Castle Roland


by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 7

Published: 8 Apr 14


Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons

Unnatural Threats

A sudden almost eerie silence fell over the Dagger. Chip glanced up from his computer terminal and looked out the window, while Beth jerked her head up from the nap she was taking in the copilot seat.

Stella let out a giant sigh, "We just exited the storm wall, sir. We are officially out of the sand storm."

Chip took a deep breath, "Thank God! Which way is it moving?"

Beth did a quick computer check of the winds, "Angling away from us at about 8 kilometers an hour to the southwest sir. We are still getting some heavy gusts from the storm system though."

"OK, let's give ourselves a bit of distance then. Continue till we are half a kilometer clear and fire a single burst of the front machinegun to alert the others to stop."

Beth didn't hesitate, she verbally instructed the computer to give them an alert after half a kilometer. The second it did, she targeted the twin muzzles out of the arc of the lead Dagger and touched the trigger. Instantly, three high velocity rounds launched out of each muzzle and the digital counter showed each weapon had 2997 rounds left.

The lead Dagger halted within seconds of the shots being fired. Moments later the top hatch popped open and Tracy's head appeared behind the top turret mount. It took almost a minute for her to verify there were no external dangers before she jumped down and made her way over to the trailing hover tank.

Even though they were clear of the storm all three kids could see a few powerful gusts of wind hammer into Tracy's e-suit, one nearly knocked her down. Finally she made it to the Dagger and entered through the side door. The wind was still bad enough to where she had to push a button for the Dagger to hydraulically close the door cause she couldn't.

Finally she pulled her hood down and entered the main section of the tank. "Wow, what a blow!"

"No kidding." Chip replied with a bit of a nervous grin. "Any damage to your tank?"

"No, but the trailer didn't handle the storm too well. We could feel it starting to vibrate about 15 kilometers ago, but it hasn't gotten any worse so we figured we'd deal with it when we finally found the crash site. Why'd we move into the storm?"

"I spotted an armor lander going down and Chip ID'ed it as a Black Comet." Beth responded.

"A what?"

Stella let out a bit of an uneasy giggle, "The same type of lander Talborne's mercs used on Andar. Ensign Beck says lots of places use them, but Blood's Honor doesn't have them, so he decided to put any chance of being spotted out of the picture."

Tracy let out a sigh and slowly nodded, "I'd agree. Good call sir."

Chip grinned, "Thanks. According to the computer, we are in the outer edge of the search area now and there is almost no daylight left. Since we no longer have a cammo paint scheme though, we decided to find a hill and hide in the shade until it is totally dark then move out again. The problem is we're going to have to deal with one full moon and one two thirds full, so after some extra thought I decided to stay hidden until we can't reflect anything. I also want to stay under total ECM so there can't be even ultra short burst communication."

"Understood, sir." Tracy stated, clearly agreeing with him. "So, what are your orders?"

Chip though it over a second. "Stella, are there any ravines in the area?"

"No sir, but it looks like there is a very large stand of scrub trees about a kilometer to the east."

"Fine." He turned back to Tracy, "I want you to continue to be in the lead, cause we need to keep an eye on the fuel trailer. Head to the tree line and push in until you are totally under cover, but keep it real slow. I don't want a path of dust leading right to where are we are hiding and I want the leading edge of the grove to not be totally broken up so there isn't an obvious break in the tree line. We'll hold there till one of the tanks is at least non reflective then half of us will establish a base camp there with both trailers and the others will take out the covered tank to do a recon and try to find the crash site. The others can then do whatever they can to cover up the rest of our nice shiny equipment."

Tracy stood and secured the hood of her e-suit. "Sounds like a good plan sir."

As they heard the hydraulics close the outside door, Stella glanced back, "We could start a foot search from here, sir. We're pretty close to where Jason says the ship crashed."

Chip frowned, "I don't know... There could be a machine out there!" He glanced over to Beth, "What do you think?"

"It might not be a bad idea. We can carry heavy weapons just in case, and, if we spot one, simply try to avoid it. Besides, we all can't paint and cover the Daggers. We don't have enough equipment for it."

Chip chewed on his lip for a moment then leaned back as the Dagger once again lifted off the ground and started angling toward the trees. "OK, maybe that isn't such a bad plan, but, if we're going to do this, I am going out."

"Sir, you are…"

Chip made a slicing motion with his left hand cutting Stella off. "I am the best shot out here and I am probably the sneakiest outdoors."

"True," Beth countered, "But you're also the smallest, and, like it or not, the weakest. You'll tire out fast having to carry a heavy weapon."

"Not really." Chip grinned, "It's not like a long hike where I have to carry a backpack and all the other stuff. All we'll have is a light day pack, side arm, stunner, and I'll be taking my quark rifle with an extra battery pack. There shouldn't be much reason to take more."

"You'll only have 30 shots and you'll still be carrying over 15 kilos, Chip."

"I can do a 20 kilometer hike with full combat gear, which is over 25 kilos, so I'll be fine. Besides, if I need more than 30 shots with a quark rifle, then there is a major problem." He glanced over to Stella, "Who in your group is the best out in the field?"

Stella glanced over her shoulder. "Jason is the strongest and the best shot out of the three of us, but, in wilderness survival, you'd be better off taking Tracy; she ain't a bad shot either."

"OK…" Chip was clearly not thrilled with the idea of being alone with Tracy, but he figured he'd deal with it. "While I scout with Tracy I want to get us organized and ready again. The second we get stopped I want one crew on clean up. Even with filters and covers we're going to have sand everywhere. The second crew I want on paint detail. I'll let Brandon decide who is doing what and he is in command until I get back."

"What about Candice?" Beth asked after a few moments.

"Let her be. She asked for 48 hours, so we'll give it to her. You'll still have to go in to the sleeping compartment and clean it, but make sure it's last since it has been shut tight the whole way through the storm. There isn't going to be much sand, if any, in there. Beth, I'd prefer you handle that since you are one of her best friends."

Beth smiled and gave a thumb's up just as the lead Dagger disappeared into the tree line. "Looks like you spotted some good cover, Stella!"

Stella nodded as she pushed forward with a little extra power to knock the trees on the edge of the tree line down. "Yeah, but it's pretty dense. We'll have to watch out for wildlife in here."

Chip took a deep breath, "Yeah, we better have two on clean up and two on paint and cammo duty while the other stands guard." He paused and looked around, "You know we really are kind of limited on manpower with only 8 of us. Eventually we're going to have to figure out a rotation of guards, sleeping, duties, and even PT while at the same time figuring out a way to accomplish the mission."

"Jason already wondered about that." Stella stated with a concerned tone, "He saw that about five minutes after he saw the briefing."

"Then he should have said something." Chip growled as the tank finally stopped. Shaking his head in frustration he slipped on his environmental suit and grabbed a basic field pack and his favorite heavy weapon off the wall. Once he secured the gear and added an extra battery pack for his quark rife to the shoulder strap of the very heavy rifle he exited the tank slamming the door behind him.

"What did I say wrong?" Stella asked totally perplexed.

Beth turned sharply, "If you all had such a conversation, why is this the first time we are hearing about it?"

Stella held up her hands, "Cause you all should have seen it."

"Your right, we should have. But we didn't and you all did. We are supposed to be a team, working together for a team goal."

"But it isn't the place of a junior level person to make a higher one look good."

"Really?" Beth responded with a glare in her eyes. "You had no problem opening your mouth to suggest we send out foot patrols to search the area."

"Cause I want some real equipment and possibly a frame!" Stella half yelled, "What's so wrong about that?"

"Nothing, other than the fact your suggestion was all about being selfish and had nothing to do with the betterment of this team. You all seem to do so way more often than is safe or practical. Besides, it hurts team unity and cohesion."

Stella opened her mouth, but realized she had nothing to counter with. Finally she lowered her voice, "But, at New Bravaria, it was better to do what you thought best and show the cadre what you were thinking. If it turned out you were smarter than your superior you had a better chance of getting a promotion."

Beth raised her eyebrow and shook her head for side to side as if trying to clear it. "That is the most insane thing I have ever heard. In Blood's Honor, the group is the most important and supporting the commander of the group you are with is all that matters. In your way of doing things, you could get someone killed all in the name of trying to get a higher rank!"

Stella frowned as she though it over, "Huh, interesting, I can see where you are coming from. At the same time, though, you can't be expected to blindly follow a bad commander. They did say the commander's orders are law in combat, so they covered their butts, but made it clear some self initiative was a good thing as well. The Cadre also made sure we knew we had to follow orders in combat but not to the point of being suicidal. I've never looked at it quite like you are. I have to say not only are you right about getting someone killed, but it was exactly what they taught us. The other weird thing for us is this whole saving lives focus you have at BH was hardly ever touched on at NB."

Beth rubbed her forehead forcing her self to calm not only her voice, but also her anger. "You won't get far at BH doing things the New Bravaria way."

Stella slowly and uncomfortably nodded agreement, "Yeah, I can tell.' She stood, "Look I'm sorry…"

Beth half waved her arm and flipped her wrist dismissing the conversation. "Something tells me we're all going to have to make some adjustments over the next few days before we really get to be a unified team." She sighed then changed the subject. "Do you want paint or cleaning detail?"

Stella shook her head slightly, "I guess neither is not a good answer?"

Beth's mood changed as she snickered, "Actually it's a great answer, cause I'm thinking the same thing."

Stella managed a light grin, "At least we don't see everything differently." She glanced around, "But, to be honest, if you're giving me a choice, I'll take cleaning cause a shower will take care of me afterwards. With vehicle paint, I'll need a sonic shower and they always leave me itching."

Beth raised an eyebrow, "Candice always complains about itching after a sonic shower too. I've never been bothered by them though."

Brandon entered the tank at the tail end of the conversation. "Bothered by what?"

Beth pointed to Stella, "She says the sonic showers do the same thing to her as they do to Candice, so, between the duties we have, she'd like clean-up."

"Sounds reasonable." Brandon nodded, "Then you're with Cory and you're with me on paint, Beth. I put Jason on guard.

Stella stood, "Fine, but you should paint in some of those spare light e-suits so you guys don't mess up your heavies."

Brandon and Beth exchanged quick glances, showing neither had thought it through very well. Brandon was first to respond. "Good thinking. Thanks!"

"We just had a conversation about pointing out things we see, something we really aren't used to doing."

Brandon nodded, "We had the same chat with Jason on our way here. We'll all get on the same page, it'll just take time." He nodded to Beth, "I'm going to switch so I'll meet you at the other tank."

"Sure." Beth glanced over her shoulder, "Do you really think Chip and Tracy were the best choices to go out on foot?"

Brandon shook his head, "No, I think it should have been Jason and Candice, or Jason and Stella. They are the strongest and most athletic."

"So why…"

"Because he is in command and it is his decision. I'm sure they'll be fine." Brandon grinned, "Besides, he probably just didn't want to stick around here where the hard work is being done."

Beth rolled her eyes as she got ready for paint detail, "And most of the trip he was trying to tell us how much he hated being in command. It seems to me like he found it ain't so bad after all!"

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

Joel glanced back at Paula who had finally stepped back from giving him a shoulder rub. She flexed her fingers and nodded. "End briefing playback."

