Castle Roland


by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 13

Published: 8 Apr 14


Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons

The Tactical Mind

Joel used the cover of large rocks as he moved along the top of the ridgeline looking for more openings into the mine complex below. He spotted a few possibilities, but they were too small for the large machine scorpions to come out of, let alone big enough for him crawl into with a frame. So, on the off chance the sand scorp machines were not the only hostile machines in the mines, he used his lasers to seal them. The last thing he wanted was to have a bunch of small machines come pouring out of tiny openings, overwhelming Karen and him.

Just as he was about to move back up to the top of the hill so he could better cover Karen, he spotted a metallic glint of a sand scorp as it tried to claw its way out of an opening he had no way of seeing from above. He knelt and waited until the vile thing's head came into view and sent a single shot of his large laser into it. It twitched as sparks and smoke rolled out of the eye socket areas. It did one last big jerk which allowed it to come into full view then stopped moving altogether.

As he watched the sparks dance down the back of the machine and end at the tail, a smirk crossed his features. His face then broke into a bit of a grin as the rather colorful discharges of electrical energies reached the tail causing the laser in the back to detonate in a rather beautiful crimson blast. The smile was not really one of victory, but of satisfaction as he realized whatever made these motorized metal creatures had built in a major flaw.

The head was a weak point with little armor, since all the sensors including its eyes were there. By putting the controlling computer there, it was not well protected. Had the controlling computer been within the heavier armed body, killing these things would not be nearly this easy.

He stayed still and looked for more movement. It didn't take long for the dead machine to move a few times as something either tried to pull it back in or push it fully out of the way. After nearly five minutes whatever was behind it stopped. Joel shook his head and muttered aloud to himself. "Something is directing these things or they have way better artificial intelligence than the briefings gave them credit for." He then sent a stream of lasers into the opening, caving it in.

As he mulled over the enhanced danger of dealing with machines with a degree of intelligence, he grinned as Karen sent a quartet of lasers into yet another machine scorp, killing it. He tight beamed a radio communication over to her. "At least they are easy to kill, all we have to do is shoot them in the head unit."

Karen acknowledged with a grunt. "Yeah, Derek wasted a lot of ammo killing the first few."

"He did the right thing. Trust me, if my first few laser shots weren't killing these things, I would be adding in some micro missiles… the first one I did." He paused as he spotted more movement off to the side.

A moment later he fired another large laser shot as he spotted one trying to push its way over the carcasses of the pair he and Jason had knocked out when they first arrived. As the latest one fell on top of the other two, the claws of the one behind it quickly disappeared from view. "This is almost too easy."

"Which is probably why the cadre didn't finish the place off." Karen responded while sending in a trio of lasers into yet another machine as its head came into view from the main mine entrance. "They wanted us to find and deal with the totally unexpected. This way they can add our confused chatter followed by our solutions into our cadet files. They want to have a good chunk of back-up to show why they want to give us a shot at Cohort."

Joel surveyed the whole scene looking for more machines while also trying to formulate some kind of attack strategy. "Dad, what would you do?" he wondered aloud as he tried to figure out how to penetrate the mine complex without the machines burying whatever was controlling them behind tons of rock. The machines could eventually dig out, he could not. Cave and mine fighting was dangerous and listed as one of the top three least favorable places to fight a battle in according to the Blood's Honor Academy Handbook because of the danger to not only BH troopers, but enemy forces as well. Yet, he still badly wanted to take out whatever was making and controlling the machines. As Joel spotted one of his Daggers moving up to support, he realized this would be a great time to further involve Derek. After all, rumor had it Derek had played his dad, Colonel Price, to a near standstill in Tac-Squad, so who better to ask for advice?

Colonel Price kept a close eye on the developing battle in and around Bitter Creek. With total air superiority, Blood's Honor drones flew over the area uncontested, giving a wide variety of views from almost every angle. Making matters even better, the tactical center of his Command Ship used top notch A.I., so instead of not being able to see what was behind buildings from the angle of the drone he was looking through, the computer used the views from other drones to fill in, so there was nothing above ground he couldn't see.

At the same time, these extremely accurate overhead views with A.I. fill-in were uploaded to his onsite field commanders through their battle computers and battle map Head's Up Displays or HUD's. So even though his XO couldn't see through a building to know what was on the back side, she could switch over to her HUD and get a display from above showing her what was there.

His XO was not the only one fully enjoying this massive advantage. Oliver Mathis, Derek's oldest brother, was almost giddy as he took full benefit of the technology. As his first units reached the back side of Bitter Creek and entered the built up area, he deployed a rather unique tactic of sending a couple of frames around blind spots where he knew there were enemy frames. He then ordered the panicked kids to fall back.

At the same time he used the rest of the squad, unit or team to hit the enemy frames from behind. Then, as soon as the enemy realized the situation and turned to face the larger threat, Oliver ordered the retreating frames to turn around and hit the group, once again from behind. With massive damage to thin back armor and nowhere to turn, dozens of frame pilots surrendered without a single armor breach. This shattered rear area defensive lines and totally cut off front lines facing Blood's Honor.

Also, because of this overhead view, it didn't take long for Shadow Brigade's XO to realize the unknown forces hitting Bitter Creek from the back side bordering the flood swollen stream were allied units. With this information in hand, she did a quick pull back. Not only did this cause enemy front line frames to rush forward, further separating front line units from reserves and support, it also opened up holes in the attacking 979th lines.

