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Author Topic: Afterimage: Chapter 4 (A Baxter's Phantoms story)  (Read 519 times)

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Afterimage: Chapter 4 (A Baxter's Phantoms story)
« on: 25 August 2020, 16:01:27 »
Gregory Baxter shook his head as his son climbed out of the simulator. Thirty seconds. That was how long he had lasted. By any metric it was an abysmal performance, one that any mechwarrior worth his salt would struggle to justify. Thirty seconds from first contact to ejection, from the start of the battle to defeat. Gregory crossed his arms, his gaze piercing Michael with a look of severe disappointment. For several seconds he said nothing, and Michael stared at the floor in shame.

"What happened, Michael?" asked Gregory.

Michael shrugged. His voice was soft and dripping with embarrassment. "I'm sorry, Father."

"Don't tell me you're sorry," Gregory replied firmly. "Tell me what happened. That's what I asked you."

"I don't know what happened," Michael managed.

"You froze. That's what happened. The enemy was right in your sights and you froze!" Gregory's words stung, and Michael visibly reeled. Gregory raised a hand as if to slap Michael, and the boy flinched in anticipation. But the strike never came. Instead Gregory pressed his index finger against his son's chest. "Just like that. You hesitated. You balked. As soon as you saw a threat you curled up to take the hit. That's not what a warrior does. A warrior defies the danger, steels himself, and fights back. You don't sit there and let your enemy destroy you."

"Yes, sir," Michael replied, studying his boots intently. His voice was little more than a whimper.

Gregory knelt in front of Michael, bringing himself to his eye level. He reached out and gently took his face in his rough hand, turning Michael's head to the side and examining a bruise on his left temple. He stroked it for a moment and met his son's gaze.

"Did Miranda give you that?" he asked.

Michael nodded. "She was pushing me around again yesterday. She wanted me to clean out her toilet, probably so she could try and drown me in it again."

Gregory nodded slowly. "And did you?"

Michael scowled, flames of anger billowing wildly in his eyes. "No!" he snapped. "I told her to clean her own damn toilet, told her that I took orders from her father and not from her!" The fire behind his gaze died and he went back to staring at his feet. "Then she hit me, hard enough that my eyes watered. Then she spat on me and made fun of me for crying. But I wasn't crying!" He sniffed and rubbed at his eyes, looking even more ashamed. "I let her hit me. You were the one who told me to. You said that fighting back would just get us killed. I… I thought that's what you wanted me to do."

"For now," said Gregory. "You did the right thing with Miranda, and I'm proud of you for that. Do you know why I keep bringing you here, why I risk both our lives by sneaking you into their simulators?"

Michael shook his head. "To teach me how to be like you?" he guessed.

"No," said Gregory. "I bring you here to prepare you for the day that we take our revenge on the Clans. When I told you not to fight back, told you to be meek and timid with them, I only meant that you should do it in their presence. But here?" He waved a hand at the sim pod.  "Here is where I want you to be ruthless, ferocious, to strike back and give them worse than they give you. When Miranda hit you did you feel angry? Did you want to cave her skull in under your boot heel?"

Michael nodded, his face contorting with repressed fury. "Yes," he growled. "I wanted to. I hate her, Father. I hate her so much I could kill her!"

"And you will one day," Gregory said. "I want you to hold onto that rage. Let it build inside you. Then, when you face a foe in the simulator, I want you to pretend that Miranda is your opponent. Give the enemy no quarter, because when the day comes for you to finally face her it will be in the cockpit of a battlemech. Release your anger here. Take it out on your foes. Unleash the hell that you carry inside of you. And never, ever give your enemy the chance to strike you freely. Out here you are a slave, but in there you are the master of your own fate. Do you understand?"

Michael nodded. "I… think so, Father. I won't freeze up this time."

Gregory smiled warmly, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Good man. Let's try it one more time, then we'd better get back before your mother begins to worry."

Michael stood taller than before, squaring his shoulders as he boldly climbed back into the sim pod. He took the controls with a new sense of authority, and as the door closed behind him he muttered a vow under his breath.

"Alright, Miranda. Let's see how you like being beaten."

-

Michael stepped carefully into the conference room, a small parcel tucked under his arm. Miranda, Eva, Bjorn, and Halver all sat at the halotable, watching him approach. It was deathly quiet, with the only sounds being the distant rumbling of the Mjoddrikker's engines as it carried them away from the station. Michael placed the package on the table, a small black plastic cube approximately 12" on each side. Halver spoke first.

"What's with the box?"

Michael tapped its top, at least he hope it was the top. There weren't any markings on its surface to indicate one way or the other. "That," he said, "is our cargo. Well, that and a small crate in the hold. But Vilnius's man made it very clear that this is the important bit."

There was a prolonged silence as everyone stared at the box. It was featureless, a gray container with no visible seam.

"I suppose it isn't worth asking if we should open it," said Eva.

"Not a chance," said Miranda. "I'm not going to risk damaging the goods by cutting through hardened plastic. For all we know it's molded into it."

"Who cares what's inside it?" asked Halver. "Let's just drop the thing off and be done with it."

Bjorn stood with his arms folded across his chest. "Did you get the coordinates?" he asked.

Michael nodded and turned to Eva. "I'll need you to plot us a course," he said. He pulled a small laserdisc case from his pocket and passed it to her. She took the clear plastic shell from him and opened it, sliding the disc into a slot on the halotable. An image appeared, hovering in the air over the table's surface. The planets and star systems of the Aurigan Reach flickered and blinked at the crew, and a red dot slowly pulsed at the outer edge of the map. Eva's eyes went wide.

