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Abandoned Neodymium Mine
Eunsan Mountain Range
250 Kilometers Southwest of Balya Gora
March 25th, 3030

"Mine!" Sunny von Kemp declared to no one in particular, using a scavenged marker to scribble a short sequence of geometric glyphs on the side of an empty supply crate that had become her 'room' in the past few days. "Nobody can touch it, it's mine!"

"You sure about that, Sunshine?" came the gruff, scratchy voice of Pops, straining from effort as he and another AsTech set down an identical crate onto a hand-truck to load onto the convoy. "After all, if no one can touch that crate, you're gonna have to move it all by yourself."

Sunny's expression soured for a moment, then shrugged. "Okay, I'll put your tag on it, too, so you can help move it."

She drew a slash mark by the first line of glyphs, then added another. "There, it's fixed. Now I just need to tag my books, and--oh! Hang on a sec!"

As Pops and the AsTech worked, Sunny picked up a sharp piece of rock from the cavern floor and ran to one of the walls. On it, she drew an X, and in each of its four corners, she started drawing simple symbols.

At the top, she drew a flat, straight line.

In the left corner, two circles connected by lines to form a cylinder, and a trio of wavy lines coming out of the top.

In the right corner, a square with a wide line along the bottom, then a U-shaped line connecting it to the side of a triangle.

And in the bottom, a long diagonal arrow pointing down, with five tic-marks through it.

"Hey, cut that out!" the AsTech helping Pops with the crates scolded her. "The Colonel says we leave no trace behind!"

"It's for Lena," Sunny demanded. "You wouldn't get it."

"Kid, I hate to tell you this, but your sister's--"

"--really gonna appreciate that when she sees it," Pops interrupted the AsTech, his eyes poking out from over the rims of his mirrored shades and shooting the 'tech a deadly glare.

"She better," Sunny smirked, "it took me for-ever to remember this stuff. Now, where's my Never Ending Hearts Revolution? I need to tag it so nobody else tries to take it!"

As Sunny wandered off to mark her property, the AsTech turned back to the old man. "How long are you gonna keep lying to the kid about Wrathchild?"

"Who says I'm lyin'?" Pops shot back.

"C'mon, Pops, we all heard her 'Mech go down during the coup. Sooner or later, you're gonna have to tell her."

"A dead 'Mech and a dead Mechwarrior ain't the same thing," Pops insisted. "'sides, even if I did believe Lena didn't make it, what good does that do Sunny right now? Everybody needs somethin' to get us to keep movin', get us from one day to the next. Right now, the thing keepin' that girl's spirit up is the thought of seein' her brother an' sister again. You really wanna take that from her, right when things are startin' to look up?"

"...I guess not," the AsTech shrugged, "But she's gonna hate you for leading her on when she finds out Wrathchild isn't coming back."

"Well, you let me worry 'bout that," Pops said with finality.

As they worked, the AsTech kept looking back at the markings Sunny had left on the wall.

"So what exactly is that, anyway?" he asked.

"Low-sign," Pops asked. "Somethin' you won't find outside Von Strang's World, way out in the Barrens reach of the Periphery."

"That's right," the 'tech nodded, "you and Wrathchild and the kids are from the Barony, right?"

"Hell, I'm from every-damn-where and no-damn-where," Pops chuckled, "But yeah, Lena and Sunny and Diego are from a backwater planet run by a crazy old aristocrat family, the Von Strangs. Planet's got huge veins of diamonds, so most of the folks there are miners, gettin' kicked around and held down by the Von Strangs an' their goons. Since the aristocrats and their cops, or the 'Highs,' went outta their way to bust up any attempt from the miners--'the Lows'-- to organize, over time the Lows started leavin' messages in secret, in codes that the Highs couldn't figure out. Far as I know, nobody in the Sphere who isn't a Strang's World Low knows how to interpret Low-sign. Well, nobody but me, the kids, an' maybe a couple of folks in the Knights that Lena's taught it to."

"Huh," the AsTech nodded. "So what's it mean?"

"The line up top?" Pops pointed at the first glyph on the X pattern. "That's the floor of an empty room. Means there's nothin' here, that anyone who was here left an' isn't comin' back."

"And the circles with the squiggly lines?"

"Ah, see, that's a trash can," he answered. "Means there's something of interest to be found in the garbage. Or in our case, the scrapyard."

Following that up, he pointed at the square and triangle.

"That's a rich man tipping his hat," the old man explained. "Means there's friendly folks with money."

"So what's the last one?" he asked, regarding the arrow with the tic marks.

"That's easy," Pops grinned, "Directions. Down's south, of course, and the tic marks are how many days it'll take on foot."

"I think I get it," the tech nodded. "So all together, that says we've left this place, but if you travel five days south you'll find interesting friends at the scrapyard."

"More or less," the old man said. "Every group of Lows has their own set of signs, so even if the stars lined up an' the Guard happened to have another fella from Von Strang's World, chances are he wouldn't know these signs himself. So it don't matter a whole lot if we leave that sign behind, because nobody but Lena would ever know what it says."

"And she's d--"

"She's gonna be happy to read that," Pops insisted.

Finally, the two loaded on the empty crate, the one that Sunny had marked.

"How about these marks?" the 'tech asked.

"Simple Low-sign alphabet," the old man answered. "Her initials, S.V.K.-- other words, the property of Sunny Von Kemp."

"So those other marks she made are your initials? What letters are they?"

"Hah! Wouldn't you like to know," Pops chuckled, as the two continued their work.

Elsewhere in the cave, Sunny was marking the inside collars of a few T-shirts that had been handed down to her, some of whom had come from the volunteers who hadn't come back from the supply raid. On each one, she wrote the Low-sign for S.V.K.

"Mine," she said to herself in a sing-song voice, "Mine, mine...."

Outdoor Recreation Yard 2
Women and Children's Ward
Fort Tie Shan
March 25th, 3030

"Mine," the little sandy-haired boy muttered as he scratched symbols into a hard rubber ball. To a stranger, these symbols were nonsense, but to those who knew, they were the letters D.V.K. "Mine."

"Whatcha got there, kiddo?" came a warm, smiling voice from behind him. Diego turned and looked up to see the Captain, Miss Sally, putting on the kind of smile that Diego knew grown-ups only did when things were really sad.

