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Author Topic: A Twist of the Knife  (Read 1473 times)

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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A Twist of the Knife
« on: 07 April 2021, 08:32:32 »
The surface of Christiania II was a barren wasteland, a vast landscape of dead ground. It had once been a beautiful world, as its hosts of withered trees and dried riverbeds could attest, but now all signs of life had long since disappeared. What had once been a fertile field of golden barley was now a dusty expanse of sun-choked soil, driven by the ever-present winds into a howling storm of scouring brown clouds. The land was scarred with craters and wide ditches where the horrible bombardments of war had ravaged the earth, and every few miles the crumbling remains of buildings stood like grave markers. The devastation was pervasive, but neither the dismal scenery nor the relentless gale could slow the progress of the pair of warriors who marched across the crust of the broken world.

Star Colonel Horace Conners braced himself, forcing his way through the driving wind as he wiped his goggles clean for what felt like the millionth time. He and his aide had been on the march for nearly five hours, and the grueling pace had begun to affect the middle-aged commander. Coming to the surface personally had been unnecessary, but he had insisted, wishing to see the world from his years of research firsthand. Now he wished he had stayed aboard his ship. The atmosphere of Christiania II had been depleted, letting stellar radiation through that made instruments unreliable. The only way to find the location described in the texts was via landmarks, and most of them had disappeared during the years of orbital bombardment this planet had suffered. Conners groaned silently to himself. His back ached immensely, an ailment that had begun to afflict him regularly, but he refused to show any signs of how much it bothered him. Such displays were a sign of weakness, and a Clan warrior never showed weakness. He quietly followed after Damian, the soft-spoken soldier who carried the navigational equipment. Damian's gazed shifted constantly, flicking from a datapad in his hands to the horizon and back again as he consulted his charts.

"What is our position?" asked Conners.

"94.738 by 165.334," he replied, his gentle voice barely audible above the wind. He then turned back toward Conners and smiled reassuringly. "We are less than a kilometer southeast of the target area. We will arrive shortly."

"Neg," said Conners. He pulled a set of binos from his belt and began to scan the horizon. "The ground is almost completely flat ahead," he said. "There will be nothing to see. It will be buried, just as the texts describe."

Damian nodded. "Precise coordinates were not provided," he said. "Our search shall encompass a nearly ten square kilometer area. Whatever the Founder buried here, he wished it to remain hidden. May I ask a question, quiaff?"

Conners glanced at Damian. The soldier was still young, gifted but inexperienced. Always eager to learn, he had a habit of driving hardened warriors crazy with his constant inquiries. Conners didn't find the young man annoying, but rather enjoyed his energy and enthusiasm. He nodded and said, "What is on your mind?"

"If the Founder always intended for us to return, why did he take such lengths to inhibit us? Could he not have left us more precise instructions?"

"The answer lies all around you," Conners replied. He waved a hand, indicating the wasteland around them. "When the Founder's men left this world it was lush, verdant, teeming with life. Look at it now. See how the savages of the Inner Sphere destroyed it all with their stubbornness and greed. They do not fight like you and I, Damian. They do not understand the tragedy of war, the wastefulness of their ways. To us, violence is a tool of precision, a finely honed blade for use only where it is needed. To the barbarians it is a blunt object, to be hurled about as carelessly as one might a stone. The innocent, the weak, and the helpless all suffer as powerful men treat war as a plaything. Imagine what these people would do had they ever found the words of Kerensky, what terrible deeds they would use his weapons to commit. No, the Founder in his infinite wisdom concealed these items, ensuring that only those with the strength of mind to understand his words could find what he had left behind. Far better that we struggle a little than millions die from a weapon that should have remained hidden."

Damian cast his gaze around him, then pulled the goggles and mask from his face, revealing a pair of vibrant green eyes. He wiped at his cheek with the back of his hand as he contemplated Conners's words. After several moments he replied, "It is a wonder that anything remains after so many years of needless bloodshed. Is there any hope for them, quiaff?"

"There is," said Conners. "But first they must be brought in line, their minds turned to our way of thinking. Only through subjugation can we save them from themselves."

"Subjugation?" Damian echoed. "What of our agreement? The Clans vowed to cease their invasion. We cannot break that oath."

"We will not have to," said Conners. "A treaty binds in both directions. The Inner Sphere will not sit idly by as we convert our holdings. One day they will violate the truce in a vain attempt to reclaim what we have rightfully conquered. When that day comes, they shall be met with untold retribution, and this time we will not be so easily goaded into staying our hand. What we find here will be one step among many, Damian, a vital part of a greater whole. This world will grant us power the likes of which no one has wielded in over two hundred years." He smiled beneath his face covering. "Place the beacon. We will begin our excavations immediately."

Damian saluted, then removed his pack. Unzipping the primary compartment, he removed a large transmitter and placed it on the ground. After a moment of twisting dials and pressing switches a light on its side began to pulse rythmycally. Damian drew himself up and addressed the star colonel. "It is done," he said.

Conners nodded his approval, then cast his gaze upward, searching for signs of their dropship. After a few moments he caught a glimpse of the engines burning somewhere above the swirling clouds of sand. The ship descended cautiously, following the beacon as the irradiated plains and storms wreaked havoc on its instruments. Conners watched them approach with satisfaction. Soon he would be aboard and the excavation crews would begin their work. Once their task was complete he would be a hero, worthy even of a place in the Remembrance. Now it was only a matter of time.

What Star Colonel Conners didn't know was that his men weren't the only ones to pick up the beacon's signal. Somewhere in a high orbit, far above the surface, a small craft caught the transmission. A moment later it turned, as if it had been awaiting this very sign, and flew away into the deep void of space.

-

The day began with the ringing of a bell. Eddie's Electronics had an old, metal instrument that dangled just above the front door of the storefront, an ironically low-tech device for a place that prided itself on its inventory of cutting-edge consumer goods. The bell rang when Eddie opened the store, and it would continue to ring each time a customer entered. It was a pleasant sound, and Eddie had always held a fondness for the traditions and mannerisms of ancient Terra. While his shelves were stocked with the most innovative gadgets the Inner Sphere could offer, his windows were made of genuine glass, his register was an antique with physical keys and a mechanical calculator, and even the music that played over his old stereo system was from a bygone era. The store was located in one of Lothan's oldest buildings, a structure that had been constructed when the planet had first been colonized centuries before. It had been in Eddie's family for generations, and he ran his business with pride. It was a time capsule, a place that never changed despite the upheaval of the times. It had weathered decades of occupation by House Steiner and Kurita alike, and even now it carried on. Every day began with the ringing of the bell, a subtle reminder that life carried on as it always had, no matter whose banner flew over the Citadel.

The little bell chimed again, but this time Eddie didn't find the sound pleasing. It heralded the arrival of three men, one tall and commanding and the other two muscle-bound giants. Star Captain Albrecht Radick marched directly to the counter, leaving his two elementals to stand guard by the door. They placed themselves directly before it, turning away the only other customer as he tried to exit. The man quietly withdrew to the corner of the store, keeping his head down as he pretended to examine the merchandise. Radick placed a hand on the counter, scowling at Eddie as he slammed a small, rectangular polymer box down on its surface.

"Eddie Jorgensen," he snarled in a low voice.

Eddie met his gaze, his blood frozen as the captain stared into his eyes. He struggled to keep his voice steady as he replied. "Can I help you, sir?"

Radick ignored the question. "What sort of business do you purport to run here, freebirth?" he asked.

Eddie took a moment before responding, unsure of what answer the Clanner was after. "...This is an electronics store," he said. "It... says that on the sign, right?"

Radick's eyes narrowed. "You insult my intelligence."

"No, no!" said Eddie, raising his hands to placate him. "I'm just not sure what you're asking. Tell me what you need, and I'll see if I can make it happen for you."

One of the elementals took a step forward. "This one's speech is vulgar. Shall I teach him to speak properly, quiaff?"

"Neg, that will not be necessary," Radick replied, leaning over the counter until his nose was a hair's breadth away from Eddie's. His tone was icy as he continued. "Perhaps you require a reminder, Eddie Jorgensen. I passed through your..." He paused as he scanned the room, wrinkling his nose as he spat out the next word. "...establishment... two days ago. You recall, quiaff?"

