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10 days ago
3 mos ago
All I want for Christmas is for brainwashed capitalist bootlicks to keep their Stockholm Syndrome to their damn selves. Well that and a Ferrari
3 mos ago
Ghost Mode is for cowards pass it on
3 mos ago
[@AnnaBeth] That's cool. Hope I get to see it when it's ready. Who knows I might even wanna buy one if it's my style (or goth enough that I can wear it during Vampire: the Masquerade games haha)
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3 mos ago
[@AnnaBeth] Do you have a portfolio we can look at?


Most Recent Posts

Sure, we can spitball over PM's so whatever we come up with (and you greenlight) isn't spoiled for everyone.

Some ideas are already concrete and in the works, others will require some brainstorming when we're closer to getting to them. It's alrriiight everything's alriiiiiiiight.
1. I think Ishida was spreading his butter across too much bread; I honestly have no idea what benefit he saw in divide-and-conquering the school and the prefecture simultaneously. So I wrote him to have a sort of panic attack upon learning that Tamura/Takanashi's expedition failed. He'll scrap the whole plan and come up with something else which has all of us working toward the same short-term goal. More cohesive that way. I'll also have him realize (or, at least, postulate) that he can at least partly blame this failure on a lack of communication; so he'll be more apt to share the hows and whys or his plans in the future.

2. Four people is enugh to run an RP. We're quick to forget this fact because we started with like ten. Lol. But if the four of us who remain can stick to it, we can keep going indefinitely, with no more big lapses while waiting for people who log out for a month or who are off in the next field chasing the next ADHD butterfly.

3. I'd like to write a scenario which forces Ikue who become more involved than she currently is. Get her down in the dirt with the others so more exciting things are wont to happen to her. Obviously she could volunteer for such a thing if you'd hypothetically prefer that over her being dragged kicking and screaming down from her ivory tower. Only an idea but IMO a good one.

4. I just have the feeling that between the four of us, we can come up with a more cohesive vision for the game. I think Courtaud flew by the seat of his pants when it came to both plotting and worldbuilding. We can form a plan and we can commit to it, and we'll know what we're working toward even while we take breaks from the drama and stakes to do cute SOL nonsense.

5. Speaking of stakes. Have more stakes. Both for characters and for the quest at large. Uh, yeah.
With two posts in two months, and a GM who hasn't been logged in for over half of that time, that's completely understandable. It was worth a try.
@TheWendil@Zoey Boey Noblebandit, sassy1085, and I have already agreed that we're still in this thing, despite the circumstances. How about you two?

When the clock struck 12:30, sending a chime throughout the school, Minato traced an imaginary finger along the spines of the other students of class 2-B. The way they slackened, and slid into the contours of their seats; the way they reached into bags for their bento boxes, or sprawled themselves across the tops of their desks for a nap; the way they gravitated into their whispering little cliques, or stepped outside to "use the toilet" (sneak onto the roof for a smoke); the relief which lunchtime brought to the classroom was palpable. One could nearly taste it in the air. However, only to such idle people could it provide such respite. Minato did not nap very well these days, nor did he have much to gossip about. It was even rare for him to eat during the school day (a fact which Yonaka-san dwelled on far too often, like she was his mother or something).

Not when there was so much work to do.

Minato dawdled by the classroom door a time, only stepping away down the hall once he was sure Yonaka-san had not situated herself to ambush him there. Minato certainly appreciated her enthusiasm, her eagerness to help. But the way she clung to him sometimes, she must have thought he needed protecting; and true, he was rather thin, and not even a second-rate fighter. And any banchō, naturally, was going to make for a prime target in the aspirations and ambitions of others. But did he really need people following him around like schoolteachers escorting their yellow helmet-clad toddlers on a trip to the zoo? Yonaka-san seemed to think he couldn't handle anything so much as a hallway stroll by himself. He would have scolded her if not for it being noble, in a way. What exactly would he be punishing? Loyalty to her boss, and concern for his safety? No, it wouldn't do to discourage such things. Minato chuckled to himself, enjoying the irony: he'd be the most powerful person in the school soon, and yet he had to sneak around and look over his shoulder like any other student.

... Maybe I have to prove to her that she doesn't need to protect me? But what if she enjoyed it? What if it made her feel useful, and Minato was stripping Yonaka of her purpose by breaking free of her strangely motherly instinct? Would she lose her spirit? Would she even go so far as to leave the gang if he made her feel useless?

Then, maybe I can redirect this energy toward someone else. Like that new girl, Li-chan. Maybe it didn't matter who Yonaka was protecting, as long as she felt useful to someone. Li-chan would fit the bill: small, cute, seemingly vulnerable ... why, Toronaga-san was already clinging to her, always nearby like a father-bear guarding over its cub. Maybe he was even falling in love. But did Li-chan want to be protected? Would she go along with that, coming from yet another senior doting on her?



