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Author Topic: Afterimage: Chapter 1 (A Baxter's Phantoms story)  (Read 450 times)

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Afterimage: Chapter 1 (A Baxter's Phantoms story)
« on: 09 August 2020, 10:04:11 »
The planet of Remoria XII was not a pleasant one. Once thought uninhabitable, its constantly storming seas covered its entire surface. Pungent green water writhed and broiled for miles, heaving up and down with waves hundreds of meters tall. Had it not been for the abundance of rare crystals that formed on the ocean's floor, the massive mining platforms would never have been built, and Remoria XII would have been remembered as nothing more than another speck on the star charts of the Periphery. Once, centuries ago, the great weapons manufacturers had flocked to the planet for laser components. Now those companies were mere shells of their former glories, and no one still lived who knew how to properly harvest the crystals. So the platforms now sat empty and silent, forgotten like so many other examples of lostech throughout the galaxy. It was the perfect hiding place.

At least, that's what Marvin had hoped. He shivered violently as the driving acid rain pelted his environment suit. The protective clothing shielded him from the corrosive materials, but they did nothing to block out the unrelenting cold. The deck of the platform was slick beneath his boots, and years of neglect had rendered the facility's supports unreliable. The entire structure shifted ever so slightly as the waves relentlessly pounded against the struts, making the deck sway like that of an ocean liner. It was far from safe, but with any luck Marvin hoped he would not need to remain much longer.
After what felt like an eternity of walking across the open decks he reached the structure he had been seeking, a communications tower located near the center. The equipment visible from the outside was old, even for the days of the Star League, but it appeared to still be intact. Marvin reached into his pocket and removed a small card, about half the length of his hand. What had once been written on it had faded away centuries ago, but that was of no consequence. All that mattered was the chip that was still mounted inside the plastic shell. The black market dealer had assured Marvin that it would provide access to the facility, though he had been suspiciously quiet about the means used to acquire such a relic. Marvin approached the door to the tower and held the card against a small box mounted to the frame. There was a moment of silence, followed by a chirping sound. The door cracked, but did not open fully, its inner workings too far degraded to move the sheet of steel. Marvin pressed his body against it and pushed, forcing it the rest of the way. It resisted him, but after a few seconds of angry grunting it gave way.

A few of the old lights flickered on as he entered, triggered by some archaic motion sensor. A bulb burst in the distance from the sudden electrical charge, showering glass onto the floor below. The lights revealed a desolate place. Papers of unknown purpose scattered about in the breeze, yellowed and torn with age. On any other planet one might expect to see cobwebs, but on Remoria XII there were no spiders to make them. Instead, there was nothing but a thin layer of dust and the flakes of aging paint. Marvin walked down the empty halls, nervously checking around every corner. He had never been a religious or superstitious man, but the ghost stories of childhood had a nasty habit of resurfacing in his mind whenever he was alone in a dark place. He felt a constant nagging sensation to check over his shoulder. The walls creaked all about him as the floor continued to sway, and Marvin's own breath soon began to fog up his visor. He stopped for a moment and forced himself to relax, clenching and unclenching his fists. He had come this far. If he had wanted to panic, he should have done so during the voyage. Of course, being so close to doing what he was about to do, nervousness was understandable. Crossing Boss Vilnius was quite a risky thing to do, and very few who did lived to tell about it.

After traversing the halls he came to his destination, a control center for the tower. Ancient computer terminals sat dormant and unused, many of the monitors possessing broken screens. One lone station against the far left wall was blinking, awaiting an input command that had never come. The single dash that had been flashing for centuries had been permanently burned into the glass, but when Marvin pressed the keys and began to type, the letters still displayed. He could hardly believe his luck. He had come prepared, the pack he carried filled with extremely valuable computers designed to be compatible with ancient hardware, and yet after all this time he had found one that was still usable. It was incredibly fortuitous, as it saved him many precious hours. He pulled a slip of paper from his pocket and began typing in the commands he had been instructed to remember.

-RUN DIAGNOSTIC PROTOCOL

-Diagnostic running. Standby...

-Diagnostic complete. Two errors found. More info (Y/N)?

-Y

-Secondary uplink connection unavailable.

-Connection to host could not be established.

-ESTABLISH NEW HOST CONNECTION

-Please input target ID.

-CS113N57X821

-Confirming. Standby...

-Connection confirmed. Input security code.

-CODE: PROMETHEAN_2254189

-Standby...

-Security code accepted. Please type desired message.

Marvin took a deep breath. The news he was about to deliver to his superiors was not good, and ComStar executives were dangerous men to make angry. He had no idea how they would respond. He flexed his fingers and told himself to stop worrying. He was just the informant, doing his job just as they had told him to. There was no reason for them to take anything out on him. He keyed in his message and sent it out into the relays.

