly rolled her eyes. "C'mon, Caspian," she said. "Don't be that way."

"Grimm, we have this conversation at least twice a day," said Caspian with a heavy sigh. "When are you going to give it a rest?"

"When you give yourself one," she replied, pulling up a metal chair and sitting beside the bed. "When was the last time you took a day and just relaxed? I mean really relaxed?"

"Years ago," he replied. "Same as you. Same as everyone else. I'm fine. I don't need a break, and I can't afford a vacation."

"You almost ran your Firestarter into a tree today!" said Amberly, her tone sharpening. "I saw you take five hits from shots you could easily have evaded. Face it, Caspian, you're slipping. You need to take a break or you're going to get yourself killed!"

Caspian rolled onto his side to look at her and said, "Alright, so maybe I'm a little tired. What do you want me to do about it? Take a trip to Canopus and relax with a pair of working girls? I've got work to do here."

"All I'm saying is that you should take a day or two and just rest," said Amberly. "Mage Squadron won't fall apart if you miss morning inspection a couple times. We've got over a week before we reach Christiania. Let everyone decompress tomorrow. Have a holovid night or something. It'd be good for morale."

Caspian thought for a moment, then chuckled and said, "You know, I'm starting to wonder who's really in charge of this outfit. It's not a bad idea, Grimm."

Amberly smiled, and Caspian felt a pang of warmth shoot through him as she looked him in the eyes and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Thanks, Caspian," she said sincerely. "I think you need this more than you realize."

"Probably." He leaned back and groaned as he stretched his arms above his head. "Wish I'd thought of it first, as usual." His smiled faded and he gazed blankly at the wall, a dour expression settling over him. "Grimm, am I a good commander?"

Amberly raised an eyebrow. "What do you think?" she asked.

Caspian shrugged. "Sometimes I feel like I am, but... I don't know. I get tunnel vision sometimes, lose the forest in the trees. Can't tell what's happening around me 'cause I'm so focused on the goal. Every time we argue and you end up being right I can't help but feel like I'm not right for the job."

Grimm gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "You know something, Caspian?" she said. "I think you are a good commander. Know why? Because you can admit when you're wrong. Nobody's right all the time, and you know when to give orders and when to listen to advice. That's a quality I've always liked about you."

"So why do I feel like I'm failing?" asked Caspian.

"Because you set impossible standards for yourself," Amberly replied. "You try to be perfect, but you can't be. You want to rise up and be the noble hero, wiping away the Clans with a flick of your wrist, but you've got to settle for being an ordinary man doing the best he can with what he's got. You've always had a grand, romantic vision of what you want to be, but reality won't ever let you get there."

Caspian tried to look at her, but dropped his gaze as her eyes seemed to look directly into him. "Maybe..." he said softly. "Maybe you're right. Part of me is still the punk kid spraying paint over those giant posters of Takashi Kurita, thinking I was some kind of Beowulf."

"And I wouldn't have it any other way," said Amberly. "You think I don't have flaws of my own? I've come close to giving up hundreds of times in the past few years. I'm so damn cynical that sometimes I can't see any point in what we're doing. Then you come in all full of enthusiasm and you make me want to help you succeed. We might argue a lot, but you've gotta admit we make a hell of a team. And you know what? I'm excited for this operation. We're finally doing something that'll put a real dent in the wolves, and I never could've reached this point on my own."

Caspian smiled, finally able to look her in the eye. "Thanks, Grimm," he said. "I don't know why I felt like I needed that, but I did."

"You get vulnerable when you're tired," she replied, slapping his back.

The comms panel beside the bed chirped suddenly, and Caspian threw back his head in mock exasperation. "God, nobody on this damn ship will let me sleep tonight." He pressed the key and adopted an exaggerated weary tone. "What is it?" he asked.

"Sorry to wake you, sir," said a young feminine voice. "But there's a transmission from Lothan. It's on all the major frequencies. I thought you'd want to see it."

Caspian frowned. "Put it on my holotable."

The holotable in the center of the room shimmered for a moment before producing the image of a man. He carried himself with his head held high, his demeanor and uniform marking him as a Clanner. He was strikingly handsome, with a warm expression and pleasant air about him that contradicted his military bearing. "People of Lothan," he said with a smile. "Good morning. We have not yet had the pleasure of introductions. My name is Damian, and I have been appointed as your new planetary governor."

"That's a new one," said Caspian. "Didn't think he'd identify himself for us."

"I know what has become of my predecessors," Damian continued. "I understand that you are all frustrated and angry. Having so recently gained independence from House Kurita, the notion of once again being forced beneath a boot heel is understandably hideous." He spread his arms in a welcoming gesture. "We have made mistakes. Your previous governors sought to ensure your cooperation through subjugation and threat of force, but I felt such actions were foolish. Indeed, as I predicted it has only strengthened your resolve. I seek to fundamentally restructure our relationship. I seek your cooperation not as a conquered people, but as friends. I have instructed all troops under my command to treat the people of Lothan with the utmost respect, and I hope you will be kind to them as they learn to understand your way of life. But these are merely words, and I am certain many of you have heard such flowery promises before, perhaps from the Great Houses who have dominated your lives for generations. I can assure you that my promises are not empty as theirs were, and I will prove this to you. Indeed, I have already begun. As a token of my good will, I have returned all taxed currency to you as of this morning. Tax rates going forward shall be decreased substantially, and your businesses will be allowed to flourish."

"That bastard!" snarled Amberly. "He's taking credit for our operation!"

"I am lifting the 19:00 hours curfew," said Damian. "You are independent adults capable of self-control, and I shall treat you as such."

Caspian rose from his bed and switched off the holotable, his expression darkening. "This one's smarter than the others," he said. He turned to Amberly, and she suppressed a shiver as she saw the cold anger in his eyes. "Send a transmission to Hugo," he said. "I want this one dead as soon as possible. He's going to be trouble if we don't take care of him quickly."
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: ThePW on 12 May 2021, 07:29:56
....and the start of the fall... because the good guys need a fail. Question is, who or what will be left in the aftermath (I'm still convinced this side OP will go pear-shaped for Mage Squadron)?
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 18 June 2021, 05:59:36
"'Caspian Muldoon: born September 14, 3020 to Elsa and Yarrick Muldoon at St. Luke's Hospital in Fradvisk, Lothan,'" Damian muttered to himself as he read the file aloud, leaning back comfortably in his chair. "'Arrest record: twenty-six counts of vandalism, five counts of assaulting an officer, thirty-one counts of resisting arrest.' It seems Muldoon never cared for authority. 'Family background: Elsa Muldoon was executed by Draconis Combine soldiers in 3026. Caspian was raised by his father for most of his early life, until he too was killed in 3034 during the Ronin War. Education: graduated from Fradvisk Academy in 3034. Graduated from Kungsarmè officers' school in 3036 with the rank of Lieutenant. Military career: Muldoon served as a 'mech pilot in the Second Kavallerie. In 3040 he was promoted to Captain and given command of Lance #7, designated as Mage Lance. He commanded this unit until 3052, when it was destroyed during Clan Wolf's invasion of Lothan. When the 2nd Kavallerie evacuated Lothan, several units volunteered to stay behind and protect the dropships as they left the planet, including Mage Lance. These units were destroyed in detail, and Muldoon was believed to be KIA until he resurfaced in 3053. Muldoon is now the suspected leader of Mage Squadron, a terrorist organization based somewhere on Lothan.'"

