Copyright © by
Several chuckles escaped those on the bridge as the combination of Caleb's words and his mother's request for alcohol broke some of the pressure of the last day. Making the situation even better, tactical displays across the bridge of the Grey Stallion showed no more hostiles other than the two fleeing ships, relieved sighs escaped more than a few lips. Still, they had a great deal of work to do and Major O'Connell knew it.
Major O'Connell took a glance over the men and women on the bridge. He couldn't help but snicker lightly as the looks plastered on everyone's face was pretty much a mirror of everyone else's. As much as he wanted to give everyone a few minutes to take a deep breath, there was simply too much going on to allow it. "Alright people, we still have crew in harm's way and I need status reports across the board."
The Major's commanding tone seemed to snap most back into action. The couple who continued to gaze with almost blank looks at their station controls found Captain Tanner behind them giving them slight nudges.
Satisfied the ship's command crew members were getting their areas of responsibility handled, Major O'Connell took a deep breath and glanced over to the woman handling ship security, "I want a report from ever deck, we had to have taken extra damage burning out of the debris field like we did."
A woman at one of the tactical stations nodded, "It looks like we have two new breaches on the board already, one on Golf is shown, but bulkheads dropped sealing in the section. We have two men in the decompressed section and they are stranded, but they have life support in their area. The other is a point defense auto turret on Bravo deck. Looks like we lost the whole damned thing. No causalities though, and it's secured behind a bulkhead as well. Unfortunately, until it is repaired, we have no access to any of the auto turrets on Charlie or Bravo, because access to the repair tubes is now behind the bulkheads, which means we can't reload them either."
"They have full loads so we are fine there." Captain Tanner responded without turning his stare away from the main tactical center. "But we will need to put a plate over the hole before we do a re-entry so we don't have ammo cooking off as we make our way into the atmosphere. On the plus side, we are well clear of the wreckages, so we can send repair crews out on the hull to get us patched.
Still studying readouts over the shoulder of the tactical officer, Captain Tanner switched subjects, "Ops, do we have any more ship system problems?"
"Yes sir." The operations officer responded, "We lost 5 maneuvering thrusters and engineering reports our number three main thruster spiked on heat again. They recommend pulling it totally off line and just use two, four, and six unless we need to do an emergency burn again, but even then they say we should compensate with maneuvering thrusters and leave number three off line."
Captain Tanner frowned, "I thought we had that bastard fixed!" he took a deep breath as he pointed to one of the readouts on the tactical screen so the tactical officer could focus his attention on it. "Navigation, I want you to get with Ops and see what we have to do to make this thing ready for a hard burn without one of our six main drive engines. You will have to work around the fact we lost some maneuvering thrusters, so don't assume we can do standard compensation. Also, I want the two of you to super heat some water and get ready to fire it out of fire suppression stations in the decompressed areas. The second we have repair crews out on the hull, activate life support in the vacced areas and fire a few bursts of steam. With any luck, they will be able to see it leaving the ship and find the breaches. At the very least, they should be able to find some ice around the breaches which is still a hell of a lot faster than using a microscopic scanner to see if damage is superficial or structural."
Major O'Connell rubbed his forehead, "I also want another check in from all personnel. As hard as we burned, I would be astonished if we didn't have a few more injuries." He paused, "Oh, shit, the refugees from the wagon probably had no clue what a full burn would do!"
He grabbed the mike off the navigation consol, "Hotel deck, status of Grenadiers first and then refugees!"
Jared's voice came back almost instantly, his voice sounding a bit shook up, "All Grenadiers are a bit rattled, but over all we are fine except the new frame guy you hired from Q VII. It looks like his shoulder got dislocated, but Erin popped in back, sir. Zane and Lieutenant Meschev are going room to room, but so far it looks good as many of the cadets from Q VII knew what to do and passed on the information to others in the rooms they were in. We know of a few broken bones and at least one old lady hit her head pretty hard, Kerri took Erin to deal with it and..." Jared's voice broke off for a moment. "Sir?"
"Question Jared?" Major O'Connell asked with a slightly annoyed voice.
"Um, well Luna's hand held caught all the open band communications... I was wondering, I mean we are... Um, is our Caleb really out their in an IPSC?"
Captain Tanner's mouth twisted upward in a strangely satisfied smirk as he responded, "As a matter of fact, he is." He then paused for added effect, "and he has two unassisted kills, an assist on a third and is primary on the fourth, with an awesome assist from his mom. That gives him three solid kills."
Caleb's mom broke in, "Bullshit, I just tapped the bitch. Kay's missiles did the work. He gets the kill, I get some alcohol, and we're all good!"
The Major chuckled, "We should have you out of there fairly soon and I'll give you some of the stuff I keep in my room so you don't rot your gut and your brain at the same time with the shit from the Master Sergeant's room. Just hold on."
"I ain't goin' nowhere, and couldn't even if there was a way for me to do so. I didn't know it was possible to hurt so damned bad in so many places all at the same time. How is my boy and the craft he's in?"
Caleb's voice came over the radio, "I'm fine thanks to you mom!"
"Yea, but I aged about 20 years watching you pull whatever you call the crazy ass turn you pulled out there."
Caleb giggled. "It's called a rollover, mom. It's a standard maneuver."
"Sure it is, comrade," Vladimir piped up as he finally pulled along side Caleb's fighter, "if you are in atmosphere and have airflow going over your control surfaces." He then spoke to Caleb's mom and anyone else who cared to listen. "The truth of the matter is, only about a third of my class could do one in space, and I don't think even a third of those could have done one as tight as Caleb did. Then take into account this one was done in combat, and I bet there may be two or three in the whole graduation class who could have done one of such quality and grace."
"So Kay really is a fighter pilot?" Luna asked, joining in the conversation showing her clear astonishment.
"He was born to be one of us." Yuri replied from behind the controls of the yacht he and Dante had taken out of the Wagon class PLC. "He was better than most of us from almost the first time we managed to sneak him into the simulators, which was actually done hoping to embarrass him. Happily we failed."
"So you really weren't being nice, huh." Caleb commented, his voice made it clear he was not surprised to hear this nor was he angry about it.
"The first time, no." Yuri stated with a bit of embarrassment mixed with sorrow in his voice. "Once we saw what you could do, though, a couple of us went to Vladimir to see what he thought. Once he reviewed the record, most of us adopted you as one of us."
"Well, Vladimir," Major O'Connell responded, "It seems your judgment of Kay was correct and it is a damned good thing for everyone aboard those life pods it was, because the two of you just saved hundreds of lives."
"Without Caleb, Robin, Dante, and Cody, I would not be out here to help nor would those life pods have had survivors, so I am not the one to thank. It is just God's will you all came to Quaker VII and once Yuri and the others realized Caleb was born to fly, they came to me with it. Of course I bent several rules, but got some assistance from a junior instructor to make it all happen. Anything I may have done wrong, Caleb and the rest of you just made look right. So I should be the one thanking you all. What are your orders, sir."
"First, give us a full status reports on your fighters, son." Captain Tanner demanded.
Caleb answered first, "Captain, I have heavy armor damage all across the aft end, but nothing is breached and readouts show I could still do a fighting re-entry if I have to, but getting to a place with atmosphere may be a bit of a problem. I used up a shit load of fuel during the fight. I could do a hard burn for New Brunswick, and could even land, but not if I have to fight again. I had no idea how much fuel gets used in a dog fight."
Vlad waited to make sure Caleb was done, then made his own report, "I am in a very similar situation, sir. My fighter has several spots of moderate armor damage, but I am still fully combat worthy. Unfortunately, Caleb speaks for my fuel situation as well. This being my first true dog fight without instructor support, I think I probably used a great deal more fuel than I should have."
Warrant Officer Osop's voice came over the radio, "It was seven to two out there, fuel usage be dammed! You both did just fine! Major, how long till we can get our bay doors open?"
"No clue." Major O'Connell answered truthfully. "We don't even know what is wrong with them yet. You two may have to wait a day or two before we can bring you into the bay."
"We cannot wait sir." Vladimir stated, "You ordered all those life pods to burn toward New Brunswick and most did so. They are now making their way through a lot of unknown space undefended. We need to catch up to them and escort them in."
Captain Tanner growled knowing the young man was correct, but not wanting to admit he was once again forced to put Caleb in danger. "Alright, I'll contact the two salvage craft and have one of them link up with you as you pull escort. Robin and Dante, you should join them, help with sensor sweeps and rotate watches. There is no way in hell Kay and this Vlad will be able to stay awake for five or six days even if they take turns."
Robin responded, "No problem sir, we have plenty of fuel and there are several of us aboard to take turns on watch, we can act as a makeshift fleet command ship. This baby is fully loaded. We have deep space radios, long range scanners, and even a inner-planetary communication zip ball fold pod. We also have a couple of point defense laser pods, but don't expect me to be able to shoot them like Kay can. If needed, I'll turn the guns over to one of the other aerospace cadets over here, but a couple of the better ones moved over to the other two yachts so we could bring them all with us."
