Castle Roland


by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 10

Published: 8 Apr 14


Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons


Terrin dropped the back ramp on the Dagger and jumped out to check on Tracy only seconds before Lawson came out of the tree line angling toward the downed frame. Terrin ducked back into the dagger the second he saw the frame shouting out, "Challenge Cruiser!" as he did so.

Lawson didn't slow, knowing it would take a frame to move a frame, since they were so heavy. Instead he turned on the external speaker and responded. "Counter Crusher."

Terrin peaked out from around the edge of the hatch, frowning deeply, "Who are you?"

"Lawson O'Malley, sir."

A huge sigh escaped the boy's lips as he finally came out into the open and knelt next to the downed frame, "Sorry, O'Malley, I am not used to your voice."

Lawson shrugged, "No problem, Terrin, you haven't spent much time with us new cadets." He quickly joined him, first grabbing the feet of the frame and pulling hard to get it out of the edge of the water and using the incredible augmented power the frame gave him to pull it clear of the mud on the water's edge as well. "Who is in it?"

"Tracy, I think." Terrin stated with clear concern. "Any idea why Chip was shooting at you all while you all were moving up to help us?"

A note of caution entered Lawson's voice as he had to use all his and the frame's strength to roll the frame over. "The markings on the tank are… Well I think I better let Joel tell you. He is much calmer about this then I am."

Terrin twisted his head to glance at Lawson, "In other words I better tell Beth not to shoot at it?"

"I told them to stay in the woods and keep an eye out, but yeah, no matter what markings it has, shooting at it would not be good at all."

Terrin turned and shouted, "Beth, Lawson is out here. He says the Rapier has enemy markings of some sort but is controlled by Joel's group. No matter what you see don't fire at it."

A muffled, "you got it!" came from inside the Dagger.

Lawson glanced back to the wood line and tapped his external lights twice quickly followed by two longer ones and then two more quick ones. A series of flashes in the woods told the boy Saul had gotten the message to hold back and keep watch. Satisfied he turned back to Terrin "So you don't know who has what frame?"

"We haven't gotten our frames yet." Terrin half growled as he wiped the mud off the face plate and took a close look at the face inside.

"You mean you haven't even gotten to the drop pod yet?"

"Couldn't find the stupid thing. After chasing our tails for a couple of days, we finally realized tracking where the ship crashed would be a great deal easier than finding a pod, so Chip… um, well here we are." He quickly switched subjects as he saw movement in the nostrils of the girl inside the frame, "It's Tracy and she's breathing."

"Thank God!" Lawson stated showing he had some deeper feelings for the girl beyond her being a fellow cadet. His relief allowed the awkwardness of Terrin's words to slide by basically unnoticed. He lightly tapped on the side of the frame's head unit with his frame's metal fingers, "Tracy, it's Lawson. You OK?"

Terrin shook his head, "She's out cold."

Lawson stared at the frame for a few seconds, "Well this isn't good. How do we get her out… Or for that matter, how do you get any unconscious injured person out of a frame?"

Terrin motioned for Lawson to roll the frame back over, "Normally, the computer detects if the pilot is hurt or unconscious and signals the internal lock to deactivate. We should be able to just push the back hatch release." Terrin stuck his index and middle finger into the manual release and flipped the lever. Less than a second later, the back hatch to the frame hissed as the airtight seal was broken and then folded outward.

Lawson held the hatch open, preventing it from sliding back in to place like it normally would after a full minute of being open, allowing Terrin plenty of time to pull Tracy out of the frame. "So what happens if there is damage to the lever or the power unit shorts out to where there is no power for the back to pop open?"

Terrin finally got Tracy completely out before responding, "Well, if there is no power then the pilot is probably dead, because there is only about twenty minutes of air inside the frame, unless, of course, there is a breach or two, then you pretty much have to use an external power source by plugging in a power line into the recharge unit. If it simply will not open because of mass damage, then you have to blow the back, cut it open or drill in and hit the emergency explosive escape bolts."

He pointed to a pair of yellow painted holes on the lower back of the frame. "Drilling the armor in both these spots until you breach armor will get you access to the escape bolts. Once through the armor, all you have to do is push in a stick, pen, or anything about the same size. seconds later the back will blow off."

"Huh, I always wondered what those yellow indentations were for on our cadet frames back on Andar."

"As far as I know, all frames made outside of Earth Core have them."

"Earth Core doesn't?"

Terrin shook his head "They don't want their framers captured so easily so they don't mark anything that could allow an enemy to easily break into their frames and get them out. They also put internal explosives charges around the edge of their frame hatches so the whole thing blows up if you try to cut them out. The only way to deactivate is with a command or medic code, so Blood's Honor almost always sends in an infiltration unit to capture a few medics or a forward command base before we take them head on so we can get their injured troopers out of their frames and also capture their equipment without it blowing up on us.

He then glanced around until he spotted a small chunk of debris capable of holding some water. He scoped some up and splashed it into Tracy's face. Almost instantly, the girl's eyes popped open and she started struggling.

Lawson reached down and secured her. The power of the frame didn't give her a chance to fight back. At the same time he spoke softly, "Trace, you're safe."

The girl's grey eyes continued to dart around wildly for a few seconds before Lawson's words and voice sunk in, "Law?"

Lawson nodded as he carefully let go, knowing any sudden movements with his frame could cause serious damage to flesh, "Yeah, we got you."

She used her shirt sleeve to wipe some of the water off her face then took the offered filter mask from Terrin. "Is Chip OK?"

Terrin managed a snicker, "Well he stopped shooting at the other frame and they are coming back this way, so I'd say yes."

Lawson shook his head and rolled his eyes, "And I bet Joel is fuming after getting shot at by him."

Terrin shrugged, "Knowing Joel, he'd be a lot more unhappy if Chip hadn't shot him a few times. Joel is one of the most serious kids in the entire academy when it comes to frame combat. He actually believes being a Blood's Honor cadet should mean something more than it already does. He firmly believes everything about being a BH cadet is based off of one of the ten mottos."

Lawson glanced around at the wreckage still trying to take in the level of destruction around him, "Which one?"

Beth exited the Dagger by way of the back hatch. "In Joel's mind there is only one, the rest are just extensions of it: Failure to try is the biggest failure of all."

"Then he should have gone out with me at least once." Tracy complained.

All three cadets looked down at the girl for a moment before bursting out in laughter as they saw she was being totally serious.

Tracy ignored the chortles, stood up on wobbly legs, and glared at the frame for a few moments before kicking once. "Stupid frame."

Beth was the first of the other three to bring her laughter under control, "So are you alright?"

Tracy lightly kicked at the frame again, "I think so."

"So what happened?

Tracy shrugged, "Not really sure, I hit the igniter on the jump pack and I remember it starting to lift off, but I saw stars, then black spots, then I woke up with water being splashed on me and my frame's entire front all scraped to hell." She rolled her head, "I must have hit my right shoulder on something too, cause it's really sore."

Lawson glance over as his laughter stopped suddenly, "It sounds like you blacked out."

Beth knelt and took a look at the inside of the frame and spoke into the computer for a moment then had it run a couple of tests. A minute later she came back out and glanced over to Tracy with a bewildered stare. "Your jump pack mode was still off, didn't you set it to act as a high G suit?"

"The what?

Terrin's head turned sharply, "It should have automatically set itself to jump pack operations, did you override it?"

Tracy frowned deeply, "I have no clue what you are talking about."

Lawson glanced down at the frame then back to Tracy, "did you tell it to do or not to do anything before you ignited the jump pack?"

Tracy sat down on the frame and thought it over. "Well, Chip hooked up the jump pack while I was working on tying in some stuff behind the IR board on his frame. He told me it was all set so I climbed in and then we saw laser flashes and a spot light, so he jumped in his frame and I closed the back hatch of mine. He asked if I was ready and then he burned out the hole in the side of the ship. I stepped up right behind him… No actually the computer asked me if I wanted to secure from flight standby mode and I said yes just as I was shutting the back hatch…"

Beth cringed, "You accidentally shut off the g-suit operations. Chip set it in standby mode for you so it would have put extra pressure into the legs and chest padding to keep blood in your head the moment you triggered the jump pack. By saying yes to it, you took it off standby mode, which makes it way more comfortable to fight in, because the pads don't react to sudden movement, but it meant it wasn't ready for you to make a burn. It probably didn't put pressure into your legs and chest until you were already unconscious. You then bounced off something as you flew out of the ship, so the computer took over and did an emergency landing. You got a lot of armor damage to the front and a heck of a dent in the shoulder, but it looks like your frame came through completely intact."