"Y-yes," said Eddie, stepping back from the star captain's glare. "I remember. You bought a laserdisc recorder and a box of discs, said you wanted to record audio reports or something."

Radick smiled venomously. "You remember. Good. Then perhaps you can explain this." He lifted his hand off of the box he had placed on the counter, revealing the remains of the recorder. It was in shambles, a jumble of shattered components, as if someone had taken it apart and tried to shove the parts back into place with brute force. "What do you make of that?"

"Well, looks like you broke it," said Eddie. "Would you like to buy another one?"

Radick sharply threw back his head and laughed, making Eddie jump. His loud voice boomed through the shop, lasting for several seconds before he stopped himself short and glared even harder. "You have a lot of nerve, freebirth. I will grant you that. First you sell me a defective product, then you try to profit off of me for a second time." His hand lashed out, catching Eddie's shirt collar. Radick hauled him across the countertop with surprising strength and speed, then pressed their foreheads together, forcing him to make eye contact. "Now you listen to me, Eddie Jorgensen," he snarled. "My predecessors were far too kind to you freebirths. They let you run wild, swindling and backstabbing the esteemed men and women of Clan Wolf, but this sort of rebellious attitude will cease as long as I am in command here. I know you sold me a broken device on purpose. It is your quiet form of protest, your own private little insurgency, and it ends today. Your people are conquered, Eddie Jorgensen, and you will accept it."

He snapped his fingers, and one of the elementals moved to his side. The giant took a holovid player off the shelf and held it in his massive hands, then without so much as a squint to show any sign of exertion he snapped it in two. He carelessly let the pieces fall to the floor, then took a mobile transmitter from the wall and broke it over his knee.

"Stop it!" Eddie begged, flailing in Radick's iron grip. "What do you want from me?"

"What do I want?" Radick echoed. "I want an end to your pitiful little displays of 'patriotism.' I want every last freebirth to know that they are subjugated, and that I will not be as tolerant of their actions as those who came before me. You will all learn your place, and you will-"

"Excuse me."

Radick whirled around to fix his gaze on the man who had interrupted him. The stranger had moved away from the corner and now stood a few feet from the counter, a case of U batteries in his hand.

"How dare you interrupt!" Radick exclaimed.

The man smiled innocently and held up the batteries. "I'm ready to check out. Do you think you could hold off on jackbooting the cashier for a minute?"

Radick dropped Eddie to the floor, then took a menacing step toward the stranger. "Are you daft?" he asked. "Surely you must know who I am. I will not endure such disrespect!"

"Star Captain Albrecht Radick, right?" he replied. "New boss in town, commander of the local cluster?"

Radick froze, his anger giving way to confusion as he tried to understand his lack of fear. "Aff..." he said slowly.

The man nodded. "Yeah. Look, I've seen all this before. You're, what, the tenth man to have this post since the invasion? Must be tough. I hear the position is cursed. Everyone who had it before you died, you know." He glanced down at the floor. "You alright down there, Eddie?"

"I am not like the other men," Radick began, sneering.

"Oh, I don't doubt it," the man interrupted calmly. "If you were anywhere near as qualified as they were, the Clan would've put you in charge first, not waited until after nine other attempts." He glanced at the remains of the recorder and nodded again. "Ah, I see your problem there. Looks like somebody dropped it and tried to fix it themselves. You know there's a warranty, right? If you'd just brought it back Eddie could've replaced it for free, but tinkering with the thing voids it."

The elemental moved like lightning, his massive hands snatching the man's shoulders and lifting him off his feet. Radick sneered as he circled him, like a leopard examining his next meal. "You will show me proper deference, freebirth," he said. "What is your name?"

"Muldoon," the stranger replied with a pained smile. "Caspian Muldoon." He looked at the elemental holding him and raised an eyebrow. "And what's your name, big fella? Kujo? Rover? King Kong?"

"Be silent!" growled the giant before turning his head to look at Radick. "He uses his tongue with such impudence. I wish to remove it before he abuses it further."

Radick held up a hand, silencing his bodyguard. He stepped in close, staring deep into Caspian's face. "You intrigue me, Muldoon," he said. "You refuse to fear me. Why is that?"

"Can't be afraid of a dead man walking," Caspian replied. "There's rumors floating around that the Mages have marked you for death. If they're true, then you're living on borrowed time, my friend."

"The Mages?" said Radick, his smile widening into a sickening grin. "I do not fear terrorists. They wouldn't dare lay a hand on me."

Caspian chuckled, wincing as the elemental's fingers dug deep into his skin. "Funny," he said. "I hear that's exactly what the last nine star captains said. Well, good luck catching them before they get to you. The last one made it a whole week. Tell me, Star Captain, how long do you think you'll last?"

"Drop him!" Radick barked. His bodyguard obeyed, and Caspian fell to the floor in a graceless heap. Radick took hold of his shirt and hauled him into a seated position, then slapped him fiercely with the back of his hand. "Listen to me, Muldoon, if that is indeed your true name. I suggest that you go and speak with whoever is telling you these 'rumors.' I want the Mages to know that the more they struggle, the harder life will become for their people. I will be neither as lenient nor as merciful as those who came before me. I will crush any resistance beneath my heel! You will learn to respect me, as will everyone else in this city of primitives!"

"Wait!" Eddie pulled himself up onto his feet, his hands raised. "I'll replace your recorder, free of charge! That's what you wanted, wasn't it? There's no need for any of this. Take it!"

Radick grinned in triumph as he dropped Caspian back onto the floor. "You see, Muldoon?" he said. "Things become so much easier when you cooperate with us. Jorgensen understands this. You could learn much from him." He turned to Eddie and nodded. "A replacement will suffice. Have it delivered to my office by 1700 hours. Turin, Jabesh, we are finished here. Come along." The three men left the shop, their exit confirmed by the ringing of the bell.

Caspian pulled himself up, nursing his swollen jaw. Eddie came to his side, helping him stand. "Are you alright?" he asked.

Caspian scowled at him. "You shouldn't have caved to him like that."

"You saw those monsters that were with him," Eddie protested. "They would've snapped you in half!"

Caspian shook his head. "Clanners don't kill civilians. It goes against their code of honor."

Eddie shook his head. "You've got some serious balls, mister. I've never seen anyone with enough guts to bring up Mage Squadron in front of a star captain. Is it true they've marked him?"

"How should I know?" Caspian replied with a wink. "I'm just an average man looking to buy some batteries. I don't know what Mage Squadron is planning. All I know that in about ten seconds Radick is going to be getting into his car with his two elemental bodyguards. I hear accidents are on the rise right now. He should have them drive carefully."

The second he finished his sentence there was a sudden burst of flame in the street. An explosion rocked the store, rattling the window panes. Eddie looked outside to see a burning tire roll lazily past the door. His eyes went wide and he looked back at Caspian. "W-was that...?" he stammered

Caspian smiled, seemingly oblivious to what had just happened. He simply placed the item in his hand on the counter and said, "How much for this here pack of U batteries, Eddie?"
« Last Edit: 01 May 2021, 20:10:01 by Meeko_the_White_Mage »
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

Brother Jim

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #1 on: 07 April 2021, 17:37:24 »
Tracking.

Middcore

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #2 on: 07 April 2021, 22:48:33 »
Interested.

ThePW

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #3 on: 07 April 2021, 23:11:43 »
Helm. Station keeping.

snakespinner

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #4 on: 08 April 2021, 01:25:09 »
Interesting. :thumbsup:
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Artifex

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #5 on: 08 April 2021, 16:45:41 »
I wonder how much Wolf Watch is rotating at the moment, seeing as there just went the tenth Star Captain in his position as steward of a planet for Clan Wolf ...