Vladimir snickered, "You leave us wing nuts, as you tend to call us, to shoot up here. We'll leave the ground pounding to you all comrades. We will keep our radios turned up to max volume so you can wake us while we sleep. I am picking up no more hostiles, and the two EC controlled ships are out of short range sensor sweeps and appear to still be heading further in system. We should be fine. Do you concur Grey Stallion?"
Captain Tanner looked over the tactical station yet again, "We do. The ferry looks like it is turning to angle toward the marginally inhabitable moon which means it must have some other problems cause no one would want to land on that god forsaken rock. The other is moving off to go deep in system, probably to one of the other worlds. Both are clearly steering clear of New Brunswick Prime and all shipping lanes. We'll be able to keep a close eye on them for the next couple of days and will advise if they even appear to be sneaking back toward you."
Warrant Officer Osop's voice came back over the radio, "You should be clear guys, there is no way in hell they could have crammed more than seven micro fighters in the bay of the ferry. As it is, they would have had next to no room for fighter support equipment with seven. I am also betting they lost quite a bit of air when they launched those fighters then found they couldn't use onboard fuel stores to restore what they sent into space. They probably tried to shunt fuel from the tanks of the engine you guys damaged to pour into life support, but didn't take into account what damage did to the overall safety of the ship so they never shut off the safeties in order to prevent a fuel dump. Then when they did a hard burn, the computers detected a fuel leak so it caused the fuel tanks to that engine to automatically vent to prevent an explosion from the leaking fuel. If this is the case, which I would all but bet it is, then they probably had no choice but to go to the closest place with a breathable atmosphere. "
"This is very good to hear comrade." Vlad stated with clear relief. "Be advised, we can see a few life pods still floating out here and it appears a few others didn't or couldn't separate from the PLC. The rest of the ship is now dead, or at least appears to be. Blowing the bay doors probably finished her."
Captain Tanner responded, "We know young man. We are in contact with most of the pods. Several of them have damage and a few others are locked to the hull of the Wagon because of malfunctions with the release clamps. We will protect them with the Grey Stallion until the salvage ships get here or we can get our fighters out their and pull them into our bays. You just worry about Grenadiers first, academy kids second, and all other refugees third."
"And remember, you are now a Grenadier." Major O'Connell added with a degree of sternness and exhaustion. "You and Kay need to protect the two yachts with our kids and each other first and foremost."
"We can handle it sir." Vlad stated with confidence. "Just get us some fuel, a chance to empty the waste in these stupid spare fighter suits the academy kept under the back seats in case of alerts, and some real food half way to New Brunswick. With those things handled, we'll be fine sir."
"They'll tend to you guys first or we'll shoot them when they get here." Captain Tanner stated, only half joking. "Just don't eat all the good stuff, we want some too."
Major O'Connell snickered, "But, you each got multiple kills, so eat good when you get there. We'll pick up the tab."
Jared's voice almost cut off the Major's "Sir, can I talk to you and the Captain plus Robin on a secure frequency?"
"Why?" Major O'Connell asked harshly.
Almost instantly, Captain Tanner sent a nasty glare at the Major on the bridge, "Sir, with all do respect, if he wants to say something over a secure freq, it would be kind of hard for him to tell us why over an open band."
Major O'Connell made a light snarling sound before shaking his head, "I am getting tired and it is showing. Captain, since you have a better handle on the kids of this unit than anyone could have guessed; I'll let you handle this. I am going to take a few hours of down time, but don't hesitate to contact me if there are problems. The second you are certain everything is handled, I want you in a hammock as well. The rest of the bridge crew needs to rotate out as soon as we get healthy bodies up here to replace you all. I want us to keep all turrets activated and the whole ship on an enhanced alert, but we are now standing down from battle stations.
"Jared and Luna, we are basically safe, so I expect you all to get some sleep as well. We will get medical crews down to you once we get the breaches sealed and rescue stranded crew members. Don't hesitate to contact the bridge if you need anything though." Without waiting for a reply, Major O'Connell floated out of the bridge and closed the door to his study.
Captain Tanner let out a long breath, "We are all getting a bit testy up here. Warrant Officer Osop, you are the highest ranking crewman on the bridge who has gotten some sleep, so I am putting you on as watch officer. If there are problems, go to battle stations otherwise just let the repair crews do their jobs and keep track of those two hostile craft. We cannot lose them."
"I can handle it sir."
Captain Tanner floated over to Osop and patted the guy on the shoulder to show his support for the man outwardly to the bridge crew, but whispered so only the warrant officer could hear his words. "Great job with the instructions to that Vlad kid, and I do appreciate your encouraging words to both him and Caleb. However, other than the most basic instructions to the kids, you steer clear of them as always. If there is anything they need other than information, you wake me and I'll deal with it. Any who have lost loved ones stay in the dark until either the Major or I can directly talk to them. You're real job is to do everything possible to ease any fears they communicate up here, preferably using someone else so they can trust the voice behind the words. If you do anything to harm them in any way, this will be your last time as duty officer, cause I will personally gut you."
The fighter pilot gulped, "Understood sir."
"Good." Captain Tanner floated back a bit and put on a smile so everyone could once again see the warrant officer had his support, "This is a chance to show us all you can handle a command and will look great when it comes time to review promotions. You have the bridge, I am going to go see what crafty ideas Jared has come up with."
Captain Tanner made his way to his own quarters before contacting Jared, "Input secure code delta son, then tell me what is on your mind."
A few seconds later Jared's voice came over the radio, "Robin are you on with us?"
"Yea." Robin answered with a weary voice. "What's up?"
Captain Tanner keyed his own radio, "Robin, you sound like shit."
"And feel like it too, sir. Once we catch up to the escape pods, I'm going to bed, and if I am needed... well good luck with trying to wake me."
Captain Tanner snickered while Jared burst out in out right laughter. After almost a minute, Jared finally regained enough control to speak, "I'll tell them to hit you with a water spray if they need to, cause you sleep better than the dead when you crash, and we all know it."
"Even with my ribs killing me, I'll kick the crap out of anyone spraying water on me while I'm asleep." Robin stated with complete conviction in his voice. "So what do you have in mind?"
Jared took a deep breath, "Did you happen to get the conversation with the EC commander recorded?"
"Nope, our e-suits memories are full, and we ..." Robin started only to get cut off by Captain Tanner
"We got the whole thing, why?"
Jared's voice became a bit more excited. "Because with the yacht Robin is on having a zip ball launcher, we could send a secure communication directly to Forest Garden and Blood's Honor. Since we got to know some of the Blood's Honor cadets during the fight we all got into back on New Bravaria, Robin and I both made friends with kids form their academy who happened to have parents high up in the government and Bloods Honor. I mean, hell, we have secure codes to contact our friends and have used them dozens of times.
"Both of them also gave us emergency codes we could use if we ever needed to, which we first thought was a joke. But then Joel Price actually introduced his dad, who really is a colonel and Gabriel McCurdy got us in to see General Scott so the man could thank all of us who helped them. If he could get us an audience with a Blood's Honor General, he clearly had some major contacts so I think it is time to use those codes.
"I could give Robin the code Cadet Gabriel McCurdy from Blood's Honor Junior Military Academy gave me, and Robin could also add his emergency code to contact Cadet Joel Price. We could then send everything to Forest Garden and let Joel get the information to his dad and Gabriel to whoever he knows. I mean we know Joel's Dad is in command of Shadow Brigade, their best infiltration and Intel unit and Gabriel was the son of someone directly in the government of Forest Garden! All this information could be important in helping them deal with Lord Talborne, who started the civil war in the Avalon Breakaway Republic.
"The last thing we heard from either Gabriel or Joel was Forest Garden and Blood's Honor had broken away from the ABR. They had formed a new empire dedicated to fighting Talborne after Talborne and the Ulysses government pulled a sneak attack on Andar killing or capturing leaders of dozens of ABR worlds while Blood's Honor rescued hundreds of others. From the way it sounded the last time we heard from either of them, there were several worlds trying to join the New Forest Garden lead empire, but were split over which way to go. I bet once word gets out Earth Core was partially behind it, some of those currently against their planets joining Forest Garden could disappear. Who knows, the entire New Frontiers Coalition may benefit from finding out Earth Core is the one behind Talborne's attack on Andar. At the very least, it will get some confirmation of any intel they may have on the whole matter."
Captain Tanner nearly choked on his own saliva, "Damn, boy, you think big!"
"I have been thinking about this since I heard what was said, sir, but don't give me all the credit. Much of this came from Luna, who really fleshed out some of this after I brought up the idea. The only problem was figuring a way to get Blood's Honor the information. The zip ball launcher was the final piece of the puzzle.
"I mean, if nothing else, this is our big chance to try to help Blood's Honor for what they did for all of us back on New Bravaria and certainly saving my life along with Robin's, Luna's plus a couple others of us down here."
"Son," Captain Tanner responded, "You don't have to try to convince me, you already did! Robin, check the targeting computer on the zip ball launcher and see if we are in range to send one to Forest Garden!"
Robin's voice perked up as if the weariness had suddenly left his body, "Send the file over, Captain, I will start a computation!"
Captain Tanner floated over to his computer and pulled up the file, "Can you give me a secure link, Rob?"
"Yes sir." Robin kind of snarled. "I'll have Jessie send you the encryption code; he knows this ship better than I do. Jessie, take this, Captain Tanner needs to send us a file!"