Tracy rolled her head again. "Well, nothing feels broken or too badly bruised so I guess I came out good too."

"You're lucky!"

She patted the frame and gave a bit of a weak smile, "No I think it has more to do the Brave Humanities making their frames so damned good. On the bad side, I guess this means I don't get a jump pack ribbon to wear on my uniform yet."

Lawson snickered, "Only if they reverse the colors so you get a jump pack flub ribbon."

Tracy growled, "If you weren't in your frame and not so cute, I'd smack the crap out of you."

A wicked grin played over Lawson's face, "Then it's a good thing I'm cute, huh."

Terrin and Beth both burst out laughing again as Tracy stood and shook her head with a bit of a smile.

Tracy looked around noting the numerous burning machines. "It looks like I missed a good fight too, this sucks!"

"It would have been a bit easier if you had joined in." Beth stated seriously as she looked back at the Dagger. "We took some heavy hits and have moderate armor damage to three or four locations and have about a dozen other light hits. I'm guessing it will take a good couple of hours to patch the armor."

"It'll take my ears longer to stop ringing after getting hit with those sonic cannon shots. They really resonate though the Dagger." Terrin added in. "Next time we see a hover machine, we need to put on our head sets."

Beth nodded, "I'll have to dig mine out of my pack, but your right. Now I know why BH issues us some of this stuff we never seem to need or use." She looked up to the ship, "What all is in there?"

"Lots of frames, weapons, ammo, and frame repair equipment, but most of it is pretty empty." Tracy responded with a shake of her head. "Getting to it is a real nightmare though. It took us hours to find a way up to the equipment, and I don't think there is any way we will be able to get a frame though the passageways in or out of the bay with the frames."

Lawson studied the wreck for a few minutes, "The hole you both came out of is close to the equipment?"

"Upper corner of the staging area," Tracy confirmed, "My bet is the hole is actually an escape pod collar, but when the ship crashed and rolled the hole was ripped open more. Why?"

Lawson held up a finger stopping further conversation before turning to the wood line and flashing another series of light beams into the woods. The second he got a response, he turned back to the others, "DON'T SHOOT AT OUR TANK!"

Terrin held up his hands, "We kind of already guessed you all captured a machine."

"We did, but this in not a machine tank." Lawson almost growled. "Just don't shoot at it or my friend."

"Your friend?" Beth glanced over to look at Terrin a bit bewildered.

Terrin shrugged and shook his head showing his own confusion, but decided to put out the obvious. "Um, Lawson, you are the only one of us in a frame at the moment."

The look on Lawson's face gave the other three pause even though they were seeing only what the face plate of the frame revealed. "When you see what's on it you will want to shoot, trust me."

About the same time the Rapier emerged from the woods Chip and Joel appeared out of the field of wreckage. The second Joel saw it coming he activated his loud speaker, "Don't shoot at it!" At the same time he held up a hand in front of Chip just to make sure his friend didn't shoot even though he had been told the basics of what was going on.

Terrin glanced back with a deep frown and wrinkles on his forehead. "Alright, what is…"

Beth gasped cutting off Terrin's question, "It's got Ulysses markings!" Even though she had been warned her hand raced down to her micro missile pistol.

Even as Terrin spun and Tracy dove behind some wreckage Lawson stepped up and put himself between Beth and the tank, "Relax, it is with us!"

Terrin didn't actually draw his heavy gryo pistol, but his hand found the grip and he looked back to Joel and Chip, "Senior Lieutenant Price?"

"Stand down, Terrin, it's with us." Joel stated with a firm tone.

Beth didn't lower her pistol, but did move her finger slightly off the trigger.

Tracy peaked out from around the edge of the Dagger with wide eyes. "What in the hell is a Rapier with Ulysses marking doing here?"

Joel snorted lightly, "It seems someone in the Ulysses High Command was thinking along the same lines as BH High Command."

"Yeah," Lawson stated with disgust, "as in what better place to hide high value targets than on Brile."

Saul nervously poked his head out of the top hatch for a moment then ducked back in, "We clear Law?"

"Come on out. We can keep the area secure." Joel stated as he used hand signals to direct Lawson and Chip into good covering positions. He then looked down at the frame Tracy had been in. "Is it operational?"

Beth nodded while eyeing Saul with a great deal of mistrust as he climbed out of the tank. "Readouts say yes, but it has moderate armor damage to the front and heavy damage to the shoulder and the impact with whatever it hit has severed the targeting computer links to the right arm mounted weapons."

"With the ECM, the targeting computers are useless here anyway. I want one of you in it to give us the most firepower up and ready as possible. All these fires could easily attract more attention."

Tracy moved up to the frame, "I set it up to be mine, so I'll take it."

"You sure you are up for it?" Chip asked with a great deal of concern.

"Remember, I lived though a shredder attack." Tracy stated with a bit of a growl, "I'm fine." She then managed a grin. "Besides, the bumps and bruises I have now wouldn't even count as medical need back at NBJMA. They would write us up if we went in to the infirmary with what I have now."

"Are you sure Trace?" Lawson asked, "There are others who can fit in there who didn't just slam into Brile like a stack of bricks."

Tracy sent a glare over everyone looking on as she yanked off her filter mask and made her way over to her frame. "It'll take a lot more than a belly flop in an armored frame to keep me out of a fight."

"Good." Joel stated, "Because I think were going to be in for several over the next few weeks."

Saul finally fully climbed out of the Rapier and glanced around, "Our tanks are almost dry Major."

"Major?" Beth asked.

Chip pointed to where the ECM unit was. "We all got promotions, I'm sure they got better ones since they got to the pods so fast. Play the disk next to combo pod BH dropped. It's over there somewhere."

Joel rolled his eyes. "Rank isn't real important right at the moment. Getting you all equipment and our Rapier fueled up have to be priorities. Saul, pull out the hydrogen converter and put a line down in to this lake." Joel ordered, "Plug the unit into the Dagger's internal fusion plant to get power."

"You got it sir." Saul responded.

"You'll take all our sensors and electronics off line if you are planning on using the fusion plant for making hydrogen, Joel." Terrin reminded him.

"In this ECM and magnetic field what good are they going to do us?"

Terrin shrugged. "Good point." He then paused, So who is he and where in the heck did you find him?"

Saul responded, "We were guests of Lord Talborne."

'HUH?" Beth next to shouted.

"Most of those you didn't manage to rescue and were deemed useful for leverage against powerful or even potentially influential ABR families got sent here." Saul muttered. "So did many of those you kicked the crap out of."

Lawson noticed the suspicious stares Beth, Tracy and Terrin were directing at Saul so he stepped up along side his former Frame Force mate. "I know him personally. He was not a good friend of mine back on Andar, but he was a friend and without him and his dad, I would not have been in the Andar academy at all. I personally endorse him!"

Terrin glanced over at Lawson for a moment, "OK then. If you're good with him joining us, so am I." He then turned to Saul, "Let me give you a hand with the hydrogen line."

"Just like that?" Saul asked glancing around with a great deal of surprise.

Tracy nodded, "Damn straight. Law is one of us. He says you're good, so welcome to Blood's Honor, at least as a guest cadet."

"Same way we started." Lawson reminded the others as he moved away and started pulling ripped off sections of the doomed PLC into a central spot. Once satisfied he had enough to gain some decent cover from the direction the last wheeled machine had come, he glanced back. "Joel, we salvaged a winch and a magnetic grapple line from the lander and I stuck them in the tank. We should fire a line up to the hole they came out of and drop it back down then pull up the heavier cable on the winch line. Once we get everything set we can use the winch as a way to pull us up there and lower supplies down."

Beth stood and glanced back at the ship then over to Lawson, "Wow, nice idea."

"I tend to have a few once in a while." Lawson snickered.

"More than a few. You would have made a great team XO." Saul sighed.

"Maybe, but this time ideas is as far as it gets. Don't expect me to actually know how to weld on the needed rigging and stuff."

Liam, who had made his way out of the Rapier and was receiving a round of suspicious stares, glanced over at the ship from on top of the Rapier. "I can handle the rigging as long as we have a decent welder and you can actually get me up there. I am not the best climber and if you think I am going to use a grapple line to climb all the way up there you are out of your minds."

