Castle Roland


by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 11

Published: 8 Apr 14


Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons

Lawson kept pace with Chip, noting not only how quiet the kid was, but also how he moved with a degree of uncertainty. Several times, Chip paused, glanced back at Lawson, shook his head and moved out again. Finally, well after all sights of the PLC wreckage had disappeared behind them, Chip finally took a knee and let out a long disgusted sounding sigh.

Lawson spiraled out just under half a kilometer, before making his way back. Not knowing what to say and taking the warning from Joel seriously, he decided to try some small talk in an attempt to break the icy feeling he was getting. "It looks pretty clear ell tee. This would be a good a place as any if you wanted to take an extended break."

Lawson quickly noted his words had been taken the wrong way as fingers on Chip's frame closed into tight fists. Not knowing what else to say, he backed off a few paces and cycled through his sensors. Once again, Lawson found himself astonished at just how high tech Blood's Honor equipment was. For even out here, with a half dozen kilometers and a pair of hills between them and the crashed ship, everything was still off line, all from one tiny pod dropped to hide the location of the destroyed craft.

Lawson glanced back toward the crash site, realizing for the first time just how hard the location would be to find unless one knew exactly where to look. The steep valley cut down side views and the actual crash site, being by the lake was in pretty much the lowest lying area. Short of flying right over the wreckage, searchers could spend weeks or even months flying within a couple of kilometers from it with no chance of spotting anything. Lawson found himself wanting to go back to the crash to see if the ship's crew had spent their last minutes trying to find just such a location, programming it in for the computers to use the limited thrusters to angle it in to an almost perfect hiding place.

A bit of a smirk played over Lawson's features as he realized he would be willing to bet on it. He also figured he would not have given anyone else such credit, but Blood's Honor was just that good. A bit of pride allowed him to smile, as he was a BH cadet the best of the best and sooner or later he would be a BH trooper. He glanced over noticing Chip was glancing back with a bit of a questioning stare.

"Ready when you are sir." Lawson responded with a slight smile.

Chip finally spoke, "I actually found it kind of comforting to see you as lost in thought for a few moments as I have been."

Lawson decided to try to use the opening Chip had given him to get a bit of information before they got to Chip's camp site. "My thoughts cannot be nearly as important as yours, seeing it looked to me like you are in command of your whole squad."

Chip let out a long breath, "Yeah, well I am still trying to figure out how it all fell into my lap, but you're correct, I am."

Lawson gave a sympathetic shake of his head, "I don't know what I'd do if I found myself in command out here. I know both Derek and I have been a bit creeped out by the way you guys lead and make decisions so quickly. Derek in particular has openly told both Paula and me he has no idea how you all do it."

"Do what?"

"Oh come on." Lawson purposefully put some aggravation in his voice, "Lead, make decisions so fast, get things moving so well without giving it much thought." Lawson looked up at the stars and kind of shrugged partially to hide the fact he was smiling at the fact he had finally gotten Chip to open up a bit and didn't want to show it. "Back on Andar, my force commander would take hours to decide the same kind of things you all do in minutes and you all do it way better than anything he could do."

"You're looking at it through your leadership, namely Joel." Chip stated with some unease. He kicked at a couple of rocks for a second before turning to face Lawson again. "Joel makes us who we are. Without him, most of us would have died a time or two by now. He leads and we follow. It was him who took the lead the very first time we all saw real combat back on New Bravaria, and it was Joel and Joel alone who told BH Command to go pound sand back on Andar.

"His determination to move back to the cadet grounds sparked the rest of us into action. Heck, you and Derek and it sounds like Paula, were already engaged with Ulysses forces before most of us on this rock had thrown our support behind Joel and moved back to fight. From what I heard from Jason, they were also already on the move before most of us BH cadets pulled our heads out of our butts."

Lawson snorted, "Give me a break. Without all of you, I would be a prisoner on this rock, or worse; I would have been shot since I don't have an important mom or dad. All us non BH cadets would have been hard pressed to make it to the fences of the competition area let alone out of the base. Sure I fought back, I got to my frame and killed a couple of infantry who were shooting at Andar cadets, but I had to do it without active weapons. I then used a captured laser rifle to shoot a couple more, but you were the one who came up with your frame belching lasers and rockets who drove back the whole squad and allowed the rest of those in my barracks area time to frame up.

"I didn't see Joel leading you then, and I certainly didn't see Joel leading you when you asked me if there was a way to activate weapons on non Blood's Honor frames. You took the lead of the rest of us in the Andar competition barracks, not Joel. I knew most of them, but they followed you!"

Lawson decided to press his point home a bit more, "Sure, Joel has done a fantastic job since the Cadre left, almost like he was born to lead and maybe he was. So what? We never thought about the PLC being a supply point, but your group did. I'm also betting it didn't happen until after you took command, did it?"

Chip frowned deeply, "Well no, but it was Jason who came up with the PLC as an alternate target, not me."

Lawson didn't budge or flinch. He stared straight into Chip's eyes. "So what changed to allow him to figure it out?"

Chip shrugged and glanced away trying to hide some of the guilt he knew was plastered all over his face. For in his mind, it was him and him alone who had challenged Candice and his treatment of her had caused her to flee. Even as he tired to make the whole event sound like a minor disagreement, he knew he would have to find Candice or he would never be able to forgive himself. "Nothing really. I got mad at Candice and told her to think about what she was doing. It backfired. She got mad right back and told me to take over for a while. All I did was let Jason review the briefing while Terrin and Stella did some repairs, he figured it out and then we came here. I didn't do a thing!"

"Bull!" Lawson fired back almost instantly. "You are the whole reason your squad is here. You settled things down, got the information out to others to help you and then did something productive with it. After that, when the going really got rough, it certainly wasn't Jason or Joel blasting out of the side of the ship to help your squad members. You are the one who came out the ship hell bent of protecting your supply stash, willing to fight the machines, other frames and even equipment with Ulysses markings."

Chip chewed on his lip for a few seconds before reluctantly nodding, "OK so I did a few things right, but now everyone in my squad sees me as the commander and I don't."

Lawson paused as his brow furled in surprise. "So you are the permanent leader of your group now?"

Chip quickly turned away to hide the look on his face and to force some calm into his emotions over hearing Candice had fled. He fought back a bit of a sob, "Yeah, Terrin and Beth just told me before we left camp." He paused long enough to come up with some kind of viable explanation while keeping the fact the squad's true commander and his long time friend had totally lost it. "I guess Candice decided to hand over command indefinitely and since she handed it to me, the others are deferring to her final command action."

Lawson could tell he was not getting the whole story, not even close, but he also felt for his fellow BH cadet. Not knowing what else to do, he patted Chip on the shoulder of his frame with his own, putting just enough force behind it to where Chip could feel it. "If I was in your squad, I'd want you in command of me too. You did great by me and dozens of other cadets from all over the ABR back on Andar and I am sure you will do the same for everyone in your group here."

Chip managed a nod and gave a brief smile for the words of support, but deep inside his heart burned with the agonizing knowledge he had no idea where one of 'his' squad members even was.