Alice handed Damian a small stack of papers. "Here's the psychological profile," she said.

Damian smiled as he accepted it, cleared his throat, then began to read. "'Muldoon was a troubled youth, and spent a great deal of time in juvenile detention. This is most likely the result of poor parenting on the part of his father. Yarrick Muldoon was part of a terrorist cell known as the Dragonsbane, a group that carried out acts of violence on Draconis Combine troops. Caspian was arrested numerous time for painting anti-Kurita graffiti in public areas, as well as attacking military police officers. He never went quietly, and had to be forcefully subdued. His punishments were ineffective, as he rarely went more than a few months between arrests. His actions seemed to be motivated by a deep-seated hatred of the Draconis Combine, as his criminal record stops in 3034. Despite spending most of his young life behind bars, Caspian managed to graduate school. He studied while in detention, and showed a surprising aptitude and enthusiasm for school. Through his determined work he graduated at the same age as his peers, in spite of working from a jail cell. He is believed to be intelligent and well-educated. His few friends described him as having strong emotions and a short temper, as well as a propensity for violence. He was somewhat famous at the academy for speaking with the younger children to learn who the bullies were, then starting fights with older classmates. His hatred of perceived bullies and authority figures likely stems from his early childhood, as it is possible that he witnessed his mother's execution at a very young age.'"

Damian paused, a frown developing over his face. Alice took a step toward the desk. "What's wrong?" she asked.

Damian shook his head. "What sort of person executes a woman in front of her child?" he said.

"Kuritan soldiers aren't known for their kindness," Alice replied. "Summary executions were common. Back then you were lucky to get a trial, and even if you did the judge would often declare you guilty without even listening to the evidence anyway. They had quotas to fill."

"...I see," said Damian softly. "I had always heard stories about the cruelty of the Great Houses, but I assumed that they were exaggerated." He looked at Alice, a sad reflection in his eyes. "It is no wonder that you despise those who conquer you. It must have been terrible to have families torn apart like that."

Alice raised an eyebrow. "I didn't think you'd care. I thought Clanners didn't have mothers."

"I am trueborn, aff," said Damian. "I was grown from the genetic stock of Kelsie Kerensky, a proud warrior and a woman of great valor. At least so I have been told. I never met her myself. She was killed in battle while I was still growing in my iron womb. I have a mother, but she did not raise me as yours did, nor would she have even had she lived. Regardless, I know of the bond that connects a woman to her freeborn child. I have witnessed it many times among the lower castes. Just because I have not felt it myself does not mean that I have no empathy for those who have."

Alice lowered her gaze. "Of course," she said.

"Tell me, Miss Jurgen," said Damian. "What do you make of Muldoon?"

"Me?" she asked.

Damian nodded. "You are a woman of Rasalhague, after all. What kind of man do you find him to be? I wish to know what the people think of him."

Alice thought for a moment before replying. "Well... I don't know much about him. His story is fairly common on Lothan. A lot of our parents fought in the resistance, and many of us grew up without them as a result."

"When you say 'the resistance' you are referring to the insurgency against House Kurita, quiaff?" asked Damian.

Alice nodded. "Our parents died fighting for our freedom, to give us a chance at a better life than the ones they had. Many people feel that Muldoon is trying to do the same. Others think he's clinging to the past, so caught up in his own delusions of grandeur that he can't see the futility of his actions."

"And what about you?" asked Damian.

Alice shrugged. "I think he's a man doing what he thinks is right," she replied. "I just wish the killing would stop."

"We all do," said Damian with a sigh. He paced in front of the window, arms folded across his chest. After a moment he shook his head and said, "So much senseless violence. I cannot understand it."

Alice raised an eyebrow. "Aren't you a warrior yourself?"

"Violence is a tool," Damian replied, raising an index finger. "It is meant to be applied sparingly and with great precision. The way that freebirths are so eager to kill and be killed... it saddens me greatly. Mage Squadron lashes out at random, striking without any regard for rank or title. They do not have some grand strategy; they are merely killing out of anger and hatred. I am a warrior, this is true, but in the Clan we are taught to focus our anger, channel our hatred and then convert it into strength before it can force us to lose ourselves. Death is to be avoided whenever possible, and causing the innocent to suffer is never permissible."

"Mage Squadron hasn't ever hurt the innocent," said Alice. "They've never attacked civilians. They only engage the military."

"Not yet," said Damian, a troubled look covering his brow. "But I cannot help but wonder if they will not eventually go a step too far. They play a dangerous game, and eventually the innocent will be caught in the crossfire. I only hope that I can bring them in line before that happens."

-

"Still nothing?"

"Nothing," said Timothy as he adjusted his position in the tree stand. He looked down at Hugo for a moment before turning his gaze back to the horizon. The forest stretched ahead of him for miles, and from his perch he could see over the treetops and look far into the distance. It was a beautiful view as the late summer chill had begun to turn the leaves vibrant shades of orange and crimson. "There hasn't been any movement for hours now," he said. "Even the birds have been quiet."

Hugo nodded. "I'll have Gordon relieve you," he said. "Come on down and get some rest."

"Right." Timothy slung his rifle over his should and began his descent, slipping expertly between the branches. Once he reached the ground he moved deeper into the camp, nodding to Gordon as the quiet soldier prepared to climb up and take his place. Timothy walked past the team's only battlemech, a Fireball 9D, which sat beneath a camouflage net. It was a tiny machine, barely large enough to be considered a 'mech, but it was fast and agile, making it a perfect fit for the kind of operations Mage Squadron specialized in. Timothy ducked under the net and sat down by its leg, close enough to the fire to enjoy its light without encroaching on the rest of the group. Ashley and Hugo were chatting about something, and Timothy didn't want to interrupt. He leaned against the Fireball's footpad and began to let his mind wander when a sudden movement near his arm made him jump. Lars emerged from the other side of the 'mech's leg, staring down at Timothy with his unreadable visor.

"Ah," said Timothy. "Sorry. Was this your spot?"

"No," Lars replied, his synthetic voice barely audible. "You're fine. Was just... keeping my distance." He sat down beside Timothy and chuckled, an odd sound when filtered through his vocalizer. "Looks like you had the same idea."

Timothy sighed. "Yeah. I don't know. I should be over with the others. I've known them for years, after all. It's just... They've been fighting longer than I have. I'm still new here. What would I even talk to them about?"

"What do you usually talk about?" asked Lars.

Timothy shrugged. "I dunno," he said. "I never really think about it. I just... talk. But it's different now. I'm not just the kid that they tolerate with a pat on the head anymore. It just doesn't feel the same, y'know"?"

Lars nodded slowly. "I get it," he said. "Not really the same now that you have to actually try and be one of them."

"What about you?" asked Timothy. "Why don't you pal around with them?"

Lars thought for a moment, then replied, "Well, I'm not really one of them either. They deal in guns and ammo. I deal in programs and strings of code. I don't do the same kind of work they do, and they'd never be able to grasp what I do, so it doesn't leave us a lot of common ground." He looked directly at Timothy, though his visor's expressionless gaze wasn't nearly as unnerving as usual. "But I guess it leaves you and me with some. We're both outsiders here to some extent."

"We might have more than just that in common," said Timothy. "You know I've been wondering. Where do you come from?"

Lars raised a finger. "I don't give out that kind of info," he said. "Don't want to be traced back to somewhere."

"But there's gotta be something you can tell me," said Timothy. "You don't need to be specific. Come on. Commonwealth? Combine? League?"