Shadow Brigade's XO took full advantage of this. While those who had enacted a shattered line defense backed off and reformed, what was left of her reserve units launched forward into those gaps, creating utter havoc for 979th leaders. Then, once the XO had her own forces fully reorganized, she stopped firm. She wasted no time as she turned around everything she had left and started to push forward.

Within two hours, what had started out as a pretty even fight turned into a total route as the bulk of the 979th found themselves cut off from supplies and surrounded. It didn't help to find those they were fighting had good supply lines, meaning while 979th frames started to run out of ammo, those they were fighting started rotating frames out for ammo, food, and armor repairs.

Fighting started to taper off about dusk as many 979th frames started to run out of everything from ammo, to armor patching, to onboard drinking water. With nothing but energy weapons left, they quickly realized the recycle rate of what they had left to fight with, was no match for the much faster recycle rate of ballistic weapons and missiles. Making matters worse, indirect fire from weapons like RAM grenades could be sent over buildings while they could not fire back.

Attempts to break out and push around to strike at frames sending the indirect fire at them met with heavy automatic fire which they could not hope to counter with energy weapons alone. While this near hopeless situation caused scores of frame pilots to surrender, others became more desperate.

Several 979th frames sought safety by breaking into buildings to use them for cover, but since they had been cut off in the town's business district, they could hide, but the big buildings were easy for the combination of Black Jungle Military Academy cadets and Blood's Honor forces to surround. The anger of some of the Black Jungle cadets showed as they started dropping buildings on their beleaguered enemies.

As word of this spread even more frame pilots surrendered.

Allen watched from the command center as a fourth building crashed down on those firing from within. Finally he ordered the computer to switch over to talk to all Black Jungle cadet forces. "All Black Jungle cadets, keep in mind we cannot say with any certainly those buildings you are tearing apart do not have civilians in them."

When this didn't prevent yet another building from crumbling, Colonel Price forced some anger into his voice. "Also, for the record, the next group to drop a building, gets to explain to the owner what happened and why. Those same kids will then repair said building before collecting pay or salvage."

Allen gave a humor filled snort as firing all up and down the cadet lines drastically tapered off. "I thought so."

He glanced over at his Strategic Overview Officer, "Command is yours; I'm taking out my Command Team to survey the area and help secure any stubborn spots. Also, with me out there, the Black Jungle kids will probably keep their guard up and not overreact, so let them know I am heading into Bitter Creek. Keep your eyes open for any counter attacks, but I suspect what they have left will disappear back into the forests and try to regroup once they realize we put a sizable amount of framed up younger cadets between their front lines and their supplies. As soon as we can, rotate out those with the least rest and get everyone fed."

Not waiting to see if his orders were going to be followed, he tapped in his command frequency onto his wrist band as he stood, "All Command Team members assemble in bay Alpha for scouting and force assessment recon."

As night blanketed the area, there were only a few pockets of heavy resistance inside the town and the twin resupply efforts had been utterly shattered by younger Black Jungle cadets who were only too happy to strike back after losing their academy, homes and in many cases members of their families as well. Even though the fighting had greatly died down occasional laser flashes and tracer fire streaked across buildings and the glow of several fires caused an eerie glow over the town and surrounding forest.

It was almost midnight when Allen ordered the first break and led his Command Team over to a food and ammo platform nestled between two badly damaged buildings. Colonel Price ordered his visor to clear as he glanced over at Brice Mathis with a bit of a grin. "Nice shooting. You took down an Aggressor and a Striker without killing either pilot. Two solid combat kills on your first patrol, not bad at all. So how does the frame feel now?"

The young teen let out a long breath as a tech opened his ammo bay and refilled the machine gun ammunition, "Big… almost too big, sir, but I sure like it. I kind of wish I could have had more time to customize it, though. It has way more energy weapons than I am used to and with only two hundred rounds of machine gun ammo, I was almost out after the first firefight. I know I could have taken out the Riot without help if I hadn't held up my last twenty machine gun rounds."

The supply officer reached over and patted Brice's frame on the back. "I'll give you the kill on the Riot. All I did was pump in a couple of micro missiles to force her to surrender. Once we rotate back to the ship for rest and rearm, I'll get you a couple of techs to help you do a full change out."

Colonel Price was quick to concur, "It's your frame Brice, but it still has to keep a sonic stun weapon. All Blood's Honor Frames have to per policy." He then glanced over to one of the techs working on patching minor armor damage on his frame, "Put a junior tech on this and give my new tactical advisor an ammo bin re-size and triple his load since he tends to favor it more than we expected."

The tech gave a nod and jumped back into the back of the tracked platform to grab the necessary gear.

Brice let out a bit of a relieved sigh at hearing he would at least not run out of bullets as quickly, but still felt the need to complain a bit more. "I'm fine with the stun rifle, but who puts three medium lasers and a quark rifle on the same frame, then wastes a hard point to add power so I can shoot it all? I only have one machine gun!"

The Search and Rescue Officer shrugged making her massive frame duplicate the maneuver, "You can blame me. I accessed your academy grades and noticed your top shooting grades are Laser and Advanced Beam Weaponry, so I ordered it energy heavy. You do pretty good with them, too. But if you want more ammo and less energy weapons, we can make it happen. To be honest, as soon as I saw how quickly you gravitated toward the machine gun, I knew I had made a mistake on your load-out. Why where your grades so low on ballistic anyway?"

"Because ammo costs money and the academy limited time on the ranges with everything but energy weapons. Believe it or not I prefer ballistic and I wish I could shoot more missiles, cause I love the longer range on them."

