LAST EDITED ON Mar-21-23 AT 01:45 AM (EDT)
Friday, May 5, 2169
Cygnus sector, United Galactica
The snow was deep enough on this anonymous ridgetop, somewhere in the northern badlands of Halloran V, that the blast from the Leopard's vectored thrust nozzles raised an impenetrable cloud as the dropship boosted away from the lance of Destroids it had just dropped off. In the cockpit of the number-four unit, the MechWarrior adjusted her visual filters to thermographic, sighed inwardly as it merely changed the whiteout to a blueout, and toggled them back.
"Blue Lance, this is Bluefin," came the voice of their commander over the comm. "Check in while we wait for this mess to settle."
"Arclight, ready op," replied the MechWarrior in the second unit, his voice as crisp and steady as always.
"Medusa, ready op," number three's pilot reported, and then, under his breath, "Shoulda brought a coat..."
Number four thumbed her press-to-talk. "Spectre, ready op."
"All right," Bluefin replied. "If we came anywhere near hitting our drop point, the OPFOR should be about a half-mile east, but when last spotted, they were on the move, so they might take some finding."
"Size of the cloud our drop kicked up, they probably know we're here," Arclight mused.
"Probably," Bluefin agreed. "So what they do depends on how eager they are for a fight. Spread out in search pattern alpha and keep your eyes open." She chuckled a little darkly. "We don't want to get ambushed while we're setting up an ambush."
"That would be embarrassing," Medusa agreed.
As she guided her Panther into the middle slot of the search pattern—from which it, as the slowest 'Mech in the lance, would be able to react most effectively to a threat detected on either flank—Spectre noticed that her displays seemed to be glitching. Every few seconds, every projected and illuminated element in the cockpit would jump and flicker. Numeric readouts would scramble to gibberish and then snap back to their correct values, while all the semi-holographic multifunction displays fuzzed and re-resolved. Every time it happened, moreover, she heard a distant but distinct hiss and crackle in her earphones.
The phenomenon had a certain metronomic regularity to it, but it wasn't in time with the 'Mech's steps; it seemed to obey an external rhythm all its own. She counted silently and found that the bursts of interference came every seven or so seconds for the span of about a minute, then paused for 30 seconds and resumed.
Rolling her eyes, she switched her commset to a different band and declared, "Hey, Control, I have a suggestion?"
"Go ahead, Spectre," replied a voice.
"Maybe we shouldn't do this on Friday afternoons? For reasons about which I could only speculate," she went on with mild sarcasm, "I'm getting a very regular pattern of system glitches over here."
After a moment's pause, Control's voice came back, businesslike and cool but just a tiny bit resigned: "This is the only block when the clusters are available this quarter, Spectre. Think of it as a simulation of being under PPC fire."
Spectre sighed. "Roger that, Control. Spectre out."
Most of an hour and one successful, but vaguely annoying, operation later, the MechWarriors of Blue Lance signed out of the simulation and exited Simpod Cluster A, bound for the showers and debriefing, in that order. An hour or so after that, the lance member codenamed Spectre—back in civvies apart from her WDF JROTC flight jacket and carrying a duffle bag over her shoulder—passed through a power door marked student lounge.
The room beyond the door was large and comfortably appointed, with a lot of overstuffed furniture arranged in little groups, vending machines for drinks and snacks, and a couple of game tables off in one corner. Its most instantly arresting feature, though, was the wall along the side that was on Spectre's right as she entered—which was a floor-to-ceiling window, offering a spectacular view of the spacecraft carrier Prometheus and, beyond her, deep space.
Friday, May 5, 2169
Halloran V WDF Wayward Son (SDF-17) Cygnus Centaurus sector, spinward of Sol, United Galactica
As she entered the Rosalind Franklin Memorial High School student lounge, Virginia Shepard saw that there was one schoolmate present—conveniently enough, the one she was already meant to be meeting after class. She opened her mouth to hail, then withheld comment as she sensed a deadly tension in the air and realized that she had just walked in on a standoff.
Mikoto Misaka faced her worst enemy across an arm's length of eternity. Without expecting or intending it, she knew she had entered a genuinely life-or-death situation. The waveform of a lifetime's mutual enmity had just collapsed into a singularity, and now there were only two ways out. One or the other would have to yield... or die.
Staring her enemy in the face with unblinking determination, she thought, One shall stand, one shall fall.
Her old foe stood looking back at her, its face filled with its usual blank complacency. Even now, at the vertex of life and death, it seemed not even willing to acknowledge that she was there. It just stood there, humming quietly, its empty countenance silently mocking her: Your move, loser.
"Last chance," she said.
And still her enemy gazed blandly back at her, as if daring her to make a move.
So be it, then. No one could ever say she hadn't given it a fair chance.