Lars sighed. "Periphery," he replied. "Won't say which area."

"That's fine," said Timothy with a smile. "What about family? Everyone's got a family. What's yours like?"

Lars's head tilted slightly. "Why do you want to know?"

"It's hard to be friends with someone if you don't know anything about them," Timothy replied. "I don't even know how old you are."

"That's by design," said Lars. "I don't believe in friends. They tend to sell you out when you least expect it. My identity stays secret for a reason."

"Oh..." They sat in silence for several moments, an awkward tension filling the air. Finally Timothy spoke again, staring at his hands folded in his lap. "Hey, Lars, have you ever killed anyone?"

Lars hesitated at the seemingly random question, but after a moment nodded his understanding. "This about that guard you killed?"

"I can't get him out of my head," Timothy replied. "The Clan killed my parents when I was still young. Growing up has been hard for me ever since. I keep thinking that the guard might have had a kid of his own, that I might have forced someone else to grow up the same way I did. It makes me feel sick, like someone's punched me in the gut." He looked up at Lars. "Do you know what that feels like?"

"Well, sure I've killed a few people," Lars replied. "But I didn't have any regrets when I did it. My first kill was a man I knew was evil. I don't really think about the other ones."

Timothy buried his face in his hands and groaned. "So it's just me," he said. "Not much of a soldier, am I?"

"I didn't say that," said Lars, nudging Timothy's arm with his elbow. "Don't look up to me as some kind of example to follow. I'm not much of a soldier either. I'm a jaded tech-humper with no soul. Just because I didn't feel anything doesn't mean that's how it should be. You're a soft-hearted man, and you've got a lot of empathy. That's nothing to be ashamed of. Killing people shouldn't be an easy thing to do."

"But how am I supposed to fight?" asked Timothy. "If I can't kill-"

"But you can," Lars pointed out. "You did, quickly and without hesitation. You knew what would happen if you didn't and so you acted on instinct. That's what a soldier does, Timothy. I wouldn't worry about it so much. Besides, it's your first mission. Nobody's expecting you to be a perfect soldier right away. It's something you learn, just like any other job."

"Yeah, I guess," said Timothy weakly. "I just wish it was easier."

Lars turned away, shaking his head as his chin rested on his chest. He folded his arms across his chest, signalling that he was about to let himself drift off to sleep. As he ended the conversation he spoke one final piece of advice. "Don't."
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 28 June 2021, 07:40:30
Caspian shoved his throttle forward, throwing his Firestarter behind cover as two PPCs fried the space he had just occupied. He ducked behind the rocks and sprinted into the maze-like formations of Stenig Labyrint as the Mad Cat gave chase. Sweat poured down his face and coated his control sticks as he fought to keep his grip on the controls. Cold fear stabbed at his heart as he sensed the Clan 'mech approach from behind, and out of instinct he ducked around another corner, narrowly avoiding a flight of LRMs that smashed into the rocks beside him. The blast wave nearly staggered his battlemech, but he managed to keep the machine upright as he weaved his way through the stony walls. He could see the Pride of Gustav clearly now, a massive dropship that now carried all that remained of the 2nd Kavallerie. Its engines were beginning to glow as it prepared to lift off, but there wasn't enough time. If the Clanners continued through Stenig Labyrint unchecked they would be able to bring their heavy weaponry to bear, and the dropship would be destroyed along with all the souls aboard. Caspian had volunteered to stay behind with his unit, Mage Lance, and protect the Pride of Gustav to allow the others to escape. His men had followed him without question, but now nearly all of them were dead. Tönig's panther lay across the entrance to the Labyrint, its cockpit now a smoldering pile of slag. A dire wolf had scored a beautiful headshot, taking him out of the fight almost immediately. What remained of Karl's commando lay nearby, its body melting from the intense heat of the reactor breach that had ended him. All that remained of Mage Lance was Caspian and Amberly, and neither was equipped to deal with the star of Clan 'mechs that were now filtering through the rocks. While their progress was slow and difficult, owing to the treacherous ground, they were beginning to reach the exit.

Amberly waited around a corner in her urbanmech, her systems powered down as Caspian sprinted by, the mad cat hot on his heels. The firestarter's left torso blew away as a salvo of lasers detonated two tons of machine gun ammo. The light 'mech stumbled, falling to one knee before righting itself and carrying on. The mad cat marched past Amberly, and she shivered as it stomped by. It was massive and seemingly invincible. They had been focusing their fire on it for the entire battle, but had only managed to burn away its armor. It was a monster, and it resembled a living predator more than a war machine. Amberly took a deep breath and waited until it had moved beyond her before reactivating her 'mech. She leveled her AC-20, aiming for the damaged rear armor. The mad cat began to turn as its sensor detected the urbanmech, but it wasn't fast enough. The cannon roared and the massive shell tore into the mad cat from behind. Ammunition exploded in a brilliant fireball, but it didn't kill the 'mech as Amberly had hoped. The explosion went outward, keeping the center torso intact. The mad cat spun quickly, and Amberly barely managed to coax her slow-moving 'mech behind a boulder before the retaliatory strike came. The rock before her shattered and melted as lasers and missiles pounded it, and she had to run for another to hide behind. She gave another shot from her autocannon, but it went wide. Her small laser scored a hit on the mad cat's left leg, but the damage was superficial. Its remaining arm pointed toward her, and she braced herself, knowing that she wouldn't make it to cover in time. The shot never came. Caspian's firestarter flew over the rocks on its jump jets, soaring forward as it tackled the larger 'mech. The impact threw the mad cat off balance, and with their chassis pressed together Caspian fired all of his flamers. The inferno flooded the mad cat's internals as it seeped through the broken armor. Sparks and slag flew in all directions as the Clan machine writhed back and forth as if in agony, desperate to shake off the firestarter. Caspian pulled back, barely able to keep his balance as his footpads fought for purchase on the uneven ground. Amberly used the opportunity to plant herself and take aim with her autocannon. The gun howled into the night as it fired, and the core of the mad cat lit up with golden fire as the round eviscerated its reactor. The beast fell to the ground and began to burn, cooking its pilot alive in the hellish flames.

Amberly nodded in satisfaction, only to cry out in surprised as he urbanmech was suddenly knocked onto its face. A salvo of cannon fire laid her out flat as the dire wolf stepped into view, the barrels of its arm-mounted weapons smoking. Warning sirens blared, and Amberly knew she was finished. Her left leg was hopelessly damaged and her rear armor was gone. She fought to bring her 'mech into an upright position, cursing as the dire wolf drew nearer. It marched forward with a cold confidence, its weapons bearing down on the stricken 'mech. The urbanmech shuddered as it tried to respond to the control inputs, but its myomer bundles were shredded and it could barely raise itself onto one knee. Amberly gasped as the dire wolf closed the distance, its hulking form towering over her machine. She pulled her ejection handle, and the canopy blew away on explosive bolts. The restraints dug into her skin as the control couch lifted off. No sooner had she cleared the cockpit than a blast of laser fire seared the air around her. Even as she flew through the air she could feel the impossible heat. The urbanmech simply disappeared, its body reduced to molten metal until it barely resembled a 'mech at all.

