Castle Roland


by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 6

Published: 8 Apr 14


Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons

New Friends & Challenges

Chip took a bite out of a dry ration pack as he leaned back in the command chair of the Dagger. Glancing out the port side window told him nothing. Blowing sand cut visibility down to less than a meter. Fortunately, the holograph auto-map display was good enough to navigate by. A quick glance told him the other tank they were following was keeping on course.

He sighed and looked at his watch, "We have been in this storm for exactly an hour and fifty-seven minutes. What is all this sand going to do to the tanks?"

Stella kept her eyes fixed on the blackout lights of the tank in front of her. The special UV setting allowed her to keep a visual even in the middle of a sand storm, but she still had to stay much closer than she would like, especially since the fuel trailer meant there was something she could run into ten meters closer than where the blackout lights were. "I'm not sure Ensign. The main guns have auto covers and the fans are protected by a series of filters that have already auto cleaned about fifteen times, but I have never been in a storm like this before. One thing I can tell you is there isn't going to be a fleck of paint left on anything after this sandblasting."

Chip cringed, "So we won't have our camouflage?"

"Nope." Stella shook her head. "As a matter of fact, we'll probably stick out pretty badly cause the metal will be nice and polished."

"Oh… that ain't good." Chip said as much to himself as to the others in the tank with him. "How much paint do we have?"

Beth took a sip of water as she finished off her own rations pack. "We put some in the other tank with the repair equipment, but I don't know if it will be enough to repaint both tanks and both trailers. The only reason we have any is Terrin recommended we grab some to cover up combat damage. I think Joel's group grabbed way more than we did.

"Seems like Joel's squad did just about everything better than we did." Chip shook his head. "They even turned off and went out some back way which meant we ended up having to fight two machines instead of just one. They downloaded the atmospheric information which gave them way better data then we had. They…"

Stella shrugged as she cut him off, "So they got a better start. Big deal. It's not like the end of the world or anything.

"All it really means is now we'll just have to work extra hard to catch up. Besides, look at it this way. As it turns out, we aren't even using the information they gave us. We have a totally different target and a real plan. Plus, under your leadership, we are using this storm to hide from an unknown while still getting us to where we need to go.

"Take a look out there. Nothing is going to track us, so even if we were spotted by the craft you saw; it'll have zero chance of guessing our location now. The other tank is probably a bit confused as to your orders, but they followed your command. We are safe, under good leadership, and if the worse thing to happen out of this is we don't have enough paint we can always cover the tanks in mud and plant life over most areas while painting the areas that cannot be blocked by natural means."

Chip took a deep breath and managed a slight grin, "You know, I never thought of it in those terms. You're right. I just wish we could warn Joel of the armor assault lander we saw going down. They need to know someone else is on Brile."

"No worries there." Stella smiled, "Once we get stopped and start proper cleaning and repairs, Tracy will be able to rig us up a new antenna system to replace the one shot off the other Dagger."

Chip rolled his eyes, "I still can't believe we grabbed two long range radios and only one antenna array. How dumb could we get?"

"The cadre did a great job of setting this whole thing up. They put just enough of a time restraint on us to prevent good organization while still giving us plenty of time to grab everything we could have needed or even wanted. If you think about it, they wanted us to have this kind of conversation. They want us second guessing ourselves instead of focusing on the mission at hand.

"They know we are all skilled and can handle intense pressure. We proved ourselves on Andar. What we didn't have to deal with, however, is the long term pressure of doing everything on our own. Let's face it, we are still a bunch of kids. Up till a few days ago, we had someone over us to turn to when we didn't know how to do something, when we screwed something up, or even when we got scared. They have yanked the biggest safety net we had and like it or not all of us are a bit freaked out by it."

Chip thought over Stella's words for a few moments before replying. "It would be a lot easier to swallow if Joel and his crew seemed to be half as panicked as we were. When we pulled out, they hadn't even jumped into their tanks yet. As a matter of fact, Gabriel was having the others load a grip of sodas on the fuel trailer and Joel was poking around the motor pool seeing what else the cadre had left out for his squad to snag."

"I know." Stella's voice remained confident, "And he helped get us most of what we needed. There is no doubt they are better off than we are. But now they are facing their first real challenge. Settling in to life without cadre and trying to figure out how to complete the mission of destroying a production facility hidden somewhere on this continent will take weeks. So as he faces his first challenge, we have already started to tackle ours."

"But we will still have to face what he is facing; only we have to go all the way down south to do it."

Beth finally spoke up, "But Stella has a point Chip. By the time we start working on our mission, we will have already dealt with some major problems. Remember, the cadre always says adversity will make or break a unit. We are working through a tough couple of days and will certainly be stronger for it."

"Besides," Stella chuckled, "We will have it easy compared to them. The southern continent is one tenth the size of this one."

"True enough." Chip replied with a frown, "But, we will loose the trailers cause we can't cross the magma fields or lava flows with them."

"Don't be so certain of that, Ensign." Stella risked a quick glance back showing a wide smile. "Put Jason to work on it."

Chip leaned back in the command chair, "OK, but why Jason?"

Stella quickly turned her attention back to the blackout lights in front of her. "Cause he just doesn't know how to live with the words it can't be done. He seriously lives to prove people who say something is impossible wrong. If there is way, he will find it or make it. It's just the way he works. The very fact we are going after an alternate target should tell you he doesn't think in normal ways."

Beth snickered, "Sounds exactly like Gabriel and Joel when they put their heads together."

Chip finally smiled, "It sure does. I'm glad we got the three of you with us."

"To be honest, the three of us are kind of glad to be with you guys. We really didn't want to get broken up, so this is great. Even better, we are not with the superstars."

"Superstars?" Beth asked.

"Yeah." Stella's voice took on a note of disgust. "The cadre talked about Senior Lieutenant Price and Lieutenant McCurdy like they were the greatest thing to ever hit the academy."

"When they team up, they well may be." Beth spoke up, "You do realize the whole cadet action on Andar was their brainchild. We were simply given orders to fall back to our ship, but Joel and Gabe saw a weakness in the attackers and took us in to get all the other cadets out. It was Joel who used the parade ground as an open kill zone for the first attack, and thought of the fake fall back during the final frame assault. But, it wouldn't have worked unless the younger cadets held a solid outer line. It was Gabriel who organized the junior cadets to keep outside the flank lines of the senor cadets.

"The second that last frame force we faced thought they had our flanks and pushed forward with all their units, it gave away their whole tactical set up and opened up their own flanks to the junior cadets to have some target practice."

"Target practice?"

"Gabe's idea." Chip snickered. "He simply told them to treat it like they were on a range shooting at targets. One of the big reasons the younger kids didn't break and run, was Gabriel, along with Lawson and Derek, kept telling them it was OK to miss and the only way they could get better was to keep shooting till they started getting good at hitting. I even heard Gabe tell some of the younger ones that it was a great deal more interesting than on a normal range cause this time the targets were shooting back."

Stella's frame of mind changed as she openly laughed, "Wow, he turned the whole counter attack into a giant game for the younger cadets! Jason was wondering why so many of them acted more excited than afraid when we finally managed to get out of our frames and interact with everyone. Now it makes more sense!"

Beth took a deep breath and shuttered slightly as she recalled the awful night. "Yeah, well it was also Gabriel's idea to do the rolling fall back so once a cadet frame had damage it was rotated back for repair at either the station we took or the one you captured and a fresh one took its place. That is where your group of three really stepped up, cause it wouldn't have worked without you three keeping track of what frames had the most damage and what frames we could quickly patch and rotate forward again since your refit station had far more supplies than we had."

Stella lightly shook her head, "Yeah, you had the ammo we had the repair equipment, but that whole thing almost didn't happen. We would have lost the repair station if it hadn't been for Paula. She must have taken down four or five of their light armor before she even got her release codes for her weapons. It's terrifying what she can do with the basic augmentation of a frame."

