Castle Roland


by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 9

Posted: N/A


Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons

Knowing Friends and Enemies

Chip winced slightly as Tracy squeezed the skin together on his sliced up hands and put a layer of skin glue over the cuts. "Why in the heck does this stuff have to sting so much?"

Tracy snickered, "Other than the fact it has all the anti-infection stuff in it one could ever need, I think they made it burn so no one would play with it, cause it really would be fun to play with if it didn't." She finished on the last cut and sealed the tube, "There you go, but you need to keep your hands still for a few minutes cause some of those were awfully deep."

"I noticed." Chip sighed fighting the urge to shake his hands as the sharp pins and needles sensation seemed to intensify. "So which of these frames do you want?"

Tracy glanced around the bay and played her light over several frames still secured in holding cubicles. Not happy with what she was seeing she switched to look over quite a few others scattered all over the deck. After a few minutes she sighed. "To be honest the ones I like the best are way too big for my build, but none of us are going to fit into those command frames nor are we going to fit into a guerilla frame."

She stood and walked around. "Quite a few of theses are really badly trashed, but the holo-vid was right. There are still several we can use and quite a few others we can fix. There are some Aggressors and a trio of Intruders we could certainly use and a few I don't even know the names of. The question is how do we decide who gets what, shouldn't it be based on rank or something?

Chip shrugged, "Probably, but the two of us are the first ones here and we both badly need frames and need them quickly. Those gun shots were not all that far and it has been a couple of hours since we heard them. If they happen to be heading this way then we should be in something better than ragged e-suits to greet them.

A humor filled glint flashed though Chips eyes. "Besides, since Candice put me in command, and you said yes to accompany me to a dance, I am basically giving you first choice."

Tracy laughed long and hard, "Somehow I don't think saying yes to a dance should get me special treatment, but who am I to tell my commanding officer he is wrong!" Still giggling she made her way around the whole bay taking a few minutes to look at various frames before she suddenly stopped in front of a smaller, somewhat thin one with not a flat surface to be found anywhere on it. Having never had never seen one like it before she took a closer look.

With a bemused frown she pulled off the securing brackets and popped the back hatch. The inside was clearly designed for someone small. "This one looks interesting. What about a start up code?"

Chip frowned for a second then shrugged again as he started his own search for a suitable frame. "Hit the power to the start up sequence."

Tracy glanced down, then, with some trepidation, she reached in and flipped a switch. Quickly she withdrew her hand when a red warning light came on. "It's going to want a start up cod real soon here Chip!"

Chip nodded. "I know." His voice become loud and he spoke clearly. "Command over ride, Forest Garden royal family member Beck, Chip, code Golf, Alpha, Whiskey one seven Delta eight three November. Release and clear all codes. Ready for new owner!"

A metallic voice sounded out form the frame. "Command over ride granted Chip Beck. Awaiting new owner voice codes and weapons are free. Will revert in two minutes unless new codes are input."

Chip couldn't help but smirk as Tracy stared at him for a few seconds with a totally astonished look. "I told you I was from a royal family. You best climb in there and give it new codes or it will lock out again and I don't have a secondary unlock code for it."

Tracy shook off her amazement as she quickly climbed in and ordered the frame to start up and started changing everything from weapons release codes to start up codes. Less than a minute later she looked over the displays and whistled softly. "This baby even comes with built in ECM!"

"It's a relatively new frame for BH. It's called Ninja. They are not nearly as expensive as most ECM equipped frames but are still pretty nice. Newer forces especially forces composed of almost all new graduates from schools below the Command College, tend to get a few to help cover their flanks, but there are better and higher tech frames in here we could probably get you into if you want. There are a number of garrison frames we could pull the size adjustment systems out to let you fit into some of the larger frames."

Tracy shook her head as she tested the movement of the frame and stepped out of the holding pod. "Nope. This will do just fine. It shows no damage and I already like the feel of it. The weapons someone stuck on this is really a joke though!"

Chip let out a humor filled snort. "Even better cause our orders are to change weapon systems and add electronics. It would kind of suck to find a frame you want with the right weapons cause then you would have to change out to things you don't want."

Tracy popped the back hatch and stepped out nodding. "Good point. Which one are you going to take?"

Even as she asked Chip was kneeling next to a small slender sleek looking frame with an almost sinister appearance to the head. It looked kind of like a snake head. "This is my baby right here! I can't believe there is a Viper in here!"

"A what?"

"A viper. It's is almost a prototype. Several of us got to play with Vipers just before the tournament. Bloods Honor has been trying to figure out what type of frame would be a decent starting frame for those graduating from the lower schools yet going straight into Forest Garden frame forces. This was one of their answers. It comes with a pretty interesting array of stuff including a satellite uplink and a fully auto admin medical unit. I'll have to add some kind a visual enhancements cause it doesn't have any but that is easy enough and we have to add electronics anyway."

"It's armor is a bit heavier than your Ninja and it has more power but its base move is slower. On the other hand it can take quite a bit of weight before slowing than the Ninja, so I bet we'll end up at about the same speed and we'll both be pretty fast."

Chip paused and looked around, "You know, the more I look around the more I get the feeling this whole team was basically a green team fresh out of one of the lower schools at BHJMA. There are very low tech garrison frames, nicer but still fairly low tech Aggressor and Intruder frames then some nicer ones that are basically too big for us. The officers and upper enlisted were probably older adults while the rest were fresh grads, which is why there is so many frames for smaller people. A lot of grads are not fully grown yet, many do not hit their full size until they are in their late teens or early twenties. It all fits for a group of 16 year old grads to be using some of this.

Tracy raised her eyebrows, "How in the name of God does Blood's Honor afford to get this kind of equipment to brand new graduates?"

"Blood's Honor has its ways Tracy. I bet sooner rather than later you will start to understand there is far more to BH than just Forest Garden and Blood's Honor."

Tracy took a deep breath, "Well it's a good thing there is cause Blood's Honor is going to need all the resources they can scrounge until Talborne is dethroned and all the worlds he is crushing are freed."

"Sometimes the need to fight is there and when the need is the greatest Blood's Honor is always on the front lines." Chip's voice took on a confident tone as he started getting the frame he selected up and running. "One way or the other Talborne will learn what many other tyrants have over the last few hundred years. Evil can only take you so far and there is always those to help bring it to an end. Blood's Honor is only part of the solution, but in this case it will be a very large part."

Tracy nodded. "With any luck we will get to be part of it." She then sighed, "But in the mean time I guess we better get to work setting these beasts up then get back to the others so the rest can frame up as well. After all, we have a machine factory to locate and destroy."

Terrin knelt next to Beth and looked in the general direction the girl was staring. "OK, you are being way too quiet. What is going though that strong willed head of yours?"

She continued to stare out of the tree line. "Why would you think I am thinking about anything other than finding Candice?"

"Because I have known you my whole life, we have been in the same classes and we have faced each other in everything from marksmanship competitions to sparing each other. You have said nothing, asked no questions and got your gear ready over an hour ago. You think you know where she went or you at least have narrowed down the possibilities."

Beth let out a long breath of air. "Once I calmed down enough to actually think it though, there is only one real possibility. Candice would never want to stay on this rock forever and she thinks she failed all of us and does not want to face the truth, she is not ready to be a leader yet."

Terrin frowned, "So she wants to leave, but not with us? How is she going to get off Brile without BH?"

Beth finally turned to stare right into Terrin's eyes. "She is going to try to hitch a ride with someone else."

"Who?" Terrin felt his mouth go dry, "Oh my God! She dropped out and made a bee line to the lander Chip saw going down. She would have heard everything, seen the gun camera vid and probably plotted a rough crash zone area!"

Beth nodded, "That would be my guess, and I bet it is a really good one. She figures even if she ends up with some ruffians she will make out OK because she can pilot a frame and fix them as well. Even as young as we are, there are mercs and pirates alike who would die for skilled framers and take us in to fight for and with them. Then, the first chance she gets she will abandon them and try to make it on her own or find a half decent or brand new merc unit to take her in.

"You know as well as I do we have all joked over the fact we are all good enough to fight for and with some of the smaller merc units. All of us have seen live fire and have taken combat damaged to our frames. The battle on Andar only confirmed what we already knew. We are frame pilots, good ones."

"I know you're right, but come on, we are kids. No one worth a crap or with a decent reputation would take in one of us!"

"Really?" Beth stare hardened. "The truth is there are many merc units and more than a few planetary militias who would give us a shot if we went in demanding one and Candice is cocky enough to do it. There would be nothing stopping any of us from finding work, even at 12 and 13 years of age. There are kids younger than us fighting on hundreds of worlds across the whole of this galaxy. Or have you forgotten New Bravaria?"

Terrin lowered his head as he conceded Beth's point. "How could I ever forget the place where nightmares became real life. BH probably should have never let any cadets land let alone see what we all had to." Terrin shivered at the memory. "Earth Core tore the heart and soul out of the entire system and many of the mercs fighting for it. By the time we got there many of the mercs were using kids as young as 8 or 9 to hold the lines or at least guard the rear while everyone else was at the front."

Beth held up her hand, "Exactly my point. It may not be right, but there are mercs out there who have more than a handful of kids filling out their ranks and when push comes to shove the planetary militias are no better on poorer worlds.

"I can still remember Joel, Gabe, Chip, Karen, Cory, Brandon and me moving up to a crippled tank in our cadet frames to ask if they wanted help. Gabe jumped up with some food packs, only to find a kid slightly older then we were, with nasty shrapnel wounds, some of them infected, manning the machine gun on the top and a couple of others with him manually loading the main gun.

"They ripped into the food packs, but didn't even get them half finished before the kid on top shouted out a warning and opened up on full auto. The main gun turned per is directions, locked onto an Earth Core APC and killed it. Before any of us, other than Joel, realized what was going on we found ourselves in a major fight.

