Castle Roland


by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 8

Posted: N/A


Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons

Honor and Creed

Tracy took a deep breath and let out a string of curse words as she tripped over yet another chunk of crash debris hidden in the deep brush. "This is like trying to find a damned splinter in a forest!"

Chip made his way over and offered her a hand up. "You OK?"

Tracy stood, picking up the jagged piece of metal as she did so, "I'll live but my eco-suit going to need some work!" She threw the metal into the water to vent some frustration.

Chip watched it splash in to the water before he replied. "I know. I have already sliced my suit in two places bad enough to where I'm going to have to do armor patches. "There is probably a better way to find the drop pod, but I don't know what it is."

Tracy kicked at another hunk of metal and looked around. "We've been here for over an hour and haven't found crap. At this rate we are going to have to recharge our suits."

Chip tossed up his hands, "I'm open to suggestions."

"Why don't we just go into the ship and take a look at what is in it? If the BH pod didn't find any hazards then we should be safe."

"It didn't find any hazards out here, or at least I am betting it didn't. It wouldn't have been able to detect anything inside the superstructure though."

Tracy paused and looked back at the main body of the PLC. "So it would block the signal?"

"Yeah, some of it at least. There would be no way the probe could tell what was going on inside the ship, that's for sure."

"What about the ECM?"

"Like I said before, if it was inside the ship, then it wouldn't be as strong out here. Why?"

"So we could use the ship to aid us."

Chip frowned deeply. "I don't see how."

Tracy knelt and drew a circle in the ground; she then made a dot in the mud a meter away. "If the ship blocks even part of the ECM, then we could get right up next to it and slowly work our way around." She pointed to a spot directly opposite of the dot on the other side of the circle. "When we are on the back side of the crash, the ship may shield enough of the ECM for us to notice on our HUDs."

Chip cocked his head to the side as he thought it over. His frown faded slowly as he realized Tracy's idea was not only sound, it was flatly brilliant. The ECM wrapped around the wreck, but right up next to it there was a good chance of a dead spot in the coverage. "Awesome idea! But we'll have to be flat up against it to it to get any real protection from the ECM. I'll stay out here to keep watch while you move in. If you're right you should find the best dead spot 180 degrees of where BH dropped the pod."

Tracy gave Chip a quick grin. "Let's hope this works."

For the first time since seeing the crash, she had a bit of a smile as she carefully picked her way though the heavier debris. It took another 30 minutes to, meter by meter, hug the side of the destroyed PLC while avoiding broken off pieces of wreckage. At first it didn't seem to work, but suddenly she noticed some of the static filled displays were starting to flicker with information. She moved a bit further and found even more systems came on line. As she continued to move around the craft her sensors started getting worse. First her mapping computer went off line followed shortly after by other key sensors.

She slid back until almost everything was back on line and then played around for about ten minutes trying to find the place where her sensors worked best. Once she located the best spot she could, she backed up and fired a shot from her gauss rifle at the spot to mark it. She then backed away and motioned for Chip to join her.

Chip moved up the hill side and looked down at the wreck. Even with the massive damage from the crash, the newly damaged spot stood out nicely as it was a bit shinier then the rest of the superstructure. "Is that the best protective spot?

"Yup. If I'm right BH's pod should be almost opposite of it."

Chip grinned. "Great work, and here you said you had no idea how to handle ECM warfare!"

"Never dealt with it until today." She winked and nudged him, "I guess you are a good teacher."

Chip lightly blushed and shook his head, "If I was, then I would have figured this out, not you."

She grinned playfully, "I'm just a fast study when my teacher is so cute."

Chip's cheeks flared, but he quickly countered. "I think you and I need to hook up for the first dance BHJMA has once we get back. I've always wanted to go out with an older girl."

Tracy's jaw dropped slightly, "Well, um…"

"What? You don't want to be seen with someone shorter than you?"

Tracy shook her head, "What about the officer enlisted thing?"

"At dances no one cares. They are for fun."

Tracy raised an eyebrow as a devilish grin crept into her face. "Only if we get to publicly exchange kisses so everyone can see."

Chip felt his stomach flutter and knew his whole face was now the color of a fire rig, but he forced a smile. "You have a deal!"

This time it was Tracy's turn to blush, but her eyes danced with merriment, "Then you have a date!"

Chip stared right at her to make sure she was serious about the whole conversation. "I really am going to look forward to it."

She smiled warmly. "Me too, Chip. I'm not joking about this. Just don't go ditching me halfway though the dance. We are together for the whole night."

"Wouldn't have it any other way." Chip felt some of the heat in his face fade, "But that mean's you can't try to snag Joel either."

"Not a problem. I'd never do that to a date, especially one I like as much as you." She turned back to the task at hand as she gazed across the impact site. "Do you see anything on the opposite side we can use as a marker?"

Chip quickly switched back to the mission as well. After only a second he pointed, "Yeah, there is an external thruster just off to the right. It is sticking straight up in mud right next to the lake. It shouldn't be too hard to see once we get over there."

"Excellent eyes." Tracy scanned the area, "I am a bit surprised whoever shot her down didn't come looking for her, but it sure seems like we are the first ones on the ground in this area."

The pair moved down hill at an angle to bypass most of the debris as they worked around to the far side of the crash site. As they did so, Chip responded. "They probably thought it came in cold. Whoever shot her down had to see the ejection of escape pods, so they probably figured there would be nothing left. On the other hand we are in a heavy magnetic area, so they may have lost track of it, then BH dropped a combo pod and blanketed it in an ECM field making detection extremely difficult. We should probably reactivate the ECM once we are sure the site is safe just so no one can easily find it."

"I'd agree. We may need to come back for extra supplies at some point."

It took almost half an hour to make their way over to the broken off thruster. As they did so Chip glanced over to Tracy and took a deep breath, "You know this is the first time I have found the guts to actually ask someone out."

Tracy paused, "Really? Why?"

Chip shrugged, "I don't know. I guess since I am so small and look younger than I am, I was afraid no one would want to go out with me. Then, if they did, I figured they would end up ditching me for someone a bit taller and older looking."

"That's silly. You can't worry about what the other person may do. If you worry about what could happen you'll never get out of the gate. You have to take a chance once in a while and deal with bad should it happen. Personally, I think you are way off on your thoughts, cause you really are cute and smart."

"Thanks." Chip grinned, "And you are really pretty and fun to be around."

Tracy gave him a quick smile. As she did so, she noticed a blinking red light lightly flashing off a section of a broken off lower fin. "Hey, is that what we are looking for?"

Chip turned sharply and glanced around. It took several moments for him to spot the flashing light. One he did he made his way over and knelt next to a raindrop shaped unit lying on its side. "Great eyes again!"

Tracy made her way over. As she did she couldn't help but notice almost every system in her eco-suit was now offline. She could swear she could feel some of the powered joints were fluttering lightly as well. "Wow, for such a small gadget, it sure puts out a powerful dampening field. Shut it down already!"

Chip rolled the unit over and opened the control pad. Inside was a note. He pulled it out and read it. With a single nod he quickly punched in a series of numbers.

The blinking light went from red to green and the top popped off the probe. Instantly, almost all systems came on line inside the kids' eco-suits. The only things to remain malfunctioning were the compasses and grid overlay on their electronic maps.

A Holographic monitor suddenly flickered on and an image was projected upwards from the piece that had popped off the top of the probe. Tracy pointed it out to Chip who was busy examining the probe itself.

Just as Chip turned to look at what Tracy was pointing at the third in command of all Blood's Honor, Field Marshal Kopfo's figure appeared. It cycled a couple of times as it changed what it was programmed to say. Finally Kopfo's voice could be heard.

"Very well done, Lieutenant O' Meyers. You may not have gotten the information needed to find one of the pods, but you found an alternate way of getting supplies. Unfortunately, you are a bit behind your counterparts as they have already secured one of the pods.

"Because of this you are now tasked with finding the machine hover base on the southern continent. On the up side of this, we can give you a bit more intel on its location. We are certain it is north of the central mountains. You should not proceed past the continental divide between north and south. Be ready for some colder weather, however, because it is winter down there now.

"Your insights at finding an alternate objective is admirable. Because of this, the three new cadets each are given the rank of Sergeant, with you selecting one as a Senior Sergeant. Furthermore, each of you gain a one rank promotion. Regardless of how well you do on the third part of the mission, to find and destroy the southern machine base, your promotions will stay with you on your return to Forest Garden.

"However, you have a second pre-mission task which you must now complete. In this crashed ship, you have to salvage what you need to get yourselves framed up. This drop pod sent us enough data for us to be all but certain enough survived to allow you to each get a usable frame and plenty of supplies.

For you to receive a passing grade you are each to put together a fully functioning frame and arm them with different weapons that what is currently on them. You are also to upgrade the frames you select with a new piece of electronics which you will have to salvage from some of the other frames or any surviving spare parts.