Amberly's shoulders groaned in pain as the chutes deployed, jolting her violently and nearly driving her into unconsciousness. The dire wolf carried on, leaving the smoldering slag heap behind and making for the final break in the rocks. Amberly knew it was over. Even as the seat slammed into the earth and she crawled her way out of the restraints she could see that it was hopeless. In a moment the dire wolf would clear the rocks, then it would have a clear line of sight on the dropship. The men and women of the 2nd Kavallerie would die, trapped inside a burning steel coffin. They had failed. She rose shakily to her feet, pawing at the laser pistol on her belt. She drew the weapon and began to scream, tears of impotent rage pouring down her face as she fired the weapon fruitlessly at the battlemech. The dire wolf carried on marching, oblivious to her anger. Amberly emptied the weapon and fell to her knees, unable to tear her gaze away as it neared the exit. Suddenly the machine stopped. Caspian's Firestarter stepped defiantly into the gap, the only obstacle between the dire wolf and the dropship. It stood in the narrow opening like a battered sentinel, training its remaining weapons on the assault 'mech. The dire wolf's torso shifted, giving it a better line of sight, and the noise its servos made sounded almost like wicked laughter.

"No!" Amberly screamed. "Run, Caspian! You can't stop it! It'll kill you!"

But Caspian couldn't hear her. All she could do was watch helplessly as her commander and her closest friend stared down certain death. The two machines stared at one another for a moment, as if caught in a trance, then all at once the tension broke as the dire wolf fired, but Caspian didn't take the hit. He lunged forward, tensing and thrusting with his legs then blasting his jump jets. The firestarter sailed over the blasts of laser and autocannon fire and landed off to the side, then it began to sprint toward the dire wolf. The Clan mech fired again, and this time Caspian turned his torso to the side. The right arm disintegrated under the onslaught, but still he rushed onward. The dire wolf began to walk, closing the distance quickly and spreading its arms wide to prepare for the inevitable flanking maneuver. Caspian would almost certainly try to run around its sides in order to get behind the weaponry and find the weaker rear armor, but to Amberly's horror Caspian didn't move away. He drove himself directly into the dire wolf, driving his remaining shoulder into the mech's torso like a linebacker. The firestarter leaned forward, planting its feet in the ground. The dire wolf tried to advance, but the little firestarter had become a wedge between its body and the ground, and its progress was slowed. It pushed forward, and Caspian's footpads dug into the earth as his machine was slowly pushed backward. The Clanner fired his weapons, but his arms didn't move inward far enough to hit Caspian, and he was lodged underneath the torso-mounted lasers. All of the dire wolf's shots went wide, and still Caspian pushed the monster with every ounce of strength his myomer bundles could muster. He was being driven back, but his desperate embrace had reduced the 'mech's speed significantly. The dire wolf pushed toward the opening in the rocks, throwing its full weight against the firestarter. The light 'mech's knees buckled under the strain, and the left leg began to fall apart even as its foot battled for purchase on the stony ground. The artificial muscle burst through the armor, then shredded itself, and the firestarter nearly collapsed, but still Caspian held the giant back. The dire wolf stopped abruptly, then took a step backward. Caspian tried to follow, but his broken leg failed him and his 'mech collapsed, landing face down in the dirt. The Clanner raised a footpad, preparing to bring it crashing down on Caspian, but before he could line up his strike the entire labyrinth filled with smoke. The Pride of Gustav's engines had fired, and a moment later it began burning its way upward into the void. The rumbling of the massive thrusters shook the ground, and the smoke and vapor filled the air, swallowing everything in a choking white haze.

Amberly felt the air burn away from her lungs and she began to choke, retching violently as she fought for breath, but there was none to be had. The smoke was too heavy, too hot, and she felt darkness begin to wash over her.

Then just like that the dream was over and she sat bolt upright in her bed, wheezing as she gulped down massive amounts of air. Her pillow fell away from her face, and she realized after a moment of gasping that it had been smothering her. She shook herself, then looked around her. She was in her quarters, safe and sound, albeit sweaty and shivering. She grunted in frustration. The nightmare was a recurring one, a memory that she'd been forced to relive a thousand times, and every instance felt like the first. Every bit of terror and rage she had felt all those years ago was just as vibrant in her mind now. It had been her first true 'mech battle, and it nearly killed both her and Caspian. The other members of Mage Lance hadn't been as lucky.

Amberly shuddered, hugging herself as she felt a chill run up her back. She rose from her bed and debated getting dressed, then glanced at her clock and realized that it was barely past midnight. Everyone was sleeping. She groaned and stretched her arms over her head. Time was difficult to keep track of in space, and her body had never been good at adjusting to the changes in her sleep schedule. There was no reason to go through the trouble of donning her uniform, but she didn't want to go back to sleep either. The nightmares were waiting for her to return, and she had no intention of returning to bed. She finally decided to wrap herself in her blanket and head for the galley. It would be empty this time of night, and with a little luck there might still be some coffee left in the pot.

She slipped quietly out into the hall, then began to make her way aft. As she walked her thoughts began to wander back toward the battle at Stenig Labyrint. She thought about Caspian standing in front of the dire wolf, boldly facing a battle he couldn't possibly win, and she felt her pulse race. It was his way, had always been his way. He could be a cunning tactician when it suited him, but he was just as likely to defy reasoning and throw himself carelessly into danger. That time it had nearly cost him his life. Amberly shuddered as she remembered how close it had been. Had it not been for the smoke from the dropship engines he would be dead. There would be no Mage Squadron, no resistance on Lothan, and no one from Amberly's combat team left alive save for her. She would have been alone, forced to live a subjugated life like the rest of Lothan. She thought of the solitude, the horrible loneliness she might have felt, and it nearly made her break. So close, she thought. So close that time.

When she reached the galley she had had managed to calm herself somewhat and regain her composure. There was no point in fretting over what might have been. Caspian had survived, and now she had an entire squadron of comrades. Even so, she couldn't shake the terrible feeling that one day Caspian would take a similar risk, and this time she would lose him for good. She shook her head and walked over to the coffee pot, only to groan as she found it totally empty.

"Sorry, I got the last cup."

Amberly jumped and whirled around. She had let the blanket fall carelessly across her shoulders, giving little thought toward modesty. Now she gathered it up, hastily covering herself as she turned to see Caspian lounging at one of the tables, a steaming mug clasped in his hands. He wore a raggedy old bathrobe he had owned for years and refused to throw away, and his hair was wild and disheveled. He smiled thinly at Amberly and raised an eyebrow.

"That's a new outfit," he said slyly. "That the latest fashion in Fradvisk or something?"

"You're one to talk," Amberly growled. "What are you doing here? You should be sleeping."

"You're one to talk," Caspian countered, mimicking her voice. He set the mug on the table and rose to his feet, taking a moment to stretch before moving to join her by the coffee pot. He began pulling items out of the cupboards and setting them on the countertop. "My quarters are right next to Jacob's," he said. "He and Greta haven't exactly been sleeping either. I don't know what he's doing to her, but whatever it is has got her moaning loud enough that you could hear her in the Free Worlds' League. Figured I'd wait out here for them to finish, give them a couple hours to tire themselves out, then go back to bed." He pointed toward the table. "I haven't drank any of that coffee yet. Help yourself. I'll make myself another one."

Amberly relaxed, then shot him a smile. "That's sweet of you," she said.

Caspian winked at her. "I try to be sweet at least once a month."

Amberly took a seat at the table and took a sip from the mug. The coffee was black, without even a hint of sweetener, not at all how she liked to drink it. Even so she couldn't help but enjoy it. Caspian could be brash and careless, but every now and then he could be surprisingly kind and thoughtful. It was his soft heart that so often drew people to him and inspired them to follow his leadership, and it was what Amberly admired about him the most. As he returned with his own cup of coffee and two packets of synth sugar she smiled warmly.

