Castle Roland

O'Connell's Grenadiers

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 12

Posted: N/A

O'Connell's Grenadiers

Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons

Jared linked up with Zane and Kerri as grapple lines fired from the Brave Humanities warship the Grey Stallion, securing it to her side. The three Grenadier kids continued to watch through one of the windows as the massive ship first pulled the ship they were on right up to them, then extended a link tube. Within minutes the connection between the two ships was established and the airlocks between the two craft opened. Even as adults from both crafts moved to inspect the links, the trio tore their attention away from what was happening outside and started organizing those they had taken under their protection.

While a trio of thick metal extensions started to extend toward the Grey Stallion, Zane's mom came up to them, "We are short on manpower and need to focus on getting the injured over to the warship. While the adults handle those problems, I need you all to double check the central lounge and do a quick sweep of the rooms the refugees had been in. The Major wants all of them off our ship as soon as possible."

Jared nodded, "We kind of expected we'd need to help. We've already gotten those we knew from the academy put into teams. Those with little to no zero G experience are going to go though first. The rest are going to hang back and help any walking wounded, so no one gets hurt any worse. This way, you all can focus on the Grenadiers injured and those who are too hurt to go on their own. The three of us are all unhurt, so we'll be the last of the double digits to move across."

"Good plan."Zane's mom moved over and gave Jared a kiss on the top of his head, "You guys have really done an outstanding job though all this. We are all very proud of you and one way or another we are going to make this right."

Zane just shrugged, "Don't worry about it mom."

She shook her head, "No, I mean it. You all deserve to have some fun and be kids for a while ..."

"Not until this is over." Jared growled. "Earth Core hit us again, and did the same things to our buddies as they did to us! Some of them got away ..."

Zane's mom gripped Jared's left shoulder while giving him a quick but hard thump on his forehead with the fingers on the other hand. "Don't interrupt me, boy, you ain't quite big enough yet." She then grabbed his other shoulder and looked right into the boy's eyes. "Your time will come, but not yet. Got it?"

Jared's grey eyes seemed to darken slightly, almost like they had turned to steel. "Yes ma'am, but ..."

"No! You pulled your weight and now it's back in our hands. Be content with what you have done. Sooner or later you will get another shot at EC, but don't go wishing for it. Good people have died every time we have dealt with them. It's almost as if it is a curse to humanity, for every time those animals poke their head out of the darkness of space, evil follows. Right now, we don't need any more good people dying, understood?"

Jared's shoulders finally slumped, "They killed most of my family ..."

"I know, son. Believe me, I know." She then glanced over to her son, "Speaking of family, where is your new brother?"

Kerri spoke up, "He is going with the first group, Ma'am. He offered to keep an eye on the injured Grenadier double digits and is one of the leads on trying to hook up the living kids with living family members scattered across our ship, the Brave Humanities warships, and the salvage crafts." She paused, "Besides, Jasha is really bad in Zero G."

Zane's mom snickered knowing the kids hand found a way to get Jasha out of their hair while giving him some very important tasks, "Understood." She then floated back a bit and gave each one of the three kids a hard look, "I'm serious kids. Once you and your friends are totally secure, you all need to join the others and unwind. I don't want to hear another word about revenge, Earth Core, or Quaker VI for a while. There will be time to deal with all of those issues latter. Now is the time to catch your breaths and help friends and family, both old and new."

One by one the three kids nodded. As they watched the woman leave, Jared glanced back to the other two and whispered, "This is not over ..."

Zane patted Jared on the shoulder, "Agreed, but the last thing we need is to have someone overhear us talking about what my mom just forbade. Besides, what are we really gong to do about any of this now? We need to clear this deck and get over to the others. Once Luna, Robin and everyone else is healed up, then we can turn our attention toward what to do next."

Kerri glanced down the passageway making sure it was clear before she spoke up, "I doubt Robin will let it end here, and I know Luna is ready to chew through deck plating as mad as she is." She glanced over to where the link tube was connecting the Grey Stallion to the Brave Humanities Frigate Desert Eagle with a nervous fleeting look before she let out a long breath. "I still can't believe Dante and Caleb came through so big. We're going to have to make sure they are part of us from now on."

Jared's whole posture hardened a bit more, "Oh, speaking of Dante, Robin made it real clear to both Luna and me, to tell you all the days of the Master Sergeant hurting him are done. He wants us to take a shot at sending the first message before Dante gets back."

Zane's eyes went wide, "How are we going to send him any sort of message? He'll kill us if he ..."

Kerri interrupted. "How strong a message?"

Jared shot Kerri a questioning look as he spoke, "As strong as we can make it ..."

"Good." Kerri's whole demeanor changed as a truly malevolent glint flashed into her eyes. "Just give me a green light and let me and Valerie handle round one."

"You sure?" Jared asked cautiously, "I mean, Val isn't exactly ..."

"You all need to cut her a bit more slack too, there is way more there than you guys realize," Kerri stated cryptically. "Come on Jared, just give me the green light and stay out of our way for an hour or so."

Jared shot a quick look over to Zane, only to see the boy shrug and reluctantly nod. Jared looked up for a second then back into Kerri's eyes. The only thing he saw was an eagerness tinged with a desire to do something dark. The more he starred into her eyes the colder he seemed to feel, the word sinister came to mind as he finally nodded, "OK, I'll let Luna know I turned it over to you."

Kerri's facial features seemed to turn even darker, "Cover for me. I'll be back when I get back."

"Alrighty then ..." Zane shivered involuntarily as he watched her float out of sight before finally turning back to Jared, "Wow, it's almost like she has been secretly wanting to take her shot at the Master Sergeant for a while."

"So it would seem, and Kerri is not one I would want on my bad side ..."

"Me neither." Zane whistled softly, "I just hope she doesn't go too far ..."

"From what Robin said, there is no going too far this time. His words to me were Dante needs to be blanketed by us and it's time for us to strike back and even the score. After everything the Master Sergeant has done to Dante, Robin all but left the door wide open for us to seriously mess him up." Jared shot a quick look down the passage Kerri had just disappeared down. "One thing's for sure, no one would believe it was her taking the first shots even if they see her doing it."

Zane managed a snicker, "Only cause she never gets caught."

"Exactly my point, she is impossible to pin anything on. The only other one of us less likely to get into trouble is Caleb!" Jared paused and chewed his lip. "Although, after what we now know, it's pretty clear he has been playing us a bit."

Zane snorted, "More than a bit. I wonder how many times he has pulled stuff right under our noses ..."

Jared snickered, "Lots. Hell, he made it all the way through aerospace training without any of us catching a whiff. Still, as devious as Caleb might be, I just have a feeling he doesn't hold a candle to Kerri's blowtorch of cunning."

"Maybe, but I'm having some doubts about how much Kay has gotten away with at Dante's expense."

"Huh ..." Jared nodded in some agreement as he thought it over, "Interesting point. Still, one way or the other, whatever is going to happen to our beloved Master Sergeant, it should be interesting." He paused, "But since we have to cover for her, you should grab the first couple of teams and get them moving while I get our sweeper team going room to room so we can clear the deck of all non-Grenadiers. If anyone asks, Kerri and Val are taking care of the younger refugees. Since Luna is actually taking care of them, she can help cover. I'll give her the heads up."

Zane pushed off the wall and started floating back toward the lounge area. "Sounds good."

Several hours later Kerri and Valerie appeared escorting the last of the refugees to the link tube. Both girls wore a rather smug satisfied look. Before either Zane or Jared could say anything Karri first gave a slight nod then shook her head in warning, as if to say you'll just to wait to see what we did.

Jared let out an annoyed sigh, but hid is frustration well as he moved over to help steady an older man, with graying hair. The man had angled for the center of the link tub with a push off the back wall, but in doing so had actually lost momentum while accidentally putting himself into a spin. Behind him were dozens of others including many of the kids the Grenadiers had offered homes to. In front of him, the green glow from the connection with the warship told him the established link was still a good one, and the airlock to the other ship was open.

Directly across from him, Zane was also helping men, women and children rescued by Robin and the others. Many of the refugees from the doomed Wagon Class PLC had limited to no time in Zero Gravity and it showed. Time after time, people lost control and bumped into each other, the top of the link tube or even tried to grab onto something, sending them back against the crowd trying to move forward.

Zane bit his tongue rather than say something as the mass of people once again came to a standstill all because a young woman came floating backwards, bumping into others creating a cascade effect of people losing already limited control over their movements. In some ways it reminded him of a cue ball being shot against a triangle of balls on a pool table. Everything bumped into something which set other things going a different direction.

Still chewing on his lip in frustration, he held onto the side of the link tube and grabbed the lady's foot. As much as he wanted to fling her in the direction she needed to go, he put on a very fake tight smile and gently pushed her toward the other ship. A glance over to Jared told him, his friend was every bit as annoyed at the very slow pace as he was. It didn't help matters they had been at this for over four hours and hadn't even gotten half of Hotel Deck clear of refugees.

The two boys managed to roll their eyes at each other which ended up with them both fighting off a bit of the giggles. Zane even paused to put his finger up to his temple, making a shooting motion, as if he had shot himself. As he stuck out his tongue and rolled his eyes upward, Jared let out another burst of laughter, clearly annoying some of those struggling to move down the link tube.

Zane's dad, who had been assisting those coming out of the tube into the warship, heard the noise, turned, and made his way up to the two. Seeing his son faking death with his tongue out, he leaned over to whisper in Jared's ear. Whatever was said between the long time Grenadier veteran and the youngster caused Jared to burst out laughing.

With a rather wicked grin, the man shot his son a wink as he helped steady a woman with a toddler. Taking a deep breath, the man pointed back at the two boys, "You two stay here give assistance. Since you are small enough to not block the tube like adults would, you are the best we have to help those who can't figure out which way they want to go. I'll send Kerri and Valerie back in once I get over to the frigate. Since neither of them are hurt they can move back and help. Make sure to stagger yourselves with two on the left side and the other two on the right. Do exactly what I just saw the two of you just did; stop those out of control and keep the flow moving away from the Stallion."

Zane gave a weary nod, "Yes sir."

Zane's father gave his son a bit of a sad, yet knowing, look, "The past few months and the last five days in particular has not been the greatest for you, and both mom and I know it. As soon as we are on solid ground and I get some down time, I'll take you, Jared, and your new brother camping, promise."

Even as tired as he was, Zane's eyes lit up, "Just us, no one else?"

"If you want to bring another friend or two fine, but if you three want it to be just the four of us, I'm good with it."

The very thought of spending time with his dad lifted Zane's spirits. With a wide smile, he pumped his fist, "Awesome!"

The man gave both boys another hard nod, "For now keep those is this passage moving forward. You'll both be interested to know, the ship we are going to has some sort of artificial gravity and a full gym. From what I have heard, the ship's captain has already agreed to slot all you kids some time in it, so the faster you get everyone over the faster you can have some downtime and real fun. Even better, it means you won't have to take the bone density shots, since we won't lose bone mass as long as we are over on her, which may be for a week or so the way things are sounding."

Jared's eyes went wide, "It has gravity?"

At the same time Zane pumped his fist again in jubilation, "No bone shots!"