"A ball from the rec room of the Clover," he said. "The other kids keep trying to take it, so I'm putting my tag on it. It's mine."

"That's a good idea," the Captain encouraged him. "And hey, I'll talk to the other kids' parents about making sure they play nice."

"It's the new kids," Diego said with a frown. "The big kids who came in the other day. They don't have parents to talk to."

Captain Roth nodded, her smile becoming a frown. The prison fort was getting crowded, with a huge influx of new inmates just the other day. She'd gotten word that most of them had come from the southern city of Yuzhny Portveyn, where the Espian Guard had just finished off the last of Governor Xiu's loyalists. Plenty of the new prisoners had been loyalist fighters, FPA guerillas, political dissidents, or just as likely, their friends and families.

Fort Tie Shan was near the bursting point with people, and tensions were getting high. Only the fear of reprisals from the guards had kept all-out violence from breaking out, and even that wasn't going to last much longer.

"Well, the next time the other kids try to take something from you," Sally said, kneeling down to pat Diego on the shoulder, "You come to me, and I'll set them straight myself."

"But they're not our crew," Diego said.

"We're all in one crew here," Sally answered, "they just don't know it yet."

As Diego went to play, a younger woman approached the Captain. Like her, the woman's hair was silvery white, a quirk of genetics rather than the effects of aging. Her upper lip was almost permanently curled in a slight sneer, as if she'd always just smelled something foul.

"I've got the latest inventory," Cynthia Roth, the Captain's younger cousin and Quartermaster of the Green Knights, said, keeping her body language casual lest the prying eyes of the security guards focus on the two. "Like everything lately, it could be worse, but it could also be a hell of a lot better."

"We'll think about what could be some other time," the Captain said, "and we'll focus on what is for now. How are we on meds?"

"The Fort's medical staff wouldn't spit on us if we were on fire," Cynthia scowled, "so we're starting to burn through what we smuggled in when they took us. We've got enough antibiotics for about another week, but what's concerning me are the painkillers and uppers. I think some of the men are taking more than they're supposed to, and getting addicted."

The Captain nodded. While the women and children had for the most part been left alone beyond detainment, most of the able-bodied men were shipped to nearby manufacturing plants and used as slave labor during the day, only brought back near the dead of night. The guards had no concern for their well-being, and failure to work was met with severe punishment, so many had taken to sneaking pills to give themselves energy or dull the pain to keep working.

"And the food and drinks?" she asked, a coded question. At the very least, the warden hadn't begun starving the inmates, so actual food and drink wasn't a concern yet.

"Well we've got enough silverware to seat twenty," Cynthia answered, "and can probably mix three or four Martinis, though I'm still looking for the keys to the champagne cellar."

Both Sally and Cynthia Ross knew that eventually, the warden and guards of Fort Tie Shan would turn their attention to them. Either the Green Knights would stage a rescue, or cause enough trouble that the NPDRE would begin threatening the prisoners to get the Knights to surrender, or the Knights would all die and the prisoners would outlive their usefulness. In any situation, they both knew a fight was coming, and had begun to make plans.

'Silverware' meant they had gotten their hands on enough loose pieces of metal to begin making crude blades. 'Martinis' meant the chemicals and containers to make Molotov cocktails. And the 'champagne cellar' meant the gun locker.

It wasn't nearly what they'd need to stage a breakout, but if Gaius and his men were coming to get them, it might be enough to split the guards' attention.

And Gaius was coming for them, Sally knew it.

If only because she and the other inmates were still alive.

"I've been running the numbers in my head," Cynthia said, "and it's really making me wish I'd listened to Mom and Dad and just gone to law school. But no, I just had to go play space-hero with my cool cousin and her not-boyfriend, because I wanted to--"

"Hang on," Sally interrupted her cousin's griping, looking at the patch of dirt in the yard in front of them. "do you recognize that?"

Before Diego had run off, he'd drawn something in the dirt. An X pattern with four symbols in the corner. Sally recognized the code as something Wrathchild had shown her and the Colonel, something called 'Low-sign.'

A triangle with a crescent at the top corner. Devil horns, the Captain saw, which means a dangerous man.

A circle with three long lines reaching down from the bottom half, and a cross in the upper right. The man has a long beard, and is missing his right eye.

Three small triangles, and above them two crossed bones. Dangerous to children.

An elongated diamond, with the long end pointing up like a dagger, and a short line poking from the bottom. Get a weapon, protect yourself.

"Wasn't there a new guy who came in last week with the new prisoners," the Captain asked, "with a beard and only one eye?"

"I think so," Cynthia shrugged, "Why?"

"Just a piece of business I'm going to have to take care of," she said, her voice becoming a growl, her hands tightening into fists.

In a corner of the yard away from the eyes of the guards, Diego dug in the dirt until he found something he'd buried days before: a screwdriver, its head ground and sharpened into a long point.

On the handle, he'd scratched the letters D.V.K.


'Diamond in the Rough' Bar
NPDRE-Occupied District
North Nui Awa
March 25th, 3030

"Mine!" a young woman's voice all but shouted over the din of the crowd, a raised hand signaling the source of the call. Seeing the woman in question, the bartender turned toward her and handed her a tall glass of amber liquid capped with creamy foam.

The young woman threw back the frothy brew in a few quick gulps, then let out a contented sigh. Damn, but she'd needed a good drink, and as dingy and crowded as a soldier's bar was, at least the beer was good and cold. While part of her wanted to order another, and another, and maybe a few more after that, she had to keep her senses sharp. She was deep behind enemy lines, after all, and this was, as the Colonel optimistically put it, a target-rich environment.

A little over a week ago, she was a Mechwarrior, leader of a lance of Green Knights, trying to keep this backwater world from tearing itself apart. Then they'd been sucker-punched, caught off-guard by enemies they never even knew were there.

Her Wolverine had been shot out from under her, blasted into a smoking heap, and she'd been left for dead. As far as anyone on Espia knew, Lena von Kemp was a corpse.

At first, her only thoughts had been on survival. She'd lived off of scraps, scavenging bits of food and tattered rags, scurrying away from the enemy soldiers like a rodent. It wasn't until she happened upon an unlucky Espian Guardsman wandering off alone that her thoughts shifted to the offense.

