Castle Roland


by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 3

Published: 8 Apr 14


Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons

Truly Alone

Joel just stood their and stared at the holo-projector. His head slowly moved around taking in all the sites of the heavily damaged pod and the mass of equipment strewn about. No words seemed right to fit his feelings so he said nothing.

Gabriel was equally quiet. It was so much information, so quickly he could not digest it all easily. His mind replayed the full briefing as he stood staring what was left of what would have been his frame.

Karen entered a full two minutes later and broke the silence. "Guys... are you…" Her voice died off as she looked around, "Oh my god! What is this?"

Joel turned very slowly as if in partial shock. "Command Sergeant, take the Dagger back to the other one. The second you can capture the machine, do so then bring everyone back here."

Karen looked at Joel with a great deal of concern, "Are you OK?"

Gabriel managed to speak, "None of us are. Please do what Major Price asked and do everything in your power to make sure you do not damage that machine. We need it."

"Major Price?" Karen's voice shook with some fear seeing her two most stable friends looking something akin to terrified.

Joel turned; as he walked past Karen, he had a few tears in his eyes. "Karen, hit play on the Holo-player, listen, and then please just do what I asked." He then exited the pod and sat on one of the broken crates. He looked skyward, "Dad, what would you do?"

Gabriel came out and moved over to his best friend, "Joel, now more than ever; everyone on this team will be looking to you for support. You have been the leader of the five of us for years and the new guys are really going to need to feel part of the squad."

"I don't have any answers Gabe, none."

Gabriel put his arm around Joel, "There are no answers. There are just the 8 of us and a mission we still need to complete. Remember when we first went to Spider Bite, and took a wrong turn in the jungle?"

Joel nodded slowly, "Oh yeah, I thought Dad was going to kill me for getting all of us lost."

"Me too, but you didn't freak out like the rest of us did. You focused on what we could do once we realized we were lost. It was you who had us stop, find some water, some shelter, and remembered enough from the introduction video to find some edible plants. We were out for three days before they found us, and other than some extra bug bites and Brandon getting a nasty rash we were fine when General Scott found us. The only one who got in any trouble was Brandon because his dad was furious he touched a plant warned about on the video."

"Yeah, but that was easy. I knew they would be looking for us within hours after we failed to check in. This time, we are on our own, alone."

"The situation is still the same, Joel. We were truly alone on Spider Bite for the entire time, this is just a much longer time frame and we have something to do instead of simply wait."

"So what do you recommend?"

"You started it already with your orders to Karen. Even when you are freaked out, you have a natural ability to get things moving. All you have to do is center in and do what needs to be done as our leader."

Joel took a second to absorb what Gabriel said then turned, "You're right. Dad always tells my brother and me to keep focused on what we can control, not what we can't." He stood. As some semblance of purpose returned, his demeanor improved considerably. "While Karen and the others get us a third vehicle, the two of us are going to get started unpacking one of the new frames and getting it set up. The sooner we can put out guards in frames the safer all of us will be."

Karen emerged from the cargo pod looking totally pale, even with the eco-suit on, Joel and Gabriel could see how white her skin was.

Joel moved over to her. "Look, we have things we can do, things we need to do. We are going to take this one small step at a time, especially since there is no hurry. Just get back to Brandon and get us the machine. Once we have it, bring it and everyone back here so everyone can see the briefing."

Karen looked back and forth between Joel and Gabriel, somewhat surprised by how quickly they seemed to have moved past what they had seen and heard. It helped her a great deal just to see them getting some kind of a plan together. "OK, what do I tell the others?"

"Nothing." Joel commanded instantly. "The machine could kill one of us if we make a mistake. They need to stay focused and on task. I do want Lawson here with one of the heavy tripod weapons though, just in case."

"What weapon?"

"He is our lead gunner, let him decide."

Karen managed a bit of a humor filled snort. "Kind of a silly question, huh?"

Gabriel managed a real smile, "Yeah, but I have a feeling we will all have some of them over the next few days until we all really settle in and have a full grasp of our situation."

Karen couldn't help but silently agree as she made her way back to the Dagger. She looked up to Lawson. "I'm taking the Dagger back to the other one. Joel wants you to guard them with whatever heavy weapon you would like to set up. I recommend setting up in front of the cargo pod they are working in and using some of the wreckage to set up a pill box, but that's just me."

Lawson shrugged, "OK, what's in there?"

"Some frames we have to salvage and some new ones we need to set up. Hopefully, we will all have frames by sun up and we can eliminate this on foot garbage."

"Right on!" Lawson responded with some relief. "Just let one of those machines tangle with me in my cadet frame!"

"Oh, I think you will be even happier than you are now once you see what you will be piloting."

"Really? What is it?"

Karen managed to keep her true feelings hidden as she winked, "You'll find out soon enough. Just get set up, so I can get out of here."

Aggravation and disappointment flickered across Lawson's face, as he hefted a double mounting tripod out and walked it out to an area surrounded by sections of the fuselage. "Can't you even give me a clue?" He then came back and grabbed a heavy rocket rifle.

Karen jumped in and piloted the tank right next to Lawson then put the tank on auto-hover while she grabbed a second heavy rocket rifle. "It's a real frame, far better than anything you could expect. The more you wonder the easier it will be to stay awake, so I don't want to give too much away."

Lawson frowned then shrugged, "Fine, but I really don't feel tired."

"You will once you have been standing out here keeping watch by yourself for a couple of hours." Karen stated. "Sooner or later the excitement of the last few hours will wear off and when it does you are going to crash."

Lawson pushed the pins into the first rocket gun, setting it firmly into the tripod. The two of them finished setting up the second one before finally pulling out 6 ammo belts each weighing slightly over twenty kilograms each. Lawson arranged four of them for easy reloading while Karen loaded both the weapons with full belts.

Lawson nodded his thanks as Karen jumped back up to the tank. Within seconds, he was alone keeping watch with a set of weapons which were capable of destroying normal vehicles with a single volley and tanks with only a couple. As he kept watch, he took time to move smaller sections of the glide pod around his position to give him some protection. One of the first things taught at the Andar Academy, was heavy static gun placements were very dangerous and needed to be eliminated quickly, which meant he was the first target any hostile would fire at. It was not terribly comforting.

As he continued to keep his eyes open and work, he realized Karen had been correct. Being alone made it hard for him to stay focused. Within an hour he yawned. He took a quick drink of water out of the supply stored in the eco-suit and turned down the temperature to keep himself slightly uncomfortable and therefore less sleepy.

As he pulled another section of wreckage around to give his left side some extra protection, he spotted light in the distance. A few seconds later it reappeared, but this time he could see two beams. He quickly repositioned a large section of wreckage and turned the twin rocket guns to face the lights.

Meanwhile Joel had re-entered the pod and had taken some time to get a good look around. He went up to each mangled cadet frame and looked it over. After a full five minutes, he turned to Gabriel who had started unpacking one of the Warrior frames, "To be honest, it looks like yours has the least damage to removable components so we ought to get yours set up first."