"That was the first time any of us took live fire. The kid stayed on top firing at full auto as a pair of Earth Core Slasher tanks came straight at us. None of those kids backed down, determined to prevent more deaths in the rear area. The kid on top even yelled at us to fall back and he would do the best he could to protect us."

Beth kind of snickered, "I think that was the first time any of us really saw who the true Joel was. He tossed down the first aid equipment and food he was carrying and started firing. It was almost like he became possessed. He took a few nasty hits but didn't even fall down. Instead he moved forward followed by Gabe. I radioed the situation in but pretty much had to move forward as well cause both Joel and Gabe were taking some heavy fire but they each scored a kill. Cory also moved forward destroying an APC and a full squad of infantry with a zeal only Cory can display. We thought it was over, but the rest of the armor from the EC team showed up and it looked hopeless. Then out of the snowing sky, Blood's Honor frames started dropping in. it was almost like it started raining frames.

"As it turns out, it was a darned good thing we got to them when we did or that kid would have certainly died and at best the others would have been captured by Earth Core. Joel even took a breach to his frame before a the full team of Blood's Honor frames that dropped on top of us ripped the heart out of the armor units and pushed forward with a determination I didn't know existed until then…"

Terrin nodded. "I was at the main landing area when the first communications from you came in. Those first few radio intercepts sent some shockwaves though the entire BH Command. Our Intel was way off. They didn't realize they had sent cadets into a hot zone. Less than an hour later all of Shadow brigade dropped in followed by at least a dozen other training forces. Never before or since have I seen Joel's dad so angry or determined. In the hour it took to get me and all the other cadets who were not out in the field to the main staging area, Colonel Price had pushed Earth Core and all the mercs working with EC back almost 200 kilometers and our aerospace assets had shredded literally everything Earth Core had from the first planet all the way out to the seventh.

"Then, when we found out EC had dropped rippers into non-combatants and wounded warriors, my dad ordered in everything we had held in reserve. Our warships blasted ever single ship EC had and our fighters tore into their air assets on all three worlds. As far as I know it remains the only time in BH history where the primary orders where changed from saving lives to preventing any enemy combatants a chance to escape. It was rather disappointing to my dad when he found out the EC commander and his staff had all shot themselves rather than face the wrath of BH and all the New Bravaria worlds."

Beth paused and let out a light sigh, "Putting those monsters to death legally would have been a great thing. Too bad EC managed to make it look like the whole operation was rouge. I know they paid New Bravaria billions in war reparations, but no amount of money could make what they did right."

Terrin shuddered and had to blink back tears as he recalled the battle for New Bravaria. "I was part of one of the scouting missions tasked to check on the reports of ripper use. I guess Command didn't believe it or simply had no clue how bad an air drop of rippers was. I puked my guts out when we got to what was left of the refugee camp and field hospital. There were pieces of bodies everywhere and many of the survivors were barely clinging to life missing arms, legs or even chunks of flesh. I actually found one kid who had both his feet cut off by one of those God forsaken things. Someone had used wire just below the kid's knees to cut off the blood flow and somehow he was still alive.

"I carried him back to our medical area balling my eyes out the whole time. I think I cried more than the kid did, but he was all but cried out and had to be pretty close to death. Dad had to get me a new frame afterwards, too, because I was convinced some of the blood from all those bodies was still on it."

Terrin took a couple of calming breaths. "So I know in my heart you're right. Someone will take in Candice, but the thought causes my stomach to churn. We have to find her and get her back." He paused and decided to switch topics away from what he saw, knowing if he didn't the nightmares would return. "So do you happen to know what happened to the kid who was manning the machine gun back on New Bravaria?"

Beth nodded. "As a matter of fact I do. Gabe threw a fit when he found out the kid was basically wrote off as dead. As a matter of fact he went absolutely nuts because if it hadn't been for that kid continuing to fire at those tanks and drawing some fire away form us, there is a better than even chance none of us would have made it. Joel joined then so did Chip, and where the two of them go, so does Cory, so he joined in as well. Between the four of them they cornered Joel's dad to the point where Colonel Price secretly had the kid sent up to Shadow Brigade's Command PLC and put in a regeneration chamber. We then had our best surgery team remove most of the shrapnel and put the kid through the regen chamber again. Amazingly enough, he made it.

"Colonel Price then sent him back planet side and gave one of the hospitals an older rejuvenation chamber and told them to give the kid the best treatment money could buy and pretend they were the ones responsible for his treatment, cause we didn't even know who his family was or if they were alive when we took him up to the Command Ship.

"To the best of my knowledge everyone, including the kid, thinks he was put into the older rejuvenation chamber for heroics done when he got the shrapnel to begin with. It had something to do with bringing down an Earth Core ship, but I never got the full details. The next time you see Joel or Gabe ask them since they were in regular contact with the kid up to a month or so before Talborne poked his head up out of the turd pile."

"Wow, sounds like a myth in the making, saving a bunch of BH cadets and bringing down an EC ship. Do you happen to know the kid's name?"

Beth stood and brushed some sand off her Eco-suit. "I am sure I heard his full name somewhere along the line, but I don't remember it. His first name was Robin though."

Terrin shivered lightly as he tried unsuccessfully to shake off the memories of New Bravaria. "One of these days we are going to need to find him and make him one of us officially, but right now we need to find one of our own. You up for taking out one of the Daggers since it's dark and we spent so much time painting them?"

"You want to go after her now, before Chip gets back?"

Terrin nodded. "Cory and Jason can hold the fort here while we take Stella as a gunner. We have to see if we can track her or the lander down before she does something even stupider than she already has!"

Beth glanced over the makeshift base camp for a few seconds before shaking her head. "No, I think it would be better if just the two of us go. You can drive and I'll stay in the turret, but we should go see if we can grab Chip and Tracy and with any luck some frames, it isn't too far out of the way and the frames would give us the firepower to deal with any non-machine threats. Besides, it would be far better if we had three here to protect the equipment, supplies and fuel."

"Good points. Fire up the second Dagger. I'll go tell Cory, Stella, and Jason the new plans."

Karen exited the back of the captured machine and stretched. As always Derek's cooking was top notch and she had eaten a bit too much. She glanced over to Paula, who was on guard. The girl gave a single nod, but said nothing as she continued to keep her eyes and sensors ever scanning.

As nice as it was to know her fellow cadet was taking the guard duty seriously, especially out here, Karen shook her head kind of sadly. All the efforts to get Paula to loosen up by her and Jennifer had thus far failed miserably. Since Paula was one of only three females in the group it was a bit frustrating to not have a closer relationship with her.

Karen thought over the situation as she moved over to the shower units and took a quick rinse down to get the grime of the day off her skin. She then soaped up and rinsed again, being careful not to waste a single drop of water.

The solar powered humidity water generators had spent the last 8 hours of daylight working full time and they had only filled the water tanks half full, but this was no real surprise to any of them as they knew they were in a particularly dry area of Brile and making matters a bit worse was the fact the area seemed to be in a bit of drought. Of course this had been a guess on the part of BH, since weather records, if they had never been kept, had long ago been lost.

Still, half a tank of water for a shower was more than enough for all eight of them as long as none of them got greedy. Besides, if worse came worse there was always the sonic shower. Still, she glanced up at the water tank with a light sigh knowing one of these days it would be full and she would be able to take a nice long warm shower. Exiting, still putting on her Eco-suit, she nodded to Derek as he made his way into the shower.

He nodded back then paused, "Hey, would you be interested in a patrol for an hour or two?"

Karen quickly nodded, "Sure! Any particular destination, or are you just going a bit stir crazy?"

"To be honest, I know none of you are really worried, but I'm a bit jittery with Joel and Lawson being gone so long so I want to scout out in the direction they went. But, I've also been studying the old overlays we got when the briefing updated out maps. There is a mining station just outside the 15 klick circle we scouted out, but it doesn't show up on the maps we were first given. I am kind of curious why and it is pretty close to the direction they went.

"I'm definitely game." Karen stated showing a great deal more interest than Derek had expected. She then grinned as she sensed his surprise, "Besides, I need a few extra patrols to work off your cooking."

Derek's lips twisted up into a bit of a smirk, "You know, back on Black Jungle they used to give out cooking as an extra duty when we got into trouble. I don't think they ever figured out I actually liked doing it even after I managed to snag cooking duty six out the last seven times I got extra duties for demerits."

Karen snickered, "We'll keep our mouths shut when we get back to Forest Garden, because cooking is one of the punishments for extra demerits at BHJMA too. The weird thing is they make you sign up for your duties and I can all but assure you cooking is one of the last to fill up."

"Awesome!" Derek almost shouted. "Finally, something to remind me of home in a good way!" He started to remove his E-suit, glancing around to make sure there ware no uninvited creatures that had made their way into the shower. "So, I'll meet you by the frames in ten?"

Karen gave the older boy a warm smile. "I'll be there!"

Liam pulled himself from under the Rapier bringing a bent fan blade as he did so. Pausing to wipe sweat and grime off his face he pulled a bag of tools from under the tank and stood while yelling. "I think I got it Major. Fire it up and see if she works."

A few seconds later the skirts inflated and the hover tank lifted off the ground. There was no sounds indicating a problem and inside the cockpit Joel found all diagnostic systems were in the green. He gave a thumbs up.

Liam quickly motioned for Joel to power down with a satisfied grin. He turned to Lawson who was busy using his frame to move some of the heavier scavenged equipment into the back of the hover tank. "Master Sergeant, I should be able to finish up in 20 minutes or so. All I have to do is replace the armored grates protecting the fan blades and double check the filters. The only problem we have is fuel."

Saul glanced over from the back of the salvage rig where he was taking as much equipment off as he could scrounge. Unfortunately, the crash landing had all but destroyed the vehicle and many of the tools had been taken, probably by the driver of the other tank, but there was still quite a bit of usable equipment inside and attached to the sides. "It had a full tank of hydrogen. I know, I had to fill it."

