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Author Topic: A Twist of the Knife  (Read 2863 times)


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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #30 on: 22 July 2021, 04:14:24 »
Caspian walked the line of mechwarriors assembled before him, nine talented soldiers who stood at varying degrees of attention as he inspected their kit. Everyone was clad in the traditional pilots' garb, a cooling vest and very little else. 'Mech cockpits we're always hot, even in a frigid tundra, and they were about to set down on a sun-scorched rock with a diminished atmosphere. It would be more than hot; it would be dangerously irradiated with UV light. Without a solid means of keeping cool, the pilots would likely die from heat exhaustion. Of course Bjorn and Halver Halverson would be safe, comfortably seated in their Packrat scout vehicle, a machine that was blessed with an air conditioner. They were dressed more comfortably than the others, wearing matching sets of worn-out fatigues.

Alpha Lance was Caspian's command lance, consisting of himself, Amberly, and two younger pilots from the old 2nd Kavallerie. Jenna Takahashi was a short, redheaded woman with a face full of freckles and blue eyes full of dynamite. Like most light 'mech pilots she was sharp, brash, reflexive, and a touch mad, but she could run circles around many other pilots, and she'd been the champion of the simulators for three years running. Not even Caspian had ever managed to best her in a straight fight. Beside her was Kyle Kendricksen, a wiry nineteen year old boy. His head was completely hairless to allow his neurohelmet to contact his scalp directly, and no one had ever seen what his hair actually looked like. He had an odd quirk of shaving everything, even his eyebrows, which had led to the creation of a betting pool on what color it might be. At present the pool was nearly at ten thousand C-bills, but Kyle had yet to reveal the truth.

The second lance was led by Sullivan Chu. Sullivan was one of the few non-Rasalhague squadron members, a former mercenary born in the Capellan Confederation. He was also one of the oldest, having recently turned fifty years old. He was a man of few words, always standing tall with his arms folded across his chest and with a hint of a smile hovering over his face. He had a strong, fatherly presence that had earned him respect from the men of the squadron and the admiration of a few women. To his right stood Sandy Donelly, a hard-faced woman in her mid forties. Her short, raven hair was streaked with grey, a shade that matched her eyes. Sandy was partially blind in both eyes, and relied on a dubiously enhanced neurohelmet to see her surroundings in the field. A sonar array was mounted on her locust's shoulder, which she claimed allowed her to see her targets plainly. Her aim suggested otherwise, but she had an uncanny ability to spot distant foes before anyone else, which had earned her the nickname "Radar," a name that she bore with pride. Beside her was Olga Malinkov, who stood with one leg raised, her foot resting on a nearby rolling stool. She kept one hip thrust outward and her back arched, a position that looked as uncomfortable as it did suggestive. It was typical behavior. Olga was a notorious flirt, always looking for a thrill wherever she could find one, and she had the appearance to back up her confidence. She was fit and slender, with dark red hair that she kept longer than was typical for a 'mech pilot. Even in battle she wore makeup and crimson lipstick, though exactly who she was looking to impress was anyone's guess. Her incessant teasing and innuendos made her difficult to work with, but she was a skilled shot with long-range cannons and her maneuvering skills had taken many opponents by surprise.

Lastly was the Halverson brothers. Bjorn and Halver were a package deal. It was almost unheard of to see one without the other, though they barely looked related at all. Bjorn was large, broad-shouldered, and shockingly blonde with arms muscles that bulged out to an almost comical degree. He had been a bodybuilder before the war, and had been mildly famous in Fradvisk as a local weight lifting champion. He had a physique that nearly rivaled a Clan Elemental, and even Hugo looked small beside him. He was smiling as Caspian passed him, as he usually did. He never went anywhere without a grin on his face, and his gentle mannerisms and pleasant demeanor were infectious. Halver was only a little over five feet tall, and was far less bulky. He was as thin as a rail, with dark hair and eyes that were nearly jet black. His gaze was always darting around from one thing to the next, as if trying to see everything at once. He was sharp and quick-witted, able to process complex equations in his head almost instantly. He'd been dubbed a human computer, but he was more than just a walking calculator. His reflexes were legendary, and while a small brain tumor kept him from effectively using a neurohelmet, he was a natural choice to drive the Packrat. The brother's were polar opposites, and yet they never seemed to be apart. Some jokingly whispered that they even shared the same bed, which gave rise to the rumor that Bjorn often used Halver as a teddy bear.

