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Author Topic: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale  (Read 2631 times)

HABeas2

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Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« on: 14 April 2019, 16:12:37 »
Forgotten Worlds – Book 3
Escape from Jardine
By Herbert A. Beas II




-Preamble-


   Testing... Testing... Is this thing still working?

   Yeah, looks good. Good enough for audio, anyway. But the battery’s low. Probably cell damage from that mine.

   Then let’s try and keep it under an hour. Start Recording.

   Is this for Tyler, or the log?

   …The log. …Ty would understand.

   Okay, then… You’re on.

   Thanks, Trouble…

   Expedition Log, Supplemental. Doctor Brooklyn Stevens reporting; Senior Mission Specialist Tibor Mitternacht on recorder. Today’s date?

   My chronometer died with the Possum. Um, I think it’s the thirty-first?

   No, I’m pretty sure that was yesterday. You were really out of it.

   Was I? So, this is the first, then?

   Let’s go with “on or about,” and correct later if we have to. Today’s date: On or about 1 November 3067.
   Short summary first: We have found Jardine. Older maps have it listed under the name Herakleion, and the warning buoys here use that name as well, but our working theory—one largely confirmed upon contact with some of the locals—posits that this was a deliberate effort to obfuscate the facts. This, of course, implies a centuries-long conspiracy, and one that is still being actively protected today.
   You know, Trouble, if you had told me we’d be here just six months ago, I’d probably say you were crazy…

   Six months ago, we were trudging through semi-radioactive tundra for Star League trinkets, Brooke. Lush, semi-tropical forests are a welcome change, I’d say.

   True. Jardine certainly lives up to her name. This place is a veritable garden world, alive both tectonically and biologically. There is a fairly broad range of flora and fauna here, particularly in this region, which the local tribe calls the Forest of Shrouds, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

   
Ja, let’s stick with the review while we still have some battery juice here.

   Right. So, we came into this mission during a recent event on Skye, where we unveiled the Chalice of Uston DeKirk we retrieved from a Rim Worlds’ pirate stash on Rocky. It was there that our old friend, Doctor Henry Croft—

   [snort]

   Oh, quiet, Trouble. Doctor Croft offered us a mission on behalf of Interstellar Expeditions, despite our previous…difficulties with the organization. A new lead, it seems, had surfaced that suggested a recent discovery of Jardine.
   Jardine, of course, has gained legendary status for two things: being the known homeworld of the tabiranths that about a quarter of the nobility across the Sphere keep in their livery stables, and for being a system so lost to time that it cannot be found on any of the current or historical maps in publication. Although the world’s existence has always been a generally accepted fact, and most accounts agree it was lost during the early Succession Wars, no more conclusive evidence of its location or the nature of its demise has ever been confirmed. None, that was, until a recent biological study on the planet Shasta stumbled across what appeared to be the invasive encroachment of another animal native to Jardine’s biosphere: the Jardinian firecat. But no sooner had that report been published than it had been retracted, and its author killed in what seemed to be a freak accident.
   Naturally, this revelation piqued my interest, and Croft’s offer for this mission was just too generous to pass up.
   Unfortunately, it was not long before we discovered just how far someone was willing to go to keep Jardine a secret from the Inner Sphere. While the assassination of the firecat’s discoverer already had us on our toes, we were still ambushed by a cloaked operative on Shasta while trying to follow up on that lead. In the jungles there, our dear friend and colleague Marissa Boerefijn—poor Marissa…

   Easy, Brooke. I know.

   [sniff] No, I’m okay. It just, still hurts, saying it out loud. Marissa…she paid the ultimate price on Shasta, while coming to my rescue. Soon after that, we not only managed to confirm the firecat sightings, but we also found the wreckage of a lost IE DropShip deep in the Shastan rainforests. Its data logs told the story Croft neglected to mention from the start: we weren’t the first crew they sent looking for Jardine in recent years.
   Now this, in and of itself, was hardly a surprise, but what happened in this case was that the lost DropShip—the
Clarke—clearly found Jardine some years ago, but got shot down by someone over Shasta before her crew reported in to IE. Her holds, filled with the remains of captured bioforms the crew must have been carrying as physical proof of their success, were broken open enough to allow some to escape. The firecats, it seems, were most successful of these survivors.
   Ironically, we probably would still be trying to decode the
Clarke’s logs when IE’s next unpleasant surprise for us showed up in the form of an “escort mission” of mercenaries commanded by an Arschloch named Hara, with an IE liaison named Bellamy. Employed to protect IE’s interests—or, more likely, to make sure we don’t try to swindle them…

   To be fair, we
did run off with one of their JumpShips and a—

   
Ja, ja! That’s old news, Trouble! Anyway, their arrival turned out to be a boon for us after all, as Bellamy eventually gave us the key to decode Clarke’s logs and pinpoint the system most likely to be Jardine: Herakleion. Described as another victim of the early Succession Wars, Herakleion shared a lot in common with Jardine—enough to convince us that we might actually be looking at a bait-and-switch play. This wasn’t some mere clerical error like what happened to the planet Bob out in Drac space. Someone, centuries ago, altered enough data to make Jardine disappear and put Herakleion in its place. They even went so far as to tweak the planetary data retroactively, likely updating electronic databases across the Sphere with “errata” in ways that researchers of the day might easily miss. Today’s historical data on Jardine is thus not that of the actual star system, but a bogus one with the same star type and number of celestial bodies, but that’s it. The real Jardine became Herakleion, while the Jardine we looked for in legends became a phantom that never quite matched the hundreds of dead worlds out there.
   Given the sheer scope of it all, there was only one organization that would have been able to change records like that across the entire Inner Sphere, while the rest of the Houses fought.
   ComStar.
   We were just about to share these findings with our new IE-employed shadows when we came under attack by another unidentified force, who launched fighters against us seconds after jumping in-system. These new attackers used suicidal tactics, and targeted both our JumpShip and the one carrying Bellamy’s mercs. During the firefight, we executed our own jump to Herakleion.
   And it was somehow, in the midst of all that, that we were boarded by an armored marine. Enhanced by some strange bionics, this intruder attempted to cripple our KF drive, but we managed to stop him before he could do much—or so we thought, in the moment. As it turned out, either the cyborg or his armor packed some kind of suicide explosive that exploded as soon as he went down. The explosion not only made it impossible for us to learn more about him, it also caused enough damage that the
Sacajawea would need repairs before we could dare jump again.
   Still, we were here, in the Herakleion system, listening to warning buoys transmitting messages to us from hundreds of years ago. Someone powerful enough to make an entire solar system vanish from history, someone who had killed an entire expedition before us, took Marissa from us, and wasn’t afraid to destroy JumpShips in violation of all interstellar conventions, was on our tail, and for all we knew, our IE “escorts” were already dead as well. Our ship needed repairs that would keep her in-system anyway, so the only logical choice was clear.
   We readied a shuttle, some weapons, and one of our WorkMechs, so that Tibor and I could investigate this planet, while the rest of the crew fixed our ship as best as they could. Knowing the system could easily be under heavy patrol—despite a lack of transmissions beyond those ancient buoys—we opted for a slow-boat coast to the planet. That was over two weeks ago.
   We were intercepted by both ancient drones and live fighters in close orbit two days ago, and crash-landed our shuttle close to what looked like a ruined city in the middle of a river valley. We escaped the wreckage of our craft using our ’Mech, but found ourselves dogged almost immediately by more cybernetically-enhanced soldiers. Had we not stepped on some kind of EMP mine, our story might have ended right there, but even though our Possum was disabled by the detonation, so too were most of our attackers…

   It also hurt like a bitch!

   Tibor’s own eye and ear implants suffered a power surge in the process, leaving him partially blind and deaf, but he tells me that it might be clearing up.

   It is, thanks for asking!

   Heh. Anyway, as it happened, the mine was laid by local hunters for a tribe of people who call themselves Waywards. Their lifestyle is a curious mix of high-tech knowhow and low-tech practices. These Waywards live in self-imposed exile outside the city we noticed earlier, which is evidently not nearly as ruined as it looked from the air. Yet despite this, they still revere the people of Hope, and these bionic warriors who protect it, with a mix of fear and awe.
   In the last two days, the Waywards’ Keeper of Tales, a young woman named Alahni, has explained more about how Jardine came to be as it is now. She speaks of ComStar and Jerome Blake as saviors of her world, explaining that they came to shield it and four other planets from the collapse of the Inner Sphere. Their arrival came soon after a nuclear attack raid, presumably launched by House Steiner, laid waste to many of the planet’s larger settlements.
   To protect them from prying eyes, these “Guardians from Terra” must have worked with or otherwise convinced the Marik government to quarantine Jardine under the name of Herakleion, and eventually centralized the planet’s surviving populace in the city of Hope. Eschewing heavy industry for a minimalist existence and relying of natural sources for power further made this world look every bit as dead as the records described it. Interstellar communications and travel were cut off to all but the Guardians themselves, who allowed the rest of the world’s cities and machines to rust and decay as time willed it. Hell, if people weren’t actively trying to kill us from the start, we might have actually bought it right up to the point those fighters showed up.
   The Wayward tribes, Alahni says, formed from those who chose a life outside of Hope for one reason or another. And though they do not always agree with their city-dwelling kin, there is a complex relationship between them that includes trade and a mutual respect for the same methods the Guardians’ use to keep their world looking uninhabited. New building construction and plotted farmlands are forbidden, and vehicle use is restricted almost entirely to domesticated mounts, though it is said that the people of Hope maintain stockpiles of heavy equipment that includes BattleMechs and even DropShips.
   Despite their primitive appearances and centuries-long isolation, the Waywards are aware of the happenings across the Inner Sphere. They know of the rise and fall of the Federated Commonwealth, and the rebirth of the Star League. They know of the Clans and hate them intensely, separating the Children of Kerensky from the rest of “House-born” humanity, and seeing them as an alien abomination that must be destroyed at any cost.
   Like old ComStar and the Word of Blake, they deify Jerome Blake, but they also see no mystique in high technology; to them, Blake doesn’t make technology work. He is just the saint who spared them and the rest of what they call “The Five Worlds” as safe havens for the days when those of us who were “lost” to the Succession Wars are ready for a new Golden Age. This age, some believe, is nigh, especially now that the Star League is reformed and the true followers of Blake—these Guardians—have reclaimed Terra itself.
   It is clear, then, that these hidden worlds have come under the sway of the Word of Blake since the days when ComStar erased their existence from all our maps. It also seems that these new, bionic Guardians are a development the Blakists may have initiated to oppose the genetic enhancements of the clans. But Alahni also mentions a “Master” of the Guardians, who began as one of the Lost, but was rehabilitated here, and perhaps even bionically modified, decades before the Clans came. These Wayward speak of cybernetics as something they’ve seen and dealt with all their lives, and they use weapons and traps specifically designed to thwart such enemies.
   There are so many questions left here. If the new ComStar is truly split from the Word, how can they not know of these worlds and their potential? Or have they already fought over and lost these hidden worlds? If the people of this world have always been developing and maintaining high technology, why are these cyborgs as new as the Waywards claim? And what is their true purpose now? A new army? To fight whom? There is no talk of an enemy beyond the Clans; we House-borns are more pitied by these people than reviled. War doesn’t sound like it’s a key part of this heralded Golden Age spoken of in what Alahni calls “The Promise.” For that matter, why did Jerome Blake hide these so-called Five Worlds in the first place, and where are the others?
   Whatever the case, as urgently as I would consider all these questions and more, there is one alone among all others that weighs the most on my mind right now:
   Exactly how, in Bast's name, do Tibor and I get out of here?


-----

Author's Foreword: The chapters to come comprise the last of the three-book arc that comprised what some have lovingly referred to as "The Ballad of Brooklyn Stevens." The first two books--The Search for Jardine, and Finding Jardine--were both published years ago at the now-defunct BattleCorps fiction site. It was always my fervent desire to see them finished before the end of BattleTech's Jihad arc, but my various duties as a game line developer and a few extra "day jobs" here and there always intervened. And then things got...awkward. These final chapters thus languished in a partially written/mostly outlined format for a rather long time, destined never to see the light of day...until I decided to change that, without contract, without pay, without an editor, and without a care. Over the coming days and weeks, I will present them all to you, so those who were interested can finally see the final act of Doctor Stevens's adventures on Jardine, on the eve of the Jihad.

Because I do not own the first two books any longer, I cannot post them in their entirety, and so the Prelude above, set between Books 2 and 3, must do as a summary of the events to date. It does leave some minor details out, but most of those are details our heroine and her companion are unaware of at the time, and I can only bend the rules so far on their behalf.

Starting tomorrow (Monday, 15 April 2019), I hope to release the first chapter of Book 3, with subsequent releases coming out every Monday thereafter until we hit the end. I hope you all enjoy this bit of "semi-official fanfic" as much as I enjoyed writing it. In the hopes of keeping this thread focused on the story itself, I will also be setting up a discussion thread for the series in this board here.

Thank you for joining me on this one last ride of mine through BattleTech lore.

Sincerely,

- Herbert A. Beas II


------

Supplemental Author's Note: For your convenience, the Catalyst PTBs have generously posted the first two books of the Jardine saga, in PDF form, on the General Discussion Boards. You can find them here, for now. I say "for now" because, according to another little avian perching on my shoulder now, there is a distinct possibility that they--and this third book--may have to be pulled down for...reasons.

Will try to keep you all posted!

