STEEL WOLF

Chapter 21: Pick Up the Pieces

Family Mansion, Vargas Estate, Korla,

Lyran Alliance,

October 3, 3075

"You mean you're still digging up stuff?" Nikolai asked with incredulity as he stepped into Alfonso Vargas' former office in the family mansion. The room was a luxurious one, but it was also crowded with dozens of agents from the Laurent Commonwealth, Alvarez County, and Klein Federation. Both Leonardo and Miguel Alvarez were here too, overseeing the complete dismantlement of Alfonso's corrupt information networks and war machine.

Some of the County officers scowled at Nikolai's intrusion, but Leonardo and Miguel only chuckled. "You know how some villains in drama holovids have stockpiles of secret plans, hidden agendas, and shadowy conspiracies?" Leonardo said as he adjusted his glasses.

"Yeah," Nikolai nodded. He had to admit that he was a bit of a sucker for campy but interesting holvid dramas.

"Well, Alfonso outdid them all," Miguel added, revealing one of several trapdoors built into the office. A flood of blueprints and encoded documents piled out in a papery avalanche, prompting several County officers to scoop up the papers.

Nikolai grinned as he walked across the floor's soft carpet, hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. "This must be fun for you guys..."

"More than I'd admit," Leonardo confessed, then picked up a stack of papers and handed them over to Nikolai. They were printed copies of a decrypted file. "Take a look at this. This is what we were dealing with, mercenary."

Curious, Nikolai accepted the papers and gave them a look. The plan was entitled "Operation Phantom," and it was immediately clear that General Abby and her men had devised this plan. According to this file, if Alfonso lost the war for Korla, Abby would use her connections to overthrow him and take his place, then find a new way to expand the Vargas Estate and consolidate more power onto herself. Nikolai frowned. "This is pretty sensitive material..."

"This plan is completely harmless now that General Abby's dead," Miguel said in his irritating know-it-all tone. He tugged on his red tie. "We're going to use this to root out Abby's old allies and remove them from power, then destroy all traces of the intended Operation Phantom. That, and many of Alfonso Vargas' insidious plans and connections will be dealt with. He even had connections to criminal organizations across Korla to form his underground information network. Those mob organizations will be dealt with, too."

Nikolai heaved a sigh. "Nothing's simple on Korla, is it?"

"With your contract complete, you're free to go on your way," Leonardo reminded him. "Of course, if you choose to help us with our duties on Korla, we could arrange payment. The Vargas Estate's leadership needs to be reorganized and its military decreased in size. Care to help pick up the pieces?"

With a quick laugh, Nikolai shook his head. "No thanks, guys. That's outside my expertise. Lyla and Cassandra insisted on coming to this world because it's a tech paradise, nut I believe that my Arctic Wolves are ready for adventures on some other world. Maybe someplace colder."

"Very well then," Miguel shrugged. "Your dropship, the Hunter's Insight, is located in Nexus' primary spaceport. You're fully cleared to depart whenever you like."

"As soon as all my 'mechs and Aerospace fighters are repaired," Nikolai reminded him. "My boys and I had to fight pretty hard to secure this victory, you know."

Leonardo dipped his head. "I know. And the ghosts of my brother's and my lost relatives can rest easy now. You have our thanks, Arctic Wolf."

"All in a day's work," Nikolai grinned again, turning to leave the office. "Excuse me. I think that my men are at the nearest bar and I don't want to miss out."

*o*o*o*o*

Mech Bay 01, Vargas Estate, Korla,

Lyran Alliance,

October 8, 3075

"Cassie! I know you're in here, damn it!" Lyla Lister shouted impatiently, winding her way through the assorted engines, work tables, and half-assembled 'mech weapons in the spacious hangar. The hangar's huge double doors were wide open, letting early morning light pour into the huge metallic room. Outside, Lyla could see the endless dunes and sandstorms that defined Korla, but that wasn't her concern right now.