Ttw1

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #6 on: 09 April 2021, 02:24:15 »
I was gonna embed some IRA music to go with the car bombing, but you can't embed yt videos, so I'll just link them instead.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kINLxNxTMJ0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7woEXovruc
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Meeko_the_White_Mage

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A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #7 on: 12 April 2021, 07:46:08 »
Conners sat with his hands folded neatly on the surface of his desk, patiently waiting for Oberth to complete his report. Oberth was a merchant, not a warrior, and his entire demeanor showed that he was perfectly suited to the role. He had a habit of smiling, regardless of whether or not one was justified. His figure was clean-cut and handsome, yet noticeably artificial. Conners had never liked him. The way his eyes moved about a little too quickly, how he maintained an unnervingly cheery tone at all times, and the flashy nature of his dress irritated the star colonel. Even so, he knew better than to antagonize Oberth. The merchant was in charge of Lothan's finances and trade, and he held the keys to the banks. Their profitable relationship with the neighboring Clan Ghost Bear was owed almost exclusively to his skills of negotiation.

"There is no reason to be concerned," Oberth was saying. "I can assure you that the situation is well in hand. Our income from last month's lucrative exchange with Clan Smoke Jaguar has dwarfed any losses incurred by the activities of Mage Squadron. They are insignificant, Star Colonel, nothing more than a minor annoyance."

"Perhaps to the Merchant Caste," replied Conners. "But the Mages have never been interested in your sphere of influence. I, on the other hand, have lost ten star captains to this world, and not in an honorable battle but as victims of sabotage and assassination. When Boris Kerensky was killed two years ago I instructed you and his replacement to bring Mage Squadron to justice. That task has not been completed. Do you mean to tell me that the reason for your failure is nothing more than apathy?"

"Ah..." Oberth nervously ran a hand through his hair. "Neg, of course not, Star Colonel. Rest assured, we have made every effort to apprehend these insurgents. However, they have proven difficult to find. They hide among the populace, using civilians as camouflage. Once they strike, they disappear without a trace. They have struck nearly every city on the planet. One day they will ambush a patrol in Fradvisk, the next they destroy a warehouse in Yamaruk, on the other side of the world. We assume that they are based somewhere in orbit, yet we have been unable to determine how they are moving between there and the surface without being detected."

"And so my men continue to die honorless deaths at their hands," said Conners. "I am responsible for this sector of Clan Wolf's holdings. I have met with success at every turn except here. Lothan is the ever-present thorn in my side. Perhaps I have taken the wrong approach to removing it. I believe it is time to take more direct control over the situation." He motioned to Damian, who had been standing dutifully by his side. "I am placing my protegè in charge of Lothan. He will direct all operations there under my direct supervision."

Oberth's cheery facade cracked for a moment. "Sir... Are you in earnest? Would it not be wiser to send someone more... qualified?"

Conners's eyes narrowed. "Do you question my judgement, Oberth?"

"Neg, Star Colonel," Oberth sputtered. "I am certain that he is quite skilled, but surely a situation such as Lothan requires an officer with more experience."

"Damian is young, this is true," said Conners. "But he will do his duty. As for his experience, well..." he smiled humorlessly. "I challenge you to tell me what advantages Albrecht Radick's experience lended him. I have tried and failed to gain control of this world through conventional means. I must now consider other options." He turned to Damian. "What say you?"

"I will do as you wish," Damian replied.

"And how do you propose to solve the problem of Mage Squadron?" asked Oberth, his tone betraying a hint of disdain. "Tighter sanctions, more security checkpoints, the usual?"

"I hardly think those approaches have been successful," said Damian in his characteristically gentle voice. "The Mages clearly have the support of the populace. That is their one true advantage, their hiding place. If we take it away from them, they will be exposed. The more we tighten our grip on Lothan, the more the people will lend their aid to the insurgents." He glanced at Conners and smiled. "We must turn them to our way of thinking, show them the benefits of Clan rule in practical terms, in ways that affect their everyday lives. We will be their source of safety, stability, and comfort. Mage Squadron will be the sowers of chaos, disruptors and terrorists. If we can achieve that, the people will become our weapon."

"And you think they will be so easily swayed?" Oberth scoffed.

"People are fickle, Oberth," Damian replied. "There is nothing more predictable in the annals of history than the desires of a population. Grant them food and shelter and they will follow your every command without question. The empires of ancient Terra understood this fact. I intend to demonstrate that Clan Wolf does as well."

-

"What the hell were you thinking, Caspian?"

Caspian glanced up from the half-loaded pistol magazine in his lap as Amberly Grimmsdottir stormed into the galley of the Björngröng. Amberly was a woman with a reserved appearance and her face rarely changed expressions, but Caspian could tell by the way her brow furrowed slightly and her hazel eyes burned through him that she was furious. He braced himself, leaning back in his seat as he awaited her scolding tirade. The rest of the crew quietly carried on with their meals, keeping their heads low to avoid the incoming fire.

"You walked right up to the star captain, made a big scene, and even gave him your actual name?" Amberly continued. "Are you trying to get yourself killed? Do you have any idea what could've happened?"

Caspian set his magazine on the table and crossed his arms, pursing his lips as he replied, "What are you on about, Lieutenant? You needed a distraction and I gave you one. I think that deserves a little gratitude, and I've yet to hear you say 'thank you.'"

"I'll thank you if you stop putting everyone's lives at risk with your overdramatic stunts!" Amberly shot back. "Christ, Caspian, you used your actual name! What if the bomb hadn't killed him, or one of his elementals had survived the blast?"

"Oh, please," Caspian snorted. "Our identity isn't exactly a secret, Amberly. We're on wanted posters everywhere from here to Susquehanna. If they haven't figured out who we are by now, then we haven't been making a big enough impression. One simple glance at the duty rosters the 2nd Kavallerie left behind would put them in the ballpark. Besides, if any of them had survived I would've just shot them in the head anyway."

"Then you're lucky he didn't recognize your name," said Amberly. "If he'd decided to arrest you, you'd have been sitting in the car when the bomb went off." She flopped heavily into the seat across from him, resting her forehead in her hand as her tone softened slightly. "You're going to be the death of me, sir. You know that, right? Can't you be even a little careful? Maybe put your ego aside for five minutes and just let an operation play out like it's supposed to?"

Caspian looked into her eyes for a few moments, but dropped his gaze as he felt his ears begin to burn. She was right, as usual. He sighed heavily and returned to loading his magazine, avoiding eye contact. "I'm sorry," he said meekly. "It's just... He was strongarming a local, throwing his weight around. You know how much that pisses me off. It's what I hate the most about the Clanners, the way they all act so high and mighty, like they're somehow better than us. I let my temper get the better of me."

Amberly shook her head and reached out across the table, taking hold of his wrist and getting him to look at her. "I know. Just... try and break the habit, alright, Captain? I don't want to have to try and fill your boots." She smiled with one corner of her mouth. "How's the jaw?"

Caspian returned the smile, relieved to see her anger fading. He had known Amberly since before the Clans invaded. She had been part of his scout lance back when they served in the Kungsarmè only a few years prior. She was careful, methodical, and practical, the perfect second in command to balance his impulsive bravado. Forming Mage Squadron from the survivors of the 2nd Kavallerie had been his idea, but she had done most of the logistical work to turn his plan into a reality. While their differences often caused them to butt heads, Caspian valued her opinion and always felt guilty when he upset her. "It's nothing," he said. "I'm pretty sure you've hit me harder than that at least twice by now. Any word from Jacob?"

Amberly nodded, releasing his arm. "He's docking with us now, actually. We should have his report within the hour."

Caspian raised an eyebrow. "You mean he's back already? He's supposed to be on extended recon, not due back for another week at least. Something must've gone wrong."

"Either that or he found something big," said Amberly. "He didn't sound distressed when he radioed in. I'll bet he's got one hell of a report to make."

"That'd make this a pretty productive day," said Caspian. "One star captain, two elementals, and whatever Jacob's got for us."

"Hmm..." Amberly grunted, clearly unimpressed.

Caspian's eyes narrowed. "What? I said I was sorry."

"No, it's not that," she said. "It's just... That was the tenth one we've killed."

"I know," Caspian replied, flashing a grin at her. "At this rate, we'll burn through the Clan's entire command structure by next year."