-MESSAGE: This is Asset 7. Are you receiving?

There was a delay as the message was beamed across the vast distance of the Inner Sphere. The technology ComStar owned and maintained was highly advanced, an heirloom from the days of the Star League. It could send messages and even video signals over vast distances almost instantaneously, far faster than anything potential competitors could ever hope to offer. Even so, the distance between Terra and the Periphery systems was expansive enough to cause significant latency. After a few seconds the reply was displayed.

-Affirmative, Asset 7. Send traffic.

-MESSAGE: Following is priority 1, Ursa Contingency. Contents are security level 5. Please acknowledge you are ready to encrypt and receive.

-Acknowledged. We are standing by.

-MESSAGE: Suspicions regarding the work of Vilnius are confirmed. However, his plans are much further along than anticipated.

-How much further?

-MESSAGE: Vilnius has a buyer. Final transit will begin within 72 hours.

-What is the destination?

-MESSAGE: Unknown. Buyer's identity is unconfirmed. Transaction was conducted via courier.

The next response made Marvin's blood freeze.

-Your information is incomplete, Asset 7. Why did you make contact without usable intel?

-MESSAGE: I was compromised. Boss Vilnius has always been suspicious. He cut off my access to all further information. Gathering additional intel was not possible. However, I do have more to report. The prototype unit is currently located on Dryad IX. Currently there are only three vessels docked there: Quetzalcoatl under Captain Fernando DeLeon, Maudite Dragonne under Captain Maurice Depardieux, and Mjoddrikker under Captain Michael Baxter. Quetzalcoatl is scheduled to depart within 12 hours to the neighboring system, Maudite Dragonne in 14 into Marik space. Mjoddrikker is scheduled to depart in 49 hours and has yet to file a flight plan. Other assets in the system can intercept, provided that they move quickly. Report complete. Awaiting instructions.

The delay was longer this time. Marvin sat with his hand folded in his lap, hardly daring to breathe. For five agonizing minutes he waited, when the reply appeared without any fanfare.

-Your mission is complete, Asset 7. You may return.

-MESSAGE: Acknowledged. Returning at once. Be advised, Boss Vilnius is aware of my connections. He will know you are coming after him.

-Good.

The final word sent shivers down Marvin's spine, and he dreaded to think of what terrible plans his Word of Blake brethren had in store. He closed down the program and shut down the old computer for what would most likely be the final time and gazed absently out the window. It had gone well, all things considered. He was still alive and still had his job, which was far more than he had expected. Weeks of dodging bounty hunters and Vilnius's personal thugs had put him on edge. Perhaps there had been nothing to worry about all along.

No sooner had the thought formed in his mind than he spotted something in the sky. There was a light far in the distance, falling from space. At first Marvin thought it was a meteor, some old piece of debris burning up in the caustic atmosphere. Then he saw that it was getting larger, approaching the mining platform. The object seemed to be moving at incredible speed, leveling out and flying steady over the water. Marvin realized with horror what it was. An aerotech was coming after him, and it was moving fast. There was a flash of light as it fired one of its lasers, and Marvin watched in dismay as the VTOL on the far platform, his only means of escape, melted before his eyes. The machine made directly for the tower, and for a moment he was convinced that it was going to crash into him. Instead, it stopped short, hovering in the air in a way that seemed physically impossible. The fighter's rear section had split into two parts, swinging down to point their thrusters at the deck. A pair of mechanical arms emerged from the sides of the fuselage, creating an ungodly amalgamation of a battlemech and aerotech. It was a Land-air Mech, or LAM, heavily armed and blessed with almost supernatural speed, and Marvin could clearly see the cracked red skull that comprised Boss Vilnius's insignia proudly displayed just under the canopy. The sensor array on its underside turned and blinked at him, scanning for something. Marvin turned away from the window and began to flee, desperate to be anywhere but where he was. He might as well have stayed; there was no outrunning what happened next. The LAM lifted an arm and fired its mounted PPC. Subatomic particles blasted through the tower faster than the speed of light, ripping apart the structure and melting pure steel in an instant. The exterior plating peeled away like burned flesh, creating a macabre metal flower at the point of impact. Marvin did not even have a chance to scream. The heat vaporized his body faster than his mind could process.

The LAM hovered for a moment, scanning again for signs of life. Finding none, it turned away and flew off into the storm, leaving the smoldering platform behind it.