Captain Tanner frowned and his voice betrayed his confusion. "Why did he just get mad at me?"
"You called him Rob, sir" Jessie stated while glancing back toward Robin with a cringe.
Jared snorted, "Sir, no one calls him anything but Robin, no one..."
"Oh, um... Really?"
"Sir," Jessie responded, "The only fight Robin actually got into outside of combat classes back on Quaker VII was because one of the kids in our force kept calling him Rob after he repeatedly told him his name is Robin, not Rob. It took four of us to pull him off Corporal Yemelyan after the jerk called him Robby one day just to get under his skin, and all four of us ended up with some nasty bruises."
Jared openly laughed.
"What's so funny?" Jessie asked.
"Oh, nothing... other than the fact we let Cadet Corporal Yemelyan in with the rest of us, and the first thing he asked was if Robin would beat him up again when he comes back aboard. Until now, I didn't know why he would ask such a stupid question."
"If he calls him Rob or Robby again, I doubt anyone or anything could stop him. On the plus side, that means there is at least one more from our frame force who made it!"
"We have Vannic in with us as well plus five others in rooms on this deck, all things considered we have quite a few from Force Echo Five."
"Awesome! I'll let Robin know and Cody too. I know they will be relieved. Hopefully, more are out there in those pods." Jessie took a deep breath, "Sir, I just sent you a text on this channel. To decode, use the number of days Robin was hospitalized back on New Bravaria and add in all the numbers of his birthday including year, then put his middle name after it. That will give you the frequency and password I set so you can securely send the file."
Captain Tanner's eyebrows shot up, "It'll take me a few, I don't know all that off the top of my head."
"Then you don't know him as well as I do, sir." Jessie stated sincerely. "I will keep it open, and I just got a thumb's up from Robin, so we are within zip ball range of Forest Garden. We will send the file as soon as we get it."
"Son, those ain't cheep, are you sure you are OK with us using it?"
"I have seven aboard, and I don't have anyone left to communicate with. Dad used a few a month for secure out of system communications and to transfer lots of funds off Quaker VII when things started looking bad. But as far as I am concerned, this ship is yours, not mine. To be honest, I will be happy to get off it, cause it reminds me of my family too much."
Captain Tanner felt his own heart breaking as he heard the boy's bite back a sob. Even as he finished getting all the information needed to send the file properly, he could feel a few tears form in the corners of his eyes. "Son, you are one of us, a Grenadier, for as long as you like and everyone in this unit is your family. When Robin told me he was looking for you, and wanted to bring you in, I offered to sponsor you; the offer still stands."
"Robin told me, sir. Thank you. I need some time to think it over, but I have no where else to go so I'll probably take you up on the offer. I am just not ready to say yes yet."
"My door, comm-link, and time are all yours whenever you need it." Fighting hard not to outright cry, he clenched his fist in anger over what Earth Core had done to Jessie and countless other kids yet again. Even as he found the file and stared transmitting, he dearly hoped some of what he was sending would indeed help the most powerful Mercenary unit ever put on the field of battle, Blood's Honor. With any luck it would be the O'Connell Grenadiers aiding others with the capability to put yet another hurting one the vilest empires ever assembled in the history of man kind, Earth Core. At the very least, this gave all of them a chance to get some revenge for what was done to the unit back in the New Bravaria system.
Regaining some composer, Captain Tanner finally radioed back over to the yacht. "I am sending the files now. The first is the actual communication from the EC commander and the second is a much larger file containing all the open band communications we picked up when Dante, Caleb, Robin and Cody were fighting on the PLC. I don't know if the second one will do Blood's Honor any good, but we might as well give them everything we got. Please confirm when you have them."
Anther boy's voice came over the radio less than a minute later, "We got both files, Sir"
"Good to know." Captain Tanner responded slowly, "So, who are you and what happened to Jessie and Robin?"
"Sorry sir, this is Cadet Sergeant Zolyar, I was also part of Cody's and Robin's force. I was probably the best in the whole force with communications and actually know how to calibrate and use a non-static zip ball launcher cause I took inner-planetary communications as an elective last semester. Because I got the highest grade in the entire class, they handed this over to me..." the boy's voice lowered to barely more than a whisper. "Jessie just left the bridge in tears and Robin went with him. I could hand the radio over to Cody if you would prefer sir."
Captain Tanner's fist slammed into the back of his chair with enough force to cave in part of the back. "No, it's ok. If they handed it over to you, then I am sure you are the best choice." He punched he chair again, allowing the pain to radiate through his hand seemed to help calm him a little. "How about you, son, how are you doing?"
"Sir, to be honest, I am far better off than most others over here. Both my parents were in the Quaker VII military and were killed in action within a couple of months of the start of the war. Because of this, I was given a full scholarship to the academy, partially because no one wanted a military kid. I guess it was either the academy or the orphanage, and to blunt, I heard from the military family liaison that the local orphanage didn't really want me either.
"I was flatly told they were afraid I'd create too many problems. The military was a necessary evil at best on Quaker VII, feared to be sure, but not really respected. The government always bought the best equipment and gave the military the best training money could buy, but even they made it a point to keep bases away form cities. Almost everywhere my folks got stationed, was pretty much out in the sticks and schools were set up so there were very few non-military kids who went to them.
"Not long before she was killed, my Mom told me the Council of Clerics, who oversaw the elected government, didn't like the idea of a military. I guess the thinking was kind of along the lines of it was not really following the Will of God to pay men and women to kill others. Because of this, the military was not in favor with those at the very top. At the same time, they had to have one and they knew it. Because of this, they made it as small and powerful as they could. Unfortunately, the best equipment money could buy was simply not enough. Mom told me as the first shots were fired, it would end badly for Quaker VII unless the Council and the general population got serious about really supporting the military. It didn't and here we are."
Captain Tanner looked up and cursed the whole of the Quaker VII government and the Council of Clerics before he keyed the mike again. "Young man, your mother was totally correct. But I am a bit confused. How is it that so many cadets were aboard? Why did the government pay for it if they hated the military so much?"
"The government didn't sir." Another, slightly older female's voice spoke up, "Jessie's dad and a few other ultra wealthy families did. They were also the ones who funded the academy. All the government did was pay the salaries of the instructors, give the land, and waved all taxes. All the equipment, buildings, and basically everything else was privately funded. Tuition was really high and it was a good academy, so many kids came from other planets in the Free Planets Association and so even came from outside the FPA. Those who did, paid a lot for the privilege. Most of them were shipped home months ago, but a few of them actually stayed on and we know of a few out there in pods thanks to the academy handhelds and Robin, Cody, Dante and Caleb."
Even as Captain Tanner digested all this information, he frowned at the radio, "Now who am I talking too?"
"Cadet Colonel Giva Hofanev, sir."
Captain Tanner's eyebrows shot up, "As in the cadet commander for the entire frame side of the academy?"
"Yes sir. Like the others, I want to thank you all for sending over a rescue crew. We all owe you our lives."
"Our pleasure, but you should all be thanking Robin and the others. We really haven't done much."
"We already have sir."
Captain Tanner took a deep breath, "You know, I am finding it hard to believe both the cadet in command of the Aerospace side and you accidentally ended up on the same ship. What in the hell is really going on?"
Yet a third voice spoke up, "Sir, this is Cadet Colonel Titus Kevendrep, lead cadet for the armor side of the academy. Jessie's dad smuggled us off world in his yacht because we were all put on a wanted list by the Quaker VI interim government. As a primary funder of the academy, he managed to pull some hidden strings to get us out before we were arrested. There were fourteen others from all our schools over here as well. But, a couple from the aerospace cadet command flight went over to the others yachts so we could get all four out of the bay. They also took their counterparts from armor and frame command squads in case there was anyone hidden on them. Both found a few more survivors, but no hostiles, At least, we don't think they are hostile, but after all of this we can't be sure so we are keeping them locked in rooms on those other yachts. Anyway, between all four yachts, all three of our command squads are up here.
"From what we were told, we were originally supposed to go to Nova IV to set up an academy in exile. The New Frontiers Coalition offered us a place to set up shop, but before it could happen and shortly before we left the Quaker System, we got word the Nova system had come under attack. From what Jessie's Dad told us, Blood's Honor sent word to go to New Brunswick instead and wait until things were safe. I'm not sure how they managed to get a world in the Great Outback to take us, but they are Blood's Honor and somehow, I don't think too many places simply says no to a request from them.
"On the other hand, they must have felt bad and paid Brave Humanities and New Brunswick some serious cash or something. Our new orders say Blood's Honor got permission to allow us to use an old Brave Humanities agriculture station as a place to set up shop. From the way it sounds, it's pretty remote, not used much anymore, and is in pretty decent shape. According to the briefing, it only has a few scientists there who do plant and seed research but has dozens of old buildings where they used to do some major crop research."
The older boy kind of snorted, "From the holo-disks Jessie's Dad got for us. It seems like Brave Humanities almost single handedly transformed the whole world into a farming mecca. The soil is perfect for farming, there is plenty of water, and it has long growing seasons. The problem is there are microbes in the soil that kill almost all non native crops. Brave Humanities came in, developed new resistant seed strains, and made a fortune off of the whole deal. The patents ran out a few years ago though, so they took the money and ran for the most part.