"Come on! Nikolai told us to be at the spaceport by 0900 hours and guess what, it's 0912 hours!" Lyla added, trying to appeal to Cassandra's sense of punctuality. She cursed as she nearly tripped over a pile of wrenches and screwdrivers on the smooth metal floor, gripping the edge of a work table to steady herself. "For every minute you stall, Nikolai will make you work an hour on the ship for him!" she added, resuming her walk through the hangar. "How'd you like to do dishes and scrub everyone's clothes for twelve hours?"

There was still no reply, so Lyla huffed loudly and broke out into a trot. Finally, she ran into her technician friend. Cassandra was seated at a work table, fast asleep. Numerous half-completed components and blueprints were scattered across the table, and it was clear that Cassandra had worked late into the night.

Her impatience fading, Lyla walked over to her friend and placed an energy coil dampener on Cassandra's head, balancing it delicately. One by one she added more components until they all fell off Cassandra's head and clattered loudly onto the hard metal floor.

"Don't break anything!" Cassandra blurted, jerking herself awake. She looked around wildly until she looked up at Lyla, smiling sheepishly. "Sorry if I got carried away with my work. I needed a distraction."

"From the horrors of war?" Lyla smiled back. "More like you fixate on your work with single-minded doggedness. Not that I can't relate..."

Cassandra yawned and rubbed her eyes, her soft brown hair unkempt and her blue tech uniform wrinkled. "So, what time is it?"

"Time to haul ass to the Hunter's Insight. You're the only one who's not ready to go," Lyla told her slyly.

Blinking, Cassandra bolted to her foot. "Oh my God! I completely forgot... we're leaving today, aren't we?"

"Yeah. Pack up your stuff and get going," Lyla encouraged her. "Here, I'll help. I think some of this stuff is mine anyway..."

Within ten minutes, both young women packed up the last of their stuff and took a cab ride to Nexus' primary spaceport where the rest of the Arctic Wolves were waiting. The Fortress-class dropship loomed nearby, its engines still warming up.

"There you are," Nikolai called out impatiently. "I hope you remember my lateness policy, Cassandra."

"Lyla was kind enough to remind me." Cassandra made a face as she and Lyla joined the other Wolves and support crew.

As everyone climbed the boarding ramp into the Hunter's Insight, Kyle tapped his sister's shoulder to get her attention. "Hey, um... I heard about you and Carlos. I'm sorry that that turned out the way it did."

"Yeah..." Cassandra said glumly. "But it was for the best. There was no way that he and I could keep seeing each other when he's grounded here with his responsibilities to the government and I'm traveling with the Wolves."

"If you need to talk about it, I'm here," Kyle said gently.

"Thanks, brother, but I think I'll be okay," Cassandra assured him. "I just need to spend some time in the ship's workshop to keep my mind occupied. Don't worry, I'll always be there for repair work. And I'm thinking..."

"Yes?"

Cassandra made a watery smile. "I've learned a little lesson from all this. My next boyfriend will be someone who's a lot more willing to travel."

Kyle smiled back. "Already got your eyes on someone?"

"No, I mean in general. And that might not be for a while. I need to find a new way to build that prototype for the Jouster," Cassandra told her brother. "Since Carlos didn't win the arena tournament, the 'mech crew didn't help me build it. I guess I lost that bet."

"We can find other people to build it. I'm sure of it," Kyle said positively.

"You know," Alphonse piped up as the Wolves entered the dropship's lowest deck and the bay door sealed shut, "I never quite understood General Abby. What was she trying to accomplish besides conquer Korla? She was a rogue Clanner. Something doesn't add up to me."

"Maybe she just wanted to fill a void in her life and give herself one more shot at being powerful and in control," Nikolai suggested as the boarding ramp retracted and the bay door snapped shut. "Either way, she's gone, and we can all move on. Maybe to Tharkad? It's nice and cold there."

The instant and rather loud voices of dissent were more than enough to kill that idea, so Nikolai shrugged. "Not a big deal. Wherever the road takes us, we'll be ready."

END.

*o*o*o*o*

A/N: I would like to thank RougeBaron, Ragnarok666, pacificuser, Joshua, The Colonel 382, stonegnome1, and Paladinjon11 for the reviews, favorites, and story alerts. Your support is much appreciated!