"The safety release valve got damaged and shunted everything out of the fuel cells." Liam explained. "All it has left is one of its two reserve tanks and we are lucky it has that. The crash pinched the feed from the second reserve so it is still half full. I fixed it all, but we only have twenty to thirty kilometers before it is dry."

Saul took a sip out of his canteen and shook it showing some disappointment. "Well I am all but out of water as well so it sounds like we need to find a water source. It's too bad whoever stole the other tank took all the food and water from the storage or we could just refill our canteens and make enough hydrogen to get us well away from here."

Joel exited the Rapier and leaned against the skirting. "Well, we could probably make it back to our squad if we made a straight line, but I really don't want a straight path leading from here back to our camp. Lawson, since you are good with maps, is there any water sources around here?"

Lawson pulled up the topographic maps and looked them over for a few minutes, "As a matter of fact, we have one about 4 kilometers from us, but it looks like the trip will be closer to 10 maybe as much as 15 klicks because we will have to go around the bluffs. If this map is correct they're really steep and jagged. The other problem is it will take us close to the center of the magnetic field we have been fighting."

Joel glanced at his on board clock, "Well, crud. At this rate the others will start getting worried, but we can't chance leading anyone back to our camp and we need water to make Hydrogen for fuel and to replenish our drinking supplies. Fortunately, we scavenged enough equipment off the salvage rig to do both. While you plot us the best path, I will help Liam so we can get out of here. Whoever was in the Slasher could have gotten out of the jamming and sent a signal for help by now."

Liam pulled himself back under the tank, "If you want to do this quickly, we'll need you to hold up the armored mesh while I set it in place Major. Your frame and its hands will be 10 times faster than using jacks and hydraulic lifters, especially since we are using the two best ones to hold this thing up so I can get under it."

Joel quickly slipped back into his frame. "Sounds good, just tell me what you need. My ability to repair armor ends with frames and aerospace units. Anything else either needs to be basically the same kind of work like patching armor or I am only good for holding a wrench."

Liam chuckled. "Then it's a good thing you rescued me sir, cause they would have made me a mechanic if I had not been so good in scout and survival school. As much as I love being a frame jock, I really ain't very good at it yet, which is why I am only a senior private. On the other hand if it needs bolted, welded, jury rigged or kicked just right, I'm the one people in my frame force came looking for."

Saul chuckled as he continued to salvage equipment from the wreck. "Our force on Andar could have sure used someone like you. We were always having to deal with equipment issues and I think if we put all 155 of us together we couldn't make a single decent non-frame mechanic."

Lawson jumped down from the destroyed vehicle to give Joel a hand holding up the heavy armored mesh meant to protect the lift blades of the hover tank. "Yeah, just before I went to the cadet competition area, we ended up having to do a full 100 click march because one of our transport rigs broke down and none of us could get it working."

Saul took a deep breath, "Oh what an awful week and a half! We ended up putting all the repair equipment for our frames, the damaged frames and those who were just too weak or hurt to make it in the other two transports and did the whole thing on foot. By the time we got back my legs were raw from rubbing up against the padding in my cadet frame and my feet were basically all blisters. Of the fifty in my team, only 19 of us actually managed to make it back to the barracks on foot."

Joel glanced back over as he used the powered arms of the frames to hold the mesh still so Liam could bolt it back into place. "Blisters? Didn't they size your frames on Andar?"

Lawson answered, "Normally, yes, but the whole point of the mission was very similar to what we are putting up with here. It was an organization mission to show us how to cope with getting an equipment drop. We were flown into a small camp without our normal equipment and sent out 155 cadet frames and equipment needed to outfit them along with food and other standard equipment. The orders in the supply drop told us we were then supposed to take a small base and capture transport back to the academy. But our commander screwed it up right from the start and it only got worse the further we went."

Liam grunted from under the hover tank, "Hey, don't stop now. I want to hear this!"

Saul sighed, "OK, fine, but even talking about it will give me nightmares tonight!"

"Oh this must be really good then!" Joel snickered.

"Only if you weren't there, Major." Saul kind of snarled at the memory. "The problems started from the second we got to the field camp. The place was up on a plateau in one of Andar's largest military jungle training areas. We had no clue what was going on since the cadre sounded an alert and had us form up outside the barracks in the middle of the night. They didn't check our gear like normal either. Instead, as we were still getting formed up, half a dozen large transport Vertical Take-Off and Landing craft set down all around us and we were hustled aboard.

"We were then dropped off at this makeshift camp with 20 old repair gantries and 4 crappy long wooden buildings. The cadre then disappeared into the last departing VTOL and left us. Our force commander did the only thing he could think to do which was get us into our teams, units, and squads, do gear checks and wait. Problems appeared almost instantly as many of us didn't have everything we were supposed to in our alert gear. Fortunately, I was better off than most as my squad had a set procedure of each member checking the next lower ranking member's gear before leaving the barracks and the lowest member double checked mine. But many of the others in the force had little to nothing. More than a few didn't even have water or food and over half didn't have spare power packs for lights and radios, which we all soon discovered had been drained."

Joel cocked his head to the side with a rather shocked expression, "The cadre tampered with your stuff?"

Lawson responded, "I think the cadre used an EMP projector on our barracks. It knocked out all the lights so we had to grab our stuff in the dark and it also drained all the power-packs in our equipment, but the shielded tubes the spares were supposed to be put into prevented them from being effected. Only three of us in my entire unit had bothered to put our spare packs into the tubes because the tubes weigh like 2 kilos and most of the kids hated to carry the extra weight. The only reason I had mine was I thought carrying the extra weight would make me stronger since I am not very big or strong."

Saul grunted, "Strong enough to get selected for the competitions. You were the only one in our force to get to go."

"Only because I am a good shot."

"Good? Bullshit, you were the best in the whole force!" Saul fired back. "That's why I was going to get my dad to get you transferred into my team, since I was going to be made a team leader and was gong to get to select my XO once the competition was finished."

Lawson turned sharply, "I heard you were probably going to be made a team leader cause everyone in your squad made it back to the barracks and they had basically changed the whole command structure based on who made it and who didn't, but I didn't know I was going to get transferred."

"Well, everyone in my squad realized there was something weird happening before we left the barracks so we were able to grab fresh packs, cause to be honest until then I didn't carry the shielded tube either. So everyone in my squad grabbed spares out of the emergency box in the barracks where they kept extras. We also put some extras in our tubes and grabbed them figuring there was a chance they Cadre would hit us again. It also told us something was up, so we cheated and grabbed extra rations and water. I think we were about the only ones who knew going out of the barracks there was more going on than just an alert. You stood out pretty well though. You were the only one in your squad to make it back on foot. Your actions out there are the primary reason why I was going to be allowed to take you as my XO."

Joel glanced over, "OK, enough of what was going to happen to Lawson. He is now Blood's Honor and with any luck the two of you will be as well. I want to know what happened on the mission!"

"Me too!" Liam half shouted from under the tank. "Get on with it already!"

Saul shrugged, "OK, sure. Well it was crazy. The VTOL's all had blacked out windows so we couldn't even see where they were taking us. The one thing we did know is it was a long way, cause we were airborne for a good three hours. The cadre handed each of us a pair of ration packs and a hydration pack while we were in flight but told us nothing and refused to answer any questions. Then, when they set down they dropped the back assault ramps, told us to grab our packs out of the overhead storage, and hustled us all out the back.

"Within minutes after being dropped many of the others started to realize there was major problems. The insects were awful, some kids didn't have any food or water, most had no lights or radios, and a few didn't even have a spare set of clothing or bug netting. Making matters even worse, all the extra power stuff we tended to put into our packs was dead as well so everything from games, to music players, to GPS units were useless.

"Kids were freaking out from one end of the encampment to the other. Our Tactical Officer took the lead and ordered everyone into the buildings and had those of us with bug netting drape ours over the walls and ceiling using the light from those of us with charged power packs. We made up camp as best we could, but by morning more than a few kids were crying. At least morning brought an end to the nocturnal bugs and the sun allowed those who had solar rechagers in their packs to recharge power cells. But as evening crept up on us, things were starting to break down a bit. My team leader was even going around begging for food and water since she didn't have either and had eaten the food we were given on the transport."

Joel's lips twisted upwards, "At least we know why you were going to be made a team leader. Your former one was an idiot!"

Lawson nodded, "Yes she was, but her dad was a royal big wig, so we had to put up with her."

Saul snickered, "Well not even daddy could help her keep her slot after they reviewed the video from the camp. From what I saw they had to have scores of cameras hidden around the plateau transmitting everything back to them."

Lawson looked shocked, "They had it all on camera?"

"Yup!" Saul nodded with a snicker, "Even the fist fight between our XO and Operations officer."

Lawson chewed on his lip for a second. "Huh, well now I have an explanation for the extra duty and demotion of both of them."

Saul snickered despite the memories. "The day and a half before the supply drop gave the cadre all the ammunition they needed to promote and demote at will. It was awful and somewhat embarrassing for those of us allowed to review it."

Joel slid down further and held up another section so Liam could continue to secure the armored mesh. "So they stranded you for a day and a half then dropped you supplies?"

Saul took a deep breath, "What they sent us was one step up from junk. There were 155 old garrison frames with spare parts, crates of practice grade frame weapons, five days of food and water, and a packet of orders telling us we had to get the frames operational. Two days were spent just fixing the frames to the point where we could fight with them, but even then, we could have, and in my opinion should have used another day to really get them up to snuff. As it was, we ended up using foam block padding included in the shipment to size most of them to us. An extra day and we could have had most of the Auto sizing units fixed and used foam for a few. Those few would then have had the chance to take the best fitting pre-sized pads so even they would have been basically comfortable.