"Ammo is not an issue in Shadow Brigade," the Operations Officer commented. "So feel free to do a total change over. We'll get you extra range time so you get used to it, but you will still have to go to senior school classes like all our underage brigade members." The man then glanced over to the senior tech, "See what you can do for him while we eat."

While the tech pointed to a couple of junior techs to help him, Brice let out a long breath. "I know." Brice stopped and gulped as the tech pulled out a maintenance frame and lifted the frame Brice was in so he could quickly change more than just the ammunition configuration. For his part, Brice didn't even know a weapon change out could be done while someone was still in frame. The fact it was being done while out on a combat patrol, only increased his respect for what he already regarded as the most elite fighting force in the galaxy.

The more he saw with Blood's Honor and Shadow Brigade, the more impressed he became with just how good they were. Still, he forced himself to stick with the conversation. "Going to school and being in a unit is not much different than my younger brother being on the combat ball team, training to go to the competition on Andar, and keeping his grades up. If he could do it, so can I."

Colonel Price's lips twisted into a bit of a smirk, "I sure hope to meet your parents. They sure turned out some top notch kids."

Brice let out a long breath, "I just hope the 979th didn't kill them."

The Search and Rescue Officer eyed the boy with a great deal of sympathy. "If your folks are alive we will find them, Brice."

"If they are dead, I want those who killed them!"

"If it comes to that, all of Blood's Honor will help you track them down across the stars and if a planetary government happens to be covering for them, we'll take the whole world to make sure it happens." Allen growled, "But for now we need to stay focused on the task of securing this town and your home world."

The fists on the Warrior Frame Brice was in clenched telling the others in the Command Team, the boy was angry and frustrated. They collectively decided to stay silent and let Brice vent. "Me and my brother want the same thing, our home world free first then we will worry about the rest of our family. Dad wouldn't want it any other way… neither would Mom."

"Your parents military?" The SAR officer, Captain McNally, asked with a great deal of curiosity.

Brice shook his head, "Dad's a rancher and Mom's a Riot Frame certified cop, but she's just reserve now… Hopefully… When they took her and dad, she snapped one of the guy's necks and got beat down pretty hard for it. I could tell by the way she looked at us, she did it so we could run. She even mouthed the word 'go' when she looked at the outer barn we were in. It took everything we had not to try to jump in, but Ollie pulled me back and said she was getting her ass kicked for us so we best not screw it up."

"We'll do everything we can to find them both, Brice." Allen responded firmly, purposefully cutting off any comments about the language use of the youngster. "In the mean time we need you to stay focused on the task at hand. We still have a large section of this town to sweep."

"I know, and I won't let you down, sir." Brice stopped as the tech asked him to pop his back exit panel.

The tech spoke as he reached in under Brice's crotch. "I am resetting the computer for the new ammo load and weapon systems. As soon as your weapon display goes red, drop power to your targeting computer."

Brice did as commanded, "Powering down the targeting computer now."

The tech nodded and he adjusted a couple of manual switches on the main circuit board. "Good, now power it back up and pull up your gyro so we can adjust for the new load out." A few more seconds passed before the tech pulled his head back out from the frame. "Close her up; you're set."

Brice rolled his shoulders as the back hatch sealed him back into the frame and he was finally put back down. He managed a smile as he noticed the frame ammo counter displayed six hundred and eighty rounds for the machine gun. In addition, one of the medium lasers and extra power units had been replaced by a micro missile four pack with one hundred and twenty missiles while the speed of his frame had only dropped one unit. He realized the tech had carefully calculated added weight so the ammo load would not mess up his speed any more than possible. He nodded his thanks to the tech, while being totally astonished at how quickly the change out had been done.

Brice then turned his attention back to Colonel Price. "I just don't want to screw up. Making matters worse, I'm still trying to figure out the best way to use all this extra tech you all packed into this frame!"

Colonel Price's Supply Officer glanced over and gave the tech a nod of appreciation as well for all his quick, hard work before turning his attention back to Brice. "Don't try to use it all at once, young man. Cycle through and find various combinations you like. We custom made those for new Command Academy command squads, so we over packed them a bit. I then scrounged up some other gadgets so you have some extras to play with. I wanted to give our newest Command Team member everything you could need out in the field."

"It is awesome, thanks!" the young Mathis stated with exuberance. He paused as he noticed something on a secondary system, "Um, Colonel, I have a trio of heat signatures up on the second floor of the warehouse just south of us and overhead shows eight more on the roof. There may be more, but overhead IR can't penetrate past the outer couple of walls."

"Probably civilians…" The Operations Officer started only to see the young Private shake his head.

Allen looked over and down at the boy, "You don't think so?"

"No sir," Brice gulped nervously, but realized the others in the Command Team were deferring to Colonel Price and the Colonel was waiting on him. "Um, well, yeah, they may be civilians, but the heat signatures inside are bunched up with their backs toward each other. Judging by the way they look, they are sitting and may even be tied, but I don't see any hostiles and we are in a swept area. Also one of those on the roof has a long tube, probably a firearm."

"Swept but not secured, son." Allen reminded the boy. "Just because we have not had any hostile fire, does not mean there are not a few frames or infantry that slipped past our initial clearing of the area." Even as he spoke he pulled up his own view of the building and ordered one of the overhead drones to make a low pass over the building in question.

A few seconds later a trio of laser shots lanced skyward, one striking the drone, crippling it. Even as the pilot back on the Command Ship banked the smoking craft away another trio of laser flashes slashed into the back of the small craft causing it to explode."