"Yea to both." Zane's dad nodded showing a degree of astonishment all the while smiling at the boys' reactions, "And from what I was told, they can adjust it in some areas so it is heavier than normal or lighter. The Gym is one of those areas. Also, we got an offer from one of the ship's officers to give you all a full tour. It's not every day you get to see a capital ship let alone tour one."

"Wow!" Zane whistled in eager anticipation, "Get Kerri and Val in here so we can all get over there!"

Several decks up, Major O'Connell took in a long breath as he turned to glance back at the bridge of the Grey Stallion. He cringed slightly as a pair of Brave Humanities techs pulled the command console out of its mounting brackets, in preparation of installing a brand new one. Finally he let out the air he was holding in his lungs and pulled on the door fame edges as he entered his study. After a few minutes of collecting personal items, he made one last stop in front of a small hidden panel. It took only moments for him to punch in a set code and give a rental scan, which in turn opened a larger panel.

He paused as he looked at the contents, a small cube hooked up to the central computer of the Grey Stallion by a fiber optic cable. As he unplugged it, his hands shook lightly, for this was the first time it had been removed since the unit had bought the Planetary Landing Craft over four and a half generations ago. The data cube contained a copy of everything the Grenadiers had ever done, the pay rates of all personnel past and present, all contracts, all awards, pictures, births in the unit, where all combat losses were buried, and even where all unit funds were located. He took one last look at his quarters, knowing as he did so, the next time he entered what amounted to his home, much of it would be upgraded and remodeled. Carefully he tucked the small cube into his pack, holstered his heavy gyro-jet pistol and made his way to the turbo lift.

All along the corridor men and women were busy inspecting, and often times marking things for repair or outright replacement. More than once, he paused and started to say something as he saw things being worked on the Grenadiers had long ago put on a list of things not worth the time or money to fix. Major O'Connell had to clench his fists as he saw one young woman replacing the lighting strips along the floor, meant to guide personal to the nearest life pods should there be a need to abandon ship. He almost commented the on the fact the gold colored lights marking the hatch to the life pod was pointless since the unit had long ago sold off the life pods closest to the bridge to make payroll and truly necessary repairs, but once again he stopped as he noted a sign on the hatch warned of no life pod and the need to unseal the welding and replace not only the pod, but the entire docking collar.

He moved on, trying to remember how many years ago the pod in question had been sold. It had been quite a while back. He was pretty sure it had been sold to a deep space trader back when his mother had been the commanding officer of the unit. At the time he had been nothing more than a wet behind the ears seventeen or eighteen year old pup, with only half a dozen fights under his hat. He half smiled as he found his mind going back to the time before the unit had moved into the Inner Core, where the money was far better, but the fighting meaner, nastier, and much deadlier. How many former friends had walked or floated down this same passage? How many had he either helped bury or had to attend the funerals of since the unit had returned to 'civilized space'? With an annoyed snort he realized the numbers had certainly been far more in the years since leaving what was referred as the 'rim' of settled space.

Of course the flip side was the unit hadn't had to sell off parts of the ship to stay afloat, and even as desperate as the situation was back on Quaker VII, there was no question in his mind he would be able to find some kind of contract. As a matter of fact, he had passed up on two others before finally accepting the one in the New Brunswick system. The first had been for an assault on a military outpost in the Mining Federation. The pay would have been great as would the chance for salvage, but the complex was located right next to a booming gold town, and the chances for mass casualties made the mission objectives difficult. The fine print, saying collateral damage to the town was not a concern of those wanting the contract carried out, however, was what made it unacceptable. The second contract, a protection gig for a shipping company, was just the opposite. Way too little upfront pay and no obvious chance for salvage put it as a last resort contract for the heavy hitting Grenadiers.

The New Brunswick gig was more the Grenadier's style, a hardened facility to protect, below average pay for non-combat time, extremely good pay for combat time, and excellent salvage clauses fit nicely with the way Major O'Connell liked to do business. They would get paid for fighting and make due while training and sitting on their butts. The fact there had been over a dozen raids on the primary world and twice as many on the marginally habitable worlds in the system within the last nine months all but guaranteed the unit would see some action, and when they did, they would keep everything they took out, as long as the facility was not crippled to the point of not being able to function. The fact he was the defender meant his forces didn't have to worry about who was friendly, unarmed civilians, or enemy forces. If it shot at them or the facility it needed to die, if it did neither, then it was not their problem.

Still, he wondered if it was worth it. For the first time in six generations there was no clear cut O'Connell to take his place as unit commander and owner. His wife and young boy had been killed back on New Bravaria, two of his girls had both been wounded, and his oldest son had still not been found. Making matters even more complicated, the only other O'Connell to survive the cowardly attack on the non-combatant rear area, his brother, had lost a leg. The girls and his brother were now safe with his cousin back on Alexander Prime, but there was no telling how long they would remain so, especially since the rulers would certainly have to decide which side of the ABR civil war to jump in with. If they stayed out of the conflict they would be annexed by the Euro League or the Great Outback. One thing was certain; the rulers of Alexander Prime couldn't stay independent for long as close to the Earth Core boarder as they were. Independent worlds didn't last and couldn't survive without others to help them as long as they were in striking distance of EC.

His thoughts came to a halt as he found three more technicians clad in Brave Humanities uniforms pulling out the electrical controls for the lift. A small posted sign pointed around to the secondary cargo lift as a way to get to the lower decks. Grumbling, Major O'Connell went up to the turbo lift tube and glanced down. With a bit of a smirk he realized the lift was well below Hotel deck and all the doors were open. Before any of the techs could protest he floated into the tube and pushed off the side, sending him downwards. With an ease showing the countless hours of being in Zero G, he used almost every protrusion along the way to move faster and keep himself on target with the exit to Hotel Deck

Finally, as he approached Hotel deck, he grabbed onto one of the cables in the lift tube, changing his directions. It took only a moment to get himself over to be opposite of the open door. Once there, he pushed off the back wall entering the central corridor of crew quarters deck. He grabbed a door handle to one of the storage lockers and brought himself to a halt. A quick glance told him the passage was deserted and there was no debris floating around. Impressed at the cleanup done by the kids of his unit, he nodded in satisfaction and made his way toward the central area only to find Captain Tanner coming out of the main break room.

Captain Tanner gave him a quick nod, "The entire deck is clear except for a few Brave Humanities repair people, sir. Everyone must all be over on the warship already."

Major O'Connell gave his XO a skeptical look, "Already? We have been docked with them for over twelve hours now!"

"True, but we had over three hundred from the wagon over here, most of which looked more like infants trying to walk when it came to Zero G operations. Without our kids, we would still have some floating around, bumping their heads on the ceiling, floor, and walls."

"Speaking of our kids, how are Luna, Neil, and the others?"

"All of them are in the frigate's medical bay. A couple are in emergency surgery and two are in rejuvenation chambers. It's a damn good thing they got to us when they did. We were almost out of medical supplies ..."

"Yea, I know." Major O'Connell grumbled, then glanced over to where a man was working on the life support system sensor in the break room. "Have you managed to find out exactly who is footing the bill for this repair and all the supplies they keep sending over?"

Captain Tanner's voice became edgy, "Not a word. The only thing I have been able to get out of any of the techs they have sent over is they are only doing the internal, easy to get to work. The real repairs won't even begin until we are docked with the carrier. They have sent up rescue teams to get the handful of those we still have trapped. They also cleared out the med bay and transferred all our injured to their medical bays. The worst are going to be shuttled over to the carrier as soon as it is feasible to do so."

"Any word from the big ship as to our other kids?"

Captain Tanner gave a slight nod and chewed on his lip, "Other than Robin they are all safe and sound. They talked to Robin's mom and got permission for him to go into a regen chamber."

"You mean a rejuv chamber, right?"

"No, they have a full blown regeneration chamber and are getting ready to put Robin into it."

Major O'Connell frowned deeply, "I have heard it costs upwards of 50,000 interstellar credits to put someone through a regen! Is he really hurt bad enough to need one?"

"Hard to say, exactly. It sounds like he took a much worse blow to his ribs than he let on, and had some internal damage. But the Doc says he can also fix some of the past damage to him once they heal up his current injuries. No one has really said, but the way it sounds to me, it was the woman in command of the Carrier is the one who authorized it ..."

"Well, if her son and Robin fought side by side on New Bravaria, and she sees this as a chance for payback, she may well be bending a few rules to do so," Major O'Connell reminded his XO. "Especially, since it was there where Robin got those old wounds. However, it is the cost of all this I am worrying about. Just what I have seen, would put the bill for the refit up to over 10 million, and if they really are replacing all the missing life pods, the ancient Mark II navigation system with a Mark IX, and fully repairing the main drives, then you may as well triple the figure."

"If it was only those upgrades and repairs, I'd be a bit less hesitant, however, there is way more going on than just a safety overhaul, Major. Just before you came down, one of their engineers was telling his people to pull out our entire weapon targeting system so they could put in an Angle IV, and then upgrade all energy weapons to handle the package."

"An Angel IV?" Major O'Connell nearly choked on his own saliva. "I thought the Angel targeting systems were only for ships with cloak, so they could fire while jamming!"

"It is, and the Angel IV also has an anti jamming unit so we can find and shoot at ECM protected ships. It also means they intend to give us advanced ECM capabilities if not a full cloaking system ..."

Before he could finish, an older woman came up and nodded, "Sorry to butt in, but I couldn't help but overhear your conversation. First off, the bill has been paid, but by whom has not been told to us. However, I can tell you none of this is Senior Commander Bennett's doing. We got orders directly from Spider Bite to get your ship up to Brave Humanities standards and do not question any expense. This means someone outside the company is paying for all this.

"Secondly, you are correct. We got authorization from Senior Commander Bennett to upgrade you to a full cloaking system as she was given full authority to do what she thought best for you and this ship. It won't be on par with Earth Core, FPA, or Brave Humanities top line ships, let alone Blood's Honor, but it will be a damn straight better than anything the Euro League, Mining Federation, Galactic Rim, or the Great Outback has. It'll also be right on par with the best of the Avalon Breakaway Republic, Southern Seas Consortium, and the New Frontiers Coalition.

"Since this ship's design is so old, you don't have surfaces to defect sensor sweeps away from your ship, so giving you anything better would be a waste of time, money and resources. As it is, we'd still be able to detect you with it up and running if you came into gun range, but getting a lock would require us to burn through the cloaking with our ECCM.

"We'd also have a chance of detecting you further out, but would have to be looking unless you maneuvered to within our gun range, then we would certainly spot you. If you were staying still, however, we'd have a good chance of missing you, especially if we were just passing though and not on a patrol. Be aware, at full power, it will put a big drain on life support and will shut off many non-essential functions like shower heat lamps and humidity controls. For the best results, all non-ship system electronics should be turned off, or at the very least put on passive, so they can't generate a signal. Of course, doing a burn with your drive engines would give away your location instantly as well, since we have yet to figure out a way to make any burn a cold one. Always remember, heat in deep space sticks out, so refrain from using bursts from thrusters when close to enemy ships. If you need to slide out of the way, you will need to vent directly from life support. The air inside the ship is not warm enough to be noticed by most sensors. If you do this, realize, it will take a few hours to replace air to optimal levels since life support is diminished and the air will be very dry until you can activate the humidifiers."