As he resolved to bear with Yonaka's wishes a little while longer, Minato lamented that that girl had to be so complicated and confusing. That he understood his enemies better than some of his allies.

Although, if any one of his allies offered him relief in that regard, it was Takanashi-san. Takanashi, especially in comparison to the others, was almost a joy to work with: simple. Predictable. Easy to read (he's been frustrated and antsy recently), and easy to use to his full potential. Minato needed progress reports from everyone today, but he might as well start at the place that he knew one of them would be: under the mulberry tree, smoking with those other two baseball club slackers who hadn't quite made the cut back in the springtime. Mutō and ... what was the other one's name? It didn't matter. When others were waffling and stammering and shifting, Takanashi, a snorting, stamping bull, could be trusted to charge horns-first at whatever Minato aimed his finger at. And with the similarly powerful Tamura-san watching his back in a 2v2 ...

Let's start with the good news, then.

Slipping into his outdoors shoes at the vestibule, Minato exited from the front of the school and immediately hung a hard left. At this time of year the air rose from the sidewalk in shimmering ribbons, but through the mirages Minato already made out two figures in a familiar squatting pose, with familiar tufts of white smoke filtering between their knuckles. Their indistinct features only sharpened as he closed the distance: one, a surly boy with a thick eyebrow ridge and long, shimmering locks of black hair; and a skinnier brunette, skinny eyes sneering through his coke-bottle glasses. They had noticed Minato already, and watched, glowering, as he approached. They didn't comment when his gaze wandered the shade of the mulberry tree; nor when it reached the top of the wall just behind them, which Yonaka, Tamura, and Umeko had scaled when they ambushed Takanashi earlier this year. They said nothing at all; they seemed to be relishing in forcing Minato to ask the self-evident question.
"I need to speak to Takanashi-san," he said as he conceded to their petty game. "Is he in the toilet?"

Their contempt for him was so apparent that Minato reckoned they must not even be trying to hide it. As if he was unworthy of human language, the bigger one, Mutō, evidently the ringleader when Takanashi wasn't around, shook his head.

"On the baseball field?"

Mutō shook his head.

"In his classroom?" Minato asked, a desperate theory indeed. Takanashi would sooner dig ditches all day than study.

"He ain't here," Mutō affirmed for him, deigningly. "He skipped school today."

"Skipped? ... Thank you," Minato said as he hurried away, back into the harsh glare of a sweltering June afternoon. Their eyes drilled into his back as he left, but that was no matter; they weren't a threat anymore. Not without their leader.

So he hadn't come to school today; Minato supposed he wasn't surprised. Takanashi was wont to skip already, made only likelier by the probability that he'd gotten injured last night, or had at least tired himself out. Because although he was strong to be sure, that strength didn't exactly compensate for a lack of tactics ... Very well. The more studious Tamura would almost certainly have shown up, and she would be more articulated in her report besides. Minato returned to the vestibule, slipped back into his uwabaki, and sauntered up to her classroom. He hadn't paid it much mind in the halls or out in the courtyard, but two girls leapt up from the bench and made way for him when he went to sit on it. Already the rest of the school, or, at least, some of its inhabitants, feared him. Minato would have liked to think that it was well-deserved, but ... no. He hadn't even conquered the school yet. It still crawled with his enemies, and factions of all stripes. And besides, these girls only "feared" him in the way that they fear a hornet which has flown through a classroom window: he was a small, contentious creature, one which may sting them if provoked, but easily avoided or worse, shooed away. They would learn in time that he was nothing to fear at all; not if they remembered their place. The Sarayashiki gang represented orphans of all description. Some literal, others less so: rejects, outcasts, delinquents, untouchables. Only by uniting had they come to possess any of what it was that they wanted in the world (respect, safety, camaraderie), after the world had insisted, time and again, on misunderstanding and underestimating them. They weren't villains. Not unless people in this school continued to abuse Minato's people, in which case they would learn the true meaning of fear: anticipating what he wanted, and providing it to him before he even knew to ask. Knowing they'd sooner drop out of school and become street-touts than get on the Sarayashiki gang's bad side and suffer its retributions for three years, such was their savagery. The existential terror of a manservant dishonoring her master. First to learn these feelings would be the student council, if they remained on their path of obstinance ... and if everyone did their jobs last night.

Class 2-A was abuzz with the quiet revelries of youth: trading bento items, making plans to go shopping or bowling or karaoke singing after school ... Tamura was there, but she wasn't participating.