Over eighty kilometers away from where Chip and Lawson were talking, Candice slowed the Slasher to a gentle stop as she finally found a rocky over hang capable of giving her total cover from over head and decent cover from all but a direct side view. She powered the armored platform down and leaned back in the pilot's chair, noticing for the first time, it was basically brand new. The material was not worn in the slightest and it even had a bit of a new smell to it.

A new wave of tears threatened to spill as she briefly thought of the smell of new sheets all cadets got for every full year of attendance back at the Blood's Honor barracks on Forest Garden. She leaned forward, putting her head into her cupped hands and wished she was back in her bunk, with friends surrounding her. The wish was a fleeting one as she forced herself to deal with the fact she would never again see those surroundings or speak to those friends. Even if by some miracle those in her squad took her back in, she knew her days at the academy were over.

Exiting the tank, she didn't bother with a filter mask, wanting to breathe the air of a world she figured she would have to adopt as her own for the foreseeable future. She figured the chances of her ever finding her old squad was remote at best, and that assumed they would even bother to look for her; which she doubted they would. Jason would certainly take over and see her as the deserter she was.

Candice gave the Slasher a thorough inspection as she walked around it. One thing she was certain of was the need to keep this tank in a high state of repair. For not only was this armored platform her only protection from the machines and creatures roaming Brile, it was also the only thing she could call home. The best part of the whole situation was this tank was all hers. Battle field salvage laws and customs granted those who captured or found usable equipment ownership. All she would have to do was get rid of the Ulysses markings. Once she did so, there would be no question over ownership since she was certified to drive and shoot it and had fought for it.

Granted it had not been much of a fight, but she had shot and subdued the sole survivor of the crash. Added to those facts, the woman was a Ulysses trooper and Candice was listed as a war target of Lord Talborne. This meant there was a state of war between them, and to the victor goes the spoils. A brief smile crossed her lips as she wondered how many twelve year olds could claim their first battle field salvage was a tracked armored platform, even a Zip Tech designed and produced one.

The slight upturn of the corner of her lips disappeared as he knelt for a close inspection of the track. Her makeshift track repair was basically holding, but she could see some extra slippage away from the back three road wheels. Shaking her head, she muttered a few words in disgust at her lack of handiwork. Still, she moved closer and inspected the problem then went back into the platform to grab the repair manuals she had found for it.

It took a few minutes for her brain to understand the technical readouts and wrap itself around the problem. Once she combined what the technical book was saying with what she was looking at, however; she realized the solution was not as difficult as she was making it out to be. The instructions were clear and the multitude of diagrams made up for her lack of understanding of the few spots of truly technical jargon.

With a bit more work and the cargo frame she had taken from the lander, she guessed she would be able to lift the back of the platform. Once off the ground, she figured she should be able to take the whole track off and put it back on properly. The few sections of track that were damaged and creating the problem could be swapped out with extras she had scrounged from the crash site and she probably wouldn't even need the full extra track she had yanked off the repair platform. Candice shook her head, finding it humorous she was actually glad to be using a Zip Tech made vehicle. They truly were all but moron proof.

Satisfied there was a decent solution, Candice reentered the Slasher and took stock of onboard food and water supplies. Finding she had well over two weeks, allowed her to clam a bit more and reminded her it had been over twenty hours since she had eaten. With nothing better to do, she ate a ration pack then dropped the back hatch and walked the cargo frame out of the back. Six full hours later she gently lowered the platform back on the rocky ground and inspected her handy work. She nodded in some satisfaction over her repair job. Replacing the two sections of damaged track seemed to do the trick, just as the repair manuals said it would.

Candice walked the cargo frame up the back loading ramp and secured it in the back of the Slasher before closing up the back of the tank again. Rolling her shoulders, she munched on a pair of rations bars as she sadly gazed out of the port side window at one of the Brile moons wondering which one she was looking at.

As the night deepened and stars seemed to appear one after another, Candice did something she had never done before. She let out a prayer to a God she had only the most basic knowledge of. For her own parents were not religious in the slightest, but her grandfather was, and had made it a point to take her, her sister and step brother to services for Christmas and Easter each year. This custom had always seemed strange to Candice, but the elderly man simply would not take no for an answer, flatly insisting one of these years all of them would need to look to something bigger than friends and family.

Now, alone and stranded, the face of her grandfather came back to her. The man wagging his bony, hairy finger at her for complaining about dressing up for yet another boring sermon about a man, a supposed Son of God, who allowed himself to be tortured and killed publicly caused a slight upturn of her lips. 'What if?' she wondered for a few seconds, 'what if someone with such awesome power did allow others to do such horrible things to himself. Was it a lesson about faith, or was it and act of selflessness of someone, something, wanting to understand what it felt like to be on the receiving end of the worst humanity had to offer when he didn't have to?'

These thoughts spurred her words, spoken aloud, simply asking for a bit of guidance, tying to figure out her own place in the vastness of the universe she found herself gazing at through the window of a weapon of war. Her confusion kept her words coming, with hundreds of questions she had never bothered to think about let alone ask before. The release of her frustrations and ponderings into words allowed her to slowly drift into the state between sleep and consciousness.

As if in a strange answer to her plea, the radio let out a light cracking sound. Between the static of the radio and the whistling of a light breeze off the barrel of the Slasher's main gun, Candice drifted off into a deep sleep for the first time since her squad and Joel's had separated.

Derek made good time up to the top of the cliff face directly above the opening to the mine. The view from up above gave a different perspective and added in even more detail of the whole battle field. The devastation stretched for almost a full kilometer and a half of the old road with well over a full brigade worth of destroyed armored vehicles. Many more were down the steep hillside than had been visible from the side, and from where Derek stood he could count over two score had managed to cross the river on the far side only to get shredded in the open area between the small river and the tree line.

In his study of battle field tactics and strategy, back on Black Jungle and more recently on Forest Garden and finally here on Brile, he had never found a better account of using terrain against an enemy force than what he was seeing in front of him. The more he took in the aftermath of the battle the more he realized Blood's Honor probably accomplished this entire ambush with nothing more than those who had been stationed to protect and teach him and the others back at the field base Major Godard had established. Even as his mind started to grasp how the trap had been set and sprung, he found himself mentally kicking himself for not giving Major Goddard more respect. The man was truly a strategic and tactical genius!

Karen broke his train of thought as she tapped on his shoulder, "You get lost in there Derek?"

Derek jerked his head sharply in surprise before standing with a bit of a sheepish grin, "I guess I was a bit distracted, sorry."

"No issues. What are you thinking about?"

"Actually I was starting to see why Major Goddard always kicked my ass… Um, butt… in that Tac Squad game every time he played me. There is an evilness to his thinking when it comes to setting and springing traps on the battlefield."

Karen's eyebrows arched in surprise, "He took time out to play you in Tac Squad?"

Derek let out a sigh, "Yeah, several times actually. I got mouthy after I beat a couple of the instructors about four months ago, so ever since we got here, usually twice a week sometimes more, he came in to the kitchen while I was cooking and set up the computers to play Tac Squad. Sometimes he would simply watch me play cadre and take notes but at least once a week; he would kick everyone else out and make me feel like a giant jackass as he pounded, usually much larger forces controlled by me, into a puddle. Until now, I just thought he was good at the game. Seeing this, I am starting to see I was getting belittled by one of the best tacticians in the galaxy."