"We have a welder and some gear in the back of the Dagger. I'll grab it." Beth responded eyeing Liam carefully before disappearing back into the back of the Dagger.

"We can get back up there the same way we did before." Chip stated cautiously while still looking over at both Liam with a great deal of mistrust. "We left the optic cable in place so there is only a short climb to get past a section of missing steps up to where the frames are stored. You'll still have to go thorough several decks and wind back and forth over a couple of decks to get there. Also be careful, cause there are hundreds of things to cut yourself on, epically since you're only in one of our emergency e-suits."

Liam totally ignored the tone and look he was getting from Chip. Instead he cracked a scorp egg and drank it. "Good. I'm sure I'll be able to handle a short climb, but someone will need to tie the welder on so I can just pull it up to me, because I don't think be able to climb at all with a welder, even a small portable one."

Chip frowned, "What was that?"

"A sand-scorp egg. " Joel snickered, "And yes, as it turns out, they are edible." He pulled out his emergency case and handed Liam another, tossed one to Saul before opening his visor and downing one. "You want to try?"

Chip shook his head violently, "Are you nuts?"

"No." Lawson stated taking a moment to visually scan the area before backing over to Joel to take one of the offered eggs. "They are actually quite good." He pointed to Saul, "Chip Beck, I'd like to officially introduce Cadet Sergeant Saul Kammor, Andar Junior Military academy. As I said, he was in my frame force. The other kid is Senior Private Liam Montgomery, from Ratone Prime."

Tracy rolled her eyes and walked over to Joel, thrusting her hand out, "Come on Chip, if you are brave enough to ask me out for date once we get back to Forest Garden, surly you have enough guts to try a stupid sand-scorp egg."

"Oh you aren't going to actually eat one of those are you?" Beth gasped in disgust.

"Look, my fellow BH cadets…" Tracy stated with a bit of anger and disgust in her voice. She took a deep breath to calm slightly before she continued, "As well trained and tough as you all seem to be, you can really all be spoiled pains in the asses sometimes. You have never lived on a world basically bombed back to the Stone Age where any food, no matter how iffy, was still food. You never had to live in bombed out buildings for weeks with no running water, heat or other basics, all the while fighting off a hard winter. Food is food and I for one am going to give it a shot!"

She took the egg offered by Joel, cracked it, drank the contents and tossed it down in the muddy edge of the lake. She glared at Chip, Beth and Terrin as she licked her lips in surprise at the taste, "Damn, those are awesome! Chip, get your butt over here and try one of these!" She then glanced back to Joel, "Can I have another?"

Joel chuckled slightly as he opened up the survival case offering Tracy a couple more. All the while he looked over at Chip as the boy made his way over, took one of the eggs and trembled and cringed as he forced himself to drink the contents.

In an attempt to calm Chip, Joel whispered just loud enough for Chip to hear, "Did you really ask her out?"

Chip cautiously rolled his tongue around in his mouth as he realized the egg was actually quite tasty. Finally he nodded with some pride, grabbed another egg and grinned. "Darn straight."

Joel's eyes went wide with some surprise at Chip as he realized his normally bashful friend had actually asked someone out to a real date, something he had not gotten up the courage to do yet. At the same time he couldn't help but smile as Chip almost greedily snatched a couple more eggs to drink.

Beth noticeably cringed as she saw, Chip, Tracy, Saul and Lawson down a few more scorp eggs but managed to turn her attention to Saul a nod. "Well, like Terrin said, if Lawson speaks for you, it's good to meet you. Were you part of the competition?"

"No ma'am." Saul sighed sadly, "Law was the only one to make it from our entire force. I was captured with a couple dozen others as we tried to sneak out the west side of the academy. Only nine of us were deemed important enough to keep. They shot the others in cold blood as an example to the rest of us and as punishment for not just giving up as they had ordered when they first captured the academy and told everyone to drop to the ground and put hands over their heads over the loud speakers. I am pretty sure only five of us were brought here, but I know one of the others was killed a month or so ago, so at most there is only 3 others from my group, but there are dozens of other Andar cadets scattered across this god forsaken world."

Anger flashed in Chip's eyes. "They murdered over a dozen defenseless cadets?"

A tear sled out of Saul's eye as he nodded "Told them to run and started shooting after a count of ten. A few of them even laughed at the way some of them fell and screamed. I don't think any survived, but they didn't check, instead they taped our hands behind us and flung us into a transport VTOL. They then climbed in and handed the pilot our cadet ID cards to be called in and said their zone was secure."

"What Ulysses unit were they with?" Beth asked as she joined the conversation with a venom filled hiss.

"They were infantry mercs with a unit called the Battle Blades." Saul stated with little emotion, showing just how worn out and numb to mistreatment he was. "Never heard of them before then, and hope to never hear of them again."

Terrin growled, "Oh, I hope we hear of them again. They need to be wiped out."

"With any luck, you'll be able to inform your dad and they will be." Joel snarled.

"Trust me," Terrin proclaimed, "I'll demand we add them on BH's list of rouge merc units when we get back. Once we are finished with Talborne, the Battle Blades will find themselves on a wanted list with me personally doing everything I can to track them down and eliminate them."

"Damn," Liam whistled, "I like you guys more by the minute. Is your dad pretty high up in Blood's Honor?"

Terrin's lips twisted into a smirk, "Take out the pretty and you'll be getting there. So who are you and how did you end up on this rock?"

Liam pointed to Lawson and gave a decent salute "As he said, sir, I am Senior Private Liam Montgomery, Ratone Prime Junior Military Academy, Command College."

Terrin returned the salute but was cut off before he could say anything.

Beth spoke up, "Where you in the scouting competition?"

"Yeah." Liam spoke up with some surprise in his voice. "How'd you know?"

"Because you were on the leader board ahead of me and only a couple of points behind one of the older BH senior cadets. We were scheduled to go out with you and a kid from Dark Earth in the quarter-finals against the other four leaders from the other half of the scouting competition."

"You must be Master Sergeant Beth Kohl then, since you were the only female left in the competition." Liam managed a grin. "We would have taken them."

"I am and I agree with you, but we would have had to work our butts off to cover for the kid from Black Earth." Beth complained, "He was great in the open fields, but in the mountain forest he was absolutely horrible. He would have never ended up on the leader board without me.

"But I heard lots of good stuff about you. From what I heard from Ken, the older BH cadet, you are really good out in the brush. He figured you very well might end up with a medal, or at the very least honorable mention. Ken warned me you were his pick between the two of us on taking third place behind him and Nate, the other BH cadet on the Alpha side of the competition. He even said if either him or Nate screwed up, you very well might have taken second.

Liam sighed. "Too bad we couldn't have tested out. If I had gotten an honorable mention I would have been bumped to Sergeant and if I had medaled I would have gained two or three extra ranks above Sergeant, or an auto commission for first, but I would have been hard pressed to beat everyone in the field craft and rural ambush sides. My shooting ain't as good as you BH guys."

Beth kind of nodded, "The only reason Ken gave me any chance was he said my shooting and sniping were far better than yours, but he honestly didn't think my marksmanship alone would be enough to put me in third above you. Nice to finally meet you, too bad it isn't under more friendly conditions."

"It could be worse; you could have met me in one of the prisoner-slave camps Ulysses have set up all over this world. It was kind of nice when your people were here in force, cause they had to keep us hidden from your recon teams."

"They knew BH was on Brile and didn't attack?" Terrin almost shouted in surprise.

"I'm not sure they knew exactly who had made camp around the ruins of the mill and mine just below the mountains just north of the Red Sand Grasslands." Saul spoke up, "From what I heard none of your equipment had any markings. But they didn't want to chance attacking a group armed as heavily as it sounds like you all were. They also didn't want to accidentally leave survivors to escape and reveal this as a Ulysses supply base. Instead, they figured you would leave eventually and then there wouldn't be any suspicious activity to report so there would be no need for rescue crews to show up nor reinforcements."

"I heard the same thing." Liam added. "On the other hand, it sure sounded like they kept a close eye out and made sure to hide anyone and anything close to where your recon units went. They thought you all pulled off world a few days ago, even blowing up what was left of your field camp. Once they tracked your PLC's leaving orbit, they pushed us back out to work without worry of being spotted. I know we were recalled from work like a dozen times over the last couple of months for no apparent reason. I heard though the grape vine they had spotted recon units getting too close to us and forced us to hide in the ruins we were working around. A few of us even talked about making a break for it to see who was out there, but without any idea of how to locate or contact anyone we finally decided against it.