Minato didn't trust the way his allies acted at meetings. Either they were puffing out their chests and acting tough, competing to be the baddest and most intimidating people there; or the inverse, loitering with their backs to the wall and their sneers cocked off to the side, nonchalant and aloof. Ironically it was away from their friends that they were most honest about their feelings. And Minato could tell: Tamura was gripped in the icy hand of dread. The way she tucked her hands between her knees; hunched forward, as if to make herself small; and stared straight into a now-lukewarm pile of rice and furikake, afraid to chew too loudly lest she fail to hear whatever it was that she feared creeping up on her; a lump formed in Minato's gut. He was almost, almost, afraid to ask. To interfere. But if she needed her friends right now, then what kind of scum would he be to deprive her of that right now?

So he stepped forward, and gave Tamura a knowing, but patient smile. He waited for her to notice, at her own pace, that he was there.

Of all the reactions he could have expected, he did not expect a chill to run up Tamura's spine, stiffening and bracing it. Fear wrenched her eyes wide. Fear. An emotion which was meant to be reserved for their enemies, and those who wished them harm. This sight smothered Minato's smile in a blanket of empathy, sadness ... and morbid curiosity.

Just what happened to her at Keiko Middle School?

And if Takanashi was in fact recuperating at home, why was Tamura completely unscathed?

No need to embarrass her in front of her classmates, however, no matter how urgent the question. Minato nodded upward and toward the door; Tamura-san understood his meaning, and, bracing herself as if to walk barefoot over red-hot coals, stood and followed him. On the roof, they gave similarly silent, seething nods toward the other students who had gathered there, quickly scattering them down the stairs to give themselves some privacy.

"Is it really that bad?"

"Is what that bad?" Tamura replied. Just as Minato expected: she'd started putting on the aloof act. Maybe it was the setting.

"You and Takanashi-san failed last night," he said. "That much is clear. But what now? Are you ashamed? Or afraid of what happens next?"

When she scratched at her elbow and stared at the floor, Minato had the consciousness to press himself against the wall and kick up a casual pose. This positioned him further from the door, and gave her a more direct route to it; not that she would bolt for it, or that he would stop her from doing so, but the option itself would put her more at ease. It worked. Tamura mustered up just enough courage to shake her head.

"So what happened?" Minato said; softly, as softly as he could manage without pleading. He set down his backpack, filled with personal essentials like extra socks, and extra batteries for his Walkman, and school supplies; but also a tidily stacked array of canned coffees, sodas, and juices. Minato flipped the cover and offered her first pick, his skinny arms already trembling from the weight. She tried to refuse; he insisted. Reluctantly she plucked out a coffee and cracked it with a hiss.

Minato was opening his own orange juice when Tamura-san murmured: "I don't know."

"You don't know?"

He thought she was struggling to find the words, to translate a jumble of thoughts like deknotting a ball of fishing line, until she gave about the simplest answer feasible, one he never expected to hear. Not from her.

"I didn't go."

Minato stared down into the mouth of his can, and gave the juice inside a swirl. She knew his next question. Thankfully, she didn't make him ask.

"You know how I feel about him," she said, "and having only Takanashi for backup on enemy soil ... I'm sorry, Ishida-sama. It seemed like a bad idea. I talked myself out of going."

"It's alright. There's nothing to apologize for."

She was still doubting, and hesitating. This time she hesitated to believe him. "Really?"

"Of course. Plans go awry all the time!" He chuckled and gave her a friendly clap on the back. "A shame—I was proud of this one—but we'll come up with a new one. That's all."

The relief washed over her in a palpable torrent. Gone were the shifty-eyed huddles she had been twisting herself into back in the classroom. Even the playful violence he'd wreaked upon her back seemed to have its intended effect. She breathed freely of the humid air, and squinted at him through the sunlight. "Th—Thank you, Ishida-sama," she said to the floor between them as she bowed.

"Nai, nai!" Minato grinned. "You don't have to do something like that. You haven't even made it up to me yet!"

"O-Of course."

"Come on. The bell's about to ring. I'll have your next assignment for you once I know how to proceed."

Ishida stayed behind long enough to pick up the crinkled aluminum cans they'd tossed to the floor of the roof; so when they started back toward the access door, he was slightly behind Tamura. As expected, she didn't notice when he set down his pack, and, reaching down among empty cans and full ones, he picked a handful of batteries from their pack, and stuffed them into a sock. This he stowed away in his fist as he hurried to scoop up his pack and catch up to her.

"When you put it together," Tamura said, "you won't put me with Takanashi again, right?"

"Of course. We don't want a repeat of last night, do we?" he replied, smiling.

She chuckled, too. "No ... You know how I feel about him," she repeated. "You really shouldn't have—ughck!"

