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Author Topic: Afterimage: Chapter 2  (Read 282 times)

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Afterimage: Chapter 2
« on: 09 August 2020, 20:26:08 »
Miranda stared up at the towering form of Bjorn Halverson's Stalker, shielding her eyes from the floodlights as she strained her neck. She spotted the man where he usually was, neck-deep in circuitry and power conduits as he tweaked the minute settings of his machine, always striving for the perfect blend of power and performance. His entire upper half was buried in an access panel, but Miranda recognized him plainly from the bit of him that was visible. There were ways to identify a man besides his face, and Bjorn's form-fitting trousers made it easy to spot. Miranda called up to him, waving her hand over her head.

“Hey, Bjorn! Got something for ya!”

Bjorn shuffled out of the hatch, nearly losing his balance as he stumbled onto the maintenance lift. “On my way!” he called back. He held down the switch on the lift's control surface and the device ponderously lowered him to deck level.

Miranda sized him up as he approached. Bjorn was built like an ox, stocky and broad, looking almost like a human version of an Atlas. His hair was normally a golden color, but all the digging around in the Stalker's internal systems had covered him in thick, greasy blackness. His face was smeared and obscured, with only a pair of striking blue eyes shining through. He looked every bit like the proud Lyran that he was, and he smiled in an odd way that Miranda couldn't decide was charming or unnerving. It was an eerie quality that both of the Halverson brothers possessed. She held a slip of paper out to him, trying to give him a smile as she delivered the bad news. “The Shogun's left thigh is sticking again,” she said. “Damn thing nearly toppled over this morning. That's going to be a priority repair.”

Bjorn's smile faded slightly, just enough to show that his heart was no longer in it. He accepted the slip with his mitt of a hand, trying his best not to look hurt. “I just finished that yesterday. All the actuators were perfectly aligned.” He rubbed at the back of his head, staring blankly at the work order. “Damned Clanner tech,” he muttered, then quickly added with a shy glance, “No offense.”

“None taken,” Miranda replied. “I left them behind a long time ago. Just try your best, alright?”

“I thought I did,” said Bjorn. “Let me take a look at it now. Show me exactly what happens when you hit the controls and maybe I can get it fixed properly this time.”

They walked side by side to the Shogun's bay. The 'mech was a relic, a rare example of its kind that was more a collection of spare parts than a true Clan machine. Its original smooth torso had been rebuilt with a more boxy and angled replacement, and the PPC had traded places with one of the LRM15s on the right shoulder. The entire right arm had been swapped out for a Griffin's with its PPC removed and the Shogun's more powerful weapon mounted haphazardly in its place. It was an ugly design with the arm being comically smaller than the one on the opposite side, but Miranda had enjoyed the feeling of empowerment that an arm-mounted particle cannon afforded her, at least she had when the arm functioned properly, which was only about half of the time. Bjorn pulled a pencil from behind his ear and tapped the Shogun's foot with it as he came close.

“Why do you always do that?” asked Miranda.

“Do what?”

She pointed to his ear as he replaced the pencil. “That. What you just did.”

Bjorn frowned for a moment, then nodded his understanding. “Oh, that. Just an old habit of mine. My father taught me to always treat a battlemech like a stallion, you know? You never approach a horse without letting it know you're there first, otherwise it's liable to kick your head clean off your shoulders. Letting a 'mech know you're coming keeps them from backfiring or short-circuiting your ass into oblivion while you crack her open.”

Miranda shook her head as they boarded the lift together. “You're an odd one, Bjorn.”

The mechanic raised an eyebrow, waving his hand up and down to indicate her entire body. “You're one to talk. You're a Clanner who left the Clans, gave up their way of life, even talks differently than they do, and you want to call me the strange one? You know one of these days you'll need to tell me why you left. What was it? Did the boss sweep you off your feet with his irresistible charm?”

Miranda smiled and gave his shoulder a shove. “Not on your life, freeborn. I've got a reputation to maintain.”

“Oh?” asked Bjorn with a sly grin and a wink. “A reputation as a cold, dark, and mysterious mechwarrior with a shadowy past?”

“A reputation as an invincible killing machine.” She bared her teeth in mock ferocity, then sighed. “Michael and I weren’t always on good terms,and I didn’t want to leave at first. It's not much of a story, really. If you're that curious, you can ask him when he gets back. He's a better storyteller than I am, anyway.”

Bjorn snorted. “No thanks. That man's past is more heavily guarded than Terra. Hell, I’m already on thin ice for spending so much time in your company. The boss gets a little jealous when other men come near you. I like my job, and I'd like to keep it.” The lift reached the waist of the Shogun and Bjorn began removing the bolts to the access panel. “Right. Let's see what we've got going on in here.” He pulled the sheet of armored metal free, set it off to his left, and climbed inside. His fingers glided gently over the conduits as he traced them to their connected components. His hands grasped and tugged at various components to test their mountings. Miranda leaned back against the lift's safety rail and folded her arms.