"Fine by me. Why don't you start pulling the weapons off while I finish up over here? I've got to lube her up and fill the hydraulics before I can climb in and get it out of its crate."

For over an hour, Gabriel and Joel worked feverously to get a single frame set up and operational. Joel's original assessment had been correct. Although, the Cadet frame was equipped the same as the one Gabriel normally piloted, this one had taken catastrophic damage, however; the actual removable weapon systems and part of the electronics had survived. Joel pulled off the sonic stun pistol, both medium lasers, and the medium machinegun before digging in and pulling out the electronics. The infrared optics was shot, but the telescopic enhancement was not.

Joel then dug around the back and found a new infrared optical insert and unpacked it. As he worked at getting it ready to put into Gabriel's frame, he called out, "We have to add in an extra electronic device too and I have a half a case of Ultra Violet optic units here. You want one?"

"I already added the retractable saw I found out here, but sure, I'll take UV too. I'm going to need your help on remounting the machinegun though. I have never installed an ammo weapon into a suit except to replace a damaged one, so I have no clue how to set the hard points and ammo feeds."

Just then, Lawson appeared in the door, "Senior Lieutenant, you may want to kill the lights. I have an unknown with lights a few hills over moving basically this direction. There are so many holes in this cargo pod, some of the light seeps through."

Joel jumped up and pulled the power lever, "What type of vehicle?"

"Well, it has lights so it isn't a machine, but it isn't right for a Dagger either."

"Lieutenant, check it out. I know how to take care of the ammo, but we'll do all the ammo last. Once we have your weight, we can add up to or down to a speed break so you get maximum ammo for the movement. It's really easy once you get the hang of it."

"Good." Gabriel spoke softly as he exited the pod, "Cause we may need it really soon."

"Hold a second." Joel ordered as he slipped on some UV goggles. "Have you given any thought as to what you are going to install in your extra hard points?"

Gabriel glanced out of the pod and saw Lawson kneeling behind the dual muzzles of the heavy rocket guns. Liking what he saw, he turned back. "Well since I already added the saw, I have three extra power units and four hard points to play with. In a perfect world, I would love get rid of a couple of my existing weapons and add in a fifty cal or some other really heavy rapid fire weapon, but since we have to keep what we have, I'd like to add the medium rocket gun I saw on the ammo rack next to the cadet frames, but that would only take three hard points and one power to fire, I would also have to add an extra ammo feed."

"We can handle that. What about filling out the frame with one of the half dozen light lasers back here?"

"Sure, why not. It would max me out on hard points, and give me enough power to move just as Blood's Honor Academy demands."

Joel nodded. "I'll keep working. Get me a report."

Gabriel returned about ten minutes later. "It's hard to tell, but he's right. It isn't a Dagger, and it is lit so it isn't a machine. We need this frame up and running!"

Joel nodded. "Crud, I was hoping it was Candice." He pointed to the Warrior frame. "Since it isn't, let's get this beast up." He quickly showed Gabriel how to put the ammo bins on the back of the frame and how to link up the ammo feeds. Finally, he had Gabriel jump in and do a systems check.

"How is it?"

"Green status lights on all weapons and electronics, red on ammo."

"Good. Now pull up the frame weight with you in it. What is your next slow down threshold?"

Gabriel looked over the computer generated numbers, "I am at eight two point five kilos including me and equipment. I slow down again at one hundred ten."

"Not much to play with as far as ammo goes."

"No worries, the next threshold isn't until one hundred and sixty five kilos."

Joel whistled, "Wow, this baby can really take a load then. We can keep you below the one sixty five mark and add all sorts of ammo!"

"Exactly." Gabriel sounded almost giddy, "Let's start with the machinegun. Can you double my normal load of four hundred rounds?"

Joel snickered, "Yeah, sure. five hundred rounds is max for a single bin but I can add another one with no problem and make them four hundred each. What are you planning to use 800 rounds to do?

"I don't know; maybe throw up a wall of bullets or something. Besides, I still have all sorts of weight left for the rocket gun ammo. Will it take extra time, cause we do have an unknown out there."

Joel openly laughed. "I know, but we are only talking a couple of minutes at the most for an extra bin. According to the chart with the rocket gun the max ammo in a single bin is seventy five rounds. You want me to max it out and add a second bin?"

"Don't bother. I seriously doubt I'll need seventy five shots of it. Machinegun ammo can go fast, but it would take quite a battle to need even a third of a full bin of rocket gun ammo."

Joel loaded a total of sixty five kilograms of ammo into Gabriel's frame before finally snapping in the ammo feeds and securing the bin hatches. "Man, what a work-out. You get to do mine when we set it up."

"Deal." Gabriel paused, "Something isn't right here Joel. I've got a mean left lean."

"I know; we have to balance the gyro and supply data on the ammo feeds and ammo usage so it stays balanced. Go into advanced system menus and override the lock. Once you are in advanced options, pull up your stabilizer menu. As soon as I center the gyro, you'll feel it. Once centered, voice input your ammo weapons and where the bins are in the back, which are upper center for your rocket gun ammo, and upper left and upper right for your machinegun. It will take care of the rest."

Gabriel sighed, "I never learned this stuff."

"Dad taught me when I was in the field with him one time when he switched into a captured frame after his got all shot up. He showed me how to do the same thing we are doing here, moving weapons over and adjusting weight and speed. Once he showed me how, it became my job since he hated to hassle with it. To be honest, gyro adjustments have got to be one of my strongest areas. Just make sure to relock advanced options or you could mess up some other vital system by accident. And yes, I am talking from experience. My dad laughed until he cried when I somehow shut off his auto size adjustment system and got stuck cause the stupid suit refused to loosen up so I could get out."

Gabriel snickered, "Oh, I bet your dad didn't let you live it down for a month!"

"A month? HA! He still reminds me about it on occasion."

Gabriel sighed as the left lean went away. Within seconds, he had the internal gyro fully combat ready and locked himself out of advanced functions. "Great work. At least, we have one frame operational. Want to do your's next?"

Joel shook his head, "My cadet frame is really trashed. I'd prefer you out their in this beast keeping an eye out. Why don't you bring Lawson in and let him chose what frame he wants out of the other three and I will get him framed up in one of the Rouges. Meanwhile, see if you can get a visual on what we are dealing with out there."

"No problem, but I'm surprised by those." The right arm of his combat frame pointed at the Rouges.

Joel shook his head, "I'm really not. They have lots of the things we may need to break into the computer base, such as laser drills and torches and even electronic lock picks."

"Never thought about that." Gabriel admitted. "I'm sure Lawson will be thrilled to be out from behind his static placement and I need to get a feel for my new friend. This is the most powerful frame I have been in long term."

"Yeah, I can hardly wait to play around with mine. If the unknown vacates the area, take some test shots with all your weapons while you are out there, make sure we have them hooked up to the targeting computer and telescopic enhancements properly."

"I've done targeting hook ups dozens of times. I know I got it right."