"One thing is certain, they were actually happy to see you all leave. One of the last things I heard, was they had sent for the last of their supplies once your ship left orbit and docked with its fold ship. The next thing I knew was I had been drafted to help a salvage operation. I think you know the rest."

Joel chewed on his lip for a few seconds. "Then they must have had their supply ships pretty close cause they came in within hours after our cadre left."

"They had them sitting around a nearby dead system." Saul stated. "I heard the Colonel you killed talking about it to the Major you let keep a weapon and some equipment. Earth Core is filtering in supplies to use against you, using uninhabitable systems so their supply lines can't easily be found. There are several small space stations for repair and refit of damaged starships leading all the way back to Earth Core worlds on multiple paths; so even if you find one part of a supply line you will not take out the entire network. Most have basic cloaking so they can't be detected by probes or basic recon units either. It sounds like they are pouring tons of money and resources in to help Talborne fight you all."

Joel glanced over to Terrin and Chip. "Well as much as I wish we had left, it may be a good thing we didn't. BH Command needs to know what is going on here. The only problem will be finding a way to get a message back to BH and Forest Garden."

"This sure makes the machines seem like a minor problem." Chip shook his head with disgust. "But Joel is right; it is a good thing BH has us here. We have to find a way to get word back to our parents."

Beth rubbed her forehead as if fighting off a headache. "So I guess we take on Ulysses forces without any help from Command this time. Who exactly are we fighting, or do you even know?"

Liam smacked the side of the tank, right where the Ulysses marking were, "None other than the Ulysses Sixth Armored."

Terrin's jaw dropped, "You have to be joking! We couldn't have left much of the Sixth after the pounding we gave them!"

"You didn't." Saul confirmed, "But they pieced it back together and augmented it with Ulysses frame and Armor cadets from their lower academy schools to make it into something akin to a combined arms division. All those who failed back on Andar, including all the surviving Sixth Armor are here as are all those who Talborn didn't want to kill outright but wanted to punish for some transgression real or imagined.

"The Sixth is a combination of ultra green and battle seasoned troopers with very poor equipment. To make sure the Sixth didn't start stealing supplies to make their equipment a bit more usable, Talbonre then put the remainder of those who survived out of Command Two Frame force and put them in command as punishment of sorts for letting his son die trying to get to the sixteen of you. At the same time, all of them have injuries from Andar, most came from cadet frames commanded by you all, so Talborne gave them the benefit of the doubt and gave them a task capable of getting them back into his good graces, or at the very least erase the black mark on their records of having a Talbonre die because they failed.

"It is their job to get everything ready to launch an assault directly against Forest Garden. Those are the ones you really need to worry about cause they are in new frames and are mean as hell. When the time comes it will be them leading the assault against your world.

"The Colonel the Major killed was Subato Talborne's Intel Officer, but she got out without getting hurt so she was placed in the Sixth as second in command. She was hoping to find frames in the wreckage of some downed craft, which I assume is this one, so she could get decent frames and possibly some good armor for at least herself and part of the Sixth. Since she wasn't allowed to take any supplies out of the stuff Talborne and Earth Core are hiding here, even though it sounds like the Sixth is being slotted to be one of the first to hit Forest Garden."

Terrin kind of shrugged but his face was a mask of resolve and anger. "No use wasting good equipment on a unit that stands zero chance of being intact when it hits the soil of Forest Garden. No matter how large or sneaky an assault, Forest Garden's defenses will wipe out all initial landings. Somehow I don't think Talborne or Earth Core has a clue what an invasion of the Forest Garden system will be like. Cause if they did, they simply wouldn't try it. But Joel's right we have to get word out, cause if BH and Forest Garden are ready, the Sixth will never get a single ship close enough to our home world to crash on it."

"True," Joel countered, "but we really need to let BH Command know about the supply lines. If we can find some of those repair and refit stations we could capture them and then capture the ships passing though by ordering them to dock for maintenance checks or something. First things first though. Terrin, you should take over Chip's frame for a bit while he takes Liam and Beth in. We'll stand guard out here and get the Rapier and Dagger refilled."

"We are down to less than 10 minutes of fuel so it'll take some time to get us full tanks." Liam stated with concern.

"It's a good thing we got here when we did then. How many cannon rounds do you have left?"

"Twenty four, Major." Saul responded, "With the low fuel lights on, we didn't want to fire the lasers at all, but we did twice anyway."

"Well at least time is on our side. We should be able to find plenty of food and basic equipment for you two and hopefully some frames as well. As soon as we get a couple more frames up, I want Lawson and Saul to head back to our camp and let them know what is going on and bring everything here."

"Sir, are you sure?" Lawson asked slowly.

"Sure, why not?" Joel asked with some annoyance.

"Because, Joel, our camp is safe and secure with no activity." Lawson fired back, showing no signs of being intimidated by Joel's tone of voice. "The machines know they lost units around here and may send more. In addition, this ship is probably what Ulysses was looking for. It kind of fits what Liam and Saul overheard as the objective for the scouting mission they were forced into. I highly doubt there are many recently crashed PLC's capable of holding frames on Brile."

Joel started to demand his orders be carried out but paused, thinking back to Major Goddard's Holographic video again. He shook his head slightly as he started to realize just how often he had ignored good advice in the past because he didn't want to take the time to see the "brush strokes". With a frown he glanced around, then slowly nodded. "Agreed, thanks Master Sergeant. However, we need to give them a SitRep, so the two of you will still need to head back to camp to check on things. They also need to know about Ulysses forces roaming around out here. I don't want to engage unless we have to, at least until we have a firm plan."

Terrin and Beth stopped dead in their tracks and turned to look back at Joel with some surprise. They then turned back to each other with shrugs and raised eyes before returning to their assigned duties. In the entire time they had been in BHJMA, they had never heard Joel actually stop and listen to someone else once he had made his mind up. Many times Joel would ask for advice if he thought he needed it, but actually hearing someone change his mind was beyond astonishing to both of them.

Beth put down the welder just beyond the back ramp of the Dagger and looked over to Joel, "Um, we also need to get back to our camp and find Can…"

Terrin quickly cut her off, "Candice and the others will need frames fast if we have active Ulysses units out here. Chip, we need a new strategy before we do much more." Before more could be said, he shot a nasty glance over to Beth and shook his head lightly back and forth.

Another small jerk of Terrin's head in Chip's direction caused Chip to make his way over to the two.

Chip glanced over then shrugged as he made his way over to the Dagger. As he did so, he looked over at Tracy. "Once we get a line up to the hole, are you OK with taking whoever he is," he pointed to Liam, "back up into the bay so he can get some rigging set up for us to get all the supplies down?"

"Sure, but it sounded like Joel wants you to go."

My frame is in better shape and I am one of the best shots we have. Besides, my hand still really hurts from the cut, so I really don't want to climb up any more ropes or cables for a few days."

"You got it sir." Tracy stated as she ordered the back hatch of her frame to open so she could get out.

Meanwhile, Joel clearly caught the strange tone of Terrin's voice, the words, and the non-spoken communications as well. His eyebrow shot up when he saw Chip direct Tracy without looking to Terrin first, but he decided to hold his tongue for now. Not knowing exactly what was going on, but guessing Candice had indeed been replaced as leader of the other group; he figured it would come out sooner or later. One thing he was certain about; he didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable with what was probably a wise decision to replace Candice as leader, at least for the time being. Still he found the situation odd, for the way it looked and sounded, Chip had somehow gained leadership which was not at all what Joel had figured on and didn't even follow chain of command within Candice's squad.

Another glance at Terrin all but confirmed Joel's guess as even form a distance, Chip was clearly in command of the meeting. He was doing by far the least talking but giving all the orders. The more he watched, the more he was sure there were problems within the squad. The conversation was extremely animated and the looks on Beth's and Terrin's faces were a mixture of fear and anger. On the other hand, the other two were clearly deferring to Chip even though it appeared neither agreed with him, which meant a hard and fast chain of command existed and they were following it. Even though the new command order clearly didn't follow BH ranks and order of succession, the fact it existed and was being adhered to were good signs in Joel's way of thinking. Still, he wondered what had happened over the past few days to thrust Chip, who had almost no leadership experience, into a command slot. He knew there were at least three others who were probably better suited to taking command of the group if indeed Candice had utterly failed, which Joel guessed she had.