The batteries made perfect contact with the side of her head as Ishida aimed a perfect swing of his makeshift club. She sprawled off to the left, writhing and reeling on the floor.

"I shouldn't have what, Tamura-san?" he said as he stepped near, and knelt over her. "You little stray. Do not presume to tell me what I shouldn't do."

She was swimming through the daze of her injury, desperate to stand up and face him.

"I—sai—I sai—I'm s—"

"Shut up," Ishida snarled with another clunk of the club to her head. "It's your turn to listen for once, little stray. I guess mommy and daddy never had the time to teach you manners before they did the world a favor and croaked, did they?"

Finally she was putting her arms over her face, curling up in the closest she could approximate to a ball. Finally, she was where she needed to be: at his feet, whimpering for his grace, his mercy. Ishida could almost commend her for remembering her place at such a crucial time. But was she listening? That was the question. Climbing off of her, he aimed a few kicks at her midsection. Already it tightened with pain and heaved with sobs, and there were tears pooling at the floor cradling her face. He squatted by her pretty, broken little face, and grabbed her by the cheeks, and wrested her gaze up toward him so he knew she would hear him.

"If I order you to jump down a hole," he warned her, "you will respond, 'Sir, a swan-dive or a cannonball, sir?' If I send you down to hell to fight legions of the damned, you'll say, 'Yes, sir,' even if I give you Takanashi-san, Li-chan, or a damn lapdog for reinforcements. You'll do what I say ... or you'll find some other doorstep to curl up on."

Ishida pushed her head back down, where it bounced slightly, her face a shambles of pain, swelling, and disbelief, her hair a birdsnest crusting over with blood. Shouldering his pack once more, Ishida threw her a pitying can of apple juice; and, splaying the mouth of his wallet, showered her in a pitying handful of cash, too. When he concealed his weapon, he stowed the batteries and the sock into separate pockets.

He left her there; stepping through the access door and locking it, only his foot, wedged against the doorway, stopped it from closing on her. Because Ishida had one thing left to say to her before he locked her up there, with nothing for company but her own regrets and the summer breeze:

"Remember that you made me do this."
Hurtling through the near-vacuum of the thermosphere, the giant "bullet" encasing the Basilisk turned and tumbled freely, with no care at all for the stomach, or the brain sac, within. Gan braced every muscle he could, even down to the curl of his toes; held his breath, except in tightly controlled, tightly rhythmic bursts, ignoring the instinct which burned in his lungs. His vision swam and splattered as he focused dead-ahead on a seam in the cockpit window. Biomechanically speaking the blood deprivation was no worse than piloting a vector-jet back on Daedalus-1. But encapsulated in iron and isolation, with the radio waves crackling on a dead channel as he tumbled toward the moon like a meteor, or a living bomb, wreathed in burning plasma ... Gan was thankful for protocol, else he'd start to think. And thinking led too easily to mistakes. Any and all of which flirted with disaster at 200,000 feet.

Focus. Calm. He'd just entered B-flight; as the atmosphere thickened around the falling shell, it riveted through the rifling along the sides, slowly stabilizing the butt up and the point down. Now Gan was truly like a bullet, spinning only along a single axis. He was falling faster, too; hotter. As the air inside the cabin approached equilibrium with the outside superoxygens and fluoroblankets, a barometric needle in his instrumentation array ticked down. Focus. Calm. Through the torrent of blood rushing into his skull, and the spray of black colors in his capillaries, he had to eject when the air outside was thick enough to create the drag he needed, but not so thick that the Basilisk's legs would burn up in all the friction. He reached up for the handle. He had to eject soon ... soon ...


The trigger ignited pockets of plastic explosive stuffed into the seams of the anti-atmo shell, bursting it into two halves which now free-fell into burning oblivion. And with the help of a few engineering miracles, the jump-rockets and mech-sized parachute also kicked into action; while a great fiery plume wreathed about the Basilisk's feet, and kevlar cloth unfurled over its head, the deceleration shoved Gan into his seat, and the blood back down into his legs. The radio similarly burst; the shell, something of a Faraday cage when cocooning a mech, now glowed and shrank as it streaked toward Triton-5. All of it reached Gan now: Druid taking the mission way too seriously, like usual. The idle crackle of the Commander's channel, not speaking until she absolutely had to. Grizzly's laconicism. Everything as it was meant to be. Except for the seventh voice on the radio; one unfamiliar in its singsong, sarcastic cadence.

Gan stayed quiet and nodded along while the Commander assigned him to babysitting duty. But on the inside, roiling like the very soot-storm into which he now faded from view, he wasn't so sure. Maybe she trusted him more than the others to get the rookie all caught up and tested. Or maybe the plan had merely turned out this way. Either way, if the rookie cracked under the pressures of her first mission, both of them would need bailing-out. And Gan's PPC and twin railguns, despite their power, couldn't fight for the both of them.