"She took out a tank without shooting at it?" Chip asked with a great degree of skepticism.

"Not really tanks, they were the armored hover APC's with the dual light machineguns in the top turret, but yeah, I know she took out three, cause I saw her do it and Jason swears she took out three, but there is no way he saw the first kill and it's possible the number was five, cause when we compared notes we're pretty sure we both saw only one of the same kills."

"Come on," Beth tried to joke, "Are you really trying to tell us a kid in a cadet frame with weapons lock-out took out an armed and armored APC?"

"Look, don't believe me. I know I wouldn't believe myself if I hadn't seen it."

"I've got to hear this!" Chip laughed, thinking Stella was joking. "Besides, I don't think any of us figured out where she fit into the mess on Andar."

"OK, I'll tell you what I saw first then I'll tell you what Jason told me he saw. I was only there for the first three kills though."

"Do tell!" Beth took the copilot and gunner seat as she realized the other girl's words my not be a joke after all. "I'll drive while you talk."

Stella released her control of the tank controls by passing them over to the copilot chair and stretched. "Where would you like me to start?"

Chip shrugged, "How about right after you contacted me saying you had a fix on a second repair station for frames. I never have gotten the details of your early involvement and we all know what happened once Joel told us to do one last round of patching and reaming and then blow the dumps so Talbone wouldn't get no free supplies."

"OK, sounds good." Stella closed her eyes to recall the early part of the Andar assault. "There isn't much to tell from the time Jason managed to get a hold of you through Lawson, who we had kind of befriended on the range and had his frequency. That was just plain luck. But once he told us what you and the other BH cadets were doing, Jason didn't hesitate for a moment. He grabbed us and one other from our team who happened to be working on our frames and pulled back. Hans took a nasty hit and fell before we got to the station though so there were only three of us by the time we got to the repair station. Fortunately, Hans was found by a couple of cadets from Spider Bite and they dragged him back to the ship so he made it off, but he'll probably never walk properly again. BH gave him a new hip, but he was still limping pretty bad before we left for Brile.

"Give it time, BH doctors will get him back up to snuff." Beth interjected.

"I hope your right." Stella took a deep breath. "Anyway, I am pretty sure Lawson managed to get our weapon codes freed quickly because within a minute of talking to him our frames had green lights across the board."

"He did." Chip put his own thoughts and insights into the conversation. "He told us he had a group that could really help, so we made weapons release on all New Bravaria frames a priority."

"I'm thankful you did. We got to the second repair station just as weapon release codes cycled through our frames. Ours lights went green, so we moved at a dead run toward the northern repair bay and quickly took out the infantry Talborne had left to guard it. Most of them scattered the second they saw our frames could fire but a few tried to hold. I think we only had to kill three or four before the last of them dropped their weapons and took off.

"Anyway, we started to repair frames and load them with live ammo almost from the second we stopped shooting. I'm sure it was the same where you were at. There were dozens of cadets with everything from light damage to totally shot up and other than BH frames I don't think any had live ammo. The second they realized there was a place to load ammo, get patched up or even link up with other cadets and organize they started showing up from everywhere.

"With the main bay under our control we fanned out and took the rest of the warehouses and supply areas. It only took a few minutes, especially with so many other cadet and micro frames showing up. The infantry in the outer buildings basically abandoned their posts and weapons rather than fight so many frames. Things looked pretty good, but just as Jason busted open the locks to the ammo lockers a full unit of APC's made a bee line for us.

"None of us realized there was a problem until a couple of cadets warned us of heavy fire coming from the northeast. As we stepped out to take a look, we knew we had a major problem. Jason continued to bust open locks and tried to get a handle on who could be of the most help. As he did so, he told me and Tracy to do what we could to slow them down.

"Tracy and I grabbed three other kids who had free weapons, but between the five of us we had two medium lasers, six light lasers, and eleven micro lasers. We took out the lead two but had to retreat back to the outer building as machinegun bullets peppered over all our frames. One of the kids with us staggered and fell as his left side took an internal hit and we were about to surrender. We had even started to point our arms down.

"Suddenly, out of out of nowhere, our radios crackled on an open frequency and a female's voice told us to grab the downed kid and hold the line. The next thing we knew, a cadet frame jumped off the building to our right and landed on top of one of the APCs in the back of the formation. The gunner went flying off from a kick that must have killed him before he hit the ground.

"The cadet frame then took over the machineguns and raked them on full auto over the other APC's. Since the incoming fire was behind them, they didn't have their front facing gun shields to protect them. Four of the gunners fell to the onslaught before anyone inside the APC's knew there was a problem. As other gunners realized what was going on, they adjusted to the new threat. They turned to fire on her frame, but this gave us an opening and we were able to take out a couple of gunners who had turned the gun shields away from us.

"The second they zeroed in on the top of the APC she did about the craziest thing I'd ever seen. I swear I saw the frame yank the machineguns off the mount and duck down. Moments later, the top hatch flew like a giant Frisbee into the closest standing turret gunner nearly chopping him in half. Seconds later, the APC the frame she had jumped on lost control and slammed into a building."

"OK," Chip interrupted, "so she took the machineguns and fired them into the APC. The bullets must have bounced all over the place inside killing everyone including the pilot. That makes one kill. Even better she cut down the incoming fire by over half. Heck of a nice move!"

"Yeah, I know. But this is where things really got wild. Jason showed up and joined the fight in a fresh and fully ammo laden frame saying there were some cadets who knew how to fix and load frames and we should pull back, get patched and load up. Before we were able to though, the crazy cadet frame showed up again. Still holding onto one of the machineguns, she leaped off the ruined APC and dropped to the ground allowing one of the other APC's to go right over the top of her. The APC only made it halfway before it started smoking and the front end slammed into the ground."

"What did she do?" Chip asked totally fascinated by the recounting of the events.

Stella shrugged, "I have no idea, but moments after it slammed into the ground it started to burn."

Beth whistled softly, "I bet she stuck the machinegun into the front fan. It would have lost front lift and nose planted. It would also explain the fire, cause the airflow also cools the engines and they would have still been running and blowing apart from the strain of trying to spin the jammed lift blades. It also means she would have had to tear through the armored screens protecting them. It's amazing she didn't lose an arm!"

Stella shook with mild excitement as she recalled the fateful events of the terrible day. "Tracy and I thought she was dead, but just as I backed into the building I saw she had actually rolled out from under it and had slammed her fist into and through the outer skirting of a third APC. While I covered for Tracy, who was way more shot up than I was, I saw her climb up the side by punching through the armored skirting a couple more times. Once she made it to the door, she delivered a couple of nasty kicks strong enough to first bend the side hatch then blow it in all the way. She then went in. Just as I pulled back, the APC stopped and powered down."

"Three." Chip whispered in awe, "So you and Jason saw her kill those last two."

Stella shook her head, "I don't think so. From what Jason says, he saw her take down two in the same way, which was the last one I saw and he insists she took out a total of two more after I jumped into a repair stall. The last one she took down was probably the best and I missed it. But I heard all about it; because it was seen by at least a score of others who were fleeing the last assault wave as most of it was slamming into the ground from ground and air fire from Blood's Honor. It was seriously enough for them to stop, beat back the last final attack on our position, and fall back in an organized retreat."

Chip's eyebrows shot up, "It must have been pretty amazing to rally a bunch of cadets fleeing a mass drop of frames, infantry, and armor. I almost ran as I saw all those ships coming in. If half of them hadn't been on fire, and in the process of crashing I think I would have ran."

"Me too." Beth confessed, "So what did she do."