The woman smiled as the two senior officers of the Grenadiers listened with wide eyes and open mouths. "Finally, you will not be able to have an active lock while fully cloaked with an Angel IV, but while under the blanket of ECM you will be able to. Unfortunately, ECM will hamper gunnery with the Angle IV. Ranges will be about two thirds of standard, three quarters with a really good gunner."

Major O'Connell let out a low whistle, "It'd almost be cheaper to hand us a new ship!"

The woman snickered, "Probably, but this way our people get some much needed practice working on a ship this old, hell this girl is an antique!" She paused showing she was a bit nervous about insulting the two men. When neither one looked annoyed, she continued. "Besides, this way you don't have to go to AIM and tell them you have upgraded to a new ship. Your AIM roster will continue to show you own this craft, and anyone who might have it out for you will have very poor Intel about this craft's true capabilities. After all, you uncovered deep space banditry sponsored by both Earth Core and Quaker VI. Sooner or later they will send in strike teams against you, and this upgrade may help you give them a hurting the likes of which will make them not want to tangle with you again."

"Upgrade or not," Major O'Connell snarled, "we are going to find a way to put a boot up the asses of those who ordered this action. Quaker VI has not heard the last of the O'Connell Grenadiers!"

"Understandable, so let us help you make it a bit easier for you to do so. Your ship is in very capable hands and we are getting a massive chunk of change, not to mention some great experience to handle this. Besides, I know I am beating my own drum a bit, but there is no better company in the galaxy to carry out this kind of overhaul than Brave Humanities!"

Captain Tanner gave the woman a hard nod, then motioned for the Major to follow him. "We should make the rounds and check on the others. I don't think there is a thing we can do here, other than get in the way."

Major O'Connell closed his eyes and sighed in agreement. As he turned to head down the link tub connecting his ship with the Brave Humanities warship, he glanced back. "Take good care of her. The Grey Stallion has been my home my whole life ..."

"Don't worry Major," the woman responded. "She'll only get the best, and we will not call the job done until every weld, wire, bolt and computer chip has been tested, retested and given a good hard kick."

Major O'Connell couldn't help but snicker slightly as he turned to enter the link tube to the warship. At the last second, he turned back to the woman. "A couple of hard kicks would make us feel better. We ain't exactly kind to our equipment."

A bit of a smirk crossed the woman's face. "So we have noticed, sir."

Senior Commander Bennett entered the command deck of the White Tiger and glanced over at the tactical displays before turning to her operations officer, "Where do our teams stand on rescue efforts aboard the wagon?"

"Not good," a young woman responded. "We have only found a handful of survivors the Grenadier's team didn't. Most were in rooms they couldn't get into. There was also a section totally cut off from the rest of the ship, but with pockets of atmosphere and a few even have power, so we are focusing the rest of our efforts there. With any luck we'll find a few score more survivors. However, we were able to get in and activate power to seven more life pods before everyone aboard them died, but almost everyone in them is suffering from mass exposure and serious oxygen deprivation. It's too early to tell, but we many even have some with a degree of brain damage because of the life support lock-out. The med bays on the two ships are just about maxed out with all the injuries between the Wagon, adding in the Grenadier's ship as well, and they are really pushing it on medical capabilities. We'll almost certainly have to transfer some of the wounded over here once they get back to us."

ldquo;Alert the medical bays of our other two escorts as well, we'll divide up the worst cases between all of us, so our medical teams don't get overwhelmed. What about the fold ship?"

"She's dead, Ma'am." A junior officer spoke from the other side of the command table, "Two crews searched her from bow to stern, but with the exception of two junior techs who were caught in the forward cargo bay, and a Korbin IV Snow Ferret they found in one of the empty quarters, she is lifeless. We were able to access the bridge computers though. Before they went dead, external feeds show the Wagon launched a life pod into the fold craft just as the fold was starting. It falls right in line with what the kids from the yachts told us they suspected. It's amazing she folded at all, let alone made it to her target system. Data shows the captain firewalled the fold coils to give it the extra power needed to stabilize the fold rip, but in the process it caused the front two coils to explode, taking out the bridge and the entire starboard side. Unfortunately, it also took huge chunks off the wagon, wiping out all the observation decks and exposing a third of it to space in just minutes. The only reason those two techs lived is the fact the cargo hold they were in had four environmentally sealed containers and they were able to get in one before the hull buckled where they were at."

Commander Bennett clenched her fists and shook her head sadly. "If the captain hadn't poured on the power, all four PLC's would have totally mis-folded as well, dooming everyone. The man died a hero." She paused, said a short prayer for a man she had never met, and then focused her attention to the tactical station. "How is the search going for the two escaped craft?"

A sergeant glanced up from his terminal. "Ma'am, we managed to get good information from one of the two salvage craft Kipper Limited sent up. The Delta made a beeline straight for the marginal world of New Brunswick III, the other headed toward one of the mining stations New Brunswick has on IV moon II. Since then, they lost contact with the station, so our best guess is it was captured by whoever was in the other craft."

"Tell the New Brunswick government we will be taking care of the mining station, and to steer clear."

The sergeant started to comply then stopped. "Ma'am, we aren't really going to let these kids risk their lives ..."

Commander Bennett glanced over with a bit of an annoyed glare, "No, but we need to figure out a way to make them think they did. They need a victory to regain some confidence in themselves and each other. Until we can find out a way to do this, we need to pinpoint their exact locations and see what type of firepower they have."

A very young crewman entered the command deck, paused, glanced at the guard with a degree of fear, and cleared his throat as he nervously spoke up. "Ma'am, I know I am not supposed to be up here, but you need to see this. Commander Jackson thinks we have another problem."

Commander Bennett glanced over, "Who are you?"

The youngster saluted. "Cadet Senior Pilot Gavin Rockland, Ma'am, Spider Bite Aero Command College. Commander Jackson had me take a Sky Viper to get this information to you without using any communications. I just got here ten minutes ago, and came straight up here."

Commander Bennett moved rapidly across the room and took the data cube the youngster held out. She glanced down, "Recruit Rockland, do you know what is on this?"

"Yes ma'am. I was the one who found it floating just outside of a shuttle launch tube. Since we were on a practice patrol to keep large debris from hitting the Wagon, and it was all but cleared by the warships, we quickly found ourselves without a real mission. There was nothing else to do; finally orders came down giving us a bit more freedom. We were to keep our eyes peeled but make the most of our flight time, so I got permission to do a couple of close in passes and test how close I could get to the ship without setting off collision warnings. I was on my second pass, going right behind the bridge when I spotted this. Not knowing what else to do, I grappled it and took it into the fighter. I waited until those we were escorting had completed their four hour search for survivors and brought it straight to Mr. Jackson. Be warned, though, it has a virus. It fried my ship's primary computer almost two hours after I plugged it in. I had to dock with the Desert Eagle with manual controls."

She glanced down at the cube, tossed it over to her tactical officer, then pointed to the guards, "If this is being done by courier, then I want it kept strictly need to know for now. All personal without Alpha security clearance or above need to leave and I want the command deck locked down while we see this." Before Gavin could so much as turn to leave the command area, she put a hand on his shoulder. "You stay. After we see or hear this, we may have questions and since you have already seen it, your security classification does not matter."

"My orders ..."

"Your orders just got changed young man." She stated firmly then glanced over to her operations officer. "Ok, put it on a portable holo-player and don't tie it into the ship's computer so we don't accidentally infect any ship systems. Also set a couple of cameras to record the whole thing so we have our own copy."

Once the portable player and recording gear were set, she glanced around one last time to verify the control center was secure. "Let's see this."

The small holographic viewer came up showing a grey haired balding man wearing an Earth Core Centurion uniform, but cutting though the rank insignia on his uniform was a dagger angling down, left to right. Those who understood the rank all let out a collective gasp.

Before the figure on the viewer spoke a single word, Commander Bennett turned sharply, motioning for the message to be paused. She then took a deep breath and glanced over to her intelligence officer. "Run his likeness though everything we have on Earth Core! I want it checked against all known Centurion Immunes. If this is for real, we need as much information as we can get!"

Grabbing the edge of the command table to steady her shaking hands she gave a single nod, "OK, let's hear this."

The man spoke in a deep voice, "Immunes Boris Kantares, as you know, your actions of late have not done much to bring honor to your family or your position. It has also placed my alliance to your house in some bad light. However,Legatus Propraetor LuciusMaecenas has seen fit to give you a mission to reverse your downward slide, or at the very least die with enough of your honor intact to insure your family a prosperous future."

The holographic image flickered once as the camera panned off the man speaking, showing a very sophisticated control room manned by a half dozen men, all wearing Earth Core uniforms with Tesserarius ranks. Each one also had a dagger running from right to left through the rank insignia. Finally the camera settled on the room's center console, one very similar to what Commander Bennett had in her command room. Displayed was a planetary system.

The man's voice once again started speaking, "This is the Quaker system. It lies on the edge of FPA controlled space, within easy striking range of us, the Great Outback and is in Fold range of three Mining Federation systems as well. Our agents have managed to infiltrate one of the two inhabited worlds." The viewer focused in on the sixth planet form the system's star and then started giving out all sorts of data. First it listed basic laws, social classes, and age demographics. From there, it went on to give population per continent and city, production outputs of military, food, and domestic goods, to average incomes per type of jobs. As the image focused in on cities of Quaker VI, it started to list the names of political leaders. Some of the names were in red, most were grey and others in gold.

"Names in red are those we needed to either subjugate or eliminate. We went in knowing the fewer who died, the better. However, we needed uncompromising allegiance from those who were left, so you can see the number of names in red turned out to be much higher then originally planned. We believe the first team we sent in started taking a few too many liberties, and thus the planetary population has grown a bit restless. Correcting this is your first task."

Another list of names, addresses and other personal information scrolled down. "Here is a list of those who we have identified as leading the opposition to the Quaker VI government we have in place. Once again, let me caution you, if you go out killing these people it will create even more problems since more deaths or disappearances will be seen as the government not having a good handle on things and we do not have full control of the press yet. Thus, support for the war with Quaker VII will further diminish. Simply put, you will need to find another way to silence them. Because of this, we have provided the names of friends and family of each which may be used as leverage against them. I have also provided a place for you to hide those you feel would be worth the time and energy to transport off world. You will find more about this on a separate file.

"Once you are certain we have the continued support of the government and the people of Quaker VI, your goal is to continue civil war between it and their neighboring planet. Note, to help you along, we will once again start providing enough resources for them to either take control of Quaker VII or at the very least cripple her to where the Quaker VII government is in open revolt to the FPA. The temporary stoppage of military equipment was due in no small part to the unauthorized strike against Quaker VII greenhouse complexes, which as you know is a primary mission objective of all current undertakings outside of Earth Core space."

There was a pause as the man openly sighed, "Fortunately for us, the operation was wiped out with almost no damage to the complexes, but we lost a vast amount of hardware in the process, and almost caused the whole civil war to unravel. Quaker VII has hired a few merc units. The one causing us the most problems currently is one you have dealt with once before, and one of the reasons for your current decline, the O'Connell Grenadiers. Once again, your failure to totally eliminate them after they caused the death of our Emperor's Great Grandson seems to have come back to haunt both you and me. If you get the chance, you need to get it right this time, but do not go on a vendetta and lose track of the bigger picture. The O'Connell Grenadiers, quite frankly, are not worth the effort of anything more than being a target of opportunity. However, the Emperor himself would certainly forgive all if you could recapture those who took down the Fluvius Camillus and send them back to Earth in chains for our Emperor's amusement."

