Castle Roland


by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 12

Published: 8 Apr 14


Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons

Before Brile's star started to send a glow over the landscape surrounding the crash site of the Husky Class PLC, Chip was looking over the salvage as crates continued to be lowered from above. The stress of the last couple of days, and the last several hours in particular, were starting to wear on him.

Knowing he badly needed some shut eye, he glanced over to Terrin who was eagerly finalizing the set up of the Legionnaire frame he had claimed as his. "Are you up for taking over for a few hours?"

Terrin nodded, "Sure..." He paused and glanced over to Joel and Lawson who were out of earshot eagerly helping Saul and Liam set up a pair of Sniper frames. It worked out well since they were a bit big for any of the BH cadets, but both of the rescued boys were a bit older and taller, they could fit into the lager frames. "But let's have them get out of here first. If you hit the sack without Candice showing up, Joel will certainly want to know where she is. We also need to keep this friendly, so we can't appear to be pushing them out on us."

Chip let out a long breath and nodded. "I am surprised he is letting us stay as a independent group."

"Me too, but for some reason he is listening to the new kid, Lawson, and since he is, we should take full advantage before he gets all hard headed on us and changes his mind."

Chip grinned, "You know, you must be almost as exhausted as I am."

"I probably am, but what is giving it away?"

"This is the first time in probably two years you have said one bad thing about Joel."

Terrin shook his head, "No I say it, but it seldom is verbalized to others. Probably because even when I disagree with him, his command decisions are better than any I could come up with."

"I know the feeling, and now I am in charge of us. Doesn't me being over you scare you?"

"A great deal less than Candice." Terrin stated candidly. "She should have never been in command of any of us. I have no idea what BH instructors ever saw in her, but this is one time where I can firmly say, they were dead wrong. You are probably the best choice to lead us and always have been."

"No more then you."

Terrin shook his head, "Uh uh, I am a lot like Candice. I am great when taking orders and then passing them down, and making sure they happen, but I am not the type to take over and call all the shots. I mean, if I had to, I could, but I would never have been able to do what you have done over the last day and a half."

"I lost Candice,"

"No, she lost her head and then herself, and I am sure with your leadership we'll figure out a way to find her and get her back. Then someone will have to hold me back to prevent me from giving her the butt kicking she deserves."

"BH had to have seen something in her, to..."

"Maybe, but from where we are standing I think they blew it and darned near took the rest of us down because of it." Seeing the hard look he was getting, Terrin took in a deep breath, "Look, I hope she figures out a way to pull her head out of her anal cavity and prove me wrong and BH right, but I just don't see how she could do it."

With a disgusted shake of his head Chip begrudgingly gave a grunt of some semblance of agreement. He then rolled his head and shoulders as he made his way over to Joel, "Are you sure you guys don't want some more of this salvage? There is no way we are going to be able use even half of it."

"We got what we needed." Joel responded while pointing over to Liam and Saul. "Besides, we got to our drop pod, this one is yours."

Chip shrugged and yawned, "OK, but we can still get to ours, too. You may as well grab some of this. I mean you might as well grab enough to fill up the back of your tank. Both of our groups are going to need more supplies if this plan of yours is going to succeed."

Joel slowly nodded, "Yeah, you're probably right. I... well, are you really sure about wanting to stay separate?"

Chip let out a long breath of air, "It's a doubled edged sword. If we stay separate, then there is less a chance of all of us being captured, but you're right as well. The more of us there are together, the better chance we have of staying alive and giving the 6th another butt kicking. The real problem is, if we go back under your command, then we aren't doing anything to prove we deserve a crack at a cohort force."

"Command had no way of knowing Talborne would show up here." Lawson countered, "With this situation there is no way they would expect you to go on as if it was just the mission on the vid. At the same time, you very well might be safer on the southern continent. There are nowhere near as many facilities so Talborne may not have anyone down there."

"I'm not going down there to hide." Chip kind of snarled.

"Agreed," Joel stated but still shook his head, "but regardless of what I think best, Lawson, Chip is commander of his unit and has to do what is right for his team."

Chip took a deep breath. "Look, Joel, I think this is the right thing for everyone involved, and my squad members don't want to go back to Forest Garden looking and feeling like failures, but you are the highest ranking. You can always countermand my..."

"No!" Joel basically shouted, then stopped and managed a nervous snicker. "I mean, I guess I could, but I won't. All of your points have merit and like it or not, I can tell by the way the others are acting; they want the same thing as you do. I don't have to like it, but we were given separate commands, and you have taken over as your group's leader and clearly have the support of the rest of the others. Unfortunately, you are also correct about the way BH and in particular my father would see you rejoining me. They want to see leadership before they hand over the shot at cohort, especially at our age.

"Besides, Lawson is also correct, if you head to the southern continent and there is no sign of Talborne forces then you and your group can carry out the destruction of the Ultra facility and stay hidden until BH Command gets here and get word out even if my team gets taken out or captured. We absolutely need to find a way to contact our support craft up there. None of our lives are more important than getting what we now know to BH Command. Also, if the Ultra down there had a spacecraft building facility, maybe you can find one and get off this rock."

Liam glanced up from the frame he was working on, "I hear a whole lot of ifs and maybes and we are outnumbered by at least fifty to one, even combined. Probably more."

Chip nodded, "Once we hit a few of those camps and rescue those being held, those numbers will get better."

"And their security will get tighter and those still being helped by them will be treated worse." Saul stated as he started loading ammo into his Sniper frame for the pico-missile six-pack he had installed on the fame's left shoulder.

"Which is why we both need to hit different camps at close to the same time." Joel responded forcefully. "At least this way, we will each have surprise on our side for the first sets of raids. The problem is, we need a couple more machines so we can keep the fact it isn't machines doing the attacking secret for as long as possible."

Liam stood. "Well there are enough dead machines in the area and we have enough tools to where I could probably piece one or two together."

Chip glanced around, "Well, since you have handed over transporting supplies down from the hold to Cory and Stella why don't you and Terrin give it a shot."

Chip then glanced over Joel, "In the meantime, why don't you take Jason and head back to your camp and bring one of your transports back here. Since we know the 6th was looking for this crash and now they have some of their people missing as well there is a chance they will send out rescue teams. We should empty this thing and get the heck out of here.