"There," said Caspian, dropping the packets in front of her. "I know you like to sweeten the crap out of your coffee. That should make it easier on your delicate little taste buds."

Amberly laughed. "You'll learn one of these days," she said.

"Not on your life," he replied with a grin. He pulled up a seat beside her, then went back to lounging in his seat as he had before she had entered. "Was it the dream again?" he asked.

Amberly nodded. "Same as always. Sometimes it feels like it was a lifetime ago, others it seems like it was just yesterday." She arched her back, stretching out the muscles there, then sighed. "I won't be getting any more sleep tonight, that's for sure."

"Hang on." Caspian dug into one of his robe pockets, pulling out a small disc. He dropped it on the table and pressed a button on the center. A light began to glow around the edge, then the image of a holographic fireplace blinked to life in front of them, complete with the snapping and popping sounds of burning wood. Caspian beamed, tapping his temple with his index finger. "Pocket fireplace," he said. "Picked it up at Eddie's Electronics the day we blew up Radick. He said it's perfect for helping you relax."

Amberly stared into the flames, letting its irregular pulsing and flickering work its way into her senses. It was oddly hypnotic, despite its simplicity. As she watched she could feel her tension melting away, and for a moment she could almost fool herself into feeling the comforting warmth of the fire. She pulled her blanket more tightly around her and settled deeper into her chair, then glanced at Caspian. Their gazes met, and he abruptly looked away, as if he'd just been caught staring. Amberly examined him for a moment, taking in the stubbled face and unkempt hair, and thought back to her first day in Mage Lance, back when she was younger. She remembered the nervousness she had felt, and how she had jumbled her words as she'd reported to Caspian for duty. He had been a strikingly handsome young man back then, and even now a little bit of it still remained, despite his current lack of hygiene. Yet in all the years she'd known him she couldn't recall him ever mentioning anyone special, had never seen him with his arm around anyone.

Caspian took a sip from his mug and flinched as the scalding drink burned his tongue, then set it aside to cool. Amberly nudged his arm. "Too hot for you?" she teased.

Caspian glanced sideways at her. "Hot enough to melt steel," he said. "Don't really feel like drinking plasma at the moment."

Amberly smiled and sighed, the soft caress of her blanket and intoxicating artificial fire finally taking their effect. She set her coffee aside as she suddenly began to feel tired. She glanced at Caspian, then inched slightly closer toward him. "This is nice," she said wistfully.

"Hmm..." Caspian nodded, seeming not to notice as she drew nearer. Amberly felt a wave of exhaustion hit her, and for a second she let herself act on instinct. Her head fell onto his shoulder and she closed her eyes, nearly drifting off to sleep on the spot. He felt warm and soft, full of comfort. Caspian jumped a little, startled by her unexpected touch, but he didn't pull back right away. He seemed to freeze, unsure of what to do. "Uh... Grimm?"

"Mm?" she replied, half conscious.

"I... I don't think..."

Amberly pulled away, sitting bolt upright as she began to realize what she was doing. Her face flushed and she turned her back on him. "Sorry," she said. "I... drifted off there for a second."

"Oh..." His tone was passive, and Amberly thought that, just for a moment, she had heard a hint of disappointment. "Well, maybe you should go back to bed."

Amberly thought of her room, the cold bulkheads and the small empty bed. The thought of going back to face her nightmares alone made her shiver. She shook her head. "No... I think I'd rather stay here." She turned back to face Caspian sheepishly. "You make it easier."

"You saying I put you to sleep?" asked Caspian with his trademark grin.

Amberly ignored the joke and shook her head. "I'm saying that it's easier for me to relax with you around."

Caspian's grin faded. "Grimm..." he began.

Amberly stopped him short by leaning against him again. "Shh..." she said. "Just humor me. Just for tonight. Please, Caspian?"

He opened his mouth to protest, but something in her eyes forced him into silence. He felt her warm body pressed up against him, and felt a pang of guilt at how much he was enjoying it. He slowly nodded. "Alright, but just tonight."

Amberly smiled as his arm drifted around her shoulders. She shifted herself into a more comfortable position and let sleep begin to overtake her. "Your robe is really soft," she said as she drifted off. "I see why you keep wearing it. You should get a new one, though."

"This one has sentimental value," Caspian protested gently.

"Hmm... Maybe I'll buy myself one, then."

Caspian felt his face burning as his mind imagined her in a short bathrobe with her hair hanging luxuriously down around her shoulders. He cleared his throat and tried to push the image away, but it refused to leave. Amberly fell asleep on his shoulder, blissfully unaware of his embarrassment.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 02 July 2021, 20:18:30
Gerald wiped at his brow, pulling back his head wrap to clean away the layer of sweat that had formed there. Exposing his skin to Christiania II's harsh radiation wasn't wise. The ultraviolet rays from the sun couldn't be safely filtered out by the planet's ruined atmosphere, and even a few seconds could result in a serious burn. A full minute could be dangerous. Even so the overwhelming heat was smothering Gerald, and so he decided to risk the burn for just a moment of release. He replaced his wrap and covered his face, then took a look around him. The work was progressing smoothly, but slowly. The team if workers was spread out as far as his eyes could see, digging in the dirt and tending the excavators. It was agonizing work, but the shifts were mercifully short. Each man would only spend an hour working on the surface before rotating out with another. This prevented heat exhaustion and radiation poisoning, but resulted in even slower progress. Two weeks of digging had resulted in an excavated area of about three hundred square meters, and so far there had been no sign of their objective.

Gerald sighed as he took a drink from his canteen, then stepped back into his excavator's control seat and placed his hands on the controls. He glanced out the side of the roll cage and spotted Harold waving at him, about ten meters away.

"Are you alright, Gerald?" he said over the radio. "Do you need a fresh canteen?"

"Neg," Gerald replied. "I am fine, Harold. What is the time?"

"Seven minutes remain," said Harold. "Our relief will be along shortly."

"Good. I tire of this incessant heat," said Gerald.

"There is food and cold drink waiting aboard the dropship," Harold reminded him. "Once we are aboard I will prepare my grandfather's goulash recipe. That should improve your spirits."

Gerald smiled beneath his face covering. "It would indeed," he said. "How much progress did you make?"

"I have gained us another meter," Harold replied. "At this rate we should find our target by the end of the century. Perhaps if I were to-"

His sentence was cut short as a beam of solid green light hit his excavator. It lingered only for a moment, but it melted the steel of the vehicle, rapidly reducing it to slag. The beam washed over Harold, and he disappeared as the incredible heat of the laser evaporated the water in his body. He ruptured violently, sending bits of flesh and viscera flying through the air. Gerald dove out if his excavator and laid himself flat on the dry, craggy ground, hands over his head. He could feel the earth shaking beneath him, as it usually did when the team's digging equipment was at work, but the quakes steadily became more and more pronounced. Gerald looked up and saw the bird-like form of a Raven. The light 'mech was sprinting at top speed, heading directly toward the excavation team. The machine guns in its side-mounted sponsons roared to life, spitting high-caliber ordnance into the workers. The men scattered, running for the protection of the dropship. Radio traffic filled with horrified shrieks and howls of pain as they were torn apart. The Raven ran straight past Gerald, who was forced to roll to one side to avoid being trampled beneath its footpads. Bullet casings rained down on him, thudding into the dirt and burning his skin. He stared at the battlemech in disbelief. Its was painted olive drab with one sponson in vibrant orange. The familiar star of the Clans was emblazoned on its hull, and Gerald started to call out friendly fire, but stopped himself. The star was different. There was no dagger running through it, and no Clan insignia to accompany it. It was a far older coat of arms, not of Clan origin at all, but the star of House Cameron and the Star League. The 'mech chased after the team, hunting down the laborers one by one and picking them off like a great predator. The lasers burned away, cutting great arcs of scorched ground into twisting, unearthly shapes. The massacre was over quickly. PPCs shot out from the dropship, scorching the air around the Raven as the Clan warriors fought back. The 'mech, satisfied that its job was done, turned left and sprinted away into the distance, eventually disappearing back over the horizon.