The two kids looked at the holographic image of Brile with satisfied grins. Simply listening had proved to be a gold mine as both of them started seeing a whole host of buried clues. Each one led to adjustments to areas to target for search.

Joel finally broke the silence. "Wow, you're awesome."

Paula shrugged, "Actually I think you deserve most of the credit of this Joel. I'm not used to being second best in anything, but your ability to find all those clues is incredible!"

Joel stood and stretched, "You found the biggest one. The mention of the file on all weapons used by the Ultras allowed us to unlock the files my dad put in there that gave us the most important part, the speed of the heavy missile. Since there was only one Ultra with heavy missiles on Brile, and the design it built traveled at mach 3.89 the circle is actually 3617.7 kilometers in radius from the base. I was off by more than 100 kilometers."

"But way closer than any of us could have hoped to be." Paula glanced at the holographic image and sighed, "Even with everything we noticed we have a lot of ground to cover. We still have a score of areas of high magnetic interference that touches the circle and we could still be off by 10 to 20 kilometers either side of the arc we have as our starting point. Plotting those variables actually gives us two more locations to search. We have thousands of kilometers to travel to each area and about 2800 square kilometers to actually search."

"I know, but it is less than 10% of what we were looking at before.

"Oh, trust me, I realize the work you did here was worth every second.

"The work we did, Paula, not just me." He flashed her a brief grin. "I'll give it another shot later, but, right now, I need to go do something. I've had about all the sitting I can take."

Paula giggled. "You need to learn to focus your mind better. You cannot sit still very long."

"Yeah, I tend to get bored quickly. It used to drive my parents crazy cause new toys were only interesting for a few days at most."

"Well, you originally planned to take Lawson out and recon the old drilling station. Maybe you should go do it. I will play the briefing and explain what we found to the others. I am sure they will have additional thoughts."

A huge smile spread across Joel's face, "Now there is an awesome idea."

Paula watched as he quickly jumped into his eco-suit and exited the tank. She grinned as she spoke out loud to herself. "Teaching him blade and throwing weapon skills is going to be a challenge."

She took a few minutes to set up the briefing and had the computer go back through to mark each time Joel had ordered the briefing to halt. She then did the same to the times she had done the same thing. All told the two of them had located 14 clues, 9 by Joel and 5 by her. She then had the computer go though and reverse the hologram and the overlay of the circle. By the time she exited the back of the Dagger she saw Joel and Lawson disappearing over the hill.

Gabriel noticed the direction she was looking, "It didn't take him long to get framed up did it."

"No sir." She chanced a smile and a light joke, "I think those two are really brothers separated at birth or something."

Gabriel grinned, "Tell me about it! After being Joel's best friend all these years, I'm starting to get jealous."

Brandon came over with Jennifer and Karen, "Joel said you were going to lead a meeting?"

Paula's normal stony features reappeared instantly. "Yes sir. Joel drastically narrowed down the search for the machine base, but is hoping you all might find ways to cut it down even further."

Brandon's eyebrow shot up, "He said you played a large role and this meeting is actually your idea. Go ahead and take some credit already!"

Paula sighed, "OK. We thought it would be a good idea for everyone to take a crack at finding extra ways to narrow the search down more than the Major and I did." She paused and stared at Brandon, "Happy now sir?"

Brandon nodded, "As a matter of fact I am." He grinned, "I'd be even happier if just once you would put rank aside and allow a non-formal sounding conversation."

Paula took a deep breath, "You really are pushing your luck sir. Major Price also wants me to start working on an unarmed training class."

Gabriel's face twisted into a sly smirk, "Ohhh, is that a veiled threat at a superior?"

Paula put on a mean looking smile. "Yes sir, it was."

"Good." Brandon snickered. "I'd have been disappointed if it wasn't."

Paula smiled in earnest, "You know I could make it a promise if you would prefer Brandon."

"If it helps you to feel more part of the unit, I'll deal with whatever you can toss at us."

"Don't encourage her, Lieutenant." Derek spoke up as he made his way over to the group. "She is a demon in the combat pit."

"Demoness, I am still female, after all." Paula lightly joked as she made a lightning quick poke at Derek.

Derek tried to block, but, before he realized what had happened, her other hand connected with his chest and knocked him down.

Derek jumped back up and knocked some of the dirt off of his eco-suit, "One of these days I AM going to beat you, Paula. It's gunna happen!"

"I look forward to it." Paula stated with absolutely no sign of haughtiness. "Actually, I hope all of you will, before we leave here, at least beat me once in a while. Joel wants all of his command team to be able to use a katana, throwing daggers, and stars as well."

Derek suddenly looked a great deal more interested, "If you can get us to pass the tests so we can carry them, then being on this damned rock will be worth every second, no matter how much it ends up hurting!"

Gabriel nudged Derek, "Good spirit, but watch the language."

Derek kicked the ground, "Crud! Sorry 'bout that."

"You are way better with it than you were when we first came here." Paula consoled him.

"Yeah, well extra duties suck, so I learned how to bite my tongue around the cadre." Derek glanced up in the direction Joel and Lawson had disappeared, "You know I would have loved to be out there. I hate meetings."

Paula nodded, "I think we all do, but once you see what Joel's efforts with a bit of input from me did to the search area, I think you are going to actually find this one interesting. Besides, while you were out on patrol with Ensign Thompson… Jennifer, he spent several hours wracking his brain trying to narrow our search. He needs a break."

Jennifer grinned, "Hey, I'm impressed, I didn't even know you knew my first name."

"Oh, I know all your names, it is just difficult for me to get used to using them. I will need a few pokes and prods but I promise to work at being more friendly."

"If there is anything we can do to help, let us know." Karen stated as she looked over the camp. "Who should we have on guard, Gabriel?"

"I haven't pulled a shift in quite a while," Gabriel responded after a moment of thought, "I'll hook into your briefing from topside and put your displays into the corner of my HUD so I can see what you have come up with. Besides Jen and Derek did a spiral out all the way to 15 kilometers and came up with absolutely nothing so I don't see any reason to have more than one of us on guard duty at a time out here."

Brandon nodded, "Probably, but I'll park my frame in the back and keep it powered on standby just in case. All I'll have to do is drop the assault ramp and jump in, so a fully powered up back up will be only a few seconds away,"

Gabriel snapped his fingers, "You know we should talk to Joel about working all guard duties like that. It would allow us to have only one guard while the second could remain on standby but basically resting. Instead of having two people out for six hours we could go three hours out and three hours rest, with a set rotation it would give everyone only 3 hours of actual guard duty a day."

"Nice!" Karen almost shouted, "We'll see what Joel thinks when he gets back, but it sure sounds like a great plan."

"If you went to a four hour and four hour it would work even better cause then one person would get a full day off every 7 days." Paula interjected. "It would also make it easier for me to work up the training routine for unarmed and blade combat Major Price wanted me to put together. I think it would also allow the person on guard to be more alert since he will be alone and would know the rest of us are depending on him to do his job."

Gabriel played with it in his mind for a moment. "Excellent point. I like your scheme even better. Hopefully Joel will as well." He paused then turned to Paula, "It's your show from here."

Paula pointed to the back hatch of the Dagger, "We might as well get this party started then."

An hour and a half later Paula paused the briefing so everyone could take a break. As they piled out of the tank and stretched, she glanced up to the turret where Gabriel was keeping watch, "You didn't say much, sir."

"Not much to say. I certainly didn't pick up on anything you guys missed and the search area is vastly smaller than it was 8 hours ago." Gabriel looked down over the whole group, "What about the rest of you?"

Derek glanced around for a second, then looked over to Gabriel, "Sir, I don't mean to change the subject, but something has been bugging me and since most of us are here this might be a good time to bring it up."

Gabriel gestured with his hand for Derek to continue.

Derek chewed his lip nervously for a moment before he took a deep breath and started speaking. "Look, I know I'm not the smartest kid here so I'm probably overlooking something but I need to see if any of you have wondered about the machine getting and sending messages?"

The others all looked at each other kind of confused for a moment before Karen finally broke the silence. "I think all of us have been thinking about it, Derek. The very chance an Ultra may be controlling the machines is frankly scaring the crud out of me."

The others all nodded as Karen paused and glanced around, "I think all of us are."

Derek shook his head, "I'm not talking about the Ultra… well I guess I kinda am, but…" he took a long breath, "It's just… Oh never mind." He started to turn to reenter the Dagger.

Brandon reached out and stopped him by grabbing his shoulder, "Hold up Derek. Talk this out so we can all hear your thoughts on this. Did we overlook something?"

Derek clenched his fists in frustration, "I think so, but I can't really find the right words."

Paula cocked her head to the side, "You communicate best when in the middle of doing something, like fighting. We've all seen how good you are at taking control when things are tough, but when just talking you do not do so well. Why?"

"Cause you guys are smarter than me!"

"No we aren't" Jennifer countered, "If we were, I would not have felt like I was being schooled when we were out on patrol. The fact is you are probably up to par with any one of us and somewhat better in a few key areas. The problem is you just keep looking at the group instead of individuals. Any group is going to be better than one member of it. Forget about how it seems we are doing better than you in some areas. The only reason we are is we get help from the whole group while you try to take on everything alone. Just tell us what you have noticed about the machines and the probable Ultra."

Derek took a moment to look each member of his new squad in the eyes before he slowly nodded, "OK, maybe I have been seeing myself as the dumb one for no reason."

"You're not dumb." Gabriel cut in, "Blood's Honor only gives those who are both physically and mentally gifted a shot at Command College. No matter how skilled, you would not be given a chance unless you had the brain power to hold your own in the testing."

"Fine, so I just feel stupid when I am around you guys." Derek rolled his eyes, "But the testing about kicked my butt."

"Mine too." Paula chimed in. "Don't think you were alone in feeling overwhelmed. I actually thought I failed after the testing was over."

"Every Command College cadet says the same thing." Brandon commented. "I remember my dad telling me to man up and stop crying after my last day of testing cause I thought I failed as well. So forget about the testing and tell us what is bugging you about the machines."

Derek tossed up his hands, "It's not the machines or the Ultra that is bothering me, it is the communication between them."

"Yeah, that is the whole point of being worried, isn't it?" Karen asked.

Derek started to speak but stopped as his frustration started to grow again. He gritted his teeth and glared at Karen, "No shit."

Karen started to say something but Derek cut her off, "Just shut up for a minute. You wanted to hear me out, so let me speak."

Karen held out her hands and took a step back.

Derek hardened, "Like I said, I'm kind of confused by this so it's hard to put into words, but what I'm trying to figure out is how they are sending and receiving messages without Blood's Honor or anyone else picking up on it. I mean the whole reason we were told not to send out an encrypted burst even for emergency help to the PLC up there is the chance it will be intercepted. But it seems BH and numerous companies have no clue the machines have been chatting back and forth across a whole planet for decades, how is that possible?"

Total silence fell over the others as they blankly looked back and forth at each other. Derek glanced around for a full minute before speaking again, "Well?"

Brandon finally answered, "Well, it seems you were the only one of us thinking along those lines. Jen, why haven't we picked up signs of radio communications between the machines and the Ultra or even an IFF carrier wave?"

Jennifer put her hand up to her chin and slowly shook her head, "I have no clue…"

"Was Lawson right about it having an IFF?" Gabriel asked after a moment.