The mist and the ash-like detritus now swept over the mech; past the cockpit, almost like gentle mists rolling down a mountainside. Gan switched off the radio, again struggling to break through a wall of prickly static; and for a time he was alone in the grey. Though the parachute strained and labored, the Basilisk herself weathered the hostile winds of this place almost gracefully, well-anchored and well-weighted. With every sweep of the storm she swayed a little more, almost—almost—like a hammock. Certainly, compared to the chaos of a free-fall through low orbit, then the tossing and reeling from a parachute and a set of jump-jets (now empty), and the orange-hot glowing in the Basilisk's feet which, according to the automated systems overseer, was within "nominal" temperatures, Gan could almost take a nap out here. But an untold number of minutes later, drifting aimlessly through the grey silence, the cockpit suddenly rumbled, and outside there was a great burst of unsettled debris and dust. He had landed. Pressing a few buttons to jettison both the parachute from his anchor on his withers and the rockets from his back, leaving these to be buried under the dregs, Gan stepped forward a pace and swept his hip joint 360 degrees, both to test it and to check whether he had landed nearby anyone else. No. Manually he couldn't see even two hundred feet ahead, and in these two hundred feet, quietly and suffocatingly, only the storm greeted him. And with the radio picking up nothing beyond these powdery, dry walls ... there may just as well have been no one else on the moon at all. Maybe the besiegers and the besieged had already killed each other off, and the rest of the fireteam had vaporized during the drop. The darkness, the silence from the radio, and the eerie howls of the wind battering against the cockpit only enforced this illusion.
The crane wouldn't move until Gan was strapped in, so he made a quick, unceremonious gesture of pulling up his hair into a lazy tail, pulling his helmet down from the ceiling by its tubes, locking it in and pressurizing. He harnessed himself to his seat, and secured the socket around his neurojack plug. Having freed the strut propping up the canopy, he then closed that, cocooning himself completely in leather, steel, and aluminum glass. As well as a cockpit it was, in a certain way of thinking, a crucible: a young pilot would either strangle and kill his claustrophobia, emerging stronger from the mech as if from metamorphosis; or he would panic, shut down, and crack, like impure steel emerging from the foundry, or a shoddily spun clay pot from the kiln. For some reason, the rookie pilot struck Gan as one subsumed within this struggle, which struck him as odd; didn't Morrigan Group, or any private contractor for that matter, give first pick to pilots with long and storied careers; the ones who'd survived a few campaigns, won a few distinctions and ribbons first? They hated pouring precious time, and precious money, into training green-gills when there were vets lining up at the door, ones already seasoned on taxpayer budgets. So why was the young blood behaving like she didn't know her mouth from her asshole and her brains from a bowl of oatmeal?

And more importantly: what the hell had Streymoy seen in her when he let her in? Did she have money connections? Had she snaked her way along a path of know-a-guy nepotism until it reached one of the COs? Or, was she secretly a piloting prodigy ... despite appearances?

Guess we'll find out, Gan ruminated as he wrestled a cyclic to and fro, waving his Basilisk's starboard barrel and thus signaling to the boots on the platform that he was ready for hoisting. Almost immediately there was the rumble of a crane arm; then the seismic clunk of an enormous winch, its whir more akin to a groan as, awakened blearily from a titanic slumber, it began to unspool a cable as thick as an oak round. When, thus, a cargo hook reached down from the girdered firmament as if to bestow a blessing from its iron palm, it joined to a slat between the shoulders of the Basilisk. Now the winch whined, despite its terrible size and power; it strained against its own weight, and those of the rigging, the cargo hook, and the 130-tonne walking gun to which they were coupled. What other weapons platform—no, what other human project at all—could have culminated from forty years of materials, R&D, testing, QC, lobbying, contracting, and engineering? What else besides an ADAMAS warmech could have demanded that starships be equipped with such extravagant and excessive machinery, the stuff of Atlantean myth, just to lift it to another deck, or pluck it from a planet? For the same cost as a single of these units (never mind the infrastructure accommodating it), Morrigan Group could have fielded a whole battalion of armored infantry, including artillery and power-suits for support. And yet they chose Gan and the other fou—... five. Because once Gan and the others landed, they, whoever was down there, would witness firsthand what even a single fireteam of mech pilots could achieve. Six ordinary people, riding in the shirt pockets of their behemoths and leaving entire legions trampled in their wake.

Back in the 20th Century, the semi-automatic handgun was christened "the great equalizer," allowing the small and the feeble to protect themselves from tyrannical strength. But inside a mech, David could rend Goliath; slaves could topple not just masters.


