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Robin left the medical bay two days after getting pulled out of the regeneration chamber. He walked with a bit of a limp, not because he had any injury, but because he didn't. The problem was he had gotten used to walking with some damage to his lower leg, and now that it was gone, he actually had to learn to walk normally all over again.
The past couple of days had been spent in the medical bay relearning how to walk while nerve stimulators worked his newly rebuilt muscles so they were close to the same strength as the surrounding tissue. Still, Robin quickly realized it was not as easy as it sounded. After each day, his leg was exhausted, and the newly regenerated areas on his back itched almost constantly. This, above all else is what really aggravated him.
On the plus side, each day seemed to get better. The doctors told him this would continue to improve as his body adjusted to having feeling in areas which had felt nothing in almost two years. However, the doctors also informed him it would be another week or two before everything came together and his brain simply accepted the parts it had ‘forgotten' about. Furthermore, he was repeatedly warned the newly regrown tissue would sunburn much more easily than the surrounding tissue, so he needed to be very careful out in the sun for the next several months. He stopped and bit back a curse as his calf tightened up and started to cramp.
Jessie turned at the sound and silently watched as Robin stopped, put his hands against the wall, and leaned forward while keeping his foot planted. Jessie's fist clenched, wanting to help. He knew better. Robin had all but punched the last kid who tried. Still, Jessie cringed as he watched the calf muscle ripple as if the muscle stimulator was still attached to the leg.
Next to Jessie, Cody shook his head and muttered, "If he would let us help him..."
Robin fired a nasty glance over at Cody, "After making it through the Regen, I think I can handle this. Just chill!"
"Hey!" Jessie shot back, "You are the one who needs to chill. We both get it, but you don't need to bark at us because we care!"
Robin frowned deeply, but said nothing as he pushed his foot all the way down and followed through with the exercises taught to him by one of the med techs to stretch out the calf safely and eliminate the cramping. Seeing a couple of kids from the academy move toward him, Robin gritted his teeth and held up his hand making it clear to everyone he wanted to do the rehabilitation on his own. Any offer of help made Robin angry, even when it came from the medical staff.
Jessie took a couple of steps back and made some small talk with his fellow academy cadets while giving Robin a disapproving shake of his head. To help pass the time he glanced out the window and pointed out to the others the view they had of the Grenadier's ship. It was actually a pretty awesome sight. Very few could say they saw a full sized Planetary Landing Craft sitting in a repair gantry on the White Tiger's upper deck. The vastness of the capital ship made it look like the huge PLC was nothing more than a toy sitting on a large table. Even as the boys talked about this, they could make out sparks coming off the hull of the PLC as the Brave Humanities staff worked on the Grey Stallion. The work was beyond impressive made even more so since even as the repairs were ongoing, massive scaffolding continued to be assembled around the crippled craft so full external repairs could be completed.
Making the view even more astounding was the sight of a resupply ship which had also docked on the massive cruiser-carrier. The large Space Folding Craft was unloading much of the equipment needed to fully repair, refit, rearm, and upgrade the all but antique Grey Stallion. The fact a full sized resupply SFC could land surprised the boys, the fact it could land on the deck of the capital ship truly astounded them.
These sights were not the only interesting things for the boys to watch. For even as they talked about all the work going into the scaffolding being assembled, they could also see a series of conveyors moving smashed equipment from inside the damaged ship, while another set moved new and upgraded equipment from the resupply ship to the Grey Stallion. Jessie couldn't help but snicker as one of the younger boys wondered if there would be anything left of the old Grey Stallion by the time the Brave Humanities techs were finished with her.
With the cramp fading in his leg, Robin moved over to the small group and watched as a crane pulled off one of the old escape pod docking collars. "Sorry guys, but I really just need to be left alone when the cramps hit. It's nothing against any of you."
Cody sighed, "Yeah, well you are making it kind of hard on those of us who want to show we care about you."
"I think part of the problem is, I am not used to having others outside of long time Grenadier kids care about any of us. Plus, we are kind of expected to fend for ourselves. Once the shit hits the fan and our parents move into combat, we don't have anyone to go run to and until a few days ago, I was the oldest double digit, so all the others came to me. Now some will come to Jessie, Cody, and even you two."
One of the slightly younger boys shook his head, "How is anyone going to trust coming to me. I still fight to go to sleep every night and without Zane and Luna talking to me on a vid line and you three, I'd be a total mess. Last night Zane talked to me for like four or five hours until I finally dozed off."
Jessie reached over and put his hand on the boy's shoulder, "Yegor, I have cried on Robin at least a dozen times over the last few days."
"I haven't cried, not really. It just..." Yegor shrugged and gazed back out the window.
Jessie kept his hand on Yegor's shoulder. "I think part of my problem is I can't find the right words to talk, so I cry. Without Robin I don't know what I'd be like. I just wish I could do the same for him when he cramps up and junk, but he is too stubborn!"
Cody nodded in total agreement. "Robin, Jessie is right. It is kind of frustrating to know we could help you and you not letting us."
Getting a deep frown from Robin, Cody shook his head and rolled his eyes while focusing back on Yegor. "You know, guys, you can come see me or my dad if you need a shoulder to lean on..."
The other boy glanced over at Cody with tired eyes. "I don't know how to let it all out, Cody. I have kind of cried a couple of times, but then I just get mad at myself. Part of me wants to be dead like Mom and Dad. I should have gone to the observation deck to watch the fold with them like they wanted me to. If I had I would not be alive and it would be so much easier..."
Cody reach over and pulled the younger boy over to him, "No Ruslan, no... Don't ever think such things!"
"Why?" Ruslan looked up at Cody with a sudden flash of anger in his grey eyes while a few tears threatened to spill out. "The last thing I said to them was I'd prefer to play my frame simulator game they bought me for my birthday! I didn't even thank them for it!"
Ruslan suddenly pulled loose from Cody and yanked a holographic game projector out of his vest. He started to throw it down, only to be stopped by Robin who grabbed the boy's hand and held on with a strong grip.
"Don't," Robin commanded, "it won't help and then you will really miss the last thing your parents gave you. This is something you can hold onto and remember how much they loved you."
Ruslan tried to pull free only to find Robin twisting him until he found himself in a bear hug he couldn't get out of. "Let me go!"
"No!" Robin stated firmly while wrapping the boy even tighter in the hold. "Look, I know what you are going through. You may hate me now, but if you break the last thing you got from your parents, you will regret it the rest of your life! Cody, take it before he drops it!"
Cody moved up, only to find the boy was gripping the small game projector so hard it was causing his fingers to bleed. Try as he might, he could not force the boy's hand off it.
Jessie moved up to help only to get a kick in the side for his effort, but between him and Cody they finally got the device. As Jessie wiped off the blood he noticed the inscription "Happy Twelfth Birthday and Congratulations on passing your Basic Frame Certification! To our young Frame Pilot. Mom & Dad". He gulped and took the extra time to really clean it off. "Let him go, Robin, I got it."
Robin shook his head, "No, he needs to let it out."
"Screw you!" Ruslan shouted at the top of his lungs, attracting quite a bit of attention from those in the passage and even a few in close by rooms. He thrashed as hard as he could, but found Robin wasn't about to let him go. "Damn-it, Get your hands off me!"
"No." Robin stated decisively, yet softly. "You need to let go of the guilt or it will eat you up."
Once again Ruslan thrashed violently and almost broke free. To prevent this, Robin took him to the floor of the hall and wrapped his legs around the boy to more fully secure him. "Look, I know you are going to be pissed at me after this, and I understand, but I have been where you are. You hold it back and you will hurt yourself and others who care about you. We can't let you do either."
"How the hell would you know!" Ruslan screamed as he once again tried to break free.
Jessie frowned deeply, "Rus, you really don't want to go there. I heard what..."
Robin shook his head, "You can tell him later, Jessie. He won't listen. Not now, not like this. I know."
Even as Robin whispered to Jessie, Ruslan twisted and thrashed all to no avail other than the back of his head splitting Robin's lower lip. Finally he broke down, "I didn't even thank them! Don't you get it! I never said I love them... Nothing... I just said it was a dumb light show... Don't you get it? I never thanked them..." He started to bawl.