"That's… interesting," she said.

"Why?" asked Miranda.

"The coordinates are in empty space," Eva replied. "There are no star systems there at all. The nearest major system is over sixty light years away. Worse, there's only one jump point between us and the destination, and it's not anywhere near it. We'll need to travel at cruising speed for most of the trip."

"How long?" asked Michael.

Eva shrugged. "I'll need to run a few calculations, but I would say four months, bare minimum, give or take a couple weeks for resupply. There's a network of small stations in the area, mostly for refueling mining ships in the asteroid belts. If we hit a few of them on the way, we should be able to make it without too many problems."

"I don't like it," said Miranda, her words clearly aimed at Michael. "If someone gets serious about following us, they'd catch up easily, especially if they happen to have their own jump-capable transport."

Bjorn tapped the edge of the halotable. "Is there another route, Eva? Maybe something a bit less direct?"

"Not unless you want to run out of fuel and coast through an asteroid field," she replied. "Sooner or later we will need to stop for a resupply, and there aren't a whole lot of options in the area. It's virtually empty. Nothing but ore mines and a couple agricultural biodomes."

"It's a risk we'll have to take," said Michael, leaning heavily on the table. His shoulders were tense and slouched, as if the decision placed a physical weight on him. "How long until we reach the jump point?"

"About 63 hours," said Eva. "The jumpship Kylos III is scheduled to depart about five hours after we arrive. The delay will be minimal."

"Good," said Michael. "I want as much of a head start as possible. As long as Vilnius isn't compromised, nobody should know what we're doing. Still, let's not take chances if we can avoid them."

-

Vilnius sat back in the luxurious leather of his wide armchair, staring absently out the thick reinforced glass of his window at the sprawling expanse of space beyond. The stars burned vibrantly in the distance, mixing with the beautiful strands of nebulae and the looming shadows of nearby asteroids to create a stunning tableaux of cosmic wonder. It was a sight that never ceased to amaze him, his own little slice of the galaxy, a piece of the universe to call his own. Decades of maneuvering, lying, extorting, and scheming had earned him his place at the top, and the view from his high tower was as glorious figuratively as it was literally.

Vilnius removed a cigar from the ornate sodden box by his side, slowly turning it in his fingers before striking a match. He lit the end and held it to his lips, letting the flavor of the smoke slowly fill his mouth and savoring the taste.

"Those things can kill you, you know."

Vilnius nearly choked with surprise, his hand shooting to the pistol he kept on the coffee table in front of him. A needle weapon coughed quietly, and a shard of burning plastic lodged itself in Vilnius's hand. He gasped with agony, unable even to scream as the hot polymer seared his flesh. He recoiled and fell back into his chair, shivering with pain and terror as the intruder's chiding tone mocked him.

"Now, now. That's no way to welcome a guest."

Vilnius turned around, seeking the source of the voice. In the dim lamplight of his private study he could see a ghostly silhouette in the shadows, the smoking barrel of a pistol aimed directly at his chest. Vilnius grunted as he clutched his injured hand.

"If I call for my guards, you won't make it to the door," he growled.

The figure shrugged. "Go ahead and try it," he said. "I'll silence you with a needle to the gullet before you finish a syllable."

"Who are you?" Vilnius demanded. "What do you want?"

"Straight to the point," replied the shadow. "I like that. You're every bit the businessman you claim to be." The man stepped into the light, revealing a sturdy frame and a masked face. He wore all black, with only a shoulder patch to identify him. His head tilted slightly in amusement as Vilnius stared wide-eyed at the black wolf's head that decorated his uniform. "That's right," said the stranger. "Jaime Wolf sends his regards."

"It's you…" Vilnius whispered in horror. "You're the one who tried to kill me on Outreach."

The man laughed. "If I'd been trying to kill you, you wouldn't have made it back here in one piece." He spread his arms in a friendly manner. "Relax, Mr. Vilnius. I'm not here to kill you. Not unless you do something stupid, and I know you're not a stupid man."

"Then why are you here?" asked Vilnius. "I don't have what you're looking for."

"I know," said the man. "You passed it off to a merc company. Selling stolen goods is a very poor way of doing business, Mr. Vilnius, hardly what one would expect of an honest employer. That kind of behavior can have a truly detrimental effect on someone's Merc Review Board rating. You should be more careful." He paused to give his words time to sink in, then continued. "No, we're not interested in you or your little 'empire.' You're nothing, a miniscule man with no real power of his own. The Wolf is far more interested in who you work for, the brains behind your latest operation. We know you couldn't have pulled off a heist like the one you did on Outreach, not without a lot of help from someone on the outside."

"Ah…" Vilnius tried to pull his robe tighter around himself, seeking to retain what little dignity he had left with a nervous laugh. "Y-you must be mistaken. I don't work for anyone," he said. "And even if I did, my contracts are confidential. I'm sure you can understand."

The man took another step forward. His gait was strong and firm, every motion exuding an absolute sense of confidence. He knew he was in control, and the fact appeared to please him. "I don't expect you to tell me anything," he said. "People desperate enough to steal from the Wolf aren't the kind who like loose ends. If you talk then they'll erase you. All I need from you is one small piece of data." His hand shot out suddenly, latching onto Vilnius's robe and pulling him in close. His other hand clamped down on the shard in his victim's palm, twisting it forcefully. Vilnius gasped and hissed, clawing helplessly at the man's arm with his remaining good hand. The intruder leaned in and whispered in his ear, his voice a deadly whisper that sent shivers down the crime boss's spine.

"Where did you send Baxter's Phantoms?"
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.