"I'm sure you did, but it is best to find problems now, then realize something is messed up when you are being shot at by a machine."

"Good point." Gabriel moved out of the pod testing all the joints and really getting a feel for his new frame.

A couple of minutes later Lawson came in and looked around in a mixture of horror and awe, "What a mess!"

"Yeah." Joel responded, "The briefing was real. The supply ship really was hit with micro meteors. This is what happens when they are made of something very hard, probably iron, and are moving at forty thousand kilometers per hour or so. They must have hit right as the PLC was entering the atmosphere, otherwise they would have detected them. What's the status of the unknown?"

"It is still a few hills away, probably a good five kilometers, and is going back and forth as if on patrol. It has not really moved much closer. What type of frame is Lieutenant McCurdy in?"

"It's called a Warrior and is made for Blood's Honor Academy and only Blood's Honor by Brave Humanities. All senior cadets in command squads and all senior cadet officers get one, and since we may be getting a chance at such a command, I guess these are going to be ours."

Lawson looked around a bit more. "Wow, what an expensive training mission this turned out to be huh?"

"Very." Joel agreed as he pointed to the wall of cadet frames. "The last three were set up by Blood's Honor cadre as decent well rounded frames. The briefing, which you will see later, says we have to take out all the weapon systems and electronics in the frame you decide should be yours, then move it all into one of these." He pointed at one of the new Rouge class frames. "Then we add at least one electronic item and fill it out with weapons of your choice."

Lawson stared at the case with astonishment, "A Rouge! After what Command Sergeant Black said, I expected something nice, but this is a real powerful frame!"

"Yeah, and one we can use to help us breach the computer base when we find it. So which cadet frame is more to your liking?"

Lawson looked over all three frames with a bit of a frown, "They all have medium machineguns. Do I have to keep it?"

"For now, yes. Those are the orders."

"Then it is kind of a toss-up between the one with the quark rifle and the one with the micro missiles. But to be honest, I kind of like less ammo so I will take the one with the quark rifle if it's OK."

"I'm giving you first choice, so it's yours. Do you know how to remove and install weapons?"

"The basics, but I have never done any repairs in UV goggles before. It may take me a bit longer to do a few things." He paused with a sigh, "I don't know about removing the machinegun though. I have never fiddled with ammo feeds and ammo bins before."

Joel groaned, "Crud, here we go again."


"It's just I had to show Gabriel how to set his up for ammo. It isn't hard to do, but it means I will have to load the ammo the first time, again…"


"Not your fault. If you haven't learned, then you haven't learned. I'll do the same thing I did with Gabe's. I'll take out all the weapons and electronics and you will install them in the Rouge after you get it out of its case. The easiest way, as best as Gabe and I could tell, is to lube it up and fill the hydraulics then simply stand it up and climb out. You'll also need to grab one of the new medium lasers out of the back because the one on this frame has been snapped in two."

This time things went a bit more smoothly as Lawson turned out to be far faster at installing the weapons than Gabriel had been. Within forty minutes the frame was fully outfitted with a sonic stun rifle, medium laser, medium machinegun and a quark rifle. Joel had to help Lawson put in the Infrared and telescopic optics though, because Lawson had never messed with tying anything extra into a frame's computer before.

There was some confusion on ammo, verses weight, but once Lawson understood, he chose to stay lighter on ammo and opted for a frame capable of a bit faster movement than Gabriel had.

He also took only a few seconds deciding on what else to add to his frame. He located a heavy rocket gun in back which filled out his weapon systems and for electronics he put in a laser bio-filter and a Geiger counter.

Joel was pleasantly surprised to find Lawson knew exactly how to set up the gyro, so the process went very rapidly. From start to finish, it was less than an hour before Lawson moved out to join Gabriel in getting acquainted with their frames and keeping an eye out on the unknown vehicle."

Without anyone to help him, Joel started to work on his own new frame. He took his time, first getting the Warrior out of its shipping crate and then he went to work salvaging what he could out of his own frame, which turned out to be very little. Only his sonic stun pistol had survived the encounter with the micro meteors. All of his electronics, his micro missile launcher, and his heavy laser had all been seriously damaged.

Disgusted, he installed the sonic pistol in his left arm then went into the back and started digging around. Twenty minutes later his antipathy faded as he looked at what he had found. First, he had a new heavy laser replacement for his damaged one, but this one was better. It had a guidance beam mode to laser guide missiles into a target. In replacement for his micro missile launcher, he found a new one and a pair of upgrade units. Instead of only having a four pack launcher, he upgraded it to be able to fire six missiles. He replaced the telescopic, IR, and UV optical enhancements with new ones, but then ran into a bit of a problem finding anything he really saw as useful as far as electronic add-ons.

The way Blood's Honor handled computer enhancements was by a point award system. Promotions, grade point averages, shooting range scores, and other awards built up points that cadets could apply toward frame enhancements. Of all the kids on Brile, Joel had accumulated the most points and thus had a cadet frame with lots of extras. This made finding a suitable new enhancement more difficult than the others.

He finally settled on a microscopic visual unit doubting he would ever need it, but orders were orders and almost anything else he found required either a hard point slot or power, and most required both. Not wanting to sacrifice either, the microscopic unit seemed like the least evil he could come up with. Finally, he added a medium laser and spent a few minutes debating between a heavy pistol and a medium rifle to fill out his last hard point. He finally settled on the rifle, figuring it would be useful if they did need to end up hunting for food.

Joel got in and powered everything up, got a weight to speed ratio, then climbed out and started adding ammo. First, he focused on his micro missile launcher. With the added benefit of having a laser guide, he split the load into two bins. The first one contained sixty six standard non guided missiles while the second was loaded with sixty six laser guided missiles. Finally, he dropped in a mere forty rounds into an ammo bin for his rifle, figuring he really wouldn't need it much. Besides, forty shots would be more than enough while keeping his frame just below the one hundred-ten kilogram speed threshold meaning his frame could move faster than Gabriel's and the same as Lawson's.

Joel decided to take a break, drink some water and with some private time away from the others he loaded the extra disk given to him by Major Goddard into the holo-projector.

Major Goddard's figure appeared as soon as the disk was inserted. The background showed a couple of Brile beasts in the background, so the Major had made it here and had gone a ways away before recording it. The Major seemed to give a reassuring smile before he started talking. "Joel, I hope you waited to find the pod before playing this, but regardless, this is something I wish to keep between you and me. If you are not alone, please clear the room. Also, I would like the others to be given time to hear the disks I made for them alone as well. Please see to it.

There was a one minute pause to give time to clear the room if he needed it; then Major Goddard glanced down at a couple of note cards before looking back up. "Joel, I have been one of your frame pilot and gunnery cadre since the time you entered Blood's Honor Junior Military Academy. During this time, I have come to know you and your abilities. Unless I miss my guess, you and you alone took over command of both squads shortly after you played the briefing disk.