"The other major obstacles you face come from the small, but very well equipped Quaker VII military and the Quaker VII Military Academy. The military of Quaker VII is not well liked by the government but has extremely good and charismatic leaders. Since it is kind of an outcast organization, those who join are much more loyal to their military leaders than their government making it almost impossible to penetrate let alone cripple.

"The Academy, on the other hand, is a much more interesting problem. It has private funders and its only government tie is the land, which is provided at no cost. Since it is not run by the basically pacifistic Quaker VII Government, it continues to churn out top notch men and women to fight for Quaker VII even as the civil war grows worse. Elimination of its funding sources has up to now proven unfeasible, since we have not yet been able to isolate who funds it, only where the money is coming from. Whoever established the funding did so carefully, using a multitude of dummy companies that all knot into a big web. The more strings we pull, the tighter the knot gets and the more dummy companies sprout up, so someone knows the paths of funding are being investigated and have a good handle on how to dumfound even our best experts.

"Because of this line of funding, your second objective is to prevent any off world government to form. A Quaker VII government in Exile with these kinds of funds could cripple our efforts to take control of the Quaker system. Should any attempt to form an exiled Quaker VII organization, it must be crushed. If it means a suicide mission, then so be it. After all, you have made yourself expendable. On the other hand, I would suggest you stay alive to see this though if at all possible. Your family's future in the inner circle of EC hinges on you redeeming yourself."

The man's face reappeared. "I cannot give you all the details, Immunes Kantares, but be aware we are getting ready to launch a massive operation into the ABR and thus, Blood's Honor will get involved. Command thinks we have enough firepower assembled to thwart them for a few years, but as we have both seen in the past, Command constantly underestimates the leadership and power of Forest Garden. If things turn bad when we launch the attack on ABR space we need Quaker VII to fall and fall quickly. The resources we are giving the Quaker VI government may be low quality, but is by no means small. Add in what we are funneling them with the dozen or more similar operations we have going close to the rim of Earth Core space, and we may be overstretching a bit. It is the belief of some, including me, Earth Core may well be needed to resupply allied worlds in the ABR much sooner than High Command expects. If this is the case, the equipment we are sending into places like Quaker VII will be the first lines of resupply since our covert supply lines into the ABR are long and multi-pathed to prevent detection of the whole network.

"This means we cannot get massive supplies forward quickly without them being linked directly to Earth Core. We have an alternate plan, but have done so without the Emperor's or the senate's direct approval. It is also where I suggest you stash any useful hostages. Finally it is your final fallback should things totally unravel. Enclosed is an alternate memory with voice, retinal, and personal pass code input required to access. I recommend you submit what is there to memory and destroy it. Our families go way back but this is the last help you will get from me until you have re-established yourself as a worthy Immunes strike team leader. Good luck and remember time is of the essence."

As all images faded and the holo-player displayed a static filled field, Commander Bennett glanced around at her wide eyed command crew. Finally she spoke, "Intel, do we have a match with the face?"

The intelligence officer nodded slowly, "Yes ma'am, His face and voice both match files we have for Centurion Immunes Jorgonus Tenessfa. From what we have, he was the former leader of all Immunes of Legatus Lucius Maecenas, Earth Core's FPA defense corridor commander. We show Tenessfa as inactive. He has not been seen or heard from in almost three years ..."

"Until now." Commander Bennett growled. "OK, this fits in almost exactly with what we were told by the Grenadier kids and backed up by the transmissions they recorded. It also means there is almost certainly a third ship in this system everyone totally missed. Let's get some extra patrols out there in the hopes we can find it. Meanwhile, I'm going to get this to Brave Humanities Headquarters on Spider Bite, but before I do, are there any thoughts I should add in?"

Gavin raised his hand, almost like a kid asking permission to speak up in a classroom.

Commander Bennett snickered to herself at how absurd it looked but managed to keep a straight face, "Go ahead son."

"Ma'am, this is the third time I have seen it, and I am pretty sure whoever was talking was doing so from the bridge of a warship, probably a capitol ship. Everything around him reminds me of what I see on the command deck here and aboard the Desert Eagle."

The operations officer's brow crinkled, "Damn, he's right. Some of what we were seeing was warship controls and the like."

"Interesting ..." Commander Bennett paused. "I'm not sure what good your observations add to this, but they are good ones and will be added into my report. Someone get me Mr. Rockland's file. If he was given permission to fly a Sky Cobra all this way, then he must be close to graduation caliber. If he is, his new assignment is to our Recruit squadron here aboard the White Tiger, as its new leader. For the record, young man, you are not to speak a word of this under promise of a very long stint in the brig of this ship, like until you die of old age or I retire."

As the young pilot nodded his understanding and gulped, Commander Bennett's XO spoke up, "As interesting as all this is, what difference does it make to us? Earth Core would never hit us. They only did it once and lost four planets and a dozen ship yards."

Commander Bennett frowned, "And cut company profits by almost eighty percent for the four years of the war and did serious damage to three of our ship yards and over a dozen ground installations. None of which is in Brave Humanities better interest. Also you are not looking at the bigger picture, Commander, for this information puts us in a very interesting position. The FPA is paying us a fortune to rescue, defend and upgrade the O'Connell Grenadiers and keep the cadets and any adults from Quaker VII safe so an exiled government can be formed while they move in and crush what Earth Core has set up. Because our corporate offices took these tasks on as a blanket contract, it also means we agreed to protect them from any new threats until they are totally upgraded and back on their feet up to FPA standards. Any threats includes Earth Core, and this distinctly said it was priority for EC to prevent any kind of Quaker VII government in exile."

She sent an arctic like cold stare over her command staff, "In simple terms ladies and gentlemen ... we are, by contract, under hostilities with those who hit these Quaker VII cadets and the O'Connell Grenadiers until our contract to the Free Planets Association is over. As of right now, as long as all this can be verified, it looks as if Brave Humanities is, once again, at a semi state of war with Earth Core."

Several decks down from the command meeting, Robin gripped the sides of the regeneration tube with every bit of strength he could manage. Even as he felt his arms cramp up because of his exertion, the pain of the micro lasers slicing into his old leg wound was easily ten times worse. Tears rolled down his cheeks and his back arched. Desperately he tried to kick his leg, but the tube and the restraints prevented him from doing so.

Outside the tube, Jessie also had tears rolling down his face. His voice quivered as he continued to do his best to reassure and comfort his friend. "Just a couple more minutes Robin, hang in there!"

The doctor, on the other hand, focused on the task at hand, using sound pulses to find the edge of the long ago damaged tissue. He first traced out the area to be cut away, while keeping a close eye on the boy's life signs in the tube. He took a deep breath as the lad's pulse continued to speed up. Three times he had to back off on the lasers long enough to let the boy's pulse drop below 140 beats a minute. Unfortunately, he could not pause for long, since even as he cut away the damaged tissue, the regeneration tube was working to repair what he was cutting. Finally, he found the deepest of the scar tissue and adjusted the lasers to cut only a millimeter out, removing just enough good tissue to where the computer's AI could read live tissue, piece together what it should be like, and start to rebuild the entire area.

The doctor pushed back from the controls, realizing as he did so his hands were shaking lightly. He stood and glanced into the chamber room. Without opening two way communications, he spoke into the microphone so Jessie, Cody, Vladimir, Dante, and Robin could hear him, without him being able to hear them. "Boys, I am done with the first scar. I will need to start cutting on the next in a couple of minutes, so I need you to talk it over and make sure you want to do this. If you do, I will have to send in techs to readjust the restraints because I cannot have Robin's back arching while I am working on it.

"Also, make sure you drink some water, Robin, because my readouts show you have sweated out a great deal and one thing the Regeneration Chamber cannot fix is dehydration. Otherwise, I will have to do an IV injection and once that is in, this is done. I cannot have a needle in you while you are in the chamber or it will heal inside you."

Even as he checked the readings of the Regeneration Chamber and verified the damage to Robin's leg was already in the process of being healed, he glanced over to Caleb, who just couldn't stand watching and hearing Robin, and had reluctantly exited the chamber room, but only after puking. Still the eleven year old boy refused to completely leave and had sought an area where he couldn't hear Robin, but could still look on. Gently the doctor gripped Caleb's chin with both hands and wiped tears off the youngster's cheeks. "Son, you don't have to be here."

Caleb gulped, "Yes I do, I promised him I would be here!"

The doctor let out a long breath. "Alright, then go back in there help him drink some water and let me know if he really wants to continue this. My medical advice is not to, in case anyone cares."

Caleb shook his head still trying to calm after seeing how much the procedure was hurting Robin. "He won't quit. It just ain't in him and we gave our word we wouldn't let him until at least the worst of the scars were gone. I'll get him to drink some water, you just get it set to do the big gash on his back!"

The doctor shook his head as Caleb all but tore loose from his grasp, "Ok, but he only has five minutes to drink a full liter of water before I send in the techs restrain him so he can't move his back."

Caleb blinked tears out of his eyes. "We'll get him ready."

The Doctor watched for a minute as Caleb reentered the chamber room and helped Robin start drinking water. Even as he started to make calculations on the massive scar across Robin's back, he could see the boy's eyes stare at him with a determination he could not ever remember encountering before. Even as his gaze met that of Robin, there was no doubt he would be behind the controls cutting again. Normally not a violent man, the Doctor found himself having darker thoughts as he set up safeties to prevent any accidental cutting too close to Robin's spinal column. "Shit, someone needs to kill everyone who has done this kid harm. He deserves far better than this!"

The Master Sergeant entered his quarters and glanced around with a degree of annoyance. The place was trashed, and even worse the small still his woman used to make the bitterly strong alcohol was badly damaged. However, given the overall condition of the compartment, the debris had all been cleaned up and quarters were almost livable. He plopped into his hammock, and snarled a few obstinacies at the fact he was one of ten troopers assigned to stay aboard the Stallion for the third watch while the rest of the unit continued to take some down time aboard the warship. On the plus side, he was highest ranking of this twenty-four hour watch, so he didn't have to do a damned thing other than have his communicator ready in case there was a problem. Finally he could grab more than a couple hours of sleep. The rest of the clean up, and even a shower would just have to wait. He reached over and plugged in his personal communicator unit to the wall to recharge when suddenly there was a burst of sparks, but not just out of the plug in terminal, but the whole room. Everything with power suddenly shorted out, except the life support system, which suddenly changed to the coldest setting it could be set to.

As his quarters rapidly cooled down, he struggled to get out of his hammock. At the same time he heard the emergency locking pins slam into place, meaning he couldn't even manually crank the door open. Cursing, he fumbled around in the total darkness of what was his room, trying to find his field kit. As he finally found it and yanked at the straps holding it closed, he saw a strange greenish glow coming from inside.