"Remember, however, BH law states all frames must have a stunner and BH cadet guidelines prohibit you from putting on more than your power units can handle. You must be able to move and fire everything. Those guidelines remain in effect.

Commander Lotus' figure replaced the Field Marshal's. "Again, well done for finding the alternate site. As you can also certainly tell, the mission briefing was real. The PLC we dispatched did indeed get hit and had to discharge the pods in the upper atmosphere. We felt the added realism was perfect for you to learn on the fly so we left it alone. We hope the crash didn't do too much extra damage. However, if you need to, you can always find the ejected pods and get more supplies than you could possibly need. Also of some note, the cargo pods do have extra repair equipment for the Daggers. The Husky did not have any Daggers, so if you need to fix your tanks, you will have to find one of the pods.

"We also dropped a laser drilling pod into the main body of the PLC. No major hazards were detected outside or in, but that does not mean this crash site is secure or safe. There was extra ammo, some of which may be broken loose and be lying in the open. If there is, it could be volatile. In addition, there may even be some fuel in the tanks of the ship. Four crew members didn't make it out, so there may be some bio-hazards in the engineering section and there is certainly a chance some of the wildlife of Brile has moved in. Furthermore, without a visual, we don't know how much has shifted and broken loose inside.

"On the plus side, the reading we got from the pods show the ship basically came to rest standing up and the upper part of the ship survived more or less intact. Everything from Echo deck up looks decent. All the frames and repair equipment should on Delta and the main galley is on Bravo. It is our recommendations to stick to those two decks, get what you need, and then pull out. I also know it will be tempting to really explore the crash. If you do so proceed with extreme caution, especially if you venture below Echo deck. Good luck cadets."

The hologram again shifted with heavy static, but the figure of Major Goddard could still be made out and the sound had a bit of static in it. The briefing was the exact same as the one received by Joel's squad. "Cadets, this is an emergency update and is not, I say again IS NOT, part of the planned training mission.

"Most of the Blood's Honor force had to pull out do to an emergency. Nova IV has come under attack by raiders of unknown origins and we are the closest non-engaged force. This is no longer a simple training mission and we are not kidding; you are on your own. There is a small Space Fold Craft with a single Invader Class PLC with a unit of cadre who can come and pull you off, but that is all we could leave behind. We would have already done so, but we are currently under total blackout do to an incoming suspicious heavily armed SFC. This burst transmission sent to each of the cargo pods will be our final communication until it is safe for us to resume normal operations. Making matters worse is the fact you will have to go into hiding on Brile with active ECM so we will not be easily able to locate you once the way is clear for us to do so.

"My advice is to continue on with your mission and try not to worry about things you cannot control. However, we are going to have to order you not to activate the emergency beacons because it could easily be intercepted by the other SFC up here. It will take some time, but we will find you as soon as it is safe to do so. Remember, there are multiple cargo pods out there with lots of extra equipment if you need them.

"Furthermore, there are certain to be unknown people landing on the planet as we detected PLC detachment from the SFC before we engaged full cloaking. It is advised you steer clear of them. The most likely reason for anyone to come here is for salvage, but we cannot guarantee the new arrival is here for such an innocent task. One thing is certain; since they are here, they will have some decent defensive capabilities. No one comes to Brile unarmed, no one."

Even through the static, Tracy and Chip could see Major Goddard wipe away a tear as his voice softened. "Gabriel, Terrin, Joel, Jennifer, Candice, Chip, Karen, Cory, Brandon, Beth and the new cadets I have not gotten to know very well, this is killing me to not be there to tell you this in person, but it is time for some truth to come out. Your actions on Andar saved not only a few thousand people but also helped create the New Frontiers Coalition. Royal members of over a dozen worlds owe their lives and or the lives of their kids to you all.

"Unfortunately, your actions didn't go unnoticed by Lord Talborne either. As it turns out one of those killed by the cadet resistance and pullback you all created, lead to the death of Talborne's oldest son. He was leading the final frame force against you all. So in addition to Talborne being furious over failing to capture countless members of royalty and their families and his units being bested by a hoard of kids, his words, not mine, he had to bury his oldest son.

"I know this may not be important to all of you, but one of the 16 of you scored the killing shot. How Lord Talborne learned of this we have not yet been able to ascertain. However, he did and it has consumed him. Just so you know, Joel's father has made it a personal matter to find out and deal directly with whoever leaked this information.

"Anyway, in response to all of the reasons I just went over, Lord Talborne has put a hefty price for the capture or even the assassination of each of you. The whole reason you are on Brile has been to hide and protect you while Blood's Honor and the whole NFC dealt with the situation.

"As of now, we cannot protect you as well as you can all protect yourselves. You are officially on your own. Good luck and may God help protect all of you. Major Goddard out."

Chip stared at the holo-viewer for several seconds after Major Goddard's figure was replaced with an empty bluish tinged glow, his jaw hanging open and his breathing shallow. "Dear god. They left us." He finally managed to whisper.

Tracy sat down and simply stared up at the wreck. "Not much we can do about it, so forget it." Instead she pointed toward the massive PLC. "How, exactly do we get to Delta and Bravo deck without going through the others?"

Chip looked at the ship and back to Tracy. His mind cleared as he picked up the holo-player and stuck it in his field pack. "Why the hell didn't they just come down and grab us?"

"He said they couldn't."

Chip shook his head, "I ain't buying it. An Invader has the best ECM and cloaking known. They could have flown close enough to the other Space Fold Craft to reach out and touch them without getting detected. High Command is up to something."

"Like what?"

"I'm not exactly sure, but we are a giant cover for something else, something bigger. Field Marshal Kopfo would never have been part of this unless Forest Garden had pulled out all the stops on this mission. My bet is there is a frame force, if not more, assigned to protect us on paper, but are actually doing something else, probably for Joel's dad. This extra ship was probably a diversion of some sort as well. We were just told the frames were on Delta only, but a Husky is capable of housing two full frame forces and an armor force along with support personnel.

"Plus we were also told there is no Daggers in there and every BH armor unit has Daggers for holding infantry support. So this ship came in with only three drop pods for us and less than a full force of frames. We have much smaller ships capable of transporting those kinds of loads. Somewhere between leaving Forest Garden and coming here this ship dropped off a sizable force, I can all but guarantee it."

Tracy scrunched her lips, "Come on Chip. How could they hide that much firepower around a bunch of cadets?"

"We aren't just a bunch of cadets." Chip stated with a bit of a grim smile.

"Well we were the ones who lead and fought a big portion of the Battle of Andar, but we are still just cadets."

"No. No we ain't." Chip shook his head violently. "High Command could hide all sorts of resources behind us without anyone noticing. Most of our parents are very high up in Forest Garden and Blood's Honor. He stopped and grinned. "You already know Joel's dad is commander of our special ops as commander of Shadow Brigade, what you may not realize is, he also has a royal title and is a member of the Forest Garden court. The same holds true for my mother, Brandon's dad, and a few others. Then, of course, there is Gabriel."

Tracy chewed on the information for a moment, "So I have been invited to a dance by a member of royalty?"

Chip snickered, "A member of a royal family, yeah."

"How cool is that!" She smiled, "So are you an Earl or what?"

Chip rolled his eyes, "Not even close. My mom is a countess, so technically I am a viscount since I am the oldest, but the title is not awarded until I turn 16 and graduate from BHJMA. Forest Garden royalty have to graduate from a military academy or higher and see live combat as part of Blood's Honor first. Interestingly enough, I have the second half before the first half. So do the rest of us here."

"You're middle to high royalty and yet you're just an ensign?"

"Actually I just got promoted to Lieutenant according to the hologram, but yeah. BHJMA doesn't give a squat who your mom or dad happens to be. You have to earn rank on your merits."

"Oh, come on. You have to get some favoritism."

"If we did, Joel would not outrank me and certainly wouldn't Gabriel. His dad is only a Viscount, So Joel is only going to become a Baron to start with."

"So what is Gabriel?"

Chip gave Tracy a sideways glance, "You do know his last name, don't you?"

"Of course I do, I've only called him Lieutenant McCurdy a few hundred times..." She paused as the last name clicked, "He can't be of the house McCurdy!"

"Not just the house, Tracy, his mom is Ariel."

Tracy nearly choked on her own saliva. "Ariel, as in Ariel McCurdy of Forest Garden?"

Chip snickered, "Yup. He is a prince, third in line to the throne of Forest Garden, second really, as his older brother dropped out of the Academy the same year we all joined. His sister just graduated out of the military academy, but has not seen combat yet."

"But from what I've seen, the cadre are always breathing down his back."

"Oh yeah, that is the way it is for all of us. I guess they want to prove we don't get special treatment to those who know who we are. What's worse is, those with us tend to get it as well. That, or our parents make it a point to have the cadre hammer on us. Neither of my younger twin brother or sister lasted a year and Brandon's oldest brother didn't even make it out of intro training.

"As a matter of fact, the only one of us to have a brother or sister in the academy at the moment is Joel. And let me tell you, his brother and him are cut from the same stuff. They eat up the pressure and spit it out with a smile."