Robin waited to let up on the hold until he was sure Ruslan was done trying to fight him. Still he kept a strong hold, knowing the chances were good the boy in his arms would try to bang his head on the floor or find some other way to do damage to himself. At the same time he glanced up at Cody, "You need to talk him down. He won't listen to me at all after this."
Even as Cody took a knee and started gently talking to Ruslan while stroking his hair, Jessie wiped tears out of his own eyes. "How many times have you had to do this, Robin?"
"More than I care to think about, but I had others do it for me too. Back on New Bravaria, after I got out of the hospital and went back to the ship, I totally lost it when I found all my dad's things gone. When I finally let loose, it took Neil, Luna and Jared to hold me and talk me down. Neil is the best friend I have ever had and I nearly broke his jaw the day after when he tried to talk to me." Robin blinked out a few tears of his own, "He spit out a tooth and told me to hit him again if it would make me feel better. I think I cried harder after that then I did when he helped hold me down the first time.
"But he and Luna still ended up having to pin me because I tried to smash my head into the wall."
Coming out of the elevator from the gym and seeing what was happening, Dante motioned to a few of kids he was with. The group quickly moved up to help. As he knelt he patted Robin on the shoulder, "Robin, he's wiped out and sweating like crazy. Let go, we got him."
Robin loosened his grip a bit more and found no more resistance. Ruslan was simply sobbing uncontrollably. Taking a deep breath, he finally released the boy and put a hand up to his lip with a slight wince.
Seeing Jessie start to put the game back in Ruslan's vest, Robin stopped him. "Hold on to it for a few days for him. Let his anger fade or he still might break it. Sooner or later he will thank you for not letting him destroy it."
Cody glanced over to Dante and the kids with him, "Take him somewhere away from the others and stay with him..."
"We'll take care of it, Cody. This isn't my first time on something like this. At least this time I am trusted."
Robin frowned deeply, "Dante, it's not about trust..."
"OK, fine," Dante grumbled, "how about this time I'm one of the group?"
"Yes you are, and you will stay as one of us." Robin responded with a great deal of determination. "Just make sure he is not left alone, even if he takes a shower or wants to go to bed, someone needs to be right there."
"Rus was always cool to me." Dante stated as he hugged the sobbing kid. "I'll stick with him. Maybe I can get some help from a few of the others and move him in with me and Kay. One way or the other, we'll stick with him like a wet blanket the next couple of days."
Dante glanced over at his newly found academy friends, "Come on, guys, help me get him to my room. Once we get him there, I need a couple of you to go get his stuff and move it over and find us some food and junk. He probably won't want to eat right away, but when he does, he'll be real hungry."
Jessie waited until Dante and the others got Ruslan out of earshot and dropped his head, "If everyone acts like him at some point, why haven't I?"
Robin shook his head, "Everyone has their own way of handling it, but all of us Grenadier double digits have pretty much seen them all and been through this. It sucks, but we have learned the patterns. You will start seeing them too, but you are right where Rus is. You just are handling it with the brain. You have cried your eyes out on me and several of the other cadets aboard the yacht. We all but had to force feed you since you kept getting sick. The anger will still hit you, but it might come out in a different way or at a different time."
"I am angry, though." Jessie growled, "Actually, I am totally pissed. All I really want is to kill those who killed my family and I want to know what happened to my brother!"
Cody clenched his fist, "You will get your revenge and we will do whatever we can to find your brother."
Robin nodded while putting his arm around Jessie's shoulders, "Cody's right, but sooner or later, you are going to need to vent in some other way. I am here when the time comes."
"So am I." Cody stated firmly.
Jessie nodded, but paused as he turned to Yegor, "How about you? I haven't seen you really cry or anything."
The boy shrugged, "I think part of it is I know I have family back on Nova, but to be honest I think something is wrong with me."
Cody cocked his head, "What's wrong?"
"I don't know..."
Robin dabbed at his split lip with the edge of his shirt sleeve, "Numb, right?"
Yegor's eyes seemed to flash with surprise, "Very good word, comrade. Yes, numb is very good word. I feel nothing."
"There is nothing wrong with you at all." Robin reassured the boy. "As my mom told Luna, when she got like you are, you are still processing it. Your mind is trying to find a reason when there is no good one. The one thing my mom did was to make Luna talk about it, even if only in small pieces, so she could eventually come to grasp with the fact there is no good answer. I want you to do the same thing."
"How, comrade?" Yegor asked with little emotion, "How can I do what you ask when I have nothing to talk about? I don't have any real thought of any of this. When I talk to Zane on the vid, all I talk about is games we like, and camping stuff. He says we can go camping together and we talk about what we want to do. I have nothing to say about this, any of this."
"I saw Luna go through the exact same thing." Robin stated softly. "Before you go to bed tonight, I want you to go talk to her. She is over on one of the frigates getting her wrist worked on still, but I bet we can get a vid call just like you have been doing with Zane. I am sure she will be able to help you."
"I don't even know her and was kind of mean to her back in the academy...."
"Those days are done, Yegor, and she can really help. I know she can."
"Do I really need help?"
Behind the group of boys who were talking and looking out at the work being done on the Grey Stallion, Commander Bennett cleared her throat getting the attention of all four boys. Once she was sure she had their undivided attention she gave a reassuring smile. "First off, young man, to answer your question, yes you do need help. Robin, is completely correct. You need to talk it out, and if this Luna has been there, then you should go see her. I'll have a shuttle take you to her or bring her over here for you. The first few tastes of senseless violence and or combat needs to be talked about and dealt with. Holding it in or pretending it doesn't affect you will eat you up from the inside out."
She paused and looked at Robin, "How about you? The doctors and therapy staff say you are being one stubborn cuss!"
Robin forced a nervous smile, "I just don't like to be babied, ma'am. I didn't lose anyone this time and I am back in one full piece, so I am actually doing really good." He paused and glanced back out at the Grey Stallion. "I am more worried about her than me."
"Oh, your ship is in the best possible hands, Robin." Commander Bennett assured the boy. I even have my best people doing double welds in and on areas we normally don't do them on because of what my people told me and how they can see how your commander handles his stuff."
This got a grin out of Robin, "Good, cause we tend to be a bit tough on the equipment."
This got a snicker out of Commander Bennett, "From what I hear, if you take the word 'bit' and replace it with 'extremely', my people might agree with you, but even then... One of the most senior techs I have says your ship is about the worst abused piece of semi-usable equipment she has ever seen. But don't worry, we will beat on the welds and double check all the new stuff we are putting on to make sure everything can handle what your unit likes to put their equipment though.
Robin let out a long sigh, "As long as the glitch in my mom's shower stops switching the air from warm to cold on the body blow dryer, I'll be thrilled. To be honest, I am more worried about finding my way around once you are done!"
This got a hearty laugh out of the woman, "Your ship will keep the basic floor plans, so you don't have to concern yourself with finding your way around."
"Ma'am," Robin responded while jerking his head in the direction of the ship he had called home for his entire life, "with all due respect, I don't think you understand. "Once all the life pods get replaced and the cargo lift gets fixed, it will seem like a totally different ship. Major O'Connell shut down two of the old crew sections because we didn't have escape pods on those decks, so we used them for cargo since they are easy to get to from the turbo lift.
"Your repairs will mean sections of the ship, not lived on since I have been alive, will once again be open and the upper cargo holds, which were never used will be. I only went up there a few times to play hide and seek and got into more trouble than I care to remember for it, since there was exposed wires and junk up there. Still, it was worth it, cause it was cool to play in a place like a old haunted ship. When we got caught, we were trying to make it have sounds and a holo-projector and stuff to freak out a couple of new kids to the unit once we heard their mom say they were both afraid of ghosts and spooky places..."
Commander Bennett smirked as she saw the grin on Robin's face get larger as he talked about the upper holds, "So in other words you went up there way more than the adults know."
Robin's face turned red but his grin only got bigger, "I never said I didn't."
This got some laughter out of the Commander, "The more I talk to you, the more I see why Cory liked you so darned much. You ought to record a message for him. I will send it to Blood's Honor so they can get it to him on his field study."
Robin nodded with no hesitation, "Be happy to ma'am."
"Good, now however, I need you and your buddies to come with me. I have someone I want you to meet and talk to."