Joel decided to keep his distance and observe, noting Chip had hardened in posture. This made him look pretty intimidating mostly because his small body was inside a frame at the moment. However, Joel had grown up with Chip and knew when pushed his friend could harden into something akin to a concrete block. Once Chip decided to dig in his heels, short of an explosive charge, moving his friend was all but impossible. Joel couldn't help it. He smiled as he saw the smallest kid of those to come from BHJMA harden and stay firm. At last, Chip shook his head and pointed at the crashed ship and Dagger then back at those in Joel's group. Both Beth and Terrin finally held up their hands and nodded in some unified agreement before all three made their way back over to the Joel.

Chip spoke up, "I am going to head back and get the rest of my unit here so we can frame up and get some supplies. Since both Liam and Saul are bigger than most of us, they should claim one of the bigger frames we can't fit into, but leave the Legionnaire and Recon frames, cause I am all but betting Terrin will take one of them and Jason will want the other. I also want extra resources working on getting our Dagger fully repaired. If there is paint inside that ship, we also need to salvage it. We are out."

Joel simply nodded, "Fine, but I want you to take Lawson. No one should be alone on this rock and neither Tracy nor her frame is in any shape to make a fast trip after her failed jump. Once you both get back, I'll take one of the others back to my camp to give them a situation report. At that point, you will be in command here."

"I can…" Chip started to counter.

"I'm not asking." Joel cut Chip off with a hard stare and harder voice.

Chip straightened and saluted, "Understood Major."

Joel returned the salute "Use one of the filters on the Rapier to purify some water and fill your onboard supplies before you head out since BH never keeps water in frames in space. Besides, Lawson and I could use a refill and Saul and Liam need their canteens replenished as well. Once set, I want you and Lawson moving out."

Joel waited until Chip grabbed Beth to start purifying water before pulling Lawson aside. "Keep your eyes open. Something is not right."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm not sure, but Chip, Terrin and Beth are hiding something. I am sure of it."

"But they are BH cadets…"

"Oh, you can trust any of them with your life, especially Chip. He is like a brother to me. But something is very wrong with their unit; I just don't know what yet."

"I'll keep my eyes open."

"And your mouth shut for the most part." Joel commanded with a warning tone. "Cory will notice if you start nosing around or asking questions. Out of any of us, my dad would love to get Cory into Special Ops because he is very good at reading others and getting information. He is a sneaky so and so who will listen to anything you say and watch your every move. Since there is something going on they don't want us to know about, he out of any of them, will be very cautious of any of us and he will be the most likely to do whatever it takes to keep whatever they aren't telling us hidden."

"Understood. I'll get you some kind of report without poking around."

"Thanks." Joel managed a weak smile. "And take care of Chip for me. I think he is in a bit over his head at the moment, but he might be just what they need for a leader."

Lawson saluted, "You got it Major."

Karen moved up to Derek, who had really been pushing the pace for past several kilometers. She let out a long breath, kind of aggravated at the fact she was breathing hard while Derek was not even breathing through his mouth yet. "You can really move when you want to."

Derek snickered, "This is easy compared to what the coach of our combat ball team made us do."

Karen raised her eyebrows slightly, "Black Jungle was always in the playoffs. I really don't follow the sport much, but even I know our team got their butts handed to them two of the last three years by Black Jungle."

"Actually your team was pretty good last year. We only won by four. You should have seen what we did to Dark Earth."

"Maybe we did hold our own, but some of the older cadets came back looking like one massive bruise. A few even got homework extensions in order to recover and as you know it basically takes an act of God to get a homework extension at BHJMA."

Derek grinned, "Well, after playing us, they probably needed it."

Karen snorted, "From what I saw, they did. So what did your coach make you do anyway?"

Derek glanced over with a bit of a gleam in his eyes as he remembered some of fonder times from his home world. "Have you ever had to pilot a frame without the enhanced pilot controls enabled?"

Karen cringed, "Four times a year we have to do a combat course without full enhancements so we know how to fight in a damaged frame. It is awful when they pull the muscle enhancements. It takes so much out to pilot my frame, I don't have much energy left to actually fight."

"Yea, well now think about trying to do an obstacle course without pilot enhancements… twice a week… in deep mud…"

Karen looked over to Derek with some horror. "You have got to be kidding me! I have a hard time picking up my feet at all without pilot enhancements. There is no way I could walk though deep mud let alone run without them!"

"In order to make the team, you had to complete a five kilometer obstacle course in the swamp just north of the academy grounds. Then to get a playing spot, you had to run a two kilometer course without pilot enhancements at least once a week. Starters have to do two a week. And let me tell you, Black Jungle gets its name for a reason. The vast majority of the inhabitable areas of the world are jungle. Add in swamp and a course to run, two kilometers there seems more like twenty out here. We also have to do the five kilometer course once every other month too, and when we do, we don't get to skip the two kilometer runs."

Karen glanced over with a new found respect for Derek. "Were you a starter?"

Derek gave a slight yet very proud nod, "On the JV team I was, and I was one of four my age on the bench for all home varsity games as well. I got lots of playing time with them too, since we normally kicked the snot out of most teams. Most of us back-ups were normally in by half time. I only played a few plays against BH though, then only just to give our starters a break, cause BH gave us a real run. I still planted one of your line defenders nice and hard once and snapped the stick of one of your attackers on another play. My hand hurt for over a week and they even took x-rays cause the coach thought I broke it. Fortunately, I didn't so I never missed a start for our JV team."

He paused with a real gleam in his eyes, "If Paula can get us even close to the unarmed abilities she is at, I'll bet money I can make a starter for BH.

Karen shook her head and smiled, "I am pretty sure you could without Paula's teaching, but you will have to keep your grades up."

"Hey, for a starter slot on a combat ball varsity team, I'll do whatever it takes!" He paused as his facial features really lit up. "If you think this pace was fast, you should see what I would do for a chance at a starter slot!"

"So there is no chance I could keep up with you if you didn't want me to." Karen stated with a resigned sigh.

Derek shook his head, still smiling, "Probably not. But you are doing fine. We are less than half a click from the road to the mine and well ahead of the estimated schedule I left with Gabriel."

Karen suddenly understood why Derek had been pushing so hard. "You wanted extra time to really explore!"

Derek tried hard to keep a straight face, but failed as he stated, "The thought never occurred to me Command Sergeant."

Karen burst out laughing. "And Gabriel thought your time tables were a bit tight. He actually added an hour and a half to them."

Derek started jogging up the hill toward the mining site as he responded, "Good, that gives us well over two and a half hours to explore!"

He shook his head and snorted as he glanced over to Karen. "You guys are good, you really are, but sometimes it seems you are a bit soft on some things; like how hard you push yourselves or really testing your physical limits."

Karen took a deep breath as she forced herself to keep pace with Derek again, "Something tells me, between you, Paula, Lawson, and this world, we are going to return to Forest Garden a great deal leaner, meaner and tougher than when we left. We may well set a new higher standard for all of BHJMA."

Derek remained silent as he mulled over Karen's words for a few minutes. "You know, is it possible the cadre was hoping for just such a result when they dumped us on this rock? BH's technology and training is awesome, but maybe, just maybe, Major Goddard and some of the others see what some of us outside your academy do, a need for BH cadets to be a bit rougher and tougher around the edges."

A long sigh escaped Karen's lips as she found herself in unwilling agreement with Derek. "Well, if the cadre was looking for a way to push cadets toward being a bit rougher around the edges, as you put it, we would be good choices and you all would be the ones to get us to such a point. We already saw heavy fighting and have the respect of those younger and older than we are. Giving us a shot at cohort would also add to our mystique and give others something to shoot for. As much as I hate to admit it, you very well may be…" her words dropped off as she crested the hill and looked down into the narrow rocky valley seeing a long train of destroyed vehicles. "What in God's name?"

Derek took a quick knee then grabbed Karen pulling her down so her silhouette didn't stand out in the star and moon filled Brile night sky. He then cycled over to his infrared and looked down the narrow valley again. "Wow, there must be close to two hundred armored platforms down there!"

"They all look dead."

Derek zoomed in on a few with the telescopic enhancements he had added to his frame. "Oh, yeah, they're dead all right! They are really shot up too. It's like a vehicle grave yard, I see hover, wheeled, and tracked platforms down there. It's all old and I don't see any heat signs either."