Stella took a deep breath, "If I hadn't seen her punch clean through armored skirting with both her left and her right arms of her frame, I wouldn't believe this even after hearing about it over and over."

"Come on, humor us." Beth urged.

"OK, it goes like this. After she kicked in the door of either the one APC or the second one she spun to see what was clearly the unit leader, cause it was more like a tank. It had a turret and dual heavy machineguns. It had maneuvered behind the first warehouse and started chewing into a group of micro frames who were just arriving. At least two fell, but from every report, the second Paula saw it she kind of went nuts.

"I don't know where it came from, some say she yanked it off one of the damaged buildings others say it was from the nearby crash of one of the Landers, but wherever it came from she found a metal beam about ten meters long. She then charged the tank and as it spotted her and turned to fire she used this metal girder as a giant pole vault. She launched into the air and used her frame's feet to go right into and though the armored cockpit. She then popped the back hatch and rolled out as the tank plowed into a building across the alley and went up in a large fireball.

"Jason got to her thinking she was seriously injured. She only had a couple of scratches though, so he ordered one of the injured cadets out of his frame so she could take it over. He also put full priority on fixing it up so by the time I pulled out of the repair stall loaded and patched, she was doing the same. We sent the other kid back as the driver of the APC I saw her kick the door in on with a bunch of other injured. She later told us she set her frame to overload since it was pretty much toasted anyway."

"You can't set a cadet frame to overload!" Chip protested.

"Actually you can." Beth corrected him, "Normally it is locked out even under advanced functions, but you sent the full release codes out so all of us could have. She must be really smart to have done it though, cause it must be behind half a dozen protective fields all of which had to be overridden properly to do it."

Stella tossed up her hands, "She is wickedly smart. She crushed all of us in grade point average and she spent way less time doing homework then any of the rest of us did. But no matter what she did or how she did it, she became part of our squad the rest of the night. She really helped Jason command the others cause word spread like wildfire about her taking out multiple APC's with out shooting. She also was fearless in helping get a couple of cadets out of the line of fire when they fell to enemy fire.

"Those who didn't know or believe what she had done found out the hard way she was as tough as the rest of us tried to tell them she was. A few times she physically threatened kids who so much as balked at one of Jason's orders and once she punched one of the older kids hard enough to knock him down and shatter his frame's left elbow joint. She stood over him and demanded he surrender his rank and vow to support Jason's commands. The second he submitted the rest of the kid's group fell in line like sheep, but as far as marksmanship goes, she is pretty poor. I think she only got three or four kills the rest of the night.

"To be honest I'm kind of happy she is not with us. She is pretty scary and way too serious all the time. On the other hand, if there is anyone known who I would want watching my back in a fight it would be her."

Suddenly the tank lurched lightly. "We're leaving the sand and heading into the foothills. That was rock we just went over." Beth sighed showing some relief.

Chip looked out the side window, "Couldn't tell it by looking out there."

"Be happy about it sir." Stella responded, "I'd be thrilled if the storm stuck with us all the way to the crash site."

"At least until dark." Beth added. "Remember we are going to be nice and polished until we figure out how to cover-up the Daggers again."

Chip checked his watch, "Dusk is only an hour away. If we come out of this before then, do a short range burst over to the others and tell them find some hills and stick to the shade as much as possible."

"It'd be better if we find shade and just stop." Stella suggested, "There is no reason to risk getting seen at this point."

Chip closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I just want to have some real equipment."

"An extra hour is not going to change anything Chip. We need to…"

"I know Beth." Chip cut her off, "I know." Chip slammed his fist into the table mimicking what Candice had done only hours before. As the pain registered, so did the recollection of what his squad commander had done. He paused and looked up; a new weariness could be heard in his voice. "You're right. The second we get out of this storm we find shade and stop."

"Is something else wrong sir?" Stella asked sensing a mood shift.

Chip chewed on his lip for a moment, "No…" he shook his head, "Yeah, I guess there is."



Beth glanced back quickly, "You?"

Chip put his elbows and the table and cupped his hands so he could rest his chin on them. "Yeah, me. I'm starting to see where Candice is at. The only problem is, I'm a cadet officer and have never had an actual command slot other than six months as a unit leader back when I was a junior cadet and the practice we all got in Pre-Commission classes. I got my rank by being a crack shot and…"

"Sir," Stella spoke up, "don't go there. What you are doing is not only understandable but also reasonable. All of us want to push on, and it is the commander's job to get us to our objectives. But, unlike Lieutenant O' Meyers, you are letting others help you make wiser decisions. To be honest, I find it hard to believe you have not had more command experience. You're doing great!"

"Whatever I am doing right is because BH has great instructors cause it don't feel like I'm doing a good job."

Beth laughed, "Remember what Major Goddard told us about thinking we are doing a good job leading?"

Chip rubbed his temples as he nodded, "Yeah, a good leader only thinks he did a good job after the mission and after he figures out all the ways he could have done a better job. A bad leader thinks he is doing a good job anytime before that."

Stella chuckled as she took control of the Dagger back from Beth. "If that is the definition, then you're doing a text book perfect job Ensign."

This comment broke some of the tension Chip was feeling. He managed a bit of a smile. "And all this time I thought being a commander would be so awesome."

Beth laughed, "Once you get used to it, it probably will be."

Chip waved his hand and shook his head, "No chance of me getting used to this kind of pressure over the next forty-eight hours, or the next forty-eight years for that matter. To be totally honest, I'd love to let my mom tuck me in to a nice warm bed with some milk and cookies right about now."

Stella snickered, "I'll make sure to let your mom know you said so when we get back!"

Chip blushed causing both the others to laugh even though they knew Chip's words had more truth in them than they wanted to admit. Facing the next several weeks without an adult to turn to was going to make or break them and they knew it. As much to take his mind off of home as anything he switched topics, "Beth, how long till we reach the crash zone?"

"Since we headed toward the storm and then went straight north, we are a bit behind, but not bad. At current speed, we'll hit the edge of the search zone in fifty-two minutes. According to Jason's calculations it's somewhere in a two point nine kilometer diameter circle with there being a seventy-five percent chance of it being somewhere in the middle one kilometer inner zone."

"Eleven minutes before dusk." Chip shook his head, "How careless could I get. I wanted to push on to save a couple of stupid minutes."

Beth shrugged, "If I had been in command, someone would have had to put the brakes on me as well Chip. Let it go. We will see what the cadre left us soon enough."

Joel noticed the second of Brile's three moons come up through the side blast window as he watched the unlocked briefing for about the fifteenth time. Each time he played it, he came up with a few more pieces of information he had failed to see the time before. Yet he was sure there were some clues buried in all the information provided to them.

There was no way the cadre would give them a mission of simply finding a facility on an entire landmass covering over a fourteenth of the planet. As he finished watching it, he took a deep breath and shook his head. Once again, he saw nothing he could file into a category of good clues. Did the Cadre really expect him to go in a circle 23,361.6 kilometers in diameter searching everything in a five to ten kilometer swath the whole way? Even if they did so, the truth of the mater is it would only work if he had correctly guessed the speed of the simulated missile attack.

Joel gripped the sides of his head as he once again pulled up a world map of Brile and overlaid his guessed circle centered on where the base had been. He shook his head and slid back from the command table as he stared at it and ate. "Come on think. What am I missing?"

Just as he finished, Paula came in and looked at the map, saw the look on Joel's face and stepped behind him. As she touched his shoulders, he flinched.

"Relax major. We may only be twelve, but a good shoulder rub may do you some good, and I know how to give them."

Joel took a deep breath and forced himself not to flinch.

Paula chuckled, which was the first time Joel could remember her doing so since he had first met her. Before he could say anything, he felt fingers push into and through his ridged lower neck muscles. "Sir, if you will trust me, take a few calming breaths, and relax this will be easier on me and actually help you."