Karen let out a low whistle, "Derek, I'm impressed."

"Why? He always made me look like a preschool brat facing an Algebra equation!"

Karen's head shook wildly, "No, you don't get it. Major Goddard almost never plays Tac Squad with cadets, and never one on one, even when asked or even challenged. Just before I got accepted into the Command Collage, there was a rumor going around that he purposefully would pull cadets aside to play them at Tac Squad just make them cry!"

Derek snickered, "I know how they felt. The first time he took a team and gave me a full force including a command squad and ripped the crap out of me. He only lost one full squad and had only four or five other frame losses!"

Karen looked into Derek's eyes trying, almost hoping to find a hint of deceit. When none was detected she gulped slightly. "You took out one of his squads… a full squad?"

Derek frowned, "Uh Huh, I caught one of his flanking squads trying to sneak down in a valley and fired a quartet of heavy missiles into a rocky overhang, dropped tons of rocks on them. The computer registered his whole squad as a total loss."

Karen let out a nervous chuckle, "Oh, wow! No wonder he likes you. I have never heard of any group of cadets taking out a whole squad on him at once before."

Derek waved his hands with a bit of a smirk on his face. "I don't think he likes me for it. After the first time, he never gave me more than three to one odds on him again and he was a great deal more sadistic. A couple of times he took me out totally, nothing of mine even survived for capture with him only having six or seven fully down frames, but at least I started getting better with overall percentages of his forces falling to me before he took me out.

"The last few times I played him it was a really bad because he set us with equal forces on random battle fields where we came in with just basic satellite imaging of the area, so we had to explore and fight at the same time. Two days before our finals testing we played each other for almost eleven straight hours, both dropping on a heavy gravity moon with a full frame brigade at the same time with no air support or imaging. I finally tossed in the towel with almost eighty percent losses while he only had like forty-five percent. He even gave me a copy of the whole thing just to gloat."

"Derek, he was not gloating! Do you have the disk still?"

A note of disgust entered Derek's voice. "Hell yeah! I go over parts of it almost every night to see if I can figure out where I screwed up so badly!"

"I don't think you get it Derek, he didn't give you a copy to make you feel bad, he gave you a copy so you could prove you took out almost half his forces when you were on equal terms! He is a ten time Tac Squad Cadre Champ at not only BHJMA but also of all BH forces. He also is back to back ABR Tac Squad Champ, the first since the first Tac Squad game was developed by Brave Humanities almost 80 eighty years ago!"

Derek glanced around making sure the area was still secure before he started climbing down to gain access to the entrance to the mine, "Well, I hope I get to play him again, because I am going to beat him one of these times."

Karen moved to climb down on the opposite side of the mine shaft opening to give maximum coverage from any hostile inside. "Well if you enter the Tac Sqaud competition when we get back to BHJMA you can get a chance, cause the top five cadets get to move on to compete in the BH championship rounds as wild cards. So far no cadet has made it more than four rounds in."

"Really? Any one I have met by chance?"

"As a matter of fact you have, but he only got three rounds in."


"No." Karen kind of growled, "Joel is good at Tac Squad; he made seventh place last year, so he will probably get into the top five next time and move on to be a wild card. But he is nothing when compared to Cory."

"Cory? You must be kidding me! He is just like Law, just a cute little kid."

Karen glanced over and shook her head in a sincere warning, "Derek, normally I would never talk about one of us, but since you are and need to know who is who and what is what, you need to know about the kid who really has earned the call sign of Warlock. What I am about to say should go no further than our group.

"First and foremost never underestimate any of us. We are all considered among the best cadets at BHJMA for good reasons, but whatever warning I can give you about the rest of us must be applied tenfold for Cory. The only thing cute about Cory is his how small he is and how innocent he looks. What Law can do with a rifle, Cory can do to a person's mind. He is every bit as smart as Joel, only in a totally different way. You want sadistic, mean, and cruel, plus absolutely unforgiving, I give you Cory. You want someone to put a grenade, with the pin still in it, on the chest of a particularly mean senior cadet to send a message, all without waking her up? Then manage to not leave a trace of who did it or even identify where the grenade came from let alone how it got into the academy grounds, I give you Cory. You want someone out of BHJMA by having them quit through terror alone, without anyone laying a hand on them, I give you Cory. You even want someone to slit the throat of someone in an enemy command compound surrounded by fifty men with some of the best ultraviolet, infrared, and motion sensors in their frames, I give you Cory.

"The only good thing I can say about him is he is absolutely loyal to BH and to Chip, Gabriel and Joel for some reason. I don't even want to know why. All I really need to know is his total devotion to the three of them makes him just as protective of the rest of us. Like it or not, and I have been on both sides of wanting and not wanting him in this inner circle of elite cadets, he is one of us. When nasty business needs to get done, we never have to ask for volunteers and don't need to look further than Cory. Should someone cross one of us, any of us, to include all six of you as he now sees you all as one of us, and Cory finds out, it will be the last time; if not there will be no chance for a third time… None.

"Cory should have been kicked out of BHJMA a dozen times at least by now, but those who could or even should talk about what he had done to them or others are too afraid or too smart and know how to keep their mouths shut. Then when he does get into serious trouble, which has only happened twice, cause he is just that damned sneaky. Someone very high up has prevented his expulsion. There was a reason he was the youngest kid by almost two years to make the finals in both espionage and counter espionage competitions back on Andar."

Derek's eyes narrowed, "Oh, come on! Those are two of the hardest, as you have to go head to head in unstructured and sometimes very dangerous missions with multiple possible objectives; some of which cannot be accomplished if others are. More cadets got injured in those two areas than any others, including hand to hand and blade fighting. There was some talk from Black Jungle Cadre of pulling cadets out after one of our guys got sliced by a laser defense grid when he tried to get the real codes for the space port defense grid. He had to be airlifted for emergency surgery to get his left hand reattached. Are you seriously telling me little Cory made the finals in both?"

Karen snorted, "He was on the top of the leader board for both Derek… And, those were not just made up examples of what Cory is capable of."

Derek felt his eyes go wide, "You mean those are all real things he has done as a cadet?"

The left side of Karen's mouth twisted upwards turning her facial features into a mix of a snarl and a grin. "And, it was all deserved… even the slit throat."

"Son of a bitch!"

Karen glanced over with just the slightest nod, not even trying to protest the use of language, "Yes, I think that is exactly what he is."

Karen paused as they got to the road and glanced around to make sure everything remained unmoving. As she did so, a hint of a real smile crossed her lips. "Totally off the record, one of these days you should take a look at the necklace he wears." She then slid into a small cave off to the side of the mine to take a look around without making further comment.

Back at the crash site, Joel had Terrin jump into Tracy's damaged frame to help him keep a careful watch over the crash site as Stacy, Saul, Liam, and Beth moved into the destroyed PLC to start salvage operations.

At first, this seemed like the best use of limited manpower, but soon Joel started to wonder if he should have called for an extended break for everyone. Shaking his head, Joel forced himself to stay alert even though he was getting sleepy and he constantly felt his eyes wanting to close. It didn't help matters that other than one still burning machine, everything was calm and quiet. Making matters worse was the fact his frame's computer enhancements were all off line because of the EMC signals coming from the Combo pod. This meant he didn't even have access to radio communications to chat with Terrin, analyze tactical maps of the area, or even pump in a bit of background music.