Joel glanced over to Lawson and Saul, "You two OK with pulling guard duty while Terrin and Liam work on getting these guys a machine or two?"

"Sure." Saul stated, "Just give me a few more minutes to make sure all my weapons are in the green and get a basic feel for the frame."

"I'm good." Lawson joined in. "I got a shower and chow back at Chip's field camp." He then glanced over to Chip. "You ought to grab a few hours of sleep."

Chip frowned, "I'll wait for Candice to come back on line and get a frame ready first."

Saul kind of shrugged, "Whatever, sir, but we are secure at the moment and the rest of your people are all available if needed. Just keep your frame on standby in the back of one of the Daggers in case you are needed. If worse comes to worse, this Candice of yours can always jump into your frame."

Joel shot a glance over at Chip, "He's right, and you being too tired to think is not going to do anyone out here any good. I can also assure you, I will be sound asleep back at my camp once I shower."

Chip let out a deep breath, "OK, you're both right and I know it. Just shout if you need me though."

"Believe me," Lawson stated with a grin, "we will."

Chip shook his head and turned to Jason, "Go with Joel back to his camp. Your frame has ECM and he needs to get back before his team starts to get jumpy."

"So we are combining?" Jason asked with a frown.

Joel shook his head, "No, if you all want to show you are up to get command of a frame force, its fine by me. But until your unit is ready to move out, fully equipped, and my unit gets all the intel we now have, we are far better off working together. Besides, Liam here," Joel pointed, "Is going to get with Terrin and try to get you a machine or two up and running so you all can hit the first prisoner camp with machines. Both groups will be better off if we can rescue a few more cadets and bring up our overall numbers."

Jason took a relieved breath, "This is a good thing. Are you ready to move out, or do you need a break?"

Joel snarled, "I may be tired, but I am BH and I have been through worse on New Bravaria and even Andar than this. Let's go."

Jason nodded as he used his thumbs to flip though some onboard systems of his Recon frame, "ECM is coming online now, but in the field we are already in, you won't notice any difference. I recommend we stick with UV or IR until we have full daylight."

"Switching to IR now." Joel stated as he turned back to Lawson. "Keep a sharp lookout. Until Chip's group strips this crash, we can't afford to lose it. On the other hand, you'll have to blow it before it gets captured should it be found and you can't defend it. We can't allow all this equipment to fall into Talborne's hands. We are already outmanned and outgunned.

"Understood. But Saul is going to have to take primary guard so I can disable the traps on the machines so Liam can work on them."

Joel took a deep breath, "I really am getting tired. I forgot about the traps." He turned to Saul, "Keep your eyes peeled, we can't let Talborne jump us!"

Saul shook his head and climbed into the Sniper frame. When he spoke it was with a snarl. "They got me off guard once on Andar: it ain't going to happen again."

Allen glanced over to his communications officer, "How are you doing at tying in all the frames of the kids who are joining our newest officer?"

"We are basically set, but we will not be able to switch by voice command to lower than team level. We also won't be getting any battle readouts from non BH frames as far as armor or pilot condition. We just didn't have time."

Allen shrugged, "So be it." He then turned to the supply officer, "Where do we stand on transport?"

"I had to contact the other starport, but we managed to scrounge up thirty two ships capable of airdropping frames, but some of them will be from doors not normally meant to be open during flight, so we put only those certified in jump pack operations in those ships. This will also put us seriously short on drop pods and jump packs, since our XO did a hard drop on Bitter Creek to begin with. I also have a couple of ASC squadrons protecting them, but our air crews are almost as tired as our ground troopers."

"With any luck, we'll all get some down time after this. In the mean time, send word to Brave Humanities and have them put another 2000 drop pods and another 500 or so jump packs on our tab and get them here with all do haste. We can't do rapid deployments without being able to drop into combat zones."

Allen turned away from his Command Staff and slipped on his headset, "Junior Lieutenant Mathis, this is Colonel Price."

"Go sir."

"First off, I wanted to tell you I am impressed. You managed to dig up just over two full frame forces of senior cadets and we are still trying to find smaller frames for many of the over 180 basic frame certified Black Jungle cadets who all eagerly signed on as reservists and guards."

"I told you I had plenty of fellow cadets who would jump at the chance to help, sir."

"So you did, and so you have. Great work. Now comes the hard part. This is not some training mission, son; you will be dropping on the back side of Bitter Creek and will have to cross the rain swollen streams to enter the fight. Our fighters will do a bombing run to clear the woods just before you all drop, but it is going to be a mess of busted up trees, bomb craters and some fire. Make sure everyone knows to make sure their pods are not moving at all before they break out. Some will tip and fall, but they need to stay in them until they come to a complete rest. Otherwise we are going to have dozens of mangled or shattered foot hydraulics, ankles, and knees to go with them before you even get started. Your frame readouts should be showing you the targeted drop zone. Move your units up and form up in the trees outside of the bomb clearing area and get a count of who all made it, because I assure you some, no matter how much warning, some will still screw up a knee or an ankle on this type of drop. Then and only then do I want you to move on the town."

Oliver started to reply, but the sound of the youngster's voice stopped as powerful engines on the ship he was on ignited in a long burn taking him out of the starport. As the ship stabilized and the noise of the engines calmed some, he spoke up again. "Understood sir. If I am reading your tactical map correctly we should be over the drop site in less than an hour. It also looks like you don't want us to fire until the bulk of them have moved into the town. What about their support units and reserves?"

"We'll deal with them later." Allen commanded, "This mission is to take out their front line troopers and their best frames. If you manage to find some reserve units under the trees, we'll deal with it then, but do not go looking. This is fast strike to cut off and surround the front line and any close in support. Also, I know you all are angry over what has happened on your world, but we do not kill if at all possible. Some of those you are fighting are criminals, but we will take care of them with the Black Jungle government in proper trials. If we see any Black Jungle cadets needlessly killing, they will be coming to see me personally, and will not like the results. If you need a better reason, then remind those dropping with you the more intact the frames you all bring down are, the better salvage they will all get."

Oliver snickered, "Corporal Hofsta already told them all the same things in almost the same words, sir. He actually told everyone there would be no salvage credit if the pilot or crew inside of what they take out dies."