"According to the orders I have in my computer, Blood's Honor says there is some older mothballed military equipment in some bunkers from when the station needed a large defense force. Our contact, a General Scott, said they managed to get a great deal on it all so they bought it for us so we had something to train with and in. From the way it sounds, Robin actually got to meet General Scott, so with any luck he will find out what our current status is. But even if he doesn't, I know Blood's Honor was planning on sending a small group of cadre to help us get started. What I don't know is, how we are going to make contact with them since it sounds like Jessie's family was killed and Jessie's Dad was the only one with a direct communication path to this General Scott."
Captain Tanner glanced around his room as if hoping to find an easy answer, all the while knowing there was none. "About the only thing I can recommend is you include what you just told me in the zip ball to Forest Garden. One thing I do know is Blood's Honor will find a way to contact you all once they have a contact person. Besides, as you pointed out, Robin met General Scott and was given a Blood's Honor Defender ribbon and a Blood's Honor Combat ribbon to wear on his uniform once he joined any military force. Since he was recently added to our roster, Robin's uniform will start with a pair of Blood's Honor ribbons on it."
The young cadet armor commander kind of choked, "Wow! Robin has two BH ribbons? Why didn't he wear them on his cadet uniform back at the academy? No one would have messed with any of the kids from your unit if he had done so!"
"A few others have a Blood's Honor Combat ribbon, including Jared and Luna." Captain Tanner responded with a bit more annoyance than he meant to put in his voice. He took a breath allowing some pride to replace is aggravation. "As to why they didn't wear them, you would have to ask them. They are the ones who earned them, not me."
Captain Tanner could almost see the boy's eyes slightly bugging out as the youngster responded. "I'll be sure to ask sir. As far as sending our situation to Blood's Honor, we were already planning to do so. But..." The young man's voice trailed off showing his nervousness.
"But what?" Captain Tanner demanded, "This is no time to leave information or questions on the table. I cannot give advice if I don't know what is going on in your head."
Cadet Colonel Titus Kevendrep took a deep breath, "Well, sir, we are in kind of a bind since many of our senior instructors were either killed or turned out to be traitors."
"OK, I can understand where you are coming from; but with any luck, Blood's Honor will be sending you some help."
Cadet Hofanev responded, "We are hoping so, but in the mean time we are kind of stuck. We were hoping... Um... Well, is there any way you all could spare a few of your people until we hear from Blood's Honor?"
Captain Tanner glanced at the radio in some disbelief. He slowly rubbed his chin trying to find the right words, but nothing seemed to fit. Finally he simply stated the original thought that had popped in his mind and he didn't hide his mild disgust nor how funny he was finding the request. "You want us poor merc slobs to help train you?"
There was a gulping sound before Cadet Kevendrep took over, "Sir, we know a lot of us treated your kids like trash, and to be honest we don't deserve anything more than what you have already done for us; if we even deserve that. However, we are hopefully going to be getting a great deal of help from a merc unit, in the form of Blood's Honor, and we don't even know them except by reputation. You we know and the vast majority of you have proved yourselves to all of us. Believe it or not, we really do trust you all. I know we have enough money, thanks to Jessie's dad and a few others, to pay for your help, and would be happy to do so. We talked it over and are willing to hand over at least part of the last couple of months worth of payments you all didn't get as well, even if it basically breaks us, which I don't think it will; but we don't know the contract you had with Quaker VII."
Captain Tanner gave a light snort, "I'm a bit confused. Are you three cadet colonels in command of the whole academy at the moment or something?"
Titus' voice became a bit nervous. "Four of us actually, Cadet Colonel Gregori Sembesta, of the infantry side, is in one of the pods out there. For some reason, Quaker VI didn't care about the infantry side and didn't put the cadet leadership on the wanted lists.
"But, to be honest, it's kind of hard to figure out how all of this is supposed to work. I mean, Jessie's Dad put the money into accounts so we could get to it, as long as he, or Jessie and one of us cadet commanders, or any three cadet commanders signed for it. As of now, we have access to the funding and a check with New Brunswick confirmed this. We also have been in contact with all life pods that have at least one cadet or instructor with an academy hand held. We know of only seventeen junior instructors and three senior instructors left. I heard you have a couple more on your ship, but we have close to six hundred surviving cadets in pods and more on your ship.
"As best as we can tell, we will pretty much have to help run it until we get some assistance. Making matters worse, of all the instructors, we only have three framers and one aerospace while more than half of the surviving cadets are from the frame side of the academy and another seventy two are from the aerospace side. The rest are from the armor and infantry side of the academy which is where most of the surviving instructors are from. We really need some help and guidance for Giva sir.
"On the other hand, I have no clue what we are going to do with the aerospace side, since we have next to no equipment for them and Vlad was not terribly interested in staying and it sounds like he took a spot with you all anyway. The other three of us really want to give this a shot though. Eventually we want to take Quaker VII back."
Captain Tanner couldn't help but smile at the attitude of the young man he was talking to. He found himself actually liking the kid some. "Son, I'll have to talk to the Major, as I am only the XO, but I think we could spare a few framers to help you out. Much will depend on our injury status and how fast we can get to full strength. Aerospace assets are another story though. We never have had much in the way of fighter support simply because they are bloody expensive to maintain. Plus, when they go down, there ain't much salvage so we don't capture aero units very often, and when we do, we put them in storage until one of ours gets shot down or we need to replace a fighter."
Titus sighed. "Anything, even someone to go to for advice will help sir. Like I said, I have absolutely no clue what we will be doing with all the aerospace cadets. Maybe we can buy a few old trainers and find someone planet side to keep things going until we hear from BH."
"You all send the zip ball and relax. You won't even be planet side for a week or so. In the mean time, I will see what I can do to contact New Brunswick and the Brave Humanities "ag" station for you all. It may be a great place to have everyone set down. Use me as a liaison between you all and the planet, since I am sure they will be far more receptive to an adult getting everything moving. Just do me a big favor and always talk to me, cause my commander is not the type of guy to devote resources to a bunch of kids from a world that screwed us the way your world did."
"Understood sir, and if it is of any consolation, we are all real sorry about the way Quaker VII treated you all, including those under our cadet commands. The orders to do so came down from real high, but we shouldn't have let it happen."
"As you establish a new academy, you need to make sure it doesn't happen again."
"I won't sir!"
"Then your apology will be accepted, at least by me and I am sure many of the kids in this unit. I will keep this channel open to you all, but for now I would prefer dealing with you since you seem to have a better view of the over all picture than the others."
"You got it Captain. Thank you sir."
Captain Tanner didn't respond into the radio. Instead he moved back from his desk and gazed out the portal at the stars beyond. "Don't thank me yet son. What you all want to do is one step up from impossible. If you are still in the academy, and it is running at all a year form now, then you can thank me."
He quickly moved back to his desk and jotted down some notes on his computer station before sending off a pair of communications to New Brunswick and Brave Humanities. He then spent several minutes back at the portal gazing at the stars through the small window in his compartment. As he did so, he couldn't help but think back to his own childhood as a dependant of the Grenadiers. Back then, the Grey Stallion had been well over a hundred light years further out into the stars he was staring at. The whole ship and it crew had been newer and more upbeat, the viewing portals were not as scratched up from space dust and debris, and the ship had been full of a great deal more laughter and more kids, many more kids.
Captain Tanner couldn't help but smile as he thought of how fun it used to be landing on a new world as a young teen. There was always the wonder of a new world to explore. There were also the challenges to face as they had to adapt to each new environment. More often than not, there was also a need to adjust to not only the clock, which on some worlds meant days of 30 hours while on others as little as 17, but also the gravity.
Many worlds were awesome, as the mass of the world in question meant him and his friends from the Grey Stallion could run faster, play harder and above all else jump further. On the other hand, a few times the situation was reversed, where those native to the world tended to be a bit more short and stout, but had lived with a heavier massed world, meaning they tended to be stronger and tougher.
As a child, Captain Tanner had been forced to display more than a few black eyes caused by younger kids from those worlds who turned out to be a great deal hardier than they looked. One time in particular, he and a pair of his friends got mouthy to a few rural kids a good three years younger than he had been; only to end up being forced to eat a few local bugs and one particularly nasty tasking stink worm. The younger ones held him and his friends down and twisted all their arms up into the smalls of their backs. No amount of pleading or begging helped, and so they had suffered the humiliation of having nine and ten year old kids force feeding them bugs until they all puked.
Yet, no matter what the tests of the world in question were, he had lots of friends to discover them with and was basically expected to find out what they were without adults supervision. All he had to do was stay basically within the confines of the planetary laws, go to school when school was in, and do his chores. The rest was a huge adventure. In his mind, those were the good old days, and yea, the bugs had been nasty, but it had been done with good friends and even as gross as it had been, the local kids had not done anything overly dangerous. Sometime things were not done in good fun, but in the grand scheme of things, it had all been done in fun.