Brice cringed, "Oh… that had to be expensive…"

Colonel Price shrugged, "I'll pay for a 45,000 credit drone any day over the life of a pilot." He then glanced over to his Command Sergeant, "Whoever shot her down is one heck of a shot and has a military laser rifle with a burst fire mode. Make sure air ops keeps clear of this zone. I want unmanned assets only within a kilometer of here until we deal with this. Once we are sure our aircrews are safe from this threat, get with the XO and tell her we'll handle the problem, but have her get our sewer teams on this. We need to cordon off all underground escape routes."

Colonel Price waited until his orders were carried out before he turned back to Brice, "So, Private Mathis, since I hear you are very good at tactical situations and I added you in as a tactical advisor, I want you to come up with a preliminary plan to eliminate the threat while saving the hostages. Don't hurry, we still have to eat."

"Me?" the youngster gasped.

Allen nodded while keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the lad. "I would like to take those holding the hostages alive as well. However, when civilians are being used as shields or are being purposefully targeted, Blood's Honor's creed of not killing is put on hold. Get me a plan to save as many hostages as possible while dealing with those holding them. I want to see what you got in that head of yours. After all, I brought you in my squad to replace my Tactical Officer's assistant and we all need to see your tactical mind at work."

Inside the frame Colonel Price's radio beeped as a private radio message was sent from the Operations Officer. He quickly darkened his visor so Brice couldn't see before speaking, "Problem?"

"Sir…" The man stated with a great deal of trepidation in his voice. "We should be sending for our stealth team to eliminate the threat and retrieve as many hostages as we can… we aren't a rescue team…"

Allen snorted, "Our stealth teams are exhausted, we have almost no one with a full cycle of rest, and we are the only frame asset within blocks of here. We are as fresh as Shadow Brigade has right now and if we move in ground forces, we risk not only the lives of the hostages, but our people as well. Whoever shot our drone has good cover and will certainly pick off a few of our people as they move up."

"But he is only fourteen years old…"

Allen kept his voice neutral, "I want to see what this kid's got. If it is half of what his younger brother would come up with, it is at the very least worth listening to. Besides, those hostages aren't going anywhere and like I told him, we need to eat."

"OK, sir." A very skeptical voice came back, "Still, how good could someone who doesn't even need to shave be with tactical situations, anyway."

Allen gave a humor filled snort, "Better than you could imagine. Ever play Major Goddard in Tac-Squad?"

"Yeah…" The Operations Officer grumbled, "And got taken to school. Playing Major Goddard is even worse than squaring off against you. Why?"

"Well…" Allen snickered, "his younger brother, Derek, challenged me the first time he saw me playing it and promptly took out a third of my frame force in one brilliant maneuver the first time he played me. I almost had to take a draw but squeaked it out at the end. I then had him play Goddard and watched as the kid took out a full squad out from under the Major the first time he played the man. Derek is the only cadet Goddard will even play and he refuses to give the kid more than a twenty percent advantage."

The only response out of the Operations Officer was a gulp.

Derek crouched down on the top of the ridge as Jason and Karen teamed up to kill yet another machine scorpion as it tried to pull one of the destroyed scorpions back into the largest mine shaft. Behind him, he could see one of Chip's Daggers moving up flanked by several badly damaged, but functioning machines.

Derek studied the machines for a few seconds then turned to Joel. "Hey, can you signal them with lights to stay back, and find shelter. I may have an idea."

Joel nodded. He quickly turned and used a laser light to send the message to the rapidly approaching Dagger. Less than a minute later a trio of light flashes acknowledged the order.

Derek chewed his lip for a few minutes as he took in the whole scene and waited for the vehicles to find decent cover. After nearly five more minutes he glanced over to Joel. "OK, there are five shafts the machines have tried to get out of. If there were others, I am sure they would have used them by now, so we have to assume those are the only ones which go down to where they are being built."

Joel nodded, "No argument from me, but it still puts us back to square one. If we try to fight our way down, there is no reason the machines won't bring the whole thing down on us. The other problem is, the longer we stay like this, the better the chance of some of Talborne's scouts seeing or hearing the fighting. If they do, I am sure they will investigate. After all, they are missing one of their officers and a lander with some pretty valuable equipment."

Derek eyed the carnage of the shot up machines and the path leading up to the mine again. "Well, we know the machines can talk to one another, so what about a little deception?"

Joel eyed Derek, "Um, sure… but how do we disguise any kind of an attack?"

"We have those machines; let's use them."

Karen glanced over with total confusion, "If we are pretty sure those things will drop the caves on our frames, they sure as heck will on a machine!"

"Only if it thinks the machines are on our side."

Joel's brow scrunched up, "And how are you going to make it believe our machines are on its side?"

"Easy," Derek grinned, "It will shoot me."

"Huh?" Karen gasped.

Joel's head dropped as he shook it in sudden understanding. "If some of us start an attack run on the main cave, then the machines come up and engage.... Makes it look like it is on the sand scorps' side…"

Karen shook her head, "Not going to work, Joel, these things are pretty smart. It will realize one machine will never get through, especially after all the scorps we have killed."

"Maybe not one," Derek countered, "but it sure looks like this kid you rescued was able to get a few more up, most of us could hide inside the wheeled ones. They also look properly beat up, so there is nothing to make the scorps, or whatever are controlling them, think it isn't exactly as it appears. The machines shoot us in the back then run for the cover of the main cave while we shoot back. So far the machines have only seen four of us. With Chip's help, all the others could ride down inside the machines then jump out and take the base. We would need to set our lead machine with remote wires and not cut them just in case the machines see through the deception."

Karen whistled, "So we will have to make the fight look real and not accidentally cut control wires all the while keeping these same wires hidden?"