Allen nodded in satisfaction, "Good, let him know he has Sergeant stripes waiting for him when this is over and when this is successful, he'll also get a heck of a recruiting bonus."

"Will do sir." Oliver Mathis paused, then let out a nervous breath, "Sir, did you happen to find out anything on my brother yet?"

Allen cracked a small grin while putting his arm around Brice Mathis, "As a matter of fact, yes." He stood and handed over his command headset to the very wide eyed fourteen year old who was sitting next to him in the tactical center, "Say hi to your brother and let him know I am trying to find you a decent frame. No Mathis is going out in anything less than the best BH can find for him. Also, tell him you'll join him in Bitter Creek with me and a few others as part of my personal sweeper team once the area is basically secure. He then squeezed the boy's shoulder, "And let me once again welcome you to Blood's Honor, Shadow Brigade Command Team as the current youngest member of this whole brigade, Private Mathis."

As he stood and motioned for a Senor Lieutenant to take over his spot for a few minutes, he lightly ruffled Brice's hair and once again wondered how his son and Brice's younger brother, Derek, were doing back on Brile.

An hour and a half after leaving the crash site Joel finally motioned to Jason and took a knee.

Jason gave Joel a sharp nod then made his way up to the top of the nearest hill. A few minutes later, satisfied there were no imminent danger to him of Joel he made his way back and took a kneed facing him, but offset so the two could pretty much cover the whole area. "You OK?"

Joel took a few deep breaths, "I'll live but I need to take five. I can't ever remember being this tired or worn out. This frame is a lot bigger than I am used to and it moves so fast I find myself running to keep it yellow lined. Even worse, I am on the lower edge of safely fitting into it, so the size adjustment technology in it is keeps adjusting the pads to keep it a snug fit."

"We have made great time, but you do not need to push so hard..."

"Back at the academy, the cadre expect you to keep your frame yellow lined all the time other than in combat practice to help build endurance. I guess I am so used to doing so, I kind of forgot I don't have to here."

Jason glanced over and shook his head doing his best to keep his voice neutral sounding, but failing. "It is probably a good idea for you to do so most of the time, Major Price."

Joel frowned as he caught a strange undertone in Jason's voice, "Why?"

"Nothing..." Jason once again shook his head, "Just forget it."

"No." Joel growled, "I want to hear this."

Jason rolled his eyes, "Somehow, I don't think you really do, but here it goes. You long time BH cadets are spoiled and it shows at times."

Joel rocked back on his knees as if he had been punched by the words. He started to lash out, but once again the worlds of Major Goddard filled his mind. He bit back his original response and took a deep breath, "In what ways?"

Jason's eyebrows shot up in some surprise at not instantly getting into an argument over the issue at hand. This, in turn, allowed himself to drop some of his attitude over the whole thing and speak in a much more reasonable voice than he had been prepared to use. "It's kind of hard to find the right words, especially in English, but there is something... um off... or not right with BHJMA. Spoiled is probably not the proper thing to say, just the best word I can find for it."

Joel's left eyebrow shot up in a quizzical stare, "Jason, I don't see where you are coming from at all. We BH cadets were going to pound all the other academies in the competitions on Andar. We had at least one cadet in the top three of every single..."

Jason waved his hand to cut Joel off, "Look, I'm not saying your training, instructors, or your academy isn't top notch." He sighed, "As a matter of fact, overall you all get the best of everything and it shows. The problem is, you all... We all... do get the best of everything. Just look at this mission. Sure it's hard, damned near impossible, but to offset it they gave us the best of everything money can buy!"

Jason reached out and tapped Joel's frame, "Just look at what you are piloting! It must cost well over 100,000 credits, maybe even close to 200,000. The Rogue Lawson is piloting is well over 100,000 as well. So there are sixteen of us and they dropped us each three frames each well over 100,000 credits means in frames alone, BH is spending way over five million. Add in the Daggers, one of the top notch APC built in the entire galaxy, we have to be over seven million. I haven't even bothered to add in the food, ammo, and other basics they gave us, either. Oh, and then there is the matter of a crashed ship worth well over a hundred million..." Jason tossed up his arms, "I mean give me a break we are cadets for God's sake!"

Joel took in a deep breath and nodded, "Technically, you are correct, and even for our parents, this is going overboard, but..."

"But?" Jason angrily cut off Joel's response, "Do you have any idea how much could be done with the money wasted on us here if it was given to the people back on New Bravaria IV? It could rebuild power stations, get fresh water to cities for the first time since Earth Core tore the crap out of us, or provide almost all those who lost everything with food and clothing for months!"

Joel leaned back and rolled his head to get out some of the stiffness in his neck while allowing Jason to vent. Once he was sure the older boy was done he held up both hands, "Look, I was there. I know what EC did to your system, as a matter of fact all of us originally from BH were there and some of us even fought against EC troops, so I do understand what you are saying. Now can I toss in some information you may not have or might not be thinking about?"

"Sure." Jason growled, "But the fact remains, spoiled is the best word I can come up for cadets at BHJMA."

Joel slowly nodded, "If you are talking about equipment and expense, you are probably correct, we are spoiled. We do get the best money can buy of just about everything. Actually, I have never even thought about it, till now. Because BH is a merc unit and everything about Forest Garden is centered on our military, the government spends its money where its bread is buttered. To be honest, it probably gives us an unfair advantage. All our training equipment is so high tech we are used to getting the best and anything less would come as quite a shock to most of us.

"However, as far as what the money spent on this equipment could have gotten instead, BH does not give things away. We will help with immediate needs after a disaster or war. We will build temporary camps, treat wounded, and help war orphans, but it is part of the creed of both BH and Forest Garden, not to give free aid. Handouts, even in the way of foreign aid, just don't work. It makes those in charge greedy and wanting more while the people get dependent on getting something for nothing. Dad always tells me to work for what I want, otherwise I don't deserve it.

"For example, what happened to the money EC paid the New Bravaria worlds once BH came in and swept them from your system?"

Jason frowned. "I have no idea. I guess part of it had to go into the building of the academy and some certainly went into rebuilding the shattered military, police, and the like, but I'd have to know how much was given and then see where the money went. I assume some of it had to go to pay BH..."