Tracy nodded, "I met his brother, Andrew. He was one of the kids who helped pull a lot of the other academies' junior cadets out and back to the ship. I heard from a few of the others he actually was safe in the ship and went back out to help us in the last battle."

Chip snickered. "Yeah, and he got his ass chewed for it. They gave Andy a full week of hard labor for disobeying orders."

"I thought he was promoted."

"He was, after he got done with the hard labor and the others he took with him stuck up for him."

"He took others back out into the fight with him?"

"His whole squad and 3 or 4 others. From what I hear he threatened to go it alone cause his brother was out there fighting. His cadet commander tried to physically stop him and ended up with a broken nose for it. He then took out all the junior cadets who wanted to join him and helped secure the west flank. He even took an internal laser hit. His left leg has a nasty laser scar."

"Ouch, poor kid. Laser scars are so ugly too." She shook her head, "He didn't act hurt when I saw him."

"He was. He just didn't tell anyone. From my understanding, one of the junior cadets who went with him told the cadre about it after we were in space cause he was crying from the pain in his bunk."

"Damn, he held out for a while then. Pretty impressive for an 11 year old. So the hard labor was for the punch?"

Chip shrugged, "I have no idea how it all got wrote up. The whole thing on Andar was a huge mess cause so many of us disobeyed orders. We were supposed to go straight to the ship, but Joel slammed the door on that within seconds of noticing how many non Blood's Honor cadets were in trouble. The rest of us joined Joel, totally ignoring what Command was telling us. All I know is Joel's mom told Command to shut up cause they didn't know the situation on the battlefield and we did. Once she spoke up, Command got serious and started sending us resources though, so I am pretty sure someone inside our Command PLC finally pulled their head out of their rear.

"To be honest I think we actually all had write-ups waiting for us in our files, but they were never served cause so may cadets from all over the place were sticking up for us by the time we finally pulled back and got out of our frames. All ten of us had to pull 5 days of pretty nasty extra duty though, because we all told someone in Command where to stick it somewhere along the line that night."

Tracy started laughing, "I'm glad you did."

Chip grinned, "Me too." He gazed up at the destroyed ship and glanced back at Tracy. "You know, you're right."

"About what?"

"How in the hell are we supposed to get all the way up to Delta without going though the lower parts of the ship? I think we are basically looking at Hotel or India deck depending on where we gain entry. What were they thinking?"

Tracy giggled, "I don't think they were."

The sound of sharp yet distant cracks seemed to echo off the hills. It caused both kids to look toward the south. More cracks and a whole series of pops followed. As it stopped Tracy swallowed hard, "Was that gunfire?"

Chip nodded and glanced back at the probe, "Yeah, and a full auto blast to boot, but it sounded pretty far off. Since Command said they sent a drill probe in to check the inside, there is no reason to leave this off." He punched in the code and reactivated the probe. "We better get moving and try to get a couple of frames just in case whoever is blowing up the Brile desert comes this way." He glanced back to the crash and managed a half snicker. "You ready to do what they recommend we don't and go explore the lower decks so we can find a way up to the upper ones?"

Tracy took one more worried glance to the south west before she winked at him. "Sure! Maybe we'll get extra duty together when we get back."

Chip hefted up his quark rifle and glared. "If they try it, I'm going to flip out on them. For even giving a recommendation so stupid they should be the ones to pull it."

For over an hour Joel kept his eyes on the three in front of him while occasionally glancing behind him. Their progress was slowed considerably since the two cadets they had rescued were not only on foot, but were also not in the greatest of health. On the plus side, Lawson only had to kill a single Sand Scorp and Joel had not needed to open fire at all.

If nothing else, the sand storm that had swept through the area earlier in the day had evidently chased off the creatures of Brile as well. Joel finally motioned for Lawson to stop at a rocky outcropping so everyone could take a breather. Joel took a few minutes to spiral out from the rocks, making sure there were no dangers close by before he made his way over to the other three.

Lawson spoke as Joel took a knee, "The interference to my frame had been getting quite a bit worse but suddenly cleared up for the most part."

"Mine too." Joel responded after taking a drink of water from his onboard supply. "We must be in some kind some kind of electronically generated jamming and it either moved out of range got turned off or something. My nav map overlays are still on the blink but my targeting computer and main scanners are back on line and I am no longer getting heavy static when I turn up my radio volume."

"Same here, and I think I have finally managed to tag the signal I have been trying to lock onto. It is just slightly further north than where we have been angling. We are way closer than I thought, probably three or four kilometers at the most. The signal is really strong."

Saul took a few deep breaths and took a few sips out of the captured canteen Joel had given him. "Which means we are pretty close to whatever was causing the jamming as well since you guys couldn't get a real fix until it stopped jamming you. We should catch our breaths and move out. Maybe we'll find the crash and can savage some stuff to make us look more like Ulysses forces."

"Agreed on both accounts." Joel nodded his approval. "Then we will head back to our camp and change some priorities."

Saul looked skyward at the one of Brile's moons. "I am totally confused. Where did you guys come from and Law, how did you become a Master Sergeant in some other academy?"

Lawson started to answer but stopped. The pause gave Liam a chance to speak up, "And if you aren't Ulysses cadets, then who are you?"

Joel kind of snorted. "Right at the moment, I don't want to say too much. On the other hand you guys need some answers. First off, Lawson is a cadet Master Sergeant with another academy now and we are not Ulysses cadets nor are we from an academy aligned with Talborne and his band of murdering thugs.

"If we get you settled in with us, the rest will become clear in short order. All I am really willing to let you know is, we were on Andar during the assault and we have fought Talborne once already. What we need to know is what Talborne is doing on Brile, are both of you frame pilots, and why are you guys out here with them to begin with."

Saul kind of shrugged. "The whole reason Liam and I were picked for this mission, whatever it was supposed to be, is we know frames and are among the healthiest of those of us who are frame cadets, so to answer two of your questions, yes we both have basic frame certification and because of it they needed us for some kind of salvage job. As far as what we are doing here in general, they say we are all prisoners of war."

Liam glared at Saul, "We are hostages, and you know it."

"Yeah, but these guys won't understand." Saul snapped back.

"So, you make it sound all proper. We are their insurance policy, slave labor, entertainment, and something for them someone to vent their frustrations on for their mistakes and failures. Nothing more."

"Maybe you have forgotten who you are, but I haven't," Saul responded with anger, "I'm not about to give up!"

"Give up?" Liam roared, "You think I have given up?" He stood and made a step toward Saul.

Lawson jumped to his feet and fired a three round burst of his machinegun into the air causing both boys to move back from one another. "Are you two insane?"

"Guys, knock it off." Joel sighed with a note of disgust. He stood and shook his head. "First off you two may be surprised at just how much Master Sergeant O'Malley and I will get. Second, Lawson, it sounds like these two have been put though hell since we pulled off Andar. We cannot hope to understand their frustration or rage."

Lawson shook his head, "Maybe, but fighting each other is flatly stupid." He glanced over at Saul, "If you hate Talborne as much as we do, then stop fighting each other and turn your anger against those who deserve it."

"Easy for you two to say." Liam briefly pulled up his mask so he could spit into the Brile sand. "You two are in frames."

Joel managed a slight yet very crafty grin, "We have a few extra cadet frames and plenty of weapons to arm them with back at our camp. I know they ain't what we are in but…"

A look of hope and eagerness played across both Liam's and Saul's face. Saul was first to speak up, "Major, if you have a micro frame for me to use I'll take it!"

Joel shrugged, "Then start acting like military cadets so I will feel comfortable letting you frame up. Sergeant O'Malley is right, fighting each other right now is pretty dumb. How about you two tell us what you know and get back into a military cadet way of thinking. If you have some past grudges, I will let Staff Sergeant Mathus take over so the two of you can deal with it his way."

This caused Lawson to cringe for a moment. "Or you could let Staff Sergeant Swartz do some live demonstrations, Major."

Joel raised his eyebrow for a moment before he shook his head, "Having a couple more healthy members of our squad would really help. Letting Paula handle this would be effective but would probably not allow them to help us for a few days."

Liam glanced back and forth during the conversation before finally breaking in, "I'm not real sure what you two are babbling about, Major, but there ain't no girl gunna scare me."

While Lawson started laughing outright, Joel simply snickered. "You care to bet on those words, Private?"

Saul glanced over to Lawson who was still trying to control his laughter then back to Joel who was grinning from ear to ear, yet had an almost evil glint in his eyes. "Liam, something tells me you may what to step back from this one."

Liam snorted is disgust, "We're talking about a chick here." He then turned and faced Joel. "What do I get verses what do I have to do?"

Joel looked over to Saul, "You want part of this bet?"

Saul waved both his hands crossing them several times, "No sir, I don't know Law real well, but I've seen him in action plenty of times. If he thinks the idea of one of us fighting a girl is funny, then I'm betting he is secretly looking forward to us getting a good old fashioned butt kicking and having us eat our words. I'll pass."