- Herbert A Beas II
« Last Edit: 21 April 2019, 01:18:25 by HABeas2 »

HABeas2

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Re: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« Reply #1 on: 15 April 2019, 04:06:12 »
Forgotten Worlds – Book 3
Escape from Jardine
By Herbert A. Beas II




-1-
   Blake foretold that the day would come when all fighting ends and we—the believers of his Word—would emerge as the saviors of all humankind. The victories would come for us “one world at a time—then one House at a time—until we control everything”. Mankind, it is said, will do so willingly, inviting us to rule.
   But rule requires sacrifice, and to end all fighting, we must be prepared for the greatest of sacrifices. On this day—the Third Blessed Transfer—Terra, and the Inner Sphere with it, will see a new dawn in one last, great conflict. The war that will, truly, end all wars. Our victories shall indeed come one world at a time—then one Bloodhouse at a time—until we destroy the greatest threat mankind has ever faced.
   Then, and only then, will we prove that we alone have earned the right to lead our people to a new, everlasting, Golden Age…

   —Excerpt from “The Master’s Promise” (authorship and date unknown)



Forest of Shrouds
Jardine (Herakleion), Free Worlds League
2 November 3067


   Kona was a magnificent beast, a credit to her species. Weighing in at a mere two hundred and twenty kilos, she was lean, almost wiry, beneath a fine coat of reddish-brown fur. But her muscles were as powerful as myomer, and even with an extra ninety-five kilos of harness, rider, and saddlebags, she could tear through six meters of uneven ground a second at a sustained run and barely make a sound while doing it.
   Right now, she was clawing through soil and undergrowth at a frantic nine meters a second, and her breath was blasting through bared fangs with a savage grunt at every pounding stride. Within her massive chest, her oversized heart hammered away, powered as much by primal fear as it was by the exertion of her mad sprint through the forest.
   In the saddle above her—with his body crouched forward, one hand clutching the reins for dear life, and the other grasping the handle of a rifle easily five generations older than himself—rode Elike. Like Kona beneath him, his heart raced, and his breath came in ragged, low grunts. Like the tabiranth he rode, his eyes scanned the wild forest ahead for threats, obstacles, dead ends, and as one, man and beast plotted their desperate course through the foliage.
   Like Kona, Elike knew the terror that urged them onward.
   Unlike Kona—as he heard and felt the thunderous crashing behind them—Elike realized that no amount of speed the animal could provide would save them from their pursuers.
   In spite of his own fear, Elike dared a glance back. Smashing through ancient trees and snapping centuries-old vines like cobwebs, emerged a titan of metal. Fading from scarlet at its bulbous head to black at the broad metallic feet, the lumbering giant stood easily as tall as six men. Upon one shoulder sat a boxy missile launcher, while the right forearm carried a weapon so large it mimicked a heavy rifle in human hands.
   Intellectually, Elike knew of these BattleMechs from the ancient wrecks that still littered the forest and the clearings around the City of Hope.
   But facing an operational one—for real—was something well beyond the hunter’s twenty-two years of experience living in the wilds of paradise.
   Even so, at the first thumping sound of the approaching war machines, his raw instinct had taken over.
   Run!
   The BattleMech lifted its left arm, bringing a smaller laser weapon to bear. Elike felt the beam’s blistering pulse slice the air just overhead and ground his teeth. A tree ahead exploded into steam and splinters that showered him and Kona, ripping through the flesh of man and mount alike. Elike shoved his rifle into its saddle sheath—its power would be useless against the armored skin of the monster behind him—and seized the reins with knuckle-whitening tightness.
   Other parties had encountered Hope’s ’Mech patrols and lived to tell the tales, but to Elike those were just stories for the night lamps. This was no patrol. Somehow, deep down, he just knew it.
   But others had survived them. How?
   Another blast, this time directly ahead and into the ground. Elike’s eyes registered the blue-white flash and he felt the prickling sensation that set his and Kona’s hair on edge only after the earth erupted in hunks of super-heated soil and rock. Kona’s instincts took over, and darted them around the blast. Elike felt the tabiranth buckle, almost stumbling to one side as she lost her footing on the underbrush, but before they could go down together, the animal pounded the earth with all four legs and propelled them over a fallen trunk he’d not even noticed until a millisecond before.
   They were airborne for only a second, leaves whipping Elike across the face as they brushed too close to a tree. Kona let out a low growl as she landed. Her gait faltered, and Elike knew from the stride and the breeze that they’d lost speed.
   And still the ’Mech thundered after them, shouldering through the trees and sending branches flying.
   Suddenly, it occurred to Elike—possibly their only chance! All he needed to do was get his bearings, remember where to go, and guide his wounded beast to the right spot.
   …And hope the Guardian now hunting the hunter would continue to enjoy his game of cat-and-’Mech until they got there…

*  *  *  *

   Phantom Adept Tau Iukini Moakay frowned as he tracked the Wayward scurrying through the woods before his Griffin. More than once, his crosshairs flashed gold over the mounted rider, begging for the simple caress of the firing studs that would unleash enough megajoules of raw energy to slice through the man and his majestic tabiranth in less than a heartbeat. But more than once, Moakay found, he simply could not take the shot.
   Deep down, he burned with shame. He was one of Apollyon’s Chosen, the Master’s most blessed. A lifetime ago, he had sacrificed his frail legs in the name of Blake, and the Master had rewarded him with true legs that never tired and never felt pain. His frail muscles had been enhanced with the true strength of myomer bundles that would never tire and would never flinch. Within his skull, he could hear his true conscience—the clipped chatter of his team, the orders barked quickly by Precentor Sigma Lucille as the rest of the Level II turned toward the Waywards’ camp, entrusting Moakay with this straggler’s fate.
   And yet, he could not kill this Wayward!   
   There was little question why, he knew; the Waywards were not the enemy he had trained for. Indeed, they were not his enemy at all. The man now attempting to flee from him on his magnificent cat could have been part of the Chosen himself, but for the act of fate or poor judgment that now sent him fleeing into the woods beyond the City of Hope. And it was with that in mind that Maokay had grown up on Jardine, and trained to be one of the world’s guardians, to help fulfill the Promise one day—all so that the Wayward might return home and share in Blake’s blessings.
   This was no sub-human Clansman that Maokay now targeted; he was as much one of the Master’s children as Maokay himself!
   But fate, and cruel necessity, now dictated this man die for the sins of his tribe.
   “And it is my solemn duty to be your executioner…” Maokay muttered aloud.
   The click in his true ear told Maokay that his true conscience had heard him. A metallic taste filled his mouth.
   “Is there a problem, Adept Maokay?” Lucille’s voice asked, with just a hint of malice.
   Mentally, Maokay stood at attention. His vision cleared before he even realized he had lost his focus. “No, sir,” he snapped back at once, his voice instantly transmitted through his conscience. “The Wayward has simply changed course and is heading further east.”
   “He is undoubtedly trying to lead you away from the camp,” Lucille replied. “Perhaps toward more of their EMP mines. Do not play with him, Adept! Take your shot!”
   Maokay allowed his eyes to close for only a moment. Lucille was right; this was foolishness. When he opened them again, he felt his resolve returning, and swung the crosshairs around to meet the fleeing Wayward.
   At least this way, it will be quick…
   “Yes, Precentor,” he said to his conscience. To the hunter, he added, “Blake’s mercy be with you.”
   The crosshairs flashed gold, and he fired.
   The angry crimson beam sliced through the hunter’s body just as he executed a hard turn on his animal, trying to drop behind a fallen tree that sprang up in his path. Meant to carve military armor, the laser found no obstacle in the flesh and bone of the man they struck and the body all but exploded from the heat. The beast fared little better as excess energy cut its body in half. Its hindquarters flashed away, leaving its head, half its torso and two fore paws to tumble forward and vanish into the brush.
   But the horrific deaths of the rider and his cat were the last things to register in Maokay’s mind, for at that moment—just as he began to slow his Griffin to a halt—his entire universe suddenly dissolved into a burst of electric-blue light and it felt as if the hand of God Himself suddenly reached out to crush his chest…

*  *  *  *

Tribe Encampment
Forest of Shrouds
Jardine (Herakleion), Free Worlds League
   

   Mikeke had read the pages of this old tome a dozen times before, but for some reason he could not explain, he always found himself drawn back to it time and time again. It was a classic Star League-era piece of science fiction, written long before the Fall, about mankind encountering an alliance of intelligent alien beings that seemed hell-bent on ending all life in the galaxy. The story, he realized, was probably a retelling of any number of even older fantasy tales; even in the centuries before man left Terra’s blessed soil, his kind had wondered if they were alone in the universe.
   These stories amused the tribal chieftain, in a way that tugged at his cynical side. For all of pre-spaceflight Terra’s certainty in discovering new civilizations among the stars, humanity’s fiction on the subject overwhelmingly presumed that any such civilizations would set its sights on genocide. Even in the glorious days of the Star League, it seemed, the story-tellers fixated on the possibility that overpowering agents of death lay just beyond the boundaries of explored space.
   Mikeke often wondered how many of these creative thinkers would have been surprised to know that man would breed his own genocidal alien menace—with nary a strand of non-human DNA required?
   He was just about to reach the chapter in which humanity’s warring factions put aside their differences to unite against the common foe when the sound of running echoed from the outward cave entrance. Without so much as a rap on the threshold beams to grab his attention first and await permission to enter, Ravid burst through the curtain. The chieftain’s eyes came up, and saw a look of panic on the young hunter’s face. Seeing also that Ravid’s age-worn gyroslug rifle was in his hands, rather than slung over his shoulder, sent a foreboding chill down the older man’s spine.
   “Mikeke!” Ravid said breathlessly. “It’s Guardians… Dimke radioed in! He says they’re heading this way! ’Mechs and armor!”
   The book fell out of Mikeke’s suddenly numb fingers, completely forgotten. His mouth went instantly dry, and a second chill shook him. He was out of his chair before he even realized it, reaching for the rifle affixed to the cave wall behind him, and the bandolier of magazines hung beside it. His old hunters’ instincts came back to him with a surge of urgency.
   “How many?” he snapped. “How close?”
   Ravid’s eyes remained tense. “Two kilometers at most,” he replied. “Dimke counted five ’Mechs, maybe two squads…”
   He swallowed hard before adding, “They’re his!”
   Mikeke wished that surprised him, but instead that only made his heart sink further. There was only one complete Domini formation left on Jardine that he knew of, but it was the only one that needed to be here. First Pilipo’s disappearance on a hunt, and now this!
   Any hope left in his mind that this could be just a random patrol vanished like smoke.
   “They’re coming for the Lost ones,” Mikeke said flatly. “But we won’t be spared.”
   “Couldn’t we just give them to him—?” Ravid started, even though the words clearly pained him. It was the kind of thought Dimke would have uttered.
   “That wouldn’t stop them now.” He closed his eyes and bent his head down for a moment. “May Blake have mercy, for his Guardians won’t.”
   He looked up to find that Ravid had bowed his head as well, silently praying with him. Mikeke checked his rifle, assuring himself its magazine was loaded. Ravid’s eyes came back up the instant he moved. The men locked gazes.
   “Find Alahni, Ravid,” Mikeke told him. “Tell her to take the Lost to the city, through the secret pass. I would send you with them, but—”
   “My place is with the tribe,” Ravid finished for him. It was both an acknowledgment of his duties, and a vow not to run, in one determined statement.
   Mikeke nodded. “Try not to panic her, but tell her to stay with Uku and his people until we call her back; tell her you will catch up, if you must, or she’ll try to stay. Moze and I will send as many of our kin through the deep tunnels as we can spare. But you, I, and the rest of our hunters will need to delay the Guardians for as long as possible, if they are to have any chance to survive.”
    Ravid nodded in return, but said nothing. He knew, as well as Mikeke did, that the Shrouded Forest Tribe had already seen its last sunrise.
   Sending Alahni away with the Lost was merely a way to ensure that its memory survived.
   
*  *  *  *

The Sanctorum
City of Hope
Jardine (Herakleion), Free Worlds League


   With the hood of her robe thrown back, the delicate curves of Lamashti’s head and face could be seen in all their glory. Not one strand of hair or bit of stubble marred her scalp; even her eyebrows were bare and pristine. Her porcelain skin was absolutely smooth, and free of all but the tiniest wrinkles—save for those that formed crow’s feet around the reddish rims of her eyes. It was as though her entire visage had been sculpted and polished from a single piece of unblemished ivory.
   The lighting in the communications chamber had been muted for her benefit. Her true eyes had just received their final upgrades a week before; cosmetic modifications made to give them an almost natural appearance—save for the silver discs that replaced iris and pupil alike. That personal choice in aesthetic, combined with her flawlessly smooth skin, lent Lamashti an appearance that was otherworldly. But for now, in the wake of the surgery, she found it better to shield her eyes and reduce any glare in order to avoid too much strain while her frail flesh healed.
   These final modifications had come after her Ascension, after she rose from the ranks of the Manei Domini’s elite Ghost operatives to the rank of a junior Precentor. Now, she possessed the very best in true vision, true hearing, and true speech—abilities so finely tuned that even her commander could scarcely compete.
   To the mere Frails of the Inner Sphere, Ghost Precentor Sigma Lamashti would seem supernatural, almost telepathic for all intents and purposes. Her true vision could sense electromagnetic wavelengths from gamma rays through infrared as easily as any other human being could see in visible light. Her true ears could not only detect sound waves at greater range and distance than normal people, but could even eavesdrop on radio waves. And her true voice, capable of modulating to the very same ranges as her ears, gave her the means to communicate to others, even when she appeared to stand mute.
   At this moment, however, Lamashti’s eyes were closed, her true voice silent at all frequencies. She focused her mind completely on the sense of true hearing now, studying, memorizing, and assimilating the recordings of radio transmissions sent by the DropShuttle that brought two misguided Frails to her homeworld. Her mind studied every nuance and inflection in the feminine voice that made those calls to distant, unseen allies. She picked apart the foreigner’s accent (Lyran, likely raised in Donegal’s Eastern Hinterlands region), assessed her vocal tones (tense, but far from panicked), and mentally mapped her vocal range (contralto, fascinating!).
   Unfortunately, none of the terms this woman used in her recorded transmissions felt stressed enough to Lamashti’s extra-sensitive ears to suggest code phrases or special cues to her colleagues. If there were any special commands hidden in the messages, they were hidden so well, and spoken with such discipline, that even one of the Domini’s best intelligence operatives would miss them.
   Something Lamashti knew to be impossible.
   Ergo…
   “Nothing, my Precentor,” she said aloud, knowing that her master still stood nearby (precisely 2.6 meters to her forward right, and facing her).
   Her silver eyes opened, but the visual confirmation that Apollyon stood nearby was unnecessary. He had not moved a muscle for the past ten minutes. His arms remained folded together, tucked into the sleeves of his red robe. His hood was pulled back as well, leaving his own bronzed scalp bare, and allowing the dimmed lighting and blue-green haze from the comm center’s nearby vid screens to glimmer upon the metals of his prosthetics.
   Apollyon nodded, almost solemnly. He had not truly expected to find codes hidden inside the intruder’s mayday, but that was hardly the only reason to have Lamashti analyze the message. “Can you mimic her?”
   Lamashti favored him with a crooked smile. It was hardly worth saying, but she immediately re-modulated her true speech, and replied in the foreigner’s voice: “Brooklyn Stevens. At your service, Herr Precentor.”
   Scoring the name of the woman, and even that of her crew’s JumpShip, came from a careful analysis of her wrecked shuttle, rather than the mayday transmission. It was a wise enough move of this Frail to omit such details in case of hostile eavesdroppers, but clearly she had not thought it all the way through. Or lacked the training of a proper covert operative.
   If Apollyon smiled at all in recognition of Lamashti’s resourcefulness, it was imperceptible even to her true eyes. He merely nodded again. “It’ll have to do,” he said. “Perhaps, with some properly timed interference, we can make a call just convincing, yet garbled enough, to make up for any lack of known keywords.”
   “A challenge,” Lamashti replied.
   “May Blake reward our efforts, then,” he agreed. “I will leave you to compose the message, Ghost Precentor Sigma. Feel free to broadcast when ready, using the same frequencies as her distress call; it would seem unlikely that they would reserve a secondary channel for further such hails. In the meantime, I will be at the ’port, seeing to our shuttles.”