For a time, the four mechs swayed in the pull of the ship's artificial inertia drives, and things, despite the industrial-mechanical chaos, were peaceful. Four became six as the Commander, and then the rookie, made their way to their docking stations. (How the ship rumbled and rattled, now! Through the cockpit window Gan saw Commander Voldova's two-legged, four-barreled 'Sword of Damocles' as vividly as he felt its apocalyptic footsteps shuddering through the floor, the winch, the crane, the cable, the Basilisk, and then into his cockpit, such were their immensity.)

Twin downward-facing camera feeds, intended as an anti-infantry measure, instead showed Gan a sequence of thumbs-up, flags, and beckons from the enlisteds at his own mech's feet, conveying that it was ready to receive the final piece of its loadout. And within moments it began to close in around him: two halves of a rifled iron-vanadium shell, coupled at the seam and then clamped shut. Gan surrendered himself to the internal darkness; and silence, as his radiovisual feed slowly sank into a sea of white static, neither penetrating nor escaping the ferrous cage now blocking it from all sides. Gan only knew when he began to move from the way his stomach sloshed against his ribs, and his brain against his skull, as the cargo crane pulled him along its dolly, swinging him just slightly at every directional lurch of the heavy cables. Now it was only him in here; no voices on the radio, no faces in the video feeds, like he was a pearl clutched possessively in his dark, cool little oyster, with only displays and dials to light his way, and his own breathing to battle the silence. The quiet turned some pilots anxious, itchy, desperate to burst free; from their harnesses, or their helmets, or the cheap alloy shells which protected them and their machines from atmospheric burning. Gan understood the feeling a little. Admittedly, he liked a bit of music to pass the time in what he could only liken to a gently humming, temperature-regulated, slightly-too-chilly purgatory. Even now, he reached down into a center console, past a Chinese copycat of an 1897 trench-gun stowed barrel-down in its holster, to run his finger over a collection of cassette tapes stashed beneath. Making his choice, he crammed the tape into the deck, dialed back the volume a hair, and settled in for the ride, which, as it happens, had just begun in earnest.

There was a gentle lurch as, once again, pulleys ached and cables strained in dropping the weight of the durasteel monster. It especially strained at the bottom, when all that weight had to come to a stop; only the walls of the launch conduit relieved these machines of their labor, rifling inward until they braced flush against the anti-atmo shell. The cargo hook released its death-grip on the Basilisk, and retreated into the ceiling, and made way for the hatch above Gan to slide shut, truly trapping him in the ductwork guts of the Artaxerxes.

A terrible hissing drowned out the music, for a time, as vacuum pumps drew the air out of the chamber. The hatch below him opened. And this—the waiting—was the worst part, Gan reckoned; not knowing just when it would happen. But he'd done this enough times that he didn't bother bracing his stomach anymore. He liked to think it had long been annealed against all manners of gravitational roughhousing.

So he waited. And waited, with only the faintest spike of dread running through his blood. Until, simultaneously, the rifled walls loosened, and an explosion-propelled plunger shoved the Basilisk out the launch port and into the thermosphere.
Gan reckoned if they didn't have to sit in on four and a half hours of bullshit briefings tonight, then he might as well get a shower and a nap in. He slipped into his bunk still damp from the humid, opaque-grey steamer room, his hair a birdsnest of shimmering curls, and when he woke, it was at the end of a metal peg-leg kicking the cot frame. Yrma was already packed away into her flightsuit, jump-boots, and bomber; she swung the cylinder on her Mateba Model 6 to check that it was loaded, then shoved it into its shoulder-holster. Her grizzly-paws made that hand-cannon look like a regular old gun. Not how she got her callsign, but it was certainly a fitting one, in more respects than one.

Once he was dressed, Gan pressurized his suit around his wrists, neck, and ankles, and confirmed that his comparatively tiny Smith & Wesson 19 was loaded, and with .357 Magnum instead of the .38 Special he used at the range. It was. And with nothing left to do but to get it done (okay, and take a piss before strapping in), he sealed the door behind him. The other two doors also had been clamped, leading to Gan's suspicion that he was about to be the last pilot to the hangar. Unless one or another CO had snared Commander Voldova in their bureaucratic web, and she was off grudgingly kissing ass somewhere on the upper decks ...