Karen switched through her own visual enhancements as she looked over the almost kilometer and a half line of destroyed armored vehicles. "I don't get it. It looks like something simply wiped out an entire brigade of armor as it made its way up that narrow road down there."

Derek switched over to the briefing and located the list of machine vehicles and started comparing the technical diagrams to what he was seeing below. One by one, he found matches to the carcasses of the armor he found himself staring at. "They are all Ultra made machines, even the jeep looking things. It looks like someone managed to pin a huge number of machines in a narrow valley and had a turkey shoot.

"The terrain is too steep for anything down there to climb up so all someone had to do was wait until they were all out in the open, take out the lead and the rear machines and the rest were easy pickings. It does look like quite a few tried to escape down toward the stream bed but it was too steep, there are dozens more rolled machines further down, below the road."

The more Derek studied the carnage the more respect he had for the ambushers and why none of this had been found before. "With the scrub trees lining the area and how deep the valley is, it would take a direct satellite pass to see down there, so there is a pretty good chance this has gone unnoticed all these years."

Karen shook her head as she pointed slightly up the valley, "I'd agree, except there is fresh damage to many of the rocks. If this had taken place during the machine wars, the rocks would have smoothed out. In addition, many of these scrub trees are missing lots of leaves and some appear burned and blasted. This occurred recently." She pulled at one of the scrub bushes, easily yanking it out of the ground with the assistance of her frame and pointed to some scorch marks and burned leaves. In a few spots, tiny new greenish red shoots were starting to emerge from the damaged sections of the plant. "Very recently."

"What the hell?" Derek stated as he slowly moved up the ridge line keeping his eyes open, switching between UV and IR enhancements to make sure he didn't overlook anything. Less than seventy meters from where they had crested the ridge, he stopped, knelt, held up a metal plate and waved Karen over. "Look at this!"

Karen moved up quickly keeping brush and scrub trees between her and the mess below. Even before she made it over to Derek, her eyes bugged out as she recognized the curved plate as part of the back of a frame. "Someone blew the back hatch to get out of a frame!"

Derek picked up the back half of a broken carbonized drill bit and a wad of crusty bandages. "I think someone drilled in to get someone out of a frame and had to do some med work."

Karen moved right next to Derek and looked at the back panel. She then took the bit from him and let out a long breath. "It was Blood's Honor!" She handed it back, pointing to the crest on the back of the busted bit. "All unit equipment gets a stamp of when it was bought, who made it, and what unit it was assigned to before being issued. It allows for quick recalls on equipment if it is found to be faulty."

She then pointed to a sequence of symbols on the length of the bit. "I don't know how it works and what it all means, but this code would tell supply when it was made, by who, a lot number and some other stuff. I was told by my mom once, that the original idea was to cut down on suppliers sending us sub standard junk cause we trace it right back to them."

"Must be kind of expensive…" Derek's voice trailed off as he looked at the crest. "Hey, isn't this the same as the patch Major Goddard normally wears?"

Karen nodded, "It is the Cadre Command crest for the Junior Academy. They must have been part of this!"

"Yeah, and it looks like they won too!"

Karen grabbed the armored panel and studied it for a few seconds, "But not without some casualties. Someone drilled to get access to the explosive emergency escape bolts, which means the pilot was down and out. The bandages are dried and crusty, but the reddish brown tells me it was blood and a lot of it. If we didn't loose someone one right here, we came really close."

Derek pointed down the steep hill, "Well if even half of what they killed managed to fire back, there was a shit load of firepower slamming into this position!"

"Language, Derek."

Derek slammed the fist of his frame into the ground, "Crap…um crud… Grrrr… You know, I would be a lot happier in BHJMA if I could just cuss!"

Karen snickered. "Yeah, well, if we don't keep working to correct you, we will all go back to Forest Garden talking like you and none of us will have rank because of demerits."

A smirk played over Derek's face, "They wouldn't be able to demote us too much. It would be rather hard for them to put us in command of a cohort force if none of us had rank."

Karen let out a giggle, "You are absolutely awful sometimes!"

"I try." Derek stated with a humor filled voice. "So do we pull back or do we want to check it out a bit more?"

"Common sense says we pull back and come back with everyone, but to be totally honest, I want to know what the heck happened here. I have been playing with the briefings and comparing the machines we are looking at since you noticed they are all machines down there. Most of these styles have not been seen active since Blood's Honor took out the last big Ultras on the southern continent, well over a year before everyone pulled off Brile."

Derek studied a couple of the closer destroyed machines for a minute, noticing as he did so, Blood's Honor forces must have hit them from both sides of the deep valley like ravine as some of the holes in the armor had jagged edges pointing toward him while others were smooth from this side. The mass machine force never stood a chance with it being boxed in on a narrow road with heavy fire coming from vantage points on both sides. Tactically, the fight was over before the first shots had been fired. For a moment, he actually found himself feeling slightly sorry for the machines before he realized he was actually putting emotions into lifeless hunks of metal hell bent on the destruction of human life.

Still, as he thought over everything he was seeing and compared it to what they had already learned a few possible pieces of a huge puzzle seemed to slide into place. "Maybe the Cryogenics Ship established a base on the moon making these then brought them back here to attack the friendly Ultras. The message Command got did say the Cryo-ship returned and then left again. I wonder if the cadre intercepted this armored column, wiped it out and decided it was finally safe to set us free with our mission."

Karen glanced up toward the top of the ravine, "It would fit with what Joel's dad said on the briefing. They found the problem, dealt with it and decided to give our mission a green light." She paused and jumped up, "But that would mean the Cryo-ship was trying to attack the mine! This could be where one of the friendly Ultras is! We need to see if it is OK!"

Derek stood and put a hand on Karen's shoulder. "Well, unless I am totally misreading the devastation below us, nothing made it to the mine, so it should be fine. On the other hand, there is no telling if what is in the mine is still friendly or if it will see us as such. We need to be very careful."

Karen took deep calming breath and glanced around nervously. "Good point, but I still want to scout this out a bit more."

"Oh, don't get me wrong, I do too. I just don't want you rushing into a fire fight." Derek paused and grinned. "That is my job!"

Karen let out a long laugh. "And less than a day ago you were saying you didn't think you fit in with us very well."

"I am starting to see differently." Derek admitted as he moved further up the ridge. "I think we would be better off checking out the mine from above the opening first. Since Gabriel was so nice and gave us an extra hour or so, we don't even need to push."

Karen's eyes narrowed, "No, you push. If you're right, and I think you are, Command wants us being pushed. Believe it or not, I think they want you teaching us to be a bit tougher while we teach you to be a bit more refined."

Derek grunted with satisfaction as he dug in and moved at a rapid pace for top of the mine. "Alright Command Sergeant, but I have every intention of making your edges rougher than you refine mine."

"I think we can all live with such an outcome. Make me work Senior Sergeant!"

Candice wiped tears out of her eyes for about the fiftieth time as she drove the captured and somewhat repaired Slasher out of the lava flow and angled toward the distant line of hills marking the transition zone between the grassy plains and the rugged mountains running the length of the northern continent of Brile.

Knowing, now, that Ulysses forces were here on Brile, made the decision to abandon her squad an even poorer decision than it had originally looked. After the fight with Chip and the realization she had utterly botched being a leader, her first thought had been to resign the second she got back to Forest Garden. The video of the lander going down gave her another option. It was like a gift from God, a chance to link up with others and get off Brile and away from those she had so completely failed.

As she watched the lander falling out of the sky she realized she had all the skills, even at the age of twelve, soon to be thirteen, to hook up with and be a valuable member of numerous merc units across the galaxy. She could pilot and shoot almost any frame, as long as it could hold a pilot her size. She was a decent hover and tracked driver and gunner. She could fix most things on a frame, as long as it didn't involve heavy mechanical work on hydraulics or the power unit. Even better, she had proven she could fight, and given a chance could show whoever was in the crashed ship just how adaptable she could be.

Candice knew the chances were good she was heading toward a bandit group, but it wouldn't be hard to deal with them for a few months then bail when they hit some poor world or outpost. She could then claim to have been a captive and then work her way into a more reputable merc unit or planetary militia. Maybe over time she could learn to really lead, but if not, so be it. Her combat skills would get her enough rank to be comfortable and BHJMA would probably be happy to get rid of her.