HABeas2

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Re: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« Reply #2 on: 22 April 2019, 11:15:54 »

-2-

My Dearest Tyler,
   I don’t care what the vid-games tell you; driving an actual BattleMech is even more awesome than it seems! Oh, I know you don’t really care for them, but this ’Mech-obsessed culture we live in has all but assured that half of these IE missions will call for us to either retrieve some walking junk-heap dating back to the Camerons, or drive one of their armed WorkMechs into a dig site.
   The new guy assigned to us here, Tibor Mitternacht, apparently has some tech skills and knows the ins and outs of ’Mech operation. He’s ex-military, he says, but doesn’t go farther than that. The accent tells me he’s Lyran-born, though. Anyway, he was so impressed with my handling of the clunky old DiggerMech we have here that he decided to convince one of the ’Mech jocks in our attached security detail here to let me at the helm of an actual BattleMech!
   It was a smaller model. A
Commando, they called it. They make them on Coventry, and I’m told its one of the lightest machines they still use in the LAAF today. Anyway, I just have to say that even though it was described like the runt of the litter, there’s a genuine thrill in piloting a walker that moves with such fluidity. I’ve heard the MechWarriors talk about how much more refined and flexible their rides were compared to the civilian variety, but until I put that Commie through its paces, I didn’t believe it!
   I tell you, it was like learning to drive on an old farm tractor, and then being handed the keys to a Hurricane Windracer with all the options! Well, except in this case, there are also missile launchers and lasers mounted on it that you can use to blow your way through the typical Donegal City gridlock!
   Tibor says I handled the thing like a natural! And while he may just be saying that in an effort to get in my pants (Men!), the
Commando’s owner did say I managed a pretty good shots-to-hits ratio for a “dirt digger”.
   —From the collected writings of Dr. Brooklyn Stevens (ca. 3060)





Forest of Shrouds
Jardine (Herakleion), Free Worlds League
2 November 3067


   By Brooke’s estimate, the three of them had traveled through at least four kilometers of jungle when the sound of distant thumping reached them. Tibor was the first to hear it, pausing abruptly and raising a fist as his old training kicked in. Brooke, standing just to his left, caught the motion and stopped short herself. She had just begun to ask what was wrong when Tibor put a finger to his lips and made a sharp hissing noise.
   It was that noise that told Alahni, walking ahead of them, that her charges had stopped. She turned around, and Brooke caught her gaze. The young Jardinian Wayward’s eyes were wide, showing the same fear that emerged when Ravid found them, back at the encampment, and urgently told Alahni to lead “the Lost ones” to the city. Tibor’s alert stance registered in Alahni’s expression as well, along with his repeated gesture for silence. The girl’s face grew whiter as the first thump finally resonated across the earth.
   Followed by another.
   And another.
   “’Mechs,” Brooke whispered. She turned slowly, trying to get a fix on the direction, until she noticed that Tibor had already locked onto that: behind them. “Following us?”
   Tibor held his breath and closed his eyes for a moment. “No,” he muttered back. “I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway. But it’s more than one…”
   Brooke listened again, and realized she heard it too. The distant pounding was not synchronized; it was irregular, like competing drumbeats. She narrowed her eyes.
   “The Domini don’t send their ’Mechs into these forests on patrols,” Alahni said, her voice low, tense, nearly cracking.
   They’re looking for us, Brooke thought.
   She looked back at Alahni, unsure what to say at first. But before any words formed, a sound like distant thunder interrupted the distant footfalls.
   “Scheiße!” Tibor spat.
   There was no need to explain that noise, or the other brief rumbles that quickly followed. Alahni’s face went white, and Brooke saw true terror and heartache in the young woman’s eyes.
   “No!” Alahni shrieked, tears welling in her eyes. “For the love of Blake, why!?”
   The girl had taken two steps forward—back toward the camp—before she even knew it. Instinctively, Brooke reached out and grabbed her by the arm. Alahni strained against her grasp, crying hysterically.
   “Alahni, don’t!” Brooke shouted. “There’s nothing you can do for them!”
   “Jesus,” Tibor hissed. “I figured they knew something was coming when they rushed us out of there, but ’Mechs?”
   “We just wanted to live in peace!” Alahni whimpered, her face now pressed into Brooke’s shoulder. Brooke held her awkwardly, and looked over at Tibor. “We were no danger to them!”
   “It’s…” Tibor started, but his voice trailed off.
   “It’s us,” Brooke finished. “It’s our fault, Alahni. I’m so sorry…”
   Alahni pushed herself away from Brooke, breaking free with surprising strength. Brooke held her breath, braced for the tirade, but while the look on Alahni’s face showed rage and fear in equal measure, the words that came out were heartbroken.
   “Damn you all!” she screamed.
   Suddenly, she was gone, darting into the brush before Brooke could stop her.
   Tibor blinked. “Crap! There goes our guide…”
   “Come on!” Brooke snapped back, already breaking into a sprint. As she, too, lunged into the woods, she called Alahni’s name.
   With Tibor on her heels, Brooke raced almost blindly into the woods. The trees and underbrush were thick in this region, shadowing the landscape, giving her little time to watch her steps. Low-hanging branches raked across her face, and she nearly tripped more than once. Ahead, she could hear the rustle of the leaves, accompanied by infrequent sobs. Behind her, the sounds of Tibor’s grunts reminded her that he was in no shape for a foot race like this.
   They’d been running for almost a full minute when she heard him fall. Hard.
   “Son of a—!” he growled, then abruptly stopped.
   Brooke came to a stumbling halt, looking back to find him on his knees. For a moment, she almost didn’t see what he was staring at with incredulous eyes, so entangled was it in the undergrowth.
   Then she recognized the powerful, clawed forelegs of a reddish-brown tabiranth, connected by half a torso to a large feline head that stared at her with sightless eyes, its fanged mouth agape. How Brooke had missed the massive carcass in her charge through the woods defied her imagination, but as Tibor pushed himself up, she noticed that he’d actually tripped over the remnants of a riding saddle.
   “Poor beast,” Tibor muttered, his eyes beginning a sweep even as he gasped for air.
   “It’s fresh,” Brooke said, her own voice low and breathless. “One of them came through here. “How did we miss them?”
   Tibor was shaking his head. “Dunno,” he answered, “but we better find the girl, before—”
   The scream cut off his reply, and his eyes snapped in its direction. Brooke spun around, following the sound as well. With only a moment’s glance back at Tibor, she bolted off toward it.
   Seconds later, they found themselves bursting out of the undergrowth and into a swath of broken trees and fallen branches. The broken cover and the forest canopy still made it difficult for Brooke to home in on exactly where she’d heard Alahni’s cry, and her footsteps faltered as she instinctively slowed to survey the path ahead.
   Until Tibor jogged past her, clapping her on the shoulder as he went.
   “This way!”
   Brooke fell in behind him now, quickly beginning to realize what she was seeing. The sight of ruined foliage, the unmistakable scent of freshly split wood and churned soil—all told the tale. But there was something more, a sound, so deep and so faint that she almost couldn’t sense it over the sound of her own footfalls, ragged breathing, and pounding heartbeat. Ahead of her, she saw Tibor clambering over a short hillock, and felt a moment of surprise when Alahni suddenly emerged from beyond it to embrace him.
   She’s safe! Thank Bast she’s safe!
   Relieved, Brooke’s stride slowed as she reached the hillock and ascended it, her feet slipping a little as she found the soil beneath looser than expected. The deep hum in her ears was rising, but over the distant sound of more gunfire, she’d almost forgotten about it.
   Until she saw what lay just beyond the rise.
   There, sprawled awkwardly on the forest floor, lay the massive hulk of a BattleMech, painted in foreboding shades of red and black.
   

*  *  *  *


Tribe Encampment
Forest of Shrouds
Jardine (Herakleion), Free Worlds League


   With an ear-shattering pop and a flash of electric blue light, the sleek, humanoid form of a twenty-five ton Nexus came to a sudden, lurching halt. Smoke billowed around its right foot, and its arms tensed to the sides, locking into place as if frozen in shock. Feeling the ripple of hot air and the tingle of the electromagnetic pulse, Lucille’s head snapped around in time not only to see the BattleMech’s crash-landing on the forest floor, scattering brush and earth in all directions, but also the twitching death of at least two more of his own troopers, whose bodies soaked up too much of the pulse themselves.
   Adept Jorg, the closer of the two, clutched at the helmet of his power armor and howled in enraged pain. A flash of light inside his visor and the abrupt end of his scream told Lucille that the man’s true eyes had exploded. A heartbeat later, the suit itself flew apart as the rest of Jorg’s body followed, showering the field with shrapnel, bone, and gore—small chunks of which even reached Lucille’s battered Achileus.
   Adept Sonia’s own self-destruction was lost beneath the falling hulk of the Nexus. Her true voice, likely destroyed when the EMP struck, never even uttered a sound.
   Lucille felt his jaw tighten and released his rage in an incoherent snarl.
   These frail Waywards had gotten lucky—too damned lucky—since this hunt began. Already, Lucille had lost two BattleMechs and five armored troopers to their EMP trip-mines and salvaged weapons.
   That the nomads knew who they faced and had modified their weapons to deal with them was hardly an excuse! That Lucille and his men had already killed over twenty of their misled kind was little consolation! The hunt should not have been going this badly!
   Another rocket-assisted shell exploded against his armor’s flank, tearing through to find the flesh within. The pain barely registered to Lucille; he simply used it to determine where the shot came from.
   With a battle cry roared through his external speakers, he lunged toward the shooter. Closing the distance in a fraction of a second, he tore through the brush and the fallen tree the Wayward had used for cover. The hunter was male, with long black locks and a scarred, stubbled face. His dark eyes widened and his mouth opened to say something even as Lucille punched through his frail chest with an armored gauntlet.
   Lifting the gurgling, blood-soaked Wayward high, Lucille flung his corpse into another hunter—this one a woman with flowing brown hair, flimsy flak armor, and an elephant gun. The body struck the woman dead-on, knocking her to the ground and sending her weapon flying. Still snarling through his speakers, Lucille stomped toward her, incidentally crushing the male Wayward’s forgotten gyrojet rifle beneath one of his meta-shod feet.
   Though clearly dazed, the huntress struggled to free herself from the weight of her companion’s body. She gasped as Lucille towered over her, stabbed the muzzles of his Mauser 1200 toward her, and painted her forehead with the steady beam of the rifle’s targeting laser.
   “Where are they, Wayward?” he demanded. “Where are the Lost ones?”
   She opened her mouth to speak, but by that time, Lucille was already pulling the trigger, unleashing a burst of laser fire that transformed the once-pretty young girl into a smoking mass of exploded flesh and bone.
   Answers were unnecessary; this entire camp would burn the moment he could account for the intruders personally.
   A voice spoke in Lucille’s ears just then; strong, confident, but devoid of any real emotion. “East flank secured, Precentor,” the warrior said. “We count a dozen kills here, all Waywards.”
   “Blessed be,” Lucille replied. “A number have fled into the caves below. My troopers will move in to flush them out, while you and the other MechWarriors hold the topside perimeter. Maintain thermal scans to track any others, but remember to engage all hostiles with minimal overkill; we’ll need something to conduct tests on in the event you should catch the off-worlders.”
   “Understood, Precentor.”


