Castle Roland


by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 14

Published: 2 Jul 15


Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons

Reacting on the Fly

Joel took a deep breath as he fired at the hover machine piloted by Chip. He spaced out his hits along the entire side of the machine so he would not create an armor breach. At the same time, he knew it had to look good if the presumed Ultra inside the mine was ever going to believe the arriving force of machines was friendly. To this end, he slowed and let the old sonic cannon hit him.

Joel then rolled out of the way while firing again. This time, however, he only hit with a couple of his lighter weapons, purposefully missing with the heavy laser and the micro missiles. He stayed down for a moment and shook his head. The screech of the sonic weapon left his ears ringing slightly even with him being in his frame. He spoke into the frame's computer, "Adjust dampening to match the sonic frequency that just hit me!"

The frame's computer took a few moments to analyze the sonic attack. A second later a slightly annoying humming noise filled the head unit while a data display showed the frame's computer had put up what was in effect a noise cancelling field. "Man I hate sonic weapons!" Joel grumbled as he rolled out from behind the destroyed machine only to get another sonic cannon shot into his frame's chest. While the armor damage was by no means heavy, the shot still caused Joel to falter slightly and take a half step back, while letting out a grunt of pain. At least this was not followed up by extra ringing in his ears, which meant the dampening field had done its job.

Joel gritted his teeth as he realized putting Chip behind the controls of the hover machine may not have been the best idea after all. His friend was as good of a vehicle gunner as he was a frame gunner, which meant those facing him were going to take a beating. Even as he decided he needed to let Chip continue to fight, he took yet another sonic cannon shot. "Ouch! Come on Chip, you could at least miss me a time or two!"

Joel rolled, making himself a much harder target and snap fired his arm mounted medium laser, hitting the back skirting of the hover machine.

Just up from Joel, Karen pumped four lasers into the hover machine piloted by Stella. All four hit armor spots leaving gouges but doing no major damage. Fortunately for Karen, Stella didn't prove to be quite as good of a shot.

Derek, used the fight between Stella and Karen to fire an airburst inferno round over the top of the remote controlled machine. As expected this did some top damage to the armor, but also set the lubricant reservoir of fire. Unfortunately, it also caused five of the eight tires to ignite. His eyes went wide as the vehicle continued to move forward with blazing tires. "Oh, shit! I didn't know they burned that easily!"

Jason raised an eyebrow as the Trojan Horse all but became engulfed in flame. He dropped to a knee and fired a round from his frame's air burst cannon high, hoping the concussion wave would extinguish some of the flames without severing the remote connection. The powerful shockwave from the overhead detonation hammered down on both the remotely wired vehicle and the one behind it. The blast ended up doing some top armor damage to both, extinguishing the flames on four of the tires and breaking off the one Liam had warned about having a broken strut, while not fully putting the fire out on the flaming wheel. While the tire bounced and smacked into a totally unprepared Karen, knocking her flat on her face, the remotely controlled machine veered back and forth crazily.

Up till this point there had been no new activity out of the mines, but suddenly a half dozen metallic sand-scorps rushed out of two of the shafts firing at Karen with everything they had. Right behind them a strange looking flatbed with a small box on the back end supporting a crane came out of the middle shaft. Fortunately for Karen being knocked face first into the ground made her a hard target, so only five of the lasers hit. Still it did significant damage to her back armor.

"Oh, crap!" Jason shouted as he moved at a dead run toward Karen while firing another airburst round over the first group of sand-scorp machines. This time he didn't fire as high, however, so the three vile machines took a massive downward blast coupled with heavy shrapnel. Once again the soft armor of the head units proved to be their undoing as shrapnel ripped into them, killing all three units.

Derek scanned the battlefield, realizing his plan was coming apart by the seams. However, he also realized all was not lost, but he had to act fast. He bolted from behind the cover he was using. As he did so, his time on the combat ball team showed as he quickly pushed his frame up to max speed while zigzagging toward Karen. This all but forced the three remaining scorps to turn their attention to him, firing lasers as fast as they would cycle. Hitting the fast and totally unpredictably moving frame proved to be too much for the machines, however. Out of twelve laser shots fired, none hit.

Even as Derek slid up next to Karen and rolled her over, he made a slashing motion across the throat area of his frame in the direction of Joel. He desperately hoped the kid was smart enough to get the message.

Joel saw the slashing motion and the quick yet very hard look in Derek's eyes, so he went with his gut and killed his ECM unit. He was quickly rewarded with a laser tight tight-beamed communication. "Major, we don't have time to argue about this. Just trust me! We need to let them grab Karen with the crane."

Not understanding even a little, but deciding to let the kid he knew to be good on tactics take the lead, Joel fired a laser at Chip's machine hitting the front skirting. He then tight tight-beamed a message to Jason. "I'm putting Derek in command. He says we need to let them grab Karen, so do it!"

Surprisingly, Jason gave a very quick thumbs up gesture before turning, firing on the hover with Stella behind the control, and tight beaming his own message over to her. "Change of plans! Let them grab Karen and defend the crane taking her. Break off protection of the remoted machine!"

Derek looked down as Karen stared up at him, clearly a bit dazed. "Karen stay still and talk to me if you are OK!"

The girl winced, blinked a couple of time and swallowed, "What the heck hit me..."

"Look, we only have seconds here. I need you to pretend to be dead. Let the machine grab you and take you in. Do you understand?'

"Huh? What..."

Derek put a firm hand down on Karen's chest to prevent her from sitting up. "They have a machine coming to grab you. Act dead and let it. This is our best chance to get into the mines!"

Karen blinked again as her head cleared a bit more. "OK, but you owe me a dance and a hell of a kiss for this!"

Derek snickered, "I see no down side. Now just lay here. We will not let the machine do anything to you."

"You better not," Karen growled even as Derek took off at a dead run again. "I want that kiss."

Jason continued to fire at the newly arriving machines even as he spoke into his radio on a short range, but open frequency, "Major, we are badly outnumbered and we already lost one, we need to back off!"

Derek's voice came over the radio, "If they pull the frame into the mines, they win. We have to stop them. Take out the scorps, we'll deal with the reinforcements!"

As soon as Derek finished, he rolled to avoid more sand-scorp laser fire, then sent a message to the trailing wheeled vehicle. "Guys, I am going to kill the remote. As soon as I do, defend the crane. They really want the frame, and you can help them get it!"

Derek didn't wait for a reply. Instead he fired another inferno round from his RAM grenade launcher over the badly damaged remote controlled machine. Once again several of the remaining tires ignited. A moment later Liam severed the remote link, causing the machine to lose control and roll down the hill.

By this time Joel had a good idea what Derek's remarkably quick back back-up plan was, but he still didn't want Chip to be put in extra danger. To this end he stood, let Chip hit him yet again with the sonic cannon and lined up everything he had on the front skirt of the hover. Everything tracked perfectly. The skirting took massive damage from laser, missile and even rifle fire. As the front skirt collapsed inward, Liam's guess proved correct. The damaged front fan could not compensate and quickly burned out sending the hover machine plowing into the ground nose first.

Still, Chip managed to turn the turret and send another shot into Joel's slide as the youngster moved toward Karen. Gritting his teeth, Joel decided to make it look like the hit had done more than it really had. He hit the ground and rolled down the hill.

Well up the hill, Jason sent another air burst round over at the second group of sand-scorps, quickly killing two of the three and leaving the third badly damaged. The third scorp managed to fire its right claw laser at Jason and hit, but the left claw simply started sparking and the tail did nothing at all.

Derek held his breath as the remaining captured machines moved up to provide cover for the crane while Jason made it look good while putting a couple of laser hits into the armor of the one closest to him.

Joel decided to stay down, partially because he had a pair of areas of moderate armor damage and was feeling more than a little beat up after getting repeated sonic cannon shots pumped into his frame. He also hoped this would give Jason and Derek a reason to back off. He was not disappointed.

Derek sent a few more shots at the captured wheeled machines to keep things looking good while backing down the hill toward Joel. "Jason, we can't hold this with only two of us. Fall back and help me get him out of here."

"Then we lose Karen." Jason shouted back as he fired another couple of lasers into the other captured machine. Even as he did so, however, he backed off. "These things have to be talking to each other. Hit ECM so they can't!"

Joel obliged, bringing his ECM unit back online. Even as he did so, he watched the crane grappled Karen's frame around the waist and lifted her up to the back of the flat bed. The moment she was on the flatbed, he sent a laser up at the crane part shearing it off. This, in turn caused the turrets of the captured machines to fire down at him. None hit. It was pretty clear those shooting at him had missed on purpose. Joel frowned, hoping the poor marksmanship didn't give away the new ploy Derek had come up with.

Less than two minutes later, however, all the remaining machines disappeared down the main mine shaft. The last remaining badly damaged sand-scorp wiggled up to the mouth of the mine and did its best to stand guard. Even as it did so, it started exchanging pot-shots with the remaining frames.

As a more or less quiet descended over the area, Joel glanced over at Derek, "I don't know what scares me more. The fact the Ultra wanted one of us in a frame, or how fast you came up with a totally new idea."

Derek shrugged, "While they seem to be pretty smart, I really don't think they are very good at deception. The way it sent the crane out after Karen shows a bit of desperation and over eagerness on its part. It didn't even try to disguise what it wanted. I would have figured after managing to survive Blood's Honor all these years, the Ultras would have a better idea of not showing all its cards like we saw here."

Jason nodded in agreement. "The tactics it used would not have been good enough to beat most second year junior cadets. As a matter of fact, the whole thing was almost childlike in its thinking. Surely they must be smarter than this!"

