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Author Topic: A Twist of the Knife  (Read 3447 times)

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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A Twist of the Knife
« 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?"
« Last Edit: 01 May 2021, 20:10:01 by Meeko_the_White_Mage »
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

Brother Jim

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #1 on: 07 April 2021, 17:37:24 »
Tracking.

Middcore

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #2 on: 07 April 2021, 22:48:33 »
Interested.

ThePW

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #3 on: 07 April 2021, 23:11:43 »
Helm. Station keeping.

snakespinner

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #4 on: 08 April 2021, 01:25:09 »
Interesting. :thumbsup:
I wish I could get a good grip on reality, then I would choke it.
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Growing up is optional.
Watching TrueToaster create evil genius, priceless...everything else is just sub-par.

Artifex

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #5 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 ...

Ttw1

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #6 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
I'm sad to say that An Entry With a Bang was what introduced me to battletech. In retrospect it was a ****** of a roundrobin, but I still look upon it fondly.

The Mother Doctrine was good. Change My Mind.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #7 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."
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ckosacranoid

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #8 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.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #9 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.
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Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #10 on: 12 April 2021, 15:19:12 »
hmm
« Last Edit: 30 April 2021, 14:20:02 by Meeko_the_White_Mage »
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cklammer

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #11 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/

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

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #12 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/

 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.
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Middcore

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #13 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.

cklammer

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #14 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) ... :-)
« Last Edit: 14 April 2021, 13:23:13 by cklammer »

Middcore

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #15 on: 28 April 2021, 22:29:51 »
Is there going to be more to this?

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #16 on: 29 April 2021, 12:47:16 »
Yes, as soon as I get the threads merged.
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Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A twist of the Knife
« Reply #17 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."
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

mikecj

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #18 on: 02 May 2021, 10:36:09 »
Very promising so far.  Thanks for sharing.
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Romo Lampkin could have gotten Stefan Amaris off with a warning.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #19 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.
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Elmoth

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #20 on: 02 May 2021, 17:57:35 »
Tagged. Let's see what the fuss on Christiania is about

DOC_Agren

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #21 on: 04 May 2021, 15:05:17 »
One Ping Only

Intersting read so far
"For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast, And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed:And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill, And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!"

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #22 on: 04 May 2021, 16:03:20 »
One Ping Only

Intersting read so far

I understood that reference.  8)
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Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #23 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.
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #24 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."
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

ThePW

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #25 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)?

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #26 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."
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #27 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.
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #28 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.
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #29 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."
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

 

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