To prevent drifting off, he put more power into the frame's internal cooling and started patrolling the outskirts of the wreckage. Using hand signals, he was able to set Terring on a patrol pattern of his own, so both of them could keep as much of the site protected as possible. Still, he couldn't help but be a little nervous over the fact two of them were basically trying to protect a crash site covering over two square kilometers in total. He glanced at the lake, realizing if he included it, the actual area they needed to defend was closer to five or even six square kilometers.

Even though he was keeping a careful eye outward, he couldn't help but notice occasional sparks coming form the hole Chip and Stacy had rocketed out of. He found himself a bit impressed as he could see progess each and every time he glanced up. First, the hole widened as one of the four, he guessed Liam, first cut all the mangled dangerous edges off, then worked to enlarge the gash. Less than an hour and a half later, the first signs of a platform appeared poking out from the ship like a finger.

Joel paused his patrol to watch with some fascination as more welding to the outer edge of the gantry like structure transformed the end into a strange looking box. Before he realized it, long cables fell from the box and slowly descended toward the ground. Joel shook his head wondering how it was being done, while silently cursing the fact his telescopic enhancements were being blocked by the ECM. Shaking his head he resumed patrol, focusing in on how to best deal with the overall situation and his growing exhaustion.

Joel managed to fight off his weariness and focus on the situation at hand. Doing this changed his outlook and perspective while giving him something constructive to do. Even as the first boxes of supplies from the crash started to descend down from above, the first pieces of a plan started to form in Joel's mind's eye.

Gabriel leaned back in the command chair of the Dagger while glancing over to Paula, "Joel should have been back by now."

The girl continued to work out, with a rather hot light pointed her direction. She didn't seem to be affected by the small space, spinning and twisting as it seemed she was actually trying to fight her own shadow. Without pausing she spoke, "With all due respect sir, there is nothing we can do about it at the moment, and I am sure Derek and Karen will be able to locate them if they happened to get into some sort of trouble."

"But what if they got spotted by whoever is in those ships or something?"

"Sir, you cannot get into a game of what if. He didn't give a time table for his patrol so you have to deal with the fact he is not back yet. If he got close enough to get spotted they were not being very smart, and Major Price does not strike me as stupid. Besides, if they did happen to run across some kind of armed patrol the last thing either Lawson or Major Price would do, would be to come back here. They would either try to lose them in the vastness of Brile, or if worse came to worse take them out. There is no way they would chance leading any bandit group back here."

Paula stood straight and used a hand towel to wipe some sweat from her face. "Instead of worrying about what you cannot control sir, why don't you grab one of my spare blades so I can start your training?"

Gabriel let out a long breath then stood, "I thought you were supposed to train all of us."

"I am, but the first few sessions with a katana will have to be done one on one. The hardest part is to get a feel for the blade and get over your basic fear of it."

Gabriel scowled as he moved over and grabbed the pummel of a katana, "I don't fear it."

"Pull it sir, take a look at the blade, and swing it a couple of times,"

Gabriel did as instructed, but found his breath was a bit shortened as the glistening blade emerged from its sheath. Swinging it side to side was awkward at first as he wanted to make certain he would not cut himself, anything, or anyone else with it.

Paula let him swing for a few minutes as she grabbed a first aid kit and spread it out over the command table so she had easy access to everything inside. "OK Sir, now tell me again you are not a bit afraid of what you are holding."

Gabriel lowered the blade as he looked over at Paula, being ultra careful not to put the sharp edge too close to himself as he did so. A sheepish grin crossed his features as he reluctantly nodded, "Ok, it is a bit intimidating."

Paula nodded, "Awesome, we are at a good starting point. Now I want you to swing it a few times at my shadow as I move."

Gabriel moved forward and started to strike at Paula's shadow. At first the girl made it easy, but after five minutes she started to move more and bend in almost unnatural ways to avoid Gabriel's unpracticed attempts to use the blade to slice at her shadow.

What started as a pretty easy exercise for Gabriel, quickly turned into a nightmare as he moved around trying to cut at a shadow that seemed to vanish from his sights as he swung the blade. After nearly twenty five minutes he was covered in sweat from not only the workout, but also the hot light which Paula was using as a backdrop to make a good shadow. His careful swings slowly changed to eventual wild slashes as he became increasingly frustrated at his lack of success at hitting a stupid silhouette on a wall. Suddenly one of his lunges got a bit too wild, with a reach to slice at an arm moving around his right side, the blade wobbled and he cut his left leg.

He howled in pain as Paula instantly stopped and grabbed the dropped blade. She put it on the table and grabbed the already prepared first aid kit. "Relax sir and let me take a look."

Gabriel pulled his hand away from the slash on his thigh, and noticed the blade had easily parted both his pants and the flesh underneath. He winced as Paula ripped the slice in the pant leg larger and stated gluing the wound together with a tube of from the first aid kit.

As Paula worked to make sure the cut was completely closed she patted Gabriel on the back, "Not bad for the first time sir."

"Not bad? I nearly cut my leg off!"

"Oh, come on it's a bit deep, but it will be healed in a couple of days and shouldn't even slow you down very much. To be honest, you lasted longer than I thought you would; you have the making of someone who will be very good with a blade."

Gabriel frowned while watching Paula wash the blood off his leg and floor. "You mean you expected me to cut myself?"


A truly hurt look came over Gabriel's face, "But I trusted you!"

"Sir, there is a reason I had the first aid kit out, and this has nothing to do with trusting me. On the other hand, it has everything to do with you not fearing but respecting the blade I am going to teach you how to use. You got over your fear as I started making the target harder to hit. Your anger, however, allowed you to lose respect for its deadly potential. You have learned both things in one session with a single gash to remind you of what you hold each and every time you unsheathe it. Now you can go back to fearing it, which some do, or you can take it and learn to use it as a tool of war, just like a pistol or rifle. It has to be respected."

Paula handed Gabriel a canteen, "Get a drink and before you get up, I want you to tell me if you want to now learn how to use this weapon," she patted the pummel of the blade Gabriel had just cut himself with, "or back out. If you want out, it also means you want nothing to do with me training you in hand to hand or frame martial arts as well. It is all or nothing, sir."

She paused as he looked down with a granite hard stare "You need to understand, I really don't care who you are or how high up in royal circles you are. Once you agree to use me as your trainer, I am above you for the duration of each and every class which I set the times for and only I can end. I will not hesitate to beat you down if you try to back out, say you cannot do something, or disobey any command I give you. Once you agree and for a few hours a week I will be your master, saboom, and you will be nothing more than a student. Rank will mean nothing nor will royal title. If you want to torment me while you are in command of me, so be it."

Gabriel reached down and touched his leg cringing at the pain of not only the cut but the burning from the skin glue. He looked up almost matching the intensity of Paula's stare, but not quite. "There is no way I just cut my leg wide open to stop now. No way in hell. I am your student for as long and often as it takes to get to where I can carry both the blade and the throwing stars and toss people around in and out of a frame, and there will be no hard feelings over whatever it takes to get me to such a point."