Liam snorted, "You wuss. So what's the bet Major?"

Joel leaned back and let the rock support him as he gazed straight into Liam's eyes. "If you lose you and you alone clean up the two frames we are in and maintain all the frames for the next 7 days. You also have to wait till Saul, here, selects the cadet frame he wants and has first choice of equipment."

"And it I win?"

"You get first pick of cadet fame and equipment, no clean up duties of any kind for a week, and get to see what foodstuffs we have on hand and pick the menu for the week as well."


"It's nice to know I won't have to clean my frame when we get back." Lawson stated with total confidence. "So how many of you are there and what did you mean when you say the ones holding you failed?"

Joel nodded, "Good questions."

Saul took a deep breath, "I'm not sure how many of us there are. They have several camps, five or six at least. They keep the most important of us in the two close to the old fortress on the side of the mountain cause they have kind of rebuilt it and there was a prison inside so they can hold us there. When all of us are there, I'd say there has to be forty to fifty."

"Sometimes more." Liam responded. "But there are a lot more here. I was taken to help clean up what appeared to be a large drilling station with a dozen others from the fortress and they had close to a hundred kids and a few adults doing forced labor. To be honest we're lucky, cause those poor saps had it even worse than us."

Joel whistled, "I have about a million questions, but what do you mean when you say they failed?"

Saul took a deep breath. "Almost everyone guarding us and setting up supply depots was part of the attack on Andar and botched their mission in some way. The ones you took out are from what sounded to be one of the biggest failures on Andar. They seem to be among the worst treated and worst supplied. Most of their armor is very old tech, most of it has polymer armor, and the vast majority are armed with old tech weapons. I heard one of them say it got pulled out of some mothballed bunker they found on Andar. Their newer machines are survivors of what was done to them on Andar and are in pretty poor repair. From what I have seen, most of the armor patches are also Polymer."

"Which means they are also the meanest to us." Liam growled out.

"Polymer?" Lawson sounded skeptical, "That's the same kind of armor the machines use!"

"They have been using salvage from the machines for repairs." Liam commented, "A couple of the kids with us were in Andar's Armor Platform academy. They got taken out to a battle site where they were forced to help salvage the machines and a few of the platforms the machines killed. It sounded like they are real short on parts, especially for their hovers. They also said the machines were trapped, and one of the kids that went out was killed, but I didn't find out how."

Lawson shook his head sadly, "The wheeled ones have multiple traps. We haven't dealt with a hover yet."

"The girl said the boy she was with was killed inside one of the hovers so they're trapped too." Liam sighed. "I'm betting 15 to 20 of us have died on forced labor missions so far.

Joel clenched his fists causing the frame to duplicate what he was doing inside it. He glanced at Lawson and noted his friend was every bit as angry as he was. Finally he tuned back to Liam and studied the slightly older boy's face searching, hoping really, to see a sign the kid was not being totally truthful. He only found sadness and anger, however. "So what unit are these animals from?" He asked after a few seconds of silence.

Saul kind of shrugged, "It's kind of a hodge podge of people from all sorts of units. From what I've heard many of them were from other Ulysses units all but wiped out on Andar by Blood's Honor. But an equal number are those who did something to piss off Talborne or other high ranking military or political leaders. The unit itself is the Ulysses Sixth Armor Division, although I don't think it is at more than a degraded brigade in actual numbers…" Saul's words drifted off as he realized both the kids who had rescued him had basically stunned looks.

Liam picked up on this instantly, "What the hell is wrong with you two?"

Joel chewed on his lip for a moment and then looked back a Lawson. "I can't believe we are looking at round two staring us in the face."

Lawson punched the rock formation, the power of the frame showed as he cracked off a chunk "Me neither. I didn't think there would ever be a Ulysses Sixth after the pounding we gave them on Andar." Lawson let out a huge sigh as he leaned back against the rock formation he had just fractured. As he did so he saw multiple signs of movement under the sand about 60 meters away. He spun with his weapons, "SCORPS!"

The other three all turned just as Lawson let loose with his laser and machinegun. Seconds later Joel fired with his energy weapons followed moments later by laser rifle shots by Saul and Liam. As the raised mounds of sand continued to close Joel and Lawson stepped forward putting their armored frames between the incoming creatures and the two basically defenseless kids behind them.

Lawson intensified his fire with his machinegun as the few remaining got within just a few meters. Finally he stepped forward and grabbed a scorp just as it shot out of the sand trying to get to the two heat sources it saw behind Lawson and Joel. With a squeeze of the powered hand the scorp exploded in bits of blood, guts and exoskeleton.

Joel also had to use his frame as a weapon. He used his right foot to stamp on and flatten a scorp while smashing another one out of the air by swinging his left arm like an armored bat. Joel then leapt to the right, as the last of the vile creatures blasted out of the sand aiming right at Liam. The move turned his frame into an armored wall. The sand scorp smashed head first into Joel's chest and fell into the sand upside down, it legs, pincers and tail thrashing as it tried to right itself.

Saul took a step forward and pumped a trio of laser shots into the struggling creature. The softer underbelly totally melted under the intense energy, ending its struggles.

All four boys spun looking for more targets for a few seconds before claming. Joel was first to speak as he glanced over to Lawson. "Wow, I counted 13 of them. I didn't know they attacked in mass like that!"

Liam spoke up as he knelt and started digging into the sand next to the rock. "They do if they are defending a den and since you broke a piece off this rock it must be right here!"

"Huh?" Lawson turned to trying to figure out what the older boy was doing.

"Give me a sec and I'll show you."

Joel frowned and started to argue, but stopped when he noticed Saul was also eagerly digging sand from around the base of the rock, "OK, but hurry up with whatever you guys are doing. I think someone heard us."

"Yeah, the ECM just kicked back on." Lawson confirmed. "I have lost the signal and my systems are all messed up."

Joel frowned, "Do you have any way to get us to the beacon?"

"Yeah, I did an overlay on my topographic map in a straight line in the direction of the signal just incase this happened. We can use good old fashioned topo map navigation to get us there."

"You good at it?"

"Pretty good, why?"

"Cause without a compass I suck at topographic navigation."

"I guess I am on point again then." Lawson grinned.

"Yup." Joel agreed as he turned his attention back to the other two. He was about to tell them to get a move on but stopped as Liam nudged Saul. The two broke into wide grins as they started pulling out golf ball sized grey and brown looking rocks.

Lawson cocked his head to the side, "What are those?"

"Scorp eggs!" Saul stated with an almost giddiness.

Liam didn't bother to answer as he pulled back the hood of the emergency eco-suit, tilted his head back and broke one of the "stones". Lawson cringed as he saw a reddish grey liquid drain out of the egg and down Liam's throat.

Before he or Joel could say anything, the two noticed Saul duplicate the drinking of the egg juice. Joel openly shuddered, "Guys, I have extra food packs!"

Liam drank a second egg, then turned back to Joel, "Major, you have not spent enough time on this rock! Theses things are awesome and really give you energy!"

Joel raised an eyebrow with a great deal of skepticism, but shrugged and took a step forward, "OK, I'm game. Can I try one?"

Lawson turned a bit green, "OH, come on Joel, that's disgusting!"

Joel accepted and egg from Saul who was eagerly pulling out dozens of the things. "You don't know till you try."

Saul glanced back, "Come on Law, I thought it looked awful the first time too, but they're not. Try one." He extended his hand holding one out. "The taste will surprise you."

Lawson gritted his teeth, but noticed Joel had opened his face plate and was ingesting one of the eggs and refused to be the only one not to eat one, no matter how gross it appeared. With a deep breath he opened his faceplate and cracked the egg, surprised at how runny it was. The middle was way thinner than most types of eggs, basically no thicker than water, but as the first of it hit his tongue, he was astonished at how sweet it tasted. It reminded him honey. The middle was a bit thicker, but flavored with a light almost mint-like flavor and was still very watery. It took only a few moments to realize it also killed his dry mouth.

Joel was equally astonished, "Wow! Those are incredible! How did you guys find out about these things?"

Liam drank a third one and then started gathering the rest and putting them in the small survival kit before he answered, "I don't know who first found them edible, but the word spread pretty fast. One of the benefits of going out on the deep forced labor missions is those guarding us tend to patrol and kill all the sand scorps before they send us in. during breaks we spend a great deal of time looking around rock formations for the dens. This is the biggest I have ever heard about though. There must be 50 drinkable eggs in here."

Lawson licked his lips and extended his hand for another. As he took it from Liam he saw both kids continuing to pull out eggs and separate ones that were darker, almost totally grey from those that were not. "The guards don't take them from you?"

Saul snickered, "The Ulysses pukes make fun of us when they see us drinking them. Most figure we are just so hungry we don't care what we eat, which is probably why someone tried them to begin with. But, for whatever reason, they have never tried them or stopped us from looking for and drinking them. You have to be careful though, there are usually hatched young, which haven't gotten the poison stinger yet, but still hurt if they bite, but once the den is broken open they tend to dig down and way from the eggs so you need to grab the top ones first and if you feel movement back off for a second."