"Since leaving the base, you have probably spent a huge amount of time and thought about what was happening with Candice and her squad, and now that you have found the first pod and have your frames you are probably not surprised to have gotten there first. But, you are still very concerned about Candice and your other friends in her squad.

"This is an understandable reaction, but one you must now put aside. It will be difficult for you to do. It is in your very nature to lead and to help those who are not as good at decision making as you are. However, if you come to her aid now she will continue to depend on others and never learn to lead on her own.

"I am equally sure you have already arranged a contact time to keep in contact with Candice's squad. I recommend you listen to their first few messages and respond in as vague a way as possible. Let her and those with her, help her to figure it all out. You are all still children in the eyes of the average person, but each of you have proven you are close to becoming outstanding young men and women to me. What I am asking you do, is let the other squad face these growing pains before the pain causes real damage. If it comes to a point where Candice looses control of those under her, then so be it. Whatever happens with her squad should not occupy your thoughts.

"On the other hand, if you discover a need for them to get to their equipment quickly for a reason we have not foreseen, then do what you must. DO NOT let my words place the lives of your fellow cadets in a needlessly life threatening situation. However, once you go this far, go no further. Let them discover the dangers and deal with them, just as you and those with you are doing.

The holographic figure paused and glanced down at a note cards again before continuing. "Joel, the next thing I have to say may be even harder for you to hear. This deals with your weaknesses.

"Over the next two to three months, you will be in command of seven others. Four of them are your friends, and three others will probably become friends as you are very charismatic. This can become a major problem for you since you like to be liked. Yet, as a leader, you cannot command with the intent of wanting to be liked. You have to make hard decisions and put others in difficult situations. You must learn how to order others to do things they do not want to do. You must not jump in and do the things others won't.

As a different way of thinking about this, let me try an example. I know your father well, and he has made you do the worst chores he could find when you have joined him on missions. You have cleaned the frame repair bays. You have emptied the trash from offices. You have done the dishes without the help of the automatic dish washers on the Planetary Landing Craft. You have been assigned to others as a gopher. You have even been a servant for diplomats from other planets. How much of this stuff did you want to do?

"As you answer this with NONE OF IT, think about your dad. Do you like him less for any of the things he has demanded of you? Do you love him less?

"This same process can be applied to leadership Joel. This does not mean you should ignore your personnel and make them do things just because you can either. You have to have a reason and be ready to explain it to others at a later time.

"There are some times I want to get my hands dirty, to shoot at an enemy instead of commanding. Yet to do so, would distract me from being able to put key units into proper positions. My desire to go into battle instead of lead could end up getting one of those under me killed. The same goes for you. As a commander of your squad, the others will depend on your orders to keep them all as safe as possible. Lead first, then jump into the action as you see a need orders cannot fix or by your moving in, you spot something vital others cannot deal with. This means you have the worst of both worlds. You have to let others fight for you when the fighting is easy and jump in when things are not. Think of a chess board. You are kind of like the queen. Your job is to guard the king which is the team as a whole, protect other pieces which are the individual squad members, and then when the time is right make the deadly strikes.

"Finally, you need to stop and listen to advice. This above all else is your greatest weakness. Take me for an example here. As third in command of the younger Command Academy cadets, I am only as good as those under me help me to be. There is no way I can teach every class and teach every cadet how to shoot and pilot a frame. Yet I set many of the policies to do both and must accomplish both missions for every cadet. Without the input of those who are under me, I would never be able to accomplish my mission. I tend to see the big picture and miss much of the surrounding problems and fixes. I see much of me in you.

"Think of a painting. You and I see the whole thing and many of the things that make it good or bad. Take, for an example, a painting of a uniformed man holding a weapon. You would note if the weapon had its safety on, or if the painter failed to put a safety in altogether. You would notice if his hair was too long for the military uniform he wears, and you would note the unit patch or lack of one. Those are details, but not the small ones. You would probably miss a brush stroke blending in the colors in the background as it is not something important to what the painter is trying to capture, yet without each and every brush stroke, the painting will never be complete. If there is time, let others point out those brush strokes and consider their words before making a final decision. If there is not time, talk it over later and let others show you what you missed so you can learn something beyond the big picture."

"Joel, these last few pieces of information are strictly for your benefit. The mission you have been assigned is about as close as we could find to being impossible without actually being so. The truth is there are a number of Cadre members who do not want you to get a shot at a frame force command while you are this young. Others simply want you playing on Brile for as long as possible, which is basically a safe place for you to be since no one will be looking for you there. This mission gives you a slight chance, but at the same time keeps the rest of the cadre team happy. Rest assured, if you do succeed, all arguments about giving you a shot at a frame force command will be squashed.

"The fact is your father, Gabriel's mom, Brandon's dad, and a few other high ranking members of government and Blood's Honor believe this mission is a great deal more dangerous than what the conventional wisdom is. On the other hand, you are still there so the collective wisdom is you will all be able to handle this.

"Still, the threat level is well outside what we would, or in my opinion should, allow any cadets to face. Just so you understand, the computer rates this as a level three threat out of a possible five for new graduates. You can probably guess what it shows when I put in your training level. Yet all you have to look around to determine the confidence we have in you.

Because of the degree of danger, we dropped multiple supply pods for you to have access to plenty of extra equipment, and we fully expect you to use them if you need. Our old intel, including info still highly classified, from the Machine Wars is available to you by accessing a hidden file within each Dagger's computer. The name of the file is Gabriel's favorite weapon type and the password is the name of the test course followed by the number of attempts it took the cadet force you were apart of to win the frame force test. This is something we know both you and Candice would remember and something no one else would look for.

"There is also a second computer with your lessons for next semester since we all but guarantee it will take you longer than the six week break for you to complete this mission. Besides, your parents and those of us who have really gotten to know you, realize you are stubborn enough to spend six months or more on Brile if that is what it takes. This is something others didn't consider, which is why I personally placed a one thousand credit bet on you successfully completing the mission."

"Good luck and as you can probably guess this disk has been erasing itself as it has been playing. See you in a couple of months or so."

Suddenly the projector flickered and pulled up a menu saying "disk unreadable."

Joel let out a short gasp. It never occurred to him, anyone other than his brother and his parents knew him half as well as Major Goddard had just demonstrated. The whole time it was almost like the Major was talking to him face to face. There was nothing, not a single item, Joel could disagree with, even though there were a few things he wished he could.

The very fact the disk had been handed to him before they saw the mission disk, told him the Major had both him and Candice figured out way too well. He also guessed Major Goddard knew the others just as well, and the disks they got with their bags of candy were probably equally full of wisdom specially tailored to each of them.

Shaking off the eeriness of what he had just seen and heard, he went back to work on his frame. He double checked all his work and then climbed in to begin the gyro settings.

Adjusting the Gyro on his own was a real pain, as he had to get in and out of the frame almost a dozen times to make the minute adjustments needed, but he had done it for his father countless times, so it was not something he was unaccustomed to. In fact, as he fiddled with his new frame, he suddenly was extremely thankful for all the hours he had been made to work on his Dad's frames.