She then paused and looked at Yegor, "And you, young man, need to listen to Robin. Before we have this meeting I will check on the condition of Luna and if she is OK for transport. If she is, I will get her over here. Otherwise, you will be on a fast shuttle over to see her before dinner. Understand?"
The boy looked up with wide eyes, "Yes ma'am!"
"Good. Now I need Robin, Jessie and Cody to come with me. If you are OK with your friend helping out, he can come too."
Robin shrugged, "Why don't you come with us, Yegor."
The boy grinned at the offer so Commander Bennett glanced at one of the guards, "These four are with me. Let it be known I am giving them access to level one as long as they are with me or one of my command officers. Oh, and tell the XO to set things so my guests can see three sixty view."
The guard gave a quick nod and salute before talking into his wrist band.
Satisfied there would be no problems, she turned back to the kids. "If you four will follow me so we can check on Luna and then have you all meet with someone from the resupply ship, then." Although she worded it like a question, all four boys knew it was a command so they followed without hesitation.
Before any questions could be asked, Commander Bennett turned and made her way to the secure elevator to the upper section of the ship. All four boys stopped as she used a combination of her palm and a retinal scan to activate the lift. She glanced back with a smirking grin, "Oh, come on. Any boy who wanted to see a basically abandoned part of a ship and turn it into a haunted ship must want to see the upper command section and actual bridge of the White Tiger!"
With wide eyes, Robin all but jumped in through the open door quickly followed by Jessie and the other two. The boys exchanged glances as they found the lift taking them down not up. Confused, Jessie couldn't help but ask. "Ma'am, is the bridge down?"
"Dead center of the ship. The tour you all got was of the Space Ops Center in the central tower. Most ship operations are run out of there as is all the space traffic control for our fighters and any ships in the vicinity. While impressive, what can be done up there only scratches the surface of what we can do down here."
Exiting onto the command deck, the boys all swallowed hard as they noticed the guards posted at the door to the lift were fully framed up and there were seven of them. Over a dozen other framed up guards were posted by other doors while a few others patrolled the halls. The next thing they noticed were the turrets in the ceiling covering every hall and door with a set of three aimed at the lift door. There was no way anyone who was not authorized was going to make it more than a meter before ceasing to exist. This, in turn, caused the four to subconsciously decide to stick very close to Commander Bennett.
Commander Bennett smiled at the reaction of the four wide eyed lads, but she otherwise remained silent until she used another hand print and retinal scan of her other eye to gain access to the bridge.
Robin stopped short after taking only a trio of steps into the main control room for the White Tiger. The view was incredible, since it looked to him like he had all but stepped outside and was in space. "Wow..."
Behind him Cody gasped and actually took a step back toward the door, while Yegor took a deep breath, held it and grabbed onto the door itself.
Off to the side in front of one of the terminals controlling communications, a man in a Senior Lieutenant uniform chuckled. "I did almost the same thing the first time I was allowed to come in here, son. Take a breath, come in and let the door close so you can really enjoy this."
Tentatively Yegor let go of the door frame and took a single step in. Behind him the door closed and seemed to vanish behind a star-field, leaving the entire room looking as if they were standing in deep space with a few planets and moons in the distance and two of the frigates close by. The only other things visible were the various command stations and people manning them. It actually caused a degree of vertigo, since it appeared the people and the stations were suspended in space.
Robin found it hard to move since it seemed as if he was stepping on nothing even though he could feel the floor under his feet. He shook his head and fought a wave of queasiness. "The entire room is a holographic projector?"
"Pretty much." The Communication Officer answered before turning to Commander Bennett. "Last of your beacons will be in place within four hours. Then no one comes or leaves the system without us knowing it, unless they do so from outside the orbit of the furthest asteroid belt.
"Good." Commander Bennett responded. "Any fold rift forms leaving this system without our authorization needs to get hit with an electromagnetic pulse beam."
Jessie ran his hand over his face and let out a deep breath, "I don't feel so good..."
The woman closest to Jessie quickly moved over to the boy's side and handed him a bag to puke into should he need it. Others on the bridge did the same for the other three. Once again the Communication Officer spoke up, "Nothing to be ashamed of, kids. Well over half of those who work here had problems at first."
"Then why do it?" Jessie all but groaned as he found himself wobbling even as he tried to stand still.
"Real time tactics, Jes," Cody answered before forcing some bile back down his throat. "They can command the battle and see exactly what is around the ship so they can more quickly deal with threats."
"Close and very perceptive, young man," another officer answered, "but it is not the only thing we can do." The man paused and punched a button on his terminal causing a door off to the right to open. "As you four are about to see."
Commander Bennett motioned for the boys to proceed toward the door. Robin started to moved but trembled and almost fell since his mind simply could not adjust to the fact the door was actually a straight walk on level service only a few meters away.
Commander Bennett snickered as Cody tripped and fell over absolutely nothing since he was trying to walk as if there was no ground under him. "Kill the three sixty, Lieutenant, before these four break their necks."
With a simple push of a button, the star-field faded and was replace with a very high tech looking command center with all sorts of three dimensional displays showing everything from ship functions, to personnel, to on-hand stores of food and water.
With a visual of the floor under their feet, the four boy shook off the last vestiges of vertigo and made toward the door, somewhat happy to have clear and distinct points of reference around them again. Robin audibly sighed with relief, but still managed to look over at Commander Bennett. "Ma'am, all I really ask is you let Dante see what you just showed us. I bet he will have a ba-zillion questions about the tech behind it and will beg to see how it works!"
"I'll make sure it happens. To be honest, one of my tech guys wanted to see how you managed to get the floor plans of the Wagon sent to you when you didn't have a holographic receiver."
Cody rolled his eyes, "We may never see Dante again!"
The man sitting at a central terminal in the room they just entered looked up, "Who is Dante, and why would you never see him again?"
"One of the O'Connell kids who is a bit of a techie from the sounds of things, Command Sergeant. Robin here," she patted Robin on the back, "was just saying how he wanted his friend to see and get a rundown of the tech involved in our holographic chamber. The problem is, I think they are afraid the boy may adopt the tech once they get talking."
The black haired, green eyed, guy of a small stature of only 160 centimeters and a rather thin build stood, snickering. "Sounds like a future Brave Humanities employee in the making if you asked me."
The four boys stopped dead in their tracks and saluted the man as soon as they saw his uniform. It was full of ribbons and showed him having not one, but two Gallantry Accommodations, the highest awards ever given to mercenaries by major multi-planetary governments. One was from the FPA and the other from ABR. The fact the man was not an officer mattered none, since anyone with a single Gallantry Accommodation was supposed to be saluted. Making him even more intimidating was the fact well over a dozen other ribbons were black on the left edge and red on the right, meaning they were issued by Blood's Honor, the most elite mercenary unit in the galaxy.
The man smiled and returned the salute and smiled. "As soon as I heard I had a chance to help the kids from the O'Connell Grenadiers, I jumped on the supply transport. After hearing so much about you, it is good to finally meet you Robin."
"You have heard of me?" Robin managed to stammer out.
Commander Bennett snickered, "Robin, I would like you to meet Command Sergeant Black. His daughter is Karen."
It took a moment for Robin's brain to put the first and last name together, but when it did he couldn't help but feel a cold shiver go down his newly repaired back. Karen Black had been part of the Blood's Honor cadet squad that had saved his life back on New Bravaria. Robin's jaw dropped at the sheer coincidence of being in the room with two parents of two different kids who had fought side by side with him years ago and light-years from where he now found himself. "Oh, wow! How is she doing?"
Command Sergeant Black smiled at seeing the obvious admiration the boy in front of him had for his daughter even though his girl was a couple of years younger than Robin. "She is on the same field study as Cory and I am quite sure is doing well. If you would like to send her a message I will make sure she gets it."
"With pleasure, sir!"
"Sergeant is fine. The Black family line doesn't like to be called sir or ma'am." He glanced up at Commander Bennett with a smirk, "We like to show we work for a living."
Hearing snickers and an 'ouch' from one of the boys, Commander Bennett chuckled. "Laugh if you want, kids, but this is my ship and I am willing to bet I could find a contingent of security guards to do some hands on unarmed combat instruction with all four of you."
"Sounds fun, ma'am," Robin fired back with no hesitation.