Paula spoke up instantly, "Absolutely. It is sending one out, but I didn't get to a point of figuring out how it was transmitting the information. I just know it is. It is also getting some, because the IFF code has updated since Lawson built the circuit. We also know the Ultra homes into our radio broadcasts and can direct machines in on them. It must be able to triangulate and do so quickly to see the kind of reaction we got when we tried to talk to the other squad…"

"Wow…" Jennifer interjected, "Derek, you're right. We have been overlooking a very important element to all of this."

"Not just us." Gabriel whispered as he looked skyward, staring at one of Brile's moons, "All of BH, all of the galaxy has been. Paula, Jen, and Karen. I want the three of you to get with Lawson and figure out how this communication is happening, and a way to trace it if possible. The answer is probably in the machine."

Karen shook her head, "It probably is Gabe, but we don't want to mess with it cause it seems to still be in the loop and getting updates. We want it as a decoy. What we need to do is to capture another one and dig into the comm system to see how it works and why we haven't noticed any radio messages for them or the Ultra."

"Well it must work off of some kind of regular radio transmission doesn't it?" Derek asked.

"Why does it?" Gabriel responded. "We don't have any proof."

"Because the ECM seems to jam its abilities to send and receive." Derek fired back. "So it is some kind of electronic signal blocked by our ECM."

Brandon pointed over to Gabriel, "I think he has you there."

"Agreed." Gabriel let out a short nervous chuckle, "Nice call all the way around, Derek. The second Joel gets back we will start working on a plan to dig deeper and find out how the machines get updates and information. For now, though, we should put it on hold while we see what else Paula and Joel worked out and see what other insights we can come up with."

Tracy shifted her pack as she knelt at the top of the hill, "I still don't understand why we have to carry a sonic stunner when there ain't no people here. It just adds an extra kilo to carry."

Chip raised an eyebrow. "First off, there are people here. A lander did crash and it had to come from somewhere. Second, and far more important, is all BH personal, cadet or otherwise must carry a stun weapon at all times. Use of lethal force must be minimized whenever possible."

"They didn't on Andar."

"No, WE didn't. There was basically no choice if we were to get off world with as many cadets and civilians as we did. However, we did use the stunners in our frames when we took the repair depot. I think we only killed a couple and captured over a dozen infantry."

"I can't say the same thing about the refit station we took."

"You didn't have stunners on your frames, either. We did."

"True." Tracy shrugged, "But even if we had, I'm not sure we would have used them. We had to secure it fast and then hold it against an armor unit." She again adjusted her pack, "I guess my biggest problem is I have never had to carry this much while wearing a heavy eco-suit before. I just can't make it comfortable."

Chip snickered, "You'll get used to it. BH makes us do it several times a year." He glanced over and pointed to her ammo pack, "Your satchel is sliding around and hitting your butt pack. Since you are carrying magnetically propelled gauss rounds you can use that to your advantage. Increase your magnetic field slightly until the suit holds the rounds in place for you. Your satchel won't slide as long as the rounds are stuck to the side of your suit. Just keep it low enough to where it doesn't pull on your gauss rifle and remember to drop the magnetic field if we get into combat so you can easily grab your spare ammo."

It took a few seconds for Tracy to get the settings to a comfortable level. Once she did, she nodded in appreciation. "Interesting trick. What's the down side?"

Chip shrugged, "Not much with this type of patrol, but, on a long one, it does use more power so you would have to recharge about an hour before anyone not using the extra power output."

"So I have about nine instead of ten hours?"

"Yeah, but I have no intention of being out for more than eight at most, so we should be fine. It'll kind of suck if we have to stop and recharge because it'll take a huge amount of time since the only light is moonlight and all we have is illumination rechargers in our packs."

Tracy started to stand but quickly dropped back down, grabbing Chip as she went.

"What the…" Chip started only to see Tracy pointing to the north east. Chip scanned the area for almost 20 seconds before he spotted a glint off of something metallic. A moment later he picked up a dust trail. "Crap! I missed it, thanks."

Tracy gave Chip a playful wink, "No problem, sir."

Chip rolled his eyes, "I thought you were interested in Joel."

"I am, but you're cute too."

Chip's face turned a deep crimson. To hide the sudden flush he felt in his cheeks, he turned to study the dust for a few seconds and changed the subject. "It's a hover."

Tracy snickered, "Oh, don't start pulling the shy type on me, sir. I know better." She paused and turned serious, "And I agree, the dust is coming out from the sides as well as leaving a trail."

"It's moving awfully slow, but, from here, I can't ID, can you?"

"Negative. It's churning up too much dust. We're probably half a click from getting a decent ID chance." Tracy studied its movement for a few moments, "I wonder why it is moving so slow and staying out in the open down there."

"Maybe it is searching for the same thing we are."

Tracy growled, "Oh, that would be bad. The way I see it is we can either stay behind this low hill and circle or move at an angle keeping some of these scrub bushes between it and us."

"I'd prefer the first, but the second is probably the better option since there is no way we would be able to see if it changes directions from behind the hill." He paused and pulled up a map. "On the other hand, according to the satellite maps we have there is a rocky valley just beyond the next hill with heavier woods and a small lake. It is also marks the edge of Jason's most probable search area. Maybe we should just bypass the hover and push on."

"I'd hate to have it come up from behind us if it's one of those machine tanks. I'd prefer to get a positive ID first, sir."

Chip let out a long breath, "I'd have to agree with you, but we move slow and keep it in sight at all times. The last thing I want to do is lose track of it as we close in. Remember, if it's a hover machine, it'll be armed with an old tech sonic cannon which gives us a huge range advantage, but our eco-suits would be lucky to withstand more than a pair of hits from it and we'll feel it pretty bad. Also, make sure to turn on the internal sound dampener so it doesn't blow an eardrum if it does hit."

Tracy nodded, "Yeah, getting hit while in a frame is bad enough. Since Joel's squad verified they home into radio signals and we won't hear talking with the dampeners on, we'll have to use hand signals so keeping eye contact a few times a minute is going to be important. I gather you want point?"

"Yup." Chip flashed a quick grin. "Wouldn't want it any other way."

Tracy let out a light snort as Chip started moving down the hill at an angle. She waited until he dropped to a knee behind a pair of large grayish tinged rocks before she moved. Once she got close Chip once again moved further down the slope.

She watched the way Chip moved with a degree of surprise. For the smallest and youngest in the group, the boy's abilities to move rapidly without stirring much dust, if any, was pretty amazing. The fact he was doing so with a pretty heavy combat load made it even more impressive. After almost 20 minutes she noticed Chip take a knee and motion for her to close all the way in as he readied his quark rifle.

Tracy caught up quickly and duplicated Chip's stance by dropping on her left knee, while readying her gauss rifle. "It's still putting up too much dust for me to get a good ID."

"That last gust of wind gave me a decent view for a moment. It's a hover machine, but it has a problem with its front right fan. It's listing pretty bad, which is why it's stuck in this shallow valley and moving so slowly. Also, I started noticing some static in my HUD about 5 minutes ago. There is some kind of ECM active in the area."

"It could be one of those high magnetic areas we were warned about on the pre-landing briefing too, sir."

Chip glanced over with a degree of doubt. "Possible, but it's acting exactly like what I've seen when on the outer edge of an ECM field."

Tracy shrugged, "I guess it doesn't matter. The real question is, do you want to engage?"

Chip grinned.

"I'll take that as a yes. You do remember the point of this was to find the crash and not get into a fight?"

"Yeah, I do, but what do you want to do?"

Begrudgingly Tracy tossed up her hands, "Like you, I want to kill it."

"I kinda thought so. Are you up for a bit of a challenge?"

"Probably. What do you have in mind?"

"Ever since I found out we were coming here and what was here I have wondered how smart these machines really are. Is it really intelligent and how smart is it if it is." Chip paused and looked at Tracy straight in the eyes. "In simple terms I want to test its AI."

Tracy raised an eye brow. "How exactly do you plan to test artificial intelligence?"

Chip wiped the ground, clearing an area of loose rocks so he could draw in the dirt. "I want to separate by enough distance to where we seem like two different threats. I'll move down to those boulders to the north and hunker down there. I want you to slide along this hill and get behind the rocky outcropping to the south of us.

"I'll shoot first since I have, by far, the longer ranged weapon. With any luck, I'll be able to get a couple of shots into it before it realizes where I'm at."

"What about me?"

"Don't worry. I'll wait for you to get into position, so I know we can still use hand signals before I open fire. Once it realizes there is a threat from behind and turns on me, I want you to open up fire. I'll stop shooting until it tracks back toward you, then you stop and I'll start firing again."

"What if it doesn't track back on me?"

"Then I'll move up hill keeping the boulders between me and it, until its weapon is out of range then turn and shoot the crap out of it while you continue to fire at it from extreme range. One way or another it will give us an idea on how it thinks."

"Sounds reasonable. It'll only take me a couple of minutes to get over there."

"Take your time. You don't want to dislodge anything that will get its attention."

"Good point." Tracy stated as she started to move along the rocky hill side. Twice she paused to check back on the position of the machine and Chip. Once again she was astonished how quickly he had moved compared to her own progress, yet both times he was looking her way and was ready with an 'all's safe' hand signal. 15 minutes later she moved into a niche in the rocky outcropping and gazed down. She smiled as she realized she had actually increased her lead. There was no question the machine below had some major fan damage to be moving so slowly.

Chip scanned the area once again as he readied his quark rifle. Nothing moved, other than a few reptilian-like birds circling something over the next hill. Satisfied, he sent one last hand signal to Tracy and took his time to brace the front of the rifle on the rock to give him the best-aimed shot as possible. With a flip of his right thumb he released the safety. He took an extra three seconds to sight in while getting his breathing perfect before finally evenly squeezing the trigger.

Tracy kept her eye on the billowing dust as she duplicated Chip's preparations, but added in the extra step of cutting the magnetic field down on her eco-suit so she could easily get to her spare ammunition. As she watched she clearly saw the dust part for a brief moment followed by a puff of smoke and then finally a light screeching sound as armor was shattered at the point of impact from an intense beam of quark particles. She grinned and spoke softly to herself, "Nice shot, Ensign."

Chip grinned as he too saw his first shot hit the mark. As he did so, he could see the dust pattern change as the machine slowed. Knowing he had the machine's attention, he didn't hesitate as he lined up a second shot and once again got full control of his breathing and pulled back on the trigger. For a second time his marksmanship was excellent. The quark beam hit just aft of his first shot. This time there was an extra belch of black smoke that continued to pour out the side as the machine spun in the general direction of the incoming fire.

At the same time Tracy started to get a good bead on the damaged and clearly burning machine, but, just as she started to sight in, movement from out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. She blinked once and glanced down as she tried to spot what had distracted her. As she did so, a cold shiver went up her spine as she saw a wheeled machine pulling out of a concealed spot in the tree line on the far side of the low valley. She froze as she debated which target should take priority.

Chip, on the other hand, didn't have a view of the new threat. The rocks he was using for cover completely blocked his view of the newcomer to the fight. Because of this, he focused all his attention on the hover machine as it tried to find a target to shoot at. He could see the turret turning in his general direction but it clearly didn't know exactly where he was at. Not wanting to give away his spot he kept still and waited for Tracy to hit it from behind again. After nearly 20 seconds of nothing he looked over and tried to signal her to shoot, but didn't get a response.