"It's smart enough to build a machine based on a sand-scorp." Joel reminded the other two. "Outside of our frames, those things would be really dangerous."

Derek gave a half shrug of agreement, "So what now, Major?"

Joel shot the other two a smirk, lined up his heavy laser and killed the damaged scorp in the mouth of the main mine. "Now we work our way down to our Dagger, rearm, repair, and let Cory do his thing."

Colonel Price glanced over at Brice as the boy did a jump pack landing on the building. The fourteen-year-old put a little too much thrust into his last burn causing him to start gaining altitude again before he cut it off. Still the youngster did well. His knees bent to take the shock from the fall and only caused some cracking in the heavy building's roof. All in all, the Colonel nodded his approval even as six other frames made almost gentle landings on the rooftop.

Colonel Price motioned for Brice to move forward and spoke softly, "You just earned yourself a jump pack combat ribbon. Well done, but don't get cocky on me. This is your show son. Consider this your first field training class, for credit on Tactical Deployment and Combat Operations. You give the orders and we follow. All of us are certified BH instructors, so we will grade you on this as part of an after-actions report. The final grade will be given by Commander Lotus back on Forest Garden once we send in the audio and video for review along with our observation.

"Sounds more like a final..."

Colonel Price snickered, "It very well could be. I don't see the need to waste time and money on sending you to classes when you don't need them. There are plenty of other classes we could start you on. After all, you said yourself. You need work on survival on other worlds."

Brice chewed on his upper lip for a second before nodding. He took a moment to make sure the remainder of the Command Team were in position, then moved to the edge of the roof by crawling. It took a few seconds to adjust the fiber optic video link so he could look around without raising up too far, but the tech in his new frame was far superior to what he was used to. Because of this, the ease and the quality of the camera view was very close to having eyes on the other rooftop.

He switched back and forth between ultraviolet, infrared, and standard visual modes before backing off. Seeing the others were holding and waiting for his orders sent some butterflies into his stomach, but he forced a trio of calming breaths before speaking. "Colonel, I need a preliminary distraction so I can fire the breach makers without drawing extra attention. From here, I can see two frames, the first is a Striker, the second is partially behind an air exhaust unit, but I think it's a Raider. There could be more though, since there is an elevator all the way to the roof and the two aren't giving off heat. It is possible there are more where I can't get direct visual. At least they are totally cold, so they must be powered down or on passive standby. Do we have any forces a block or two to the east who could light up the area a bit?"

The operations officer raised an eyebrow, "A distraction could cause them to activate..."

"Agreed sir, but if they are on passive and if I am spotted firing the breach makers, then they could go after the civilians before we can get over there. If they are truly powered down, they will not be able to go fully active before you take the roof. On the other hand, if they are on full passive, then I'd prefer they activate and are looking in the direction of where we are going to bring the drone in from so we can hit their back armor and not have them shoot at us as we jump over. Besides, sir, if there are others up there, they may go active too, and then we'd be jumping over knowing exactly what we are dealing with."

Although Colonel Price and several of the others saw some potential flaws in the youngster's thinking, like jumping over immediately would let them get over to the other rooftop before the frames on the other side could fully activate. This was true even if on a total passive mode. However, the boy had totally valid reasons for his plan. Much like any tactical situation there were multiple ways to achieve the same objective and almost any plan had possible down sides.

Before anyone could try to counter Brice further, Colonel Price cut Brice out of the main command channel and spoke into his radio, "Guys, I just gave the kid command. If we end up in a bit of an extra firefight over this, then we can have him point out the flaws in his plan. If not, then we can bring up our thoughts later in an after actions briefing. He needs to see we have confidence in him and no matter what is over there, we outman, outgun and out-tech anything they could possibly have. Besides, if things start going bad, then we can see how he handles pressure. Commander Gem, should things really go into the crapper and Brice can't think his way out of it, I want you and your squad to blast through the roof and drop directly around the hostages. Major Dickson, should this happen, I want you to clear the upper floor and move down and secure the lower floor so we can safely extract those being held. But do not do this unless Brice totally losses the big picture or you hear me say 'Backup Plan Alpha'. Personally, I accept this will give us a few extra dings on our armor, but is still a pretty good plan on his part, so stick with it."

Colonel Price then brought Brice back into the conversation. "Brice, according to my force distribution reading, your brother can bring his command squad into the distraction area within just a few minutes from his current location. This is your baby, so I want you to handle all aspects. You can reach him by telling your computer to activate Lima One frequency."

Brice took a long uneasy breath, but did as instructed. Brice spoke to his frame, "Black Saber, activate Lima One frequency and put it over to alt one and make it my secondary."

A split second later Brice clearly heard Oliver's voice. "Omega Two, pull your whole team back for rest and repair and next time when I tell you to cover the alleys do it. You just cost BH thousands in repair costs because you got in a hurry.

"Delta Three, if they get anyone past you because you didn't shut down the sewer in zone seven I am going to kick your ass!"

There was a short delay, then Oliver's voice came over sounding beyond angry. "OK, Zeta One, fallback to my secondary idea. Delta Three is about as useless as a stapler without staples, but at least the stapler could be used as a paperweight, which is ten times more than what Delta Three and his group has done for me tonight. Zeta One, open the dam bypass and flood the tunnels leaving the dam, but do it slowly. With any luck, the 979th Infantry will take the hint and come up for air before they drown. If not, to hell with them.

"Delta Three, this is your last chance to show us you and your whole team deserves something more from the salvage than a couple of pistols without ammo. Drop into the large tunnels and prepare for underwater fighting. I am betting money their frames will stay in the main shafts even as their infantry flees. We armed you with blue-green lasers for underwater because you wanted point on crossing the river. The fact you botched the drop and fell on this side and had to get rescued means all the money BH put into arming your frames has been for nothing yet, so it's time to use them for something other than long nose pickers. Let me make this clear, Delta Three, older than me or not, if you screw me once more tonight, I will replace you with some of the junior cadets and put them directly in charge of you. After the way you hazed some of them, it's in your better interest to not let it happen. Command out."

Brice cringed at the words. He also guessed, correctly, the leader of Delta Three was none other than cadet Lieutenant Commander Chris Wheeler, one of the biggest and meanest bullies in all the senior cadets in Black Jungle Military Academy. He certainly hoped it was, because if the teen had screwed up as badly as it sounded, then he would be hard pressed to brag and beat on the younger, or even smaller cadets again for quite some time. Not hearing any more come from his brother he closed his eyes and spoke, feeling kind of bad for ordering his older brother to do anything, since on the ranch Oliver was in charge whenever his parents weren't around. "Ollie, it's Brice. I need a favor."

"Brice! Damn, good to hear you again. How you doing?"

"Being part of the Command Team has been a real head rush, bro, but we can talk later. The Colonel is giving me command of a quick strike op. Are you and your squad combat effective?"

"We're tired and a bit hungry, but I think everyone out here is. But we just got our armor patched and we are all over eighty percent on ammo loadouts. What do you need and where do you need us little bro?"

"Sending you a tac map now. I need a big distraction to the north of this building, the bigger, the better. I then need you to move and cover the back side while we assault it. Be ready to cover possible hostages. Whatever you do don't shoot up. We'll take the roof and upper floors."

Oliver looked at the map and clenched his fist with a degree of worry as he realized his younger brother was about to jump into a live combat situation. “Be ready to move in five. I'll give you something so you can play with all the urban combat you wanted to join in so badly."

"Hey, all you jungle mud pounders can tease me all you want now! It's paying off, and I was told I have a real live combat jump pack ribbon to add to my combat drop ribbon waiting for me once this is over with, both with black and red edges too!"

Oliver laughed, "I'll take being a mud pounder over being a speed bump any day, all day, bro. But I'm sure glad you are out here with us. Sounds to me like you have a combat command ribbon coming to you as well. Stand by for some fireworks, and if you need me, just give me a shout!"

Brice simply snickered as he low-crawled his frame back over to the edge of the building and waited. Three and a half minutes later a series of blasts, tracer fire, and laser slashes lit up the area to the north. As soon as it started, Brice pulled up the shoulder fired breach maker and fired down at the building across the street from where he was. As soon as the first spiked net impacted between a third and fourth windows, he pulled up the floor plans, verified where he wanted the next three holes and fired the last three rounds in the magazine. He cringed slightly as the last one hit a bit high.

He scooted back well away from the edge, rolled over and sat up. Even as he did so, he slapped in a fresh four-round magazine into the heavy breach maker. "The forth one may breach with part of the upper floor as part of the hole, but I think Master Sergeant Tenner's frame can make it. I don't think the rest of us can, so I want Master Sergeant Tenner to take my place and I'll go over to the roof."

Colonel Price gave a nod but still glanced over at his maintenance sergeant. "Sergeant Tenner, you good with hitting a small opening with your Corvette frame?"

The man grinned ear to ear, "Hey, the kid gets it, I'm the team shrimp. Being the small guy has its ups and downs, but this way I get to see some real action." He held up his frame's left hand and wiggled his fingers, "Besides, you don't know how well I have it. Some women like small hands and I can always find the smaller holes."

Even as Brice busted out in laughter, several of the others in the Command Team cringed and turned a few different shades of red. Even the two black members of the Command Team felt their cheek's flush some with a crimson color.

Colonel Price fought hard not to scold his team's maintenance guy. This was made a great deal easier since Brice clearly was not embarrassed. For better or worse, the boy seemed to fully understand the sexual innuendo behind the words and thought it was uproariously funny. Clearing his throat, he brought the momentary humorous moment to a halt. "OK, good to see you can handle the cruder side of the Command Team, Brice, but I am bringing the drone over from the far side of the building so get control of yourself. As soon as it draws fire we are a go."

