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Author Topic: Afterimage: Chapter 3 (A Baxter's Phantoms story)  (Read 340 times)

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Afterimage: Chapter 3 (A Baxter's Phantoms story)
« on: 14 August 2020, 08:05:24 »
Michael grunted as the damage indicators flashed on the edges of his HUD. Halver had scored yet another hit. His Fireball was running circles around Michael's Nightsky, slowly but surely burning away his leg armor with repeated bursts of concentrated laser fire. It was Halver's usual strategy to utilize his 'mech's superior speed to avoid damage outright, and today it was serving him well. Michael was a seasoned warrior, and he had total control over his machine, but Halver seemed to have him dialed in. He cursed as a blast of his PPC streaked by the Fireball, another in a long list of missed shots. He spun in all directions as he tried to maintain a lock, but each time he came close the 'mech would swerve in a new direction and continue chipping away at his armor. Halver's voice crackled over the radio, and its arrogant tone nearly made Michael growl with rage.

“What's the matter, boss?” he said. “Lost your bite already?”

Michael triggered his jump jets, thrusting himself upward and tucking his legs beneath him to present a smaller target. Two laser beams slashed the space he had previously occupied. Michael pushed himself backward and continued to rise, landing on a simulated hill behind him. From this new vantage point he could see the Fireball clearly as it spun around in an attempt to reacquire him.

“I only have to hit you once,” said Michael as he lined up his next shot. He fired all his weapons at once, aiming his PPC ahead of the Fireball and his lasers behind it. The Fireball attempted to retreat from the heavy blast of the particle projector, only to walk directly through a wall of medium lasers. What little armor the 'mech had swiftly burned away under the salvo, leaving the internal structure exposed, but Halver didn't even pause. He charged Michael directly, knowing that the all-out attack had nearly overheated the Nightsky. He closed the distance, then began circling Michael yet again.

“Nice try, boss,” he said. “But you're just too slow.”

“Left leg taking critical damage,” said the computer in its soothing, if artificial, feminine tone.

Michael gritted his teeth. Another jump and he risked losing the leg. He needed to find something, anything, to slow down the Fireball. He watched the minuscule battlemech sprint in front of him before disappearing behind him again. Halver was taunting him, rubbing it in. He knew he was on the verge of victory. A few more hits to the legs and the Nightsky wouldn't be able to keep its balance. Michael nearly shouted something insulting, but caught himself. Getting angry was exactly what Halver wanted. He was doing this on purpose, making himself a horrible nuisance in an effort to make him lose concentration.

“Right leg taking critical damage,” said the computer.

An idea began to form in Michael's mind, a frantic attempt at a strategy born from desperation. He waited until Halver crossed over to his left, then tried to step forward. His left leg buckled, and a warning siren blared inside his neurohelmet. He urged the Nightsky onward anyway, forcing it to fall onto one knee. The simulated impact slammed him against his restraint harness, but he ignored the pain. He then twisted his torso to the left, as if searching for the Fireball. He turned his right arm sideways and waited. Halver took the bait, firing into the Nightsky's exposed rear armor from nearly point-blank range. As soon as the damage indicators flashed, Michael swung his torso to the right and extended his arm. The hatchet blade slammed into Halver's 'mech, catching him completely by surprise. The force of the blow tore the upper half of the Fireball away and it sailed into the distance, leaving the legs comically wobbling in place. The screen went dark as the battle concluded, and he could hear Halver swearing from across the hangar.

“Scheiße!” he was yelling as he climbed angrily out of his Fireball's cockpit. “H'stkuk! Was zum Teufel? I had you! How the hell did you get me?”

Michael breathed a sigh of relief as he released his canopy and hopped out onto the gantry. “Easy,” he said. “I let you think you were winning, set a trap, and you took the bait. You were so used to dodging my fire that you completely dismissed the hatchet as a non-threat. That's what I hit you with.”

Halver leaned against the Fireball, his arms folded over his chest as he visibly sulked. "Threw away a match I'd practically won at the last second. Typical. Well, that trick won't save you next time."

Michael chuckled. "Oh, lighten up. You only lost because I know you too well. Enemies in the field won't have that kind of inside information. Tell you what, we can call it a win for you if you want, and I'll owe you a beer."

Halver waved the gesture away. "No way, boss. You beat me fair and square. I won't learn anything if you go too soft on me. But since you played dirty we'll make a compromise. No beer for you. Next time we put in, I'll treat you and Miranda to some Waffle House instead."