Paula reached down and helped Gabriel to his feet. "Excellent sir. I would sincerely appreciate it if you don't mention this first session to anyone else until I get a chance to have one with each of the others, because I will need to do basically the same thing. The only exception is Derek, because the second he found out what Major Price wanted, he eagerly wanted to get his first class. His right arm has the scar to prove you are not alone in cutting yourself."

Gabriel took the offered hand up, "The only problem is, you will probably have to pull my watch tonight. I can't go into a frame with skin glue for at least eight hours, per regulations."

"A worthwhile exchange, although, I think it has more to do with the fact they do not want injured cadets inside frames than anything the glue will do to the frame." Paula stated as she wiped the blood off the blade, sheathed it and handed it over to Gabriel. This is now yours. Do not pull it except to clean it or when I tell you to. Hopefully within a couple of months you will get the OK to not only carry it, but use it on your own as well, until then…" Her words drifted off, but her gaze finished the statement.

Gabriel took the offered weapon and gave a bit of a bow like he saw given to instructors back at BHJMA, "Understood."

Paula smiled and returned the bow, "Good enough for now. Now get a shower and get a new pair of pants: I will pull your watch."

Allen took a deep breath realizing just how weak he was feeling after the almost eighteen hour long firefight with the 42nd. With a bit of disgust over the fact his stamina was not at the level it should be, he rolled his shoulders and stuck his hand into a receptacle next to a mini refrigerator. With a bit of a growl in his voice he called out to the computer, "Analyze and dispense to replenish depleted nutrients, add heavy lime flavor."

A few seconds later, the computerized scanner completed a diagnosis of minerals, electrolytes and water in Allen's body and dropped a three liter bottle, filled with basically everything he had depleted from his system over the past several hours. As a final touch, a heavy shot of natural lime was injected into the mix and shaken vigorously for three seconds. Allen glanced at the bottle with some disgust, mostly at himself for obviously not drinking enough water during the battle.

As he started drinking the cocktail, Colonel Price's XO, Commander Thomas, was up to her neck in heavy combat. She hadn't hesitated in taking Shadow Brigade's entire battle reserve out in one massive hard drop right into the streets of Bitter Creek the moment word came in of a 979th attack. Her initial drop was stunningly successful, crushing forward scouting units and cutting off the entire Command Team of their first brigade from the bulk of the 979th forces. The resulting combat turned into one of the hardest and nastiest fights any Blood's Honor units had seen since taking New Bravaria back from Earth Core and she found herself right in the middle of it.

With their entire Command Team surrounded, the 979th's first brigade tossed in everything they had in a desperate rescue attempt. When Blood's Honor lines bent but didn't break, the remainder of the 979th sprang into action, including committing all remaining air assets. As several flights of unidentified craft coming up from the planet's surface was detected by Shadow Brigade cloaked satellites orbiting Black Jungle, the well trained troopers of Allen's Aerospace units were alerted. Before most of the 979th's could assemble into squadrons, Inner Planetary Superiority Craft (IPSC) on patrol outside the atmosphere were given targets and ordered to come in hot. At the same time, all Atmospheric Superiority Craft (ASC) on patrol over contested areas were pulled off patrol to intercept.

Before Allen had a chance to stuff his sweat drenched clothing into his quarter's laundry chute from his own fight with Talborne's 42nd Guards, alarm claxons had sounded throughout the Command Ship of Shadow Brigade, ordering all on call pilots to their fighters. Prior to Allen having a chance to race to the tactical center, the light shuttering of catapult launches from fighter launch tubes throughout the ship could both be heard and felt as squadrons of IPSC and ASC were literally hurdled into the emerging fight.

At the same time, Shadow Brigade's three Space Defense Ships activated their own on-call pilots, launching more squadrons of IPSC and Space Superiority Craft (SSC). The multipurpose IPSC that could fight in space and atmosphere were ordered in as second, third, and fourth waves against the potentially hostile craft while the SSC's were put on patrol to protect space lanes and prevent any escape of enemy craft from the surface of the green planet below. The precision of Blood's Honor response caught the vast majority of the 979th fighter pilots totally off guard.

Even as Allen entered the tactical center of his Command Ship and started looking over the developing aerial battle, orange dots signifying possible enemy aero units were quickly changing to red. Meaning, they were being confirmed as hostile and then, before commands could be given, many of those red dots started to disappear as the first wave of ECM cloaked Blood's Honor IPSC's engaged with total surprise, swooping in from above. Well before 979th fighters had a chance to reform, Blood's Honor ASC arrived, taking out many enemy craft before they could bring their weapon systems to bear on IPSC banking away from their first devastating passes.

Allen pumped his fist in satisfaction as half a dozen flights of 979th fighters dropped off the board without scoring a single hit on his own aero units while others scattered in total confusion. At the same time, he glanced over to his Search and Rescue (SAR) officer. "Captain McNally, get your units in the air, there are a lot of brave 979th pilots going down out there and many will be hurt."

Without checking to see if his commands were being obeyed, he pointed at his on call Space Defense officer, "Senior Lieutenant Vorman, have your last wave of IPSC break off to give our SAR units cover!"

He then nodded over to his Air Defense Officer, "Make all IPSC and shuttles capable of leaving atmosphere primary targets, I want all of the 979th stuck here!"

Scanning the now almost planetary wide air battle, he snatched his own headset off the command table, "Switch to ASC Echo Squadron command frequency."

The computer instantly obeyed giving Allen a green glow to confirm his command, "Echo commander this is Colonel Price."

A fairly young sounding female voice came back almost instantly, "Go sir."

"I need you to break off for a Priority Alpha sortie. I am looking at a flight of unidentified craft circling an uncontested area less than forty klicks from your location at grid one, zero, eight, six, seven, four, three, two, half staying high, so you will need to do a multi level attack pattern. Save your final two fighters with the best eyes, locate and drop their ordnance on whatever they are protecting!

The woman's voice became all business, "Wilco, be on them in less than three minutes!"

Colonel Price sent a sharp glare over to his Air Defense officer as the dots signifying Echo Squadron radically switched course to intercept the still unknown dots on holographic display in the global air display monitor, "You should have seen that Captain."

The young man nodded slowly as his own mind just started to grasp what the Colonel had identified within moments. "Agreed sir. It will not happen again."

"Good, then no harm done and you just learned something. I know you are new to the position, so just remember to let those on site take care of their own tactical situations, you need to look globally at the strategic overview as primary Air Defense officer."

Allen then turned his attention to the rapidly developing and expanding ground battle. "Operations, put out a call for any troopers who are willing to forgo their rest cycle, it looks like our beloved XO just opened a can and found a huge chunk of the 979th!"

A very young voice from behind Allen nervously spoke up, "Um, Colonel?"

A Junior Lieutenant glared at the youngster, "Son, we have a situation here and you need to shut up!"

Colonel Price cleared his throat in a way making it abundantly clearly he was annoyed, "Lieutenant, you ever bark at someone in my tactical center like that again and you will be a Private scooping potatoes on a serving line for the next couple of years!"

While those close to Allen edged back from him, many having seen the dark side of the man before, he turned to face the now wide eyed fifteen year old kid, "Son, who are you and what are you doing in my TAC center?"