Joel started to protest, but another hard push with strong fingers cut of his words. Realizing he was either going to have to fight her or give it a try he took two deep breaths and allowed his shoulders to loosen some.

"A little better." Paula again let out a short giggle, "Tell you what, why don't you just start talking about what you were working on. It will take your mind off of the fact you are letting a girl give you a back rub."

"It's not that…"

Paula's fingers dug deep causing more than a bit of pain and cut off his words instantly, "Come on sir, you and I both know better. I have seen the way you reacted to Tracy and even Beth. You haven't gotten used to the idea of a girl friend yet, let alone allowing one to touch you. Forget who I am and start talking. Trust me. Besides, maybe talking to someone other than Senior Lieutenant McCurdy would allow you to spot something you are struggling so hard to find."

Joel felt his face go red at the mention of Tracy. The girl had tried repeatedly to strike up conversations, play computer games, go for runs, go to the range, and just about anything else she could think of to get closer to him. It was truly embarrassing for him and everyone other than Tracy seemed to realize it. On the other hand, Paula had a valid point. He was getting nowhere and a new perspective might just help.

"OK," Joel relented after a couple more seconds, "but no more comments about Tracy!"

This time Paula genuinely laughed, "You got a deal Major."

Joel glanced up at the holographic image of Brile as he tried to figure out a good way to put his thoughts into words.

"Forget trying to make it sound good. Just start talking sir." Paula all but commanded as she started working on his shoulders again. "Confusion never comes out sounding proper."

Paula's words caused Joel to grin, "I've never heard that before, but it's true. I'm going to remember that line."

"I heard it often sir." Paula commented as she started to work her fingers slowly into Joel's back. "Facing truth, lies, and gaining control over emotions was central to my mentor. "Let's start with what you are looking at and go from there."

Joel nodded, "Sounds fair." He gazed up at the hologram, "The circle is my best guess as to where the base we are supposed to find and destroy is located. The problem is not only is the circle huge, it is only a guess."

"Still, it is an educated guess, it is better than nothing and your knowledge of history turns a guess into something we can work off of. Let's assume, for now, you are correct. That the base is somewhere within let us say one-hundred-twenty-five kilometers either side of your calculated circle. Don't second guess the best piece of data we have to work off of. Doing so will blind you to the next step."

Joel cocked his head to the side and managed to glance back over his shoulder. All he saw was the normal stony faced mask Paula wore almost continuously. Getting a reading off of her was almost impossible. Still her words held a great deal of wisdom; it was almost like listening to his mom. Not wanting to think about the biggest loss in his life, he turned his head to look forward and closed his eyes to hide the fact he felt a tear wanting to come out.

"I have watched this bloody briefing over and over. I know there are other clues, there has to be. Not only do I know Blood's Honor and the way Command thinks, I also know my dad. He would have found ways to slip in clues just like Major Goddard did. My dad doesn't want this to be easy, but he leads Shadow Brigade for a reason. He is sneaky, and sly. He would have found a way to slide in extra information to any group of cadets cause it's a game to him to figure out ways to do so."

Paula remained silent. Instead of talking she moved her hands further down Joel's back and worked to get him to relax muscles he didn't even know he had.

Joel sighed not realizing how much good the massage was doing, "There is no way we can cover the entire circle let alone search it. So what am I missing?"

Paula glanced at the globe and down at Joel, "Sir, have you tried turning off the vid and just listen to it? If your dad hid anything, I doubt it would be in the visual realm, it would be in the words."

"Huh." Joel's eyebrows shot up, "Interesting thought. Do you want to listen to it with me?"


Joel spoke to the holographic player, "Play mission briefing three, audio only."

As the opening voice started talking about the briefing being classified, Joel closed his eyes and completely forgot about the fact Paula was still giving him a bit of a rub down. The more he relaxed the more he found he was able to tune out the basic information, which all the cadets basically knew by heart. After nearly fifteen minutes, something finally got his attention. The voice was droning on about what replacements should expect to find once they arrived on Brile, but a key point caught Joel's notice.

"…when outside of the relative safe zones to the far north, which has been pacified of all Ultras and machines. Occasional breaches have occurred in the north, but tend to be brutal assaults of massed machines on a small sector or a single facility.

"Anything below the 28th parallel is unsecured, although many facilities have put in very heavy defenses and have hired..."

Joel's eyes popped open, "Pause!"

As the voice stopped, Paula took a step back, "Sir?"

Joel shook his head and looked back showing a deep gleam in his eyes, "No, not you the briefing!"

A truly confused look crossed Paula's face as she took a step forward and went back to work on Joel's upper back, "I must have missed something important. I do not know you well, but from the times I have been around you, your eyes only sparkle when you have made some kind of important breakthrough."

"I think I have!" Joel's voice betrayed his thrill, "Computer, display target overlay circle one."

Instantly, Brile appeared with the search circle over it. Joel looked at it carefully, "Computer erase all parts of the overlay above the 28th parallel."

Instantly, just over half the circle vanished.

Paula blinked in surprise as she finally caught onto what Joel had heard, "Great work Major! You just cut off over half our search area."

Joel's smile was enormous, "No Sergeant, we did. Is there any chance you can get me back to being so loose again so I can focus on the rest of the briefing?" His grin faded and a bit of awkwardness caused a flair of red to appear in his cheeks.

Paula gave Joel a light pat on the shoulder and a huge grin, "I can if you'll let me sir."

Joel swallowed hard as he finally swallowed the light lump of embarrassment in his throat, "I'll let you if you start calling me Joel instead of Major."

This time some discomfort flashed across Paula's face.

"Hey," Joel spoke softly, "what's wrong?"

"You are the commander, sir

"I am only as good as the rest of the Command Team, and you are one of us."

"No sir, I am just…" her words faded as she forced the sadness from her face.

Joel didn't let up, "Just what?"

"Nothing. Forget it."

Joel hardened, "Sergeant, just what?"

Paula cringed and clenched her fists so hard her fingernails drew blood from the palms of her hands.

As the drops started to drip to the floor of the tank, Joel jumped up. "Paula, stop and tell me…" his voice took on a bit of a pleading tone, "please?"

With her fists still balled up tight, she wiped a trace of a tear from her left eye. At the same time, she made a threatening gesture with her other hand "I can't!"

Joel slid back giving her a bit of space, "Come on Paula, talk to me. Besides, I'm not a threat to you and if you think I'm going to fight you there's no chance. You'd kick my butt from one end of Brile to the other."

His last comment seemed to break the ice a bit, She blinked a couple of times and gave him a brief grin. "I do not think you would last past the first third of this world sir."

Joel let out a slight sigh showing his nervousness as he forced himself to return the smile. "None of us, other than possibly Karen, would last past the first tenth of a kilometer."

Paula let out a slight snort as she hung her head, "I am sorry sir."

"Hey, there is nothing to be sorry for. If you hadn't come in here, my mind would still be going in a circle." He paused and smiled for real, "A big one, like 23,361.6 kilometers around to be precise."

Paula managed a short laugh as she caught the joke. "Yeah, now you have half of one about 11,680.8 kilometers."

"Only cause you helped get it there. But being in this squad is a two way street. You have to let us help you as much as you are helping us."

Paula took in a few short sharp breaths as she looked hard into Joel's eyes. "Sir, I am not sure I can…"

Joel reached over and hit a button to lock the command center so no one else would accidentally come in. "Start with just me. It will go no further till you are ready."

"But you are Blood's Honor…"

"No." Joel cut her off forcefully, "We are Blood's Honor. You are wearing a cadet uniform the same as I am. Blood's Honor is a family which makes you just as important to me as my own brother. It is what makes Blood's Honor what we are."

"No one would want me as a sister, even in an extended family."