Liam chimed in. "If they wiggle when you touch them, just leave them alone. You also need to look at each egg. The darker ones are closer to hatching and you can't eat the center. I've seen a couple of kids get really sick because they were so hungry their tried to eat the partially formed scorp in the middle. I heard at least one of them died, the other I never saw again, so she may have died too."

Saul continued the impromptu Brile survival lesson. "On the other hand drinking the liquid from the darker ones seems to be really good for you. We think they even help heal injuries more quickly and certainly help kids who are suffering from breathing problems because of the atmosphere here. We usually save them and bring them back to sick kids, but we should just eat them now since they could start hatching in as little as a day and it would be a waste not to use them."

Joel looked at the small stack of 18 dark grey eggs, "OK, Lawson and I will each eat three and you guys finish off the others. But we need to head out. The ECM is back on and my bet is someone heard our gunfire."

Liam eagerly used a piece of rock to poke a hole in one of the darker eggs and carefully sucked the juice out, "No problem sir, it won't take long and this is one of the best meals we have seen in weeks!"

Beth finished cleaning up the central area of the Dagger and hit the switch to open the back compartment. A sharp buzz followed by a red flashing light above the door let her know Candice had locked it from the inside. She knocked. Still getting no response she hit the intercom button and spoke. "El Tee, I need to come in and clean out any sand. It should only take a couple of minutes."

Beth waited with growing concern. After nearly two minutes of no answer even after repeated attempts she knocked hard on the hatch, "Candice, it's Beth. Open up."

She was just about to knock again when Terrin came in form the front, "What's all the shouting about Beth?"

Beth turned, her face clearly showing her unease, "Candice has locked the door and is not responding."

Terrin frowned and pounded on the hatch with the back of the wrench he was carrying. "El Tee, you OK?"

When there was still no reply or even sound from the other side Terrin spun and yelled out, "Computer, override lock on hatch four!"

The metallic sounding voice answered almost instantly, "Command code lock out, unable to comply."

"Like hell you can't" Terrin snarled, "Computer, command override, Forest Garden royal family member Brant, Terrin, base code Oscar, Lima, niner two eight niner seven Delta six!"

It took less than a second for the light to change to green over the hatch as the computer voice responded "Command override granted Terrin Brant."

Beth wasted no time pushing the button to open the hatch. As it opened Beth's eyes nearly bugged out, "Terrin she isn't in here and her gear is gone!"

Terrin burst into the back compartment, half knocking Beth out of the way. His eyes wildly darted around the back compartment. It took only moments to notice the sleeping bunk designated for the commander, which was Candice's was neat and clearly made up as if no one had slept in it, their was quite a bit of sand in the compartment, and the locker next to the command bunk was open and empty.

Finally Terrin's eyes settled on the floor hatch and noticed a pair of wires sticking out from the sensor attached to it which would have sent out an alarm to the driver's console as to an open hatch. He quickly went over to the hatch and pulled. It was heavy, but clearly not secured as he managed to flip it open. Below he saw only the smooth escape tube and the Brile soil below the tank. "Dear God…"

Near panic crossed Beth's features as she yelled out as loud as she could, "Candice!"

As Terrin moved into the pilot's seat, the commotion caused the others to hustle over to the tank. Jason was first to show up, laser rifle in his hand. Seconds later Cory and Stella appeared, both holding pistols. All three quickly focused on Beth who was on her knees looking down the escape chute crying.

Jason did a quick sweep with his rifle making sure there were no threats before turning to Terrin, "Lieutenant Brant, what gives?"

Terrin continued to punch buttons on the main computer, "It looks like Candice dropped out of the back escape hatch while we were moving. There is sand everywhere back there so it was either before or during our trip through the sandstorm." He smashed his fist into the computer panel in anger, "But she rerouted the sensors, so not only did the alarm not go off, but neither did it detect the unlocking of the hatch. We have no record of when she left!"

Stella moved forward and sat in the copilot chair. "Maybe, maybe not sir."

Terrin started to argue, but stopped before saying a single word. He had seen Stella in action and knew her repair skills were outstanding. If there was another way to figure out when the escape hatch had opened then Stella was probably the one to know of it. As he waited, he moved over to Beth who was still crying. "We'll find her."

Jason glanced back and nodded, "Even if we have to retrace every centimeter of ground we have covered since she gave Ensign Beck command, we'll find her."

Beth bit back a sob and took a couple of deep breaths and pointed over to the pillows on Candice's bunk. "She left her rank on the bed, she has no intension of being found."

Jason glanced over and shrugged, "I don't care if she wants to be found or not. We are going to locate her and she is going to pin those ranks back on her uniform. I'm not letting her quit the academy until we are back on Forest Garden! If nothing else, we need all the warm bodies we can get just to pull guard rotation and regular duties. And before any of you start spouting off about BH cadet regulations and all that, let me state right here and now; I don't give a rat's ass about what we are supposed to do, nor do I care about orders. I am not letting any of you report this or file any records of it.

"We are going to get her back and simply pretend this didn't happen. As far as logs go, she is with us and the logs will continue to say she is with us until we find her. If she wants to quit once back on Forest Garden, or even the trip back, then she can do so. If she wants to resign her commission and stay on as enlisted while we are still here, that's also fine too, but if anyone in this unit gets her into trouble for this I'll personally kick their ass. Any questions?"

Terrin nodded, "I concur totally. There is no reason for anyone to know about this other than those of us here. The only thing I have to say is this; when we find her Chip stays in command, not her. We can all agree to make it look like she is in command on paper and in after action reports we will all have to write, but Chip stays in command."

Stella spoke up as she continued to work at the computer station. "Sounds reasonable to me, but I'll have to do some editing to the record, cause the cadre clearly have their own log and record of events on a sub-routine running on a basic sub-system but they didn't hide it and it isn't encrypted so they either never thought about hiding it from us, or didn't care if we found it.

"Unfortunately, it clearly shows a decompression of the back compartment just before Ensign Beck ordered us into the sandstorm. The record shows the gun camera getting video of the crashing armored carrier, then just before we turned toward the storm there was a decompression of the back. The internal log also shows we lost just under 65 kilos of weight a minute later.

Jason sighed, "Isolate the whole section of the log. I have no doubt Tracy will be able to smooth it out when she gets back here. Also locate and isolate the conversations we have had in here so she can easily find it, play with it, and work her magic. Any future talk about this needs to be outside of recording instrument range."

Jason held up a finger to his lips and glanced down at the timer built into his eco-suit he waited for exactly a minute then spoke again, sounding totally differently. "OK, so the back escape hatch didn't hold. We need to do a careful sweep of the inside of the Dagger to make sure nothing got in when we weren't paying attention. Ensign Brant, the rest of the duties are done and we just barely had enough paint to cover the Daggers, but our trailers are still nice and shinny after the sandblasting of the storm. I recommend letting me and Stella clean out the living compartment and check for creatures while you move out and set us up showers and a field kitchen. We are all hungry, sir, and you Command Staff guys can discuss what to do and how to do it. While you are doing so, cooking us a good meal for the first time in almost 3 days would be a good side task."

Terrin raised an eyebrow in confusion at Jason's whole tone, but Cory quickly understood what Jason was up to. "Good idea." He jerked his head toward the back hatch and lightly pulled Beth out with him. Once well clear of the Dagger he looked over to Terrin. "He is going to have Tracy edit out any discussion of Candice abandoning us. The minute of silence will give her some time to play with it and his restarting with the talk of a hatch failure will be how we deal with it from here on out."

Jason nodded, "There can't be any talk of this inside the tanks. If we slip up we have to point it out to each other so we can fix the logs. The only other choice would be a total erase, and to do so would be suspicious as hell, unless, of course, we destroyed the whole damned tank."

Terrin frowned deeply, "We could get tossed from the academy for this sort of action."

Cory rolled his eyes, "I'll take the chance if the rest of our unit will, and it looks like Stella and Jason are on board, and I am willing to bet just about everything I own Stacy will side with them." He smiled with a rather sinister look, "Which leaves Chip and Beth, and we all know if anyone in our squad would be willing to break a rule or bend it into a pretzel shape it would be Chip."

Terrin grunted and stared straight at Cory, "Yeah, right."

Cory's lips twisted into a smirk, "I don't bend I break."

Even with the situation being a s grim and serious as it was, Terrrin burst out laughing. He then looked over to Beth, "She's your best friend, but out of all of us, you are least likely to agree to a stunt like this."

Beth looked back toward the desert and closed her eyes. For a few moments she held an internal debate before she slowly nodded, "I'm in if Chip is simply because he was given command and only he has the right to say if she is AWOL or not. The editing of the logs doesn't bother me at all, though. Those things aren't supposed to be there and are being kept on the sly by BH to track us and check our performance and honesty. If they don't trust us then we should give them a reason not to. Besides, if they really wanted to keep such a close eye on use we wouldn't have been left on our own to begin with, so screw them!"