*  *  *  *
   
   
Forest of Shrouds
Jardine (Herakleion), Free Worlds League



   “No obvious damage. And my eye’s getting a heat glow from the engine, so it’s clearly operational,” Tibor said, admitting for the first time that his implant was working again. “Terrain doesn’t seem too rough for ’Mechs here, so I’m guessing he must’ve triggered one of those EMP mines.”
   Brooke put a cautionary hand on Tibor’s shoulder and looked around. Tibor caught her gaze for a moment and twitched his head toward the fallen Griffin’s bubble-shaped head. The transplas armor that gave its MechWarrior an unparalleled field of vision was polarized for glare, but it looked as if the Domini tinted it as well—with what looked like a highly reflective form of dark, metallic green.
   It was also lying sideways against the soft earth, quite intact. The ’Mech had come down on its right shoulder, trapping the right arm beneath it, while its left hung limply across its mid-section. The legs had locked almost perfectly straight, forming a neat V-shape behind its half-twisted torso.
   And so far as Brooke could see, not a single hatch was opened.
   “The engine’s rebooted,” Tibor said, “but the thing’s still down, and the canopy hasn’t blown. I’m betting the pilot’s still inside; probably took too much feedback for his implants.”
   “The Blakists were in a rush to catch the tribe off guard,” Brooke mumbled, bitterly. “Didn’t even bother to pick up their toys.”
   Then, the crazy idea hit. She rolled it around in her head for a few minutes before finally catching Tibor’s gaze. “Can you hotwire it?” she asked.
   “The machine men can merge with their ’Mechs,” Alahni muttered. Her voice was still tiny and distant.
   Brooke turned to her, perplexed.
   “The controls,” the Jardinian continued, utter defeat written all over her face as she stared back through puffy, unblinking eyes. “They need special implants to work. No neurohelmets or manual systems are needed, so the Guardians remove them.”
   “Scheiße,” Brooke whispered. So much for that idea, then
   Tibor leaned against the machine’s cockpit until he was practically pressing his nose against it, and cupped his hands over his eyes to block out all daylight. Suddenly, mere seconds later, he burst into a coughing and gagging fit, and stumbled back from the machine, collapsing into an awkward sitting position on a mass of churned up earth and roots. Brooke took a step closer as he covered his mouth for a moment and stood back up, still fighting an obvious urge to retch. When he removed his hand, he revealed an expression that was at once shaken and…pleased
   “Well,” he said after one last cough, “this one must’ve missed that memo. I’m seeing standard system controls in there. Throttles, panels, and displays, all lit up. I wouldn’t even need to hack it. But it looks like the Arschloch’s cyberware betrayed him all the same.”
   Curiosity got the better of Brooke, and she also peered through the tinted transplas—only to regret it instantly. Now it was Brooke’s turn to blanch.
   “Thank Bast for small favors,” she croaked out between coughs. She clambered to the side of the BattleMech’s head, and yanked on its emergency latch. There was a hiss of air as the hydraulic release complied, parting the cockpit seal enough for her and Tibor to grab onto and pry open.
   The stench that hit them was unholy—a mix of burned metals, ozone, and human waste. Both explorers turned away for a moment to gasp for fresh air. Brooke glanced over to Tibor and nodded, then turned to face Alahni, who now stood behind her. Though still horror-stricken, the look in the Jardinian’s eyes also betrayed an eagerness to see what lay within.
   “You will probably want to look away,” Brooke told her. “This won’t be pretty.”
   “What do you—?” Alahni started, then her entire body recoiled and her face twisted in a look of revulsion as the odor reached her. “Oh, Blake’s blood!”
   “Close enough,” Tibor darkly quipped, as the young woman twisted herself away.
   Brooke joined him and suffered a new gagging fit at the sight. In her career, she had seen many corpses, of course, but this may have been the first time she saw one that looked like it had both imploded and exploded at the same time. Blood was everywhere, painting much of the control systems, splashing and pooling along the right side of the canopy and—almost certainly—the lowermost areas, which she could not make out for all the shadows. Bits of bone, shrapnel, meat, and other unidentifiable tissues clung to surfaces all over the chamber, some wetly coming loose even as Brooke and Tibor forced the opening even wider.
   At the center, still buckled into its seat, still clad in the tatters of what once had been a pristine cooling suit, was a sagging, skeletal…thing. The pilot’s body was twisted as close to a fetal position as its five-point harness allowed, and its limbs looked compressed, as if they began to shrink while they curled inward. More blood dripped slowly from several rents in the suit.
   But the most disturbing part was the head. Still attached—but only barely—and still inside a neurohelmet of first Star League design, it was remarkably intact. The MechWarrior had been male, and Brooke guessed by his skin tone that he shared the same ethnic heritage as Alahni’s people. But his eyes had sunken completely inside their sockets, vanishing somewhere deep inside the skull, while his jaw hung open crookedly, blood painting the lips, chin, and right cheek a bright crimson. It was a rictus of incredible, soul-crushing agony—one that told her that the man suffered in his final moments.
   Good, was the first thought that struck Brooke as she thought of that, and allowed herself one final shudder of revulsion.
   She pressed on the body’s harness release, which sank into the chest of its collapsed torso. Something inside the cooling suit made a sound that reminded Brooke of the time she once tripped into a steaming mud bath. Thankfully, the release popped before she had pushed her hand all the way through the squishy, spongey remains.
   Together, she and Tibor heaved the vaguely humanoid sack of pulp out of its seat, and hurled it into some nearby brush. In the process, the head had separated, ensnared by the neurohelmet that was still wired into the consoles. After pulling the chin strap upward, Brooke gave the helmet a shake; the head slid out like a single hunk of canned meat, thudding against the forest floor. Tibor kicked it into the same brush as its body.
   Glancing back in, Brooke sighed in relief. Protected largely by the suit and the head’s apparent failure to explode, the cockpit seat and the interior of the neurohelmet were mostly clean. Lacking the suit would be a problem, but not insurmountable. She handed the helmet to Tibor, then set herself to clearing the spattered blood from the cockpit displays and controls, wishing she had a bundle of rags to do this with, instead of her own bare hands.
   Alahni had turned back, but now stood a few extra meters away, staring at the Lost ones in bewilderment. But it wasn’t until Brooke began shedding her clothes on the forest floor that the girl found her voice again.
   “What are you doing?” she asked.
   Brooke froze for a second, her eyes meeting Alahni’s. Standing in the open in just her undergarments, she suddenly remembered that she had an audience (beyond Tibor, at any rate), and the gooseflesh spread quickly over her arms and legs. A soft snort from Tibor deepened the flush she felt burning at her cheeks, but it also shook her out of her momentary pause.
   “Y-you two will need to stay put,” she stammered. “Trouble, is your radio implant working?”
   “Fortunately, yeah,” he mumbled as his hands continued working the insides of the helmet. “Both it and the eye are a bit fuzzy, but they’re working.”
   “Then I’ll tune a private channel to you,” she told him as she put her boots back on.
   “Okay,” he replied, handing her the helmet. “But I’m with Alahni here. Just what are you doing?”
   “Something stupid, maybe,” she said as she climbed into the cockpit, feeling for all the world like someone who was now modeling one of those tasteless “Sexy MechWarrior” costumes that become so popular every October. Despite the awkward angle, she managed to leverage herself into the seat enough to refasten the harness around her torso.
   She kept her eyes focused on the harness, then the control displays, afraid to look at either of her companions—especially the young Jardinian.
   “But I’ll be damned if I’m letting these monsters get away with this slaughter scot-free,” she added. Secured into the command couch, she reached up for the canopy handle, before finally meeting Tibor’s judgmental gaze. Any one of a thousand things could go wrong at this point, but she shoved those doubts away.
   “If I don’t make it back,” she told him, “tell Tyler I’m sorry…”
   With that, she shut and dogged the hatch, turning her attention to completing the Griffin’s restart sequence. Outside, Tibor gathered up her discarded clothes, and guided Alahni to a safe distance.
   Seconds later, the fifty-five ton monster rose up from the forest floor once more.

*  *  *  *


DropShip Kaylin
Pirate Jump Point
Jardine (Herakleion) System, Free Worlds League
2 November 3067


   Lenard Bryce, executive officer of the DropShip Kaylin, straightened himself up from the comm station just as Captain Anton Hara floated his way through the bridge hatch. Hara’s malachite eyes caught his within moments, asking their question silently. Bryce was just about to respond when he noticed the second man, trailing behind him.
   Instead of speaking right away, Bryce flashed his captain a frown. Why, in the name of all the heavens, did that IE slug have to follow him around like a lost puppy?
   Hara acknowledged Bryce’s ire with a sympathetic roll of his eyes, and the subtle shrug that communicated his own non-verbal comment: What are you gonna do?    
   If the exchange of expressions even registered to Nathan Bellamy, the liaison assigned to Hara by Interstellar Expeditions, he was damned good at hiding it. Before either man spoke, he nudged himself sideways with a gentle shove against one of the bridge rails. The maneuver almost made him look graceful, had he not misjudged and began a tumbling spin that he was forced to stop by grabbing one of the ceiling rungs.
   Not for the first time since they had been saddled with the man did the ancient words “land lubber” flit through Bryce’s mind, leading him to favor Hara with a ******-eyed smirk.
   Hara didn’t even bother looking back to see what Bellamy had done this time. Instead, he broke through the white noise of bridge systems and air circulators with a simple question: “This just came in?”
   Bryce nodded. “In the clear, sir,” he reported. “It’s slightly garbled, but it tracks back in-system.”
   “Let’s hear it, then.”
   Bryce nodded again, and tapped on the panel in front of him. The senior comms officer for the bridge was off-shift at this hour, likely asleep in his cabin. Bryce had been on solo watch when the transmission came in. Though the message from the dark took him by surprise, the monitors had faithfully recorded every word as it came in.
   And now, the voice of Doctor Brooklyn Stevens crackled once more from the speakers in playback, faint and distorted by random bursts of static:
   “DropShuttle Magellan to Sacajawea… Guys, it’s Brook… We’re still here… Trying to repair the ship… We think we’ll be able to… When we’re ready, we’ll try to sig… But fuel is limited… We’ll need telem… Not send anyone else! I repeat: do not… Still unsafe…”
   The transmission ended with a sharp chirp. Hara’s eyes, closed throughout most of the playback as he focused on trying to hear through the signal noise, opened again, and met Bryce’s.
   “That’s all we picked up,” Bryce told him. “If there was any more, it’s likely that something blocked it out; maybe even the planet’s rotation.”
   “The channels used?”
   “Standard IE distress frequency. Looks like another case of her crew still using their old employee handbook.”
   At this, Bellamy sniffed. He now clung to the ceiling rung nearest the comm panels, his wide form casting an imposing shadow. Had anyone actually been seated here, Bryce noted, the poor soul would probably feel claustrophobic with three men surrounding the small, free-standing podium of a station.
   “Did the Sac respond?” Bellamy asked, pre-empting Hara’s next question.
   Bryce raised an eyebrow at the man, but directed his answer to both of them.
   “Not yet, so far as I can tell.”
   “Are we sure they heard it?”
   “It’s unlikely that we would’ve heard anything they didn’t, Mister Bellamy,” Hara said flatly.
   “Indeed,” Bryce said. “So, judging by the content, Doctor Stevens is reporting that she’s still alive and well, trying to fix her shuttle, and trying to get telemetry for a return trip.”
   Hara nodded. “Sounds like low fuel, which would make sense if they burned much of the way in, or suffered a leak from whatever damage they took. She doesn’t want to make escape velocity, only to have to waste whatever’s left in the tank on course corrections.”
   “And yet,” Bellamy said, “Captain Pohl has not replied. For all Stevens knows right now, the Sacajawea might not even be here.”
   Hara sighed. “Technically speaking, Pohl doesn’t have to reply…yet.”
   “It does sound like Stevens plans to signal again when she’s ready to launch,” Bryce agreed. “Telemetry info sent now would be useless if it takes her several days to make repairs.”
   “Or her friends are watching what they say around us,” Bellamy offered.
   “Or just around whoever else may be watching,” Bryce countered. “She did warn them not to send anyone else, after all.”
   “Whatever the case,” Hara said, “it lets us know to expect something sooner, rather than later. If Stevens is planning to make her escape, it seems she intends to do it as quickly as possible, and she’s telling her crew to get ready for when she starts.”
   “Then that is when we should be ready to strike, Captain,” Bellamy said, betraying the hidden edge Hara had warned Bryce about.


*  *  *  *




HABeas2

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  • Posts: 4537
Re: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« Reply #3 on: 22 April 2019, 11:16:39 »
Chapter 2 (Continued)

Tribe Encampment
Forest of Shrouds
Jardine (Herakleion), Free Worlds League
2 November 3067


   As he stepped through another tabiranth-hide curtain, into a chamber that appeared large enough to be a communal barracks, Lucille spared himself a moment to admire the Waywards’ resourcefulness. Fiber-optic light channels, hewn wood structural supports, woven rugs, ancient-yet-well-maintained firearms, EMP mines on trip-lines, and all manner of portable energy devices (likely scavenged from Hope itself), all worked to provide maximum habitability within their earthen enclave, without giving away their presence to the world outside. Just like their brethren in the city, these Waywards valued their invisibility; clearly, the lessons of the Malu Tribe had not been lost on them.
   It was a shame they still had to die.
   Just because two off-world Frails entered their midst.
   As quickly as the warring surges of pride and regret washed over Lucille, it was gone. Mercy was not the way of the Master’s Hands. The mission was paramount. Although these Waywards were not the enemy for which they were made, the Manei Domini had only one ultimate function. Everything else belonged to those who were not monsters.
   The shoulder of Lucille’s Achileus armor scraped a furrow into a curved, earthen wall as he swung about, scanning a small side chamber for signs of life. Two corpses—still cooling toward ambient temperature in his thermal-augmented view—were all he saw. Each had been penetrated by no less than four shots, and left propped up against the wall.
   His HUD flagged them as a navigation point labeled “Null”. The flag told him what he already knew from the bodies’ hand-made hunters’ garb and deeper skin tones. It also told him that his troopers were still minding their job and inspecting their kills to confirm that these weren’t the off-worlders they sought.
   “Precentor!” a voice harshly snapped in his ear—Adept Quang, the MechWarrior commanding the Nexus he left to hold the perimeter above. “I have a contact approaching.”
   Lucille’s eyes narrowed. Quang’s tone hinted at his confusion. He keyed the warrior’s channel directly. “And?”
   “It appears to be Adept Moakay’s Griffin, sir.”
   This time, it was Lucille’s turn to sound bewildered. “Moakay?” he repeated.
   His mind raced. There had been no time to confirm the Griffin’s pilot survived his fall. Indeed, after the squeal of the warrior’s comms going dead amid a roar of unspeakable agony—followed by his machine’s IFF winking out while chasing that Wayward hunter—Lucille simply presumed that Moakay had suffered a fatal run-in with another of these Waywards’ damnable mines. After trying to regain contact several times, it was Lucille himself that ordered the Griffin’s last known position flagged for later investigation, certain that they would find only a dead husk of both man and machine there when this was all over. The odds certainly did not look good, after all.
   It was possible he miscalculated. But that would make Moakay the luckiest Domini in this entire operation.
   And Poltergeist Precentor Sigma Damien Lucille did not believe in luck.
   “Adept Quang,” he finally barked, “hail that BattleMech at once!”