"There you couldn't be more wrong." Joel's eyes hardened. "None of us really know you very well. To be honest, I don't think any of us know you at all. Jason and the other two with him are the only ones who really have any idea as to who you are and why you were singled out by my father and the rest of BH Command for your actions on Andar.

"All I know, is as we were pulling off world you were one of the sixteen of us who drew a line we refused to back away from until every last cadet who managed to get out of the base got into the last ship. You were also the last to pull back into the ship besides Gabriel and I. As it was, your frame was shot to hell and I had to order you to back up twice. Even as you finally obeyed, you kept firing the whole time.

"Somehow I doubt that alone, while awesome, would have gotten you singled out the way you were from the moment we left Andar under intense fire from Talborne's mercs. Even before Command knew we had killed Talborne's son, you were marked as someone they wanted to join BHJMA. My dad asked me about you before he even told me my mom had not made it off world. I don't know what you did, but it impressed my dad and that is next to impossible."

"Granted, all of us would still be here cause Talborne has a price on our heads and somehow he knows who each of us are which sucks for us. On the other hand, what my dad is going to do to whoever leaked said information is going to make the entire assault on Andar look like a house warming party. However, Gabriel, Brandon, and I know things the others don't. Of all the new cadets to be accepted into BHJMA, your name has been spoken with a great deal of respect by some of the highest members of Blood's Honor and Forest Garden."

"But I am just a kid from New Israel IV." Paula protested. "I am a nobody."

Joel shook his head fiercely. "Paula, you are one of us. You are a Blood's Honor Cadet and now a senior sergeant in the Command College, soon to be an officer. Simply put, you are Blood's Honor. There are at least one-hundred-fifty billion kids our age scattered across the galaxy who would give their right arm to be a BH cadet. You got yourself here by your merits and your merits alone. Let us be your family."

Paula forced open her fists allowing more drops of blood to run down her hands and splatter on the floor. "Major…"

Joel held up his hand to stop her. "Come on just try using my first name."

Paula closed her eyes and cringed, "OK… Maj… Joel…" Her voice softened, "Have you heard of New Israel IV?"

Joel thought it over. After a moment a bit of confusion crossed his features, "To be honest no. I've been to New Israel II, but the best I can remember the intro briefing only talked about II and III."

Paula looked at her hands and shook her head, "Because IV is a prison planet."

Joel rocked back as if he had been punched as her words sunk in, "What were you doing on a prison world?"

Paula closed here eyes, "I was born there."

"But… How…" Joel shook his head, "No, I mean… Well crap, I don't know what I mean."

A tear welled up in her eye, "I tried to tell you I was not someone you would want to know."

Joel's face fell as he wildly shook his head back and forth, "Paula, no. You're wrong. Don't go there…" he moved up to put his arm around her.

She backed up instantly as she looked into Joel's eyes. Surprise flickered across her features as she didn't see disgust, only concern. This time it was her turn to force herself not to back up further. Instead, she took a step toward Joel and allowed herself to get a light hug.

Paula pulled away quickly and took another close look into Joel's facial features. Once again, all she saw was compassion. She flinched as she saw she had gotten some blood on his uniform. She quickly put the flat of her hands against her own pants to cut down on the fingernail cuts. "I am soooo sorry!"

Joel glanced at the blood and shrugged, "It'll wash. Are you OK?"

Paula regained control over her emotions far quicker than Joel thought possible. Her face changed back to its normally emotionless mask. "I will be fine."

"Do you want to tell me more?"

"Maybe later." She paused as her eyes betrayed some inner turmoil. "Definitely later, as long as it is alright with you."

"More than OK."

"Do you want to go back to the briefing sir?"

"Come on Paula, try to get used to using names more, please. You are one of us. Your past will never effect how any of us see or treat you."

"We shall see." Paula stated, clearly not fully believing him but wanting to, "…Joel, is there anything I can do to get everyone more… um… well… like you?"

"You mean more comfortable around you?"

Paula slowly nodded, "Yes, comfortable is a pretty good word."

Joel thought it over for a moment then smiled, "Actually, yes."


"Teach us how to fight better."

"How is tossing you all over the place going to help? I am already feared by everyone."

Joel took a bit of a deep breath, "There is the problem Paula. We all know you can beat the snot out of us. Lawson is absolutely terrified of having to get into the pit with you. What I am asking is far harder. I want you to teach us not beat on us."

Paula raised an eyebrow, "I'm not sure how to teach without giving some bruises."

"Hey, bumps and lumps are part of learning how to fight, but from what Lawson tells us, he lasts only a few seconds in the pit with you. He learns only pain. We all need to know how to attack, defend, grapple, and it would be a really cool thing if every one of us could leave Brile and be able to pass tests to carry throwing stars, knives and even wield the blade like you do. I know you have extras cause we loaded your stuff."

Paula's face brightened as she listened to Joel, "It would have to start with you all getting in better shape. Good fighting requires different muscles, more flexibility and reflexes. The katana and the stars will require hours of work, sore arms, and wrists. It is not like the raw leg power and endurance you use when you pilot a frame."

"Then I think you need to put some thought into a training program to get us to where we all need to get. If you could get us to a point where we lasted a minute in the pit with you, I'd be thrilled."

"With all do respect Joel, if I am going to do this, I will want you to all last in the pit with me for many minutes and come out having left a mark or two on me. It'll be painful to get there though."

"As long as I can get above a red belt, I'll be thrilled."

"Red?" Paula's disgusted look spoke volumes.

Joel blushed slightly, "Yeah. To be honest, most of us basically suck in unarmed. Karen is a Brown and could probably make black with a bit more work, the rest of us need lots of help."

"You let me work with everyone three hours a day six days a week; you'll all leave here with a black belt in multiple arts."


"Yes sir." Paula paused, "As long as you all work at it."

Joel hardened, "We are Blood's Honor!"

Paula gave a brief shake of a clenched fist. "Right on sir. Give me a couple of days to set up a program. For now, we ought to take another crack at the audio of the briefing and see if we can shrink your circle a bit more."

"Our circle Sergeant." Joel stated firmly as he sat back down at the table.

Paula moved up behind him and pushed her fingers into his shoulders again. "Continue audio only on briefing three."

Name Rank Name Rank
Candice O'Meyers Lt Jason Anstock
Terrin Brant Ens Tracy Valenberg
Chip Beck Ens Stella Schmidt
Cory Bennett MCSgt
Beth Kohl CmdSgt

Terrin rubbed his forehead with his right hand as he picked at his field ration pack. "This is driving me crazy. It's been over two hours. What in the hell is Chip doing?"

Jason responded, "Sir, the order was spur of the moment, so he must have seen or heard something we didn't. No sane person would order their squad into a sandstorm let alone one this intense. We just have to trust him."

Cory turned from the co-pilot seat, "You don't have to worry about us trusting him. Most of us grew up with him and have known him from almost the time we could walk."

Tracy rolled her eyes, "Guys I don't think Lieutenant… I mean Private Anstock meant you didn't…"

Terrin tossed up his hands, "Don't worry about it Tracy. We seem to have a bit of a communication problem."

"Or Jason is just too suspicious." Cory kind of growled.

"Cory, you're not being fair. Jason was trying to calm me down and you took his words the wrong way. The same thing happened between Jason and Chip as we were discussing what the best course of action would be." Terrin declared forcefully.

"Look, we are from two different academies, with two different ways of leadership and a bit of a communication barrier. Jason, Tracy, and Stella use German as a primary language and English as a secondary while only I speak any German at all out of the rest of us.

"Making matters even worse, is the fact Jason used to be a team leader and Stella and Tracy still see him as their leader. I'm sure it has to be hard for him to drop so far in rank, so cut him some slack."

Cory took a deep breath and turned to Jason, "Sorry."