Brice slung the heavy breach maker rifle over the shoulder of his frame, being careful not to block any of the thrusters and nodded. Before anyone could ask why the boy was bringing the bulky weapon with him, there was a series of flashes from the top of the building.

Brice jumped up and shouted, "Go," even as he activated the explosive nets of the breach maker rounds he had put into the side of the building. The four nets anchored to the side of the building across the street exploded in rapid succession. Each web contained dozens of shape charges designed to put an oval shaped hole in almost any structure other than the hardest steel. All four did their jobs well, although Brice was proven correct. The last one exploded opening a hole, but the top meter went into the floor above, so while the exterior of the building blew inward and broke off, the hole was considerably smaller than the other three.

Even as Sergeant Tenner activated his jump pack, he radioed over to Brice, "You're gunna owe me a soda 'er a beer for this one laddie!"

Brice snickered even as he activated his own jump pack. Seeing his guess about there being more than two frames on the roof was correct, he altered his jump path and angled for a Renegade class frame that had powered up and was looking down and to the north. Without the slightest hesitation, he plowed into the back of the unsuspecting frame and pushed down on the thrust of the jump pack again. The frame pilot never stood a chance, the force of the shove coupled with the thrust of the pack, was more than enough to send him over the edge.

Even as the frame tumbled four stories and belly flopped on the street below hard enough to crack the concrete and leave an impression in the road, Brice fought to regain control. He angled back up, then came in for another landing. Seeing a Guerrilla frame spinning to face him while he was still airborne, he came in hard and just before he was supposed to hit the thrusters to lose speed so he could safely land, he did an emergency detach of the jump pack.

The pilot of the Guerrilla frame spun and aimed at the rapidly departing jump pack as it launched off of Brice's shoulders, since the flames of the departing pack were all she could easily see. This proved to be disastrous. Brice tucked and rolled, slamming into the roof of the building hard, but the reinforced structure held the impact.

Even as his frame chirped out armor damage to several locations, Brice continued his roll into the frame who was looking up and standing flatfooted. He simply used momentum, slamming into her then jumping up with everything he had. His frame's arms caught the Guerrilla frame under the armpits. Gritting his teeth with exertion, he picked up the frame, ran to the back side of the building, and tossed it off before the pilot could do more than fire a single, small, chest-mounted laser into Brice's frame's chest.

Brice then had to slam his right foot into the roof so he didn't go over himself. Still he found himself in a battle with gravity and momentum as he waved his arms wildly, trying to stay on the top of the building. Fortunately, Commander Gem aided the boy by reaching out and grabbing his left shoulder.

Brice turned sharply and let out a breath of relief at seeing the woman eyeing him with wide eyes. Even as he scanned to rooftop to check for other hostile frames, Commander Gem spoke with a high degree of praise. "There is some jump pack piloting the whole of Blood's Honor needs to see!"

Brice took a deep breath as he noticed four enemy frames with the white smoke of surrender coming out of them and two more down and smoking from heavy combat damage. Even better, not a single BH frame was down. Out of all of them BH frames on the roof, his was the worst damaged, and he only had a pair of moderate armor damaged spots showing on his computer. Realizing the rooftop had been taken with only armor damage to BH frames he forced a smile. "Thank my younger brother, Derek, ma'am. In exchange for getting him a bit of live jump pack time, he taught me a few really cool Combat Ball maneuvers he thought I could use with a jump pack. He glanced down seeing the Guerrilla frame embedded in the street and the cracks in the concrete radiating outward from it. "I don't think she'll get back up."

Commander Gem glanced down and shook her head, "No chance." She then grinned at the youngster, "Two heavy frames down, all without a single shot being fired."

Major Dickson moved over and looked down with a cringe, "Ouch, a four story fall onto concrete has to hurt!"

"Nope, the fall was the easy part," Brice managed to joke. "The sudden stop is where the pain comes in."

Before the two officers could do more than snicker, Master Sergeant Tenner's voice came over the radio. "It was a trap! They were framers and they had their frames ready to jump into. Five others were powered down and hiding in here! We are out gunned and we can't get to the real hostages because they are using them as shields!"

Brice moved away from the edge, eyed the roof and shouted into his frame, "Black Saber activate primary and alternate frequencies!"

He didn't even bother to check to see if the frame's computer complied, trusting it had. "Ollie, the rest of my team is in trouble! Make sure the bottom floor is clean of hostiles, then move up and help. No one gets out of here. They surrender or die. They are using human shields! Sergeant Tenner, hold and send me your best guesses as to where the enemy forces are, where you are, and where the hostages are. We'll be down in a minute."

Major Dickson eyed the boy with a sideways cock of his head. "Um, how exactly are you going to get down to them without a jump pack and with us shooting up the elevator to prevent the last one up here from escaping."

Brice didn't even bother to answer. Instead he pulled up the floor plans, voice input the information he was getting from Master Sergeant Tenner, and pulled up the breach maker. He eyed the roof then quickly moved around and fired four times before looking over at Colonel Price, "Who wants to drop in behind them and say hi?"

Before anyone answered, Brice triggered the explosives and jumped into the hole in the roof nearest to him before the dust even started to clear. Colonel Price didn't hesitate. He was down moments later. The rest of the Command Team followed; those jumping through second waited just long enough for those in front of them to get out of the way.

Candice rubbed the sore spot on her head as she continued to listen to the chatter over the radio. It was pretty clear the frequency she was listening to was not a major one, since talk of the upcoming "match" dominated it. Occasionally a young-sounding male voice broke in with status reports of a long range patrol, but much of it was hard to hear or static filled. Candice let out a light sigh, knowing she would have to dig into the tech manual and see how the antenna array worked.

It was possible it was working fine, and she was hearing everything the Zip Tech made tank could pick up, but until she tried she held out hope it was something physically wrong and not just a design flaw. Still, what she heard led her to believe the long range patrol was checking out the camp Blood's Honor had blown up. One thing was for sure, the young man in command of the patrol wasn't finding anything useful other than some dead wheeled machines.

Upon hearing this, she grumbled and looked down. Chip tried to tell her to punch it so they could get the machines to follow them out of the perimeter circle. If they had, they might have been able to salvage them. This would have left the guy out there with nothing at all. It would have also given her team another vehicle. 'Her team', the thought of those two words brought a few tears to her eyes. She always kind of knew she wasn't really a leader, at least not one to be fully in charge. She had almost said so a few times, but stopped herself. Besides, the competition the cadre assigned her, the Combat Command Duty competition, kind of told her they already guessed she needed some extra leadership work. But then she placed high enough to move on to the semifinals just barely, but she was one of the top ten. Tenth actually, she begrudgingly admitted. Still out of the fifty who started, being in the top ten made her think she could lead.

She was also pretty confident about making it past the semifinals to the finals. Had Talborne not screwed things up so badly, she was pretty certain she would be in the top six for the finals. Then, once they got back to Forest Garden, Blood's Honor command kept saying how much guts and initiative she had showed on Andar. Finally they gave her the command of the second team, so they must have figured she could handle it. Obviously they were as wrong as she was.

Those days were now over, but she had to find a way off this world and she had no intention of it being in a cell aboard a Talborne controlled ship. She had no good plan on how to do this, but figured if she could rescue some of those being held, especially a more senior Blood's Honor cadet, one of the others could come up with a decent idea. If nothing else, rescuing a BHJMA cadet might be enough to convince Blood's Honor to give her a Basic discharge with frame certs so she could look for some unit to take her in.

Candice slowed as the terrain overlay showed she was approaching the crater and the drill site. After a few minutes of thought, she decided to skirt the old drilling site and move to a higher vantage point just to the south where there was a higher ridgeline on the crater's edge. Maneuvering up the rocks to get to the higher ground, however, proved to be extremely difficult and time consuming. After nearly fifteen minutes she almost decided to give up, but suddenly the tracks caught enough solid rock to get her over the trouble spot and up onto firmer ground. Five minutes later she powered back and pulled to a stop in between a small strand of scrub trees and a jagged rock.

Knowing she wasn't well hidden at all, Candice fought the desire to flee back down the ridge and abandon the whole plan. The problem was, she only had a couple of weeks worth of food, and sooner, rather than later, the tank she was in would need more repair than she would be able to do on her own. With a long sigh, she decided it would be better to die here and now, than be stuck on Brile for an indefinite period of time where she would have to live off the land.

With this new determination set into her mind, she jumped out of the side hatch and pulled her multi-function binoculars out and moved forward. Setting the binoculars to range-finding mode, she first looked down into the crater. What she saw made her blood run cold.

There were dozens of men, women, and kids working on rebuilding a road from the drilling station to the floor of the crater, where another group of workers were working on making a huge flat area. The outer markers were enough to tell Candice those on the crater floor were building a landing pad for a huge Vertical Takeoff and Landing craft of some sort. The VTOL pad had a single small tractor assigned to moving rocks deemed too large for the laborers. The road was where the vast majority of the work was being done though. While workers with hand tools dug into the side of the crater to make a switchback road up to the mining station, the real heavy work was done by a single bulldozer-crane combo. Those working with picks, shovels and other archaic tools were constantly in clouds of dust being created by the two pieces of construction equipment on the construction vehicle. Making matters far worse, many of the workers were tied together with leg cuffs and attached metal cabling. They were also filthy and none wore filter masks.