"But they keep replacing them," Amberly pointed out. "And the delay between them has gotten smaller each time, and every single one is harder on the civvies than the last. We've been at this for years at this point, Caspian. We've ambushed patrols, sabotaged 'mechs, assassinated commanders, and every time they just keep coming back."

"Amberly," Caspian leaned across the table, his voice dropping in volume. "You're thinking like a soldier. We aren't in the 2nd Kavallerie anymore, and this isn't a war like we're used to. Killing them all isn't our goal. We're fighting so that the people still have hope, to show them that they don't need to bend the knee to anyone. One day we'll grow big enough to make a real impact, but until then we just need to make life hell for the wolves, and you've been doing a fantastic job of that."

"But the people are losing hope," Amberly protested. "Every time we kill a wolf the Clan comes down harder on the civilians. They've got less rights now than they had three years ago, and it's not because of the Invasion."

"That's not our fault," Caspian countered. "If Clan Wolf wants to act like a bunch of tyrants, that's on them. Maybe it's not such a bad thing. Maybe it shows people the Clan's true colors."

"I don't want to argue with you about it, Caspian," said Amberly. "I just... wanted you to think about it. Maybe it's time for us to change tactics."

Caspian hesitated, then slowly nodded his head. "Maybe," he said. "It's not a good idea to get too predictable, anyway. Even the Clanners can get smart after a while. Did you have anything in mind?"

"We need the people to be on our side," said Amberly. "If we lose their support, we lose everything. We need to show them that we're fighting to help them, not make their lives harder. We've been killing wolves left, right, and center, but your average shop owner doesn't give a damn about those kinds of statistics. So long as they're getting their share of creature comforts, they're not too worried about who's in charge. Now, recently Clan Wolf has been getting on everyone's bad side with the new tax rates and quotas, not to mention the upheaval they caused when they took us off the c-bill and replaced it with KE. Money's been getting tight for a lot of people now that there's new management in charge of the economy. I say we give them a refund."

"With what?" asked Caspian. "We aren't exactly rolling in Kerenskies ourselves."

"All the financial records on Lothan are stored at the Lothan Capital Trust building in Vaskr City. I've got a childhood friend who used to work there before the war. Now she tells me that Clan Wolf is using its database to manage their capital, including the taxes they've been taking from the people. If we break in there and put Lars to work, he could set the network to return the money to its rightful owners, then scuttle the entire system, rendering it useless to the Clan."

"Hit the wolves in their pocketbook," Caspian mused, a smile playing about his lips. "I like it. I get the feeling they care about their money a hell of a lot more than their warriors. How do we get in?"

"I'm still working out the details," Amberly replied. "I'm glad you like the idea, though. I wasn't sure how you'd respond to a plan that didn't involve killing Clanners."

Caspian winked at her as he lounged back in his chair. "You think I'm some kind of bloodthirsty monster, do you?"

Amberly allowed a slight grin as she replied, "I don't think. I know you are."

At that moment a young man with vibrant golden hair and wild blue eyes rushed into the galley, a massive grin plastered on his face. He ran to Caspian's table and gave a quick red-faced salute to him and Amberly. The youth's name was Timothy Ederic, one of Mage Squadron's newest recruits. Caspian had always found young people irritating, but there was something infectious about Timothy's bottomless well of energy. He looked about ready to burst with excitement as he awaited acknowledgement. Caspian waited a brief second longer before returning the salute.

"What is it, Private?" he asked.

"Captain!" Timothy nodded toward Amberly but noticeably avoided eye contact. "Lieutenant. Jacob's back aboard. He sent me to come and get you."

"Did he say why he's back so early?" asked Amberly.

Timothy glanced at her, then let his gaze swiftly drop down to his feet. He shuffled nervously in his boots as he replied. "Uh... N-no, ma'am. Should I have asked him that?"

Caspian chuckled as he rose from his seat and slapped a hand on Timothy's shoulder. "Relax, Private. We're officers, not rattlesnakes. We don't bite. Where's Jacob now?"

"He's in the mechbay," said Timothy. "I can take you to him if-"

"We know our way around our own ship, Timothy," said Amberly, patiently. She saw his crestfallen expression then added, "Tell you what, Hugo will probably want to hear what Jacob has to say. Why don't you go get him? It'd save me a lot of time."

Instantly Timothy's face lit up, and he finally worked up the courage to make eye contact. He threw her a hearty salute and nearly bolted from the galley. Caspian shook his head as he watched the young man practically sprint away into the corridors. "Off like a shot," he said. "I've seen gauss rifle slugs that didn't move that fast."

Amberly grunted in agreement as they left the galley side by side. "Wonder where he stores all that energy," she said. "Is it something in the food, or are his bones just coiled up like springs?"

Caspian nudged Amberly's arm with his elbow. "He's just highly motivated, wants to impress you. I've seen that look in the eye a thousand times. The boy's sweet on you."

Amberly snorted. "You're seeing things, Muldoon. I'm almost old enough to be his mother. Hell, I found grey hairs when I showered this morning. There's girls his age around here, most of them prettier than I ever was."

"Maybe you've got something they don't," Caspian suggested.

"Yeah, like what?"

He shrugged and shot her a joking grin. "How should I know? You annoy the hell out of me. Maybe he's just turned on by women with wrinkles."

Amberly grimaced and punched his arm, though not hard enough to cause any real pain. "If you weren't my superior officer, I'd shoot you for that," she said. "Let's just find out what's got Jacob all excited."
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

ckosacranoid

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #8 on: 12 April 2021, 14:23:59 »
Good story Idea so far. But can I suggest that you post all your chapters in the same tread instead of new posts. That way people can follow the story if they find it and can just move chapter to chapter. As a new chapter just add it as a new post to the tread.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #9 on: 12 April 2021, 15:18:09 »
Good story Idea so far. But can I suggest that you post all your chapters in the same tread instead of new posts. That way people can follow the story if they find it and can just move chapter to chapter. As a new chapter just add it as a new post to the tread.

Good idea. I'm new to this kind of website. Thanks for bearing with me.
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 1)
« Reply #10 on: 12 April 2021, 15:19:12 »
hmm
« Last Edit: 30 April 2021, 14:20:02 by Meeko_the_White_Mage »
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cklammer

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #11 on: 13 April 2021, 10:10:00 »
Good idea. I'm new to this kind of website. Thanks for bearing with me.

 The moderators have pinned a thread on this subject in this fan fiction subforum - just for yourself: https://bg.battletech.com/forums/fan-fiction/splitting-and-merging-of-fanfic-threads/

 Don't hesitate to ask - everybody is really friendly and supportive here.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #12 on: 13 April 2021, 18:47:43 »
The moderators have pinned a thread on this subject in this fan fiction subforum - just for yourself: https://bg.battletech.com/forums/fan-fiction/splitting-and-merging-of-fanfic-threads/

 Don't hesitate to ask - everybody is really friendly and supportive here.

I followed the link, but there are no instructions on how to do it.
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Middcore

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #13 on: 14 April 2021, 10:45:27 »
I followed the link, but there are no instructions on how to do it.

You can't do it. Only mods can split and merge threads. I would suggest sending Trace Coburn a PM.

cklammer

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #14 on: 14 April 2021, 13:20:58 »
You can't do it. Only mods can split and merge threads. I would suggest sending Trace Coburn a PM.

You can send a PM to the mod "Trace Coburn" via the menu: Select "My Messages" in the Menu bar ("Home" ... in the upper left corner below the huge word "Battletech") and the choose "Send A Message".

Put "Trace Coburn" as the addressee and then state your request.

Hoping I have not offended you by assuming wrongly ...

Edit: Maybe we do not need the last six replies in the merged thread (including this one) ... :-)
« Last Edit: 14 April 2021, 13:23:13 by cklammer »

Middcore

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #15 on: 28 April 2021, 22:29:51 »
Is there going to be more to this?