"Nope." Joel shook his head fiercely, "You are part of the ABR and under a mutual defense pact with us. We got no money from you nor did we take any funds EC offered up in an attempt to make it seem like it was rogue units attacking your system. We took our pay in salvage only." Joel managed a slight grin, "Do you have any idea what half a dozen capitol ships are worth, even extensively damaged ones?"

Jason gave a grunt, "Not a clue, but it was probably enough to make it worth your efforts."

"According to Terrin's dad, way more than worth it." Joel admitted. "The Euro League bought three of them and I know the Great Outback bought two others. I have no idea what happened to the sixth one we managed to take without extreme damage, but I'm sure it sold for a huge amount. EC tech is right up there with ours, so when it comes on the market, it is snatched up. And don't forget, there had to be at least a score of other capitol ships we got some salvage off of, but they were too badly mangled to sell as reparable units."

"You know for a kid who hasn't hit his teens you know an awful lot." Jason remarked as he stood, motioning for Joel to do the same.

Joel looked up into the older boy's eyes as he took a deep breath and forced himself to make the frame he was in stand again. "I may be younger than you, but I have been all over the galaxy with my dad and other BH units. War reparations get shunted away from those they should be helping. It's a handout so those with access like to take their own cuts before any of it leaves the inner circles of power. Just last year we beat back an EC incursion into the Black Earth system, and forced Earth Core to pay several billion credits, yet even now, there is no sign the money has been used in any way shape or form to rebuild shattered towns, farm fields or even repair roads. On the other hand, the monarch's palace has been totally rebuilt and his three sons all have huge estates with new buildings as well."

The right corner of Jason's mouth twisted down and his voice took on a snarl. "Are you serious?"

Joel simply nodded and said nothing.

A bit of rage flashed into Jason's eyes, "The second we get off this rock, I am going to start a project to see if the same thing happened in the New Bravaria system."

"Once we are safe on Forest Garden, come see me and I'll round up a few others to help you."

"Thanks, I'm sure your dad could help dig through the mess and get us the needed reports far better than a couple of kids could."

Joel shook his head and snickered, "You really don't know exactly who is on this rock with you, do you?"

Jason took a deep aggravated breath, "Look, kid, I know you are a Price, and I had to meet with your dad, so I know he is a big shot both in BH and in the Forest Garden government. I have also figured out, a few of the others have big time moms and dads as well. At first, I took the view of the rest of us from New Bravaria; your parents got you the command slots. But I also was probably the first of us new BH cadets to see; you in particular, are highly gifted. Chip and Cory also are way up there. The others, well I have been impressed by all your skills. You are all right up there with me, and I am older than you all. Still, big time parents or not, your dad can't really be important enough for BH to spend this kind of money on us, can he?"

Joel kind of shrugged, "To be honest, I'm not sure. If he really put his reputation and title on the line, then maybe, but I'm not talking about me."

"Then who?" Jason's face showed his confusion. "I have heard Terrin's dad is important too..."

"Above my dad." Joel stated with a bit of a mischievous grin.

Jason eyed Joel's expression for a few seconds, "So between the two of your parents you could find this kind of financing?"

"Between the two of them, I am sure they could, but as much as it seems you would like to pin this on me or Terrin, neither one of us is a McCurdy."

Jason stopped dead in his tracks as the connections were made in his brain, "Are you actually telling me Gabriel is of the House of Forest Garden, an actual member of the royal family?"

A slight smirk appeared on Joel's features. "Outside of the academy, we would both be addressing him as Prince McCurdy."

Jason staggered inside his frame as Joel spoke, "Dear God, if EC or Talborne find out he is here..."

"Yes. However, if we can figure out a way to let Ariel know EC and Talborne are here, BH will rip the heart out of this offensive before it even gets started. If you think what we did in your home system was nasty, just wait until BH mobilizes against those here. All we have to do is figure out a way to let them know what is going on here and hold out while they mobilize."

Jason glanced at Joel with a questioning stare, "Well hell, I'll just take one of the emergency beacons and send up the signal to the cloaked ship waiting up there letting them know everything we found out. So what if they capture me?"

Joel shook his head, "No, they would capture you and force you to talk. Once they found out who you are, they will leave no stone on this world unturned looking for the rest of us and will probably send word to Earth Core as well. Besides, we are dealing with EC and most likely some of their technology. Like it or not, EC has top-notch stuff and might be able to find our ship if they realize one is up there. If they do, then we would be sending over a hundred men and women to their deaths.

"I'm sure our ship is up there trying its darnedest to figure out who is down here with us. Sooner or later they will, and when they do, they will exit the system and send for help. Unfortunately, it may take them a month or so to put all the pieces together and another week or so to decide it is worth abandoning us long enough to get help. If Gabriel wasn't down here with us, I can all but assure you, they would have left system already to get help, but they have a prince to try to find and protect, and until they realize they can't do it alone, they will stay up there and hope all those down here with us simply pack up and leave."

"So we have to go into hiding."

"Again, great in theory, but we can't let them build an assault force to attack Forest Garden. If we start hitting them, our ship up there will start hearing chatter, and sooner or later someone will say something which will allow our ship to figure out who is down here and maybe even why."

Jason lowered his head and drummed his fingers over the thick armored head unit of the frame he was in, making a weird metallic clicking sound. "You know, for a kid barely out of being a junior cadet, you are way too good at this."

Joel grinned, "Having a dad in command of Shadow Brigade gives me an unfair advantage."

Further comments were cut short as a loud explosion and a large blast of earth appeared on the backside of a ridge less than three kilometers from their position.

Jason's eyes went wide, "Please tell me your camp isn't over there!"

"Nope, we are still a good fifteen kilometers from camp..." A second explosion echoed over the landscape causing Joel's eyes to harden. "But we are close enough to where we should check it out."

Jason nodded, "Anything this close is certainly within striking range. I'm more rested than you, I'll take the lead."

Derek took one last glance around the devastation below the mouth of the mine shaft before nodding to Karen, "Nothing is moving at all. I don't even see any critters."

"Me neither, even the small side caves on this ridgeline are devoid of life, but after all of this, any wildlife probably got scared off. There is a lot of oil and other toxic junk all over the place, which probably makes a lot of the area poisonous to anything eating or drinking around here."