Even when his own parents had gone into battle, it had been expected the youngsters would be left out of the horrors of it all. Sure, there were the terrible blows given to kids as unit officers and or family friends coming up to say a parent had been killed, but that was just part of merc life. No matter how terrible the news, there were always plenty of friends and parents of those friends to go to. Besides, almost from the moment a kid in the Grenadiers could understand anything about life in general, he or she was coached to possibly expect the worst. Because of this, even as the blow fell, it had not come out of the blue. He had been on the receiving end twice before the age of 14, but his two brothers and three sisters had helped as had all the other kids in the unit.
At the same time, he had also been the one who got cried on dozens of times as his best friends lost parents and older siblings. When his father had fallen, there had been no question what would happen to him. He had simply moved in with his best friend and become one of them until he turned sixteen and joined the unit. Still, through all of his youth, he had actually seen real combat happen four of five times, and always at a distance.
Two other times, things came knocking right on the door steps but it had not been in the form of direct combat between fighting forces, but instead strikes coming from afar against misidentified targets. A few friends had been injured once and a pair of kids, slightly younger than him, had died another time. However, neither time had the attacks been done on purpose or out of retribution and even the most skeptical unit members had known it. Once, the barracks area had come under fire of artillery and another time an air strike hit the living areas, but both had been clear combat mistakes generated out of the horrors know to those in the business as the fog of war.
Gazing out his tiny window, he couldn't quite put a finger on when it had become acceptable to endanger kids in the way several of the Grenadiers had been tested over the last few years and the past twenty plus hours in particular. Part, for certain, had been the decision by Major O'Connell's mother to seek better paying contracts closer to Earth Core. The deeper into "civilized" space the unit had gone, the more barbarity there seemed to be. Captain Tanner let out a long pained sigh, deciding life was cheapened when worlds had a billion or so lives to spare. Out on the outer rim of settled space, however, some worlds were less populated than many large cities closer to Earth. Major Tanner shook his head in some disgust as he realized this actually gave those living further away from civilized space a greater appreciation of life, for the loss of each person seemed to mean more to everyone, even enemy forces.
Even as he wondered if it would be better to head back out of the hot zone in the thirty five light years or so around Earth Core controlled space, he knew in his heart the current kids of the Grenadiers were not the same as those of the past. They were more grown up, more capable, more jaded, and more dangerous than many of the adults of the Grenadiers had been only two or three generations ago. As he thought it over, and wondered how to allow kids to have childhoods like he had been so blessed to have, he decided he could add himself to the same list he was putting the current Grenadier kids to. For even as he tired to find a way to make the children's lives easier, part of him was hoping the kids from the Quaker VII academy would be successful in eventually returning to the home of their birth and ripping the whole damned planet away from Quaker VI and any of the Quaker VII assholes who had allowed this all to happen.
With those thoughts still swirling around in his skull, he took a quick shower and tried to settle down in his hammock for the first time in well over 24 hours. Even as sleep finally overtook him, his dreams were a mix of those thoughts, seeing kids laughing one minute and shooting with rage in their eyes the next. Although he slept, it was not a peaceful one.
Little could he know, as he tossed and turned in his space hammock, some of the kids he was so concerned about were about to be either directly or indirectly thrust into the spotlight throughout a good chunk of the known universe. For a new series of events were unfolding at an incredible speed over fifty light years away. Within days, a single message would send ripples through scores of worlds across over two hundred and fifty light years of space.
For while Captain Tanner fretted over lost childhoods and the ability of the current dependants of the Grenadiers to make real friends and have real fun, events of the past were working to change the future. No one, adult, child, psychic, or fortuneteller, could have guessed or foreseen the importance of a single twist of fate on a snowy battlefield slightly less than twenty months earlier and 38.23 light years from where the Grey Stallion currently floated in space. For in the grand scheme of battles and warfare, it was an incredibly minor action. It was less than 20 minutes of fighting with around a dozen armored vehicles destroyed before reinforcement arrived. Yet this single battle, first fought by kids from two different merc units, social classes, and views on life in general, less than two years ago had formed something very special. A relationship between boys from opposite ends of the social ladder was born out of desperation and ended in respect, trust, and true friendship.
For Robin, the fight which had nearly ended his life back on New Bravaria, was never far from his thoughts. Even as he tired to comfort Jessie, and allowed his only true friend from Quaker VII to hug him, he could feel the other boy's hands moving over the dozens of small indentations and bumps basically coving his back. Not even the pain in his ribs could mask the rather odd sensation of so many spots scattered over his back that had little to no feeling right next to areas that had full touch sensations.
The damage done to his back, received over a 4 day period, had left over a score of aspirin sized spots and one particularly large gash with no feeling because of nerve damage. The first damage had come from an exploding grenade Robin, himself, had tossed aboard an Earth Core PLC. The second event was the crash of the escape pod from the same ship, and finally the devastating and almost life ending explosion of an Earth Core tank shell fired just as Blood's Honor frames started dropping on a snowy forest somewhere on New Bravaria IV. Robin remembered nothing after the tank round slammed into the gunner shield of the crippled tank.
All he knew was he woke almost two weeks later in a hospital with his mom, Jared, Luna, and a hand full of Blood's Honor cadets at his side. As his eyes popped open, and he looked around, he realized everyone in the room had tears of relief in their eyes, even the kids of Blood's Honor.
Now it was Robin who found himself shedding tears for another as Jessie wept over the cold blooded murders of his entire family. The fact Earth Core had done to Jessie exactly what the empire and its military had done to Robin and his mom, didn't make this any easier, but did fill his heart with an even deeper desire to avenge his father and everyone else Earth Core had slaughtered over the years.
Finally Jessie backed off and took a couple of deep breaths. Seeing Robin gently rub his injured ribs Jessie hung his head, "I'm Sorry!"
"Nothing to be sorry for." Robin stated with total sincerity. "When I found my dad, I had friends and a whole unit to help me plus I knew my mom was still alive..." He stopped and cringed wondering if he had said the wrong thing or if there was even a right thing to say at a time like this.
Jessie wiped his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. "But I totally forgot about your ribs."
Robin quickly waved off any further comment, "Hey, I have been though way worse than a few cracked or busted ribs. If they take extra time to heal cause you need a hug, then to hell with them. Besides, it has been over a month since I got a real hug from you.
"It won't be the last, but I want your ribs better. I would never hurt your Robin!"
"I know you wouldn't, but I think it's about time to see if the two of us can help put a hurting on Earth Core. You ready to get back up to the bridge?"
Jessie blew his nose and took a couple more deep breaths. Finally a grim determination flashed in Jessie's left brown eye and right green eye. Brushing some of the reddish tinged brown hair out of his eyes he clenched his fist and growled. "Let's do this."
About the same time Captain Tanner finally closed his eyes and let sleep overtake his exhausted mind and body, the yacht Robin was on fired off a glowing crimson orb. The ball, more of a bullet shaped object about the size of a large coffee pot, launched out of a forward tube also used to expel trash into space. The object then fired off six attached high powered rocket motors getting it up to a speed of thirty thousand kilometers per hour. Once it reached this speed, the front end of the attached motors cut off and seemed to explode. The resulting burst of energy formed a high intensity magnetic field around the orb. The zip ball, as it was commonly referred to as, seemed to come to an abrupt stop for a few moments before a space folding rip fully formed, causing a brilliant crimson and silver colored hole in space for an instant. The zip ball then entered the hole and vanished from the New Brunswick system, appearing in the Forest Garden system moments later.
Within seconds of the unscheduled small hole in space being detected by Forest Garden defense forces, a pair of Blood's Honor fighters was dispatched to pick up the now crispy blacked ball. A couple of minutes later, the now all but used up energy in the zip ball managed to send out a weak signal alerting the system of its arrival and of its need to be picked up.
Deep inside a mountain close to the northern pole of Forest Garden, the code sent out by the zip ball caused several alert claxons to sound. First the computers identified the signal carried not one but two separate priority alpha emergency encryption codes. The very fact it was an alpha code, meant it was either given to someone known by a royal member of Forest Garden or was sent by a member of royalty. This alone was enough for the duty officer to authorize extra resources to first defend the zip ball and second to get it picked up with all do haste. Since this one carried two such codes, getting this particular zip ball went toward the top of a normally organized and prioritized list,
The moment the first code was verified as being sent to Joel Price or his father Colonel Price the importance of the ball actually increased and made defending it paramount. Anything sent to the overall commander of all military special operations for Forest Garden and Blood's Honor needed instant attention and this changed the status board in the command bunker to move up in alert categories. A system wide tracer was automatically bounced off every Blood's Honor and Forest Garden ship identifying which non system defense ship was closest and diverted it to pick up the tiny object.
The second carrier code only intensified the alert further, for it was a code of the McCurdy family, the owners of Blood's Honor, over all rulers of Forest Garden, and the fledgling New Frontiers Coalition. The fact this one was being sent to Prince Gabriel McCurdy, second in line to the throne of Forest Garden, moved the picking up of the ball to the highest priority on the board, even above that of keeping a proper defensive screen in the system of Forest Garden. Another tracer was sent out and found the closest ships were capitol ships on the outer perimeter of the system.