This got a wide smile out of Command Sergeant Black, "A bit of Karen and Cory both wrapped into this one, Commander. No wonder our kids like to talk about Robin and his friends so much."
"Without question." Commander Bennett responded while shooting a stern eye at Robin. After a brief pause she let out a long breath, "So, let's say zero four hundred you and whoever else want a pre-breakfast unarmed lesson meet in the gravity gym?"
"I'll be there!" Robin stated with enthusiasm.
The other three boys all eyed him as if he was insane, but after a brief pause Cody, then Jessie nodded. Yegor finally sighed, "If I can get some sleep tonight I will be there."
"I'll check on the status of Luna. Hopefully she can help."
"If her wrist is OK, I am positive she will want to join in on the class too, ma'am." Robin announced with complete certainty.
Commander Bennett's eyebrows shot up, "OK, then I will leave you in the able hands of one of BH's best strike team commanders."
As soon as the commander exited the room and the door closed behind her, Robin looked over, "Which BH do you command a strike team for, Sergeant Black?"
"Both." The man answered with a smirk. "I started out in Blood's Honor, but was offered a liaison position with Brave Humanities, so I took over one of their most elite facility anti-terrorist and hostage rescue strike teams."
Jessie gulped, "Are you in command of the Knight Stalkers, Sergeant Black?"
Command Sergeant Black raised an eyebrow showing some surprise. "Not many know what we call ourselves son, I am impressed. And yes, I am the team leader although there are officers above me who call the big shots. I am on site commander, however. How is it you know of us?"
"My father tried to hire you to take back some hostages the Quaker VI government had taken from Quaker VII in a raid, but the others in his group said the money Brave Humanities wanted for your team was too extreme. Dad disagreed, but didn't want to fund it all out of his own pocket."
"Do you happen to know what happened?"
Jessie shook his head, "The others hired someone else without my dad's backing since he said if they weren't going to get the best, it wasn't worth doing. I didn't hear any more about it and since he was killed by the Q VI RG, I don't think I'll ever be able to find out, Sergeant."
The man stood, moved over to Jessie and patted him on the back. "From what I heard, some of those same Q VI thugs are now holding a mining station and you all want to take it back, correct?"
"Yeah," Cody snarled, "we just need the equipment..."
"Son, you need to first curb your anger. A well planned strike on a group holding hostages hinges on all involved going in with a level head. I can't and won't help you nor will I sign off on any plans until I know everyone going on the strike is level headed."
Robin's eyes went wide at the implications he was hearing, "You are here to help us hit the mining camp?"
"I am here to make sure you rescue as many as possible. However, FPA is footing the bill for this and they really don't care what happens to those holding the hostages as long as they are neutralized. The FPA made it clear they really don't care nearly as much about the hostages as BH would like either, so I was asked if I would come and advise. The leadership of BH feel you should be allowed to deal with it how you see fit. All I will do is caution you about the downside of making this about revenge. Justice, fine, revenge... well it only feels good for a bit, then the next time you will have to go darker to fill the same void. It is a path to destruction, if you ask me."
Jessie took a deep breath, "They killed my parents... what level of justice is there?"
The man put strong hands on Jessie's shoulders and rubbed them. "If you are asking me, they need to be punished."
Cody looked over totally confused, "And the line between justice and revenge is where? At some point justice and revenge blend together, don't they?"
"Unfortunately the line gets blurry. But let me say there is a difference between punishment and torture and there is a line between justice and revenge. Although, where the line lays moves a bit depending on the acts of those who have done wrong. In simple terms, it varies. If the time comes and you want my input, I will give you my thoughts and views. If not, then I keep my mouth shut and go home once the mission is complete."
Robin let out a long breath, "All of this is really interesting, Sergeant, and I am kind of interested in what kind of justice is befitting of those who dropped rippers on our camp back on New Bravaria. But at the moment, I don't see how we are going to take anything from anyone, let alone rescue hostages. We don't have any idea about where they are, how many, what they are armed with and by far the most important part is, we don't have anything to fight them with."
"Ah," Command Sergeant Black smiled deviously, "but you do. You actually have all of those things and quite a bit more."
"Really?" Yegor finally spoke up, "All our combat stuff was left behind at the academy."
"Well, the Free Planet's Association wanted to make sure you have something to fight in, both now and into the future, so they made a rather sizable purchase of Brave Humanities frames, IPSCs, armor platforms, and infantry gear. In addition, since my team is being paid to help, we will be giving you access to our intelligence under the condition you make saving the hostages as a priority."
"If we have something to fight with and you can give us some pointers, we'll do everything we can to save those taken captive, but... Well, I have no intention of letting any of them leave. They killed lots of people including academy cadets from my force and Jessie's parents. A hostage is not going to stop me from putting a laser up the ass of each and every one of them."
Command Sergeant Black's voice changed tone as he nodded in understanding, "Pull up a current disposition of Mining Station Fourteen, this system."
Within moments the lights dimmed and the table in the center of the room lit up, showing it was actually a giant holographic projector. The entire camp was shown, including people moving in the streets in light environmental suits and a quintet of machinegun armed jeeps.
"You are seeing the outside activities of the entire camp, but we are still quite a bit out, so this is on an eighteen second delay. The buildings shown in red tinge we have no intel as far as what is in them, the yellow tinged ones we can give you heat signatures and or floor plans and the greenish ones we have managed to penetrate with stealth bots and have eyes inside the buildings."
Once again his voice changed as he talked to the computer, "Give me building nine, basement level."
The scene shown on the table changed to show a pair of Riot frames guarding a group of men in one room, while another room was guarded by two other Riot frames and was holding women. A fifth heavier Aggressor class frame stood guard at the bottom of the stairs. Finally two other rooms held five troopers outside of frames, but their frames were lined up against one wall. Each squad had four Riot frames and one Aggressor.
Command Sergeant Black let the astonished boys study the situation for several minutes before speaking. "We were able to get good visuals of the captives in this building. They are the support staff for the miners. We have not yet located the their kids, nor have we found the miners or their families. Although we have seen frame activity coming in and out of the three mine shafts along the ridge line. At this point we have verified twenty one frames, fourteen of which are Riot class frames kept at the station to defend it. We do not know how they captured fourteen of the sixteen frames, but it appears they did and had pilots for them.
"The other seven frames are Aggressor and Intruder class frames and were not assigned to the mining station. At this point there are still one hundred and forty-two mine workers, sixteen frame certified security personnel, and an additional fifty-three kids below the age of fourteen unaccounted for, but the mines are active, so some of the workers must be down there. I also understand they took hostages from the Wagon, but I don't know how many and we have seen no sign of them. It is possible they may be in the mines. The mines are too deep for our stealth bots to get in and transmit video out of, however, so we don't know what is in those mine shafts."
Cody and Robin moved to the table and studied the layout while talking over what they were looking at. Both boys were beyond astonished at the level of detail they were seeing. Finally, Robin looked up. "What kind of equipment do we have to hit this place with?"
Command Sergeant Black moved over to another terminal and typed in a couple of commands bringing up an impressive list of infantry, armor, frames, and Inner Planetary Superiority Craft. He watched as all four boys examined the list and talked among themselves.
Robin finally turned, "Sir, I don't know but half of the frames listed. The only ones I have heard of are the three in Lawman series and the Patrol frame. The Lawman series are normally owned by wealthy planetary police for heavy combat and are a pretty big step up from the normal Riot and Militia frames most police use, while the Patrol frame is a favorite of every frame recon jockey in every merc unit I have ever met. We own four of them. One was my dad's and it still needs repair parts."
"It will be fixed up as part of the ship refit," The man assured Robin. "As a matter of fact, all your frames are part of the repair we are doing and an additional shipment of new frames for the Grenadiers was part of the payment made by the FPA to thank you for doing what you all did for their people and uncovering the EC treachery.
"You all need to decide how to assign all this equipment. I figure the older kids will gravitate to the larger frames with the really big kids getting the Scrapper frames since they are made for larger people. The only reason the FPA bought eight Scrappers was because there are eight frame cadets over the height of 185 centimeters, so those are pretty much spoken for. The other thing to consider is most of the smaller or really young ones will have to take the Recruit frames, since they are built to handle a much smaller person. However, all these frames come with built in size adjustment technology which is why these frames are the ones the FPA purchased for you all."