The youngster stood straight and saluted, "Recruit Oliver Mathis, sir, Black Jungle Junior Military Academy. I signed on a few days ago and was assigned to get some food up here since my squad was pulled off the line early on in the fight with the 42nd because of battle damage, sir."

Allen stopped short and gave the young man his undivided attention even as holographic displays showed an escalation of fighting all around the town of Bitter Creek. As he looked over the lad, he saw several similarities to another Mathis from Black Jungle in both the facial features as well as the boy's dark hair and eyes. On the other hand, this youngster didn't have nearly the impressive build of the younger Mathis. "You related to Derek Mathis?"

The wide eyed boy, still holding his salute, managed a totally astounded nod. "Yes sir, he was my youngest brother."

Allen finally returned the salute. "You brother is still very much alive young man. He is also one very impressive lad. I had the pleasure of meeting him and accepting him into BHJMA as we pulled off Andar."

"He's alive?" relief flooded over the boy's face, "I thought he was killed on Andar after fighting Talborne or something, cause the 42nd came after my family here. My brother Brice and I fled to the woods after the 979th took our parents at gun point. We were in one of the out buildings in our ranch and heard them call out our names on a wanted list as well, so we slipped out with almost nothing. The 42nd then overpowered the cadre at the academy so we couldn't go back there either. We ended up on the space port after Brice took a bullet to the thigh when we raided a 979th truck. His leg started getting infected so I didn't have much choice but to bring him here."

Allen noticed the noise level in the tactical center had dropped significantly. He glanced over his shoulder, "Don't look at me, we have troopers in harm's way out there depending on you all to keep them alive!"

Instantly those looking at Allen basically towering over a mere boy diverted their attentions back to the business of war.

Allen returned his gaze back to the clearly frightened yet relived boy, "Not only is Derek is very much alive; he did far more than fight Talborne. He directly helped pull hundreds of cadets off Andar and was instrumental in taking out a vast number of Ulysses frames and armor. Unfortunately his actions and those of several other cadets have put your family on a target list for Lord Talborne himself."

The boy's face showed his astonishment, yet pride. "Awesome!"

Colonel Price smiled, seeing a great deal of the same drive in the young man in front of him as he saw in Derek when he had interviewed the boy for a possible slot in BHJMA. "So when you spoke up, it sounded an awful lot like you had an idea."

Oliver took a deep breath, "Well I…" he paused to look back at the Lieutenant who had shouted at him."

Allen reached out and grabbed the boy's head and turned it to face him again. "Son, I have men and women outnumbered and fighting for their lives out there, if you have an insight into this, now is the time to speak!"

Oliver gulped then nodded, "Um, well, I was just going to ask if you have extra frames."

"Actually, we have lots." Many of the 42nd frames were salvageable and we captured their supply dump, plus all our troopers have extra back up frames. The real question is why?"

An excitement flashed in Oliver's eyes, "Because, sir, most of my senior cadet frame force along with parts of five others, are here on the starport, refugees of sorts, after having the academy taken from us by the 42nd. Most of the cadre was loyal to the planetary government and was captured or killed, but the few who made it out with us and those over the junior cadets could frame us all up and take us out to help you all out! Give me a chance, sir, and I am sure I could get at least a force probably double that out there helping you all. If we could drop in as the 979th advanced on falling back frames we could all but gut them as they would be out in the open trying to push their advantage. I mean they have to know you are using just about everything you have already and would never suspect a massive influx of fresh framers."

Allen felt his jaw drop a bit for a moment, "Son, how did you manage to sign up with us?"

"Corporal Hofson caught me trying to sneak out of the makeshift barracks area you all set up for the surviving academy cadets and instructors. He shot me with a sonic stunner when he saw I had a rifle and brought me to the brig here. Him and a Sergeant Grey talked to me and found out I was trying to leave to rejoin partisans in the woods. Once they found out I was frame certified, they went to their Lieutenant. Lieutenant Tilly and Sergeant Grey took me over to talk to one of my instructors who agreed to discharge me from the academy with my full certifications. The next thing I knew I was offered a slot in Corporal Hofson's squad since they had lost a member in a fire fight a couple of days ago. I saw my first action against the 42nd early today but only got one confirmed kill before we were pulled back because our frames were deemed too badly damaged to be safe."

A thin smile appeared on Allen's liking absolutely everything about the boy standing in front of him, including the boy's tactical insights. "You and Derek are cut from the same mold, son…" Allen couldn't help but chuckle. "Well, let me formally welcome you to Shadow Brigade… "Allen sent a nasty, almost sinister glare over at the Junior Lieutenant who had yelled at Oliver,"… Junior Lieutenant Mathis. So, how many cadets are fully frame and weapon certified on this starport?"

Oliver felt his head spin as he realized the man, a Blood's Honor Colonel, in front of him was not only listening to him but had also field promoted him straight into the officer ranks in Blood's Honor! He forcefully shook off his momentary stupor as he felt his confidence go somewhere beyond where he knew it was capable of going. "Everyone from my force and our sister force, as are well over half the other senior cadets. Sir, many of us lost our families, homes, academy and most of our instructors over the past few months. This is a chance for pay back. Just give us a shot, I know everyone in my force and all of them want to fight back as will those of our rival sister force. If we had equipment, we would be out there already."

A truly evil smirk crossed Allen's face as he made a snap decision, basing much on his gut and the rest on the fact the boy in front of him was the brother of Derek. "OK Junior Lieutenant, I want you to take your squad members over to those barracks areas and see just how many want to join in this mess! If both you and the Corporal agree to let them sign on, then I'm good with it. They all come in as mercs with the pay of Private until we have a chance to straighten it all out later. The frames will be issued to them, but we'll paint over BH markings. Understand, they are still under our command since I am paying them and the equipment comes back to me after this is over. On the other hand, I will offer fifty percent salvage, so for every two frames taken down or captured by this fledging merc unit, they will get one."

Allen pointed back at the multitude of displays showing escalating fighting, "But make sure they all know they are heading straight into the eye of the storm with you and the rest of your squad being their primary leaders. You have to make it crystal clear to all of them, even if they are older; you are in command of them. Your first mission as a BH officer will be as a direct liaison with them."

"I can assure you, most of us wouldn't want it any other way sir."

A satisfied smirk radiated off Allen. "You were in a command position in your cadet force weren't you." It was not a question.

"Tactical officer sir."

"You good at tactical is it sounds?"

"The best of any senior cadet at this academy sir." Oliver stated with an unwavering stare.

Allen couldn't help but snicker, "Until now, I didn't know tactics was a genetic trait, but you and Derek seem to both have it."

"Brice was looking at a tactical advisor spot in his cadet force as well sir."

"Interesting, is he certified and healthy?"

"He's got his certs, but he's only 14 so he has just basic qualifications in each. As far as how he is, I don't know. He is still in the field hospital sir, but other than that, I haven't been able to find out anything. Your guards won't let anyone in after it was attacked by a terror squad a week or so ago."

"Alright, I'll get you an update on him. In the mean time, go get your fellow force members and as many of the others as want to follow you. I'll get you some other leaders and all needed equipment. Let them know this is a rapid deployment mission and there is no time to reconfigure the frames we have. They get in whatever we can slap them in and they hit the field running and shooting and following Blood's Honor commands from here and commanders on the battle field. No heroic garbage either, we tell them to pull back they pull back or face me in a refusal of orders trial."