-

Michael Baxter checked his reflection in the mansion hall's mirror, running his fingers through his hair one final time. It was rare for a mechwarrior like him to ever find a need to look presentable, but Michael was far more than another jockey. He was the company commander of Baxter's Phantoms, a mercenary company he had built with his own tenacity and skill. In his position, he found himself constantly thrust into important meetings with equally important people, and for that he needed to make a proper first impression. He had forced himself to study and learn all the tricks of the trade: when to wear a full suit, when to don formal or ceremonial robes, what color shirt meant what in each territory, and why you should never show up with a messy head of hair. It seemed cruel, then, that fate had gifted him with such unruly locks. No matter how much pomade, spray, or saliva he applied, the cowlick that constantly threatened to cover his left eye refused to behave. Fortunately, today Michael had come up with an ingenious solution. He produced a paperclip from his pocket and clipped the hair together. The metal glint was glaringly obvious, but if he wore it with enough confidence anyone glancing at him would see it as an eccentric but novel fashion choice. It was a lesson he had learned from his father, the power of confidence. Anything could be achieved so long as one presented himself with authority and self-assurance, no matter how far from the truth it actually was.

However, confidence was exactly what he seemed to be lacking today. He had been called to meet with Boss Vilnius, a local power-hungry official. Michael had never met the man before, but knew him by reputation. Vilnius's name was known throughout many places in the Periphery as a man who had earned the right to be feared. On paper, he was some sort of planetary governor. In practice he was more akin to a mob boss. He was pleasant enough so long as you followed his rules and paid your often excessive fees while docked at his stations, which coincidentally were the only stations available in the sector. But if the Boss decided that someone's actions offended him in any way, then they had a nasty habit of disappearing. What became of his enemies was left to the imagination, but many people had been quick to point out that he seemed to own an oddly extensive collection of leather shoes. Michael had always taken the stories to be nothing more than propaganda, the sort of rumors men would circulate to make themselves seem more threatening. Still, he knew for a fact that Vilnius only asked for people by name for one of two reasons; either he needed a favor, or he wanted an apology for something. Neither option was particularly attractive to Michael.

Satisfied that his appearance was not salvageable beyond what he had already achieved, he approached the door to Vilnius's office and rapped his knuckles on the mahogany surface. “Enter,” said a deep voice, and Michael obeyed. He was confronted by a lavishly decorated space, a room far wider than was practical for a working environment. It had been designed with a single purpose in mind: making an impression. It was impossible not to feel small amidst the high ceilings, towering works of art, and the excessively high-backed chair that sat behind an almost comically large desk. Michael buried any feelings of intimidation as he marched smartly to where Vilnius was seated. The man himself was much the same as his room. He was imposing, larger than life, and dressed in the most garish regalia he could find. His clothes were covered in glittering bronze sequins. He had a golden ring on every finger, and a watch on both wrists. The last time Michael had seen such an insane outfit was on a space station on the other end of the periphery where a pimp had tried to sell him a working girl. In light of the boss's wardrobe Michael felt immediately less self-conscious about the clip in his hair. He was in good company when it came to confidently wearing oddball designs, and confidence positively radiated from Vilnius. The large, rotund man wore a smile the size of a nebula, and he thrust out his hand toward Baxter with enormous enthusiasm. Baxter accepted the handshake and tried his best to smile back, but he was still unsure what to make of the man before him.

“Have a seat,” said Vilnius, taking his own advice by lounging in the throne that he called a chair. “You are Michael Baxter.”

It was a statement, not a question, Michael noted. “Yes,” he replied, making a statement of his own. “You wanted to speak with me.”

“Indeed.” Vilnius idly picked something from between his teeth. “How are things, Michael? Mercenary work treating you well?”

“As well as it can,” he replied cautiously.

“Good, good,” said Vilnius. “And Miranda, how is she? I hope she's not too homesick. Not an easy life to leave behind, you know, being a Falcon and all.”

It was a power move, and a damn good one. Miranda had never left the Mjoddrikker, had never even set foot on the planet. The only way Vilnius could know about her was by looking into the ship's personnel logs, but that was far less concerning than exactly what he had said about her. The fact that Michael had a former Clanner in his unit was something he had always kept close to his chest, not a piece of information that was easy to obtain. Vilnius had done some serious research. It was a test, a way to see how Michael performed under pressure. The invasion of privacy caused his fists to clench, but he swallowed his anger and replied as calmly as he could.

“Miranda is doing just fine. She's more adaptable than you might think.”

“Of course. And how are the Halverson brothers? Are they-”

“Mr. Vilnius,” Michael interrupted, holding up a hand and smiling as politely as he could manage. “I understand that you wish to establish your dominance here by listing off all my loved ones. Believe me, I was thoroughly intimidated before I even walked in. Such a gesture is unnecessary.”