Deciding she was waiting for the machine to actually start moving his direction he took a deep breath and popped off a third shot. Like his first two, the dust around the lower skirting parted and armor ruptured at the point of impact. Unlike the prior shots, however, the hover machine got a decent fix on his location and fired a shot that harmlessly dispersed before it got close to him as it picked up speed and headed forward in his direction with quite a bit more speed then it had been moving before. A pang of panic set in as Tracy still didn't fire.

Tracy's eyes grew wide as she saw both the hover tank and the wheeled machine pick up speed and head toward Chip's location. Quickly she turned her rifle on the wheeled machine knowing Chip had a good chance against one machine, but none if they ganged up on him. She let loose with her first shot, but fear and extreme range set it wide. It hit the dirt off to the machine's side by over two meters. It didn't even seem to notice as it headed straight for Chip.

Chip didn't see the shot Tracy let loose but with the help of a vision enhancement built into the eco-suit he could tell she was now facing the wrong way to engage the hover tank. Confused he gave himself a bit more cover behind the boulder then fired another shot. He let out a string of curse words as his movement affected his aim enough to send his shot wide.

Little could Chip know his own words were being mirrored almost 600 meters away. Tracy clenched her jaw as she lined up another shot. This time she took the time to adjust for the speed of the wheeled machine and the extended range. It took a full five seconds before her finger tightened on the trigger. The extra preparation was rewarded as the gauss round slammed into the right front. The wheeled machine actually veered slightly from the impact as a chunk of armor tore loose.

Before she could line up another shot the wheeled machine slowed followed a couple of seconds later by the hover. Tracy took advantage of the reduced speed. She quickly sighted in on the wheeled machine again sending a second round into it. This time a section of armor in the back corner blew off, leaving a deep gouge.

Chip was just getting ready to fire at the hover tank again when it slowed and the turret started to turn in the direction of Tracy. Totally confused he lifted his head up only to see Tracy clearly rock back as she let loose with her gauss rifle, but she was pointing it in the wrong direction. Carefully, he stood and poked his head out from behind the large boulder. His heart raced as he saw the wheeled machine wobble for a moment as a section of front armor was ripped loose.

Following similar reasoning as Tracy had just done, Chip realized she couldn't hope to take on two machines. Since she had picked the wheeled he turned his full attention on the hover. He braced his rifle and fired striking the back skirting. His shot once again caused the machine to focus on him, but only for a moment. The turret started to turn his direction, but slowed and stopped. It then started to turn back toward Tracy.

Total fear gripped him as both machines seemed to decide to focus on Tracy. As he tried to figure out what to do he saw another shot from Tracy blast into the wheeled machine. It suddenly dawned on him they needed to take out one at a time. In simple terms both of them stood a better chance of crippling or destroying a single target than if they each focused on a different one. With this new goal in mind he adjusted his position and fired a shot at the wheeled machine.

Tracy paused to reload. As she did so both lasers from the wheeled machine fired. Light pulses smashed into the rocks below her position causing her to flinch. However, the sight and sound of armor being blasted from the machine sent a shot of hope through her. It instantly became clear Chip was not only fully aware of the threat, but had also decided to team up on killing the wheeled machine. With a new five round clip in the gauss rifle she slid to the right so she was firing from a slightly different location in the rocks and let loose with another round.

Chip calmed as he saw Tracy focus her attention solely on the wheeled machine. Already it was showing heavy damage to the front so he took time to zero in and concentrate fire there. His next shot was rewarded with a bright flash and smoke. At the same time a round from Tracy ruptured something on its side. Smoke erupted from the impact point followed by a cascade of sparks.

Tracy cringed as twin beams of light shattered rocks just a couple of meters to her right. She moved again and fired. She gritted her teeth as a single laser beam took out a chuck of rock right where she had just vacated. Before her mind could process the fact only one laser had fired at her this time she saw her next shot slam into the support strut of the second wheel back and shatter the support and pierce right into what was clearly a weak point in the armor.

Chip ignored the mounting damage as if it had not received a scratch. He pumped two more shots into it before there was a series of popping sounds from its second wheel back on its right side. A moment later the wheel broke free and the third tire back hit it. The machine bounced wildly onto its left four wheels. It almost managed to right itself, but the physics of the hill and gravity took over. It slipped on loose rocks and rolled two and a half times before ending up on its roof.

Tracy pumped her fist as the machine flipped. Chunks of metal, tires, and other parts of the machine flew in all directions. She only paused long enough to make sure it could not shoot at her from its resting spot before she scanned the area and found the hover tank. A cold shiver passed over her as she recognized the fact the tank's cannon was very close to being in range. She vacated her position of cover from the wheeled machine as she dodged around the back side of the rocks to get as much protection as possible from the threat of the sonic weapon. Moments later, a high pitched shriek blasted rocks from the spot she had just abandoned.

Chip also took a couple of seconds to find the hover tank. He shook his head as he saw it was making better time than he thought it capable of, even though it was still listing pretty badly from a damaged fan and the extra damage he had done to the skirting. The problem was all the damaged areas were now facing the wrong direction. Frowning, he decided to focus in on the only real threat the tank had, the cannon. He took five valuable seconds to set up a precise shot.

At first he thought he missed, seeing no sign of damage, but a moment later it fired and the shot to the barrel of the weapon showed its value as it exploded outward, sending metal fragments in all directions. Less than a second later smoke started billowing out of the crater left from the explosion and the tank veered sharply to the right and stopped, still hovering and listing slightly.

Tracy poked her head up and carefully surveyed the scene. After a full minute, she signaled she was OK to Chip and asked for instructions.

Chip motioned for her to pull back further up the hill and covered her retreat, then pulled back as she covered him. Finally he took a knee and released his vice-like grip on his rifle. He noticeably shivered as he forced his fingers to stretch out. "What the hell was that?"

"I'm not sure, but judging on what I saw I think the machines were trying to spring a trap of their own. The wheeled one was well hidden and didn't move until it had a basic fix on you. It then adjusted once the Hover located your hiding spot."

"If that's true, then the wheeled and the hover work together!"

"I think it is even worse."

"Worse? How so?" Chip almost shouted.

"I think they actually talked during the fight!" Tracy shivered as she spoke. "The wheeled one came out before it knew exactly where you were then sped up and altered course once the hover found you. Then, they decided to team up on me. I even saw the hover start to turn back to you then it changed its mind and went after me."

Chip put his hands around the back of his head and squeezed his arms together closing them around his whole head. "Ahhhh!" he bellowed. "They almost trapped me in my own trap! We need frames and we need them fast!"

Tracy patted Chip on the shoulder, "Agreed, but we also found out what you wanted to know."


Tracy managed a nervous giggle, "The machines are pretty darned smart."

Chip took a deep breath and exhaled loudly, "Yeah, too smart. Should we push on or go back?"

"Like you said, we need frames, sir."

Chip slowly nodded, "Then we push on, but, if we run into any more machines, we avoid them, and, if we run into a hover and have to fight, take your time and aim for the barrel. I don't think it can sense damage to it and, without a structurally-sound focus for the sonic blast, it blows it apart."

"I heard sonic cannons had a bad habit of blowing up before they were perfected. I just didn't know they really blew up. It's definitely something to keep in mind. How many shots did you fire?"

Chip glanced down at the power meter on the quark rifle, "11, I have 4 shots left with this battery and 15 with my second. If we end up in another fight we'll have to stop so I can recharge. How are you on ammo?"

"I didn't want to seem like a light weight so I went a bit overboard with ammo cause your rifle weighs so much more than mine. I have 32 rounds. We have plenty as long as we actually do avoid contact unless absolutely necessary."

"My bad." Chip scanned the area noting both machines were now fully engulfed in flames as he started to move back toward the heart of the search area. After several minutes he glanced over. "I won't make the same mistake again."

Tracy picked up her pace to keep up with Chip, "Don't beat yourself up. We had no way of knowing they could use deceit and your reason for engaging was sound. Besides, we now have a much better idea of the enemy we are facing. All in all it works to our advantage."

"Still, I should have waited till we were in frames to test the machines. I could have gotten you killed."

"You set up a good ambush and it worked perfectly, sir. All I got was some rock fragments which will be easy to repair." She paused as she glanced over her Heads Up Display, "I'm getting a lot of static on my HUD."

"Me too. Adjust for ECM."

"I'd love to, but…"

Chip stopped as they entered the edge of the wood line and looked back, "But what?"

Tracy gave a silly little shrug as she cocked her head to the side, "Um, well… I have no clue how." She quickly slid into the woods to get some cover then knelt. "To be honest, I didn't know there was a way to adjust for Electronic Counter Measures."

Chip glanced over with a raised eyebrow, "No ECM combat training?"

"Optional course at New Bravaria." Tracy shrugged, "I took Air Strike Combat as my elective."

"OK, so I'll give you a field class on ECM combat and you can teach me some ASC some other time."

"Sounds good."

Chip moved a little deeper into the brush to make sure he had good cover before speaking, "First kill all effected sensors."

Tracy voice commanded her radio scanner, radio, temperature sensor and her range finder. "My HUD is still fuzzy."

"You can't use a Heads Up Display the way we normally do. You have to put it out of the way, I tend to use the upper left corner. All of our suit's electronics are being scrambled and it'll only get worse as we get deeper into the blanketed area. You may also notice your compass is no longer useful which means we are also in one of those high magnetic areas you were talking about."

"Great, so even our suit diagnostics are going to be jammed?"

"Yeah. In a frame it usually isn't quite this bad, but we have only a thin layer of armor over these suits so there is not much protecting the computer."

"Total old tech, huh?"

“Pretty much." Chip snickered, "Just pretend you are in one of those training suits, only this one has power cause the power supply is shielded and the air purifier and limb augmentation are hard wired not electronically generated signals."

Tracy got everything organized before looking over quizzically, "Why keep the HUD up at all?"

"Because you can tell exactly how bad the ECM is by the amount of static. Besides once it clears up you can instantly see it and turn on everything again."

"Ah, interesting tactic. I never would have thought of that. It's kind of distracting sitting up there though."

"Then move it around till you find a spot where it doesn't bother you. No matter where you put it it'll take some time to be able to completely ignore it. A big part of ECM combat was getting used to ignoring the box where the scrambled info is running."

Tracy stretched and glanced around, "I'll play with it as we go. How are you at keeping a good direction with no compass?"

"Pretty good since I can still pull up the old satellite topographic map I loaded before we left. I am probably the best in our squad when it comes to using nothing but a map to navigate by in survival classes. How about you?"

"The best of the three from my squad. Can you transfer the file to my frame?"

"Yeah, but we'll have to do it through a hard wire link cause of the ECM. Open the back panel of my frame and hand me the cable then turn around. I'll then plug in to the back of your suit and download directly into your database."

Tracy quickly followed Chip's instructions before changing the subject. "How is it you guys all seem to be so skilled at so many things?"


Tracy shrugged, "I'm not sure how to word it better. It just seems like all you Blood's Honor guys have more experience then any of the other academies. It's almost like every cadet from BH is a year or two more advanced then any of their counterparts."

Chip started the file transfer before replying. "I think part of it is all you have seen is those of us from the Command Academy. Our other three schools are not as advanced as we are."