The Duty Officer took a deep breath and authorized putting the whole system on alert. Fighters scrambled from space stations and defense satellites unfolded and readied to destroy any unauthorized ship approaching the distant zip ball. She then waited until the pair of separate, albeit older, emergency authentication codes were verified. Once she had confirmation one had been given to given to a friend of Joel Price and the other given to a friend of Prince Gabriel McCurdy, the pair of fighters were recalled and the closer pair of warships broke off their defensive screening of the outer planets in the system.
The basic thoughts of duty officer in command of the Blood's Honor Command Bunker deep inside Forest Garden was anything sending out such dual codes, even those given by kids of the Forest Garden Government, should be classified as an ultra high priority message. To make up for the loss in the defending screening ships in the Forest Garden system, even temporally, a zip ball was sent to Spider Bite, placing all capitol ships defending Brave Humanities space ship construction platforms on alert in case they were needed to help defend Forest Garden or any other vital interest of Forest Garden or Blood's Honor, since the McCurdy family also secretly owned the mega corporation.
Four hours from the time of firing, Blood's Honor High Command had the full contents downloaded into one of its battle cruiser's computers and had verified the woman's voice print as a known high ranking officer in Earth Core. With this information confirmed, another zip ball with the original information along with a full file on the Earth Core Commander and all her known activities was fired off to Black Jungle, where Colonel Price, a baron on the planet of Forest Garden and commander of Shadow Brigade was fighting with his unit to fully secure a world from the clutches of Lord Talborne allied forces. Black Jungle was a planet on the front lines of the fight between Blood's Honor and Lord Talborne. Half of the world, including most of its leaders wanted to join the New Frontiers Coalition, but for reasons yet unknown, much of the military was resisting, creating a virtual civil war between the government and some loyal military units and the vast majority of its military. Colonel Price and his highly secretive and ultra elite Shadow Brigade had been dispatched to deal with the situation.
The moment Colonel Price had verification of Earth Core involvement in the war and in particular its backing of Lord Talborne, he went to work on a new plan. The scheme was one which would end up slowly unraveling support for the blood thirsty Talborne while eating up vast amounts of Earth Core and Talborne loyalist resources and money. At the same time, Colonel Price sent a priority message to Brave Humanities headquarters in the New Israel System, demanding they find a way to get emergency assistance to the O'Connell Grenadiers and in particular the kids in the unit, for he remembered the incredible bravery of the unit and in particular a small group of their kids who had ended up fighting side by side with his son and a several other Blood's Honor cadets back on New Bravaria. The fact Earth Core had once again done something to hurt the unit and its kids was more than enough to authorize such actions. However, hearing Earth Core had helped hit basically defenseless cadets in the process gave him all the extra justification he would ever need and he took it with a vengeance.
Minutes later, another zip ball arrived in the Nova system to alert Blood's Honor forces of the devastating attack on the Wagon Class PLC transporting cadets they had ordered to the New Brunswick System in efforts to protect the kids of the former Quaker VII academy. This in turn prompted Major Goddard, the on site commander of Blood's Honor forces, to send another zip ball to be sent from the Nova system back to New Brunswick Prime ordering the Brave Humanities agriculture station to render full aid and authorized the company, secretly owned by Forest Garden and Blood's Honor, to dispatch a security team to New Brunswick to help all the kids get situated until Blood's Honor Junior Military Academy cadre could be brought in.
With rage in his eyes, he also asked and got authorization for, Blood's Honor independent forces not currently under contract to be pulled into the growing fight. Under Major Goddard's orders, half a dozen Blood's Honor sponsored independent frame forces were dispatched to into Earth Core space. Three of them were tasked with the mission to rescue any "gladiators" talked about by the Earth Core Commander from the Legatus Lucius Maecenas compound and level it.
The other three frame forces were to use whatever information was gathered from the compound and go after whoever the Senate appointed Earth Core General was using his "gladiators" to fight against. In Major Goddard's eyes, the whole vile "sport" would come to a violent end by Blood's Honor regardless of cost or sacrifice.
Forest Garden and the Blood's Honor mercenary forces they owned didn't stop there. Yet another zip ball, this one a diplomatic one, was sent to Zentari III, capitol world of the Free Planets Association where it was picked up and dropped off at the still being constructed New Frontiers Coalition embassy. A few hours later, the NFC ambassador to the FPA was ushered in to see the Crown Prince of the FPA, a long time friend of the ambassador, as both had go through Blood's Honor Junior Military Academy together for over six years and had kept in contact ever since.
Once the formalities as and pleasantries were handled, the current NFC ambassador to the FPA and former Blood's Honor Commander handed over more than enough proof to show the startled Prince that Earth Core was directly behind the civil war between the two Quaker worlds. With the voice recordings picked up by the men and women of the Grenadiers from over 85 light years away in his hands, the Prince contacted his own Intel people.
It took only a few more hours for the Crown Prince to have agents, still on Quaker VI and VII, to secure files on everyone supposedly in the conversation directly from the Quaker VII academy central computer. By the end of the second day following the firefight aboard the Wagon Class PLC, the Prince had in his hands files verifying the voices on the recordings were indeed kids from the up till now all but unknown O'Connell Grenadiers. The fact these brave kids were clearly fighting traitors from Quaker VII and Earth Core agents in order to save lives of FPA citizens, opened a few eyes in the Prince's staff.
Even before the truthfulness of the information had fully been validated, paperwork was being readied for signing by the Prince himself. All four boys' names in question were submitted for the FPA Defender medal, the highest award given to a non FPA military person. This turn of events caused some EC agents within the FPA to start their own file on the kids even though they didn't even understand why yet.
Three days from the time of the firefight aboard the PLC, Robin, Cody, Dante, and Caleb had investigation teams trying to build files on them and they were being investigated back on Earth. With the limited intelligence resources they had, Earth Core quickly dropped all interest in the former Quaker VII academy and its kids, and instead focused on O'Connell Grenadiers and the kids within the unit. Up till this point EC only had a couple of lines in their files about the unit saying they had been one of the units in the New Bravaria system when the Emperor's favorite Great Grand Son had been killed. This alone had been enough to get them on a targeted for extermination list, but it had never been acted on because they had been deemed not worth the effort.
At the same time, back in the FPA palace a detailed analysis was done on files handed over by the NFC ambassador including voice prints and background noise. With all testing pointing toward nothing having been tampered with, it all but proved the recordings were not faked. This coupled with the fact the Prince considered the NFC ambassador a good friend was more than enough to convince the man there was a better than even chance that with Quaker VI's victory, both worlds would indeed try to defect to Earth Core. He took everything to his father with a recommendation to use a strong display of force against Earth Core.
Even before Robin, Cody, Dante, and Caleb had made it half way to New Brunswick Prime, alerts were being sounded out from one end of the FPA to the other. War ships, troops, and other reinforcements were being dispatched to the FPA EC border in incredible numbers; while two full invasion fleets along with all needed support ships were ordered to the Quaker system to prevent a defection along with orders to land troops, forcibly if needed, to root out all EC agents and EC loyal government officials on both Quaker VI and VII.
The FPA didn't simply stop there; retaliatory strikes were authorized on EC worlds and outposts all along the FPA EC boarder. No longer would the civil war in the Quaker system be considered an internal matter. Instead, it had become an issue of security for the entire Free Planets Association and the rulers of the FPA wanted to make it crystal clear, Earth Core had officially gone too far and would pay dearly for their interference in FPA space with equipment, money, and blood.
Of course, those escorting the dozens of life pods from the now ruined Wagon Class PLC knew nothing of this. The tension of the last day had taken its toll on all the kids. Within hours of establishing a more or less organized fleet and plotting a basically safe course deeper into the system, most were sound asleep. Even Caleb and Vladimir found the excitement of the dog fight starting to fade as they let the on board computers handle their fighters for them. With nothing left to do, the adrenaline rush of combat faded which was quickly replaced with exhaustion. Before they even knew how tired they were, both had drifted off to sleep. Communications between the ships quieted considerably as all ships and life pods hurdled through space toward a distant dot known on star charts as New Brunswick Prime.
Aboard the Grey Stallion, repair crews made progress by leaps and bounds as they were finally able to get out on the outer hull. Less than a day after burning out of the debris field around the lifeless space fold craft, all external breaches had been located and patched, allowing for full life support to be restored ship wide. Even more important to many aboard the Planetary Landing Craft and after two nerve wracking days, parents were finally able to get back to their kids and living quarters.
Most found the whole deck in amazingly good shape. All but a handful of the rooms had been cleaned and even the smallest bits of dangerous material vacuumed up; injured kids were found to be well cared for, and even the unit medics admitted they doubted they couldn't have done much better given the circumstances. Still, the reunion between children and parents caused a river of tears and more kisses and hugs than could ever be counted.
Those with the worst injuries were transported up to sick bay, while those the kids of the Grenadiers had allowed past the secure area and into the safety of the break room on Hotel deck quickly found offers from adults to sponsor or even adopt them. Most of the astonished children found it hard to believe such offers could possibly come from those they had done so little to be nice to back on Quaker. However, each and every one of them found Luna, Zane, Valerie, Kerri, and even Jared working hard to find them a family to at least stay with temporarily. Slightly more then 48 hours after the disastrous fold into the New Brunswick system, the number of older kids in the Grenadiers slightly more than doubled. The number of double digits continued to grow as Grenadier kids worked both directly and behind the scenes to find places for those they knew.