"Yup," Derek snickered, "you got it! Nothing a couple of smoke RAM grenades and a fire can't hide…" Seeing a pair of bewildered looks he went on to explain. "Smoke to cover visual sensors and fire to hide any IR signals the wires could give off. We know the lubricant the wheeled machines use burns, so if we put some on the outside of the one we are remoting then light it with a laser strike as it comes up the hill. The flames will screw up any IR sensors the scorps might have built in."

Joel shook his head, "Evil, totally evil! Man, you and Cory should get along great!"

"So I've heard." Derek shrugged. "Hopefully I'll get to find out. The real question is how can I use this kind of idea in Tac-Squad against Major Goddard."

Karen rolled her eyes. "And to think, you were wondering how you fit in with the rest of us only a few days ago..."

Derek smiled, "I'll guess I could make an OK tactical officer of our cohort force once we get it."

"More than OK." Karen grunted in some amusement. "I'll go down and talk to Chip's team and see how many came. I assume the other Dagger and some of his squad stayed behind at their camp."

"Same as we did." Joel nodded, "We can't throw all our resources into this." He then paused and held up his hand. "But send Terrin. You need to stay on station since you are one of the four frames the scorps have seen. The four of us need to keep their full attention. After what happened with Chip, we know they are smart enough to see simple deceptions, so we have to keep whatever is controlling these things thinking there are only four of us."

Derek glanced over to Karen. "Just make sure Terrin explains to this mechanic kid just how important the remote link is. With the magnetic and electrical interference in this area, we can't switch over to radio control, and even if we could, it would certainly be detected by the machines."

From the moment Candice found the radio security unit had an active code in it, she had pushed hard to get out of the naturally generated interference. The fact the code had been input and activated was great, but could only be considered a partial victory. The code would only stay active until Talborne's forces realized it had been compromised or it changed as part of a normal rotation.

Since Candice had no way of knowing when it would automatically change, and guessed, sooner rather than later, a commander somewhere would write off the lander as lost and would order a code change on the off chance it fell into enemy hands, she pushed the tracked armor platform as fast as she could.

She glanced over at the radio receiver for about the twentieth time as she piloted the captured Slasher down the rocky hill. Once again, the needle showed too much interference to send or receive a good signal. She shook her head, doing her best to will the interference to clear. Suddenly the needle on the radio jumped slightly.

Candice felt her heart race and forced herself to concentrate on maneuvering the platform past the last set of rocks so she wouldn't damage the tracks. Ten minutes later she pushed past the last of the big outcroppings of basalt and broke into a heavy scrub brush plain dotted with twisted trees somewhat resembling scrub oak, but with large thorns. While the trees were a hazard, they were much easier to avoid and way less dangerous to the vehicle than the sharp rocky outcroppings. Even better, the heavy bushes were extremely tall, giving her and her captured armored platform decent cover while holding the ground down so her tracks no longer kicked up dust.

Less than five kilometers into the scrub brush the needle on the receiver once again jumped and a static filled male voice came over the radio, proving the codes had not been changed and Candice had at least partial access to the chatter of Talborne's forces. It took another kilometer for the signal to clear up enough to understand the words being spoken.

"…. this is Golf Nine, you read? Over."

The reply was a bit clearer, and sounded like an older woman's voice but Candice still had to put on the headset to fully hear it. "This is Tango Three, got you, but your signal is weak. Over."

"Sorry Tango Three, but we are down in a meteor crater just south of the old Jade Lion Corporation drilling site. We were wondering if you might want to break off your patrol to enjoy a bit of sport. Over."

"Sport?" a male voice responded with increased interest, "What do you have for us today Golf Nine?"

"We happened to stumble on a full grown male Hexa-Lizard that got trapped in a ravine and tranqed it. We got it caged and waiting, and is it ever pissed off. Over."

The older female's voice came back over the radio, "And who are we pitting against it and what are they armed with? Over."

"We have a pair of rather mouthy brats, one of which managed to escape a few nights ago." An older man responded, "We'll give 'em each a decent knife and see what happens; it has got to be a better fight than the two you gave sharp sticks to go against the boar. Those two never stood a chance. Over."

"They deserved it and it sure cut down on problems with the others." The woman snickered with total maliciousness, "Still, it sounds fun and we haven't even seen a machine track let alone a machine so far today. Tell you what; I'll give three to one odds if I get the lizard."

"Three to one? How about four?"

The woman snickered with total approval in her voice. "Sure, I'm game! So, I am curious where would your escapee run to on this rock? Over."

"No clue…" the guy laughed, "He's one of the three Blood's Honor brats we managed to grab alive and his folks are in the Azure Glade's planetary government, so stringing him up just ain't in the cards. He's a resilient little cuss though. Somehow he got all the way clear of the drill sight before we noticed. It then took us almost a full day to track him down and nab him, so I'll take you on the four to one odds. Over."

"We'll be there in about an hour and a half. Wading through this thick brush isn't easy, and since I have a couple of frame rookies they keep tripping on the roots." The woman responded, "Just make sure to give them some rest and water. Otherwise it won't be much fun to watch, nor will it last very long. Plus, if we're going to push through this crap to watch, it better be worth our while. Over."

"We gave 'em extra food and water this morning and patched them both up. We are also keeping them out of the hard work details and in the shade. They'll give the lizard a good fight, Sergeant." The voice sounded pretty certain of his prediction as he added, "Like I said, my money is going to be on them. Over."