"But our Commander had had enough and figured good enough was just that. Finally, after almost 4 cursed days on the top of the plateau we moved out only to get even more screwed up. Our Force Command Squad took us the wrong direction, getting turned around as we came down from the plateau even though a few cadets, including Lawson, tried repeatedly to tell them we were way off track.

"A day later we ended up in some nasty bog a good 40 klicks the wrong direction from our objective. The mud got into our hydraulics, seeped in though spots in the armor where the repairs had not been made well enough, and dozens of kids including me ended up with horrible rashes. The muck and water really messed up some of fames bad too. One kid in Charlie team got burned pretty bad when water shorted out his power system and fried the computer unit. We also came really close to loosing two others in quick sand, but luckily our Tactical Officer saw them go down and had two others grab the feet of his frame while he went in and pulled them out.

"Finally we found a mostly overgrown logging road which took us in the direction of our objective, but even then we had to take it really slow. We found out the hard way the bridges were as old as the road and not kept up. About half of Alpha team was on one of the wooden bridges when it started to buckle. 3 kids ended up falling in the river as the entire left side folded under the weight of all the frames on it. The Alpha team XO broke his arm when one of the overhead supports came down on his frame and blew out the elbow hydraulics as he was trying to hold onto one of the kids in his team who was had slid off. Amazingly enough, he managed to switch hands and still helped the kid back on the bridge, but we had to call in for a medivac for him since we couldn't even get his arm out of the mangled armor and it was bleeding."

Lawson used his frame to rip the large medical kit off the side of the destroyed armor platform before he joined back in the conversation. "You should have seen how many freaked out when the medical VTOL came in, grabbed the kid who got burned, the Alpha Team XO, and one girl from Bravo who had managed to get burrow leaches, helped us pull the three out of the river then took off without even looking over the rest of us."

Saul kind of snorted, "At least they gave us some cream for the rashes."

"I fixed my frame right. I never got any water in mine, so I never got one of those rashes."

"Then you are lucky!" Saul growled. "My left hand started leaking after I had to pull one of my squad out of some deep mud he got stuck in. Nothing in our med kits seemed to work on it either. But after 8 days we finally found the small base and tried to capture it… and promptly got our butts kicked."

Lawson nodded in total agreement. "The cadre made it look like a soft target. It was nothing more than metal fencing surrounding a dozen building with a trio of guard towers."

Joel shook his head, "There is no way they would send an entire frame force against something a single unit should have been assigned to take!"

"Our Tactical officer said the same thing just before our commander ordered us to do a full on rush assault. We didn't even make it to the fence before pop-up turrets started ripping into us and the towers sprayed the entire front rank with huge rubber rounds knocking down all but a handful of us. By the time we hit the fence we were under 50% and then the buildings opened and disgorged a full team of garrison frames. We didn't even take a single building before our Tactical officer ordered us to surrender." Saul stated with complete disgust.

Liam moved over to the final spot needed to bolt the armored mesh into place. "From what I am hearing it sounds like your Tac officer should have been the commander."

"He would have been if Talbone hadn't ripped Andar from us." Lawson responded. "He got promoted and our former commander was bumped all the way down to supply officer. The XO was down graded to Charlie Team XO and our Operations officer was failed for the year and got dropped down a full class. We were told other spots would be reassigned and I had heard through the rumor vine Saul was slated to get a Team leader spot. New ranks were supposed to be handed out after the competition."

Saul nodded, "Now we need to turn the tables and figure out a way to rip this god forsaken rock from Talborne."

Joel stood and glanced over with a nasty snarl on his lips as Liam slid out form under the tank and started lowering the jacks, "Brile isn't his yet."

Lawson raised his eyebrows, "Major, we'll nee a lot more than 10 of us to take this planet."

The left side of Joel's lip turned upward in a truly evil looking grin. "Once we find the others there will be 18 of us then we are going to get our other supply drops, free us some more frame cadets and do whatever it takes to show the Ulysses 6th Armor Division and all those supporting it Andar was not a fluke."

Liam felt his jaw drop open a bit, "Are you seriously talking about trying to beat the entire Sixth?"

Lawson slowly nodded as a bit of a smile overtook his frown, "As a matter of fact he is… Again."

Saul glanced over, "We are gong to need more than a bunch of sick frame and armor cadets to make it happen sir. From what we were told you had hundreds of frame cadets helping you on Andar."

Joel nodded and his voice took on a truly scheming tone "Well, if what we heard on the briefing was correct Blood's Honor has some friends on this rock. All we have to do is find them and explain the situation."

Lawson's smile faded as what Joel was implying hit him, "The Ultras!"


"The what?" Saul asked in total bewilderment.

Joel pointed to the tank, "Let's get out of here and find some water. Once we get back to camp everything will become clearer."

Saul stepped into the tank as Liam powered it up, but he quickly looked toward the back of the destroyed lander, "What about the survivor sir?"

Lawson responded, "She'll sleep for about another four or five hours with the tranq patch I slapped on her and she should be safe in the escape pod since we closed and latched the door. I also left some of the food and water in the survival kit, so she has a couple of days worth. Those supplies along with the knife someone left her certainly gives her a fair shot and that is all she is going to get from me."

Lawson took a seat on the port side of the tank while Joel took the starboard side, each figuring riding was better than walking at this point and it would allow them to use their frame weaponry to add to the relative light firepower on the tank. "Do you think it was the other squad?"

Joel shook his head, "At first glance I would have said yes, but Terrin would have fixed the Slasher and probably this Rapier too."

"So we have another unknown?"

"It would appear."

"Just great." Lawson muttered as he plugged directly into the side of the Rapier so he could talk to Liam and Saul. "I'll guide you in and we'll keep our eyes open for hostiles. Let us fight if it comes to it and back us up."

"Understood." Liam responded. "We only have what is aboard for ammo for the cannon so with the exception of the twin small lasers we only have enough for a couple of fights and to use the lasers we would have to power up the amplifiers which would burn more fuel."

Terrin angled around the first set of hills and pushed up the speed on the Dagger once he hit the valley. The fact the Dagger was a hover made navigation easy since all he had to do was follow the mostly dried up river bed all the way up to the to the main search area.

What took Chip and Tracy couple of hours took Terrin and Beth only 20 minutes even with the detour. Suddenly Beth's voice came over the speaker. I have a pair of heat sources just over a klick ahead, both are vehicle sized."

Terrin quickly powered back and side-slipped to get closer to the hill. "Can you get me types?"

Beth took a few moments to study the IR outline before she responded. "Hard to tell on one, the other is a hover machine, it is stationary and hovering, but it is smoldering. It looks like the turret was shot off it."

"Alright, so it shouldn't be able to do anything too us. Should I bypass or take a closer look?"

"Take it slow, but I want to get an ID on the second."

Terrin badly wanted to turn off the ECM and do a quick sensor sweep but held off knowing a full sensor scan could easily be picked up by the machines if any more were in the area. Instead he powered down further and slowly glided forward.

"How weird can you get?" Beth's voice was guarded as she spoke.

"What do you have?"

"It's a wheeled machine, but it's dead. It looks like it lost control and flipped as it came down the hill. It is still burning on the inside too. I can see dark flashes of heat coming out of the left side."

"So what's strange?"

"Well a quick switch over to ultra violet shows some of the rocks on the hill got blasted pretty hard."

Terrin shook his head, "Well so much for Chip not engaging. On the other hand the only reason I am surprised is there was two machines. I never thought he would try to kill two without tanks or frames."

ldquo;Me neither, but what is odd is the area up on the hill has laser burns and two lager fracture points. It looks like the hover and the wheeled both fired at the same area really close to the same time, almost like they were working together."

Terrin remained silent as he brought the Dagger in for a closer look at both machines. Seeing the flames slowly flickering around holes where the wheels had once been he let out a long breath. He paused for a moment and hit the external lights. As the wreckage became fully visible he whistled softly. "Wow what a mess."

"Agreed." Beth stated with some concern. We better continue moving and find them in case one of them was hurt."

Terrin pushed the power of the Dagger back up and moved down the valley at an ever higher rate of speed keeping the external lights on so he could easily see potential dangers. Even as he was still pushing more power to move forward, they crested a hill and even as dark as it was they could make out the mangled superstructure of a PLC. Terrin activated the spot lights and quickly pulled back on the power again letting out a sharp gasp as he did so. "They really did crash a ship!"

Beth looked out of the turret using UV enhancements searching for other dangers. "Did they ever! There is debris out almost a klick and a half out from the main wreckage, especially in this direction. It looks like the best chance we have of getting in close without risking the Dagger is from the far side of the lake. All the ground right around the ship has a vast amount of stuff we really don't want to set down on top of."

Terrin once again put the Dagger into a side slip, angling down the hill away form the wreckage yet still toward the lake. As more of the devastated ship came into view Terrin realized he was actually holding his breath. Forcing himself to breath, he managed to whisper, "You know, the briefing may have been real. This is extreme even for my dad and Joel's."

"I was thinking the same thing." Beth responded with a trembling voice. "There is no way Command would slam a Husky into a planet on purpose. There is like a billion worth of ship sitting here."

"More if you include what is on it." Terrin once again forced himself to take a breath. Even as awful as it was to look at he couldn't tear his eyes off the carnage. "This is the first time I have seen a crash site of a PLC."

"Mine too. Unless you include us seeing all those Ulysses ships falling out of the sky back on Andar."

"Well I saw them falling but I never saw the aftermath. It must have been terrifying for those still aboard."

Beth continued to stare at the superstructure and the deep gouge in the planet's surface where it had first hit. "It almost looks like a large meteor impact site. I sure hope all the crew got out."

"Me too…" Terrin's response was suddenly cut off as a laser struck the side of the dagger. The sizzling hiss of melting armor told him of the situation even before the control panel signaled armor damage. "Bandit, port side!"