"Maybe, but after being on this rock for the last several weeks, I not sure any living thing here is going to do anything but drink some lubricant and then go look for more."

Karen giggled, "Your probably right. This world certainly cranks out some of the nastier living things mankind has ever found. Do you want take the lead while I hang back, just in case all is not as it seems?"

Derek eagerly grinned, "Time to find out what BH cadre was protecting."

Karen nodded in agreement, but moved in behind Derek with a great deal more caution then her squad mate. She cycled through infrared and ultraviolet optical modes, but even as this showed her nothing the hairs on the back of her neck seemed to stand on end. "Derek," she whispered, "Something is wrong."

Derek paused and scanned the entrance to the mine. "I don't see anything."

"Me neither, but this just doesn't feel..." Suddenly a trio of high energy beams flashed from out of the mouth of the mine, the largest one striking Karen's left leg causing her frame to alert her to moderate armor damage to an area just above her foot. Even though the armor protected her from real damage, the shot still felt like she was kicked hard. "Ouch!"

Derek reacted with incredible speed, showing his time on Black Jungle's combat ball team was as valuable out on the battlefield as was on the ball field. He jumped clear of the opening and grabbed Karen as he did so. The two rolled down the hill about twenty meters before they slammed into a flipped over machine, preventing them from continuing to roll down the rather steep embankment. Derek came up fast and brought up his left arm and with it the medium laser he had attached to it.

Before Karen could do much more than shake her head to clear it, Derek fired, following his laser up with four micro missiles and a RAM grenade. All his weapons tracked perfectly on a large sand scorp looking thing, only this one was made of metal, was about a meter and a half in length and inside its front claws it had a pair of lasers. Even worse the tail contained an even larger laser.

The four missiles decimated the thing's left side while the laser cut into its tail, causing it to start sparking. The Ram grenade slammed into it a moment later tossing it about a meter into the air. It slammed back into the soil of Brile on its back, thrashing madly as it tried to right itself, but with the damage to its side the legs on the left didn't seem to be working properly and the tail simply snapped off as it tried to use it to flip itself over.

Karen's eyes went wide with revulsion as she saw the ghastly thing. She wasted no time bringing up all four of her frame's lasers onto the thing. She fired at almost the same time Derek sent a second volley at the machine. Between the two of them, bits and pieces of the sand scorp machine splattered all over the hill side and several chunks went back into the mine.

"What was that?" She screamed as she finally stood and worked herself around to the back side of the flipped machine she had come to a rest against.

Derek waited until she was behind cover and was guarding against anything else coming out of the mineshaft before he stopped covering the mine entrance. "Well, it looks like the machines and the Ultras found a way to use the wildlife of Brile to design new machines!"

"Blood's Honor had to know about this!" Karen hissed in anger as she glanced down at her left leg and spotted the gouge in her frame's armor.

As a second one poked its claws out of the mine shaft, Derek fired his laser and RAM grenade, blowing off the head and flinging it back down the shaft just out of sight. Derek shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not, but they did warn us in the video of random stuff." He kept his eyes focused on the opening to the mine noting a third one was trying to make its way over the wreckage of the one he had just killed, "More to the point, look at the big picture. In the grand scheme of things, these things are still very easy to kill, and I don't think their big lasers would have even breached our e-suit armor. If the cadre wants us to be able to handle the unexpected as well as the mission itself, what better way than to have us stumble on a nest of sand scorp machines!"

He paused, sent a laser into the third one, forcing it to back off, then glanced around for a moment before he smiled at a still very shaken Karen, "On the plus side, at least we now know why there is no wildlife in the area!"

Karen's whole body shook for a moment as a cold shiver shot down her spine. "I don't know what is worse. The fact you are actually finding this fun, or I find myself agreeing with you!"

"Probably a bit of both." Derek snickered as the two of them fired lasers at the third machine as it once again tried to make its way over the mangled frame of the dead machine. The high energy beams of Karen and Derek killed it, but not before it sent one of its ‘claw lasers' into the dead machine the two were hiding behind causing both kids to flinch at how close it had come.

Karen's eyes narrowed as she decided to send a couple more laser shots into the mine shaft. In response, three more lasers erupted from somewhere deeper in the shaft, not coming even close to the two cadets.

Derek frowned deeply, "So what do we do now? If we try to move in, we will be easy targets and if we fall back to our camp there is a good chance one of those things will try to follow us. The other option is to blast the mine opening and seal them in, but something tells me, there may be answers to some of the mysteries of this world in there!"

Karen glanced around, "Well, at the moment we have the upper hand, since they can only come out one at a time, two at most. There is no reason we can't just hold position until we are late for check in and let Gabriel and the others come looking for us. With five or six of us, we could move in and see what those things are trying to protect."

"Since this mine wasn't on our maps, there is no telling if this is the only shaft." Derek warned, "And the more blind shots we send down there, the greater the chance we accidentally collapse a section. I think you should fall back and get help while I hold them."

Karen shook her head, "No, I should stay and you should go. I have more energy weapons than you do, so I am not as dependent on ammo as you are. Since I basically have a full charge on the fusion plant in my frame, I can take pot shots at these things for hours with my lasers." She paused and fired both her mediums again as she caught a glint of metal moving in the shaft. "Besides, you are in way better shape than I am, and can get back to camp then back here way faster than I could hope to."

Derek grumbled under his breath knowing Karen was right, but not wanting to admit it. He then glanced around, "Fine, but if you start getting pressed or more come out from somewhere else, move down the hill gradually, keeping dead machines between you and them. Once you are certain they can't flank you, start angling back up hill. If you get caught in the ravine, they will be able to shoot down on you from multiple spots, just Like BH cadre did and you will be looking up into the sun which will be coming over this hill in less than an hour. You won't stand a chance."

Derek ran a zig-zag pattern until he was certain he was clear of the shaft opening, glanced back at Karen with a worried frown, then took off at a dead run for the base camp.

As the first glow of light crept across the darkened skies of Brile, the radio in the back of the Slasher once again crackled. Candice mumbled in her sleep and rolled over on the cot she had set up in the cargo area, but she didn't wake.