"We'll see…" The woman snickered. "Personally, I'd love to see one of those BH shitheads get ripped up a little, no matter how valuable our Lord thinks they are. Besides, maybe a video of him with claw marks all over him will loosen the tongues of his folks and we can get some intel out of them. Tango Three Out."

Candice felt her blood run cold as she punched in the name Jade Lion Corporation into the onboard digital map. It took a few minutes, but it finally came up with half a dozen sites the company used to operate on Brile, but only one was a drilling station and it was only fifty kilometers away. It also overlooked a large impact crater. Knowing she had the location, and realizing the older woman was probably walking through the same stuff Candice was piloting the Slasher through, caused her to cut off as many electronics as she could, including the radio so they couldn't get any kind of electronic signal off of her. She also slowed, not wanting to get there only to have the frames pin her in. She needed to see exactly what she was dealing with.

Even as she changed direction and plotted a course for the drilling station, she knew she was going to kill some of those who had been talking and she had no intention of holding back. She had left Blood's Honor, so their rules were no longer hers. Besides, after what she had just heard, anything less than taking them out would not be right.

Colonel Price finished off the last of his Black Jungle condor egg, tri-horn bull meat and cheese wrap before finally turning his attention back to Brice. He noted the kid was eating slowly while downloading a huge amount of data to his frame's computer. "So have you come up with anything yet?"

Brice glanced over and made the nervous giggle only a kid who is about to do something devious, dangerous, and normally forbidden can give. "It depends, sir, do we have jump packs available?"

Every other member of the Command Team turned as if their heads were connected to the same pivot point. The SAR Officer was the first to find her voice, "And why, exactly, do you need to know if we have jump packs… which we do… but…"

Brice flashed a grin and his eyes sparkled, "Cause, the building codes show the factory they are in is rated to take heavy machine loads on all floors, as is the taller building across the street. We can send in another drone, draw their attention to the north and jump over and take the roof. At the same time a few of us can fire at the outer walls of the south wall, away from the hostages to open up the holes large enough to jump into. With the roof under assault and a few frames coming through the walls, they will have to take the fight to us. All we have to do is get to the hostages and use our frames as shields incase some of the 979th pricks decide to kill them."

"Are you crazy?" the Operations Officer demanded to know. "The building already has damage and us putting more holes in it will weaken it further. We could bring the whole thing down with us in the middle if we jump over to it!"

"Not according to the design notes, sir." Brice countered, "All major load bearing supports are internal with several alternate supporting walls. It was built to manufacture forestry equipment and vehicles, most weighing way more than our frames. It also has seismically enhanced construction since it has a street level garage to ship out and take in some of the really big forestry rigs, which are big enough to shake lesser buildings. I see no reason why this can't work."

"You're not an engineer…" the SAR Officer countered.

"No, ma'am, but I can read blueprints since I was specializing in urban warfare." Seeing several blank looks he quickly went on to explain. "Because most of Black Jungle is not buildings, almost everyone takes a Wilderness Combat course set. I went on a heavy urban combat set so I have several classes on reading and understanding blueprints."

Allen watched with a great deal of humor as several of his senior officers each looked around trying to find another argument. When nothing came up he nodded in approval. "Brice, send over your idea to our construction department. See if they concur with your thoughts. If they do, we'll give it a shot." He paused as he eyed the lad, "How good are you with a jump pack?"

Brice broke into a huge grin, "It's a huge part of the urban warfare school here. I have full certifications and advanced certs for jumping in, around, into and out of buildings…" He let out a long breath, "It was one of the reasons I took Urban Combat. It sounded like a lot of fun!" He forced himself to calm some but still his smile was so big it was infectious. "Most of my friends laughed at me for being one of the thirty cadets in my grade to sign up for Urban Warfare, but I figured it would be fun to spend a few hours a week with a real jump pack, and I knew I would also get a few other bonuses.

"Normally electronic enhancements have to be earned or bought with rank points, but my frame was upgraded to have IR and UV so I could fight in a blacked out town. I figured the extra classes on building combat and blueprint reading made getting the extra enhancements and the jump pack time worth it. I know it got me a few extra ribbons and a rank increase of two grades when I got my jump cert for jumping out of a hovering ship.

"On the other hand, I had to give up some survival classes, but we lived on a deep forest ranch, so I'm still better at survival than some of my classmates. My real problem will be on other worlds though… I only got to take basic stuff on survival on other worlds while the rest of the guys get a full set of classes on it. They also get to leave system, so I'm the only one out of thirty in my whole grade who has never left Black Jungle."

"You're with Shadow Brigade now, so you will see other worlds." The SAR Officer smiled. "Unless your folks say you can't stay with us…"

"Not going to happen." Brice stated with total certainty in his voice. "Mom and Dad both wanted all of us to go to BHJMA, but there was no way they could afford it and all three of us missed getting scholarships. I don't know why either. We were each toward the top of our grade school classes."

"It probably had more to do with what else you all did besides school…"

"Nothing." Brice sighed, "We had ranch chores. Doing other things wasn't in the cards, as Dad used to say. It doesn't seem real fair though, since I know how to ride several animals, hunt, fish, and even herd. Those things should count for something too!"

Colonel Price's eyebrows arched up, "Huh, I don't think we have ever done a background check to see why there was no extracurricular activities… Maybe we should add something for kids to fill out on home life learned skills or something."

Brice nodded, "Yeah, I bet all three of us would have made it if you had looked, especially Derek, since he tried to apply to you all every year since he was seven. All he ever wanted, since he first saw one of your recruiters at his school, was to be Blood's Honor, but Mom always said he may be a bit too rough and crude for you all."