Frowning, he reached in. A metallic voice came out of the small recording unit as his hand touched it. "Master Sergeant, your days of hurting Dante end now. The next four hours you will have no access to any outside help and will only have the company of your pen light, which has an almost depleted battery and cold air for company. You might be interested to know, a normal person could start having delusions when put into total darkness for more than a couple of hours so you may want to conserve what we left for a charge in your pen light so you don't go any more insane than you all ready are. To show you we mean business and just how serious we are about this, you will find a pair of live grenades in your pack. The next time you so much as lay a finger on Dante or any other kid in the Grenadiers you will find similar grenades, only the next ones will be set to have their pins pulled as you open your pack.

"Any report of this and similar accidents will befall you and your wife. Any attempt to leave the unit with Dante will not be tolerated. Find someone else to bully. This is going to be your only warning. Try us at your own risk. Dante is now under our protection. Thanks for being the top ace of the Grenadiers and realize we want you in the unit and really don't care if you hurt whoever you want however you want, as long as it is not Dante or another Grenadier. Have a great day!" Suddenly the small glowing micro recorder blew up with a loud bang, burning his hand, embedding a half dozen small slivers in the Master Sergeant's hand and leaving him seeing spots and his ears ringing.

Four hours later a red flashing light and alarm klaxon sounded on the bridge alerting the Brave Humanities Repair crew of the power failure and the fact someone was locked in one of the quarters. Because the locking pins were in place, it took another two hours before the door could be opened. Finally, rescue crews pulled the badly shivering Master Sergeant out of his quarters, noting the man's pack held two live grenades and his hand looked slightly burned. His other hand clutched a pen light with barley enough power to put out a glow. All the medical people could get out of the man through his chattering teeth as they hustled him over to the Desert Eagle for treatment was his continual muttering about: 'Someone else can have the damned brat.'

Over forty light years away Earth Core satellites picked up a score of space fold rips opening up simultaneously in several different spots in the Obsidian system. Even as flashing lights and alert tones sent fighter pilots scrambling to fighters on the two space stations orbiting the mineral rich worlds of Obsidian II and Obsidian IV and the pair of capitol ships protecting the massive shipyards built above Obsidian III went to battle stations, missiles started slamming into the deep space defense satellites meant to protect the system from attacks.

The young officer on watch deep within the space stations orbiting Obsidian IV spun and started shouting orders to his staff and slammed his hand into a thin glass shield meant to prevent the accidental launching of an emergency zip ball to alert Earth Core command of an assault on the system. However, it came a fraction of a second too late. For even as the glass fragments embedded into his skin, the launch tube holding the emergency interstellar communication device was hit by intense energy weapon fire from a rapidly closing Free Planets Association frigate.

The watch officer spun, "Decanus Okrikay, open communication to the space yards and tell them we have lost our emergency launcher! Tell them they have to get a signal to Earth Core Command!"

"Too late Centruian Lomo", the young Decanus shouted back as the whole space station shook from a second barrage of energy weapon fire from the rapidly closing frigate. "Six of the attacking ships are capitol ships. They folded in close, detached from their fold encasement craft and opened fire all within seconds. It looks like the FPA has extensive knowledge of system wide defensive measures and knew exactly where to fold to avoid our mine fields and put them in position to knock out our outer defense sats before they could be brought on line. The ship yards control station has been taken out as has the zip ball launcher on our sister station orbiting Obsidian II. Most of the fighters didn't make it out of the star base at the ship yards either. Of our twelve alert fighters only five managed to evade the first barrage of incoming fire. Reports from the ship yard and Obsidian II base say missiles took out their crew quarters before most of the pilots could scramble to their fighters, and both our capitol ships are reporting heavy damage already!"

The watch officer felt the blood flow from his face as a pair of heavy missiles erupted from the FPA frigate's front tubes and streaked toward the crew quarters of his station's fighter pilots. "Our pilots are about to be next! We need point defensive fire now!"

"Negative sir." The station weapons officer shouted as she shook her head in horror. "The last barrage of laser fire took out our primary power. It will be a full minute before secondary power gives us enough to fire."

"Brace for impact." He screamed, then changed frequencies, "Any pilots who got to their fighters launch, launch now!"

Even as a trio of Earth Core fighters left the fighter bay, the whole station shook violently and sparks shot out of over a dozen terminals inside the command room. Many of those manning terminals were flung violently upward as the whole space station was shoved out of its orbit. At the same time alarms sounded warning that the station had lost its stability and was now slowly spiraling toward the atmosphere of the planet below.

The Centurion was thrown violently back, but multiple combat tours had taught him how to protect himself as best as possible. Instinctively he tucked and rolled into a tight ball and wrapped his arms around his head. Still, the impact with the central command table was more than sufficient to break his right arm badly enough to where his bones broke the skin and three of his fingers on his were cut totally off his other hand as they hit the edge of the table. Even as he screamed in agony and puke blasted from his mouth because of the pain, he couldn't help but powerlessly watch as the entire fighter bay was literally ripped off the station.

Fighting off the desire to pass out, he managed to glance around. All the normal lights were out, but emergency lighting and fires from several of the display and command terminals gave him enough illumination to see the left side of the watch sergeant's faces was horribly blistered and burned, with dozens of fragments from his security terminal embedded in his face. Even as the man's mouth moved, blood gurgled out. Next to the mortally injured man, a holographic picture of his wife and two sons flickered on and off almost as if was struggling to say alive with its owner.

Unfortunately, the badly injured watch officer didn't have time to help those around him. There were other, much more pressing, matters demanding his attention. Unless he did something to stabilize the orbit, all of those on the station would burn up in the atmosphere and he realized many of those aboard were just and badly injured as those in the command room, which meant they were in no shape to get to life pods. Still, he knew the best bet for those who could evacuate was to do so now before the rapidly closing warship did even more damage.

With the rotation of the station all but stopped, the artificial gravity that came with the rotation failed. The injured Centurion used the sudden weightlessness to kick off one of the sparking station operations terminals, and forced himself over to the communications area. Using his remaining thumb and index finger on his non-broken arm, he managed to punch in the frequency of one of the two warships EC. Yet, even before he was able to beg for assistance, the panicked voices coming out of the speaker from the warship told him they too had been hit hard, and were in dire need of help as well. With a sinking feeling in his gut, he punched in the abandon station order before he made his way over to the thruster controls in an attempt to halt the deteriorating orbit.

As he felt at least some of the thrusters fire and the remainder of the station shake, he ordered all surviving fighters to break off and flee. Moments after completing the abandon station order an open band communication came over all frequencies. The spider web cracks radiating out of a half doesn't spots on the main viewing screen, prevented the centurion from clearly seeing who was speaking, but the smugness of the voice caused the watch officer to grit his teeth in anger.

"Obsidian Defense Forces of Earth Core, this is Senior Commander Huron Omega of the Free Planets Association. This strike and nine others taking place all along the FPA-EC boarder are in retaliation for your Emperor's attempt to subjugate the people of the Quaker system, take hostages, kill officials and undermine the authority of the FPA."

The man's voice paused briefly, "As proof, we offer the following communication coming from one of your senior officers, a Centurion Princeps Kosimora, of your Earth Core fighter command. Feel free to analyze both the voice print and the voice fluctuations, which shows she was certainly afraid, but was telling the truth."

Suddenly a new female voice came over as the recording from New Brunswick was replayed for all those listening. 'OK, fine! The orders came down from somewhere high in the Earth Core Senate, but my orders came directly from Legatus Lucius Maecenas, commander of the FPA, EC defense corridor. He also wanted young slaves for his estate that knew how to fight, probably for gladiatorial games, so that is why we tried to take so many cadets!'

The FPA senior commander's voice broke in again clearly seething with rage. "In addition we have the following excerpt from this woman."

He crackling of the damaged speakers on the space station could not hide the fear of the woman's voice. 'The whole thing is a huge distraction to keep Blood's Honor and any allies it has busy. EC funneled massive arms shipments to Quaker Six and several other poorer worlds in various coalitions including Lord Talborne on Ulysses.

'Talborne's attempted takeover of the ABR was even more of a failure than expected though, and has forced EC to send even more money for mercs, arms, and weapons to keep Talborne supplied and fighting while EC makes some more moves in other coalitions so there is something for Blood's Honor to do once they take back the ABR, which we knew from the start they would do. But I really don't know what EC is doing beyond messing with Blood's Honor again! All I know is whatever the plan is, the other worlds, like Quaker VI, are all for the purpose of distracting Arial McCurdy, Forest Garden, and Blood's Honor as it is pretty much expected for them to take out Talborne within two to four years.

'At the same time, they really expected Talborne to do better at the start, considering EC hired over 50 merc units to support Talborne's assault on the ABR capitol. EC Command wants that civil war to continue for at least a couple of years then they wanted Blood's Honor to spend another year or two cleaning up the problems like Quaker VI, because Quaker VII and like worlds will grow tired of being crushed by the likes of the Quaker VI's out there and will ask for outside help. When they do, it will, of course, be the vaunted Blood's Honor who will help deal with it. However, EC needs it to take a lot of time, which is why I guess they didn't want a government in exile to form so soon for Quaker VII. I can think of no other explanation for this kind of mission.'

Once again the FPA fleet commander's voice came over the radio. "We have much more proof at this point as well, some from New Brunswick, where Centurion Princeps Kosimora and her forces tried, and failed, to take out the last ships fleeing Quaker VII. It is also where she met her end at the hands of one of the merc units you all targeted. In addition, we have hard proof of multiple murders and kidnappings by your agents from our intelligence resources still on Quaker VI and VII. Yet other evidence and irrefutable proof was uncovered elsewhere and from multiple other sources once we knew what to look for.

"Rest assured, denial is not an option for your leadership this time. Furthermore, since your government, in particular Legatus Lucius Maecenas, purposefully targeted our citizens, including going after our children, our own leadership wants to make it clear the hostilities between us will only cease once the children taken for gladiatorial games are returned to us, you pay reparations to the Quaker VII world, and pull out all agents active in our space. If any of our kids or those who attended the Quaker VII academy cannot be returned, we expect full reparations made to the families along with an official apology with admittance of wrong doing.

"Understand, we are not here to occupy this system, instead this strike is in retaliation of wrongs done to the peoples of the FPA and to right wrongs done to those who were loyal to us. So, In addition to our reparation requirements, we demand those of former government here be released from prisons and returned to us. We know all those in the governments here who didn't bow to your Emperor were imprisoned and they and their families remain so on a desert isle on Obsidian II and there are hundreds if not thousands of political prisoners on both Obsidian II and VI. Simply put, we are here to get back what you took while not arguing over who controls this system. Understand, we fully intend to deliver a strong message and regain equipment and money lost because of your interference in the internal matters of the FPA while allowing the boarders of our great empires to remain static. Furthermore, this and other ongoing actions against EC forces and worlds should serve as a reminder to your emperor of the large cost of entering into hostilities with the FPA now or in the future.

"Any military units that stand down and surrender all equipment to us will be released just before we exit this system. Those who refuse to stand down will be eliminated. All commanders, I highly recommend you order those under you to stand down and surrender their equipment. Let me also be perfectly clear, my orders are very unambiguous. Destruction of your military equipment will force us to hit planetary targets and take enough salvage to make up for what you refuse to surrender. I'll give you fifteen minutes to make a decision. If we don't have your surrender by then we will resume hostilities with extreme prejudice. FPA force commander out."