Ordnancemen, nukies, and air officers scurried from place to place in their scramble to be done before the launch. Crawling over the mechs via ladders and cranes and cherrypickers, they reminded Gan of Hebrew slaves building a pyramid, or—as the enormously wide walls, distant ceiling, and vaguely humanoid metal titans played with his perceptions—of termites repairing their nest of mud and straw. Tiny, fragile animals crawling over the flesh of dormant giants. Giants which awakened even now, as pilots and mech-captains alike, visible through cocked-open cockpit canopies, initiated start-up codes and eased their steel beasts into loading stations and lift-hooks. Great chutes guided autocannon belts into the shoulders of Ana's FLI 'Hellion' as men on ladders shoved Chariot warheads into missile tubes. They clambered between the slats of Bodlo's A3-37 Phalanx's heat jettison ports, too, scrubbing soot and grit from the chambers. As for Gan's OW35s 'Basilisk,' cloven-footed and bent-backed, a misshapen leviathan, a ceiling-mounted crane had guided an enormous, fallopian-tube-like power cable to the charging port in the rear of the unit, and two more were still slotting copper capsules into the nape-mounted particle cannon, and tungsten darts into the flanks of the arm-mounted railguns. Gan swept his gaze across the Basilisk's loading bay; he and the person he sought out noticed each other at about the same time, the latter jogging up to meet him. They saluted each other.

"Master Sergeant Bosphorus," said Gan. "At ease."

"Lieutenant Szilard, sir!" the master-sergeant replied. "Welcome back. Your warmech is ready for final inspection. We're only loading up the ordnance, and topping off the superbattery. Sir."

Florian Bosphorus's rosy, callused hands offered Gan a clipboard, whose contents he glanced over lazily. Under the seat of his baseball cap, hairpins kept Florian's shaggy brown bangs out of his eyes; the very best tidiness he could muster for combat dress. "What are we doing about the joints?" Gan asked him.


"The soot-storm. Won't all that particulate work its way into the joints and seize them up?"

Florian turned to look at the mech as if that question had only just occurred to him. "Uh, thankfully most of your joints use a closed-hydraulic system ... You can thank Apollyon Arms for that ... As for the hip rotator and the ankle servos, we can hit those with some nanospray for you. A temporary fix, but it should work long enough to get you back for maintenance."

"Do that, then." Gan peered back down into the checklist, giving it a sneering look so he'd look like he was being serious. "Projections say we'll be back in three days. Will you and the other jacks be joining us for drinks once we're dismissed?"

"Three days," Florian mumbled, "three days ... ah! Shit, that's the petty officers' poker game. Sorry, Gan; I've already bought a seat at the table."

"That's 'Sorry, sir,' while we're at our stations; but that's alright. Next time," Gan assured him with a clap on the back.

A long, quiet moment, quiet despite the mechanical hiss-whir-clang of the hangar, whistled between them. Florian dismissed himself by shouting, "Hey, blueshirt! Get the nanospray, double time!" and whisking himself away to the last of his work. Chuckling, Gan armpitted the clipboard and climbed aboard the wire lift to the cockpit, where, after giving Florian one last salute from up atop the mech, his systems check began with running the dials and dry-firing all the weapons systems. This done, it was time to jack in; so he removed his neckplate, braced against the inevitable wave of nausea, and inserted the neurolink into the port in his nape. At once sensors and actuators and gyroscopes burst to life, and, gripping the twin cyclics, Gan flexed his mech's extremities, clenching and releasing, extending each limb as far as its servos and sheaths allowed before bottoming out, taking a few steps fore and back once the handling officer directed personnel and machinery away from the platform. It was a quick inspection, Gan's check-marks added unhesitantly to the list beside Florian's; Florian and his hangar boys did good work. Other than not waiting until Gan had closed the cockpit to hit the mech with nanospray; he had to rip away from his seat and slam the canopy shut so he wouldn't get blasted with industrial-grade aerolubricant so soon after taking a shower.

Carefully directing his mech down the white line painted on the floor, pausing to let munitions carts and other smaller vehicles go by, Gan found himself checking the empty bays beside his. As expected, he would be the last one onto the catapult, except for the commander's Armageddon-class 'Sword of Damocles,' still unmanned and thus lifeless as the officers gathered by its feet and the handlers wriggled over its body; and ... ah. That must've been the rookie's mech. Unmistakably Talarius-built, with its awkward little flipper-feet and its pot-bellied little reactor torso—some kind of recon model, but Gan didn't know which one right away. Pulling his own mech closer, he figured he'd get a look at how his newest teammate handled herself; maybe throw her a thumb-up for confidence. Peering out his cockpit and into hers, he certainly wouldn't have hoped that she was chatting with someone on the radio, all giggles and smiles. She'd been cracking wise since this morning, too. If Gan was going to be working with this girl for the foreseeable future, trusting her with his life and being willing to rescue hers, too, then she was going to have to prove she was taking this seriously.

She didn't seem to have even started her systems check, either. And sure, maybe those scouter-mechs were easier to catch up—fewer weapons and all that—but ... was this really how she was gonna behave on her first day?