An hour and a half after he started work on his frame, he piloted his Warrior out of the pod and looked around. With both the UV and IR modes, it took him only a few minutes to spot Gabriel and Lawson hunkered down behind a section of the glide pod's nose.

He made his way over to them and knelt, "What have we got?"

Lawson responded. "It continues to scout just over the second set of hills. I was able to move up with Lieutenant McCurdy covering me. It is a tracked box shaped vehicle, but it's too small to be an APC. It does have a mount on the top, so it is armed. My guess is a medium machinegun. No one was manning it though."

Joel could see the vehicle lights move in the distance. "We can't afford for it to stumble across the Daggers or the machine."

Gabriel glanced over, "The machine should be out of power, so we should have it by now. I bet they spotted the light and are lying low. The nice thing is there is a deep ravine just over the second hill, and it is too small to get over it."

"Possibly." Joel's voice told both the others he was not convinced. "But until we all have our frames and have salvaged extra ammo and repair equipment, we cannot back down from here. Lieutenant, keep our pod safe. Corporal O'Malley, I want you to circle around and get word back to the Daggers. They have to get here and get their frames ready ASAP. I am going out there to get a closer look at what we are really dealing with.

Gabriel shook his head, "Let's get everyone in frames and let them see the full briefing first. You and I should stay here and defend if needed. So far the vehicle hasn't even made an attempt to find a way around the ravine, which goes for a good fifteen kilometers to the east or over twenty to the west."

Joel started to push forward with his idea, but paused. Major Goddard had basically just warned him about the need to take advice when time allowed. He took a breath then looked over. "Am I missing something?"

Gabriel looked shocked as he turned to face Joel, "As a matter of fact I think you are."

"Then let me hear it."

A purely astonished, "OK." escaped Gabriel's lips before he refocused his thoughts, "I mean sure Major. First, you already got a report as to what is out there so you really don't need to see it for yourself. Second, as long as it stays out there and doesn't detect us, it can stay in contact with whoever it is scouting for. Since it has nothing to report, nothing else should be sent over this way. Third, if we have to engage, we only have three of the 8 of us in combat frames. And fourth, it has now been almost 14 hours without any real rest for a single member of this squad. We need to find a safe spot to rotate guards and sleep."

"Brush strokes…" Joel muttered.


Joel smiled at Gabriel. "Just thinking aloud. You are totally correct. But I'll stay here while the two of you go see how they are doing on the machine. If you guys are spotted moving this way, it puts the firepower where it is really needed, and there is a whole lot better chance of the Daggers and the wheeled machine being spotted than this unmoving wreckage."

Gabriel nodded. "Good point. Let's go Lawson." He then paused and turned, "Thanks."

"No, I should be thanking you." Joel admitted. "In the past, I tended to be way too pushy instead of listening to recommendations from my second in command. I will work on changing but sometimes I will need to have orders obeyed instantly."

"I'd never question your orders in a hazardous situation. That is flatly against Blood's Honor codes of conduct."

"I know, but I need to start taking advice more. I just have to figure out when I should stop and listen and when I should just do what I think should be done."

Gabriel thought it over for a few seconds before responding, "If you are going to error, do so on the side of demanding action. You have gotten us this far by being who you are."

Joel glanced over and managed a grin, "Sounds like a plan, so get moving and get everyone back here."

Gabriel jumped up and motioned for Lawson to take point. The two maintained radio silence, using hand signals. By the time they got in visual range, he could see a couple of his squad mates standing on the top of the wheeled machine and a hole in the side of it.

Karen voice carried loudly enough for everyone to hear, "Halt, Who goes there?"

Gabriel called out, "Karen, Jen, Brandon. Lawson and I are in frames so don't shoot. Challenge word is Salad." This let the guard know they were really who they said they were.

Karen replied, "Safety word is Italian." Letting Gabriel know the area was properly secured and everything was exactly as it appeared.

Gabriel quickly moved up to the machine, "What's our status?"

Paula's head poked out through the hole on the side of the wheeled machine. "Jennifer just pulled the computer completely out and I have removed all the robotic links. All I have to do is hook up the manual controls, which are mostly in place already except for the spots where robotics required a disconnect. Give me another ten minutes or so."

"Great! Any major problems taking it?"

Brandon shook his head as he looked at the Warrior and Rouge frames. "Not really, I moved Dagger Two up and let it shoot at me a couple of times once the tire speed dropped and I could see it was running out of juice. It missed both times cause its turret speed was also reduced. It also tried to shock both Jen and Paula with in internal defense grid, but there wasn't enough juice to do more than put some burn marks on the outside of their eco-suits.

"Unfortunately, we'll have to hook into your frame's power pack to get it to the crash site, though. Its batteries are down to point three percent" Brandon then grinned, "I hope there is one of those for me too."

"Yup, and lots of work to be done to get them ready, so let's hook me up so we can move out as soon as they are ready in there."

Karen looked down from Dagger One's machinegun. "We'll need to cut the armor welding on the back hatch so you can climb in."

Lawson moved up, "This baby's got just the right tools for the job!"

Brandon watched as Lawson went to work with the rouge's built in laser torch. "There's a frame I never thought the cadre would allow a cadet in."

Gabriel kept an eye on Lawson's work and progress as he responded, "I had the same thoughts, but Joel pointed out we very well may need the equipment on them to get into the computer base. The more I thought about it the more I think he is right. There is no telling what type of security we will have to deal with."

Derik came over, "What kind of frame do I get Lieutenant?"

"You and Paula will each be in Rouges as well." Gabriel answered as he moved over and used the powerful frame to prevent the assault ramp from falling open as Lawson made the last few cuts. "Do you know how to reconnect the hydraulics to the ramp so we can open and close it?"

Derik moved up, being careful to avoid the very hot edges. "It looks like it is just like hooking up power armor limbs, only a lot bigger. You'll have to hold the ramp up with your armor while I work on it though sir."

"Then get to working!" Gabriel grunted, "Even with this frame, this is not light work!"

Lawson made the final two cuts fully opening up the assault ramp then joined Gabriel holding it, "Sir, I'm a bit confused."

"About what?"

"Well," Lawson slowed to get his words in line with his thoughts, "The briefing we got on the machines said the ultra computers didn't modify them, only added needed parts. If so, why were all the hatches armor welded and why was there an internal defense grid?"

Brandon hopped in the back to give Derik a hand, "Good question. My only thought is it had to because people probably captured some of them and turned them on other machines. Ultra computers could think on their own, so this one probably realized an easy way to prevent people from getting in and decided it was necessary."

Gabriel grunted as he adjusted his grip on the heavy back door, "Maybe, but why do both? One or the other seems like it would prevent a normal capture."

Derik pushed the large pin into the mounting bracket securing the hydraulic lifting arm to the door, "When we find the base where these are made we can pull some files or something and get the answers, until then does it really matter?"