Finding the downed ship had been easy enough, the smoke from the burning engine that had ripped off the starboard side along with all the spilled fuel lead her right to it. The hard part had been fighting though the edge of the sand storm and making it up the hill. Once she got there, however, everything changed. The Ulysses markings on the sides were badly worn but still visible as was the patch on the injured trooper leaning against the outside of the craft trying fruitlessly to contact someone for assistance with a hand held radio.

Seeing the patch of the circling dolphin like fish sent a jolt of pure terror though Candice. She almost used her laser rifle, but at the last second Blood's Honor training to only take a life if necessary took over. She re-slung her laser and pulled her stunner. The first shot was enough to drop the already battered woman, but Candice stayed hunkered down in the rocks waiting, fully expecting the shrill screech of the sonic shot would bring others out of the lander.

Candice waited until the stunned woman recovered enough to try to stand. Another shot dropped the woman, this time knocking her cold. Once again she waited, when nothing moved she dashed to the side of the lander, pumping a point blank shot into the woman, just to make sure she would not wake up any time soon.

She then did a sweep of the whole ship, puking once when she found someone basically splattered all over the communications room. Once she was sure the ship was devoid of further life, she shot the woman with the stunner yet one more time then used tape she found in the wreck to fully secure the woman's hands and feet, but did take a few extra minutes to splint a broken bone and put some bandages over a couple of very deep wounds. Even with Ulysses markings on the woman's uniform, Candice could not bring herself to leave such injuries open and unattended.

It took several hours to repair the Slasher enough to make it usable. The work only become harder and longer as she spent another couple to take the track off the repair platform so she had extra track, since she was pretty sure the track would not hold. The only saving graces to the whole thing were the full tech readout for the Slasher had survived the crash and the repair platform held a lifter frame, basically a combat frame without heavy armor or weapons, so the heavy lifting was easy to accomplish for someone with her frame skills.

She took a few breaks talking to and feeding the lone crash survivor of the lander. Doing this allowed her to find out Brile was being used as a staging area for operations against Blood's Honor and planets that had broke relations with the ABR, joining the fledgling New Frontiers Coalition instead. One thing she didn't know until the conversations, was just how many worlds had done so and how many others were on the verge of doing so. As she listened and asked questions, Candice realized she would have to get well clear of the whole of what used to be the ABR if she didn't want to be accidentally discovered by Blood's Honor and the NFC.

She also found out many of those from the take over of Andar were being held captive in camps across much of Brile. During the whole time, she stuck with the story of being from a bandit group pilfering abandoned sites for salvage.

Finally, as she got the track scavenged off the salvage rig loaded, a bunch of extra tools, and almost all the food and water she could scrounge from the wreck, the sounds of not so distant gunshots echoed over the ancient lava flow and the rocky ledges overlooking the crash site. Realizing she needed to move quickly, because those shots were certainly from Ulysses forces, she tossed a few more hands full of random stuff into the back of the Slasher, shot the woman with a stunner yet again so she would not be able to tell the approaching rescuers anything until she had gotten well clear. She also planted a found knife not far from the poor woman so she could get loose if those coming somehow managed to miss the crash.

Now, however, she was at a total loss as to what to do. She was alone on a world filled with hostile machines, dangerous creatures, and a huge enemy force. She didn't think there was any chance of finding her former squad mates and wondered if they would take her back if she did. Another sob escaped her lips as she continued to move toward the mountains, knowing BH had at least dropped a basically easy to find large supply load meant for those she had just abandoned. Maybe they would come for it, as Chip had suggested before she surrendered her command to him. If nothing else, Beth would probably convince them to take her back until they could pull off Brile…

Terrin cut out a section of damaged armor off the side of the Dagger while Beth used the liquefier to dribble fresh armor into the section he had just readied for repair. As the two worked Terrin glanced back at Joel, who was keeping watch on both the Dagger and the ruined Husky Class PLC.

Realizing Joel was well out of ear shot, Terrin spoke but he still kept his voice soft. "We have to get to that downed lander!"

"I know, but from what it sounds like Candice made it there first and took one of the armored platforms. She could be a couple hundred kilometers away by now, especially since a Slasher has solar power as well as hydrogen and she certainly has a hydrogen converter unit."

"I'm sure she does, but she has a bad track. She isn't going very fast or far until it gets fixed." Terrin reminded Beth, "Heck, she can't even pull a tire off and replace it without help."

"Oh, come on, she is not a mechanic, but she ain't THAT bad. Besides, if she found a tech readout, she can read and follow instructions well enough to get a track on, especially since she had tools from a salvage rig." Beth took a deep breath, "Also remember, we are talking Zip Tech junk. They are designed to be all but moron proof."

"I know, which also makes them easy to kill." Terrin concurred, "One thing is for sure, if it was her, and I am almost certain it was, she took the right platform. A Slasher can be easily operated in combat by a single person as the main gun, front machine guns and driver controls are all accessible from the pilot's seat. There is no way she can effectively fire everything and drive, but she can still take it into combat if needed and out of any of us, she is by far the best in solo vehicle combat. As this last fight showed us, we are already missing her ability to fight in an armored platform. One area we were already badly lacking in was platform combat operations, without Candice, we are one step above untrained."

"As the damage on our dagger shows." Beth sighed. "We aren't even half done with repairs and have been at it for almost an hour and a half. Maybe we would have been better off taking Stella or Jason."

"Looking back we should have, but we really didn't come out here to get into a huge fight and we are still breathing."

"Without Chip, Joel, Lawson and those other two we might not."

Terrin glanced skyward, "I just hope Blood's Honor is doing better dealing with Talborne than we are doing fighting machines."

Colonel Allen Price eased into his repair stall. His frame had taken some hard hits in the latest confrontation with Lord Talborne's forces. As the back hatch popped open and he swallowed hard to relieve the over pressure in his ears, Allen saw his personal tech cringe at the sight of the hydraulic fluid leaking out of the left arm elbow unit of his massive Devastator.

The frame, one of the most powerful and highest tech frames Brave humanities made, was not an easy beast to repair and Allen knew it. "Take your time son, I can always take out my Renegade if I am needed, but I think we are good for now. We pushed them all the way back to the Lowland Glades. It should take them a few days to dig themselves out of that swampy mess, and reform into anything akin to a real strike force. Especially after the pounding we gave them.

The young man saluted, "I'll pull a couple of the junior techs sir. We should have this baby up and running like new in under six hours."

"You get it done in four and I'll grant you a three day pass and an extra day's pay to go with it to use as soon as we have a safe rear area." Colonel Price stated with a challenging tone.

A determined grimace crossed the features of the nineteen year old, "Three and a half hours sir!"

A satisfied grin crossed Allen's sweat coated face as he gave a nod and pointed to the lead tech on duty to make sure his challenge was logged and the frame checked to see if the time table was met.

The Master Sergeant gave Allen a thumb's up before barking orders to a pair of junior techs to help a nearby frame pilot to medical who had emerged from her frame with blood dripping down from a wound on her hip.

Allen's eyes narrowed as he carefully observed a medic running over to the woman while the two sixteen year old techs reached her moments before she collapsed on the floor of the repair bay. He angrily grabbed his communicator, "Tactical, why didn't we pull Ensign McFarland off the line!"

A startled voice of a man came back over the hand held almost instantly, "Why sir?"

"Why? She is bleeding out all over my bay! Who is monitoring up there?"

A female voice answered after a slight delay, "Um, I am sir. I didn't know she took any internal damage."

"Who is this?" Colonel Price growled.

"Junior Warrant Officer Kellen, sir."

"Junior…" Allen looked down at his communicator with a bit of confusion. He didn't key the unit instead his mouth scrunched up into a tight frown. "Where is the Battle Officer?"

The Master Sergeant in charge of the bay came over, "Sir, the XO took most of rest of the command out about an hour ago to do a hard drop on the town of Bitter Creek. The 979th, poked their ugly heads out of the jungle again and tried to pull a full surprise assault against the whole town. She figured you had your hands full and didn't want you getting distracted."

Allen glanced down at his communicator again then over to his injured officer already being whisked up to medical. "What about Major Tangee?"

"I think he came down with the Black Jungle Smut. I heard a medical call to the tactical center for him. It sounded like he passed out at his station out of the blue about thirty minutes ago." The Master Sergeant paused, "Give the new-bee a bit of a break sir, she was just posted here a week ago and did jump in and take command of tactical. She's doing the best she knows how to."

"She should have called for someone more senior." Allen stated with some anger. Still he took a deep breath and patted the Master Sergeant on the shoulder. "But you're right. The fact she jumped in at all shows she has the drive we need in this brigade. Get these frames back up. If the 979th is back at it, we are going to need every thing we got. They are a crack unit."