While there was an almost party atmosphere a few decks below, Major O'Connell met face to face with Cody's father for the first time. It didn't take either man long to establish a couple hard facts. First and foremost, was the realization that the O'Connell Grenadiers badly needed the former armor commander's knowledge of infantry and armor tactics and command experience every bit as much as Cody's dad needed the Grenadiers mercenary knowledge.
Within 2 hours of the face to face meeting between the two battle-hardened veterans, a bug planted in Cody's father by Zane came to fruition. A basic agreement was established to combine those that fled Quaker VII and the Grenadiers into a much larger and vastly more powerful combined arms unit. Once those who fled Quaker VII got into system and agreed, Major O'Connell agreed he would ask the Association of Independent Mercenaries, known as AIM to promote him to a Colonel, a rank suited for someone in command of a very large combined arms military unit. Once this happened, Captain Tanner would stay XO and get a Commander rank, while Cody's father would get a Major rank as third in command of the whole unit and lead officer over all infantry and armor.
Major O'Connell realized this would mean a name change as well, since AIM would not allow him to claim ownership over a unit no longer completely his. A few hours of debate and several messages sent back and forth between the Grey Stallion and AIM offices, the basics of the agreement along with a name was confirmed. The second now senior Lieutenant Mischev's people come in system and agreed the unit would be transformed to a combined arms brigade with the name the Grey Knight Grenadiers would be born out of the combining of the units. The name, the last sticking point between Cody's father and Major O'Connell was settled on after contacting the AIM offices on New Brunswick and finding a decent name not held by another AIM recognized mercenary force.
Three and a half days after the dog fight, a static filled transmission woke Vladimir as he slept for the third or fourth time since he had engaged and gotten credit for four kills on micro fighters. He blinked his eyes and rubbed some of the hardened crusty junk out from around his tear ducts before glancing around the cockpit. With a sigh, he took a drink from his on board water and started to stretch as best as he could when he noticed a massive new hit on his radar. Before he could spin his head to look in the direction of the new arrival, the radio once again came to life, "O'Connell rescue fleet leader, this is the battle cruiser-carrier, White Tiger of Brave Humanities Defense Forces, please respond."
Vlad shook off the last vestiges of sleep as he heard he was in contact with a real warship, and a massive one at that. He quickly changed over to the proper frequency and keyed the radio, "White Tiger this is Academy One fighter, leader of the life pod protection screen."
"Good to get you on the horn, Academy One." An older sounding woman's voice responded with some relief in her tone. "You can check our authentication with the planet to verify we are who we say, as it sounds like you all have had a bad time the last few days and probably aren't much in the trusting mood at the moment. The other four ships with us are all Brave Humanities frigates. We can send you their information if you would like as well. Once you verify, get back with us please."
Vlad instantly switched frequencies, "Anyone else awake?"
Jessie's voice came over the radio sounding very nervous, "Yea, I think we all are cause we have company closing on us fast and the lead ship is a big bastard! It is giving us a transponder code of Brave Humanities, but I didn't know they made ships that big!"
Vladimir sent a transmission down to New Brunswick asking them to verify the identity and ownership of the ship that was now such a huge blob on his radar, it prevented the identification system in his fighter from functioning correctly simply because the size of the ship was not something the radar had been built to deal with. Frustrated, Vlad made several attempts to adjust radar settings before giving up and responding to Jessie, "I know they do. Brave Humanities build just about everything including the fighters Kay and I are flying, but I didn't think I would ever encounter a real warship! Where in the hell did it come from?"
"They folded in system just a couple of minutes ago but they are so big and folded so close to us, it knocked out communications until a few seconds ago!" Titus Kevendrep radioed back, "In addition to the big one, we also have four escort ships, but they don't even appear on radar cause of the size of that lead monster, so we don't know what they are. I didn't know war ships could fold without being attached to a special fold craft though."
Vlad frowned as he thought it over. "They could if they came through one of the Alien Fold Gates, but I didn't think New Brunswick was in range of an Alien Fold Gate. Stay in formation until we get confirmation from the planet, but even if they aren't who they say they are, I don't know what in the name of God we could do about it."
"Cody's suggestion would be to split up and make a run for it." Titus replied with a nervous chuckle.
"I'll keep that under advisement." Vlad stated seriously. "Comrade Caleb, you awake."
"Uh huh, and I think I just pissed in my suit, so it's a damned good thing it has a waste disposal system in it. It took me almost ten minutes, but I finally managed to get a readout. My threat ID shows her to be an Odin Class heavy battle carrier, but she has some extra attachments to her hull from what the readout I have shows. I mean I kind of doubt the computer is wrong, but based on a visual, I really don't know if it is an Odin or not. One way or the other, she is the biggest thing I have ever seen! I have been on major space stations less than a third the side of that ship!"
"Me too Comrade." Vlad stated nervously, "Grey Stallion, can you read us?"
Major O'Connell's voice came over after a slight delay showing just how far away the PLC was from them. "We see it Vladimir. And in case you are wondering, yes, we can actually visually see it even as far away as we are. Now granted, it's jut a dot to us; but considering how far away we are from you, being able to see it is somewhat astonishing and a bit terrifying. She is telling us she is from Brave Humanities and has been sent to help and defend us all. If you get confirmation from planeside of her legitimacy, I say you let her help you all and be very nice, and ultra polite cause someone is spending a fortune sending in a warship of that size not to mention the escort ships. Pissing them off would be a very bad move, because one thing I can guarantee you is this; a single one of her escorts could squash the Grey Stallion like a tank running over a toy car and she has four of them."
"You can count on it sir!"
Four tense minutes past before one of the two salvage rigs verified the lead ship was indeed a Brave Humanities owned and operated ship. The voice of the young radio man showed his own terror at seeing a ship so large pop into the system without warning. He added the ship didn't ask permission to enter the system, but the Brave Humanities agriculture station had warned the New Brunswick government they had sent for assistance and it would be arriving whether or not they liked it or wanted it.
Vlad took a couple of deep breaths, "White Tiger, this is Academy One again. We have your identity verified. What exactly do you want with us?"
The woman's voice came back over, "Young man, this is Senior Commander Bennett of Brave Humanities space defense forces. We were dispatched to give you all some aid. We are normally stationed to protect our ship building facilities on Spider Bite, but it sounds like someone over there has some pretty good friends with some serious pull, so here we are. We just folded into system and we are less than a quarter of an hour out. However, we could get to you all a bit quicker if you let us. We need you all to start a slow decrease of speed and give us a list ships and or pods with the worst injuries or problems so we can get them into our bays first.
"At the same time, we will let the salvage rig from New Brunswick grab some of the worst damaged pods because they have the equipment better suited to grappling damaged ships and pods without doing extra damage. At their current speed, they should get to us about the same time we start pulling you all in. Furthermore, we request you power down all weapons so we don't have a friendly fire incident. We are getting ready to launch a full squadron of fighters to give you a proper defensive screen."
Vlad took one glance over his shoulder, seeing the massive ship closing almost like they were standing still even though they had all done a maximum burn for several minutes to build up enough speed to get down to New Brunswick using little more than gravitational pulls and their current speed. At the same time, two of the four other smaller capitol ships were burning hard toward the Grey Stallion to give the damaged PLC some serious protection. "OK, I am sending the orders White Tiger, but be advised, both myself and the other Saber Raptor out here are already really low on fuel, so we won't have much left if we totally decelerate."
"No issues there, Academy One, we'll pull you into the bay shortly and get you refueled."
Caleb spoke up, "Um, ma'am, you wouldn't happen to have some spare armor and a reload for us as well by chance. My ass end is really chewed to hell and I know Academy One took some hard hits as well, plus he had to eject his cockpit safety shield."
The woman spoke with a hesitant voice, "Um, you sound awful young to be using such language let alone be behind the controls of a fighter as powerful as a Saber Raptor."
Vlad managed a chuckle as he hit his forward thrusters gently bringing his powerful fighter to a stop, "He is ma'am, and pardon his language. He tended to get lots of demerits back on Quaker VII for cursing to and at cadre. However, he is correct; we could both use a repair slot, some armor and allowed to borrow a few tools to get us in better shape. We had a pretty good fight up here."
Even as he spoke, a full squadron of 24 ultra heavy Griffin class fighters surrounded the entire fleet of yachts, life pods and fighters providing a blanket of protection capable of scaring off all but the most determined or insane attackers. Each one of the fighters had almost twice the armor and firepower of the Saber Raptor he was piloting and could fly faster both in space and atmosphere.
Another woman's voice came back across the radio, "We'll get you into our repair bays and take care of the repairs for you all; stand by for grappling."
"Oh, come on, I can fly this into a bay..." Vlad started to complain.
"Not our bays young man." Senior Commander Bennett countered, "We have auto defense turrets to prevent anyone from trying to slam a fighter into an open bay. You have to be towed in by a craft with proper Identify Friend Foe codes unless you want to find out what is like to be shot at by several linked turbo lasers."
Caleb swallowed hard, "OK then, pull me in."