Back aboard the crippled space station, Centruian Lomo shook with rage, but realized he had no real option but to surrender, for to do anything else would cost the several hundred still alive to needlessly lose their lives and would certainly cause the planet below to suffer extensive damage. At the same time he glanced over to his now lifeless watch sergeant still clutching the holographic picture of his family. "I will make them pay for this. I promise you and your boys, this is not over!"

Back in the medical bay of the White Tiger, Robin finished downing almost two liters of water, while still shaking in pain form the removal of the scar tissue on the back of his leg. Yet even as the three med techs came and tried to talk him out of continuing, the teen angrily shook his head, "No! I went though way worse than this back on New Bravaria. If I stop now, Earth Core wins again!"

Even as one of the techs started to argue, the doctor's voice came over the speaker. "Lock him down in the self molding foam. You are wasting your time and the longer we have the regeneration chamber at low power the more his leg is going to continue to bleed heavily. I need the leg healing before I start cutting again. Remember, he must not be allowed to move his back at all, so I need everything from the neck to the pelvic bone totally incased in foam then hardened along with the leg I just removed the old tissue from so the chamber's computer can read it properly and continue to heal it. You can keep his hands and lower arms free and his undamaged lower extremity as well."

The two men and one woman looked over at each other with some dismay, but wasted no time, showing they knew how to handle the tasks at hand. Yet even as they gathered the needed equipment and set up a weird looking machine with all sorts of tubes coming out of it, the continued to try to talk Robin out of the procedure.

The problem was, it was not just Robin they had to deal with it was the others who had given their word to Robin to not let him back out until he simply could take no more.

The Doctor took an uneasy breath and gave it one final shot, "Robin, this is going to be longer and more painful than the last one, and like before, I cannot stop once I start. Feel free to stick your arms out of the tube and hold the hands of your friends, because you are going to need all the support you can get on this one. If you are still up for me to work on other areas, none will be as bad as this one, but they will still be incredibly painful. You can still back out of this.

"Let's get it over with!" Robin hissed in pain as he lifted himself up inside the chamber enough so the three techs could stick a long half pipe shaped piece into the regeneration chamber. When the pain from his leg prevented him from raising his lower body up, Jessie and Cody moved up, carefully helping Robin to lift up so he could lay with his back on the flat part of the half pipe contraption.

As Robin lowered himself back down, he realized the inside of the tube was made of a soft weird feeling gel which quickly molded perfectly to every contour of his body. The medical techs then stuck preformed pads around his neck, upper arms, and lower legs. Once these were in place several tubes were inserted in into the top of the half pipe shaped piece and the more of the same gel he was laying in was pumped in from the weird machine the techs had set up. As soon as the inside of the pads were full a bit of the gel started to leak out, creating a bit of extra pressure on almost all of Robin's body. Fortunately, the techs were quick to shut done the machine pumping in the gel.

They did a quick X-ray scan to verify ever crack and crevice was indeed full then the woman clicked a button activating heat lamps. This quickly became very uncomfortable for Robin. Not only did the gel expand, changing into a very hard foam causing a great deal of extra pressure, the heat caused Robin to sweat and cringe as he felt the gel start to heat and expand.

Less than three minutes later the techs removed the half pipe leaving behind a huge hardened foam glob around Robin, preventing any kind of moment. It took only a could more minutes for the technicians, using lasers, to cut the mold around the boy down to a manageable size, flip him over and expose the skin over the majority of his back.

The doctor's voice came back over the speakers in the regeneration chamber room, "Lock him down tight. I can't afford a single micron of movement as I am cutting." He paused while his orders were carried out, "OK, Robin, your hands are outside the actual camber, so if you want to grab the hands of your friends, do so, because I am going to start cutting as soon as the chamber's computer tells me your leg is healed enough to where it is not bleeding much, which should be only a few more seconds.

Jessie gripped Robin's right hand with both of his own as the last med tech in the room inserted a mouth piece in between Robin's teeth so he couldn't bite his tongue or lip off during the cutting. Jessie cringed and dealt with Robin's vice like grip and he turned his eyes to look straight into Robin's as the laser powered on and made the first cut. "Think of something else, anything else."

Jessie's words barely made it through the intense pain of the lasers as they started removing the old damage, but the short statement seemed to trigger a way for Robin to cope with the here and now by focusing on the past. As if in a trance, his mind found a way to ignore much of the pain by reliving events even more painful.

Robin bit down on the mouthpiece as memories he had tried to push out of his mind resurfaced. One moment he was in the regeneration tube, the next his mind placed him on in a cold snow covered clearing several light years away and less than two years prior.

The contract for the unit had been a quick reinforcement of beleaguered defenders of the New Bravaria system. Within hours of folding into system the Grenadier found themselves facing superior numbers with more advanced equipment, yet those attacking the worlds of system hiring every merc unit they could find and more were arriving in system even as the adult frame pilots did a hard combat drop and the kids and other non-combatants landed in a small secure area established in an open field close to a low mountain range.

Within days it was clear the fighting was going to be some of the worst the O'Connell Grenadiers had ever seen and regular supplies were in short supply. To make up for the lack of food, the older kids in the unit were sent with a few lightly injured adults to go into the heavily wooded mountainsides to hunt. The problem was, they were by no means alone. Each day the limited game became more and more limited. Finally, Major O'Connell gave the OK for the most seasoned kids to form their own party to take a couple of small hover vehicles and go deeper into the dense forest. Since a few adults had been injured too badly to continue to fight, yet were not bed ridden, they were tasked to oversee the kids, but for the most part rest while the youngsters did what they could.

For Robin, whose dad was the unit's lead scout, going hunting was a natural part of life. He had hunted game on half a dozen worlds with his father, learned how to track in all sorts of terrain, navigate and survive in all sorts of conditions. Because of this, even though he was only twelve, his knowledge and experience made him a natural choice to be a party leader, while Zane's father, who had taken a bullet in the shoulder, would go with them. For two days they pushed up the mountain side, managed to hunt enough to feed themselves and get a bit of extra, but it quickly became clear the hunting and fighting had driven the bigger game deep into the unsettled areas of the planet.

At the same time, word came from another hunting party made up of mercs of a possible new food source, a native rat like rodent known as a shredder. The other merc team told Robin and the others in his group that like them, their unit was finding hunting scarce, but one of their squads had gone into the nearest city and was bringing back enough to feed the their whole unit. It was edible, yet greasy, but easy to gut and cook. Unfortunately, as its name implied, it was also dangerous.

The creature, larger than an earth rat, was totally nocturnal, never venturing out during the day and only going out of their caverns at night if disturbed. Regrettably for those who got too close, they also came equipped with nasty claws and teeth, and were very territorial and aggressive. The nasty creatures preferred hot and humid areas. This meant once humans had settled the world, a new breeding ground with perfect conditions was provided for them in the way of sewers. Before anyone on the first settled world of the New Bravaria System realized it, their populations exploded and accidental transport of only a few was all it took for them to become established in other cities. Within a few decades, shredders were known to exist in every major city across all of the New Bravaria system.

Zane's father listened to them men, and made a fateful decision. They would let the other group from the Grenadiers continue to hunt in the mountains, while they went into the nearest town to go after shredders. It didn't take long, once they got permission to head into the sewers, to find everything they had been told about the vile things were true. They were very large, easy to find and ultra aggressive. Within hours Robin and those with him emerged with almost more than they could carry, and Zane's father had to shoot down into the open sewer killing even more just to get them off the kids as they made their way out.

Quickly they headed back to the field camp, but as they got close the jubilation over having found an extensive food source vanished. As they broke though the tree line to the established camp, the first fighters with Earth Core markings swooped in, dropping heavy bombs, Buildings exploded from one end of the camp to the other. Even from over two kilometers away, all those in Robin's group could see the corrugated top of the building most of the Merc units used for a makeshift school for their kids vanish in a massive fireball. As the fighters banked away, Zane's father angled the hovercraft in to help, only to stop just before he got to the edge of camp as another wave dove in. This one was more deadly and clearly designed to take out as many survivors as possible. A few of the lead fighters staffed the area, keeping anyone who wanted to return fire heads down while the rest of the fighters dropped hundreds of bouncing bombs into those fleeing. Bodies and body parts went flying in all directions.

The living nightmare only got worse as the second wave of Earth Core fighters disappeared into the clouds. Few who survived did so without serious injury, and the whole clearing was littered with dead and dying. As awful and gut wrenching as this was, for Robin, who had jumped out and ran toward the makeshift buildings the Grenadiers had erected to live out of, it was far worse. For even as he ran, he could see the body of his father, a large chunk of corrugated steel, sticking out of the back of his head, clutching the body of Jared's youngest brother.

He knelt down over the two, bawling his eyes out, gripping the blood soaked pair. He never heard the roar of Earth Core landers as the set down on some of the bodies of those they had just blown up. Nor did her realize Earth Core infantry was sweeping the bloody field shooting those who were too seriously injured while grabbing those who could still walk. The tug at his collar came as a complete surprise, as did the nasty glint in the eyes of the man pointing a gun at his face. Yet, even as part of his mind realized the man was pulling him away from his dead father, another part of him reacted. He pushed off, falling back on his father. Then, as he gave the dead man one last hug, his left hand reached into his father's combat pack and pulled out a pair of grenades.

Even as the man in the Earth Core uniform roughly grabbed him again. Another Earth Core clad soldier moved up and gave the other man a light snarl, "Give him a moment, the rest of his life will be in the Legatus Propraetor's pits. The least you can do is give him a moment with someone he loved." The delay and distraction gave Robin just enough time to slide the grenades into the pockets of his blood soaked parka without the either man noticing it. The only things he could remember about the guy who had forced the other to back off for a moment was he had a low officer rank on his shoulders and the name tag on his military parka, which read Lomo.

Still reeling over everything he had seen and heard, his mind remained blank, not fully taking in the fact he was taken to one of the landers, shoved in the back with a host of others survivors from the ruthless attack and taken into space. More than a few of those with him bleed to death on the way despite the best efforts of a few who had remained sane enough to provide what aid they could.

Robin had no clue how long the small ship he was on took to dock with a massive Planetary Landing Craft, but once it did, men and women in Earth Core uniforms were there to greet them, shock sticks in hand. Most were carefully searched for weapons as they were roughly taken off the smaller ship. Maybe it was the fact he looked so shell shocked, maybe it was the fact he was just a kid, or maybe it was the fact he was covered in blood, but whatever the reason, those who were tasked with searching for contraband bypassed him, and with a nasty shove, pushed him over to side of the docking bay with those they had cleared of any items capable of being used as a weapon.

Another team of Earth Core guards took over, pushing the group of captives out of the bay. A few who tried to resist were shocked ruthlessly by shock sticks set to max power, causing many to crumple and others to cry out in pain. Through all this, Robin remained silent. The fact he was in space, yet had gravity, never dawned on him, nor did those around him cause crying in panic over what was happening so much as cause an eye blink. This changed suddenly as the group he was with was pushed past a pair of open doors leading to the engineering section of the massive ship. He stumbled over someone in front of him who had been hit with a shock stick and fell to the floor with a hard thud.