Caspian nodded with satisfaction as he finished inspecting his soldiers. "Right," he said. "Here's the situation. We're currently orbiting Christiania II. I'm not going to sugarcoat it; this place is a miserable wasteland, and we're going to be stuck in it for quite a while. Our first objective is recon. We need to know exactly what the wolves are doing here. That means we've got to get up close and personal. Obviously we can't just drop in on their doormat and ask to be invited in, so we're taking the long way around. In order to avoid their scanners, we'll be dropping on the far side of the planet and hoofing it the rest of the way. We will not be getting a resupply, as landing the dropship anywhere but the dark side risks giving away our position. You know what that means; use missiles and ballistic weapons sparingly. The ammo you take is the ammo you've got."

"It's a long walk," Amberly added. "We'll be marching for two weeks before we reach the target area. Contact with the dropship will be nearly impossible due to the radiation and storms on the surface. The conditions will scramble your sensors as well. Expect ghost signals on the radar. Don't get separated from your lance, or we might never find you again. Short-range comms are likely to be the only ones that work out there."

"Sullivan, you're going to be carrying the emergency beacon," Caspian continued. "If we run into any serious trouble, its signal should be strong enough to reach the Björngröng. Make sure it stays intact, because it's our only way off this rock once our mission's complete."

Sullivan nodded. "Understood."

"The planet's hot as hell during the day," said Amberly. "But that's not the case during the night. Without an effective ozone layer it can't hold in the heat at night, so the temperature drops well into the negatives. Keep arctic gear stashed under your seats just in case."

Olga grinned, flashing a set of bedroom eyes at Caspian as she stretched her arms over her head in an attempt to look sensual. "I'll pack an extra bedroll," she said. "In case the captain gets a little too cold in the night."

Caspian returned the grin. "That's thoughtful of you," he said. "But if I ever get cold enough that I have to start bunking with you I'll just stand under one of my 'mech's flamers instead. They'll warm me up faster and I'll be a lot less likely to end up with some kind of disease."

The mechwarriors all laughed and Olga pouted for a moment, but joined in the laughter a second later. Kyle raised a hand and said, "What about provisions? That's a long time to go without resupply, and we can't live off the land either."

"Bjorn and Halver will carry the rations," said Amberly. "Caspian's modified one of his flamer's fuel tanks to hold drinking water. As long as we're careful we'll have more than enough."

Mary nodded her head and flashed a broken grin. "Well, I'm sold," she said. "Who's ready to drop?"

"Just point me in the Clanners' general direction," Jenna replied with a wicked grin. "Sounds to me like the planet's infested, and I'm looking to do some pest control."

"Just stay sharp," said Caspian. "Remember, recon is priority one. There'll be time for smashing heads once we know exactly what we're facing. For now we're blind, so don't go shooting anything that moves unless I give the order. Got it?"

"Got it," everyone chorused.

Caspian threw them a salute and smiled. "Right, then. Gentlemen, mount up and give 'em hell!"


The night was unusually warm. The winds had died down as the sun set, and the chill of the evening had failed to set in. The skies were completely clear, giving Timothy an unimpeded view of the sky. The stars swirled above him like a dance of magical beacons, flickering mystically as the atmosphere filtered their light. He looked at one of the brightest, a star named "Aleph-19." It was an astronomical oddity, a star that didn't truly exist. Timothy remembered reading the history of the star, how explorers had jumped to its position only to find the space completely empty. The star had gone supernova over a million years ago, but because of the speed its light traveled through the universe, its brilliant explosion wouldn't be visible from Lothan for another four million years. It was dead, and yet it continued to shine. The only reason anyone knew it was gone was because humans had learned how to outrun light itself, the fastest material in existence.

Aleph-19 was a part of the local culture, a favorite sermon illustration for preachers all across Lothan. To them it symbolized the light of Christ, the power of Thor, or whatever other deity they happened to worship. It was the go-to source of inspiration for Lothanian poetry and battle hymns, appearing in ballads as a representation of one's legacy. It was used at funerals to symbolize the memories of deceased loved ones that carried on even after death. As Timothy stared up at the star he couldn't help but feel a sense of comfort and security, despite the action that awaited them tomorrow.

Gordon's eyes were also cast upward, taking in the sights as he strummed away on his guitar. He had been singing old soldiers' songs for about an hour, ranging from rowdy marching tunes to sorrowful melodies about homesickness and death. Currently he was singing one of the latter.