"It might." Brandon stated as he hooked up the wires to the door release and used the power lever to pull the hydrologic arm up. The limited power pulled the arm up to where Lawson and Gabriel held the door, but there was not enough power left to pull it further in. "OK, we got this side. Derik, do the other side while I get some cables to hook Gabe's frame to the main power source."

"Be careful Ensign," Lawson called out, "Once there is a frame hooked to the main power any other defense systems will have power as well."

Brandon paused and glanced out, "We didn't even look for other traps in here. We better do that first, Huh?"

Lawson's voice sounded somewhat surprised, "Well, Yeah, isn't that SOP?"

Brandon looked at Lawson from around the edge of the door, "To be honest, I don't think we have a Standard Operational Procedure for the capture of equipment. I'll double check the cadet handbook later, but somehow I think I would have seen and heard about it by now. Andar Academy has an SOP on capturing vehicles?"

"Uh huh, any equipment, actually."

"Interesting." Brandon muttered as he disappeared from view.

Five minutes later, Brandon came back holding a pair of boxes looking a bit pale, "Wow, good call Lawson. You probably saved my life. These are white phosphorus packs. They were hooked right to the motor with extra sensors hooked to the computer. Since we removed the computer, these two would have pulled power first igniting them, frying the motor and whoever was inside. Paula is removing two more from the turrets. They were set to take weapon power instead of the laser if fired manually."

Derik glanced out from around the door, "You can let go. Both sides now work."

Jennifer looked out from around the back ramp, "I did a second sweep. I found a transmitter receiver that does not belong in here, but otherwise I think we are clean."

Lawson popped the back hatch of his frame, "Derik, would you mind taking over my frame for a few minutes? I have to check something."

Derik jumped out of the machine, "Sure. It'll be nice to get a feel for the frame type I will be using."

"My start up word is flash." Lawson informed Derik as he moved over to Jennifer. "Master Command Sergeant, do you mind if I take that over to the Dagger and play with it for a couple of minutes?"

Jennifer handed it over still looking a bit shaken up, "By all means. If it hadn't been for you, at least one of us would have died inside this machine."

Lawson managed a weak smile, "Maybe, but I've been taught to think along these lines. One of the classes at the Andar Academy was Threat Removal. It was all about checking captured equipment for booby traps. Each day, the cadre had us go into practice lab. Sometimes it was a vehicle, sometimes a frame, sometimes just boxes of ammo or other pretend captured equipment and we were taught to see if there were traps. Only one out of every four or five were, but if you missed one, there was always a very painful capacitor fully charged waiting to send a painful shock. I only got nailed two times early on and ended with the highest grade in the entire fifth grade. I elected to take the Advanced Threat Removal class this year and had yet to get hit before Talborne took over."

Derik took a deep breath as he heard some sadness slip into Lawson's voice. "Hey, let's not go down that road right now. Of all of us, you probably lost the most, but we need your brains firing on all cylinders so you don't overlook anything."

Lawson sighed, "I know, but the only ones who made it out of the academy were those of us using the competition barracks and those Senior Lieutenant Price was able to break out with your help. All told only eighty two of us got out, most of them from the older classes. Everything and everyone I know, is back on Andar with Talborne's boot crushing them."

Karen looked down from the Dagger, "We will get revenge Lawson. Blood's Honor will take Andar back, have no doubt."

"I am sure we will," Lawson hardened, "But just wish I could get some not just allow Blood's Honor to get it for me."

"You already did." Jennifer reminded him, "You got us the codes to free weapons on all the cadet and micro frames. Your actions allowed us to decimate the entire second merc unit sent to reinforce the first one we shot the frames off of."

Lawson managed nod, "Yeah, but I had Lieutenant McCurdy's help getting the codes and Ensign Beck's help to get command over the other Andar cadets so we could set up a good fire line." He looked down to the radio in his hand, "I just hope I can figure this out.

Gabriel entered the discussion. "Can you do your check on the radio while we are on the move?"


Jennifer glanced over to Brandon, "Then he ought to give this a final once over before we power it up."

Brandon agreed with a nod, "Do we need the radio in the machine?"

"No, but we don't want to move the machine out of the ECM field of one of the Daggers until I check it out."

Gabriel exchanged glances with Brandon and Jennifer before Gabriel spoke, "Good. Then I want you to go over this machine just as if it was a test in one of your traps classes. As soon as you are sure we are clear, we are going to use my frame, power this up and get back to Joel."

It took 30 minutes, but Lawson did indeed find one more security system. It was an overload generator disguised as a power amplifier. It was hooked to the manual controls, and would have at the very least knocked out the driver once the machine got up above 50 kilometers per hour.

Lawson tossed the overload generator to Brandon, "It's clean, but I am surprised at how easy all of it was to find. The deceptions were like early first semester basic class stuff."

Gabriel snickered, "Only if you have such a class. You know, the second we get back to Forest Garden, I am going to have you talk to my mom about setting up a similar class in BHJMA. It has never been so much as discussed in any of our training!"

"Is your mom high ranking?"

Brandon nearly choked, "Um, yeah, you could say that."

Gabriel cut off the discussion before it went any further, "We need to get a move on. Brandon, you have the machine. Lawson, you're in Dagger One with the radio. Jen, you are pilot of Dagger Two. Karen you have Dagger One. Keep right next to the machine so there is no question it is covered by our ECM. Paula, you are our tech so I want you in the machine in case something goes wrong. I also want you staying close to my frame. If shooting starts climb in and jump into the fight. We'll let the machine be without power as it is the weakest thing we have. The suit is already powered up since it is acting as a battery for the machine, but my activation code word is Sniper. Derik, stay in Lawson's frame and take gunner position on Dagger two. I will take the turret on dagger one."

Derik whistled softly to himself. The way the higher ranking cadets of Blood's Honor ran things was truly astonishing. What would have taken his frame commander twenty minutes to get organized; Gabriel had done in less than one. Even more impressive was the fact he had seen Joel do the same thing, only more rapidly and under higher pressure a few times including on Andar.

He wondered how they did it. It seemed like they didn't even think it out, yet the decisions were far better than any he would have been able to come up with. Yet, even as fantastic as their training seemed to be, there was a general consensus among them it had not been good enough. Where most cadets would love to have less classes and more free time, these Blood's Honor cadets saw a need for more. It was kind of creeping him out, especially since he was now a Blood's Honor cadet and didn't think like them at all.

Lawson's thoughts were strictly on the radio in front of him. He carefully wired it up and hooked up a few meters he found in the repair equipment everyone had grabbed before leaving the base. He took his time increasing the power until he suddenly got a reading. "Got ya!" He then hooked up a couple of other meters and a set of filters. In less than ten minutes, he had the information he needed. A smile crept over his tired features. "Joel is going to love this!"

As the vehicles all pulled to a stop, Lawson jumped forward. "Master Command Sergeant, don't power down and keep the ECM up!" Before he got a response, he jumped out of the tank and ran over to the machine.

"OK…" Jennifer glanced back. "Hey, where are you going?

Lawson jumped into the machine surprising Brandon and Paula "Ensign, back up right next to Dagger one!"