Robin turned sharply, "Bought for us?"
Command Sergeant Black nodded, "Yeah, everything on this list belongs to you all. The leadership of the Free Planets Association pulled records which showed two hundred and sixty-nine of you have at least basic frame certifications so they bought each of you a frame. In addition, you all have thirty-seven with aerospace certs, so we have thirty-seven IPSCs, although, from what I have been told, one of you Grenadiers has kind of fallen in love with a certain Saber Raptor..."
"Oh, yeah!" Cody snickered, "That baby is all Caleb's! I think the other Raptor is also spoken for."
"So I have heard. But both of those are combat captures so they are already owned by the two of them. They still get to choose one of the listed IPSCs if they want a back up. I have to say I am still skeptical about them being awarded the fighters as combat captures under salvage in deep space clauses being as young as they are, but I have yet to see the battle recordings. I hear it is quite something to watch. I plan on doing so later today."
Jessie couldn't help but chuckle. "You better be ready to hold onto the edge of your seat, Sergeant, because no matter how many times I see it I end up cringing and gulping a few times.
This got a smile from the man, but he stayed focused on the task at hand. "Good to hear, but just so you all know there is academy equipment as well. In addition to the listed equipment, there are a total of one hundred and eight frames mothballed at the ag station on the planet, but those belong to the academy as a whole not each of you."
All four boys found their jaws dropping open. Cody was the first to find any kind of voice, "No, wait, are you saying we get to own the frames we pick, really own them?"
"Such are the purchase orders. Each and every cadet with at least basic frame certs is to select a frame of his or her own and be granted ownership. Other Quaker VII cadets will be allotted frames as they earn their certifications. Unfortunately, it sounds like those will all be Garrison frames since they ordered an extra 155 Garrisons from our facilities on Grey Stone. From what I understand, those will be kept in crates until the kids get their basic pilot qualifications."
Robin found his heart pounding in his chest so hard it was hard to speak, "I'd take a Garrison over the Blade I have down in the hold of the Grey Stallion!"
"I'd be happy with a Blade frame and like it." Yegor stammered.
This got some laughter out of the Command Sergeant. "Now we can't have kids willing to take the fight to EC and Quaker VI framers in base level frames."
Robin put his hands on the table and leaned forward taking a series of deep breaths, "So can I select one of the Patrol frames?"
A smirk played across Command Sergeant Black's lips, "You can if you really want to, son, but there are ten Escort frames down in the hold of the resupply ship, and we had pretty much already earmarked three of them as one going to each of you three." He paused and looked over at Yegor, "They will have to decide what frames you get to pick from, along with the cadet commanders of the Q VII academy."
Yegor waved his hands out in front of himself, "Sergeant, I'll be happy with whatever I get. Like I said to own any kind of frame... Even a Blade..."
Cody, who was only doing slightly better than Robin, reached over and patted Yegor on the shoulder, "You were in my force. We'll get you bumped up on the list of order to pick."
Jessie shook his head fighting of his own surprise as he moved over to Robin, "What about weapon load-outs Sergeant?"
"We have racks of stuff to give you each a decent selection. How this is done, will be up to you three and the cadet commander squads. If you want my recommendations, you would be best suited to assign a picking order for frames and then rotate down the same list, picking one piece of equipment or weapon at a time. This way the kids at the bottom don't end up with nothing but a handful of IR chips, light lasers, and light machineguns."
Robin rubbed his right hand through his hair while still leaning on the table supported by his left arm. "Sounds like a great idea to me... But why do I want a... um, the Escort class frame? I have never even heard of it."
Command Sergeant Black moved over to yet another terminal and changed the display of the holographic table to show all eight frames bought by the FPA, along with their combat statistics. Robin pretty much ignored the three Lawman Series frames and the Patrol, since he knew them like the back of his hand. Instead he studied the others and slowly let out a whistle. "Man, the Escort comes with a ton of built in features and is real heavy in the armor! Although the Sentry frame has satellite uplink which is really cool... Those two frame must cause a fortune!"
Cody moved up and looked over the stats and what the frames looked like. He knew in his heart it was silly, but he really didn't like the look of the Escort frame. The Sentry was a much more intimidating frame. It just looked scarier. Finally he looked back over to the Sergeant, "Are there extras like advanced HUDs and stuff?"
"To be honest I am not sure, but if you want a Battle HUD in your frame, I can dig one or two up."
"Man, I really like the Escort, but the Sentry and Patrol frames are pretty nice too." Cody mumbled aloud.
"I'm taking an Escort!" Robin stated after a few more seconds of silence.
After several more seconds Jessie glanced over at Robin, "Would you be mad if I passed on the Escort and took a Patrol?"
Robin shook his head, "No, it's your choice. Besides, I know how much my dad loved his Patrol frame. I would put in a long range radio if we can find one though. It was the one thing Dad always used to talk about, wondering why a frame meant to go out on long range patrols didn't have one."
Cody finally sighed, "I'll go with one of the Escorts if I can get a Battle HUD."
"I'll find you one, son." Command Sergeant Black stated without hesitation. How about you Robin?"
"ECM and a Battle HUD are the two things I want the most in my frame." Robin responded slowly. "But I'll take it as is with no problem."
"I am sure BH has a few ECM and Battle HUDs somewhere around here," Command Sergeant Black responded with a smile before looking over at Jessie, "and the LR radio is no issue at all. I know we have a few extras as part of the supply shipment."
Cody then turned to Robin, "What about the other Grenadiers?"
"Jared will want an Escort." Robin answered with total certainty. "The others.... well we will need to ask them, but if you want my bets... Neil will also want an Escort. Zane and Glen and Kerri will almost certainly take Patrol frames... Luna an Escort... Val likes smaller frames so I would guess a Preceptor. Dante would love an Escort, but he is small... I am not sure he will be able to properly pilot it... Still, I bet he takes one and deals with being at the absolute lower limit of the size adjustment tech. All things equal and knowing only a little about Erin, she'll want something small and with a medic kit, so she might even take one of the Deputy frames. If she does we, need to make sure to get her IR and UV chips before they are all taken."
Robin paused and glanced over at Yegor, "How about you and Rus. You are part of my frame force so I want you to have early picks."
"We are both kind of small, and there is no way I would be able to pilot a Patrol frame yet, neither would Rus. So I'd sure like one of the Preceptors before they all get taken. I'd bet money on Rus wanting the same."
"They're yours then," Cody declared. He then looked over at Command Sergeant Black. "So do you mind if we get our equipment set and organized before we figure out a plan of attack?"
"Not at all, but make it happen quickly," the man ordered. "Those hostages are already not being well treated and it will only get worse as they start to run low on food and other basic essentials. I expect you to meet with me in the combat planning staff room by 1800."
Commander Bennett studied the star system map on the command bridge with a careful eye. The system seemed quiet, but this only made her more anxious. Knowing Earth Core was involved with much of what had happened, things were simply too quiet. She had been through the Brave Humanities-Earth Core conflict and even lost a destroyer but left EC down three destroyers of their own. It had been this battle, over the planet of Isis IV, which caused the decisive swing in the pendulum to favor Brave Humanities.
The destruction of three EC warships and the failure to take the PLC production facility orbiting the planet left Earth Core reeling. It also allowed for Brave Humanities to form a strike force and take Spider Bite, Earth Core's outermost warship production facility, a place Brave Humanities had fortified to a point where Earth Core finally abandoned attempts to take it back after losing over a dozen more warships, all of which were then repaired and put to use against their former builders.
Still, the effects of the four year conflict had left deep scars on Brave Humanities and Commander Bennett. The company decided it needed to be able to have a force capable of rivaling any other force in the Galaxy. While profit was the primary concern, power was now a very close second. This transition in thinking led to fleets just like Commander Bennett now commanded. Brave Humanities boasted twelve such fleets and had a number or reserve ships it could pull out of mothballs should the need arise. At any one time, eight of the twelve fleets were available to hire out. While the prices were absurdly high, it was rare for there not to be a backlog for them. The one caveat was the ships could be recalled should Brave Humanities need them for defense, unless an extra rider was put in the contract for a stupidly high price. This was one such mission. The FPA had paid through the nose for Brave Humanities to protect this group from any and all hostiles while staying out of larger disputes between the Great Outback and other entities.