*  *  *  *


   Though she had recognized and adapted to the main control systems quickly enough, the cockpit of this Griffin was much different than any BattleMech she had ever driven before. For starters, it was all so brand new; save for the smears and spatters of darkening red and black left by its previous occupant, the various boards and panels looked pristine. Even the smallest retaining screws gleamed amid the cockpit lights, as though they had been machined only yesterday.
   For another, it was remarkably cool; where many combustion or cell-powered WorkMechs rarely required cooling vests to operate, and could accommodate a pilot just fine by leaving the windows open, the act of merely walking a fusion-driven BattleMech in springtime conditions tended to require a refrigerant-lined vest to prevent a sudden onset of heat exhaustion when waste heat filled the nominally sealed piloting compartment. And yet, even at a mad run through a rainforest, this cockpit was only a balmy twenty-nine Celsius, according to one of the secondary displays that Brooke found no reason to doubt.
   Then there were the electronics, some of which she scarcely understood. If the HUD was to be believed, she was getting updates on the positions of all known battlefield units in the area—friend and foe alike—in real time, rather than via periodic sensor sweeps. Hell, it took her several minutes to even realize that the targeting sensors were in passive mode to begin with, the changing of which only made the flow of information more dramatic, as she suddenly found that all those friendly icons had names and ’Mech designators ready to go. It was only after wracking her brain over memories of Star League-era engineering that she realized what this meant. But since there was no way she could imagine anyone driving a heavy, well-equipped command vehicle into these thick woods, it had to be one of those much more recent C3 computers she’d only read about before now.
   After that came her mental inventory of the ’Mech’s capabilities—something she felt that she “cheated” on a little bit by running the diagnostics. Extended-range particle projector cannon, large LRM launcher, two extended-range, medium-size lasers, and a Guardian electronic countermeasures suite—a combined amount of equipment nobody could have crammed onto a frame like this during the Succession Wars, but might have in the days of the Camerons (if all of it even existed back then). And all put together perhaps as recently as last month by the self-proclaimed protectors of mankind’s knowledge.
   So, basically, what Brooke was driving right now was the single most advanced hunk of military hardware she’d ever seen, much less commanded.
   Inwardly, she knew she would probably feel more impressed by all of that if she wasn’t seething with rage right now. That, and possibly the fact that she was also struggling to ignore the overwhelming stink of blood, remains, and excrement she probably couldn’t have scrubbed out of this thing without a power hose and a dozen liters of bleach.
   Opening the few cockpit panels she could to ventilate the foul air accomplished next to nothing for her, but she’d done it anyway. Because of that, she also heard the snapping of branches and the thunderous footfalls of her captured ’Mech as it plowed through the foliage toward the nearest “friendly” marker on her tactical display. 
   She was breathing through her mouth, hissing through bared teeth, when that marker blinked, and a click sounded in the left speaker of her neurohelmet (the only speaker that apparently still functioned).
   “Inbound Griffin, identify at once!” commanded a male voice, his accent nearly identical to that of Alahni’s tribe. “Adept Moakay, is that you?”
   Brooke bowed her head a little, as every muscle in her body tensed. Ignoring the hail, she lined herself up until the Griffin’s targeting reticules projected onto her HUD hovered over the brackets surrounding the still-unseen ’Mech. The battle computer flashed the target’s identity as “2M: NXS-Quang”. Beside the brackets appeared a range reading: 300 meters… 270… 240…
   “Inbound Griffin,” the target shouted again, but never budged. “Halt and identify yourself! This is your final warning!”
   Brooke snarled and shoved the throttle to maximum. The reticules flashed red, then gold, as the distance readout fell past 200 meters.
   At about 120 meters, the foliage suddenly gave way to clearing. Her eyes barely registered the thin wisps of smoke drifting throughout the area, or the bodies—human and tabiranth alike—scattered among the grass and rocks. But she knew they were there.
   She had come to avenge them.
   Her trigger fingers mashed down their studs, and the Griffin obliged immediately. A bolt of cerulean lightning shrieked forth from her particle cannon, stabbing into her enemy’s left flank. At the same time, twin beams of crimson light flashed out, each aimed for the same spot. Superheated armor panels burst open, exploding away from the spindly-looking machine and exposing equally ravaged chassis supports beneath. Its own weapons, arm-mounted lasers triggered a heartbeat after Brooke’s own, found their aim spoiled as the wounded ’Mech twisted under the Griffin’s punishing fire. One—the right—managed to hit, burning a thin trench across the bigger ’Mech’s left thigh, but the other shot harmlessly skyward as the arm it came from suddenly broke free of its mount.
   With its balance completely lost, the BattleMech designated “NXS-Quang” crashed down onto its side even before Brooke had managed to close the distance. But she still wasn’t done with it; growling, she slammed the left foot pedal hard. Once again, her captured Griffin complied with incredible ease, swinging a broad-based foot forward and into the enemy’s “abdomen” with enough force to nearly fold the flimsy-looking thing in half. The Manei Domini ’Mech flipped over and onto its back, sparks and smoke pouring from a tangle of ruined armor and engine shielding.
   Despite the stench, and the surge of heat now finding its way into her cockpit, Brooke almost managed to smile. In all the times she ever found herself using the firepower of a ’Mech—any ’Mech—in anger, she had never enjoyed a victory as swift or decisive as this one.
   But where vid games, serial dramas, and even actual wartime holo footage agreed that an enemy would stay down after an assault like that, the NXS defied them all. With twists and turns that seemed almost organic in nature, the one-armed machine rolled itself over, tucked its feet in, and levered itself back up.
   “No ****** way!” Brooke hissed.
   As BattleMechs go, the NXS already looked like the image of warmed-over Death to her. Half its body was gone, and the smoke flowing from its core was already giving way to open flames. And yet it stood up, faced her Griffin, and stabbed its right arm gun muzzles forward—both now caked in grassy hunks of soft earth. The lasers pulsed, instantly vaporizing the debris, and sent scarlet darts of energy into her chassis. The Griffin’s damage readout registered no hits to critical systems, but the armor wireframe went from green to yellow.
   Meanwhile, her sensors tracked two more “friendly” ’Mechs incoming.
   The Griffin’s PPC had not finished its recharge cycle yet, but her lasers were ready—as was the missile launcher (though she knew that thing would be useless at this range). Wincing in anticipation of the heat, she ground her teeth together and fired.
   This time, only one beam found its mark, but it was enough. Lancing into the machine’s burning heart, the laser finished off whatever high-tech components allowed the NXS to hang on as long as it had. Its support structures collapsed, and its head fell into the gap, vanishing amid a thick plume of smoke and flames as the rest of the chassis swayed awkwardly. Then the right arm fell limp, and the rest of the ’Mech soon followed suit.
   As she drew in a lungful of hot, near-toxic air, waiting desperately for her Griffin’s heat sinks to do something about it, Brooke spared the wreckage one final glance before turning her attention toward the new contacts.
   “And stay down this time, Saftsack!”
« Last Edit: 22 April 2019, 11:18:13 by HABeas2 »

HABeas2

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Re: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« Reply #4 on: 29 April 2019, 00:03:42 »
Chapter 3


   Even the “social generals” of the LAAF would tell you that fighting a force three times your number (or more) was a losing proposition. Hell, that magic number may be why the Clans tend to run their Trials of Position with three opponents per trainee, for surely, only the best warriors could even prevail in the face of such “impossible” odds.
   And yet, how many battles in history have shown us that overwhelming numbers alone don’t always determine the victor? Marathon, in 490 BC; Agincourt, in 1415; Samar Island, 1944; Longewala, 1971; or the Vale of Tears, in 1973—battles from Terran antiquity that easily match far more recent examples, like the Wolf’s Dragoons on Crossing in 3028, or Kai Allard-Liao at Twycross’ Great Gash in 3050. These rare instances stand as proof that numbers alone don’t win the battle. Even an “underdog” may triumph when massively outnumbered or outclassed.
   In the end, it’s guile that can make all the difference. With enough guile, a clever warrior can change the victory equation, even the odds, and defeat any enemy who might otherwise be too overwhelming, too overpowering, and too overconfident, to understand the value of subtlety.
   It also helps, of course, to be lucky, cat-shit crazy, or best of all: both!
   —Tibor Mitternacht, as quoted in “Changing the Objectives” (Warrior Digital Productions, Solaris VII, May 3061)





Tribe Encampment
Forest of Shrouds
Jardine (Herakleion), Free Worlds League
2 November 3067


   Poltergeist Precentor Sigma Damien Lucille could not remember a time when he was filled with so much rage as he was now—and he had been among the blessed warriors who’d fought, bled, and sacrificed so much against the traitorous heretics of Focht’s ComStar! The rumbles of a ’Mech battle above shook the earthen walls around him, threatening to entomb him and the rest of his squad even as they rallied back toward his position in what may once have been the office of the tribal leader. Numerous fiber-optic light channels abruptly darkened, their surface connections somehow severed in the chaos, and at least one of the chamber’s supporting beams tore loose, spilling boulders and large clumps of hard-packed soil as it fell.
   As he feared when Adept Quang first alerted him to the return of a MechWarrior they all presumed lost, the Griffin that closed in was not piloted by Adept Moakay. And there were no Jardinians Lucille ever heard of who had been trained in BattleMech combat and counted themselves among the Wayward.
   That meant that whoever just charged Quang’s Nexus was one of the two Lost ones he’d been slaughtering some of his own misguided people to capture! At the very moment that realization hit home, Quang’s IFF and comm channel suddenly vanished from the heads-up display on Lucille’s Achileus battle armor.
   And that was what now had him seeing nothing but red.
   “All units,” he shouted into the tactical channel, “abandon pursuit! The Lost are here! Converge on primary site at once! Our target has commandeered Adept Moakay’s Griffin! Repeat, the enemy has captured—!”
   A new voice—feminine, with an unmistakably Lyran accent, and filled with nearly as much seething hatred as Lucille’s own—suddenly cut into the channel:
   “Verdammte Missgeburt!” it spat. “Call for all the help you like! I’ll see all of your kind burn!”
   “Defiler!” Lucille hissed back at her. “Identify yourself!”
   The channel went dead before he even finished his demand. In its place came a horrific shriek of incoherent static that overwhelmed Lucille’s helmet speakers and drilled into his very skull through his true hearing.
   
*  *  *  *

   For a brief moment, Brooke felt rather proud of herself. Until that Word of Blake Guardian—or whatever the hell they called themselves—started spouting off orders in her speakers, it never even occurred to her that her new ride would be tuned to the same receiving frequency. It made perfect sense, though, and it also reminded her of the fancy communications and targeting suite she had at her command.
   The same one they were all probably using, right this minute, to coordinate with!
   After sparing herself a few seconds to indulge her need to verbally spit in that monster’s face, she reached over to the Griffin’s fancy comm panel, and dialed its transceiver to a specific frequency she knew by heart. After tuning the secondary dials to the same frequency, she then snapped the toggles controlling her Guardian ECM suite.
   Star League-era push-button technology did the rest.
   But the sense of accomplishment she got from all of that melted as her sensors noted not only the two ’Mechs approaching from the west, but now a third coming in from the north. And then the woods in front of her exploded as a short, blocky machine surged out, and unleashed a quartet of missiles at her as she threw the Griffin into a reverse walk.
   Oh, this might hurt a little!
   Explosions shook her BattleMech, but not enough for her to miss the stuttering bursts of scarlet laser darts and machine gun fire that followed when the newcomer continued to bear down on her. The Griffin’s wireframe damage display showed that its right arm was now a cautionary yellow, along with the ’Mech’s “heart” zone. Its armor was holding, but starting to thin.
   On Brooke’s HUD, the targeting brackets now only gave her the enemy’s range and a simple model designator “OW1”. Her crosshairs never flashed gold—the universal standard for a solid weapons track—but she couldn’t imagine why against an enemy running slow close to her.
   Instead, she simply fired another volley from her particle cannon and lasers.
   And spat a curse as only a single laser found its mark.
   The “OW1” didn’t even flinch from the hit. It simply pivoted on one foot, tearing up the battle-scarred earth beneath its foot as it changed course to maneuver behind her, its machine guns still rattling away. Brooke tried to turn with it, but the smaller ’Mech was moving too fast.
   And that’s when the other one of the damnable machines showed up to add its own missiles to the melee.
   “Verdammt!” she spat as the Griffin rocked under the new assault. The damage wireframe now put her left flank in the yellow.
   Her mind raced, even as she rotated her ’Mech’s torso around enough to confirm that the new attacker…looked just like the last one. On the sensor display, attacker number three was still coming.
   Outnumbered and outmaneuvered! Damn it!
   “Scheiß drauf!” she hissed, and slammed the throttle forward again.
   The Griffin responded instantly, its next step propelling it forward just as the new OW1 tried to skirt past. Brooke heard a crunch of metal on metal that accompanied the collision that was so satisfying that she hardly minded the sudden struggle to keep her ’Mech upright. The smaller machine, probably unbalanced more by the surprise than the actual hit, careened away, slipped on some ground clutter, and crashed to the forest floor in an ungraceful heap.
   Brooke almost wished that she meant to do that.
   Adding a spin of her own to the maneuver, she aimed her ’Mech southward, and twisted its torso far to the left—enough to catch the first OW1 in her sights again. With only her lasers and missiles ready to fire, she triggered the lasers. Armor flashed away as one beam struck, but the boxy little thing moved as though nothing had happened.
   Instead, the ’Mech unleashed another quartet of missiles from the sideways turrets it had in place of arms. Brooke felt each blast as they hit, tearing away more of her Griffin’s armor.
   The damage wireframe now painted her entire rear torso in yellow.
   Bracing herself, Brooke pushed her ’Mech into a full run, charging toward the southern end of the clearing. Behind her, the two OW1s appeared to hesitate. But not nearly long enough as two more missiles slammed into the backside of the Griffin’s right shoulder.
   Her mind continued to race, rummaging through years of scattered, on-the-job training for any more pointers Tibor and other career MechWarriors had given her. ’Mechs could theoretically handle just about any terrain one could have any reason to fight in, but woods, she knew, cut the range and mobility options down a lot. To deal with that, some ’Mechs had jump jets—integral thrusters just powerful enough to launch their mass into the air and rocket it forward dozens—even hundreds—of meters at a clip. In her recollections, Brooke knew most Griffins had jump jets…including this one, according to those pre-fight diagnostics she ran.
   Okay, she mused, so how do I make this damn thing jump?
   
*  *  *  *

   Even with his battlesuit’s communications system shut down, Lucille’s audio implants could hear the continuous screech of incoherent noise blasting from the intruder’s stolen ’Mech. Although it was a simple matter of will to switch his hearing modes and shut out the electronic countermeasures, he could already sense that the static was clearing. The enemy was moving away.
   The burning rage that overtook him moments ago was gone, contained by a renewed focus on regrouping his team in the midst of all this chaos. To that end, he welcomed the off-world woman’s decision to flee the scene, and held onto the confidence that the MechWarriors piloting his faster-moving machines would be able to maintain contact and run her down.
   In the meantime, he continued to dig at the hard-packed dirt, rocks, roots, and other debris that currently blocked his passage out.
   The tunnel collapse happened just as he and two of his fellow troopers rounded the last bend. Triggered, no doubt, by the fighting above, the last meter or so of the passage gave out as its wooden beams buckled. What little sunlight passed through the foliage above died as a sheet of earthen debris cascaded down to block the entryway. Only the faint glow from fiber-optic light channels in a few of the chambers behind him remained.
   To be sure, this latest obstacle was nothing the enhanced muscles and armored gauntlets of Lucille’s Achileus battle armor could not handle. Between himself and Adepts Rumiko and Assad, they would clear it in less than a minute.
   But a lot could happen in a minute!
   “Precentor!” a voice abruptly called into his true ears, breaking through the static with a welcome chirp. It was Adept Halua, the MechWarrior piloting his group’s fifty-ton Raijin.
   “Halua,” he responded without pause. “Report!”
   “The target is presently moving south-southwest,” Halua told him. “Adepts Evans and Laori are pursuing. I have no reading on Adept Quang or his BattleMech. My ’Mech has suffered minor actuator damage from a Wayward mine, but I am still able to pursue. Do you require assistance?”
   Pride nearly compelled Lucille to refuse. Even as he listened to Halua, he could feel the last of the earth crumble away against the force of his armored gauntlets. But he thought better of it.
   “We may,” Lucille said. “Bring your ’Mech into the main camp clearing and standby.”
   Switching his suit’s communicator back on with a click of his tongue, Lucille felt a twinge of relief that the ECM screech was now completely gone. “Able and Baker squads,” he called out, “sound off!”
   A flurry of radio clicks and acknowledgments followed. Lucille tallied them up and frowned. Of the two six-man squads of battle armored Domini he had led to this Blake-forsaken camp, he only had seven troopers remaining—counting himself. Meanwhile, he had also lost three good MechWarriors, and a Frail off-worlder somehow managed to steal one of the Chosen’s own BattleMechs.
   There will be time enough for shame later, he reminded himself, before dialing back to his command channel.
   Dragging its narrow, backward-canted right leg just a little bit, Halua’s red and black Raijin thumped to a stop just as Lucille led Adepts Assad and Rumiko back into the clearing. On the battlesuit’s proximity sensors, he could see the other troopers either gathering ahead of them, or just coming around from other tunnel entrances.
   Looking at the nearest troopers, Lucille did a quick appraisal of their armor, and singled out two who looked the worst for wear.
   “Adepts Rumiko and Warren,” he snapped, “you two stay here. Secure this site and get me an accurate casualty count. All remaining troopers form up on me. Adept Halua…?”
   The Raijin’s body twisted slightly, until its canopy faced him.
   “…prepare to be boarded.”
   