"All quiet along the Havrodskr tonight, except here and there a stray picket
Is shot as he walks on his beat to and fro by a Lyran man hid in the thicket.
'Tis nothing a private or two now and then, no account in the news of the battle.
Not an officer lost only one of the men moaning out, all alone, a death rattle.
All quiet along the Havrodskr tonight!"

Gordon carried on with his song until Ashley came up behind him and slapped his back. He missed a chord and the tune stopped sharply. Ashley flopped gracelessly beside him and gave his arm a shove.

"I feel like I'm at a damn funeral," she said. "Play something that doesn't make me want to jump off the waterfall, will ya?"

Gordon scowled at her, but shrugged his shoulders and began a new song, one with a driving beat meant to keep soldiers in step on the march. It was yet another ancient song from the bygone days of small terrestrial armies, and its performance was a well-established tradition. It had always been a favorite of the Kungsarmè, and Gordon sang it with great enthusiasm.

"Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
And we'll all stay free!

Praise the Lord and swing into position!
Can't afford to be a politician!
Praise the Lord, we're all between perdition
And the deep blue sea!

Yes, the sky pilot said it, you gotta give him credit.
For a son of a gun of a gunner was he
'Praise the Lord, we're on a mighty mission!
All aboard, we ain't a-goin' fishin'.
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
And we'll all stay free!'

Praise the Lord
And pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord
And pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord
And pass the ammunition!
And we'll all stay free!"

Timothy stretched his arms and rolled over onto his side, smiling and content. He barely noticed Lars moving to sit beside him. Lars collapsed into a heap of a sitting position, limbs splayed in all directions. He threw his arms over his head and groaned, then sank down until he was lying supine. Timothy watched his chest rise and fall as his breathing slowed, and for a moment he thought he noticed something odd about it. There was a strange contour to it, an abnormality, perhaps a birth defect of some kind, or the aftermath of an old injury. He couldn't put his finger on exactly what, but the way he breathed didn't look natural. Lars caught him staring and rolled into his side to face him.

"Something wrong?" he asked.

"N-no," said Timothy, quickly flipping himself back to stare at the sky again.

For several moments they were both silent, and the relaxing atmosphere grew suddenly uncomfortable and awkward. The tension finally broke when Lars cleared his throat and pointed upward.

"That star there, the blue one just to the left of Aleph-19? That's Christiania," he said. "I looked it up on the star charts this morning."

Timothy strained his eyes. "I can't see it," he said.

Lars chuckled and shook his head. "Must be my lenses," he said. They filter out some of Aleph-19's light, so it doesn't block out the ones around it."

Timothy paused for a moment and raised an eyebrow. "So you mean you're effectively wearing sunglasses. At night."

"That's not the only setting," Lars replied. "I've got the option for an EM view as well. Makes it easy to spot access terminals and underground conduits."

"Isn't it... hard to breathe in that thing?" asked Timothy.

Lars shrugged. "Sometimes. When it's as important as it is, I don't really tend to notice the uncomfortable parts."

"Oh..." Timothy went quiet, unsure of what to say next. They were quiet for a minute more until Lars began to sing softly to himself.

"Stars, in your multitudes, scarce to be counted, filling the darkness with order and light.
You are the sentinels, silent and sure, keeping watch in the night.
Keeping watch in the night!"

Timothy smiled. "That's pretty," he said. "I haven't heard that song before."

"I'm not surprised," said Lars. "It's a little obscure. There was a place where I grew up, a theater that would perform ancient plays and musicals. My favorite show was called 'Les Miserables.'"

"The name sounds Davion," said Timothy.

"Oh, it's far older than that," Lars replied, visibly excited as he rolled over to look at Timothy. "It's from Terra, based on a book from the 19th century."

"Huh," said Timothy. "A book about what?"

"The title loosely translates to 'The Miserable Ones,'" said Lars. "It's about a former convict named Jean Valjean and his journey to redeem himself while avoiding the clutches of Inspector Javert, who's been hunting him for decades."

"I didn't know you were into the arts," said Timothy.

"Are you kidding?" Lars clapped his hands together, beaming even through his visor. "Music, novels, holovids, I love them all!"

Timothy returned the smile. "You've seen 'The Great Coup,' then?"

Lars nodded. "First use of a full-size battlemech in a film? Of course I've seen it! You know it's still the highest budget holovid ever made, even four hundred years later?"

"The longest, too," said Timothy. "Sixteen hours, altogether. My classmates and I used to spend Friday nights watching the whole thing. We'd start after dinner and finish around lunchtime on Saturday."