The problem was, Earth Core had targeted this group and was likely to do so again. She once again looked over the star system and all the scanners her fleet had deployed. As she did so her mind drifted back to the last time she had faced Earth Core.
Four EC ships folded in almost simultaneously and made straight for the Planetary Landing Craft facilities orbiting Isis IV. The lead ship exchanged fire with a pair of defensive star bases, destroying one and crippling the other, but in doing so took a beating. Even as, the then Lieutenant Commander Bennett fired off an emergency zip ball to alert Brave Humanities headquarters, the lead Earth Core ship jettisoned life pods.
Seeing an opening, Lieutenant Commander Bennett ordered her destroyer, Night Pride, to close with the dying warship. using its hulk as cover from two of the other warships, she took on one of the other three. She got lucky. One of her Warhawk missiles found something vital. The ship detonated from the inside out. There were no survivors.
The second to the last ship broke off its attack run on the PLC facility to deal with what it saw as the only threat remaining, but was out of range. With a beyond risky maneuver, Lieutenant Commander Bennett sent in a strike team, along with a huge number of her emergency repair crew over to the dead EC ship she was hiding behind before taking her ship over the hulk to engage. The exchange of fire lasted almost twenty minutes and left her ship badly crippled, half her bridge crew dead, and only one main engine on line, but left the EC destroyer totally without power.
Knowing she only had one real option, she ordered all non-essential personnel off and gave just enough time for life pods to launch before she fired her last engine at full power and burned toward the final warship. She also fired everything she had left in an attempt to get the ship's attention. While the range meant only a few very minor damaging shots hit the ship, the ploy worked. The final EC warship turned away from the PLC production facility figuring it would deal with the last ship, then take the all but unarmed facility.
Lieutenant Commander Bennett reversed course, making it look like she was going to hid behind the warship taken out by the space defense stations. This only caused the EC ship to increase speed to get to her before her crippled ship could find cover, which it did. The first exchange of fire did some damage to the EC destroyer, but left her with almost nothing. She fired off her last missile while using maneuvering thrusters to get closer to the hull of the EC ship. The next barrage of fire snapped the spine of the Night Pride, but her last missile left a good sized hole in the lower starboard side of the Earth Core Warship.
The enemy ship then turned to limp back to take the platform when suddenly, and with total surprise, the dead EC ship right behind the now shattered hull of the Night Pride belched out a quintet of anti-ship pulse cannons and a pair of missiles. All seven weapon systems lanced into the back of the already damaged EC destroyer and at least one hit the center primary engine. It exploded seconds later which caused a massive cascade effect down the entire ship. The whole hull then collapsed inward before a single hand could get to a life pod.
Lieutenant Commander Bennett and three others were rescued from the bridge three days later by a Blood's Honor frigate. All four of them had hypothermia and some oxygen deprivation, but were nursed back to health then given a promotion and command of her own fleet. The next two years had been near endless combat with her fleet destroying seven more EC warships and twenty-seven other starships in ten different systems while only losing two destroyers.
All told, Brave Humanities had lost nineteen warships, one hundred and ninety-one starships, and two manufacturing facilities. The human toll had also been massive. Brave Humanities estimated over a million people, the majority non-combatants, lost. Of those lost, just under ten thousand had been scientists.
Of course Earth Core had paid dearly during the four years, and in weakening themselves ended up losing a half dozen systems to the Free Planets Association, Avalon Breakaway Republic, and Great Outback. They also lost twenty-five warships and easily ten times as many smaller starships. The worst loss, however, had been the facilities in, on and over the planets of the Spider Bite system. The truce between EC and Brave Humanities was more because EC didn't have a place to repair larger ships within double bounce range of any alien fold gates, than a desire to end the fighting. Once Brave Humanities started repairing the EC ships and sent them back into the fight against EC forces trying to fight off the FPA, GO, and ABR, it was clear they had bit off more than they cared to chew on.
Now, however, Commander Bennett found herself thinking of all those under her command she had seen die in the EC war. The last thing she wanted was to put more into graves or have to send surviving family notes of condolence along with paperwork saying their loved ones were lost to the voids of space and there was no bodies to even mourn over.
Her thoughts were brought to a sudden halt as Command Sergeant Black entered the bridge. "So Commander, are you sure you don't want my team to go down and get out the hostages before you send in the rugrats?"
"No, I'm not, but the FPA is, and they are paying for this. They want their citizens to strike back and feel their kids will be better off for it, even if all the civilians are killed."
Seeing Sergeant Black frown, she shrugged, "This isn't Blood's Honor, Command Sergeant. We are here to make money and fulfill a contract. Protecting the lives of civilians is not part of this contract in any way, shape, or form. A one point two billion AIM credit contract, I might add. We do things their way. At least I was able to get them to spring for good equipment for the kids. Between the equipment they bought and the overwhelming numbers of kids, I doubt we will lose a single one, but I still want you down there with your team to extract any who get hurt or take a breach. As long as you let the kids do the fighting and don't get in their way, you have some freedom though. If you see a chance to save some civilians, who am I to argue?"
"You realize my team could get the known hostages out very few casualties, right?"
"I'm more than sure you could. But again, this isn't Blood's Honor. We don't hold life in as high of regard as you do. My sole goal in this is to bring back every kid we allow to go down there, alive, I might add. I bent as far as I am going to with letting you force all the kids to put a sonic stunner on their frames. I will leave it up to you to explain why and to take the blame, cause from everything I have seen out of these kids, especially the Grenadier kids, they will not be happy. In fact, I would kind of like to have our Blood's Honor Academy kids spend a few months with Robin and the rest. Hell, even little Caleb and Dante have more grit and determination than most of the kids Cory attends class with."
"Which is exactly why we put them on Brile with kids from other academies. Colonel Price is right, 'Blood's Honor kids need a bit less polish and a few rough edges'. But still, there are over a hundred people down there who just want to earn a living and be able to wake up the next day. They did nothing to bring this on themselves. The least we can do is save as many as we can."
"Then I think you need to convince Robin and the others from the Quaker VII academy of your beliefs, Command Sergeant. My focus is on the kids, keeping them alive, and doing what we can to minimize the horrors they have already been put through. The rest are either enemy combatants or possible human shields for those these kids want and need to take out. If you don't like it, then go back to Forest Garden."
Just as Command Sergeant Black was taking in a deep breath, and exiting the bridge, Robin started eating dinner slowly while making some final adjustments to his brand new frame. His frame...even thinking it sent a nervous twinge down his spine. The idea of owning his own frame, not something owned by the unit, not some old frame borrowed from whatever company the Grenadiers worked for, and not some scrapped together, badly battle damaged salvage. Nope it was his, it was brand new, like right out of the packing crate from the factory new and it was his. Even wilder, the Escort class frame was right on par with the best frames owned by the Grenadiers.
Robin let out a long breath as he scanned the readout on the frame and adjusted where he wanted the weapon systems he had selected placed. As he looked over his selection of equipment to be added in, including electronics and weapons, he let out a sigh. Adding in the battle computer, ECM, and Battle HUD took up valuable hard points, meaning he was taking away from weapons he could add. However, having the electronics would give him extremely valuable command and control abilities.
Part of him wished a few of the hard points Brave Humanities had filled with other gear had been left out so he could add another weapon or two. Looking through the list of available weapon systems not selected by other kids, he chewed on his bottom lip and longed to add one more weapon, even a single hard point light gyro rifle.
Glancing over at Cody, he noticed the boy next to him had decided to get rid of the ECM off his Escort Frame to make room for a larger weapon. Robin's right eyebrow shot up as his friend dropped off the grenade launcher and replaced it with a heavier RAM grenade launcher. Taking another look at the readout Cody was looking at, there was no question the boy next to him would have a harder hitting frame, but would not have some of the defensive abilities Robin had. The tradeoff almost made Robin drop his battle computer so he could upgrade his electron rifle to a heavier electron blaster, but shook his head. He really wanted the battle computer to help him better track the overall battle. With the battle computer, all friendly frames able to transmit would send basic sensor readouts to his frame and, in turn, put up what everyone was seeing. This information could then be filtered and adjusted as Robin wanted. Without the battle computer, the whole thing would have to be tracked in his brain, with limited help from the targeting computer running subroutines. Using the targeting computer would not give him nearly as much information and would bog down the targeting system, making it less accurate.