Mikoto tried to remember the ancient focus mantra she'd read in a comic book once, but she could never recall the first or last bits of it, and now was no different. Something giru gan something something. Well, maybe she hadn't thought every last little syllable, but she supposed that was close enough. If there were gods, and they were listening, surely they would get the idea that she was committing the full strength of her body and soul to the goal of settling this matter once and for all.
Then, with the sharp kiai she'd learned in the Elementary Self-Defense unit of PE last term, she rocked back, swinging with her hips the way Kowalewski-sensei had taught her, and unloaded a roundhouse kick full into the side of her foe with all the strength in her 15-year-old body. The impact made a dull whomp that resounded in the mostly-empty lounge.
For a moment, there was silence.
Then, with a soft clunk, the vending machine disgorged a can of Hassy Cola, followed by another.
"Ha ha!" Mikoto cried. Lowering her leg, she bent and collected both cans, holding one in each hand, then raised them aloft and declared, "Victory!"
Leaning against the wall by the door, Shepard applauded sarcastically, causing Mikoto to freeze in place, then slowly turn around. Upon seeing that the person clapping was one of her schoolmates and not, say, the principal, she relaxed, lowering her arms in relief.
"You're going to get suspended if Strickland catches you beating up the Hassy machine again," Shepard pointed out, smiling wryly, as she accepted the extra can from Mikoto.
"It's not my fault the stupid thing keeps trying to steal my money," Mikoto objected. "Why doesn't Maintenance just fix it?"
"A question for the ages, to be sure," said Shepard dryly, cracking her soda. "So how'd it go with the docs this week?"
Mikoto took a drink of her own Hassy before answering, "Another Friday afternoon, another hour blasting 10-Minute Walk tokens into the pool." She shrugged. "I'm not even sure why we're still doing it. The readings haven't changed for months."
"Well, then I guess it really is about time to do the thing. You ready to head out?"
Mikoto gave her friend a skeptical glance. "Right now?"
"Sooner we go, the sooner we get there," said Shepard pragmatically.
"Point." Mikoto finished her soda, lobbed the can into the recycle bin, and picked up her bookbag. "I just have to stop by my place and swap bags."
Unlike Shepard, who lived with her parents in the officers' quarters near the school on M Deck, Mikoto dwelt in one of the civilian apartment houses in the simulated town of Wedge City, under the holographic sky of Cargo Hold A-113. In spite of having known her for years at this point, Shepard wasn't clear on exactly what Mikoto's parents did; just that they were civilians who had something to do with the government, such as it was, back in Zeta Cygni. Her father, in particular, was gone a lot of the time, off roaming around the United Galactica doing... whatever it was he did.
Neither one was home when the two girls entered the apartment, so Mikoto wrote a quick note and left it on the kitchen table, traded her school case for a small travel bag, and locked up behind her as they left.
From there, Mikoto wasn't sure where they were headed. On previous occasions like this one, she'd gone to one of the civil hangar bays up on C Deck, out of which most of the SDF-17's various non-military small craft operated, and caught a shuttle to a civilian spaceliner with which the fortress had rendezvoused for the purpose. This time, Mikoto suspected that Shepard had something else in mind, which she assumed had something to do with her recently completed spaceflight qualifications.
Those suspicions seemed confirmed when, after leaving the city hold, they caught one of the crosswise shuttles to the portside docking pylon instead of heading up toward C Deck. Once there, Shepard showed her JROTC ID to the sentry on duty at the airlock leading to the spacecraft carrier Prometheus, though it wasn't really necessary. Two years into the program, everybody on the crew's military side knew her on sight.
Mikoto felt slightly uneasy, but also a bit excited, as she followed her friend past the guard post and into the smaller ship, one of the two that were near-permanently docked with the space fortress. Unlike the SDF-17's main hull, which supported a substantial civilian population, Prometheus and Daedalus were purely military vessels, the sole preserve of the Wedge Defense Force's uniformed personnel. Mikoto was sure she would have gotten lost in short order amid the carrier's maze of virtually indistinguishable corridors, and probably arrested not long thereafter, if she hadn't been following Shepard.
For her part, Shepard navigated the passages with the casual ease of long familiarity, dodging around spacers bound here and there on inscrutable errands and leading the way unerringly to one of a hundred doors, which instantly opened when she presented her ID to the security panel. Following her through, Mikoto was surprised to find herself in one of the hangars.
If she'd felt strange walking the hallways of the warship, Mikoto felt profoundly out of place in the cavernous, strictly utilitarian space of the hangar deck. She stuck close to Shepard and kept glancing around, ready to jump if she found herself getting in the way or straying out of bounds, even though she wasn't sure exactly where those bounds were. It wasn't like there were paths painted on the diamond-plate deck for the use of untrained personnel.