The Master Sergeant nodded, "You got it, but this time they won't have the backing of Talborne's 42nd guards. You really kicked their butts today."

Allen glanced at the blood, quickly being cleaned up by one of the youngest techs on duty. "Yeah, but McFarland makes twenty of my people in medical with seven others dead. That puts Alpha force down by eighteen percent and Bravo is hovering right about eighty percent as well. If the 979th really has decided to poke its head up again, we better be getting in some replacements."

"Two shuttles full came in last night while you were ripping the 42nd a new one and taking their primary supply dump in the process."

"Awesome! Have all the recruits rounded up and sent to tactical so I can talk to them."


Allen pointed to the remnants of the blood.

"Sir, with all do respect, you need a shower and some chow. I'll call for someone on rest rotation to take over up there."

Allen took a deep breath, "Fine, but have whoever it is show our new warrant officer how to read the remote armor damage displays and don't expect BH troops to tell us they have been hit. We spent a lot of time, money and research to put in remote medical monitors, the least we can do is use them!"

Allen shook his head as he made his way over to the turbo lift. As the high speed lift shot him up a dozen decks to the command level, he closed his eyes and silently thanked the Sergeant in the tech bay for some clear headed thought. The man was correct; Allen realized it as he rolled his shoulders. He needed a shower, some food, and it wouldn't hurt to get an IV to replace some liquid lost over the past sixteen hours of leading Alpha Force and fighting Talborne's 42nd Guards.

Knowing the Sergeant would make sure his commands would be carried out Allen quickly made his way to his private quarters. The second the door closed behind him he stripped, leaving a trail of badly smelling combat clothing across half his study leading straight to the shower.

The moment the water erupted from the head, Allen dialed it in as hot as he could stand it to quickly get rid of the grime of combat; punching the button to have an antiseptic soap pumped in with the water. Less than two minutes later he pushed two other buttons cutting of the flow of added soap and changing the water to as cold as was available.

The shock of the cold water instantly woke him up while closing body pours, lessening the chance of getting the sickness commonly referred to as the Black Jungle Smut. The sickness, a forty-eight to ninety-six hour illness was unique to this world, a virus type of disease that had up to this point evaded all attempts to isolate it, let alone fight it.

This sickness, once it got started, basically wiped out all white blood cells within hours, transforming a healthy individual into a weak shaking mass of flesh, close to death. Medical attention was needed or the infected person would die within two to four hours of passing out. The only good thing that could be said was once a person got over the sickness, they were immune and their bodies actually produced white blood cells capable of fighting off most normal sicknesses like the ever present flu for life.

The Smut, as most people native to the planet called it, was responsible for an infant mortality rate of over fifty percent. Fortunately, however, those who survived were very healthy and other sicknesses on Black Jungle were rare as every infant born on the planet came down with the sickness within forty-eight hours of birth and then had a highly boosted immune system. On the other hand, those from off world who came to Black Jungle had no such guarantees of getting sick, and if they did it could be hours, days, weeks or even years before they came down with it.

Allen took a few deep breaths as the cold water continued to pelt him. He had come to Black Jungle three previous times, but had yet to feel the effects of the Smut. His mind drifted back almost seven years, to the first time on Black Jungle. He had come to the world for the first time with his wife and two boys as part of an expeditionary force. The idea at the time was to allow several Blood's Honor troopers to get the sickness and recover. Then, should the need to fight here ever come up, Blood's Honor could send in troopers who were already immune. The mission, and the two subsequent missions had been successful, but not without some serious complications.

Joel, his oldest, dropped less than an hour after arrival. Before Joel had gotten to the hospital, his wife and younger one had also succumbed to the sickness. One by one, other youngsters, including Joel's best friend, Gabriel McCurdy, son of the commander of all Blood's Honor and Forest Garden, also dropped. Many of the kids had gone from happy playing youngsters to deathly ill; seemingly with no warning. Gabriel, in particular, had been climbing a tree when he suddenly blacked out and fell.

Allen clenched his fists as he remembered diving, narrowly catching the five year old blond boy, moments before he would have impacted into the ground of Black Jungle. With the near death of a prince, Forest Garden and Brave Humanities wasted no time sending medical teams to find the cause. Now, well over six years later, the medical teams still stationed on the world were no closer to an answer then the day they had arrived. On the other hand, Black Jungle had turned out to be a preverbal gold mine in medicine research. Since first establishing a half dozen research sites, scientists had found over a dozen plants with valuable medical properties in fighting everything from blood clots to helping a person's brain recover and grow new synapses paths after a stroke.

As with many Brave Humanities ventures, the labs on Black Jungle had ultimately proven extremely profitable. Brave Humanities: Black Jungle, had no less than twenty-two patents for drugs with almost double that number waiting on final approval or well into field testing. This wild success was one of the prime reasons Shadow Brigade was on world instead of one of Blood's Honor's lesser units. While many Brave Humanities stations were on hostile or contested worlds across the formerly proud ABR, this one fell into a different category. The last thing BH Command or Ariel McCurdy wanted was the massive tax revenue of Brave Humanities: Black Jungle, filtering back to Talborne through taxes paid to the ABR now controlled by the usurping tyrant.

The second the Planetary Government tried to break free to the Talborne controlled ABR, a few planetary units and a large ABR unit tired to pull a military coup. A desperate call for help was answered by Ariel McCurdy ordering her most powerful combat brigade to deal with the situation and dealt with it they had. Since landing on Black Jungle, Shadow Brigade had crushed five planetary forces and pushed back the ABR forces well back from the capitol and the four largest cities and both star ports.

Unfortunately, the few remaining units including the elite ABR 979th Combined Arms Division had not backed down. Instead, several units including Talborne's very own 42nd Guards had started resorting to something akin to terror tactics, taking towns, stripping out anything not nailed down and vanishing back into the dense jungles before Shadow Brigade forces could be brought to bear. Those in many of the towns who had resisted were beaten, tortured and in more than a few cases killed. Several other civilians were missing and believed to be hostages or even slaves of rouge ABR units.

Allen exited the shower and let himself drip dry under the flow of cool air pumped in by the ship's life support. As he did so, a bit of a smirk escaped his normally stony facial features. The last forty-eight hours had seen his very own command unit lead Alpha and Bravo frame forces into a perfectly executed surprise counter attack. Of the four-hundred-seventy-one frames of the 42nd guards, at least two-hundred-sixty-three had fallen to his three-hundred-twenty-six frames, with two-hundred-ten captives and only forty-three deaths to the 42nd. At the same time, he had personally taken out the overall commander of the 42nd in a pitched forty-five minute fight between his command team and the 42nd Command Team.

After the commander fell, the rest of the frames broke and scattered allowing Allen to move in and take the 42nd's primary supply dump and both the forward command base and secondary communication station. Even as Allen enjoyed the cool air, the fast striking commandos in his Delta Force were tearing up the jungle tracking groups and even individual fleeing frames. At worst, tactical analysis was projecting less than one-hundred frames would make it out of his nearly flawless trap. Making matters even better, those who did escape would have almost nothing, as all but fifteen support and repair platforms operated by the 42nd had been accounted for as being destroyed or captured meaning those stuck out in the deep jungle would be short on everything from ammo, to food, to toiletries.

Still, the fight was far from over as the bulk of the 979th were still somewhere under the almost endless canopy of trees. Intel and scouting units under Allen had also reported several hidden supply sites meaning there was a chance some of those fleeing were heading to such destinations, which was exactly why the framers in his Delta Force were tracking and not capturing some of those fleeing.

Since it sounded like some of the 979th had finally poked their noses out from under the trees, Allen was rather pleased his second in command had been ready and was putting a fist into that nose. As he finally cleaned up the mess he had made on the way to the shower and dressed, another sinister smile played over his lips as he found a bit of irony in the whole situation. Allen's victory against a Talborne military unit was Blood's Honor's second since the first shots of the civil war. There was a bit of pride in his step as he exited his quarters since both crushing defeats had been at the hand of a Price. First Talborne had faced his son Joel, now him. Both had been utterly disastrous to the evil fool.

The death of his wife to Talborne forces was far from being paid back, but he was absolutely certain Lord Talborne would curse the name Price all the way to his grave. Something told Allen, neither he nor his son, were done with Talborne or the Planet of Ulysses!

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