Beth spun the turret and instantly spotted a pair of wheeled machines. "I have two wheeled at 10 o'clock!" She sited in and let loose with all four rail guns mounted in the turret. Two of the four struck the front of lead machine causing it to wobble and slow, but did little else. A moment later both machines opened up hitting the dagger with two more lasers.

Terrin spun the dagger hard so he could get the front weapons of the tank to bear on the machines. As he did, he gulped as a hover machine came out of the woods on the far side of the lake and made a bee line toward them. "I have a third hostile!"

"Get to the water!" Beth shouted, the wheeled machines can't follow us over deep water!"

Terrin did a sharp spin throwing the aim of both wheeled machines off. All four laser flashes streaked by the starboard side of the tank. He used the maneuver to his advantage as he fired both front mounted medium lasers at the hover tank as it came into his arc, "What about Chip and Tracy?"

Beth snarled through gritted teeth as she fired the rail guns again, "We have to be alive to help them! Get to the water!"

Chip let out a long breath as he hefted a Quark blaster into place and secured it to the right arm of the Viper class frame. He rolled his head and yawned as he poked his head back into the frame and started connecting up the power links and the tie in to the targeting computer. Once satisfied he pulled his head back out of the back of the frame and took a large swig of water.

Looking down at the rest of the equipment he had found to install on the frame he paused and glanced at his watch. Scavenging what he wanted to totally change the configuration of the frame and then pulling off all the old weapons had taken a great deal longer than he had expected it would. Almost an hour and a half into setting up his frame he had only gotten one item put in place.

A glance over to Tracy told him he was not alone. She was currently working hard at finalizing the mounting of what was obviously going to be her big weapon, a massive heavy gauss rifle. He couldn't help but grin as he glanced over at the gauss rifle she had carried the whole way here leaning up against the wall next to her frame. Clearly she liked the weapon system.

Chip knelt and carefully put the armored covering over the weapon and made sure it was secure before moving over to his pile. For a moment he thought about installing the ultra-violet and infra-red optical enhancements, but just as quickly changed his mind knowing those were by far the easiest to install and he had lots of work still to do to get the weapons installed and operational.

The heavy rocket gun and large laser went in smoothly, but Chip found hooking up the light gryo was no where near as easy as he thought it would be. The targeting system tied into a smaller board on the computer which was blocked by another board he hadn't expected to find in the frame. Muttering he tried to remove the board only to find out it was fixed. "Well what moron decided to make IR standard in a Viper!"

Tracy's voice sounded from behind him, "Problem Chip?"

Chip jumped at the unexpected sound and smacked his head on top of the back hatch of the frame. "Crap!"

"Oh, sorry! You OK?"

Chip pulled his head out of the back of the frame rubbing the back of his head, "I'll live." He glanced over at the Ninja frame, noting it was powered up and looked ready. "You done already?"

"Yup, I found what I wanted quickly and even as small as the ninja frame is, BH made it really easy to install weapons and electronics. You need a hand?"

"Only if you can get your fingers in behind an IR board. I just can't tie in the gyro in to the back of the computer. I might need to find something else instead of the light gyro."

"Pull the board."

"Already tried. It seems someone at BH decided a Viper needed Optics after all and made IR a fixture. The only problem is whatever engineer decided it was such a great idea, didn't think about why it was not put in to begin with. The IR unit almost completely blocks the tie in to gyro and gauss weapons."

"I got long fingers let me give it a shot."

Chip gestured to the back of the frame, "Be my guest."

Tracy stuck her head in the frame. A few seconds later her muffled voice told Chip she was as annoyed as he had been when he saw how the IR unit was situated. "Well, you're right, someone didn't think this over well at all! I think I can get it, but this is really stupid!"

A few more grunts and growls came out of the frame before Tracy let out a triumphant shout. "Got ya!" She continued to set up the weapon link and had the computer do a diagnostic to verify she had indeed managed to get the hook-up into the proper spot, "OK you're good. I see a UV unit in here, You want it in?"

"If you can get it behind the IR unit."

"Not a problem. Go ahead and configure your ammo bins and load her up. I'll do the internal adjustments."

"Awesome, thanks!"

"I'll be more comfortable if we both have frames ready to go."

Just as the two kids finalized Chips frame, Tracy called out. "Say Chip, how are we going to get these frames down? I don't think we will be able to climb down the way we got up here. There is no way some of those stairs will support the weight of us inside frames."

Chip let a bit of a grin cross his lips, "We are going to jump."

Tracy jerked hard, smacking her head on the back hatch in almost the same spot as Chip had earlier. She grabbed the back of her head muttering a few curses before looking Chip square in the eyes. "Are you serious?"

Chip nodded and pointed to a fairly large hole in the side of the ship leading to the outside. "Yup."

Tracy glanced at the jagged tear noting she could see stars, "We are like five decks up and the angle is pointing kind of up. There is no way!"

Chip shrugged and pulled a pair of high power rocket packs out of a locker next to the ammo storage, "All we have to do is put jump packs on…"

Tracy shook her head wildly, "I have never done a real drop let alone tried a jump pack! We only simulate those until our final year at NBJMA"

Chip started to say something but the words caught in his throat. Instead he found himself staring at Tracy, wondering if she was being serious. At the same time, the return stare from her told him her thoughts were basically mirroring his, only coming from the opposite viewpoint. He blinked a few times, "You have never done a drop?"

"Drop pods cost money and I happen to come from a world still trying to rebuild after Earth Core nearly wiped us all out. If it hadn't been for Blood's Honor I don't think there would have been a native man or woman left in the entire system. Years later there are still areas in some of the ruined cities without running water or power. Entire blocks of my home town of Ansbach II are nothing more than shanty town ruins controlled by gangs and thugs where the homeless can at least find some kind of shelter and the power and water are sporadic at best. The Polizei don't even go where I lived before the assaults, north of the river."

"The police?" Chip asked as he clipped the short range rocket packs on the back of both frames.

"Yeah, sorry, Polizei is German for police."

"No big deal, I know enough German to be dangerous, sound stupid, or act stupidly dangerous."

Tracy snickered. "Nice line, I'm going to remember it."

Chip put on a light grin. "You'll hear it a lot from us. So why don't the police go north of the river where you grew up?"

"Well, the whole area is a waste land of ruins and sink holes. EC troops dropped magma-bombs over the military base and must have figured the area around it had lots of troops as well. When they hit the ground then sent supersonic chunks of molten metal everywhere killing most and burning things I didn't even know could burn until then. The remainder of each bomb melted right through the buildings, streets, even the ground and continued to burn for days. They hollowed out the areas they landed in so some times whole sections of ground cave in.

"Making matters worse, the sewer systems under the area are unstable after all the bombing so there are other collapses from them. Every time one happens, shedders pour out of the openings and they can kill and carry diseases too. Fortunately they can't swim, so Ansbach II finally dropped the last bridge over the river to contain the outbreaks."


Tracy noticeably shivvered, "The intro video calls them Kenjets and says they are mostly confined to caves in the hotter regions on New Bravara IV, but everyone from New Bravaria knows they have moved into just about every sewer system in every city on all three worlds except for those close to the poles. They rarely come out as they hate light, even starlight. We simply call them shredders. From what I have read, they are kind of like old Earth vermin called rats. They have six legs and a hard grayish brown to grayish red shell. At most they grow to a third of a meter in length, a half a meter if you include the tail of the males, females don't have tails. If you manage to pin a lone one, it will roll into a ball totally covering itself in its shell. Short of a bullet or laser, the only way to kill them when they ball up is with a sledgehammer, axe or something similar. They bite hard and in packs can shred a man in minutes, thus the nickname."

Chip got a sour look, "Yuck!"

Tracy closed her eyes and took a deep breath, "Right after the magma-bombs fell all I heard was screaming, most because they were burning alive, but more than few others because the shredders fled the sewers to escape the flames and ripped into whoever and whatever they could find."

"Dear God! You were there when the bombs fell?&rdquo

"I was in school, pre academy testing actually. We thought EC had fled the system so things were starting to return to normal. Then the air Raid sirens went off. Before we could move down to shelters, a magma-bomb hit the east wing of the school while many of us were out on the playground. We scattered is chunks of molten metal started raining down on us. Most of us sought shelter in basement of the school kitchen. It quickly became just as dangerous to be down there as it was to face the rain of fiery metal."

Chip couldn't help it, he knew his eyes were wide but couldn't hide is shock at what he was hearing. "For God's sake, why."

She paused and glared for a moment. Realizing Chip didn't understand, she let out a growling snort and pulled hard at a rip in her eco-suit opening up a large hole just below her right hip. She then yanked down on her pants exposing her butt cheek. Right where the back of the leg became a butt cheek the skin had several nasty indentations and scars, "This is why!"

Chip stared at the damage somewhat shocked Tracy had just exposed so much skin. For a moment it didn't click, but after a few seconds he realized he was looking at teeth and claw marks. "There were shredders in the basement?"

Tracy nodded while pulling up her pants. "When I think back to the bombing, I bet there was a sewer close to the basement of the school. The bombing probably broke open a spot where they could get through and flee. We just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the how and why doesn't make any difference. We were over run. My best friend fell and didn't get back up as did at least a score of other kids and teachers. One latched on to my butt as we started to run back outside but we were stopped by a squad of framed up mercs. The second they saw the situation, the leader shot the one tearing into me while others opened up on others trying to eat others kids. While they got them off us, he ordered the rest to move forward. They rushed past us and started blasting the shredders while another squad moved up to defend those of us who were still alive.