Jason showed some of his own frustration as he shook his head and scratched his buzz cut blond hair. "I think there is much of what Terrin says is true, but the same is also true of Cory. I am having a hard time trying to see where I fit with this group, and I think all three of us from New Bravaria are dealing with a totally different type of school."

Tracy nodded, "For sure."

Cory took a second to look over the additions to the squad, "What do you mean, 'different type of school'? You were in an academy, right?"

"Ja… Sorry, yes." Jason spoke up, "But NBJMA is nothing like BHJMA."

"In what ways?" Terrin asked, kind of relieved to talk about something to get his mind off the sounds and sights of sand blasting against the tank.

Tracy wasted no time, "Sir, it is almost too many to even talk about."

"Give us a few, and use first names. We are going to be on Brile a long time and using ranks all the time is going to get old for all of us."

"Fine, but just calling you Terrin is part of what we are dealing with." Tracy spoke in frustration. "I mean, I have seen how you guys interact enough to know you always use ranks in class settings and normally when in a military situation, but at NBJMA rank was everything."

"What do you mean, rank was everything?" Cory asked showing his confusion.

Jason kind of tossed back his head. "Tracy is right, it is hard to compare. "Rank is power at New Bravaria, and power is the ultimate goal."

"Power? What do you mean power?" Terrin asked

Tracy lightly pulled at her hair as she noticed Jason looking to her to help explain. "Let me try a description of our academy introduction. OK?"

"Sure." Terrin agreed, "Maybe an example will help all of us."

Tracy took a moment to collect her thoughts. "In the Command College, you cannot graduate until you take on a new recruit class so being high rank is very important. Now before you ask questions, let me explain a few things.

"A new cadet comes in and is put in a long barracks with two-hundred-eighty-eight bunks. There are thirteen total buildings with one normally out of service for repair. Bunks are three high and are crowded, very hot during the summer and cold as hell during the winter. There are four sets of recruits brought in each year and the recruit class lasts for six months; so each set starts by taking up three full barracks. Each group of three barracks is commanded by huge set of senior cadets. There is one Colonel, one Commander, two Majors, four Senior Lieutenants and eight Lieutenants and sixteen Ensigns. Under each Ensign, is a Command Sergeant, two Master Sergeants, four Senior Sergeants, eight Sergeants and it doubles on down the line. Each new group also has five cadre, but they almost never interfere. Basically, the recruits are in the hands of the senior cadets.

The goal is two fold. The first is obvious. The barracks Command Staff need to get the recruits ready for military training. This includes marching, learning ranks, taking care of uniforms, making military beds, getting in shape, understanding chain of command, and even the basics of shooting and fighting.

The second is to weed out kids who should have never come to junior military academy in the first place. Many New Bravaria cadets are court ordered to go. It is kind of insane, but any kid who becomes orphaned, gets into trouble, or simply ends up homeless with his or her family has a high chance of being shipped to the academy. If they don't have medical problems or serious mental issues, NBJMA ends up with them.

Cory whistled softly, "Blood's Honor takes in some reform school kids, but they have to actually apply for it and show in an interview they want to attend. We have a totally separate camp for kids who are court ordered to attend a military school, and only the toughest cadre handles them. I don't think any of the cadets even go onto the island other than to interview those who decide to apply for the real thing."

"I still don't see how this applies to rank and power." Terrin stated after a moment.

Jason frowned, "Because at BHJMA cadets, no matter what their rank, are basically treated equal by the cadre. At NBJMA, the higher ranking the cadet the better they are treated by the cadre. The academy has perks for higher ranking cadets including better rooms, better food, better recreation and even better frame equipment.

"We had separate mess halls for low enlisted, NCO's, senior NCO's, junior officers and senior officers. The same holds true for rooms, rec centers, and just about every other aspect of cadet life. Getting and keeping rank is a cut throat business at NBJMA. Backstabbing is the norm because rank is all important.

"As an officer, I had the right, and was expected to use low ranking cadets as servants. I didn't have to polish my shoes, make my bunk, iron my uniform, or even clean my room. Instead, I was expected to order others to do so."

"Wow." Cory took in a deep breath. "And higher ranks have it even better?"

"Oh Yeah." Tracy muttered in some disgust. "Captains and above are allowed to order lower ranking cadets to clean their frames including weapons, inner padding and even personal firearms. Majors and above get to have personal servants to take care of everything and anything they want. For three months, which is the longest a Major can keep the same cadet as a personal servant, I had to do his laundry, keep his locker up to inspection standards, and clean the inside of his cadet frame after he used it. Being any private rank at New Bravaria really sucks, cause not only do you have to take care of all your own stuff, you end up taking care of other cadets as well. The better you do the better your chances of getting promoted cause the officers have a big say on who gets slotted for higher ranks as they open."

Jason nodded, "Which means you have to step on toes and work behind the scenes to get rank. Making matters worse, the cadre expects those of higher rank to be hard on lower ranking kids. Shortly after I made Sergeant, I was told once by one of our combat instructors that it did not bode well for me getting higher rank because there was a Senior Private that got to the shower before I did. The reason for my being slow was I rearmed my frame for a night range operation the other kid didn't have.

"The instructor pointed out I should show some leadership by making him load my frame while I took the warmer water. Since I didn't, he held me back until everyone on my team showered and then made me go in and take a twenty minute shower when there was no warm water left. He stood there watching me shiver the whole time. To make matters worse, it was the middle of the winter and he even turned off the heat to the building. I then had to dress without any drying off since all the towels were already used. Finally, he took my coat and ordered me to walk the four kilometers back to the barracks, not run or jog. By the time I got there, my hair was a sheet of ice. It was the last time I let anyone lower ranking than me into the shower room before me."

"He took the towels too?" Cory asked in horror.

"He didn't need to." Tracy snickered. "They never provide enough towels. It is seen as a bonus to have a towel, and it doesn't take long for kids to figure out how to use their ranks to give them the best chance to get one, especially during the winter."

"As horrible as that sounds, what does it have to do with new recruits?" Terrin inquired after a few moments.

Tracy responded, "There are stages set up to make the new-bees understand power and command structure then break them and remold them into real cadets. The first two months is them seeing how the higher ranking cadets treat the lower ranking ones. This stage is called the days of hell. This is where the new recruits get to see, but not yet experience, what it is like to be under someone's command. The new-bees learn the basics of rank, making beds, marching and living in barracks while getting a firsthand view of higher ranking kids all but abusing lower ranking ones. Short of sending a lower ranking cadet to the hospital, the higher ranking cadets can do pretty much whatever they want."

"And a hospital visit is only a bad thing if there is a serious injury or the lower ranking cadet was forced to do something guaranteed to cause injury needing a doctor." Jason added. "Dozens of cadets go to the hospital each class. Many from stress and exhaustion, which means they fail."

Tracy nodded, "True, and any senior cadets who snap or fail to respond to orders fail. Failure means they get demoted to Private and sent back for one more year at the academy. Getting sent back will guarantee they will go through the following year at the bottom of the pecking order because there is no chance of them making it to even Sergeant. If they fail a second time, they are given a diploma as a graduate of the basic military school."

"Ouch!" Terrin proclaimed, "They don't even get a military college certificate?"

Jason sighed. "Nope. After years in the academy, they end up with nothing more than a high school diploma and a sheet of paper saying they have graduated with what amounts to basic training. They don't even get frame qualification paperwork.

"But it doesn't end after the first two months either. Those who survive the days of hell then get to turn their rage and frustration on the new recruits. The cadre expects the senior cadets to weed out at least half of the kids from each class. The next two months is called the time of trial. Only those who weed out more than fifty percent and have the left over new recruits ready for academy life get an academy graduation diploma with full frame qualification badges. Failure to do so means the remainder of the senior cadets get a military college graduate certificate with basic frame qualification."