"Yeah, but the three of us were in the Command School at New Bravaria. You guys were going to basically sweep the first place awards on Andar, and many of you are younger than those you were up against."

Chip verified the data transfer then closed Tracy's back panel. He turned around so she could secure the hard wire and button up his back as well. "I think part of it is the way BH handles us. We are first and foremost cadets. Right from the very first class cycle it is drilled into us that the academy is our home. Our parents and where we used to live quickly become secondary. Every cadet is a brother or a sister and every member is cadre is an aunt or uncle.

"The second we graduated from the junior academy at the age of 9 the academy becomes home. We go to live with our parents for 4 weeks twice a year and 1 week twice a year. I only see my parents during those times and the once a month parent weekends. Some of the others see their parents more than me, but that's because their parents are military and we actually travel with them for much of our training."

"You mean this off world trip is normal?"

"No. I mean at least not this type of trip. This is the first time I have ever heard of a group of cadets left on their own like we have been, at least at our age. The older ones take a survival trip and are left alone for a half of a semester, but that is part of graduation of a frame force."

Tracy pushed deeper into the brush looking around for sighs of danger. Finding none, she continued the conversation. "But going off world with actual military units is common?"

Chip nodded vigorously, "Oh yeah. Very common for Command Academy cadets. I have been over a half dozen worlds with Shadow Brigade, which is the one Joel's dad commands. I have also been on almost a dozen others with other brigades. They transfer us in with a small teaching cadre shortly after the situation is deemed basically secure and we get first hand military practice."

Tracy stopped. "Like what?"

"We get attached to patrols and go out with them, get put on guard duty as extras, KP duty, frame combat repair, ship security duty, that sort of thing."

"Wow!" Tracy whistled softly. "Did you ever see real combat before Andar?"

"Nothing even close to Andar, but, live fire, yeah. I was on a guard patrol on Dark Raven VII when we got jumped by partisans and one guard shift on Goliath II came under fire from bandits. Terrin and Beth saw some really heavy fighting on Goliath II when they actually dropped into combat in pods with a full BH team who were ambushed and surrounded. Terrin even had a suit breach and had to get a chunk of shrapnel removed from his left arm."

"Holy crap! They dropped green cadets into live fire?"

"Yeah. No one had a clue how strong the bandits were. We got taken by surprise. All the cadets there were pushed into live fighting on minor engagements to help free up the adults for the hard stuff. The other squad all have live combat drops, Joel, Gabriel and Karen have each done two drops.

"Goliath II was the only place in the last 10 years where a BH cadet was lost to something other than a training accident, and we lost two there. After it was first pacified from the looting after the earthquake we were brought in. Less than a week later raiders moved in hard. It finally got so bad they pulled all the cadets off world and brought in all of the 3rd Division. It turns out the raiders were Earth Core sponsored mercs."

"How'd you manage to make Earth Core back off?"

"BH and EC have basically been at war for the last century or two. We know how they work and Colonel Price has an incredible knack for sniffing out the source of problems. Somehow Joel's dad managed to locate the supply base and crushed it in a lightning strike. While EC moved to respond from their nearest military base on Juniper, Brandon's dad did a mass landing on Juniper IX and captured it. We gave it back to EC only after they agreed to vacate all claims to Goliath and pay reparations to them including damage done by the earthquake.

"As far as I know we haven't had to fight EC since, but sooner or later they will rear their ugly heads again. It seems to happen every few years."

"I've heard nothing but bad things about Earth Core."

"They're all true, but, without them, BH would not have nearly as many contracts. There just ain't many times a force the size BH can bring to bear is needed. Personally, I think EC alone has all but kept us in business all these years."

"Now there's Talborne." Tracy hissed.

"When you start taking BH history you'll find about every 20 to 30 years BH ends up in a fierce battle with someone just like Talborne. It's only a matter of time before EC tries to hit us. It has happened every time we have gotten tangled in some major mess over the last hundred years.

"The next year or two are going to be very tough for Forest Garden and Blood's Honor."

"Sounds like I either joined the right academy or the wrong one. The question is which one?"

"I think this calls for one of Joel's favorite answers."

"What's that?"


"Yes? Yes what?"

Chip had a real gleam in his eyes as he turned to look straight at Tracy. "Just yes."

The bewildered look in Tracy's eyes suddenly changed. "Ahhhh! As in both."

"Kinda, but not quite." Chip grinned, "It is a word we have all gotten used to using when there are two possible solutions that are opposite yet both valid. It's an inside joke to those close to Joel. We use it a lot."

Tracy giggled, "You guys are pretty crazy. Do all Command Academy cadets act like you guys?"

"Basically yes," Chip sighed, "but because so many of us have parents high up in Forest Garden and Blood's Honor we tend to get pushed extra hard cause our parents don't want anyone saying we are getting a free ride. It sucks at times, but it has become a matter of pride to all of us.

"One thing I can brag about is this." Chip straightened showing his own pride as he spoke. "Even before Andar no other group of current academy cadets have had more live combat armor dings than we have, even those who are 14 and 15 years old. No cadet inside the Command Academy thinks we are getting special treatment. Since Andar, the word has spread to the rest of the schools as well. We are considered elite even by the vast majority of the kids, younger and older. Those our age give us a bit of room as well."

"Heck, even I noticed that and I hadn't even been formally accepted into the academy yet."

"Yes you were. It was just a matter of making sure you could handle the Command Academy. There was no question all 6 of you would be BH cadets. Without you six, I don't think we would have saved even half as many cadets."

"Yeah, well without you guys taking the lead the rest of us would have been on Talborne ships headed to wherever he took all those other captives. You know he probably captured some of the others from my team who were not working over their frames like we were. Only 11 of the 16 from my team made it to your ships."

"Our ships, Tracy. You are BH, too. Sooner or later we'll find all the others."

"I know. I just hope they are all OK."

Conversation between the two ceased as they crested the hill and gazed down toward the lake. Below and just a hundred meters from the water's edge was the bulk of a crashed Planetary Landing Craft. Chunks of the craft were scattered in a wide pattern around the superstructure with most of it slightly uphill to the east pointing away from the lake.

A large cleared area with a deep gouge in the earth surrounded by a burned section of the surrounding woods stood as testament to the violence of the crash and the aftermath. Bits of scattered superstructure could even be seen protruding from the lake.

Tracy had to force herself to breath as Chip took a knee. "Dear God, they really did crash a PLC!"

Chip remained silent for almost a minute. "I don't think the briefing we got was staged. This ship came in hot. It looks like it hit the hill to the east hard and rolled toward the lake like a giant ball. The ECM is coming from right down there too, cause every external sensor is totally jammed now. This lake valley and strong magnetic field is really concentrating the effects. Even my internal sensors are starting to flicker."

Tracy continued to stare, her mouth half hanging open.

Chip glanced upward, "Are you OK?"

Tracy shook her head partially to clear it and partially to say no.

"Take a knee and get a hold of yourself. We have plenty of time."

Finally she managed to tear her eyes form the terrible sight, "If one crash did this, what did Andar end up looking like?"

Chip paused and looked out over the carnage again. As he did so his mind's eye flashed back to the final hour on Andar where Blood's Honor Air Defense units were knocking ships out of the sky almost as quickly as they could be brought in. Taking a deep breath, he started to say something but nothing came out.

He closed his eyes as he thought about the awful night. Dozens of ships came in hot and burning. Most were smaller then the PLC below him, but several were just as large and a few even larger. As he thought about it he realized a multi city-sized area of Andar had been turned into what he was seeing only a kilometer or so from his present location. There was little chance anything below could have survived.

The full horror of what had occurred hit him hard as tears rolled down his cheeks. A cold shiver went up his spine as he wondered, for the first time, just how many were prisoners of Talborne and how many had not made it out of the landing zone BH had turned into a giant killing field. Finally he found his voice. "I never thought about that before."

Tracy clenched her fists, "I hope my teammates were taken clear of the academy grounds before the final assault. There is no chance they could have survived something like that."

Chip wanted to say something, but nothing he could think of sounded encouraging. Shaking his head he simply stood and patted Tracy's shoulder.

Tracy managed a nod knowing Chip was doing his best to support her emotions. Finally she gritted her teeth and started walking down the hill toward the destruction. As they got closer Tracy glanced at Chip. "I AM GOING TO KILL TALBORNE."

Chip managed a nod, "Somehow I think BH will get to him well before we graduate."

"For his sake he better hope so." Taking a few more angry breaths she entered the debris field. Anger faded as she looked at the first piece of large wreckage, "Ensign, this can't be right."

Chip paused and glanced over confused, "This is a ship, Tracy. It's right in line with all the data Joel gave to us and what Jason put together for a crash sight."

"No, I know that sir, but this is combat damage not micro meter strikes."

"What!" Chip quickly turned and ran to Tracy's side.

Tracy pointed to the holes in a section of one of the giant stabilizer fins. "Take a look."

Chip inspected the damage for a few seconds, "It's just a bunch of small holes."

"No sir, it's not." Tracy pulled her hand free of the eco-suit's glove so she wouldn't accidentally tear it on the jagged metal. She put her finger through a hole in the direction the hit. "Take a look around my finger Chip."

Chip moved closer and felt his heart beat quicken as he saw three evenly spaced angles around the outside of her finger. The hole was triangular, not round. He quickly inspected a half dozen other holes. All were triangular shaped. "This is from some sort of mini rail gun!"

"Pretty close, but it's actually a burper."

"A what?"

"A burper. It's like a scatter gauss, but it is a type of rail gun. It fires a stream of tiny rail gun rounds out of twelve barrels much like an old Gatling gun."

"I've never heard of such a thing!"

Tracy shrugged, "Cause BH is rich. Your world probably hasn't used them in decades. I'm sure you guys have pulse laser or even turbo laser defense sats. Many worlds like New Bravaria equip defense satellites with burpers cause they are cheap and satellites use solar power so the energy needed is there without giving away a signature to sensors. They are great for taking out fighters and inbound missiles. The big problem with them is they are old tech and not very good against heavily armored targets. I'm amazed it took this ship down."

"This is one of our older classes of PLC. Huskies aren't equipped with layered armor let alone composite. As a matter of fact we only use them for supply runs to safe worlds."

Tracy looked around in astonishment. "Um, I hate to say this, but look around. We just had a fire fight with very smart machines, there are dozens of deadly creatures here, and you saw a foreign lander going down. So exactly how is Brile a safe world?"

Chip shook his head in anger, "Hell I don't know. BH seems to be screwing a lot of things up including leaving us here. On the other hand, up till now I didn't know of a ship being shot down coming into land on Brile. I don't think we know of a single time where one even came under fire during the machine wars let alone recently. Of course Joel would be the one to ask about that, but he ain't here, we are."

Tracy tossed up her hands, "OK, whatever. I guess the important thing is we found it. What now?"

Chip glanced around and drummed his fingers over his suit helmet. He took a couple of deep breaths and finally knelt saying nothing.

"Sir? What do we do now?"