“Anything?” she asked.

“It would help if I knew what the hell I was looking for,” Bjorn replied. “All the parts I installed are functioning perfectly. This Clanner junk, though?” He snorted. “I can only guess at what half this stuff even does. Like this box-thingy here. It's mounted to the right-central gyroscope, and it's wired to the balance computer. At first I thought it was some sort of external processor to speed up balancing computation and allow the Shogun to control more responsively.”

“Sounds reasonable,” said Miranda.

“But...” Bjorn growled. “It's also got a coolant line pumping into it. Flood a computer with that stuff and it'll short out. So perhaps it's mechanical in nature? Nope! No motor to drive any mechanical parts and it runs on extremely low voltage, pulling from the same supply as the primary balance computer. So I should take it apart and see what makes it tick, right? Nope! The box is welded together, so if it's got delicate circuitboards in it then I could permanently damage them with no hope of repair. And that's just one part.”

Miranda kicked his boot playfully. “So it's beyond your skill, then?”

Bjorn's index finger emerged from the hatch to wag at her. “I didn't say that. I'll have you know that I'm the best mechanic in... wait... what the hell?” Scrambling sounds came from inside the Shogun as Bjorn shifted his weight. “Eyoowugh! There's some kind of slime all over the gyro housing! Where’d that come from?” There was a pause and what sounded like sniffing. “Smells like... is that lime? No... No, it's kiwi or something. Mmph. Tastes like it, too. Seems to be dripping from... (damn, this stuff is sticky)... dripping from the upper level. Looks like a gap in the control deck. Wait... wait!” Bjorn began to laugh, his voice booming as it was amplified by the cavernous hull of the Shogun. He gasped for air, struggling to speak between heaves. “Hey, Miranda? Haha! Have you been eating in your pilot’s seat, by any chance?”

“Maybe,” Miranda answered defensively. “Sometimes we're out for hours at a time. Got to keep up my strength somehow.”

“Well...” Bjorn wheezed as he composed himself. “Well, your nutrient paste has leaked down into the gyro. The control deck's floor panels aren't properly seated. It’s dripping all over the place.”

Miranda scowled and folded her arms as she leaned back against the rail. “Can you fix it?” she asked with a light snarl.

“Of course,” Bjorn replied. “Clanner tech is out of my sphere, but cleaning up slime? That I can handle. I'll have your machine running like a dream in about a half hour. Oh, and Miranda?”

“Yeah?”

“Maybe next time toss your empty bottles outside the cockpit, or stow them somewhere watertight. Oh, and by the way...” He pulled himself out of the hatch and winked at her. “Don't worry about a thing. Your secret's safe with me. You've got a reputation to maintain, after all.”

Miranda allowed herself a slight smile. It was nearly impossible to stay sour at the irrepressible mechanic. His grin had a charm to it, and it was intensely contagious. She sighed and allowed her arms to drop back to her sides. “Thanks, Bjorn. I owe you one.”

“You can buy me a drink later,” he replied. “God knows I'm gonna need one after finishing today's work orders.”

Their conversation was cut short by a call from the hangar floor. "Hey, Miranda!"

Her face glowed a bit as she smiled fully. It was Michael's voice. After what had felt like an eternity of nervously waiting for news of his meeting, he had finally returned safely. She leaned over the rail and waved to him. "Mike! You're not dead!"

"Don't sound so disappointed!" he called as he strode across the deck. "Are Bjorn and Halver up there with you?"

"I'm here," shouted Bjorn. "Halver's probably in his bunk."

"Ah," Michael replied. "Busy night for him?"

"I'll say," said Miranda. "He came back from the pub with another girl."

"What kind?" asked Michael.

"Blonde again," Bjorn shouted back. "My Little brother's getting predictable. That makes three this week."

"Don't listen to him," said Miranda, lowering the lift to close the distance between herself and Michael. "Bjorn's just jealous. I didn't have the heart to tell him about the redhead Halver had on Wednesday."

"The what?" asked Bjorn.

"Nothing!" Miranda called up to him while winking at Michael. The lift reached the ground and she stepped heavily off of it. Her arms looped around Michael's neck, pulling him against her with strength far beyond what her slender frame suggested she could possess. "Glad you're alright. What did Vilnius want?"

Michael visibly tensed, and Miranda could feel the unease in his taut muscles. "He gave us a job," he said.

"A job?" Miranda echoed. "And you accepted?"

"I wasn't in a position to refuse," said Michael. "I'll give you the details later. I want everyone present when I give the assignment." His hands found her shoulders and he stared into her eyes. There was a slight hint of a hopeful smile on his face. "This might just be the chance we've been hoping for."