Gerald rose to his feet and slumped against his machine, trying to process what had just happened. His fingers shook and he found it difficult to breathe. He wanted to rip his protective gear away and catch his breath but he knew the risk was too great. Instead he staggered upright and began to cross the vast expanse between himself and the dropship, trying not to look down on the grisly remains that surrounded him.

-

Conners watched the scene unfold from his holotable, arms folded across his chest. The recording was brief, but it captured enough to provide a clear image of the events. The Raven ran past the recorder, weapons firing. In the foreground a man fell, his body torn in two by the gunfire. A woman, wounded and bleeding, tried to crawl away from the machine, only for it to stamp down on her and grind her body into paste. Conners grimaced as the recording stopped, then played itself again from the beginning. He waved a hand and the attendant cut the feed.

"Mage Squadron?" he asked.

"We do not believe so," replied Star Captain Alaric. "The colors do not match, and there is no possible way Mage Squadron could know of our operations here. The 'mech is ancient, going by its wear and markings. It bears the crest of House Cameron. Perhaps it is another Clan seeking to sabotage our operation, steal our discovery for themselves."

Conners scowled at the holotable, thinking for a moment. "The other Clans cannot know that we are here. We declared no formal claims on this world, and not even the Falcons would attack without a batchall. This pilot butchered defenseless laborers and retreated the moment he was fired upon. If he is of the Clans, then he has brought us all great shame and dishonor with his cowardice. Such an attack could only have come from a freebirth."

"The freebirths know even less about our movements than the other Clans," said Alaric. "And even had they known, what motive would they have to fight us over such a desolate planet?"

"Perhaps someone knows what is buried here," Conners replied. "Someone who wishes for it to stay buried. Their identity matters little. Whatever their origins, their intentions are clear. They mean to stop us, but we will not be deterred. I want a guard posted at all times. Have a team of elementals keep watch and have my dire wolf on standby. They will not catch us so ill-prepared next time."

"At once," said Alaric. "One more thing, Star Colonel. The labor caste is understandably shaken by the attack. I recommend that we grant full honors to those killed in the assault, make it clear to them that the deaths of their comrades have impacted the warrior caste as well. A moment of unity will strengthen their resolve."

Conners nodded. "Your words have merit. Make it so."

Alaric saluted, then marched briskly out of the ready room, leaving Conners alone with the technician. The star colonel glanced at the young man and gestured toward him. "Pull up the image of the Raven once again and freeze the frame," he said.

The technician obeyed, his fingers flying artfully over the keys on his control console. The image of the battlemech rendered before him, frozen mid-stride. The blue image flickered slightly every few seconds, but otherwise remained stable. Conners walked around the table, analyzing the Raven from every angle. After a moment he pointed toward the image and said, "Complete the image using the survivor's description. Overlay the correct colors."

The Raven shifted, advancing to the next frame. Gradually the colors began to fade into view starting at the feet and working their way upward. Conners folded his arms and stroked at his chin. The pattern was eerily similar to those of his own galaxy, a simple drab green coat with a few orange and yellow accents. It was no coincidence, as Clan Wolf had always patterned its livery after the SLDF, but it was strange and alien to see a battlemech adorned with such colors committing so hideous an act. The Founder would never have allowed this to stand, so whoever was piloting the 'mech had no affiliation with the ancient army. However, that then begged the question of why he had chosen the colors at all. If he had wished for his identity to remain a secret, then he would only have needed to cover his 'mech with basic primer. If anything, donning the Star League insignia was liable to gain unwanted attention. None of it made sense.

Conners shook his head and ordered the technician to cut the feed. As he had already stated it didn't matter. He had come here to claim a prize, and it would take a lot more than a single light 'mech to drive him away. He smiled to himself and clasped his hands behind his back, wincing slightly as the pain there began to irritate him again. He caught the technician's eye, curious if he had seen, but the youth was caught up in his instruments and his work. Conners let out a slight breath and moved toward the ready room's doorway, stepping out into the corridors of the dropship.

-

Caspian gritted his teeth, clenching onto his seat as the Björngröng rattled its way through space. He had never enjoyed jumping. There was something unnerving about the way space folded around him, the brief glimpse of eternity, that felt wrong. It gave him the impression of man playing God, straying into territory he was never meant to cross. Now the anxiety was tripled. The jumpship Leapfrog was captained by a man named Alan Brady, a wild and unkempt man with a crazed look in his eyes. He was high-strung and unpredictable, not the sort of man you wanted flying you through space, but he was the only captain crazy enough to take them to a pirate point on the far side of Christiania's primary star. It was a risky maneuver. Jumping required intensely precise math, the kind that required powerful computer models to calculate. The slightest error could result in a ship tearing itself apart, appearing inside another object, or worst of all never reappearing again. A pirate point was non-standard and the coordinates were often impossible to verify. Using them was dangerous, but carried the potential benefit of arriving in a system unnoticed. Clan Wolf would be watching the primary jump point intently, and so the only way to reach Christiania II without being detected was through the pirate point.

The Björngröng rattled like an empty beer can as it reentered realspace. A weld ruptured near Caspian's head, and sirens began blaring as a red strobe pulsed overhead. Caspian undid his restraints and ran for the intercom, signalling the bridge.

"Damage report," he said.

"Pressure lost in compartment 17," replied the helmsman. "Structural damage on deck 2. A fire started in compartment 9 but the automatic suppression system has it under control. Overall integrity is holding."

The siren cut out as the bridge crew switched off the alarms and Caspian heaved a sigh of relief. His ship had survived the jump with only minor damage, a better result than even his most optimistic predictions had anticipated. Alan Brady may have been insane, but he knew his trade. Amberly crawled out of her jumpseat situated nearby, falling to her hands and knees and vomiting on the deck. She had always had a tendency to get woozy even on standard jumps, and this one had overwhelmed her. Her shoulders shook as she gasped for air, but she was far from incapacitated. She scowled up at Caspian and raised her index finger.

"Not... a damned word..." she threatened, breathlessly.

Caspian slipped a hand under her arm and pulled her upright, holding her by her shoulders as she swayed dizzily back and forth. He checked her eyes for signs of any internal damage, then patted her back.

"Still in one piece?" he asked.

Amberly nodded, straightening herself but leaving a hand pressed against her abdomen. "I think my small intestine might've swapped places with my trachea, but other than that I'm fine."

"Shame your vocal chords didn't do the same," said Caspian with a grin. "Course you never had much trouble talking out your ass anyway."

Amberly glared halfheartedly at him. "Shut up and grab me a mop before somebody sees the mess I made," she said.