*  *  *  *

Forest of Shrouds
Jardine (Herakleion), Free Worlds League


   It was hard for Tibor Mitternacht to believe it when the call came buzzing into his ear implant, but less than twenty minutes had passed since Brooke hauled off in that captured Griffin of hers.
   Dealing with Alahni’s mood swings had made the time seem more like an eternity by now. In the relative silence that followed the BattleMech’s departure, the reality of her situation—their situation—continued to sink in; the realization that her home, her family, everything, and everyone she ever knew or loved, were gone. Worse, they had been killed by those she had been raised to see as their guardians and protectors. Rage, aimed alternately at her “Guardians” and at the “Lost”, seasoned with the pain and tears of immeasurable loss, all washed over the poor girl as Tibor stood by, helpless to soothe her. She’d screamed at him, cried on his shoulder, and even struck him once or twice—and in all of that, the best he could do was to just be there to endure it all.
   Be there, and, of course, make sure they stayed out of sight in case any of those Manei Domini cyborgs came back.
   The hysterics finally waned only a minute or two ago, as Alahni withered from the emotional exhaustion. Her head now rested on his shoulder, her face invisible beneath her long and disheveled hair, while he leaned against a tree and kept watch. His eyes kept drifting westward, toward the battle that he could only hear in the form of thunderous rumbles that felt as if they were receding further into the distance.
   In the comparative silence, the faint chirp inside his own skull, followed by the weak and scratchy sound of Brooke’s voice, calling his name, nearly made Tibor jump. As it was, his body tensed enough to rouse Alahni, who pulled away from him and brushed her hair back, revealing eyes that were puffy and red, but still alert.
   Tibor caught her attention and held a finger to his lips, before answering.
   “Brooke?”
   “Trouble,” Brooke came back, the distracted tension in her voice still detectable despite the weakness of the transmission. “So, I got their attention…”
   Tibor blinked. “Um, was that something you wanted?”
   “Yes, believe it or not. Bast, this thing is an oven!”
   “Well, you did leave the cooling suit behind,” he deadpanned, then shuddered at the thought. “So, what’s the plan?”
   “Gah!” Brooke yelped, for reasons Tibor could only guess at. “How do I…? Okay. Listen, I looked over the maps in this thing, and I think I’ve got my bearings. You guys keep heading east—the way we were going before we stumbled on the ’Mech. When you find the river, head south. And keep your eye peeled.”
   “My eye?”
   “You’ll know what you’re looking for when you find it…”
   Tibor turned back toward to Alahni, catching the look of confusion on her face. With a silent “Oh!” he pointed at his ear, then mimicked the act of holding a device against it. Whether or not the girl fully understood, he could not tell.
   “East, then south along the river, then,” he said aloud, which only made Alahni’s eyes widen. She opened her mouth to speak, but Tibor held up a hand first.
   “Yes,” Brooke said in his ear, her voice nearly vanishing in a momentary burst of static. “Hopefully, I’ll catch up to you before long. If not…”
   Tibor felt the tension in his own jaw, and saw Alahni’s reaction in the form of an urgent tilt to her head.
   “Understood,” he said. “Luck!”
   “Thanks!” Brooke said. With another chirp in his skull, the line went dead.
   Alahni was still staring at him.
   “She wants us to get to the river, then follow it south.”
   “South?” Alahni repeated. “But Hope is north along the river.”
   Tibor blinked. “Then why—? Oh! Of course!
   “What?”
   “C’mon,” he told her. “I’ll explain on the way…”

*  *  *  *

   When the damage monitor began to paint her aft torso armor red to the staccato rhythm of sustained machine gun fire, Brooke realized that the Owls (the name she’d settled on for the “OW1s” now chasing her, anyway) still had her at a distinct disadvantage in a leg race. They hadn’t overtaken her yet, but machine guns had a notoriously short range of effectiveness against modern heavy armor—which meant that, by now, they were probably close enough behind her to count any surface rivets on the Griffin’s rearward hull.
   Knowing that, she finally felt bold enough to bet that they didn’t have jump jets, or she’d have trouble coming at her from both sides.
   “Oh, I hope I got this right,” she muttered to herself. Her feet slammed down on both of the Griffin’s foot pedals at once.
   Her ’Mech’s computers instantly translated the command to its entire fifty-five-ton frame. Its speed dropped for a second. Its legs braced, then bent a little. Its arms pulled inward, as the upper body leaned forward a little. Finally, an almost deafening hiss blasted in from the cockpit’s still-open air panels. Brooke felt herself pressed deeper into her sweat-slickened command seat as the five half-ton thrusters in the Griffin’s legs and back fired in unison to blast a machine twenty-two times their own mass into the sky.
   Brooke suddenly felt very sick.
   The Griffin vaulted high enough to clear the forest canopy, affording her a brief—but breathtaking—view of the woods around her. She squinted a little against the dazzling yellow sunlight, but not enough to miss what looked like a sea of greenery rolling off toward a hilly horizon. She glimpsed a few breaks here and there, but the biggest of these was far off to the left, where she could almost make out a single, coherent line snaking its way through the foliage.
   The river!
   At the apex of its jump, the Griffin abruptly cut its jets and realigned its posture, its complex computer systems preparing the ’Mech to brake its jump and land upright. From a technical aspect, thanks to years of working with gearheads and explorers alike, Brooke understood this was an effect of its limited stores of self-replenishing reaction mass. BattleMechs simply weren’t built for sustained flight, and so few of them could leap farther than thirty meters or so (per properly-sized thruster) at a time. She also understood that most jump-capable ’Mechs incorporated the software to handle the entire process from beginning to end—freeing the pilot for other functions, like shooting.
   Still, there were so many variables that could affect a ’Mech’s jump, ranging from terrain and weather, to battle damage and the sheer lack of aerodynamics one can only expect from multi-ton machines built in a blocky parody of the human form. For those reasons, good MechWarriors preferred to take a more direct hand in navigating their jumps—lest their entire triumph of brute force and technology over physics end in a landing that could be equal parts embarrassing and deadly.
   All of these things went through Brooke’s mind at once as her Griffin crashed through the treetops nearly a hundred and fifty meters away from where it used to be.
   The jets gave one last, momentary blast to cushion the landing, but even so, Brooke felt the shock through her spine. Her top teeth bit deep into the flesh behind her lower lip, leaving her in eye-watering pain. The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth. She saw stars before her eyes, and imagined a tiny, sarcastic voice somewhere in the back of her head reminding her why she’d forgotten how to jump.
   Almost instantly, she felt her ’Mech pitching forward, losing its footing on whatever uneven ground its feet had struck. For a few panicked heartbeats, she struggled with the controls and angled her head, hoping the Griffin’s computers could make sense of those efforts to restore its balance.
   Then, as suddenly as it all began, it was over. The ’Mech and its warrior remained alive and upright. On one of the ’Mech’s secondary boards, indicators for the jump jets flashed yellow as the fusion reactor and jet intakes began the process of rapidly processing the ambient atmosphere for reaction mass…
   Meanwhile, the Owls continued to rush toward them from behind.
   “Bast help me,” she mumbled as she once more slammed the throttle forward. “There’s no way I can keep this up!”
   
*  *  *  *

Aerospace Hangar 104
City of Hope
Jardine (Herakleion), Free Worlds League

   
   From the air, the City of Hope’s spaceport looked about the way one would expect of a centuries-old ruin. Trees and vines overgrew the decrepit hulls of rusted hangar buildings, wild grasses covered the rubble of fallen towers, and massive, ferrocrete blast barriers formed well-weathered rings around landing pads that were now little more than crack-filled craters in the ancient tarmac. Here and there, one could even spot the remains of ancient, forgotten vehicles and LoaderMechs—rusted and disintegrating hulks that now decayed in mute testament to what was once a central hub of interplanetary commerce.
   Of course, it was all just an illusion—a balanced mixture of pure artistry, Star League-era engineering, and meticulous landscaping. Had anyone managed to land amid the spaceport—or simply traveled there on the ground—they would soon see through the ruse. The hangar buildings stood very much intact, their rooftops covered in a masterful camouflage that was equal parts clever paintwork and carefully cultivated foliage. The fallen buildings were actually quite stable and upright, their rooftops merely painted and cluttered with enough irregular masonry and overgrowth to appear ruined. Even their actual windows and doorways were deliberately skewed, arranged to appear properly aligned with their “collapsed” orientation.
   The tarmacs were smooth, level, and largely unblemished, save for elaborate paint work that perfectly mimicked the few actual cracks and clumps of wild grass that existed in only the most infrequently used areas. Within the rings of blast panels, even, the “craters” were actually the surface lids of ultra-massive DropShip-sized elevators, artfully disguised to blend in with the surrounding ferrocrete surface. Beneath them lay cavernous bays large enough to contain most spheroid DropShips, accessible through a multitude of reinforced tunnels.
   In fact, the only authentic things in the entire affair were the wrecked vehicles and WorkMechs. Keeping a few of them around, strategically placed throughout the spaceport hundreds of years before, and simply letting them decay was an easy enough thing to do—providing excellent places to hide the sensors and traps rigged to detect and discourage any unwelcome intruders.
   Inside one of the not-truly-wrecked hangars, within a space large enough to stow a pair of Leopard-class DropShips end to end, stood Specter Precentor Omicron Apollyon.
   Impassively, he watched the technical crews as they busied themselves with dozens of tasks about the floor. On the far end of the hangar, maintenance teams were conducting installing weapon pods into six of the division’s newest aerospace fighters—eighty-five ton, ultra-sleek, SHV-O Shiva OmniFighters. Though freshly built from Free Worlds League factories on distant Lopez, these six specimens already bore the distinctive, red-to-black colors of the Fifty-second Shadow Division. Four were even further modified from factory specs; their cockpit and control systems upgraded to accommodate their assigned pilots’ direct-neural implants.
   Closer to where Apollyon stood, a dozen suits of battle armor were the subject of similar maintenance and armament work. Like the fighters, half of these suits—Longinus models, which looked for all the universe like thick-bodied, over-teched versions of ancient knights—bore the colors and insignia of the Fifty-second. The other six, set up ten meters away, lacked these colors—but that was only because the digital mimetics of the sleeker Purifier adaptive suits required no painting. With their mimetics deactivated, they stood in simple, gunmetal gray, their chest plates open as the tech crews worked on their interior interfaces.
   Finally, and closest to the most powerful man on Jardine, there stood a K-1 class DropShuttle—a humble, lightly armed, two-hundred-ton, civilian spacecraft. Bearing no distinct markings or livery to differentiate it from thousands of identical craft across the Inner Sphere, its only real “colors” were bare metal and the permanent scorching that blackened the entire lower half of its squashed-egg form, the inevitable result of repeated launches and landings over its decades-long lifespan.
   It was this DropShuttle that held the Precentor’s attention now, as well as the young, dark-skinned brunette, clad in plain light-gray overalls, who approached him with a noteputer in hand. Technical Adept Kaulana Tin showed little of the awe or fear that many of her fellow civilians did when in the presence of the Manei Domini—a trait that Apollyon found refreshing. Though he himself was born of this world, raised as a citizen of Hope, and as a follower of the Blessed Blake, his transformation in the years after Tukayyid, and his Ascension to the leadership of the Master’s Hands rattled many of his kindred. But Tin—all of seven years old when the first Domini Ascended—saw nothing to fear in the Guardians’ new forms.
   A true child of Jardine, this one!
   “Precentor, sir,” she said as she stepped before him, stopping just far enough away to avoid any undue neck strain when she looked up to meet his eyes. “The shuttle is fueled and stocked as you requested. And the suits are undergoing final systems checks for vacuum ops, as you can see. We will be able to load as soon as you’re ready and the DropShip is on the platform.”
   “Excellent, Adept Tin,” Apollyon said with a sincere nod. “And the transponder codes?”
   “Already set, sir,” Tin said without hesitation. “I verified them myself.”
   “Your dedication honors us, Adept.”
   Without switching his true sight to thermal vision, Apollyon could not be certain, but he imagined from the way the young woman beamed at him that she was blushing. Her brilliant teeth flashed as she handed over her noteputer.
   “The honor is to serve the Blessed Blake’s Promise.”
   Apollyon accepted the device, quickly scanned its contents, and signed his name, using the index finger of his true hand instead of the stylus. With a short bow, he handed the ’puter back to Tin.
   “Blessed be those who walk the Sainted Blake’s path, Adept.”
   “Blessed be, Precentor,” she replied, her composure already reclaimed.
   She had moved no more than two steps away when Apollyon’s true hearing received a familiar chime. Turning away from the technicians, he opened the channel, and spoke without waiting for the voice on the other end.
   “How fares your hunt, Precentor Lucille?”
   “Precentor,” Lucille replied, tersely, “the target camp has been located and destroyed. I have a present estimate of thirty-two kills made on site—all Wayward. A few stragglers may have slipped away through the tunnels, but given the level of resistance we faced, I posit that any such survivors are would be non-combatants of negligible consequence…”
   Apollyon closed his frail eye and sighed. Such loss!
   “Unfortunately, we have suffered casualties of our own. Wayward mines have disabled or destroyed two of our ’Mechs, and damaged a third. We have also lost five troopers to mines and weapons fire. A chance encounter with a hunting party, several kilometers from the main objective, undoubtedly alerted them.”
   Apollyon resisted the impulse to grimace as the part of him that mourned the loss of Wayward lives warred with admiration for their ability to still cause damage to the Master’s Hands.
   “And the invaders?” he asked.
   Lucille’s voice took on a much more guarded tone. “One is currently engaging us.”
   “Currently engaging you?”
   “The female Lost we were told of somehow managed to salvage and reactivate Adept Moakay’s Griffin. She attacked us at the campsite while most of my remaining units were otherwise occupied, and managed to destroy Adept Quang’s BattleMech before the others could support him. She is now headed south. We’re pursuing.”
   “Precentor, you are telling me that you have lost half of your force against a lightly armed platoon of our self-exiled kin, and a single Frail using one of your own BattleMechs.”
   It wasn’t a question.
   “As you say, my Precentor,” Lucille came back after the briefest of hesitations. “I accept full responsibility; once again, I underestimated the resourcefulness of our Wayward cousins.”
   “Your responsibility is noted,” Apollyon said darkly. In his mind, he envisioned the regional map, and considered the only landmarks south of Hope that might hold any potential value to an invader at this point.
   “Continue your pursuit, Precentor,” he commanded. “But remember: I want these intruders alive. If this Frail is moving south, she may be trying to return to her DropShuttle for some reason. I will dispatch another team to that location; between them and your group, she should have nowhere else of consequence to run.”
   “Understood, sir. Lucille out.”
   As the line went dead, Apollyon finally opened his frail eye and took in his surroundings once more. Adept Tin and her techs were already beginning to load the Longinus battlesuits onto the DropShuttle, aided in this effort by powered dollies specially built for the task. Nobody else stood close by the Precentor; nobody was even paying any attention to his presence.
   Without a word, he strode out of the hangar.