-

Michael took a deep breath as he finished telling his team about their latest contract. He waited, visibly tense, for them to respond. Bjorn's eyes went wide and he exhaled sharply, running a hand through his hair. His brother, Halver, his ruddy and handsome face still visibly flushed from his earlier activities, simply folded his arms. Half of his mind seemed to be elsewhere. Miranda leaned forward against the holotable, resting her chin in her hands. Nobody said a word. Michael cleared his throat.

"Well?" he asked. "What do you say?"

"Sounds like you already made the decision for us," said Bjorn flatly. "What good will making objections do?"

"I haven't said 'yes' yet," Michael replied. "We don't have to take it."

"But we already know too much," said Miranda. "That makes us a liability. The last thing we need is to be another loose end for Vilnius to tie up. If we don't accept the contract, then that's exactly what we'll be."

"Our hands are a little tied," Michael agreed. "It's not ideal, I know. Nobody in their right mind wants to work for Vilnius, and he knows it. He's learned how to make offers no one can refuse."

"It's not all bad," said Halver, lounging comfortably against the wall. "Getting ourselves out of debt, having a chance to grow again, that's a pretty serious benefit."

Bjorn shook his head. "I don't like it. We know enough so that we can't safely turn it down, but not enough to know what we'll be up against. What the hell is this cargo of his, anyway, and why would he need mechwarriors to haul it for him?"

"Probably because he expects competition," said Miranda. "Sounds like he wants muscle to protect it from outsiders in case something goes wrong. Hopefully he's good enough at keeping secrets that we won't need to fight anyone off."

"Man, we don't even know who would be coming after us if we did." said Bjorn, throwing up his hands. "It's like jumping onto a planet without scouting a landing site. We'd be running blind!"

"I know, dammit!" Michael snapped. He pounded the table, then caught himself. He continued with a hushed voice. "I know. If it was anyone else offering this job, I would have laughed in his face and told him to go screw himself, but this is Vilnius, and he's the king around here. We don't have the luxury of refusing."

Halver's gaze swept the room, passing back and forth over the crew. He read their expressions, each ranging from frustrated to desperate. He cleared his throat and stepped forward, his face beaming as he slapped his brother heartily on the back. "Hey, hey, c'mon now!" he said. "You all look like a bunch of paranoid old nannies. There's no sense in worrying about something we can't change. If there's nothing we can do, then what's the use of sitting here wringing our hands? Let's just get the job done. Maybe it'll be hard. Maybe it'll be dangerous. I don't know about you, but I think the potential gain is worth the risk. Besides," he added with a wink. "It's about time we saw some real action in this company."

Nobody applauded his speech or even smiled, but the tension in the command center eased noticeably. Michael nodded. "You'll need to kick out the floozy in your bunk, Halver. We'll need to move quickly, and I'm not hauling any passengers."

"Floozy?" Halver folded his arms and scowled. "I'll have you know that Evelyn is a fine, upstanding woman."

"Oh, she's upstanding alright," said Miranda sarcastically. "Up standing on the pole dancing stage. You brought her back from the exotic dancers’ place, didn't you?"

Halver ignored her and waved a finger at Michael. "You're missing out, boss. She's got some talents that we could use a lot more of around here."

Michael grinned and raised an eyebrow. "Tell her to put in an application, then. What do you think, Bjorn? Should we open a new position for her?"

Bjorn raised his hands, palms outward. "I don't think that's wise, boss. Especially not with that look." He nodded toward Miranda. She was glaring silently at Michael, her eyes narrow and piercing. Michael enjoyed teasing her, but he could tell that he was dangerously close to pushing her jealous streak one step too far. She may have left the Clan life behind, but she was still a dangerous person to make angry.

"Get rid of her then, Halver," said Michael. "Tell her to call back when she learns some useful skills."

Halver sighed and shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I tried," he said with a wave of his hand. "Farewell, Alice. Parting is such sweet sorrow…"

"I thought you said her name was Evelyn," said Bjorn.

Halver hesitated. "Did I? They're all starting to blend together."

"Maybe you should find a woman worth remembering," Miranda suggested icily. "One who can stand to be with you for more than a couple nights."

Halver winked at her. "You're just jealous," he teased. He turned back to Michael. "Right, well I'd better go and break the heartbreaking news. How about we meet up in the simulators afterward, boss? I want to run through a few maneuvers with the Fireball."

Michael nodded. "Sure thing. I could use some practice. How about you, Bjorn? You haven't run a program in ages. You should check if your skills are still sharp."

Bjorn sheepishly rubbed the back of his head. "Maybe later. I've still got to recalibrate the Stalker's targeting module and tune the left footpad. You two have fun."
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.