Brandon shrugged, "No problem." As he put it into reverse he spoke, "What's up?"

"The radio is an IFF system and carries a dual signal. We have to keep this machine inside an ECM field until I get a seven volt one third amp circuit built for it. Anything more, will fry it and anything less will prevent it from sending the dual carrier waves. I am not sure quite how this works, but it can get instructions from somewhere, that normally went to the computer. It also is equipped with a basic diagnostic unit, which transmits how the machine is operating to someplace. The diagnostic unit does not go through the computer though, so we can trick it. My guess is it also could send out a distress signal and may have done so already, but I really don't think so. My bet is it had to drop to a certain power level before broadcasting. Since we came on it fairly early on, it had a close to full charge in its battery, then our ECM prevented it from sending or receiving."

Paula understood instantly. "I'll get started on the circuit and make sure all the analytic systems are providing proper information to send out."

Brandon looked back as he parked the machine less than a meter from Dagger One. "OK Corporal, I understand the Identify Friend or Foe part. The IFF allows other machines to verify it is not controlled by humans and thus does not shoot at it. It would be great if we could build duplicate units for the Daggers. Where you lost me was the dual carrier waves and all that junk."

Paula responded, "The IFF is only part of it. This machine does not operate as an independent unit. It gets orders from somewhere. Furthermore, it sends status reports as to its condition. If we can get this thing up and running before the next scheduled reporting time, then it will not be missed and the IFF codes should stay the same, or at the very least updated to this machine if it does change."

"Are you saying these machines are not simply programmed to go out and attack until they break down?"

"Exactly." Lawson confirmed. "It also means there very well may still be an operational Ultra Computer on Brile IV."

Brandon started to say something but nothing came out. He looked to Paula who simply nodded as if she had not fully recovered from the revelation herself. Finally Ensign Scott found some words that seemed to fit what he had just heard. "Dear God. I have to let Joel know!"

Brandon slowly climbed out of the machine and made his way over to Gabriel and Joel. He decided to let them talk and listen in while he gathered his thoughts.

"Not only that Joel." Gabriel grinned fiendishly, "It's design was originally a wheeled APC and it was built with the same specs. The ultra computers never did get to the point of designing their own machines, they just used what they had in the data banks and added robotics to eliminate the need for humans and put in computers programmed to kill us. Once we killed the computer, Lawson had us check and we yanked out some basic traps. We got a totally usable APC with more room for cargo and now we will hopefully have us a vehicle the other machines will not take as an enemy!"

Joel nodded "What a lucky catch!" he turned to Brandon, "Man, you look like you have seen a ghost. This is a time for celebration!"

Brandon picked his words carefully, "There is no doubt about it being a great catch. But the reasons may be far more… ahm… well, far reaching…"

Joel frowned, "Huh?"

Brandon filled Joel and Gabriel in on what Lawson and Paula had concluded. He ended with a bit of a wince. "What if the corporations pulled Blood's Honor off too soon and the machine wars never really ended here?"

"Maybe that is what Major Goddard was warning me about on my personal holo-disk." Joel spoke softly, "He said there was extra information in a secret file for us in the Daggers. He gave me a file name and an access code to pull it up."

"Let's see what he told you then!" Brandon almost demanded.

"I can't." Joel sighed. "The disk erased itself as it was playing. I am sure all the others will as well. Besides, trust me when I say, the vast majority of what he has to tell each of you should probably stay between you and him."

"Then we better pull up the file." Gabriel declared firmly.

Joel shook his head. "No. first things first. We need to get everyone's frames operational. How sure is Lawson about being able to get the receiver transmitter IFF thingy wired in properly?"

"If it was him alone, I'd have some doubts but not many. His computer abilities are definitely below average, but his electronics are outstanding, probably better than Paula's. However, between him and Paula, I think the chances are bordering on excellent for them pulling it off. You have no idea how close we came to loosing Brandon. If he hadn't been there to stop us from powering it up, those white phosphorus packs would have ignited."

"Fine, then I say he should get a Mission Commendation award."

"You get my vote." Gabriel stated firmly. I'll get it in the computer.

You'll get my support as well." Brandon added, "Of course, I wouldn't be here to do anything without him. You made the best choice letting Candice have the others. They all seemed a bit too bossy anyway."

Joel patted Brandon on the back, "To be honest, I had no clue who was better, but I really wanted Candice to have the best leadership I could give her and I absolutely didn't want Tracy."

Brandon managed a grin as he elbowed Joel, "She thinks you're cute."

Joel blushed madly getting laughter from both Brandon and Gabriel. "You guys are horrible!"

Brandon continued to snicker. "We try. So what do you want to do about the transmitter IFF unit?"

"Let them work on it. Everyone else is to get to work on their frames. I'll assist. Unfortunately, Gabriel you will have to be first watch. As soon as we get another frame ready, I want you to hit the sack. We will stay here and rotate through guards until everyone has a frame, we all eat and we all shower. While we rotate through resting some and getting organized, I want a couple of us digging through the scattered crates and supplies. Whatever looks useful move over to our pod."

"What about Candice?" Gabriel asked with genuine concern.

Joel sighed. "I have wrestled with this since I played Major Goddard's holo-disk. He gave me pretty harsh orders regarding her, but I cannot place her into too much danger. She needs her squad's frames. When she radio's us, we will respond with an encrypted burst transmission from Dagger Two which I want at least 30 kilometers from here. We will give her all the information we got from the PLC about weather, kind of drop pod, and possible damage to the glide pods. This will give her the same information we had.

"We will also warn her about the traps inside the machines. The rest has to be left up to her. We will also let her know the machines track radio signals so we will have to cut back on transmissions to every third day. If she responds, send one more message saying we have to break communications because of hostile activity in the area and do not reply to any more messages."

Brandon stared in disbelief. "Joel, you are setting her up to …"

Gabriel cut Brandon off. "He is forcing her to lead while handing over enough of our intel to prevent serious danger to her or anyone with her. Our orders from the start were to be separate squads. The cadre want to see how she does, not how well Joel leads her."

Brandon wanted to argue, but bit off a reply knowing who was really right. "OK, fine. What do we do then?"

Joel answered after only a few moments of thought. "We will then load up everything in our pod and salvage some of the crates laying around here and move back to the trailers. We will make camp there for a full day or even two and get everyone rested while we plan our next move. In case you are wondering, the vehicle roaming two hills over earlier moved further south after a full hour. I think it was looking for something or it my have seen a bit of a glow from all the holes in our cargo pod and simply abandoned the search when Lawson warned me to turn out the lights."

As they were talking, Lawson came over with Karen. Karen spoke, "Sir, it's working. Paula is rechecking the circuit with Jennifer. Lawson was wondering if he could get some help checking out the computer. He may be able to actually decode some of the transmissions sent to the machine, if we can crack its encryption. Both Paula and Lawson, think there may be a way to pass the transmissions through the computer and use it to decode it for us. The only problem will be trying to understand it the same way the computer does."