Lena subconsciously rubbed the bandages that wound tightly around her left hand. Poor bastard had given her a fight, but in the end, she'd gotten a canteen of clean water, a few days of rations, a change of relatively clean clothes, and a pistol for her trouble.

Since that night, she'd linked up with a train of refugees fleeing the capital city and down to the cities of Nui Awa. Along the way, Lena had claimed a few more Guardsmen. She'd relied on jumping them alone in the dark at first, but here, with so many enemies about, she'd have to be more subtle about it.

Tonight, she was on the hunt for bigger prey. Grabbing canteens or the occasional blessed fresh pair of socks was one thing, but she wanted more. She wanted access to the NPDRE's facilities, passes to get her onto their bases, into their armories, anywhere she could start doing some real damage. That meant reeling in an officer, and to pull that off, she needed to play it cool.

"--another heroic victory by the Crimson Fists!" came a newscaster's voice as someone cranked the volume of the holo-vid screen over the music. "Yes, these gallant masked avengers once again delivered the people's justice, smashing through a terrorist cell of the vile and traitorous FPA!"

The holo-vid screen showed footage from a skirmish earlier that day, of Crimson Fist Battlemechs rampaging through a heavily populated area, blasting vehicles that the newscaster claimed were 'cleverly disguised' FPA technicals. The big money shot was a wide shot of the Fists' lance leader, a 70-ton Warhammer, firing both of its Particle Projector Cannons into an alleged FPA hideout that looked mysteriously like a civilian apartment complex.

A cheer went up throughout the bar, and a young captain raised his glass. "To the Crimson Fists!" he shouted, bringing another cheer. Some obnoxious electronic rock began playing, and even though her blood boiled, she'd found her target. She joined in the cheer, catching the captain's eye. He gave her a hungry smile, which she returned as she began to cross the room to approach him.

Her stomach churned at the thought of what the boy had in mind, but it would all pay off in time. The Espian Guard, the Crimson Fists, they'd learn soon enough that Lena Von Kemp wasn't a corpse...she was a vengeful ghost. And she was going to haunt those fuckers forevermore.

"Omhygod, the music here sucks, doesn't it?" a voice chimed in as someone sidled up to her.

"Hm?" Lena turned quickly, a bit of split-second restraint all that was keeping her from drawing a weapon.

She was met with a dark-skinned woman, maybe a few years older than Lena, with a shock of bright green hair. She wore a skimpy fluorescent top and mini-skirt, a necklace with a pendant just over her cleavage, and a plush white fur coat over it, an outfit picked specifically to catch a certain kind of attention.

"I said this music sucks, doesn't it?" the party-girl repeated. "I want something I can really move to."

For a moment, Lena raised an eyebrow. Yeah, the music wasn't great, but it was the sort of dance music that was popular on this world. And the way she emphasized words was-- Couldn't be.

Lena tested a response, just to be sure.

"The band's just better on tour," she said. If the party-girl didn't take the response, then it was nothing, some passing remarks about shitty bar tunes. If, on the other hand--

"Maybe, but you'd have to spend a lot of time on the road to know where they're playing next."

Spacers' cant. A secret language of smugglers, bandits, pirates, and gun-runners found in the reaches of the Periphery. Pops had taught it to her when they'd first escaped Von Strang's World. Like Low-sign, it was a way to communicate without anyone being able to catch on to what was really being said, a coded dialect of key words and phrases disguised as idle chatter. Starting a conversation using words like "move," "tour," "road," or any other word about travel was often a way to tip someone off that you could talk the talk.

"You spend a lot of time with touring bands?" Party Girl asked, keeping to the theme of chattering about music. What she'd really said was You're from off-planet, aren't you?

Lena wasn't sure what Party Girl had in mind--if she was a potential ally, if she was trying to run a scam, or if she was some kind of spy--so she answered carefully.

"Not in a while," she answered. "I've been hitting up the local shows these days." It was playing along, but ultimately a non-response: I've been on Espia for a few years.

"Ah, well, a show's a show," Party Girl shrugged, "and showbusiness is showbusiness."

Lena bristled. Emphasizing 'business' in this regard either implied that she knew Lena was a mercenary, or was implying she was a prostitute.

"I don't know about showbusiness, but--"

"No worries," said the stranger. "I'm always on the lookout for talent, and I thought maybe the bands you toured with did paying gigs."

This time, the implication was straightforward: I'm looking for mercenaries.

"Yeah?" Lena blinked, trying hard to maintain her poker face. "What kind of shows are you into?"

"Oh, I like my tunes loud and heavy," she answered. "Some tunes that really stomp."

Lena gaped for a second. Spacers' cant varied from every planet, moon, station, and asteroid, with as many dialects as there were stars in the Sphere. But anyone with even half an inkling could read it plain as day.

I'm looking for men with Battlemechs.

"...I...I don't know if that's my scene," Lena said, trying to regain her composure. "One sec."

Lena excused herself and broke away from the conversation, nearly knocking over a barstool as the headed to the bathroom.

Once inside, she took a few deep breaths and splashed some cold water on her face. Who the hell was this person? Why was she hitting up strangers in a bar looking for off-world Mechwarriors? It didn't make any sense.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to throw you off," Lena heard Party Girl say, looking up to see she'd followed her in here. "I was taking a gamble there; I see it freaked you out."

"Who the hell are you?" Lena demanded.

"Just someone who's doing what you're doing," the stranger said, "Getting valuable things from stupid drunk soldiers. I figured you're an off-worlder, you're fairly good-looking, and you're hanging around in a soldiers' bar. So either you're a working girl, a scam artist, or you're hustling these idiots for information."

She tried to play it cool, but Lena knew she'd blown her cover.

"Well, you're partially right," she admitted, "and partially wrong."

"I'm sure," Party Girl said condescendingly. "Either way, if you want to talk more 'music,' I won't be hard to find. But if you're just here hunting for another target, you should know...this bar's my turf. Friendly warning."

"Right," Lena nodded. "In that case, I'll be seeing you."

"Sure you will," Party Girl nodded.

As she passed her on her way out of the bathroom, Lena noticed the pendant on Party Girl's necklace: it was in the shape of a long, thin silver dagger.

A stiletto.

Lena tossed a few coins on the bar to pay for her drink, and wandered out of the Diamond in the Rough as the soldiers began to get rowdy. As the night settled over North Nui Awa, she wasn't sure if meeting this stranger made her feel less alone, or more so.