"Totally understood sir, and I'll make sure everyone does as commanded."

"As a BH officer and a Shadow Brigade member, you better." Allen warned then dismissed the young man with a hard nod. He then pointed to a guard and growled. "Escort him and make it crystal clear he is on an Alpha priority task from me!"

The corporal saluted, radioed for a replacement guard and took off after Oliver to help get whatever the boy needed.

Allen then turned his attention back to the Junior Lieutenant who had yelled at Oliver, "And you can get someone to get our newest officer a uniform and a fresh frame then finish serving those of us working up here. You keep your mouth shut and spend the rest of the day as a recruit and I'll totally forget this ever happened, understood?"

The totally embarrassed, tongue lashed, and shocked man saluted and nodded, "Absolutely sir."

"Good." Allen spun away from the man without bothering to return the salute and directed his attention toward his supply officer, "Why, exactly, are you still standing here? You have frames to get issued to mercs so they need to get painted in non BH colors; we need them all with basic non BH field uniforms, and then procure Black Jungle owned transportation to get them to Bitter Creek!"

The startle man's eyes went wide, "Sir, how am I going to get non-BH transport…"

Allen's fist slammed down on the table. "You applied for brigade supply officer, I expect you to use some ingenuity! If you have to strip this starport bare of ever ship capable of transporting a single frame then so be it! Offer the owners some shot up 979th frames for payment and promise we will pay for repairs and for their entire ship if it happens not to come back."

The man saluted and left at a dead run.

Finally, Allen found his chair and grabbed a bite to eat for the first time in almost eighteen hours. Even as he studied the multitude of displays, his mind started to grasp the entire battle field. He growled into his head set again, changing the frequency to that of his XO, "Commander Thomas, I want you to back track, act like you are getting your right flank pushed back, but do it slowly. I want the bulk of those pushing you inside the town within the next hour and a half, but only in areas with multi-story buildings. Make sure you evacuate civilians as you fall back so it looks as real as possible. And before you say anything, I realize this will mean a few more casualties so make sure you pull badly damaged frames back before they get to a critical point on their armor."

"Colonel, I have the town firmly under our control, I don't…"

"Commander, I want the 979th down to or below our combat numbers by the end of the day and this is the time and place to make it happen. You opened this can of worms and I intend to go fishing with it. When you get the word, I want you to enact a shattered line defense protocol in the business district of Bitter Creek."


"Humor me, Commander."

"OK, but there is no way on this green earth the 979th would be able to shatter our lines, it would take an act of God!"

"Today they will get their miracle because we will give it to them. But this one will come at a terrible cost." Allen stated with a tone so sinister it actually sent shivers up the spine of his long time friend and XO.

"Alright, sir, but our troopers ain't going to like this, even as some sort of feint."

"Trust me, by the time the mud on their frames dry, they will."

"Alright, I'll set the stage, but once we allow our lines to shatter we'll need reinforcements and we don't have any rested ones."

"Your right, Blood's Honor doesn't, so have those on the left flank ready to move forward and assist if this fails." Allen replied cryptically then signed off to allow his XO to handle the situation on the ground. He knew her initial reaction would have to be natural and show some surprise once reinforcements started coming in, otherwise she would quickly reform her lines which would give away the fact the fresh units were blood's Honor controlled. On the other hand, if BH trooper out in the field showed initial panic, they would certainly pull each group of frames even tighter. This would be the final deception which would hopefully prevent the 979th from seeing the trap until it was too late.

A moment later the Echo wing commander's voice came over his head set with a jubilant sound to her voice, "Sir, check out our Camera feeds!"

Allen spun his chair and punched a trio of keys on his command console. Instantly, the main viewer switched to an overhead view showing dozens of explosions ripping across a densely covered hilltop. "Are those all secondary's?" Allen asked as the rippling puffs continued to move outward from a central location.

"Every one of them sir! You found us some sort of massive supply base or something. We are down two fighters though sir, we lost one in the dogfight and the wingman of the primary air to ground pilot got his tail shredded from one of those secondary explosions and had to punch out. I am sending coordinates back, but he fell in the middle of the mess down there.

Once again he pointed over to his SAR officer, "Get medical units out there now! With what we are seeing, the 979th is going to amass some huge casualties down there and we have a pair of our own in the middle of the inferno as well! If even half of what we are seeing is vehicles or buildings going up after Echo flight's run, the numbers of dead and injured will be in the hundreds! Make sure you are sending at least one of our burn teams in, those men and women down there will need the best we got." He paused and took a deep breath, knowing his resources were being spread ultra thin. "Just make sure to save some SAR units for Bitter Creek, because the battle there is just getting warmed up and we are going to need medical teams helping our troopers and the 979th as well."

He then turned his attention back to the flight commander, "You did great and we are sending medical help, how long can you stay on station?"

"Good to hear sir, I think we hit them in a weak spot and there has to be a ton casualties under all these endless trees. As far as our status, we are good on fuel, sir, but it ends there. The flight of 979th fighters gave us a good battle and most of us have heavy to serious armor damage. Two of my pilots are injured and heading back already, one will need to belly in as his nose is all but gone and with it, his forward landing gear and his front VTOL thrusters. We are also all but out of ammo; most of us are down to energy weapons only."

"Come on home, and make sure to escort the injured all the way back. I'll get someone else on station ASAP."

The woman sighed in some relief, "Wilco sir."

Allen continued to watch as the secondary explosions continued until the camera of the last departing fighter moved out of visual range. While he did so, he nodded to his air defense officer, "Get me a recon drone over there. I want to know what in God's name we hit. There must have been over a hundred explosions down there, so it was either a fuel or ammo dump and they very well may have had trucks loading up, if not entire convoys."

The SAR officer let out a low whistle as he directed assets in to help wounded, "I have never seen anything like this sir, you really delivered a punch to the gut when you spotted those fighters."

"They finally screwed up." Allan stated in a rather calm tone. "There was no way we would have been able to spot anything under this nearly endless canopy of trees, but the second they started guarding something we couldn't see with air units, it gave it all away. They over reacted when Commander Thomas cut off their first Brigade's Command team, maybe even panicked, and now have paid the price. I just hope it isn't as bad is it looked cause I might have just killed more men and women in one air raid than we have killed in the entire time we have been on Black Jungle. I just hope the next couple of hours makes taking out whatever was down there and gaining full air superiority worth it.

Chip's shoulders sagged in relief as he spotted his field camp. The fact everything appeared to be secure with a mess tent and a shower set up told him those who had stayed behind had united and had transformed the formally rag tag disorganized group into a functioning unit once again. He motioned for Lawson to kneel as he activated his frame's spot light and tapped out a code, directing it down toward the Dagger.

A few seconds later a series of flashes answered back letting Chip know everything was exactly as it appeared. He glanced back, "Lawson, Stay up here for a few minutes and keep watch, just in case our lights were spotted by a roaming machine or something. Move on down in ten minutes if nothing shows up.