Jason paused as he looked at the stunned faces of Terrin and Cory, "So you see, rank means a lot, cause that first two months your rank determines your pecking order. There have been multiple suicides in every graduation class since I have been at the academy. The pressure only goes away during the last two months when the remainder of the recruits start learning the finer points of cadet life and a few rise to the top and start earning rank. Which means those who paid attention learned how to do a bit of backstabbing on fellow trainees, while realizing they had to make those in command of them happy. It is a hard thing to master. Normally about twenty to thirty come out above a Private and three to five above a Senior Private. Those are the ones who the cadre keep an eye on as possible future leaders."

Tracy winked, "You should know Jason! You came out as a Bombardier after all."

"A what?" Cory asked.

Jason rolled his eyes, "Basically a Junior Corporal. It is the highest rank they allow a kid to come out of a recruit class with, but Tracy is using me to hide the fact she came out as a Senior Private, so she was only one rank under me. And yes, we were in the same recruit class. I was stupid enough to beg my parents to send me."

Tracy laughed, "And I took it as the lesser of two evils. My parents gave me the choice of military academy or an all girl's boarding school. Even when I was eight, I thought boys were cute."

Terrin tried to hold back a large smile, but failed after only a moment, "And now those eyes have settled squarely on Joel!"

Tracy's face flushed slightly but didn't hesitate to confirm the words, "Yeah, he is beyond cute. I just don't know why he doesn't like me."

Cory couldn't help but laugh, "It ain't that. He's just embarrassed by your clear interest in getting to know him better."


Tarrin also started laughing, "Because, although he is awesome in a frame and behind anything that shoots, he is not as perfect as the cadre like to think he is. He can command male or female cadets in combat training and in the real thing as we found out on Brile and here as well, but put him around girls in a social setting and he becomes a stuttering mess."

Tracy cocked her head to the side showing some surprise and even more interest. "Really? How cute!" Her eyes sparkled as she giggled.

Jason, Cory and Terrin all burst out laughing as they saw the gleam in Tracy's eyes. Even the sounds of the storm roaring outside tank were drowned out by the reverberation of the kids chortling inside the Dagger.

Name Rank Name Rank
Joel Price Maj Derek Mathis Sgt
Gabriel McCurdy SrLt Lawson O'Malley SrSgt
Brandon Scott Lt Paula Swartz Sgt
Jennifer Thompson Ens
Karen Black MCSgt

Brandon entered the captured machine and hit the airlock purge before climbing out of his frame. As he grabbed some cleaning supplies to wipe down the inside of his frame, Derek came in from crew compartment where the sounds of a grinder gave testament to the fact it was still being worked on. Brandon nodded thanks as the older boy passed over a tray of hot food.

Just as he started to return to frame maintenance, he heard a slight sigh escape Derek's lips. He quickly dropped the wipe-down cloth and looked up. "What's wrong?'

Derek, who had already turned to leave, glanced over his shoulder somewhat surprised by the question. Realizing Brandon's eyes were fixed on him, he turned to face the slightly younger and considerably skinnier boy. "It's no big deal sir. I need to get back and finish cooking."

"Hey you're a great cook and it is greatly appreciated, but take a break and let the others fend for themselves for a bit. I've been around you now for over two days but haven't heard you say anything outside of the kitchen."

"There's nothing to say sir."

"Oh, come on." Brandon eyed Derek with a degree of annoyance, "We're supposed to be a team. To act as one we have to get to know each other better. I mean we've all gotten to know Lawson pretty well, but you and Paula remain a huge mystery to most of us. Your actions on Andar helped get us and hundreds of other cadets off in one piece so you must have some thoughts about this whole mess."

Derek took in a deep breath and let out another sigh, "That's the problem. All I see is a mess! I think sticking us out here like this is really stupid. We ain't ready for this none!"

"The cadre seems to think we are."

"So? Are the cadre always right?"

"Probably not, but I haven't seen them screw up too badly yet."

"Then explain to me why they are doing this?"

"Doing what?"

Derek rolled his arm in a big circle, "All of this! Look around and open your eyes for a minute! We are stranded on a world with nowhere safe to turn. Everywhere there is something that wants to kill us!"

Brandon scratched his chin and lightly shook his head, "I don't have a great explanation for this, but I can assure you none of the Blood's Honor cadre would allow this if they first didn't think we could handle it and second have a really good reason for it. Instead of looking at all the bad from our side, take a look at the bad from command's eyes."

"Bad for command? What do you mean?"

Brandon kind of tossed up his hands. "I guess being the son of a general allows me to see things in a different light. What I'm really trying to say is, look around and see everything Blood's Honor has poured into allowing this to happen at all."

Derek paused as Karen came in and interrupted the conversation, "Great cooking again. You're awesome."

"Thanks. I wish I could do other things half as well."

"Like what?"

"Like see this in the same way you guys are." Derek muttered as he leaned against the bulkhead.

Brandon's frown deepened. "We were talking about why we are here. Derek seems to think BHJMA really screwed up by putting us on this rock.

"I tend to agree." Karen stated showing some of her own concerns. "But I don't think it has as much to do with the academy as it does with BH command.

Derek glanced over with a raised eyebrow. "Why?"

"It stinks of special ops people sticking their noses in were they don't belong. There is so much secret stuff in those briefings; it could only have come from the highest corners of government and high command. Joel's dad is a master of special and covert ops, but there is almost no chance he knew half the information we now have before this mission was planned. Someone high up, possibly as high as Gabriel's mom had to authorize the release of information to us and set everything in motion for any of this to happen."

Brandon cocked his head to the side. "Very true. I don't know if my father even has access to such classified information. He probably does, but your right Karen. Which leads me to the other point I was about to make when you came in."

"Which is?" Derek asked showing an increase in curiosity.

"Simple." Brandon spoke slowly trying to sort out his words. "I was saying BH has put a heck of a lot into us being here. This mission is costing Blood's Honor a fortune. They established a full base camp with an Iron Fist class Command PLC. They lost a PLC bringing in the special supplies. They blew up part of the base we were staying at. They equipped us with top of the line hover tanks, gave us frames of very high quality, and dropped extra pods if we need them with top of the line frames and supplies.

"BH is extremely wealthy and they have the whole planet of Forest Garden to back them plus businesses on dozens of other worlds, but they put this whole thing together at a time where we are at war. There are a lot of valuable resources being tied up on a basically dead, machine infested, world. All this equipment and manpower could certainly be helpful to those on the front lines and the cadre we had with us here are amongst the best mid grade field commanders BHJMA has. They could have been leading brand new graduates into battle against Talborne instead of teaching sixteen kids who still have at least four years of school left before we graduate."

"So, I'm not the only one who thinks we're missing something?" Karen asked after a couple of minutes of silence.

Brandon licked his lips to moisten them, "I think we are missing a few things which we should probably have picked up on, but that is were Joel and Gabriel come in. If there is something we have overlooked, those two will find it.

"What I am really saying is, BH had other reasons behind this than just us being safe and getting to prove ourselves."

Brandon half snickered. "Granted, I am sure everything we have been told is true. My dad and Joel's dad always say the best way to hide a covert mission is to cloak it within a real one. And like it or not, this is a feasible mission. It is designed to keep us secluded and away from assassins, which are very difficult to spot. Instead, they replaced the extremely difficult to notice danger of a trained killer with a much easier to spot and easier to deal with machines and critters.

"Besides, if we screw up all we are going to do is blow up a few trees, dirt and sand. If there was a screw-up on a security detail on Forest Garden, there could be heavy collateral damage. There is another secret operation that this is covering for, and because so many of us have parents high up in BH, no one is really paying attention to the resources being allotted to us."