The sound of the radio came and went half a dozen more times, noticed only by Candice's subconscious, somehow twisting her thoughts and put her into a dream. She was back on Andar in her Cadet frame. Suddenly, her radio came to life. Joel's mom's voice came over, although the static made it hard to hear. "All BH Cadets this is a Priority Alpha message. You are ordered to pull back from the competition grounds now! This is not a drill, I say again, this is not a drill, pull back to the southern landing pads now!"

Candice stood there looking around, wondering what was going on. The command made no sense. If they left the competition grounds, they would be disqualified, and all their hard work would be for nothing.

Even as she heard scores of cadets, including Chip, Terrin, Joel and Gabriel acknowledge the order, she continued to stand there, unmoving and confused. The radio came to life again. This time it was Joel, "Candice, fall back and link up with the rest of us on the southeast corner!"

When Chip noticed she was still inside the cadet frame bay, his voice cut over the radio, "Team Sergeant to team leader, we are getting visual on a pair of aerial incoming! The base is coming under attack: get out of there!"

Suddenly, the fog in Candice's mind cleared as she glanced around, spotting a trio of cadets from Amber Stone working on their frames on the far side of the bay, opposite of where Blood's Honor cadets frames were kept, totally unaware of the threat. Her eyes went wide, realizing almost no one knew of the imminent threat. "Guys, frame up, the base is coming under attack!"

The oldest boy, a dark haired and eyed kid of about fifteen, spun and faced her, "What?"

"Get your squad into their frames!" She shouted as she powered up her own, finding, much to her horror, all her frame weapons had been released for full combat use. She fired her small laser, burning a hole into the wall to make her point, "Blood's Honor just activated all my weapons to full! We are under attack! Frame up now and get as many others from your academy into their frames while there is still time!"

The laser shot spurred the older boy into action. He grabbed a younger boy and shoved him toward a wall of secured frames, "Get them all powered up on standby!" He then spun to look at the other kid, an even younger blond haired kid, "Kern, use your handheld and send an alert! Get as many here as we can!"

"But..." The blond haired boy started to argue, only to get cut off, as Candice sent a burst of live machinegun fire into the wall,

"Kid, this is not some sort of joke..."

Seconds later the first explosions sounded from the direction of the palace grounds. The boy yanked his hand held out of the cargo pocket on the side of his cadet uniform as a wet spot appeared in the front of them. His hands shook badly as another set of explosions could be heard, these were much closer and strong enough to be felt by everyone in the frame bay. The blond haired kid keyed the radio and punched in a code.

Again Candice's radio came to life inside her frame as she moved to the door, seeing dozens of kids running out of barracks close to the frame bay, most making a beeline for the building she was in. The voice of Joel's mom was quite angry. "Cadet O'Meyer, This is Commander Price, I show you have not moved yet. Is there a problem?

Candice gulped as an explosion in the street knocked over half a score of kids desperately trying to get to the frame bay. Her heart sped up as she watched a couple of kids grab one of those injured by a chunk of building while continuing to make their way to her location, "Ma'am, I am in bay four, and just finished repairs to my elbow hydraulics..."

"I know where you are, and I don't care if your frame is at a hundred percent or not! Fall back to the southern extraction point!"

Candice's eyes hardened and so did her voice as she moved out into the street at a dead run, grabbing another injured kid and firing at an aircraft as it started a strafing run. Her sonic cannon shot slammed into the cockpit while both of her micro missile exploded on the starboard wing. The damage and the cracked cockpit window caused the startled pilot to jerk at the controls which totally threw off his aim, saving dozens of kids. "Ma'am there are cadets out here!"

As the fighter banked away, Candice sent another pair of micro missiles into the light craft; both hit the left engine, causing it to explode. Seconds later the spiraling craft slammed into the ground creating a large fireball. The wingman of the downed craft broke of his attack run and angled and out of the fight, having seen enough.

Joel's voice suddenly came over the radio, "Candice, get as many into frames as you can, we are moving back toward you!"

"Young man" Some other Blood's Honor cadre member shouted from inside Blood's Honor's Command Ship, "Get your butt back to the extraction point before you end up in the cadet stockade!"

"Screw you!" Terrin's furious voice joined those of his friends, "You didn't see what we had to back on New Bravaria! I am not going to stand by and let all these cadets get slaughtered if I can do something to stop it!"

"We are not is a position to support you, we are fully engaged!" Joel's mom shouted. "You'll be on your own kids!"

"Commander Price," Karen responded, "You may not be in position to help, but we are! We can't let this happen!"

"Mom," Joel tired to reason with his mother, all the while, his voice told everyone listening, no command, no order, or no threat would convince him to turn and run. "Candice is doing the right thing! There are hundreds of cadets out in the open! She can't pull back and still be Blood's Honor and neither can we. This isn't going to be New Bravaria all over again!"

"Young man..."

"No mom!" Joel shouted angrily, "We can't let what happened on New Bravaria ever happen again! You were there and saw what the air attacks did to the refugee camps! This is no different! They're shooting at unarmed cadets, some of them I made friends with! They may kill me, but we have to get as many out of here as possible!"

Chip's voice also added to the chatter, "Command, I am seeing armor droppers to the north, we can't just run: without someone to slow them down, there will be armed platforms moving into the competition area within minutes and there is no way anyone not in a frame is going to get out of here! We have to do something!"

Major Goddard's voice came over the radio, "We are mobilizing to help, but you kids have to get out of there! We already lost contact with two senor cadets and two others are injured. Fall back toward us."

Gabriel's voice entered the mix, "BH Command, I am with Joel and he is right. My mom can disown me for all I care, and whatever moron is in the Command Ship can kiss my butt before he sends it to the stockade. Like it or not, we are the only viable line of defense for close to a thousand cadets. The only ones with active weapons are us, and without us the others are dead. We aren't going anywhere. Now, since the other senior cadets are either down or not in a good spot to take command, hand over command of all BH cadets in frames to Joel and get us some support or we are going it alone!"

There was a long sigh from Joel's mom, "Command, I am giving Cadet Master Sergeant Joel Price command over all BH cadets. You best get them support, and do it fast, cause it sure isn't going to be us. We'll be lucky to make it back to the extraction point." She paused, "Candice, good call and way to personify what it is to be Blood's Honor.