Jason's concerned frown turned into a bit of a satisfied smirk, "Huh, maybe you BH guys are not the stuck up jerks everyone thinks you are after all."

Cory slowly turned with an aggravated glare, "Oh, so the other academies see us as jerk and stuck up, huh?"

Stella caught the conversation as she exited the Dagger. She snickered as she walked up to the group, "Yup."

Terrin managed a half grin as he patted Cory on the shoulder to calm him down some, "Interesting, this is the first I have ever heard about us having any kind of bad rep."

Beth took one last glance into the desert wondering where her friend and commander was, "Because they are too afraid of us to say it to our faces."

Jason chuckled, "Spoken like a true Command Sergeant."

Cory glared for a moment then shat an nasty look at Jason, "But I don't hear you denying it."

Stella shook her head, "Cause she's basically right. What is said about BH cadets is normally said away from BH cadets. There could be fifty cadets from other academies bad mouthing the BH academy and how stuck up it was, but the second a BH cadet came within earshot it all stops. I saw it dozens of times back on Andar. One time Jason and I even joked about how funny it was to see dozens of senor cadets shut up and change the subject when a single BH Junior cadet walked by. You guys would not believe what kind of crap was talked behind your backs."

Beth secured her filter mask with an obvious fake dismayed look, "And all this time I thought we were well liked."

Jason burst out laughing, "I can see how bad this hurts your feelings there, Beth."

"Oh yeah, I'm just crushed." Beth clenched her fists, "Just wait until I go to another competition. Then they'll really have something to complain about. About half the time I kept my scores purposefully close in gunnery or piloting in the first couple of rounds. It ain't going to happen again."

Cory half snorted, "Wait till I get a chance to go into the bush with those shock lasers they give us to confirm hits. I won't stop with a singe shot anymore. Last team standing is going to take on a whole new meaning by the time Chip and I tear though them older kids."

Jason snickered as he shook his head, "You guys are awful. I'm beginning to think we really will fit in."

"You already do." Terrin responded as he patted Beth on the shoulder. "But right now, we need to do as much as we can to backtrack and figure out what options Candice had when she bailed out. Beth, you know her best and Jason you think more outside the box then we do. Why don't the two of you put together some options while the rest of us cook a good meal and rotate though the showers. With any luck we'll have a game plan for Chip by the time he gets back.

Chip took a deep breath and bit back a string of curses as he sliced his eco-suit on yet another jagged edge of the wreckage. The destroyed ship was like something straight out of a nightmare. There were hanging wires and ceiling panels, strewn equipment, and sections of the floor were missing just about everywhere they went.

Just gaining entry had proved dangerous as the two had to climb up the outside of the superstructure and push in through one of the jettisoned escape pod hatches. On the plus side, this put them a full deck above the ground and closer to the frames they were told were located on Delta. Still, the escape pod hatch had been on Golf deck and even an hour and a half later they had only managed to push through Golf and Foxtrot.

Chip kicked at the bulkhead door as he used the powerful light built into the eco-suit to send a beam up the passage. The ray showed a 3 meter gap in the metal stairs going up. "The upper stairs have totally buckled here too!"

Tracy glanced up and used her own built in light to further brighten the passage. As Chip started to turn away Tracy held out her hand and stopped him, "Hold on a second, the stairs themselves are gone, but the center post looks intact all the way up, let's try to climb it."

Chip pointed to the jagged metal sticking off the post, "The edges of the stairs will shred our suits."

Tracy shrugged as she flipped a couple of tears in her own suit and then did the same to a particularly large gash in Chip's. "With all do respect, these suits are one step up from rags already. With any luck we'll find a stash of suits with a couple in our size somewhere aboard this wreck. Once we have frames and can do some real salvaging."

Chip let his light play off the pole and the debris scattered around the area they were standing. Slowly he nodded, "Yeah, you're probably right. But let's at least pull some wire down and wrap it around our gloves. It's a quick way to give our hands some extra protection as we try to use some of remnants of the stairway to pull ourselves up. Some of those look sharp enough to cut right though anything but heavy armored gloves."

Tracy didn't hesitate. She backed off into the passage behind them and yanked out a long section of wire that used to provide power to some critical ship function. With Chip's help, she first wrapped her own hands then helped Chip with his. Once she was satisfied she pointed up. "You should go first. You are lighter than I am and I don't want to break off any hand holds you might be able to use."

Chip thought it over for a second before nodding. "OK, but let me get up to a secure section before you start your climb so you know how far up you have to go."

Tracy smiled, "Sounds like a plan."

With a deep breath Chip slowly pulled himself up the pole using broken welds and twisted pieces of metal as hand and foot holds. Twice he winced as he felt the sharp edges cut through the makeshift wire protection around his fingers and into his gloves and fingers. He ignored the sharp pain and pulled himself upward. It took almost 15 minutes to make the climb. But once he got to the spiral stairs continuing up, he found them firm under his own weight. After a couple of tenitive hops he breathed a giant sigh of relief. "I think we finally got lucky, this goes all the way up and looks to be usable from here!"

"Great work!" Tracy next to shouted form below. "You OK?"

"I'm going to need you put some skin glue on my hands in a couple of spots, but I'll live. Let me find a cable and toss it down. There is no sense in two of us cutting our hands to ribbons when we don't have to."

Tracy nodded. As she looked, up she couldn't help but to think about the final battle on Andar again. The devastation to the inside of this PLC was probably minor compared to some of those coming in with no power as they slammed into Andar. It was a night she was sure she would have nightmares of for years to come. This ship at least had some power and an AI system to cushion the blow. Most back on hit Andar did not; or worse, where coming in at full power and totally uncontrolled. Their main engines driving the superstructure in like giant meteors. As she continued to look around and wait, she actually started to feel sorry for some of those aboard those doomed craft. Many of them were just following orders, lower officers and enlisted who were doing what they had signed up for. Some, probably not much older than she was, had certainly been drafted by the Ulysses government for mandatory military service while others had joined mercenary units seeking a life of adventure.

Tracy closed her eyes and replayed the images of that night through her head for about the 100th time. She felt a tear slide down her cheek. Thousands of basically innocent troopers had fallen to the guns and missiles of Blood's Honor, many not even realizing they had been on the wrong side of the invasion. As she noticed a beam of light cutting though the darkness above signaling Chip's return, she sighed. Suddenly she realized what made Blood's Honor Academy so different. They were probably the only academy with instructors who taught the down side of war. She was certain none of this would have occurred to her a few months ago. Her old instructors taught tactics, strategy, and how to kill with everything from hands to sticks to the most powerful weapons humans had yet to develop, but not once had anything been said about who they were to face when using those deadly skills.

On the other hand, Blood's Honor Academy had talked about the enemy from the first day. It was stressed how important it was to still see those across the field of battle as people with families, thoughts, and feelings. Why killing, although often times necessary, was not the desired end. The instructors went further, even going so far as think about why the students wanted to be troopers. If their reason was Honor, great, if it was to defend the weak or oppressed even better, but if it was for glory or power, then they should probably find another academy or better yet find another profession.

Tracy slowly shook her head as she gazed around the ruined passage leading up. In her mind's eye a different scene seemed to take over. She found herself replacing the abandoned craft with one still full of men and women preparing for battle like those coming into Andar would have been. She could almost see bodies hanging off the section of broken off stairs and hear the cries of pain of those desperately calling out for help and even for moms and a dads, not seen or thought of in the course of normal daily life. In her mind's eye she found herself hearing sheiks of men who had not shed a tear in years, now crying like babies knowing they were surly going to die as wires sparked around them and fires burned ever closer to their pinned and broken bodies.

Suddenly it dawned on her how right Blood's Honor teachers were. She had signed on with New Bravaria and stuck with it for the desire for power, to be a military leader leading men and women into battle for her own glory. Now, for the first time as a cadet, she realized a true task of any trooper should be to defend life and why pulling a trigger at an unknown enemy should not be quite as easy as New Bravaria instructors made it seem. She glanced down at the sonic stunner all Blood's Honor personnel and cadets had to wear and for the first time found comfort in it being there. She patted it and managed a slight smile. Everything sudden came together as she decided Blood's Honor was exactly where she belonged.

Her thoughts were shattered as a thick fiber optic cable dropped from above and Chip's voice eagerly called down, "We just had our first real break this goes all the way up to Delta and exits into the frame staging area. There are over dozen frames still attached to the walls with the securing brackets and more than can easily be counted scattered all over the place up there. Even better the main ammo locker is completely intact as is one of the refit gantries. It even has power!"

Tracy checked to make sure her heavy weapon and stunner were secure then grabbed the cable, "On my way!"