The nearest guard used this as an excuse to use his own sick on the semi-catatonic boy. The front edge of the stick crackled as it made contact with Robin's neck. Even as the electrical current flung Robin into the door frame and knocked out a couple of teeth in the back of his mouth, the other guards started laughing at how far he had flown.

At the same time, the horribly agonizing pain of the shock broke through the metal barriers Robin had put into place to deal with all he had seen. He rolled over, his eyes no longer looking glazed over. With a snarl, he spit out the two busted out teeth and yanked the first grenade out of his bloody parka, twisted the top setting it to activate with only a second of delay and tossed it into the engineering room.

Only one of the guards saw this, and before he could so much as shout out a warning, the device went off with a slight pop and a huge flash. Instantly, all electronics went off line, batteries were drained, and many portable devices exploded as the EMP grenade sent a out its single devastating pulse. Within moments, a cascade of failures ship wide sent the craft plummeting out of control while the fake gravity totally failed.

Those guarding the group of captives first tried to use their shock sticks, only to find the pulse had drained them. A couple then reached for laser pistols only to find the same thing. Within moments a free for all broke out between the guards and the captives, all the while the all thruster and main drive power failed just as the ship was starting a reentry approach. Within seconds, gravity took over and started pulling the Earth Core flag ship toward the planet below.

Robin managed to grab one of the shock sticks discarded by a guard, and slammed it into the base of another guard's neck snapping it. Before he could do more, gunshots rang out, as a second group of guards armed with ballistic weapons moved forward. One of the bullets struck the stick and ripped it out of his hands. As this new pain registered in his mind, the rage he was feeling turned even darker. No longer was he going on instinct, for something in his brain had switched. With total understanding of what he was doing, he pulled the second grenade saw it was a fragmentation, twisted the top for quick detonation, and shoved it toward the second group of guards.

Those who saw this did what they could to get out of the way. Robin, on the other hand, grabbed the near weightless body of the guard he had just killed, shoved it between him and the grenade, turned his back, and wrapped his arms over the back of his head while using his hands to cover his ears. Moments later the explosion ripped though guards and their captives alike. Some bodies were blown apart, others got faces, chests, arms and legs full of shrapnel. Robin was not immune. The guard's body protected him from some of it, but not all. Seventeen razor sharp bits of metal blew right through the dead body, embedding throughout Robin's back. The only reason he was not killed outright was the dead body slowed the white hot bits of metal down to where they didn't go in very far.

Even though some of the captives had been caught in the explosion, the bulk of the Earth Core guards had been closer and most didn't survive. Those captives who could fight quickly grabbed the surviving ballistic weapons and took out all remaining Earth Core resistance on the deck, including killing off those in the Engineering section, preventing any chance of restarting key systems and dooming the crippled ship.

Zane's father, on the other hand, gathered the kids of the Grenadiers and shoved them into the nearest escape pod. He was about to join them, but realized others were still fighting. Like it or not, he realized the best chance for his son and the other kids was to help those fighting the remaining Earth Core forces on the deck they were on. With a quick pull of the manual ejection lever, he caused the door to the life pod to slam shut and sent the pod rocketing away from the ship.

Two hours later, the pod's autopilot finally reengaged, did a quick scan of the world below and did a controlled computerized re-entry. The pod finally came to a rest in some deep woods. Even though he had over a dozen small wounds in his back, Robin managed to get the others organized. The first order of business was to strip the life pod of all supplies which they did, right down to cutting the material off the seats so they could have makeshift blankets. The next most important thing was to get clear before Earth Core rescue teams could locate the pod.

Five days later, with food almost gone and his back getting infected from the slivers of metal still embedded in him, Robin found himself near exhaustion with each and every step sening pain rippling across his back. Just as he thought he could stand it no longer, the small group stumbled upon an abandoned Brave Humanities Swartzkoff heavy tank. The track had been blown off, and the crew had taken what they could and fled. To the injured, hungry, and exhausted Grenadier kids, however, it was a place of shelter form the wind, a place to build a camp around. Since it still had ammo for the man gun and the heavy machinegun it was even a place places to fight from if needed.

Robin slumped to the floor of the tank while Zane and Luna did their best to tend to his worsening condition. The rest of the group, led by Jared, went out to forage for whatever they could find. For three days the kids took turns manning the heavy machinegun on top, doing what they could to trap rodents for food, and melting snow for water.

During this time, Robin's health continued its downhill slide. His fever grew worse, the sores on his back started seeping puss and any movement came at the cost of extreme pain. Still, he refused to give up, taking his turn behind the gun shield on top, and even as the others tired to give him a bit more than his fair share of what they managed to catch, he never accepted. It was mid morning on the fourth day of using the crippled tank as a shelter when fate jumped in and changed everything.

Totally unbeknownst to the Grenadier kids, the battle for the New Bravaria system had changed radically over the past week. The destruction of the Earth Core Command ship Fluvius Camillus had caused the reaming Earth Core forces to go berserk. Within hours they were blowing up buildings with helpless civilians in them, hording whole towns into camps and shooting them, and even targeting hospitals and schools, and refugee camps. As word of this leaked out, news was quick to reach the capitol of Forest Garden and the ultra elite Blood's Honor Mercenary units owned and operated by the planetary government.

It took only a couple of days for Forest Garden to twist some arms in several worlds allied with it and only another day for them to make an offer too beneficial for the remnants of the Beleaguered New Bravaria to refuse. In exchange for them joining the worlds of the Avalon Breakaway Republic, the whole of the ABR, including Blood's Honor forces, would come to the system's defense.

Even as Robin and his small group were struggling to find food, Blood's honor sent an ultimatum to Earth Core to leave the New Bravaria system or be at war with the whole of the ABR. Earth Core's response was a totally unexpected one. Its Government denied any involvement, instead insisted all units attacking the worlds were 'Latro', an Earth Core term for bandit or pirate. The communications from Earth Core also stated the situation was not theirs to deal with.

Two Days later Blood's Honor warships folded in system, backed by almost a score of other worlds, and quickly moved to crush those attacking the worlds of the New Bravaria system. Much to their surprise and dismay, Other Earth Core ships also poured into system trying to catch them off guard: they failed. Blood's Honor Warships had detected the fold rips and alerted allied ships, creating the largest space battle since the Third Earth Core War.

Even as dozens of ships were ripping apart each other throughout the system, Blood's Honor moved in to help those who Earth Core had left for dead. Since no one had expected heavy Earth Core resistance, some of those brought in to help were Blood's Honor cadets from their Blood's Honor Junior Military Academy. The idea was a sound one. The youngsters could see first had why Blood's Honor did its utmost to not kill, even while doing battle, and the kids could get some real world experience in helping others. Since the space fighting had gotten so bad, it was decided to let the kids continue their mission, since it was far safer on the ground then in space.

For Robin and his group, the decision to allow cadets in to help was truly a life saver. A patrol of Blood's Honor cadets found them. The kids, slightly younger than Robin and his group quickly moved to help. While the junior cadet patrol leader, Joel Price, jumped up to take a look at Robin and administer some anti-biotic first aid cream, another then ten year old boy, Gabriel McCurdy, radioed their location and the need for medical support back to Blood's Honor command.

The others from the Blood's Honor academy moved in as well, distributing food packets and generally doing their best to help the surviving double digits of the O'Connell Grenadiers. The jubilation of Robin's group and the friendly caring smiles of those helping them came to an abrupt halt less than thirty minutes later, when Robin spotted movement in the trees.

Moments later lightly armored Earth Core vehicles came into view and instantly turned their guns toward the tank and those around it. Robin all but shoved Joel off the top of the tank, yelling at him and his group to fall back. At the same time, Jared and Zane fired up the engine of the tank, and activated the main gun.

Before the Blood's Honor cadet fully realized what was going on, Robin opened up with the heavy Machinegun, quickly chewing through the armor of the lead Earth Core vehicle, destroying it. Moments later Zane targeted the second vehicle and sent a shell from the main gun straight into it. The explosion left a hole in the ground where the vehicle had been, and a half dozen trees around it fell to the ground, totally shattered.

The rest of the Earth Core armor moved in, but the lead cadet of the new arrivals had seen enough. Joel moved forward, firing the weapons on his small cadet frame into the next attacker. Realizing their leader had no intension of falling back, the rest of the Blood's Honor Cadets quickly followed Joel's lead, snapping their armored visors shut, and firing what they had mounted on their own frames into the advancing line of armor.

Robin, continued to yell for them to fall back while the main gun of the tank fired again. At the same time Cadet McCurdy radioed a desperate plea for assistance from whatever Blood's Honor could find to send them. The kids continued to fight, holding off the Earth Core unit for almost twenty minutes while taking out almost a dozen vehicles, when suddenly a larger pair of larger Earth Core tanks showed up. Those inside the crippled Swartzkoff, quickly locked on to one of them and killed it with a shot form the main gun, but the other sent a cannon round into the tank, blowing off the gun shield and Robin who was behind it, while putting a hole in the side. The blast also knocked over most of the Blood's Honor cadets.

Even as the cadets managed to stand their frames back up and take stock of the damage, they could see the situation was growing hopeless. For even though the blowing snow, all of them could see more Earth Core armor as it came up over the hill in a wave of metal coated death.

Joel snarled and took a knee, sending a large laser shot into the tank he figured had just killed those he had been trying to save. An instant later, cadet Chip Beck rolled over and sent a pair of micro Missiles into it. Neither boy was sure whose shot actually found the weak point, but it exploded in a fireball taking out two nearby Earth Core vehicle. The devastating blast caused a momentary cease fire as both sides took stock of the situation.

Before anyone on either side could do more than recycle their weapons, the sound of massive engines from overhead drowned out all sounds of the forest. Seconds later scores of Blood's Honor frames in drop pods fell into the small battlefield, while scores more used jump packs to rocket in behind the lead line of Earth Core tanks.

For Robin, all memories ceased at the moment the tank round slammed into the gunner shield. The next thing he knew he was in a hospital with a pair of Blood's Honor frames guarding him and the Blood's Honor cadets and his own friends around him. Next to the bed was a chunk of the gunner shield, which he was told had been removed from his back. At the same time he was told by a Blood's Honor doctor they had managed to get him to a rejuvenation chamber just in time, but some of the scars from the grenade and the exploding tank round could not be fully repaired ...

Robin's eyes snapped open as the memory of what had caused all the damage to his back faded. He glanced around, realizing there was no pain of cutting and other than some itching on his back, there was no real pain at all. Around him the kids of the Grenadiers were asleep other than Jessie, who still held his hand.

Jessie smiled in some relief, "You made it!"


"It's over! The doctor got it all!"

Robin scowled in confusion, "No ... It was ... Wow ... How long was I out?"

"Almost two days." He sighed showing just how tired he was, giving testament of his resolve to stay with his friend through the whole ordeal without getting so much as a single moment of sleep. "We had to take turns giving you water, but you kept mumbling about your time back on New Bravaria and kept drinking water so Caleb and Dante told the Doctor to keep working."

Jessie gripped both of Robin's hands and looked deep into his eyes. "You relived it all didn't you?"

A tear slid down Robin's cheek as he slowly nodded. "Every foot fall, how much did you get?"