She ducked around one of the corners and picked through her pockets, finding the combat knife she had taken from her first kill. With the tip of it, she began scratching symbols into the building's facade.

A circle with two wavy lines draping down from either side. A woman.

A coil with a forked line at one end like a snake, and three wavy lines beside it. Green hair.

Two interconnected circles, with two straight lines inside the circles, and a wavy line in the section where they overlapped. Talks in code.

A cross with devil horns. Could be friend or enemy, be careful.

Lena knew it was next to impossible that anyone who ever saw this graffiti would ever know what it meant, but she had to hold out hope somehow that she'd eventually get back in touch with her unit. She'd left dozens of messages like it from here to Balya Gora; if the Knights were still out there, maybe she'd get lucky and some of them would stumble across it.

As she began to leave, her eyes were drawn to the window, staring once again at the footage of the Crimson Fists and their "heroic" battle.

Even if she never saw the Green Knights again, she'd find a way to make those bastards pay.

Her eyes locked on her target, and she once again began to carve.

She wasn't staring at Party Girl as she marked her target.

She wasn't even staring at the captain she'd planned to take.

She was staring at the Crimson Fists' 'Mech, the imposing form of the Warhammer, as she carved the Low-sign for L.V.K. into the wall.

While the mark was on the wall, Lena stared at the Battlemech on the screen, and knew her goal.

The location concerned her in more ways than one, though. With a rigid stamp of the boot she stood up, as she often did during these briefings, and spoke to the Colonel once allowed to speak: "First, sir, are we allowed our own arms?" She could've meant many things, but a brief reflexive grip of the saber on her belt suggested she wanted to bring something all the more archaic and conspicuous. "Beyond that, given our contact's location...what are we to expect from Stiletto themselves? Is there anything known about this individual?" She wanted to know how sober the two of them could expect Stiletto to be, but that was already too harsh on their contact...

Daschke had a point. Even with backup in close proximity, sending unarmed operatives into enemy territory was a major risk, and one he wasn't entirely willing to take. On the other hand, if they were stopped by NPDRE soldiers and searched, having weapons on them might put them in just as much danger.

"I'm authorizing you to carry a small sidearm at your discretion," the Colonel decided. "Something that you can easily hide or ditch-- the NPDRE doesn't have total control of North Nui Awa, but we can safely assume they'll be setting up checkpoints at major intersections. Sgt. Dalton's team will scout approaches to the city first to see if we can avoid contact with the Espian Guard on the way in. If it's doable, you can go in armed. If not, the safer bet would be to ditch the weapons on approach. Once in the bar, make sure at least one of Dalton's team has eyes on you at all times. Do not enter the bar without finding at least two exits first, do not go to a second location with anyone, do not accept drinks from anyone, and do not give away any information about yourselves or the Green Knights. As far as anyone knows, you're refugees who fled from Yuzhny Portveyn a few days before the Heavenly Sword attack."

"I may be able to help in that regard," Cassandra spoke up once again. "A perk of helping run the planet's largest corporate empire is that my marketing department happens to have some top-notch graphic designers, who are used to working with a tight turnaround. I can put a few people I trust on the job and put together some false documentation, good enough to pass if some jack-booted grunt stops you and asks for your papers."

The Colonel raised an eyebrow, wondering why Jeong would sit on that potentially major asset until now. Was she merely struck by inspiration in the moment, or did she have other cards she was playing close to the chest?

After a moment's consideration, Gaius returned to answering Ramrod's questions.

"As for Stiletto," he stated, "we have very little info to go by. We have reason to believe Stiletto is female, and originally from off-planet. The majority of Espia's population is ethnically either Slavic or East Asian, so anyone who doesn't fit the bill is a possible contender. Prioritize anyone who looks like an out-of-towner, but be subtle about it."

Turning back to the Green Knights at large, the Colonel began to wrap the briefing up.

"Each of these missions has the potential to turn things in our favor," he said. "Contacting Stiletto can hopefully get us into touch with the FPA and a possible ally in the fight. Scouting the spaceport will give us a clearer picture of what the NPDRE is planning to use and who is funding this operation. And protecting the dam will not only save lives, but ingratiate us with the locals so they may provide us with information you can't get from the top down. Splitting up the team like this is a major risk, but it's one I wouldn't even consider if I didn't have absolute faith in your ability to succeed. Stay sharp, keep your head on a swivel, and trust your teammates. This is how we start to turn this fight around."

He nodded to Lieutenant Lyons, who switched off the projector screen.

"You have 24 hours to make your preparations. Dismissed!"

-Collab with @Hound55

"Watch your tone, Hephaestus," I say with a fair amount of indignance. "I am no hireling to act at your beck and call. And I am in no mood for nonsense."

"Hey, I'm just asking you to help me de-escalate a situation here," the deformed weapon-smith says, putting his hands up in mock innocence. "And I was just thinkin you might be willing to do me a solid since, y'know, I made pretty much your whole kit--"

"I seem to recall more than one of my enemies wielding weapons that bear your signature as well," I glare at him. "Still, I will speak with this visitor. If his reasons for coming here are more just than yours for calling upon me, then you and I will have words."

Hephaestus backs away, knowing better than to prod at me too much. Then I turn to see his visitor.

The first glance tells me he has a similar arsenal of divine weapons, though they appear to be of Roman make rather than Greek. He wears the garb of a centurion, a worshipper of Mars. The Roman iteration of Ares.

Given my past experiences with Ares and his various incarnations, challenging me to a fight would be a spectacularly poor decision, even were I in a better humor.

"Now then," I address the stranger, my left hand resting on the Lasso at my hip, my right hand slowly reaching for the pommel of my sword, "I would recommend you explain your reason for being here, and I would very strongly advise you speak only the truth."

Never a backward step.

The gods had strange ideas of what makes a mortal worthy. It molded Jonny's movements and decisions for the common good.

"An ironic compromise of the self". Was how Question had described it. Trust him to find some kind of dark amusement to it, even if he noted it with such a flat delivery.

In order for him to be seen as worthy of the gods, he had to front up to every challenge. And that show of strength was often not the best approach for negotiating common ground, when met with other... strong confident types.

Right now he was face to face with one who personified such traits.

This was a delicate situation to the point of being downright precarious.

He had only a few things in his favour. Diana's empathy for his own situation, and sympathy for the plight of women.