Caspian retrieved the requested tool from the bulkhead and passed it to her, then moved across to the window. Through the tinted reinforced silicate panes he could see the broiling surface of the star, a vibrant blue orb that caught in a dance of everlasting inferno. Caspian watched as a tendril of azure flame lashed out from the star, suspending itself in space before falling once again to rejoin the blazing gases. It was an awe-inspiring sight, one that never got old no matter how many times Caspian saw it. The raw power of the celestial body was humbling, a testament to the limits of mankind. Warships, orbital weapons, nuclear devices, and even the mighty battlemechs all paled in comparison to the force behind the natural suns.

Amberly slipped quietly beside him, sneaking a hand onto his shoulder. "There it is," she said softly. "We're probably the first full unit to see this side of the star in centuries."

"An entire system wiped out of existence," Caspian replied, addressing no one in particular. He shook his head as he continued to stare out into space. "I can't even imagine how many... I'll pray to any God willing to listen to keep this from happening to Lothan."

Amberly put an arm around his shoulders and shook him gently, giving him a reassuring smile. "Come on, Caspian. Let's go check on the team."

Caspian let her pull him toward the door, but still gazed over his shoulder at the distant sun, his expression grim and troubled. Something in his gut was sending him a warning, and he gained an uneasy feeling that something somewhere was about to go terribly wrong. He pushed the feeling out of his mind and followed Amberly out toward the hangar.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 06 July 2021, 21:36:13
Damian stopped a moment to gaze out the window of the causeway. The citadel was not one large building but rather two smaller ones, each flanking opposite sides of a major highway with a drainage canal running its course between them. The two structures were connected by a single enclosed walking bridge suspended high in the air, and the windows provided an impressive view of the Fradvisk traffic down below. At the moment the stream of vehicles on the southbound lanes had stalled, blocked by a traffic accident. A Mist Lynx stood over the wreckage and ambulance crews, using its arms to direct traffic around the scene. Alice stood beside Damian, watching as the rescue teams carried away the injured drivers. She clutched her binder against her chest, and Damian's lips visibly tightened as he clasped his hands behind his back.

"I hope they're alright," said Alice. "It looks serious."

"Our medics are the best among all the Clans," said Damian. "They could not be in better hands."

Alice stared at the Mist Lynx, feeling her knees start to shake. She had seen the design before. It was a light 'mech, a combination of speed and firepower, and it had haunted Alice's nightmares ever since the Invasion. She could still feel the ground shaking beneath her feet, the shockwaves of the machine gun fire thundering in her chest as the war machine tore the walls from her home. Her parents had been standing there, manning a small crew-served gun from the window, firing down on Clanner infantry on the street. As the 'mech turned to fire on them they dove for cover, but the Mist Lynx's pilot was faster. The rounds had shredded their bodies like paper, painting the entire living room with blood and viscera. Alice had cowered against the back wall, staring in horror at the hellish transformation. What had once been a warm place of safety and comfort was now ablaze, riddled with gunfire and dripping with gore. As a child there she had celebrated Christmas, learned to play the piano, shared her first kiss, and spent countless nights huddled by the fireplace with her favorite books. Now the bookshelf in the corner was burning to cinders, the fireplace destroyed by heavy-caliber guns, the piano crushed beneath a collapsed wall. It was too much for Alice, and she had begun to scream as the 'mech seemed to stare at her. The machine had approached, getting close enough that she could see the pilot behind the canopy, peering through the rubble at the shrieking girl in the corner. He had stared at her, his expression hidden behind the visor of his neurohelmet, then a moment later he was gone, the 'mech lumbering away in search of more destruction.

"Miss Jurgen?"

Alice snapped back to the present, wiping a hand across her face as she tried to push the memories into the back of her mind. "Yes, Damian?" she responded.

Damian was gazing at her intently, concern evident on his face. "Are you alright?" he asked. "You have gone pale. Is something wrong?"

She shook her head weakly. "It's nothing." Damian raised an eyebrow, visibly skeptical. Alice raised a hand and pointed out at the Mist Lynx. "It's just... strange to me," she said. "I don't see battlemechs used for... that very often, things that don't involve killing."

Damian nodded slowly. "In a perfect world, battlemech technology would never be used to take lives away." He waved a hand at the machine. "So many things make the Mist Lynx function. A fusion reactor powers it, myomer bundles move it, a complex computer controls the targeting and balance, a neural interface allows the pilot to control the machine like an extension of his own body. These elements combine to make a behemoth capable of bringing down the wrath of mythical deities, but in isolation those things are not meant for such use. Fusion reactors power your homes, your larger vehicles, your ships. Myomer has allowed for great advancements in industrial machinery, allowing construction to be rapid and efficient. Targeting computers can be applied to complex mathematical equations, furthering scientific discovery or managing complicated financial structures. Neural interfaces have provided us with the ability to replace lost limbs with prosthetics that feel as natural as the one that was lost. Yes, today we use these things to destroy one another, but tomorrow...?" His voice trailed off as he leaned against the railing, staring wistfully at the Mist Lynx as it continued steadfastly directing traffic. "Would you like to know why the Clans fight, Miss Jurgen?"

"To gain territory, wealth, power," Alice replied. "Just like anyone else."

"Perhaps for some," said Damian. "But that is not what I fight for. I fight so that one day we might see these weapons disposed of, leaving us only with the advances their science has given us." He turned back to look at Alice, giving her a smile that made her heart skip a beat with its genuine warmth. "'Isaiah 2:4, And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.'" His smile widened and he cast his gaze to his feet, looking slightly embarrassed. "It is a quote from an ancient Terran text. The work itself is forbidden. Simply mentioning it is chalcas, quoting it even moreso. Yet when I hear the words of that passage it gives me hope. I am a warrior, Miss Jurgen. I have seen and done things that no man should ever have to witness. What sustains me, what allows me to face the worst that war has to offer, is not some mystical Clan incantation, no chanting lines from the Remembrance. It is the simple wish that one day all mankind shall forget how to make war upon themselves. I believe that some day, not in my lifetime, but some day in the far future we will learn from our bloodied history and leave the destruction behind. That some day the only time someone sees a battlemech is when it is lifting heavy loads or directing traffic." He turned back to the window. "That is why I serve the Clans. They have limited their violence, and in so doing have come closer to eliminating it entirely than any other society in the history of man. Perhaps some of my sibkin fight for honor and glory, for territory and fortune, but I have faith that they hold the same desire I do, whether they realize it or not."

Alice folded her arms. "You always try and make the Clans sound like some kind of enlightened people. But when you meet someone who isn't interested in your ways you resort to slaughter just as quickly."

"We have not defeated violence entirely," Damian agreed. "But we limit it wherever we can. Such things must be done over time. As for forcing ourselves upon others..." He shot her a thoughtful frown, his brow furrowing. "Let me ask you something. If you had a friend who was romantically involved with a man, and that man was mistreating her, physically abusing her to the point of serious injury, would you not try and stop him? The Great Houses treat their people like tools, pawns to be sacrificed on the altar of conquest. You said yourself that the Lyrans and Kuritans would murder the citizens of Rasalhague. Since Clan Wolf has begun its occupation there have been no summary executions, no lynching, no reprisals. What will it take to convince you that we are different from those who oppressed you in the past?"

"You want to prove that you're not just another empire out to exploit us?" said Alice. "Then let us go. Leave us to our own devices. Give us back our flag, our leaders, and our way of life and leave us in peace."