*  *  *  *


« Last Edit: 06 July 2019, 06:52:14 by HABeas2 »

HABeas2

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Re: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« Reply #5 on: 29 April 2019, 00:11:29 »
Chapter 3 (Continued)

Forest of Shrouds
Jardine (Herakleion), Free Worlds League


   On the plus side, Brooke thought as she reached up to dab the sweat from her eyebrows, I hardly even notice the stink anymore!
   Despite executing a series of jumps, draining the Griffin’s reaction mass as quickly as the BattleMech could replenish it, the Owls continued to pace her every move, plowing their way through forest and underbrush as quickly as their tiny, blocky forms could manage. Too far now to reliably cause any real damage with their machine guns, they both were forced to rely on their SRM launchers, their missiles tearing away more and more armor with each concussive blast.
   In an increasingly frustrating effort to slow them down, Brooke had been zig-zagging her jumps, and twisting her ’Mech’s torso side to side in a desperate effort to send at least some firepower back at them. Between her jumps and the occasional blast from her particle cannon, the cockpit had quickly become a sauna. She now regretted—in spite of herself—not taking the time to pour the Griffin’s last pilot out of his cooling suit before she started this foolish charge.
   For that matter, a snarky voice from one corner of her mind reminded her, you could have avoided this entire mess by never taking on these cyborgs in the first place!
   Right now, Brooke wished that part of her brain would just shut up already.
   Slamming the pedals down once again, Brooke sent the Griffin into yet another jump, sailing over a particularly thick group of trees she could not imagine driving a jeep through, much less a BattleMech. The leap carried her forward over a hundred meters, but not before one of her pursuers managed to pump two more missiles into the Griffin’s rear armor panels.
   Sparks and fire flashed out from the large canister perched on the ’Mech’s right shoulder. The small explosion startled her for a moment, but an internal alarm and the winking out of one of her weapon status lights quickly identified the extent of the damage.
   A relieved sigh escaped her lips.
   Not dead yet.
   “You can have that launcher,” she muttered to no one in particular. “I wasn’t using it anyway.”
   Despite the damage, the Griffin managed another (relatively) smooth landing—insomuch as it kept to its feet with only a little extra coaxing. Brooke rotated the ’Mech’s torso left, and extended its arm to snap-fire a laser into the general vicinity of one of the Owls. The shot flashed into the trees dead-center of the brackets her HUD placed around her target, but whether or not she actually hit the thing was beyond her.
   Sweat stung her eyes, but she dared not blink. Instead, she pushed the Griffin back into a run, shifting course yet again, but continuing to keep it vaguely southward.
   On the sensor board, Brooke noticed once more that the third ’Mech remained off the scope. Only the two Owls appeared to be within sensor range. But years of experience had long since taught her better than to trust what appeared to be, especially when gunplay was involved. ComStar and the Word of Blake were known for having the best tech outside of Clan space, and that included Star League-quality ECM and stealth gear that most folks only saw in holovid action thrillers. Hell, even something as mundane as ground clutter could be preventing her radar from picking up the third ’Mech’s electromagnetic signature.
   That happened in some environments, right?
   A furtive glance at the map display put her close to five kilometers south of the Waywards’ camp, now. The wireframe now colored both arms, her forward left flank, and one leg yellow, while the rear armor and other leg glowed red. Only her machine’s head and the rest of its forward torso armor showed green. And her unfired LRM launcher was now dead.
   Not that it had a prayer of hitting these bastards anyway, she mused.
   The time to end this play was coming up fast, and suddenly she knew just how to do it.
   Glancing up, she sought another thick cluster of trees in the forest, about a hundred meters ahead and to the right. The branches there spread out so thick that their leaves seemed to blot the sun out almost entirely.
   Perfect!
   With a hard jerk on the steering controls, Brooke swung the Griffin toward that dark grove. As she did, a keening wail from her sensor board gave her a second’s warning about the pair of missiles one of the Owls just lobbed at her. Both warheads struck the ’Mech’s exaggerated right shoulder pauldron; already, her shadows were closing the gap.
   Another double-blast shook her a heartbeat later. A new alarm screamed for attention, but the new wave of heat that seemed to come from the floor beneath her told her all she needed to know: reactor damage.
   Now or never!
   The Griffin’s run continued, shattering branches and undergrowth with each step as it neared her objective. With only one hand on the steering controls, Brooke scanned her weapons panels. It took a few seconds to find what she wanted.
   “Here goes nothing,” she warned herself.
   Releasing the controls, she allowed the Griffin to plod onward at full throttle, while she reached for the straps that kept her neurohelmet in place. Cringing in anticipation, she then reached out to the weapon panel, opened the black and yellow plastic cover marked “dump”, and pushed the button beneath.
   The grinding noise that followed sounded horrifically loud in Brooke’s ears as she tore off the helmet and pitched it behind her seat. Bereft of balancing input from her temples, the Griffin’s gait became a drunken stumble on the uneven ground. The ’Mech slammed into one tree after another, each threatening to topple it while Brooke flailed to reach the ejection handles over her head.
   The explosion she’d expected came just as she finally managed to grab one of them. Squeezing her eyes shut and yelling into the cockpit, she quickly grasped the other and yanked both handles downward.
   Between the ammunition explosion, the Griffin’s wild bucking, and the ejection itself, Brooke felt almost like she was being torn in several directions at once. Her eyes remained closed, and every muscle in her body stiffened. Wind and leaves whipped past her as the pilot’s seat blasted clear of its dying host with a deafening roar. She felt herself soaring skyward, and bent her head downward while her hands clutched at the straps of her five-point harness for dear life.
   She felt her ascent slow as gravity began to take over, and her seat shuddered a little to the sound of its parachute deploying. Only then did she open her eyes again, looking up to make sure the damned thing opened properly.
   What struck her most about the first few moments of freefall was the cool and wonderful smell and feel of fresh, Jardinian forest air. Her arms and legs crawled with gooseflesh. Compared to the rancid hothouse that the Griffin’s cockpit had become, she was now in heaven, even as she cast her gaze downward in time to see the ’Mech’s fiery death.
   Momentum, combined with the forward pitch the Griffin’s head had been at when she pulled the ejection handles, launched her dozens of meters forward and slightly left of where the ’Mech died. As the chair began its lazy decent, she watched for the telltale shaking of trees to see where the Owls were moving, and used that to recover her bearings.
   Only then, as she watched the forest canopy rising to meet her, did she draw in a breath, mentally declare herself insane, slap the release on her seat harness, and kick herself into the sky.
   The next few moments were a whirl of green leaves and shadow, a symphony of snapping branches and pain-wracked grunts, and a desperate fight between blind panic and intense concentration. Falling was almost as familiar to Brooke as running, but in most of her previous jobs, falls tended to happen when she had the gear and protection to better weather the bumps along the way, and when she could be reasonably sure that certain death wasn’t waiting for her below.
   Dropping into an uncharted jungle-turned-war zone while practically naked and unarmed was another experience entirely!
    The branch that finally stopped her fall was almost as thick as her body and stretched out over a clump of leafy underbrush some eight meters below. Dazed, but thankfully conscious, Brooke clung to the rough branch for several seconds, taking stock of her condition. A lot of places hurt, but miraculously, nothing felt broken. Still, she felt a bit woozy, and a part of her wanted to stay in this tree and rest a while.
   The part that told her to keep moving, on the other hand, recognized that the burning wreck of her ’Mech and her empty ejection seat wouldn’t keep the cyborgs distracted nearly long enough for a shock-induced nap.
   Shimmying down the tree punished her mostly bare flesh, adding scrapes to the bruises she’d surely find all over her body when this was all over. When she reached the forest floor, she was glad she at least had the presence of mind to keep her boots; the underbrush was far rougher than it looked.
   East and north, she reminded herself as she half-crawled, half-ran through the underbrush, doing her best to keep to the heavier undergrowth, while putting the thickest trees between her and the flickering light of the burning Griffin.
   East and north!
   Oh, Tibor better have my clothes ready when I get there!
   
*  *  *  *

        Scarcely five minutes had passed since Adept Laori reported the downing of Maokay’s stolen Griffin to Precentor Lucille. In that time, he could do little more than wait tensely and refresh his grip on the large muzzle of the ER PPC that currently served as his saddle on Adept Halua’s Raijin. The regular lurching motions of the fifty-ton ’Mech, and the random blows of passing branches, hardly fazed him. But the fact that this machine was not properly built or balanced to carry an extra eight to ten percent of its weight in battlesuits meant that the only effective handholds were those a swarming infantry squad would normally be trying to destroy.
   Halua was also complaining that the squad’s presence made him itchy. While that initially amused Lucille, the occasionally violent hitch in the Raijin’s stride, and the awkward, random swings of its turret-like arms, betrayed Halua’s efforts to scratch at the psychosomatic feeling his neural implants clearly kept feeding him. The result was an annoyingly unpredictable ride in which Lucille and his squad mates had nearly been thrown off several times.
   Lucille grunted as another such lurch took the form of a torso spasm, and he once again focused on the mission. The Frail had fallen a little over five kilometers south of the Wayward camp, apparently while trying to move for thicker cover. In her flight, she inflicted only minimal damage to the pursuing Owenses; the worst damage reported was the destruction of Adept Evans’ TAG system. When Laori reported the kill, Lucille instructed Evans to secure the wreck, and tasked Laori with searching for any ejector seat beacons.
   “Contain the Frail,” he’d ordered, “but do not kill her when found; Apollyon wants this one alive.”
   That was five minutes ago, and since then, there had been silence. On the drop-down map in his armor’s HUD, he could see that he and his group were still half a kilometer away; the two OmniMechs were fully resolved on the sensor display, and both read as active units.
   Lucille’s impatience finally got the better of him.
   “Report, Adept Laori!” he barked.
   “Sir!” Laori’s voice came back instantly. “I have located the pilot’s beacon and ’chute, approximately fifty meters from the crash site. The chair appears empty, but I am seeing a great deal of blood. The seat looks drenched in it. The Frail could be mortally wounded; I have been sweeping for a body.”
   A body?
   “Did either of you score any headshots on the target during the pursuit?”
   “Uncertain, Precentor,” Laori replied. “Visual contact was spotty throughout the engagement, and the ejection left little of the head module to go by. It is possible.”
   “Anything on thermals?”
   “Included in my sweep, sir, but ambient heat from Moakay’s Griffin and resident wildlife has been generating false positives.”
   Lucille grunted again. “Continue your sweeps, Adept. Evans, assist her, but both of you maintain your proximity to the wreckage. My team will be there shortly to assist.”
   Even as he closed the line, Lucille realized there were only two possibilities now. The intruder was either dead, or she was alive. If dead, her corpse was probably hidden by some foliage on the forest floor, or hanging from a tree, and growing too cold for sensors to differentiate from the ambient environment. If alive, she was somehow stealthy enough to have eluded the Master’s Hands in broad daylight.
   Lucille now knew better than to underestimate this Frail again.
   And with that decision came the sobering certainty that his team would find nothing there when they finally arrived.