Off to the side of the marked area for the landing pad, a single squad of infantry with a small APC kept watch, but were far enough away to not have to deal with the dust generated by the one piece of heavy construction equipment in the crater. The APC had an upper gunner position with two light machineguns and an upper spotlight. Candice muttered upon seeing it. It was the same design the first wave of attackers had used back on Andar. She all but dismissed it. It was an easy kill. She knew; she had taken out a half dozen of the stupid things back on Andar before other cadets even got weapons released to fire.

There were two much larger concerns for Candice as she looked over the surrounding area. The first was a slightly deeper crater inside the massive crater she was overlooking. It was just south of the marked out area for the landing area. It was clear this is where the "match" between the Brile lizard and the two cadets would be, since she could see the big lizard moving around in the hole and two kids, one with a badly tattered Blood's Honor cadet vest on, under an overhanging rock. Because of the shade and the angle she could not see who it was, but it was an older boy, since the male vests were different than the female vests. The kid next to him was smaller and wore what was left of an Andar Academy jacket. It was impossible for her to tell if it was a male or female though, since all the captives below had pretty long hair and were beyond dirty. The two kids were being guarded by a single infantryman with a triangular patch on his left shoulder. The dolphin-like fish circling the number six told Candice the man was part of the Ulysses military.

While it was nice to know where the kids were being held and fed, what else was there was not nice at all. Just over a hundred meters away from the two kids and one guard, a pair of heavier APC were parked on the edge of the smaller crater, along with five fairly heavy frames. A third armored platform, an Earth Core Matador hover tank, was parked and powered down just to the right of the cluster of frames. Finally another group of five much lighter frames were moving toward the group from the south, but it was clear the four Garrison frame pilots were not very good, while the leader, who was in a Striker frame, made the climb down without much of a problem. Still, judging on the other four, it would take them a good fifteen more minutes to get down to the others.

The second problem was the drilling station itself. Inside the walls surrounding the drilling rig she counted four Bulldog hover platforms and four Gauntlet tracked platforms. Both were older Zip Tech made and only ran on petrochem, but they had decent armor and the Gauntlets had the same heavy cannon her own tank did. In addition to the tanks, she was able to spot three active turrets. It was hard to see what was in them, but they were guns and were not energy weapons. However, Candice spotted a weakness inside the drilling station and decided it was not going to be nearly the threat the forces inside the crater would be.

Using the rangefinder feature she zoomed in on her target within the drilling station, then jumped back in her platform. If nothing else, she would put a hurting on these monsters and would be able to get away before those in the crater could come after her. She pulled up the targeting computer, punched in the range and direction to the target she wanted to hit inside the station and set it as her secondary. She then slid back to the autoloader and manually changed around the shells inside it. Even as she yanked out the first two anti-armor rounds and replaced them with air detonation rounds, she shook her head. Any other platform maker would have come with an auto-changer in addition to the autoloader so the gunner could simply tell the autoloader what type of round he or she wanted to fire. But this was Zip Tech at its best. Three racks of cannon ammo, but only one hooked to the autoloader.

At least it was easy to do the change out, since all she had to do was pull the direct fire anti-armor round out of the autoloader and push in an airburst round. Still it was kind of a hassle, since whoever loaded the tank to begin with had filled all forty-seven slots with rounds, even taking up the normally empty spots on the two backup ammo racks with shells. This meant she had to carefully leave one round on the floor of the tank while switching out the order of the rounds she wanted. The whole process took just over ten minutes. She started to move back to the front of the tank, then stopped and slapped her head.

The main gun was loaded too! This meant she should have pulled the round out of the breach... Realizing time was ticking down before the frames got down to the others, she tossed up her hands and muttered to herself. "To hell with it, I'll put the first shot into one of the frames or something."

She was now committed and she knew it. She jumped back up to the top of her armored platform and pulled the binoculars back up. She snickered as she watched the leader of the five frame squad move back up the side of the crater to help a struggling Garrison frame down the rocky hill. It was clear, even from this distance, whoever was piloting the Striker frame was beyond mad at the pilot in the Garrison frame. The Striker frame even went so far as to physically grab the Garrison by the shoulders and shake it once. Candice knew the feeling well. Had Blood's Honor allowed it, she would have probably done the same thing to Chip a time or two. For a kid who could shoot with the best of them his pilot skill was pretty pathetic and had cost them a time or two when sparring with other units back on Forest Garden.

Candice took another deep breath realizing she could have switched out the round in the cannon, but just as quickly shrugged it off. With any luck, she would be able to put a round into one of the frames, kill some of the Ulysses jerks, then turn and put a hurting on the mining station. If she was really lucky, she might even be able to then move down into the crater, while those in the crater rushed to the mining station and take some of what they left. It was kind of a mish-mash plan, and she knew it. But it was the best she could come up with and there was a really good chance the two kids tucked under the overhanging rock would be able to make a break for it. She could then rescue them and at least have a decent sized crew so she could attack a patrol or something.

She stayed up on the tank, keeping an eye out on the developments below. The crews of the armored platforms all moved to the edge of the secondary crater once the five frame patrol finally reached them. The newly arrived frame squad then all popped their back hatches and climbed out. While the four Garrison frame pilots stretched, the woman who climbed out of the Striker frame moved up to the tallest of the garrison pilots and shook her head. The woman grabbed the smaller and clearly young male pilot and shoved him down. The woman then moved on the fallen pilot, kicked him hard in the side and pointed back to the frame he had come out of.

Candice cringed as she watched the kid fight to get his breath back all the while pulling himself back up to his feet. With some tears in his eyes, the pilot gripped the left side of his ribcage and moved back to his frame. As the boy turned Candice could clearly make out the boy's face and it shocked her. It was a cadet she had competed against back on Andar. The kid, Xylon, was only a few days older than her and had totally screwed up the Shoot on the Run competition. Of the nearly three hundred kids who had entered the competition, he had scored second from the bottom on the prelims and had been ejected along with the others in the bottom ten percent before the official head-to-head even began.

While she hadn't been part of it, she also did nothing as the kid was badly ridiculed by scores of the cadets from dozens of academies across the whole of the ABR. This was made even worse by one of the Ulysses Cadre. The man stormed through the group of cadets, grabbed Xylon by the front of his still sweat-drenched shirt and ripped his sergeant stripes pins off his collar. The man then tossed private pins at the boy's feet, spat on his face, and tossed him to the ground. In simple terms, the guy had demoted him in front of everyone, further humiliating the boy.

Feeling sorry for the kid, both she and Terrin had sought him out. The pair searched for nearly two hours and were about to give up when they found him sitting at one of the gazebo-like structures in the central park area. The boy had his duffle bag sitting next to him, looking up at the stars with tears coming down his cheeks. Xylon saw them as they made it to the edge of the steps leading up and had reached down to grab his bag. It was obvious he was going to run but his bag had caught on the edge of the bench, so even as he tried to take off, the bag jerked hard on his shoulder. He fell hard, bumping his head on the bench.

Terrin wasted no time in rushing forward to help, only to find the somewhat dazed boy holding up both hands as if expecting to get beaten up. One look told both Candice and Terrin the kid had been used as a virtual punching bag as they got closer. Even as Candice took a knee and started talking the boy, Terrin took off at a dead run to get help.

By the time Terrin came back with a BH Cadre member, Xylon had managed to tell Candice the cadre of Ulysses Junior Military Academy had pulled him from the remainder of the competitions because he had made the whole of the academy look so bad and were shipping him out for something called 'full retraining'. While Xylon didn't outright say it, he highly implied he had been forced to walk a gauntlet as he left the Ulysses barracks where all the kids were given a free shot at him. Judging on his condition, most had taken it with a vengeance.

Instead of going on to the retraining, Xylon had decided to drop out and pay for transport back to the Ulysses system. The boy was obviously devastated by the turn of events and had insisted everyone knew he was not a good pilot and would do badly, but he had still been forced to sign up for Shoot on the Run by one of the cadre members. He truly didn't seem to understand why he was being singled out, but figured someone really wanted to embarrass his family. Candice was not able to get more details, though because the kid was really starting to lose it.

By the time Terrin got back with a cadre member, Xylon had started to get vertigo and had puked on Candice. The last time she had seen the kid, he was being taken by a Blood's Honor VTOL to a hospital with serious blunt forced trauma injuries, a broken rib, and a probably concussion from hitting his head on the bench.

Her last glimpses of the boy was when the pair of BH medics were running with him to the medical transport. While the whole conversation had only lasted minutes, Candice had been moved by it and had hoped she could find a way to keep in contact with him. Now, seeing him in a Ulysses frame, yet still being abused, she was badly torn. Part of her wanted to give him a hug and the other side wanted to line up the cannon and put a shot into the frame as he was climbing into it.

Candice forced both thoughts out of her head as she continued to study those below her. While Xylon powered up his frame and moved with a limping motion toward the only easy way down into the larger crater, the others moved as a group toward a man wearing a black beret who was leaning against the Matador. While the rest of the group was out in the open, Candice took a moment to zoom in on each of the other Garrison pilots. All three wore Ulysses cadet vests and she identified two she had seen on Andar. The tall girl, much like Xylon, had failed to get past the prelims in Jump Pack Operations. She remembered Chip pointing her out and how badly she had been treated by her own cadre.

The smallest boy she saw several times hanging around the gaming area in the evenings. He was really cute, which is why he stuck out. Unfortunately, the last time Candice saw the black haired, green-eyed kid, he had been walking away from the Advanced Beam weapons prelims with his head down. The same night he hadn't come to the game room, so Candice didn't know any more about him. The last girl was a total unknown, although she was clearly the oldest of the four cadets and the squad leader. She proudly wore a nice vest with cadet Senior Lieutenant rank pins. She was also the only one of the cadets to secure a side arm out of the side of her Garrison frame.