"Miss Jurgen... You know that I cannot-"

"Of course you can't," Alice cut him off. "We have something the Clan wants. So long as we stay valuable you'll never let us go. It's the same story every time. We don't care how you treat us. So long as you deny us our freedom, our independence, you're exactly the same as the others as far as we're concerned."

She turned on her heel and marched away, unable to look out the window anymore. Damian watched her go, eyebrows knit as he pondered her words. After a moment of reflection he followed after her, his expression dour and his mind deeply troubled.

-

Ashley pulled away from her rifle, taking her gaze away from her scope. From where she and Timothy were positioned atop the Fradvisk Transportation Authority office tower she had a clear view of the Citadel and the causeway that bridged its two buildings. She glanced across at Timothy, who was intently studying the structure with his rangefinder. He looked down at the pad of paper in his lap, ran a quick calculation, then returned to spotting.

"You seeing this too?" asked Ashley.

Timothy nodded. "He's just standing there," he replied. "Looks like he's talking to somebody. Seems awfully relaxed." He frowned as he met Ashley's gaze. "It doesn't make any sense. He's gotta know that he's vulnerable in that spot. Didn't you kill Star Captain Argus there?"

"With this exact rifle," said Ashley, patting her weapon. "Every day for the past week at exactly 11:00 hours he walks across it and takes in the sights for a minute. Either he's stupid, or he's taunting us. It's like he's daring us to try something."

"Why don't we?" asked Timothy. "You've got a clear shot and there's next to no wind today."

"They reinforced the windows and walls after I killed Argus," said Ashley. "Besides, it's not a good idea to repeat the same method twice. Hence why we're on top of a different building this go around. If I shot at him now and missed he'd get spooked and we'd have to start scouting him all over again. Better to bide our time and let Hugo come up with a plan." She looked back through her scope and grunted. "He's moved on. Damn, lost sight of him. I do think Hugo's right, though. That little walkway is the best place for an ambush. If we can run the Fireball in there, have it knock down the far end of it while we take the other from inside, we can trap him there. It's far too tall to jump from, and even if you landed in the canal down there between the roadways you wouldn't last long. That'll whisk you right out into the sea even if you survived the fall."

Timothy nodded in agreement. "The tough part would be getting guns into the Citadel. That place has serious security."

"Nothing Lars can't handle," said Ashley. "That techno-creep could probably make the building tear itself down if he put his mind to it."

"Good thing he's on our side, huh?"

"Yeah..." Ashley rose from her spot, stretching her arms and back. "I think we've seen about all there is to see. Let's get going before the air patrol comes around again. Change back into your civvies." She slipped her flak jacket and tank top over her head, and Timothy abruptly turned away and began to do the same, blushing fiercely at the casual way Ashley had started undressing in front of him. He kept his gaze locked straight ahead, trying to set his mind on anything else. He suddenly felt a finger run up his back and he almost yelped as he jumped. He whirled around to see Ashley standing behind him, dressed in only her civilian trousers and a sports bra. She held up a hand, trying not to smile at his embarrassment.

"Sorry," she said, a bit sheepishly. "Just wanted to ask about that scar on your back. It looks nasty."

Timothy dropped his gaze to his feet, feeling self-conscious and small. She had touched a deep gash that ran from his right hip to his left shoulder in a jagged line, a mark that had been on his body for most of his life. "Oh..." he mumbled, hastily pulling on his shirt. "That happened back when I was a kid. I used to live on a farm on the banks of the Havrödskr. I... don't really show it off."

"I'm sure there's a story there," said Ashley. "Mind telling me?"

Timothy glanced up at her, trying his best to focus on her eyes. He failed, and cast his gaze back down to his boots instead. Ashley raised an eyebrow, then looked down at herself, as if just noticing her attire. She laughed silently to herself and went to retrieve her baggy sweatshirt from her pack, pulled it on, then returned to Timothy. The young man was visibly relieved, though clearly still flustered. Ashley couldn't hold back a smile. There was something endearingly innocent about the way he tried not to stare. She had undressed around her fellow soldiers hundreds of times, never feeling any awkwardness about it. It was a fact of life, part of the daily routine, and she had never given it any thought. But Timothy wasn't a battle-hardened veteran like she was, and he was still a nervous teenager, something that Ashley found it easy to forget, given how close they were in age.

"Relax, Tim," she said. "You're not seeing anything the others haven't seen a thousand times."

"I just... wanted to be polite..." Timothy muttered.

Ashley laughed and slapped his back. "I can appreciate a gentleman, but don't sweat it. I've been around men long enough to catch a few glances here and there. Nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, I happen to be fairly proud of what I was gifted with. Now how about that scar?"

"Well..." Timothy hesitated for a moment as he finally began to regain control of his mental capacity, then continued. "When I was about ten years old I had a pet dog, little sheepdog pup named Beowulf. We used to play fetch down by the river. There was this real pretty spot down there where the trees parted and there was a big grassy field on the riverbank. Well, one day I threw the ball a little too far and it went in the river. Beowulf went after it and... he got swept away. I'd always thought I was a strong swimmer, so I dove in after him, but we'd just had a bunch of thunderstorms and the river was overflowing. I got swept up too." He patted his own shoulder. "I got dragged across the rocks, ripped my back clean open. I thought I was going to die for sure."

"Damn..." said Ashley, unsure of how to respond. "Glad you survived. Did Beowulf...?"

Timothy shook his head, a sorrowful look in his eyes. "No. I never reached him. Never even found his body." He turned away from Ashley and slung his pack over his shoulder. "I've been scared of water ever since," he said. "Can't even go fishing like I used to. Just another thing to add to the list of stuff that makes me a piss-poor soldier, I guess."

Ashley shook her head and sighed. "Nope. There's only one thing about you that'll make you a poor soldier," she said.

"What's that?" asked Timothy.

"You've got no self confidence," she replied. "You want to impress anyone in your life, be it a superior officer, fellow soldiers, or even a girl you like? Have a little faith in yourself."

"And if I fail anyway?"

Ashley shrugged. "Who the hell cares? Everyone fails now and again. It's not about how many times you get knocked down, Tim. It's how many times you get back up. That's what makes a good soldier."

"Maybe..." said Timothy. "Still, all that character building didn't do Beowulf much good, did it? I just hope it's not one of you guys next time." He began to walk toward the exit door, calling over his shoulder, "The patrol is due in thirty seconds. We should get off the roof."
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage 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."
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage 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.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: ThePW 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...
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage 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.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage 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."
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: ThePW on 25 August 2021, 00:11:24
*claps* That is a major change in tact.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage 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."
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: ThePW on 04 September 2021, 10:40:02
Statsplease. Statsplease. Statsplease. Statsplease. Statsplease. Statsplease

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1xFGonXVks
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: DOC_Agren on 05 September 2021, 18:55:54
So we are talking that built this??
Robotech Destroid Monster or MAC II (http://www.robotech-reference-guide.org/Mecha/Monster.html)
(https://www.kent.net/robotech/mecha/rdf/macii.gif)
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.
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: ThePW on 06 September 2021, 00:30:50
http://www.macross2.net/m3/macrosszero/destroid-monstermkip/destroid-monstermkip.gif

more like that  8)
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage on 08 September 2021, 16:43:08
So we are talking that built this??
Robotech Destroid Monster or MAC II (http://www.robotech-reference-guide.org/Mecha/Monster.html)
(https://www.kent.net/robotech/mecha/rdf/macii.gif)
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!
Title: Re: A Twist of the Knife
Post by: Meeko_the_White_Mage 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."