"It was then I knew I wanted to be a frame pilot no matter what, to do for someone else what they had done for me. One woman climbed out of her frame and started tending to our wounds while the others used their frames to rip sections of the walls down to protect us from magma-bombs and Shredders alike. We stayed in there for several hours before the mercs allowed us to move out. They then guarded us all the way to a refugee camp. I remember the whole area was an inferno and debris kept falling on us even though we were trying to say in the middle of the biggest streets. The framers of O'Connell's Grenadiers held pieces of builds over us to protect us until we got out of the city."

Chip let out a surprised gasp, "A kid from the Grenadiers helped us fight off an EC patrol."

Tracy let out a side sigh, "I'm not surprised. Their framers were incredible. Even as exhausted as they were after holding up whatever they could find to protect us, they never faultered. Instead they kept us moving, even carrying me and a few others who were badly hurt or bitten until we got to the camp. But getting there was almost as bad as being in the city. It had been hit by ripper." tears flowed out her eyes as she recalled the horror. "Blood's Honor was already there, but those mercs, even as they searched the field for their comrades and kids, never left us unguarded."

Chip moved up and gave her a hug, "When we got into system we were not ready for what was going on. We had now idea how bad it was until well after well after we hit the ground. A few of our frame forces established a quick secure area and moved out pushing back EC forces. Command then inserted us behind the lines to help where we could. But as cadets and BH troops saw what was going on and what EC had done, Joel's dad kicked into a gear I didn't know existed. He sent an emergency zip ball directly to Forest Garden and within hours every graduate of BHJMA still on forest Garden was activated as well as any class within 6 months of graduation."

Tracy returned the hug trembling slightly as she did so. "From what I saw and heard, those mercs were on the verge of going suicidal on EC as were many others at the camp. If BH hadn't reacted the way they did it is hard to tell how bad things would have gotten.&ddquo;

Chip took a deep breath. "It was the largest BH mobilization in history. While Gabriel's mom sent everything she could to the Alien Fold Gate so our forces could fold directly to New Bravaria, Shadow Brigade did hard drops right into the middle of EC lines. Those of us out in the field tasked with humanitarian relief suddenly found our cadet frames with active weapons along with orders to defend any and all New Bravaria citizens and or defending mercs.

"At the same time our air and space assets stopped trying to push back EC forces. Instead they abandoned the fight defensively stance and opened up with everything they had. Squadrons of Inner Planetary Superiority Craft ripped though the Earth Core screening ships opening up paths for our warships to blast capitol ships, transports and supply ships.

"By the time our destroyers, frigates, cruisers and battleships came into system, Earth Core was in a full re-supply and reinforce mode, but Brandon's dad was having none of it. Reinforcements sent by EC didn't even get a chance to adjust to having folded into system before they found our heaviest guns blasting holes clean through their space fold craft and our missiles knocking chunks out of their Planetary Landing Craft. As far as I know, it is the only time our Peace Maker anti-ship missiles have been fired in battle. Making matters even better other planets in the Avalon Breakaway Republic were starting to send in support for you all so EC never really stood a chance, but they still kept coming for almost a week.

"I heard Joel's dad say it was almost like they were possessed by the way they were sending ships in. We later found out a general alert had been sounded out and all EC ships within fold range had been ordered into the system. It still amazes me EC has maintained it was a rouge operation when all evidence says they were hell bent on tearing your system apart."

Tracy took a deep breath. "It had something to do with the destruction of one of their main PLC's shortly before you all got their. A crazy story was being circulated about a kid taking it down, but whatever really happened to it, it killed someone major from EC when it slammed into New Bravaria IV.

"The mercs who were protecting us as we pulled out of Ansbach II hit a supply column of EC armor so they could get ammo and all of us food. One of the wounded EC troopers they captured said The Great Grandson of Emperor Kywanis was aboard their flag ship when it went down and EC troops either had to extract revenge or face a horrible death on return to EC space. I think it was all just talk, but who knows."

Chip took a step back, "The Emperor of Earth Core had a great grandson on the Fluvius Camillus?"

"The what?"

"The EC flag ship brought down by the kid you were hearing about, Robin…" Chip's words were cut short as a spot light played off the superstructure of the ship followed seconds later by laser flashes. "What the…"

Tracy turned sharply then sprinted to her frame, "I guess I am going to do my first real rocket pack leap after all; is it secured properly?"

Chip nodded as he slid into his frame and double checked all the settings Tracy had done. Satisfied, he took a deep breath and spoke through the external speakers. "Let me go first. We only have about two minutes of burn with the weight of our frames. We are already angled up so do a short burst to get clear and then fall for a few seconds then do a series of burns getting closer to the ground with each one."

"I've done the simulators dozens of times."

Chip gave a thumbs up as he ordered the frame to close. He held his mouth open to cut down on some of the pressure as the back hatch closed up and overpressure of air caused his ears to hurt for a moment before the computer equalized air pressure. As more laser flashes could be seen from outside, he did a quick diagnostic check all the while moving toward the gash in the landing craft leading to the outside. Once the computer verified all key systems were operational he used the ring finger on his left hand to ignite the rocket pack.

Instantly four metric tons of trust exploded out of the back of the pack hooked onto the back of his frame. Chip gritted his teeth as pressure built up in the legs of the frame keeping more blood in the upper part of his body to prevent blackout. At the same time he used his pinky and thumb of his right hand to adjust his flight path and his pinky and thumb of his left hand to alter course left and right.

It took less than a second and a half from the time the thrusters ignited to the time he was clear of the ship. Below he could clearly see the spot light and front lights of a Dagger as it radically swerved to the right while side slipping. The spot light of the Dagger pinpointed a machine hover tank coming in at full speed from the tree line on the north side. A moment later four lasers flashes lanced out of the darkness to the east reveling a pair of wheeled machines.

Chip felt his blood run cold as he saw yet another hover machine angle in hard from the west. Knowing the Dagger could handle two and possibly even three machines, but not four he cut his first burn and allowed the frame to freefall well beyond what would ever be allowed at the academy. He then pushed hard with his ring finger letting out another blast of thrust, slowing his decent. Just before he hit the ground the frame once again started to gain altitude. The second he felt the move upward he cut back on the thrust but didn't totally kill it. For a tense 5 seconds he continued to adjust the thrust while keeping his frame more or less straight up and down. Finally, when the computer registered he was only five meters from the ground he killed all trust and fell toward Brile.

He tucked himself into as much of a ball as the frame would allow and rolled to take as much of the impact as he could with momentum. Still he cringed as he felt his right arm get jammed a bit and the frame chirped out slight armor damage as his right arm smacked into some debris littering the ground around the doomed ship. He came out of the roll and took a snap shot at one of the wheeled machines with his large laser and followed it up with a shot form his quark blaster. The laser missed, but the quark blaster put a deep gouge in the front right and caused the machine to veer hard to the left.

His arrival was clearly noticed by both the machines and the Dagger alike. The two wheeled machines spun to fire on Chip while the Dagger's turret turned and fired a quartet of rail guns at the lead hover machine.

Inside the Rapier, Liam nudged Saul and pointed to a bright beam of light cutting though the night air only a couple of kilometers form them.

Saul gulped as he spoke to Lawson, "Looks like someone is already at the lake, do you want to detour?"

Joel responded, "No, just back down on the power. There is so much active ECM and natural magnetic interference we would almost have to step on someone for them to see us. Besides there is a chance we know what is behind the light source and we actually want to make contact if possible."

"Alright Major."

Lawson glanced over and spoke aloud so the two in the tank couldn't hear. "Even if it one of the friendly ultras, we can't make contact with all the Electronic Counter Measures."

"I know, but we need to find out if they are going to fire on us…" a series of laser flashes and the unmistakable sound of a sonic cannon shot stopped Joel's response cold. He turned his feed on to the tank, "We have weapons fire…"

Liam's voice came back cutting Joel off, "And there is a Hover machine angling toward the fighting sir, it is in the woods at about two o'clock."

Joel and Lawson both jerked their heads at the same time. Lawson was first to spot it followed a split second later by Joel. Lawson started to raise his weapons only to see Joel hold up his hand.

"Why not engage? We could kill it before it even knows we are here!"

"But if there is a friendly machine out there and it sees us fighting a common enemy we could get communications going on the right footing." Joel answered with a bit of scheming in his voice.

"Oh… Good call sir!"

Joel half grinned, "I try." He then spoke to Liam and Saul, "Slide in behind it and follow. Let's see where it is going in such a hurry."

"Wilco, Major." Saul responded as Liam pulled back and set a path to get in directly behind the machine.

Less than a minute past before the superstructure of a crashed PLC came into view. Lawson was first to speak, "What in the hell?"

Before any of the others could respond a burst of flame shot out of the upper decks of the ruined ship followed moments later by another, only the second didn't clear the craft properly. It bounced off something and headed more or less toward them.

"Rocket pods?" Saul asked from inside the Rapier.

"Yeah." Joel sighted in the floundering frame and activated his telescopic sight enhancement. The ECM made it fuzzy, but he was able to see enough to realize he was looking at on of Blood's Honor's newest frames, a Ninja. "It's a BH frame and it is going down hard! We have to move in!"

"Sir," Liam shouted, I have a wheeled machine at the water's edge moving in on the downed frame."

At almost the same time, Lawson smacked the shoulder of Joel's frame and pointed toward the far side of the lake, "The light is coming form a Dagger, and it's armed the same as the one the other squad had!"

"Screw this!" Joel snarled, "Your weapons are free. We protect the downed framer first then help the Dagger!" Joel jumped off the left side of the moving Rapier and fired. A moment later, Lawson leapt off the right side and did the same. Missiles, rockets, ballistic weapons and energy weapons erupted out of the treeline and streaked toward the wheeled machine in a manmade wave of destruction.

With the top clear, Saul swung the main cannon around and hit the auto-loader putting a round into the breach. "So much for us holding back."

Liam glanced over with an almost happy smirk, "Good; I am tired of being the one being beaten on."