As Candice watched, it became abundantly obvious the older cadet was in charge of the others. She pushed them back away from the cluster of adults and pointed to the two kids under the rocky overhang, while handing the two Ulysses cadets a pair of hunting knifes. As she did so, she nodded in the direction of the smaller crater. The two younger cadets exchanged glances and shook their heads at each other while moving toward the two under the overhang.

Candice continued to study the group for a few more seconds. She was able to clearly see some cash put on the deck of the closest APC where it was held in place by a few rocks. While she couldn't see the amount, it looked substantial from her vantage point. This was followed by a round of betting between several of the adults and was finally joined in by the older cadet. It was at this point Candice noticed something. There were ten frames and eight of those below were in framer vests. She quickly scanned other group of five frames.

An evil glint flashed in Candice's eyes as she spotted the Astro frame's left arm move. This was almost too perfect. Without further hesitation she jumped down and slid behind the pilot controls of her platform. With a nervous sweat breaking out on her brow she lowered the cannon and centered it on the Astro. She typed in the range she had just gotten from her binoculars into the computer, trusting her BH issued binoculars over the readings shown on the Zip Tech rangefinder control panel, which was off by thirty meters, and pushed the trigger of the main gun.

The vast number of those below didn't even notice the shot being fired until it slammed into the Astro frame. The shot was it bit low, but did massive damage. The frame's leg breached at the point of impact and the hydraulics on the left knee buckled. As this happened, so did the pilot's knee. The resulting explosion sent both rock and metal shrapnel tearing into the flesh of those placing bets.

Candice ignored the carnage. Instead she hit the autoloader button on the left hand side of the pilot's seat. The moment she got a green light showing the next round was in the breech she raised the cannon and fired, keeping the same range in the computer. Even as the shell left the barrel her fingers found the auto-load button again. She added fifteen meters to the range of the third round and fired again. She ignored the result. Instead she spun the turret as fast as she could and pulled up her already preprogrammed backup range and direction. The moment she got a steady tone in her headset, telling her the cannon was aimed and locked on the secondary target, she autoloaded the next round and fired. The round missed thanks to the poor auto tracking, but was close enough to slam into the side of one of the Bulldog platforms. It exploded killing some as they raced to get to their vehicles and knocking down several others.

Still Candice let out a string of curse words. Any real vehicle would have hit with the preprogramming she had put in. She also noted the breech of the main cannon was starting to give her heat warnings. With an angry snarl she overrode the autoloader's programming not to load a hot breech and manually sighted in on her target inside the drilling station. Even as she did so, she crossed her fingers the shell would not cook off from the heat. She also cursed Zip Tech for not putting a cooling unit into the autoloader.

The closest wall turret opened up on her position. Heavy machinegun rounds stitched the ground fifty meters down from her and continued to track up toward her. She ignored this. Instead she made sure her next cannon shot was well lined up and fired. This time the shell hit right where she wanted. The main fuel tanks for refilling the armor went up in a massive fireball, taking out almost everything inside the walls and even causing the turret closest to the fuel tanks to explode.

Not waiting to survey the damage, she backed the tank back down the hill as fast as she could, narrowly avoiding most of the incoming machinegun fire. Still she heard a few bullets ping off the turret as she backed down the hill out of line of sight to the drilling compound. With a racing heart she spun the tracks as hard as she dared and made a beeline for the partially constructed road leading down to the crater. Taking a big chance, she dropped off the edge and slammed onto the road a couple of meters below. Even as she fought to stay on the narrow path, she opened up on the squad of infantry guarding the cabled together laborers. All but one of the guards fell mortally wounded. The last one dove and rolled down the hill to the switchback below. It didn't help him. Candice drove the platform like she was possessed. She hit the first switchback and almost rolled, but managed to maintain enough control to keep going. She then ran right over the last of the guards even as the guy tried to dive out of the way.

Blood coming off the left side track splattered across the port side window letting Candice know what the fate of the final guard had been.

She then spun the turret and autoloaded another round into the cannon. This time she snap fired as soon as she was lined up on the squad guarding the forced laborers building the VTOL pad. The round slammed into the middle of the guards sending body parts flying in all directions. Candice realized the resulting explosion had knocked down and probably injured a few of the workers, but it couldn't be helped. At least this way, the guards wouldn't be able to fire at those trying to flee the insanity.

As soon as she took the next switchback and was back on a basically safe straight line, she took a wild chance. She grabbed the radio and spoke into it, "Xylon, I am asking you not to shoot at me."

It took a few moments, but the boy responded with a shaking voice, "How... who..."

"Xylon, I was one of the two who got you help back on Andar. We were in the gazebo. Please don't say my name..."

"How come you are here... how do I know it's really you?"

"Come on, Xylon, you puked on me..."

There was a long pause followed by some heavy breathing, "OK, yeah... there is something I can't pretend didn't happen. What are you doing and what do you want me to do?"

"Look, you seemed like a good guy back on Andar. You have to know what is happening here is wrong. Help me!"

There was another pause, "Fine, but don't target Basil or Sofia! They are still my friends."

"OK..." Candice's voice droned on for a few seconds, "Um, who are they?"

"The other two kids on Andar with me who screwed up as bad as me. They are on their backs by the rocks where the two prisoners were..."

"What about the older girl..."

"Um...." Xylon paused then spoke up again, "Yeah, um... Calliope is real dead... thankfully."

Candice glanced down at the radio then focused on the next sharp turn. When she spoke again she was more than a little anxious. "Don't let your friends hurt the two who were going to have to fight..."

"Not a problem..." The boy's voice betrayed something was wrong, but his tone changed a couple of seconds later. "Be advised I think you killed most everyone with those air burst rounds. Most of those out in the open are missing pieces from the shrapnel, but there are a few in the Matador and it is powering up. I will take it out if you let me and my friends join you."

"Deal!" Candice all but shouted for joy as she took the last turn and felt the repair she had done on the track slip yet again. This almost caused her to lose control, but she managed to steady it out. Before she could focus in on anything but driving, a quintet of micro missiles, a medium laser, a light laser and a medium machinegun opened up on the Matador even as the platform started to power up and turn its turret toward Candice.

This caused the turret to continue to swivel around in the direction of Xylon, but suddenly the knocked over Legionnaire frame stood and fired into the back of the turret with a pair of sonic cannons. Armor crumpled inward as it breached. A moment later another voice came over the radio, "OK, I don't know or even care what is going on between you all. But you let me and my buddy leave in the frames your friends were kind enough to leave powered up and waiting and we'll just back off and let you be. Otherwise we'll have to pound on each other and at the moment I am in the biggest and best armed frame out here."

"Hold up, Michael!" Candice shouted as she recognized the voice, "I came here to get you!"

Michael fired another sonic cannon shot into the crippled tank even as he used his other arm to help up the Guardian frame laying on the ground next to him. "I don't know who you are, but you are in Ulysses equipment and you all know my name, so just because you shout out I'm Michael doesn't do much. I've had quite enough of you jackwads. Now the two of us are leaving unless you want to see how you hold out against the two of us. I'm not sticking around and if you try to follow us we will have to rumble."

Candice gritted her teeth. She so badly wanted to say who she was, but to do so over a radio might further endanger those she came with. "OK, Lieutenant Michael Jacob Rentz, Supply Officer cadet frame force Nine Echo Four. Think it over and if you change your mind, dial in your XO's name in digits on the scrambler and follow it with your call sign spelled out in digits. Since I will have to work it out and then put it into my own radio, we can talk later."

All she got in response was silence. In her heart she knew Michael had turned off the radio in the captured frame already.

At the same time, two badly shaken men crawled out of the top hatch of the Matador. Blood leaked out of their ears and noses. The first one rolled off and fell to the ground, while the second one threw up and raised shaking hands.

Before Candice could do or say anything, a laser burned into the back of the man. He pitched forward dead. The man on the ground also ended up on the receiving end of a laser shot. Candice's head jerked over in the direction the shot had come from, only to see a trio of kids in cadet vests from three different worlds, holding laser rifles taken off the guards she had killed. All three boys eyed both the platform Candice was in and the Garrison frame with a great deal of caution, but were smart enough to not point their rifles toward either, knowing it would probably be suicide to do so.

Up above the crater's rim a larger explosion sent another fireball skyward as the ammo storage went up. Seconds later, the drilling rig itself toppled over crushing a large section of the wall.

Xylon moved forward with his frame's hands held out and open and spoke over the loudspeaker, "I know most of you are beyond confused, but we don't have much time. The drilling station sent out an emergency message before it went offline. I am betting command will think it is another machine assault, but they will respond. My bet it will be with the nearest forces which are about ninety kilometers from here as soon as they realize they have totally lost contact. We have five unclaimed frames, one with massive leg damage, but we have some repair equipment in the back of the Matador, which is why I didn't shoot it back there. All are powered up and on standby. One, I am sure, is going to the person who is currently in the Slasher. In addition, we have two Zenith APCs and a Javelin APC. We could probably cram everyone in and get out of here if we move now!"

Candice glanced up toward the burning drilling station and radioed over to Xylon. "What about food and..."

"I was getting to that." Xylon stated into his radio before opening his external speaker again. "I also want those who are able to help us gather as many supplies we can before help gets here. Let's move up there and secure what we can before we bug out. We need as much food and equipment as we can find."

Xylon then radioed over. "How many need frames in there?"

"Just me."

"OK, which one do you want?"

Candice didn't even hesitate, "The Viper."

Xylon snickered into his radio, "You got it, would you mind if I claimed the Striker once we have time?"