Colonel Price snickered and his eyes gleamed with cunning, "Well, he is now BH, and baring your parents demanding he come home, he will stay BH. Right about now I bet my son is finding his rough and crude side to be a useful asset on the mission we devised for them."

Joel watched as one of Chip's Daggers appeared escorting five machines, two hover and three wheeled. He quickly motioned to Karen and to hold the Sand Scorp machines off while he moved to intercept before they came into view of the mine complex.

Joel whistled as Chip, Cory, Beth and Tracy each pulled up in different, badly marred, but running, machines. Behind them, Saul hopped out of yet another while Liam quickly moved up and inspected wires leading up to the machine Chip had come out of.

Before Joel could say anything about the fact the kid had managed to get five machines up and running, Liam looked at Chip, "Lieutenant, how'd it feel?"

Chip let out a long breath, "It felt OK, but there is some really bad grinding coming off one of the right side tires, I think it's the second one back."

Liam chewed on his lip as he walked up and inspected the machine. "Yeah, I'd have to pull the strut and replace it for a real repair, and I can't even be certain it would fix the problem. The way it was acting from my remote link, I think the axle is slightly bent too… But, as long as we don't have to drive it much further, it should hold out just fine, as long as it doesn't take any hits there."

Derek looked over from where he was guarding one of Joel's Daggers and smiled as he saw the tall kid continuing to inspect the captured machine. "Holy shit, is that really you, Liam?"

Liam's head jerked at the sound of the voice and for the first time since Joel had met the kid, Liam looked genuinely relieved and happy. "Dude! So you are one of those who helped kick the shit out of Talborne and evacuate cadets!"

Derek ran his hand down the closest machine and noticed several quick patches and weld marks. He then moved over to Liam while giving him a nod of admiration. "So you're as good at fixing platforms as you are at patching up frames, huh?"

Liam snickered and grinned as he saw the look in Derek's eyes, "Damn straight, Sergeant Mathis… So my jerry rig of your elbow held?"

"Yeah." Derek nodded with a long breath expressing a great deal of admiration for the taller kid's abilities, "All the way through the fight with Talborne even. For a field repair, your work was top notch. Even the BH tech I talked with and who looked over my Cadet frame as we pulled off Andar said he was amazed a cadet had done it… Man, am I glad you're alive…"

"Miracle I am," Liam admitted, "and even bigger one to escape and hook up with your friends." He let out a long uneasy sigh. "Many of the others I came with weren't so lucky."

Seeing the others looking at them both, Derek quickly moved up and patted Liam on the back even though he had to reach up to do so. He then glanced back over to Joel, "We were teamed up on the semi-finals of the frame teamwork obstacle course competition, and I blew out my elbow hydraulics of my frame on the climbing tower. The only way I was able to get down was to jump. Between stage one and two, Liam used the thirty minute break to fix it with what was on hand. We finished in the top five teams thanks to his repair."

"And Derek's muscle." Liam quickly gave some credit right back. "He all but dragged me the last four hundred meters. If he hadn't, we would have ended up in seventh and missed the cut."

"Which I wouldn't have been able to do without my elbow unit." Derek fired back.

Joel looked at the two kids and was instantly glad he was still framed up because he was certain his look would betray what he saw as a truly odd pairing for a friendship. The two kids could not be more opposite. Derek was built like a beast, and had more muscles than any kid his age should be legally allowed to have. He was also very intelligent in a crafty sort of way.

Liam, on the other hand, was really tall, lanky, and his arms were skinnier than most nine year olds. It actually made Joel wonder how the kid had managed to make it into a frame school. He had to be at the lower end of strength requirements. Also, while Liam was unmistakably extremely gifted when it came to mechanics, he was not the brightest, and had nowhere near the inner drive of Derek. Yet, here they were, clearly renewing a close budding friendship.

On the plus side, the friendship would give both kids a reason to want to be part of the overall team, and more than anything, the team was the most important thing to Joel. Because of this he moved up next to the two, cleared his visor and smiled. "So… I gather you two don't mind being on the same team then?"

"Hell no!" Derek snorted. "I was pretty pissed when I found out the finals were randomly drawn, since I was hoping to keep Liam as my partner."

"I'd have just slowed you up, dude, and you know it."

Derek shook his head, "I don't think so. The final was more about making it from point A to point B and I know you were a hell of a map reader. Between the two of us, we could have figured out some kind of shortcut. The semi-finals was the endurance part, and we got each other through it."

Chip nodded in agreement, "I heard the same thing from kids who went the last couple of years. I was also in the ten who made it through the semi-finals, only because I realized if I got to the finish line the next part would be more thinking and less getting my butt kicked. I staggered across the finish line and puked."

Tracy looked over at Chip, "Why would you go out for the obstacle course competition when you admit your piloting is your weakest point?"

Joel took a deep breath, "Because we each had to take one competition picked by the cadre. "Mine was swampland frame combat, Chip's was team obstacle."

Karen shivered, "And mine was night operations. They always pick one of our weakest areas."

"Yeah," Chip grumbled, "So I got to look like a complete fool. I managed to pop my back panel, turn and puke, but then my side cramped up and I ended up having to get medical to pull me out of my frame and shove an IV in my arm. They stripped me down, because my clothing was drenched with sweat, and it was near freezing… They even cut my underclothing off before they wrapped me in blankets."

The left side of Liam's lips twisted upward in a smirk. "I remember that! You were right in front of us! Do you realize how stupidly crazy it is to stumble across two kids we know and competed against after all the crap we have been through? This was meant to happen… Mom always said there was a God, but until now I didn't believe it. After this, I think I may just have to give church a chance."