Vilnius's eyes narrowed. For several moments he stared at Michael, not saying a word. The mercenary could feel himself begin to sweat and he found himself regretting what he had just said. Interrupting someone like Boss Vilnius mid-sentence was generally not a very smart move. Suddenly, to his surprise, Vilnius laughed. “You've been through all this before, I see. Well, why wouldn't you? I'm sure your recent misfortune has led you down some... less than savory paths. I'll cut right to the chase, Michael.” He leaned back, kicking his feet up onto the desk. His boots were as ostentatious as everything else he wore, made of red leather with diamond buckles. He pulled a cigar from his coat and took his time lighting it, talking with it held in the corner of his mouth. “I need a favor. You know anything about Clan tech?”

“Not much outside of how to drive their ‘mechs.” Michael admitted. “I know that it's decades ahead of anything we have.”

“Then you know exactly as much about it as I do,” Vilnius replied. “You're probably too young to remember much of it, but I had a front row seat when those bastards invaded.”

“So did I,” said Michael. Something dark welled up inside him, a flurry of memories threatening to resurface after years of being pushed deep within him. “They cut right through us.”

“In the beginning, they did,” said Vilnius, raising a finger. “Until about ten years ago. There was a battle fought not too far from here, out on the Plains of Yarna. Nasty business, that. Clanners even lost a ship in orbit. For the last decade I've been picking up the pieces, making a little money on the side by selling them to... ahem... 'collectors' throughout the Inner Sphere.”

“People buy old battle scrap?” asked Michael. “Wouldn't mercs or ComStar have salvaged anything valuable right after the battle?”

“Oh, they did,” Vilnius assured him. “But some people will pay a fortune for the little bibs and bobs you find in a scrapheap.” He leaned in closer and winked. “When you're rich and bored, like I often am, you start looking for hobbies, things to waste your excess c-bills on. They pay, and I don't ask questions, you see?”

Michael nodded, not understanding, but eager to wrap up the conversation as quickly as possible. “So let me guess. You need someone to deliver one of these 'bibs' and/or 'bobs' of yours.”

“To a very, very wealthy client,” said Vilnius. “This particular little goodie has gotten someone a bit hot under the collar, someone with deeper pockets than I've ever seen.”

“I'll take a look at the Board,” said Michael. “We do need some work, and a delivery isn't-”

“There's a catch,” said Vilnius. “The buyer has requested absolute secrecy. We haven't even openly communicated, you see. No broadcasts of any kind, only brief exchanges between couriers. Needless to say, we can't exactly put it out to the Review Board.”

Michael blinked. “You want me to go black? That kind of thing could get my licenses revoked! I'd never be able to pick up a legitimate contract again if they found out.”

“Hence the secrecy,” Vilnius replied with a gentle wave of his hand. “Of course, I wouldn't simply expect you to do this job for ordinary c-bills. I've got something more substantial in mind. You know, it really is a shame, what happened at Odessa.”

Michael tried not to growl at the mention of the planet. “What do you know about that?”

“Oh, please, Michael.” Vilnius chuckled as he blew out a mouthful of smoke. “Everyone knows about Odessa, how you lost an entire company in a single day after your location and IFF codes were leaked. Don't worry. I don't blame you at all for what happened. Simple mistake. Could have happened to anyone. You really only did one thing wrong.”

“And what was that?”

Vilnius returned his feet to the floor and sat up. He leaned in close and rested his elbows on the desk, his tone of voice changing to a deathly quiet tone. “You picked sides.”

“I'm a Lyran,” said Michael. “Katrina may be unhinged, but she's my commander. I can't bring myself to bend the knee to a Federated Suns lackey like Victor.”

“Katrina was your commander,” Vilnius pointed out. “What did she do with you once you outlived your usefulness? That's right. She cast you aside. She sent you out to die on Odessa. You know that. That's how it is with all the Great Houses. Every last one of them will stab you in the back eventually. Picking sides is a mistake, Michael, one that I refuse to make. Of course, that's really neither here nor there. I'm sure you want to put Odessa behind you, forget it and move on. And you would, if not for the massive debt hanging over your head. Rebuilding an entire merc company from the ground up is an expensive business, and I hear those loans are next to impossible to pay off.”

Understanding hit Michael like a missile blast. “You're offering to put a dent in my debt?”

“Better,” Vilnius replied. “My client is paying a hefty sum for this cargo. You deliver it, I'll buy your debt. Baxter's Phantoms will walk away with their travel expenses covered and their loans repaid. Think about it, the fresh start you've been looking for.”
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

snakespinner

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Re: Afterimage: Chapter 1 (A Baxter's Phantoms story)
« Reply #1 on: 10 August 2020, 02:44:42 »
Interesting start to your story, looking forward to this. :thumbsup:
I wish I could get a good grip on reality, then I would choke it.
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