He'd been sent here by an aggrieved Aphrodite, eager to distance herself from the husband she'd long ago been arranged to marry. And if anyone could understand the situation of a... questionably mortal person getting trapped in the machinations of the gods, he was looking right at her.

But this still had to be conveyed from a position of strength. From one that Jupiter and the gods would deem as "worthy" of their favour.

"I was sent here to deliver a message from this one's wife, who wishes to be left alone."

Jonny stepped forward, gesturing to Hephaestus.

"If you choose to blindly take up arms for his cause, I would be disappointed but nonetheless would be forced to match your mettle."

He deliberately kept his hand clear of his hilt. Potentially a fatal error with one such as whom he found himself face-to-face. But whilst he must project forward to be worthy, he sought to keep threatening gestures to a minimum.

"But I must confess, when I found myself charged with delivering this message I was unaware I would once again find myself in the affairs of the immortals."

"'Blindly' take up arms for Hephaestus?" I question him, stepping forward, an eyebrow raised. "Know this: one does not survive long in the dealings of Olympians by entering anything 'blindly.' Nor does one survive long by insulting an Amazon."

In truth, it's likely he means no insult, but his very presence here is an act of intimidation. Aphrodite chose someone from outside her own pantheon to act as a messenger. Not only that, but she chose an agent of the Roman gods, styled after a worshipper of Mars. The Romans' image of Venus and Mars as an idealized couple-- the poetic union of Love and War-- was far simpler, less scandalous, than Aphrodite's torrid affairs with Ares.

"You have found yourself embroiled in troubles that were old when your gods were new," I tell him. "I do not know what Aphrodite has told you, but her role in this is far from innocent. This is a goddess, after all, whose whims and fancies have doomed entire kingdoms. Now she wishes to intimidate and insult her husband, by sending an agent of her adulterous lover."

"That's right!" Hephaestus declares, his courage doubling now that he's safe behind me. "You tell her I'm not backin' down 'til I get what's mine. An' the next time she sends some gladius-swingin' knock-off around, I'll--"

"You're no helpless victim in this either, Hephaestus," I cut him off, not taking my eyes off the armored newcomer. "For all you have bemoaned your wife's unfaithfulness, you have had more than your share of dalliances as well. I am sure the Graces and the sea nymphs would tell quite a different tale from yours."

"Hey, that was only after she started foolin' around with Ares, not--"

"And I am certain Athena has not forgotten your attempt to force yourself upon her."

"....look, that was a different time back then, okay? Zeus had set the precedent, and the rest of us kinda--"

"Enough," I say with cold disgust, "before I let the newcomer 'test his mettle' on you. I am only here because it is mortals who suffer most when the gods begin to bicker. It will be to everyone's best interest to quell this dispute before it flares up again."

Turning my attention fully to the centurion, I move my hands away from my weapons, folding my arms across my chest.

"Now then," I address him, "Aphrodite sent you to deliver a message, did she not? And that message has been delivered. Unless there is other business you wish to attend to here, I suggest you take your leave."
FF post is up, let's get this ball a-rollin'.

"So what are we thinkin,' guys?" Johnny Storm asked his compatriots, globes of flame encircling his hands. "The usual?"

The arrival of the Fantastic Four had turned the fight between the gunmen who had assaulted the Roxxon tanker and the huge armored figure protecting it into an intense standoff. None of the masked attackers had fired off another shot, but neither were they lowering their guns. The armored brute stood his ground, daring anyone to give him an excuse to start swinging his massive fists.

"I'm in favor of the usual," Sue nodded with a confident grin. "Contain, ascertain, and detain. Doesn't look like it should be much trouble."

"Dibs on the big fella," snarled the Thing, just as eager to commence with the action.

"Let's not jump to conclusions," Reed Richards countered. "Let's see if we can de-escalate the situation. I believe there may be more going on here than--"

"Heads up, we've got incoming!"

Tentatively, Victor lowered himself down to the ground, red boots plodding to the ground with two muffled footfalls. He adjusted the cells in his body so as to slick his hair back hands-free, and stepped forward. He leaned in, across the Fantastic Four, and drew an open palm across his face as a hello.
“Hi. I…” He paused, furrowing his brow. “...Work here. Are both groups present the bad guys, or are we cooperating with one of them?”
Victor smiled sheepishly, before remembering where he was. He straightened up, taking two steps forward and holding his hands out. His fingers crackled with an arcing blue energy, the Arc Reactor thrumming and glowing through his suit.

“It’s interesting that the tanker hasn’t exploded yet,” he announced loudly, still ready for a fight. “I shall kick any asses in its vicinity and move it to a safe location. If that is agreeable? I’ll defer to seniority.”

"Hey! Who are you callin' 'senior,' junior?" the Human Torch said with indignity.

"Ahhh, don't mind him," the Thing waved the Torch off, "he's just cranky cuz he got his first gray hair the other day."

"HEY! That's not--"

"The Vision, I presume?" Mister Fantastic interrupted, his elastic body stretching and warping to slip past the Thing and Human Torch and nudge them each to one side. "Reed Richards. A pleasure to make your acquaintance. I've been rather impressed with the advancements in cybernetics and digital intelligence that Stark Industries is developing. If it's not too much of a imposition, I'd very much like to compare your design schematics with some of my--"

"Reed! Focus!" The Invisible Woman interjected, turning their attention back to the gunmen and the brute. "We can trade notes after we've dealt with the active threat, all right?"

"Of course, my apologies," the elastic man said sheepishly, before shaping his hands into the shape of a megaphone. "Attention, all of you! There is no need for further violence. Put down your weapons, surrender peacefully to the proper authorities, and we won't have to--"

Reed's call for de-escalation was interrupted by a swirl of green clouds overhead.

"Awww, ain't that a shame," the Thing muttered.

Overhead of The Fantastic Four and The Vision appeared to be a cloud of green mist, which quickly coalesced, forming into a vibrantly viridian portal, from which emerged none other than the green-clad Mysterio, descending from the skies in spectacular fashion; it was eye-catching, if nothing else. He turned to his fellow heroes on the scene, giving them a brief bow. "Apologies for the abrupt arrival; you may refer to me as Mysterio. But beyond the niceties, I am here to aid in this endeavor, if you will have me." Turning his gaze from them to the myriad goons and the menacing enforcer superhuman, an unseen grin crosses Mysterio's face. "Shall we, as they say, take out the trash?"