Chip continued to gaze over the wreckage. As he did so his frustrations finally boiled over. His fist slammed into the ground as he shouted. "You want an answer I don't have? Fine, here it is! I don't know! That's my freaking answer! I don't have a clue! Nothing makes sense, the mission, the fact BH sent us here in the first place, the secrecy about it, the fact I almost got you killed less than an hour ago cause the machines are smarter than I am, nothing! What the hell do you want me to say when I can't understand nothing about this. What orders could I give that would help when I don't know? I am not a leader!"

Tracy moved up beside him and put a hand on his shoulder, "Chip look at me."

Slowly Chip tore his eyes off the destruction around him and glanced up, "What?"

Tracy paused as she saw tears in Chips eyes. She took a deep breath and used her other hand to lift his chin, "Chip… Ensign Chip Beck, you are cadet officer in Bloods Honor Junior Military Academy Command College. You have done a great job in taking over since your commander put you in charge. It has been your orders that have allowed us to get this far. You are a leader. You are our leader. You are my commanding officer.

"You had a plan before and after the firefight. You know the way Blood's Honor works and you got us to this objective. But you have to chill the freak out and give me some direction because I assure you I am in way more over my head than you are. I'm seeing the same thing you are and am every bit is freaked out by it if not more so. But, unlike you, I truly don't have a clue what to do from here. I never had any kind of plan. You did.

"Now take a few minutes, cry on my shoulder if you need to, then pull your shit together and tell me what the two of us need to do from here!"

Tears freely rolled out of Chip's eyes as he shook his head. "Tracy, I expected a cargo pod or some old crappy PLC that Command decided to finish off, not one of our workhorses with combat damage. None of it makes any sense!"

Tracy walked around and looked over the crash site as she thought over the situation for a few minutes then turned back to Chip. "Ensign, what would we be doing if this was just a mothballed piece of space junk meant to simulate a crash?"

Chip glanced over, "But it isn't!"

"Pretend it is."

Chip frowned deeply but took a few calming breaths and closed his eyes. "First thing would be to find the ECM pod and shut it down so we could do a safety sweep with our sensors. We would then have to mark off any hazardous areas before going into the superstructure to see what, if anything, survived."

Tracy managed a thin tight smile as she saw Chip's brain start working again. Not wanting him to focus on anything but the mission she quickly decided to keep him talking. "Could the ECM be in the ship?"

"Very unlikely. First, it is very powerful out here which means the ship isn't blocking it. Second the ship is dead and I see no power. Most ship ECM units are run off of primary power and it would have been in engineering. Even if they had hooked it into life support or auxiliary power it would have been crushed in the landing. The lower 8th of the ship is basically gone."

"OK, so we are looking for some kind of pod. Can you give me an idea what I am looking for?"

Chip's eyes darted around for a few seconds, "It doesn't look like Command sent in an investigation unit, which means they probably really were pressed for time. On the other hand they would have never allowed us to find it if there was serious danger…"


"So, I'm betting they dropped a combo probe and ECM unit. The probe electronics and sensors couldn't handle a hard impact."

"In other words we are looking for something like a frame drop pod?"

"Exactly, only a lot smaller."

"I'm supposed to find something way smaller than a frame drop pod in this mess?"

Chip managed a short chuckle through the tears showing some of his despair was fading, "Yeah, we are." Chip stood and stretched trying to shake off some of the pressure he was feeling. "Start on the north edge about 100 meters out into the woods, I'll take the south. My bet is they dropped the pod somewhere close, but tried to keep it outside of the main wreckage field so it wouldn't get damaged when it hit the ground."

Joel examined the line of low hills they were closing in on, taking time to cycle though all his optical enhancements as he did so. Other than a small tuft of scrub trees with some large birds circling them everything looked quiet. Joel signaled over to Lawson to close in as he took a knee. It had been almost two hours since they had left their field base and he needed a breather.

Lawson took a few extra minutes to circle out about 200 meters from where Joel had taken a knee. Satisfied the area was clear he took a long swig of water and knelt basically facing Joel, but slightly offset so the two could rest, hold a conversation, yet still keep an eye out for potential dangers.

While Joel waited for Lawson to get comfortable, he took a second look at the large birds circling the trees. As he did so he felt a bit of a chill go down his spine as he realized he was looking at one of the nastier predators of the planet, Brile Bats. Although this was his first time seeing them live, he had enough pictures and briefings to know they averaged a wing span of well over a meter with the largest being slightly over 3 meters. Similar to Earth bats, Brile Bats relied on sound waves, but also had a highly developed sense of smell. There was the point all similarities vanished. Brile Bats were reptilian, had wickedly sharp and barbed talons, and a beak similar to an ancient earth creature called a pterodactyl.

They were strong and not afraid to attack large creatures in mass. Before the Machine Wars came to Brile, several of the bats were captured and taken to other worlds, some for zoos, some for research, and some for release as exotic things to hunt. According to the briefings given by Blood's Honor before they left Forest Garden, on 4 of those worlds the bats became established and quickly took over large swaths of wild lands and forced the evacuation of whole towns as the bats quickly learned people made for easy prey.

On Zolaras VII, an entire continent had to be abandoned as populations grew at an astounding rate. The briefing went on to say Zolaras' Government spends a fortune to patrol the skies around the whole landmass to prevent the expansion of Brile Bats to the other 9 landmasses.

Brile Bats were far from the only danger exported off the world he was now patrolling. Sand Scorps, Octa-Cats, and the Black Striped Rock Lizard were all considered highly hazardous and had proven to become major problems on other worlds.

In addition to animal life, Brile's plant life had proven highly noxious and in some cases even toxic when either purposefully or accidentally established off world. As he continued to watch the Brile Bats circle and occasionally dive behind or into the strand of trees he tried to figure out what his dad and other Blood's Honor leaders had been thinking when they sent their kids to such a dangerous place.

Joel quickly pushed those thoughts aside as he let out a light sigh. His eyes drifted back to the flying reptiles as he wondered how anyone could possibly think it was a good idea to take creatures known for killing men off to another world. Planetary life was a delicate balance of predators, prey, plants and animals. Every new introduction of new life threw the balance off and created a spiraling effect of problems. Breaking the balance on accident was bad enough, but to do so purposefully with a creature known to kill people seemed utterly insane to the young BH cadet.

Of course Joel realized some introductions simply couldn't be helped. Almost every known human inhabited world had rats, mice and several Earth insects. Most had snakes and other vermin. On some worlds, the introduction of predators from Earth had allowed some sort of balance, on other worlds it hadn't. The more humans expanded into the stars the more creatures of newly discovered worlds were added into the mix.

Most wealthy worlds, including Joel's home world of Forest Garden, had an extensive government department to track unwanted introductions and, where possible, eradicate them. Worlds with less money focused on major problems only, while the poorest worlds were a mess of native and introduced species with little or no efforts made to control anything.

Brile was kind of a strange place, however. Most off-world creatures didn't do well because of the lightly toxic atmosphere. Those that could survive quickly found themselves prey to the basically bigger and more aggressive wildlife of Brile. Because of this, there were no recorded off-world species introduction problems known to exist, even though there was no effort to control what was brought in.

Lawson rolled his shoulders, causing the power frame to mimic his actions. Joel glanced over, "You OK?"

"For the most part I'm fine, but I have never spent this amount of time in a frame this big. It takes a bit more to move it than my smaller cadet frame. I'm glad we're taking a break."

"It's not just the size of the frame." Joel reminded his new friend. "We are in frames able to accommodate adults much larger than we are. We are on the lower edge of what the size adjustment technology can safely house, so I've noticed a slight looseness around my thighs and upper arms which makes movement a bit harder than a snugly fitting frame provides.

"Making matters worse, we are not used to the speed these beasts can travel at. I find myself wanting to almost jog cause I am used to keeping my frame right at the edge of the yellow power line between walking and running just to make good time. My max joint output in my cadet frame is barely more than half this one's. I think it'll make us stronger in the long run, but you're right, it is a much harder work-out. "

Lawson nodded, "I noticed we have really been cruising. Even doing a zigzag pattern to make sure nothing can easily get behind us we are less than 2 hours out from the drill station." Lawson spun and pointed in the direction of the circling flock. "Did you notice those Brile Bats?"

"Yeah." Joel responded as he continued to watch them take turns diving out of sight. "We are actually slightly outside their normal area according to my map. I wonder what they are after."

"I was kind of thinking the same thing and it's only a couple of kilometers out of the way. Is there any chance we can slide over there and check it out?"

"I don't see why not. It's not like we're keeping to a time table or have a set mission zone to stay inside of. Besides, it's the first thing of even slight interest we have seen in the last hour and a half."

Lawson rolled his head and shoulders again as he stood. "We'd have some better cover in the brush to rest in, too. I feel kind of exposed out here."

Joel pulled his frame into a standing position as well. "All this open grassland is kind of creepy, that's for sure. I've never been on a world this empty."

Lawson nodded as he ordered his frame to adjust for his size for about the tenth time. Back in the Andar academy he had hated being one of the smallest in his class, but inside a cadet frame, made for small and slight builds, he had held a bit of an advantage because his lighter weight allowed him to put heavier weapons on his frame. Now, however, the looseness of the chest pads was starting to rub his skin and his smaller size meant little to nothing in the more powerful frame.

As he started to move forward again, he realized the pressure for him to eat a bit more and to put on some extra muscle by the cadre had been done purposefully. He grunted to himself, realizing he needed to continue to eat a little extra and work out a bit more if he wanted to be able to properly use the rogue frame he was piloting.

Those thoughts kept him occupied until they closed on the trees and he could make out the full terrifying beauty of the creatures as they swiftly dove into the trees and came back up. The deep crimson chest combined with black and gold colored bands were truly striking. He found them so beautiful he half wondered if BH would allow him to kill one and stuff it for a trophy.

Joel's voice broke Lawson's train of thought. "Are your sensors a bit off?"

Lawson glanced over his navigation and targeting grids before he finally noticed a slight flicker every couple of seconds. "I seem to be getting some interference, but it is slight. I hadn't even noticed till you said something."

"It's strange."

Lawson pulled up his map and centered it over their location. He responded after a few seconds. "Why? We are pretty close to one of those magnetic pockets according to my map."

"I know, but this is more like ECM not magnetic."

"Have you been in powerful magnetic fields before?"

"Nothing like what Brile has, but yeah, back on Spider Bite we ended up getting lost cause our compasses screwed up and our overlays wouldn't center properly. Maybe there are more effects here, but we are barely on the outer edge and actually angling away from it."

Lawson kind of shrugged, "I'm open to suggestions."

"At the moment I really don't have any. If it gets worse, we may need to change our setup to counter ECM warfare. For now, though, if we have to fire, I wouldn't count on the targeting computer helping much at longer ranges."

"I'll just switch to manual targeting. Most of the time they disabled our targeting computers at the Andar academy anyway."

Joel snickered, "Every few missions BH does the same thing. I used to hate it, but it actually forced me to learn how to properly shoot. I think I'll do the same."

The boys' thoughts were brought to an abrupt halt as another of the creatures started to dive only to be met with a pulse of bright light. The creature let out a nasty screech as it quickly pulled out of its dive and sought the safety of higher altitude, trailing a bit of smoke from its singed side as it went.

Joel dropped to the ground, motioning for Lawson to do the same. The only problem was, it took almost a full second for the events to process in the slightly younger boy's mind. The moment it did, he flopped to the ground and looked over with wide eyes at Joel, "Laser fire?"