After couple more minutes of debate, and switching the heavy laser from the right arm to the left arm, he hit the submit button. It took only a couple of minutes for the face of a Brave Humanities frame tech to pop up on the screen. "You failed to set ammo bins on your load-out. I can handle the calculations for you, but need to know what you are thinking. Would you like a heavy ammo load and slower speed or less ammo and a faster frame, young man?"
Robin's eyebrows arched, "Um, given a choice I would prefer a heavy ammo load. I already limited her firepower by putting on so many extras, so I would hate to run out of ammo."
"No problem. I will bump her up to near max for the next movement threshold below what a light load will give you."
"Sir," Robin responded, "I'd prefer you drop her two movement levels. I put ECM in, so I will be trying to stealth quite often and not move fast. Besides, it'll still move faster than anything I have ever piloted. I'll be running my ass off to make it go at full speed even with the heavier ammo load-out."
This got a snicker out of the tech, "Not a problem young man. She will be ready for you by 2100 ship time." The tech's face faded before Robin could even thank the man.
Cody glanced over at what Robin had submitted, "Huh, I figured you would go straight laser and gun."
"Then how would I ever get better with advanced beam weaponry and missiles?" Robin grumbled. "With an electron rifle and a micro missile pack mounted in my frame and only a pair of other weapons available, I will have to use them."
Luna, who had been transported over to the White Tiger with all the of the other O'Connell and Quaker VII kids, shot Robin a smirk, "But until then, the safest things out there will be enemy framers."
While the other kids at the mess hall table they were sitting at busted up with laughter, Robin took it all in stride, "I may kill a rock or two, but I still have a better load-out than I ever dreamed I'd have. Beside, in a few months from now, I'll be on the cutting edge of beam weaponry while you are still shooting lasers like some ancient cavewoman throwing rocks."
"Cavewoman!" Luna roared while trying to sound insulted, but her huge smile and gleam in her eyes told all those around her she was far from angry. "Next time we do hand to hand I'll give you cavewoman!"
"Careful, Luna, or I'll sick Dante on you."
Dante's eyes went wide, "Uh huh, I like all my body parts facing the proper direction."
Luna rotated her wrist while reaching over and ruffling Dante's hair. "Give us a few months, Dante, and we'll get you to the point where it will be you forcing others to tap out."
Dante was clearly astonished by Luna's attitude toward him. Until now, Luna had been one of the most standoffish double digits and she had never ruffled his hair or showed any degree of care, let alone affection toward him. Wondering if this was some kind of trick, but hoping it was not, he forced a smile. "If you're really willing to teach me and not beat up on me."
Luna's eyes narrowed, while pulling Dante to her side with her left arm, "The next person to hurt you will wish they had been space vacced. You came through big time and no Grenadier kid will ever forget it. From now on, you are welcome and even expected at all practice sessions we do, even the private stuff where me, Robin, Jared, Zane, and Neil normally bar the door from the rest."
Dante lost his voice for a second as he let the older girl hug him. "Really?"
"Absolutely, Dante." Jared stated from across the table. There would be a couple hundred less kids eating this meal without you and Caleb. Plus, you helped save Robin's life. No one ever expected you to come through in such a big way, but you did and now it's our turn to make it right. You are a Grenadier double digit."
Luna gave Dante another tight squeeze and ruffled his hair again before letting the now widely smiling boy go. She paused to glance down at her wrist and rotate it again. It still amazed her how easy it had been for Brave Humanities to put her into a rejuvenation chamber on one of the other ships and fully repair her wrist within hours. Yet even as she tested her wrist, yet again, Luna glanced at what Robin had sent over for his frame load-out with a roll of her eyes. "Where's the big gun, Robin?"
"Big gun?" Cody asked as he eyed Luna. "He put a freaking heavy laser on it!"
"Pfft!" Luna all but spat. "Nothin' I tell you nothin' at all!"
"Oh," Jessie fired back, "what do you consider a big gun, if a heavy laser isn't?"
Robin noticeably cringed, "Jes, be careful what you ask about!"
Luna giggled as she slid over her selected load-out for Jessie to look over.
Jessie's eyes went wide, "A chain gun? You asked for a freaking chain gun?"
"Asked for and approved!" Luna stated with a great deal of pride and merriment in her voice and eyes.
Jessie studied the equipment Luna had asked to be installed on her frame with a cringe, "Two medium lasers, a chain gun, an automatic heavy shotgun and a carbon steel axe? Do you really know how to frame fight with an axe?"
"Mom taught me." Luna grinned evilly. "Nothing like getting up close and personal. It's even better when I get a chance to put an axe upside their head unit!"
Cody looked over what Luna had submitted for her frame load-out and shook his head. "So far every Grenadier I have looked at has put on Carbon Steel fists. I bet none of the rest of us requested them."
Jared eyed Cody with complete befuddlement, "Dude, why would you not add fists to your load-out?"
Cody held up both hands, "Cause I have never thrown a fist with a frame before."
Zane eyed the older boy with some surprise. With the shake of his head he held up his hand and closed it. "Until my first fist fight I had never thrown a fist, then all the sudden I had to. Being in a frame is no different. There's a first time for everything. Once you are out of ammo, you may want to be able to close and beat the tar out of some rookie framer so you can take their ammo after all."
Jessie looked over at Zane like the kid was an alien. "You would try to close on someone, beat them down and steal their ammo?"
Kerri giggled with an evil undertone, "Hey, if I'm out and the guy facing me has what I'm using, I'm putting my fist into their faceplate so I can grab what they've got."
Valerie moved around the table and gave Jessie a light elbow, "The Grenadiers don't fight to lose. If the difference between winning and losing is a carbon steel fist on a frame or me biting the fingers off of some Q VI jackass, then punching and biting is what I'm going to do!"
Cody let out a long breath. "I already submitted. I should have talked it over with you guys first."
"Your loss." Robin grunted with a shrug of his shoulders. "They don't even take up a hard point, and they do extra damage when you punch; plus they protect the hand units of the frames when you punch. There is no downside to having them."
"Only if you use your frame for throwing fists." Cody commented. "Quaker VII academy didn't really have classes on beating on other frames with fists and junk. As a matter of fact, the only thing I ever heard was to stay out of punch range because some barbarians like to engage in hand combat while inside frames..."
"Barbarians," Valerie giggled, "Now I know why they treated us like they did in the academy. We are Barbarians... I like the sound of it!"
Jessie smacked his head with the palm of his hand. "You all really do get off on this whole merc-rep thing, don't you?"
"Hell, yeah." Jared nodded with a satisfied smirk. "High tech, like the academy taught, is nice and all. But war and fighting ain't about bein' nice, it's about winning!"
"I get it... You all are vicious. I think we all could learn a lot from you all." Jessie nodded with a degree of understanding. "Especially after seeing and hearing what you all did to get to me and all the others. But the fact is, you all are the only ones who really know anything about unarmed frame combat. I guess I have doubts about ever personally needing it."
Dante shook his head, "As much as I hate the Asshole, the one thing he taught me that is worth mentioning is you fight to win no matter what you are fighting with. There is no such thing as a fair fight either, so use what you have and take every advantage. If you haven't submitted yet, then put on fists."
Luna nodded in full agreement with Dante, "He's right. However, if you didn't put them on and already submitted, then there is still a chance. They said they will let us shuffle equipment after we take the mining station since we may find we don't like something or wish we had something different. If I were you, I'd add the carbon steel fists when we get back."
"Exactly!" Dante jumped back in then kind of cringed, clearly expecting Luna to give him a dirty eye. When it didn't happen he light out a silent sigh of relief and toned down his exuberance a little. "I mean, they are free! If you have to go buy them, you are going to pay at around a grand for them! Besides, an extra three to four kilograms is all we are talking about and they brought like two hundred sets of them, so there are plenty in storage. If we don't use them they will just take them back."
Jared nodded in agreement. "Dante's right. If it throws off your movement because of weight drop a few kilos of ammo. It's worth it."