"Ah, screw this!" one of the gunmen yelled as he raised his rifle at the crowd of superheroes. "I'm not goin' back to prison!"

With a loud staccato chatter, the burst of gunfire effectively ended any chance of a peaceful resolution.

The rest of the gunmen followed suit, the air suddenly filling with hot lead. Before they could reach their targets, the bullets pinged off of seemingly nothing, changing directions as if they had hit a solid wall. Some ricocheted outward, towards the few civilians still out on the sidewalk, only to bounce back again. Some shot back and forth across the street like high-velocity pinballs, never reaching the sidewalks before another invisible wall deflected them away.

"I've got the area contained for now," came the disembodied voice of the Invisible Woman, straining from the number of force fields she had to hold up. "Disarm the shooters first, take out the active threats! Then we deal with the Roxxon truck and the big guy if he wants trouble! Johnny, draw their fire!"

"On it, sis!" called out the Human Torch, taking to the air as super-hot plasma coated his body. In response, most of the attacking gunmen opened fire on the flaming figure arcing towards them. Johnny made no attempt to dodge the incoming bullets, as the radiant heat from his personal plasma field was enough to vaporize the bullets before they could reach them.

"That's our opening!" Reed called out, his torso stretching out into a long flat sheet to wrap around one of the gunmen, while his right hand shot out well past him, wrapped around a light pole, then clocked a second gunman from behind. Two down, a dozen to go. "Vision! Mysterio! Let's see what you can do! Ben, if the large one gets aggressive--"

"Way ahead of ya, Stretch," the Thing said, squaring off with the hulking armored man. "So whaddya say, Pipsqueak? You gonna play nice an' just answer a coupla questions once we're done with these guys? Or are you gonna--"


The gunfire was temporarily drowned out by the thunderous impact of the armored man's fist colliding with Ben Grimm's jaw. The craggy orange hero reeled, kicking up chunks of pavement as he tumbled before slamming into one of the garbage trucks that had penned the tanker in.

"The name's not 'Pipsqueak,'" he growled, looming over the Thing, "It's Armadillo. And like I told them, you don't know who the fuck you're messing with."

"Ahh, see, that right there?" Ben said, a grin splitting his rocky face as he picked himself up. "That's what I was hopin' you'd say."

The two charged at each other again, trading blows that sounded like cannon fire across Waterside Plaza.
Apologies for holding folks up on that. I should have a post up today.
“ Shut up, Takka.” Aroxy whispered before addressing the colonel. “ Colonel, are you sure it’s wise to post Steel Rain to Mission Alpha? Such an urban locale isn’t good tank country and we’re liable to lose valuable war material in the process.”

"Your concerns are valid," Colonel Wayne answered, "but I should clarify. The area on the far side of the dam is populated, but sparsely. The fishing villages are spread across a fairly wide area along the coast. And the area on the near side is mostly heavy woods and rolling hills. There is the possibility of collateral damage, but it's not likely. As long as you keep Merry-Go-Round's main turret pointed away from the dam, there shouldn't be much to worry about."

"As for why I selected you for Task Force Alpha,"
he continued, "I do share the same concern about the Von Luckner's primary weapon in this mission. But its secondary weapons are why I chose it. The short-range missiles should pack enough punch to dispatch any vehicles the Heavenly Sword sent in, with less chance of a stray shot going too far afield and endangering civilians. And the machine gun and flamer can make quick work of infantry and light vehicles. Unless they've got heavier equipment than they showed off in Yuzhny Portveyn, in all likelihood you won't need to fire off the autocannon at all."
To keep the good news going, Marit could hardly be happier about the mission she was assigned to. Close to the new base, striking at loons spoiling to commit a massive war crime, with Jon on hand to share knowledge of the site and best of all, she wouldn’t have to get out of the ‘Mech. Only way it could be better would have been not having to defend something. Another thing that put a damper on the mood was the Crimson Fists presence. At the Depot raid, the CF lance that attacked them was reported further away than this one, yet they still managed to intercept them, likely due to their intel placing the Fists somewhere they weren’t. And a target this important - the dam, though no doubt they’d hear of their presence as well - was unlikely to go ignored. And they’d be coming from the North, meaning that if they arrived before the Knights got away, they’d have to go through them. ”Sir, do we know anything about forces stationed at the dam and the CF lance at Golf 12? Composition, how old that position report is…?” She supposed running into a different lance than last time was a safe bet, with the Fire Witch perhaps still being down a Raven, though the last one surprised them with a Longbow. What was this going to be? The Battlemaster? Some SLDF royal ‘Mechs they dug up from whatever forgotten bunker? A Steiner scout lance? ”And do we have any indication of what the Sword are bringing and from which direction?”

"The forces stationed at the dam itself are little more than a few Aqua Vitae security teams," the Colonel addressed Marit's questions first. "Rent-a-cops with small arms, at the very most a few jeeps with machine guns. While the company is politically neutral, we can safely assume they won't open fire on us unless we cause damage to the dam itself. That said, at the moment we can't rely on them as allies in the fight-- as I said, politically neutral, and technically non-military."

Colonel Wayne knew that Cassandra was playing a very dangerous game by even approaching the Green Knights, so expecting her to thrown in with all of her influence just yet would be a longshot. At best, the Knights would have to ask the AVC security teams to kindly step aside until the shooting was done.

"The Heavenly Sword are an irregular militia force," he continued, "who favor asymmetrical warfare. Their weapon of choice is suicide bombers, civilian vehicles loaded up with high explosives. If they want to blow open the dam, they'll likely need something big, so keep your eye out for heavy machinery. A lot of loyalist forces and even some Espian Guards apparently abandoned their hardware when the fighting in Yuzhny Portveyn ended, so it's possible that they've acquired some light tanks or missile platforms, but direct confrontation doesn't seem to be their style."

As he looked at the fist logo in sector Golf 12, he scowled.