Joel gulped and nodded a bit wildly as he looked around.

Lawson crawled up next to Joel, "Do we pull back or help?"

Joel didn't answer. Instead he continued to scan the area.

Another blast of light shot skyward, this time missing the diving Brile Bat, but was close enough to spook it. The giant winged reptile let out a hissing sound as it quickly flapped its powerful wings and got out of range. As it did so, another in the flock dove into the trees and reappeared a few moments later.

Lawson took a deep breath as he saw another flash of high intensity light launch into the sky. It took only a couple more seconds to realize the winged creatures were trying to overwhelm and confuse whoever was hiding in the trees. He also realized the light flashes were not very powerful, probably a laser pistol, or at best a light laser rifle. "Major?"

Joel clenched his fists in frustration. "I don't know."

"Sir, whoever is in there is not well armed!"

"I know, but we are supposed to be in hiding!"

Lawson clenched his jaw as he saw another bat dive down and come up with shreds of clothing hanging off one of its talons. "They're getting ripped up in there sir!"

Joel gritted his teeth and tightly closed his eyes for a moment. Finally he nodded, "OK, darken your visor so they cannot see who is inside our frames and don't speak. We don't have BH markings on us so all they will see is two large frames coming to their rescue. We clear the sky and then back out. Got it?"

"Got it, sir!"

Joel let out a growl as he rolled over and sighted on one of the bats with his large laser and let loose with the powerful weapon. The beam struck the creature's left wing, but didn't knock it out of the sky. On the other hand, it let off a horrid screech and angled away from the rest of the flock.

Lawson duplicated Joel's roll, but decided to fire both his quark rifle and medium laser. The laser missed, but the quark rifle struck the diving reptile in the right leg doing massive damage. It spun out of control and disappeared into the trees.

Joel jumped to his feet and started moving at a dead run into the tree line, "Nice shot!"

Lawson didn't hesitate. He followed Joel, but did pause to fire both his energy weapons again. This time he hit with both, but neither caused the type of damage needed to do more than injure and scare off the bird. "Just lucky. I think we need to aim for the main body, their wings seem to be able to handle getting holes."

"Agreed." Joel stated as he paused and took aim at one circling lower to the ground then most of the others. This time he fired both his heavy and medium lasers. Both hit, one in the wing and the other in the chest. Much to Joel's delight the vile thing dropped out of the sky like a brick.

It was clear their arrival had been noticed by whoever was in the trees as the sound of gun fire erupted. A volley of bullets and a pair of laser flashes flew skyward bringing yet another bat down.

Lawson's eyes went wide as he saw three of the remaining 6 all dive at the same time. He stopped and triggered his machinegun on full auto sending a stream of tracer titanium rounds across the skyline. He then added in his medium laser and quark rifle adding to the deadly display.

Joel pulled up and let loose with almost everything his frame had adding to the barrage of fire lancing upward. His heavy and medium lasers were followed up by a single shot from his rifle. Between him and Lawson all three bats took mortal wounds and the last three quickly evacuated, following the one Joel had first injured.

Joel suddenly stopped, motioning for Lawson to do the same.

Lawson took a second to scan the sky before moving up to Joel, "You want to pull back and let them go their own way?"

"That's kind of what…" Joel's words stopped as he saw a man emerge from the trees, bleeding pretty badly from his shoulder. The shredded light eco-suit's right shoulder also had a patch with the number six within a tank tread with a pair of dolphins circling.

Joel felt his blood run totally cold as he raised his heavy laser and pointed right at the young man's face.

The guy's eyes went from relieved to wide with fear as he saw the larger of the two combat frames raise an anti-armor weapon. His fear only increased as the smaller one also raised a weapon directly at him. Before he could say or do anything the smaller frame shot.

Lawson instantly saw the patch and saw Joel ready his most powerful weapon. As shocked as he was at seeing who he was facing, he knew he had to beat Joel to the punch. Without a second thought he raised his sonic stun rifle and fired while shouting as loud as he could, "Major, NO!".

Lawson's words stopped Joel an instant before he fired. He turned to glance at Lawson only to see his friend's stun rifle fire. Joel shook his head and stared only to see Lawson's frame lightly rock to the side as the boy's frame's right arm let loose with a second sonic stun blast.

Lawson gritted his teeth as he concentrated on the injured man facing him. The already damaged light suit gave the hapless wearer almost no protection. The concentrated sound waves knocked the guy to the ground. Not satisfied, Lawson didn't hesitate to fire again. The second shot knocked the guy cold.

Joel glanced down at his raised laser as it dawned on him how close he had come to killing a basically unarmed man. He was about to thank Lawson when laser and bullet fire erupted out of the woods.

Lawson was caught a bit flat footed as a pair of lasers burned into his frame and a trio of small caliber bullets sent some sparks across his front. The frame alerted him to the incoming fire and gave a display showing very minimal damage was done.

Joel was spared most of the incoming fire as one laser and one of the two light pistols missed him entirely. The second pistol's round bounced off doing nothing more then chipping the frame's dark and light grey camouflage paint scheme.

Lawson didn't waste time on the fire coming from the light submachine gun. Instead he focused on the larger of the laser hits he had taken, the only one to do actual armor damage to his frame. It only took a second to see a figure with a laser rifle moving in the tree line. His stun rifle fired again. Lawson gave a satisfied smile as his efforts were rewarded as the shooter dropped the rifle, stumbled forward, and fell down.

Joel, still trying to recover form the original shock, didn't bother to look for the best target. Instead he pulled up his stun pistol and fired at the first hostile target he could identify. His marksmanship proved up to the task, however, as the woman folded under the single shot, her eyes rolling back into her head before she hit the ground.

Lawson took another laser hit and another burst of bullets. Again the light fire was no match for the Rogue Frame's armor. None of the incoming fire did any kind of real damage. With a light snarl, he held up his left finger and wagged it at the trooper armed with the sub machinegun, before firing at the only one of them in a heavy eco-suit. Knowing his sonic stun rifle would do little to nothing against the light armor coating of the eco-suit he fired a burst of his medium machinegun. Two of the three rounds struck the crouched figure leaving deep cracks in the armor shell, but not doing any damage to the wearer. As a warning he also fired his quark rifle into the tree the figure was using for cover, shattering it.

Joel took a hit from a laser rifle causing his frame's computer to chirp out an alert of actual armor damage, albeit very slight. Another shot from a pistol went well wide.

The armor damage caused a flare of anger. He turned and fired a snap shot with his frame's rifle. The shot went wide but caused the man with the laser rifle to drop the weapon and run. Joel then focused in on the one who had missed him twice with a pistol. Before his mind realized he was shooting at someone about his own size he fired his stun pistol. The crouched figure fell back into the heavy brush.

Lawson pointed his stun rifle right at the guy holding the submachine gun, ignoring another harmless shot into his side from the figure in the heavy eco-suit. The guy clearly gulped before he started to lower his weapon. His attempt to surrender cost him as the figure in the heavy eco-suit turned and shot him in the side. The young trooper's eyes went momentarily wide as he grabbed his hip. Pain and shock overwhelmed him as he sagged to the ground.

Joel caught what had happened out of the corner of his eye and reacted with extreme force. Six micro missiles erupted out of the launch tubes over his right shoulder. Three hit the eco-suit and the other three blasted the surrounding cover into chunks of rock, dirt, and plant matter. The eco-suit and whoever was inside it flipped a full 360 before falling lifelessly in deeper brush. Another figure, crouched down well behind the armored trooper, was flung back into a tree and knocked senseless.

The fleeing figure also caught some of the shrapnel. A large hunk of rock slammed into him, flinging him violently to the ground then a tree branch pinned him there.

Joel swung his medium laser across the trees searching for other targets while Lawson moved forward. The younger boy stopped as he entered the crop of trees and looked around. He quickly cycled though his standard and ultraviolet visual enhancements. "I think we're clear, Major!"

"Give each of them another shot from your stun rifle. I don't want anyone waking up until we figure out what to do!"

The light screech of a sonic stunner told Joel Lawson was already on top of it so he focused his attention on the first guy to step out of the woods and put a shot into him. The young man, although unconscious, jerked as the sonic stun shot assaulted him. Joel felt no sorrow as he moved forward, firing at the woman he had shot.

Joel moved into the woods much slower then Lawson, carefully looking out for stragglers. His heart still raced as the implication this encounter started to fully dawn on him. He knelt next to the first person he had shot. The woman's breathing was strong but there was no question she was totally out. He rolled her over and looked at her uniform patch. It was the same. "How the hell did they find us?"

Lawson moved up on the one pinned under the tree branch. He halted the guy's squirming by firing a stun rifle shot at point blank range into the back of the guy's head. "No clue, but these are definitely Ulysses IV military patches. Looks like armor jocks, but I don't see any armor platforms or even vehicles. What now?"

Joel paused and put his armored hands up to his helmet. "We need to find out how Talborne found us! The whole point of us being here is to hide from him! We must have a major leak somewhere!"

"I know, Joel, but what do we do now? Do we leave them or…" Lawson words seemed to catch in his throat as he looked down at the smaller figure Joel had stunned, "Dear god, JOEL!"

Joel jumped up and spun, pointing all his weapons in Lawson's general direction, expecting to see a hostile. When he only saw Lawson crouched down cradling someone in the brush he quickly made his way over. He paused as he looked down on the face of a kid about his own age. The kid's clothing was tattered and filthy, he wore no filter mask, his boots had holes and his fingers and hands had multiple blisters.

It took a moment for his mind to register the fact the kid wore a cadet vest with a patch of the Andar Military Academy. Joel knelt as he took a couple of deep breaths, "Do you know him?"

Lawson choked back a sob as he nodded, "Saul Kammor, he was a Sergeant in my frame force, a Bravo Unit squad leader. I heard his dad was a big wig on Andar, but he never talked about it or tried to use it for his advantage. Rumor had it he did pull some strings with his dad so I could stay in the academy even though we never got to know each other very well."

"Sounds like a good guy." Joel let out a deep breath and looked upward, "What is he doing here?"

"I have no idea." Lawson tried to shake the kid lightly but got no response. "He wasn't part of the cadet competition, so he wasn't at the southern base when Talborne struck. He looks awful though."

Joel gazed downward taking in the thin and bruised condition of the kid who was slightly taller than he was. "Hopefully he can tell us when he wakes up."

A groan from deeper in the brush caught both boys' attention. Joel spun to face the sound while Lawson did his best to cover the kid he was holding with his frame, putting as much back armor as he could between the sound and the defenseless cadet.

Joel leveled his stunner and his rifle at movement in the deep brush a few meters from where he had unleashed a full volley of his micro missiles. His rifle slowly lowered as he saw a clearly dazed kid try to stand. The lone figure used a half blown off tree branch to pull himself off the ground. He stumbled and fell once, but managed to stand on the second attempt. Blood trickled down his cheek from a large sliver of wood embedded just to the left of his eye.

The kid's hand went up to the wound and he winced badly as he touched the edge of the splinter. The pain and shock caught up to him as he leaned forward and puked. Catching his breath he noticed the basically blown apart heavy eco-suit. He moved forward and looked down. Even from where Joel was standing he could see a trace of a smile cross the kid's face as he spat on the downed figure and paused once to kick the body. Like the kid Lawson was holding, this one had no filter mask and looked to be in pretty poor shape.