The right side of Saul's lips twisted upwards, "I hear ya! Keep her steady so I can get a good shot."

"My pleasure."

On the far side of the lake, Chip shook off the pain in his right arm and stood, ordering the frame to forcibly eject the rocket booster pod on his back. Even as four small explosions blew the pack off his back he moved on the machines at a dead run. He didn't take time to aim carefully, but fired everything except his stun rifle. The time spent on Blood's Honor ranges and in live combat against Talborne and others proved their worth as everything hit. Most caused deep armor gashes but the heavy rocket gun did some internal damage. Sparks sprayed out of the right side of the machine and the third wheel back locked up forcing the machine to slow and turn to the left to keep going straight.

He didn't even have a chance to give a triumphant shout before one of the machine's lasers hit his left leg. Once again the computer chirped out armor damage. Before it had a chance to give him an alert of another hit to his left shoulder, he ordered damage warnings silenced. He ignored the second wheeled machine and once again fired everything he had. Anger cause the light gyro to miss, but the rest all impacted into the already heavily damaged side. More sparks along with some flames and smoke rewarded his efforts. Unfortunately, the machine continued and once again Chip grunted as a laser hit him in the chest.

He slowed to a walk and once again brought all his weapons to bear. This time he took the extra few seconds to aim. This allowed the machine to pop him with another laser shot, but when he let loose everything he had mounted on his frame. His marksmanship came center stage as the impact points were all within a small area. Armor melted and blew inward; the already weakened armor was no match for the frame mounted weaponry. A large explosion followed. Even before the machine stopped flames were pouring out of both turrets.

Chip turned sharply as he noticed the second machine had abandoned him as a primary target and was instead going after something else. His blood boiled as he realized the target was Stacy, who had clearly not been as successful as he had been in doing a rocket pack jump. The girl was face down at the edge of the water on the far side of the lake. "Tracy!" He found himself shouting as he fired his large laser at extreme range, barely missing the machine as it fired on the downed girl.

Chip glanced around in panic as it dawned on him there was no chance he could get to her in time and making matters even worse was the fact the Dagger was fully engaged with a pair of Hover machines.

He took a couple of deep breaths and knelt knowing the only chance he had was to cripple the machine at close to maximum range with the only two weapons he had capable of shooting at such a long distance. He took a moment and let loose with the quark blaster then adjusted his aim and fired the heavy laser again. The blaster missed but the laser scored a hit on the machine's right front. It didn't slow or even act as if it had noticed. "Come on Tracy get up!" he yelled into his radio, knowing in his heart it was useless to do so with the jamming pod blanketing the area.

A moment later, however, everything changed as laser, missile and tracered machinegun fire exploded out of the tree line on the opposite side of the lake. The wheeled machine seemed to stagger at the intense fire ripping into its left side. Then, before the machine could even get its turrets turned to face the unexpected new comers, a Rapier hover tank came out of the woods and fired a cannon round. A fireball almost 10 meters high went up from the machine charging Tracy. Tires bounced high into the air and bits and pieces of the wheeled machine went everywhere. A few moments later multiple trials of missiles spiraled out of the woods and impacted the machine. A secondary explosion tore the whole thing in half.

Chip took a deep breath of relief, but suddenly his UV vision enhancements picked up a pair of dolphins circling a large number six on the side of the Rapier hover tank. He felt his blood run cold as he instantly recognized the military symbol of Talborne and the planetary militia of the Ulysses system. Yet even as he stared in frozen terror, the tank's turret swung in the direction of one of the hover tanks and fired. A heavy cannon round impacted the side of the hover skirting sending the machine into a wild spin.

Back aboard the Dagger, Beth shouted in glee as she saw the glow of rocket thrusters emerge from the upper decks of the ruined PLC. The tiny jets of fire fell dangerous close to the planet before another hard burn pulled it out from its deathly fast plunge toward the planet. For a few seconds it didn't look good for the pilot, but as she held her breath the frame managed to right itself and finally do one last burn before tumbling down in an almost perfect landing fall. Making matters even better the frame popped up firing.

Beth quickly turned her attention to the hover machine but gulped as she spotted a second one, "Terrin there are two hovers, the other is coming straight at us from seven o'clock!" She sited in on the closer of the two and let loose with the rail guns again. This time all four hit, but none of them scored more than armor damage.

Terrin once again spun the Dagger and side slipped hard to the right, making the Dagger a very hard target to lock onto. His efforts were rewarded as only one of the wheeled machines lasers hit back armor. "Keep shooting, I am too busy driving to fire the front lasers with any decent effect!"

"At least we have frame assistance!" Beth shouted back while trying desperately to get a decent shot on lead Hover machine. The constant hard maneuvers Terrin was doing made getting a decent shot difficult at best. Finally she triggered a snap shot, only scoring a single hit out of the four rail guns."

She once again looked skyward as another frame took skyward out of the PLC's carcass. Only this time it hit something just as it was exiting and spun wildly out of control. She bit down hard on her lip as she saw the flames change from bright red to blue. This let her know the frame's computer had done an emergency takeover and was doing a full emergency burn trying to right the frame.

The blue flame cut off for a few seconds before blasting out of the back again. This time the frame was more or less out of the spin, but was clearly only under computer guidance. Beth tired to fire while still keeping an eye on the airborne frame. The result was she did neither very well, not scoring a single hit and losing track of the frame for a few seconds.

For almost 30 seconds the computer fought to get both the frame and pilot down safely before a final hard ignition of thrusters slowed the decent. Just before it hit the computer once again did a burn, exhausting the last of pack's fuel, but it put the frame into a belly skid. It finally came to rest on the far side of the lake the faceplate mostly submerged at the water's edge.

"Terrin, one of them is down!"

"I saw, but there isn't a darned thing we can do about it. A bit more help would be really nice right about now!"

Suddenly Terrin's request was answered as very heavy fire rolled out of the tree line on the opposite side of the lake. One of the wheeled machines faltered and exploded, not getting off a single shot at the new arrivals. Before he could adjust a cannon round knocked the trailing hover machine off its track toward them. "Beth, let whoever is helping us take the back hover. We'll take the lead one!"

"Fine, then stop evasion maneuvers and bring those lasers to this fight as well!"

Terrin spun the Dagger hard, bringing the front of the tank in line with the rapidly approaching machine. He fired both medium lasers, burning a great deal of armor off the front. Beth flowed up with a perfect hit of four rail gun rounds. The hover machine's front skirt lost some ability to keep lift sending the nose into the water. Forward momentum continued to drive the machine deeper into the water giving both Beth and Terrin an easy shot at the relatively light top armor. Once again rail gun rounds and lasers ripped into the machine. This time smoke rewarded their efforts.

The machine was not done, however. It put full power into its fans and started to back up, giving it enough lift to get out of its nose dive into the water. The sonic cannon fired blasting armor off the front of the Dagger and causing both Terrin and Beth to wince as the high pitched scream of the weapon caused their ears to ring.

At the edge of the lake, Chip took one last glance at the Ulysses tank before tuning his weapons toward the closer hover machine. He cycled weapons checking for range, finding once again only his quark blaster and large laser were really within acceptable range. Still he added in his heavy rocket gun figuring if it was in extreme range, then it was still worth shooting. He knelt and totally steadied himself before opening up. The extra time and the fact he was pretty well braced because he was kneeling helped a great deal. The blaster missed, but the heavy rocket round hit the back skirting and the large laser burned into the turret. More smoke came out from the small hole left by the laser.

The hover machine fired again shattering some more armor on the Dagger and forcing both Beth and Terrin to shake their heads to clear them. Terrin even had to use his shoulder to wipe a bit of blood as it trickled out of his nose. The shot didn't prevent either of them from successfully targeting and firing though. Lasers and rail gun rounds once again decimated the front of the machine's skirting. This time it completely lost lift to the front. A large splash of water from around the front told both of them the machine was in serious trouble.

Before it could fire its sonic cannon again its front started to sink below the surface while the back fan started to smoke as it tired to keep at least some lift. It fired again, but a quick side slip to the right from Terrin caused the shot to pass harmlessly down the port side.

Chip took another breath, cut out the rocket gun from the firing chain and took careful aim. This time both the blaster and the laser hit the turret. A flicker of flames flared out from the impact point of the quark blaster shot for a moment. He was about to fire again when he noticed the turret was trying to turn, but would only move a few centimeters in either direction before stopping. A nasty snarl seemed to escape his lips as he stood and fired a single blaster shot, carefully aimed at the turret. More smoke and fire came out of the doomed machine. Suddenly the back fan gave out and it started to disappear under the small waves on the lake.

Beth saw the turret try to turn to track them, but couldn't "It's got turret lock!"

Terrin let out a large breath as he side slipped further away from the direction the machine's weapon was pointing. I'll bring us around from the back so you can finish it."

"It's done." Beth stated with relief. "The back fan just failed. It'll be under water within a few minutes. There is still one more machine, but we need to get to the downed frame too!"

Chip gulped as he saw the Dagger angle toward Tracy and the Ulysses tank. He debated what to do for a second before he fired a warning shot with his laser across the front of the Dagger.

Terrin saw the laser flash and pulled back hard on the power, "What the hell?"

At the same time Joel and Lawson moved out of the wood line and fired on the last hover machine. Inside the Rapier, Saul fired another cannon round while Liam pushed power into the weapon amplifiers, giving the front lasers power. Death rained on the last hover machine as none of the four boys were in any mood give it a chance to fight or flee. The combined fire shattered the back armor of the hover machine. A final cannon shot flipped the back end up high into the air giving both Lawson and Joel a clear shot into is undercarriage. The force of the weapons tore right though it, some even exiting the top. It crashed back to the ground unable to move or fight and burning from multiple locations.

Liam saw the warning shot from the far side of the lake pass in front of the Dagger and glanced over to Saul. "Why in the hell did the frame back there shoot at the Dagger if the Major's right and they are all friendlies?"