Derek rolled his shoulders as he exited the camouflage covered cooking tent with a large covered tray of food. His hour and a half of work was rewarded almost instantly as the others all turned to look with an eager anticipation. He forced himself not to smile as he made his way over to the captured machine they had set up as a meeting and eating area.

He again had to stifle a snicker as Brandon gazed down from his guard position with a bit of disappointment. Derek looked up, "I got you covered Ell Tee, There is another plate in the warmer waiting for you to get off guard."

Brandon gave a thumb's up and a brief grin, "Thanks Derek."

"No problem." Any word from the Major? I have plates for him and Lawson too."


Derek frowned, "They have been gone over 6 hours and it's almost dark."

"Knowing Joel, he got to the station, didn't find much or didn't want to get too close then found some ruined buildings and started exploring, seeing what they can find. They probably lost track of time. After all we are on a rock where the ruins go all the way back to the Machine Wars and Joel is the biggest History freak in BHJMA." Brandon scanned the horizon real quickly before glancing down again with a big smile. "Trust me, if they take too long we'll all be happy to eat their portions."

"You ain't worried?"

Brandon snorted, "Not with Joel being in a frame. He is in the two best situations possible in his way of thinking. He is in a frame with history surrounding him. He probably hasn't even thought about us or food since he left unless Lawson has started to pester him, but judging on how those two are getting along I kind of doubt it. If they are still out at sun up and we haven't heard from them, then I may start getting nervous, and probably not even then."

"I wish someone would have told me, I could have finished dinner early, but I was waiting for them."

"Our bad." Brandon shrugged. "We are just so used to Joel, it never occurred to us the rest of you might be getting a bit jumpy with how long he has been gone. When you go in there let Paula know none of the rest expect him to be back for several hours still."

"OK…" Derek paused as he caught sight of something over Brandon's left shoulder. "Um, Ell Tee, is that an incoming landing craft to the south?"

Brandon spun and scanned the skies for a couple of seconds before spotting a burst of yellowish red light. He quickly amplified his frame's vision and pulled up an ultra-violet enhancement. "Holy Crap, great eyes! It sure is and it is another large one. Get that food inside and let the others know we have more activity, this time much further to the south. I will send a feed over to Delta One for computer enhancements along with my frame's range feeds. Let Gabe know so he can get us a general idea of where it is landing."

"Should we go on alert?"

Brandon chewed on his lip for a second, then shook his head, "Any alert status change is up to the onsite commander which is Gabriel at the moment, but let him know I don't see any reason at this point. It is coming down way to the south and we are in a secure location. Let everyone eat and rest."

"You know, for an abandoned rock, there is sure a lot of activity!"

"Yeah, tell me about it." Brandon clenched his fists, "Let's put one more frame in standby mode just to be safe, who is next up?"

"Ensign Thompson is on standby now and I am on standby when she takes over your shift. You want me to put my frame in power-up mode?"

"It'll mean extra maintenance, but yeah, just to be on the safe side."

Derek pulled the side door to the captured machine open then glanced back to the descending landing craft. "You got it. I'll let Gabriel know what you want. It may be a good idea to keep two on quick ready from now on."

"Tell him those are my recommendation as well."

Joel rolled his head as he walked up the hill. The two cadets between him and Lawson were clearly starting to falter. The fact the footing had gotten worse as they entered into rugged rocky terrain was not helping any of them. On the other hand, the jagged old lava formations meant they had finally moved out of the Sand Scorp territory. In addition, there was little vegetation so the larger and highly dangerous predators on the Brile grasslands and forests were not a threat here. There were still an arachnid like ten legged highly poisonous spider and a much larger centipede looking creature with strong mandibles to contend with in the old lava flows on this area of Brile, but neither had the power to puncture even the light environmental suits the other two kids wore. This meant they were basically safe for the first time in several hours.

Just as Joel was getting ready to call for a break, Lawson held up his hand to stop the others and took a knee. Joel glanced around making sure there was nothing behind or to the sides before he moved past the other two kids and up to Lawson. The second he saw what his friend was looking at he motioned for the other two to move up and join them. He took a few seconds to scan the area with all the visual modes built into his frame before he knelt next to Lawson. "You got us here. Great work."

Lawson sounded a bit disappointed as he answered, "Yeah, well, I'm not sure how much we are going to get out of whatever that used to be."

Joel looked at the mangled armor carrier and shook his head. "I think it used to be a Black Comet."

Liam nodded, "It was, but to be honest I'm amazed you can tell. Somehow I don't think the pilot survived."

"You mean the pilot didn't abandon with you?" Lawson asked in some horror and astonishment.

Saul responded, "The Lieutenant Colonel wouldn't let her. She told her to take it in for a controlled crash landing cause the equipment on board was too valuable to simply slam into the planet. Beside, she blamed the pilot for getting caught in the storm to begin with so in her eyes the pilot deserved to go do with the ship."

Lawson's face turned into a nasty smirk, "You know Major, sometimes killing is exactly what needs to happen to people."

Joel raised an eyebrow then sighed, "Well, looking on it in that light, I guess knowing just how evil she was will let me sleep easier."

"Killing her did everyone around her a huge favor Major." Liam stated forcefully. "Both her underlings and the captives will breath a great deal easier with her not being in the picture. She was a true bitch."

Joel stated to say something about the use of language but stopped himself at the last second as he noticed Saul nodding enthusiastically. Neither Liam nor Saul was part of BH nor did he feel he had any right to stop them from venting some of their anger and frustration. The fact they felt the woman's subordinates would be thankful to see her die didn't sit well with him, but if it helped the hostages then something positive could be made out of his blatant use of too much force.

Joel focused his attention back on the skirmish in the woods with a bit less guilt over having fired his missile rack at such a lightly armored target. Still, he made a vow to himself to be a bit more careful in the future. There had been absolutely no reason for him to respond so violently since her weapon could only do minimal armor damage to his frame and he had an array of weapons which stood a much batter chance of doing less damage to her. All things considered, he knew his dad would be very displeased at his actions, and this knowledge hurt almost as much as him having killed the woman in the first place.

A nudge form Liam broke his train of thought. He glanced over only to see the kid pointing off to the west. He scanned the area for a couple of seconds but nothing moved other then a section of the wing's shredded armor flapping in the wind. "Am I missing something?"

"There's a trail in the debris leading either to or away from the crash, you can see the track marks just to the right of the main wreckage."

Joel carefully scanned the area Liam was talking about for almost a minute before spotting it. The sighs were so light he actually had to take a few more seconds to make sure it was actual track marks, but the more he studied the features and the impact and skid trail the more the track marks stood out. "Dang, I would have never spotted them! Good eyes!"

Liam managed a grin, "I was specializing in recon cause my instructors said I had a knack for it."

Lawson whistled softly, finally spotting the trail himself, "They were right. If you hadn't said something I would have been almost on top of it before I noticed it."

Saul reached over and patted Liam on the back, "He was the best out of any of us in finding scorp dens too." He paused as he surveyed the area around the wreck, "But now that I know what I'm looking for, it appears to me there is only one trail, which means it is either still there or it left."

"And it's recent," Liam added, "cause even as we are talking the wind is erasing some of the signs of its tracks."

Joel nodded to Lawson then jerked his head toward the side opposite the track marks.

Lawson grinned and gave a quick thumbs up before he backed down the hill the way they had come. Once he was sure no one could see him from the crashed ship he started to circle around. Ten minutes later he used his ultra short communicator to radio Joel. "Nothing's moving from inside as best I can tell. I can see a small dust trail headed to the west away from us and the crash site, so my guess is whoever it was got one of the tanks working and bugged out. Over."

Joel replied almost instantly, "OK, I'm going to come in where anyone can see me then. Keep me covered in case there is any shooting. We need to move fast if by some miracle one of the crew survived and is heading back to their unit. Over."

"Wilco, sir."

Joel turned to Liam and Saul. "Saul, you are a sergeant so you are in charge of the two of you. Keep your heads down and rifles ready. I'm going to go in. If there is any heavy fire do not engage, if it is only small arms then feel free to give Lawson and I some cover."

"Not a problem sir." Saul quickly responded while Liam simply nodded.

As the two kids watched Joel slide around to the east just a bit so he would not be seen approaching form where they were hunkered down, Liam spoke softly. "Something is very odd here. How come I haven't seen any cadre and why are they in such big frames with no markings?"

"Great questions." Saul shrugged, "But until they are ready to give us answers I'm just along for the ride. One thing I can tell you is Lawson was considered an up and coming star at the Andar Academy. When his guardian wanted to take him off world and he wanted to stay, our cadre offered to bend the rules to keep him but needed to find a reason, any reason to keep him. So much so that word was quietly passed down looking for someone to sponsor him. Because he was in my force and I was hoping to get him transferred into my squad, I talked to my dad, who agreed to pay the tuition. Unfortunately, a kid in another team got his hip shattered in a live fire accident so he was moved to fill the spot temporarily. Then he became one of the team's best shots so unless I wanted to make a scene or have my dad pull strings getting him into my squad became impossible.