Michael grinned as he descended the ladder to the deck. "Is that supposed to be a punishment?"

Halver slid down the rails of his ladder to join Michael, jogging quickly to his side. He slung neurohelmet over his shoulder and made a big show of rolling his eyes. "Oh, right," he said. "You're the one person in the entire Inner Sphere that actually likes Waffle House. What is it with you and that place, anyway?"

Michael shrugged. "I was still pretty young when the Jade Falcons captured my family. I remembered a few things about it, but we lived with the Clanners for so long that I almost forgot what it was like back home. Father never did. Every night after our evening rations he'd sit us down and tell us stories about home. One of the things he always raved about, in between stories about IS history and his days in the Kell Hounds, was how much he missed the taste of Waffle House. When he died I promised myself that once I escaped I would go there whenever I got the chance. Sort of a way to remember him." Michael gave an odd sound that sat somewhere between a chuckle and an embarrassed grunt. "Sounds pretty stupid when I say it out loud, doesn't it?"

Halver slapped his shoulder. "Hey, from what you've told me of your old man, he sounds like someone worth remembering. If that's what works for you, then I won't disrespect it. Hell, I wish I could do something like that to remember my father."

"Why don't you?" asked Michael.

"Three reasons:" Halver replied. "First, my old man's still alive. Second, he's an ******. And third, I hate him."

Michael thought about pressing him further, but tactfully decided against it. Something in Halver's tone told him that it was a sensitive topic. He wiped his face with his shirt to clear away the sweat, then pulled it over himself to cover his chest. The transition from the heat of the 'mech to the relative cold of the hangar made him shudder as his perspiration evaporated.

"I need to get a jacket," he said simply. "I'll see you later."

"Sure thing," said Halver. "When do we head out?"

"Vilnius said his courier would be arriving this afternoon," Michael replied. "As soon as we get the cargo loaded, we'll lift off. I want to get this job finished as quickly as possible."

Halver pulled a coat from a nearby railing and threw it about his shoulders. "Amen to that, boss. The sooner we get out of Vilnius's web, the better."

-

Eva Larsen sat alone at a table in the galley, her gaze fixed on her holotablet. Words scrolled by at an impressive speed, their light reflecting dramatically in the glass of her spectacles. To most people they would be illegible, but Eva didn't miss a single comma. Reading was her favorite leisure activity, and she had mastered it through years of practice. She could consume an entire technical manual in a matter of hours and still be able to discuss the finer points of its contents. She was a practical woman, one who always strived for efficiency in her work. These traits made her a formidable tactical coordinator, and she had served the company well in her brief tenure. She paused the text to rest her eyes for a moment, leaning back in her seat and running her fingers through her short, black hair. She tilted her chair back, rocking it back and forth on its rear legs as she thought quietly to herself.

Michael had been gone for over an hour now. She had been briefed on the new contract just after everyone else. The finer details were not concerning to her. She had done far more perilous work in the past. However, even she couldn't help but feel a bit nervous at the idea of working for Vilnius. Going behind the back of the Mercenary Review Board was risky, and few companies managed to do so while keeping their reputations intact. She wondered what was taking Michael so long. Had he run into trouble? Had Vilnius changed his mind and decided to eliminate him? She knew that such things were unlikely, but they nagged at the corners of her mind all the same.

In her absent-minded rocking she tipped her chair back too far. With a startled yelp she pitched over backwards, bracing herself for impact against the cold steel floor. Instead the chair held in place, seemingly defying gravity. Eva cautiously opened one eye to check what had happened and found herself staring up into the inverted face of Bjorn. He was standing behind her, holding the back of her chair with a frighteningly strong grip.

"Careful," he said with an easy smile. "Getting lost in thought like that can be dangerous." He lifted her chair back into place and stepped back to admire his handiwork.

"Thanks, Bjorn," said Eva sheepishly. "I wasn't paying attention. Any news from Michael?"

Bjorn shook his head as he moved toward the counter. "Not yet. I'd give him another hour before I'd start getting worried, though. Coffee?"

"Mm…" Eva mumbled as she slumped over the table. "Coffee sounds really nice, actually. I didn't get much sleep last night."

Bjorn raised an eyebrow at her as he pulled the grinder off its shelf and dropped in a handful of beans. "Any particular reason?"

"No," she replied. "Well, maybe… I don't know."

Bjorn took a moment to grind up the coffee beans, pour them into the pot and begin heating the water. He set the coffee pot aside and sat down across from Eva.