"Yeah," Kerri spoke up with a gleam in her eyes, "take them when we get back. If you really don't want them, give them to me and I'll sell them for some extra pocket cash!"
This got some laughter out of several of the Grenadiers, while both Cody and Jessie looked a bit put off by the idea of taking something they saw as a huge gift only to see if they decided they didn't want it. To both boys it seemed too much like stealing.
The message did get through to a couple of the newly adopted Grenadiers sitting at the table, however. Across the table from Cody and Jessie, Jasha glanced over at Stasik, "I haven't submitted yet, so I am going to go ahead and add them."
"Me too!" Stasik responded even as he added a request for carbon steel fists to be added to his Preceptor frame.
Yegor glanced over to his academy friends, only to find Luna grabbing the build-out programming pad from in front of him. Before he could say anything, she added a set of carbon steel fists, dropped five RAM Grenade rounds, so the max speed would stay at where he had calculated it, and hit submit.
Yegor started to say something only to have Luna put an arm around him, "Commander Bennett says you're stuck with me and you have a good combo. If you want to change out, do it once we get back from kicking some Q VI ass and getting back those they stole."
Yegor's eyes narrowed, but any further reaction was cut off by Robin, "If you want to go on the raid with us, Yegor, you do so with Luna as your squad commander. You eat with her and you bunk in the same room, or you can stay here in the med bay so someone can keep an eye on you."
"But Comrade, I am fine..."
"No you're not," Kerri stated as she moved up behind Robin and glanced at his requested frame load. "No one can ignore losing friends and family all by themselves. We know better. We have seen too many try. Sooner 'er later it's gunna hit you, probably sooner. When it does you need to have a direction to turn and Luna is it."
Seeing Yegor clench his jaw in frustration and anger, Kerri made eye contact again and held it until the boy looked away. "It's in you, right under the surface wanting to bubble up, but you don't know how. I remember with Luna, it happened in a fight and she went totally nuts. If it comes to that, stay focused on killing who caused this, cause if you don't, Luna is tough enough to deal with whatever you care to dish out. Just so you can say you were warned, should you try to fight her off, she will turn you into a pretzel shape and hold you until you let it all out and calling her names is only going to make her smile."
"Even if you happen to be in a frame at the time," Valerie informed everyone sitting at the table.
"Being in a frame might have been better for me." Luna managed to get out after a long sigh. "I wouldn't have needed the medics to splint four of my fingers and bandage all of my knuckles."
Dante snickered, "But the wall would have been a real mess."
"What wall?" Jared snorted while smiling widely at Luna. "They would have had to have turned it into a door or window or something."
This even caused Robin to smile, "More like a loading door for a truck, or a garage door even."
Luna shot Robin a sideways, slightly annoyed glare, "Oh, come on. It wasn't..."
Jared cut her off, "Oh, Don't even! You snapped a pair boards behind the wall you were punching!"
Seeing Jessie, Cody, Yegor and a few other kids now staring at her, Luna's shoulders sagged while she let out a long exhale and nodded. "OK, fine, I kind'a lost it. Seeing that guy about the same age as my brother getting shot by those Q VI assholes while we were defending the greenhouse complex just wouldn't leave my brain. All my mind wanted to do was to put my brother's face in place of whoever the poor sap was who took a point blank shot to the side of his head even as he had his arms raised above his head. Once the fighting stopped, the image of the guy's brains blowing out the side of his head wouldn't shut off. Before I knew what I was doing, I walked up to one of the walls inside the greenhouse supply area and started punching it. I didn't even feel pain until Jared, Robin, and Neil tackled me and Jared and Neil kept me pinned."
"Along with Kerri and Zane." Robin added. "I went and got my mom and Zane's dad, but by the time we got back you were already unconscious."
"Unconscious?" Cody asked, "Did the pain of your busted hand finally get to you or something."
Zane grinned widely, "Not quite."
Kerri sent Zane a chilling stare, "You promised!"
"And I haven't said anything." Zane busted out into some giggles.
"Enough to know something else happened!" Luna growled, "Come on, out with it or I swear I will give you a nuggie wedgie combo that will make you squeal!"
Zane's eyes went wide as he turned a bit pale at the fact Luna was now staring at him with her head furrowed, her left eyebrow up, and a slight snarl on her face. He turned to Kerri, "Oh, come on, let me tell her! She's going to make me anyhow!"
Jasha couldn't help himself, he snickered, "I'd kind of like to see this, Kerri. Don't let him tell."
Zane's jerked his head to stare at Jasha, "Hey! You're my brother now!"
Jasha simply grinned and pointed to the spot in his mouth where Zane had knocked out his teeth months before. He exposed the titanium tooth as he grinned, "Brother or not, payback, buddy!"
This got a roar of laughter out of all the O'Connell kids, causing most in the large room to turn and look over at the table they were sitting at. While many at the table were uncomfortable with all the attention being directed their way, none of the core group of Grenadiers were.
Jasha glanced up, noticed all the looks and shrugged it off with a sly grin. "Come on, bro, I have seen Luna in unarmed combat! Out with it or I'll place a wager on the back of your undies becoming a head band!"
More laughter came out of the O'Connell kids even as Luna tumbled over the table, knocking over a few plates of food as she did so and grabbed Zane before he could try to get away.
At the same time, Kerri shook her head and wagged her finger at Zane, telling him to hold his tongue.
Zane tried to twist away from Luna's grasp only to be taken to the ground. A moment later he let out a pained yelp as the back of his underwear was rudely pulled over his head, followed by a rather vicious rapid knuckle movement over the top of his head.
After nearly a minute of yelping he gave up, "OK! OK! She pulled a needle out of a tranq-gun and stuck you in the butt with it! Then she had to do it again cause you still kept almost getting loose!"
Valerie giggled as Luna turned to look over at Kerri, "Hey, it was Zane's idea!"
Feeling the renewed nuggie and his underwear start to rip as it was pulled up even tighter, Zane squealed, "Yeah! OK! It was my idea, but Val is the one who jacked the pistol off the guard's belt! I was still trying to help hold you down!"
Valerie grinned widely, "Yeah, and I still have the gun too and since you told, I am going to find a way to shoot you with it!"
"Oh, come on!" Zane protested, only to let out another yelp as Luna put an arm lock on him and pulled his arm up behind the middle of his back.
Luna shot a grin over to Robin as she nodded to a spot on the wall.
Robin glanced over and spotted what Luna was looking at. It was a set of hooks, normally meant to secure weapons for those eating should the ship be on combat alert. With a nod, he kicked a chair over to the wall right under the hooks.
With an easy way to step up, it took Luna only a few seconds to forcedly guide Zane over to the wall, adjust the chair to stand on, spin the helpless boy around, and secure the back of his underwear to the hook. She then jumped down and kicked the chair out of the way.
Zane howled as he was left suspended by the hook, "Owwww! Come on let me down! Owwwwww!"
Luna shook her head. "I heard them start to rip, so if you struggle enough, they will tear loose."
Seeing the other Grenadiers all turn and watch, without moving to help, Zane gritted his teeth and wiggled back and forth, clearly causing a great deal more discomfort, until he forced the undergarment to fully tear. The moment his feet hit the ground he turned, without any hesitation, pulled down his pants, mooned the entire mess hall, and extracted what was left of his undershorts from his butt crack. "There!" He shouted with a mixture of pain, yet humor. "Nothing like eating dinner under moonlight!"
Jasha didn't think twice. He yanked off his shoe, bolted over, and smacked Zane's exposed butt cheeks. He darted away before Zane could pull up his pants and come after him. At the same time he shouted, "I'd prefer to eat under a blood moon, so I figured I'd make it a bit red!"
Jared spit out the fruit drink as laughter exploded from him. Similar reactions were had by the other Grenadier double digits, which was joined in by a few of the other newly adopted kids, but not most.
With tears in his eyes, Jared put his arm over Jasha's shoulders, "Damn, man, didn't take you long at all to become one of us!"
Those new to the Grenadiers eyed each other as it dawned on them what being accepted into the unit meant. They were no longer academy kids. they were now something rougher, tougher and more independent. In simple terms, for better or worse, they were now O'Connell Grenadiers.
This chapter is Dedicated to my beloved Husky, Isis. She passed suddenly on Good Friday 4/18/14 and will be missed by me and many others.