Karen nodded slowly. "Good points. Even the mission they gave us is perfect for what they want. It is designed to take us weeks or even months. It gives us very valuable hands on experience in survival, self discipline, and team work plus it puts us on the hot seat as a kind of payback for all the bragging we did once we got back to Forest Garden."

Derek chewed on the inside of his lip for a few seconds, "But you both think there is more going on than just this mission?"

Brandon nodded, "I have no doubt about it. We are pawns in some bigger game."

Karen shook her head, "Pawn is the wrong word. We are not meant to be expendable. BHJMA and BH Command would never purposefully put a cadet in a situation were death is probable."

"It may not be probable, but it sure is possible." Derek responded.

"Death is possible in training." Brandon countered almost instantly. "A much as BHJMA tries to prevent serious injuries and fatalities there are a few every year. However, if you really look at it, there is a better chance of dying outside the academy than as a cadet in it. BH takes care of the cadets. We get the best medical, better food than most kids in the galaxy could hope to have, and have more life skills than most adults."

Derek begrudgingly agreed with a light snort. "OK, I'll give you that, but if we are not pawns then what are we?"

Karen kind of shrugged her shoulders. "I think we are just a convenient cover for something Brandon's and Joel's dad cooked up, probably along with Gabe's mom."

Brandon snickered, "Don't act so innocent Karen. Your parents very well could have their fingers in this as well."

Karen grinned, "Probably."

"You think we are a giant cover story? All this for some stupid cloak and dagger crap?"

Karen couldn't help but giggle. "And a perfect cloak we are, since no one would suspect parents would use their own kids to hide anything, especially our parents. I probably should be mad, but actually I think it's brilliant on our parents' parts cause we all keep on telling them we can be given more responsibility. This gives us a chance to prove it and if we screw up they have the perfect ace up their sleeve to shut us up. But they would prefer us to do the shutting up. They would love nothing more than us to succeed so those who see us as academy darlings will no longer have any leg to stand on."

"Agreed." Brandon countered, "Which is why we have the equipment we have and supply points to fall back to if needed or even wanted. It also means whatever is going on is very important to BH and Forest Garden, maybe in the whole of the New Frontiers Coalition."

"Oh, come off it! Are you really trying to tell me, a multi-planetary alliance is counting on a group of kids to be its heroes? What a load of bullshit."

"Don't take it so lightly," Karen hardened. "and kindly watch your language. We are still BH cadets after all."

Derek rolled his eyes, "For a academy with such a hard core rep you have some pretty sissy ass regulations."

"Not really." Brandon quickly backed up Karen. "BH officers and troopers have a fantastic reputation both on and off the battlefield because of rules like refraining from curse words. We are all going to cuss on occasion, my dad does and he is a General. But he also kicks himself every time he does it. As he once told me, actions speak louder than words, but the words we use say more about us than we realize. When BH crushes a military force and take a planet, the way we act and talk around civilians may help keep the peace. If we talk like barbarians and insult the wrong person, there is a better chance of a civilian joining or even starting a resistance movement."

"Come on, everyone expects troopers to have a toughness to them."

"True." Karen agreed, "But as my mom keeps pointing out to me, there is nothing tough about a foul mouth. Besides, what is so impressive about spewing out tainted words?"

Derek glanced back and forth with some frustration, "But everyone does it!"

"Yeah," Brandon agreed slowly, "which does not make it right. BH simply has a higher standard than you are used to. It'll take some time to get used to, but it would be in your better interest to do so. Extra duties are handed out for excessive cursing at the academy."

Derek took a deep breath, "A higher standard… That's what the cadre told me when they stuck me on guard duty for two straight weekends just before we left for this fu… this rock. I'll tell you, Black Jungle Academy was nothing like Blood's Honor's. Grades were important, but above grades was toughness. Rank was given out for being the biggest and baddest cadet who could also keep a decent military bunk and uniform.

"You guys don't even have fist fights between you all. It's crazy!"

"Fist fights between cadets is normal in Black Jungle's academy?" Karen half gasped.

"Hell Yeah… I mean Heck yes." Derek mentally kicked himself by briefly shaking his head. "Black Jungle cadre ain't nothing like Blood's Honor's. They don't just want smart cadets they want tough ones that have taken a pounding or two. A fight between cadets, as long as they are close to the same rank is part of academy life. It's only broken up if one has clearly won, or there is a serious injury.

"Beating on a superior is not allowed unless the higher ranking kid takes off his rank, which is fully encouraged when disputes of a personal nature occur. One of the reasons I made Master Sergeant was I pounded the crap out of my Team Sergeant about half a dozen times. He finally stopped taking off his rank and they bumped my rank up to his so he couldn't hide behind his rank no more. Finally, he gave me the slot rather than fight me over his crappy decisions. They dropped his rank down to Senior Sergeant and gave me the Team Sergeant slot.

"Just before Andar, my team's XO broke his leg and they offered the slot to one of four Master Sergeants. Three were more senior then I was, but since I was already the Team Sergeant I was given a shot as well."

Karen glanced up, "Let me guess, they had you guys fight each other and the winner got the spot?"

Derek grinned, "Exactly!"

Brandon whistled softly, "How did it work? Were you all tossed into a pit to beat the crud out of each other?"

"No, it ain't like that at all. It starts as a round robin, where you have to fight each kid. Then the kid who did the best goes up against the kid who did the worst while the two in the middle take each other on in semi-final matches. Then the two winners go head to head. It took five days cause we were only allowed to fight once per day. I came out in third place, but I got to see how everyone fought. In the final, I did the last thing the best kid expected. I let him come at me, cause he was really good at hitting a dodging opponent; but he put too much effort into delivering big blows. So I simply let him wind up then kicked him in the jaw when he came in for the first attack instead of dodge. It stunned him enough to where I was able to kick the side of his knee and dislocated it. The whole fight took less than a minute."

"You dislocated his knee on purpose?"

"Hell… um heck yeah. They have good doctors and the cadre say they want us to take some nasty injuries. Ya know there was something I probably should tell everyone though."

"What?" Karen asked after a moment of silence.

Derek took a deep breath. "It seems to me, they failed to tell us just how much it hurts to get shot even when your frame armor doesn't breach."

Brandon let out a sharp breath, "No kidding, I had bruises a week after Ander!"

"Me too." Karen sighed, "And I think I was still feeling a couple of the harder hits even after we arrived back at Forest Garden. One of the larger laser hits almost knocked the wind out of me. Until then, I used to wonder why we had to go though so much physical training, now, though, I totally understand."

"Which may very well be why Black Jungle wants their cadets to get used to being in fist fights." Derek spoke in defense of his home academy. "Cause some of those hits I took were just like getting punched."

"In some twisted way, it makes sense." Brandon couldn't help but to agree after seeing the logic of what Derek was saying. "It is amazing how different our academies seem to teach, yet have the same goal."

Derek nodded slowly, "I think that is why I am having such a damned hard time fitting in."

"Darn hard time." Karen corrected him with a slight grin. "But don't beat up on yourself so much. You're doing just fine. By the time we head back, we'll have you thinking more like a BH cadet."

"Or I'll have you thinking more like one from Black Jungle." Derek managed to smile.

Brandon snickered, "Something tells me there will be a bit of both and we'll all end up better for it. To be honest, we could use some of your skills. You are not in one of the toughest groups of cadets.

An almost evil glint flashed across Derek's face. "Well between me and Paula, I'm sure we can fix that."

Karen raised an eyebrow. "I don't know, it sounds painful."

Brandon frowned, "Karen we can handle it. We're Blood's Honor!"

Karen clenched her fist and gave a hard nod, "True. Bring it on Derek, let's see how much you can teach us!"

Derek gave a satisfied nod as he put his e-suit hood on to head back to the kitchen. "Now there is the kind of response I wanted to hear!"

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