"Now, son, get your mind focused, let your leaders lead locally and focus on the overall picture. Micromanagement will get you all killed. Just hold long enough to get as many cadets out of there as you can, but don't be stupid or suicidal about it. You can't expect to save everyone and thinking you can, will end up getting you all killed and will leave those you are trying to protect with nothing between those attacking you and them.

"All BH cadets kick some butt so I can do the same to you all if we ever get to see each other again."

A moment later a new voice came over the radio, "BH cadets, this is Senior Communications Officer Kolman. We caught their space craft defending screen napping and just took out a pair of escorting ships and pulled a rapid deployment on their merc Command Ship. Our frame forces managed to take the bridge fast and we have gained their communication codes.

"According to what we are hearing, Lord Talborne of Ulysses has emptied his coffers to hire mercs and has sent just about everything else he could scrounge. We don't have a full picture yet, but we got enough to know the plans surrounding the competition area. No cadet is supposed to get off the base. Those attacking the cadet area are supposed to capture as many as possible and kill the rest. Don't let them surround..."

Candice's eyes snapped open as another burst of static came over the radio. The voice of Mr. Kolman played though her mind again, "...we have gained their communication codes..."

She jumped up, smacking her head on one of the overhead beams. Muttering a sting of curses, she gripped the top of her head as she made her way over to the radio. "Communication codes! The radio is on, so I bet the woman I shot was trying to contact someone in her command!" She spoke aloud, ignoring the slight trickle of blood dripping on her ear from where she had just cut her head on the overhead beam. "Come on; tell me she didn't clear the codes!"

Colonel Price took a minute to get the full picture of the fighting in and around Bitter Creek before he switched frequencies, "OK, Commander, you have the bulk of their forces in the business district. Enact shattered line protocol there and have the rest of your forces harden to prevent them from pushing into civilian areas."

Less than a minute later Blood's honor forces in the Business District broke into teams and squads and fell back a couple of blocks. As they did so, they turned their weapons to cover a street in one direction only. Those closest to them did the same, only they covered a different direction. Within two minutes, all streets were covered in such a way as to prevent movement in the open ground of the streets in nearly every direction, all without endangering each other Blood's Honor units from friendly fire.

"Perfectly executed!" Colonel Priced shouted in praise. "Now hold them here, fall back a block or two as needed to keep them all in the taller buildings!"

"We can keep this up for hours." His XO responded, "But eventually their scouts will find weak points and they will cut off many of our units!"

"As long as they stay focused on doing so, this should work to perfection. Adjust as needed and reorganize to keep them on their toes.

"Again, we can do it, but I don't have enough reserves to totally reform now and I don't think our whole brigade has enough rested warriors to help me..."

"You're correct we don't. Just keep them occupied for me." Colonel Price then turned to his air superiority officer. "OK, time to give me a clearing. Those dropping the wood cutters are going to be easy targets so strafe the woods first!"

The woman nodded as she spoke into her headset, "Make em duck then make us a drop site!"

Two full squadrons of ASCs dropped out of the clouds. The first wave sent streams of laser light and waves of tracer armor piercing rounds into the woods on the back side of the large town. Before anyone in the woods could poke their heads up to see what was going on, the second wave dropped dozens of high explosive warheads. Each one was specially designed to clear large areas of even the densest forest or jungle. The warheads came in nose down. Each had a two meter long spike on the nose of the warhead. As soon as the spike hit something solid, it pushed in causing the bomb to explode above ground instead of in the ground. The result was the blast wave didn't simply make a crater with most of the shockwave going up, instead, it went outward, taking out trees in a much larger area than a normal bomb could. Even as the second wave of fighters banked hard to get clear of the area, the results of their run could be seen by recon drones circling the area. Over three square kilometers of woods had virtually vanished making a vast opening in the dense forest canopy.

As the smoke and debris cleared, Colonel Price nodded in satisfaction and spoke into his head set, "Junior Lieutenant Mathis, your drop zone is now open. There is not as much fire as we expected, but there sure is a vast quantity of heavy debris. Start your drop now!"

Even as well over a score of spacecraft descended and hovered allowing scores of frames to drop, Colonel Price's radio came to life as his XO screamed into the radio, "Colonel! My scouts are telling me there was a massive explosion just outside of Bitter Creek and our radar is picking up dozens of unidentified inbound ships!"

"We are aware of the situation." Colonel Price replied. "You will have to deal with the situation as best you can for the moment Commander." He muted his headset and watched in admiration as Blood's Honor troopers drew in tighter and increased their fire, forcing 979th frame pilots to duck and cover. At the same time the aerial drones picked up movement behind the 979th front lines as the onsite commander saw the flaw in strategy. 979th scouts quickly saw the holes in the firing lanes, which in turn gave the commander what he thought was his first break in the fighting. He moved up his reserves into those lanes in an attempt to flank and even surround groups of Blood's Honor framers.

Even as his XO desperately worked to have those furthest out fall back and change fire patterns to confuse the 979th, Allen had turned his full attention to the ongoing drop. Hundreds of frames fell from ships, many not designed to allow for combat drops of military equipment let alone live combatants. The result was somewhat predictable. A number of young frame pilots hit thrusters on their drop pods and bumped into each other in the air causing them to scatter way more than would have happened if they had been dropped by a military ship. Even worse, many of those using jump packs were very green.

Scores of them came out too hot, rocketing them far away from others in their squads. At the same time, others didn't put enough power into the thrusters and fell out of the ships dangerously fast. Allen gritted his teeth and said a short prayer as he watched at least half a dozen slam into the muddy ground with enough force to seriously injure the pilot of the frame, while well over a score of others hit with enough force to see stars and do at least some damage to their frames.

Allen let out a long breath, "The second the site is secure get our medical teams in there. We'll be lucky if we didn't just loose a few kids, and I am certain we just saw a few dozen broken bones happen."

The operations officer nodded, "BH cadets would have never gotten combat certs..."

"Sure they would have." Allen corrected the man with an annoyed grumble. "The first time I did a combat jump into live fire all of us had our BH certifications. Yet two of those in my team did exactly what we just saw. One over-burned one under-burned. The excitement and fear of the first live fire drop causes even the best trained kids to look bad. Actually, these Black Jungle kids are pretty impressive. Remember, none of them had officially graduated yet."