"As for the Crimson Fists," the Colonel said, "By the last report, taken approximately eight hours ago, the Crimson Fist lances were all headed northwest, towards our current general area. It's unlikely they'll be able to turn around and reach the dam once fighting does break out. And by the time they arrive, we'll be long gone. However, it'll be vital to stay on your guard. The lance in sector Golf-12 appears to be their heavier assets. Haven't gotten any visuals on them, but seismic sensors were able to isolate at least one in the 70-ton range. Given the availability of Battlemechs in this region, in all likelihood that either means an Archer or a Warhammer. Either one is trouble we don't want just yet, but if everything goes right, they'll be hundreds of kilometers away."

Raven Rivers

Raven bowed down a little in respect and said, "A mission which plays well to my bleeding heart and the others' talents; thank you, Colonel." He then continued, "I echo Marit's question; the Heavenly Sword should be down to Infantry and Suicide Trucks, right? But just in case they have an old IndustrialMech hid away or the Crimson Fists decide to show their ugly mugs, I think we should keep ourselves ready for a heavier fight. I also presume that we are not using lasers or incendiaries, considering your instructions on collateral damage. Also, is there a map of the civilian areas close to the dam, the areas most frequented by workers and engineers?"

Life was returning to his expression and his voice, that much was clear. He was eager, but not too eager, his judgment, somewhat more clear. And he demonstrated that he didn't miss anything obvious when he turned to Jon and said, "So, it seems you're a MechWarrior as well or otherwise acquainted with vehicles, considering the way the Colonel talked about you; perfect."

Then back to the Colonel for one last question, "Will we be departing immediately, or will we have a few hours to prepare?"

@Starlance@AndyC@Pilatus@Bork Lazer

"The dam is large, but access is limited to two roads: one at the top of the near side connecting to the northern end, the other at the coastal side of connecting to the southern end. Given that the Heavenly Sword are probably going to be striking out of Yuzhny Portveyn, the southern road is their most likely route. As for civilians, there are a number of fishing villages on the coastal side of the dam. If the Heavenly Sword manages to destroy it, those villages will be wiped out in the ensuing flooding. The stretch between the dam and the ocean is primarily dirt roads and very little proper infrastructure, so a quick evacuation isn't going to be feasible.

"Chief Aadil's team is going to blow open the tunnels in twelve hours' time. Your task force will be the first ones in, since you've got the furthest to travel and the heaviest firepower in case we encounter trouble. Until then, get your 'Mech's prepped, and pack some rations, water, and whatever comforts you might need, because you're going to be spending the following 48 hours or more in your cockpits."
Sorry if folks have been waiting on me for the event; this week has been a bit insane. Gonna try and get an FF post up tomorrow.

"Green Knights, attention!" Colonel Wayne called out.

The mine had been a buzz of activity as the technicians and crew prepared to mobilize, loading equipment onto transport vehicles, strapping down every piece of equipment and ammunition they could bring with them, trying to make sure their various creature comforts weren't going to be left behind. There was no word yet as to where they were headed or what they were going to be doing, but for many, a change of scenery was going to be welcome no matter what.

The Green Knights Mechwarriors, tankers, and infantrymen gathered in front of the Mobile HQ, where Lt. Lyons and Cadets Higgins and Windham had just finished setting up a projector display.

At the Colonel's gesture, the projector switched on, showing a map of the main Espian landmass.

"This is the current political lay of the land," Gaius began. "As you can see, the deck is still very much stacked against us. Thanks to the Heavenly Sword's attack killing Governor Xiu and his inner circle, the last of the loyalist forces in Yuzhny Portveyn have fallen. The Espian Guards have moved a majority of their forces to secure the city, primarily now fighting with Heavenly Sword insurgents. Meanwhile, the Free People's Army have split the bulk of their forces into two smaller cells, one now operating in South Nui Awa, the other in Geum Haebyon. The cities of Nui Awa are the planet's major financial hubs, while Geum Haebyon is the largest industrial center. Because of this, you can expect the Espian Guards to dig in tight in both cities, while the FPA will do anything to break their hold."

The Colonel pointed out the new logos on the map, icons showing a drop of light blue water.

"These are the four main hubs of the Aqua Vitae Corporation, who control the desalination platforms that allow for anyone on this planet to have drinkable water. When Federov seized control of the government, he assumed the AVC would fall in line, but thanks to Director Jeong and a few of her like-minded board members, the company has yet to declare one way or another. If we can persuade a majority of the board that the Green Knights can be trusted more than the Crimson Fists should be feared, we have the potential for some massive financial and political influence."

Lastly, he highlighted the three logos of a red fist.

"These are the last sighted locations of the Crimson Fists," he said, a hint of a snarl in his voice. "While they are still operating as three separate Lances rather than concentrating as a whole Company, their movements are confined to a smaller and smaller area. To put it bluntly, they're closing in on us. If we don't move before they zero in on our location, they'll come at us all at once and wipe us out."

As gratifying as it was to have given the Crimson Fists a bloody nose during the supply raid, there was still the fact that the Knights were simply outnumbered at least two to one just in Battlemechs, and the Fists had an entire army at their disposal as well. Without a major change in the balance of power, a direct fight with the Crimson Fists was still near certain death.

"Fortunately," he continued, "Thanks to our visitor, we now have some vital intel that nobody in Federov's regime, Malenkov's command, or the Fists' company has. Ms Jeong?"

The Aqua Vitae board member approached the projector screen, acting as if she had always been part of these briefings. In truth, she had given so many business presentations over the course of her career that she could do them in her sleep, so a military presentation wasn't too much of a stretch for her.

"Thank you, Colonel Wayne," she said, careful to make sure she was addressing him by his proper rank, deferring to the fighting man when on his territory. "As the Colonel has already stated, the Aqua Vitae Corporation controls the largest commodity on Espia, that being fresh water. The Jeong family, however, has fortunes beyond that, having played a vital role in the planet's terraforming several centuries ago, and in the early mining operations that led to the discovery of Espia's neodymium deposits. Both of these ventures required a significant amount of infrastructure that became obsolete as soon as the air here was breathable."

"In particular,"
she said, making no effort to suppress a sly grin, "These early terraforming operations required a network of subterranean tunnels to transport heavy machinery across the continent. Tunnels big enough to move excavators, atmospheric processors, fleets of IndustrialMechs...or, say, a reinforced Lance of Battlemechs."

She mimicked Colonel Wayne's gesture to Lieutenant Lyons, who switched the projector screen to the next slide. It was the same map, but now crisscrossed with thick white lines.