*  *  *  *

Forest of Shrouds
Jardine (Herakleion), Free Worlds League


   After more than an hour of walking through the crowded forest, Tibor and Alahni finally found the river and began their trek southward, keeping well inside the tree line just to be on the safe side. Tibor struggled to keep his mind focused on searching for what he knew Brooke wanted him to find, but it wasn’t easy. Between Alahni’s ongoing shock that her people were being ruthlessly gunned down by their “Guardians”, and the realization that he’d simply allowed Brooke to take an unfamiliar ’Mech back there specifically to avenge them, his own dismay grew with each passing minute.
   Now here he was; trapped on a world whose masters were so determined to hide it that no amount of murder was clearly beyond them; rummaging around a forest filled with God-knew-how-many natural hazards. His partner was effectively missing in action, and he had a native tagging along who now had no obligation to help him whatsoever—and every right to blame his very presence for the loss of her friends and family!
   “This is way worse than Bob ever was…”
   “What?” Alahni asked, her nervous voice coming from several steps behind.
   The question surprised Tibor. He glanced back at her, and offered a sheepish smile.
   “Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t know I said that out loud.”
   The Jardinian tale-keeper made a noncommittal sound and lapsed back into silence for several seconds. Tibor was retreating back into his own thoughts when she suddenly spoke again.
   “Why do you do this?” she asked.
   “Wh—?”
   “Traveling to forgotten places,” she added. “Is it just for money? Or did some House Lord send you?”
   Her tone was hard to read. Behind her words, Tibor felt both genuine curiosity and scornful accusation in equal measure. He didn’t dare glance back at her this time, preferring instead to keep moving, his eyes continuing their sweep through the foliage.
   She wants to know why her people had to die, he warned himself.
   “Sometimes,” he admitted with a sigh. “Sometimes both. But that’s never all of it.”
   “What do you mean?”
   “How can I explain this?” he muttered. “I mean, the money can be nice, but only because it pays our bills, keeps us fed, helps us maintain our lifestyle. Basically all the reasons most folk in the Inner Sphere get jobs, you know? Yeah, sometimes the job offers come from a House or some other government, but a lot of times it doesn’t.”
   “That sounds rather mundane for a ‘job’ that entails trespassing on worlds that may not wish to be found.”
   Tibor let out a grunt. “I suppose that’s one way of seeing it,” he told her. “But most of the places we’ve seen didn’t exactly hide on their own terms, if you follow me. Remember that planet Brooke and I talked about before? Bob?”
   “The one that changed its name?” Alahni asked, her tone softening just a little.
   “Ja. That one. Well, as funny as the story about why it changed its name was, the results of that choice were tragic.”
   “How so?”
   “From what we could work out,” Tibor began, “the people chose to make that name change at the very worst possible moment in history. The Star League had just collapsed, and their realm—the Draconis Combine—was in the middle of a full-scale invasion of the Federated Suns. ‘Bob,’ meanwhile, was a low-resource world way out near the Periphery. The name change, from…Dunkelwalden-something? Dunkel…schatten…? Well, believe me; it was a very long word, put together by some colony founder with a shaky grasp of the German language at best.
   “Anyway, the local leaders chose to make the whole name change as a way to take their people’s minds off the war. It seemed like a great idea at the time, especially for a world that looks gloomy all year round, and has a biosphere that’s generally hostile to human life. So it was supposed to be a big morale booster. They took votes from kids as young as twelve years old, held big parties, ran silly advertisements on their local networks, and just had fun with the whole affair…”
   Tibor trailed off for a moment as he found himself climbing over an old, fallen tree trunk. As he did so, his eyes caught sight of the length of bark that appeared to have been dug out of it by something with claws as big as his head.
   Tabiranth claws? he wondered.
   “So, what happened?” Alahni asked. The accusatory edge in her voice was gone now, at least for the moment.
   Tibor shook himself out of his distraction. He turned back toward the young woman, prepared to offer his hand to help her over the trunk, but she waved him off. Her eyes, like his, seemed to fixate on the shredded bark for a moment, but if those gouges concerned her much at all, she didn’t show it. Instead, she simply hopped over the fallen tree, and threw him an inquisitive look.
   “Well,” he continued with a shrug, “when the votes were tallied, and the new name was all picked out, they sent word to the local district ministers, who evidently got as far as reporting the name change to the right people to get it recorded on some of the local star maps. But they apparently missed a few key people in the bureaucratic chain. Whole shipments of food, equipment, and other vital necessities sat in Combine warehouses light-years away, because they were earmarked for a planet that wasn’t named Bob.”
   “Truly?” Alahni asked, bewildered. “Didn’t anyone think to check up on them? Didn’t the people of Bob think to send a message when the shipments didn’t show?”
   Tibor frowned. “The First Succession War, as you seem to know, was really bad. The strategy at the time, for pretty much every side, was to capture or destroy factories and shipping wherever and whenever possible. This extended even to civilian ships, which could always be used to carry troops in a pinch.
   “And the Combine was moving a lot of troops into Davion space at that point. As more of their ships got lost in action, or were otherwise tied up on their front lines, the Kuritans started pressing more and more merchants into military service. Worlds that were considered lower priority—including pretty much anything near the Periphery—were generally stripped of their support first…”
   “So there just weren’t any ships to send to Bob? House Kurita simply abandoned them?”
   “Yes,” Tibor answered slowly, “and no. The war left the Combine with fewer ships to cover the local transit routes, but they still had enough for periodic supply runs. But between the planet’s name change, and the confusion caused when the wrong people were left out of the loop, House Kurita was stockpiling supplies for that world under Bob’s old name.
   “So, they didn’t really abandon the planet, so much as they effectively just misplaced it.”
   “Surely the people of Bob would have noticed the lack of supplies soon enough, though, right? Couldn’t they call for help?”
   Tibor winced. “ComStar was still repairing the hyperpulse network at that point,” he said after a moment’s hesitation, wary of her reaction. “And even Jerome Blake had to prioritize which worlds to get back online first as his organization spread outward from Terra. Bob’s HPG had apparently gone down some time during the Amaris years—”
   “Wait,” Alahni interrupted, just as Tibor feared she would. “The Blessed Blake was still restoring HPGs in the Inner Sphere? I thought the House Lords rejected him in their rush to destroy one another.”
   Tibor drew in a breath before finally turning around to meet the woman’s gaze. “Not exactly…”
   Alahni’s voice regained its edge, and her eyes narrowed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
   Tibor felt his jaw go slack. Oh, this is going to be fun, he told himself.
   “Um,” he stumbled. “Alahni, I can see that Blake means a lot to your people, but it’s becoming clear to me that not all of the history you’ve been told matches what really happened out in the Inner Sphere.”
   Alahni’s expression darkened, and her hands twitched. For a real moment there, Tibor expected her to strike him, and he found himself unsure whether he should try to block it or simply take the hit. To his surprise, she blinked instead, and suddenly seemed to reclaim some manner of control. Though her eyes still bored angry holes into his own, he could practically feel her reflexive rage subsiding.
   “I’m sorry,” he lamely offered. “Brooke’s always so much better with stuff like this; I thought she would have told you some of this when you two were talking the other day…”
   Mentioning Brooke’s name appeared to help soften Alahni just a bit more. The young woman blinked again, and tension bled out of her posture.
   “She mentioned ComStar,” Alahni admitted, “and the division that followed its temporary victory against the Clans…something she called a ‘schism’. She mentioned how bad the first two Succession Wars were as well, but nothing about ComStar being active among the Lost in that time.”
   “Well, that was when they came to this world in the first place, wasn’t it?”
   Alahni now seemed less certain of herself. “Yes,” she began slowly, “but that was to save us from oblivion, after the Steiners bombed us…”
   Tibor grimaced at that one, but decided to barrel through it. There was no point in making apologies for the inexcusable. “Didn’t it ever seem odd to you that they would only pick your world to save at that time?”
   “The Order was new back then,” she said. “We were told they could only save a few…”
   “That’s likely true. Jerome Blake’s primary mission, though—at least, the one given to him by the House Lords just before the Star League’s collapse—was to rebuild the hyperpulse network across the entire Inner Sphere. After taking Terra, and convincing the various Houses to honor ComStar’s neutrality, he did just that…”
   “Then, he did try to save the Inner Sphere?”
   Tibor offered a shrug. “I suppose you could see it that, way, yes.”
   “But we were taught that the Inner Sphere rejected him,” Alahni countered, “that they’d all but destroyed themselves in less than two generations.”
   “You could say that, too, I guess,” Tibor admitted with a sigh. “By the end of the First War, a lot of worlds began to die off, like Bob did. Like we all believed that this world did. You told Brooke that there were five worlds like Jardine, didn’t you?”
   “The Five, yes.”
   “Well, maybe that was all Blake could save at the time, at least after taking over Terra.”
   Alahni stood mute for several moments, her expression almost blank. Tibor decided to continue.
   “What I guess I’m saying is that your knowledge of history beyond your world has a few gaps. Either that, or—for whatever reason—Jerome Blake exaggerated when he told your people the Inner Sphere had completely collapsed, and that he’d been rejected by all.”
   Anger flashed again in the young woman’s eyes. “Are you suggesting the Blessed Blake lied to us?”
   “If he did,” Tibor said cautiously, feeling for all the world like a man trapped in a minefield, “it was most likely for your own protection. By convincing your people that the Inner Sphere at large was ruined, he would have discouraged anyone who wanted to leave Jardine at that time.”
   Alahni scoffed. “And now you make it sound like he wanted to imprison us! That’s too f—!”
   “Alahni! Please understand me; I’m not trying to offend you here! You see Blake as your savior and protector. I get that. But Brooke and I have come upon several worlds where the local leaders used deception on their own people to keep them complacent, and allowed future generations to live on in blissful—” Don’t say “ignorance”, Tibor! “—um, un-awareness. Most of the time, it’s less about control and more a part of the bigger plan to keep those people safe and hidden from pirates and other enemies.
   “Think about it: Jerome Blake wants to save your world from the war. His Order changes the maps, fudges some data, and passes it around throughout the hyperpulse network as a free navigational update to all parties interested in avoiding planets that have been destroyed or infected during the most horrifying war since before the Star League. But what happens if someone from one of these now-hidden worlds just shows up one day because he realizes that the neighbors are fine and he decides to open trade with them?”
   Alahni continued to glower at Tibor. For a long time, she said nothing, but he could practically hear the gears turning in her mind. He found himself half-surprised that she was even willing to entertain the idea, actually; in most of their past encounters with isolated peoples, he and Brooke had found the locals so entrenched in their own dogma that they could not accept any other truth at all.
   “Is this why you and Doctor Stevens do this, then?” she asked at last, a slight catch in her tone. “To shatter the illusions of people who did you no harm?”
   “Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Tibor spat. “No! We do it to learn! We do it to find all that was lost since the Star League fell! We do it because we can practically feel what humanity has lost every time we set foot on an abandoned world, or find some city, or some priceless artifact, that was once part of our collective history! We do it for probably the same reasons you and your people left your Guardians’ city, maybe even the same reasons that you, personally, chose to become the story-keeper you are!
   “At least, I assume it was a choice!”
   At that, Alahni flinched as if he’d just struck her. Suddenly realizing that he’d begun shouting, Tibor clamped up, and instinctively glanced around as he remembered where they were.
   Finally, he sighed, turned away from her, and continued on into the woods, resuming the search for what he knew Brooke expected them to find. But one more thought slipped into his mind, begging for release.
   “Like I said,” he grumbled aloud, “it’s not really about money, or fame, or any of that. And it’s not about the Houses—Lord knows I did my bit for one of those long enough in my day! And it sure as hell isn’t about spite! Brooke and I, we do this because it gives our lives some kind of meaning beyond mere existence.”
   Although Alahni remained silent, Tibor could hear her footsteps behind him. He didn’t know if anything he’d just said made any sense to her, or if it did anything to help her cope with what had happened in the last few hours.
   Hell, he wasn’t even sure it did anything to make him feel any better about the situation as it now stood. After all of that, the doubt still nagged at him.
   That was, until, barely five minutes later, he heard the woman freeze in her tracks and suck in her breath with an audible hiss.
   Tibor spun around to check on her. Alahni’s eyes, wide but not panicked, were locked onto something else. She gestured toward it with her chin, directing his gaze further to their right. Instantly on his guard, Tibor turned slowly that way, until he suddenly spotted the graceful, feline form of a gray and brown-striped tabiranth, lurking among the brush barely fifteen meters away. At his movement, the animal’s green eyes, originally focused on Alahni, flashed around to meet his own.
   A low growl rumbled from somewhere within the beast’s throat, but instead of baring teeth, it hunched down and stepped backward.
   “Lower your hands,” Alahni whispered, “hold your eye contact, but blink—slowly—at him.”
   Tibor wasn’t about to ask how she knew the thing was a male. He forced his hands, which he’d automatically raised to chest level in anticipation of an attack, to ease their way back down. The giant felinoid took another step back, but kept its gaze locked onto his.
   Exhaling through his nostrils as quietly as possible, Tibor closed his eyes slowly, like a young child fighting sleep. When he opened them again a moment later, the animal appeared to have taken yet another step back. He could see the tip of its tail twitching nervously behind it, and its gaze remained fixed on him, but it was now rising back to its full height.
   “No sudden moves,” Alahni whispered, her voice now recapturing the beast’s attention. “Let it move away first…”
   The tabiranth blinked at Alahni, raised its chin, and sniffed the air a few times. With a sound somewhere between a snort and a sneeze, it abruptly shook its head and whipped its tail. Without another noise, it turned away from them both, and strode off, meandering deeper into the woods.
   Alahni let out a relieved sigh.
   “Good,” she whispered. “Wild tabis are not normally aggressive toward humans, but the males tend to interpret direct eye contact as a dominance challenge, and they panic easily at sudden moves.”
   Tibor felt like he needed to unlock his jaw before he could respond.
   “Thanks,” he mumbled, his gaze still hovering over the brush.
   And that was when he saw it, about twenty meters past where the tabiranth stood just seconds before. Shaded behind a thick cluster of tree trunks and broad-leaved bushes, it was almost invisible at a glance.
   “Unglaublich!” he blurted.
   Alahni started to speak, but stopped short as she followed his line of sight and spotted it as well.
   There, on the forest floor—sprawled on its side, with its broad, dull-green back jutting up above the lower foliage—lay the abandoned remains of a dull-green Rock Possum ProspectorMech.
« Last Edit: 06 July 2019, 07:07:36 by HABeas2 »

HABeas2

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Re: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« Reply #6 on: 06 May 2019, 13:43:00 »
Chapter Redacted

Sorry, folks! -Herb
« Last Edit: 27 May 2019, 00:56:39 by HABeas2 »

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Re: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« Reply #7 on: 06 May 2019, 13:48:26 »
Chapter Redacted

Sorry, folks! -Herb
« Last Edit: 27 May 2019, 00:56:59 by HABeas2 »

HABeas2

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Re: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« Reply #8 on: 13 May 2019, 21:47:09 »
Chapter Redacted

Sorry, folks! -Herb
« Last Edit: 27 May 2019, 00:57:14 by HABeas2 »

HABeas2

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Re: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« Reply #9 on: 13 May 2019, 22:08:08 »
Chapter Redacted

Sorry, folks! -Herb
« Last Edit: 27 May 2019, 00:57:28 by HABeas2 »

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Re: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« Reply #10 on: 20 May 2019, 02:13:19 »
Chapter Redacted

Sorry, folks! -Herb
« Last Edit: 27 May 2019, 00:57:42 by HABeas2 »

HABeas2

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Re: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« Reply #11 on: 20 May 2019, 02:48:45 »
Chapter Redacted

Sorry, folks! -Herb
« Last Edit: 27 May 2019, 00:57:57 by HABeas2 »

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Re: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« Reply #12 on: 25 May 2019, 16:45:03 »
>>> Transmission Interrupted <<<
>>> Transmission Lost <<<
>>> Unable to Reconnect <<<
>>> Chapter 3: REDACTED <<<
>>> Chapter 4: REDACTED <<<
>>> Chapter 5: REDACTED <<<
>>> Chapter 6: REDACTED <<<
>>> Chapter 7: Not Found <<<
>>> Chapter 8: Not Found <<<
>>> Chapter 9: Not Found <<<
>>> End of Line <<<

Sorry, folks! The rest of the saga is now property of Catalyst Game Labs! Thanks for following us this far; hopefully, the full story will one day appear in print...somewhere.

- Herbert A. Beas II
« Last Edit: 27 May 2019, 00:59:18 by HABeas2 »

HABeas2

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Re: Forgotten Worlds - The (Semi-Official) Finale
« Reply #13 on: 06 July 2019, 07:16:15 »
[This post intentionally left blank]
« Last Edit: 13 July 2019, 16:26:04 by HABeas2 »