Junior Lieutenant Mathis, on the other hand, pulled off his jump pack drop to perfection. He launched out of the ship and picked a more or less clear spot close to the rally point for the command team. Once over the area, he did a couple of quick burns to line himself up while making sure others were not angling for the same spot. Once satisfied, he cut the thrust until he was only a few meters from the jungle floor then hit a hard burn. The second he felt his frame moving back upward he powered down and fell again, then, just before he hit the ground he did one more hard burn. Once again his frame started to gain altitude. At this point he cut all thrust and dropped the last meter. His feet sank into the mud a bit, but he quickly pulled them free while looking into the heads-up display. "Computer, give me overhead view."

Instantly the normal displays of his frame were replaced by a holographic image given to him from one of the overhead drones. It took a few seconds for him to orient himself with the view he was seeing. At the same time he noticed there was some incoming light fire coming from the woods almost directly to the south. "Omega One, this is Gamma One. Your entire Alpha Team looks to be basically intact. Get rid of the resistance to the south, go ahead and gather up those of Bravo Team around you for support. Make sure to put a few ECM units on them so they can't tell the 979th who we are!"

The former cadet commander of his frame force responded, "On it Gamma One. Be advised, I lost Omega four. She hit too hard and busted her knee unit and thinks her leg is broken."

Oliver looked over his battle map HUD, "She isn't alone. I count at least 35 frames down with red emergency smoke coming out. Colonel Price was right, no matter how much we warned everyone, some were going to screw this drop up. He said he was ready for it and would get medical teams here once we get the area secure. I am taking all of Zeta Force to the woods and will fill in spots of injured out of your Charlie team. Once we are up to a full force we are going to move across the river and into the fight. We need to get into the Bitter Creek with a full force now. BH is being pushed hard and they shattered their lines so we could hit with full surprise from behind and it looks like it is working. Their reserves have already moved into the city streets and are trying to surround the clusters of BH frames.

"Once you suppress all resistance out here, cover our asses and clear a decent area so the younger kids can drop in on a less cluttered area. After what we did, they would really screw themselves up in this mess. Once they are down and organized they can take over guard duty and you can move in behind us.

"No problem. Just make sure to save some of the 979th for me!"

Oliver snickered, "BH Command says we are looking at over 200 979th frames, I'm sure there will be plenty for you to kick the shit out of."

"Good. It's payback time!"

Jason crested the hill they had seen the explosion behind, just as a pair of metallic sand scorps came out of a small side passage below him. Even as his mind tried to cope with the devastation of seeing hundreds of armored platforms further down in the gorge, his inner voice screamed to him he was seeing machines. Laser fire from down in the gorge caught yet another metallic as it emerged from a much larger opening off to his left further spurring him into action. Before he consciously made a decision to shoot, he had already brought up his weapons and fired on one of the two machines directly below him. All his weapons tracked perfectly, eliminating it before its onboard computer realized there was a threat from above.

Joel appeared a moment later, sighted the second one and fired his lasers into it, doing massive damage but not outright killing it. Another shot from his lasers killed it before it was able to do more the turn to spot what had shot it.

Another burst of laser fire came from behind one of the ruined machines, once again ripping into a laser belching sand scorp thing. This time, the lasers were enough to cause it to fall flat, its leg's no longer able to support it, but it still flipped up its tail and sent a laser shot down the hill, striking the carcass of the dead machine.

Joel tapped hard on Jason's shoulder. Once the older boy turned to face him, Joel gave the signal to cut off the ECM.

At the same time, more laser fire ripped out of the cave to the two boys' left and yet another scorpion came out of the small passage directly below them.

Both boys turned to face the new threats. Joel fired his micro missiles into the one below, blowing it into several pieces while Jason switched off his frame's ECM before turning his attention on the mouth of the large cave. The second he spotted a claw, he fired. His rail gun took the right front claw clean off, while his heavy laser smashed into the machine's head, effectively killing it.

With the ECM off, Joel activated his telescopic sighting unit and focused on what was firing on the all but destroyed machine scorp, which was still trying to use its tail laser to engage whatever target it could find. Before it could get off another accurate shot, the frame below ended its existence with four more laser shots.

It took Joel a few seconds to really sight in and then increase the magnification enough to see Karen hunkered down behind a machine, looking nervously between Jason and him, and the mouth of the cave. He quickly input his squad's command frequency into his frame and chanced a very short range communication. "It's Joel, what are you doing out here alone?"

"Joel!" Karen sounded relieved, "Derek and I came out here to check on something he found and kind of scout in the direction you and Lawson went. Who is with you?"


"You found the others? Awesome!" She cheered, "You need to be careful, though. I have killed at least seven and Derek took out two or three before I sent him back to get the others!"

"So is this the base, or what?"

"We don't think so. Derek rechecked old and new maps and discovered the cadre took this one off the new ones. We also found evidence the cadre took some casualties not far from where you are. At first we thought the Cadre killed all the machines down here to protect the mine, but now I am wondering if the Cadre didn't kill all these machines after they came out of the mine. One way or the other, they didn't totally placate the area."

Joel surveyed the area for a few minutes, "Well, it's a high magnetic area, there are active machines and a ton of dead ones..." His voice trailed off as a new idea came to him. His face lit up as he eagerly turned to Jason, "Everything we need to hit Talborne is right here!"

Jason sent another rail gun shot into a machine scorp as it came out of the cave directly below him, blowing its head off, killing it instantly. He then glanced around and nodded slowly, "If we wanted to arm an army, we are certainly looking at enough equipment to do it."

Jason frowned, "These blasted machine creatures will have to die, if we are going to start salvage operations, though."

Joel nodded. "We need to take out this machine base and pull all of this into the caves, or at least as much as we can..." He stopped and looked around again, "If this all came out of the big cave, then there may be a whole production line down there."

Jason let out a long breath, "Like it or not, want to or not, we should team up and secure this place. "You hold here and cover the cave below us while she covers the big one. Since Derek is getting your people, I'll go get the others from my camp."

"we should both keep our current bases for now. We can't put all our resources into one spot."

Good call. I'll have a couple of the others stay at our camp as a fall back point.

"Good, and Jason..."


"Don't get spotted."

Jason shot Joel an annoyed look as he activated his frame's ECM again, "If I were you, I'd be more worried about Derek than me."

Joel shrugged, "Good point."

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