"What about 'The Fall of Kerensky?' Did you see that one?" asked Lars.

"Yeah! The one where his fleet jumps into a star!" said Timothy.

"Too bad it was historical fiction," said Lars. "We'd be a lot better off now if that's what had actually happened."

"Yeah..." Timothy sighed and rubbed his forehead. "I've always wondered how such a great man could create something so... evil... as the Clans."

"Maybe he didn't," said Lars. "Good men are rare. Maybe he built his perfect society after all, and then it fell apart once he was gone. Shoes like his would be pretty hard to fill. Evil men are everywhere, and it only takes a few to destroy what one good man built."

Timothy frowned. "I don't think most people are evil," said Timothy.

Lars scoffed. "You've never even left the Lothan system," Lars replied. "You haven't seen people like I have. Everyone's got some evil in them, even those you trust. I've seen well-groomed men and women with power, prestige, good family names, and sound reputations act like animals when given the chance. Trust me, there are worse people in the universe than Clanners."

"Is that what you think of us?" asked Timothy. "Are we all evil to you?"

Lars hesitated. The question had been genuine, and Timothy's expression showed more curiosity than wounded pride. After a moment Lars answered.

"No. That's not quite what I meant."

"Well, what did you mean, then?"

Lars sighed, then reached out and ruffled Timothy's hair. "Let me put it to you this way, kid. Your group is the closest thing to good people I've ever seen."

Timothy batted his hand away. "But you still don't trust us," he pointed out. "I mean, for fitte's sake, I don't even know what your voice sounds like. You keep everything hidden away all the time, won't let us be your friends. You think everyone is out to get you, even us  Isn't there anyone in this galaxy you trust besides yourself?"

Lars rolled onto his back and folded his hands over his chest. "Don't take it personally, Tim," he said.

"How the hell else am I supposed to take it?" Timothy demanded.

"There's a lot you don't know about me," said Lars. "I'm not normal, Tim. If you knew what I've been keeping hidden-"

"Nothing would change!" Timothy interrupted. "I don't know what kind of monsters you've dealt with in the past, Lars, but we're not like them. You're one of us, and we don't sell out our own."

"One of you?" Lars shook his head slowly. "I wish that was true. Really. But I'm not a part of your little family. I make them all uncomfortable."

"Maybe if you took your mask off once in a while that'd change," Timothy suggested.

Lars chuckled. "No. No, that wouldn't help. Trust me."

Timothy sighed. "Alright, fine. I don't want to argue with you. Forget I said anything. Why don't you tell me more about that musical, the one based on that old book?"

Lars glanced at Timothy. He had expected him to look frustrated, but the youth was smiling warmly. It was as if he had truly put the argument behind him. Lars wondered how he could bounce so effortlessly from one subject to the next. Perhaps it was that boundless energy of his, the constant running around, that made him so interesting to talk to. Lars gazed into his eyes, and found himself oddly captivated. The way the starlight reflected off of them was so vibrant, so full of life, much like Timothy himself. Lars found himself smiling back, and he rubbed the back of his head.

"Well," he said, "the book was written by Victor Hugo in 1862. I've never read it myself. It's been out of print for centuries, and physical copies are all that's left. You're only going to find one at some fancy auction somewhere selling for an archon's ransom. Either that or some old lady's attic sale, if you're lucky."

"They don't have a digital copy?" asked Timothy. "Nobody ever scanned it into the Comstar archives?"

"I can't read digital books," said Lars. "It just doesn't feel right. Besides, access to the Comstar archives is far too expensive for me. Anyway, the musical came out in 1980. I've got the soundtrack on laserdisc back on the Björngröng. When they get back I'll play it for you. It was a big hit, and it's been translated into dozens of languages..."

Lars continued to ramble, facts tumbling out of him as he enthusiastically explained the core plot and trivia of Les Miserables. All the while Timothy kept smiling, slowly nodding his head as he hung on every word. Gordon and Ashley watched them from the campfire, glancing at each other.

"They seem to be getting along," said Ashley.

"That's putting it lightly," said Gordon. "You know what that is, there? That's a friendship being forged. Like it or not, Lars is attached to the kid now."

Ashley stretched her arms over her head and yawned. "Long as it keeps that techno-creep out of my hair, I'm happy," she said.

Gordon shrugged and set his guitar aside, then slid down to the ground and closed his eyes. "Rest up, Ashley," he said. "We've got a big day tomorrow."
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.