Joel thoughts centered on the body instead of the disoriented kid. He cringed as he realized he had just killed someone. The shattered heavy eco-suit held a body, a body he had blown apart. A tear trickled down his cheek as he wondered if he had just killed the parent of some kid who would miss his mom or dad as much as he missed his own mother. The thought sent a shiver down his spine. He gulped back a light sob as he realized just how important it was to follow the Blood's Honor code of not killing unless there was no other choice.

He continued to watch the kid as the boy started to scrounge through the carnage. Joel switched on his ultra short radio, chancing the very limited range would not attract attention, "Lawson, do you know this kid?"

Lawson turned sharply with his stun rifle tracking his vision. The moment he spotted the kid he shook his head, "Nope, but he's in no better shape than Saul. It looks like a cadet jacket of some kind, but it's not one of Andar's."

Joel thought about saying something, but didn't want to startle the kid. Instead he stood still and observed as the kid slowly regained some semblance of coherent thought. The kid paused and knelt next to the mangled heavy eco-suit. He stood a moment later clutching a ration pack and canteen. He tried to take a drink before realizing it had been damaged in the blast and had no water left. He tossed it angrily into the woods, as he did so he finally noticed the large frame looking at him. He held up his hands and stepped back, stumbling over a branch as he did so.

Joel moved forward slowly and offered his frame's hand to the fallen kid, "I'm not going to hurt you."

The kid looked up as he realized the voice coming from the massive frame was clearly that of someone young. Before he realized it, he extended his hand for an assist up.

Joel gently pulled the kid up to his feet. As he did so he decided to find out as much as he could while the kid was still off guard and confused. "Who are you and what academy are you from?"

The boy glanced around and touched the piece of wood sticking out of his face lightly again as he answered as if on auto pilot. "Liam Montgomery, Senior Private, Ratone Prime Command College."

Joel hardened his voice slightly, hoping to get information quickly, "What are you doing here, Private?"

"Who are you…"

Joel cut him off, "I am a Cadet Major, Private, and I asked you a question."

The kid frowned but military training took over, "The lander hit a sand storm and flamed out. We ejected in a pod and made our way here to wait it out." He pointed at the heavy eco-suit, "She was going to look for the lander once the storm cleared, but those birds found us about two hours ago and kept attacking. Finally she let me and Saul have pistols to help drive them off, but more kept coming. Then something drove them off."

"That would be us." Lawson stated from behind Joel.

Liam's head jerked as he realized for the first time there was another frame. He recovered quickly as he started to think more clearly, "Where did you guys come from, are you cadets with the Ulysses academy or something?"

"Not even close." Lawson hissed.

Joel shook his head, "We don't have time to talk about this. We need to get clear of here before these guys wake up."

Liam glanced around, "Why not just kill them!"

"That would be murder!" Lawson half shouted.

"Yeah, so? After everything they have done to us, who cares."

"We do." Joel stated with the most forceful voice he could manage. "There will be no more discussion of killing defenseless troopers, no matter what they have done. Got it?"

Liam frowned, but slowly nodded, "Yes sir."

"Good. Are you OK to head out on foot or do one of us need to carry you?"

"I'm fine to walk, but I need some water and need to get this out of my face."

"We'll patch you up once we find a secure spot away from here. Where is your filter mask?"

"They don't let us have masks." Saul stated as he become coherent enough to join the conversation.

Joel glanced over horrified. "Are you kidding me?"

Liam shook his head, "No sir, he isn't. Even when doing forced labor outside, which is almost every day for endless hours, we are not given filter masks. Lots of us have gotten sick and it isn't getting any easier to breath here. If anything, I think I have started to get sick too."

Joel quickly dug into his field pack and pulled out the disposable light eco-suit that it came with. "This is for emergencies. This qualifies. Put that on!"

Lawson didn't hesitate to do the same. He quickly handed the light eco-suit in his field pack to Saul. Both Blood's Honor cadets also handed over the extra water they had in their emergency packs.

While Lawson helped Saul, who was still reeling for the stunner shot, Joel made the rounds again, putting yet another stunner shot into each of the adults. He also picked up the two laser rifles and secured extra battery packs and a pair of survival packs from the unconscious troopers. He paused long enough to change out the batteries of the laser rifles and plug the used ones into a charger built into his frame. Finally he made a sweep of each person and used his powered armored hands to destroy every radio and compass they had. He then fired his medium laser into the already damaged map case lying in the dirt not far from the trooper he had killed. As it disintegrated under the high intensity beam another set of tears threatened to slide out of his eyes as he saw the dead eyes of a woman staring blankly past him. The rest of the face showed she knew she was going to die. It almost looked like she died screaming. He shuddered as he collected the laser pistol and mangled survival pack from her and backed away.

Joel returned with the packs and laser rifles, tossing them to the two cadets "Take these just in case. We need to get out of here before they wake up!"

Liam looked over, "You are just going to leave them?"

"Yes. We don't kill unless we have to, but there is nothing saying I have to give them any kind of aid. Let them fend for themselves. If they manage to make it back then all they will be able to report is they were attacked by two large unmarked frames and left for dead. Personally, I doubt they will be able to navigate back to where they came from since I didn't leave them with any way to mechanically find a direction and I have every intention of keeping all their weapons except knives."

Saul accepted help getting another drink of water from Lawson before motioning for Liam to come over. The second the other boy sat next to him, Saul helped the boy pull out the jagged piece of wood. The moment it came out the blood flow increased a great deal, running down his face and onto his filthy clothing.

Joel let out a deep breath as he tossed over his first aid kit, "That's why I wanted to leave it in there till we were in a secure location guys. Now you have the smell of lots of fresh blood on you and Brile Bats and Sand Scorps are both attracted to the smell of blood."

Saul lightly shuddered as he pulled out a cleaning wipe and a quick heal patch. "Sorry, I didn't know…."

Joel's voice hardened and he cleared his visor so they could see him staring at them. "I am a Cadet Major, and from what I hear, I clearly out rank both of you. If you are going to stick with us, you will treat at me as your commanding officer and follow my orders from here on out. UNDERSTOOD?"

Quickly both boys nodded as Saul continued to make sure Liam's wound was no longer bleeding before he packed up the first aid kit.

Joel clenched his fists, "Guys, I am not normally a jerk, but I am serious about this. The last thing I want to do is strand you two out here, but my primary task is to keep my squad safe, and I can't do that if I have members disobeying me."

Saul raised an eyebrow, "Are you giving us a chance to join your squad, sir?"

Joel paused as he saw the exhausted boys look at him with a degree of fear and hope all rolled into one. He glanced over at Lawson who gave him a thumbs up. Finally he nodded, "Yeah, as a matter of fact, I am. But understand, it is my command and the two of you are coming in at your current ranks, which makes you the lowest two members of my augmented squad."

Liam frowned for a moment, "Don't you have to get OK from your cadre or something sir?"

"Actually, no." Joel gave them a cryptic smile, "For the time being, I have full authority to bring you in. If you want to stay once we leave here, then we'll have to deal with the cadre. Until then, though, there will be no more disobeying orders."

Liam raised both his hands, "Not going to happen again. I'm just a Private, sir."

Saul nodded in total agreement as he watched Joel collect the last of the weapons. He finally spoke again as Joel made his way over to them. He pointed to the guy who first came out of the woods, "Please let him keep his firearm, Major."

Joel turned and cocked his head to the side, "Why?"

Saul glanced over to Liam for help.

Liam begrudgingly nodded after a few moments, "He's right, sir. That guy is the only one who has done anything to help any of us. He has managed to get some of us medical help and has brought in extra rations on occasion. Let him have a pistol or something, it's the least we can do, and a way to say thanks. He is seriously the only decent officer they have, if there is such a thing as decent within the Ulysses military. In any other unit, he would definitely be one of the good guys."

Joel shrugged for a moment before dropping the sub-machinegun, ammo, and a laser pistol with an extra battery next to the guy. "If you're both sure." He took an extra few seconds to pull a fast patch out of his first aid kit. He slapped it over the guy's wounded shoulder knowing it would not only stop the blood flow quickly, but time release an anti-biotic and healing stimulant into the wound. He also realized the stimulant in the patch would wake the guy up well before any of the others. "We have to hurry."

As he moved away, he sighed and dug through one of the captured survival kits, making sure there was no emergency radio or compass. He pulled out a trio of flares and two chem-light sticks before he tossed the remainder back on the ground beside the guy the other two had pointed out. He then looked straight at Liam and Saul. "You two stay between us. Master Sergeant, you have point. I'll bring up the rear."

Saul nodded. "Understood sir. Who are you any way?"

Lawson grinned as he gave his fellow Andar cadet a light hug, not wanting the frame's augmentation to hurt the kid. "Friends, Saul, friends."

The boy peered into the darkened visor of the frame holding him, "I know that voice." His face scrunched up as he dug though his memory and tried to put a face to the voice.

Lawson stood up and helped Saul to his feet. He held on as the kid wobbled on shaky legs. It took almost a full minute before Saul was able to let go. The second he did Lawson cleared the face shield for a moment allowing Saul to see his face. "You OK, Sergeant?"

"Law!" Saul shouted in a mixture of astonishment and joy, "What in the hell are you doing here?"

"At the moment, he is saving your butt, Sergeant." Joel replied as he looked around. "You said you were on a lander that flamed out, do you know what was in it and which direction it went down?"

Saul nodded, "We had to secure the load. It had a Rapier recon hover tank, a Slasher tracked tank, a heavy repair platform and a salvage rig. They have been looking for something for almost a week. I don't know what it is, but, if I heard them right, we were the last shot at finding it.

"The Lieutenant Colonel," he pointed toward the dead woman in the heavy Eco-suit, "said the lander was straight east from here and was putting out an E.L. trans. I think she had a locator. But she also said the signal was pretty weak for some reason. It sounded like we were in some kind of black out zone, too, cause she was unable to reach command to tell them what happened."

"We have been seeing some interference in our frame systems for the last couple of kilometers, so any electronics she had in her suit would have been hit even harder."

Lawson quickly agreed, "No doubt, and there is no point in seeing what she was using to locate the signal. Her suit is nothing more than scrap, so we'll have to do this another way, if you want to go after the lander, sir."

Joel nodded as he turned to Lawson, "I'd love to find an actual repair platform and it would be nice if we had some armor with Ulysses military markings. Cycle though your receiver and see if you can find any trace of an Emergency Location Transmitter. It's probably on a narrow frequency band to keep it hidden from accidental discovery from hostiles, so it'll take some time. While you work on it we'll head east." He glanced down at the man he had just patched, then over at Saul. "This guy is going to wake up real soon. Do you need one of us to carry you?"

Saul took a couple of deep breaths through the laser filter of the disposable Eco-suit and grabbed the small pack and rifle. He almost glared as he replied. "No one carries an uninjured Andar command cadet, Major. No one."

Joel flashed a genuine smile for the first time in several minutes. "Then let's move out! There is quite a bit of wind, so it will quickly cover our footsteps if we say out in the open and stick to the sandier areas. But, it means we'll have to watch for Sand Scorps. If there is any trouble other than wildlife hit the deck and let Lawson and me deal with it. Those rifles didn't do anything but piss me off."

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