"All of it. You talked the whole time." Jessie took a deep breath, "How come you never told me you found your dad like that?"

"Because no one should have to hear it." Robin whispered as the vision of his father s lifeless body wrapped around that of Jared's little brother flashed into his mind's eye. "And no one should ever have to live it, but you did too. Earth Core has to pay ..."

Jessie used his elbow to wipe tears of his own out of the corners of his eyes while never letting go of Robin's hands. "Somehow, some way, we will find a way to make it happen ...."

Major O'Connell gazed out the starboard side window of the Desert Eagle with some awe. Everything about the warship was more impressive than his mind could have ever guessed. Even the meeting room he was now in, normally a staff room for low raking officers, showed a degree of the ship's vast sophistication. The central table was linked to a multitude of audio visual equipment, allowing him to put up displays of the system, his ship, his equipment, and even his unit's roster. Other displays could be added it, to show him live feeds as to the repairs to his ship, external sensor readings, and even pipe in medical information as to the status of his injured personnel.

Finally and by far the most impressive thing was the way the table could project a perfect three dimensional image of the facility they had signed up to defend, along with all the terrain, and even trees and bushes. It could be zoomed in or out to help him plan the perfect defensive positions of his entire unit and even determine where the most and least likely avenues of attack.

After nearly two hours of the planning of how to best defend the site, he slid back from the table still astonished at the artificial gravity with the capitol ship. "Ok Gentlemen, I have given you my preliminary read on the situation. I am open to thoughts."

Captain Tanner was first to speak, "Sir, the only fault I find is the fact we don't have a full roster at the moment. The replacements Kipper Limited found for us ain't worth the paper their names could be printed on. Those they brought with them to help fill out our numbers aren't much better. I'll pulg them in to fill spots in the line, but don't expect much more than a warn body in a frame out there. Hell, most of em have less experience than half our kids! "

Lieutenant Meschev nodded in agreement, "Most of them aren't much older than my boy and Robin. Age for military enlistment is fifteen on New Brunswick, with fourteen being acceptable for those who get a wavier or parent's signature. Of those I have looked over, only some of the older armor crewmen are usable. In a pinch I could probably get a couple dozen platforms out and ready ...

Major O'Connell shook his head, "Lieutenant, I know you have never done merc commanding before, so let me fill you in on something here." He paused to make sure the former Quaker VII armor Colonel had his full attention. "As I have just explained, Kipper is pushing to find us every warm body with at least some basic paramilitary training. This means they need us down there with everything we got now. Every name has been OK'ed by both New Brunswick and the local AIM offices as satisfying their requirements for Merc employment, so we are going to use them.

"You'll have to look past the fact many of them don't need a razor in their field packs, and figure out how to organize them into some kind of fighting force. My recommendations to you are to divide up those with experience and put them with the recruits. I have a hold full of armor, and you told me you could form it into a fighting force. Now is your chance to prove it."

Lieutenant Meschev clenched his fists while doing his best to contain his bubbling anger, "Major, there is no chance half of these so-called 'recruits' have fired a single round out of an armored vehicle, and there is no telling how they will react under live fire. Splitting up those who have at least tasted battle and spreading them around will help, but there is more to being an armor jock than learning how to drive and point the main barrel down range. There is heavy loading of ammo into the platforms, often times under fire. Then those in the platforms need to be able to load each round into the guns themselves in case they don't have auto-loaders or their auto-loader unit fails. You also have to take into account the non-combat needs of armored platforms. Each crew will need to know maintenance, repair, and how to keep what areas clean so what they are driving is ready to fight. Then there are the real time combat problems of group maneuvering and finally actually being able to hit what you are pointing the main gun at.

"I takes years to develop real platform jocks, and from what I am reading most of these want-a-be's armor experience is limited to wheeled jeeps with a heavy machinegun or a recoilless rifle. And most of them only have Basic Infantry Training and a few weeks of the most primitive vehicle combat. The stuff in you holds need more than kids fresh out of a third class planetary BIT stint. These kids aren't even up to snuff for security guard jobs in my opinion!"

Captain Tanner shrugged, "Well, the contract boys at Kipper must have had similar thoughts. If we take the recruits the contract automatically upgrades to include giving us two hundred tons of tank and heavy machinegun ammo plus the use of the land to the north of their facility for practice, so it's pretty clear they know what they are handing over to us. Go blow holes in the dirt until you are satisfied they are able to handle the basics. Those who you can't justify keeping in armor, we can use as infantry. Just make sure you keep enough ammo in reserve to give each platform a full load and a spare. Ammo expended during combat is covered as part of the contract with them."

Major O'Connell nodded, "The captain is right. We'll take what we are offered, especially since the supplemental contract pays for all of them at Kipper's expense for the first three months of the contract. During that time, you can spend your free time over at AIM trying to hire men and women closer to your standards. In the mean time, I want you to select the areas best suited for you to defend with what you have."

"OK, now there is something I can deal with until I get them up to at least a substandard level of competence!" Lieutenant Meschev finally agreed with some degree of relief. "Armor is meant to be mobile, but maybe if I ... I mean if you allow me to take the passes to the west and the ridgeline to northeast for the first month or so, I can start organizing things better. This way I can use the biggest platforms as pillboxes with those who can shoot and the lighter stuff to fill in the gaps with the more experienced crews. This will leave the plains to the south in your hands, but as I get more comfortable with some of the crews, I can begin maneuvering those units to help you all if needed. "

"Deal." The Major agreed, "But understand, they are really anxious about us getting set, so you will need to go with what you have and will have to hold the line for at least an hour if your areas of responsibility get hit. Kipper would not be doing all this unless they had some kind of intel about a strike on their facility. We cannot afford to move our lines to support you until we are certain the attacks are really focused against you."

"Understandable." Lieutenant Meschev paused for a few seconds and snickered despite the situation. "Unbelievable."

Major O'Connell frowned, "Given the fact we probably don't have even half our own people healthy, our equipment is being worked on by techs of Brave Humanities, and not us, and we are all but expecting a fight within days, I see nothing worth laughing at."

"Me neither, except I now own Zane a great deal of money."

Major O'Connell's brows arched. "Huh?"

"Well I kind of opened my mouth and he jumped in and gave me a class on being a merc. He managed to pinme down and told me there was way more going on to this contract then what was stated and added in Robin, Luna and Jared had already gathered the older kids so they knew what to expect. He also explained how and why the unit needed me as much as I needed you all. He pointed out I was no merc and you all had no real armor leaders. It was his idea for me to combine my forces with yours to make this a combined arms force."

He then pointed to the displays showing the recruits offered by Kipper Limited. "It's amazing, he even told me all of this was going to happen even before we knew it. He bet there would be replacements and Kipper would even find a ways to get our manpower up and our equipment and us down to their research station even if we couldn't. He also told me the kids of your unit all expect to get hit shortly after arrival and are ready to pull their weight."

Captain Tanner shook his head, "Our kids know more about being mercs than most merc unit commanders. When it comes to reading between the lines, never bet against the double digits, lieutenant, you will lose every time."

"On the plus side," the Major added, "at least they are expecting us to need to fight, so we don't have to prepare them for a rough first couple of weeks."

"No question, they are ready for us to go to war." Lieutenant Meschev sighed, "Even before I came up here I heard several of them telling the new adoptees to brace for a hard first month and not to expect much out of their new parents ..." He stopped, "Speaking of which, don't you have to get some kind of documents to make all the adoptions legal?"

"Nope." Captain Tanner stated firmly, "Interstellar law gives the captain full authority when in deep space, and since we folded in outside the normal fold envelope of the system, we were technically in out in deep space. Major O'Connell's word was and still is law, unless it is shown we did something illegal in Great Outback held space. If you look in on my computer you will find I sent over documentation on all adoptees and it came back without comment. Same goes for rights of salvage, meaning the rulers of New Brunswick and by default the Great Outback have deferred to the Major's judgment. Your wife can now get with Kipper and start a breakdown of salvage."

"Once we set our defensive perimeter and have fire lanes mapped out, I'll get with her. She is really looking forward to crunching those numbers and seeing where and how we can get this unit into a better financial footing."

Captain Tanner snorted, "So are we."

At about the same time the crippled Grey Stallion was finally put on the central deck of the White Tiger and secured for repair crews to really go to work on her, a small drive engine fired within the heavy cloud of debris floating around the now dead Space Fold Craft. A small shuttle emerged from the cloud, using the bulk of the dead ship to hide its tiny signature from the large salvage craft docked with the lifeless hulk of the wagon.

Luther glance back to Boris, "OK, we are clear and there is no sign we have been spotted, now what?"

Boris pulled out a small hand held unit and rattled off coordinates. "Get us out there, but keep us behind something for another day or two. We cannot be spotted."

Luther frowned. "You're putting us out past the system's outer astriod belt. There is nothing out there!"

"Which is why I want you to go there," Boris snarled. "It is a failsafe point for the New Brunswick system. Once every few weeks Each Core sends cloaked fold ships into hundreds of systems to pick up messages and whatever else EC operatives put out for pick up. We'll hitch a ride while I make a report to my commander." He winced badly as he accidently moved his damaged arm. "Most of my objectives have been accomplished. Those who could have started a government in exile are dead; the academy cadets are leaderless, and the O'Connell Grenadiers crippled. With all of those handled, I should be able to get a bit more help."

"Good." Janice spoke up and carefully shifted in her hammock to avoid more damage to her foot or her hands. "I hope medical attention is among the help you can ask for."

"I'm sure there will be some sort of medical team on the fold craft." He assured the woman Robin had shot back on the wagon. "But at best it will be a rejuvenation chamber, and probably not even that. Still, I am sure I can get you all proper treatment."

"You better." Another man spoke form the co-pilot seat. "I can't even move my shoulder."

"It's the best I could do with the supplies on hand, André." Luther once again reminded the former Quaker VII infantry captain. "I'm a good medic, but the shrapnel in your shoulder is just too deep and more movement will compound the problem. A real doctor will be able to cut it out and get you at least some movement back. A great deal will depend on how much scar tissue forms and where."

Janice took a deep breath, "Well this shuttle comes with enhanced life support and water, but do we have enough food to feed us and the brats in the hold for a couple of weeks?"

Boris shrugged, "I have no idea when the last ship came though, so it could be up to 4 weeks, depending on Earth Core pick up schedules. But we have plenty as long as we cut their food down to a single meal a day and cut back on bone density shots on them to one every fourth day. They'll lose a bit of bone mass, and some weight, but it'll take the fight out of them for you all and it won't be anything we can't reverse in short order once we get supplies. Until then, they can suffer a bit till we get where we are going."

Luther glanced back, "OK, so where is it, exactly, you are taking us, Boris? There's no need for secrecy now, since we are fully dependant on you and your contacts for survival."

"Quite true." Boris took a long breath. "Our destination was taken off most star charts following the end of the Machine Wars. It has a single livable planet. It is a semi-environmentally hostile world with some Machine War era crap still roving it. It is also a major EC sponsored re-supply point for the ABR's war against the New Frontiers Coalition, which will certainly be my next assignment and since you all are with me, you are now part of my team."

"Sounds like a real paradise!" Luther laughed, "What's the name this jewel?"

Boris leaned back and grabbed an energy bar to munch on. "Brile."

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