Saul's eyes went wide, "Crap! Pull back!"


Saul reached over and grabbed the controls out of Liam's hands switching directions of all the fans forcing the Rapier to shake as it fought the forward momentum. "We need to pull back! They think we are from Ulysses!"

Color drained out of Liam's face as he shouted in horror, "Oh shit! How in the hell do we show we are friends with everything being jammed?"

"No clue." Saul's voice shook, but this cheep ass Zip Tech tank ain't going to hold up to the rail guns mounted on the Dagger let alone the crap the frame across the lake is burping!

Laim used his feet to put full power into the fans, tilting them slightly forward. Within seconds the Rapier was moving backwards, back into the relative safety of the woods. At the same time, Liam pointed to the right, "Son of a bitch, there is another wheeled coming at the downed frame!"

"We'll draw it to us. Just get away from the frame and the Dagger, we should be able to take a single machine!" Saul shouted as he had the auto loader slam another round into the cannon.

Joel's eyes went wide for a moment as he saw the frame on the far side of the lake shoot at the Dagger, but it took only a split second before the fact it missed by a wide margin to register. He glanced back at the Rapier and let out a long breath as he saw it backing into the woods. At the same time, however, he noticed the turret turning to the south.

Scanning the direction the turret was spinning toward it took only a few seconds to spot yet another wheeled machine. At the same time the frame on the far side sent a quark blaster round right at him, shattering a tree less than a meter to his left. "What the…"

Lawson moved up to Joel while firing at the wheeled machine. "Why are they shooting at us?"

Joel grabbed Lawson and yanked the boy deeper into the woods. "Whoever is over there must have seen the Ulysses markings on the tank!"

Lawson flinched as the tree they were using for cover exploded from a combined large laser and quark blaster shot. Backing up to get behind new cover, he glanced over to see a cannon round slam into the machine and one of the two lasers on the machine burn into the side of the Rapier. "I'm open to suggestions."

Joel's voice hardened as a new plan formed quickly in his mind. "Whoever is in the Viper will be able to recognize this as a BH frame, but I have to get closer. "Help Saul and Liam and cover the Dagger, but don't let the Rapier take any serious damage. We need it. Let the Dagger get to whoever flubbed the rocket pack jump while I try to get close enough to the other frame so it can ID me."

"As good as it is shooting, you are going to take hits."

"I better." Joel growled as he fired his large laser at the wheeled machine, scoring a hit. "We are Blood's Honor after all!" With those words he headed for the ruined PLC at a dead run zigzagging randomly to make himself a hard target.

Lawson glanced back and forth between Joel and the machine for a moment. He flinched as a large laser barely missed Joel. He took one last look over to Joel before punching a tree in frustration. Speaking out in anger he shouted, "Whoever put us here needs to be slapped!" he moved deeper into the woods firing at the machine. His marksmanship skills showed as his fire left deep scars on the side of the machine, opening up a spot just behind the last wheel where a brownish liquid started leaking out of.

Beth turned her attention to the tree line only to see the Rapier tank moving back while firing at yet another machine. Confusing matters even more, the frame from the Planetary Landing Craft was directing fire at whoever had just come to their aid. "What in the hell is going on?"

Terrin shook his head, "No clue, but it looks like someone from the ship thinks they are not really on our side."

"Really? I hadn't noticed!" Beth snarled, her voice dripping with sarcasm. Even as she spoke, however, she turned the turret and put three of four rail gun rounds into the front of the wheeled machine. "It looks like they are leaving a path for us to get to the downed frame though."

"Keep helping them. I'll get us over to Tracy."

"How do you know it is her?" Beth asked.

Terrin snorted, "Because there is only two of us in our entire class who can shoot as well as the pilot of the frame on the far side of the lake is shooting,"


"Yeah," Terrin responded while putting more thrust into getting over to the downed frame. "unless Joel managed to beat us here as well."

"As badly as we started, I wouldn't put it past him, but there is no way he would have pulled the rocket pack stunt of free falling like we saw."

"Chip would." Terrin managed a grin.

Beth rolled his eyes, "Yeah, Mr. show off strikes again." Despite the situation she snickered. "You're right it has to be Chip." The moment of humor faded as she looked over the whole situation. "So what does he know that we don't."

"No clue, but until whoever is helping us starts shooting our way, keep helping them. We can't afford to have them start shooting at us! With any luck we can turn this whole mess into some kind of a draw."

"Already on it." Beth fired again at the machine hitting only trees between them. She slammed her fist into the targeting unit in frustration. "Get to Tracy, I'll help whoever this is, and hopefully we'll sort it all out before we end up in a full fledged three way fight."

Chip growled as he spotted one of the frames break into a run toward the PLC. He fired, but the range coupled with the debris and the fact the frame was making hard evasion maneuvers caused his shots to miss. His eyes narrowed as he broke into a run of his own, "That is a BH ship and it belongs to us!"

At a full run, the viper moved almost two times the speed of his cadet frame, this threw off his aim as he tried a trio of snap shots at the other frame, still his rocket gun hit the onrushing frame in the shoulder doing some minor armor damage.

Joel grunted in pain as he got twisted from the force of the heavy rocket gun round slamming into his shoulder. He twisted and fired his large laser, purposefully missing, hoping his shot would be taken as a sign he was not trying to shoot whoever was hell-bent on tearing him apart. Return fire quickly told him his attempt had utterly failed as it shattered a section of a stabilizer fin in front of him.

Joel ducked behind a particularly large section of debris. "Come on already; take a look at what you are shooting at!" He popped up from behind the section of wreckage and fired his missiles at some of the debris the other frame was using as cover then shifted his medium and large laser over to the next section of cover the onrushing frame would probably use. Chunks of twisted metal went in all directions including a few hitting the frame, but doing no real damaged.

Once again his efforts failed to impress the other frame. A quark blaster shot almost knocked Joel down, as his frame alerted him to heavy armor damage to his right side. Joel dropped to a knee behind what appeared to be the thruster cone of one of the PLC's main engines and took a couple of breaths. He took a quick peak from around the side of the cone. It took only a few seconds to spot the frame still closing on him, running kind of awkwardly through the scattered wreckage.

He started to dart out only to have a large laser shot impact only a few centimeters up on the cone from his face. He quickly jerked back and shook his head knowing there was only one other cadet in his class who could shoot so well yet pilot so poorly. "Dammit Chip!"

Joel waited a few seconds before rolling out from behind the back of the thruster cone. He then popped up and fired his rifle, then rolled back in cursing as his right leg got hit by a light gyro round. "Come on, Chip, think!" He rolled out again firing another single rifle round hitting the Viper frame before rolling back behind the heavy cover of the thruster cone.

Chip closed on the onrushing frame with a determination he didn't know he had in him. The piloting skill of whoever he was shooting at was phenomenal. It was highly aggravating to watch the other frame almost glide over the heavy debris field while he was tripping and stumbling constantly. Making matters even worse was the fact the other frame was extremely good at keeping itself behind cover.

Chip's anger grew as he found shot after shot hitting cover instead of the frame. Still he managed to score a couple of decent hits. On the other hand, the pilot of the other frame was one of the worst shots he had ever encountered. Every time it fired the shots wet well wide, and even weirder, it clearly had energy weapons including a large laser which was in range, but it only fired a few times and had not come even remotely close.

As the distance between them closed Chip grinned as his quark blaster shot impacted the frame and caused it to spin slightly. On the other hand the pilot once again demonstrated incredible skill as the frame recovered and ducked behind cover before Chip could sight in on it again. He muttered a pair of curses as he once again tripped over a hunk of metal sticking up out of the mud. A quick flash of a red light warned him, he had once again done some armor damage to himself. He growled knowing he had probably done as much damage to his own frame as he had done to the one he was fighting.

Chip saw a flash of movement and fired, cursing as he narrowly missed. A moment later the frame appeared again, this time from the other side of the huge cone shaped hunk of metal stuck into the muddy ground close to the lake.

He snapped off a light gyro shot but felt a single bullet smack into the center of his frame. The fact the shot had been snap fired from a rolling frame yet had hit caused Chip to pause. There was no way such a difficult shot could have been taken by someone who had missed with far easier shots, especially since the rifle round had been fired at such a long range. The fact was, the other frame could have easily nailed him with missiles and lasers capable of doing massive damage, but it had not. Instead it fired only a single shot of a weapon capable of only doing a light armor ding.

Before his mind could do more than process this latest development, the opposing frame rolled out again and fired another single rifle shot, once again hitting him in the chest, slightly down from where the last shot had hit. Chip's head jerked in some confusion, but this time he didn't return fire. Instead he took a knee behind a section of one of the lower cargo hold doors.

Joel rolled out a third time from the opposite side and got ready to fire another snap shot but stopped as he saw the Viper frame down on a knee in a defensive crouch. He paused and slowly emerged from behind the large section of wreckage holding his arms out to the sides showing Chip he was not trying to be a threat while also allowing the full outline of his Warrior frame to show.

Chip felt his eyes go wide as he saw the frame step out into the open. Even in the dark of night without his optical enhancements he quickly recognized the frame design. He hit is loud speaker, "Challenge Cruiser!"

Joel let out a deep breath of relief before responding. "Counter Crusher."

Chip recognized the voice and quickly broke into a run, tripping yet again on some half hidden hunk of metal as he fell he looked up "Joel?"

Joel also moved forward offering a hand, "It's me."

"What about the Ulysses tank?"

As Joel pulled Chip up the last wheeled machine went up in a large fireball in the tree line. A few moments later the report from a cannon shot fired by the Rapier echoed off the now silent valley walls. A satisfied smile played across Joel's features up he looked over the battlefield, "They're with us and you are fixing the armor damage on this frame!"

Previous ChapterNext Chapter