"Whatever one you want."

"Good, we'll figure out who gets the others once we are out of here. In the meantime, hold back and let those of us in frames do the initial scout of the facility. There are bound to be some still alive and willing to fight up there."

Jason paused to look back in the direction of the mines while Derek punched in the code to unlock the Dagger containing the repair equipment. Even as the back hatched hissed and started to drop, Jason cycled through his optical modes. "I got nothing following us. Go ahead and drop the ECM so I can have full access to all my systems as you start repairs."

"With pleasure," Joel stated with an obvious sigh of relief. He ordered his computer to drop the ECM then ran a quick diagnostic, finding his frame was fully functional, but needed a good hour of armor patching. After a full minute he finally spoke again, "As many times as Chip shot me, I am feeling like a freaking punching bag."

Derek snorted even as he flashed lights in Chip's direction as the boy moved down the hill looking a bit confused. "Seems to me, you all need to get into a few more fights, Major. At the very least, you should all have to do tryouts for combat ball every quarter, so you can find out what being hit and taking shots inside a frame is all about."

Joel grumbled something unintelligible under his breath causing both Jason and Derek to snicker. Both of the bigger kids exchanged humor filled glances as their outbursts only caused Joel to kick at the ground as if throwing a minor temper tantrum. On the plus side, both teens realized Joel was not arguing, so if nothing else there was some agreement, even if it was unwanted.

Jason decided to change the subject as he watched Chip looking around a bit wildly. "Looks like my squad leader is a bit lost."

Joel turned, spotted his good friend up the hill, and forced a laugh, "I think you are seeing some of our spoiledness showing through. We are good at navigation, even hand navigation, as long as we have an electronic map, but the magnetic interference means we have to do it by hand, and to be honest, I never had to before. This is exactly how we all got lost on Spider Bite a few years ago."

Jason shook his head, "Eighty percent of all navigation is done without electronics on New Bravaria. About half the time we don't even get a compass. We have to go with paper maps and even figure out where we are based on ground features we are matching up to topographic maps."

"Our advanced navigation classes were like yours." Derek frowned as he once again tapped his lights. "The first year was about eighty percent with map centering GPS tech, though. I was so glad I lived on a ranch and knew how to find landmarks for the advanced classes. I was one of the few who didn't get lost the first field trip without the map centering tech. About two thirds of those in my class had to be located by their belt GPS tracking units, but the cadre was kind of mean. They didn't even look until the start of the third day, and they only gave us enough food for two."

Jason shot Derek a smile, "It was a good lesson. One night of hunger made them want to do better in the future. I am kind of glad we didn't have the GPS in our first year. It forced us to learn the right way from the start."

Joel noticeably winced, "I think some BH cadets would have called home crying if they had been left out a full extra day..."

"They would have had to have something to call with, and gear was strictly issued for Navigation so no one could bring anything to cheat." Derek responded before Joel could even finish.

Jason shook his head as he watched Chip start to angle back uphill, away from where they had hidden the Daggers, "Come on Squad Commander you are making us look bad." Instead of tapping his lights, Jason fired his heavy laser at a rock between Chip and where they were standing. Even as the rock shattered, Chip dove for cover and came up from behind a fallen log with his quark rifle ready. Chip quickly lowered his weapon as he saw Jason standing and holding his hands out, but he did send a rather nasty glare at the older boy.

This only caused Derek to laugh loud enough for Chip to hear. Chip frowned for a second before flipping off both Jason and Derek, causing even more laughter.

Derek was still chuckling as Chip got to them. Although clearly embarrassed, Chip forced a smile. "You guys did a great job on the cammo netting. I was sure I was going the right direction, but I totally missed the Daggers. But, jeesh, Jason, you darned near made me piss my e-suit!"

"Consider it payback for putting me on guard duty while you took off with Tracy just so you could invite her out before she got her talons into Joel... Oh, yeah, sir!" He saluted even as a smirk appeared on his face.

Chip couldn't help but giggle as Joel turned bright red. He sent Jason a wink as he returned the salute with his middle finger being the only finger he left extended.

Derek couldn't help himself. He turned to Joel, "Don't worry Major, I am sure there are a bunch of pretty females cadets on this rock we can go rescue so you can ask one out."

"AHHH!" Joel shouted as he moved deeper into the open Dagger to try and hide the fact even his ears were turning a dark crimson with mortification over the idea of asking someone out on any kind of a date, "You guys are HORRIBLE!"

This caused all three of the others to bust up laughing even as Chip made his way to his squad's Dagger to get his frame powered up.

Kind of wanting to steer clear of Joel for a few seconds, mostly because Derek couldn't totally hide the smile plastered on his face, he glanced into the Dagger Chip was getting framed up in. He paused as he noticed well over half the Dagger was taken up by pieces of frames and there were parts all over two of the workbenches. "Man, Chip, what gives?"

Chip turned as he fully powered up his frame and started running diagnostics. Seeing what Derek was looking at, he simply shrugged, "Cory happened."

"Cory?" Derek moved into the Dagger and turned on his frame's spotlight so he could get a better look. "Is he trying to build a new frame or something?"

Chip shook his head, "No, just trying to make one Corvette out of the three damaged ones we found up in the ship and have enough spare parts on hands should he need a major repair."

Derek cocked his head to the side, "I don't get it. He has a full head unit on this one over here, but the one he is building on has the head unit totally cracked open..."

"Yup," Chip agreed. "You really would need to get to know him to fully understand, but the short of it is, he is determined to fill every circuit slot possible, and felt the best way to was to fully crack the head, pull it all the way apart, and have access to all the circuitry. Right now, he is in a Ninja frame while he gets this one up and running, but the Ninja is too big for him, so he had to install some foam padding molds."

"If a Ninja is too big, then there is no way he will be able to pilot a Corvette!"

Chip shook his head and pointed to the other table. "By the time he is done, probably a month or more from now, he will."

Derek turned and played his light over the table. "He pulled the size adjustment unit out of a Garrison frame and is putting into the Corvette?"

"The Garrison was toast. What's left amounts to spare parts, so he pulled it apart and is installing the Size Adjust Technology unit into the Corvette. Both frames are made by Brave Humanities, and Brave Humanities made their Garrison frames SAT designed to be removable even though it is standard built-in tech."

"But he's going to have to take up weapon hard-points..."

"Enough to add a pair of light lasers or a medium." Chip agreed. "But once it is up and running, he'll have a frame he can properly fit in with more tech than should be legally allowed in any frame. Take a close look. When done, this baby will make heads spin all the way back to Forest Garden!"

Curiosity took over, so Derek popped his back hatch and moved up to the fully cracked open frame lying on the table. He could tell there was still an incredible amount of work to be done, but the kid had everything ready including having pulled the left hip unit out of the worst of the three damaged Corvettes so he could replace the hip on the one he was working on. Wires, hydraulics, sensors, and all the neurotransmitter pads, which allowed the frame to translate the movements of the pilot into frame movements were all neatly laid out. There were a few places where Cory still needed to tie in the neuro-network from the parts of the other two frames into the one he was buildings, but all the connection points were laid out and marked so the connections could be made.

Derek shook his head, realizing it would take hours of work with heavy microscopic glasses to finish, but just looking at the way it was spread out and labeled, it was clear the hard work of finding working components had already been done. All the kid really had to do was make the connections and probably replace a few micro connectors. Even the size adjustment unit had been put in. All in all, it looked really good. With some new found respect for the small boy, Derek took a couple of steps forward and eyed the main computer. For a moment his brain almost overloaded. He shook his head fiercely and moved in to take a closer look at the cluster of circuit boards and multitude of attachments.

What Derek saw, as he studied the cracked open head unit, was the one thing Black Jungle told cadets never to try to do. Cory had pulled out the computer totally and had replaced it with a combo from some other damaged frame. Instead of the normal Class F computer he had pulled the entire computer package out and had inserted a Class E computer with built in Battle Computer and Battle HUD. The combo unit was the same one Joel had in his frame, but it was not designed for a Corvette. This meant a full reprogramming needed to be done. However, the horrendous mess of assembled parts didn't stop there. Cory had taken this to a whole new level.

Derek whistled softly as his mind started to wrap around what Cory was attempting to do. On average, a frame computer had about twenty expansion slots. The vast majority were never used. The reason for this was some were specialty slots. Many computer input points were to tie in weapon systems, while a few were for electronic additions. The vast majority were dual use, meaning they could be used for trying in a weapon system into the targeting computer or adding a desired piece of electronics. However, as with all computers there were limitations. Certain weapons systems needed to also hook into ammo counters for frame balancing, so the Gyro could properly read weight distribution as ammunition was expended, while the targeting computer could give an accurate count of onboard stores. Some weapons needed power and others didn't, so the tie-ins were in different areas with various abilities. Some connection points gave power readings, while others allowed ammo reserves to be displayed. There were also the specialty slots for weapons requiring both power and ammo, so ammo bins and power outputs could be properly tracked.

Often times, when doing weapon change-outs, this led to aggravations since hooking up some units proved difficult because the necessary connection points were in very hard to reach areas or behind other components. The other things was, computers tended to be built in. They were in essence part of the 'brain' of the frame. Once removed, a new computer had to programmed to 'know' the frame it was going into. In this case Cory had to purge the old data and upload the new, while still keeping the different targeting parameters of the replacement computer, since they were built to handle targeting with different ranges.