Maybe she's already finished her check ... ? I mean, I was excited on my first day too ...

Before he overthought it, Gan urged the Basilisk forward, and into the next available catapult bay. Of course, it was just his luck, after one revelation, to then immediately be placed next to ...

"HEY, GAN!" he cried from one cockpit to the next, cupping his hands over his mouth to amplify himself over the ambient industrial noise.

"WHAT?!" Gan cried back to Bodlo.






From the fist-pump he gave himself next, shouting something this time too quiet to be heard over the mechanical din, Bodlo seemed unwilling to back down from his own fruitless challenge, strapping himself in starting with his airlock helmet, and then his harness. Gan waited until he saw the commander, traversing the hangar toward her colossal Sword of Damocles, to do the same.

"Supposedly you felt it last time, too ..." he grumbled, also inaudibly.

The frame of his mech shook as something clunked into his back, and then his withers; looking to his left, great mechanical claws were affixing a parachute and a jump-pack to Bodlo's A3-37 Phalanx. Ana and Yrma's mechs, already so equipped, stood idling and at the ready.
"Relax," the big lady chuckled. Rosie suspected, being just ahead of her in the chow line, that she would've been due for another one of those thunderous, bone-shattering claps between the shoulderblades, except that those ham-hock-like hands of hers were already clutching an aluminum mess tray. "That's for the whole ship, not just us. With our pay-grades these days, we'll get about ... three and a half percent, I think? Still, that's a few thou to blow on a hotel room and a tight little twenty-something once we're back on Titan, right?"

"And some better room service," grumbled someone further back.

"What, you mean you ain't livin' the dream already?" the big lady called behind her. "Voilà: confits of green bean and dredged chicken, served with a potato purée, a chicken pan sauce, and elbow macaroni béchamel. Bon appetit, everyone."

With every step Rosie took along the counter, another exhausted, bag-eyed cook dropped another scoop of slop into another little squared compartment of her tray. In the end there were a mushy mint-green slop, a lumpy pale-gold slop, a fluorescent-yellow plasticky slop, and an oily, golden-brownish-black slop; each smothered in either cheese or gravy. If she was to believe the presentation, the cooks on this ship had fed the afternoon shift a half-succulent southern dinner, only to reach down their throats an hour later, pull out the masticated, half-digested goop, and spoon it back under the heat lamps to serve again to the graveyard crew, like aproned, paper-hatted robins shoving chewed-up worms down the gullets of their chicks.

Still, although the others grumbled and groaned, they received their ice-cream-scoops of mush and carried them to a table and shoveled them down all without complaint. And as Rose steeled her gut and took her first apprehensive bite, suggestions of an oversalted fried chicken flooded her mouth, and thus her memory, and the other piles—pigfaced effigies of buttered mashed potatoes, mac 'n cheese, and steamed vegetables—proved similarly bearable. (It was no worse than what she'd eaten in cafeterias at private school, at boot camp, or even at her old space-station.) Then again, it was only her first day; she might have ten days, maybe two weeks before she couldn't stomach it anymore, and she'd be thrashing against the ship walls desperate to bore right through the hull, airdrop down to the nearest moon, and chase down the nearest bowl of fresh tonkotsu noodles. She thought back to how desperate she was for a real cup of coffee about halfway through basic, half a lifetime ago, not that instant powdered shit.

As they ate, Rosie noticed her new team paying the window bay no more than a fleeting glance each; even though Neptune was a great blue blob set among the stars as a royal sapphire is set among smaller diamonds; even though her other moons, Hippocamp and Proteus and Triton-3, tumbled along their orbits in plain view of the humble crewmen shoving mashed potatoes and greasy fried chicken into their ungrateful maws; even though, down on the surface of Triton-5, grey clouds and choking black clouds streaked across the pocked surface like the moon wore a zebra-hide cloak, utterly swallowing, in its chaos, the battleground below. She would be there soon. She would fall through that storm, land among its gusts and pressures, and do what the mission demanded of her. For one-sixth of three-point-five percent of the bounty, apparently.

When she came to, ripped away from the yawning expanses of space and returning to her hard little seat nestled among 150 such seats crammed inside the Artaxerxes's fore canteen, the others were still bullshitting; about their one-rep deadlifting records, about the hotties up in the comms room (and about how lucky a "sunnuvabitch" named "Druid" apparently was for getting to work with them), even what they were going to eat tomorrow. (Ana and the shaggy black mullet, arguing for variety, hoped for tacos; pompadour and the big lady put their votes in for chili dogs and grilled cob-corn.) They really weren't noticing this, were they; the way Triton's surface roiled and frothed like a boiling sea? Even Ana appeared to have forgotten all about what she'd shoved her nose to quartz-glass to see.
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