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife (Chapter 2)
« Reply #16 on: 29 April 2021, 12:47:16 »
Yes, as soon as I get the threads merged.
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Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A twist of the Knife
« Reply #17 on: 01 May 2021, 19:50:45 »
Damian stepped into his new office and took a moment to examine his surroundings. It had once been a beautiful place, filled with ornate furniture and decorative knick-knacks, model ships and other such useless items. It had belonged to the planetary governor during the days of the Rasalhague Republic, but now it was a center for Clan operations on Lothan. The furniture, decorations, everything that didn't serve an immediate practical purpose had been removed by the star captains, leaving the space feeling cold and empty. Damian stepped up to his desk, a wide and imposing piece built from the dark wood of polished Lothanian pine. The chair was covered in thick velvet cushions and featured a reclining backrest, a function that, while of little use to Damian, nonetheless pleasantly surprised him. He took his seat and let out a breath, drumming his fingers idly on the desk's surface. He did not truly start work until the following day, but he had been eager to see his workplace ahead of time. It was after hours now, and the sun had set an hour previously. Even so, the view outside the office's vast window was impressive. The skyline of Fradvisk was aglow with illuminated windows and neon signs, all the colors of the rainbow blending together in a visual cacophony. Damian spun his chair around to admire the scenery, but only a moment later he heard the sound of the door being opened behind him. He turned to see who had entered, and was confronted with a fetching young woman clad in a simple business suit. She strode across the dimly lit room quickly, not seeming to notice Damian as she moved to the eastern wall and the small wooden cabinet that rested there. She produced a small slip of paper from her blazer and set it on top, then turned toward the desk. Seeing Damian her eyes went wide and she gasped, a hand flying to her chest as she staggered back.

"Oh my god..." she said. "You scared me."

"My apologies," said Damian. "I thought everyone had gone home for the evening."

"Everyone with half a brain already has," she replied. "Who are you? What are you doing in here? The office hours are posted outside."

"I am Damian," he said, rising from his chair. "You must be Alice Jurgen, my new secretary." He smiled cordially. "Or perhaps, more accurately, you are the original secretary and I am your newest boss. I understand you have been working here since before the occupation."

Alice blinked in surprise, then took a tentative step backward, almost cowering. "I'm sorry," she said. "I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow, sir. I... I thought you were..."

Damian raised a reassuring hand. "I am not offended," he said, his gentle voice washing over her like a soft breeze. "You are correct. I have arrived a day early. I would not expect you to be prepared for my arrival. That is why I let myself in." He turned and looked out the window once again. "I wanted to see the city, take in the nighttime scenery. I rarely spend time in urbanized places."

Alice slowly crept up beside him, cautiously watching his every move as if she expected him to suddenly lunge for her throat. "Is there anything you need, sir?" she asked after a moment.

Damian glanced at her, noticing a strange look in her eyes. There was fear, but also a defiant anger in her gaze. He could feel hatred radiating out from her, and she stood more confidently than before with her shoulders squared and head held high. In the glow of the city lights he noticed something about her face. Her glasses, a pair of smart oval lenses, were bent at an odd angle and one of her cheeks appeared swollen. His easy smile faded and he clasped his hands behind his back. "You have been injured," he said.

Alice turned, scowling at the floor as she tried to hide the bruise on her face. "It's nothing," she said.

Damian approached her slowly. Her stance widened, as if expecting an attack, but she didn't shy away from him. He came close enough to touch her, and he let a hand hover just above her cheek. "Star Captain Radick did this to you, quiaff?" he asked.

"It's nothing," Alice repeated, her voice more firm than before. When Damian said nothing she continued. "He wanted me to speak properly, ordered me to stop using contractions and words from my native tongue."

"Obviously you did not comply," Damian observed. "You still speak as you please."

"I'm not about to change how I talk just because some high and mighty officer tells me to," said Alice. "Radick didn't own me, as much as he wanted to. Nobody owns me." She closed her eyes and flinched, as if bracing for another strike.

Damian surprised her by turning away and walking toward the window, nodding his understanding. "Your people are defiant, Miss Jurgen," he said, his voice devoid of any trace of anger. "Even in defeat you refuse to cooperate with your betters."

"You're not our betters," said Alice icily. "Rasalhague has been conquered before. We sit between two of the most powerful Houses in the Inner Sphere. We've been invaded time and again by people with bigger wallets and armies. My grandparents died under the Draconis Combine. Their parents were killed by the Federated Commonwealth. My own parents died when your people invaded. As far as the people of Rasalhague are concerned, you're nothing special. You're just the latest in a long line of greed-riddled empires looking to subjugate us."

Damian leaned heavily against the window sill, staring out at the skyline. "You speak boldly," he said. "Words such as those could earn you a place in a reeducation program. Did you know that?"

"Of course I do," she replied. "And if I said those words under House Kurita's rule, I'd be executed. It doesn't matter how hard you try to crush us. We've faced worse in the past and come out with our freedom intact."

"Dance clubs..." Damian whispered idly.

Alice blinked, caught off guard by his non sequitur. "I'm sorry?"

"Dance clubs," Damian repeated, still staring out the window. "I see advertisements for them in so many of these cities. I have often considered visiting one, just to satisfy my curiosity." He glanced at Alice, an easy smile creeping across his face. "Where I come from we do not have such things, places where the castes may mingle together. Your cities fascinate me. So many people from so many different walks of life all thrown together in a chaotic dance of commerce and culture. Our Founder would have seen such a system as wastefully self-destructive, and yet you have lived under it for centuries. I wish to see it all, to understand it, but..." He chuckled to himself as his gaze fell to his feet. "I must admit that the prospect of venturing out into it all is daunting. I know almost nothing about your customs. It is often said that Clan warriors have no fear, but it is not entirely true. There is one thing we fear, and that is humiliation. I am afraid that if I go out there I will only make a fool of myself."

Alice eyed him cautiously, but the venom in her gaze began to subside as she moved to his side. "I thought you saw us all as barbarians," she said. "I didn't think you'd be interested in knowing our customs."

"We have been raised to believe all others to be inferior," Damian agreed. "But a society that cannot learn is a society that fails. Clan Wolf did not come here simply to crush your people, Miss Jurgen. We came to teach you our ways, to work together toward saving the Inner Sphere from its endless wars. Those that came before me tried to teach this lesson through force, but you are a testament to their failure. I believe that if we come to understand one another, we may find common ground on which to build a better, brighter Rasalhague. The first step, of course, is to understand your people. I wish to know their desires, their concerns, that I may better serve them."

"That... sounds good. Admirable, even," said Alice.

"Our people need not be enemies," said Damian. "Soon I will make my intentions clear to the people. You will see that I am not the cruel subjugator you expect me to be."

"I never said what I expected of you, sir," Alice replied.

"Call me Damian," he said with a smile. "I have no titles, and such formalities are irrelevant to my needs. I will be relying upon you heavily, Miss Jurgen. I wish to build genuine trust with the citizens of Lothan and your insight will be invaluable. Can I depend on you?"

Alice nodded. "I'll do what I can," she said. "Is there anything you need before I lock up for the night?"

"Neg," Damian replied. "However, when you come in tomorrow I will require some information. I need reports on all the known members of Mage Squadron, estimates of their current strength, and anything else that might grant me a better understanding of them. I will be arriving two hours later than you, if my memory is correct. I expect the reports to be ready by then." He sank comfortably into his chair and smiled at her. "Tasks in this office will be completed in a timely manner. However, if for some reason you require more time, simply inform me. I will assume that you have a reason for the delay. There is nothing to gain by beating my subordinates, and any such behavior among my staff will be dealt with swiftly and severely. We will be working together, and so a cordial relationship will maximize our efficacy."

"Of course," said Alice. She bowed her head, and for a moment Damian caught a glimpse of a genuine smile on her face. She stepped away from the window and walked toward the door. Once there she opened it and began to pass through.

"Miss Jurgen?" Damian called after her.

"Yes?" she said, pausing in the doorway.

"I would like the native staff to know something," he said. "I understand that my predecessors have been harsh on them, but it is my intention to make life here as pleasant as possible. Will you see that my sentiments are relayed to your colleagues?"

"I'll tell them," Alice replied.

Damian nodded in satisfaction. "I sincerely hope that you will come to enjoy working for me, Miss Jurgen."

"So do I," she responded. "Goodnight, Damian." With that she disappeared through the door, closing it silently behind her.