"You want to talk about it?" he asked.

Eva didn't reply immediately. She pressed her thumbs together and purses her lips, as if summoning the courage to say what was on her mind. After several moments she said, "Bjorn, how long have you been with Baxter?"

Bjorn sat back in his seat. It was a simple question, albeit an unexpected one. "Halver and I were some of the first he recruited," he said. "Guess it's been three or four years since then. Why?"

"Did you have… any friends at Odessa?"

Bjorn blinked. "You mean… friends that lived there?"

Eva sighed, frustrated with the insufficiency of her own words. "No, I mean… I don't want to reopen old wounds… but did you, you know, lose anybody there?"

Understanding dawned on Bjorn's face, followed by a grim shadow. "Oh…" he managed, his throat audibly tighter. "Well, yes. I did. Most of us did. A lot of us didn't make it out. A lot of good people. You weren't there for it, were you?"

"No," Eva replied. "Michael recruited me later, just before he changed the company's name from 'Brawlers' to 'Phantoms.'  Miranda told me what happened, but she was pretty closed about it. How big were the Brawlers back then?”

Bjorn broke eye contact, staring blankly at the table. “We were just shy of battalion strength, about thirty-two ‘mechs strong. Even had a team of VTOL pilots. We didn’t lose everyone at Odessa. That massacre took out about three quarters of our strength. The rest fell away over the next few months, leaving for more profitable companies when our finances started drifting into the red. Now it’s just us.”

“Why did you stay?” asked Eva.

Bjorn looked at her hard. He was beginning to understand where she was headed with her questions. “We all have different reasons for staying. Miranda would never leave Michael’s side even if she wanted to. Halver? He’s just looking for the next adrenaline rush. I stay to take care of my little brother and make sure he doesn’t get himself killed.” He nodded toward Eva. “What about you? Why did you decide to board this sinking ship?”

This time it was her who dropped her gaze. “I don’t know,” she said. “There was just something about him, you know? Michael, I mean. He seemed so… hopeful. Almost like he thought he could cheat fate. He’s got big plans for the Phantoms, despite being on the ropes. I guess I just wanted to see if he could really pull it off. You know him better than I do. What do you think?”

Bjorn rose from his seat and went to retrieve the coffee pot. “It wouldn’t be the first time he’s laughed in the face of impossible odds and come out on top, but I don’t know. I suppose it could go either way. Still, if you’re thinking about bailing out, nobody would blame you. I don’t blame anyone who left us before. Hell, I'm still good friends with a few.” He poured out the steaming dark water into a pair of mugs, then glanced at Eva. “Two sugars and half a creamer packet, right?”

Eva blinked in surprise. He was right. It was how she had always fixed her coffee, but she had never told anyone. “Yeah…” she said cautiously, narrowing her eyes. “How did you know that?”

“I’ve watched you fix yourself a cup before,” he replied innocently as he stirred the sweetener into her mug. He walked it over to the table and passed it to her before returning to fix his own. “I’m a mechanic, remember? I notice small details.”

“Really?” Eva took a sip from the mug. It tasted almost exactly like it did when she made it herself. “Alright, then. How does Miranda like hers?”

Bjorn winked at her as he came back to his seat. “Trying to trip me up, are you? Miranda doesn’t drink coffee. She’s been addicted to tea ever since she visited Luthien for the first time. Before you ask, Michael takes his black, and Halver doesn’t need any caffeine to stay awake.” His confident smile suddenly evaporated and an embarrassed grin took its place. “I know, I’m weird.”

“Just a bit,” said Eva, taking another sip. “But the coffee more than makes up for it.” She shivered as the warmth of the beverage coursed through her, restoring a bit of life that she hadn’t realized was missing. She smiled as sweetly as she could manage at the mechanic. “I’ll admit, I was thinking about bailing. Michael’s got a lot of ambition, and I’ve seen that kind of mindset destroy a man before. Still…” Her voice trailed off.

Bjorn nodded in understanding. “A part of you wants to believe he’ll succeed. I know how you feel.”

“I just don’t want to see anyone getting killed over it,” she said softly. “Enough people have died for stupid reasons in the war. I’ll be honest, there are times where I see something familiar in his eyes. It’s the same look Katherine Steiner Davion has in her holovid broadcasts.”

Bjorn whistled. “Careful who’s around when you say things like that,” he said. “Miranda would gut you like a pig for comparing the boss to that broad.”
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

 

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