In this case, the old Class F computer the Corvette was supposed to have was a longer range aid than the Class E computer Cory had replaced it with. However, the Class E was better suited to extra electronics and this particular one came with a built in Battle Map HUD and a Battle Computer. This further complicated things because there were power units built in to handle the two advanced components. Making things even more difficult, the Class E Computer had a set input of hard points for the frame it was built into. The Corvette didn't have the same number of hard points. Also adding to the nightmare, the Battle Computer and Battle HUD were normally additional hard points but in this case were built into the frame Cory had taken this computer out of. The added features were a different size than a normal targeting computer, so he had to incorporate the internal head unit of the other frame into the Corvette's head unit. It was something straight out of an electronic nightmare.

Last, but far from least, Cory had plugged some of the extra electronics he had scrounged from the wreck into the HUD, meaning they could only be accessed when the HUD was up. In total, thirteen slots had been taken up by added non-weapon system electronics. The holographic monitor sitting next to the frame's head unit was showing how everything would look once everything was programmed and running properly. While it was a long way from being done, and as astonishing as it was, everything appeared to be synching in a way the computer could understand it. It was just a matter of being able to change things and pull up desired features. Derek guessed, given the fact the preliminary rundown said it was feasible, it would eventually work out. It a good start, but there was way more work to be done than Derek ever wanted to think about. He climbed back into his frame shuddering. Once again he could not help but feel stupid when comparing himself with the core group of Blood's Honor cadets.

Much to Chip's credit, he saw the look and patted Derek's frame on the back. "No one but Cory would even think of trying it. He fully admits he will have several days’ worth of work to put it all together again without severing any of the connections, but it is all made by Brave Humanities, so at least all the micro connections are the same. The hard part will be convincing BH Cadet Command to let him keep it. There has to be thousands of merits worth of add-ons he is building out his frame to have and Cory is not one known for getting merits."

Derek glanced back over his shoulder with a frown. "Well, if it works, we need to have Blood's Honor take us to a Brave Humanities lab... ‘Cause I want one!"

Chip busted up laughing. "If we make it off this rock alive, I'll make it happen."

Less than three kilometers away from the pair of Daggers, the captured wheeled machines entered a large open area inside the mine. The walls were coated with metal and there were a half dozen robotic work areas. Three had scores of mini-machine, spider-looking robots busy repairing badly damaged sand-scorp machines. Two other stations were making new ones with a handful of the spiders assisting the larger robotic equipment in everything from laser welding to placing electronics. The last work area had larger crab-like machines, with extra appendages which looked a great deal like arms with hands at the end. In addition, there were five oddly built machines with the upper torso of a man and lower body of a squared platform on wheels. These larger and rather creepy looking robotic units were working on something with top rotors.

The machine base was working fast. Already two sand-scorps with newly repaired damage were starting to move back past the wheeled machines. One of them was limping, meaning something, somewhere, determined it was more important to get guards back out, than to fully repair the unit.

Off to the side, a pair of tracked droids, again with a human-like upper torso, but with four arms moved toward the flatbed with Karen on it. The lower arms didn't end in hands, instead one held a mounted cutting laser, while the other ended in a handsaw. It looked like they were waiting for the frame to be lifted onto a large platform with lots of sensors and tools on more standard looking robotics arms over head, but the crane on the flatbed had been shot away. If there was an Ultra behind all of this, it clearly didn't have a ready back-up plan for this eventuality, since the human torso droids kept spinning to look at the machine carrying the frame with Karen in it, then back at the table.

The robotic nightmare didn't end there, either. There were at least a score of other small tracked droids, much like the ones waiting to check out Karen's frame, but these had been modified. The blades and laser torches had been removed and sand-scorp claw lasers had replaced them. Even before the captured wheeled machines fully entered the massive domed chamber, Cory could see welding sparks coming out of a side chamber.

As Cory watched and started to digest everything his eyes were taking in, another laser-armed droid moved out of the side chamber while another moved in to get the quick modification. There were also half a dozen other rooms off the main chamber as well, many with activity in them. Cory clenched his fist as a new plan formed in his mind's eye, all the while hoping Karen would remain down. First off, he needed her as an emergency backup and second; her back armor was badly chewed on. It would not take much for one of the newly armed droids to do internal damage. However, time was against him and he knew it the moment he saw yet another tracked droid come out of the back room armed and moving to secure the exit. With a shake of his head, he decided to act.

Cory used his frame, yanked out the hydraulic supporting rods to the back, and let the door fall. He jumped out and shouted, "We need to kill these spiders, sand-scorps, and droids. Take out the heaviest armed and the spiders first. Go back-to-back so they can't climb up and start cutting into your frames. If one gets on you, shout out for help. Also, everyone with ECM activate. It may confuse these things and hopefully prevent anything in here from sending out a distress call! Jump out, circle and fire for effect!"

Without further hesitation, he ran down the back and swung his carbon steel axe into the nearest droid, even as he activated the ECM in his Ninja frame. The blade sliced through the supporting arm holding the laser and cleaved deeply into the body. Before he yanked out his axe, the droid started sparking, the left track stopped and the right kept going, sending it into an endless circle.

Even as Cory pulled up his sonic blaster and decimated another droid, the twin turrets on the machine he had come in opened up on the limping sand-scorp. The lasers burned deeply into the already damaged side causing the metal sand-scorp to crumple. Still it managed to flip up its tail and put a gouge into the wheeled machine's armor.

Cory activated his loudspeaker, "Saul, screw the machine! Send it into one of the work areas and jump into your frame! Until you are framed up, I have to guard the open back door cause you can't close it!" He then spun and put a gyro round into the crippled sand-scorp's head unit killing it.

Those in the other wheeled machine clearly had a similar thought. For even as a pair of frames jumped out the back, the wheeled machine plowed into the work area trying to repair a damaged sand-scorp. The heavy wheeled machine pushed the entire work area, including the sand-scorp into the far wall, crumpling it while running over a dozen spider bots as they tried to jump out of the way. Moments later, the last frame jumped out of the back and promptly started chewing into droids with auto fire.

Cory focused on the other repaired sand-scorp. A combination of a gyro and a shot from his sonic blaster dropped it before it could do more than send a stray tail shot over his head. He smiled as he heard the machine he had come in slam into one of the other repair areas, even as the last frame came out belching auto-fire into the room where the droids were being converted into armed machines.

With five other frames all up and killing off relatively easy to take out machines, Cory lopped off the claw laser of another droid as he moved around the huge dome. His eyes scanned for things those with him didn't. He was not concerned with what he could see. Instead he was worried about what he couldn't. He also didn't want to do too much damage to the area. Joel wanted the place as intact as possible, so he was going to make it happen.

Even as Paula turned into an armored ninja and the rest opened up with lasers, anti-armor bullets, missiles, and a host of other weapons, some of the machines started firing back. A massive amount of firepower crisscrossed the dome around Cory, yet he all but ignored it. Instead, he eyed the structure. Looking up, he spotted a hole in the center of the dome. With a smirk, he sent a trio of disks from his auto disk rifle into the small bulge at the base of the hole. He watched in satisfaction as he saw sparks dance around the area where the disks sunk into the metal. He then slowly spun and sent disk after disk up and into poorly concealed laser defense turrets. After the first two, he stopped sending up three round bursts and simply fired on semi-auto. A single disk was all it took to knock them out, judging on the sparks he saw and the fact the lasers stopped moving. Still he found it odd none of them had opened up. If they had, the sheer number would have certainly caused some damage to all six of them.

Once the score and a half of threats had been dealt with, Cory's eyes picked up on a barely noticeable ripple in the metal dome down from the hole in the ceiling. It wasn't a seam, it was something else and it went in the direction of one of the offshoot rooms. He started following it, using his axe to dispatch another droid along the way while slamming his foot down on a robotic spider flattening it. He came to the doorway and stopped as he noticed a long burn spot on the floor and dozens of tiny holes surrounding the arched entryway.

Taking a step back he grabbed the droid he had chopped the laser off of and flung it through the door. He was not even slightly surprised to see a cutting laser grid defense system activate and decimate the droid. With a shake of his head, he muttered, "Really? I thought Ultras were supposed to be smart." Picking up the laser arm he had cut off the droid, he stuck the appendage though and watched as the grid activated again. With a shrug he backed off and practiced punting robotic spiders through the grid, while looking for any weakness. He didn't find any area where the lasers didn't properly cover.

However, it didn't take more than a dozen spiders being sliced up to realize the activation method was nothing more than a primitive motion sensor. Once again he activated his loudspeaker and called out as loudly as he could, "Keep killing the droids, but don't go through any doorways till we make sure any defense grids are taken out." Cory glanced over at the others who were down to firing only energy weapons at the few remaining droids while stepping on the remaining attacking spiders. Once he got some kind of signal from each of them, he turned his attention back to the arched entryway into the room.

Cory took a full minute to study the metal cast frame of the archway before he moved off to the side and punched the edge with his carbon steel fists. It took three punches, but finally he was able to put a hole into the wall. He smiled to himself as he yanked out a bundle of wiring and a half dozen micro-cutting lasers. Sparks and electrical smoke followed moments later. Using his axe, he made a hole right at knee level so he could have a foothold, put the axe down and punched a hole in the top of the archway. It didn't take him long to pull out even more sparking wires and old style cutting lasers.

He jumped down as a pair of large metal Brile-boar-like machines appeared from behind swing-up panels from deep in the secondary room. The odd thing was, they didn't run, instead they had small tracks where their hooves should have been. Cory backed off a few paces and fired low. His sonic blaster hit the front left foot-track of the closer of the two and blew it clean off. The unstable machine tumbled to its left and ended up on its side. At this point, all four legs started to kick in an attempt to right the machine, but it was simply not built well enough to do so. This also told Cory the original idea was to have them run like the four-legged animal they were patterned after, but for some reason it had not worked out.