Damian allowed her a few minutes before rising from his chair. He stretched his muscles and realized how tired he felt. The trip had taken more of his energy than he had thought. He made his way to the door, satisfied that his workplace was in order. Tomorrow he would begin his task of subjugating Lothan, putting his ideas into practice. The responsibility was immense, as was the pressure, but he knew that Conners wouldn't have placed him in command if he didn't have confidence in his abilities. He would succeed, no matter the cost.

-

Jacob was an odd-looking man. He was short for a Rasalhague native, barely over five feet tall, and he was thin as a rail. Had it not been for his thick beard and head of gray hair one could have mistaken him for an older child. Even so he carried himself with his head held as high as he could manage, knowing that his size was what allowed him to fit so comfortably in an aerotech cockpit. He was far and away the best pilot in Mage Squadron, having served with distinction during the Ronin War. He was the man Caspian sent on the most dangerous and difficult missions, and he had yet to fail an objective. He stood leaning against the fuselage of his craft, watching as his wife, Greta, inspected the fighter. Greta was a large, broad-shouldered woman with dark skin and a shaved head, making her nearly as strange in appearance as her husband. She towered over him, never seemed to smile, and rarely spoke beyond the occasional grunt, and Jacob adored her more than life itself.

Jacob smiled and leaned over, gently running his palm against her back. "What's the verdict?" he asked. "Is it still flyable?"

"No thanks to your piloting," Greta replied. "Christ, Jacob, you're rough on the rigging. I've never seen thrusters so close to burning out. Another ten minutes and you'd have stranded yourself."

Jacob winked at her. "Good thing I got back when I did, then. Can you fix it?"

Greta snorted. "I can fix anything, sweetheart. You know that. Now shut up and let me work."

Before she could react Jacob kissed her cheek, a feat which required him to stand on tiptoe. "Don't work too hard," he cautioned. "I haven't seen you in weeks, and I want you to have some energy left for tonight."

Greta stopped working for a moment and stared at him, her expression completely neutral. Her reply was as dry and deadpan as her face. "That goes for you too, Jake," she said. "You owe me one hell of a night, and I'm not going to let you fall asleep on me like last time." After a brief pause she allowed the faintest hint of a smile to slip across her features as she added softly, "I love you. It's good to have you back."

"Love you too," said Jacob. "It's good to be back." He turned away just in time to see Caspian and Amberly approaching from across the hangar. He straightened himself and adjusted his flight jacket, then strutted his way over to meet them. As he drew near he threw up a hand in greeting.

Caspian returned the gesture with a smile. "Welcome home, Jacob!" he called over the noise of repair tools and automated maintenance units. "You're back early. Everything alright?"

"Better than alright," Jacob replied. He grinned as he looked back and forth between his two commanders. "I got some solid intel on what the Wolves have been up to. Where's Hugo? He'll want to hear this."

"I sent Timothy to get him," said Amberly. "He should be here any minute."

"Well, I'll start explaining then," said Jacob. "So, Captain, know anything about Christiania?"

Caspian frowned, trying to think back to his days at the academy. The name sounded familiar, like a system some professor had rambled about for an hour while speaking with a hypnotic monotone. Details gradually came to him, but they were vague and incomplete. "Not a whole lot," he replied. "Wasn't much there, as I recall. The system's only inhabitable planet got bombarded to hell in the last big war. Nothing but a rock now. That the place?"

Jacob nodded excitedly. "That's the place. I was listening to comms traffic with my frequency scanner when I picked up a Clan transmission. Those encryption keys you picked up from our raid on Fort Jarkov last year work perfectly, by the way. The transmissions said that our local Star Colonel was making a trip out to Christiania II. Our jumpship guy got me there using an old pirate point that just about tore the ship in half, but I made it there in one piece. I waited in orbit with the scanner while the wolves sent a dropship to the surface. Five hours later I hear a signal, then the next thing I know dozens of dropships are all heading down to the surface, converging on a set of coordinates." He waved a datachip in front of Caspian's face before tossing it to him. "These coordinates here, to be exact."

"Jacob!" called a voice from across the hangar. Hugo Spiegel marched his way across the deck, his giant muscle-bound form rattling the steel plating beneath his feet with every step. He wore a massive grin on his face as he approached his old friend. He gave a quick salute to Caspian and Amberly before scooping Jacob off his feet and wrapping him in a bone-splitting bear hug. "You're not dead!" he bellowed. "Just when I thought I was finally rid of you!"

"Good to see you too, Hugo," Jacob wheezed as his lungs were compressed in Hugo's embrace. "Argh! Put me down before you break my damn spine, you numbskull!"

Hugo obeyed, but not before slapping Jacob's back hard enough to send him stumbling. Amberly smiled knowingly at Caspian, enjoying the comical reunion, but found that he wasn't even watching. He was staring straight ahead, arms folded with one hand stroking at his chin. She knew the look all too well; he was starting to form an idea. She placed a hand on his shoulder, shaking him out of his trance. "Hey, boss," she said. "You still in there?"

"Yeah," Caspian replied. "It just doesn't make any sense. Why would Clan Wolf send so many troops to Christiania? There's nothing there worth conquering."

"Christiania?" Hugo echoed. "It's just an irradiated husk. Barely even rates as a planet anymore. You telling me there's Clanners there?"

"Yep," said Jacob, "and I think I know why. The transmissions kept referring to something called 'The Founder's Gift' located on Christiania II. I wasn't sure what they meant, but I do know what was on the dropships. Our Port Authority contact got me a copy of their manifest. Those dropships were loaded with excavators and engineers. Either they're planning on building a highway or-"

"They're digging for something," Amberly finished. "Something Kerensky left behind for them to find."

Caspian continued stroking his chin as a smile began to form on his face. "Losttech," he said. "It's gotta be. Something even the Clans don't have."

Jacob grinned. "So what do you think, Boss? Worth coming home early?"

Caspian nodded. "Definitely."

Hugo pounded a fist into his palm. "Sounds like we're taking a trip," he said. "I'll get the troops practicing with radiation suits, make sure they're ready to operate in the climate. Whatever the wolves are after down there, I'll make sure we snag it first."

"First I need you to put a team together," said Amberly. "We've got a raid to carry out before we go anywhere. Right, Captain?"

"Right," Caspian replied. "We're going to be hitting the Lothan Capital Trust building. I want you to get your best troops together for this one, Hugo. Bring Lars with you and get him into the network. He'll do the rest. Once that's done I want you to stay on Lothan, keep hitting the wolves like we usually do while we head for Christiania."

Hugo frowned, a hurt expression forming on his face. "You... don't want me to come with you?" he asked.

Caspian shook his head. "If we don't keep striking at the wolves here then they'll know something's up. They might change their encryption codes or tighten security around Christiania. Your team will be operating without our direct support for a while, and I need somebody I can depend on to lead the men here. There's nobody the boys trust to lead them more than you, and you've never failed any assignment I've given you. Besides, we can't abandon the people. Lothan needs you here."

Hugo sighed deeply, rubbing the back of his head. "Shame to miss the big show, but you're right. Someone's gotta hold down the fort. Alright, I've got a few people in mind for the job. I'll get it done. When do we leave?"

"As soon as you and your team are briefed," Amberly replied. "Our sources say that our new planetary overseer starts work tomorrow. I want him to wake up knowing exactly who he's dealing with."
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

mikecj

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #18 on: 02 May 2021, 10:36:09 »
Very promising so far.  Thanks for sharing.
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"First, one brief announcement. I just want to mention, for those who have asked, that absolutely nothing what so ever happened today in sector 83x9x12. I repeat, nothing happened. Please remain calm." Susan Ivanova
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Romo Lampkin could have gotten Stefan Amaris off with a warning.

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #19 on: 02 May 2021, 12:58:03 »
Very promising so far.  Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for reading. This has been fun to work on so far.
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Elmoth

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #20 on: 02 May 2021, 17:57:35 »
Tagged. Let's see what the fuss on Christiania is about

DOC_Agren

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #21 on: 04 May 2021, 15:05:17 »
One Ping Only

Intersting read so far
"For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast, And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed:And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill, And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!"

Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #22 on: 04 May 2021, 16:03:20 »
One Ping Only

Intersting read so far

I understood that reference.  8)
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Meeko_the_White_Mage

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Re: A Twist of the Knife
« Reply #23 on: 05 May 2021, 06:20:43 »
Caspian hummed softly to himself as he walked the corridors of the Björngröng. He was making his way to the hangar to brief Hugo's team for their upcoming mission, and found himself to be in an unusually good mood. Joviality was a precious resource, one that had been scarce ever since the Clans invaded, and so he was determined to savor any amount of it he could find. He was lost in the tune of a ballad, an ancient song about a woman named Lorena. It was a pleasant melody, though like many ancient love songs the lyrics carried a hint of tragedy, and so Caspian had decided to hum the tune rather than sing the words. His quiet walk was interrupted when Timothy came barreling out of his quarters barely a foot away, crashing against the bullhead in his haste. His arms were loaded with tactical vests and a stack of laser pistols which fell across the deck as he impacted the wall. Caspian bent down to help Timothy collect his load.

"That's a lot of gear," he said. "You'll break your spine carrying all this weight."

Timothy grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, Captain. Sergeant Spiegel asked me to grab these. I'd been cleaning the kit, and he wanted them for the mission." His grin widened as he added, "He selected me to come along this time. Even issued me a rifle."

Caspian raised an eyebrow. "He did, huh? Well, I suppose it's a simple enough job for your first op." He helped himself to half of Timothy's load and straightened himself up. "Keep your head down and do whatever Hugo says. You should be fine."

"Yes, sir!" Timothy replied. He walked alongside Caspian as he continued down the corridor, keeping pace. For a few seconds they said nothing, but after a moment of silence Timothy cleared his throat. "Uh, Captain," he said. "Can I ask you something... personal?"

Caspian glanced sideways at him. "Something on your mind?"

"Well..." Timothy hesitated as he searched for the right words. "You've known Lt. Grimmsdottir for a long time, right?"

Caspian smiled as he realized where the conversation was headed. "We've been working together for years," he replied.

"So you know her pretty well, then," Timothy continued. His face turned bright red, and he broke eye contact, staring at the deck as he carried on walking. "Do you know... what she likes?"

"What she likes?" Caspian echoed. "Grimm likes a lot of things. You'll need to be a little more specific."

"Well, I got a little extra pocket money," said Timothy. "And we're going to be spending some time in the city, so... I just thought I might... you know..." He coughed and mumbled, "I thought I might buy her something."

Caspian gently slapped his shoulder. "Relax, Timothy. I know how you feel about the lieutenant. You don't have to be embarrassed."

Timothy winced. "Is it that obvious?"

Caspian nodded. "It always is at your age," he said. "But we've all been there. Now let's see..." He stopped walking for a moment and leaned against the bulkhead, eyes fixed on the ceiling as he thought. "Well... if I recall correctly back when we were still the 2nd Kavallerie she might have mentioned that she enjoys strawberries. Though I don't know where you'd find any on Lothan these days. Maybe one of the wolf places would have some, if you can stomach giving them your money."

Timothy contemplated for a moment, then said, "I normally wouldn't give a Clanner anything, but..." He smiled as his gaze fell to his feet once again. "It wouldn't be the first time I've felt foolish because of her. You think she'd smile if I gave her some?"

"I think she would," Caspian replied.

Timothy nodded decisively. "Then it's worth it."

Caspian resumed walking and Timothy followed after him. "So what's got you all hot under the collar for the lieutenant?" asked Caspian. "Isn't she a little old for you?"

"You mean you don't know?" asked Timothy.

Caspian shrugged. "I've never really thought of her that way," he said.

"Not even a little?" Timothy pressed.

"Let me tell you something," said Caspian. "When you're an officer you wield a lot of power. I give the word and people obey. They do whatever I tell them to, even if I order them to do something that could get them killed. Now, if I have that kind of power and I decide that I find one of my subordinates attractive, what might I be tempted to do?"

Timothy paused. "Umm... Order her to... Uh..."

"Exactly," Caspian replied. "My subordinates trust me with their lives, and that's a sacred trust that's all too easy to abuse. So I trained myself to ignore that little voice in my head, as well as the one under my belt buckle. Amberly is a close friend and one hell of an officer, possibly the best lancemate I've ever had, but I see her as a soldier, not as a woman. You understand?"

"I think so," Timothy replied. "But... you do call her 'Grimm.' I always thought that since you use pet names that you might've... maybe a long time ago..."

"Those are nicknames, not pet names," said Caspian. "Not the same thing."

"Well..." Timothy sighed. "You're probably right about her being too old for me, anyway. I don't have a whole lot to offer at my age, but... I can't help it. She's always been nice to me. She's one of the few people here who doesn't shout at me when I mess something up, which I do a lot. It's just like... when I'm around here I feel happy, confident in myself, y'know? I never feel that way around any of the girls my age. Girls are always laughing at me, saying things behind my back. They make me feel like I need to constantly look over my shoulder."

Caspian nodded in understanding. "When I was your age I felt the same way," he said. "The girls at school always teased me. I was cross-eyed and short for my age, and I couldn't get a date to save my life. But there was one lady I always felt comfortable around. She was the local librarian, fresh out of university, and she helped tutor me when I was struggling with my reading skills. She had long, dark hair, a set of dark brown eyes that would just grab hold of you and wouldn't let you go, magnified by a set of glasses that made her look sophisticated. Her smile would make my heart freeze, and she was always kind to me, even when nobody else would be. There were just two small problems. First, I was sixteen and second, she was married."

"Ouch..." said Timothy. "That must've made things awkward. What did you do?"

"Brought her flowers once a week," Caspian replied. He laughed and rubbed at his forehead. "Ah, it all seems so foolish in retrospect, but at the time I was so hopeful that it would lead to something. It never did, of course, but I tried anyway. One day she sat me down and told me something that I'll never forget. She said that she was flattered, but that I was too young and I needed to move on. She said that some day I'd be a fine man, and that soon all those girls that laughed at me would grow up and mature, just like the boys would. She told me not to give up, even if things looked hopeless. At first I was crushed, but she was right. All those girls did eventually grow up. I even became close with a few of them." He sighed. "If not for the war I might've even married one of them. Anyway, my point is that you shouldn't feel too bad if she isn't interested."

"Yeah..." Timothy replied, sounding unconvinced.

Caspian laid a hand on his shoulder. "You're a good kid, Timothy," he said. "Maybe the girls don't see it yet, but once the pretty boys all walk off with someone new under their arms, they'll start looking for someone they can trust. You just need a little patience."

"So you're saying I should forget the strawberries?" asked Timothy.

"I didn't say that," Caspian replied with a grin. "If nothing else it'll put her in a good mood, and she's a lot easier for me to handle when she's smiling."

-

The nighttime wind of Lothan was always cold, even in the summer. The daytime had been warm and pleasant, but the moment the sun slipped over the horizon the world was plunged into icy darkness. Timothy gritted his teeth as the breeze passed effortlessly through his flak jacket. He had been born and raised on Lothan and was no stranger to the cold, but as he climbed his way up the side of the Lothan Capital Trust building he began to feel it in his fingers. The rope was getting harder to grip. He thought about setting his belt harness and taking a moment to flex them, but he knew that doing so would slow the others climbing behind him. He could hear the soft grunting of Ashley Gorrick beneath him and she seemed to be gaining on him. Timothy set his jaw and climbed doggedly onward, not wanting to be outdone when he felt a hand on his boot. He glanced down to see Ashley staring up at him.

"Slow done, Timothy," she said. "We've left the others behind. Rest a second and let them catch up."

Timothy stretched his back and looked beyond her. The rest of the team was nearly a dozen meters below them, struggling to match their pace. "I thought they were right behind me," said Timothy. "I didn't want to hold them up."

"Hugo sent me to catch you," said Ashley. "Had a hell of a time doing it. Where do you get all that energy?"

Timothy grinned sheepishly. "Breakfast cereal," he replied. "That's my secret."