"Um, he speaks for me too, ma'am." Vladimir spoke up without another comment.
Senior Commander Bennett snickered, "Very good decision. Just understand, do nothing from the time we grapple till you are securely docked. Any movement on your part could be seen as hostile by our computers which in turn would mean you would be targeted by our point defense systems."
"I'm ordering all ships and pods to put all systems other than life support to standby." Vladimir stated after a few moments, "We are all yours White Tiger."
Caleb glanced out the starboard side of his cockpit as his fighter was finally selected to be towed in. The massive Griffin class fighter did a quick thruster roll around Caleb's fighter to check for serious damage giving Caleb his first look at the most power IPSC built outside of Earth Core. The diamond shaped back wings were attached to a second diamond shaped front area where the cockpit was located. Two small fins extended off the bottom at 45 degree angles just forward of the triple rectangle shaped main back thrusters. Similar looking fins also came off the top, but were pointed at each other and were much longer making it seem as they were almost touching each other. The front diamond also had fins, but they came off the 'points' of the diamond and curved both up and down.
Caleb examined the fighter as it finally locked on a pair of magnetic grapple lines; as it did so, he realized the fighter's main body and front section could actually separate, meaning if enough damage happened to the back, the pilot could eject the back and still have a micro fighter. His awe over the design quickly became secondary, however.
His eyes grew wide as he realized the size of the ship he was being towed toward actually cast a shadow large enough to cover most of the remaining life pods and yachts and even the assisting salvage craft sent up from New Brunswick. As he got closer, the full awesome size all but took his breath away. The bay he was being towed to was tiny in comparison to the ship, yet it was one of only two dozen bays on the side of the ship he was being towed toward. Above and below the bays, he could see dozens of pods very similar to the anti-missile pods on the fighter he was in, only these were much larger.
The views he managed to catch of the rest of the ship were equally incredible. The ship was basically four massive sections, the sides were long curved half tubes, joining the two sides was a center section even more massive than the sides. It had a full sized landing bay, larger than most space stations and even a deck where larger ships were docked. This reminded Caleb of pictures he had seen in Luna's room of 21st century aircraft carriers. The older girl loved ocean ships and had pictures of them all over her walls.
Still, as unbelievable as all this was, the upper superstructure of the massive warship was even more astonishing, for it rose well above the rest of the ship and even from a great distance he could see some of the weapons sticking off of it, Some of the barrels of the space cannons were actually bigger than many luxury space yachts and a couple he was pretty sure he could actually fly in and land deep inside the barrel.
As his fighter entered the bay, his jaw fell even further as he realized each bay was independent of the others and capable of easily holding six fighters each with its own docking arm and two extra spots with repair gantries so damaged ships could be worked on. Even before the grappling craft had firmly tucked Caleb's fighter into one of the gantries, the outer door was closing and repair crews were moving to patch armor, rearm and refuel the fighter.
Before the last docking clamp locked his fighter into place, his computer read the bay had been re-pressurized and he could safely exit. Getting a thumbs up from one of the repair techs, he popped the hatch to the cockpit and climbed out. It took a few moments for his mind to register he was actually in gravity. Confused, he looked around before he picked his feet up one at a time and put them back down. Even as he tired to figure out how this was possible, he failed to notice all eyes were staring at him in some shock.
Caleb finally gave up on trying to figure out how he had gravity and peeled off the suit and pulled his heavy Eco-suit out of the back of the fighter and stretched. He then yanked his clothing he had stuffed into the eco-suit out and started getting dressed. He quickly pulled on his torn jeans, dirty tee-shirt, and shoes worn almost all the way though the bottoms before he pulled out the laser rifle and double checked the safety. Finally, he took note of how silent the whole bay had become. He glanced around for a few seconds getting more nervous by the moment, "Um, is something wrong?"
The lead tech glanced back at his crew as a couple of them actually stuck their heads in the fighter to make sure the boy they were now looking at was indeed alone. "Well, ah, I guess we were wondering how you ended up in a Saber Raptor and what you are doing with a laser rifle."
Caleb's mouth twisted as his lips scrunched up for a few seconds, "Well, I flew it. How else would I have ended up out here?" Still seeing a bit of shock and nervousness on the faces of the adults in the bay, he popped out the power pack on the rifle and tossed it to one of the younger junior techs. The young man nervously fumbled both, allowing them to fall the floor of bay well below the docked fighter
"Really?" one of the other techs finally asked as he scratched his head, "Why did you take it out with this kind of combat damage?"
"I got it on the way here." Caleb stated with a great deal of annoyance as he looked down at the rifle and power pack, "You know, I had to fight and kill to get that, the least you could do is be careful with it."
More glances were exchanged, "You can't be serious, you're just a kid!"
Caleb pointed back at the fighter, "Hey, don't believe me then. Check the battle computer or better yet, go out there and find one of the jerks who is probably still floating out their after I took out their micro fighters out from under them. There still should be a couple left."
The conversation was brought to an abrupt halt as a Brave Humanities officer entered the bay. The Ensign's first expression basically mirrored those of the repair crew, but he recovered quickly, "Guys, I want this fighter back at a hundred percent readiness within the hour." He glanced down at the rifle then back to Caleb, instantly realizing the boy was pretty upset by the fact it was laying in the bottom of the repair bay. "Young man, would you care to accompany me to the crew showers while I send a couple of my men around to find you some clothing and if necessary find you a replacement for your rifle." He glanced down at the rifle on the bay floor and back to Caleb with a raised eyebrow them a managed a bit of a smile. "While aboard, you won't need a weapon."
Caleb glanced down at the rifle again then shrugged, "It's only a Zip Tech Alpha, but it was my first combat capture so I would like it back." He then handed over the sonic stunner, boot knife, and finally pulled a switch blade out of his front pocket.
"We'll get the rifle and all this back to you and get you a real weapon out of our armory before you leave the ship, young man." The Ensign responded after almost a full minute of silence.
"OK." Caleb once again shrugged still showing some disappointment. "I'm more worried about the fighter anyway."
"That we can fix." The ensign stated with total certainty while carefully looking over the boy. "It sure looks like you need a shower though, but I don't think you'll fit in even our smallest flight suit. On the other hand, we should be able to locate a cadet suit or something somewhere aboard."
Caleb took a deep breath, "A shower sounds really good, but I can just wear a towel or something for a while as long as you can wash the clothing I'm wearing."
"We'll find you something... um, a bit more... um... newer, young man, just follow me."
Caleb shrugged, not showing any sign of hurt feelings or embarrassment over the condition of his clothing. "Yes sir." As he made his way deeper in the ship, he continued to glance around in clear amazement, ignoring the countless looks he was getting from crewmembers of the White Tiger. "Can I ask a really dumb question?"
"There are no dumb questions young man." The ensign responded while pointing to a small room with shower heads. "The soap is dispensed automatically from the heads by pressing the lower silver button and water only comes out for thirty seconds from the time you press the upper button. You can set the water temperature by typing it on the touch pad and increase or decrease pressure by hitting the plus or minus buttons. Towels are not normally used, but you can find them on the other side of this door in the lower bin. Most of the crew uses the blowers and heat lamps in the side room.
"Wow, this is really cool!" Caleb stated while looking at the controls with some awe.
"Being assigned to the White Tiger has some perks, that's for sure." The man responded showing a great deal of pride in the ship he was on. "Did you have a question?"
Caleb nodded as he kind of played with the controls for a few seconds. "Why am I not in zero G?"
"First time on a capitol ship?"
"First time I even saw one," Caleb smiled, "So yea."
The ensign chuckled, "Ships this big can hold a graviton core, and this one uses one. It creates a fake gravity field on most of the decks. However, don't ask me how it works, cause all I can tell you is it does. From what I was told one time, it was part of the original data sent from the Alien Fold Gates when the first one was discovered, but actually figuring out how it worked didn't happen for over a hundred years. Even now only Brave Humanities, Earth Core, the FPA, and the Euro-league have managed to master it, and only EC and us have made it standard on most capitol ships.
He watched as Caleb started stripping without the slightest hint of being bashful. The ensign quickly turned his eyes away from the boy as he realized the youngster was not going to stop at his underclothing like the man expected the boy to do, "Is there anything else you need?"
"Some real food would be awesome." Caleb responded as he hit the water and quickly adjusted the spray. "But more than anything, I really want to find out how everyone else is."
"I'll get you some clothing and take you to the mess hall. Most of those we are bringing aboard are going their after they get cleaned up."
Caleb saw the man start to leave, "Um, sir?"
The man quickly turned only to turn away from the nude boy, "Need something else?"
"Nothing important I guess," Caleb stated with a sigh as the water and soap combination started to eat though the grime and sweat of the last few days. "I was just wondering how long of a shower I can take."
"As long as you want young man." The man smiled sincerely, "The White Tiger has a filtration system to take out all the impurities in the water by breaking all used water down into hydrogen and oxygen. It is then burned to create pure water again, so our water supply takes years to empty, and we normally fill up when we find ice asteroids, which we did less than a month ago. You're good."
All the man heard as he moved away was Caleb saying, "I have got to find a way to get assigned to one of these!"
Edited by Boxerdude.