On the other hand, it did work itself around enough to point its head at Cory and let go with a long stream of flame.

"Whoa!" Cory shouted as he spun out of the way, using the wall on the right hand side of the archway as cover from the intense burning substance. "I sure as hell didn't see any files on machines having flame throwers!"

Tracy looked over with wide eyes, "Careful! Those flames were hot enough to overload my IR unit! It is recycling because of too much heat to properly give me a display!

"Switch to regular visual, Tracy!" Paula shouted. "With four of us having ECM up and running, there is no way your IR unit will be able to reboot properly!"

Cory darted around the edge of the entryway into the back room, fired his gyro and sonic blaster, then darted out of the way again. Even though both weapons hit, another stream of flame barely missed him. "Good thing it doesn't move like a normal Brile Boar. This thing is tough. There is also another one in there."

Tracy moved to the far side of the large chamber and crouched down, smacking a spider off her frame's right knee as she saw the frame alert her to armor damage. She fired both her light and standard laser into it, even as it hit the wall and moved right back toward her. "Ahhh, I hate these things!"

Off to the side, Terrin grabbed one off of Paula's back and crunched it with his frame's hand. "Persistent to be sure. Every time I think we killed them all, another one seems to come scurrying at us."

"Yeah." Paula grumbled as she yanked yet another one off her own leg and pulled off the limbs one by one before tossing it off to the side just to make herself feel better. "They kind of remind me of New Israel IV sand ticks. Just like the tick's snout, these buggers keep burning with little lasers and keep burrowing in until they start to do damage and it is hard to notice until the pain starts, but by then the damage is already there."

Tracy stomped on another machine spider, "Yeah, I am going to have to spot fill like fifteen deep pricks of armor, then double check the rest of the frame. I'll be repairing this for hours!" Even as she spoke she took a knee and fired both her lasers through the archway. Once again, the burst of flame erupted outward, but the stream had range limitations that were less than Tracy's lasers. "You're right it's a tough bastard, but I can do this all day long and unless it comes out here, it can't get to me." She fired two more lasers just to make her point.

Suddenly a quintet of round metallic orbs attached to pylons popped out from four hidden compartments. A moment later, the room electrified to the point where bolts of electrical current started arching from the floor to the ceiling. Almost instantly the massive current started to do damage to the frames. Within seconds, all but Cory and Paula fell, as circuitry overloaded.

Cory didn't even think twice; he rolled through the archway knowing he had not fully destroyed the laser grid. Five cutting lasers put gouges in his armor and a stream of flame coated him, but the room was protected from the current dancing around the other room. The flame, however, was hot enough to melt armor and forced his suit to shut off all ammo bins and pull power away from other weapon systems to cool the ammo in the bins.

Knowing he had to act fast with almost no weapons available, he dove on the fully active robotic Brile Boar and started punching it with his carbon steel fists while doing his utmost to stay away from the flame belching mouth of the other one. At the same time he shouted, "Karen, the flatbed has rubber so you should be good, kill those electric globes!"

Karen, who had been playing dead with her eyes closed, opened them and saw what looked to be bolts of lightning dancing around her. She sat up and quickly pumped lasers into the pylons. After the third one was destroyed, the electrical currents faded. She took no chances, however. She sent everything she had into the final one while looking around. "Are you guys OK?"

Off to the side, Saul tried to roll over but found he couldn't. "System, reboot and assess damage."

Tracy managed to crawl over to the wall with all her frame's joints twitching. "Computer, damage assessment..."

Terrin fared no better. The arcing current was so powerful, it partially welded his left foot to the floor and the right hand to the wall he was leaning against, so he could get at a spider shooting into the back of his leg.

Paula did better since she was close to one of the machines and managed to jump in. Like Karen, the non-conducting wheels protected her some, but because the ramp was down and touching the floor she still got a few bad jolts and her frames knees locked up. "Everyone, power down and bring all your systems back up doing a full restart. There is no way any computer is going to get a good reading after such a jolt!"

From the other room Cory's voice called out with a bit of nervous, yet hyper sounding giggling, "A bit of help here would be nice... not absolutely needed, but still nice!"

Tracy tried to fire, but found the computer would not recognize any of her weapon systems as functional. "I need to shut down. Anyone with some weapons on line and can move needs to help him. We need to kill the fallen boar before it cooks him!"

Terrin tried to pull his hand off the wall before shaking his head. "I'm out of the fight! Someone else needs to do something while Cory plays with the other one! I got nothing online and am stuck to the floor and wall over here!"

Liam forced his frame to roll, so he could fire at the fallen but-not-out Brile-boar-machine. He tried to cycle through every weapon system but found everything offline. With a deep snarl he shouted, "Cory, I am going to try something; stay out of my arc, cause this could get messy!"

Cory shouted an acknowledgement even as he stayed on top of the second machine boar, punching at it with his one free hand. He reached down and, with a vicious twist, he pulled off the foot track which caused the metal beast to fall to the left. He continued to punch and hold on, even as it rolled over the top of his frame, giving him several extra damage alerts.

Liam saw Cory get out of the way, so he did a verbal bypass on his computer, cutting the computer out of the firing sequence and pulled up his right arm with very limited power assist. He then pulled his left arm out of the frame's left arm and manually triggered the heavy machinegun on full auto by flipping open the tiny panel to the computer tie in, then pushing the lead into the power source for his spotlight. Once the machinegun started firing, he simply sprayed the damaged boar machine until his machinegun was out of ammo. Breathing hard, he plopped down on the metal floor of the large chamber and managed a grin as he saw just how little was left of the machine. "Computer full shutdown and restart!"

Cory glanced over as well over a hundred rounds of heavy anti-armor machinegun bullets sprayed back and forth over the machine. With a great deal of befuddlement, he turned his full attention on the one he had jumped on and continued to pound on it until he felt the side armor cave over a weaker area. He focused his attention there until he broke through. With a victory snarl he reached in and started pulling out components until the machine stopped moving. He then made sure it was dead by twisting the head unit until it broke off. Finally he pulled out the flamethrower's fuel tanks before finally looking back at those out in the main chamber.

"You all alright?" Liam demanded to know even as his frame went through a full power down.

Cory nodded and moved to looked down at Liam, "Your machinegun is still trying to fire..."

"I pulled it out of the loop and powered the firing mechanism with the spotlight power source. Since it is LED with a rechargeable battery fed, it's not part of the main power of the frame, which means it is functional even when most of the rest of the frame isn't. Since trigger to the machinegun needs just a little juice and the spotlight still has power, I was able to trigger the firing mechanism from the battery. Because the battery was fully charged and is directly hooked up to the firing pin, there is nothing to stop it from continuing to try to shoot. Plus, since it is out of the computer loop, it is still trying to fire since it doesn't know there isn't any ammo left..."

"Damn, man, how cool headed can you get!" Cory nodded with a hint of admiration. "You're gunna have to teach me how you managed to pull it off!"

"Be happy to once everything powers back up, so I can move around in here and disconnect the triggering mechanism from the spotlight."

Cory nodded reached down and patted Liam's frame on the shoulder. "Nice work!" He then looked around the main chamber and even poked his head into the other offshoot rooms. "Wow, it cooked everything! You all OK?"

Terrin was first to speak. "Yeah, but I have some burns on me and I think there is some micro-connection damage. My right shoulder is stuttering. I'm also kind of welded to the wall, but I managed to break my foot loose."

One after the other, the rest of those in the main chamber reported similar problems other than Karen, who still had some heavy armor damage to her back but was in a fully functioning frame. If there was an upside to the situation, the massive power surges had eliminated the last of the spiders and there were no more moving bots or droids to be seen.

Liam finally popped his back hatch, pushed the pins holding on his armored backpack and pulled out a tool kit. "Overloaded circuitry is a easy fix and should only take me ten to fifteen minutes per joint effected. In the meantime, there are a trio of armor liquefiers and armor patch rods you can all use."

Paula popped her own back hatch and looked over with the shake of her head, "Who in their right mind puts an armored backpack on a Sniper frame?"

"Hey, I took what frame I was offered and above all else I wanted a full repair kit." Liam grinned. "Besides, I am a far better wrench monkey than I am a frame pilot."

Cory called out from the other room with a great deal of respect, "Well, you sure lit up the other boar so ya did good by me!"

"Consider it desperation. It was the only thing I had left." Liam managed to grin even as he started working on his Sniper frame.

"Well, none of the rest of us could have pulled it off." Paula stated with a great deal of awe. "I'd have never thought about a trigger bypass into a secondary system with a battery backup! I say if you want a different frame we make it happen."

Cory nodded in full agreement, "You want a different frame when we get out of here, we'll make sure you get it. Hell, I'll steal it if I have to."

Liam was clearly surprised to see how quickly attitudes directed at him had changed. "I am just happy to be one of the team, but there were a couple of heavier frames I would have preferred..."

"Well, Derek was right about you." Cory stated with obvious admiration in his voice. "Ya did real good under pressure. In my book it bumps you up to being one of us. We'll get you the frame ya want!" The tone of his voice then changed, "And since this is the only place that didn't get fried down here, I think the electronic brain of the place must be in here... I need to go find me an Ultra to smack around some." He moved deeper into the room and started pushing on panels while speaking softly and menacingly, "Here Ultra, Ultra, ultra... Here Ultra, Ultra, Ultra..."

Off to the side both Karen and Terrin started snickering, but it was tinged with a bit of nervousness in both their voices. For in their hearts, they knew Cory had every intention of doing something very dark.

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