Ashley chuckled softly and patted his calf. "I know you're eager to prove yourself, kid," she said. "But take it easy, alright? Nobody needs to be a hero tonight."

They waited for a few minutes until the rest of the team reached them, then once Hugo gave them the signal they continued upwards, eventually reaching the roof. Timothy was the first to leave the rope, and he stepped onto the flat surface, unslinging his rifle and scanning for targets. As expected the rooftop was clear, so he stepped to the side, took a knee, and watched the others clamber over the edge one by one.

Ashley was first to join him. In the moonlight her black suit made her look wraithlike, almost ethereal. Her short golden hair was tucked neatly beneath a dark skull cap, and her face had been painted deep gray. She nodded to Timothy as she knelt beside him, and he noticed a shaking in her hands. Ashley was an experienced soldier, despite being less than three years older than Timothy. She had been in combat since her early teens, working as a mercenary for her father's company, a business that had ended when the Clans wiped out their unit. Her shaking didn't come from fear but from permanent nerve damage. A laser had pierced her armored vehicle, setting off a crate of ammunition set beside her. The scars from the explosion still marked her face, most noticeably with a nasty gash that crossed both of her strikingly green eyes. Her hands shook constantly, but she had learned to compensate for the shuddering with years of practice. Despite the handicap she was one of the best marksmen in Mage Squadron.

Hugo came after her, cutting an intimidating figure in his form-fitting body armor. Being the largest man in the squad, he carried the heavy weapon, an oversized laser rifle he had dubbed "Wolfsbane." It was the result of a year's worth of tinkering and dangerous experimentation, a mech-scale laser that they had trimmed down to be man-portable. Hugo had built it specifically for killing Elementals, and he had already claimed four kills with it. He kept the device strapped to his back in a special harness designed to make carrying the incredible weight feasible. Even with the assistance it was still remarkably heavy, and no one other than Hugo could even begin to lift it.

After Hugo came Gordon Jarkov, a quiet dark-skinned man in his mid fifties. Gordon had been in the Kungsarmè Special Forces before the Invasion, and he was the most experienced in this kind of warfare out of the group. He was a man of few words and an icy outward appearance, though only when on an assignment. Off duty he was known as amicable, or even charming. At the moment, however, he was completely focused on the task ahead. He had a job to do, and there was no room for idle chatter.

The last to come off the rope was Lars. Lars was a strange person by any metric. He had a unique gift that was rare in the Inner Sphere; he was a computer expert. He claimed that he was able to make a machine do almost anything he desired, and on many occasions he had done things that seemed impossible. He had been the one who had decrypted Clan Wolf's transmissions before Mage Squadron secured their own set of keys. He had often slipped into battlemechs during the night to plant a small string of code into their onboard computers, causing them to overheat their reactors when activated or to fire all their weapons without any input from the pilot. Lars's skills were impressive, but his behaviors were beyond eccentric. First of all, Lars was almost certainly not his real name. He refused to show his face, keeping it hidden behind a bullet-resistant ceramic mask that completely covered his features. His voice was always filtered through a vocalizer set in the mask, distorting it into a digital, almost robotic tone. Speaking with Lars would often set one's teeth on edge. His appearance combined with his voice made conversations alien and uncomfortable, but he always insisted that his identity needed to remain a secret in order to protect him from being exploited by one of the Great Houses. He would never say which House was after him or why, and he refused to give any details of his personal life. Even his reasons for joining Mage Squadron were vague and mysterious. He hadn't been recruited like the others. He had simply appeared one day, turned off the Björngröng's engines with a snap of his fingers, and asked for a job. Caspian had hired him on the spot, much to Amberly's dismay.

Ashley moved toward a nearby skylight, carefully peering through it. She motioned for the others to join her, then set down her pack and withdrew a small laser cutter and a liquid nitrogen spray can. With four slow, smooth motions she moved the can along the edge of the window pane, coating the edges with the fluid. Ice formed on the window, freezing the glass in place and locking down the pressure sensors that surrounded the window. With the security measure taken care of Ashley stuck a suction cup hand to the glass and cut a wide circle in the center of the pane with the laser, just big enough for Hugo to squeeze through. Timothy took hold of the handle, gently pulling it free as Ashley finished her work.

Gordon dropped through the hole first, falling three meters to the floor below. Hugo went next, then Lars and Timothy. Ashley followed after, bringing the piece of glass with her. Once she was through she climbed on Hugo's shoulders, applied a superadhesive to the disc, and returned it to its original place before the ice melted and reactivated the pressure sensors.

Hugo helped Ashley down to the floor and nodded in satisfaction. "Alright," he whispered. "Masks and suppressors on, everyone. Security's light, but stay quiet and check your corners. Gordon, take point. Timothy, cover the rear. Lars, stay close to Ashley."

Lars chuckled, an odd sound when filtered through his vocalizer. "Don't mind if I do," he said. He nudged Ashley. "That's an order I could get used to."

Ashley scowled at him as she pulled her balaclava over her face. "In your dreams, desk humper." she growled. "Keep your hands to yourself or I'll break your fingers."

The team carried on in silence, passing through the hallway and into the stairwell. They descended several flights until they reached the second floor, where the building's floor plans said the primary data server would be located. The second floor was wide and open with large windows and almost no cover. In the center was a massive tower of computer cases, cables, conduits, and flashing lights. The team moved toward it and was about halfway there when the sound of a door opening made them all freeze. Timothy had been watching their rear, and he saw an office door swing lazily ajar as a man in a security uniform walked through. He was whistling softly to himself as he strolled along the wall, shining a flashlight around as he checked the floor. The beam fell on Timothy and the guard had just enough time to stop whistling and reach for his gun before a bullet pierced his skull, dropping him to the floor in a heap. Timothy's hands began to shake as he realized what had happened.

Ashley patted his back. "Nice shot, kid. Grab his radio. Go."

Timothy shook himself and moved to the corpse. The guard's eyes were still open, staring at the ceiling. A look of surprise covered his face. Timothy felt a pang of nausea wash over him. He had never killed anyone before. He had fired automatically, without even blinking, and now the man was dead. It made him feel dirty, as if he'd just committed a heinous act and got away with it. He tried not to look at the man's face as he pulled his radio free from his belt and returned to the group.

Gordon took the radio from Timothy just as a voice came through its speaker. "Sierra three, report in," it said.

"Sierra three," Gordon replied. "All clear."

Satisfied that they hadn't been detected, Hugo led them to the data server. Lars went to work immediately, pulling a datapad from his pack and a bundle of cables. He connected the device to the server at three seemingly random points and began rapidly inputting a series of complicated commands. His fingers flew across the interface, and he nodded to Hugo.

"Five minutes," he said.

Hugo nodded in reply and turned to the others. "Take a knee, people. We're camping here for a bit."

Timothy knelt on the floor, feeling the soft carpet beneath him. He glanced over at the dead security guard, and absently wondered if the blood stain would ever come out of the floor. He shuddered as the image of the kill played over again and again in his mind. The sickness intensified and he doubled over for a second. A hand fell on his shoulder, and he straightened himself up as Ashley spoke.

"You alright, Tim?"

Timothy nodded. "Yeah, I just... I'm fine."

Ashley followed his gaze, saw what had him spooked, and patted his back. "Don't worry about it, kid. It gets easier the more you practice."

"Yeah," Timothy replied, feeling his gut clench even more at her words.

"Got it," said Lars as he swiftly unplugged his datapad from the server.

"Finished already?" asked Hugo.

Lars packed his equipment away, looking pleased with himself despite his face being covered. "I found the tax records and set up a program to reverse all those transactions and erase the ledgers," he said. "When Lothan wakes up tomorrow, she's going to have the biggest tax refund in Rasalhague history."

"Then let's not hang around," said Hugo. "Timothy, hide that body. That should buy us some time to exfil. Gordon, call it in. We'll meet the VTOL on the roof like we planned. Move out!"

Timothy obeyed, his stomach churning even more as he dragged the corpse into one of the offices and hid it beneath a desk. As he took hold of the wrists, he noticed that the body was still warm and nearly threw up. He emerged from the office and closed the door behind him, his face pale as he followed the others back into the stairwell.
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

 

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