Lawson glanced around at the terrain for a moment, almost instantly realizing Chip was trying to use security as an excuse to keep him away from the others until he had a chance to get stories straight. Tactically, those in Chip's group had found just about the perfect spot for a field site. The land around it was basically clear while the camp itself was pushed into a stand of scrub trees hiding everything to the point where only minimal camouflage netting was need to hide everything from machines, Talborne Forces, and bandits alike.

Lawson actually found his mouth twisting up into a bit of a snarl as he realized his best chance to find out what was really going on was now gone because he wouldn't be able to hear any of the initial conversation between Chip and the others. To prevent responding with a sarcastic remark or mean voice, he simply gave a thumb up signal and turned away as if scanning the area so Chip could not see the look in his eyes.

Chip paused for a moment, sensing his ploy to set the stage with the others down the hill had utterly failed. With a light sigh he shook his head and whispered loud enough to where Lawson could hear, "Trust me, this is for the best. Cory is already going to freak when he finds out someone from Joel's group is with me. If you came down with me it would be far worse."

Lawson clenched his fist, "Chip, we are on the same side."

"Yeah, I know. By giving me a few minutes to set the stage, I can get Cory to see it my way. You'll just have to trust me."

"Chip, if there is a problem…"

Chip didn't turn back to look at Lawson, knowing Cory would notice it no matter where exactly his friend was at inside the camp. Instead he started moving down the hill as he stated just loud enough for Lawson to hear, "I figured Joel probably warned you about Cory, so just play it loose and be your normally friendly, albeit deadly, self. When time comes to give Joel the report I figured he sent you here to get, tell him he's not always as sneaky as he thinks he is."

Chip rolled his shoulders to give himself an extra few seconds to say what he felt he had to while not looking like he was stalling. "As far as what you tell him, say this: There are some things we cannot expect Joel to do for us, and this is one of them."

Lawson snickered realizing that all his attempts to extract information had been seen through before he had even left the doomed ship at Chip's side. "Sometimes he is a bit too cocky, but from what I have seen so far he deserves to be most of the time."

Chip let out a light snort of agreement as he picked up his pace and entered the camp leaving Lawson alone for a few minutes to ponder the increasingly more complicated dynamics surrounding the elite kids of Blood's Honor.

After giving Chip fifteen full minutes inside the camp, Lawson moved down at a slow pace double checking the surrounding area just to make sure everything was secure. He finally entered the camp satisfied everyone was safe and there were no immediate threats.

Before he could get close to the Dagger, Jason intercepted him. "We were just about to eat." He pointed to the mess tent. "We set up a filtered tent to eat in. Why don't you join us?'

Lawson glanced at the Dagger for a second then shrugged, "Sounds good. I could really use a cooked meal and some time outside my frame. I have been in this thing for almost ten hours now!"

Jason glanced over to Stella, "Since you already ate, why don't you give Lawson a break and do some light maintenance on his frame while he grabs a bite with the rest of us?"

Stella quickly nodded while looking at the frame with a bit of shock, "Be happy to. Besides, I've never had the chance to check out a Rogue before!"

Lawson activated the back hatch then grabbed his nose and blew hard to pop his ears before grinning. "Not something I'd ever expected to pilot as a cadet, but Joel pointed out it has just about anything we might need to bust into a machine base."

Cory came up, "Law's right. Do we all get one?"

Lawson was surprised at how relaxed Cory sounded, but didn't hesitate to respond, "No, if you guys have the same load we got, then you will all be in Warriors, while Stella, Jason and Stacy will get Rogues, like me, Derek, and Paula. But if you go with what Chip and Tracy found, you will get something totally different. It sounds like there is a fairly big assortment of frames in the ship, but many are too big for most of us."

"Crud." Cory responded with clear disappointment, "I'd much prefer to have a Rogue."

Again, Lawson found Cory's openness totally opposite from what he had been told to expect. If anything it seemed like the same kid he had gotten along with back on Forest Garden and at the field base set up by the Cadre here on Brile. "There very well might be one in the ship; I was kind of delegated to guard duty after we fought the machines."

Cory nodded, "I can only hope. Otherwise I'll have to use some of the hard points on whatever I do get to put in ECM and other fun stuff."

Jason rolled his eyes as he handed Lawson a plate of food, "Go ahead and take a break and eat. As soon as you're done and feel ready to move, grab a shower. We'd really like to move to the crash site ASAP so we can get some frames of our own."

Lawson grabbed the offered plate and sat at the small folding table. He glanced around, "Where's Chip?"

Cory sent a rather chilling stare Lawson's direction as he tossed over a pack of disposable tableware, "He said you have been framed up much longer than him, so he is pulling a watch. Once you're done, grab a shower and frame up so he can get some chow and shower as well. We'll start breaking things down while you take a break." The meanness in Cory's voice faded and his voice softened a bit as he added, "We kind of figured you and Chip should ride up top so we have extra firepower out if we run into problems, especially since we only have the one Dagger here."

"We could just ride in back framed up so we don't throw the balance of the Dagger off by hanging off the edges."

It wasn't Cory's voice or even his face, but something exuded the fact Lawson was stepping back on dangerous ground as the boy responded, "I think Stella can handle an unbalanced load Law."

Lawson took a quick bite of reconstituted powered eggs as he shrugged, "Whatever Chip wants is fine by me. I'm just along for the ride per Joel's orders."

Cory moved closer while glancing over at Jason. Jason looked nervous, and swallowed. Cory on the other hand kept his facial features totally neutral, "So you know Chip is in command?"

Lawson nodded, "He told us Candice handed over command to him after an argument and you all backed the move."

Cory edged even closer, "We did, but it was Candice's decision and her decision alone on who she wanted to take over for a while."

Lawson stood slowly, half ready for the boy to jump him, "Look guys, if you all are good with it than so am I, so there is no reason to try to show how much you are supporting Chip. On the other hand, if you really feel the need to bully me to prove your point then let's move this table and get it on. I may be the smallest of us on Brile, but I'm not going to go running back to Joel with my tail between my legs. I am Blood's Honor just like you two are!"

Cory backed off instantly with a hint of a smile, "We just wanted to make sure you weren't sent here to see if Chip deserved to be our leader or something."

Lawson shook his head fiercely, "Not even close. Joel just doesn't want anyone on this rock alone with Talborne forces all over the place. Besides, even if I was, from everything I've seen, Chip is a heck of a leader."

"A better one than he thinks he is." Jason stated as he motioned for Cory to join him outside the tent and let Lawson eat.

Lawson let out a deep breath as both boys turned to go, but as Cory turned he noticed something he had never seen before. Maybe it was the way the single light in the top of the tent illuminated things, or maybe it was he was just at the perfect angle to see it. There was even the possibility the fine white gold chain necklace Cory always seemed to wear happened to reflect the light just right. No matter how or why he saw it, there was absolutely no doubt in Lawson mind it was there. Behind Cory's right ear was a small flesh colored tattoo, only it was slightly lighter than the dark tan all of them had after several weeks of being out under Brile's star. As odd as this was, what was even stranger was the fact it didn't appear to be a normal one. Instead this one looked to have been actually burned deep into the skin, almost like a brand then filled with skin pigmentation in an attempt to hide it. Even weirder, it was not a fancy design or a creature, not even close. Instead, at least from the quick glance Lawson had, it almost looked like some kind of weird bar code.

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