"These are the tunnels used by the Star League Department of Mega-Engineering in the 2500s to settle Espia," she stated with pride, "Overseen by Executive Director Valten Jeong, one of my direct ancestors. After the Star League lost interest in this world, his grandson Dae-Sun Jeong founded Bari Gongju MetalWorks, expanding the tunnel networks for mining neodymium and other precious metals. In 2750, when the Capellan Confederation annexed Espia, BG MetalWorks was nationalized, and Michelle Jeong-Dulka bought into the Aqua Vitae Corporation. Thanks to House Liao's history of mismanagement, the MetalWorks quickly went under, but the Jeong family continued to make use of the tunnel network for mining and other business ventures, carefully editing public records over time to ensure their existence would become more or less a family secret."

She pointed out the white lines on the map, some interrupted by crack marks, and the red and green icons that punctuated each line.

"As I'm sure you can already surmise, the white lines represent a part of the tunnel network large enough to transport the Green Knights and all of your equipment. The green tunnel icons are entrances to the network that I know are still usable. The red tunnel icons, on the other hand, are no longer usable, destroyed by cave-ins or blocked by later construction. The crack marks are places where the tunnels have caved in, and will need to be cleared with demolition charges before they can be used."

"This will let us relocate without the risk of exposing ourselves to enemy fire," Colonel Wayne piped back in. "However, there's a risk of tipping our hand. If the enemy finds out about the tunnel networks, they'll start using them too."

As the Colonel stepped forward, Cassandra realized her portion in this presentation was over, and casually stepped to one side.

"The tunnel network is going to allow us not only to slip out from under the Crimson Fists, but will also allow us to conduct multiple operations at once."

Gaius gestured to Lyons, who again switched the projector to the next slide.

"Within 24 hours, we will use demolition charges to clear an entrance to the tunnel network and relocate. Our new location is in Sector J-13: an industrial scrap-yard known called 'Uncle Mack's.'"

The slide changed to an image of the scrap yard.

"Uncle Mack's is officially owned by Maxwell Metals, which in itself is owned by the AVC. Unofficially, 'Maxwell Metals' is comprised almost entirely of the Maxwell and Morozov families, two tribes of rather eccentric indig folks. In addition to a good 21 acres of spare parts and scrap metal, it also hosts a small team of Powerman and Loader King IndustrialMechs, meaning that it has fully functioning 'Mech bays, and that the seismic activity of our own 'Mechs moving about has a good chance of being mistaken for theirs."

"The Maxwells and Morozovs are both very welcoming families, as well," Cassandra added, "and have converted rather large portions of the old storage warehouses and the yard itself into living quarters. Do keep an eye open, however- not to perpetuate nasty stereotypes, but some of the Maxwell men have a habit of procuring new scrap in, shall we say, questionable ways."

"Thank you, Ms. Jeong," the Colonel said with a nod. "Strategically, Uncle Mack's scrap-yard is within easy access of both the cities of North Nui Awa and Geum well as Fort Tie Shan. At this point a direct assault on the fort will still only get our people killed, but when the time comes, it will make for an easier extraction."

Nobody wanted to storm the fort more than the Colonel himself, but they had to find the right way to crack it first. Besides, there was more work to do on this planet.

"As our technicians and crew relocate to our new base of operations, you yourselves will deploy on three separate missions, which will go down concurrently."

The slide changed back to the world map, with three areas designated A, B, and C.

"Mission Alpha: there is a large hydroelectric dam in Sector I-16, on the mouth of the Tie Shan River. This provides power to both cities of North and South Nui Awa. Comms chatter picked up by Ms. Jeong's employees, and corroborated by Lt. Lyons and Cadet Windham, suggest that elements of the Heavenly Sword are planning to attack this dam within the next 48 hours. If they succeed, not only will they cut off the power to both cities, but the destruction of the dam will cause a tidal wave that could kill countless civilians.

Task Force Alpha will consist of Family Man, Steel Rain, and Giggles, as well as Sergeant Dalton's infantry platoons. Our new associate Mr. McCord will also be joining you, as the dam is AVC property. The orders are to lay low until operatives of the Heavenly Sword are spotted, then drive them away by any means necessary. If reasonably doable, your secondary objective is to take at least one insurgent alive for questioning, but neutralizing the threat is far and away your primary objective. Collateral damage is to be kept to a minimum, so make your shots count."

Moving his pointer westward, he highlighted the 'B' icon.

"Mission Bravo: there is an information broker in North Nui Awa who goes by the alias 'Stiletto,' who we have reason to believe is working with the FPA. Between what Ms. Jeong has told us and what we've been able to decipher from intercepted comms chatter, Stiletto is embedded with Espian Guard soldiers, gets whatever intelligence they can from them, then sells the intel to FPA operatives. Their most recent whereabouts are a dive bar in the far end of the city called the Diamond in the Rough.

Task Force Bravo will consist of Ramrod, Wyatt, and a fireteam from Sgt. Dalton's platoon. Your objective will be to identify and contact Stiletto, see what sort of intel they can give us regarding our enemies, and if they can get us in contact with the FPA. We have a small nest-egg of C-Bills we can access if Stiletto wants cash, but you are not to give away intel regarding the Green Knights. This bar is frequented by Espian Guard soldiers, so be on your guard. If things get hairy, Dalton's fireteam will pull you out."

The pointer then moved far north, near the top of the map.

"Mission Charlie: the spaceport near the capital city of Balya Gora has been under the control of the NPDRE, but some transmissions indicate at least one DropShip has arrived from off-world since the coup. It is very likely that whoever the Crimson Fists are working for, they're also providing new hardware for the Espian Guards. We need to know what is coming off of that ship, and who is sending it to them.

"Task Force Charlie will consist of Alley Cat and Desperado. The Raven can scout out the spaceport at range, with the Phoenix Hawk providing cover if needed. If a full scan of the spaceport proves not possible from a distance, or there is no approach without giving away your position, ditch the 'Mechs somewhere safe and approach on foot. Your priorities are to get sensor scans, photographs, captured documents, anything to give us an idea of who is supplying Federov and his cronies, and what they're sending against us. This is strictly reconnaissance, so do not engage the enemy unless absolutely necessary."

The slides ended, and the Colonel stood before his Knights.

"These missions have a lot of moving parts, and I need to know you're up to the job. If you've got questions or concerns, I want to hear them now."
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