"He didn't know it but I did finally talk to my dad and Lawson was going to be transferred into my squad as my second after the tournament. Until now I figured he was either killed or managed to get off Andar with the others that Blood's Honor pulled off… Oh my God!"

Liam frowned deeply as he looked over at Saul, "What?"

"He's with Blood's Honor!"

"Huh?" Liam's brow crinkled in confusion.

Saul shook his head with a bemused grin. "Think about it. He is with another academy, Blood's Honor pulled off a huge number of the competing cadets and hundreds of royalty from other worlds. In addition the cadet Major over Lawson is beating himself up over killing that wench colonel, they were flatly against killing the others and both their frames have stunners!"

Liam smacked his forehead, "It fits, all of it. Blood's Honor does everything they can not to kill. It is one of their creeds. Every one of their cadet frames carried a stunner even during the competitions, which cut down on their frame vs. frame weaponry, not that they needed it. They were kicking our butts in almost every skill set.

Liam kind of snorted. "On top of all of that, they both looked like they saw ghosts when we told them we were being guarded by the Ulysses 6th armor. One of them even commented about round two with them."

"Exactly." Saul sighed. "And we have both heard from our captors the Blood's Honor cadets did most of the fighting against the 6th. Most of the replacements keep muttering at least they weren't sent here because a bunch of snot nosed brats beat the crap out of them like the Andar survivors of the 6th. It all makes sense except they don't have cadre with them and how in the hell did Lawson get taken in by the most elite academy in known space?"

"The cadre is a huge mystery, for sure. "Liam countered. "But since your former classmate is now a master sergeant, it would seem to me he must have helped kick the crap out of the 6th. In addition, it wasn't just the cadet Major saying it was round two. I believe it was kind of worded like 'I can't believe WE are staring down round two' or something along those lines."

Saul paused to watch Joel stand and move toward the wreckage. His hand tightened on the laser rifle for a few seconds, but relaxed when nothing happened. "Well, all I have to say is if Lawson was one of the 'snot nosed brats' then I hope he can help do it again, cause the last thing I want is to be the guest of Lord Talborne again."

"Amen." Was Liam's only response as he saw Joel enter the fuselage and come out a few seconds later waving the all clear. He stood, took one last look around, then jogged up to where Joel stood.

Lawson made his way over from the far side slowly continuing to keep his eyes peeled. "What's the deal Major?"

Joel glanced into the man sized hole he had briefly checked out. "The Rapier is in there as is the salvage rig and repair platform, but it looks like someone drove the Slasher right out the other side."

Liam entered the craft and pulled out one of the glow sticks procured from the Ulysses troopers Joel and Lawson had taken down. After several minutes of looking around he came back to the others who were working on unstrapping the Rapier and the repair platform. "Whoever it was also took some of the repair equipment from the salvage rig. It also looks like someone spent some time fixing the Slasher as there is a section of tracking off to the side, but I don't think they did a very good job because the tracks leading out the side of the hold show the left side track is wobbling slightly."

"How far do you think they can get?" Joel asked as he glanced out the huge hole the tank had made when it exited the ruined ship.

"Hard to tell on the rocky type surface we are on now. I doubt it will go too far before it slips the track completely, but whoever did the repair took extra track right off the basically destroyed salvage rig which is built on the same chassis so they must have known their repair wasn't very good.

"The weird part is it wasn't one of the crew, the pilot is dead in the cockpit, the ship engineer is kind of splattered all over the comm room and the five of the other six who were with us are dead inside the other escape pod that didn't eject for some reason."

What about the sixth one?" Lawson asked instantly.

Liam jerked his head toward the back of the ship. "Well, there is the really strange part. She is unconscious and tied up on the floor just outside the far side pod. Her arm looks broken and she has a nasty cut on the side of her leg, but judging by the fact her injuries have been treated and her nose and both ears are slightly bleeding just like the jerks we left back in those strand of woods, I'd bet money on a sonic stunner shot at point blank range. Probably more than once."

Joel made his way over to the tied woman and glanced down. "Leaving her here tied up is basically the same as killing her. We can't do that."

"Whoever left her like this must agree with you, Major." Liam pointed to a knife left sticking out of the cushion of one of the passenger seats close to where the woman was tied up.

"Ah." Joel raised an eyebrow. "You really are going to make a top notch scout. You notice everything!"

Liam snickered, "For some reason I have a knack for it. Most of the kids in the scouting classes I went to struggled to notice half of what I do in double the time. Now if I could just shoot half as well as I repair stuff and pick up on small crap like this, I would really be getting somewhere."

He paused for a second, "Still I think I could have taken you Blood's Honor guys on some of the tracking and scouting competitions if we hadn't been attacked by Talborne."

"We don't loose easily…" Joel stopped and hung his head. "Yeah, OK you figured it out."

"We weren't positive, Major, but we were pretty sure you are from BHJMA. It's the only explanation for some of what you have said and how you act and react." Liam flashed a bit of a grin. "But, to be honest, we only figured it out after you got us here. Where in the hell is your Cadre and what are you doing on this god forsaken rock anyway?"

Joel let out a deep sigh, "Well to be honest we are on an independent cadet only mission and we think they put us here to hide us from Talborne. The guy is really angry at us."

"So are the survivors of the 6th and those who transferred into it. The 6th is the shame of Ulysses. It is the division that was bested by cadets."

"Yeah, well it wasn't the only unit we crushed that night. We shattered a huge chunk of a frame force too."

Saul came over, "Yeah, we know. The guy you let have his weapons was in Subato's force and was one of the last to fall from you all. He actually showed us where he got hit and it was pretty wicked. His right side has a nasty shrapnel scar from his armor being breached. One night he was left in command because he was not fully healed and everyone else was needed to fight off what sounded to me to be a massed machine assault.

"Anyway, he came in with some extra food rations and a couple of medics to look after all of us. He was actually pretty nice. While the medics were working on us, he actually took some time to talk to us. I don't remember how it came up but he ended up telling us that he was on Andar and told us not to worry too much about some of our friends cause they were probably on Forest Garden. He also told us some Bloods Honor cadets lead a bunch of others on Andar and all but wiped out the frame force he was in. They hit the ground with over 120 frames operational but only six frames were left standing as your last ship lifted off. He said the force was the elite Palace Two and a Blood's Honor cadet frame killed his commander.

Liam seemed to grin with some satisfaction as he spoke up. "Yeah, their commander was Subato, son of Lord Talborne!"

"So we have been told." Lawson sighed.

"You guys should be proud! You took down a Talborne in the first hours of the war!" Liam half shouted.

"One of us did. At least that is what our briefing said." Lawson kind of shrugged. "But we have no idea who."

Saul managed a bit of a grin, "Well according to the Major, Subato fell from a large laser if that helps any."

Lawson raised an eyebrow as he looked over a Joel. "Yeah, knowing the weapon system kind of narrows it down, cause only one of out there was crazy enough to mount a large laser on a cadet frame."

Joel lowered his head. "Just great, that's two I know for a fact I have killed now."

Liam smacked the back of Joel frame, "Hey, you did good. Real good. That Major also told us Palace Two's original mission had been to stay in space and drop to cut off fleeing royalty of other worlds trying to make it to their private yachts once they were located. Because they ended up fighting and falling to you, many royalty managed to escape on their own ships and I guess were whisked away by Forest Garden cause they ended up only capturing four or five yachts out in deep space."

Joel nodded slowly. "I heard we gained space control early in the fight somehow. I was told by my dad our space marines captured like 15 Space Fold Craft left undefended when we took out their Command Ship and a screen of five others guarding the fleet. I guess they didn't expect to get heavy resistance, especially so far out, from what dad said, they didn't defend them real well. We used those SFCs to get dozens of private yachts out of the Andar system. I didn't realize many were royalty till now though."

"Yeah." Saul's smile grew, "He said the same thing. I guess you captured tons and tons of supplies too, cause the Major said Ulysses troops didn't have the needed ammo and supplies to pacify Andar quickly so many of the outlying militia units had time to organize and go underground. Even now Lord Talborne continues to loose troops as they fight a well armed and determined guerrilla force."

Joel frowned, "I wonder how much of this BH knows? I wish I could get that intel to my Dad."

"Your dad is high up in Blood's Honor?" Saul asked.

"High enough." Joel replied cryptically. "It seems our Intel on Talborne should be a bit better though, considering we are here and so is his forces."

Liam shook his head snickering as he did so, "Well it is nice to know even the vaunted Blood's Honor screws up royally some times."

"Oh?" Joel glared as he stared into Liam's eyes. "I would agree this is a bit of a mess, but I can't see how this is a royal mess."

Saul responded, "Well, with all do respect Major, can you think of a worse place to put cadets they are trying to hide from Talborne than on the one world Talborne is trying to use as his secret staging and supply area to attack Forest Garden and the other planets that joined you all."

Both Joel and Lawson responded at the exact same times as their jaws nearly hit the floor of the cargo hold. "WHAT!"

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