Derek snickered, "If we live through this and get off this rock, I'll join you."

Joel rolled his eyes and moved over to the wire linked machines. "So, you all understand the plan?"

Liam nodded, "Yeah, all I have to do is coat the area around this already damaged strut with the lubricant and put in a small reservoir just behind the armor plate so it stays burning long enough to make it into the mine. The only problem is, I won't be able to be framed up since I need to control the remote and it is pretty crude."

Liam then patted the front of the remote controlled machine. "The armor toward the front is in good shape, not so much in the back, so concentrate fire forward of the second wheel. The other machines all have pretty much fully patched armor, but the second hover needs a new fan blade in the front, so I recommend not putting any holes in the front skirting. If it loses any lift, we could totally loose the front fan."

Derek looked over the machines, "But the pilots in them can't be framed up, so we should kill one of them, and if we can do it without major damage to the machine or risk to the pilot then this would be the right one to do it to."

While the others looked over with befuddled stares, Joel quickly nodded in complete understanding. "For this deception to really play out and look good, we need to make this look good. By stopping one of the machines, it will show we are not holding back."

"You're giving these things a lot of credit." Stella started to argue only to get cut off by Tracy.

"You didn't see them turn the tables on a very good trap Chip setup." Tracy snarled and involuntarily shuttered at the same time. "We almost got sucker punched by not giving them enough credit. Don't underestimate them."

Joel shook his head with some resolve. "Not going to happen." He glanced over at the two non-remoted wheeled machines, "So how many frames can each of these take?"

"No more than three, Major." Liam stated, "If I had time and more parts we could get them to take four, but quite a few repairs are jury rigged at the moment."

Joel looked over those assembled, "Chip, I know you are going to be pissed at me, but you are the commander of the other team and they need you. I want you to take the hover we are going to stop."

Chip punched his right hand into his left not liking the fact he would not be on the initial assault on whatever was down the main mine shaft, but also saw the logic to Joel's orders. He begrudgingly nodded and moved over to the hover.

Joel was glad he didn't get the argument he was expecting. He was certain the counter would be Candice was still back at the other base and was the real leader, but Joel quickly moved on, just thankful Chip had accepted his assigned spot so easily.

Not getting any argument from the other team commander made the rest a great deal easier, since the others saw the two leaders agreeing. Joel quickly turned to Stella, "The other hover is all you, and you should be shooting us as best as you can. The old sonic cannon will do some light damage to our frames, but way less than lasers will, and it will be easier to quickly patch. Also, you have more maneuverability, so you need to stay between the scorps and the wires linking the remote. We can't let an accidental shot sever the link."

"Got it." She stated with a quick nod and turned toward the second hover.

Joel looked over to Liam, "You have the remote, but I want your frame on standby so you can join the assault. Paula will be your driver and Terrin your third. If the link gets severed take over the controls of the machine so Terrin can frame up."

Liam raised an eyebrow at the sudden trust the kid was showing him. "No problem, sir."

Joel glanced over to Saul, "Can you pilot the third wheeled machine?"

"Sure." Saul shrugged, "But I guess I am a bit confused. If the machines can talk to each other and have controlling Ultras which also talk to each other, won't they see this for what it is within seconds?"

Derek let out a long breath, "Come on dude, you really think I am stupid or something?"

Saul's eyes went wide, "No, but..."

Joel could tell the question was moving on touchy ground for Derek so he held up his hand to stop any outbursts. "Derek has it covered, Saul. We have ECM and will go active. We know it stops communications between the machines and the Ultras so they won't be able to talk and should know they can't. We also have an active good machine IFF code. We copied it and will insert it into the IFF transponders on the machines we are going to use. The Ultra should read them as friendly units and since it can't talk to them or the other Ultras controlling them, Derek's plan should work great. It sure is better than anything the rest of us could come up with.

Saul nodded in understanding, "Pretty impressive, Derek. You need to be a tactical officer for a frame force."

"Such is the plan." Derek responded forcefully, showing he was still annoyed the boy had thought such a basic element of the plan had been left unattended.

Saul took a step back and forced an uneasy smile as he turned back to Joel, "I'll be happy to take one of the vehicles. Who's with me?"

"Tracy and Cory." Joel responded without any hesitation while looking over at the pair. "You two are in the lead, and Cory… If there is anything you are suited to, it is this. We want to capture as much as we can intact, but all threats need to be eliminated. We can't have any hidden guns opening up on us, or some small robot with a micro laser popping out of some hole and beaming one of us once we get out of our frames."

Cory shrugged showing no real emotion. "Not much different than what I did to the EC Command Center back on New Bravaria. I'll eliminate all threats, no matter how small."

"Don't I know it." Joel sorted with an uneasiness to his tone.

This caused a quizzical look from Tracy, but Cory was already making his way over to the last captured machine. She glanced back to Joel, but the boy had already turned and moved back up the hill to set up the fake attack run on the mine complex. She glanced over to Terrin, "What is Joel talking about?"

Terrin turned from the open hatch of his frame and shook his head, "Trace, there are some things we simply don't talk about. If you want to know more, take a look at the necklace Cory wears and really think it over. If you still want to know more you'll have to ask him about it. Once he gets comfortable enough with you, he may even tell you. As it is, only Joel, Chip, Gabriel, Joel's dad, and Cory know the whole story. Me, I could find out, but what I do know is probably more than what I wanted to ever know."

Seeing the look he was getting, Terrin shook his head, "Let's just say there are certain things I just know would keep me from getting a good night's sleep and that whole thing is one of those."

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