As before, Shepard seemed to know exactly where she was going, anyway. She nodded greetings to a few people, mostly technicians in blue coveralls, as they passed small craft of one kind or another in various states of repair, before finally arriving at a parking niche along one wall. The vehicle awaiting them there was instantly recognizable to everyone aboard the SDF-17, and a fair number beyond: a bright red 20th-century sports car, docked to a larger, boxier module sporting a pair of Cochrane warp drive nacelles.
Humming cheerfully, Shepard opened the side hatch on the WarpZone's long-range module, which hinged downward to make its own boarding stairs, and put her bag inside, then turned and held out a hand for Mikoto's. It was not forthcoming, since its owner was still standing a few paces back, regarding the ship with a bemused sort of frown on her face.
"What is this?" she wondered aloud.
"It's the captain's car, obviously," Shepard replied.
"I can see that, but..." Mikoto paused, took a deep breath, then continued in the tone of someone who is exercising patience with an effort of will, "Let me rephrase the question. Why are we in Captain MegaZone's personal docking bay?"
Shepard eyed her dubiously. "Because... it's where he keeps his car?"
Mikoto closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose, and said in a level voice, "Gin, if you don't stop screwing around, I swear I will tase you and leave you drooling on the floor here while I go home and watch Iron Chef."
Shepard considered teasing her friend just a little more, but decided she'd probably pushed her luck as far as it would go on this occasion and relented. "Well, I was going to, uh... requisition the school's mini-shuttle, but I figured you'd probably take offense if I took you to your appointment with the Mads in the short bus. Then I thought of signing a D-model Super Valk out of the pool, but then you'd have to get fitted for a vacsuit and be checked out on NFP ops, which would take too long." She shrugged. "So I asked Zoner if I could borrow his ride and he said sure."
"Simple as that," said Mikoto skeptically.
"Simple as that!" Shepard confirmed, grinning. "Why wouldn't it be? I've got my license, he's got insurance. Besides, if I bend it, he knows I'm good for it."
Mikoto sighed, shaking her head. "I'll never get used to how you second-gens think," she said, handing Shepard her bag.
Shepard shrugged again, stowed the bag, and closed the hatch. "You'll come around someday," she said, going around to the driver's side of the car. "Or you'll have a psychotic episode," she added. "Jump in! Let's go."
Mikoto climbed into the passenger seat and closed the door, finding the faint hiss its pressure regulator made mildly reassuring. It felt mightily weird to be getting ready for a space launch in what was plainly still the passenger cabin of an antique automobile, three-point seat belt and all.
"Maybe I should've gone for the vacsuit fitting anyway," she said, eyeing the window, then glancing down at her very-much-not-space-rated T-shirt and shorts.
"Oh, relax," said Shepard, belting herself in. "It's perfectly safe. Here," she added, flipping a switch on the center console. "I'll even turn off your window switch so you can't accidentally space us."
"That's reassuring," Mikoto deadpanned.
Shepard started up the Daytona From Hell, waited for the gauges to finish their little power-on dance, then dialed the radio and said, "SDF-17 Control, this is WarpZone, ready to depart."
The face of q, the fortress's airboss, appeared on the center display. "Like you are good to go, WarpZone," he said, giving a thumbs-up.
Before Shepard could reply, the screen divided diagonally, shunting q into one corner so that MegaZone could appear in the other.
"Have a good trip, you guys," said the captain of the Wayward Son, and then, with a slightly smirky smile, he added, "Bring me back something cool from Metropolis."
"Roger that, boss," Shepard replied cheerfully, shifting into Drive. "Seeya in a couple weeks. Shepard out!"
When the comm connection dropped, the radio automatically switched to playing whatever mix tape Zoner had left in it when he last drove the car, which naturally meant that the cabin was suddenly filled with twentieth-century rock music.
/* Beastie Boys
Hello Nasty (1998) */
With no further preamble, Shepard put her foot down, and the Daytona From Hell left a twenty-foot figure 11 on the docking bay decking before the repulsors kicked in, even dragging the bulk of the WarpZone behind it.
"Hey, positraction, nice!" Shepard remarked aloud to herself as the vehicle lifted off and the wheels folded, and they hurtled down the launch corridor and out into space.
The WarpZone arced away from the SDF-17, automatically aligning itself with its programmed destination as the navicomputer crunched the numbers. Moments later the NAV light went green, Shepard threw the switch, and the stars smeared into rainbows as the ship went to warp.
"Woo!" Shepard declared, holding her right fist out over the gearshift lever. A moment later, grinning in spite of herself, Mikoto bumped it with her own.
"OK, I have to admit, this is pretty cool," she said.
"Right?" Shepard agreed. She double-checked that they were on course and cruising at Warp 5, then settled back in her seat with her hands behind her head.
"I do enjoy traveling in style," she remarked. "Next stop: Thea!"
"Traveling in Style" - Mini-Prologue to OPERATION BLACKOUT, A Tale of the Golden Age
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