Brandon glanced over, "Jennifer took it out, but I don't know what she did with it."

Gabriel shrugged and turned to Lawson, "You guys have done great so far, so I say get with Jen and see what else you can do."

Joel rolled his eyes with a chuckle, "Boy did I really come close to blowing it."

Lawson looked over, "What do you mean?"

"It seems everyone but me knew what to do when we stumbled across the machine. I wanted to blast it."

Karen snickered, "I think being the best shot in the squad has given you bullets on the brains."

Lawson shrugged and decided to test the water with some small talk of his own, "I wanted to shoot it too!"

Gabriel flashed a teasing grin, "Yeah, it figures. You are a crack shot too. You're as bad as Joel, wanting to show off with whatever shots, launches, fires, or burps."

Lawson was astounded by the ease at which he had joined in the good natured banter. He flashed a huge grin, "And I'm sure you really wanted to challenge it to a math contest, so it could fry its circuits trying to keep up with you."

"Ouch!" Joel started laughing

"You know Lawson; you fit in with us way too well!" Karen managed to get out between giggles. "You'll fit in great with us when we get our cadet force.""

Lawson turned serious, "I don't even understand what it means getting your own force, so how can I be apart of it?"

Joel, still chuckling, motioned for Lawson to join him in Dagger One. "Command Sergeant Black, I want everyone in a frame as soon as possible, so let Paula get a break from the machine and get her framed up with the others."

Karen saluted, "No problem."

Joel motioned for Lawson to follow as he entered the Dagger. He then pointed to the table in the back. "Have a seat."

Lawson took a seat and pulled off the hood to his eco-suit and took a seat. "What's up?"

Joel sat down, realizing for the first time just how tired he was. "First off, your actions from the time we left the base till now have been up to par with anyone I have ever worked with."

"Thank you, sir."

"I should be the one thanking you. We all should. Hopefully we will get a chance to be together for a long time, as long as you stick with our academy, that is."

"I am in sir. Everything I had back there is gone. My father was in the Andar military and was killed in action against a raid from the Free Planets Association, so I was given a full paid scholarship as was my brother. Mom hated the fact we wanted to go. My brother gave in to her wishes, I didn't. Last year, I was notified my mom and brother had been in an accident. My brother survived, mom didn't. He was transferred to the space station to go live with my aunt.

"I knew if I didn't join her on the space station she would leave which is exactly what she did. The Academy became my family and I watched it go up in flames. Even if Andar is freed, I really don't have anything to go back to.

"Major Goddard interviewed me and offered me the same deal as I had on Andar, I could be adopted by the academy on Forest Garden. I agreed." Lawson gave Joel a sad smile, "So like it or not, you're stuck with me."

Joel had to wipe away a couple of tears "Dude, you have a home. It is with us, and if you want, I can have it be with me. I know my dad would formally adopt you. So would any other family of the members of this squad."

Lawson sniffled and wiped more than a few tears form his own eyes, "Thanks, but I'm fine just being taken in by the academy." He quickly switched subjects, clearly not wanting to dwell on the past. "So what is all this about getting a force and how do Paula, Derik and I fit into this?"

Joel typed on the computer for a moment then pulled up a large section of a ruined city. "This is BHJMA's Four East Bravo. It was originally part of the capitol city of Forest Garden, but the entire city was basically reduced to ruins by an earthquake and abandoned a long time ago. There are three dozen sections like this on the outskirts of the academy grounds.

"What makes them so important is the fact somewhere in the middle of this mess, is a base and surrounding this base is hundreds of gun emplacements which have one purpose, and only one purpose. They are there to destroy cadet frame forces.

Lawson frowned, "Huh?"

Joel grinned, "Not literally, but in training."

"Oh, well that makes me feel a little better. I gather this has something to do with us?"

"Yeah, it sure does." Joel rotated the view so both of them were looking at it from ground level as if they were in frames. "In order to go from cadet status to senior cadet status you have to be part of a frame force that actually goes against one of these training courses and win. Each group of leaders, are given a fifteen day time span to make as many attempts as needed to capture the central command post inside one of these areas.

"You and the other five with you were spared this because it was decided your actions on Andar were enough to show you deserved senior cadet status. All you had to do was get though junior cadet training, which you passed here on Brile just before you were grabbed by us."

"All of us kind of understood the basics of what you are telling me, so I gather I am missing something?"

"Not really, but I have to give you a back drop so you understand what we are going for."

"OK, so are we all going to go to one of these training areas as leaders or something?"

Joel's smile was huge, "Close, but not quite. If we are successful out here, we, meaning all eight of us, will be giving the chance to command a full frame force against one of these training areas. My five man squad will be the command squad while you, Paula, and Derik each take a team leader spot.

"If we succeed, we are being given a chance to become a cohort frame force, one hundred fifty-five frames strong for the rest of the time in the academy. Our force will then go on training missions against other frame forces, and be able to compete in tournaments across the whole galaxy. We will have assigned cadre for teachers, but for the most part, we will be a frame force. Then, if we prove we can hang in the competitions, we will get advance cadet status and be able to join Blood's Honor units out in the field. At that point, it will be our jobs to do everything from keeping a budget to granting leave to personnel assignments. Finally, if we prove we can handle all of admin, intel and leadership responsibilities we will be put out in the field with just a few cadre advisors. These will be real missions and our force will be a for hire unit. Upon three successful paying missions they simply wipe away the cadet before our rank and we become an independent Blood's Honor sponsored merc force."

Lawson looked totally skeptical. "Are you saying you could be a sixteen year old Commander?"

"No, usually eighteen or nineteen, because the force does not start going out for hire until everyone in it is at least fifteen and all the leaders at least sixteen."

"How many actually succeed?"

Joel shook his head, "Very few. However, even if we don't make it all the way, the resume we have to start out will all but guarantee us officer slots right out of the academy."

Lawson whistled softly, "Blood's Honor puts out hundreds of graduates per semester, how many get a chance at this cohort thing?"

"First off, only command academy cadets get a chance at cohort. Then only five forces per semester are given a shot at one of the three hardest test areas. Only two succeed on average."

"What happens if we don't take the area in fifteen days?"

Joel shrugged, "Then we get moved into other frame forces that need personnel of our rank before we made the attempt. Usually, they will give us a year then pull us all back together and give us a second shot, but if we fail that, we will simply have to deal with being members of a frame force. On the other hand, I have no reason to think we will fail, so why even discuss the possibility?"

"Wow." Lawson's voice carried the single word a long time. "It sure is an amazing opportunity. I gather normally such chances are reserved for older cadets?"

"The youngest leaders given the chance so far have been thirteen and fourteen. We'll be twelve and thirteen, so yeah, but not by as much as you might first think." Joel yawned, "Ya know I could really use a nap. Why don't you get with the others and help everyone get framed up. If your help is not needed, take a couple hours for yourself as well. Have Lieutenant McCurdy wake me if anything comes up."

Lawson stood and saluted, "No problem sir."

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